Saturday, February 27, 2010

Harbinger of Spring

Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) is the first wildflower we see in spring, this year at the end of February.  It's name reflects the fact that it one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the Midwest.  It is also known as "Salt and Pepper" because of its white petals and dark reddish anthers.  Because it frequently grows on the forest floor, it adapts to the otherwise shady environment by blooming as early as mid February, before the trees leaf out and block the sunlight.

Many woodland flowers adopt this early blooming strategy.  The term Spring Ephemeral describes plants which grow stems, leaves and flowers, quickly bloom, go to seed and the die back early  in the spring.  The remainder of the year their surface features disappear, leaving roots and rhizomes underground for the rest to the year.  These plants tend to be found in forested areas.  More types of ephemerals can be found int Wikipedia.
The following Spring Ephemerals are found on Bull creek:
  • Spring Beauty
  • Shootingstar
  • Harbinger of Spring
  • Dogtooth Violet (Trout Lily)
  • Hepatica (Liverleaf)
  • Bloodroot
  • Rue Anemone
One final note- The  Harbinger of Spring bulb is edible.  So are beavers, okra and raw oysters, but that doesn't mean I would enjoy eating them.  The Cherokee were known to chew an unknown part of the plant for toothache- it's probably better to see your dentist. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ebony Spleenwort

I recently heard from Cindy of Lake of the Ozarks Chapter who told me about another MN Blog written by one of their members.  Sandy Nelson is writing Ozark Naturalist's Journal at She has a gift for photography and has some great pictures of lichen this posting.  You will now find her Blog link to the right column of this page.
The third posting down was on Ebony Spleenwort with a nice set of pictures showing them nestled in between snow and crustose lichen.  I had seen this fern up on our hillside and could never figure why a green leafed fern was called ebony which is a dark brown, nearly black, wood.  Sandy answers this for me in her picture- it is the stem, called a rachis, that gives it the ebony name.
It is very tolerant of many conditions and can grow on rocks, which best describes my "soil" in the hills.  This is a good time of year to find it and its fern cousins as there isn't a lot of colorful competition on the hillsides at present.  Go to her site at  to learn more.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Long-winged Monarchs

I just read results of a University of Georgia study of migratory and non-migratory Monarch butterflies.  The nonmigratory animals from Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Florida and Puerto Rico have smaller bodies and wings.  Their studies support the findings in migratory birds that the best shape for long-distance flight involves long wings with a narrow tip to help reduce drag.  The eastern migratory butterflies also have larger bodies, presumably storing more fat as fuel for the trip.
There is evidence that the migration of Monarchs to Mexico may be threatened in the long run.  In addition to storms which can threaten their winter haven, there has been a 30 year decline in the population of migrating females.  While the overall population appears stable, the loss of migrating Monarchs could threaten the long winged variants.
This article is at, a site suggested to me by George Deatz of Friends of the Garden. is "A community of people who enjoy the Ozarks outdoors".  It is based in Arkansas and published by Robert Korpella, a freelancer writer.  I think you will find other posting of interest and I have added their link to our blog.

Calling all Birds and Bees

"In the spring, a young man's fancy, turns to thoughts of..... Birds and Bees?  Ah yes, but how to attract them?  Now is the time to consider planting native species of plants.
The March 4 program of the Sierra Club is on Birds, Bees and Butterflies: Using Native Plants to Attract Pollinators to Your Gardens. Presenters are Alice Counts, owner of Bluebird Lane Wildflowers near Willard and former director of conservation education at Dickerson Park Zoo, and Myra Scroggs, Greater Ozarks Audubon Society president and retired biology teacher. Both Counts and Scroggs have years of experience in native plants and wildflowers.
The program will feature native Missouri wildflower images by Kay Johnson and information on growing native wildflowers in home gardens. Counts will focus on perennials that attract add color to gardens and also attract pollinators.
The program starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.  Come early for refreshments and networking at 6 p.m.

