Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Calliope Hummingbird

Late visitor at the feeder - Greg Swick
Greg Swick sent a story of an uncommon visitor to warm your heart on a cold day.  This played out on his Facebook page during the cold snap around November 16th.  The main character in this drama is a calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), the first report of this species in Christian County.  The first photographs are by Greg who apparently developed the trust of his subject who we will name Cal.

Cal posing head on - Greg Swick

Little Cal rests by leaf buds - Lisa Owens 
So what is a hummingbird doing, hanging around in the cold?  Aren't they supposed to be south by now?  Greg posted a good discussion on this which I will steal word for word.
"First of all, birds don't migrate because of cold weather. They migrate in search of food, open water, or appropriate habitat for breeding. In the case of southward migration this time of year, they are in search for adequate food and water. 
Calliope hummingbirds are a very hardy, temperate species that nest as far north as the British Columbia Rockies at altitudes from 4 to 11,000 feet. They are commonly exposed to the elements, so the cold temperatures do not bother them. They have evolved and adapted in cold/cool climates and torpor is frequently used to survive overnight or even during the day in extended cold, precipitous weather events. 
We have long suspected that many NW hummingbird species migrate through Missouri regularly. In Christian County alone, we have had Anna's, rufous, and now calliope in the late fall/winter months.
It is important to note that calliopes are increasingly wintering along the Gulf coast, so it is highly likely that this bird is simply on course and, actually, not even aberrant in timing. We just don't know much about it.  It might even be following a migration route that many others of its species have followed from the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico. That's why it's so important to document these species, and contribute the data to the global avian database."
Wikipedia has more in depth information about calliopes.  Although we tend to think of hummingbirds as nectar feeders, they also consume insects and tree sap when available as well as Greg's sugar water.  Seeing an uncommon migrant is a real treat and it was fortunate to have visited Greg where it would be recognized as uncommon.

Final approach - Greg Swick
Calliope was the daughter of Zeus like many of the characters in Greek mythology.  At last count he had 43 divine offspring as well as many semi-devine and human progeny.  He was so busy fathering that he barely had time to run things, which may be the reason there was so much conflict and wars.  Among his offspring were the nine muses of the arts, including Calliope, the Greek muse of poetry.  Her name is pronounced Kal-yo-pee, although our hummingbird is pronounced like the familiar circus musical instrument. 

Doug Hommert takes a shot - Greg Swick
I suspect that Calliope was also the muse of photography.  Greg invited birders to come by his house to see the bird, even when he was gone.  Soon they were coming from all over the state.

This bird's rarity quotient brought in birders far from our region.  Now the guest register is over 100, and most recent guests were from Austin, Texas, Indianapolis, and a visitor from NYC.  Calliope must be the most photographed single hummingbird in Christian County history.

Unlike hunting rabbits and deer, with birders there seems to be an inverse relationship between the bird size and lens length.  Whether it is a camera or a magnifier or microscope, the smaller the "game," the bigger the lens or microscope.

Photo by Peter Kondrashov 
Many naturalists enjoy the thrill of the hunt and bagging an image.  Whether we are birders, bug people, or those who are foraying for mushrooms, we have a need to capture our own picture even though the "hunter" next to us probably has a better photograph.  In this case we can blame Cal, the Missouri muse of the camera.

Thanks to Greg and the other birders, from KC (Lisa) and St Louis (Doug) and Kirksville (Peter)  for the photographs.
Note:  Article amended to add new information of the wide range of birders coming to view Cal,
Greater Ozarks Audubon Society supports GLADE.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mapping Carbon Dioxide

A recent posting on Ecowatch.com began with, "While most of us—and virtually all climate scientists—won’t deny that the carbon emissions driving climate change are real, they’re still abstract." Atmospheric carbon isn't something you can see or hold and as a non-point pollutant it is impossible to trace where it goes. Or is it? 
Ecowatch.com has posted this this 3 minute video of a supercomputer model of data which gives a vivid demonstration of both CO2 and carbon monoxide pathways in the atmosphere.  As you might expect by thinking about where major population centers and industry are located, much of the CO2 is swirling above the northern hemispheres.  I found the seasonal variation especially interesting, showing the effect of carbon absorption by plants in the growing season.

