Waiting for . . .

When life gets a bit hectic, a walk through the woods can be relaxing. Especially if the phone is turned off. It was such a day when checking to see which wildflowers were beginning to sprout, bud or bloom that I stopped next to an old dead tree held off the ground by a sturdy oaktree. There really wasn’t a view to speak of, no vistas, no stream or spring, being surrounded by the woods on all sides. Nice. Quiet, except for a variety of bird calls. That’s when I casually looked to my right and came eye-to-eye with the little Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis – Hyla versicolor Complex).

It’s logical that a treefrog would be found on a tree, but I always figured it would be a live tree, so seeing it there was sort of a surprise. But then, it is also logical, since treefrogs eat insects that fly or walk, that it would be up off the ground where the chances of having an insect fly by would be greater. It was a good spot to wait for a meal.

It was a bit smaller than the other Gray Treefrogs I’ve seen, only about an inch long, perhaps it was also younger. It allowed me to photograph it from almost all angles before becoming afraid, retreating backwards into the hole just behind it.


Which brought up another thought. Since the hole existed because of a woodpecker, I wondered if woodpeckers also eat small frogs such as this. Somehow it is much more pleasant to think of a woodpecker eating an insect than a cute frog. My guess is that those woodpeckers probably do eat an occasional frog. Somebody, somewhere probably knows for sure. I’m also unsure whether it is H. chrysoscelis or H. versicolor. According to the reference books, it is almost impossible to tell unless they are checked on the genetic level. Not much help for us who wander the woods. But for most of us, it doesn’t really matter which one it is, we just enjoy their being around.

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Unobtrusive Bloomers

















While the Service Berry is making a big white splash among the still gray forest landscape, there are the rather quiet, inconspicuous flowers that are easily overlooked. They don’t mean to hide, they just don’t need to be ostentatious. They get the job of seed making completed without the aid of a lot of insects. One of the most known and looked for in early Spring is known as Harbinger of Spring or Pepper and Salt, formally known as Erigenia bulbosa. As a person stands up and gazes at the woodland ground, it is almost invisible. The flower stalk comes up from the ground, blooms and then the leaves form.



 Not so well known are the small Sedges, the common name for the genus Carex. Most Sedges don’t have a common name because most people don’t really notice them as being different from other grasses or even each other. To most “they all look alike,” but they aren’t. The only reason I noticed this one was because I was really bending over to look at something else nearby. It was different from the grassy growths I was used to seeing, so I looked closer. I’ve tenatively identified it as Carex pensylvanica, a common species found in dry oak woods. The top part of the flower stalk has the male flowers,the lower part the female flowers. As with all sedges, it has triangular stems. This one spreads primarily by stolons creeping long through whatever soil it can find. To see the actual flowers, magnification is usually needed. As you can see, this clump is small, with the flower stems and leaves less than five inches tall. When the flower stalks complete their job, die and get blown away, it will look just like many other, perhaps different, clumps of grass.

So while it may seem that almost everything is either dead or dorment at the tailend of winter, life is  still really going on, just quietly. 

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It’s A’bloomin’



It was just about a year ago that James, my fishing buddy, helped plant the native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) around our woods. Lo and Behold, one of them not only survived, it bloomed! What a wonderful surprise. The blizzard, which got to about 18 inches deep around here, left only a few inches of it above the snow. Within a few days of the beginning of the melt, it bloomed. By the time James and him Mom got here to see it, the snow was gone,but the seven blooms remained. They are smaller than those on more mature shrubs, so it will be interesting to see their size next year.

Many people think the cultivarForsythia, with its bright yellow blooms are the first to appear. Wrong. This is the first, followed by the white Service Berry, Redbud and Dogwood. The mature Witch Hazel can be quite spectacular, getting up to nine feet tall with numerous sprouts from the base. Imagine that size covered with clusters of yellow and orange flowers. A sight to behold.

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A Bit of Spring


In these post-blizzard days, thought folks would enjoy a few wildflower photos.



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Blending In

 In late September while doing some outside chores, the phrase “Get your camera” hit my ears. It is not an uncommon event, there’s always someone, somewhere, finding something that desperately needs its photo taken. I attempt to be timely in response since many animals are fleet of foot. This time however, it was this interesting caterpillar. Since getting a new book with wonderful pictures, identification is much easier. This one is commonly known as a “Prominent” (Notodontidae family) and belongs to the subfamily Heterocampinae which doesn’t seem to have a common name. Its full name is Heterocampa umbrata or White-Blotched Heterocampa.

