Saturday, May 26, 2018

Mouse in a Bluebird House

We have a bluebird trail of 14 boxes at Bull Mills, all wired 4' up on metal fence posts. When I was cleaning them out this year I found one chock full of grass with a little hollow on top, not unlike a bird nest.  When I opened the side door fully I found the back end of a small mammal with a very long skinny tail.  It scurried under the grass nest and I was able to close the box up.  I came back later with a 5 gallon bucket and managed to scrape the mammal and the nest into it.  It immediately made several incredible 12-14" leaps straight up toward the rim before I could get a lid on it.  I transferred it to an aquarium where I could now see and photograph a small and timid mouse.

The mouse in this house was not a house mouse!  Our so called house mouse, Mus musculus, aka "fancy mouse" came across the big pond from Europe with early explorers, probably originating in India, before having reached Europe around 100 B.C and North America with the British in the later 1600s.  They are more adapted to living with humans than almost any animal with the exception of college graduates moving back in with their parents.  Their greatest importance is in our research laboratories and to the exterminator industry.

The tremendous jumps of my new friend led me into a rabbit hole of researching like Alice in Wonderland  (actually more of a mouse hole).  There are 12 species of mice in Missouri in addition to the common house mouse. The dramatic leaps of my mouse immediately brought to mind the jumping meadow mouse (JMM), Zapus hudsonius pallidus, which has been reported scattered throughout Missouri although Christian County has never had a confirmed sighting.  They are noted for their extremely long tail, 150% of their body length, and their long hind feet measuring 28 to 35 mm long.

A whale of a tail
Click to enlarge - Photo Debbie Fantz MDC

I contacted Debbie Fantz, Heritage Mammalogist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  My photographs of our mouse were in less than perfect light but appeared a little lighter than the typical JMM, leading her to suggest that it might be a juvenile before molting into darker colors.  The colors also matched the fulvous harvest mouse (FHM), Rreithrodontomys fulvescens, a southern species that has been reported in southwest Missouri.  The upper body is a mixture of reddish brown (fulvous means reddish yellow, tawny) and black.  It too has a tail longer than its body, but not usually quite as long as a JJM.

I have finally decided that this was a particularly athletic specimen of a fulvous harvest mouse based on a single trait.  My mouse was housed in the bottom of a bluebird nest box wired 4' up on a metal fence T-post.  The box had two small triangular openings in the wooden floor.
"Perhaps the most fascinating habit of the fulvous harvest mouse is its ability to build large, above-ground "penthouses" in grasses, low shrubs, or small trees (Davis and Schmidly 1994). These may be constructed of the materials in the animal's habitat or may be converted bird's nests. The solid, globe-shaped nest has one or two exits near the bottom end which can be clogged up."
The hair on the upper body is a mixture of reddish brown and black, creating a salt and pepper effect (Hall and Kelson 1959). R. fulvescens has a tail that is much longer than its body and its under parts are white to buff. The adult plumage is brighter than that of the juvenile and adults molt once a year.The hair on the upper body is a mixture of reddish brown and black, creating a salt and pepper effect (Hall and Kelson 1959). R. fulvescens has a tail that is much longer than its body and its under parts are white to buff. The adult plumage is brighter than that of the juvenile and adults molt once a year.
The hair on the upper body is a mixture of reddish brown and black, creating a salt and pepper effect (Hall and Kelson 1959). R. fulvescens has a tail that is much longer than its body and its under parts are white to buff. The adult plumage is brighter than that of the juvenile and adults molt once a year.
The hair on the upper body is a mixture of reddish brown and black, creating a salt and pepper effect (Hall and Kelson 1959). R. fulvescens has a tail that is much longer than its body and its under parts are white to buff. The adult plumage is brighter than that of the juvenile and adults molt once a year."
Reithrodontomys fulvescens
Reithrodontomys fulvescens
The lengths that plants and animals go to for survival, however humble they be, are incredible.  As Bill Bryson says in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “Life just wants to be; but it doesn't want to be much.”

Thanks to Debbie Fantz and Ashley Schnake of MDC
Wild Mammals of Missouri lists 13 mouse species.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Prairie Lady Beetle

Wednesday's WOLF School field trip to the Missouri Prairie Foundation's La Petite Gemme Prairie was a great success.  With Jay Barber (MDC) and Jerod Huebner (MPF) we divided the WOLFs into three teams.  The WOLF students in my exercise counted the different plants by appearance within a hula hoop (14 to a record of 22 species) before the hunt for insects began in earnest.  Nothing can put terror in an insect's heart as the sight of a 5th grader armed with a sweep net.*

Students started finding leaves with small orange and black lumps adhering to them.  These were the pupae of ladybeetles, called ladybugs, but these ladies aren't really bugs but beetles in the order Coleoptera.  They make pupae, similar to the more familiar cocoons of moths and chrysalis of butterflies.

