Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This Bud's for You

Redbuds are budding out.
This week buds are starting to break out of their winter dormancy.  They are like little baby plants, nurtured over the winter with all the elements of leaves, branches and flowers, ready to burst forth on their own time schedule.

Buckeye bud in early spring
Buckeye buds are my favorite, large and brightly colored.  They are the first buds to open and leaf out in the spring.  They also are the first trees to lose their leaves, usually in mid August.  These are good buds to study, both from their size and their ability to mature when the stems are cut and kept in water.  They also make a seasonal table decoration.

Buckeye buds opening
Buckeye leaves open
Buckeye buds seem to open up over night, anxious to start photosynthesis and creating the buckeye nuts we will harvest in the fall.  Carrying one in your pocket, polished with a little sweat will bring you good luck throughout the year - at least it has for me.

Spicebush buds

Some other early spring buds are colorful as well, competing with the ephemeral spring wildflowers for attention.  The redbuds at the top are tiny but certainly the brightest of the crop.  Spicebush buds are a bright yellow-green, dainty but announcing the spicy smell that awaits anyone who scratches the fragile skin of the stem.

Box elder buds maturing
Early box elder buds

The newest branches of the box elder are bright green, more showy than the fuzzy green buds which open into dark red leaf clusters, preparing the opposite branched stems to follow.

Now is the time to enjoy the buds.  Like a newborn in a bassinet, they will come out wrinkled for a day but then will stretch out and grow.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian collared-dove- Karsen Bell

This dove picture came from Karsen Bell, a budding wildlife photographer from around Joplin. Charley Burwick identified it for me as a Eurasian collared-dove, Streptopelia decaocto, called ECD by birders.
Originally from India and Myanmar, ECDs spread all across Europe by the 20th century. A few ECDs were then introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s. They made their way to Florida by 1982 and then rapidly colonized much of the US, arriving in Missouri in the 1990s. Their prime diet is agricultural grains such as wheat, milo, corn and sunflower, which may explain why they in general avoid the Northeastern states. Charley gave me this history:

"I counted about 200 of them perched on telephone wires on Division near the train switching yards. It seems their primary migration path, when they invaded, was along railroad tracks, and small towns with grain elevators along the tracks."

They can become hand-tamed in urban areas, note black collar - Wikimedia
They have reached Alberta, Alaska and Nova Scotia but occur mostly across the Western and Central US. Their population is expanding much faster that either the house sparrows or starlings did in the 1800s.

"The Eurasian Collared-dove is associated with developed habitats throughout Europe and Asia, and this pattern holds in America. David Bonter said, “Human activity creates environments that are preferred by these nonnative doves. Collared-doves are also known to be aggressive and behaviorally dominant over similar species, and so (our) research focused on how the growing population of Eurasian Collared-doves was affecting Florida populations of Mourning doves, Common Ground-doves, White-winged doves, and Rock pigeons." allaboutbirds.org.

A story from the Dallas Morning News identifies them as the most rapidly expanding invasive species in Texas, not quite as destructive as feral fogs - that would be "when pigs fly" - but with a population growth of 15% per year. First seen there in 1995 according to Shaun Oldenburger, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s dove program leader, “That’s zero to 3 million-plus in less than 20 years.”

On a positive note, during dove hunting season ECDs frequently end up in hunter's mixed bags. As an exotic, non-game bird, they are legal to take and cannot be separated on the wing from our native doves during the hunting season. That is the price they pay for hanging out and competing with our native species.

There are ongoing studies to see if they are going to adversely affect our native dove populations in the long run. Only time will tell.

Monday, March 23, 2015

High and Dry

"In the spring a young salamander's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of.....," well you know.  With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Out hiking yesterday I looked for spotted salamanders in several ponds.  In one with steep sides I found 40 egg masses, all several inches above the water line. There had been a big runoff from the melting snow followed by rain and the pond had gone from brim full to its normal level over several days, stranding the hopes of the libidinous parents to a future of dessication. 

Large egg clusters of spotted salamander eggs in the leaf litter - note waters edge above.
These gelatinous masses are surprisingly adherent, the eggs sealed together as well as clinging onto the ground.  Many were adherent to a dead branch that had initially been in the water.  Lifting the branch, they all held on until I could toss it into the pond.

Egg masses hanging from a branch
As discussed in a past blog, these globs are a wonder of nature.  The thick clear jelly coating around the eggs protects them from drying out but inhibits oxygen absorption. This is especially important when the pond dries up, as happens to ephemeral ponds which are critical for many amphibians.  A pond that disappears every year means that no fish or even bull frogs live there, a critical source of predators.  Temporary wet pools (ephemeral) means more babies survive.

