Thursday, April 30, 2020

Slime or Flux

"In the spring a cut stump's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of... sap." - with apologies to Tennyson.

On a hike on a friend's path we came across these beautiful orange and yellow blobs, standing out in shaded woods.  Maybe beautiful is an overstatement, gnarly would be closer,  but they did catch my eye.  They were on the ends of 5" diameter grapevines that had been cut months before.  On closer inspection we could see clear liquid dripping off the surface as you can see here.
Mark Bower identified this for me as stump flux, aka deer vomit, neither of which are compliments.  He also shared one of his photographs with me.  If you are a regular visitor to the blog you have seen his beautiful fungus and slime mold photographs, but this isn't one of them.

Slime on a branch - Mark Bower

In the spring, tree roots send up sap toward its branches, delivering the fuel to grow new shoots and leaves.  Trees wounded from bark damage, deer rubs, or the subtle effects of a chainsaw may continue this and the sap will still exude from the wounds.  This is the same process that produces real maple syrup.

Slime fit for a fly
The sugary sap forms a watery translucent slime.  Yeasts are drifting around in the air and once they attach they grow by digesting the sap.   Yeast + sugar = fermentation.  Add some bacteria and fungi and you have a feast for insects like flies, ants, and maggots.  All the ants and flying insects covering this stump scurried away before I could get their pictures, leaving this lone fly.

The slime is translucent and greasy but the filamentous fungal growth was quite hard to the touch.  The orange to red colors you see are due to carotene produced by the slime, the same chemicals that give carrots their orange color.  (Do not share this fact with young children who are eating their vegetables.)

Stump Dog* - Cornell
*Stump Dog in his matching coat "nose" his slimes and shares his more scientific details referred to above at his blog at

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Bird Fallout

"What a difference a space makes, 24 little hours." 

Baltimore Oriole - Joe Motto
Two days ago while sitting on our deck above Bull Creek I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak in a tree, followed shortly by a Baltimore oriole.  Turning to the gravel drive we saw the brightest blue of an indigo bunting, all arriving within minutes.  Charley Burwick responded that "there was a big fallout of birds yesterday, and today, and expected tomorrow."  I was aware of the fallout concept but wanted to learn more.

Indigo Bunting - Joe Motto
Searching for more information, the space between "fallout" and "fall out" is critical.   A search for "fall out" brings up post-apocalyptic computer role-playing games, something I don't need in these COVID times.  Searching "Bird fall out" brings up sensational news stories of large numbers of dead birds falling from the sky as described in  Now thoroughly depressed I searched for "bird fallout" and found what Charley was referring to.  This is a bird fallout as described in Wikipedia.

"Bird fallout or migration fallout is the result of severe weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination. This can occur while birds are traveling south or returning to their breeding grounds.[1] Due to the distance traveled, birds will not have enough energy to continue flight when encountering high winds. This exhaustion results in many birds resting in one area. This may be very stressful on the birds and on the surrounding ecology.[1] Bird fallout is not particularly common, as it stems from the chance event of severe winds found in inclement weather. Due to the rare occurrence of a migratory fallout, as well as the abundance of birds resting in a single location, it is a sought-after event for birders."

Jay McEntee, Missouri State University ornithologist, sent me this Live Migration Map site from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  When stuck inside, this will help to entertain a geeky Nature Nerd for hours but may interest the rest of you as well.  After that, get back out in the sunshine!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Froggy Find

Find the frog
Our Guest Blogger, Tonya Smith MN sent this to me.

This frog was a pleasant distraction from my yard duties. It was hidden under the mulch surrounding a purple coneflower’s fresh leaves of spring.  I knew if I took my eyes off of it to fetch a container for temporary containment, I would lose sight of it. I used my phone to “catch it.”

Frogs do not adhere to “say cheese on the count of three.”  In this case it was a human and frog hopping match; me attempting to get close enough for a picture adequate for identification.  Mission accomplished!  A picture comparing it to my hand or something else to show its size would have been helpful, but this was one fast frog.

I went to the Missouri Department of Conservation website which has a comprehensive list of field guides. I started with Reptiles and Amphibians. From there I filtered to the subtype Frogs and Toads where there are 23 options. As you can see, Froggy is green but has additional coloring and markings.

I found this frog in the southern part of Missouri. Is it a southern leopard frog?  “The head of the southern leopard frog is long and the snout is pointed. Overall color is green, greenish brown, or light brown with some green on the back. There is usually no dark spot on the snout.  A white line is present along the upper lip.”

