Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Firewood Harvest

Managing a forest is more than planting trees.  One of the tools is timber stand improvement (TSI) in which selected trees are removed to allow improved growth of desirable species and creating spaces for young trees to find sunlight for the next generation.  Openings in the forest are also beneficial for deer, turkey and other animal species.

TSI and selective timber harvest leaves a lot of wood on the ground, as does Mother Nature when she has a tantrum such as wind storms, tornados and the 2009 derecho event which passed through the state.  We lost more than 60 trees over 12 inches in diameter in that event alone.

Derecho wind damage
Several years ago I contacted Frances Main, our MDC forester, looking for some way of using the downed wood.  Most of it was a half mile up a rather steep trail, a challenge to most vehicles.  She got me in touch with Ed Hultgren and a crew of volunteer wood cutters which does charity wood harvests.

They donate their time to cut, split and deliver firewood to families which heat with wood but have neither the source or the financial resources to obtain fuel at the present.  They have been collecting our wood now for several years.  This year he and Steve Prine planned a big charity harvest.

Cut up and ready to split
Saturday was the big day, with around 14 wood cutters arriving from Cabool, Carthage, Arkansas, Mississippi, and four "Okies from Muskogee," many of whom were professionals.  I use the term Okies with the greatest respect as they were great guys, big, strong and all were holding chainsaws.  They brought four powerful wood splitters, a UTV with a power dump back, and an unbelievable collection of chain saws.  Four of them brought their kids who worked hard hauling wood to the splitters and moving the split wood onto the six big trailers Ed had borrowed.

Young work horse
Homemade splitter

When Steve said he would bring a "collection of saws," Barb said he just meant backup saws as "no one would collect chainsaws."  Knowing "men and boys and the price of their toys" in a world where Harbor Freight acts as an adult Toys-R-Us, I respectfully disagreed.  It turns out that for once I was right.  Steve alone has over 90, most of which are operational. Almost everyone there collected to some degree and all had several brands on hand, both modern and historic, switching between them just for fun.

A man's chainsaw

We had a lot of logs previously hauled out of the woods by tractor, enough to keep them busy I thought.  This backlog lasted until about 11 AM and from then on we were dragging logs out as crews plunged into the woods with abandon. Several dead trees were felled, always leaving lots standing as future housing for wildlife.

They harvested 7 huge trailers full of split firewood as well as other large piles which will be loaded onto the trailers once they are emptied.  By late afternoon several loads had been delivered to families which heat with wood but don't have the resources to obtain wood or buy it.  With a sudden shortage of propane, the timing couldn't be better.  For that reason, to my surprise, KY3 showed up to film the event, arranged for by the organizers of the cut, Steve Prine and Ed Hultgren.

Ordinarily I enjoy running a chainsaw and cutting up logs but Saturday my role was as the greeter, photographer, and chief log-dragger using my tractor to back into the woods and drag out logs to the cutters and splitters.  Besides, I was a little embarrassed displaying my "little" Stihl 260 saws which looked like they were made by Mattel compared to their monsters.

The boys were cute and hard working, hauling cut logs that I would find intimidating. Each had his dad's work ethic with a little mischief thrown in.  There were undoubtedly a lot of snoring kids headed toward Muskogee and Cabool that night.

By Tuesday morning, 8 loads had been delivered to families in need and the wood pictured below is some of the next loads which are being scheduled.  Ed's crews have delivered 693 pickup truck loads in the last 5 years as the program has grown and I can't guess at how many they packaged Saturday.

We are planning on some other charity cuts soon.  If you are interested in helping or if you have a lot of downed wood on a wood lot, consider helping to warm a neighbor in need.  You can get in contact with Ed Hultgren by emailing

Below is some of the wood that hasn't been delivered yet.  You can see more pictures from KY3 here as well as at this video news report.  There is one error in the video- no firewood was sold, only delivered by volunteers to those in need.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Mystery Lines on a Dead Tree

What's up at Fellows Lake? - Norm Youngsteadt
Jean Youngsteadt sent me some pictures of a dead tree along the Fellows Lake Trail.  It had been bark covered the week before and now was thoroughly chewed off all the way up.  The flakes and damage looked like the work of a woodpecker.  The puzzling part was the horizontal lines across the trunk as seen below.

