Monday, March 31, 2014

April Phenology

Spring turkey - Conservationist, Noppadol Paothong
Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena.

April is the time when the woods and fields come back alive.  After months of few new findings on a hike, all of a sudden everything is new as dormant life awakens and fertility cycles begin again.  Turkey are out everywhere, gobbling confidently in the knowledge that they are safe until youth season begins April 12th.

Belted kingfisher- Joe Motto
The belted kingfisher, a small bird with attitude and a bad haircut, began its loud chattering patrols up and down the creek last week, proclaiming its dominance to all within half a mile.  Birds of Missouri lists it as uncommon but we always have a pair taking possession on low slung branches above the shallow stretches of the creek.

Eastern tent caterpillar egg case
Eastern tent caterpillars will emerge from their egg cases which encircle the branches of our plum trees, ready to start building their web-like homes.  These will protect them by creating many layers of walls, insulating them against the cold.  Look for the cases and you will soon see tiny holes appearing before you will find the caterpillars.  Their host trees flowers will be the first to bloom along our drive.

Hummingbirds will start arriving any day now.  They will be hungry from their trip back from their wintering grounds in Central America and most will be moving on after fueling up.  Even though it was blustery today, we have loaded up the bird feeders, as there won't be many other nectar sources around for a while.  They can also feed on tree sap and flying insects but both are hard to come by.

Coldblooded reptiles begin to emerge when the average temperature suits them.  You will need to drive carefully on the country roads as turtles begin crossing them in their hazardous search for mates.  Also watch your step as copperheads will be emerging from their dens.  They are just minding their own business and you are too big for them to eat so consider letting them alone unless they are around your house.

Copperhead - Mark Bower  
Serviceberry blossom - Wikimedia
Dogwoods will soon be in bloom, preceded by the delicate white serviceberry blossoms.  Nearer to urban areas you will probably see the early blossoms of Bradford pear trees and their invasive callery pear offspring, a reminder to plant native species in their place.

One final annual April event; the black vultures are brooding in our old barn.  After four years of observing them, they look bored when I open the door to the stall.  Today I waited at the open door for several minutes before she stood up to show me the eggs.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Name the Raptor

Red-tailed hawk-  Joe Motto
Linda Bower sent me this video of an immature hawk, looking for confirmation of the species.  I sent it on to Jeff Cantrell of MDC who coincidentally was presenting a program on identifying raptors the next night at the Conservation Nature Center.  Jeff confirmed that it was an immature red-tailed hawk.
"This hawk has a couple of different features, the markings on its face and throat are different or bolder than usual. And it is very odd not having a prominent patagial bar (patagium) on its inner shoulder. But you got an original immature red tailed hawk. It must be on some kind of food, the hawk on the video is looking around constantly “worried” for a pirate."
In his raptor presentation, Jeff emphasized a few distinctive markings characteristic of each species of buteo, accipiter, falcon, etc.  For instance, the red-tailed hawk typically has a dark bar on the leading edge of its wing between the shoulder and wrist, the patagium.  It also has a speckled dark belly band across the otherwise white abdomen, both features visible from below in flight.  Combining this with the white tail without the black stripes of the red-shouldered hawk helps us distinguish between these two most common hawks along Bull Creek.
Red-tailed  hawk on turkey carcass

Linda's hawk was probably guarding its food from other predators as her video shows it looking for trouble in every direction.  The red-tailed hawk on the right was mounted on a freezer-burned turkey carcass, conquered after it had run off a flock of turkey vultures.  They will sometimes even spread their wings and tail over their meal to hide it, an activity called mantling from the old English term of mantle or cloak.

Once hooked you will soon be doing what Barb calls a "55mph drive-by botany,"only in this case focusing on raptors gliding or sitting on roadside trees.  There is a guide for soaring raptors that no self-respecting naturalist's car should be without.  It is available as a laminated card from or you can print it off for free at this link.

You can follow a peregrine falcon family in development at the MDC falcon webcam which is on live daily from 7AM to 7PM.

Two other sources for raptor identification online are the MDC Fieldguide and Allaboutbirds.comHawkmountail. has diagrams of raptor shapes in flight.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bird of Another Color

Amelanistic Carolina wren-  REK
Barb saw this bird at our feeder, surrounded by hungry nuthatches, finches, juncos and all the other usual suspects, fighting for the only food after the sleet and snow hit.  This little guy even tried to compete for suet with the red bellied and downy woodpecker.