Froggy’s overall color is green and that color stuck in my mind the second I first saw it. Froggy has the oblong spots on its back and hind legs. But Froggy doesn’t have a white line along the upper lip.  Do you see a ridge of skin or fold along each side of Froggy’s back?   Based on my comparison there are enough differences for me to move on.

Is it a northern cricket frog? The MDC page says “The northern cricket frog's color is quite variable: gray, tan, greenish tan, or brown. The back may have a irregular green, yellow, orange, or brown stripe. There is always a dark triangle between the eyes, a series of light and dark bars on the upper jaw, and an irregular black or brown stripe along the inside of each thigh. The belly is white.”

Froggy wouldn’t respond to the command “Roll over!” so I couldn’t see the belly.  Since it didn’t follow commands I decided it was a male.

Froggy has variable color with green, tan, and brown. The back has irregular stripes which in Froggy’s case are brown. A zoom in on the jaw line shows a series of light and dark bars. Yes, I know, if I had picked it up, I could have confirmed the belly color, and I didn’t have a good measurement of Froggy’s size.  Always a lesson to be learned.  One marking indicative of the northern cricket frog is a dark triangle between the eyes.  I do not see this on Froggy. There are raised markings that sort of form a triangle in between its eyes. This discrepancy compels me to look again at all 23 of the original choices that I started with. Based on my observations, no other frog has a better match than the northern cricket frog. We sent the triangle question off to Brian Edmond.

Brian said, “Yes, that is a northern or Blanchard's cricket frog (Acris crepitans or A. blanchardi, depending on your source). Same family and size as a spring peeper. They call in the late spring and much of the summer near larger bodies of water, including our Ozark rivers. I haven't heard any calling yet but I've been seeing them for the entire winter season since it was so mild.  There call which you can hear here, is similar to the sound you can make when rapidly knocking two rocks together quickly (chick-chick-chick-chick-chick). This an adult so they never get very big.

They have three characteristics that make them pretty easy to identify in the field. First, they do not usually dive for deep water when you scare them. Instead, they usually hop into the nearest water when startled and immediately swim back to shore, often to the same place they just started. I figure this is probably a behavioral adaptation to living in large bodies of water, where the predators in the water are just as scary as the ones on the land.

Brian marked the triangle
Second, they always (as close to always as you can get in nature, anyway) have a triangle between their eyes that points backwards. I can see it in this photo. Often, you have to hold the frog under water for the pattern to be more clear. Third, they have warty skin but really do not look like a toad.”

Back to Tonya.
One more thought. Is Froggy good bait for a fishing line? Yes, but not under my watch. Once you give an animal a pet name it can’t be harmed.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Cowbird Eggs

Tonya Smith put this picture in the new private Springfield Plateau photo album.  Even the untrained eye can recognize the egg of an intruder, the notorious cowbird.  It is hard to fight the temptation to remove it to "protect" the brood.  DON'T.

The first reason is usually pointing out that it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Act.  Cowbirds may be thugs but they are our native thugs.  You may say "nobody is looking" but it isn't necessarily true.  Mama cowbird will be watching and you don't want to make her mad.

Some reasons to keep hands off:
  • Messing with the nest may lead to the natural parent abandoning the nest and starting over somewhere else.
  • While the cowbird chick may out compete the others it may not be fatal.
  • The cowbird mama frequently will come back to check and is likely to trash the nest and destroy the other eggs.
There is a very concise article from Audubon which will explain the research.

I have a confession.  I didn't learn to control my contempt for these hoodlums until later in life.  There are several reasons to appreciate the cowbird.  For one, they have a beautiful call, like a soprano gargling champagne.  Also, watching the interaction with the "adoptive parent" can be entertaining.  Linda Bower has this great Youtube video of a phoebe intent on raising the offspring even if it doesn't look quite like it should.

Finally, in this previous blog we counted the diverse insects that the phoebe fed the chick, an appreciation of the maternal instinct overcoming prejudice.

More on Cowbird habits at this link.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Praying Mantis

Last year our neighbor brought me a cool critter from her flower bed.  It is sweet and lovable with soulful eyes.  It does have a bad habit of snatching up its food quickly and letting an occasional wing or leg fall to the floor.  