Horizontal lines across the trunk
I was still betting on a pileated woodpecker.  I can still recall looking out of our front door at the creek and seeing large wood chips flying up a foot in the air above a large tree stump we had cut for a seat around the fire ring.  Eventually a pileated woodpecker hopped up on the stump with all the confidence of his cousin Woody, looked around for predators, then hopped back down behind the stump and the wood chip bombardment resumed.  He finished it within an hour.

I had seen the same thing along the creek last week.  The tree below had been bark covered a week earlier and now there was a foot deep pile of wood chips on the ground and large cavities in the soft trunk.

We still hadn't answered the question about the horizontal lines of damage which I hadn't seen before.  I sent the pictures to our Fabulous Forester, Frances Main and she quickly replied.
"This is woodpecker art. Pileated would be a good guess because the chips are so big and it goes down so close to the ground. I had another photo like this sent to me just in the last week or two, so the poor birds must be getting really hungry in this cold weather!

The horizontal lines we are seeing is pretty common with woodpeckers…they get a little lazy about moving, so work one spot moving just their head. From the first picture, you can tell there were plenty of bugs in there! I bet he had a good time and left full : )"
Although a pileated woodpecker's primary diet is carpenter ants, they also eat other ants, woodboring beetle larvae, termites and other insects when the opportunity arises, as well as fruit and nuts. They are even attacking emerald ash borer larvae, the subject of a pending blog.

The good news is that in digging holes in trees, the woodpecker is serving as a home builder.  Over 38 species of birds and mammals use the woodpecker's feeding and nesting cavities for their own nests or shelter.
"In a study in Alberta, Canada, 54% of 878 pileated cavities showed evidence of use by at least one secondary cavity nester. A secondary cavity nester is a cavity-nesting bird like a bluebird or screech-owl that is unable to excavate its own nest cavity. It must find pre-existing natural tree cavities excavated by woodpeckers, or nest boxes provided by people."  Much more information is at this site.
If you have a woodlot, try to leave 1 to 3 large standing dead trees per acre.  Your critters will love you for it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Day on the River

Bob Ranney shared this story from 417 Magazine, titled The River Wild.  It features a guided float-fishing trip I have always wanted to take with our friend, Kyle Kosovich and his 20 foot johnboat.  While it serves as a promotion for his Longboat Outfitters business, it also gives a good view of an Ozark float trip as seen through fresh eyes.

The reason I am posting this here is to let you see the video of the trip with the music composed and sung by our own Master Naturalist warbler, Bob Ranney.  You can hear it here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Evolution's Other Father

Alfred Ressel Wallace- Wikipedia
The story of the theory of evolution begins and ends with Darwin in the popular literature, but frequently ignores or at least downplays the role of Alfred Russel Wallace.  While Darwin published first and continued to research natural science, Wallace in his own way was the more interesting character. 

A series of two one hour shows on BBC presents the story of Wallace in a somewhat breathless manner, beautifully photographed and spiced up by the narrator.  It is entertaining and factual although overly dramatic in suggesting that Wallace was the "real father" of evolution theory.

Perhaps the most interesting story is his discovery of what is now called the Wallace Line which dramatically separates the species of Australia and Asia across a narrow 17 mile strait between two islands.  

The filming takes the narrator and guide Bill Bailey into wild places at apparent risk of life and limb.  It ignores the fact that a camera crew, hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment across rivers and up into the trees to photograph wildlife, faced even greater hardships.  In spite of this quibble, it is an interesting two hour series, beautifully filmed history that is even more intellectually fulfilling than keeping up with the Kardashians.

