Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Losing a Neighbor

This year's big windstorm took down several large trees in our subdivision.  I was saddened to lose this neighbor as it has provided oak acorns with acorn weevils to show WOLF students.  They are a good example of another small lifecycle that goes on around us unnoticed.

These Curculio sp. live out of sight.  When our Master Naturalist Buck Keagy was collecting acorns to plant hundreds of oaks in the past, he would dump them in a bucket of water and plant only those that sank, knowing that the floaters had weevils or were otherwise damaged. I do the opposite, throwing out the sinkers to find acorns likely housing weevils. You can read about their life cycle and the weevil wasp Cerceris halone that depends on them in this blog.

Estimating the tree's age based on its diameter at breast height, most tree sites would have called it around 110 years old.*  In this case, by tree ring count it was 90 years old. The difference is that urban trees that are watered regularly and in open sun grow large faster.

This giant broke off at the roots about 16" underground. Oaks in nature spend more of their energy in the first few years creating deep roots before t.heir growth spurt to height and diameter later.  My forester professor Jim Gulden supported my theory that its shallow root system likely came from frequent urban lawn watering.  If gets all that free water, why bother with deeper roots?

The only good news is that the trunk will be making someone good furniture. 

* Estimating a standing trees age is explained at this web site.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Dining Out


We recently looked out our patio sliding glass door and saw this juvenile Cooper's hawk sitting on our bench 6 feet from us.  It wasn't bothered by us, more intent on our bird feeders which had been hosting a bunch of English sparrows.

Cooper selecting dinner

With Barb's 90+ species of native plants in 1/10th of an acre backyard, we have a wide variety of food choices for birds. In addition to the seeds of flowers and shrubs, there are all the pollinators, butterflies, bees, beetles and other insect species climbing on the flower heads. This and our bird-feeders provides a cafeteria for birds ranging from hummers to bluejays and mockingbirds.  There are also chipmunks and skinks scurrying along the ground to catch the eye of our diligent hawk.

Cooper's are model fathers, building the nest, feeding the female while nesting and then bringing baby food for the nestlings before they fledge the next month. What is not to love about a daddy like that!

It's a bird-eat-bird world out there as seen in our neighbor Cyrus Taylor's backyard video of the Cooper's dining alfresco, munching and spitting out the feathers of an unknown bird.

We humans are the apex predator on our planet. Now we are faced with picking winners among the smaller species.  By taking down our bird feeder we may slightly lessen songbird mortality.  On the other hand, there are still the chipmunks and baby rabbits. A Cooper has a family to feed, hopefully choosing English sparrows. In the long run, it is still a bird-eat-bird world. 

More on Cooper's Hawks at this MDC Field Guide link.


An interesting side note, the name Cooper's Hawk is part of a debate in the birding world.  As described here, the American Ornithological Society is changing the names of several birds because the name is associated with Confederate officers and/or slave owners of the Civil War period.  Who was Cooper?

"He was an American naturalist born in 1798 and one of the original officers of The New York Academy of Sciences. He was a man of “exceeding modesty,” according to a written history of the academy. “Over cautious in naming new species, he generously permitted others to use his material and sometimes to gain the credit that might have been his.”

As one  member says, “I just find it a little bit excessive. It’s one thing to take down statues of Southern Civil War generals and outright racists,” he said.

It gets even more complicated.  The Audubon Society is named for John James Audubon, a well-known early American birdwatcher and a wildlife artist during the 1800s who created “The Birds of America,” a collection of 435 life-size prints of various bird species.  

"He also was a slave owner who opposed emancipation and was accused of academic fraud and plagiarism, stealing human remains and sending human skulls to “a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites,” according to the National Audubon Society." Sun Times

This is all part of a slippery slope, acknowledging our past society sins without totally ignoring the achievements of the "sinners".  To me, it raises the obvious question, "who is next?"

Monday, October 9, 2023

Pollinator Island

Sitting in our backyard reading, my mind wandered off to the aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) along the patio edge.  Watching it closely over 5 minutes I counted over 25 species of pollinators flitting from flower to flower, gathering food in an urban desert. These range from a bumblebee and several butterflies to assorted skippers, syrphid (flower) flies, and unidentifiable others down to 3-5 mm long.  This video shows only a few in action.

We are in a subdivision with close cropped lawns of turf grass and non-native plantings.  As I watch the show there is the roar of a lawn service next door running a commercial lawnmower larger that a small car trimming the neighbors turf grass lawn to a smooth 2" putting green with no insects surviving.

