Monday, October 31, 2011

Juvenile Copperhead

Juvenile copperhead- click to enlarge
Fall is the season that snakes are on the move, seeking places to den up for the winter.  This juvenile copperhead picked the wrong gravel drive to warm up on and was crunched by an ATV.

The copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, is in the same genus as the cottonmouth, a.k.a. "water moccasin".  They are gray to pinkish tan in color with dark brown bands, narrow on top and wider on the sides.  These are best viewed from the side where they resemble Hershey Kisses. 
Juvenile copperheads have a bright yellow tail which they are said to use as a lure to attract lizards and frogs.

Underside view
I was taught to look for the hourglass shape, but to see this you have to be looking straight down at the snake which is way too close.  Our venomous snakes have a triangular shaped head and vertical slit like pupils.  This head shape can be deceptive as hog-nosed snakes when threatened will flatten their head and resemble a cobra or adder.
Another identifying characteristic of all venomous snakes in Missouri is the underside of the tail.  Missouri's venomous snakes have a single row of scales beyond the anal plate while harmless snakes have two parallel rows of scales.  Be absolutely sure the snake is harmless or dead before you test this fact.

See for additional pictures.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Beauty of Pollinators

We just wrote about the tiny pollinators nectaring on the dainty asters of fall.  Ted Smith sent me this link to a TED film of the Beauty of Pollinators.  It is not only a beautiful video of flowers and their animal benefactors but also a reminder of how diverse pollinators are.

To be further inspired you can listen to videographer Louie Schwartzberg describe his motivation in creating it.  This will need to tide us over until spring, so enjoy it now.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Butterflies

White and lavender asters- 1/4" blossoms
Two days ago the thermometer hit 28 degrees and tiny wisps of frost flowers could be found at the base of a few white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica).   Now it is back to 72 on the sunlit glade and tiny butterflies are out for their last fling.

The tiny asters are being swarmed by equally tiny butterflies, a mix of dainty sulfurs, silvery checkerspots, gray hairstreaks, and common checkered skippers.  The silvery checkerspots are usually gone by now but have apparently extended their time into the fall because of the unseasonably warm weather.

The asters also welcome the attention of small flies and wasps.  The black wasps were a quarter inch long and very hungry, ignoring the camera just inches away.  They crawled all over the flower head in their search for nectar, in the process spreading some of the seasons last pollen.

Silvery checkerspot
Common checkered skipper

The season favors these midgets of the butterfly world.  The only flowers standing along the lane are the tall asters with their tiny quarter inch flower heads, a mix of white heath aster (Symphyotrichum pilosus) and smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

Although we were still seeing an occasional great spangled fritillary and anglewing several days ago, they are far too large to land on the aster's head, so the last burst of nectar is reserved for the wee ones.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Discover Nature Schools

We just spent an invigorating morning at Valley Water Mill Park with the fifth grade class from York Elementary, leading a Discover Nature Schools field trip.  Leading may be misleading as much of the time was spent trying to catch up to the lead student.  The excitement of discovering nature can be uncontainable.

Mort- a garter snake makes new friends
Mort Shurtz and Matt Boehner led another group and had the find of the day, a garter snake which will probably be psychologically scarred for life by the experience of being petted by so many kids.  Other highlights included centipedes, beaver holes, fungi and lots of bugs.

Discover Nature Schools  is a curriculum designed by the Missouri Department of Conservation to bring the understanding of nature and its ecosystems to students from 3rd grade to high school.  Our emphasis with 5th graders includes specialized structures (thorns, stingers, wings etc.) and discovering the relationships of plants and animals in an ecosystem.  Teachers educate the students in the class room and our role is to reinforce this with hands on experience.

One of the neat things about these field trips is how much it forces us to think about the associations.  Nothing like the third in a string of "whys" to get you to thinking, especially when you are expected to know the answers!

