Thursday, May 30, 2013

Troop 200 at Bull Mills

This weekend scoutmaster Chris Hill brought Troop 200 from Nixa, MO to Bull Mills for two days of camping and hiking.  If you want to see hard to find species, there is no better way than to set loose a bunch of young eyes with no preconceptions.  They look closely at everything!

Mud puppy on upper Bull Creek
The find of the day was in the creek crossing, right where our tires pass over the bedrock ford.  Two scouts spotted a common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) peering out from under a flat rock.  While we all watched it cautiously moved between the rocks, flushing a small crawdad which skittered away safely.  Notice the red-brown gills of this full time aquatic salamander which lives more like a fish. 

It is unusual to find these in a small shallow stream like upper Bull Creek.  This section was bone dry in both directions for months during last years drought.  It is also unusual for them to come out during the day unless the water is murky.  The water here was crystal clear and only 4 " deep.

Mudpuppies live on the bottom, hiding under rocks and vegetation, usually feeding only at night.  The structure of their mouth allows them to suck in prey, then grasp it with two rows of teeth.  They eat virtually anything they can get between their jaws, and frequently end up taking a fishing lure.  Although a fishing myth says their skin is toxic to humans.  It is toxic to animals eating them raw, but they can be handled safely to remove the hook, so release them back in the water.

As sexually mature adults they measure 8-13".  Their average lifespan in the wild is eleven years, so this one is going to have a real story for its grandkids, about the time the boy scouts came to Bull Creek.

A "wolf spider" on a log got a lot of attention from the boys.  There is a tendancy to call any large spider a wolf spider.  They are members of the Lycosidae family, encompassing over 2,200 species with 230 found north of Mexico.  They have good vision and a delicate sense of touch which makes them effective hunters.

One of their most endearing features is the maternal instincts of the female. They carry their sac of eggs on the spinnerets (silk glands at the end of the abdomen).  If they lose the sac, they will sometimes substitute  bits of shells or paper to make up for the loss.

Once the spiderlings hatch, they climb on the female's back, for protection.  If they fall off, they will climb up her leg to get back on board.  She tolerates the burden, only brushing them away from her eyes.

Spider identification is difficult, requiring careful inspection of the body and especially the head and palps.  Even classifying a spider as a wolf spider can be tricky, as I demonstrated with a mistaken identification I made on a blog on the nursery web spider.  It carries its egg sack in its chelicerae (jaws) rather than on the abdomen like the wolf spider.

After the nature merit badge hike, Barb and I finished with a skull session, discussing the dental characteristics of herbivores, carnivores and omnivores (which we discovered includes scouts). has a lot more detailed information on mudpuppies.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tarantula Hawk

We received this "What is this" picture from our friends Bryan and Katy in Denver.  The discovery was made by their beloved baby Darcy.  Katy had already made a tentative ID of a Tarantula Hawk when they sent the email out.

Tarantula- Linda Ellis
Measuring 1.5 inches long, they look threatening, but they are all the more impressive when you look at the tarantula spiders that they kill and drag into a hole.  The name of the game, as so often is the case, is laying eggs on it for their young to subsequently feed on.  Their behavior is similar to mud dauber wasps which sting and then collect insects or spiders for its larvae to feed upon.

So how do you sting and kill a big hairy venomous spider 5-10 times your size?  Very carefully.  As you can see in this Youtube video, it is a quick and deadly dance and the spider doesn't go quietly.  Even more amazing is the ability of the relatively small wasp to drag its heavy prey across the ground and into a hole.

Stinger- Jim Moore
As you might guess, it takes a long stinger to get through the hair and covering, similar to a man trying to spear an elephant.  The stinger is is even more impressive because of the sting it delivers.  Fortunately they are not aggressive to humans, as the result would be quite memorable. 