My wife, Barb, has planted over 90 species of native plants on our 0.10 acre backyard. Over several years we have watched a variety of new creatures move in, ranging from skinks, lizards and box turtles to baby rabbits, chipmunks and birds. Caterpillars and other insects also draw in excited neighborhood children.

Our backyard opens onto a street, prompting lots of stares and occasional visitors wanting information. You can sample it in this drone view.  There are lots of resources available to expand native plants in your yard. Springfield Yard Ethic has resources including advise, rebates and signage helping to explain your yard to neighbors and draw in two-legged visitors.

We would encourage you to consider native plants which are both beautiful, non-invasive and ecologically friendly.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Yellow Log

By our resident (amateur) mycologist, Mark Bower.

Click to enlarge

While hiking in the Bull Creek area I noticed a bright yellow log in the distance. I first thought it was a reflection of sunlight, but as I got closer, it was indeed yellow. I then thought that it may have been painted, but as I got closer, it was clear that this was a massive spore deposit.

My suspicion was confirmed when I poked it with my hiking stick and a strip of bark fell off. Underneath the bark were the telltale structures of Xanthoporia andersonii, the canker rot of oak.

This fungus is a polypore which is a pathogen of oaks and sometimes hickories. Its spores enter a living tree through an injury of a branch stub or sometimes the trunk. The spores germinate and form the fungal hyphae, which grow into and infect the heartwood, causing white rot (i.e., preferentially digests lignin). As the infection progresses, it extends outward and eventually reaches the cambium and kills the tree, sort of a natural girdling. It then forms its tubular fruiting bodies and the yellow spores are shed.

Interestingly, peg-like fungal outgrowths are formed, which push out against the bark, causing it to detach from the tree, allowing the spores to escape. The display is brief as this fungus is short-lived, quickly turning dark brown, then black, leaving a log which appears to have been burned.

This is just one more example of the tiny creatures that are all around us in nature when native species are allowed to pursue their own life cycles.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Fall Fungi Flush

Mark Bower sent this report of the flush of fresh mushrooms he found September 23-25th above Bull Creek.We had had several inches of rain after a dry spell and the fungi were all ready to spread their spores before winter arrives.  In addition to finding a tree covered with delicious Chicken of the Woods which stuffed our refrigerator to the bursting point, he reported a tremendous diversity of other species.

"The final tally of species from the mornings of Sat, Sun and Mon was 127. These are the species I could put a name to. There were many others that I couldn't name, and these are not included in the list. Here is the link to my Flickr album,  "Weekend at Bull Creek". It contains 36 species of fungi and slime molds, plus Ghost Pipe and Pinesap." 

The "Ghost Pipe and Pinesap" are actually plants that don't photosynthesize.  They will be to topic of the next blog.  Meanwhile, you can plunge in to all of Mark's Flicker albums at this link.

So where were all these mushrooms hiding, and why.  Margret Atwood has some deep thoughts in her poem September Mushrooms.

"Chicken" recipes by Maxine Stone are here with more in her book, Missouri's Wild Mushrooms.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Leatherwings in Love

Mating leatherwings - Click to enlarge  

In the fall, a young beetle's fancy turn to thoughts of....... making more beetles.

PL - click to enlarge
We are seeing these soldier beetles on flowers in Barb's backyard.  These are Pennsylvania Leatherwings (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus), aka Goldenrod Soldier Beetles we will call PL.  They are members of the Cantharidae family of soldier beetles.  The "soldier" label comes from the coloration of this family which reminds some of uniform decorations.  The "leatherwing" refers to their front pair of wings (elytra) which are hard in most beetles but flexible and leathery in PL.

Many of them are linked as mating pairs, the female intent on eating and the male on.....well you know what I mean.  They seem to mate non-stop and at times, finding a single is unusual.  "Size matters" as males in a breeding pair are usually larger than single males nearby.

They resemble fireflies without the electronic gear, and some sources suggest that this coloration protects them from predators familiar with the toxic secretions that fireflies produce.  They also manufacture their own brand of defensive chemical which they can release from their abdomen.

They are found in large numbers on flowers that bloom from August through October.  They seem to mate non-stop and at times, finding a single PL is an exception.  While feeding on pollen and nectar, they are also opportunistic omnivores, snacking on small insects  and caterpillars for variety.  They do not damage plants and eat some less desirable insects like aphids.  