Imagine being an egg in the middle of the mass, far away from the edges where the dissolved oxygen in the water exists.  Spotted salamanders have an interesting and unique symbiotic relationship with a single celled green alga, Oophila amblystomatis.  The algae takes up carbon dioxide and nitrogen waste products from the eggs and photosynthesizes oxygen.  The eggs acquire the needed oxygen, continuing to develop into larvae while producing more carbon dioxide and the cycle continues.  The New Scientist article calls this The First Solar-powered Vertebrate.  The relationship has been known before but now there is proof that the algal cells exist inside the cells of the salamanders themselves.  The algae is thought to be contained in the salamander germ cells and thus transmitted to each new generation.*

They are all back in the water, preparing for drier times ahead.

*From this 2013 blog.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bradford Pear or Serviceberry?

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) - Illinoiswildflowers
We just referred to Doug Tallamy's story of the oak versus the Bradford pear in the last blog.  This raises the question of what value does the Bradford have in nature or if none, why not?

The Bradfords began life as varieties of callary pear in China and Vietnam.  They were introduced to the US several times beginning in 1909 to develop fire blight resistance in the common pear.  In 1950 their ornamental features were recognized and sterile hybrids were developed as Bradford pears.

Moving here from the Orient, they left all the insect species that they had grown up with back in Asia.  Over time those native species had learned to live with or feed on the callary pears.  Conversely, the pears had thousands of years to develop defenses against those predators.  When they arrived on our shores, they were total strangers to our native species.  The "Bradford" varieties were developed as sterile hybrid ornamentals but when multiple improved hybrid species developed they began to cross pollinate and became fertile.  Now they are considered an invasive or noxious species, their seeds spread by starlings and other birds to the surrounding countryside.

Bradford Pear - Wikimedia

Serviceberry - Wikimedia
What could take the place of Bradford pear in our lawns and parks?  Consider the downy serviceberry.  In addition to being a hearty species with beautiful spring blossoms, it has a history of thousands of years as part of our Missouri neighborhoods, and has become a good neighbor to the creatures in our environment.
  • Red-spotted Purple- Wikimedia
    Its nectar and pollen attracts honey bees as well as many other species of solitary bees, Syrphid and Tachinid flies, beetles and other species.  These in turn are food for other predators.
  • Caterpillars of the striped hairstreak and red-spotted purple as well as at least these 17 moth species feed specifically on its leaves while causing no noticeable harm to the tree.  Birds and other insects in turn feed on the caterpillars.
  • Many species of wood-boring beetles, sawfly larvae, aphids and plant lice make their living in the wood before becoming part of the food chain.
  • White-tailed deer browse the twigs and leaves while the fruit feeds  fox, skunk, chipmunk and the white-footed mouse.
The serviceberry is also a natural birdfeeder as hairy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, orioles and at least 27 other species of birds eat the fruit.  Planting a downy serviceberry is like installing another bird feeder in your yard.

There is a lot more information on downy serviceberry at

Monday, March 16, 2015

Plant an Oak, Feed a Chickadee

Caterpillars feasting on oak leaves -  Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden
Here is a little 2nd grade math exercise from Doug Tallamy.
  • Doug's native white oak tree had 410 caterpillars (19 species) found at head height.  His neighbor's exotic Bradford pear (which is the same size) had one inchworm.
  • Chickadee parents deliver 350 to 570 caterpillars every day to their chicks for 16-18 days in the nest.
Question:  Was the oak or the Bradford pear better for the environment and why?

Doug Tallamy is the author of the popular book Bringing Nature Home.  He is coming to Springfield to the Conservation Nature Center to give two presentations.
  • Bringing Nature To Your Home March 28 • Saturday • 10–11 AM
  • Creating Living Landscapes  March 28  Saturday  1-2 PM
To get a little preview of what he is talking about (and to get the answer to today's quiz above) your required reading for this assignment is his New York Times article The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening.  I guarantee you will enjoy it and learn a little.  It is entirely painless - except maybe for the invasive Bradford pear.

Bonus question.  Did you know that 534 species moths and butterflies caterpillars feed on oak leaves...and still the oaks are quite healthy?  This and much more on the value of growing native species is in Bringing Nature Home.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New at the Feeder

Sometimes we get so used to seeing the usual suspects at the bird feeders along Bull Creek that we don't pay attention to the birds.  Other times we look out the window and see something that knocks our socks off.  Even I recognized something was different when I saw this bird perched just below the feeder.