An Arizona entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt has studied the pain of stings with masochistic zeal, deliberately exposing himself to 78 species of hymenoptera.  He ranked them on a scale, creating the Schmidt sting pain index.  Some stings he described with the zeal of a food critic.
"Commenting on his own experience, Justin Schmidt described the pain as "…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one's ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations."
"In terms of scale, the wasp's sting is rated near the top of the Schmidt sting pain index, second only to that of the bullet ant, and is described by Schmidt as "blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric."  Because of their extremely large stingers, very few animals are able to eat them; one of the few animals that can is the roadrunner."   Wikipedia
Beloved baby Darcy
Fortunately, Katy and Bryan's baby Darcy had the common sense to point but not touch her find.  She contemplates her near miss in this picture.

More on tarantula hawks on Wikipedia above and at Bugguide.

More details on Missouri tarantulas at last year's blog.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dung Beetle Navigation

Dung beetles- Wikimedia
Many mammals and even the lowly box turtle can navigate by memory of the territory.  Some birds can even navigate by the stars. But dung beetles using the Milky Way?  Now that is an amazing story, as told in the New Yorker.

It begins with a dung beetle which shape its new found treasures into a ball and then laboriously rolls it away to an ideal place of burial.  There the female deposits a single egg in the dung which will serve as nourishment as well as home until the larva reaches adulthood.  I can only imagine its relief as it steps into the fresh air, but likely the beetle doesn't mind either way.

It has long been noted that dung beetles steer a perfectly straight course, a matter of efficiency as well as reducing the time they are exposed to competition for their prize or danger from a predator.  Just why any thing would want to eat a beetle rolling a ball of dung is a matter of conjecture.  Here we will concentrate on its navigation ability.

In the daytime, the beetles use the sun for their straight line navigation.  Sunlight is polarized and the beetles have special receptors that read the polarization.*  In 2003, Eric Warrant, a biologist at Lund and his colleagues determined that nocturnal dung beetles could navigate by the polarized light of the moon.  They also noticed that the beetles traveled relatively straight on moonless nights as well.  Since the beetle's compound eye could not detect a single star, the answer must have been the Milky Way.

A team led by Marcus Byrne, a zoologist at University of Witwatersrand studied the beetles on a box-like table which obstructed the view of trees etc.  Then they ran them with either clear or tiny black hats which blocked the view of the sky (I am not making this up) and showed that they navigated only when the sky was visible.  Finally they took them to a planetarium.  The beetles were lost when exposed to only the 18 brightest stars but were back on track when using the artificial Milky Way!  More detail in the New Yorker article.

Research like this might sound like a worthless study worthy of the Golden Fleece awards given to science that initially seems without merit.  Once again, there can be a practical application to pure research.  In this case, it comes from learning more about beetle vision.  Researchers are developing a few devices modeled on the talents of lowly insects. shows how the compound eye of beetles have inspired a new type of camera, miniaturization including a large assembly of independent lens that keep objects in focus as they move away.  Another group shown at this site has developed a tiny flybot, a flying robot with flapping wings like its fly namesake.  You can watch it fly at this at

Flybots- NPR, Kevin Ma, Pakpong Chirarattananon/AAAS/Science

* Incidentally, polarized light is used on digital camera LCD screens.  If you are wearing polarized sunglasses and turn your camera 90 degrees, the screen appears black.  You aren't going blind, just a victim of modern technology.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Ballooning Risk

Virtually every aspect of our society has some downside risks to nature, not all of them obvious.  Most of you are familiar with the risk that birds face from wind farms, cars, windows, cats and even rice at weddings.  Jet engines are a risk to birds and vice versa.  But balloons?  It turns out that the release of balloons, both individually and in large numbers at events present a risk to our feathered friends.  A story in Birding/ explains.
  1. Balloon fragments and deflated balloons are a choking or intestinal obstruction hazard to birds that mistake them for something edible.
  2. The strings and ribbons tied around a balloon present the risk of tangling their feet, similar to the problem with fishing line.  Tangle injuries can occur to nestlings when these materials have been incorporated in the nests.
  3. There is an indirect effect of expanding rubber plantations which displace diverse habitats.
We commonly find balloons and fragments out in the wild where they have landed or tangled in our trees.  This form of litter joins "Walmart balloons," i.e. airborne plastic bags on a windy day, as an environmental eyesore.  In 2008 Walmart announced their commitment to reducing the number of plastic bags used.  We have long suspected that their switch from distinctive blue bags to glaring white bags blowing in the fields around your nearest Supercenter was to hide their source.