For more information, see Francis Skalicky's Springfield News-Leader article.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tracking Bears

Click to enlarge
You may recall that the Missouri Department of Conservation was trapping and radio collaring bears to study their range.  Since then MDC, in cooperation with Mississippi State, has been collecting hair samples across the southern part of the state for DNA analysis to get a better idea of the number of bears.

We recently had a collared bear visit Bull Creek.  It was seen by several neighbors and a few days earlier it visited our feral hog trap, fortunately not tripping the door shut.

There is now a web site where you can track the path of individual collared bears.  Check out the site , The nearest collared bear was wandering around Christian and Taney County in Bull Creek Country.  Click on Bear 1117 at the bottom right and scroll down to the map. It may have visited near you.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

True Katydid

Common true katydid- Click to enlarge
Early Europeans arriving in Eastern North America were frightened by the mysterious loud sound which pulsated through the forest with no apparent source.  During the summer we hear that again, a loud chorus of katydids high up in the trees. 

This is the time of year when we tend to see lots of katydids around the cabin at Bull Creek.  This particular katydid has distinctive oval wings with veins mimicking a leaf and legs like a leaf stem.  There are brown flat surfaces on top of its head and thorax.  When squeezed lightly it makes a distinctive raucous squawk which you can hear below.  It is a Common True Katydid,  Pterophylla camellifolia.

The males typically alternate chirping (stridulation as described in the last blog) at each other when they are 25 to 50 feet apart.  When they are close together the chirps get longer and more insistent, an aggressive sound.  They shout at each other like a couple of drunks until one leaves.  The females on the other hand are more demure, chirping only when handled.

These katydids spend their life in the tops of the trees where the females deposit their eggs under the bark.  The larvae feed on leaves high in the tree and most remain on the same tree for life.  They are essentially flightless and drop to the ground in an awkward flutter when disturbed.  On the ground they stumble to the nearest vertical surface and start climbing which explains why we find them on the side of our house.

The first frosts cause them to drop to the ground.  They all die off in a freezing winter, to be replaced by the hatching larvae next spring.

You can hear their call at and more pictures are available at this site.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jumping Bush Cricket

Jumping Bush Cricket (JBC)
If you have heard Jay Barber speak more than three times, you know about his favorite animal, the jumping bush cricket, (Orocharis saltator).  It is famous around here for being the last cricket to call in the fall, a harbinger of the oncoming winter as sure as the falling oak leaves.

I hadn't identified the bush cricket's call in the wild until Sunday night.  I googled, listened to the sound file on, then stepped out on the deck at Bull Creek and sure enough, there they were singing.  Were they prompted by the night, still warm but with the first cold snap forecast for the next few days?  Maybe it's the falling leaves, the movement of the pigmy rattlesnakes seeking their den, or the rattle of chinkapin oak acorns on the metal barn roof. 

JBC Range
These bush crickets, less than 1 inch long, are found in the Southeast including Southern Missouri.  They prefer open woodlands of deciduous trees but can be heard in shrubs, pines and woodland understory bushes.  They raise one generation a year and overwinter in the egg phase.  Their sound is very hard to localize, making them difficult to find.  Like most crickets, they seem to sense when you are looking for them and grow silent.

The cricket's "song" is actually stridulation, a sound produced by rubbing body parts together.  These are specialty organs, frequently with a rasp-like or scraper surface.  These rubbing surfaces can include legs, thoracic structures, etc.  Crickets and katydids produce their sound by rubbing one wing scraper against the other wing.

JBC stridulating- click to enlarge
David M. Stone has posted this dramatic picture of a jumping bush cricket stridulating on his website, Things Biological.   Considering how hard they can be to find, the picture is especially stunning.

Is this the warmup of their vocalizations or their swan song of winter?  Step outside and tune in to find out.

*  Jumping bush cricket's song is here.
** Stridulation photograph by David M. Stone of

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Invasive Thoughts

Barb just presented a Master Naturalist training session on invasive species.  As always, this stimulated lots of thoughts and some debate on which are invasive and how important they are.

