Friday, July 31, 2015

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers

I recently received a set of photographs from Karsen Bell, our 16 year old correspondent from the Joplin area.  He has been following a scissor-tailed flycatcher family that was nesting in a crab apple tree in the back yard, the nest conveniently placed so he could photograph it without climbing.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) are in the same genus as the kingbirds we see so commonly in our fields.  Tyrannus or tyrant-like refers to the aggressive defense that they make of their breeding territory, fighting off much larger birds.

They tend to nest in open shrubby territory with isolated trees and shrubs as found in Karsen's yard.  Missouri is at the northern edge of their breeding area in the southern Great Plains although stray birds can be found anywhere in the USA and even in Canada.  With climate change, it is no surprise that their range is slowly expanding northward.  You can visualize their migration at this site which predicts their expansion into Nebraska soon.  They migrate to southern Mexico through to Panama in the winter.

June 11
Their cupped nests are built by the female, using a wide variety of materials including weeds, grass, twigs and stems for the outer structure.  The cup itself and the inner lining may include a wide variety of materials including flowers, string, cloth, paper and even cigarette filters.  One study found 30% of the nest was of human refuse. Incubation is 14-17 days followed by 2 weeks of feeding the young insects before they fledge.

23 days later
We frequently see a scissor-tail perched on a telephone line along the highway, its distinctive tail visible from far away.  Unlike a peacock, this long tail is not just for show.  While flying straight the tail extends out back, only to spread during twisting, turning maneuvers, at times almost hovering in midair to catch insects on the  fly.

While the scissor-tailed flycatcher is the Oklahoma state bird, it also receives recognition in Missouri as the title of the Greater Ozarks Audubon newsletter, the GOAS Scissor-tail.

All photographs by Karsen Bell.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bear Euthanasia

Missouri black bear - MDC
Two black bears were euthanized last week as a result of getting to familiar with humans.  This has caused a lot of emotional discussion by the general public in the press.  In case you missed the stories, here they are.

The bear 40 minutes south of Springfield had been feed by some landowners in the past and habituated to humans.  Now it was hanging around the house although the new owners had removed all food sources and attempting to come through a patio door.  It became a danger to humans although the bear probably didn't think of it that way.  Now as a "conflict bear," it was trapped and intentionally euthanized with sedatives.

Many good-hearted people asked a logical question, "Why wasn't the bear sedated and given to the zoo?"  The answer is complicated. Unfortunately for the bear, there is a plentiful supply of black bears raised in zoos.  Since bears captured in the wild do not adapt well to life in captivity, the zoos aren't interested in taking them.

In the other case in Perryville, close to Cape Giradeau, the bear was roaming around the town of 8,000, crossing several streets and visiting a front porch.  Police shot the animal to protect the public as no tranquilizers were immediately available.

Tranquilizing a bear safely in an urban setting is often not an option according to Jeff Beringer of the Missouri Department of Conservation.  In addition to having a special gun available to handle a tranquilizer dart, there is the matter of calculating the right dose.  Too much kills the animal, not enough just confuses it and could addle its judgement and make the situation worse.  If the shot missed, it could leave a syringe of powerful sedative lost somewhere in the community.
Collared bear 1117

The MDC has ongoing studies to determine the population size, health and range of our bears.  Tranquilizer dosage is based on the estimated weight of the bear.  Currently some females are radio collared for a year after weighing and other measurements are completed.  This not only traces the females range but allows researchers to locate the bear in its winter den before the collar drops off.

As the bear population grows, it is important that we recognize how to live along side these creatures.  This means learning to be "Bear Aware."  The number one factor in creating conflict bears is feeding them, either actively or passively by leaving out food sources.  Bears are opportunistic omnivores and 90% of their diet is vegetarian.  When they learn that trash cans and dog food dishes are regularly filled, they will remember the site and return.  Most states with bear populations have laws against feeding them and I suspect we will need to do this to protect our population, both bears and humans.

This MDC site has extensive information on how to live with bears.

More on the MDC black bear studies are at this link.  

To find the latest on our black bears, you can follow the Missouri Black Bear Foundation Facebook page.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Birds vs. Energy

Wind Farm - Wikipedia

A friend was recently reading about the bird deaths from wind turbines and asked how that compared to other sources of electricity The problem is that where ever we humans go, there is damage to nature as it was. It began when the first Homo species discovered fire and started to harvest the energy of wood. As we have gotten more efficient sources of energy, we have also become more efficient in disturbing the ecological system.