Don't waste any further time reading this, just click on the video.  The billowing CO2 is both beautiful and disturbing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

December Phenology 2014

Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

By now the male black bears will be denning up, usually a few weeks after the females.  Black bear cubs are born this month but you will never know it.  They are curled up in dens and the mothers will be sleeping through much of their nursing.  Human mothers, eat your hearts out!  The cubs won't make their debut for another few months.

Red squirrel drey
When winter weather is cold and wet with icy winds, squirrels will gather in their leafy dreys nestled high in tree forks; this is to conserve energy. Yet late December brings mating season when males can be seen chasing females, as well as chasing off other suitors. This ritual of chasing, occurs through the trees at top speed, performing some of the most breathtaking acrobatics imaginable.

Christmas fern is the largest of the evergreen ferns in our region.  Snow may flatten its fronds to the ground, but once the snow melts, the Christmas fern will reappear in all its green glory.

Barred Owl
- Wikimedia
Barred owls call "Who - Who cooks for you - who cooks for you all?"  Courtship begins in early December and although owls are more elusive to see at this time, their courtship “hoots” can be heard.  Two to four eggs will be laid in hollow trees or hawk nests in February or March.

Great Horned Owl - Greg Hume

Great horned owls' courtship "hoots" can also be heard beginning in early December.  Less common than the barred owls, you may want to refresh your memory of their calls.  Listen to this "Hoo  Hoo-hoo    Hoo-hoo." After mating they will adopt an unused hawk or eagle nest and lay one to six eggs in January or February.

Shelf or bracket fungi that grows on trees, stumps and fallen logs are very much part of the winter scene as they are very obvious and attractive when the foliage is off deciduous plants.  Look for the various colors of tan, brown, pink and rust found on the top surfaces.
White crowned sparrow- Wikipedia
Dark-eyed junco - MDC

Don't forget to stock up on bird food.  Winter is when the insects and fruits get scarce and nutrition is important for overwintering species.  All the usual suspects will show up at the feeder but be on the lookout for some winter species.  Dark-eyed juncos return, not dramatic in color but they make it up in "cuteness." You might also spot a white throated sparrow, visiting for a Christmas vacation.  They breed in Canada and come to "snowbird" in Missouri.

Bats Jamming for Food

Mexican free-tailed bat - Wikimedia
In a previous blog we discussed how tiger moths elude bats by jamming their sonar. Bats have poor eyesight and hunt by echo location, sending out high pitched sounds that bounce off objects.  They can judge the size and speed of prey with this.  Tiger moths can produce a series of high speed clicks that confuse the bats.  "Since the attack sequence of a bat lasts less than a second, the moths have to react fast.  Fortunately, the moths can produce up to 450 clicks in one-tenth of a second."*

While studying this phenomenon, this same team of scientists discovered that bats can jam the signals of other bats competing for their prey.  A story from  Livescience.com reports that William Conner, a biologist at Wake Forest University, discovered a strange sound that Mexican free-tailed bats made only when another bat was homing in on a moth they were competing for.
"Competition for food can be fierce, and Mexican free-tailed bats emit a special call that can interfere with the sonar of other bats that are pursuing a meal. "They get into amazing aerial dogfights," said study leader William Conner, a biologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "One will jam the other, and the other will jam back."
The bats would produce a "terminal buzz" just as they were about to capture their prey.  When the researchers played the interference sound, the bat was 86% more like to miss the prey.  Do other animal species use similar tricks?  Stay tuned for further research.

Other news from the bat world highlights the danger of wind turbines to bats.  They are apparently drawn to them by confusing them with very tall trees.  Birds face their greatest danger when the blades are turning at high speeds.  Although they look slow as we drive by them, the tips of the blades reach between 138 to 220 mph.  Bats are attracted when they are moving slowly, apparently avoiding the high speeds which create greater air turbulence.  Details at this link.

* More on moth jamming bats at Discovermagazine.com. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Harvestman Mating

Gala Solari Keller sent me this picture of two harvestmen head to head, asking if this was predatory or mating.  A "female harvestman" is a bit of an oxymoron, as would be calling her "daddy longlegs" or "granddaddy longlegs."  For that reason I will refer to them by their order name, Opiliones.  Not only are there female "daddies," some species' females can reproduce by parthenogenesis without male fertilization.  Take that, you sexist naturalists!

