Monday, January 31, 2011

Butterfly Season

Rude Winter Awakening
Spring is just around the corner (Yeah, right!), so it is time to start thinking about butterflies.*  Actually I saw my first butterfly of 2011 the first week of January.  I was chainsawing firewood and as I was cutting through a downed log, a slab of bark fell off and I saw a glimpse of orange.  Looking at the duff on the forest floor I found the little guy at the right.  Can you imagine waking up after several months to a chainsaw passing through your log?

Dorsal View- Wikimedia
Notice the small white "comma" on its dull underwing that identifies it as a Gray Comma (Polygonia progne).  It is one of a number of butterflies which over-winter as adults.  Others species that hibernate as adult butterflies include the Goatweed Leafwing, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, and Eastern Comma.  They hide out under loose bark on trees or in log piles and under shingles of buildings. If you see a butterfly flutter by on a warm winter day, it isn't a hallucination.  They enjoy a break in the weather as much as we do.

This was the first Gray Comma I have found. We commonly find Eastern Comma butterflies which have a wider variety of host plants. All of these overwintering butterflies rarely feed on flower nectar, preferring tree sap, rotting fruit and animal droppings.

There is more about Goatweed Leafwing butterflies in this February 2010 blog.
There is a list of butterfly resources on the right under Pages- Resources.
* Looking back at the February blog I discovered that I wrote the same opening sentence!  So much for originality.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Elk Update

Elk- Freshare MDC
We just reported the first stages of elk trapping actives on this blog.  There is already news on the elk restocking program.  Freshare, MDC's Blog reports that 46 elk have been collected and are in quarantine to exclude diseases from the herd before their trip to Missouri.
"Trapping crews had to experiment with techniques to exclude mature bulls from the traps. They also had to work through technical hitches with the automatic gates.
This year’s catch includes seven spike bulls, 21 adult cows, 10 yearling bulls, four yearling cows and four female calves. Nearly all the mature cows are expected to be pregnant."
They will be kept under observation for three months.  During that time, observation will be mostly distant as human activity make the animals nervous.  At the end of that time, they will be fitted with GPS collars to track their activity in  their new home state.   Their next home will be in holding pens at Peck Ranch.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Thistle love

Goldfinch-  from Wikimedia
We typically hear that flowers are the quick way to a girl's heart.  It turns out that they may turn on boy's also - that is if he happens to be a goldfinch. reports a study from the University of Western Ontario where goldfinches were housed with Canadian thistles.  When they were exposed to summery heat and saw the thistles bloom, they got the "breed now" message.  Their testosterone levels were twice that of other finches which were shown thistle plants without blooms.  They were separated from the plants by transparent shower curtains, so it is unlikely that taste or smell was the stimulus.
Thistle seed is prized by goldfinches both as baby food and their own feeding.  It is interesting that the finches don't eat the thistle flower.  Apparently they have made the association between the blossom and what is coming in a few weeks.

The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  is also called the Wild Canary.  It migrates South in the winter but is found in most of the upper US throughout the year.  It molts twice a year, the springtime molt producing the vivid yellow colors in the male that both we and female finches treasure.
Many birds are threatened by human's conversion of forests and fields to urban settings, but the finches have thrived.  Not only do they love our feeders, but also our disturbed areas such as roadsides and untended fields which produce their favorite foods such as thistle, dandelion, ragweed, mullein and teasel.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Green Walls are Cool

from Time
Green walls are becoming hot because they are cool.  According to Time magazine, "Vertical gardens are on the rise."  Using panels of "living walls" has become a way of advertising your building's "greenness".   But is it really environmentally sound?
Done correctly, they can reduce heating and cooling expenses, although not as effectively as a green roof which costs far less per square foot to install.  Also, watering a vertical garden is a challenge, as rain tends to fall down, not reliably sideways.  Drip irrigation is necessary and frequently monitoring systems are needed.
A green living wall is good advertising.  Like the old saying about avoiding a doctor whose waiting room plants are dying, a brown vertical garden loses most of its value.  Minsuk Cho who has designed these walls says, "Just like any garden, maintaining a green wall takes commitment.  It shouldn't be considered as a building material but more like a pet."  They add, a very large and thirsty one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


There has been a lot of talk about elk since the Missouri Department of Conservation decided to restore an elk population in Missouri. Elk were native to Missouri until they were extirpated by 1865.  The decision to bring them back was made after careful study and input from citizens from across the state.

