Thursday, May 31, 2012

Crane Fly

This insect drifted across the driveway as I was waiting for the right butterfly to volunteer itself for the Butterfly House.  Its flight pattern was slow and almost random as it flew, its balance partially controlled by its halteres (see below) until it awkwardly landed on me.  After a brief visit to our refrigerator, it agreed to pose for pictures before it warmed up and flew back into the wild.

This is a crane fly, one of 4250 plus species in the family Tipulidae.  Its leg span was a good 2.5 inches, resembling a mosquito on steroids.  The blunt end of the abdomen suggests it is a male as the female's ovapositor is more pointed, easily mistaken for a stinger.  If you enlarge the picture and look carefully, you can make out thin halteres behind the wings resembling displaced antennae.  They are modifications of the second set of wings which most insects come equipped with.

Knobbed Halteres- Wikimedi
For those like me who were unaware of halteres, they occur in Diptera (flies, mosquitoes and gnats).  They flap rapidly in flight, serving as a type of gyroscope to stabilize the body in flight.  This fascinating mechanism is described further in Wikipedia.
"Halteres thus act as a balancing and guidance system, helping these insects to perform their fast aerobatics.   In addition to providing rapid feedback to the muscles steering the wings, they also play an important role in stabilizing the head during flight."
Compound eye of Crane Fly- Wikimedia
Looking carefully at the picture above, I noticed it had a bright green eye.  You can see a similar bright crane fly compound eye better in the picture from Wikimedia.

Adults for the most part do not feed, flying only to mate and breed.  Their larvae live in moist soil and rotting leaves where they feed on decomposing organic matter, helping in their very small way to build soil.  Some will feed on plant roots and some introduced species are considered lawn pests when  their larvae are present in large numbers.

The next time you see one of these awkward creatures stumbling around in the air or landing awkwardly on you, don't swat it.  Its larvae may some day fatten up your neighborhood Robin.

More pictures at

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Click Beetle

Janet Haworth sent me this picture of an eyed click beetle, Alaus oculatus, which was in her duck pool.  It is perched on her finger so she didn't get to see its acrobatics.  When placed upside down, it has a dramatic athletic move to right itself as demonstrated in this Youtube video.

They are able to "jump" up to four times their body length high while making their loud click.  This is a very effective evasive maneuver when they are threatened by a predator.  It has a spine tucked into a groove in its back poststernum.  When it flexes its back, the spine comes under tension, then pops out like you snap your fingers, creating both the click and the jump

This video demonstrates the "click," speed and flight characteristics.
The adult's food consists of plant juices and nectar.  It has prominent eye spots which are actually colored scales like on a butterfly wing.  Presumably these false eyes are threatening to some potential predators.

Larva- Daniel D. Dye II * bugguide
Most species of click beetle larvae are called "wireworms" and are notorious for their damage to the roots of cereal crops.  Eyed click beetle larvae however are voracious predators, devouring grubs and wood boring beetles.  They come equipped with powerful crab-like jaws, built for dismembering their prey.  They spend most of their life as larvae, from two to five years total.  Bad news for grubs but good news for gardeners.

More high quality pictures by Daniel D. Dye II are at gallery and

Monday, May 28, 2012

Watershed Center Survey

Barb and Sue bag a plant

Master Naturalists coming out of training are expected to complete a "Capstone Project", a way of immediately jumping into hands-on activities.  One example is the Valley Water Mill plant survey led by Linda Ellis.  A group of Master Naturalists, both new and "used" are participating in the monthly survey.

We meet at the Watershed Center with our bags, magnifiers and resource books and start down the two mile trail, identifying every species of plant we encounter.  Occasionally even our guru Linda will be stumped (surely not!) and a specimen goes into the bag for further keying out.

Indian Strawberry- Duchesnea indica
Not all the plants are native, and this information is valuable as well.  Some are harmless exotics like the Indian Strawberry, a pretty little diversion, even if it doesn't technically belong in Missouri.  Some of these were imported deliberately and others hitched a ride in ocean going vessels over the last 500 years.

