Friday, May 6, 2016

Marathon Bear

Jeff Beringer reported that one of our Missouri black bears just completed a marathon trip from southern Christian County to the area east of Hermann.  That is over 200 miles as the crow flies and bear 1417 can't fly so he must have put on far more miles.  I can only imagine his adventures along the way.

Original collaring of 1417 in 2014
Bear 1417 was trapped on Cobb Ridge in southern Christian county off of Highway H on June 26, 2014.  If you go to Missouri Black Bear Project and enter his number you will see his picture after the collar was attached.  He was a one year old male weighing 80 pounds.  Over the next year he logged over 253 miles before his collar fell of at its scheduled time.  This mileage estimate is based on daily readings and doesn't include his ramblings during each day.

When he was trapped again on May 2, 2016, roughly 22 months later he weighed 172 pounds, over twice his previous weight.  Male bears average a home range of 120 square miles so his 200+ linear miles was a state record so far.  Jeff made this observation about the trip:
"We worked him up yesterday and outfitted him with a new collar that should reveal future movements. What is really interesting is the topography/habitat area of southern Warren county actually looks similar to parts of Christian county, makes you wonder if he decided to winter here for that reason. Based on trail camera pics from the public we believe he showed up in central MO last summer: I didn’t think he’d stay but he obviously denned there this winter. I still don’t think he will stay in Warren county in the absence of a female bear but we will see."
Visiting Bull Creek - click to enlarge
I went to the website to see 1417's path and was startled to see that it actually was within 200 yards of our house on Bull Creek on September 19 and October 2, 2014.  Those readings were the snapshot and he might even have come to the house!  We maintain an emergency email list which we use to have everyone pull in their garbage and dog food if a bear is spotted, so they don't stay around.

Range of Bear 1417 in 2014-2015
You can see the paths of many of the collared black bears being studied by wildlife biologists under Jeff.  Go to this Missouri Black Bear Project link and click on "Track"which will show you the areas of some of the bears.  Select "Markers On' and look for an area of interest to see if there has been a collared bear in your vicinity.  Only a few of the estimated 300+ bears in Missouri have been collared for a year but you may get lucky.  We did!

I thought our marathon bear's number 1417 was perfect.  If it decides to call home to Christian County, all he has to do is look at his ear tag to get the area code and start by dialing 1-417.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Invasive Cuckoo's Pint

Linda Ellis* sent a report of an new alien invasive species at Valley Water Mill.  It is called Italian arum or Italian lords-and-ladies (also orange candleflower, cuckoo's pint....go figure). Formally named Arum italicum, it is native to the Mediterranean, Great Britain and scattered European and island locations. It has been popular with gardeners as a companion plant in hosta gardens as it blossoms as the hostas fade.

Cuckoo's Pint at Valley Water Mill - Linda Ellis
If this plant looks vaguely familiar, you probably are thinking of our native Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema tryphyllum. Fold down the hood and you can see the similarity. Both plants are arums and all parts of them are poisonous.

Spadix and spathe - MoBotGarden
Jack-in the pulpit describes them in technical terms.
"Each flower consists of (1) an erect, finger-like spadix covered with minute, creamy white flowers and (2) a large, sheath-like, light green spathe (bract) which subtends and partially envelops the spadix like a hood. Flowers produced in spring. Arrowhead-shaped, long-petioled, glossy grayish-green leaves with pale green midribs are 8-12" long. After bloom, the leaves and spathe die back leaving only the thick spadix which develops attractive, bright orange-red berries in summer." 
Arum italicum has an interesting characteristic.  It and a few other Arum species are thermogenic.  A tiny thermometer placed on the upper free portion of the spadix may show a temperature of 6 to 10 degrees Celsius above the surrounding air.  In one study it even registered 17 degrees higher, one hot little number.  This apparently only occurs in brief periods while flowering.

Arum italicum is a good example of an early escapee. It has been reported one time before in Greene County in 2010.  The map at suggests that it is quite early in its spread and only time will tell if it becomes a major problem but anytime an exotic plant starts to show up where it wasn't planted it becomes a concern.