The number of invasive species is growing by leaps and bounds.  This is likely as we - the Greatest Invasive Species from which all others floweth - expand global trade.  Ah Columbus, what hath thou wrought?

We also are always looking for an invader's natural predator from its homeland to import  in a attempt to control them.  Unfortunately it takes years of research to predict likely side effects of the "controlling" species and some times the cure is is worse than the disease.  An example is the Kudzu bug*,  Megacopta cribraria, which showed up unexpectedly in the US in 2009.  The good news is that it eats Kudzu, significantly slowing its growth.  Unfortunately, it likes our soybeans for dessert and has become a significant pest which spreading rapidly in the south.

The Kudzu bug has an interesting digestive system.  Like most of us it carries bacteria in its intestine.  These symbiotic bacteria help it digest food and without them it grows slower and smaller and dies earlier.  The bugs apparently "know" this as the females deposit these symbionts with their eggs and the newly hatch nymphs eat them upon hatching, colonizing their gut with the right bacteria from birth.

On a personal level, we have debates on which invasive species to attack first, or even at all.  Certainly identifying early invasives such as Gypsy Moth can prevent or delay their spread.  Paulownia and Callary Pear (a.k.a Bradford Pear) have not yet taken over and may be controllable.

Harder decisions lie with pervasive species such as Sericea lespedeza and Johnson Grass.  It is unlikely that we will ever eliminate them and we must decide which field of battle to fight on and which to ignore.  Johnson grass as biofuel would make that decision easier.

Barb found an interview at which is extremely interesting.  Bob Flasher  trained in cultural anthropology before working on vegetation management and weed control in regional and national parks for twenty years.  His thoughts on attacking or relaxing and embracing unwanted plants are both controversial and enlightening.  The interview is available in the September 27th posting at  
* Also called bean plataspid, lablab bug, or globular stink bug.  They are a significant pest on lablab beans in India.  Lablab beans are frequently grown in North American deer plots. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot
This is the time of year when we see white snakeroot  all along the trails and roads on Bull Creek.  The plants stand 3 to 5 feet tall with elliptic-oblong leaves which are lance shaped with sharp teeth.  The tiny white flowers have no rays.  The great spangled fritillaries are nectaring on them in desperation as few other flowers remain.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)* has an interesting toxicology.  Animals that eat a large amount of snakeroot or small amounts over a long time will develop a disease called the trembles.  An Illinois veterinarian website describes the tremetol toxin which produces a progression of symptoms from tremors, loss of appetite and progressive weakness to death.

It was a public health threat in the early nineteenth century as Europeans move to the midwest and encountered this new plant.  Cattle can transfer the toxin to humans who drink the tremetol-laced milk, producing milk sickness.  Many thousand of these early settlers died from milk sickness, most notably Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  Abraham was 9 years old at the time and carved the wooden pegs for his mother's casket.  Several others died at the time including her aunt and uncle.

USDA studies have shown that deer don't browse white snakeroot.  Much like their exotic European human counterparts, cattle and horses lacked the knowledge of their new surroundings and will eat it freely.  How many thousand years might it take for cows to "learn" to avoid snake root?

It is interesting to speculate on how deer "learned" about snake root and transmitted this avoidance behavior to their offspring.  Is it by sight or by smell or by the mother deer nagging, "Now eat your sapplings but not those tall flowers"  Maybe they just think it tastes like brocolli.

*Hot News Flash-  A group of botanists comes up with the names of plants.  I suspect their name is the Botanist for Steady Work Commission.  What ever it is, they came up with a the new name for Eupatorium rugosum (reproted in the original blog) which is  Ageratina altissima.  Thanks to Linda Ellis for bringing you up to date.  I am sure you have all memorized Eupatorium rugosum so please accept my apologizes.