Monday, April 30, 2012

A Nice Little Chat

My Chat
The first rain in a month came across Bull Creek this morning, welcome wetness even though it postponed a planned nature hike with Steve and Amy.  Once it stopped I took the dogs down the lane and ended up having a trilling little chat...with a yellow-breasted chat.

There were a series of 4 different bird songs coming from high on a bare tree limb.  I couldn't make it out against the gray sky and returned with binoculars.  By then it had flown to the tip of a 30 foot dead tree trunk.  I spent the next 10 minutes watching as it repeatedly went through its repertoire, its throat bulging in song.

I had never seen a chat before but guessed its identity by its bright yellow breast, its chattering song and a report on the GOAS* email of its presence along Red Bridge Road.  A series of 12x pictures from a pocket camera and some enhancement on I-Photo (ain't technology wonderful?)  confirmed the find.

A search of produced better pictures and the sound file played a series of identical calls that  reproduced the serenade. 

Yellow-breasted chats hang out in "dense second-growth, riparian thickets, and brush," a perfect description of our overgrown, unburned glade.  They nest in dense shrubs where they also glean much of their food, holding it with their foot.

For a "non-birder," hearing and identifying this chat was a thrill.  I have to say that I even like my picture better than the professional's, as it creates a much more vivid memory.

* GOAS is Greater Ozarks Audubon Society

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tussock Moths

White Marked Tussock Moth
We have been hunting the last few days, using the guiding services of friends.  Hunting this time of year requires the stealth and cunning developed over thousands of years of evolution.  This is not about turkey hunting.  We are talking lepidoptera caterpillars, a.k.a. "cats."  Our goal was to find cats and avoid ticks but we managed to collect both.

I travel light with a point and shoot camera equipped with a good macro.  Our guide, Chris, carries a SLR with high power macro lens and specialized flash.  The army uses smaller weapons to destroy tanks.  He gets much better pictures but this is my blog, so this is what you get.

Adult moth
The White Marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leukostigma)above is one of the most common tussock moth species.   Their bright color may serve to advertise their presence but their urticating hairs (called setae) can cause irritation for an unwary predator and may produce an allergic reaction in humans.

They are a striking caterpillar which grows into rather undistinguished moths with feathery antennae.  Like many other moths, the Orgyia species do not eat as adults.  Further, the female has only rudimentary stubs of wings and is flightless.  She remains near the cocoon and lays up to 300 eggs.

Unknown Tussock Moth-Click to enlarge
I haven't been able to identify the other moth pictured to the right.  I would welcome your detective work while I get ready to return to the hunt tomorrow.  (5-1-2012.  Kevin Firth has identified my mystery tussock moth on the right as a Yellow-Banded Tussock, Dasychira basiflava,)*

Hunting caterpillars has advantages over turkey hunting.
  • They aren't heavy to carry back home.  
  • They don't require cleaning or cooking.  
  • We didn't have to go out at the crack of dawn.
And no caterpillars were hurt in producing this blog.

* Try your hand at Caterpillar ID at

Monday, April 23, 2012

Raisin' Robins

I just came across two new web sites of interest to Naturalists of all stripes.

Robin Nest
If you have had the experience of raising children, you realize how busy they keep you until they leave to go on their own.  A wonderful video shows the whole cycle in a little more than three minutes as lived by robin parents.

The scene is a hanging basket in an urban yard, complete with the sounds of life in the neighborhood.  I was captivated by the intensity of their parenting.  Especially poignant is the last few seconds where we relive the "empty nest syndrome."

Blowin' in the Wind
Bob Dylan wrote the line "The answer is blowin' in the wind," which implies that we don't know where the wind is blowing.  Now with Google, we can even see the wind, more or less.  A site using National Weather Service data creates a live map of the wind across the United States.

The wind map has no state boundaries and only a few cities, although more appear as you zoom in.  Moving lines indicate the direction and relative velocity.  Hover the pointer over an area and it gives the coordinates and actual wind velocity.  I haven't figured out a use for it, but its pretty cool.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It Isn't Easy Staying Green

Blue Snake of Bull Creek- Click to enlarge
I found this snake laying on the edge of the glade, quite dead and stiff. You will notice that the ten inch specimen is missing its tail end and some ribs are showing through the skin. I was hoping I had found the elusive Bull Creek blue snake, a species that hasn't been discovered or even talked about by anyone.

Its size, color and rough scales suggested it was the remains of a rough green snake that had been through hard times. I sent the pictures to Dr. Brian Greene of the Biology Department at MSU. His research is focused on the ecology and conservation of reptiles, particularly snakes.

