Thursday, March 31, 2016

Honeylocust Eaters

Orange Wing on a zipper - REK
This little moth landed on my backpack just in time to make it to the blog.  You can see how tiny it is by comparing it to the backpack zipper it is perched on.  It's wingspan is less than an inch.  Googling "orange hind wing" brought up photographs without having to resort to Peterson's field guide.  This is commonly called Orange Wing - Mellilla xanthometata.

Mellilla xanthometata photographed by Jon Rapp at Bull Creek

This species has two generations a year, the first in early March.  They feed on honey locust trees, Gleditsia triacanthos, thus the genus name Mellillia, the diminutive from melinus ‎(of or pertaining to honey), from mel ‎(honey).  Looking for a more formal portrait the best one as usual comes from Jon Rapp.

Honey Locust with 9" thorns - REK
Honey Locust
The honey locust is the bane of many farmers as its bean pods are eaten by horses and cows which then spread them through the field.  The long compound thorns can grow to 12" on the trunk and grow all the way out onto the smallest branches.  They are capable of puncturing a tractor tire and relish my ATV's.  Even when small they can be a challenge to cut with a chain saw without feeling their wrath.  Some will be thornless like the tree in front of out house.

Not everyone hates the honey locust. It is the host plant for not only our moth above but also the Honey Locust Moth, Syssphinx bicolor, and the common Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus).  It also hosts the Honey Locust Plant Bug, Diaphnocoris chlorionis.

Silver Spotted Skipper - REK
Honey Locust Plant Bug

My favorite locust eater is the Honey Locust Bean Weevil.  You can read all about it here including watching it dance on a video.  Knowing that its kin are eating up the bean seeds makes me feel better about the thorn stabs..... a little.

July 12, 2017.  See Weevil, moth and downy woodpecker.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Northern Flicker

  Northern (Common) Flicker - Male- Bob Moul
Every year I discover at least one new species that was in front of me all along.  This spring it was the Northern Flicker.  We were visiting friends east of Oldfield and Barb spotted a pair feeding on their grassy yard, occasionally flying up to a tree just outside the second story window.  After she identified it, I naively emailed Charley Burwick to ask if they were common in the Ozarks.  His response confirmed my ignorance.
"During the fall, and again in the spring, like as we speak, they are quite common, and can be spotted in large groups. I led a field trip yesterday, and traveled through the Wah Kan Tah Prairie on the way to visit the Schell-Osage CA. There are large tracts that have been recently burned, and coming back in short green grass. There were somewhere between 80-100 of them feeding mostly on the ground, which is common for this species, and some small trees full of perched flickers as well. They are typically all yellow-shafted."
Northern (Common) Flicker-Female - Yellow Shafted
Then a few days later I was driving across our field along Bull Creek with friends from Minnesota as a dozen birds flush out of the grass one at a time several hundred feet in front of our UTV.  "Flickers," Matt said, pointing out the white patch on their rump that flashes as they flew straight away from us to land in distant trees.  Then I had an "Ahaa" moment.  We have noticed for years that when riding up on the fields on the ridge tops we would scare up 8-10 "woodpeckers" that we identified by their distinctive flight, flapping upward, then gliding down in a gentle vertical zigzag.  Northern Flickers all along!

Next we went to our favorite, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Their front page of the Northern Flicker has their call, a sound we have heard commonly and had ascribed to our common Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Embarrassing!

Yellow flight feathers and white rump - Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Details we haven't gotten close enough to see include the yellow shafted flight feathers of the eastern species which are red in the western species.  They eat mainly ants and beetles on the ground unlike their tree-drilling kin.  They have a barbed tongue which can extend 2", handy when you are lapping up ants.

Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers migrate south for the winter.  This makes sense for a ground feeding bird whose supply of insect food would become scarce in freezing temperatures and snow.  This accounts for Charley's observation of large numbers in spring and fall.  Now if I can just recognize them in 6 months!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Crabapple in the Wild

Crabapple in full bloom - REK

Grapevine Epimenis nectaring - REK
Last week our friend Debbie found a tree that was just opening a few pink flower buds.  In riding around the rim of the forest, this was the only splash of color.  It was buzzing with insects, the only source of nectar in sight this early in the season when serviceberry flower buds were just thinking about opening.  Solitary bees, honey bees, a tiger swallowtail and a very persistent Grapevine Epimenis moth flew around mostly out of camera range.  Barb identified it tentatively as a Prairie Crabapple.  We took a few pictures and returned a few days later to find it in full bloom.