Like many of Missouri's early European settlers, these late arrivals will be coming from Kentucky.  There is now a MDC video on the first steps of bringing elk back to Missouri.*  In watching the video you will see the narrow chutes they use for handling and wonder how they can handle a big boy like the one pictured above.
"Of the bulls captured as part of trapping efforts, only calves and spike bulls will be used for Missouri’s restoration program, because mature bull elk with branched antlers are more difficult to handle and more likely to injure themselves or other captured elk."

Currently there are several captive herds on ranches in Missouri.  The News-Leader has an article on an elk herd on a private ranch.  Bradleyville elk rancher Leon Combs has just acquired a new bull elk named Thunder.  Presumably it is named for its bugling call, but his main claim to fame is his rack of antlers, scoring an astounding 552 on the Safari Club International which scores the antlers of big game worldwide.  To read about the herd and see pictures of Thunder, click here.

Elk are magnificent to see in the wild but there are always concerns during an operation like this.  The herd will be held in quarantine for 90 days to assure that they aren't bringing in animal diseases.  They are being released in a wilderness area large enough to support the herd without impacting other land uses.

"The limited elk-restoration zone was chosen because it has extensive public lands, minimal agricultural activity, low road density and public support.
First Elk Captured
All elk brought to Peck Ranch CA will be fitted with microchips and radio collars. This will permit tracking their movements after they leave the holding pen as part of a cooperative research project with the University of Missouri."
Details of the trapping process and information on their new home are at this MDC website.  The first of the 50 elk has been trapped and is shown at the right.

* Thanks to Kenda Flores of MDC for the information.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Burning Question

Add caption
I have always heard that you should never water plants in the midday sun because it can burn the plant's leafs.  The usual explanation was that a drop of water can focus the sun's rays like a magnifying glass, cooking a spot on the leaf's surface.  Makes sense, right?
No one had tested this until Adam Egri and associates from Budapest came along.  Their research is described in the December issue of Natural History magazine.
They first put drops of water on ginkgo and maple leaves that were exposed to full sunlight. The water drops spread out over the leaf surface without focusing the sun and the evaporation actually ended up cooling the leaves.  There was no damage done. 
Next they tried it on the floating fern.  As you know from seeing rain drops on a freshly waxed car, the surface tension of water can cause nicely rounded drops on a waxed surface like many leaves possess, This plant has wax hairs which can keep the water drops domed and above the leaf surface.  By keeping the leaf horizontal and out of the wind, they were able to demonstrate some scorching on the leaf.
What does this mean in the real world?  They pointed out that this condition rarely occurs in the real world.  With leaves hanging at all angles and wind moving them, water runs off rapidly.  Ii is unlikely that a significant amount of damage would occur on even the most waxy leaves. 
Another common belief is that watering at night increases plant mildew, although I am not aware of any studies.  Watering in the morning to reduce evaporation and prevent sunburn to the gardener is still probably not a bad idea.
Research is constantly breaking down ideas that "everybody knows".  Next thing you know, someone will prove that handling toads doesn't cause warts!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Migrating to the Ozarks