If you enjoy the natural world, no matter what your views are on evolution, you will learn a lot by watching Alfred Russel Wallace Part 1 and Part 2.

Wallace wrote about his travels in The Malay Archipelago, a book that has never been out of print since.  It was praised by Darwin and other scientists, and was dedicated to Darwin.  It is available in PDF form or online reading for free at

Friday, January 17, 2014

Owl Attack

The hot news story around our neighborhood last week was the Attack of the Great Horned Owl!  This avian predator began landing on neighbors' heads rather randomly, although never causing damage.  This is a significant fact because an owl on an attack mission could easily create the need for stitches.  The great horned owl pictured above was on light poles in the neighborhood, doing its best Batman imitation.

The first thought was that it might have a nest in the area and was protecting it, but the area of the "attacks" was over the entire neighborhood, a span of at least 5 full blocks.  So far there was no harm, more of a blocking foul rather than a flagrant foul.  Still there was the possibility of hurting someone or their pet cat or chihuahua.  Because of this, James Dixon of MDC and the US Fish and Wildlife agency became involved.

It is likely that the owl was just looking for a little human companionship and food.  Dixon suggests that it had been raised by humans and was used to getting fed.  Once released, the owl did what you might expect of a fed bear or other wildlife, head for the nearest convenient and customary food  There was a rumor that a neighbor actually had raised a pet owl.  According to James Dixon:
“When we got those feet secure this guy was pretty tame,” he said. “We suspect it was hand-raised and let go. We obtained some anecdotal information that someone in the neighborhood had found a baby owl and fed it by hand. It had become accustomed to humans and associated people with food. That’s a big no-no.”
Once this occurs regularly, the only answers are "live with it" or relocate the animal.  The choices are a zoo or wildlife center or releasing it into a wild area.  After trapping it, the Fish and Wildlife Service elected to release it in a remote area around Stockton Lake.  I am betting that lake houses and marinas are in for an interesting time.  Once habituated to human feeding, it is unlikely to learn the hunting skills it needs.

"Schub" with an innocent great horned owl on the right - Wes Johnson/ News-Leader
The capture of the owl is described in this News-Leader article.  Coincidentally, this occurred around the time for the Owl Prowl at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.  Our own "Schub" (Sue Schuble) led the session with face time of some of our favorite feathered predators. 

While this was more serious for some of our neighbors, it was a source of amusement in Los Angeles where Jimmy Kimmel incorporated it in a prank seen here on Youtube.

MDC has a lot of information on owls in general at this site.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Flapping in Formation

Flocking Habits of Migratory Birds - C. C. Trowbridge 1915 Wikimedia
There has always been a lot of theory and very little fact in the story of why and how some birds fly in formation.  There is probably some benefit to a flock taking off in mass to confuse a predator, a familiar story to a quail hunter flushing a covey.  Maybe the lead birds are better navigators with the latest Google Maps downloaded?  The most popular idea was that they were drafting like bicycle racers and semi-trucks, flying in the slipstream of the one in front to reduce the energy required to fly.

A study by Dr. Stephen Portugal and his team, as reported in the journal Nature provides some better answers.  They planned to use light weight data recorders attached to the backs of birds which flew in formation.  The big technical problem - how to capture the birds to retrieve the data, as transmitters would weigh too much for the birds to carry.  The answer was to use captive-bred ibises.  They used captive-bred northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), a species being reintroduced in Europe after being extirpated for 400 years.  They were already trained to follow human foster parents leading  them with ultralight aircraft from breeding areas in Austria and Germany to wintering grounds in the Italian region of Tuscany.  They were easy to tag before flight and to find after landing.

Flight of Northern Bald Ibis - NPR
They found out that not only did they draft but they synchronized their wing flaps to the bird ahead, using the lift of the front birds upwash (the upward flow of air directly ahead of the leading edge of a moving airfoil.)   Not only do they synchronize the flaps but they can adjust to a counter-rhythm when they get closer to find the uplift, as described in this video.