Japanese Honeysuckle
Other exotic species can be quite invasive, gradually shading out other less aggressive native species which provide biological diversity as well as specific niche connections with insects and pollinators.  The beautiful flowers of the Japanese Honeysuckle led to importing the vines for our gardens, a seemingly good idea at the time.  They have since been spread over the landscape by birds.  The individual plants then spread by rhizomes, taking over the neighborhood like a gang that smothers native species.  Their tight vines can actually girdle small trees, stunting or killing them as though they were wrapped with wire.

We plan to prepare a resource list for visitors hiking the trails.   On the Valley Water Mill trail, visitors can hike along wetlands, woodlands,  springs, and karst features.  With a resource list as a guide, they will be able to identify a wide variety of native plants in their natural setting.  They will also learn some of the invasive species that may be living in their neighborhood.

The island of Valley Water Mill
Valley Water Mill, like most parks and preserved land, is an island, surrounded by farm land, residential developments, golf courses and highways.  The smaller the island, the greater the risk to diversity of plants and animals.  Its exposure to exotic plants is increased by the short flight times of seed eating (and pooping) birds.  Preserving it will require the work of same type of biped hands which brought about the problem in the first place.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mating Black Snakes

Mort Shurtz sent me these pictures of mating black snakes in a tree. "About twenty feet from our deck my son Jay noticed two blacksnakes in some form of endearment in a maple tree."  Like any dedicated Master Naturalist, he ran for a camera and soon had "five voyeurs gawking at these two mating snakes."

The Western Rat Snake, Pantherophis obsoletus, known locally as the Black Rat Snake goes by many different common names across the country.  Its official common name (if there can be such) was recently changed to Texas Rat Snake although they are predominately north and east of Texas (see my recent diatribe).

Black Rat Snakes are one of the largest native snakes in North America, growing up to 8 feet long.  They are talented climbers of trees, rocks and seemingly any structure.  We watched a five foot specimen scale the exterior wall of our Bull Mills house and crawl into a fissure that we couldn't even see from below.  We had evicted it twice before because of its unsanitary habits, such as leaving shed skins in the closet and dropping white powdery excreta on the living room floor.

Although young snakes are vulnerable to a number of predators such as foxes, skunks and raccoons, the adults are most threatened by humans, victims of either tires or fear.  They respond to danger by shaking their tail and spreading a foul musk, and they will give you a non-toxic bite if you try to pick one up.

They are constrictors, progressively tightening coils around their prey with each exhalation until the victim is smothered.  Their prime prey are rodents although they will eat other small mammals, birds and their eggs.  Mort's snakes probably met on a dinner date, headed to the bird house seen in the video below.

Males wait for females in a territory which they defend from other males.  They find females by benefit of pheromones, mating for minutes to hours with the male sometimes holding on to the female with his mouth so she won't get away.  The female later produces 6-24 eggs from which the young will emerge.  One of the significant threats to their eggs is the burying beetle, (Nirtophorous pustulatus).  "The adult beetles lay their eggs in the snake eggs and the beetle larvae feed on the developing snake embryos."*

*  From Pennsylvania State University,  which has a detailed account of their reproduction.

More Black Rat Snake pictures and video are at this site
Various rat snake species information is at Animal Diversity Web  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Disappearing Foods

John Tomanio- National Geographic
The accelerated loss of species of plants and animals in the last few hundred years has been labeled the "Sixth Extinction."  There are many factors, most of which have to do with the impact of humans on climate and the expanding footprint of growing populations.

A different loss of diversity is described in a new graphic, the loss of variety of foods that we grow to eat.  Over the last 80 years (1903 to 1983) we have lost 93% of the seed varieties of 10 some commonly eaten plants. graphically displays the results.

Of the 500 varieties of lettuce in 1903, only 36 remain.  Ditto for radishes, beets, peas, cabbage, squash, etc.  Even tomatoes, with their popularity of heirloom breeds, have lost 80% of their varieties.  OK, I can live with the loss of beets and Janet Haworth won't mourn the missing peas, but that is not the point.

Not only do we lose the chance for new and different tastes, we lose the genetic diversity which gives plants their resilience to disease and climate changes.  You don't have to look farther than the European grape industry to see the value in dipping back into to an older gene pool to find strains resistant to new diseases and predators.  Indeed, the Missouri grape vines saved Europe's wine industry.