We were now joined by our botanist friend Matt and Dave.  Now the leaf buds scales were off, revealing the small narrow leaves.  I thought they most resembled Narrow-leafed Crabapple, Malus augustifolia, but our Missouri trees books said that species only occurs in the Bootheel of Missouri and their leaves are said to be red when first emerging, contrary to our tree.

Smooth bark, horizontal lenticels

The bark of the tree was smooth with horizontal lenticels.  That and the flowers with five petals Matt explained were the identifying features of the Malus genus of the Rosaceae family.  These blossoms were pink and had from 10-20 stamens with yellow anthers just as the book says.

From there on we were left guessing about the species.  The Prairie Crabapple Malus ioensis is the most common native crabapple in our region but not a perfect fit.  The possibility remains that it could also be an exotic escapee.


The leaves didn't help us much, not fitting any one species.  Time for an expert opinion so I sent it off to Justin Thomas.  His response:
"Gorgeous tree! I was able to see that the outside of the sepals are hairy, in one of your photos. That puts it with Malus ioensis. There are scattered records of aberrant hybrids of Malus ioensis with domestic apples, but that is unlikely." 
Malus ioensis - the Prairie Crabapple has a huge list of faunal associations, including moth caterpillars, web worms, etc.  A wide variety of mammals consume the crab apple fruit, distributing its seeds widely.

As always (almost), Barb was right again on the species.  How about them apples!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Springing Forward

Morels of spring 2013 - from "Mushroom Annee" Yarnton
This year "spring forward" applies to nature as well as our "beloved" daylight savings time.  Everything is a week or two ahead of schedule.  According to news just out in Time Magazine: "Global temperatures in February were the most above average since weather record keeping began nearly 150 years ago, bringing the world the closest it has ever been to what scientists consider dangerous levels of warming, a federal government agency confirmed Thursday."  To confirm this, the latest is news of morels found at several locations in southwest Missouri already.  Wonder where.....well DUH!  You expected GPS readings?

Our friend Jeff Cantrell, the MDC educator from the Joplin area sent us a nice description of a spring trip you might consider, along with some enticing photographs.  Here is a guest blog from Jeff with his photographs:

Buds are bursting open - Cantrell
One of the best things about having a “weekend” on a Wednesday/Thursday combo is you can savor several thousand acres of the Mark Twain National Forest to yourself. I spent 6 hours there this morning and I never saw one human being. Solitude can have many meanings; “pure soul refreshing” is one of them.

Piney Creek Wilderness (Barry County) can be one of your favorite starting points for chasing spring, it is mine. What happens here will be taking place in a matter of days in Newton, Lawrence, Christian, Dade counties and perhaps in over a week in Jasper, Cedar, Vernon and Barton... This “Wilderness” is latitude-even with southern McDonald County so there should be equal riches taking place in McDonald as well.

Their serviceberry are ahead of ours - Cantrell
The serviceberry are providing a mid-canopy, white petal-cloud layer against the pines and it is striking from a distance. Plus, you can hand pick your favorite scene by framing the blooms against the dark short-leafs, the blue sky, individually or in a floral swarm.

Spring Beauty - Claytonia virginica - Cantrell
Spiderwort - Tradescantia ernestiana. - Cantrell
Pine warblers and white-throated sparrows were in chorus, little midland brown snakes have emerged, and five species of butterflies were out. The ephemerals consisted of bloodroot, toothwort, harbinger of spring, Sweet William, pussy toes, violets, woodland spiderwort (cow slober), spring beauty and false rue anemone (wind flower). The holler/ wet areas harbored southern leopard frogs, peepers, western chorus, and American toads. My mind wandered as always to sleeping Ursids (black bears), wondering what they were dreaming of?