This beauty is a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatusThis species takes ownership of the skies of Bull Mills, announcing its presence with its piercing  "kee-aah" call, with the second note descending in pitch. It will repeat the call every few seconds for 5-10 times.

Unlike the more common red-tailed hawk seen in the open farmlands and prairies and along highways, the red-shouldered hawk favors deciduous woodlands, especially near streams and swamps. They are commonly seen soaring over the hills that surround the valley of Bull Creek.

This is not a bird which likes to pose.  We were fortunate in 2007 to find a nest under construction close to our road.  The parent bird would grudgingly permit photographs occasionally before flying off.  Once committed by the eggs, we could see more activity until the leaves obscured the view.

We checked the nest as they grew until one day they were gone.  Two days later as we drove to the top of the woodlands above the valley we saw all three, sitting several hundred feet apart, flushing into the air to the north at our approach.  Since then we think of red-shouldereds soaring above as one of "our birds."

We rarely get a chance to see one in camera range.  Most pictures you see require a cannon sized lens and photo blinds.  Jim Braswell posted an incredible series of red-shouldered hawk pictures he took by sliding close to a juvenile while out in a kayak.

Red-shouldered hawk from a kayak - Jim Braswell
*Jim Braswell is a talented nature photographer from Missouri whose 
Show Me Nature Photography blog is listed under our favorites.

Audubon.org has just released their online Guide to North AmericanBirds.  Its information on the red-shouldered hawk is at this link which you can compare to the Allaboutbirds.com link.  Both resources are valuable.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

  Marmorated stink bug - by Yerpo
Update January 28, 2015-First marmorated stink bug reported in SW Missouri. 

A few years ago we wrote about the marmorated stink bug, a new invasive species which was moving across the US, creating significant damage to fruit and vegetable crops.  At that time it was in 33 states but hadn't reached us.  The wait is now over.
 "First Brown Marmorated Stink Bug in Southwest Missouri Discovered in Greene County Springfield, Mo. - University of Missouri Extension Horticulturists Kelly McGowan and Patrick Byers say the first reported Brown Marmorated Stink Bug in southwest Missouri has been confirmed and area farmers and homeowners should be aware. "
from Wikimedia
The brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, is another native of Asia and was first found in the US in 1998.   It is an omniverous agricultural pest, eating everything from fruit on trees to vegetables.  It pierces the skin of the fruit to suck out juices, leaving a discolored spot which renders the product unsalable.  In 2010 alone it wiped out 18 percent of the Mid-Atlantic apple crop. It also attacks peaches, figs, mulberries, citrus fruits and persimmons, as well as sweet and field corn, tomatoes, lima beans and green peppers.

There are several reasons that they are spreading so fast.  They generally have one to two hatches a year, but can increase that to more in warm southern climates.  They have been reproducing faster in the unseasonably warm weather of the last few years.  They also are living longer, therefore depositing more eggs in their lifespan and producing more generations to lay even more eggs.

Brown marmorated stink bugs hatching
The brown marmorated stink bug is far more likely to invade your home than other stink bugs.  They tend to hibernate inside over the winter but may awaken in the warmth and crawl out and about.  It becomes a greater pest when it extrudes its stink through holes in its abdomen.  This is a defense mechanism against predators but can be triggered by simply handling it. 

So what is the big stink about?  It produces a chemical from glands on its abdomen that is said to smell like cilantro.  Now this is a vegetable that may be even more controversial than President Bush's broccoli.  What other food has a web page like I hate cilantro.com, with 3,300 active members obsessed with eliminating cilantro from all food dishes?  Now if we could just get their members out in the apple orchards to attack stink bugs....

Diagnostic features - idtools.org
There are many native stink bugs in the family Pentatomidaev which you can identify at bugguide.net.  None of these are as prolific or economically threatening as this Asian pest.  According to Wikipedia "the best identification for adults is the white band on the antennae. It is similar in appearance to some other native species except that several of the abdominal segments protrude from beneath the wings and are alternatively banded with black and white (visible along the edge of the bug even when wings are folded) and a white stripe or band on the next to last (4th) antennal segment."

Newyorker Magazine - 2018
Details at Penn State Entomology.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Wine goblets for the "Wee People"
Walking along our drive before the permanent snow hit recently Barb came across this lovely patch of green on the otherwise dull brown forest floor.  Like many things in nature, when viewed up close these lichen are quite lovely.  They are frequently confused with moss and some like "reindeer moss" even carry the name.  Indeed some lichen are found associated with moss.