Just think of the impact that a major disease attacking the corn crop could have.  Over three hundred varieties of sweet corn seeds in 1903 had dropped to 12 in 1983.  We not only have lost the breeding stock for new varieties but the seed bank that can help engineer disease resistance.

Loss of diversity not only hurts the planet- it hurts our diet.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dragonfly Appreciation

Male Common White Tail
I brought these dragonflies to the WOLF School field trip to the Butterfly House.  These "fighter pilots" of the insect world, capable of speeds over 35 mph, are threatening to some as they zip through the air.

I wanted to get them some good press and have asked Tana Pulles of our chapter to educate us about these Common Whitetails - Plathemis lydia.

It is that time of year again when we begin to see the fanciful flight of odonates (o-doe-nate).  Dragonflies and damselflies belong to a class of insects of the order Odonata.  Odonata means "toothed jaws" alluding to their nature as ferocious predators. This is true for their role both as a nymph in water and adult in the air. They are harmless to humans however and truly are our friends as they consume incredible amounts of mosquitoes, biting flies and other insect pests.

At this time, the Common Whitetail is the abundant species seen at Bull Creek.  Bob has photos both of a mature male and female. The male is the one with the white (priunose) abdomen.

Female Common White Tail
This male began as an egg laid in water.  After hatching, the larva spent a lot of its life living under water.  Then it underwent a metamorphosis process transforming while still a nymph, moved to the surface of the water climbing a rock or plant stem and when the time was right, cracked open and flexed out of that larval skin. When development was complete he emerged as the aerial insect we think of.

He may have flown up to a half mile away from the water breeding habitat to feed. It has now been one to two weeks since he flew from the water of his emergence and he intentionally has selected the still and quiet water areas of Bull Creek. His color indicates he is an adult and sexually mature.

Barb and Bob now have the pleasure of watching these adult males select, patrol (fly back and forth) and defend their territories typically along the shoreline - seeking their mates. Common Whitetail males are very aggressive toward other Common Whitetail males that may enter their territory and will raise their abdomen to display their white color as a warning. Thus the chase and pursuits are endless.
These dragonflies were kept chilled as the students passed them around in ziplock bags.  Once we were through, they warmed up for a minute and then took off quickly in search of lunch around the Botanical Center.

As we watch Odonates darting around above the water, gobbling up mosquitoes, gnats and other flying fodder, we should give them our silent thanks for the service, as well as for the free air show.

George Sims (Ozarks Chapter of MN) and other passionate odontologists from the Midwest have created a Yahoo Group that you can follow for local news.  
Use to report a new finding. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Frog Or Toad?

Spring Peeper
The News-Leader gave the lowly frogs and toads good press on Tuesday, a full page story full of interesting facts provided by Jeff Brigler of MDC.  It has a particularly succinct description of the differences between frogs and toads.

I have never been able to find a spring peeper.  This is frustrating as their sound seems to come from every pond or damp spot on a spring evening.  The location of their eyes on the top of their head means they are very hard to sneak up on.  This is similar to the "eyes in the back of their head" reported in mothers and 5th grade teachers.

I had never thought about the fact that they produce sounds like a harmonica player, with air going both in and out over their vocal cords.  They are even able to make sounds under water as the air moves back and forth while their mouth is closed.
"A male toad or frog produces its call by moving air rapidly back and forth over its vocal cords. When calling, the animal closes its mouth and nasal openings. Then it forces air from its lungs into the mouth cavity then back into the lungs, each time passing over the vocal cords."
Click on the "more" under the "Frog and Toad Facts" to learn about the differences between them.  Although it doesn't mention the Ozark legend of "fine as frog hair," it describes frog's tiny teeth on both jaws which are lacking on toads.

"What Warts?"
There is a health warning, something that no modern story is without.  "Be sure to wash your hands after handling a frog or toad. Although its skin secretions will not harm your skin, if any gets in your eyes, it will be extremely painful."  There is no mention of the reassuring fact that handling toads won't give you warts as your grandma insisted.  In this world of constant health threats, I find this very comforting.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reptiles on the Road

"Just leave me alone"
The reptiles were busy at Bull Mills this weekend.  Three-toed turtles were crossing the roads with regularity.  I marked three different ones and Barb saw another one.  Lifting up a small water tank, we found this little lady dug in to hide.  The hole fit her perfectly and there was no sign she was laying her eggs.