The students found an occasional black larva with yellow-orange stripes and spots.  Now we had the question of which ladybeetle.  Until recently this would have meant a trip to Google and the books but that is changing. has gotten much better with time and submitting the photograph of our larva brought up the top 10 likely species.  A quick comparison with online photographs of the top two picks confirmed the ID of the Convergent Lady Beetle, Hippodamia convergens. entry 
"Clusters of yellow eggs are laid by the adult female beetle in batches of 10-30 eggs on stems or leaves of plants where abundant insect prey is present. Individual eggs are spindle-shaped and 1-1.5 mm (≈1/20th inch) long and laid pointing upwards."  (University of Florida Entomology).  The tiny larva that emerges is born hungry and will feed on aphids or even the eggs of its siblings.  The first instar is predominantly black but each molting the amount of orange color increases.  Ours were the final instar before forming a pupa.
Hippodamia convergens larvae feeding on eggs of the cottonwood leaf beetle - CC
One of the students noticed a pupa that showed some movement.  Just like the Luna Moth pupa that they had seen dancing last fall (see the video) last fall, this one demonstrated its predator evasion moves for the students while we filmed it here.


I brought home a few of the pupae and the very next morning all of them had emerged and were crawling around the insect box.  Unlike the stinking, nipping and obnoxious Asian Ladybeetles that invade our homes, the Convergent Ladybeetle is well mannered and welcome in our gardens.  An adult can consume 30-50 aphids a day as well as other bug eggs and even honeydew, nectar, and pollen when prey is scarce.  They are important natural biological control agents in commercial fields plagued by aphids and other insect pests.  Out on the prairie, they were just doing their own thing as a part of the food web.

* Few insects were harmed aside from net bruises.  Species the students found included:
  • Lacewings
  • Crane flies
  • Grass moths and others
  • Assorted diptera (flies)
  • Spiders - jumping, crab and others
  • Beetles - unidentified
  • Preying Mantis nymphs
  • Looper caterpillars
  • Grasshoppers
  • Katydids
  • Leafhoppers
  • Aphids
  • Wasps (no stings)
  • Solitary bees
  • Stink bugs - plant and predatory
  • Leaf galls harboring insect larvae
  • ...and the "dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" call of the Dicksissel
La Petite Gemme Prairie is indeed a "little gem."  At only 37 acres, it is one of Missouri’s smaller tracts of original, unplowed prairie, yet it is packed with a documented 335 native plant species, and with the greatest diversity of prairie plants on a quarter-meter scale (38 species) found to date in Missouri.
-->  Located 30 minutes north of Springfield, just west of Bolivar, it is our favorite prairie, easily accessible, fertile, and an easy stroll through thick and beautiful plants.  If you have never strolled a prairie and live around Springfield, this is a the one to start on.  It is owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation and maintained by jointly by the Missouri Department of Conservation and MPF.
You can enjoy a free weekend of prairie learning experiences and even have a Saturday night campout June 2 and 3 at the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s 9th Annual Prairie BioBlitz at its Pleasant Run Creek Prairie.  Learn details at this link.
A cloud of these showed up on radar in California in 2019.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Stink Bug Eggs

One of our WOLF School students gave me this leaf from the playground.  On the underside there was a tiny tightly packed cluster of eggs.  She recognized that they might be eggs, but of what?  Under magnification, the eggs were a cloudy white with a faint pink line.  The cluster was typical of stink bugs eggs.  I did what any other sophisticated biologist with my training would do.  I put the leaf in a ziplock bag and waited for nature to take its course.

Five days later was the great "coming out."  The tiny 2mm creatures were clustered around the empty egg mass, but by the time I got out my camera they were on the move.  The eggs were still in place but the tops were ajar where the larvae had chewed their way to freedom.  They seemed larger than the egg they had emerged from, a phenomena that any human mother can appreciate.

  David R Lance, USDA
Under better light as seen above, these can be identified as brown marmorated stink bugs (MBSB), Halyomorpha halys.  I bagged the larvae in with assorted fresh leaves from Barb's flower garden (all native species of course) and the next morning they were all tightly clustered on the underside of a squaw weed leaf, Packera obovata.  When disturbed they began to move, as seen in this somewhat shaky videoI challenge you to try making a video of 2mm crawling nymphs after your second cup of coffee.

BMSB is a species accidentally introduced from Asia and first collected in 1998.  It has rapidly moved across the country and is now found in Europe and South America.  It is found in wooded urban areas as well as orchards where it has become a major pest.  Like most other stink bugs it feeds by sticking its proboscis into the plant and injecting juices that digest the plant.  This leaves fruits dimpled with rotting inside, making them unsaleable.  For most of us, it seems likely that we will become more intimately acquainted with BMSB in our personal lives.
"Late in the season, adults will enter homes and other buildings when seeking sheltered sites to overwinter or diapause. During the several weeks of peak flight, many insects can enter homes through any small opening, mostly around windows. In Japan, the BMSB is a well-known nuisance pest for this reason, and the same situation is now common in Allentown, Pennsylvania in late September and early October.  As the insect spreads to new areas, this aggregation behavior will probably again attract attention and ironically assist in monitoring its distribution."
5th instar - Hectonichus CC
Adult BMSB - Alpsdake CC

They progress through 6 instars before reaching adulthood with the brown marmorated color, meaning having a marbled or streaked appearance.  The 5th instar is my personal favorite but sadly they won't be reaching this stage in our house.  (Mama don't allow no stinking invasive species around here.)
The University of Florida Entomology Department has more detailed information.