Michael Raupp

"Adult females lay their eggs in clusters in the soil. The dark-colored, long, slender, worm-like larvae are covered with tiny dense bristles, giving a velvety appearance. They spend their time in the soil, where they are are predators of other insects, eating grasshopper eggs, small caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects."  Wisconsin Horticulture

Bug of the Week has this interesting story of a zombie fungus attacking our leatherwings. 

"A fungal pathogen called Entomophthora lampyridarum lurks in the landscape waiting to infect soldier beetles when conditions are right. After penetrating the surface of the hapless beetle, the fungus takes control of its host and zombie-fies it. 

The fungus causes beetles to march to the upper leaves of the plant, clamp onto leaves with their jaws, and spread their wings in the final act of death. This allows fruiting bodies to erupt from the upper surface of the beetle and spew their spores into the environment where they disperse and infect other victims. While we lament the loss of beneficial soldier beetles to their disease, in the greater scheme of things Entomophthora fungi are highly beneficial causing epizootics that can decimate nasty pests like gypsy moths, house flies, and locusts. Some entomologists believe that fungi are the primary regulatory agents of insect outbreaks worldwide. Glad they infect bugs and not us. "

Bug of the Week also has this video of mating leatherwings while the female is hard at work, supporting the male, something that my wife can relate to.

 More on soldier beetles in general at this University of Kentucky site.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Hackberry Nipple Galls

I visited our neighbor's big hackberry tree which stands 65 feet tall.  Several of its lower branches are 4" in diameter and are covered with hackberry nipple galls.  There are no galls on the higher branches or on the other side of the tree.  While these galls are not uncommon, I had never seen them so prolific.

The galls are actually scar tissue produced by the leaf in response to a tiny psyllid insect larva chewing on the leaf.  This tissue grows around the larva, protecting it while it goes through five successive instars before reaching maturity.  The winged adults emerge in the fall and overwinter, mostly in the cracks in the hackberry bark, before mating and laying eggs, starting the annual cycle again.

I cut open several of the galls and found tiny larvae.  The one in this video which I filmed with a hand-held digital microscope turned around in its cavity repeatedly, confused by the sight of a human looking in its home.  When I knocked it out onto the cutting board, it scurried around faster that I could follow it.  You can see here that my larva was the size of a comma in the New York Times!

There are between 7-13 species in the US, all traditionally called a single species, Pachtpsylla celtidismamma.  


Home sweet home

The shape of their galls vary. "Some are like rounded cones or disks, some are like indented mushroom caps, some are like pudgy doughnuts, some are knobby like nipples; and the nipple galls may be hairy or glabrous (smooth). One type makes inflated, blister-like pouches within the leaf."

Adult on a window screen - MD

These insects do not cause any significant harm to the tree.  The MDC Discover Nature site mentions that the winged adults may cover a window screen.  Under magnification they resemble a microscopic cicada.  You can see the first graduates of this years class of galls in this video.

These tiny psyllids (aka. jumping plant lice) are in the same suborder as aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, whiteflies, and the phylloxera insects.  You would never know they exist unless you stumble across a hackberry tree that is hosting them over their summer vacation, hanging out in the sun.

More pictures are at this OzarkBill link.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Life in a Socket Set

I found these sets of small socket wrench heads on a shelf in our garage/workshop at Bull Mills.  They had been undisturbed for over a year and now some were sealed off with a firm cap deposited by insects.  The white material was chalk-like and firm but pulling each one out of the rubber holder revealed a variety of insect life both alive and now dead.

Removing a socket head from the rubber holder I was immediately faced with a larva coming out of its silken womb.  I found a different one, darker and larger in another wrench head.  They were very much alive and wanting to get away.  I chased both around on our kitchen counter top, (I married the right woman!) filming it with a handheld microscope while trying to keep it in focus on the computer screen.  You can see the chase in this video.


Next I opened several of the sealed chambers and found a variety of insects, all small.  There were more larvae in their pupal cases, fighting for freedom.  Other socket heads contained dead spiders with bodies less than a quarter inch long.  I couldn't tell if they were all the same species.

The best preserved spider shown here had a little life left, shown by an occasional twitch of a leg.  INaturalist couldn't venture a reasonable guess and it will remain a mystery.  

Finally there was a totally different spider in the last socket head I opened.  I lifted it onto my hand with a fine paint brush and its legs spread out in a natural pose.  You can see its size in comparison to my finger print.




The point of this is that there is a lot more life out there than we can ever know.  In the words of the philosopher Forest Gump in this clip, "Life is like a box of chocolates......you never know what you are going to get."