Praying Mantis (also called mantids) are named for their praying posture with their arms folded, not unlike a dog sitting up and begging.  There voracious creatures are anything but devout as you can discover by getting an insect within their quick grasp.  This creature grabbed a katydid faster than I could follow the action. 
Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) were first brought to this country in 1895 as a source of pest control.  They are still readily available as pets and for gardeners in the form of egg cases to raise for their garden.  They have an unfortunate habit of eating any insects, good or bad, as well as an occasional lizard, frog or even an unwary hummingbird as in this Video.  In fact there have been 147 documented instances of mantids devouring birds on six continents.*
Male Mantis-
How do tell the boys from the girls?  There are several ways.  The females have 6-7 abdominal segments while the males have 8.  Also, the males have four appendages off the tip of the abdomen, a pair of cerci and a pair of styli (see picture) but the females have only the one pair of cerci.

Click to enlarge
Mantis females lay 100-200 eggs in a cool egg case called an ootheca.  It is usually attached to a woody stem.  When the first instar emerge in the spring, they disperse in search of food.  Many species of mantis are cannibalistic, eating their siblings after they are born, so moving away from home is crucial in their survival.  The ootheca that I collected see the young hatch had around 100 in the evening.  I kept them for 2 days to see how many would emerge.  When I went to release them, there 12 left.  Burp!

Female mantis may eat a male approaching for mating, so males have to be very careful.  Even if she is receptive, he isn't out of danger, as mantids are famous for their sexual cannibalism.  The females may eat the male during or after their intercourse. Is this a strategy to improve their mating success or did they simply get  "the hungries" at an inopportune time?  Why do the males allow this?  Ask a mantid.  There are several theories.
  1. The male being eaten has longer intercourse during that time and therefore more sperm to increase his chance of breeding his own young.
  2. The male sacrifices his body to provide nourishment for the young his partner will produce.
Neither seems a reasonable choice to me, but it apparently makes sense to the mantid.  Some research has suggested that sexual cannibalism occurs predominately in mantids in captivity.  On the other hand, another study showed that 60% of the food of a female mantid was derived from her boyfriends.

Other species such as spiders and scorpions are known to frequently eat their mates during mating.  Some spider species have developed elaborate strategies to inform the female of their intentions.  This can include elaborate dances or motions that say "I am your species and would like to mate rather than eat you."  Never knowing whether she is in the mood, some males have other strategies to avoid the tender trap, but none are foolproof.

* An article in National Geographics has more on their senses.
More on praying mantis can be found in Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Zebra Swallowtails

Zebra Swallowtails mating
Pawpaw blossom - Mark Bower
Zebra swallowtail butterflies were fluttering all over Bull Mills the last week preparing to start a family.  Unlike the mating picture above from last summer, the host plant leaves haven't opened yet, but the males were out patrolling to be ready.  As the week rolled on the pawpaw buds opened and the first tiny leaves started to appear.

Zebra caterpillars can only eat leaves of Asimina species, the pawpaw.  We have it scattered along the valley floor as well as a patch high up on top of the ridge.

Spring comes at different times at Bull Mills.  On the ridge tops the pawpaw are in full bloom and their leaves are emerging.  Down in the valley where the nighttime temperatures are 6 to 8 degrees cooler, the flower buds are closed and the leaves haven't opened up.  Meanwhile the zebra swallowtails have gotten their message from the length of the daylight and are patrolling both areas.

I settled in at the grove on the ridge, determined to photograph a female laying an egg.  Males patrolled restlessly less than 3 feet above the forest floor and after an hour, suddenly a zebra flew up and held a leaf for a few seconds, moving on to another as I chased it, never getting it into focus.  Seven stops, each on a different tree and then it disappeared.

This time of year they only deposit eggs on the tiny emerging one inch leaves.  With a dense grove of two dozen trees it is nearly impossible to find an egg this time of year unless you see it laid.  I found this one seconds after it was attached.  Soon a tiny caterpillar will emerge to chew on the moist and tender leaves.

Different instars, last one on the right - Bioweb
As the caterpillar grows it will split out of its tight skin, emerging in a larger and looser skin.  Each stage will be darker until the 5th instar when it will form its chrysalis.

A day later I sat in the pawpaw grove for two hours and was finally rewarded by an obliging female zebra which gave me just enough time to focus and shoot.