So if you are off this weekend, you might check out Big Sugar State Park, Piney Creek, or other southern Master Naturalist region targets. The life is opening up in our direction and changes daily.

Enjoy! It is a great time of year. - Jeff

Thursday, March 17, 2016

To Feed or not to Feed

Going where the food is -
After I posted this blog on feeding bears, I started thinking about what causes humans to want to feed wildlife. These acts blend the self-gratifying sense of feeding those in need, (even if they don't need it), with the desire to tame nature or at least bring it in close to us (but only on our own terms). We feed birds on our deck along Bull Creek. Squirrels are tolerated on corn cobs but discouraged on bird feeders. Raccoons express their gratitude by tearing down feeders and leaving seed-filled deposits on the deck.
A good day at the feeder  REK
Even among the bird visitors we impose our own social ranking. There is the normal neighbors, the chickadee, nuthatch, finch, and cardinal. We pause in conversation with friends to point out the arrival of a red-belly woodpecker. A downy woodpecker warrants a second look to be sure we haven't mistaken its cousin, the hairy woodpecker, higher ranked by its infrequent visits. In season there are even orange slices out for an oriole, the equivalent of a visit by royalty. We scare off crows which will devour a suet block in minutes and cowbirds that are a threat to songbirds.

Is feeding animals good or bad? The answer is "it depends." The good is obvious, the bad requires more thought. We know that bringing deer together in close proximity leads to increased risk of hemorrhagic disease and chronic wasting disease. Bird feeders can be a source of spread of avian pox, Aspergillosis and other disease and there are recommendations for preventing them. Feeding bears deliberately or accidentally with garbage or dog food lessens their fear and can produce a dangerous bear at risk of future euthanasia.

Americans spend over $3 billion each year on food for wild birds according to an essay Why do we Feed Wild Animals from the New York Times. It gives a thoughtful analysis of our varied motives as well as exploring the loneliness that leads some people to face fines for defying feeding bans.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Native Bee Houses

Leaf cutter bee, Megachile lagopoda-Wikimedia
When we think of pollinators, beautiful butterflies and the honey bees, which were imported from Europe by our ancestors immediately come to mind.  Fortunately, pollination was going on thousands of years before the honey bee arrive.  As Dr. Chris Barnhart reminded us at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center last week, many flowers and trees are pollinated by humble species such as solitary bees, bumble bees and even flies and beetles.

Solitary bees make up over 90% of bee species.  Unlike their better known communal cousins, every female is fertile creates its own family.  They are commonly divided up into carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees.  There are also sweat bees, polyester bees, squash bees, dwarf carpenter bees, alkali bees and digger bees.  Way too much for my aged brain to encompass.  Suffice it to say that lots of the little bee like things, visiting your flowers and plants are far more complicated than we can take on in a single story.

The message here is that they are an important part of our natural community.  Many of these species depend upon holes in wood (think dead trees) for a nesting site.  Guess what?  In our world, most dead trees get cut down before woodpeckers, beetles and other natural recyclers create the holes they need for their families.  This is where gardeners and other naturalist-minded people come in.

A quick and dirty bee house - REK
Many of the species need preformed holes to lay their eggs and raise their families.  One answer is building bee condominiums.  With a set of 1/8th to 3/8th inch drills you can turn blocks of wood or even dead trees into nest sites like these for solitary bees.  Another quick and crude method. is using hollow grass stems cut to length as above.*  Be sure that one end is blocked off and the open ends are at a slightly lower level to prevent rain from entering.

* If you are in the Springfield Missouri area, I can provide you with stems from the Springfield Botanical Gardens.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Monarch News

There has been good and bad news on the monarch scene lately.  First there was the Monarch population status report that showed an increase in population for this year.  These estimates are based on the area that overwintering Monarchs cover in Mexico.  The statistics are graphed below but the methodology and details are best explained by in the Monarch watch blog
Area occupied by over-wintering Monarchs- Monarch Watch
Then came the news on March 11 of a "winter storm of historic proportions" which struck the overwintering area. When the Monarchs come down the mountain they don't usually return but instead begin their journey north. Since the initial report there has been no reports of the results of the storm.

