Friday, February 28, 2014

March Phenology

Skunk on the prowl- MDC
Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

February was the month of "love" for humans and skunks.  While we were celebrating Valentine's Day with candy, flowers and expensive restaurants, skunks were risking their lives to find the ladies.  We saw six dead skunks just on a drive to Galena last Friday.

March marks the beginning of the mating season for turkeys.  Theirs is a safer courtship as they apparently look both ways before crossing the highway and hunting season doesn't start until April.  Their courtship is a passionate one, as described by our own Tana Pulles.
"Wild turkey courtship is in full swing during the month of March and will continue through early May.  The males begin the courtship season by chasing the females mid to late February.  When in sight of a female, tom turkeys, with quivering wings, strut pompously, emitting a series of explosive puffs from their lungs attempting to woo the hens.  Rivalry among males may result in bloodshed and even loss of life as stronger toms strike the heads of weaker rivals.  The female turkey shows acceptance of the male by strutting near him, then suddenly spreading her wings and throwing herself on the ground before him.  This is followed by dramatic mating dances."
Harbinger of spring- Click to enlarge
Wildflowers start to make their appearance, announced by the diminutive harbinger of spring.  These are frequently obscured by the leaf litter.  Last February while we hunted for salamanders, Barb crawled around until she announced she had "found one."  We were a little disappointed when she pointed to her find, the first harbinger.  With the harsh winter, I suspect they will be coming out a little later. 

Wood Duck- Wikimedia
I saw a pair of wood ducks staking claim to their stretch of Bull Creek this weekend.  Great blue herons are also supposed to be returning now, although we have had a resident heron at the swimming hole all winter.  It may have paid the price for its winter residence as our neighbor Larry Whiteley found a dead great blue heron in the middle of the field by the barn.  Lest it died in vain, we will be cleaning its skull for future school presentations.  Red winged black birds, purple martins and swallows will also be returning soon.

Blue birds have started arriving, starting their mating cycle.  Once again, we have had a few that decided to spend the winter, watching us from the walnut field as we cruised across the pasture.  It certainly wasn't because of a mild winter.  Maybe they had heard of global warming and decided to take their chances.  Either way, this is the time to be sure that your boxes are cleaned out from last year's nestings.  If the bluebirds get an early start they might have three broods in a season, although our latest return of the "polar vortex" doesn't bode well.

March should bring out the spring peeper chorus, desperately seeking mates.  They have survived the winter with their natural anitfreeze and must be singing to shake off the chill as well as finding mates. We haven't heard them yet, but when it occurs, we can usually hear them as we drive Highway W even with the windows closed.  For all that noise, they are really hard to find, like the one below.

Spring peeper- Click to enlarge - REK
Peepers serve as a reminder that it is also time for the spotted salamanders to gather to mate.  Soon their egg clusters will be clumped in the ephemeral ponds, safe from the bullfrogs and fish found in larger bodies of water.

More to look for:
  • Woodcocks begin arriving the last few days in February on their migration North.
  • Cardinals begin celebrating Spring Break with their mocking call "teacher-teacher".
  • Tree buds begin to wake up.  Look for tiny orange cedar berries on female trees, later to turn into blue cones.
  • Big Vs of geese are heading north, hard to find at their high altitudes.
  • Gobblers begin warming up for mating season.
  • Black vultures return to the Ozarks from the south, joining their northern turkey vulture cousins in their recycling duties.
  • Mourning cloak butterflies emerge from their bark crevices along with anglewings and goatweeds, species that overwinter as adults.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hawk and Squirrel

After years of having squirrels chew the siding of our house - Hey guys, there is solid concrete under that shake shingle! - empty the bird feeder and eat the corn in the squirrel feeder only when desperate, I didn't think I could have much sympathy for a bushy-tail.

Bob Ranney sent me this youtube video, showing the pursuit of a hawk for a squirrel.  Although they aren't seen in the same frame and it probably is a composite, I think you will find it interesting to watch.  In the end, I felt a little sorry for the hungry hawk.