Owl Pellets Solve Galapagos Mystery

We consider a cough a problem while owls find it a solution to their problem. They tend to swallow small animals such as little birds and mice whole.  What to do about all those feathers and bones?  They cough them up in 1-2 inch pellets which frequently accumulate under their perch.
I was surprised to learn that hawks, shrikes, herons and gulls also regurgitate undigested parts in pellets, called "castings" when they come from hawks.  They are thought to scour their digestive tracts clean.
Francis Skalicky's article in the News-Leader describes studies of owl pellets thousands of years old which found remnants of birds long extinct in the Galapagos Islands.  These studies have confirmed the presence of some now extinct birds described by Darwin, whose existence was doubted by some experts until now.  Details are at
Humans may have been responsible for the birds extinction as we introduced- either deliberately or accidentally- rats, cats, goats, and other species that found defenseless native species which couldn't compete with them.  This invasive species story may sound familiar to you now.
Would you believe you can order owl pellets over the internet?  Of course you would.  To see what you can do when you find an owl pellet, check this MDC site.
See, mom was right- there is a good reason to chew your food well before swallowing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shade Grown Coffee

by Bob Ranney
Charley Burwick, a member of the Springfield Plateau Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists, recently routed an article on shade grown coffee to  the membership.  That article was published on a blog called The Drinking Bird and can be found via this link: Guatemala: Coffee is life

 The article is an eye opener for readers whose knowledge of coffee doesn’t extend beyond their morning cup.  It certainly was for me, and I thought there must more sources  than just Guatemala, so I kept looking.  One of the more interesting sites I found featured a simple, but illuminating slide show on the Smithsonian Friends of the Zoo website.  Each of its twenty-eight slides are accompanied by one or two paragraphs of facts that add a little broader scope to the issue.

The vital point introduced by The Drinking Bird is that once an environmentalist is aware of behaviors that contribute to environmental degredation, changing his or her own behaviors to help stop that degredation becomes their responsibility.    So, being a coffee drinker and having a conscience, environmentalists are naturally led to wonder where to find shade grown coffee.  And, lo and behold, we find another link on the Smithsonian page by Googling bird friendly coffee, but it says that there is no source of such coffee in Missouri. 

So what to do now, give up?  Not the Springfield Plateau type.  Ultimately I found it here:  Still no local sources, but the mail still runs – rain, sleet, snow or angry in-laws - so find a vendor you like and order some.  The price is about double that of locally available coffee, but I'll try to cut consumption in half - which won't hurt my health - and drink it good conscience. (It's available in decaf, too.) Then, the next time I watch a Baltimore Oriole eat one of the orange slices we put out for her, I'll be proudly sipping some of the world’s best coffee.  Why not join me?

House or Purple Finch?

-by Barbara Kipfer
Finches are frequent winter visitors to our bird feeders in the Ozarks.  The American gold finch is readily identifiable by its yellow color, even though it hasn't yet brightened its feathers for the mating season.  Another visitor, the house finch, is commonly mistakenly identified as a Purple finch.   The purple finch has a brighter color to its body, described by Roger Tory Peterson as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.”
  House finches are much more commonly seen in Missouri than purple finches.  This somewhat more drab cousin to the purple finch has much less color on its body.  (See
allaboutbirds.orgIt is a relative newcomer to the Ozarks. They were native to the West Coast, where they were collected, then sold as popular house pets on the East Coast where they were marketed as "Hollywood Finches."  Fearing the enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which included prohibiting the sale and keeping of these wild birds, a New York City pet shop and others released their finches in 1940.   Although few in number, they have thrived and out competed our purple finches, but at a price.  They are susceptible to Mycoplasma gallisepticum, or house finch conjunctivitis, a purely avian disease.  This is thought to be the product of inbreeding and they may acquire resistance with time.
The whole story is available in Francis Skalicky's News-Leader article, with details at Wikipedia.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Horned Lark

Many of the followers of this blog outside of Springfield don't have access to the articles Francis Skalicky writes weekly for the News-Leader.  Francis is the Metro Media Specialist for Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  We have decided to share these stories in the blog to give wider access to all these great features.

