Monday, September 10, 2012

Back into the Woods

Long time no blog, eh?

Well, the recent rain after a very long drought has definitely revitalized the woods (mostly) along with my motivation (mostly).  Only a few days after the rains, following an almost three month hiking-hiatus,  I ventured out into the refreshingly humid woods and was quickly rewarded with just under three pounds of oyster mushrooms!  Very encouraging.  I even came across a rotting Chicken-of-the-Woods, while sad, still quite encouraging.

A delicious "mother log" of oyster mushrooms

 The temperature here has cooled down nicely as well and the woods are once more a place of pleasant rambling.

See?  It's quite pleasant.

However, things are not always as perfect as they seem.  For just beyond the edge of the trail, scattered throughout the woodland, lies a sinister force. A creeping doom that can strike at a moment's notice. Yes, it is once again.....

Paintshop is fun.

If you've spent any time in the woods in late summer and early fall, you most likely know about and more likely have had run-ins with the minute, blood-sucking woodland gangs referred to as "seed ticks".

So, what is a seed tick?  Aside from a pain in the ass, "seed ticks" are simply larval ticks.  Larval ticks?  Yes, larval ticks.   Lets look at the generalized tick life cycle for a moment.

Typical "hard" tick lifecycle

As you can see, clusters of eggs (100's to 1000's of eggs) are laid by female ticks.  These eggs then hatch into clusters of larval, aka "seed" ticks.  A host (deer, dog, squirrel, unlucky hiker) meanders by this cluster of seed ticks and provides them with a tiny blood-meal.  These larvae then drop off of the host and molt into nymphs.  The nymph form differs from the larval form in that nymphal ticks will have 8 legs instead of six and are much larger than a speck of pepper.  Additionally, nymphs are more manageable.  You won't typically look down and find your pant leg covered in hundreds of nymphal ticks.  Which brings me to the reason why seed ticks are so sinister.  With larval ticks, you WILL look down and find your pants covered in hundreds of individuals.   As if someone sprinkled black pepper all over your legs, but the pepper moves on its own and proceeds to spread out across your clothing and into every hidden recess of your body.

Each tiny speck is an individual larval tick!

Anyways.  These nymphal ticks will obtain a blood meal and then molt into the large, more noticeable adults.  Female adults will obtain a blood meal and then lay the sinister masses of eggs that will one day hatch and swarm your legs as you hike through the woods.

Questing (waiting for a meal) adult female Lone Star Tick

Seed ticks are masters of ambush, however, with a vigilant eye, and a small supply of duct-tape anyone can combat these stealthy, blood-thirsty denizens of the woods.


So, there you have it.   As long as you have your duct tape, you will always be able to defend yourself.   One piece of good news about seed ticks is that they are not born infected with tick-borne diseases, but are infected themselves by various reservoir hosts.  So, at least the hundreds of ticks crawling across your legs because you didn't notice them in time can't get you sick....nymphs and adults, of course, can.

Check out some useful tick info from the Center for Disease Control  here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ah, the itchiness of the warm season........

As I sit here blogging, the back of my legs below the knees, my left forearm and half a dozen spots in between are plagued by a fiery, oozy  itch.  Don't worry, its just poison ivy.

I knew I was in for some fun a couple of weekends ago when I made the ridiculous choice to wear shorts into the Ozark woods (first time wearing shorts into the woods in years).  To be fair, we were simply visiting  various creek, pond and spring sites in search of dragonflies, how was I to know we would have to conquer barricades of poison ivy in order to do so?  Yes, I know what poison ivy looks like and I saw it everywhere we went even as it lightly caressed my calves.  I was completely unsurprised by the eruption of irritation upon my body several days later.

So, lets talk about poison ivy; the plant and the irritation.

We'll start with a gross picture.
Contact dermatitis caused by Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy, the irritation, is contact dermatitis caused by the plant of the same common name.  More specifically, it is the contact dermatitis caused by urushiol, an oil contained in all parts of the plant, especially in the sap.

Just for the record, poison ivy isn't the only plant known to cause contact dermatitis.  A number of texts refer to dermatitis caused by handling the flowers or leaves of Trumpet Creeper, aka Cow-itch Vine (Campsis radicans).

Trumpet Creeper foliage - despite trying, I have not been able to get contact dermatitis from this plant

Also, the interesting spring wildflower Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) has been known to cause contact dermatitis in some people.