Northern Bald Ibis - Wikimedia
It is heartwarming to know that the starring actor in this adventure was the northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), a rather plain bird who would otherwise not get the lead in any bird video.  In spite of a distinguished career of 1.8 million years of thriving across the Middle East, northern Africa, southern and central Europe, it now is nearly extinct, with 500 surviving in Morocco.  A newly found cluster of 10 birds in Syria probably aren't optimally placed for future survival.

In the words of Bill Bryson, "Life just wants to be: but it doesn't want to be much."  Hang in there little buddy.  You may be having a bad hair, or rather feather day but you have an important role in the world, even if it isn't as a leading man or lady.  You are leading us into an understanding of bird flight.

For more details go to the Nature article, then the NPR All Things Considered story.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Metal Mouth

D. irritator female  Tom Murray
The previous blog discussed ichneumon wasps that bore deep into trees to deposit their eggs on the larvae of bark-boring beetles.  Their long and delicate looking ovipositor can be over twice as long as their body, and curves dramatically as they drill into the tree.  Considering that they may drill through over two inches of wood to reach their victim, will do this for 10 separate eggs and may drill a dry hole, missing the larva, up to 90% of the time, their persistence is amazing.  Even more daunting is the wear and tear of that delicate looking ovipositor.  How do they keep from wearing it down to a dull nub?  One answer is heavy metal.

Long ovipositor-

In a study in 1998,  Donald L. J. Quicke and colleagues found that many genera of hymenoptera (sawflies, wasps, bees and ants)) incorporate metal in the cuticle of their ovipositors and jaws which reduces abrasive wear.  The ovipositors are adaptations of what we would call "stingers," used to position the egg on an unsuspecting larvae of beetles, lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and even other hymenoptera.  The metal can make up to 10% of the ovipositor's weight. Many of these same species have metal deposition in the adult's jaws.  This is necessary to chew its way out of the host plant once it emerges from the pupa.  In general, no metal is found in the ovipositors of hymenoptera which penetrate soft materials or don't penetrate in egg laying.

"Stump stabber"-Adrian D. Thysse
Some species such as horntail wasps utilize zinc while our ichneumon wasps previously described and Cynipoidea or gall wasps incorporate manganese.  Gall wasps bore into plants to deposit eggs that subsequently produce the plant galls that shelter the hatching larva as well as providing its food.  New research in 2013 shows a direct correlation between the hardness of the substrate the gall wasp is penetrating and the amount of metal (zinc, magnesium and also copper) in their body parts.

Hymenoptera are not alone in their use of metal.  The teeth of some caterpillars have been shown to be hardened by zinc deposition.*  How do you determine metal without tedious drilling after asking the cat to "open wide?" Scanning electron micrograph images detect the presence and distribution of zinc in both the jaws and the tarsi of some forest caterpillars that chew into the hardened lignin of living trees.  Details of the 1999 study are at livingwithinsects.

Zinc deposition in caterpillar mandible *
There are dramatic serial pictures here of a giant ichneumon drilling which show the long curved ovipositor slowly disappearing into the tree trunk, its looping curve suggesting that there is no substantial pressure pushing it in.  You can watch the process on this 3 minute video.

*A. R. FONTAINE, N. OLSEN, R. A. RING & C. L. SINGLA. 1991. Cuticular metal hardening of mouthparts and claws of some forest insects of British Columbia. J. ENTOMOL. Soc. BRIT. COLUMBIA 88: 45-55.

Friday, January 10, 2014

D. irritator is Boring

D. irritator- Sheila Watson
Our neighbor Sheila sent me this picture of an insect she found out flying on a warm day in early November.  I was impressed she would hold an insect with such a formidable appearing ovipositor attached behind its abdomen, a finding that would send many people running.  There are several families of wasp-like insects to thumb through so I sent the picture to  Within several hours I had an answer.  This is Dolichomitus irritator, a member of the Ichneumonidae family, frequently referred to as ichneumon wasps (ick-new-man).

