Lucky Critter

“>”>These days, with the advent of spring, much of my time is spent in the garden. There is much to do to get my raised beds ready for my favorite vegetable — chile peppers. Not being really fond of the smell of burning gasoline, I cultivate using one of those long handled four-pronged tools. I’ve gotten fairly good with it over the years, able to get the job done while still being able to hear the  song birds and the occasional chatter of squirrels.

So it was, the other day. I was whizzing along with the cultivator, swinging it up, bringing it down with a strong thud into the weedy soil. Suddenly there was something orange in the dirt. It was one of those “What is that?” moments. Reaching down I pushed it lightly with a finger. It moved, flipping itself over. It was a small eft. Had I punctured it? Smashed it? Didn’t see any blood. It seemed intact. It was intact. It certainly was a lucky critter. A little dazed perhaps, for it was not really moving much.

Grabing the camera,  I took about four photos, then decided to put it in with the worms and dirt I had collected in a used gallon ice cream tub. Threw in a few leaves in case the eft wanted  some shade. It got really active, going around in circles, then resting under a leaf. More pictures later when I went to lunch, I thought. Clean it up for a better photo.

It was not to be. It escaped.

But perhaps that was best. It was back to where it was familiar. It has a good chance of survival that way. And the photos I do have are just fine. It is how you or anyone might see it at first. Many times photos in books are the ideal, no distracting debris, perfect color for identification. But nature is not usually that way.

By now you are probably wondering what an eft is. An eft is the land form of the Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis[Wolterstorff] ). Newts are a type of aquatic salamander which have a complicated life cycle. The adults live in the water, preferring wood shaded ponds and swamps. You usually won’t find them in ponds that have fish because fish will eat them and their eggs. They lay their eggs one at a time on underwater pond plants. The young, when hatched have gills but develop or metamorphose into what are called efts. After a few months they lose their gills, develop a tougher skin and then leave the water for land.

On land, they become a gardeners friend. If you forget to move a downed tree limb, don’t have time to rake away all the leaves from corners or fences, don’t bother to burn a brush pile, the efts will move in, quietly living there eating small snails and insects. Then after a couple or three years, the eft matures and returns to the water. You can’t see it in these photos, but the underside, is a bright orange. A good thing, too, for it was that orange belly that got my attention and saved its life.

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Redbud Extravaganza

While many people anxiously await the dogwood blooms, I look for the hints of the deep pink to red to purple blooms of the redbud (Cercis canadensis L.).  Appearing just after the white bloom clusters of the Service berry (Amelanchier aborea), I’ve never gotten used to that sudden splash of color. This year I decided I needed to mark the blooming Redbuds with surveyors tape so I could remember their location come winter and not be quite so surprised in the spring. That decision has lead to some little adventures since most of the Redbud on our property is growing on steep west facing slopes. Getting to them is not all that difficult, it is getting back to the top of the ridge. At least I’m beginning to lose a bit of that extra weight winter brought me.

According to Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri Redbuds are a good source of nectar for bees and several species of birds eat the resulting seeds while the foliage is browsed by deer. Nice that it can be beautiful and useful. The flowers are pea-like and like peas, form pods that eventually break open.

Even better news for bird lovers is how great Service berry is as a food source. That same reference book states at least 35 species of birds eat its berries and 11 species of mammals also eat the berries or browse the twigs and foliage. Several years ago I marked the Service berry in our immediate area. Now I know a Service berry no matter what the season or its size.

Service-berry

It may seem to be unimportant information, perhaps even useless. Well, no. Not the case. If you own more than a small city lot that was razed of all living matter to build your home, you will be facing choices of what to continue to let grow, what to cut down or clear.  There are many native shrubs, small trees and vines that can be attractive and when encouraged, beneficial to wildlife. Redbud and Service berry are two of many. It’s a tough life, being a small shrub or tree, so now I challenge myself to identify them. Not an easy task for me. I have difficulty remembering the names of new acquaintences, movies and song lyrics. I find repetition helps. Now, everytime I see the tagged Redbuds, I’ll be reinforcing the look with the name.

Works for me.

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Mighty Mite

For some reason, I sometimes just don’t have the stamina I recall having when in my 20s. So, it is not uncommon for me to take short breaks where I just stand still. Such was the case this last week while looking in our woods for great places to plant Spice bush [Lindera benzoin (L.) Blume]. It’s a great medium sized shrub, gets to about 18 feet, has berries which at least 24 species of birds find delicious; with leaves deer and the caterpillars of the Spicebush swallowtail butterfly find tasty.