Every Thursday, Francis Skalicky features a different story of interest and also highlights a different species.  This weeks species is the horned lark, the only "true" lark in the United States.  s.They favor open areas with short grass where they feed on grasshoppers and various insects as well as berries and seeds.  They are thought to have followed the bison, thriving on their closely grazed vegetation and wallows.  Now they are common around prairie dog towns, a diminishing habitat. 
There is much more about the horned lark at this site in the News-Leader.
Editor's Note.  Francis is shown in the top picture- the bottom is the lark.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Watershed Festival

Every year the our partners the James River Basin Partnership conducts Watershed Festivals for all the fifth graders in Christian, Stone, Barry, and Taney Counties.  Continual "waves" of kids come through small group classes on clean water and the environment.  Subjects include understanding the water cycle, pollution, and water conservation.  There are hands-on activities and it wraps up with a hilarious presentation by the Fishin' Magicians, who manage to pack in a lot more education on water issues in the Ozarks.  The Festivals will be going on through March 24th.
The Springfield Plateau Chapter of Master Naturalists had 23 members* participating, contributing a total of 375 hours.  You can't buy help like that!
* Matt Boehner, Karolyn Holdren, Jennifer Ailor, Doris Ewing, Bob Ranney, Dan Crane, Mort Shurtz, Vicki Sears, Kristen Riggs, Bob and Barb Kipfer, Kris Barth, Carl Haworth, Michael Baird, Barbara Bolton, Allan Keller, Kim Jarrell, Greg Johnson, Marlyss Simmons, Laura Ann Sanders, Sherryl Walker, Caryn Fox, and Gala Solari.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who are we?

The Springfield Plateau Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists formed in the Spring of 2006 with 28 graduating members. To date, more than 80 volunteers have graduated the program.

Master Naturalists are available as volunteers for a variety of environmental/conservation projects. Knowledgeable volunteers perform hands-on projects such as trail building, bird counts, stream monitoring and testing, native and threatened plant counts and rescues, as well as presentations and outdoor workshops on nature-related topics. Educational and hands-on assistance is available to all age and grade levels.

The Missouri Master Naturalists program is a training/service program co-sponsored by the University of Missouri Extension and The Missouri Department of Conservation. Master Naturalists complete forty hours of community service and eight hours of advanced training each year to remain certified in the program.

For more information about the Springfield Plateau Missouri Master Naturalists Program, you can visit our website as well as the Missouri Master Naturalist web site.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Butterflies in Winter

Last February on an unseasonably warm day, I was startled to see an orange butterfly fluttering by me.  I watched it seemed to settle on the branch of a tree, but couldn't find it.  One month later while unsuccessfully trying to burn our glade, another one floated by.  Mike Skinner, from the Missouri Department of Conservation, identified it as a Goatweed butterfly, Anaea andria Scudder.
I probably missed it the first time by looking for its brighter orange upper wing surface.  When it folds its wings, the visible undersides look just like a dry leaf, thus its other name, Goatweed Leafwing.Mike explained that it was commonly seen on warm winter days.  To quote him from a January News-Leader article, "Species such as the Mourning Cloak and Goat Weed butterfly spend the winter as adults underneath loose tree bark.  Being cold-blooded, they actually reflect what the outside temperature is.  In fact, on really warm days in winter or early Spring, you can sometimes see them out for a spell."  These and the Mourning Cloaks and anglewings (Commas and Questionmarks) all overwinter as adults.

Goatweeds frequently will light on tree and shrub branches and do not get nourishment from flowers.  Unlike many other butterflies, they tend to play dead when captured.  Their larvae mimic twigs and attach fecal material to their back with their silk, probably to discourage predators.  More on this butterfly can be found at Butterflies and Moths of North America.
 Now that spring is just around the corner (yeah, right)- it is time to start thinking about butterflies.  The Butterfly House created by Bill Roston and Friends of the Garden will be opening again in late spring at Close Memorial Park on Scenic.  In addition to the Butterfly Festival July 24th and 25th, the house will be open weekdays at scheduled times.  Stocked with only native Missouri butterflies, it gives the public a chance to see all four stages of selected butterflies and moths living on native plants.

Why talk about this in February?  The Butterfly House will be open more hours this year to accommodate visitors to the Gardens throughout the season.  We need volunteers to serve as docents in the house.  Training sessions will begin in April and will include identification of common butterflies and caterpillars and their life cycles.  There are guides and pictures in the house to help, so you don't have to be an entomologist or even know a butterfly from a moth to serve as a docent.