Not only is it bad for our native plants but it is also a risk to humans.  All parts of the plant are poisonous and eating it can be fatal.  Gloves are advisable in removing it as contact with this plant can cause skin irritation.  Oregon has a lot of experience with it and here is their advice;
"Getting rid of Italian arum is a pain. Even professional land managers struggle with it, which is why early control is very important.  Herbicides don't work well and digging it up is a lot of work. Manual removal is only recommended on small patches, because soil disturbance tends to increase the spread of the plant.  All plant parts and nearby soil should be placed in a bag and disposed of in the trash -- not your yard waste bin or home compost. Infested sites should be checked weekly to stay on top of any new sprouts."
This is a species of concern.  We are early in its invasion.....we think.  Like many escapees (think Callary pear), it is best to attack before we are faced with another ecological crisis.

*Mike Kromrey and Rob Hunt saw a plant they didn't recognize and sent the photographs to Linda Ellis.  Curiosity pays..
** The Corpse Flower that was at the Botanical Center in 2010 is also thermogenic.  See this link for details. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Yellow-throated Warbler

"Fuzzy Beak" the Bull Mills Yellow-throated warbler
Hanging out with birders gives us a whole new perspective on nature.  On a wildflower walk we can recognize birders as they are looking up when everyone else is scanning the ground.  They can frequently recognize a bird by its movement or behaviors - think of watching a robin's distinctive hopping around the yard.

A beak full of fuzz
We were sitting on our deck with Charley and Lisa when a small bird flew onto a tree trunk.  I figured it was one of the chickadees from the feeder but they immediately identified it as a Yellow-throated Warbler, Setophaga dominica.  I needed binoculars to confirm that the small black and white bird indeed had a yellow throat.
Looks like Home Depot to this warbler- Charley Burwick
It spent several minutes each trip working on one section of the trunk.
With magnification we could see a piece of string wrapped around the trunk. The bird was tenacious in attempts to get the string free but each time had to be satisfied with a few strands of nylon.  You can watch the tug-o-war in this video.

Birds are very resourceful in selecting nesting materials.  Man made materials are found increasingly in some bird nests as they move into the suburbs and find less nesting material in our mowed yards and manicured shrubs.  Even cigarette filters are incorporated in some urban nests and conceivably they could deter mites as discuss in a previous blog.  We will be discussing bird nests in a future blog.

Friday, April 29, 2016

This Bud's for You

This time of year could be hard on a squirrel. The last of the stored nuts are gone as are their favorite fruits and berries. To find food they usually have to go out on a limb.

In the early spring their main diet is tree buds which have a lot of stored energy for the year's growth.  To a squirrel this means good nutrition.  Once the buds are gone they switch to the tree blossoms.  We are seeing young squirrels out on the very tip of a branch, swaying in the wind.

Young squirrel reaching for  twig tips - REK
Like most animals they aren't too picky when they are hungry and even some herbivores like a little meat once in a while.  When food sources are scarce they will eat insects, mushrooms, grain and even bird eggs.  Birds? On rare occasions they will eat a bird or even a snake.

Squirrels will chew tree bark and twigs and no one knows why for sure as they can't digest cellulose.  They will use strips of tree bark in their nests but at other times they seem to chew just for the heck of it.  As rodents with constantly growing teeth they may be doing it to keep wearing their teeth down like a beaver.  We have a constant battle with ours chewing the painted shingle siding which covers an underlying concrete wall.  When I covered it with thin aluminum sheeting they chewed it!

Any skull or antler left in the woods for too long will have signs of squirrel chews.  The theory is that they are getting calcium which is otherwise missing in their diet, although it could be for tooth wear as well.  I leave an old deer skull on our deck which is chewed on daily but one squirrel still is chewing on our house.

Eastern gray squirrels are very territorial and will mark their area with urine and tree chews. They will chew bark and rub it with oral scent glands to mark their territory. A certified wildlife tracker friend spotted one of these marks on a large oak wolf tree in the middle of a field.

A final thought about what squirrels chew.  They are rodents.  Chewing is what rodents do.   They have rootless teeth that are constantly growing and need to be worn down.  It is not their problem, it is ours.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bloodroot Bleeding

Sap oozing from cut leaf surface - Christine Chiu
On the Master Naturalist/Missouri Native Plant Society Wildflower Walk at Bull Creek we identified 54 species plus a few blossoming trees.  One of the most interesting if somewhat less showy now is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).   While they had already bloomed and were forming seed pods, they are always entertaining for their novel characteristics.

Bloodroot leaf - Click to enlarge
To my untrained eye it is its distinctive leaf with palmate veins and 5-9 lobes plus minor lobes that catches my eye.  They are both glabrous and glaucous, great words with a personal meaning.  Glaucous refers to a covering of a whitish powder or waxy coating like the stems of the common raspberry stems. Glabrous refers means "without hairs of any kind," an easy definition for me to remember.