I am calling it a female based on its orange brown eyes and small tail.  My turtle sexing skills don't go much further than that.

When I went to check out the vulture babies I found the barn entrance guarded by a 4' black snake.  It was in no hurry to get away and only left when I walked up close to get a better picture.  Hunting ought to be good as I routinely scare up mice and wood rats when I enter.

The reptilian highlight occurred as we were driving out Sunday evening.  I saw this timber rattlesnake in the road and slammed on the brakes to avoid running over it.  It was laying on our gravel drive where it turns by the barn.  I spotted individual rocks where its tail and head were to measure it later.  It started moving into the grass before I could get my camera out.  Once it was half way in it stopped and laid still, probably on the theory that if it couldn't see me, I couldn't see it.

We waited until it disappeared before I measured the distance between the head and foot rocks - 62 inches.  That makes it the largest timber rattler we have found at Bull Mills, although 8" short of the one the previous owners killed in 1994.  We found a dead 3' timber rattlesnake about 30' away from this site last month.  We had run over it when we drove in while it was dark the prior evening.

We have seen a similar timber rattlesnake at the same spot 4 times over the last three years.  On one side there is a grassy glade with a lot of shelf rock.  The other side of the road is dense warm season grass, sedge and weeds 3 feet tall.  Walking in there several minutes later to cut a thistle I scared up a wood rat.  I may have saved its life!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boxelder Bugs

Box Elder Bugs- 1st Instar- 12 font
Spring brings a common annoyance into our Springfield home.  We get really bugged by tiny red bugs, the size of a period on a 12 font document seem to be crawling silently everywhere.  They are most prominent on the brushed aluminum of my computer notebook.  Barb identified these as the first instar of the boxelder bug.

Boxelder bugs, Boisea trivittata are commonly seen true bugs.  The first instars we see are miniature versions of the adult.  Boxelder nymphs grow through molting with five nymphal stages (instars) before reaching the adult stage (imago).  They are wingless, gradually taking on the adult's characteristics and color with each molt.  Like pilots, when they hit the final stage, they get their wings.

5 Instars and adult- University of Rhode Island
True bugs are characterized by specialized mouth parts modified for piercing and sucking juices.  Although most attack plants, some like the assassin bug specialize in predating insects and caterpillars.  Another characteristic is the hardened proximal portion of the upper wing.  For those of us who are etymologically challenged, the easy thing to remember is that their wings overlap, unlike beetles whose wings fit together along the center of their backs.

University of Minnesota
Their primary breeding home is female boxelder trees, as well as maple and ash trees. They are sometimes called "garage bugs" for a good reason.  They tend to cluster in human structures to hibernate for the winter.  No nearby box elder trees?  No problem, as they are capable of flying up to two miles to find a nice place to spend the winter.

They do not cause significant plant damage and are primarily just an annoyance.  When squished they leave a tiny water soluble orange-red stain.  They do not have an odor but do have a bad tasting chemical that deters predators, allowing them to hang out in large clusters unmolested.

They are said to lay their eggs outside under bark and not in houses.  This is a little hard to believe considering the constant flow of 1st instars throughout our house.  In season there is always one crawling across the surface of my computer notebook.   With no nearby box elder, they may chose it because it is an Apple!

There are management suggestions from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Butterfly Boom Year

The most common question in the last few weeks has been "Where are all these butterflies coming from?"  Even friends whose view of nature is through a windshield have noticed the swarms along roads and gravel drives.  My guess is that the mild to non-existent winter dramatically reduced the normal cold weather mortality.  Fewer freezes means fewer dead eggs, larvae and even over-wintering adults like the Mourning Cloak.

Mourning Cloak- Chris Barnhart
Last Friday, a 100 foot stretch of gravel road east of the old red bridge was covered with 300+ butterflies.*  There was a mix of Mourning Cloak, Red Admiral, Comma and Question Marks, Zebra and Spicebush Swallowtail as well as smaller species.  They were all collecting minerals off the gravel in preparation for their next breeding.  They were so engrossed in their task that they flew off only when we crept by in the truck, then immediately swarmed back to the same spot.