This was a solo planting adventure which meant no camera long. It was enough carrying a five gallon bucket of seedlings in water and the planting bar. Didn’t need to be worrying about safeguarding a camera.

Naturally, when taking a break, glancing down at a lichen and moss covered rock, I saw them, the Red Velvet Mites. And no camera.

I first came across them the previous spring, took some photos, but they were blurry. That didn’t help me identify them, but other people suggested they might be red velvet mites. Fortunately I was only a few minutes from the house. I got the camera. Back to the rock. Forgot the macro lens. Back to the house, got the macro lens. Back to the rock. No mites. Now I needed a break from my break. Sat down on the rock.  Maybe they were in the leaves. Swiped my hand through the leaves around the rock. Aha! there they were. Two climbed up on the rock. Perfect. Stood up, turned, kneeled and got some good pictures.

They are only about an eighth of an inch long and move very quickly. Those two projections at the front that look like antennae are actually the first pair of legs. They have four pairs of legs, eight legs, the same number as spiders. But unlike spiders, they do not have two distinct body areas.

These particular  mites are good guys. Most gardeners and farmers only have experience with the “bad” mites, the spider mites that damage crops and decorative plants. The Red Velvet Mite larvae, which have six legs, are external parasites of insects, spiders, daddy-long-legs and scorpions. As adults they feed on suitable insect eggs, which makes them our friends.

It was good to see them again and I did eventually get all the spice bush planted. With only a few more breaks.

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The Witch Hazel Event

 

We don’t have many dismal days around here, but the Saturday scheduled for the “Witch Hazel Event” in early March happened to have great  potential to be a dandy of a dismal day. Fortunately, some weeks before I had mentioned to James, my fishing buddy, that I’d have some trees to plant in March. “Would you be interested in lending a hand,” I asked. His “yes” came without hesitation. Fortunately his Mom was equally enthusiastic. So when the trees arrived,  the date was set.  Little did we know then it would be gloomily overcast with a slight drizzle accompanied by a “brisk” breeze. Try telling a nine-year-old it’s too cold and nasty to be outdoors planting trees.

The trees were bundle of 25 vernal Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) which I ordered from the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Their shrubs and trees are not to be used for personal landscaping or for resale, but for “reforestation, windbreaks, erosion control, as well as wildlife food and cover.” As an avid advocate of native plants versus cultivars from goodness-knows-where, I chose  Witch Hazel because it is one of the first to bloom, from January to March, no leaves mind you, just yellow and red blooms. According to Tried and True Missouri Native Plants for Your Yard, published by the Missouri Department of Conservations, Witch Hazel  “Provides food and cover for birds; provides nectar for flies and bees on warm winter days.” Perfect. Particularly since my “yard” consists of the woods and glades surrounding the house. 

Eager to get on with the adventure, James and Mom arrived. It had not yet begun to get misty outside. Since these were bare root seedlings, planting them is a bit different from those often bought in a pot. I sat James down in front of the computer and had him read the MDC web page showing how to plant: http://mdc.mo.gov/forest/IandE/MOConservationTreesAndShrubs/planting.htm 

I also showed him the book with the picture so he would know what this small stick with roots would look like in the years to come. I’ve only seen one in person — in a yard — not in the wild. It was spectacular. Two weeks prior I had attended a Fruit Tree Pruning Workshop given by  Horticulture Specialist James Quinn of the University of Missouri Extension. There, in addition to all the fruit trees, brambles and fig, was a witch hazel in full bloom. Fantastic. But it was a cloudy, misty day and I had left the camera at home. Arrgh. So when the second pruning session was held two weeks later, I finally got the picture that opens this posting. Overall, the blooms were starting to fade, only a few remained full of color. The pruned witch hazel was about eight foot tall and about five foot in diameter. If ours take, it will be interesting to see how large they get.

Out we went to plant. James was selected to carry the planting bar. Mom carried the bucket of water with the bare root seedlings. I got to carry the camera. Tough.

 

There were several factors that influenced selection of the spot to plant. First, would it get enough sunlight when the trees had leaves. Second, did the planting bar go “clink” when initially plunked down. If it did, we moved slightly to avoid the rocks it clinked on.