There is no question that we occasionally electrocute birds, and squirrels for that matter. Some years back a turkey vulture landed on the big old (1915) steel rig that holds the electric powerline from Powersite Dam to Ozark. It was electrocuted and the short dropped molten copper to the ground where is started a fire between two houses. Fortunately the homeowner saw it and we were able to extinguish it with the help of 3 fire trucks, so the vulture didn't get full revenge on humans for the lousy perch we had built.

There is no question that wind turbines kill birds by the thousands. There are all kinds of estimates out there and I don't recall the number given at a recent Audubon presentation. We are able to modify that with regulations that require factoring in the bird migratory pathways and the design of turbines. One reason you see so many in Western Kansas, in addition to wind patterns is the science involved in placing them where the migratory density is lowest. Also there is more known about the speed of the blades. Faster rotation up to a point produces more energy but beyond that point there is a rapidly diminishing return. Those slowly turning blades you typically see are actually moving at 80-90 mph at the tip!

There is no question that oil and especially coal mining kills far more birds that solar and wind combined. We could (and probably will) double or more the amount of wind power and still not reach the damage of oil for power alone, not to mention the far greater effect of burning coal. See the bird mortality data below compiled by US News and World Report.
A U.S. News and World Report chart shows estimates of how many birds are killed each year by different fuel sources.
As the link above explains, there is a wide range of results based on different methodologies as no common standards of measurement exist. Also, solar and wind based power are expanding so those numbers will go up. That said, these studies do demonstrate the hidden cost of coal and gas based power.

There is a far greater man-made or created killer of birds that we all tend to forget, Felis domesticus, the house cat that came along with our domestication of these predators into household companions. DNA studies suggest that its forbearer was the Near Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris lybica from around Israel and Saudia Arabia.

Nice indoor pets, they turn into ravaging mass murderers outside the house. The best estimates are 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds every year. Note that is a "b" not a "m" as seen with oil and gas.

As my mom used to say "You pays yur money and you makes yur choice." You can learn more about that choice at this US News and World Report article.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gorgeous Rove Beetle

Gold-and-brown Rove Beetle
Linda Bower sent me this gorgeous picture of a Gold-and-brown Rove Beetle (GRB), Ontholestes cingulatus taken in her garden.  From here on this beautiful story goes all down hill.

Rove beetles are common although you may not have seen them unless you spend time looking at dead animals, decaying plant matter, compost piles, fungi and dung.  This is where the adult beetles finds maggots, mites, beetle larvae and some carrion and fungi for dinner.

Coyote gift with rove beetle
Linda's specimen was on top of a pile of coyote dung in her butterfly garden.  Coyote dung is characterized by the large amount of hair in it.  Most of our dogs will either bring their mammal treasures back to the house for us to admire or only sample a bit before returning to fill up on their kibbles.

GRBs mate with the male on top, unlike many other rove beetles which mate end to end.  Males guard the females they mate with, fighting of competing males that approach her.  The larvae go through a complete metamorphosis while eating primarily the larvae associated with their habitat.

GRBs are found in most of the United States and Eastern Canada.  The head is wider than the thorax, unlike most rove beetles.  Although small elytra (wing covers) protect the wings, it can take flight in a split second. It is also called the Girdled Rove Beetle based on the yellow "girdle" between the second and third set of legs which extends to the lower abdomen and tail.

Camouflaged beetle with bright yellow tipped abdomen
When viewed from above they have great camouflage except the yellow tip of their abdomen. When they move they will hold the end of the abdomen up, a bright yellow flag attracting attention of a predator.  If touched it releases a defensive fluid to repel the attacker.

More information on rove beetles in general is found at this link.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hummingbirds and the Sugar Fix

Getting on a sugar high -  REK
After a few weeks with little hummingbird action, they are back at our deck battling over the feeders.  While we tend to associate hummers with nectar and sugar water, they get over 25% of their diet as insects.  This is their source of protein and it is especially important while they are raising their young, a time when they almost disappear from our feeders.

The insect diet of hummingbirds includes hawking mosquitoes, gnats, and fruit flies, gleaning spiders, aphids, caterpillars and even insect eggs.

They have been called "nectar powered flycatchers" for good reason.  They consume up to half their weight in sugars daily, both from long tubular flowers seemingly made with them in mind, as well as from tree sap and our feeders.  It takes a lot of energy to maintain 1200 heartbeats per minute and 80 wingbeats per second!  Their sugar slurping is done with a remarkable tongue we discussed in a recent blog.

Hummingbirds are related to swifts, powerful predators of flying insects with a short beak perfect for grabbing their prey mid-flight.  Hummingbirds' beaks extend far beyond their skull, perfect for picking insects off of deep flowers.  On the other hand, grabbing an insect in flight would be like catching a fly with chopsticks.  Recent research described in this PBS video shows that when hawking in mid-air, they gulp down the insect by opening wide and catching it deep in their jaws.