At first we had only glimpses in the dull light of overcast skies.  We sent a rather pitiful description to Charley Burwick- wren like tail, larger than a junco, blotchy white spots on the wings and a long, pointed and somewhat curved beak.  Helpful as always, he suggested that it wasn't likely to be a hawk.

Thankfully it returned the following day when the sun came out, flitting around while I shot pictures through the sliding glass door.  We sent pictures off to Charley who identified it as an amelanistic Carolina wren,  also Barb's first species guess.

First a few terms in the confusing world animal pigmentation. 
Leucism is a condition in animals characterized by reduced pigmentation. This may be an overall fading in color in the feathers.  Unlike albinism, it is caused by a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin.  Amelanism is a pigmentation abnormality characterized by the lack of pigments called melanins, responsible for the coloration a albino animals. This sounds simple but the devil is in the details.

Carolina wren- normal coloration- Wikimedia
All About Birds has several articles exploring the differences, including the variations in usage among experts.  "Whether the result of partial albinism or leucism, the presence of atypical white patches in normally darker plumaged birds gives rise to the terms pied or piebald. ”  The clearest explanation I found was this.
"True albinos in nature are rare, because without protective pigments in the eyes, true albino birds quickly become blind. Also, feathers wear out more quickly without pigments to provide structural support. Albinism usually results from a genetic mutation that interferes with production of the pigment melanin.
Partial albinos are much more common, and most birders eventually see at least a few. Partial albinos have a pied appearance with usually irregular patches of pure white feathers. After an injury, regrowing feathers sometimes lack pigments. Some birds develop stray white feathers as they age."
Carolina wrens are little birds with big attitudes, bouncing around with an upraised tail, acting in charge of our deck.  We have a wren house on a tree nearby which remains empty while wrens usually start building a nest in the garage even though they will then be trapped inside when we lock up for the night.  Their perennial favorite housing is inside a curled up armadillo shell.

In the past most Carolina wrens wintered to the south but now we routinely see them in the winter.  We haven't seen the piebald wren since the snow cleared.  They are very territorial so I suspect that it was either passing through in migration or driven off by the normal colored wren now nesting in the armadillo shell on the deck shelf.  Who says 'dillas are good for nothing?

Piebald junco- at the Watershed Center feeder- Charley Burwick
I contacted Charley Burwick and his resident ornithologist Lisa Berger about the confusing nomenclature and learned that I am not alone.  The partial amelanistic junco pictured above is a good example.  I am including Lisa's cogent thoughts for my future reference.  If you have had enough confusing science terminology, this would be a good place to stop.
Here is what Lisa writes.
 "First a few terms in the confusing world animal pigmentation.  Nomenclature applied to pigmentation observations, has been, well, gray, and otherwise non-specific with regard to origin.  Proposed terms are listed first, followed by common or historic labels.

Total amelamism
(Davis 2007) or Albinism, is the absence of all melanin from the plumage, eyes, and skin. In species that lack carotenoids, and more uncommon pigments, the genetic condition results in an all white plumage, pink eyes and skin (Davis 2007). Carotenoid pigments from diet, if present, result in retained red bill, crest, wings, and tail in Cardinal, or retained yellow in Evening Grosbeaks (Hudson 1997, Davis 2007).

Hypomelanism (Davis 2007) or leucism (Harrison 1964) is the abnormal reduction of melanin concentration in plumage, skin, eyes, or all of three areas, resulting in a faded appearance (Davis, 2007). Carotenoid and other non-melanistic pigments, if present, are unaffected.

Partial amelanism (Davis 2007) or partial albinism (Coues 1868) (partial albino is oxymoronic: Kind of like saying a woman is partially pregnant) is the abnormal absence of all melanin from parts of the plumage, skin, eyes or all three, and is the most frequently observed color abnormality in birds (Davis 2007). It may be expressed as a single white spot, one feather, or completely white plumage, although some melanin usually remains in the eye (van Grouw 2006). Origins are hereditary, environmental (malnutrition, toxins, injury, disease, parasites, shock, old age). Hormones also play a role (Keck 1933, Davis 2007).

All About Birds ( has several articles exploring the differences, including the variations in usage among experts. "Whether the result of partial albinism or leucism, the presence of atypical white patches in normally darker plumaged birds gives rise to the terms pied or piebald. ” The clearest explanation I found was this.  "True albinos in nature are rare, because without protective pigments in the eyes, true albino birds quickly become blind.  Also, feathers wear out more quickly without pigments to provide structural support. Albinism usually results from a genetic mutation that interferes with production of the pigment melanin.