It turns out to be more complex than that.  The white bags are also less recyclable.  Colored bags can be made with more recyclable material than white bags according to
"Essentially, the darker a bag is, the more recycled content it can contain. A white plastic bag can only contain about 10 percent recycled content, which is typically only post-industrial, not post-consumer, waste. A blue bag can contain about 35 percent post-consumer recycled content, with gray bags moving closer to 40 percent. "
So why are there so many white bags around?  Like Mr. Robinson's whispered answer "Plastics" in The Graduate, the secret word here is marketing.  Simply put, store logos don't show up well on gray or blue bags.  How important is that?  Probably not very, but tell that to the person getting big bucks to promote your store.

The good news is an estimated 45-60% of plastic bags get re-purposed by consumers, lining trash cans and picking up dog poop.  A bigger disappointment is the volume of bags actually recycled.  With available techniques, they can get close to 100% recyclable materials in a plastic bag but that doesn't help if the bag doesn't get recycled.  Once again, the weak link in the recycling chain is between the consumer and the availability of convenient recycling options.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pollination Season

Nectaring Bat- TED Video
Watching zebra swallowtails nectaring on the tiny flowers of early spring reminded me that we are entering the big pollination season.  Not only are the bees and butterflies out, but flies are starting to warm up to the brown flowers, drawn by the false smells of dead stuff.  In the words of our friend Sarah, they flowers use insects as their sexual servants.

This beautiful TED video will get you ready for summer, seeing natures wonders closeup as only modern cameras can.  It is a reminder of the broad array of creatures which pollinate our plants and the complex web of nature.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Darya's Anna's Hummingbird

Click to enlarge
Our nine year old granddaughter Darya who lives in Berkeley, California recently sent us a little research she undertook after reading up on Anna's hummingbirds.  Her mother took the pictures and here is the story in Darya's own words.
"While my mom was pruning our Angel's Trumpet tree, she discovered something on the Chinese bell hanging on a low branch. At first she wasn't sure about it, but then she found out it was a hummingbird nest.  In addition to the nest there were two small baby hummingbirds. She called me and my sister over and we looked at it for a while.  I felt excited and happy because last year we had a hummingbird nest in our "fruit salad" tree in the front yard. It's not every day that you see a hummingbird nest in somebody's yard."

"We were excited to show others.  My dad suggested to do some research on the hummingbirds.
I started to chart how long the mother bird fed her babies and how long she was gone between feedings.  Based on what I read, a mother hummingbird spends about twenty minutes between feedings. I decided to put up a hummingbird feeder and test if the time between feedings became shorter. Because hummingbird mothers make a slurry of bugs and nectar to give more protein to their young, my guess was that it would still be around twenty minutes between feedings because she would still have to catch insects."
Researcher recording observations
She sat patiently timing the intervals between feedings and the time in seconds the mother spent in feeding the babies.  She then put up a hummingbird feeder nearby and timed the intervals again, to see the effect of nearby food on intervals between feeding.  As the babies were nearly full grown, she only got to time a few feedings with the feeder present before the babies fledged.  Afterward the mother returned and started salvaging parts of the former nest.  Darya's conclusions follow.
"Our limited observations showed that when the feeder was present the time between feedings was shorter (22 minutes versus 24.2 minutes) but I only got to observe the birds for a few feeding times after we put up the feeder. It's hard to say that if I had watched longer, I might have got different results. It does seem that the average time between feedings I observed was very close to the 20 minutes we read about."

Editor's note:  This study was published entirely on its own merits, ignoring the fact that the author was our granddaughter Darya..... more or less.  The original report is reproduced here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Invasives From Nowhere

Autumn Olive
Invasive species seem to arrive from nowhere.  A pleasant hike around our pond, looking for amphibian eggs was interrupted when Steve and Amy identified a healthy autumn olive growing on the bank.  This was a long way from nowhere, apparently arriving by airmail in the intestinal tract of an unwitting bird.