I sent this to our Master Naturalist lichenologists for review.  Nancy Schanda responded below.
"These are Pixie Cup lichens, Cladonia sp, are found growing on soil and mosses and look very much like goblets for wee folk. These lichens display two of the main growth forms that are used to help identify lichens - squamulose and fruticose.
The tiny leaf-like structures, squamulose form, are found growing at the bottom on the substrate of soil or moss.  The cups, fruticose form, are the upright structures that give the lichens their common name. They are fungal reproductive structures. The stem, podetium, supports the cup, apothecial disk. 
The disk contains the ascospores that are released into the air. The spores must then come in contact with the proper algae or cyanobacteria to form a new lichen. The fungal reproductive structures of most lichens are very important in identification."
Fruticose form cups contain the ascospores
Pixies play on cow bones- Wikimedia
In the19th century depictions pixies typically had skimpy green outfits,  pointed ears and cute pointed hats.  It should come as no surprise that in modern illustrations, fairies and pixies are increasingly female and frequently voluptuous.  It may be that their playful nature comes from too many "Pixie Cups."
"In traditional regional lore, pixies are generally benign, mischievous, short of stature and attractively childlike; they are fond of dancing and gather outdoors in huge numbers to dance or sometimes wrestle, through the night."  Wikipedia
Pixie Cups with squamulose form at the base and unidentified moss to the left.
Lichen, like pixies, are strange and wonderful little growths, neither plant nor fungus alone.  They are a combination of algae or cyanobacteria living nestled in the filaments of a specific fungus.  They live symbiotically in a lifestyle unlike either component alone.  Also like pixies, they tend cling to rocks, branches or the forest floor.

Do you have trouble remembering the components of lichen when the subject comes up in casual conversation?  Never again will you have one of these embarrassing memory lapses.
"Alice Algae and Freddie Fungus took a lichen to each other.  They got married and ever since then their relationship has been on the rocks."
A digestible overview of lichens is at this Earthlife.net link.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Witches' Broom

Hackberry witches' broom
Winter exposes some defects in leafless trees such as witches' broom on hackberry trees.  This condition is produced by the combined attack of a powder fungus and a wormlike eriophyid mite, Eriophyes celtis.  The result is a mass of branches all springing from a single point on a branch.

Eriophyes species are usually unique to their specific plant.  E. celtis lives only on hackberry, Celtis occidentalis, sucking plant juices from the leaves. The female mite overwinters in the buds, then produces eggs in the spring which go through two nymph stages before reaching maturity.  The adult Eriophyes sp. mites are unique with only two pair of legs versus four pair in all other arachnids.  Other species of Eriophyes mites produce a wide variety of tree leaf and stem galls.

Eriophyid mites on black walnut - Lacy Hyche - Auburn University
The powder fungus, Sphaerotheca phytoptophila, is found on all hackberries, and it may be a cause of witches' broom or possibly just infest the weakened branches.  

Cultivated since 1636, hackberries can reach 100 feet in time, and were planted in some regions to replace elms after the Dutch elm disease.  There are several new disease resistant strains.  In the wild, they produce fruits eaten by birds and other animals.  The witches' broom doesn't affect the health of the tree and occurs primarily on trees growing out in the open.  While a homeowner might be annoyed, I look at it as just another fascinating variant of the food chain of trees.

Witches' broom on downy birch - Wikimedia
Some types of witches' broom are caused by insects, viruses, fungi, mites, aphids or parasitic mistletoe.  Occasionally they are caused by a genetic mutation, usually producing only one broom on the tree.

While a minor annoyance on hackberry trees, witches' broom on other plants can destroy a farm.  NPR just reported on a fungus called witches'-broom that attacks the chocolate industry.  It is specific to cacao trees, the source of our beloved chocolate.  It has wiped out whole cacao farms and in the Bahia region of Brazil, cocoa production dropped nearly 75 percent. They reported that "Brazil went from being the world's third-leading cocoa producer to being the 13th."
Cocoa witches'-broom - USDA

There is some hope for the chocolate industry, a new treatment that fights a fungus with a fungus.  The USDA reports early success with several fungal diseases of the cacao using Trichoderma fungus that attaches to and literally eats the witches'-broom fungus.

Like most things, there can be some good with the bad.  Designer trees and dwarf conifers have been created by enterprising gardeners who have grown them from witches' broom cuttings or seeds from the cones on brooms.  These miniature plants can vary in size, shape, color and texture.  Some grow only 3-6 inches a year.

More on miniature conifers from witches' broom at this New York Times story.