Its similar in looks to the other Heterocampa catepillars and the book describes it as “Green, tan, pink or reddish brown with a confusing array of patterns.” What really distinguishes it from the other Heterocampa catepillars is not its coloration but the pair of shiny raised knobs on the Prothorax (the area immediately behind the head). But enough with names, where did it come from, where was it going and why.

It was found in a pile of fallen brown leaves,  crawling along one of the top ones. Green oak leaves are its primary food, so it is common in the woods. Most people don’t see them because they are usually up in the tree munching on a leaf. This one had the misfortune, or perhaps fortune, to fall out of the tree. Nothing was said in the book about when or where they make a cocoon or pupa. Could be, it needed to be on the ground to burrow under these leaves and form a pupa or perhaps it just needs to spend the winter under a fallen branch or tree. Leaves were beginning to fall. Or it might be on the ground because it fell after being discovered by a clumsy bird.


These catepillars are commonly found in the Ozark oak woodlands and as far north as southern Canada, as far south as Arkansas and Florida. That’s quite a range. If looking for this Heterocampus or others, give some of the smaller oak trees a shake, see what falls. It helps if you lay a white sheet on the ground under the branches you shake. Who knows what wonderful critters you may find.

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Hiding in Brightness


 Winter brings cold, snow and the desire to stay warm. What better time to review the photos of critters taken in more pleasant weather. It was the beginning of Fall, September, that while clearing the path I call “Lower Turtle Trail,” I noticed a bright yellow splotch on a deep green leaf of a Huckleberry bush (Vaccinium stamineum). It was a color that was really out of place. As usual, the question was, “What is that?” Answer: a gorgeous caterpillar — one I’d never seen before. Since it was quite happy munching away at the leaf, I figured it would still be there when I came back with the camera. It sure is nice being right. I also brought along a pint canning jar. After our photo session, into the jar it went, along with a twig with some uneaten leaves. I use the two part lids, replacing the metal disc with waxed paper I punch with little holes. Then I got out the books. Couldn’t find it. Got on the Internet, searched, couldn’t find it. Now what. Fortunately a friend who worked at the St. Louis Zoo’s invertebrate unit, stopped by for a visit. It was new to him too. But, he knew his boss would know. So off went the e-mail with photo. Back came the answer: Stinging Rose Caterpillar (Parasa indetermina), fairly common, not endangered. Good. So back into the wild with it.








 Now that I had a name, I could find more about it. There are different types of caterpillars, this one is belongs to a group commonly called Slug Caterpillars (Limacodidae). “Why,” you might ask? Because it glides. Sort of like a slug which most gardeners dislike tremendously. Instead of having paired abdominal prolegs to get around, they have specialized medial suckers. So, instead of “walking” they glide, somewhat as do Snails. Having had it in a glass jar, and moving around on my hand, there was another noticeable difference between this caterpillar and snails/slugs — no slime — not needed. This one has yellow as a base color, but with other Parasa, could be orange or red. The spiny protuberances along the body are said to “sting.” and cause an unpleasant skin reaction. Of course I found this out after I touched the little spines to see if they were stiff or soft. And after letting it glide over, under and around my hand. Didn’t bother me, this time, at least.

It is a bit amazing to me that all these years of wandering about in and near the woods, this is the first time I saw one. Naturally, a couple of days later, saw another one on a wild cherry tree leaf. Interesting.

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A Fall Renewal

Instinct made this three toed box turtle stop moving and remain immobile after it saw me approaching.

Most people think of Spring as the time of new life or new beginnings, with the birth of fawns, hatching of birds or of tadpoles transforming into frogs. Actually, every season is one of renewal, some more obvious than others. Take that little hole in the ground. It was rather innocuous, about an inch in diameter. If I had not already known why it was there, it would have just remained one of those little mysteries. In this case it was turtle hatching time. Most likely the female three toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) dug her nesting hole, laying her clutch of seven eggs, sometime last June. Why she chose this particular spot of relatively bare ground with just a few tufts of grass, is open to speculation. Even the literature suggest this is a good topic for further investigation. In this case, several of the new hatchlings were found before the hole. Some had traveled quite a distance, up to 15 feet away. Investigation of the nesting spot revealed one non-viable egg still in the ground. With a small hole about the diameter of a pencil lead in that egg, perhaps an insect penetrated it, killing the embryo. Meanwhile, there are six small, very active young turtles. The largest is 3.7 cm long, 3.3 cm wide (1.45 in x 1.3 in) and weighs 10 g (.35 oz); the smallest, 3,3 cm long, 3.2 cm wide (1.3 in x1.25 in) and weighing 8 g (.28 oz). Normally, turtles not being social animals, they would scatter, some hiding under the leaf-litter, others crawling under downed logs or burrowing into brush piles.  At this age and size, they are extremely vulnerable. Turkey regularly scratch up the leaves looking for tasty morsels, usually a variety of insects and such, and these little ones are a real treat. Fox, raccoon, coyotes and even possum also think they’re tasty. These six however are now being kept in a special ecologically accurate habitat for their first year. Soon they will dig into the soil and begin their first hibernation. In spring, when they become active, they will be measured and weighed again to see what differences may have occurred. 