If you would enjoy seeing children's eyes light up as they see a butterfly land on a leaf to deposit eggs or watch a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, this opportunity is for you.  Email me at to get on the list. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Interspecies Interaction

Marlyss Simmons shared a video with me which raises a question of what is "natural".  Certainly, we as humans have long ago left our state of "nature", sometime between when we picked up a rock as a tool and when we learned to plant crops and live communally around 9000 years ago.  Somewhere before that time, humans and canines were competing for the same food sources and became slowly codependent.  The story of canine development was outlined in this past   Natural History magazine article.
The more we associate with wildlife, the more their behavior toward us is modified.  My neighbor in Ravenwood chases "wild" deer out of her back yard garden, only to have them follow her back down the block.  Squirrels become emboldened after daily association with humans.
An even more interesting relationship is seen at times between various animal species which hang around us gregarious humans.  Marlyss sent this video which shows the spontaneous relationship between an orangutan and a stray hound dog.  The internet provides lots of examples including Noah the dove, a foster mother to baby bunnies.  Almost all of these stories have in common one thing- one or both animals having a longtime association with humans in a nurturing relationship.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

First Armadilla of Spring

Merrill Dubach has reported the first armadillo of spring.  Unlike the ground hog this probably has no meteorologic meaning.  They have been increasing in numbers over recent years, slowly expanding out of their usual Texas territory because of a decrease in serious predators.  There was however a time when man became a preditor and then a armadillo farmer.

It all started when young Charles Apelt, a German basket weaver, moved to Texas in 1887.  By chance he saw and killed an armadillo and noticed its curved shape would make a good basket. He attached the head to its tail, making a nice handle.  After making a few baskets, his novelty item became more popular.
Soon he recruited neighboring farmers and had a growing industry.  In the 1920s,  at least six separate suppliers in Texas making silk lined sewing baskets from the shell of an armadillo.
The business grew through the 1940's with ads in magazines and newsreels.  The business survived his death in 1944 and the family later began raising armadillos commercially.  The business finally closed down in 1971.  The whole story is available at this web site.

Before you start to chase dreams of riches, a few words of caution.  Dillas tend to have a lower body temperature than most other mammals and are carriers of leprosy.  There have been a few documented cases of transmission to humans, probably by scratches, bites or biting them back (i.e. eating them).  We are probably advised to leave them alone.
These "Texas speedbumps" get that nickname from their unfortunate habit of jumping straight up when scared.  This probably served them well when escaping a predator, but is a liability when a car tries to avoid hitting one with the wheels by passing directly over them.  You can read more from Missouri Conservationist online or download a booklet from MDC for the pros and cons of getting rid of them.

Winter is for the Birds

Birdwatching in February?   Try it from your window.  The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is an event for all with no training required.  In case you missed the News-Leader article today (available here), the GBBC collects data for Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology which helps scientists understand the effects of conservation and environmental change.
"From novice bird watchers to experts, everyone is invited to participate in the free event by dedicating as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more of the four days to count birds, record their sightings (on a standardized checklist) and then report them to GBBC officials.
For a more hands-on introduction — with instruction and guidance from members of local Audubon society chapters — folks around the region can show up at scheduled GBBC events at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center (9AM-11AM Friday and Saturday morning); Lake Springfield (9AM-11AM Sunday and Monday morning); and the Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center in Joplin (all day Saturday)."
All the details and the on-line reporting is at this site,

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


For those who didn't see the February 4th News-Leader, there was an article by MDC's own Francis Skalicky on the killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).   It is a member of the plover family which has forsaken the  normal wetland habitat for a life on the prairie.  The name is perfect for its call is definitely vociferus with its shrill, penetrating "kill-deer" heard day and night.  Check out this MDC clip.
They lay their eggs on exposed gravel, including roads and rooftops apparently assuming that no self-respecting predator would look there.  As you can imagine, this strategy was developed before cars and tall buildings came about. describes the leap of faith required to follow the parents urging, including one instance of a set of chicks surviving the drop from a seven story building.
I can recall the first time I saw a killdeer.  It put on its dramatic act, flopping around on the road with one wing apparently broken, an ancient dance similar to those seen in clubs today.  I followed after it as it lead me away from where its chicks must have been.  Then suddenly, convinced it had fooled me, it flew off.  Although anatomically impossible, I would swear it had a big grin on its bill.  If you have never seen the act, there are videos on on the web including this Youtube clip.
Francis Skalicky's weekly column never fails to enlighten.  The whole story is at this News-Leader site.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Jewelweeds Help Each Other

Some plants are known to reduce their uptake of nutrients when growing close to others of their species, helping the other plant to thrive.  Now our common jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) has been found to do the same thing above ground.  A study from McMaster University in Ontario reports that its usually short leafy stalks are present when growing close to other species.  When growing close to other jewelweed, "it grows taller stalks with fewer leaves, thus sharing the sunlight".  The story is reported in this months Smithsonian Magazine.