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Snake Month at Bull Mills

This has been snake month at our Bull Creek cabin.  We were having dinner there when we suddenly heard three loud "snaps" in 5 seconds.  Back in the closet with the water heater and well pump where pipes come up through the floor, we have frequent rodent visitors.  In this case though it was a 5 foot black rat snake that got caught in three rat traps.  Here it posed for pictures before moving to the barn where it will be hunting from now on.

Our next guests called us from across the creek reporting a snake with "Hershey Kisses" on the walk.   They had stepped  off the porch headed to the ATV but were stopped by the 24" copperhead curled up on the walk.  Ordinarily I would use my snake grabber to transplant it but in this case if I missed it would crawl back under the porch steps and our guests probably wouldn't come out the door from a week.  I was forced to execute it with a hoe.

After cleaning it

Not wanting it to die in vain, I cleaned it and prepared the skin for tanning.  The hoe had damaged the skin but the remaining hide will demonstrate the appearance for future visitors.  We tell the WOLF students about the "Hershey Kisses" you can see on their sides.  We also explain that "if you look down and see the "hour glass" you know that it is a copperhead and you are way too close!  We will see a lot more in the late summer when the cicadas emerge.  These look like an M&M to a copperhead as we discussed in this blog.


We get to see lots of other snakes each year.  Pygmy rattlesnakes are cute if you don't try to pet them.  This one was curled up on a rock crossing in the middle of the road and earned a free ride several hundred feet away in the woods.  We also have timber rattlesnakes like one that staked out the center of our driveway and defied me until I transplanted it a quarter mile away in the woods.  You can see it warning me here.


One of my favorites are the northern watersnakes.  We have had a lot of sightings this year including four gathered at one sitting on a downed sycamore.  They congregate in our swimming hole, frequently sunning themselves on the bank.  We have even found one on our deck 15 feet above the creek.  Our biggest one was over 5 feet long and was killed by a visitor who thought it was a cottonmouth, a species none of us have found on Bull Creek.  I saw the one below just starting to dine on a perch.  By the time I got back with a camera it was almost down the hatch.

Finally, it is important to know your snakes as one of our guests learned a few years ago.  After watching the watersnake swimming around with its head above water, he decided to catch it, not recognizing the whole body was on top of the water and it had little kisses on its side.  You can see the whole episode recorded by his friends who encouraged him to "go ahead, pick it up!" Watch it here in this 2 minute video.  It ended with $25,000 of antivenom and two days in the ICU.  The final lessons we tell the WOLF students:

  • Know your snakes
  • Don't let buddies get you to do dumb things.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Flying Ghost


Sitting on the deck above Bull Creek while staring into space I saw a tiny white thing slowly "flying" past.  I grabbed it by the tail and studied it for several minutes before I determined that it was lifeless and had been drifting in the still air.  Holding the tail with forceps, it seemed to sway in spite of the absence of wind like a little ghost.  

I took a lot of pictures and sent them to my insect guru, Chris Barnhart.  He identified it as a stonefly exuvium.  An exuvium is the cast off outer covering (exoskeleton) of an animal after moulting (think of a snake skin).  The body and the tail each measured 7 mm long.   

Stoneflies are in the order Plecoptera.  They live underwater as larvae for up to two years before crawling out of water and moulting into the winged adult.  As with many winged adult species of insects, this is the beginning of the end as they mate, lay eggs and die in a final burst of glory after fulfilling their biological imperative.

So how did this cast off skin manage to drift by me as I sat 15 feet above the bank where it would have emerged?  Although there was no discernible breeze, there must have been just enough air moving to carry it up and drift in by my face.

Stonefly nymph - Wikimedia

Here you can see an example of a stonefly nymph.  In its final stage it will develop the wings which will expand after its final molt just like a butterfly does.  You can see the brown skin on the exuvia that covered the nascent wings which wait patiently to expand as they come into the air.

After having achieved this moment of fame, I released it out on the deck and it drifted away, a silent traveler on a windless morning.  It like all life will be recycled, returning to the soil to feed the cycle of life like all species do eventually.



You can learn more about our Missouri stoneflies by Googling "stonefly MDC" - a trick that works for most of our plant and animal species.  (Or simply click on this link.)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Tiny Bison?

Two-marked treehopper - Wikimedia

While looking for leaf galls I noticed a small 5mm white speck on the under surface of a tree leaf, apparently dried up and dead.  Under magnification it resembled a tiny white bison, frozen in time.  With a plunge into INaturalist and Google I came up with an answer.  This is the final nymph of a twomarked treehopper, Enchenopa binotata (EB).  EB is a species complex made up of multiple species, often identified by their host plants.  The adult is only 7-9 mm long.  As usual, a deep dive into the tiny critter's life reveals interesting quirks.