The dark area is the location of the umbilical scar which will disappear two to three weeks after hatching. 


The newly hatched three toed box turtle has a hard, pointed projection just below the nose that is used to tear open the egg case. It goes away after about a week. 

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An Accumulation of Reptiles

That snakes and lizards abound in and around my garden and the woods surrounding the house was something I thought I already knew.  Perhaps I just took them for granted.  It wasn’t until now, while doing the Journal that it really made an impact. I’d always been fascinated by snakes and their cousins, lizards. When I found my first snakes at age 8 or there abouts, I proudly and excitedly brought them inside the house to show Mom.

Those little ring-necked snakes were not well received. So while Mom never discouraged my interest or curiosity, she did make a rule — no live snakes in the house.  I quickly learned that rule also applied to salamanders, mice of all types, frogs and, well, all wildlife. Orphaned rabbit babies and injured birds were exceptions.

So this year I began a concerted effort to record all the snakes and lizards I encountered. At first I was ready to write about the Redbelly snake, but then within a day or so there was the Midland brown. A wonderful Saturday with a bunch of Missouri Naturalists at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, practicing wildlife photography yielded some great photos, and the lone lizard of the group, a Broadhead Skink. Then the Western Ribbon snake made its appearance. Enough — time to get this done — too much of a delay already.

The Northern Redbelly Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata  occipitomaculatat{Storer]) was a most unusual find. Earlier in the day I had been searching out and collecting wild worms for a pair of rescued three toed box turtles. It was twilight and I was going in the house, it was getting too dark. And there, on the cement walkway was this big worm. I snatched it up. But I discovered it wasn’t a worm but a snake. Into the house it went. This snake is known to secrete a rather bad smelling white paste from glands at the vent. The next day when I removed it from its temporary home of a wide-mouth quart jar to take its picture, it obligingly extruded some more for the camera. It is a nice little snake, eating those bugs and slugs that are prone to eat our favorite plants.

The Midland Brown Snake (Storeria dekyi wrightorumTrapido) is another one of those little snakes that help us out by having a good appitite for garden spoilers. I frequently come across them around the barn, the garden and in the woods. There is wide color variations in the ones I’ve come across, some very dark, some very light. They all have had a dark spot under each eye and both sides of the neck, that is what has always helped me in identification regardless of the color. They too secrete a scent from the vent, but not nearly as pungent as the Redbelly. I think the snake’s color has something to do with where it hangs out. This particular one is grayish and as you can probably see, it blends in nicely with the gray karst common around our place.

The Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus proximus [Say]) I came across was in a real hurry. They can get really large and I’ve seen them engulf some really large frogs. The best time to photograph them is early morning before they’ve had time to become agile by warming up in the sun.

Then there is the terrific Broadhead Skink (Eumeces laticeps[Schneider]). It was an exciting find and I was very pleased to be able to get a good photo. I had read about it in Tom R. Johnson’s book, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, but had never before seen one in person. We had surprised it while it was sunning on a trail. Instinct told it to dash to the woods, but then it stopped after about five feet, remaining motionless. Since I was with a group of folks, I first pointed it out. Then, crouching and moving slowly, I took a series of pictures, after each one moving a foot or so closer. When within a foot-and-a-half I decided not to push my luck and slowly moved backward until out onto the trail again. Another naturalist then tried for photos and was able to go in and out as I did without the skink taking off. The third photographer got about half-way and evidently the skink said, “enough already,” and dashed  away. It was a grand adventure with a grand skink. It is one of the largest in Missouri. The head of this particular one is reddish, thus, it is identified as the male. It is usual during the breeding season for the males to develop a bright red head. While it has a  light brown back, it has sort of a greenish cast because of the light shining through the greet leaves above. Perhaps because of its red head or perhaps because of its size, many people think it is posonous. It is not. I’m willing to bet however, if you grabbed it, it would reflexively bite. That could smart. Photos are less painful. Usually.