This is just another fascinating aspect of this common Missouri flower.  Also known as the pale touch-me-not
Impatiens pallida is distinguished from its cousin Impatiens capensis pictured below by its pale yellow flowers and the spur that points downward at right angle to the flower. 
Jewelweed frequently is found growing close to stinging nettle in low moist woods, thickets and along streams.  Their close proximity may be how Native Americans discovered that the jewelweed juice soothes the burning skin caused by coming in contact with the stinging nettle's hairs.  
Many cultures felt that plants with medicinal properties grow next to toxic plants. The gumbolimbo tree whose sap is used to treat sunburn as well as the poison ivy-like burning from contact with its neighboring black poison wood tree.  In Belize, the gumbolimbo tree is also called the tourist tree as it has a red trunk with thin white strips of bark that look like a sunburned tourist.  You have to love a tree named gumbolimbo.
A more entertaining characteristic of jewelweed is found in the seed pod.  When ripe, they seem to literally explode as the pod springs open, throwing the seeds out several feet. More details about this plant with pictures of the seed pods can be found on this page of

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Red-eared Slider

We are all familiar with the ability of some species of chameleons to change their coloration to match their background or their mood.  Alas, the poor turtle has to hope that its carapace color matches its habitat's color- or does it?  Research has recently demonstrated their ability to change their melanization, similar to chameleons and squid, although being turtles, this is slower like everything else done at a turtle pace.

John W. Rowe and colleagues from Alma College in Michigan,used gravid female midland painted turtles and red-eared sliders from the wild in a study of coloration.They collected eggs and then kept half the hatchlings in control groups on either black or white substrate, for 160 days.  The other groups were kept on either black or white substrates for 80 days, then switched to the other color substrate.  They measured the color changes on the carapace and head of the animals with a spectrometer.
After 80 days, the colors were the same in the control and study groups.  After 160 days, the controls had their same color while the study groups who had moved to the opposite color substrate were changing color to match their latest background.  More details are covered in Natural History magazine.
 Red-eared sliders are a common turtle found all over Missouri.  They tend to live in muddy bottoms of ponds and rivers and are less common in our gravel based Ozark streams.  They have a tendency to develop progressive darkening (melanism) when they grow old, covering both the yellow stripes on the carapace and their red ears.
If you are of my generation- which few are- you will recall when you could buy a small plastic turtle island with a baby red-eared slider at Woolworth's Five and Dime.  (Have I lost some of you yet?)  You would raise them on turtle food, clean the island when Mom insisted, and hopefully remember to put them back on their island.  Fortunately for the turtles, the discovery that they could carry and transmit Salmonella led to outlawing their sale.
There are still come companies breeding them for sale in Europe and Asia.  Just like pot-bellied pigs, when they get bigger and no longer cute, they are released in the wild where they are able to out-compete native species.  This may sound somewhat familiar if you think of kudzu, thistle, and the English sparrow.  It is interesting to think that our red-eared slider is now an invasive species on other continents!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sharks in Missouri?

Just when I thought that the only danger in Bull Creek was drowning (or hypothermia presently), a friend gave me something else to worry about- sharks!  Although our stream teams are unlikely to run into them, bull sharks can come up the Mississippi north of St. Louis.
A past story in National Geographic that was new to me describes these salt water creatures that can live in fresh water as well.  They have been found in the Ganges, Lake Nicaragua, and 2,500 miles up the Amazon.
A map showing their worldwide range is on Wikipedia.  These are not true freshwater sharks but migrate to and from the ocean.  These sharks have been tagged in Lake Nicaragua and caught in the ocean and visa versa.  Like salmon, they are able to jump up the rapids of the San Juan river which connects the lake with the Caribbean.
They are able to live with a 50% dilution of their normal concentrated salt and mineral blood levels.  In fresh water they are said to produce 20 times as much urine as when in salt water.  (Catheterizing a shark might be an interesting occupation ready for "Dirty Jobs".)
There is much more to the story in the resources above.  Meanwhile, don't worry about them when wading our streams (much).