"It will never get off the ground!" - REK
Now there is news of an incredible new technology. You are now familiar with the technology of radio transmitters such as that which allows us to track the movements of individual bears in Missouri. These are large boxes attached with a heavy leather collar, not a problem for a large bear to haul around. Now this technology has been miniaturized to fit on a Monarch! In this report from National Geographic you can see a Monarch being fitted with the transmitter which weighs .007 of an ounce. This is approximately the weight of 3 postage stamps.
“The best moment was when the first butterfly with the tag took off and landed on a flower and foraged, and then really flew with the tag. Initially it is a little hard because they have a little weight that they have to get adjusted to, but then when they fly off, it’s like a launch of a satellite,” Wikelski says. “It’s so amazing because we didn’t know if it would work, and now we know that they fly with the tag and we can follow them, so this is really an amazing advancement in science and understanding of these insects.”
I suspect our black bears will refuse to wear their old collars when they hear of this technological breakthrough.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Black bears

Connecticut is proposing a ban on feeding black bears and coyotes.  I have to admit that I hadn't given much thought to people feeding coyotes but apparently that occurs back east, presumably drawing them in for photographs.  It is legal there to hunt and trap coyotes.

Bears are a whole different matter.  Connecticut has an estimated 800 bears in their woodlands and the state is 8% the size of Missouri which has an estimated 300 bears.  Add in the fact that the Connecticut human population density is over 8 times greater than Missouri.*  That's a lot of bears and humans crowded together in a tight space.

The ban of feeding bears in Connecticut is controversial while feeding them is illegal in the 8 other northeastern states.  There is even more resistance to the idea of a hunting season.  Animal rights activists argue that human behavior is almost always responsible for potentially dangerous bear confrontations.

Karen Noyes feeding bear -
The Internet is littered with photographs of people feeding bears.  An Oregon woman named Karen Noyes continued to hand feed bears over a 6 year period in spite of complaints.  There were bears killing livestock, menacing neighbors and one coming through a dog door.  She was finally banned from her home during three years probation for refusing to stop.

In North Carolina, Kay Grayson, called the "Bear Lady," was famous for feeding bears at her remote home for 25 years. She was found in 2015, eaten by bears although whether she died first and was found by them is unknown.  That almost seems beside the point.  Feeding bears in the wild puts everyone who is nearby at risk.  Whether deliberate or accidental by training them to find dog food or garbage, we are responsible for the results and the bear is likely to pay  the consequences.

Bear area (green) and USFS lands
While our Missouri bear population density and geography is far different, the lessons are the same and we have time to apply them before the problems develop.  Humans and bears need to learn to live with each other - separately.

* Connecticut Population - 743/square mile, Missouri - 88/sq.mi.  Wikipedia

Friday, March 11, 2016

MIgrating Woodcocks

Woodcock in the flower bed - Dave Millsap
Doodling in the mulch - Dave Millsap
The last 10 days we are are hearing about occasional sightings of woodcocks.  In addition GOAS reports, we got these pictures from Dave Millsap taken in the center of Springfield. 
"Carolyn spotted the woodcock when she went out to get the Sunday paper. It was working around in some mulch in a flower bed in our front yard. I stepped out on the front porch and took these pictures. He did not mind my presence until I stepped off the bottom step. At that point he was gone in a flash."
This is the time of year that woodcocks (or our preferred name, timberdoodle) are migrating northward to their summer breeding grounds which extend all the way to southern Canada.  We are at the southern edge but for now we are a way station where the males precede the females and practice their romantic overtures in our fields and forests.

For two years we participated in a study of their resting sites during migration as described in this 2014 blog.  The study is over but we went out this weekend just to enjoy their excitement and it occurred to us that others might enjoy the experience so we have attached the basics of hunting timberdoodles by ear in this paper, abstracted from the instructions we received from Cari Sebright from the University of Arkansas.

Basically you will need to go to Woodcocks on Allaboutbirds to hear their distinctive twitteringflight sounds and the buzzing peent call.  Then head out after this front passes to make random stops listening for them in the woods and fields.  You might even get lucky and spot their dizzy falling flight in the sunset sky.