There are more of those snakes and lizards out there waiting to be discovered. A bunch of little adventures waiting to happen. Bring’em on.

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Calm Singers

“>Many animals have instincts that automatically put them in motion to flee when approached by people. Others have instincts that initially make them motionless until they either feel threatened enough to attempt an escape or safe enough to move.

Frogs seem to be some of those motionless ones. The Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis – Hyla versicolor) is one of those very common frogs even people who don’t venture into the woods find. They often hide in flower pots, around water faucets and other moist spots outside homes. Those who are not fond of spiders should be glad to find Gray Treefrogs hanging around since they eat spiders as well as insects. They can be gently picked up and moved out of harms way when encountered. This one was hiding between two small plant pots. It went unnoticed until all the pots were moved and I was about to move the tray.

It rested quite nicely on my hand as I took it to a nearby pond and put it on a rock. Only then did it move, hopping to the ground, going under the overhanging  leaves of an oak sprout.


 Then there was this magnificant frog. I had already walked past it before it registered in my brain I had seen it. Looking back, I confirmed that yes indeed, I had seen a frog. Slowly raising my camera, I took a picture. It was of the frog’s back. Then I slowly walked back, hoping not to scare it into the water. Success. Kneeling  about five feet away, I took a couple of more pictures. Then I inched closer, stopped, took more photos. I repeated this until I was within a foot of the frog. Obviously I was not scaring the frog. Finished with photos, I stood up. It just sat there, even as I walked away. Looking back at the spot 20 minutes later, it was gone.

Later with the aid of the photos, I identified it as a male  Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana Shaw). I hope it sticks around, it will be an interesting night sound along with the Gray Treefrogs and peepers.

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Will the Real Poison Ivy . . .

More than once, first time visitors to the Ranch ask why poison ivy is allowed to climb  the small oak tree along the front door walkway. I’ve sort of gotten used to it and have developed a rather nice little speech about the virtues of the innocent five-leaved Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia L. Planchon) Almost every part of the vine is eaten by something at different times of the year — the leaves and stems are eaten by deer until fall when they switch to eating the fruit; the fruit is also eaten by a variety of birds, including bob white quail. Not to be left out, squirrels and turkey also find it tasty. Turkey prefer the young tendrils while the squirrels like the leaves and fruit and  in the winter, chew on its bark. With such popularity it’s sort of amazing it is doing so well. But perhaps if it was not such a good wildlife food, it would be a troublesome vine. In the fall, it adds to the autumn colors by turning a beautiful red. So there is no reason to willy-nilly rip out or kill Virginia Creeper — its one of the good guys. Five leaves.

Now, back to poison ivy (Toxicodenndron radicans  L Kuntze).  It has three leaves, not five. But that means it can be easily confused with Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica Aiton) — another great wildlife food. Birds, raccoons, opossums, chipmunks and deer eat the fruit, while rabbits eat the bark during hard winters. Those three leaves are definitely different while being definitely similar. For years I’ve avoided fragrant sumac out of ignorance. Now however, I’ve gotten good at telling the difference between Fragrant sumac and poison ivy. I’m still cautious, being careful to keep a distance until I know for sure I’ve identified it correctly.

So how to tell the difference? The middle leaf. The stem of the middle leaf of the poison ivy is long. The stem of the Fragrant sumac is very short. Poison ivy will creep along the ground, climb up trees and other objects and sometimes just stand upright, two or more feet off the ground. Fragrant sumac does not creep along the ground or climb objects, it only stands upright, about two or three feet off the ground. Another difference is in the fruit. Poison ivy has white berries, Fragrant sumac has red berries. But the berries are not always present. So always check the center leaf.

If in doubt, don’t touch it. Err on the side of caution. All parts of the poison ivy plant can cause irritation, roots, stems, leaves, berries, all. And don’t burn it. Its smoke, if inhaled, it can affect the lungs. What to do about it? If it is around your house or areas where people frequent, it needs to be removed either chemically or by hand pulling. Cutting it with weeders or mowers doesn’t work, it only scatters pieces of the plant, spreading it even further.

Poison ivy does have some virtues, if growing wild. Like Virginia Creeper and Fragrant Sumac, it is a great wildlife food for a variety of animals. And it too, is beautiful in the fall.

Now that the weather is great for hiking and other outdoor activities, stay alert. What do you plan to sit on? Walk through? Brush up against?

Good luck!


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