Beware the Dutchman's Breeches?

It is possible to wash the urushiol from your skin after contact, but this must be done very quickly.  One source I found said that 50% of the urushiol is absorbed into your skin in the first 10 minutes after contact.
If you hike frequently and routinely find yourself exposed to poison ivy, I highly recommend Tecnu.  This stuff works!  Simply applying it to my skin prior to and after known contact with poison ivy saved me a lot of itching.  It does smell kinda strange though.

Poison Ivy, the plant, (Toxicodendron radicans) is native to North America and is a member of the Sumac or Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae).  Apparently mangoes are in this family as well.  Neat.  Anyways, the genus name is derived from the greek words "toxikos" (poison) and "dendron" (tree).  Poison Ivy is an aggressive plant, easily overtaking disturbed areas such as right-of-ways, fence rows, old forest roads, vacant lots, etc.  I am currently removing poison ivy seedlings from my garden every week or so (I've recently cleared out new garden space along an old, rotting fence row by my apartment).  And, of course, you can always find it in the woods-proper.  I wish I had taken photos of the seas of poison ivy I've seen blanketing woods in southern Missouri.

So how do you identify this irritating plant?

Firstly, poison ivy is not necessarily going to be a vine (climbing and/or crawling), it can also take on the form of a small upright plant or a rediculously large, irritating shrub.

Poison Ivy in the form of 5 foot shrubbery was pretty common at Cuivre River State Park

Secondly, look at the leaves!  I'm sure you've heard the old saying "leaves of three, let them be".  Poison Ivy does have three leaves, or should I say three leaflets.  Each individual poison ivy leaf is composed of three leaflets.  Note the general appearance of the leaflets, the amount of "toothiness" can vary from plant to plant, but the poison ivy "gez" (read gestalt) is an easy one to pick up.

Pretty simple so far, but poison ivy isn't the only plant commonly encountered in the woods or elsewhere that has three leaflets.  Lets get more detailed.  One great way to hone in on poison ivy leaves is the presence of a noticeably long-ish petiole (more precisely, petiolule) attached to the terminal leaflet.

The center leaflet is cut off at the bottom of the frame, notice the long petiolule
This character is easily seen in poison ivy and the absence of this character is easily seen in a very similar looking plant (also in the Sumac/Cashew Family) known as Aromatic Sumac (Rhus aromatica).  And yes, these two plants can be seen growing right next to each other quite frequently.

Aromatic Sumac - notice how the center leaflet tapers to its base but does not feature a long petiolule

Poison Ivy and Aromatic Sumac, can you pick out both?

There are a couple more characters that set aromatic sumac apart.  For instance, if you crush up the leaves, they smell very good.  I wouldn't try this until you are comfortable differentiating this plant from poison ivy.  Also, the sumac flowers in the spring and (in my area at least) by the time poison ivy is out in force and starting to flower, aromatic sumac already has bright red, fuzzy berries.  Poison ivy berries will be greenish, fading to a whitish gray as they mature, never red.

Aromatic Sumac berries are red, Poison Ivy has white berries

There are a couple other look-alikes.  As long as you are looking closely, they are easy to tell apart.
Check out Boxelder (Acer negundo) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).  Both of these plants are pretty common and both could be mistaken for poison ivy to someone who isn't trained in the fine art of Poison Ivy Detection (PID).  First of all, Boxelder is a maple.  I know I've shown you that poison ivy can get to be a pretty large shrub, but if you find yourself examining suspect poison ivy that has a very large trunk, it is probably Boxelder.  Or maybe it is a poison ivy vine drooping from a tree.  Either way, it is the very young Boxelder trees that can be mistaken for poison ivy.

Box Elder - poison ivy-like but notice the extra leaflets (5 total) and pinnate arrangement
 Virginia Creeper is in the Grape Family and  is an extremely common, aggressive vine.  The leaflets of creeper can look very poison ivy-esque.  The important thing here is that creeper has five leaflets.  I have seen young creeper plants with leaves of three leaflets, but you can typically find more than three leaflets on most of the plant's leaves.  Poison Ivy never  has more than three leaflets. 

Virginia Creeper foliage, notice the 5 leaflets arranged palmately

Poison Ivy?  Nope, Virginia Creeper, see the additional leaflets on the young leaf in the left of the photo

Did I mention that you can find Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy growing together pretty commonly?

Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper

Lastly, you aren't necessarily safe from poison ivy just because it hasn't leafed out yet.  One of the worst cases I ever got was a couple of very early Springs ago.  I must have had some serious contact with a vine.
SO, you should know how to identify poison ivy vines as well.   Don't worry, its easy.  Poison Ivy vines have a "hairy" appearance due to the fine aerial rootlets that help anchor the plant to the tree, fence, etc.

"Hairy rope, don't be a dope!"  Poison Ivy vines running up a maple with Virginia Creeper leaves in the frame

I hope this information proves useful to you.  Poison Ivy really is easy to identify once you know what to look for.  I've heard lots of people say that they "just don't go into the woods because they'll get poison ivy every time".  It may be abundant, but it is also easy to avoid if you are paying attention.  What you really need to be leery about are those Dutchman's Breetches...

I've got some itchin' to do.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What the hell is a Spreadwing?

So, I've already told you about my slight obsession with Hairstreaks.  What I haven't told you is that I am heavily addicted to Odes.  Don't worry, those are insects too.  Odes, short for Odonates, are dragonflies and damselflies.  While I am fond of all Odes, I am particularly partial to the the Spreadwings.

Spreadwings are damselflies in the family Lestidae.  There are 19 species of spreadwing in North America and, according to records on Odonata Central, 9 species can be found in Missouri.  Though they are damselflies, spreadwings are not as small as many other damsels and can be easily recognized by the way they tend to perch (vertically, abdomen pointed downward) and by the way they hold their wings....can you guess how?  Yes, they perch vertically with their wings spread open (99% of the time).  Several references will describe them as "not brightly colored overall".  This is mostly true; there are flashier odes.  BUT, remember how I like to look closely at things?  If you check out the spreadwings up close, you'll see that they aren't as dull as they sound.

Depending upon the species, you can find spreadwings in Missouri as early as May and as late as November.  Check out this great resource on Missouri Ode seasonality by George Sims.  The best places to hunt for them will be in aquatic areas (streams, ponds, lakes, seasonal wetlands) with abundant emergent vegetation; the absence of fish is a plus too. 

Lets take a closer look at a few of the spreadwings I've encountered in Missouri.  We'll start with the largest of the bunch, the Great Spreadwing (Archilestes grandis).  The Great Spreadwing is known as one of the "stream spreadwings", fitting since it prefers slow, wooded stream areas.

 A male Great Spreadwing - notice how the wings are spread open when the insect is perched
The Great Spreadwing is the only representative of its genus in Missouri (there are only two in North America).  The females oviposit in the stems of herbaceous or woody plants and have been known to deposit eggs 44 feet above water!

Great Spreadwings mating, aka "in tandem"
The rest of the spreadwings in Missouri will be the "pond spreadwings", genus Lestes.  One of the more commonly encountered is the Southern Spreadwing (Lestes australis) which can occupy a wide variety of ponds and lakes as long as there is emergent vegetation.  This species also oviposits above the surface of the water in standing reeds.

Male Southern Spreadwing - check out those eyes
One of the most interesting spreadwings I've encountered in Missouri is the Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener).  If I were to call any spreadwing dull, this would be the one.  A darkish brown/black from afar; superficially it is similar to a few other spreadwings, including the Southern Spreadwing.  A key to ID'ing this species is the pair of black spots on each side of the underside of the thorax.  One reason I find this species so interesting is the fact that it can be found late into the "ode-ing season"; I photographed the following specimens in late October.  They also oviposit into above-water plant material, but are a little more picky, preferring dead stems of bulrushes.  The park I observed these spreadwings at uses prescribed burns to manage the prairie land surrounding the sinkhole ponds these odes use, typically burning all the way to the pond edges.  I wonder how the fire effects the population of the Spotted Spreadwing.   Interestingly, these spreadwings can also tolerate saline conditions as long as vegetation is present.

Male Spotted Spreadwing - notice the pair of spots on the lower portion of the thorax
Spotted Spreadwings "in tandem"

Pretty cool insects aren't they?  Even if you aren't keen on dragonfly/damselfly identification, now at least you know how to notice the spreadwings.