I wasn't aware of the identifying features but once you see them they become obvious.  Steve pointed out the silvery green underside of the leaf with its distinctive silver scales.  distinctive if you know what to look for.  The twigs are light brown with prominent silver and brown scales.  The older, thicker branches are armed with sharp thorns.
Note brown scales, thorns

Silver scales- Click to enlarge

Autumn olive or autumnberry, Elaeagnus umbellata, is part of a long line of "it seemed like a good idea at the time" plantings such as sericea lespideza that were touted as excellent sources of erosion control as well as good for wildlife.  It is true that some species of birds eat the berries, but the bad outweighs the good.  
"It was studied in the 1940s by the Soil Conservation Service, and the strain 'Cardinal' was released in 1963 for commercial propagation. In the eastern and central United States, autumn olive was planted to provide food and cover for wildlife, as screens, windbreaks and barriers along highways, to stabilize and revegetate road banks, and to reclaim mine spoil. For some years after planting the plant seems contained, but then it suddenly becomes invasive and difficult to control."  MDC
These invaders spread rapidly, grow into dense bushes or small trees and shade out native species.  By suppressing diversity, they choke out many native species which are also insect host plants.  Insects are important links in the food chain.  A dense field of autumn olive can reduce the species of butterflies, moths and their caterpillars plus other species that insectivorous birds that depend upon.  Its ability to fix nitrogen, somewhat unique among shrubs, is another negative as many native species in prairies, savannas and woodlands don't tolerate large amounts of nitrogen in the soil.

Some sources tout the "autumnberry" as a food source.  We are proponents of eating garlic mustard in salads and sandwiches, obtained as we pull the invaders out of the ground.  My concern with autumnberry is the fact that harvesting the berries does little to control the spread.  People developing a taste for them may be tempted to protect their source rather than destroy it, or worse yet, plant it.  What ever they taste like, it can't make up for the damage to our Ozark environment.

Treatment of our autumn olive shrub started with my trusty Stihl, followed by Barb's loving application of concentrated Vitamin G glyphosate) on the cut stumps.

This MDC site has comprehensive information about control.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Toad Song

Amplexis- they "toadly" ignored me as they mated
Two years ago we described toads reproduction in Toads In Love.  I wasn't aware at the time that not every toad on toad encounter is boy-girl. In fact a male toad is likely to mount anything that resembles a toad, including other male toads, similar sized frogs and an occasional lump of mud.  You might think that this would be embarrassing to the "mounter," but there are no studies to confirm this.  It does however generate a release call from the "mountee."
"A release call is produced by a male toad or an unreceptive female toad when a male toad or other animal gets on its back and grabs its sides in the position used for mating or amplexus. It's a toad's way of saying "Get off my back! Let go!" It is also used to call attention to a male's territory, and a male amplexing a female will produce the call when another male tries to interfere with the amplexus."
Cottonmouth with toad
You can hear the subtle release call simply by picking up a toad and gripping it firmly but gently along the sides of its abdomen.  Both sexes will produce this subtle sound, more a gentle warning than a complaint.  Or for the wart free version listen to the release call here.  It doesn't always work as in the case of the predator to the right.   Caution: toads don't produce warts but they may pee on you.

Much more familiar is the advertisement callThe advertisement call of the eastern American toad is a long musical trill lasting from 6 to 30 seconds.  It is a common sound around any body of water in the spring, regardless of size, as the male toad tries to attract females for breeding.  It also serves to warn other males that "I am the biggest, baddest guy around so find your own darned pond."  They call mostly in the evening and into the night, but may extend it into daytime when desperate.  Advertisement call heard here.
Toad eggs sticking together

Once mounted (amplexus), the male fertilizes the eggs as the female releases them into the water.  The result it a rather distinctive set of two spiral strings of eggs generally along the waters edge.  Soon the eggs develop into tiny black tadpoles with gold specks, which then lose their tails as legs develop, morphing into toadlets, ready to hit the land.