Snowy Owl- Wikimedia
Francis Skalicky recently wrote a thought provoking article in the News-Leader on the winter migration of birds to the Ozarks.  We tend to think of birds migrating simply to escape the cold, but their reasons are far more complex.
Migration means that a bird leaves the territory it has established, exposing itself to predators and wasting its precious energy.  It must have powerful reasons to make this gamble and the most common reasons are food and breeding.
One of Skalicky's examples was the snowy owl which comes down from the Arctic in search of food.  They are acclimatized to cold weather and their predominate white color lets them blend in to snowy climes.  Like robins and many other birds, they make the trip for food.
"Their movements are triggered by periodic population drops in one of their primary Arctic food sources - the lemming.  When lemming numbers crash, snowy owls venture south in search of food.  Small mammals such as mice, rats, voles and rabbits along with birds and occasionally fish replace lemmings at their food of choice."
Robins and other insectivores migrate when their insect fare disappears in cold snowy weather.  Other birds such as cedar waxwings are seeking winter fruits such as cedar berries.
So why does a bird leave its winter habitat when it is comfortable year round?  Sibley* says that migrations northward in the spring may occur because of higher breeding success in temperate climes.
"If a northward migration in the spring results in higher reproductive success, it should benefit some birds to risk the journey.  Temperate-zone nesters typically have larger clutches (four to six eggs or more) than do tropical breeders (two to three eggs).  In addition, the interval between successive nestings for tropical birds is longer than for temperate species.  Some tropical birds also suffer exceptionally high rates of nest predation."
It is interesting that humans also migrate in search of food (jobs) and a safe place to raise the kids.  Birds just fly over the artificial boundaries which we humans have created.  And some birds have found like we have, that the Ozarks is a great place to raise a family.

* The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior Sibley, 2001, is an excellent source for understanding the habits of birds in general.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Asian Carp Revisted

Detroit Free Press- Click to enlarge
Last October we discussed the Asian Carp threat in this blog.  It is now time for an update. 
There are a number of news stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times about the movement to develop a market for eating them.  
Flying Carp- Click to enlarge

In addition to the damage that they cause to native fish, they are famous for creating a hazard to boaters.  They jump frequently in response to outboard motors or even other boats.   In a Missouri River canoe and kayak race recently, a paddler dropped out of the race due to a head injury from a flying carp.

Some groups are taking more aggressive action, but probably none are having as much fun as is found at the Redneck Fishing Tournament.  This video shows the fine sport of catching the carp in the air as they jump in response to outboard motors.  A sport not for the faint of heart.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Osmotic Power
I hadn't heard of osmotic power until I read about it it Time magazine.  For those of us looking for an energy solution that doesn't involve oil, gas, or growing plants at the expense of food crops needed to feed the seven billion and counting of us now on the planet, this sounds very interesting.
As I am sure we all remember from high school chemistry, osmosis occurs when a liquid passes from a region where it is highly concentrated through a semipermeable membrane to a region of lower concentration.  In doing so, it raises the volume of the lower concentration fluid which means energy is produced.
Where does this reaction occur all over the planet?  Where ever fresh water and the more concentrated salt water meet, that is at any place that a river runs into the ocean.  The saltwater molecules can pull fresh water through the membrane, increasing the volume in the saltwater tank.  The resultant build up of pressure of water is used to run a turbine.
Prototype plants are running in Norway and Japan.  So far they are only able to generate less that a watt of energy per square meter of membrane, far below the 5 watts which would begin to make it cost effective.  Newer membranes are necessary to make it cost effective.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fun with Ladybugs

Bored?  Try playing with a Lady Beetle.  There is a video titled "Ladybug plays with sprinkles" on Wimp.  I am not sure that "play" is the word to use.  This one seem quite intent on eating what it perceives are something more like its favorite food - aphids.

from Wikimedia
Ladybugs (or ladybirds as they are called in Europe) are members of the Coccinellidae family. They are neither a bug or a bird, but actually a beetle.  They come to mind especially during the winter when they move into the house with us on Bull Creek, flying around, walking on us and occasionally biting, then producing an odor when squished as a reflex response.

Their habit of eating aphids and scale insects (and chasing the odd sprinkle) is considered to be of considerable benefit.  They also require pollen which they obtain from mustard plants, buckwheat, coriander, red or crimson clover, carrot family plants and legumes.