Just received word that the woodcock migration which started a week early is already over - they have moved on.  I will re-post this next Spring.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Another Sign of Spring

Spring Azure - REK
Spring Azure female - Bob Moul
We have been seeing lots of Goatweed Leafwing and Mourning Cloak butterflies over the last 3 warm weeks.  These are butterflies that overwinter as adults, sheltering under loose bark and coming out on warm days to stretch their wings and look for a snack of tree sap.  Last week a few anglewings also appeared but Saturday the most welcome sight was the appearance of Spring Azures flitting along the gravel drive in front of my sniffing terrier.

Spring Azures, Celastrina ladon, are to butterflies like the Harbinger of Spring, Erigenia bulbosa,  is to wildflowers, a tiny message from nature that spring is officially here regardless of what the calendar says.  Watching these two tiny creatures measuring less than an inch leading us down the drive I could almost hear them giggling in delight at the prospects ahead.

Violacaea form - Bob Moul
There are three identifiable forms (color patterns) among Spring Azures.  Violacea has scattered dark spots.  The marginata form has a dark band on the hindwing while lucia has dark borders on both wings and a prominent dark splotch in the middle of the hind wing.  While these names are catnip to the butterfly aficionado, to me they simply mean there is a confusing color variation in the species.

Marginata form with dark band on hindwing - Bob Moul

Lucia form - Tom Murray

Early spring is a delicate balancing act between flora and fauna.  No one knows for sure what prompts a shrub to bud at a certain time but early butterflies are gambling that it will occur in time for the eggs they are ready to deposit.  It is even a bigger gamble for these specimens as there doesn't seem to be a source of nectar in sight.

Zebra Swallowtail egg already perched on an unfolding leaf - REK
This delicate timing reminded me of an early April day two years ago when I walked through a dense pawpaw grove.  In all those trees there were only three buds that were open, but there glistened a yellow egg of a Zebra Swallowtail, whose caterpillar soon would munch on the tender leaf as it unfolded.  Timing is everything at this time of year.  How they do it without a calendar or weather forecast is another of nature's great mysteries.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Black Carp are Breeding

Black Carp - Wikipedia
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the chance finding of two juvenile black carp in a ditch connected to the Mississippi that has raised concerns about a new invasive species.  Unlike the bighead, silver, and grass carp, the so called "Asian carp" threatening our major rivers, black carp have been uncommon in the wild and not known to reproduce.

Black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) are also called black Chinese roach which probably should have been a clue.  They have been introduced cautiously by the aquaculture industry to control snails.  Strict controls on their transport as well as birth control measures kept them in check.  Only triploid fish were permitted, those with three pairs of genes which makes them sterile.  If this idea of releasing only sterile exotic species sounds familiar, Callery pears will probably come to mind.

Black Carp - Duane Chapman USGS
Of the four Asian carp species grown in China and Vietnam for food, the black carp is most prized for their flavor.  They are harder to raise in aquaculture as they eat only snails and mussels.  Trematodes (flukes) that can infect aquaculture are parasites that potentially threaten humans.  They require snails to complete their life cycle, hence the use of black carp to limit their spread.

Several black carp with normal diploid genes have been found in rivers but the hope was that their infrequency would prevent successful mating.  Now at least one pair has successfully mated.  The Mississippi has the most diverse collection of mollusk species in the world and three-fourths of these species are listed as threatened or endangered.  The spread of black carp which can weigh up to 150 pounds is a serious threat to mollusk diversity.  Just what we needed, another $%#^ invasive species!
Harbinger of Spring - REK
Now it is officially spring at Bull Mills.  Barb found the first Harbinger of Spring so let the fun begin.  On a more pleasant note you can review March Phenology Findings here.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Water Striders

Striding across the pond - REK
Water striders were dancing on the pond surface in large numbers last Saturday, prematurely celebrating the early arrival of spring.  Their ability to seemingly defy gravity is entertaining to all who watch as seen in my video from that day.  The secret to its delicate ballet is really that of one of the amazing properties of water called surface tension.