Check out a couple excellent resources from a fellow Ode-enthusiast and Missouri Ozarkian George Sims:

Consider submitting Odonate observations/records to a great database from the University of Texas:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hairstreaks! (and one cool Elfin)

Hairstreaks are easily my favorite group of butterflies.  While they are definitely not as readily noticed as some of the larger, flashier butterflies, hairstreaks are quite striking when you take the time to look at them up close.  Looking at them up close, however, can prove to be difficult.  And by difficult, I mean tremendously frustrating.  Not only are hairstreaks on the small side for butterflies, they are also on the skiddish side for butterflies.  And if they don't simply fly off at your slow, methodical, rocks-grinding-into-your-knees approach, they will position their bodies in a manner which makes taking a photograph completely useless.  Useless unless you are aiming to take a photograph of a hairstreak butterfly slanted sideways with its wing edges facing you....they also seem to know how to position themselves so that the sunlight is coming from directly behind them.

But really, I love hairstreaks!  These butterflies are members of the family Lycaenidae, the Gossamer-wing Butterflies.  These little lepidopteran gems are known for their small size (as noted above) and wings typically featuring brilliant colors of blue, red and orange.  According to Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), there are 13 recorded species of Hairstreaks in Missouri, some pretty common, others quite rare.  There are 2 species of Elfin (we'll talk about elfins later on).

While I haven't seen all 13 species found in Missouri (yet), I have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. The most exciting Missouri Hairstreak find for me so far has been the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus).  Just take a look at this beauty....

Juniper Hairstreak nectaring on Wild Hyacinth

 Like many hairstreaks, the caterpillars of the Juniper are very picky eaters; being specific to only one host plant.  In this case, Eastern Red Ceder.  Adults do not typically travel far from cedar trees and apparently do not visit flowers as frequently as some other hairstreaks.  I've found them to be pretty easily found in the vicinity of cedars when there is abundant nectar sources.  The specimens pictured here were both photographed in small glades bordered by cedar trees.  Wild Hyacinth, Rose Verbena, and a few other wildflowers were very abundant.

Have you seen any metallic green butterflies lately?

Red-banded Hairstreak, locally abundant in the Missouri Ozarks

 Another hairstreak I've had the pleasure of meeting (very frequently this season, in fact) has a very fitting name.  I am honored to introduce to you, the Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops).  This hairstreak is very easily recognized among hairstreaks for its bold red wing band.  This species is also interesting in that the caterpillars not only feed on living plant tissue (that of various Sumac) but they also feed on decaying plant material.

I wish I could say that every hairstreak was flashy and easily identified.  But what would be the fun in that?There are quite a few seemingly boring (look at them closely before judging them!)  "gray" hairstreaks that take a keen eye to differentiate.  Let me show you what I mean...

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
White-M Hairstreak (Parrhasius m-album)

The two hairstreaks pictured above can look extremely similar at a distance and even trick you when looking up close if you don't know what to look for.  The Gray Hairstreak is rather common, having at least 50 larval food plants, even including corn!  This species can be seen from March through November in Missouri.  The White-M Hairstreak, on the other hand, is considered "local and rare" in Missouri.  This species has a similar flight date, shorter only by 1 month.  White-M caterpillars feed only on oaks.  So by now I'm sure you've detected the differences in these two species in the photos above.  One dead give-away to ID'ing the Gray is the fact that its "postmedian band" (the innermost wing band) is white with a black and orange inward border.  Go back and look. See it?  White.  Black. Orange.  This can help distinguish the Gray from several similar looking "gray" hairstreaks.  Take a look at the White-M.  Its post median band is only white and black.  See the "M" or "W" formed in that band as well?  Some other hairstreaks can have a similar looking zig-zag.  The feature that helps set the White-M apart would be the white spot present on the underside of the hind wing, go check it out in the pic above.   See, not so bad after all.

So, I'm still working on meeting all of Missouri's Hairstreaks.  But I have been able to see a few other neat species in Georgia.

Striped Hairstreak (Satyrium lipaprops)

Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus halesus) caterpillars feed on the parasitic plant Mistletoe

King's Hairstreak (Satyrium kingi) holds the record for my most amazing hairstreak find to date; this was the first recorded sighting of this hairstreak in Chatham County, GA (and the entire coast of GA) since ~1960.