Opilione - note combined cephalothorax and abdomen into a single body segment.- Wikimedia
Brown recluse body-
Separate cephalothorax and abdomen
Opiliones (pronounced O-pill-e-on-es )are frequently confused with spiders which are in a separate order, the Araneae.  There are two key characteristics which separate the orders.  Opiliones are easily distinguished by a single globular body segment, unlike the spiders which have their abdomen separated from their cephalothorax by a constriction.  They also have a single pair of eyes versus 3 to 4 pairs in spiders, a distinction almost impossible to make on a living specimen as most of their bodies are tiny, typically less than a quarter of an inch.

There is a common misconception, perpetuated in some web sites, that Opiliones can bite humans or that their venom is more toxic than that of a spider.  They actually don't have venom glands or even suck their food as liquids like a spider does.  They actually take in small pieces of insects, plant material, fungus, or even dung.  These are stalkers, not trappers- they don't make webs and don't even have silk glands.

As slow moving creatures they are vulnerable but have several interesting defenses.  They have scent glands which disuade predators such as ants and even birds.  They may bob up and down when disturbed.  They also will sacrifice a leg (after all they have 8), a practice called autotomy.  Because there is a separate pacemaker in the femur, the leg can twitch for a prolonged period, much like the tail of a skink, distracting the predator while the victim sneaks away. 

A predator is not the only cause of the loss of legs.  This video shows the perils of sex in Opiliones.  Males may fight over the female's charms and use their jaws to amputate a rivals legs.  Notice at each attempted mating the pair are face to face.

Mating - note the red mites, a common problem among Opiloines
The closeup of Gala's original photograph above shows the smaller male, on the left, head to head with the female.  A few mites don't seem to be slowing them up.  Mites are a common problem for them, usually one or two per customer.  The one I photographed on Bull Creek had a major infestation and was moving slowly, not attempting to escape from my camera.  These Erythraeidae mites have larvae which parasitize Opiliones, sucking fluid from their legs.

Now back to the original question - dinner or sex?  It turns out that Opiliones mate face to face as seen in this video and lots of pictures including Gala's.  The male has a penis and mates by direct copulation.  This research paper has more details on the anatomy describing how this occurs and may be more than you  want to know.  The important thing is that they know it.

Finally, Opiliones are frequently gregarious, gathering in large masses.  This video is not for the reader with arachnophobia.

Concise information about harvestmen (and women) is at  David Darling's Encyclopedia of Science.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small World

Jumping spider eyes (20x) - Third Place, Noah Fram-Schwartz
As the cold weather settles in, it is a good time to sort through favorite nature pictures.  I was reminded of this by seeing the winning entries in the Nikon Small World 2014 contest.  My personal favorite is the jumping spider eyes at 20x above.  You can see all of the winning entries at the Nikon slideshow site, using your right arrow key to thumb through the pictures.

Each year the MDC Nature Calendar contest brings out the competitive urges among our members (Jay is a perennial favorite), and several of their pictures have been selected.  I suspect that many of you have favorite pictures hidden away on your computer.

Most of us carries a camera around daily that has more capability for high quality photography than was available 20 years ago in high end equipment.  The digital era and the cell phone has made photographers out of all of us.
Larva crawling out of a grey headed coneflower seed head after the seeds were removed.
Here is a challenge to our Springfield Plateau MN members.  Email me your favorite nature pictures for a future show of Best Shots.  You can pick them for beauty, unusual subject or just an interesting discovery you made as above.  We will all be winners. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Slime Mold Beauty

Mark Bower shared this set of pictures from one of his early morning forays. It really begins with the photograph below.  The story is in his words.