Mourning Cloak Caterpillars
Mourning Cloaks over-winter as adults and start laying eggs immediately.  That hatch breeds again, and the second batch emerges as butterflies prepared to face the winter.  They nestle under bark, treasuring our shagbark hickory and other loose barked trees.  On a warm winter day you will see one go fluttering by, catching some rays while it can.

In a normal year, I will see Mourning Cloaks infrequently, but this spring they are almost as common as other dark butterflies such as Spicebush and Pipevine Swallowtails.  It will be interesting to see what happens to these abundant populations later this summer.  If nature balances as usual, we may see fat birds and an increase in the tiny wasps which lay their eggs on caterpillars.

Caterpillars drop when startled
Two weeks ago we were out hunting caterpillars and found these beautiful Mourning Cloak caterpillars, decimating the leaves on a dwarf hackberry.  Like many cats, their defense mechanism when disturbed is to drop to the ground.  Normally this is a good strategy but when there is a waiting net below, not so good.  I am happy to report that they will eclose (emerge from the chrysalis) in a better place with lots of loving kids to watch.

Tom Riley reports observations on the early migration of southern species in the FOG News Blog.  Not only are they arriving early but some species are now breeding farther north as might be expected with the warming temperatures.  Who knows, some day we may be advertising "Ozarks- the new Costa Rica."

*  How do you count 300 butterflies?  I learned this trick from our Master Naturalist Buck Keagy.  You count their antennae and divide by two.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Raising Zebras

Frass Happens
We assumed the responsibilities for raising 50 orphaned Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars several weeks ago, a gift from Chris and Deb Barnhart.  They needed a place to feed on pawpaw and we had a large grove on our ridge top woodland.  We are sworn to secrecy on their paternity, but were assured that they were legitimate.

Each dozen (or more- who knows with these tiny caterpillars) were in a container with leaves nestled on a coffee filter.  The filter was to be attached to the trunk of a small pawpaw and then the tree covered with a white mesh bag.  It is designed to let in air and sunlight but exclude birds and small predatory wasps that might want to lay their eggs on our cats.  Once the bag is secured, the cats crawl all over the little tree, devouring the leaves and producing an awesome pile of frass in the bottom of the bag.  Yes, frass is just what you think it is, known among school children by the other scientific term, poop.

Note Silk Trapeze
Friday was the scheduled birth date.  Like most dates of spontaneous delivery, (there are no C-sections or inductions for our organic caterpillars) there is a lot of variability.  We took off the first two bags and found that while most of the cats had formed their chrysalis, several in each bag were still crawling around, looking for a good place to "hang out."

We waited 3 more days before opening the last bags.  Most of the cats had formed their chrysalides and we put the other few cats in a container with some sticks and leaves for them to attach to.  All but two of these pupated over the next 24 hours.

When butterflies form a pupa (called a chrysalis), they weave a silk trapeze around the top to hold their future body upright.  (See picture)  Inside, the caterpillar turns to a mass of goo, then miraculously reconfigures into a butterfly.  The silk keeps the butterfly head up so that when it emerges, gravity will help pull its wings as they inflate and dry fully extended.  Chris and Deb will hang the chrysalides in the house in this same position.

Friendly Zebras
Newly Emerged

Chris Barnhart's Zebra color wheel
For a beautiful set of Zebra Swallowtail pictures at all stages, go to Chris Barnhart's page.
His unusual facts page is on the FOG News Blog.
Details of the Zebra/Pawpaw connection are at

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Eagle's Nest Trip

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,"

Green frog- unaltered photo
The Master Naturalist field trip to the Schanda's to see the young eagles in their nest was a huge success.  If Macbeth's three witches had been there they could have scored three ingredients for their potion.

We were greeted by Nancy who led us to a water feature in the front yard.  It was guarded by a handsome green frog (Lithobates clamitans) that sat patiently still for pictures.   The unaltered picture to the right looks like Hammons had been practicing his dental extraction on it.  I cannot otherwise explain the color pattern on its jaw.

How a green frog found this scenic spot high up on a rocky Ozark hillside above Lake Taneycomo, I will never know.  With the water garden and lush green lawn fertilized by an advanced septic system, it should have plenty to eat.