As I was growing up, we liked to watch ladybugs in the summer and we didn't see them in the winter,  (and yes, the light bulb had been invented by then.)  They seek shelter, looking for warmth in woodpiles, sheds and houses, only to become active on sunny warm days or when we turn up the heat.  So why are we seeing so many of them indoors now?  Immigration, or rather importation may be part of the answer.

The Asian lady beetle, or Japanese ladybug (Harmonia axyridi) was imported to the US multiple times since 1918 to control aphids but really became established starting in 1988.  It spread in the Midwest over the next 5 years while separate introductions in the Northeast and Northwest US hastened their spread.

There is no doubt that the Asian lady beetle is effective in helping to control aphids and scale insects. It also is controlling the native lady beetle populations by out-competing them and occasionally eating them.  The long term consequences of this on our native species is not yet known.
"Many people now view this species as a nuisance,[5] partly due to their tendency to overwinter indoors and the unpleasant odor and stain left by their bodily fluid when frightened or squashed, as well as their tendency to bite humans." (Wikipedia).
So when does an introduced species cross the fuzzy line into an invasive species?  That is usually in the eye of the beholder.  I guess it depends on whether they are eating your aphids or your neck.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Other Vulture

from Wikimedia
Driving down Highway W, we came around a curve and were startled by the sight of large black birds taking wing above a dead roadkill carcass.  As they  settled in the nearby bare trees,  we could count 25 birds, all looking at us with bored expressions.  Their distinctive size and gray heads were typical of Black Vultures, a rarity for us along Bull Creek where we usually see Turkey Vultures.

It turns out that Black Vultures are different in several interesting ways.  For one, they hunt only visually and therefore are commonly found in open territory rather the wooded hills like ours.  They do however keep their eyes open for congregating Turkey Vultures which usually means a free meal.  They are more aggressive and will run Turkey Vultures off, taking over their dinner.

Turkey vultures are a common sight, circling over Bull Creek or settling down over a nice dead carcass.  In addition to being common, they are readily identifiable by their bald red heads.  Since they hunt both with their keen vision and acute sense of smell, they forage over forested land where they don't have to compete with Black Vultures as often.

Since both vultures rely of dead animals for their food they may go days without eating.  They make up for this with a Henry VIII habit of gorging prodigiously when food is available.  They appear to be immune to the bacteria infesting dead animals, although they do prefer to have their meals recently dead.  Their bald heads help in plunging head first into the body cavities to get to the good stuff.

Turkey vultures will glide on thermals with their wings held still in a V shape as they tip from side to side.  Black vultures tend to fly with alternating a series of flaps, then gliding with their wings out straight.  The difference has to do with their design.  While weighing approximately the same, Turkey Vultures have a low wing load, meaning they have the longer wingspan in proportion to their weight.  This allows them to ride the thermals with much less effort.  For this reason, Black Vultures tend to start out later in the morning when the sun warmed earth creates stronger thermals to lift them up.

Like turkey, deer and raccoon, vultures have adapted to the expanding human population.  They frequent highways looking for road kill and are now known to sometimes drop in on unguarded picnic food.  So the next time you are out and see the "buzzards" circling, just remember that they are probably just curious - it doesn't signify a personal health risk.

The January 13 News-Leader MDC article on Black Vultures is at this site.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Die-offs Part of Life

First it was blackbirds falling from the sky, then it was reports of a mass die-off of 83,000 drum (fish) in Arkansas.  Bloggers across the country wrote alarming columns of doom, labeling the crisis "Aflockalypse".