There are some "good" stinkbugs that are predatory, feasting of insects that you don't want in your garden.  This website has photographs to help you tell the difference between them but the easiest feature is the sharply pointed shoulder spines seen below.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Pileated Woodpecker

Female Pileated Woodpecker waiting for the next shift to arrive
A dead tree along the lane at Bull Creek has been losing large branches and I was tempted to fell it but held off as it was potential bird habitat, never dreaming that we would hit the jackpot.  Last week, Chris Barnhart told me that a Pileated Woodpecker (PW) had flown into a new hole.  A few days later I set up my camera and made seven 28 minute videos, leaving them alone each time to encourage their normal habits. 

Every 10 to 20 minutes one would stick its head out to look around and maybe to hear any calls.  It would look in different directions and sometimes twist its head as though listening intently for its mate.  They appeared to be taking 2 hour shifts, probably trading off incubating their eggs, a chore shared by males.  The bird to the right is a male, identified by a red streak on the cheek behind the bill. 

PWs are uncommonly seen up close.  They are a bird of the forest, preferring dense woods with large trees.  It is distinctly uncommon to be able to observe them at a nest this close up.    We occasionally hear their call across the valley but usually only get a rare glimpse up in the woods.  Cornell's All About Birds recordings refer to their "wuk" call but I think the field guide description as a cuk-cuk-cuk is more descriptive.  With a long series of calls it tends to rise in pitch, then fall at the end.  You can hear one getting its "yucks"at the start of this video that I compiled of the day's highlights.

Male preparing to leave the nest to the female
Highlights of the video on Youtube.
0:00  The male calls and the female sticks out her head to listen.  Female flies out of the nest, then the male arrives10 seconds later.
0:33  Male peering out of the nest.
0:54  Female arrives and they trade places
1:45  Female leaves and male returns

I am intrigued by the way a woodpecker can effortlessly hop up a smooth tree, seeming to have both feet off the trunk at the same time.  Viewing at 1/8th the speed you can barely make out the fact that it holds on with one foot for a split second while moving the other foot.  The tail feathers are strong and somewhat stiff, necessary to prop the bird upright.  Imagine how much pressure is applied on them when the woodpecker is excavating the hole!
  • Of course someone has studied the difference between woodpecker tail and body feathers as seen here
  • The Infinite Spider goes into the anatomic features allowing woodpeckers to hammer at 1000x the force of gravity.
  • has a set of incredible photographs of a pileated woodpecker at work.
"I'll be back in an hour!"

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Owls of Winter

Becky Swearingen had a big owl winter and shared this story with us.

I was walking Pennsylvania Prairie one evening in late winter. It was about an hour before dusk and I was just standing in the middle of the prairie soaking in the peace and quiet when I looked up and saw a Short-Eared Owl making a beeline for my head. Not wanting to spook it I didn’t even get my camera up to take a picture. Instead I froze in spot thinking “Do I duck?” Fortunately about 10 feet in front of me it veered to my right.

I turned and took what I thought was a parting shot, but the owl turned returned to get a better look at me, flying about 10 feet from me.

I had just read that owls that summer in the far north are often not familiar with people and show less fear than birds that breed in more populated areas. This owl seemed curious about what I was more than concerned. It happened in just a matter of moments and then the owl passed me and continued hunting for its dinner. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, though.

This owl is in a fairly open barn in Southwest Missouri. Two of us were given the opportunity to approach the barn. As we approached, it flushed and flew into a decrepit house also on the site. I slowly approached the house and once again the bird flushed, but this time landed on a branch right above me to check me out.

A month or so later I was out with the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society looking for shorebirds. They were aware of a Barn Owl in the area and decided that for a treat they would show us the location. When Barn Owls are found, their location is kept a closely guarded secret. They are easily disturbed in their nesting locations. They are also the victims of predation, particularly from Great Horned Owls. I had known of one other Barn Owl family that over the course of a couple of months was completely decimated. We found the remains of Barn Owls in the area and can only assume they were victims of Great Horned Owl predation.

I shot as many pictures as I could until it flew back to its barn roost. We heard that there was possibly a second Barn Owl close by, so we have hopes of a new family of Barn Owls taking up residence. Barn Owls breed year-round and can have owlets of different ages in their roost at the same time.

This time of year, it also a good idea to look at all the old hawk’s nest around. That is one area that Great Horned Owls will nest in. This nest is from this spring in Dade County.

Great Horned Owl and owlet snuggling together at Lake Springfield
--> Finally, as winter is winding down and spring is making its slow progress, it is time for the owls who winter here, like the Short-Eared Owls, to move back to their breeding grounds. As dusk approaches, though, keep your eyes peeled for those owls. It is a treat when you get a close encounter of the owl kind.