On the other hand, the hawks do well in Bull Creek valley.  We accidentally decapitated a wood rat during the charity timber harvest recently.  It had the misfortune of creating a home in a large hollow log on the ground where we were cutting and splitting firewood.  It had stuffed the log with acorns and some wood shavings for a bed.  If you are squeamish or getting ready to eat, skip the pictures.

Home Sweet Home
OUCH!  But a cure for a headache.

We staked the body out in the field with a game camera to see who would come by.  The first week during the single digit temperatures there was no movement but the next week it got quite busy.  First a coyote came by but apparently didn't tear it loose.  The following morning, crows came in for a few minutes before a red-shouldered hawk took possession.  You can see it giving the crows the stink eye.

Don't even think about it!
Still frozen?
I did feel a little bad about the wood rat.  Unlike his relatives that eat the wiring in our barn, chewed the gas line on my tractor costing $500+, and gnawed their way into the house, this one was trying to be a good citizen a mile away in the woods - who knew they lived in the woods any more - when it heard a loud roar..... and then nothing.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spotted Owls

Spotted owl- Wikimedia
Barred owl range-
After years of threatened existence, it seemed the spotted owl might have a more secure future.  Chain saws roars were controlled in its limited range and its home forest preserved.  Then came another threatening sound - "Who cooks for you," the familiar cry of our beloved barred owl.  Now there is a new sound, gunfire aimed at controlling the barred owl population.

Back in 1999, Smithsonian and others reported the invasion of barred owls into the spotted owls' territory.  Native to the eastern US, they began to expand their range west of the Mississippi, around the turn of the 20th century.  This may have been partially due to human changes in the Great Plains' landscape.  The birds extended across southern Canada and then down the West Coast.  (FWS)

Barred owl - Missouri Department of Conservation
The barred owls are slightly larger, more aggressive and out-compete the smaller species for territory and food and even kill them on occasion.  They will eject the spotted owl pair from their nesting site in a tree cavity, impairing mating that year.  Interestingly, they are closely enough related that they will occasionally interbreed, producing "sparred owl" offspring, neither spotted or barred.  Their plumage, calls and probably their instincts are mixed, interfering with their breeding. (

Fast forward 15 years and a local battle rages.  There has been a call for drastic measures to decrease or eliminate the barred owl from this foreign territory.  Trapping and transporting barred owls is expensive and inefficient, leading to a program of shooting them.  As you can imagine this has caused a lot conflict between the barred and spotted fans.  There is a report on this battle on NPR.

Some of the research is covered in Smithsonian Magazine in 2009.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Coyotes and Pets

coyote walking through grassland 
Bob Korpella's blog at is always a good read and for that reason we list it on our Favorite Links along the side bar.  His entry on coyotes is particularly of interest to those who live in semi rural or rural areas.  It should be required reading for anyone worried about their small pets.

We are all familiar with stories of coyotes attacking small dogs.  I hadn't thought about the fact that the coyote might think of a dog as competition rather than an alternate food source.  According to MDC Wildlife Damage Biologist Tom Meister, once they discover what a great resource your yard is, they become more omnivorous, not looking for bird food but the squirrels that attack your feeders.  If your little dog is in the way, watch out.

Check out the article at this link.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Another View of Audubon

Ocelot by James Audubon- Springfield Art Museum
In case you always thought that Audubon was just "for the birds," there is another side of his story currently on view at the Springfield Art Museum.  The exhibit, which ends June 22, 2014, is called Hooves, Tails, and Claws: Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.  It is a great chance to see originals from the portfolio on loan from the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

John James Audubon was born in 1785 and had a successful business in Kentucky until the great market crash of 1819 wiped him out, the same event that drove Henry Rowe Schoolcraft out of New York to explore the Ozarks.  Audubon's loss became our gain as he packed up his gun and his paints and headed out to paint the birds of America.  By 1826 he delivered the first part of his folio to England where it was a great success.