Die-offs are part of life and occur frequently around the world.  There are on average 163 events like this reported every year to the federal government.  The Boston Globe quotes statistics from the US Geological Survey.
The US Geological Service’s website lists about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12.  Five list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and another 12 show at least 500 dead birds.
The largest was near Houston, Minn., where about 4,000 water birds died between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26 from infestations of various parasites.
In birds alone, possible factors include lightening, hailstorms, fireworks confusing the flock, massive flocks flying into power lines, disease, toxins, etc.  The very flocking behavior that is an effective defense against aerial predators may predispose flocks to fly into buildings, power lines and wind turbines in large numbers.  In one episode in 1996, 100,000 ducks died of botulism in Canada.  (

So why has this phenomena hit the news so dramatically now?  Instant, constant and dramatic news.  Even days later there are hysterical articles about the growing numbers.  Google Maps even can show you up-to-date maps of where they are occurring and refer you to each story (latest listing, 26 events). (see this Google Site)

"Blame technology," says famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.  With the Internet, cell phones and worldwide communications, people are noticing events, connecting the dots more.  "This instant and global communication, it's just a human instinct to read mystery and portents of dangers and wondrous things in events that are unusual," Wilson said. "Not to worry, these are not portents that the world is about to come to an end."  News-Leader

Unlike White Nose and Colony Collapse, this is not the end of the species.  It is an opportunity to study what went wrong and to improve our relationship with the ecosystem.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Awful Beauty

Smithsonian- Click to enlarge
This month's Smithsonian Magazine has an article titled Devastation from Above featuring pictures of the awful beauty of pollution as seen from the air.

J. Henry Fair is a photographer with a deep environmental commitment. He had worked industrial jobs until he could develop a career in photography.  He has since shot album covers for Yo Yo Ma and Cecilia Bartoli.
Unable to see what was behind the fences at major industrial sites, he chanced to see the effects while on a commercial airline flight.  He then took to the air in small aircraft, photographing sites from 1000 feet.  He is publishing the results of years of work in  The Day after Tomorrow due out this February.
"His goal is not to indict- he doesn't identify the polluters by name - but to raise public awareness about the costs of our choices.  Such advocacy groups as Greenpeace and Rainforest Alliaince have used Fair's work to advance their causes.  He is a real asset to the national environmental movement," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who contributed an essay to Fair's book  A Fair photograph, he adds, "takes the viewer in an artistic context, to an intellectual  place that he or she didn't expect to go.  My aluminum foil comes from that?  My electricity comes from that?  My toilet paper comes from that?"
The picture above shows a waste-treatment pond at a Louisiana mill that manufactures paper towels.  The circles form around aerators that churn the water to speed digestion of organic byproducts.

The there is more in the online story from Smithsonian Magazine including an interview and a sampling of his other pictures.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

American Robins Rock

If you don't believe that American Robins rock, watch one closely in your yard.  You will see that as they hop around the yard, they "rock" their head from side to side.  It used to be felt that they did this to hear insects and worms, but we now know that they find their prey by sight.

Robins come to mind in winter on Bull Creek where they suddenly appear in large flocks.  They tend to move from tree to tree in the morning, coming in one at a time until there are thirty plus birds, then moving on, following the crowd with no apparent plan.  Later in the day when it warms up they will congregate in the fields, looking for any cold hearty insect foolish enough to come to the surface.  In the evening, they congregate in large flocks, especially in our cedar forest where they can escape the wind.

The American Robin (Turdus-migratorius) has probably made accommodation to humans equaling the European Starling.  So far they have become successful suburbanites, hang out on golf courses without damaging them, and even had the song Rockin Robin written about them.

They received their name from early European settlers who were reminded of a unrelated smaller European "robin".  Actually, it would be better named the American Thrush, but what sane ornithologist would be willing to face the public ire by renaming it after what happened when astronomers downgraded Pluto?

Found throughout North America, they tend to migrate south from Canada to the lower US in winter.  Their migration is thought to be driven more by the availability of food than by the weather. We tend to think of robins pulling at worms in our yard, but in winter they become voracious berry eaters as well.  Their  esophagus is elastic, allowing them to ingest a large amount of berries in a setting, and their intestine is efficient in digesting the waxy coat of winter berries.  They consume large amounts of Eastern Red Cedar berries and are implicated in the spread of cedar trees in abandoned fields and fence lines. In the spring, they are occasionally found drunk on the fermented fruit of bushes such as Pyracantha and Deciduous Holly.  After surviving the hard winter, who can fault them for going on a little "Spring Break".