He techniques include "utilizing mark-recapture techniques and radiotelemetry to address population-level questions involving foraging ecology, reproductive life history, demography, activity patterns, spatial ecology, and habitat selection." In other words, this otherwise intelligent scientist walks around the woods following and capturing snakes, including those venomous types that normal people would want to see only on the pages of the Missouri Conservationist.

Dr. Greene was kind enough to respond to my questions about the Bull Creek blue snake and confirm my guess.
"It’s definitely a rough green snake. For whatever reason the green pigment seems to break down quickly after they die, resulting in a bluish-gray looking animal. There must be some environmental influences on the chemistry of the pigments because fluid preserved specimens turn really dark instead."
The rough green snake, Opheodrys aestivus, is said to favor wetlands although we see them up along our glade as well.  It hunts during the day and night unlike many snakes.  Its main prey are insects and other arthropods which it swallows whole.  Although the females lay 2-14 eggs, they frequently have a communal nest with other females with up to 75 eggs total.  They need to have lots of babies as they are a nice swallowing size for birds and other snakes.

Dr. Greene's new squelched my hopes.  I already had my new species named- Cerulli kipferii var. Bullcreek.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Galls Again

Inky Cap Mushroom
Wednesday we hiked the woods with Maxine Stone in search of all things natural, and hopefully a few things fungal.  We checked the usual vulture eggs, baby bluebirds and lots of wildflowers and found one lonely inky cap mushroom.  Then we came across a small green ash tree with bizarre clusters of green growing on the stem.  Another gall!

Although the gall is on an ash flower rather than a leaf, it is created by an eriophyid mite, the same family that creates the leaf galls discussed a few days agoEriophyes fraxinivorus helps us sex these dioecious trees as it feeds only on the tiny male ash flowers. Ash flower gall mites are too small to be seen without the aid of magnification.

New Ash Flower Gall- click to enlarge
Old gall above new gall

The ash flower gall mite (Eriophyes fraxinivorus) spends the winter hanging out beneath the ash flower buds.  In the spring they mate, begin feeding and eventually lay their eggs on the buds before they bloom.  Less than 1/50 inch, they enter the flower which at this stage appears closed to the unaided eye.

Once inside, their eggs cause the plant to form a totally different structure, the gall that will serve as both a secure home and a kitchen for the larvae as they eat the inner gall contents, develop and grow to adulthood.  After that, they mate, crawl out under the flower buds, and wait for next spring to resume the cycle.

The galls are initially green and hard to see up in a tall tree.  They turn brown late in the season and become more prominent after leaf fall.  Frequently there will be several years of old galls clustered on the branches.

Since ash trees are common in urban neighborhoods, the galls can cause a lot of homeowner concerns but they rarely cause real tree damage.  You can consider them either a pest or another fascinating life cycle in nature.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Crop Circles

One week later- Click to e
This spring we have noticed several crop circles in the lower field as the grass started to green up.  One was a perfect circle 36 feet in diameter while the other one was about 20 feet and an incomplete "C" shape.  We have never noticed them in the past, but probably just missed them.  They can be subtle at first unless you ride on the higher ground above them.

I am calling these phenomena natural "crop circles" for lack of a better word.  Look up the term in Wikipedia and you will find complex geometric designs and a host of theories on how they occur.  A skeptic would think of creative people with equipment while others are sure that they are from pranksters from outer space.

I suspect ours are caused by a fairy ring fungus.  A network of mycelia in the soil can expand each year into a bigger circle and affect the fertility of the plants.  It can be manifested in increased growth or dead zones which are symmetrical. This phenomenon is well described below in this resource.
"Fairy rings are reported to be caused by many (60) different soil-inhabiting fungi of the class Basidiomycetes. These fungi can cause the development of rings or arcs of deep green grass as well as unthrifty or dead grass. Rings may vary in size from a few inches to 200 feet (60 meters) or more in diameter with an annual radial growth of 3 inches (7.6 cm) to 19 inches (48 cm) depending on grass, soil and weather conditions."
I have only seen one other fairy ring, one that was discovered by our mycologically inclined friend Mark Bower.  It was in his woods and with all the understory growth it defied the camera.  Fairy ring fungi are covered in this Wikipedia article.

Fairy Ring- Wikimedia
The fruiting bodies of the fungi can crop up in a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. The diameter of the circles can grow or eventually stabilize in diameter.  Fairy rings can occur in forested areas such as Mark's or in grassy fields.  They may be seen as mushrooms sprouting in a circular pattern or just by a ring of dead or dark green grass like ours.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Leaf Fingers

Click to enlarge
Our friend and neighbor Willie brought a puzzle from his archery club.  Tiny fingers of purple curled up from the tip of an American elm leaf, one of many that they had found.  By the time I photographed it the next morning, both the leaf and the galls were drying up.