Partial albinos are much more common, and most birders eventually see at least a few. Partial albinos have a pied appearance with usually irregular patches of pure white feathers. After an injury, regrowing feathers sometimes lack pigments. Some birds develop stray white feathers as they age."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Has Sprung

"Cat" on a red hot napkin.
Spring has invaded out house in the woods.  The looper caterpillar above was on my napkin last night as we sat down to eat.  We used to call them inchworms but this one  measured close to 1.5" or 4 centimeters, so I guess it was a metric worm.

Caterpillars coming out of an egg are tiny and eat their way to full size.  This caterpillar is a member of the Geometridae family (Geo= earth, Metridae= measure).  It travels by fastening the hooks of its tiny prolegs on the rear segment to the ground, then extending its body as though looking around for the prefect perch for its 3 pair of front legs.  It was very confused by its surroundings as both of us were trying to figure how it got here.

"Anybody see a fresh leaf?  Where is the salad?"
While true legs work by muscles and joints not unlike ours in principle, the hind prolegs lack joints and extend and retract by pumping fluid into the structures inflating them like a long circus balloon.  Small hooks on the end, called crochets, hold on to almost any surface.

Crochets of a dagger moth larva-  Brigette Zacharczenko
Some geometrids overwinter as full grown caterpillars.  Our caterpillar hunting friend  Kevin Firth kindly searched out several possible ID's based on appearance and the trait of overwintering as caterpillars.  Hypagyrtis unipunctata is the most appealing to me as it is said to be very common, has been reported in Christian county and we are surrounded by its host plants - many trees, service berry and rose.  Unlike ticks which will freeze to death unless they get under the shelter of leaf litter, etc. these caterpillars actually hang out on tree bark and branches, freezing and thawing with the weather cycles.  They serve as a winter time snack for the golden crowned kinglet in Maine.*

The overwintering geometrid caterpillars start to roam just as buds open to provide fresh and tender leaves of their selected species.  The timing is critical for survival of the caterpillar and its predators.  Migrating birds depend on these early risers for food when little else is available.

Global warming or unusual seasonal temperature changes throws off the system.  This looper is out a little too early as the only buds opening around the house deep in the valley and away from the early sun are on a small clove currant, Ribes odoratum

Global warming also affects the forest nesting birds which feed on loopers when they first arrive at their seasonal home.  The caterpillars' emergence is signaled by temperature while bird migration is triggered by the length of the day and the number of hours of sun.  Without a phone app to warn birds of the disconnect, they have no way of knowing whether their cats are out of their bags.

Further information from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
* From one of my favorite books, Bernd Heinrich's Winter World.  He is a wonderful writer and has a number of books to choose from.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cedar Flowers or Cones

Male red cedar cones produce pollen- REK
If you are around eastern red cedars in March you will see prolific clusters of these golden brown cones at the tips of leaves.  They are dense and only occur on half of the trees.  I initially assumed that these were the early version of the blue female cones which occur in the fall.  I was only half right, they are early cones but they occur on the male trees.

Male cones cover the branches- REK
Cedars are dioecious (separate male and female trees) and do not produce flowers with petals but rather cones. Tiny male cones form in the fall, already holding their pollen.  These male pollen cones mature over winter into or golden brown, papery berry-like cones at the tips of leaves.  Aside from the white linear markings, you would be hard pressed to know that these were actually cones.  They release pollen in March through May which spreads to the tiny female cones, and incidentally to our nasal mucosa where it can trigger hay fever and asthma symptoms in those who are allergic.

J. virginiana seed cones and female flower (red arrow)- Jim Mason
The female seed cone flowers also first develop in the fall, tiny dots 1/16th of an inch long.  They open in March, ready to receive the pollen of nearby male trees.  The tiny pollen grains from the fruit of this mating develop in August and September, coexisting with the flowers (see above) when the "the female cones become fleshy, waxy berrylike, about ¼ inch long, dark blue, covered with a white, waxy coating, globe-shaped; flesh sweet, resinous, with odor of gin."MDC  The cones will contain usually1-2 but up to 4 yellow-brown round seeds which may be pitted.

Since cedars are aggressive early colonizers whose natural control, fire, has been largely eliminated, they tend to become invasive in glades, untended fields and roadsides.  This supports the definition of a weed as "a plant growing in the wrong place," as defined by the bipedal mammals that have gained control of North America.  On the other hand, they are valuable as windbreaks, particularly in the Great Plains where there is little else to slow the wind and drifting snow.  As evergreens, they remain a wind barrier in winter when other species have lost their leaves.

