Monday, December 28, 2015

Freeze or Fight

Suppose you are an animal. Well, actually, you are an animal, but suppose you’re another kind of animal, maybe something small that might make a tasty snack for a larger predator. You’re walking along one day when you see a big dog. What do you do?  Well, depending on what kind of animal you are, you have different options. A skunk can spray a noxious liquid that will repel predators, a cat can make its hair stand on end so that it seems larger than it is, or some animals, such as opossums, may pretend to be dead already.

There’s another strategy all these animals have, though. You’ve seen it before, but maybe never thought about it. They can freeze. This is a way to avoid detection by a predator scanning the scene for motion. It is an instinct built into most mammals and even insects like the humble house fly.

A rabbit's first defense is to freeze when it's frightened. If it thinks it has been spotted, it starts to run. It trades evasion for distance and speed zigzagging right and left in short hops. This makes it hard to follow as any one hunting with a 22 rifle can testify. Just ask a beagle. Either it finds safety, tires and confuses a predator, or ends up as the main course for an owl, bobcat or other lucky winner.

Humans have this instinct hardwired from birth, and that can be good or bad news. An interesting article in the NY Times describes the conflict in our brain when danger such as a shooting suddenly appears.
"One suggestion, promoted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, and now widely disseminated, is “run, hide, fight.” The idea is: run if you can; hide if you can’t run; and fight if all else fails. This three-step program appeals to common sense, but whether it makes scientific sense is another question."
It appears that this same conflict occurs in bunnies.  A friend sent me this video of a bunny rabbit with an really baaad attitude.  Rather than "freezing" this usually mild mannered mammal was having a bad hare day and took it out on a black snake.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Birds, etc.


During our Christmas break, here is a reminder that nature can be just plain fun.  Take a quick look at these Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards winners for 2015.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird in flight - Wikimedia
An Anna's Hummingbird recently visited Springfield, staying for lunch over several days at Mike and Sarah Gugliotta's feeder. They shared this with GOAS* members who turned out to see this uncommon Missouri bird which is a west coast species, listed as a casual migrant in Missouri. It presumably enjoyed its visit and the Missouri hospitality included giving it a new bracelet. Greg Swick posted a nice set of photographs on Facebook that he shared with us.



Anna's Hummingbird** is tiny for a bird but large for a hummer.  It consumes a higher percent of insects in its diet than other hummingbird species.  Its rare appearance in Missouri is usually in late fall, visiting feeders after our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have migrated.  They have even stayed over winter at a heated feeder.

The male's courtship flight is dramatic, climbing 130 feet in the air before swooping to the ground.  The courtship display is accompanied by a loud chirping produced by its tail feathers.  The male can literally change color with a twist of the neck, the head and gorget turning from green to a metallic emerald color in direct sunlight, as seen in this video.


Their original range a hundred years ago was in the evergreen shrubs of coastal California.  Their range has expanded considerably since then, probably due to humans planting gardens and hanging bird feeders.  They are more cold tolerant than other hummingbird species and now are found in British Columbia as well as occasionally in the east.  One factor is their ability to slow their heart rate to 1/15th of its daytime rate which conserves energy and body heat.  Their normal body temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit can drop to 48 degrees, then rise again when the temperature rises.

To catch a hummingbird
Our visitor got a new bracelet by Sarah Driver, a licensed bird bander.  When a banded bird is encountered later, a toll-free call reporting it gives the bander information on the range and age of the bird and the finder receives a certificate.  "The oldest recorded Anna's Hummingbird was at least 8 years, 2 months old, when it was recaptured and re-released during a banding operation in Arizona."

In addition to advancing science, it will give us a chance to see if it returns to the same location (site fidelity).  Jane Nicholas  from Jackson County in eastern Missouri reported an occurrence on Facebook:
"That's so cool! I have a male Rufous at my house for the second winter. He was banded last year and has been confirmed a couple weeks ago to be the same bird. Good luck with your wonderful bird!"
Sarah and Mike Gugliotta release the newly banded Anna's Hummingbird
Consider leaving your feeder up into the fall after the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have migrated.  If you see activity, you may find your own casual migrant Anna's and Rufous Hummingbird in the off season.

* Photographs by Greg Swick of Greater Ozarks Audubon Society (GOAS).
** The name Anna's comes from Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli (1802–1887) the wife of Francois Victor Massena, 2nd Duke of Rivoli. She became the head of the household of the Empress Eugenie.  It was named by Rene Primevere Lesson, a famous French surgeon and naturalist.  In addition to being the first European to see live birds of paradise, he was smart enough to gain political points by naming this bird after Anna!
Birth of hummingbirds video.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stella!