Attaching the egg, a three second stop
Pawpaw blossom - Mark Bower
Like most other plants with dark purple to brown blossoms, the pawpaw flower has a smell of something dead, attracting flies and beetles looking for carrion.  They will then be fooled again with the next blossom, unwittingly carrying pollen to another tree and life goes on.
Detailed information on the zebras, Eurytides marcellus, is at this University of Florida entomology site.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Salad Days

Our front yard
A delay in our curbside grocery order meant that we were short on fresh greens for our salad. "Not to worry, we have our yard!" said my editor Barb.  To those who aim for a "perfect" monoculture lawn, we are heretics.  Some years ago we started letting the yard flower and watched the grateful insect life enjoy it.  The mower is set at 4 inches and the lawn is mowed every other week.
It is paying other dividends this year.  Violets are scattered across the lawn giving it splashes of purple blossoms so beloved by great spangled fritillaries.  Henbit and dead-nettle mix in with the grasses.  And all three find a place in our salad bowls.  Even before this our standard salad was decorated with violets.  (It is important to note that we don't spray our yard with chemicals).  This salad contained chickweed, henbit, dead nettle, redbud blossoms and violets.

When our grocery ran out of lettuce we headed back to the creek.  Barb set me out at the creek to collect Rudbeckia lanciniata, one of the few non-flowering plants she can trust me to identify.  She even allowed me to pull some of her invasive garlic mustard which adds a pleasant faint bite to the greens.  She meanwhile harvested  chickweed, henbit, and dead nettle from along our fields.  Topped off with violets and redbud blossoms it was beautiful.

The nice thing about eating some of the weedy plants is you can spare the edible wildflowers.  Large fields of rudbeckia and garlic mustard indicate they don't have a lot of insects or herbivores eating them.  For that reason she doesn't eat edible wildflowers such as spring beauty which provides nutrition for our insect friends.  Violets are an exception as they are abundant enough to share with the fritillaries.

Sochan was the Cherokee name for Rudbeckia laciniata, aka cutleaf coneflower or tall golden glow.  It is best eaten in the spring when the leaves are most tender.  It is slightly chewy in a salad then but is an excellent pot herb and it covers our riparian area.  Barb cooks it like spinach (she uses bacon fat, the universal way to my heart, probably both mentally and cardiac wise but you have to make your choices.)  It produces its golden flowers in the late summer when the leaves are too chewy.

Dead-nettle is considered a weed by many people but it has its charm.  Known as red dead-nettle, purple dead-nettle, or purple archangel, it is a herbaceous flowering plant native to Europe and Asia.  While it can grow exuberantly in mats that can take over an area, it is a problem you can eat your way out of and the tiny flowers are kinda cute if you get down to their level.  To demonstrate its benefit to butterflies and bees Barb reports she saw zebra and tiger swallowtails taking nectar from it and a bumblebee gathering nectar and pollen while she was pulling garlic mustard today.
Now is a good time to be out in nature, be it forest, field or the untended areas of our yards.  Consider letting at least a little of it go wild.

As you can tell by all the purples in its name, you wouldn't expect to find white flowers but that is just what Kelly McGowan found in the photograph below that she sent me.

What can you find that is new to you?

Finally, I think this article in Smithsonian magazine about Doug Tallamy should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the ecology of our planet or even just a little curious.

Quick Answer

In the previous blog we sent this mystery photograph for you to identify.  The word I omitted was "slithering."  If you didn't get it before, click to enlarge the picture again and see if you have better luck, then read on below.
If you studied the picture as I did, it maybe its a sign that you have too much time on your hands and need to get outdoors.

Okay, there is a snake.  With the stripe on the back, it might be a garter snake.  One trick I use is to Google search for a possible species in Missouri, in this case "garter snake MDC." The MDC Discover Nature Field Guide frequently comes up as the first choice and clicking on that brings up this page.  Check it out and especially go down to the "similar species" at the bottom of the page.

Click to enlarge
Go ahead, I will wait for you.
Tonya identified it as an orange-striped ribbonsnake, Thamnophis proximus proximus.  The MDC Field Guide describes it here.

Check it out, then try getting outside, even if it is just to listen to the birds.  Here is a challenge we put on the new W.O.L.F. Den blog.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Quick Puzzle

Click to enlarge
We are contemplating creating a site to share photographs among chapter members for identification or general interest.  It would be secure in that only members could post to it.

Tonya Smith sent me this photograph from her hike a few days ago.  She was pointing out something on the trail.  I am leaving out one key word from her description to make this into a puzzle.  Can you see what she was seeing?

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

The answer will be in the next blog.