By 1838, he had published the last part of his Birds of America.  He was living in New York City at the time and in 1843 he headed west one last time to paint the mammals of North America.   The result was Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a volume with text by his friend John Bachman, a Lutheran pastor.  It became a family affair as Audubon's sons were married to Bachman's daughters and they were to carry the work to completion as Audubon slipped into senility, dying at the age of 65.

Audubon's story is incredible.  He was released from jail for bankruptcy at the age of 34 and 19 years later was a famous artist, all before heading out to paint the mammals of America.  This type of accomplishment reminds me of my personal version of Tom Lehrer's quote.  "By the time Mozart was my age, he had composed over 600 musical works including 41 symphonies and 27 piano concertos, and had been dead for 38 years."

You can see all 152 plates of the originals at this New York Public Library Digital gallery site.  Better yet, saunter on down to the Springfield Art Museum and see them personally. It is free and the hours and information are here.

Thanks to Amy Short of the Fishin' Magicians for telling me about the exhibit.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lessons from Wolves

Gray wolf-
Restoring or even nurturing threatened species can be a dicey business.  This has been illustrated with the federal protection of wolves in the American west.  This was the focus of a detailed illustrated NPR story which is well worth hearing or reading.

Collared elk cows- MDC
The restoration of elk in Missouri has been a big success by any measure but wasn't without controversy.  There were controversies among people who live close by and worry about their local effects.  There were scientific concerns about the location and local farmers' concerns about agricultural damage although so far these have not occurred.

Missouri river otter- MDC
The restoration of the Missouri river otter was also controversial.  "A century ago, otters were nearly eliminated in Missouri because of unregulated harvest. Restoration efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s included the release of more than 800 otters in the state. Thanks to these efforts, otters are once again found throughout most of Missouri."  MDC
"Today, otters are at the center of considerable controversy. Opening otter trapping met strong opposition from animal rights groups who filed law suits challenging legalized otter harvest. On the other hand, pond and lake owners and commercial fish hatcheries regularly report fish depredations by otters whose numbers have grown to nuisance levels in some locations."  Missouri's River Otters

As the Missouri black bear population expands naturally, there are bound to be controversies.  Seeing one walking in the wild is beautiful and exciting.  There are occasional calls for control of nuisance bears, frequently goaded by human behaviors.  As their numbers increase, human-bear interactions will increase, some of which will be negative.  As they have no predators unless it is us, population control might eventually lead to hunting as we have seen in Arkansas.

There is a significant difference between the wolf situation out west and our bears and otters.  While wolves are classic "charismatic megafauna," they are also obligate carnivores, surrounded by thousands of square miles of delicious sheep and cattle which are the center of the local economy.  On the other hand, wolves are a major tourist draw, affecting the other major industry of the area.  There is little middle ground between the fans and foes.

Bears will unlikely become a tourist attraction and they rarely eat meat and therefore don't represent a major economic threat.  Their increasing population is an indicator of a healthy forest.  In the next few years we will be hearing a lot about "Bear Aware" measures to remain good neighbors.  Bringing in dog food and securing your trash is small price to pay for remaining on good terms with these beauties.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Life in a Dead Tree

Bark beetle galleries
With an Arctic vortex receding, we emerged to get some sunshine and hopefully a little dose of nature.  A fifty foot tall dead tree was standing beside the trail, with a few edges of loose bark on one side.  As I prepared to fell it to keep the road open, I peeled off some of the bark and found lots of evidence of life.  There were bark beetle tracks and two cockroaches attempting to scurry to safety.   A lone crab spider retreated into a crack in the wood beside some unidentified insect legs and elytra, the hardened forewings of a beetle, suggesting a past spider meal.