Stella eagle on cruise control, March 22, 2015, Springfield, MO - Becky Swearingen
Posting by Becky Swearingen, MN

STELLA!   The title, of course, is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, however, this blog is about eagles and Stella, Missouri. I spent the rainy Sunday of December 13th going to Stella, Missouri, to see if the convocation of eagles had arrived yet. It was still a little early, but I know they will arrive.

      December 13, 2015, Stella, Missouri - Becky Swearingen
My first time to Stella was in 2011 during the annual Eagle Days. The Chert Glades Master Naturalist group participates in the Stella Eagle Days. That is when I took my first decent shot of an eagle as it sat perched in a tree just above my head.  I’ve gone to Stella several times since then, getting more shots of eagles – one of my favorite photographic subjects.
Stella eagles in 2010 - Jeff Cantrell MDC
Eagles start gathering in Stella in December of every year. Stella itself has a human population of around 150, but during the winter it may have as many as 400 Bald Eagles in residence. They arrive from the Great Lakes region following flocks of Canada Geese, picking off sick and injured birds.

April 19, 2015, Springfield, MO
They stay in Stella partly because it is at the confluence of four watersheds: Indian and Shoal creeks, and Big Sugar and Elk rivers.  The Department of Conservation reports that there are eight active nests in the Stella area, so there is also a nice year round population of birds. In fact, I got to see this juvenile when I was there on December 13th.

December 13, Stella, Mo  2 ½ - 3 year old bald eagle.
At three they have the “Bandit mask - Jeff Cantrell - Photo by Becky
--> April 18, 2015, Redwing Prairie Conservation Area  If you’ve never gotten over to Stella, I recommend heading there sometime during this winter. Eagle Days is a good time to go as there will be spotting scopes set up for viewing, but I have found that no matter when you go in the winter, there will be eagles for you to view and enjoy.

Benjamin Franklin is frequently quoted as despising the eagle as a "Bird of bad moral character," this from a founding father who was "an inveterate flirt, and who sired an illegitimate child before his 1730 wedding." He was bothered by eagles who he felt only stole from other fishing birds.  

Between flirting and fathering it seems unlikely that Franklin had much of a chance to watch eagles.  Fishing in Canada, Bob Ranney and I watched as our guide whistled shrilly at an eagle across the bay, then threw a gutted walleye out on the lake and watched the eagle swoop in and grab it without a ripple on the water.  At Sac Osage in the pre-digital days we photographed eagles feasting on geese frozen in the ice, then trading off on stumps to warm their feet while others joined the party.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Eggplant Leafroller

Insect in a box - REK
Barb spotted this critter clinging to the ceiling above her as she prepared a salad.  As a naturalist she called me to bring a "bug box" rather than a swatter.  We use clear plastic Gerber baby food containers for insect collection, begging them off younger friends so we don't have to start another family on our own.

This tiny winged creature's body measured 10mm.  It was quite lively and since it wouldn't be surviving the winter weather anyway, it went into the freezer for euthanasia, nestled in the ice tray along with future suppers.  Did I mention that Barb is a very tolerant naturalist?


Ventral view - Click to enlarge  REK

You might think that something this strange would be easy to identify but I practically wore out my Peterson's field guide without coming close.  Googling "strange wings moths" and other topics failed to find a picture and my personal resources were traveling abroad.  Finally I sent it to Bugguide and got a prompt response from A. Henderson.  This is an eggplant leafroller, Lineodes integra.

Bugguide lists larval food plants in the "tomato family (Solanaceae), such as eggplant (Solanum melongena), ground-cherry (Physalis spp.), pepper (Capsicum spp.), tropical soda apple (Solanum viarum), and garden tomato (Solanum lycopersicon)."  Our moth didn't have far to fly, just a few feet from our dying cherry tomato and jalapeno pepper plants that had nurtured it this fall.

Margarethe Brummermann PhD

Lineodes integra - Wikipedia
Many of the small moths are named for their food plants where we are more likely to see their larva and its damage.  The moth has a short lifespan and even when it comes to light it is easy to miss with its narrow wings spanning 3/4 inch.  It has a distinctive habit of resting with its abdomen curved up above its thorax but our moth didn't cooperate.

I could only make out the beautiful wing pattern with magnification and a bright light.  Under the microscope you can see the tibial ruffles on its long, thin legs.  You can see more of this moth's life cycle on this Arizonabeetlesbugsbirdsandmore link.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Believe it or not Moths

Black-waved Flannel Moth - REK
I was out of town during National Moth Week this year.  To make up for this omission, here are a couple of mothsbelieve it or not, that don't look like moths to those of us still working on Mothing 101.