Elm finger galls, Eriophyes paraulmi, stand up a half inch from the upper leaf surface.  They are frequently curled and deformed, unlike many other leaf galls.

Most plant galls are produced by insects, but these are made by Eriophyid mites, eight legged relatives of ticks, spiders and other arachnids.  These mites produce finger-like galls on the leaves of maples, elms, black gum, black cherry, button bush, maple, viburnum, birch, linden, and even poison ivy.  More from Wikipedia:
Eriophyidae is a family of more than 200 genera of mites, which live as plant parasites, commonly causing galls or other damage to the plant tissues and hence known as gall mites. About 3,600 species have been described, but this is probably less than 10% of the actual number existing in this poorly-researched family. They are tiny, microscopic mites and are yellow to pinkish white to purplish in color. The mites are worm like, and have only two pairs of legs. Their primary method of population spread is by wind. They affect a wide range of plants, and several are major pest species causing substantial economic damage to crops.

These mites have their place in nature.  Most leaf galls do not cause substantial plant damage although a severe infestation may weaken the plant.  Some of the Eriophyid mites have been used as a biological control of selected invasive or unwanted species.  The bindweed gall mite, Aceria malherbae is used as a biological control against field bindweed.

Cherry Leaf Gall- click to enlarge
Finally they can produce some additional beauty as seen in this cherry leaf gall collection.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Algae Problems

Qingdao, China- Eyepress
Until the rains of a few weeks ago, Bull Creek had lots of stringy algae, both in the shallows and floating in the deep pool.  I couldn't cast a lure without collecting it in the hooks.  We were concerned about this being pollution until we saw it in first and second order streams coming in from land without humans or cattle on it.

The picture above makes me realize we didn't know what an algae problem was.  This was taken from the site of the 2009 Olympic sailing regattas just before the races were to begin in the Yellow Sea.  They had 20,000 people and 1,000 boats mobilized to clean up this area of the ocean which encompassed one-third of the race course.

Algae blooms are caused by excessive nitrogen  and phosphorus combined with low flow or stagnant water warmed by the sun.  Although the nutrients often come from agricultural or urban lawn runoff, in our case we were seeing it also in the draws draining the national forest with neither factor in their watershed.

Our fisheries consultant from MDC felt the problem was stagnant low water conditions with dead plant material building up in the unseasonably warm weather.  Lacking a cast of thousands of Master Naturalists, we waited until a nice four inches of rain over two days flushed out the stream.  We are now back to normal.

And the Olympic regatta?  Two weeks later reported that it was cleaned up with efforts that included creating two 13 mile long barriers.  I am saving these instructions for the Conservation Department if we have another bloom.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Invasive Honeysuckle and Ticks

Lone star tick- Amblyomma_americanum
Do you want to know how to give a tick a "nervous tic"?  Try cutting down invasive bush honeysuckle.  It turns out that this obnoxious arachnid is found more commonly and is more commonly carrying disease where there is a lot of the bushy invader.

Deer and other small mammals are frequently said to be the intended "natural" victims of ticks, a concept supported by their common names of "deer and dog ticks" as well as" lone star".  We humans are supposedly incidental victims.  (Try telling that to the ticks on Bull Creek.  In spite of spraying, I pulled 30+ off my editor after she spent an afternoon pulling garlic mustard.)

A report from Washington University reported in describes how deer are bringing ticks to us in more urban areas.   It appears that deer favor bedding down in bush honeysuckle.  The large draping branches can grow 18 feet tall with stems 4 inches in diameter.  They tend to grow in dense tangles, giving deer safe and luxurious overnight accommodations.  In addition, they leaf out before other shrubs in the spring and retain their leaves through the fall, providing a longer term habitat.

Bush Honeysuckle
Bush (a.k.a. Amur) Honeysuckle is a native of temperate Asia, although it is said to be endangered in Japan (we should be so lucky).  It has escaped and thrived in the eastern United States.  A drive anywhere along the highways around St. Louis and north along the Mississippi in the summer features a constant roadside wall of these luxurious bushes with their bright red berries.

Hard ticks (Ixodidae) can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease and Ehrlichiosis.  Not only do the bush honeysuckle lure deer and their ticks in toward civilization, but they increase the percentage of ticks carrying disease.
"...the density of white-tailed deer in honeysuckle-invaded areas was roughly five times that in areas without honeysuckle and the density of nymph life-stage ticks infected with bacteria that cause human disease was roughly 10 times higher."
In addition to giving you a great case of the heebie-jeebies, the article in has a lot of interesting details on how the studies were done.  If you want to understand how there were "5,000 nymphal ticks within about a three-meter radius of where we put that trap down," this article is for you.