Answers to a lot of common questions about robins can be found at RobinNotes.  Recordings of Robin's songs and calls and their meaning are at
Also read Just A Robin in Missouri Conservationist, written by Carol Davit of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Feral Hogs

Feral Hogs- Wikimedia
Like many other invasive species, feral hogs are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, so we better get to know them better.  The Smithsonian Magazine article this month provides a good introduction.

Our Christian County neighbor had a visit from feral hogs this year.  After seeing large numbers on his game camera, he contacted the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Jeff Harris quickly responded and they began baiting the area with corn.  After a week of 150 pounds of corn daily, the hogs didn't seem to mind the gradual construction of a cattle panel fence around the corn pile.
Feral Hog Trap
Several days after the final panel and trap gate was installed, they were ready.  When the trap was tripped, there were 25 hogs which were captured, killed, and sent off for processing.  With that many wild hogs, there is no way to safely load them up alive.

One question I have been repeatedly been asked was if these were "native Arkansas Razorbacks".  There were no pigs native to North America.  Pigs were introduced to the Western Hemisphere and Australia by humans.  They came to the Caribbean with Christopher Columbus and later Hernando De Soto brought them to Florida.

We think of hogs raised in pens, but free range hogs were common in the Ozarks into the 1950's.  They would let the hogs range over a large area of forested hills, sometimes contained with "hog fence".  When ready for market, they would start corn feeding the hogs in a fenced area or corral much like was used above, then close the gate one day and back up the truck to load them.  As described in a 1920 book:
"A large part of the wild land still constitutes a free range.  Stock law, which makes the owner responsible for all unconfined stock, has been introduced only in the better parts of the border regions, and usually only after a spirited contest between the farmers interested in crop raising and the poorer farmers of the old regime.  Elsewhere whatever land is not under fence is free to anybody's stock.
For the raising of hogs conditions are much better, as the abundance of acorns and other mast makes the average range fairly good.  The region produces few fat hogs, because of the small amount of corn which is fed, but yields a very fair bacon type, which is produced at almost no cost.  In a typical case a farmer sold $500 worth of hogs, to which he had fed altogether only twelve bushels of corn and which had received almost no care.  The half-wild hog of the hills is of lighter weight and worth less than the corn-fed hog.  In 1909 the average value of a hog in corn producing Cooper County was $7.60; in the oak forests of Shannon only $4.20.  The range hogs are remarkably free from disease, and it is claimed that they seldom are attacked by cholera."**

So what about Razorbacks, also called wild boar?   In the 1930's, Eurasian wild boar were imported into Texas for hunting.  They bred with free-ranging domestic animals and escapees that had adapted to the wild.*

The hogs trapped along Bull Creek looked just like domestic pigs.  Left on their own to breed in the wild, they adapt and develop more characteristics of their wild cousins.
"The difference between domestic and wild hogs is a matter of genetics, experience and environment.  The animals are “plastic in their physical and behavioral makeup,” says wild hog expert John Mayer of the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. Most domestic pigs have sparse coats, but descendants of escapees grow thick bristly hair in cold environments.  Dark-skinned pigs are more likely than pale ones to survive in the wild and pass along their genes.  Wild hogs develop curved “tusks” as long as seven inches that are actually teeth (which are cut from domestics when they’re born).  The two teeth on top are called whetters or grinders, and the two on the bottom are called cutters; continual grinding keeps the latter deadly sharp.  Males that reach sexual maturity develop “shields” of dense tissue on their shoulders that grow harder and thicker (up to two inches) with age; these protect them during fights."*
There is more interesting information in the magazine article and this Texas video.

*     Smithsonian Magazine
**   The geography of the Ozark Highland of Missouri, Carl Ortwin Sauer., 1920.