I almost brushed this white ball of fluff off the porch swing until my curiosity overcame me.  A photograph with a macro lens confirmed that it was actually a Black-waved Flannel Moth, Lagoa crispataThey fly from May to October and produce one to two broods a year.
Early instar






 





Their caterpillars are white fluffy creatures initially, looking like the silk around an egg sac. Don't let the softness fool you - they have stinging spines underneath their fluffy coat. According to Jeffery Pippen of Duke University "Early instars are pure white, while later instars become more orange-gray." They feed on oaks, poplars, Prunus species, sassafras, willows, and other trees and shrubs.
 
Later instar -  Even with its hair wavy, it still stings!

Purple-crested Slug Moth
This Purple Crested Slug, Adoneta spinuloides almost looked like a miniature bat clinging to the screen on our sliding glass door.  It is found predominately in the east and Missouri is on the western fringe of it range.  They belong to to family of slug caterpillar moths.  These are relatively small with a wing span of 1.5-4.3 cm.  They tend to have stout, usually hairy bodies, and broad, rounded wingsAdults have small heads with short palps and proboscises.

Like many lepidoptera, their common name of "slug" derives from the appearance of their larvae (caterpillars) which move like slugs, gliding on their prolegs and suckers . They can be densely hairy or hairless, but usually they have stinging hairs.  They feed on a variety of woody and herbaceous plants and overwinter in loose, oval cocoons .

A. spinuloides, tiny hairs but they sting!   Troy Bartlett CC


The colorful Purple Crested Slug caterpillar consumes a wide variety of plants and trees. Known larval hosts include Prunus species, birch, chestnut, beech, cherry, and willow. Willows are common along Bull Creek and wild plum are scattered along the drive, so I guess this was just another visit by one of our many neighbors along the creek.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Parasitic Lobsters

Mark Bower sent me these photographs of a lobster mushrooms he found down at Bull Creek.  Each one is actually a fungus on a fungus, a curious case of parasitism.
Hypomyces lactifluorum is a parasitic ascomycete fungus that grows on several species of mushrooms, they virtually always parasitize Lactarius (Milkys) and Russula species. I slowly forms a red crust like a lobster shell over the white underlying mushroom, eventually covering the host species, making it unidentifiable.

According to Wikipedia lobster mushrooms are widely consumed and commercially available, although some like Tom Volk raise doubts about eating found specimens.  While they are usually safe, we can't tell if it is growing on a toxic species of mushroom.  Lobster or not, it doesn't have much eye appeal to me as in its late stages it tends to distort the shape of the host.

There are lots of fungi that are parasitic on mushrooms, either on the fruiting body that we call a mushroom or in other cases on just the mycelium.  It may kill the host or simply gain nutrition without significant damage.  There is more at  this link and Michael Kuo lists 25 of these mushroom parasites.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Glade Restoration Update


Back in 2007, the  plan to restore a 12 acre glade above the road leading to our house seemed easy enough.  We had cleared a 3 acre glade when we were young and innocent (well at least innocent), using a chainsaw and an ATV with a winch, completing a prescribed fire in 2002.  Much older and a little wiser we got help this time.


We hired Cody Secrest freshly graduated from college to clear the cedars off the hillside.  When he was done it was head high in cedar slash and the salable logs were off to the mill.

Cedar slash after the logs were harvested
Two years later we began the process of trying to burn the glade but Mother Nature said "HA!"  Too wet, then too windy, then too dry with fire warnings as the years went by.  Once we had the whole burn crew out all morning when clouds moved in, the relative humidity rose and the fires wouldn't carry.  Another time the MDC crew had to cancel to fight another fire.

By 2014 trees had grown up too high to burn and we contracted with Jess Register through MDC.  He attacked the new growth with a mulching head on a tracked skid steer, grinding the new growth down to a 6" deep carpet of wood chips as seen in this video.  I was concerned that this compacted carpet wouldn't burn - boy was I wrong!



With the help of MDC, we contracted with Jess to do the burn as well.  When the big day came on October 18th, we had a crew including Master Naturalist volunteers* and Willie and Trevor, our always willing neighbors.  Jess walked the fire line edge with a "weed eater" the size of a small ATV followed by Trevor with a blower.  With a light breeze from the north northeast, we then began the fire on the top of the northeast hillside.