Bloodroot Flowers - REK
The early spring flowers are short lived, 1-2 sunny days while using its energy to produce a fragrant scent.  They are notable for their marked variation in size, number of petals and even their appearance.  Generally white, they occasionally produce pink petals.

Bloodroot get its name form the color of the sap that extrudes from its cut surface.   This colorful liquid was used by Native Americans as a dye as well as an antiseptic, a property that has been confirmed as antibacterial by modern medicine.

Sap oozing from cut leaf surface - Christine Chiu
We have been known to dig up a root on occasion to demonstrate its colorful sap but Christine Chiu took this to another level.  She pointed out a leaf which had tiny orange-red dots along a cut edge that resembled tiny mites.  It had been  apparently chewed by a critter - maybe a squirrel needing antibacterial properties for an inflamed gum?  On close examination, the orange dots were sap extruding from the cut surface!

Bloodroot seed capsule

The story only gets more interesting.  Their blossoms are replaced by a green seed capsule that will fade to yellow within days.  Then it will do what all plants (and also all animals) spend their lives trying to accomplish, release its seeds for a new generation before fading until next year.  The seeds are round and their colors are variable.

While our human ancestors first developed agriculture around 11,500 years ago, ants have been at it for much longer.  Each Bloodroot seed has a tiny white elaiosome, a packet of energy with protein and lipids like a miniature energy bar from a quick shop.  Ants pick up the seeds and transport them to their underground nest, providing food for the colony while planting the seed for next year's crop.

Since discovering Christine's demonstration of the "bleeding leaf," I find myself pinching off a corner of a Bloodroot leaf occasionally, just to watch nature work its wonders.

You can read more on Bloodroot in this previous blog.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pawpaw Egg

I began searching for the first butterfly eggs last week, focusing on the Zebra Swallowtail.  Unlike many other species, the Zebra lay their eggs only on one plant species.  We have only a few places where they grow usually as small trees, so most of their early leaves are accessible.

I started with a grove of 25 small pawpaw which has produced results in the past.  I searched all the accessible leaves without any luck.  One leaf held a small nondescript insect larva, possibly an early instar of a moth species.  While I was trying to photograph it, a spider appeared on the leaf edge.

Soon the spider crossed the leaf and inspected the caterpillar at length.  Apparently it didn't pass the taste test as it left it alone.  I was about to give up when I saw a Zebra Swallowtail fly through the grove.  I decided to sit and wait a while.

After 20 minutes a Zebra returned, landing on three different leaves for only a second.  After it flew on I checked the leaves - no luck.  After another 20 minutes it returned, landed on the same leaf it had checked out before and curled its abdomen under the leaf.  When it flew away I checked the leaf and was rewarded with my first egg of the year.

There are two lessons from this.  Sitting quietly in the woods is relaxing and you may well be rewarded with something special.  Also, I have way too much time on my hands.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

High Hopes

Behind our house on the gravel I came across an ant determined to transport a dead fly back home.  I followed it 15 feet, trying to get ahead of it while keeping it in macro focus.  It is amazing how fast an ant can move when you are trying to keep up with it on your knees.

Lifting it over the rocks and a "log"
The strength of an ant is incredible and after watching this one I think the ant in "High Hopes" might just be able to move the rubber tree plant.*  What caught my eye initially was its lifting the fly over huge boulders and the large "log" above which was twice its height.

Pushing it down the "highway"
Traffic jam
The ant would push it ahead when possible, turning to pull it up over obstacles.  Once it got to the hose it pulled the fly up and pushed it ahead like it was on I-44.   Aside from having to slow down because of a traffic jam from its nest mates headed the other direction it was smooth sailing.  Suddenly it hit the forest exit and entered the leaf litter where I couldn't go.

James Trager** tells me "The ant is taking home the fly as a protein meal for the younger members of her colony, the larvae.  Your ant appears to be Formica biophilica, or a close relative. There are four species in Missouri that look rather like this."

I hope the nest mates appreciate the ant's focus and stamina and give it the rest of the day off.  It probably will tell them all about the old man that was stalking it obsessively with his camera.

* For our younger readers born after 1959, here is a refresher.
** We will be hearing more wisdom from James Trager at next month's MN meeting.  A little overview of our Missouri ant ecology is here