Like many tiny insects that we overlook, EB is mainly discussed as a minor pest.  Most websites focus on the minor cosmetic damage they cause to a tree in our yard.  

"Twomarked treehoppers cause damage to hop tree or wafer ash, Ptelea trifoliata, black walnut, butternut, black locust, viburnum, redbud and bittersweet."  A more broadminded nature site says "This insect rarely causes enough damage to warrant control, even though the insect itself is abundant."

The nymphs sucking up the sap go through 5 instars before reaching the "white bison" stage if found.  The feeding results in honeydew which allows the fungus sooty mold (mycelium is black) to grow and turn the plant blackish. This in turn draws ants and other insects that lap up the sweet honeydew, all part of the food web.  Egg laying may cause minor slits in the bark.

The University of Illinois Urbana describes its life cycle.
Nymph stages

"The twomarked treehopper will overwinter as an egg under bark. Newly hatched nymphs move to the tips of the new shoots where they extract plant sap in mass. The nymphs are brown to dark gray. After a little more than a month, the twomarked treehopper becomes an adult. 

As adults, they often line up in a row on the new shoot. Females lay eggs until August. However once egg laying starts, it will continue till the adult is frost killed. The female treehopper has a saw like ovipositor. She uses this to make a small cut in the twig. The eggs are forced through the narrow cut so that they are left under the bark. Once the egg laying for the individual cut is completed, the adult female seals the cut."

Males hookup with females by seismic communication, "substrate-borne vibrations on the stems, petioles, and leaves of their host plants that travel throughout the plant."  It is hard to imagine this tiny creature shaking a stem to make a sound but you can here it in this Wikipedia link

Before and after - Linda Williams MN

For more on our Missouri treehoppers, check out this MDC link.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

At Home in the Dung

On the Missouri Prairie Foundation Bioblitz, "Bug Eric" Eaton was leading an insect identification session when I found this 6mm firm lump on a leaf.  Eric identified it as a beetle egg protected by material the female beetle deposited over it. 

I cornered Doug LeDoux of the Missouri Department of Agriculture who was leading the leaf beetle walk and he gave me more information.

"It is some sort of a Chlamisine beetle in the Chrysomelidae, possibly Neochlamisus. They refer to this group as the case-bearing case makers. The case is actually poop that is deposited around the developing larva to protect it from predation and to hide it while it feeds and develops. I see these fairly often when sampling."

This may sound like child abuse but remember it is a bug eat bug world they live in.  Looking like nothing edible has survival value.  Imagine how this delicious naked larva would look to any predator.....delicious!

Neochalmisus sp - Beatriz Moisset
Now the larva lives and eats inside the case, using its own excrement to enlarge the case as it grows.  Here is how Wikipedia describes it.

"The larvae remain on the natal host plant and add to and enlarge their fecal cases as they grow. Case enlargement in Neochlamisus is an elaborate process that larvae perform regularly until the case is sealed to the substrate prior to pupation. During this stage of the life cycle, beetles are immobile and are particularly vulnerable to predation."

Neochlamisus - Wikimedia

 This is just one example of a Neochlamisus.sp. in Wikipedia.  There is a whole tribe, if not subfamily, of casebearing leaf beetles. The warty beetles are pretty tiny compared to the larval case we found. It isn't just another pretty face, but before you make judgements about its appearance, take into account its rough childhood.

This is just one of the many fascinating finds from the annual Missouri Prairie Foundation bioblitz.  You can follow MPF and join up for the fun at https://moprairie.org/.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Cute Little Fungus

While searching the woods for plant galls I came across these beauties on the leaves and petioles of Clematis virginiana.  On the petioles they curled into various shapes and it was obvious they weren't galls.  Measuring less than half an inch long, it required magnification to appreciate the tiny orange cups that covers the surface.  Tiny round ones were on the underside of the leaves and the vines didn't seem damaged otherwise.


The knobs under the leaves were just miniature versions of the petiole growths and with magnification they too were covered with the little cups.  Some sources refer to them as pustules but that seems to be a harsh judgement to me.  Another term is a rust fungus, not much kinder name.

I think this is Puccinia recondita also refered to a wheat leaf rust, a fungal disease that is a major problem for farmers.  

Gardeners consider it a disease on clematis but to me it is just another interesting small feature of nature, a mushroom on a leaf.  In the words of Bill Bryson, "Life just wants to be, but it doesn't want to be much."