Watching the fire line
Once the fire had burned a blackened strip across the top of the glade and down the north side to the road, David Reynolds MN ran the drip torch down the road, starting the fire up the glade.  The fire progressed slowly and occasional patches didn't burn.  While a roaring blaze like we had in 2002 sweeping up the slope is more exciting, we were happy to have a leisurely spread up to the upper blacken fire line.
 This chipmunk was found on the edge of the burn line, trying to decide if it was safer to head back in the flames or face the giant human watching the fire line for escaping embers.  With a gentle nudge of her yard broom, Christine Chiu encouraged it into safety.
Christine and Allan as the fire dies out.
We had a great result as seen in this set of photographs and this video.  During the winter we will burn the small patches that didn't carry the fire.  The blackened hillside may not look like much now, but just wait until spring when all the glade plants held captive under cedar trees for the last 50+ years break free, crying "Sun at last!"

A previous blog gives details of the site and the reasons why we bother restoring glades.
We are grateful for all the help from MDC over the years of this project, and for the Master Naturalists and friends who watched the fire lines with rakes in hand. 

Missouri Gothic..... or end of a perfect day

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Elegy for an American White Pelican



By Becky Swearingen

I’ve been watching an American White Pelican at Lake Springfield.  I first noticed it on November 24th. It made an impression on me because it was resting on the shoreline by the boathouse and boat dock.  I’ve watched and photographed pelicans for several years, but never saw one so up close and personal.  It allowed people to approach it closely without appearing to be terribly upset by their presence.



It eventually did move to another area of the lake and that is when I noticed it didn’t appear to have the lift to successfully take flight and it appeared to have a limp.  That’s when I realized it was apparently injured in some way. It appeared to “walk” across the water more than fly.

Attempted liftoff
I next visited the lake on Wednesday and saw that the pelican had not moved from its new location.  Thanksgiving came and I didn’t visit him again for several days.


The pelican’s plight made me think about nature and some of the sights I’ve seen.  Last May, as I was driving the back roads in Dade County visiting one of my favorite prairies, Providence Prairie, I came across this sight.



At the time, I was unsure what I was seeing and it was some time later while I was doing research about something else that I realized it was a skewered victim of a Loggerhead Shrike.  These birds skewer their victims and even sometimes during courtship will decorate their kills.  I posted this picture on a Nature Addicts website and was chided by someone for posting a picture of a dead animal on a site designed for nature lovers.  My response was that this was part of nature and that nature in all its form is fascinating, but it’s not always pretty, but we need to celebrate it in all its forms.

In July (on my birthday as a matter of fact) I was again driving the dirt roads of Dade County and ran across this.



My first thought was that it was another Loggerhead Shrike kill that had been skewered.  But then I noticed it was moving and struggling to get off the fence.  I decided it was time to investigate the situation, so I covered myself in bug spray and waded through the tall grass and over the ditch to the fence.  I discovered that the bird had gotten his foot entangled in the barbed wire, so I carefully raised it up and gently worked to free it from the fence.  I managed, after a minute or so, to extract it and it flew furiously across the field and I swear it was glaring it at me as it went, such a different result from the field mouse.

Back to my pelican, though.  The rain came, starting Thanksgiving evening and the water rose, causing the pelican to lose its temporary safe haven.  I know it is across the lake on one of the few marshy areas above water, but it did not move for the hour or so I was at the lake today and I feel, sadly, that it will not survive whatever injury it sustained.  It is a beautiful bird and I cherish the time I had getting close to it. Nature, though always fascinating, is not always pretty or kind.

Photos and story by Becky Swearingen, 2015 MN class.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Frost Flowers

"Frost flower" in full bloom - Tonya Smith
By Tonya Smith* 
I know frost flowers have been around for a long time, but I'm only three years new to the discovery of them.  I have walked the same trail year round since 2003 and it wasn't until 2013 that I happened upon the frost flower gardens one morning after a hard freeze at the end of October.   Now I watch the weather closely in late Fall, so I can be sure not to miss a walk among nature's most delicate white flowers which disappear quickly with the rising sun's warmth. Nature giveth and nature taketh away. Probably a good thing as I had more than enough sticky seeds and burrs to pick off my clothing from laying on the ground to get the pictures.  Frost flowers are just one of the many things I am thankful for.
Tonya Smith
Their scientific name is Crystallofolia which was coined by Botanist Bob Harms from the University of Texas.  This is from Latin crystallus, ice, [itself from Greek κρυσταλλος; cf. κρυος 'frost']and folium leaf. These elegant formations have been given many names, metaphorical in nature, most commonly ‘frost flowers’ (or ribbons), a formation which is neither frost nor a flower. These common names, however, are easily confused with terms describing true frost from condensation on a cold surface as well as any picturesque ice formation.