 

Sometimes it was not easy to get the bar through the ground. Small and large rocks were stubborn, but we assisted James by one of us  putting our weight on the bar.

Then by moving the bar back-and-forth and from side-to-side. it was enlarged enough to put the seedling roots in comfortably. The soil was then pushed closed to eliminate air pockets.

 

As you can see, these photos were not all taken with the same planting. The weather began to deteriorate. Mist became too common. But through it all James persisted and all the seedlings were planted. We marked the seedlings with surveyor’s tape so we could check on them later. It would be great if they all survived, but most likely not. Time will tell.

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Uneventful to Unique

What began as an ordinary walk-about on a rather cloudy day ended with a great find.  There was an area of our property I hadn’t trekked through in months. It was time, my curiosity said, to see what changes nature had thrown our way over the winter.  There was also another reason for a walk-about — shed antlers. The male deer lose their antlers every year, usually during January and February. This was March.

Part of the walk-about included  going from one side of a gully to the other. One of those where it fairly easy to get to the bottom, but a challenge to get up the other side. Contemplating this challenge, looking to my right, there was a color out of place. Hummm. So I took the picture that opened this posting. Perhaps you can spot it. But since it is a different experience in person, I’ve enlarged it.

And enlarged it again.

While I’d found individual sheds, some very massive and irregular, this is a first for me. Looking through the leaves, I also found the lower jaw, intact. That too is very unusual. For some reason these particular bones had not washed further down to the base of the gully. There were a few other bones, gnawed on ribs, vertebrae and long bones, but they were found further down.

So what happened? We can only speculate. Big bucks, this was at least a 10 pointer, don’t just up and die of natural causes at the top of a gully. The bones were very clean. No hair or skin was left. It can take up to two ears for hair to decompose. My guess is that this deer was shot during the 2008 hunting season. Injured deer can sometimes travel for miles before going down because of blood loss. Some survive. This one didn’t.

While it may seem a shame this happened to the buck, there are some positives. This deer fed a great number of animals during a time of year when food is scarce.  Of course vultures had a feast and possibly fox, coyote and a whole bunch of insects. Its bones continued giving  by providing calcium to animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs and turtles.

The key to finding the unusual is being aware of and investigating the things that seem out of place. The flash of white jumped out to me. It was not usual in that leaf covered location. Now I get to closely examine a real deer skull. It is fascinating. More on that another time.

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Persistence and Procrastination

Who says procrastination doesn’t pay. Most mothers, most bosses and well, I’ve said it myself. But what’s a saying without an exception. There are occasions where procrastination results in something positive. Such is the case with the “Hatching Insects.”

It began last January. That’s when I wrote about a mass of insect eggs found on a bramble stem sticking out of the snow. There were two masses, I took one, cut it open to discover what it was. The other one remained where it was outside. I titled that one “Keeping Warm Insect Style.” I’ve been checking that egg mass regularly since the weather has gotten warmer, so I wouldn’t miss seeing what hatches.

Then Monday, while writing about garlic for a special presentation, I needed a particular gardening book. It was on a shelf above the ledge where the cut-in-half egg case has languished since January. I had procrastinated about disposing of it.

It moved.

I looked again, closer. Both halves of the egg case were alive with what appeared to be small worms. But they weren’t worms, they were the insects’ pupae moving because the insect was trying to get out. I Grabbed the camera, turned on a lamp to take some still photos. Then, wondered if the video camera could get close enough to record these tiny insects. The answer was yes. Video time is limited in this venue, so have a small clip of one of these insects getting the last four of the six legs free. It actually took over four minutes, you will see the last minute-and-a-half. Many people will recognize this cute little one, a beneficial insect that can get quite large. I had one in my dorm room, named it Johnny P. Mantis.

Click on “persistent” below to see the video. 

persistent

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It’s a What?

On March 3rd the sun shone, the weather began to change and the snow thawed. Walking along a trail I’ve named “Lower Turtle Trail,” my curiosity got the better of me. Wonder if I can find a snake under any of the many logs along the way. Slowly, I turned over a log, rolling it toward me so nothing that could bite could get to me. No snake. But glistening in the sunlight were some bright metallic green flies – or so I thought at the time. But back at the house, browsing the books, it just didn’t fit. At first I thought it might be a green bottle fly.  But the eyes weren’t the right color and the wings were held differently. Then looking some more, thought perhaps a Condylostylid long-legged fly. Humm, the legs weren’t right, not skinny and black; plus the wings didn’t have the right pattern. Now what. Started thinking about those legs. So took a look at another photo of that insect.