Physarum polycephalum on a tree trunk -  all pictures from Mark Bower
Close-up of the "heads"
"This is Physarum polycephalum, the "Many-headed Slime", or the "Grape Cluster Slime". This is the plasmodial phase after the single celled organisms have "decided" to coalesce into a creepy yellow mass with bulbous areas (these are the "heads"). These pictures were taken at Valley Water Mill. The second picture (on the right) is a close-up of the "heads"."
Notice the faint streak of yellow in the green bark furrow
"The next day, I excitedly went back to the tree for some better pictures and I thought it was gone (light was dim). I thought the darned thing had slinked away. After scouring the area around the tree (20 yard radius, I gave up on finding it. However, when I went back to the tree, the light was better and it appeared that it was still there, but had changed color to a greenish hue, (see above) and it had developed the grape-like spore stalks."(see below)
  Note that most had turned dark green, now with grape-like spore stalks
"I collected some of these green spore clusters and took them home. After arriving home about 1 1/2 hours later, the green clusters had already turned yellowish. The next day, they broke open and released the brown spores."
Green clusters had already turned toward yellow
Next day - Broken open and releasing spores
Mark's notes led me into a maze of reading on myxomycetes* and P. polycephalumIt is usually found in shady, cool, moist areas, such as logs like Mark's as well as decaying leaves. It seems to sense light causing several reactions.  While light can trigger spore growth it also can repel the slime mold.  Since it is easy to grow and has interesting growth patterns, it has become a favorite "lab rat" for myxomycologists.

Yes there are myxomycologists, and we will all have a chance to meet one who literally"wrote the book" on slime molds.  Dr. Steve Stephenson is a Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Arkansas.  He wrote Myxomycetes: A Handbook of Slime Molds as well as many other books and papers on related fields.  He will be at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center on Friday, November 21 at 7:00 PM discussing "Myxomycetes- Slime Molds in Nature."  This is a great opportunity to hear more fascinating details from the expert.

P. polycephalum is not just another pretty face.  Although a single celled organism, it seems to be able as a mass to make decisions that our congress might envy.  More on that in a future blog.

The Kingdom Fungi, Steven Stephenson, Timber Press, 2010.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sycamore Assassin Bug

I have been seeing the creature above around our creek house the last few weeks.  Although it is only 1/2 inch long, I can now recognize it by the distinctive color and slow direct flight, usually only going a few feet before landing.  The distinctive shape and snout is typical of an assassin bug.

Searching Bugguide.net for 'assassin bugs' I paged through the images until I found one with the distinctive banded legs.  This was in the genus Pselliopus, and the 'info' site gave a key to the species.  Clicking on the choices, up jumped pictures of Pselliopus barberi species, a perfect match.  (It isn't always this easy but that is the fun.)  The 'info' page says the Pselliopus comes from the Greek psellion 'anklet/bracelet' + pous 'foot', a reference to the banded legs.

Orange Assassin Bug with Tobacco Horn Worm - Pselliopus barberi
Sucking juices of a tobacco horn worm - James VanCleave
Once you have identified a genus and even species, you can click on 'images' and find pictures of the larva and sometimes even the eggs.  There usually are some high quality pictures of the insects (or arachnids) eating, procreating, or just hanging out like these here.  Many of the contributors are generous enough to share their pictures.  The 'info' button will usually bring up details on range, habitat, size, season and life cycle.

Mating P. barberi - Matthew Roth
Bugguide.net is a great resource to identify insects and arachnids and learn about your finds.  If you can't find a match, join (free) and send in pictures.  You will usually get information from their many knowledgeable volunteers within a few days.  At times it will be referred to an expert specializing in hard to identify species who will later respond with difficult species identification or pointers.

Just looking good!   Shelly Cox of MoBugs
Finally, by searching using the genus and species rather than the common name you are more likely to find detailed information from reputable sources.  Also called a sycamore assassin bug, it is usually found on flower heads in the summer until it migrates to tree bark and sometimes houses to overwinter.  I came up with more details on our P. barberi on this Americaninsects.net link.  Now wasn't that easy?

What is this which is coming next week to the blog?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lead on O' Kinky Turtles

Our friend Jane Troup sent some pictures of a pair of three-toed box turtles. Terrapene carolina triunguis, mating.  These turtles were unusual in that they were in the "missionary" position and it was October 17th, well beyond what the book say is typical mating season.  I called for professional help, for me, not them.

First the issue of their mating season.  Amphibian and Reptiles of Missouri says that their breeding season is April through July, the time we usually find them crossing the road looking for love.  It qualifies this by saying "it may go on into the late summer."  Mid-October doesn't qualify as late summer to me but as slow as they are, maybe it does to turtles or maybe these hadn't read the book.

I contacted Jeff Briggler the MDC herpetologist who assured me that they occasionally would mate this late in the year.  I guess when you move that slow, it is hard to find mates and you have to strike while the iron is hot or at least a little warm.