American toad eggs in pond- note spiraling pair of strands
If you haven't heard this restful sound this year, you need to get outside more often in the evening.  The advertisement call is frequently misidentified as a cricket.  If you want to impress your friends, just keep in mind that crickets call in the fall, so the sound of a "cricket" in spring is likely a toad looking for love.

Herpnet is an excellent resource. has more pictures and information.
You can hear the pond side calls at this site.
Much more than you ever want to know is at

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More Than A Morel

After four cold rainy days with night temperatures hovering close to freezing, we didn't hold much hope for new morels.  Boy were we wrong.  No dedicated morel hunter will tell you where they found them but I will give you directions when I am done.  We did manage to collect 22 morels, some of which were large by our standards.  Amazingly, we found some in the middle of a gravel roadbed.

Morels are early saprophytes, digesting tree roots and dead leaves underground.  The mushroom is the "fruit" of the extensive underground mycelium network, popping up in moist soil which has been warmed by the springtime sun.  They are usually the first prized edible mushroom to appear as spring arrives.  Although there some more favored locations such as dying elm trees, ash and cedar trees and recent burns, they can also pop up in the middle of nowhere.  That is part of their charm.

As usual for us, virtually all our finds were under or around ash trees.  The climb up steep hillsides or down valleys to check out a lone ash tree isn't usually rewarded with a mushroom, but the occasional find is always exciting.  Not usually superstitious, I find myself developing little quirks "for luck."  I always close my pocket knife between finds, so the next morels won't be scared and hide.

Twin morels  from the same stalk, ash tree in back
An added benefit of morel hunting is that even if you are skunked, there is a lot to see.  Butterflies are now appearing on warm days, bird migrants are moving through and love is in the air, including drumming woodpeckers, calling toads and prenuptial flight arcs of newly arrived hummingbirds.

While out in the woods we checked the bluebird boxes.  Six of the fifteen had nests with 5 and in one case 6 eggs.  Sunday we found one nest with the chicks all starved to death.  The diagnosis is presumptive as all the other nests were alive and gaping for food.   Also, one of the two black vulture eggs hasn't hatched 9 days after its sibling was delivered.  Nature isn't always pretty.

The highlight of my morel hunting was finding a couple of nice fat morels under an ash tree.  When I bent down to harvest them, a hen turkey flushed out of some shrubs 8 feet away, making the sound of a helicopter taking off on an emergency.  This scared the (insert your favorite expression here) out of me.  My choice word would be the name of a mushroom which we grew on logs several years ago.

I went over to investigate and found a nest with 12 eggs.  One was cracked with a dry leaf over the opening.  I fought the temptation to investigate as mother was off on a distant tree limb and I didn't want to interfere with her parenteral rights.  She is likely to have her hands full if she gets 11 poults out of this.

And now, where you can find the morels next year.  Go to the turkey nest, then 8 feet west to the base of the ash tree.  You are sure to find a couple there.  Please don't tell anyone else about this spot.

Wikipedia on morels
Preserving and cooking morels

"Don't worry, this isn't going to"

Monday, May 6, 2013

Carrion Beetle

One of the benefits of the annual Red Bridge Road cleanup is the opportunity to traipse about in the woods, looking for trash dumps back in the Forest Service land.  This usually includes finding carcasses of deer, either cleaned or those that were injured or sick and died a natural death over the winter.  A fiberglass dump under the power cut led us this time to a large hide covered deer carcass, partially cleaned by vultures.

Spring is awakening all the winter dormant life in the valley around this time of year.  With the rays of sun defrosting the frozen remains left by vultures, new life appears in the matted hide and bones.  Pulling back the rotting hide exposed a lot of scurrying carrion beetles.  It is amazing how fast they can disappear into the decomposing leaf litter.

This time there were three different species of beetles.  A sexton beetle with a few mites on board rapidly dug its way into the leaves.  A dozen small black beetles of another undetermined species disappeared in the leaf litter as well. I was finally able to scoop up this colorful beetle.