Yes, indeedy, look at those really hairy legs, very much like a bee. I already knew not all bees are yellow and black.

And there it was in the book: Augochlora Green Metallic Bees. It fit. Not only the description and the photo, but the description of where it can be found. It seems that the female bee tunnels into dead wood, such as that under the log, to make cells. Into each cell she puts a ball of pollen and nectar. With that done, she lays an egg on top. When the egg hatches, the larvae has plenty of food. Good thing too, for it is obvious that these larvae and pupae (where they change into the final adult) are developing during a time of really cold weather.

So this one and the others I saw under the log, are just about ready to go.  Where are they going to find pollen and nectar? I wonder, what is flowering now? Nothing obvious, then I thought about the Trout lily, yellow star grass  and other small cold weather plants. One thing leads to another. So now guess what I’m looking for.

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Spring’s a Coming!

You can keep your groundhogs. I’ll take a duck, or in this case, flocks of ducks, to let me know that Spring is on the way — right behind them.

I’ve not done any research on this, although perhaps someone else has somewhere.  All I know is when those funny duck sounds start coming  down from the sky, whether you can actually see them or not, Spring is imminent. Time to rejoice.

Those who have faith in the groundhog’s ability to predict, should know that statistics are that groundhogs have been accurate only 28 percent of the time on Groundhog’s Day (February 2). In addition, it is not even supposed to be a groundhog that makes the prediction. According to folklore, German farmers would keep watch for a badger to come out of hibernation, not a groundhog. But when they came to America, those farmers couldn’t find any badgers in their Pennsylvania area. But there were plenty of groundhogs. So they decided to replace the badger with a groundhog. No wonder that sleepy groundhog  often bites the guy who yanks him out of his nest on a cold winter morning.

Go Groundhogs!

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Trail Cam Again

 

Obviously, deer are curious also. I speculate that the deer was hunting around the base of the tree for acorns, got within range  of the motion detector of the camera and then heard the camera  turn on the infrared light. But who really knows — only the deer.

 

Look to the center and then right and you will see a blurred image of the fox. For it to get that far after the camera sensed it and snapped the photo, it must have been really going fast. At least it didn’t have a chicken.

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Likin’ Lichen

 

 

When venturing outside to photograph the mosses, there is no way to ignore lichen. I’m not sure how lichen got to be called what its called, its not in my Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. The dictionary is not much help either, merely speculating it is of Greek origin. People often call lichen “moss” when referring to the grayish spots on tree bark. Wrong — its lichen. And it doesn’t just grow on the north side, it grows on any side that has a suitable combination of sunlight or shade, moisture and substrate. Lichen in itself is very small but can look really large when enough gets together in one area.

So, what the heck is lichen? It is actually a combination of algae and fungi. Not just any algae or fungi, but for each kind of lichen, a specific algae and a specific fungi. The algae, because they have chlorophyll, provide the proper  nutrients for the fungi. The fungi in turn, help protect the algae. This partnership is called Symbiosis because they help each other, neither one hurting or destroying the other. Most people, including me, don’t need to know or even have a desire to know the actual scientific names of those algae and fungi in each kind of lichen. If however, you do, and don’t know where to find out, I’ll help. Meanwhile, we do know that because the algae are different, the form of the lichens are different. Because they are small, but cluster together, we are able to divide them into three broad categories: crustose, foliose and fruticose.

 

Crustose are probably the easiest to identify. They cling to rocks and wood, are flat and ususally look like some dead, dry, crusty unknown thing you discover when scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Foliose are those that appear sort of leafy, usually lie somewhat flat, but with edges that curl up away from the rock or bark or wood. They often overlap each other and can cover large areas. Pale Shield lichen and Boulder lichen are two examples of Foliose lichen.

Fruticose can also cover large areas, but are not so leaf-like, they can have branch-like structures and some can be described as bushy. British Soldiers and Reindeer moss are two examples of Fruticose lichen.

So, the next time you wander about outside, take a really close look at what is growing on those tree trunks. And on those rocks the Ozarks are famous for. See if you can find an example of all three. It is an amazing world often overlooked.

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