Gleaning a bug from a flower -
Some people raise bugs in a container, using rotten fruit to attract and breed fruit flies.  They then release them at a regular time of day, training the hummingbirds to come by for a dose of protein.  Since we raise lots of gnats and mosquitoes with no effort along Bull Creek, we want our hummers to hunt on their own.

Pennsylvania State University has a good resource page with facts about our common Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Invasive Eating

This is the time of year that Barb is in the full invasive species attack mode.  One way we destroy garlic mustard is trying to eat it to death.  In the current issue of Ozark Waters Newsletter, David Casaletto suggests using the same approach on another invasive species.

Asian Carp are a major major problem in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as well as other watersheds.  David recently attended a meeting where he encountered a gastronomic attack on the species.
"Mark Morgan an associate professor in the Missouri University School of Natural Resources is working on a solution to the invasive Asian Silver Carp: convince people to eat them! And he was going to hand out samples of Asian Carp chili for everyone to try."
One taste test found that people preferred the carp over catfish!  If this became commercially viable, it might be a way of making lemonade out of this environmental lemon.  We couldn't ever eliminate the species but it might be another incentive to decrease the population.  That is unless some business tried to get laws protecting them for the food industry.

A lot more interesting details are in the Ozark Waters Newsletter.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Eastern Harvestman? Not

"Oh look, those spiders are fighting," one of our young visitors said.  This didn't seem like a time to talk about birds and bees so I limited my response to an explanation of the difference between Harvestmen (Opiliones) and spiders, discussed in a previous blog.

I thought the harvestman in question was likely the Eastern Harvestman, Leiobunum vittatum, which is a favorite "lab rat" for researchers in the Opilione field.  I was surprised when it was identified as a male Leiobunum crassipalpe, the first time it has been reported to Bugguide.

Males and females communicate by sexually specific chemical clues.  Then the fun begins.  The dance begins with the male trying to get the female in his embrace.  The success depends on the size of the males pedipalps according to research published in Behavior.  The answer to the age-old question, "Does size matter?" is "Yes" and in Opiliones, the answer is smaller is better!  Shorter pedipalps have more mechanical advantage and thus give the male a better grip on a potential mate.  On the other hand, larger male size relative to the female will determine how fast mating occurs.

This species is extremely common around Bull Creek.  Some sources say they are nocturnal and secretive but I had one ride on my ATV for 2 hours in 90 degree heat.  I walked around the outside of our creek house just now to photograph a mating pair.   I counted 14 clinging on the walls, although none were mating at the time.  Ken Sproule's photograph below captures the romance of first contact much better anyway.

 Mating dance, not a fight -
According to an old myth, you could find lost cattle by picking up a harvestman and holding all its legs but one.  The free leg would supposedly point in the direction of the lost cow.  I would caution you to avoid this as the legs are very fragile, breaking off and twitching like the tail of a skink to distract its predator.  Another myth said that if you killed a harvestman it would rain the next day.  "Would which ever one of you has been killing all of them please stop, we have had enough rain for a while!"

Determining the exact species from a photograph is difficult.  There are over 130 Leiobunum species and identification depends upon details like sexual organs, mouth parts, etc.  The specimen below was posted with the comment "...stocky palps like L. crassipalpe, but the abdomen is long and pointy, like L. vittatum."  Experts frequently debate these points, leading to naming and renaming debates.  Fortunately for the perpetuation of the species the Leiobunum are able to determine who is who.
Palps grasping, mandibles at work.  Marshal Hedin CC
 These photographs were the first reported to Bugguide.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Dutchman's Pipe

Mark Bower sent me the picture above in a set of Indian Pipe pictures shown below.  We were thinking possibly a Corallorrhiza orchid and sent it off to our resident botanist, Linda Ellis, who responded below.
"The red one is pinesap or false beech drops (Monotropa hypopithys). Like Indian pipe, it is a  saprophytic plant that is semi-parasitic on other plant species, hence the lack of chlorophyll. These were both in the Monotropaceae family but recently got moved into Ericaceae or blueberry family."
Blueberry family!  Give me a break!  It doesn't resemble a blueberry, azalea, rhododendron or anything else in the family.  It doesn't even have chlorophyll!  Some times I think botanists have too much time on their hands! There, I got that out of my system.