Red eyed male- M. Bower
The MDC Field Guide describes the identifying marks of male and female box turtles.  "The plastron is yellow with brown smudges. Males have red eyes, orange on the head and forelimbs, a concave plastron, and a thick tail; females have yellow-brown eyes, less orange, a flat plastron, and a small tail."  If you look carefully at the plastron (shell bottom) of the inverted turtle, you can see it is concave.

As mischievous boys studying nature in our own fashion, we would turn turtles over to watch then struggle to upright themselves, usually without any success.  

It is important to find reputable online resources as at least one said that the male flips over for the third stage of mating.  The Nationalzoo.si.edu page gave a good clear description of how our T.c.carolina got in to this predicament.
"The courtship of both T.c.carolina and T.c.major is divided into three phases: a circling, biting, shoving phase; a preliminary mounting phase; and a copulatory phase.
The actual copulation is the same in all subspecies, with the male standing somewhat upright, leaning the concave part of his plastron against the back of the female's carapace. It is in this balanced position that the male fertilizes the female with his penis. Males sometimes fall backwards after copulation, and if they can't right themselves they die of starvation."
Normal mating position - note "fig leaf" for "PG" rating
All this brought back memories of a favorite family story we heard on NPR years ago.  The commentator described growing up thinking that the well-known hymn Lead On, O King Eternal was "Lead On, Oh Kinky Turtle," and it became our family mantra.  We adopted it, not a bad idea when nerves are tense and we made the wrong turn.  I suspect Jane's turtles were thinking that same thing as they "hung in there."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

November Phenology

Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

It is usually colder overnight in the valley of Bull Creek which runs North to South.  The sun hits the valley floor an hour later than the surrounding plateau and goes down an hour earlier.  This morning it was 18 degrees while it was 26 just a few miles away.  The good news - frost flowers!

They covered the sides of the road and the edges of the field, looking like someone scattered toilet paper along the ground.  They will continue to "bloom" with each freezing night until the ground freezes hard.  In 2011 we saw frost flowers on 40 mornings.  Look for Verbesina virginica, white crownbeard, the best source, along roadsides and fields early on a freezing morning before the sun reaches them.  They also occur on ditany and skullcap as reported by Ruby Ball,

These aren't the only treat on a frosty morning.  While frost flowers are created by supercooling of water in the roots of the crownbeard, plain old frost is also a beautiful sight, especially when the sun first hits it before it can melt.

Woodchucks are supposed to be asleep in their nests.  Hopefully that will include those that have been eating up our garden all summer and creating break-a-leg holes in the ground covered by thick grass.  I previously enjoyed seeing them run across the field but now that they are undermining all of the dirt floor under our 110 year old barn and threatening to collapse it, they have lost their charm.

"Alas, poor Yorick, the barn he'd fell."
They have a number of common names including gopher, ground hog, ground squirrel, land beaver, marmot, pasture pig, prairie dog, wood chuck and whistle pig.  The skull looks like an undersized beaver, its fellow member of the order Rodentia. 

Young walnut - click to enlarge
There are a record number of walnuts this year, making walking hazardous.  Even our young trees planted in the riparian area are now loaded.  Red oak acorns continue to rattle down on our deck with each gust of wind.  Persimmons are plentiful and now fully ripe. If only we could have said as much for the pawpaws.

Female black bears have been storing fat to feed the young born during the winter and will be denning soon.  What a great system, delivering their cubs in their den and sleeping through most of the early nursing without having to get up at night!

Other November things to look for:
  • Insects are starting to cluster up in protected areas for warmth.  Box elder bugs will soon be clustered in the firewood piles and invading our houses. 
  • Polistes red wasps are patrolling the house, looking for a crack to nest in for the winter.
  • The  cricket chorus is slowing down for the winter.  The last voice to be heard is Jay's jumping bush cricket whose brief buzzing call announce the beginning of winter. 
  • Stick insects are now clinging to the sides of our house.  After spending the summer feasting on the leaves high in the trees, the wind, falling leaves and temperatures are dropping them to the ground where they optimistically start climbing up again.
  • Time to get out the bird feeders.  The best of the berries are already starting to disappear and available insects are rare so birds need alternate food sources, especially high energy sources like peanut butter/seed wads and suet cakes.