   Jim Moore
Striders are bugs (Hemiptera) in the Gerridae family.  Most have wings although that may vary between generations (wing polymorphism), some having long wings to migrate distances to establish new territory, others short wings for short trips.  At other times they may have none at all.  The advantage of having wings may be outweighed (literally) by the added weight they have to carry across the water surface.  Like other Hemiptera, they have sucking mouth parts which can pierce their prey, digesting them externally and sucking in the contents.

Each of its three pair of legs serve a different function.  The front pair are equipped with claws in the middle like a preying mantis, allowing them to grab and puncture their prey.  The middle pair serves as oars, quickly propelling them across the water while the longer back legs support their weight and act as rudders.  When they sense vibrations or waves from a struggling insect, they can turn rapidly and attack as fast as one meter a second.

Responding to a twig thrown in the water - REK
The surface tension of water is a key to their success.  You can experience this yourself by floating a coin on water as demonstrated with this video.  The scientific explanation is as follows:
"At liquid-air interfaces, surface tension results from the greater attraction of liquid molecules to each other (due to cohesion) than to the molecules in the air (due to adhesion). The net effect is an inward force at its surface that causes the liquid to behave as if its surface were covered with a stretched elastic membrane. Thus, the surface becomes under tension from the imbalanced forces, which is probably where the term "surface tension" came from."  Wikipedia
The other factor is the cluster of tiny hydrophobic hairs covering their body, over 1,000 microhairs per millimeter.  On the legs, they keep the strider on top of the water, riding on the surface tension.  The hairs on the body prevent wetting even from rain, that otherwise would weigh them down.

   The elastic surface tension is stretched under each leg -  Stan Lupo
Mating rituals require communication between the sexes, and male water striders send their courtship message through water vibrations.  They send out three different frequencies of water ripples.  A high frequency 25 Hz repel signal or a lower 10 Hz threat signal are warnings.  If a repel signal isn't returned by another water strider, the male knows it is a female.  Then he gives the lowest frequency 3 Hz signal signifying courtship, the Barry White approach to romance.

   Strider Astride - Stavros Markopoulos CC
It gets even more complicated as described in this Discover magazine article.  Studies suggest that when females resist mating, the mounted males can send out vibrations that would attract predators such as backswimmers and fish.  Since these attack from below, the vulnerable female is more likely stop resisting the mating. 
High speed video of water striders and surface tension.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

CWD Hits Arkansas

Chronic Wasting Disease - Mike Hopper, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism
The first case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Arkansas was reported in an elk near Pruitt along the upper end of the Buffalo River.  There are around 600 elk in the area which has become a draw for tourists.
CWD Distribution 2015 - By USGS, National Wildlife Health Center
This Arkansas case was found due to a special permits elk hunting season as the only way the disease can be diagnosed is by studying the brain and spinal cord of the animal.  As of 2015, CWD has been confirmed in 26 free ranging deer in 5 northeastern Missouri counties.

CWD is thought to be caused by a prion, an infectious protein without an associated nucleic acid.  It causes a condition called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (popularly known as mad cow disease), scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.  So far there is no evidence of any risk of CWD to humans.

Baiting deer for hunting is illegal in Missouri but feeding deer isn't.  Lots of well meaning people hang a corn feeder so they can watch "their" deer come in for supper.  Wisconsin is one of 12 states that still allows hunting deer brought into deer feeding stations, but they are discouraging the practice due to disease.
"Wisconsin DNR wildlife health officials say both CWD and Tuberculosis (TB) are transmitted through deer to deer contact and concentrations of deer at bait and feeding stations are likely to promote the transmission of infectious agents. CWD is also transmitted through exposure to a contaminated environment and TB is transmissible from contaminated food and feed sites."
We have long known that human diseases spread more rapidly when we are crowded together.  Epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue (EHD)
in deer occurs in late summer as water sources dry up and deer gather tightly together for water.  Too much sharing among them isn't healthy.  Maybe the time has come for us to stop sharing our corn with them at feeders.

EHD or Bluetongue- What is the difference?
Ten reasons you don't want CWD in your woods.
The Missouri Department of Conservation web site has lots of information on CWD.