Monotropa hypopitys, a.k.a. pinesap, Dutchman's pipe*, or yellow bird's-nest (the last also hard to explain) is a perennial plant. This is a wide spread but relatively uncommon species which is found throughout the US.  Lacking chlorophyll, it gets its energy from mycorrhizal fungi living on the roots of trees, not unlike the more commonly seen Indian pipe.  This is only appropriate, considering that Mark's prime field is mycological photography.  It is commonly said to be frequently found under pine trees.

While it is mycoheterotrophic (lacking chlorophyll and dependent on mycorrhizal fungus for carbon and nutrient supply) like the previously described Indian pipe, it has some significant differences.  Indian pipe has a single flower head while Dutchman's pipe has multiple flowers along what passes for a stem.  It lacks a true stem, the part emerging from the soil is actually unbranched adventitious inflorescences which are developmentally similar to adventitious roots.  Further, all parts of the plant are colored from red as above to a pale yellowish white.

Going back to the membership in the blueberry family, like our relationship to Neanderthals, science has revealed by DNA that Monotropa hypopithys is closer to the blueberries than other plant families.  When you think about it, this shouldn't be a surprise as the scientific literature is now full of articles describing other genetic surprises.  Many people having elective DNA testing are finding unsuspected Asian, African or Native American genetic contributions.  But blueberry genes, wow!

Mark Bower sent pictures of Indian Pipe in several stages.  We discussed it more fully in a previous blog.

Dutchman's Pipe - Aristolochia - Mark Bower
* Dutchman's pipe is the common name of at least three  plants.  One of these is the Aristolochia  species such as pipevine, host to the pipevine swallowtail.  It is also an alternate name for night-blooming cereus.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Oxygen Out the Cloaca

Three-toed Box Turtle -  Mark Bower
If you ever wonder how blog topics come up, this is a very good (or bad) example.  A friend in Arkansas who has recently become excited about bird photography sent me the picture below of dabbling ducks on a lake.  For reasons I will leave to your imagination, it elicited a response from Larry Wegmann, asking if I knew that turtle's respiration includes their cloaca.

I thought of this again when I was in the field yesterday fighting weeds around seedling trees.  I stepped on something round in the thick grass.  Pushing back the growth I found a box turtle virtually buried with only the top of its shell showing.  I cleared some dirt around it long enough to see it move some and then left it alone.  How could it breathe with its head buried?

Turtles face several unique challenges in breathing.  Their ribs are fixed to their shell and can't expand to breathe like birds or mammals.  They also lack the absorbent skin of amphibians.  They can't take a big breath like we can as explained at
"Turtles cannot expand their chest to breathe because of their rigid bony shells. They inhale by contracting their limb flank muscles to make the body cavity larger and exhale by drawing the shoulder girdle back into the shell, forcing air out of the lungs. " 
When active they need to be able to breathe air through their mouths.  When inactive they tend to spend the winter buried, frequently in a wet environment.  Many turtles spend long periods of time underwater.  During that time they depend on anaerobic metabolism as explained at  In these cases they can obtain oxygen through tissues in their mouth and cloaca whose lining can function as gills.
"Compare this to the relatively cheap butt breathing. Sacs next to the cloaca, called bursa, easily expand. The walls of these sacs are lined with blood vessels. Oxygen diffuses through the blood vessels, and the sacs are squeezed out. The entire procedure uses little energy for a turtle that doesn't have a lot to spare. Dignity has to play second-fiddle to survival sometimes."
The cloaca is a single opening for intestinal, urinary and reproductive functions found in all amphibians, birds, and reptiles.  It is a handy single orifice which can deliver urine, stool or in females can deliver eggs.  And apparently it can deliver oxygen!

Turtles therefore can survive in airless environments and are apparently not bothered by "bad breath." 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Slowmo Swallowtails

Giant Swallowtail at the Butterfly House - Christ Barnhart
Sometimes you see something that doesn't need scientific explanation.  Chris Barnhart sent me this beautiful this slow-motion video of Giant Swallowtails nectaring.  Without technical details or jargon, it shows the ballet of wings that lets the butterfly probe each tiny blossom on the anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), moving over the plant with its legs only lightly touching it.

Chris filmed this with an I-Phone and I am frankly jealous.  You can see this kind of action daily at the Bill Roston Butterfly House at the Springfield Botanical Gardens.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Mastication of Caterpillars

Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars - Chris Barnhart
We just had written on June 27th about the Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars, showing their gregarious tendencies, clumping together on a leaf to chow down.  There are lots of special names for groups of animals such as a "murder of crows."   The "official" name for the group of caterpillars is "an army of caterpillars."

Kevin Firth has proposed an ever better name, "a mastication of caterpillars."  If you look at this time-lapse video by Chris Barnhart of tussock moths devouring a milkweed leaf I think you will agree.