While we tend to think of all wasps as stinging menaces, only females of some species have defensive stingers.  This dangerous female tendency might have broader implications among humans but I won't go there.  The ichneumon wasps do not sting in defense but instead pass their eggs through their modified stinger, sometimes with some venom to paralyze their prey.  They are parasitoids, their larvae developing on the larvae of beetles, lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and other wasp species.

D. irritator female  Tom Murray
The most distinctive feature of this family are the long antennae on a wasp-like body and the extremely long ovipositors of the females, usually longer than their body.  Although they lack stingers, they are quite "boring," able to penetrate deeply into a tree where they sense a beetle larva is living.

Their reproduction strategy is a story of persistence.  Their larvae require a woodboring insect larval host to feed upon.  First the female wasp crawls along the log, tapping its antennae on the bark in search for the scent of an underlying larva appropriate for her young.  Interestingly, the male also does this, but it is hunting for newly emerging females to mate with.

D. irritator male  Tom Murray
Once the female Dolichomitus irritator detects its prey, it has to deliver its egg to the larval body deep in the wood.  The wasp is less than an inch long and this is where the long ovipositor comes in.  She will patiently drill into the wood, sometimes for hours until reaching the host larva and injecting her egg.  The explanation of how this is accomplished is the subject of a later blog but the photographs of the process are here.

Wow, take a look at her ovipositor!
While ichneumon wasp larvae are the bane of the "butterfly wranglers" who raise caterpillars for our butterfly house, they have an important place in nature.  Spring tiphia wasps, Tiphia vernalis, have been introduced as a possible biologic control for Japanese beetles.  Spathius agrili is a parasitoid wasp from Northern Asia which is being studied as a biologic agent against Emerald ash borer.  Since parasitoid damage occurs out of sight, it is difficult to measure their effectiveness as well as the potential damage they could cause to native species.

Until recently, all known larval parasitized hosts were bark beetle larvae.  A recent paper  describes finding D. irritator parasitizing Dectes texanus, a pest infesting soybeans. If this turns out to be a widespread finding, this little wasp may become the farmer's new best friend.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Ice Crystals

Ice Crystals- Click to Enlarge
On days like the last few, it is hard to get interested in going outside, but there are rewards for the hearty.  Larry Gurian sent me a set of pictures taken the day before the last snow hit.  Frost had decorated his back yard, creating a great photographic opportunity.

Click to enlarge- Pictures by Larry Gurian
These crystals are formed when the air is saturated with moisture and the water vapor settles on a solid surface which is below freezing.  Although the ground temperature is usually higher than the air when temperatures drop below freezing, structures such as grass, twigs and dead leaves may radiate enough heat to drop below air temperature.

As cold air settles during the night, the ground temperature may become lower than the surrounding air.  In our deep valley, the flowing water of Bull Creek contributes to higher relative humidity.  Barb reported an interesting example of this when walking our dogs this morning.  I had walked them in the snow before the really hard freezing temperatures hit.  My footprints compressed the snow into the warmer gravel, leaving ice in each print.  When the air temperature dropped to -5 overnight, frost crystals formed in the icy footprints but nowhere else.

Click to enlarge

The magic of the moment was lost on our blind schnauzer Smokey who thought that the unfamiliar jacket was embarrassing, making him look like Snoopy in his Red Baron fantasies.  Lifting each foot quickly to avoid the cold icy frost, he had a hard time remembering why he was out there and just why a bladder is important.

You can see Larry's complete set of frost pictures here, a good reminder to get outside, even when it is subzero.  Now if I could just explain that to Smokey.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ozark Zigzag Salamander

Ozark Zigzag Salamander- Plethodon angusticlavius
While cleaning up the ground layer of logs on an old wood pile before winter set in I came across a seasonal surprise, a salamander with a red back.  It was more surprised than I was and made no move to escape until I had picked it up for a portrait.  With the late fall temperature a high of 60, it was probably settled in for a long winter nap.