Bark beetles, members of the subfamily Scolytinae are actually specialized "true weevils."  They are small, usually only 1/16 to 1/4 inch.  The female lays its eggs just beneath the outer bark in an egg gallery.  After hatching, the tiny larvae tunnel out their own galleries, branching out from their former home.  As they grow their tunnels increase in diameter.  The tunnels end where pupation occurs and then the adults emerge through holes of their own to start the cycle all over.

Like most insects, our opinion of them depends on how they are encountered.  If they are attacking your landscape or fruit tree, they are a pest or worse.  Some may only cause limb damage while others such as the mountain pine beetle can decimate forests of the west.  Thousand cankers is caused by bark beetles and others can carry plant pathogens such as the Dutch elm disease. 

A word in the defense of the bark beetle.  Unless they are attacking in epidemic proportions, they do serve a useful purpose as food for woodpeckers and other birds and insects.  Most live in dead, weakened, or dying hosts and aid in the decomposition of dead wood while renewing the forest by killing older trees.  Some "ambrosia beetle" species farm fungi, eating the products of their crop, even carrying the fungus with them and inoculating new host trees.

Frass filled galleries of bark beetles
My personal interest in winter is peeling off the decaying bark from firewood, exposing the beautiful tunnels that they have produced.  Sometimes the patterns are etched in the inner bark layer, but more commonly they are on the tree trunk itself.  Many of these galleries are packed with powder which can be scraped out to reveal the intricate engraved patterns.  The powder, as you have guessed, is frass, also known by the technical 5th grader's term of "insect poop."  The intricate patterns have a beauty all their own, and my barn has a lot of decorated logs that I haven't had the heart to burn.

Bark beetle galleries, some with brown frass left in
Bark beetle galleries and white slime mold- click to enlarge
The larvae below are probably a from different genus, a woodboring beetle.  Most of these attack dead or dying trees thus making way for new growth.  They serve as primary decomposers, recycling nutrients locked away in wood that would otherwise take many years to decay.  Again, there are a few rogue species that can damage household wood and furniture or even destroy forests - think of the emerald ash borer. 

This specimen probably was just working on dead wood, trying to make a living.  Either way it had a rough day, first with a chainsaw cutting its log home in half, exposing its tunnel through the heartwood, then the pounding of a splitting maul.  It crawled out only to encounter a freezing night.

Cockroach, possibly of the genus Cryptocercus
The cockroaches I found are insects of the order Blattodea, which includes termites now thought to have evolved directly from the roaches.  Though more common in the tropics, cockroaches can flourish in any environment where there is sufficient food and warmth. Most North American cockroach species live in woodlands and are not pests.  As humans have created comfortable habitats, cockroaches have moved in, finding all the warmth, food and amenities of an upscale insect hotel.

Because of their location, I suspect these roaches were of the genus Cryptocercus which are wood-eaters.  Like termites, they don't have the enzymes to digest wood and depend on protozoans and bacteria that they host in their guts to digest the cellulose into sugars that they can then metabolize.

There is a lot of life in a dead tree.  If there weren't, we would no longer have forests, just a hundred foot deep pile of dead trees.

Monday, February 3, 2014

February Phenology

Cedar Waxwing- MDC
 Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

The beginning of the month is a good time to think about the highlights of nature this week.  The MDC Calendar is an excellent resource, available annually at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.

Robins gather in large flocks, moving in groups of up to 50.  Cedar waxwings will cluster on female red cedar trees, picking them clean of their berries (actually miniature cones) before flying off en mass, looking for another meal.  They eat almost exclusively a variety of fruits such as hackberry in season.  The good news is that cowbird chicks reared in their nests rarely survive, unable to tolerate the vegetarian diet.