This can be a mixed blessing, especially when they take over dormant fields.  Cedars are  frequently seen along fence rows where their seeds are planted by robins who love their "berries" and pass them along while wire-sitting, waiting for their next worm.  These cones are consumed also by cedar waxwings, finches and a variety of other birds, as well as gleaned from the forest floor by rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and opossums.s Cedars as evergreens also provide shelter for many bird species during the winter as well as nesting sites in the summer. FCPS

One final plus of cedars is their positive effect on barren soil such as our hills denuded of deciduous trees from aggressive harvesting in the 19th century and subsequent fire suppression.  Cedars tolerate highly acid soil and rapidly alkalize it because of the high calcium content of its shed foliage.  This can increase earthworm activity, and they in turn incorporate organic matter as well as aerate the soil.

Mature female cones

Should you want to propagate cedars (unlikely here in the Ozarks), the USDA has information for you.  
Detailed information is available at this US Forest Service site.
Thanks to Jim Mason of the Great Plains Nature Center of Wichita, Kansas for the photograph.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Woodcocks Passing Through

American woodcock - MDC
American woodcocks have just passed through the valley of Bull Creek.  This is their annual migration toward the northern states and only a few will remain in Missouri during the summer months.  While most are only passing through, they put on quite a show every morning and evening.  I had always wanted to see or at least hear them but had never followed up until now.

Our Master Naturalist chapter received an email from Cari Sebright of the University of Arkansas's  Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.  While woodcocks' winter and summer nesting characteristics are well studied, less is known about what type of territory they look for during their migration stopovers.  Cari was looking for volunteers to provide data for her study of what type of habitat attracts these migrants.  Participants were to go out for set times before sunrise and after sunset to listen for the birds and collect data on weather conditions, location and the type of territory they select for their famous displays.

The male woodcock starts practicing his courtship display long before the arrival of females, much like a boy practicing his dance moves in front of the mirror.  They start with a peent, a distinctive buzzing which sounds more artificial or insect-like than any familiar bird sound.  All About describes it this way.  "On spring nights, males perform very conspicuous displays, giving a buzzy peent call, then launching into the air. Their erratic display flight includes a distinctive, twittering flight sound and ends with a steep dive back to the ground."  To me, this chirping sounds like he is saying, "Hey, look at me do this" like a kid on a diving board.  These sound recordings are at this Allaboutbirds site.

American woodcock camouflage - Wikipedia
The "wood" in woodcock suggests that they would be around forests, as does their other common name, timberdoodle.  They spend most of their life feeding on earthworms in moist soil that they pierce with their specialized beaks.  Their preferred feeding grounds are among "densely growing young trees such as aspen (Populus sp.), birch (Betula sp.), and mixed hardwoods less than 20 years of age, and shrubs, particularly alder (Alnus sp.) WikipediaThese are northern species not found in Missouri which may account for their trip farther up north.

The protocol called for stopping for 2 minutes to listen at each location, recording findings before moving on.  After several crepuscular forays along the valley floor where we heard a few scattered timberdoodles, Barb persuaded me to try going up on top, convincing me finally with the argument that there would be no dinner afterwards unless we did.  The results were outstanding.  The ride is solid forest until you reach the top, 300 feet up, where it opens to a long ridge-top pasture with wooded edges.  To a woodcock this must look like a frat house.

Within seconds of shutting off the truck we could hear peenting to the left, and the chattering chirps of descending flights to the right and straight ahead.  There were three distinctly different birds at each of the first two stops, and a total of 16 separate birds either peenting or doing their chirping flight song.

The last few evenings the number of calling birds we have heard has dropped off, and Cari sent word that the first woodcocks were heard in Iowa, their next stop on the annual return to their nesting grounds.  Soon their long pointed beaks will be terrorizing the worms of the North Woods, a beneficial effect for the forest there which is actually harmed by the worms which are an invasive species.  But that is fodder (or castings) for another blog.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Snail's Lunch

Mark Bower's upcoming exhibition of mushroom photographs at Springfield's Nature Center features a snail caught in the act of vandalizing one of our precious morels.  This led me off into the study of the snail's diet.  It was appropriately slow going.

I started by asking Dr. Chris Barnhart for the background on the perp.  He identified the snail as one of several possible species in the Polygyridae family.  These are air breathing land snails that make up a significant proportion of the land snail fauna of eastern North America.  They have eyes and  the absence of a "love dart,"  a detail that only a dedicated malacologist  (mollusk expert) or possibly Hugh Heffner would notice.