These frost metaphors are of fairly recent origin, not current with 19th Century treatments of the subject (e.g., 'frost freak' was used by several scholars).  I thus propose folium, leaf, as a more appropriate metaphor, since like leaves these formations emerge laterally from the stem, and the enormous diversity of forms finds better matches with leaves than with flowers and ribbons — although this is perhaps less poetic. Perhaps more significantly, the physical process by which water moves to the ice formations is analogous to the transpiration that brings water from the roots to the leaves. My perspective is not new: German botanists in the 19th Century used the term 'Eisblatt' ('ice leaf')."

Frost flowers, also referred to as ice flowers, only appear on the stems of a limited number of species. The two most common in Missouri are Dittany and White Crownbeard**. Stinkweed (Pluchea camphorate) is a third but this plant is not widespread in Missouri.
Dittany - MDC Discover Nature field guide
Dittany (Cunila origanoides)

Sometimes called "wild oregano," dittany (like true oregano) is a member of the mint family and can be used as a culinary herb and in teas. Look for it on dry, wooded slopes in Ozark counties. http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/common-plants-and-animals/wildflowers-and-grasses/frost-flowers
White Crownbeard- MDC Discover Nature field guide
Crownbeard (Verbesina virginica)
It’s called “white crownbeard” for the look of the flowers. “Wingstem” describes the narrow green “wings” running along the stem, especially on the lower half of the plant. It’s called “frostweed” for the strange and beautiful formations formed at the stem bases after a sudden hard frost.  Bob Harms with the University of Texas points out that the stem itself doesn't split. The epidermis ruptures along with the cortex and other tissues that seem tightly bonded to it.


There may be more opportunities for frost flowers as the temps have warmed back up and rain is returning adding more moisture, but it is not likely they will be as large or as numerous. If you missed them this year, keep watch for areas where the common White Crownbeard grows so you can visit this spot in the early morning of next year's first hard freeze.

* Photographs and text by Tonya Smith who is a member of our latest Master Naturalist class.
**   Some sources list yellow crownbeard as an occasional source of frost flowers but we have never found any on our plants over the years.

Editors note:

Late ice ribbon on Dittany - REK
Don't give up on late season frost flowers.  We found them on 40 mornings a few winters ago.  Late season "flowers" tend to occur low on the stem an produce more narrow ribbons like this picture.  They continue until a prolonged freeze kills the plant tissue down in the soil.   As perennials they will return next year.
Check out these resources for further information on frost flowers as well as the resources page:
Dr. James Carter references:
Frost Flowers
Ice or Frost Flowers?- James Carter
JR Carter at Illinois State/ice/diurnal/
Dr.Robert Harms

biosci.utexas.edu/crystallofolia.html
scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics
Other sources of frost flowers

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pigmy Backswimmer




Pygmy backswimmer with a ballpoint pen - REK
While looking at life in a pond at the WOLF school, the students noticed that some of the tiny black specks were actually swimming in the thick mat of duckweed. They started chasing them in a drop of water with a handheld microscope but photographing them proved elusive. It took me even longer to get these blurry images as they wiggled around on damp paper. This video of it swimming on a single drop of water shows it better.











I sent these pictures with apologies to Dr. David Bowles at Missouri State University who responded patiently "That is a pygmy backswimmer (Heteroptera, Pleidae, Neoplea striola). They are by no means rare, but often overlooked due to their small size. Nice find." * Kind words for a blurry picture. According to Dr. Andy Hamilton at bugguide.net, Neoplea striola is the only common member of the family Pleidae (pygmy backswimmers) in eastern North America.

Hanging just below the surface, watching its reflection  -  Lonny
As the name implies, these bugs hang upside down on the surface of the water, using their oar-like legs to swim. These predatory Hemiptera (true bugs) voraciously attack mosquito larvae while avoiding mosquito predators so they would seem to be a good choice to introduce for mosquito eradication. This was attempted in California but they found that N. striola requires cold overwintering conditions to reproduce according to BiodiversityLibrary.org.

I had to go four levels in Google to find any more information about this insect that lacks a good press agent.  Nationalgeographic.com describes its underwater hibernation in New England lakes, awakening only when the water temperature reaches 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring.  They have fine hairs which carry air when they dive, allowing them to reach deeper depths before the bubble collapses.  The bad news is the denser the hair, the less surface area the insect has to absorb the air.

Dorsal view - Lonny
None of this is important in our shallow pond.  I will have to measure the water temperature this winter to see how cold it gets, but it appears to have found a good home in this haven far from other ponds.  How it got this far into the forest, only its ancestors know.  

*  This blog depends regularly on the patience of expert friends reviewing blurry photographs.  Thanks to all of them for humoring us.