This is a margined carrion beetle, Oiceoptoma noveboracense.  It survives the winter as adult, then mates in the spring.  They lay their eggs on dead animals, which the larvae then feed on.  The adults can also feed on the carcass but prefer fly larvae, providing it a nice fresh meal while reducing the competition for its larvae's resources.

Like many beetles, the O. noveboracense  holds on to the female for prolonged periods of time, grasping her antennae with his mandibles to hand on.  Once copulation is complete, he will stroke her with his antennae which apparently encourages her to oviposit (lay her eggs).

While the thought of carrion beetles may have a certain yuck factor, imagine what the fields and forests would look like if it weren't for these natural recyclers.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Time Lapse Forest

At Bull Creek, we are privileged to see the slow annual cycle of the forest as the trees bud out in the spring, flower, leaf out, and eventually lose their leaves in the fall.  If you don't have the time to watch the entire process, here is a shortcut.

There is a three minute time lapse video of 15 months in the life of the forest.  Patience and focus were required to put it together.   Called A Forest Year, it was produced by photographer Samuel Orr.  He set the camera up in the picture window of his house and took pictures every 10 seconds at times, other times waiting for special events like rain and snow.  He eventually combined 40,000 pictures into this time lapse video which you can watch at Vimeo.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Missouri Bladderpod

Missouri Bladderpod Up Close
The highlight of our recent plant survey was finding a small cluster of Missouri bladderpod, Physaria filiformis, formerly known as Lesquerella filiformis.  It looked like another little yellow flower nestled near a few buttercups until Linda Ellis recognized it as special.  This little beauty is extremely uncommon and has just been upgraded from endangered to threatened status.  Discovering it in a new location was a thrill.
"The Missouri bladderpod was added to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Plants on January 8, 1987 as an endangered species. As a result of this listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a Recovery Plan that identified priority conservation actions. Those actions include protecting and monitoring existing populations, surveying for new populations, habitat protection, and public education. Progress made toward recovery prompted the Service to reclassify the bladderpod from endangered to threatened in October 2003." US Fish and Wildlife Service
Seed Pod- Closeup
Bladderpods are members of the mustard family and have the typical rosette of leaves along the ground with the flower stems erect above, 4-8 inches above ground.  The leaves and the stems have a gray coloration due to a dense covering of fine hairs.  (See picture below)  The flowers have 4 tiny yellow petals and after opening, the oval seed pods develop, green but turning brown in the summer.   Each pod contains 4 seeds which drop to the ground, remaining dormant until they germinate in the fall, producing the small rosette of leaves that will remain all winter.

Note the fine hairs on the stem with a gray sheen
We made a field trip to a glade in 2010 specifically to see Missouri bladderpod.  Although only one day earlier in April than this plant survey, it was cold, rainy and otherwise miserable.  That day we eventually found a tiny patch of plants, their blossoms closed with their pods not yet formed.  It almost seemed like they were shivering like we were.

2010 - Cold Bladderpods  Click to enlarge
Missouri bladderpod seed can remain dormant in the soil for years, awaiting the right conditions.  As they are native glade plants, they are affected by weather and especially the shading of taller plants and grasses.  For this reason, they are particularly vulnerable to aggressive invasive species.  These factors account for the fluctuations in the numbers of plants on a given plot.  A study in 2005 demonstrated these fluctuations below.  One site  has been monitored for ten years. The number of individuals observed has ranged from zero to over three hundred thousand from year to year. Center for Plant Conservation

Management of glades for the preservation of bladderpod populations includes removal of invasive species, including cedars and the use of prescribed fire.  Efforts like these have paid off.
"The Missouri bladderpod is restricted to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. It was probably never found beyond this range but was known from only nine sites in three counties when it was first listed as endangered in 1987. After additional surveys were conducted and actions undertaken to conserve the bladderpod, the number of documented populations increased to 61 sites in 4 counties in Missouri and 2 sites in 2 counties in Arkansas. US Fish and Wildlife Service
More on Missouri bladderpod in the MDC fieldguide and this video.