Land_snails  are the ultimate omnivore with a diet of live and dead vegetation, fungi, fruit, leaves, flowers, bark, algae, limestone, chalk, occasional carrion and even damp paper and cardboard on occasion.  Polygyrid specie's diet is said to be comprised mostly of microfungi associated with leaf litter.  
"Land snails and slugs may eat herbaceous plant leaves or stems; rotting herbaceous plants, leaves, wood or bark, including the fungi that live within these items; fungal fruiting bodies such as mushrooms or conchs; and coatings of fungi or algae on rock or bark.  Snails and slugs are also found eating animal scats and carcasses; nematodes; old shells of other snails; or snail eggs, shells, and flesh. In the Pennsylvania woods large snails such as the toothed globe (Mesodon zaletus) might be found upon white-tailed deer scats, while the gray-foot lancetooth (Haplotrema concavum) hunts and consumes live snails and slugs. 
Organic and inorganic soil and rock particles are also ingested by snails. Consumption of calcium-bearing minerals provides the nutrient that snails need to build their shells, which are mostly calcium carbonate with a protein outer coating, the periostracum."  Pennsylvania Land Snails
The wide range of foods probably reflects the relatively small home range of a snail.  Although a few species have been noted to "migrate," that is to seasonally move from a damp off-season home in the humus to a stump that has been rotting over several years, the majority live in a neighborhood of a few feet.  Under that circumstance, you can't be too choosy about your food.

Surprisingly little is known about the dietary preferences of most snail species.  As you can imagine, recording a snail's diet over weeks is research that moves at, dare I say it, a snail's pace.  Recent research however has emphasized the importance of at least one species eating its fresh vegetables.  In a study by Rebekah Martin and colleagues last year, they were able to show that a species of  Polygyrid land snails (Patera appressa) were stunted when consuming only leaf litter but caught up to normal size when fed fresh greens in the form of Romaine lettuce.  Their mother could have told them that, but who listens to mom?

Click to Enlarge
Click to enlarge

If you are fortunate enough to find a snail on a mushroom, look carefully behind it and you may be able to see a trail of slime.  Land snails, a classification that includes shell-less slugs, travel along on a lubricating layer of slime.  Slime is unique in that it is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs water rather than losing it.  Moisture is critical to these creatures which initially evolved in the water, so they seek moisture.  Many only come out in the night and most prefer damp areas.
Snail on a false morel- Mark Bower
Also remember that as with all wildlife, the fact that a snail can eat a mushroom does not mean it is safe or non-toxic to humans.  If you have trouble remembering this rule, just remember all the things your dog eats on a walk that you wouldn't touch.  Fido and snails are much more omnivorous than humans.
Video of a snail eating a mushroom.
Overviews of land snails are at The Living World of Mollusks and  Pennsylvania Land Snails.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Conservation Detection Dogs

Seamus rewarded by trainer. Photo by Elizabeth Stone -
I have long dreamed of having a dog that could sniff out morel mushrooms, much like the famous truffle-sniffing pigs of Europe.  It turns out that there are lots of dogs used in ecological research to sniff out other more valuable finds.  Seamus who is pictured above is getting a reward from trainer Dalit Guscio for tracking down invasive Dyers woad plants in Montana.

Detector dogs have been used to locate desert tortoises, identify scats from different species, conduct searches for invasive weeds, and perform a number of other research services.  On Maui, these eco-dogs search out invasive animals that prey on native tree snails: the cannibalistic rosy wolf snail and Jackson’s chameleon.

The University of Washington began using Conservation canines in 1997, working with the Department of Corrections that had experience with drug sniffing dogs.  They are using scat sensing dogs to find samples which can be tested for genetic, physiological, toxicological and dietary indicators.  They have been used to monitor populations as diverse as tigers, spotted owls, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, jaguars, down to Pacific pocket mice.

"The ideal scat detection dog is intensely focused and has an insatiable urge to play. Their obsessive, high-energy personalities make them difficult to maintain as a family pet, so they often end up at the shelter with euthanasia the most likely outcome. The single-minded drive of these dogs makes them perfect Conservation Canines. They are happy to work all day traversing plains, climbing up mountains, clambering over rocks and fallen trees, and trekking through snow, all with the expectation of reward – playing with their ball – after successfully locating wildlife scat. We rescue these dogs and offer them a satisfying career traveling the world to help save numerous other species."
The Oregon Wildlife Institute has been using detector dogs since 2007 when they began searching for Kincaid’s lupine, a rare prairie wildflower of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Since then they have assisted in searches for Swainson’s thrush nests and western pond turtles.

There are a number of organizations that train and supply conservation detection dogs.  I still dream of finding a morel sniffing dog.  Meanwhile, if you are interested in a dog that can sniff out the hind end of any dog in the neighborhood, let me know.