Last, but definitely not least, I wanted to show you another neat butterfly grouped in with the hairstreaks, Henry's Elfin.  While the Elfins are not as flashy as the Hairstreaks, they are still cool in my book.   Check this one out.
Henry's Elfin (Callophrys henrici) perched on Redbud leaves
Henry's Elfin caterpillars can be red
Henry's Elfin is likely to be the first of the Hairstreak/Elfin family to be seen in Spring, and it is a common site in Missouri if you are paying attention to small brownish butterflies.  And check out the caterpillars; they feed primarily on Redbud.
Henry's Elfin caterpillars can be green

So can you see why Hairstreaks are my favorite butterflies?  Next time you are out, don't be so quick to dismiss the small, grayish, brownish, skiddish, typically-uncooperative-during-a-photograph butterflies, you might end up seeing a hairstreak!

Check out the best butterfly field guide to the Missouri/Kansas-City region HERE

Consider reporting butterfly observations to BAMONA

Monday, April 30, 2012

Grindstone Nature Area: Grindstone Creek Glade

Grindstone Nature Area is a city park in Columbia I like to frequent.  In fact, it was one of the first places I visited in Columbia when my wife and I moved here in 2010.  I was immediately excited about the clear, rocky creek quickly accessed from the parking lot.  In southern Georgia all we had were black-water creeks, cypress swamps, and bogs (damn, I miss Georgia).  I knew of the clear mountain streams of northern Georgia and the Appalachians, but I seldom frequented the area due to my aversion to a little placed called Atlanta.

Grindstone Creek - just past the parkinglot of the Old Hwy 63 South entrance

Anyways, I soon found myself visiting Grindstone every chance I could.  It wasn't too long before I found an interesting area on top of a knob overlooking Grindstone Creek (the same portion accessed from the parking lot).  This spot was a little more open, rocky and there were a couple of interesting plants that stuck out amongst the copious amounts of bush honeysuckle.  For one, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) and clusters of what I've now identified as Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), which by the way is a new Boone County record.

Clusters of the basal leaves of Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) are quite abundant on this small glade
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)
It wasn't until my second spring in Missouri that I learned about an amazing (and now my favorite) natural community that Missouri has to offer; GLADES!   I came to appreciate this habitat as a field botany tech. in the Ozarks.  I was lucky enough to work in some of the highest quality glade habitat Missouri has to offer.  It wasn't until I finished my time working in the Ozarks and returned to Columbia that I realized just what I had seen on top of that little knob at Grindstone Nature Area. My excitement at what I had recognized was quickly followed by concern; bush honeysuckle was obviously smothering this small patch of unique habitat.

Vew at the top of the small glade, all of the bare branches seen in the photo is bush honeysuckle in the winter.  If these were leaved out, just imagine looking at a solid wall of green.
In the Spring of 2011, I was able to round up some volunteers from my local Master Naturalist chapter along with some city Parks and Rec. folk.  Together we tackled that little glade above Grindstone Creek, eliminating a vast majority of the bush honeysuckle that had been smothering the site.
Stumps of a cut bush honeysuckle, poisoned with herbicide

All of the honeysuckle was transported off of the glade and mulched

View of the glade a few weeks after removing the bush honeysuckle; the large green clumps you see are coreopsis leaves

Results were seen  immediately!  The spring and summer following the "honeysuckle slaughter", as I like to call it, was full of blooming native wildflowers.  Tons of coreopsis bloomed, rose verbena, ironweed, and bee-balm just to name a few.  In addition, the sickly looking prickly pare quickly perked up and a very unique glade-specific plant popped up in a spot that was previously covered by some huge bush honeysuckle; Limestone Adder's Tongue (Ophioglossum englemannii)!  A native, blue Salvia (Salvia azurea) also popped up on this glade; this was also a new Boone County record.

Lance-leaved Coreopsis in bloom

A unique little fern that grows only on glades - Limestone Adder's Tongue

Glandularia canadensis - Rose Verbena smells amazing! 

Typically found in southwest Missouri, Salvia azurea is a new Boone Co. record
 This will be the second Spring following the mini-restoration we attempted.  I have visited the site this year and have seen many of the same native plants mentioned above rebounding nicely, including several non-glade species along the glade margin like wild hyacinth, bellwort, and trillium.   The coreopsis is definitely a force in this area; when it blooms this little glade is quite a site.  I hope the joggers and bicyclers that frequent the park can appreciate the spot as they hurry through.

However, the battle continues.  Bush Honeysuckle has been re-sprouting at the site (despite poisoning) and the seeds of this plant persist for quite a while.  If you find yourself at Grindstone Nature Area, take some time to visit this little glade, enjoy the flowers, and pull up some bush honeysuckle while your at it!