Coyote- MDC Noppadol Paothong
Coyotes begin their breeding season later this month, although they have been practicing their mating calls for several weeks above Bull Creek.  I love the sound which carries throughout the valley, and they aren't particularly discerning about their competition.  Even my pitiful call, given at full volume will start a chorus of competitors, although they may just be telling me that "this is what a real coyote sounds like."
Late in the month, spotted salamanders will be headed to breeding ponds, looking for love.  With the current Arctic air, it is hard to imagine how they'll do it with the ponds frozen over.  They have been doing it for thousands of years and we had their eggs in all 9 ponds last year, so I am sure they will figure it out.
Upland chorus frog- MDC
The salamander may well be serenaded by upland chorus frogs whose song is compared  to a fingernail scraped along a comb.  These hardy souls are the first frogs to start singing and reproducing in Missouri, one more example of the reason to appreciate phenology .....but more on that in a future blog.

Witchhazel is blooming along Bull Creek.  Its small blossoms on the leafless shrubs are easy to miss in the distance but well worth a hike to find them.

Woodcock- MDC- Click to enlarge
American woodcocks begin their courtship around this time.  For once here is a bird that even I can identify by its unique bill.  They are earthworm specialists, stomping their feet to stir up the worms and penetrating the soil with their long beaks.  Pity the poor bird working the frozen soil now.

Woodcocks on the ground will make a buzzing insect-like call, referred to as a "peent," seen here in this Youtube video.  Their camouflage blends in with the ground so your best chances to hear and see them is at dawn or dusk as with a dramatic flourish the males show off for females by giving loud, nasal peent calls and performing dazzling aerial displays.  This and other cool facts are described on
"He gives buzzy peent calls from a display area on the ground, then flies upward in a wide spiral. As he gets higher, his wings start to twitter. At a height of 200–350 feet the twittering becomes intermittent, and the bird starts to descend. He zigzags down, chirping as he goes, then lands silently (near a female, if she is present). Once on the ground, he resumes peenting and the display starts over again."
If you like to get out in nature with a purpose, there is an opportunity for citizen science starting now.  Participating in a study of the spring migration of the American woodcock simply involves going out at specified times morning or evening a few times and recording any sightings.  Go to this link for details.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Monarch Decline

Male Monarch- Patrick Coin
Many of the volunteers at the Bill Roston Native Butterfly House have been noticing decreasing numbers of monarch butterflies moving through our area each year.  We now have solid statistics to back that impression, as reported by the News-Leader.

Monarchs migrating to Mexico are impossible to count as they clump together for warmth in the forests outside Mexico City.  They are measured in their dense collections by the number of acres they pack into.  This year the butterflies cover only 1.65 acres (0.67 hectares) in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City, compared to 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) last year. and 44.5 acres at their recorded peak in 1995.  Let me repeat: 44.5 acres down to 1.65 acres!

Monarch Migration in Mexico- Wikimedia
The factors which threaten the monarch migration are well known.  In the words of  Lincoln Brower,  leading entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, "The main culprit is now GMO herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides” in the U.S., which “leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch’s principal food plant, common milkweed.”  Add to this the expanding farm land acreage with the rising demand for corn related to ethanol and the ability to use practically every inch of farmland and you have the perfect storm destroying the milkweed plants (notice the "weed") they require to reproduce.

Monarch Butterfly Migration-
We recently took a road trip through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.  The most striking impression was the ability to see for miles without obstructing growth in ditches, drainages and fence lines.  What the herbicides didn't kill along the edges, the DOT mowing finished off.  Not a standing weed left for miles on end.

There is certainly more to the story.  There has been logging the forest refuges they use in Mexico, reducing their winter opportunities.  Severe weather and drought in the US has also been a factor.

The monarch isn't headed toward extinction as they can survive in southern climes.  However, there is a strong likelyhood that the dramatic migration that we celebrate is likely to end.  The miraculous multi-generational trip where the great grandchildren find their way back from the northern US to the same area in Mexico, never having been there, is one of the greatest unexplained mysteries of nature.

We continue to urge people to plant milkweed to expand their migratory food resources, even if we eventually fail to save their centuries of instinctive migration.  If nothing else, it helps remind more people of what we can lose if we don't take better care of the planet.

There is a lot more detail in the Washington Post Interview.