Some facts to impress your friends:
  • Ticks are not insects but belong to the arachnid family like spiders and scorpions.
  • The first instar emerging from the egg has only 6 legs while the second and third (adult) have 8 legs.
  • Only the female lone star tick has the spot on its back.  Its name is Amblyomma americanum-  so think patriotic thoughts as you pull it off and crush it.
If we didn't have enough concerns with invasive species, this raises a further issue with public health.  We who live in the outdoors know to spray vigorously and do rigorous tick checks.  The suburban population has to recognize that ticks are coming in to meet them.  The reports of possible Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in St. Louis just emphasize the need to control invasive bush honeysuckle.

- Tick species, their range and diseases are at this CDC site.
Missouri Tick Picture Gallery
- Identification and control measure information from
Missouri Extension, Missouri Department of Conservation  and the CDC are on line. 
- A pamphlet,  Curse of the Bush Honeysuckle, showing you how to identify the plant, is available at or from the MDC office or Conservation Nature Center.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

White-Nose Invasive Species

Little Brown Bat with white-nose
New research reported by suggests that the fungus implicated in the white-nose syndrome killing bats in the eastern United States is an invasive species, brought accidentally to this continent by humans. 

While the fungus kills off up to 90% of little brown bats in affected colonies, there had been no mass deaths in Europe where the fungus also occurs.  It appeared that either the fungus evolved into a deadly variant in North America or it had co-evolved with European bats who had become immune and then migrated to our continent where the bats immune systems were defenseless.
"In the new study, the researchers infected little brown bats, a once-common species that the infection is wiping out, with isolates of either the North American or European fungus. Both types of infection either killed the bats or sickened them to a point where researchers had to euthanize them. This finding nixed the idea that the North American variety had mutated on its own to become more deadly."
This means that somewhere in the great Columbian Exchange of the last 500+ years the fungus accidentally survived the trip across the Atlantic, accompanying humans or their cargo intact. 

At least we have one piece of good news also reported today.  Dr. Lynn Robbins of MSU reported that "No evidence of White Nose Syndrome has been found among bats at Sequiota Park Cave."  The whole news release is available here.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Know Your Bees

Bumble Bee- Wikimedia
We read a lot about colony collapse syndrome which affects the common honey bee.  In most minds this overshadows the role of other pollinators.  Solitary bees, bumble bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, etc. all contribute to pollination.  Frequently they are dedicated pollinators, the main or even only source of pollination.

We have previously discussed the role of the yucca moth as the dedicated pollinator of yucca flowers in a 2010 blog.  Last Thursday, we mentioned the role of beetles and flies in pollinating Trillium_sessile  and other plants with maroon-brown flowers which produce the smell of decay to attract their pollinators.

There is a broad spectrum of bees which tend to run together, as we tend to think that a bee is a honey bee unless it is a bumble bee or something dramatically different.  We now have a great resource to help identify other bee species.  Look up this St. Louis Zoo link and scroll down to the Missouri Bee Identification Guide.  You can download a beautiful two page PDF that will help you learn about these creatures.  There is also a guide to bumble bees just above it.

St. Louis Zoo is very involved in conservation efforts such as hellbender restoration we discussed in the past and American burying beetles restoration which is coming up.  This is exciting work which helps to maintain our planet while we go through the growing pains of reaching nine billion humans on a limited chunk floating in the universe.

If you share our interests, you probably have field guides bending your book shelves.  This is very handy on just two pages and goes to the lamination as soon as possible, and won't break your budget or your shelf.  The only thing the guide lacks is how to get that close a look at a bee without experiencing its wrath.  I would welcome your suggestions, but my plan to ask Barb to catch them for me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Crepusculum on Bull Creek

Bladdernut- Click to enlarge
The crepusculum is my favorite time to be outside.  This refers to twilight and dusk, those hours between total darkness and the brightness of day.  Many animals are stirring then which are seldom seen in daytime.

Sitting quietly on the edge of Bull Creek the last few nights has been rewarding.  A beaver swam out, circled around, and then decided it was still a little too bright to go to work.  Many crepuscular animals like them avoid predators by nocturnal feeding, heading back home as daylight appears.

As I sat on the bank in a thicket of bladdernut shrubs, Zebra and Tiger swallowtails fed on the tiny flowers, hanging like little pale green bells with long stamen serving as clappers.  Occasionally a loud buzz by my ear would announce the hovering of a Snowberry Clearwing moth, zipping between flowers, demonstrating its ability to fly backward like a hummingbird.