Next we were ushered into the kitchen, bypassing the goodies to get to the deck.  There a spotting scope was focused on the eagle nest with its three young dark eagles and a regal looking adult.  It was out of camera range so you will have to take my word for it.

Hammons led us to the lower level where there were bats sleeping beneath the floor of their deck.  They were hanging between boards 14 feet up in a dark area so I couldn't tell if they had any wool.  They did leave a nice layer of guano on the ground, an odorous habit that will soon lead to their eviction.
Bats picture taken from below

 And the third element of the potion listed above?  If the grand kids' Labrador retriever continues to shed, I don't know about its tongue but the rest of it is in real trouble.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Egg Season

Black Vulture on eggs
In the spring, a young bird's fancy turns to thoughts of... making babies!  Evidence of this trend abounds along Bull Creek this week.

The most dramatic has been the return of the Black Vulture family.  I first saw them close up in March when I drove within six feet of a pair sitting on the corral fence.  They didn't budge when I stopped, suggesting that they were the ones that became acclimatized to us during their nesting last year in the old barn.

Black Vulture Babies- Day 1
We waited patiently for three weeks, afraid we might scare them away, then looked in the barn on April 1.  Our patience was rewarded by the sight of two large blotchy eggs.  We didn't see them again for a month as one of the parents remained on them full time.  Last year they would flush on our entry, further evidence that they had lost fear of us.

On May 1 the chicks first appeared, cute fuzzy little balls that are sure to elicit a response of "awhhh."  Unlike the bluebird and chickadee babies in bluebird boxes who lay still with their eyes shut for the first few days, vultures are born with their eyes open and their feet moving.   They still aren't a ball of energy yet, their main tricks are limited to turning their head and a little wiggling. 

At the other end of the field, we came across a turkey nest with eight eggs in a elderberry thicket.  We returned two days later to see if there was any activity and Barb crept up on the area to investigate.  (See turkey flush above)  It was like flushing a quail on steroids.  If you think that the flushed turkey was startled, you ought to try being the "flusher."

Turkey Nest
This time there were just 6 eggs in the nest.  Sadly, when we returned today, we could see from a distance that the nest area was trampled down and empty aside from a few small dark feathers.  The good news is that incessant gobbles ring throughout the Bull Creek valley, advertising the opportunities to love and mother again.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Looking for Ladies

Love is in the air
I spent last Monday looking for pregnant females... Spicebush Swallowtail (SBS) butterflies to be exact.  As Friends of the Garden gears up for the opening of the Butterfly House at the Botanical Center, the butterfly "wranglers" begin rounding up the livestock.

We are looking for female SBS willing to lay their eggs on spicebush host plants in the Butterfly House.  Once deposited, they can grow into caterpillars and pupate in the relative safety of the mesh walls, away from birds and hopefully parasitic wasps.  The pupae (chrysalis) are then collected and stored to time their coming out as adults for all to see.

Unlike some butterfly species, it is relatively easy to identify female SBS.  On the back of the hind wing they are a deep blue while males have a lighter blue-green coloration.  It is hard for me to detect the females on the wing and apparently the males have the same problem initially as I will occasionally see one buzz another male or even a similarly colored Pipevine Swallowtail before leaving for greener pastures.  The males also can detect pheromones to help them find the ladies.

Swallowtail butterflies tend to continue to flap their wings as they nectar on flowers, unlike most other butterflies.  When the females land on a spicebush or sassafras to lay eggs (oviposit), they will drum on the leaf with their front legs, sampling the plant with chemoreceptors on the tips (think "front feet"). 
Male SBS

SBS are said to cruise at lower levels that other swallowtail species.  By concentrating on nectaring butterflies rather than those cruising rapidly through the woods, I was able to catch only females.  I suspect that those darting around nonstop were males looking for lonely ladies while the females were busy storing up on prenatal nectar.

The older butterflies tend to lose scales and have more tattered wings.  At this time of year, I bring these to the Butterfly House as they are more likely to have mated.  I have released specimens that could barely fly but managed to stagger to the nearest spicebush and immediately start laying eggs, answering the call to motherhood. 

Photography by Dr. Chris Barnhart
The Butterfly House will open on May 11th.