Not all salamanders with red backs are equal.  The eastern red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus comes up first when you search by color.  It is found from Missouri's Bootheel all along the east coast and up into Canada.  They are common forest dwellers, nibbling at invertebrates living in the detritus of decomposing vegetation. They are commonly found under rocks and logs and will even live in worm burrows.  In a fertile environment there may be as many as 1,000 in an acre.

For such little guys, red-backed salamanders sure do get around.  Amphibiaweb points out that 3/4 of their range was under the last continental ice sheet 21,000 years ago.  This means that these little (less than 4" long) salamanders dispersed northward rapidly since then.  Studies show that they are expanding their range by 80 meters a year, still moving north and likely will continue to do so with global warming.

We are west of the P. cinereus range and Brian Edmond straightened me out on our species, the Ozark zigzag salamander, Plethodon angusticlavius.  It occurs in a very localized area of the southern Missouri Ozarks as well as down into northern Arkansas.  We are located right in the middle of the Missouri territory.  P. cinereus above was the original redback salamander before the other species were split off, scientifically more accurate but the bane of the beginning amateur naturalist.

Their coloration varies greatly, with two predominate forms the red-backed and the lead-backed which has no stripe down the back.  While the red stripe might make them more vulnerable to predators, some authorities theorize it may also protect them by mimicking the red eft stage of the toxic red-spotted newt.

Plethadon species lack lungs and breath through their skin which must remain moist for them to absorb oxygen.  They generally only come out of their moist covered habitat during a rain.

Unlike most salamanders, Plethodon species do not have an aquatic phase.  Rather than lay their eggs in water, red-backs deposit them in clusters attached to the underside of  rocks and logs while the zigzag lay eggs on the rock substrate and generally avoid logs.  Ours apparently didn't get the message.  Since the red-back female guards the eggs for six to nine weeks, she eats little during that time and remains smaller that males and non-breeding females.  This probably accounts for why they usually breed every other year, the female needing the year off to store up nutrition for future egg yolks.  Our zigzag breeds annually, possibly aided by the warmer climate with more feeding opportunities?
While the red-back is a creature of the forest, the zigzag prefers rocky terrain, especially glades.  They especially migrate to glades for mating.  Our wood pile is very near our glade, somewhat like having a great singles bar just down the street.  No wonder we could detect a little smile on its face.

The larval stage is spent in the egg although there may be some remnants of gills when the young first hatch, a reminder of their distant ancestors life in water.  The larvae and adults consume a variety of small arthropods and in turn are parasitized by some intestinal worms species and in one case chiggers!*  Now that is something to watch for, a scratching salamander.

Eastern Zigzag**- click to enlarge
Eastern Red-backed**

To my naive eye, the differences between species are subtle.  Zigzags have an irregular strip zig and zagging down the back rather than the smooth straight sides of the red-back. There is also a northern (a.k.a. eastern) zigzag, Plethodon dorsalis dorsalis, which has a wider red stripe than the Ozark zigzags.  One expert stated that nobody could tell them apart unless they knew where they were from first. These are minor color changes to us but studies show there are differences in genes and proteins as well. There also are significant behavioral differences between species in different environments.  For instance, the northern species are less likely to find glades, changing their choices of cover and reproduction.

Over time the Ozark zigzag has managed to adapt to the climate changes of the Holocene, 11,700 B.P. to the present, surviving the early cool period as glaciers retreated from across the Missouri River to the north, through a warm and dry xerothermic period, the "little ice age" around 1300 A.D. to the present.  Unable to go to Florida in the winter, they just holed up under rocks and waited a thousand years for a change in the weather.

*    Zigzag parasites
**  Photographs thanks to  Serpent Ryan's Life List of Missouri Herps.
More on the Zigzag salamander at The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas
More details on the Ozark zigzag salamander and the Eastern red-backed salamander
Caring for red-backed salamanders
Zigzag salamanders and landmark learning
For pictures of color variations of the red back, see