Eight-spotted Forester- Wikimedia
A special treat was the sight of Eight-spotted Forester moths, Alypia octomaculata, landing on small vines.  These day-flying moths may have been laying eggs on their host plants.  I could clearly make out the white and pale tan patches on their black wings although it was too dark to take their picture.

Walking back through the woods, I passed an oxbow pond, the chorus of frogs was almost deafening.  As I stepped to the edge, they become silent, unable to distinguish an admirer from a potential predator. 

On the way back home, the dark field is filled with fireflies, another early spring sighting, appropriate for April Fools day.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Juniper Hairstreak

Juniper Hairstreak- Click to enlarge
It is always exciting to see a new species on Bull Creek.  This afternoon I noticed a small butterfly on the gravel of our road along a cedar glade.  It remained patiently still as I bent down close enough to make out its green coloration with a touch of orange.  I was able to aim my camera blindly and take pictures up to three inches away.

Now it was time to call up Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) as a resource.  The tiny "hair" on the back edge of each wing identified it as a hairstreak, but which one?  Selecting "Image Gallery" and entering "hairstreak" in the common name box brings up this page.  From there it was just a matter of matching the pictures. 

Juniper Hairstreak, Callophrys gryneus, was a perfect match.  Clicking on the name below the picture brings up the facts.  Wikipedia says "Habitats include bluffs, open fields, barrens, and dry or rocky open places. They are almost always found near or on junipers in these habitats."  A perfect fit as our glade is covered with Eastern Red Cedar which is not actually a cedar but Juniperus virginiana.

The territorial males hang out on cedar branches looking for the ladies.  Eggs are laid on the tips of the  leaves where the larvae will later feed.  Check out the Callophrys-gryneus page and you will see pictures of the caterpillar which looks remarkably like the leaves it feeds upon.  The adults feed on a variety of nectar sources.  With only a one inch wingspan, it is no wonder that we have not identified them before.

Every species has its place in the choir, even rattlesnakes and cedars.

Monday, April 2, 2012

WOLF Skull-dugery

   -Naturalists digging into a skull to see what the animal did for a living
                                     -WOLF School, 2012 

After I brush-hogged a stretch of multiflora rose along Bull Creek valley, Barb was patrolling the cut stems with her ever present spray of herbicide when she spotted a treasure. She showed me a bleached skull, 4.5" long, with the pride usually associated with discovering a large gold nugget.  When we keyed it out in The Wild Mammals of Missouri, it came up bobcat.

This find was perfectly timed when I was asked a week later to teach skulls to the WOLF* fifth grade class.  If you are familiar with that program, you know that these kids are well trained junior naturalists and you have to be well prepared when you enter that classroom.

Mammal skulls are fun to key as there a limited number of species and some simple rules to enter them into classes.  First, forward facing eyes suggests a predator, while lateral placed eyes usually means potential prey that are always looking for danger.  Think deer versus bobcat.

Pointed Molars of carnivore- Bobcat
The teeth description is crucial in identification.  While the exact number of teeth on both jaws can be critical in species identification, the types of incisors and premolars/molars as well as the presence of canines give some rapid clues about what the animal ate.

  • Herbivores (cow, horse, sheep, elk, bison and pig) generally lack canines and their molars are wavy with mountainous appearing edges where the dentine wears off, leaving the outside hard enamel.   Two-toed species such as deer, goats and sheep lack top incisors as well.
  • Gnawing herbivores (rodents such as rats, beaver, rabbits and squirrel) have curved sharp incisors to crack nuts and chew wood.  They lack canines and have wavy molars like other herbivores.
  • Carnivores have long pointed canines for grabbing and holding prey, sharp incisors and deep grooved molars with points like little canines.  A quick clue is the hard enamel covering all their teeth.
  • Omnivores such as coyote, fox, bear, skunk and raccoons eat both meat and insects as well as plant materials.  Their teeth are a cross between sharp incisors and pointed canines like carnivores and flat molars with blunted point covered with enamel.  Think of omnivores like you and I and it is easy to remember.
WOLFs at work

After fifteen minutes training, the WOLFs in teams of two spent several minutes with each of 5 unknowns.  As I expected, they nailed the types and even the species except for the more difficult raccoon.  And they did it without looking at skull pictures in The Wild Mammals of Missouri as I had done.  Score a big win for the WOLF school.

If you aren't familiar with the Wonders of Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF) program of Springfield Public Schools, you can learn more at their web site. 
A good source of the information above is a pdf found by Googling "Dichotomous Key Skulls" and selecting the .pdf.