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Rust Fungi: Complexity in Simple Life Forms

Things around here have been busy the last few months and, as a result, I've done a poor job of posting anything here on the website. As many of you know, I finally made the move to Montana. Living just a short drive from Glacier NP, I get to sit on my back deck and stare at the mountains I have loved for a long time. However, I've received some feedback from folks letting me know they think it's time I get out of "living a vacation" and think about telling more natural history stories. And, today, that's what we're going to do!

As naturalists, we marvel at the various forms life has taken on this planet. From the countless species of insects we encounter each day to the massive Sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), nature displays myriad ways to live. Why don't we take a look at a less glamorous group, with really cool representatives often overshadowed by more conspicuous and showy members found in lawns and in woodlands.

When most people think of fungi, they think of the large capped mushrooms in their yards, shelf-fungi in the woods or the oddities like Stinkhorn Mushrooms (Phallaceae). I'd like for us to stop long enough to look at a few members that often get overlooked;  the rust fungi, or Pucciniales.

Up first is this odd, amorphous orange fungus. Pictured below is Cedar-Apple Rust (or Juniper-Apple Fungus), scientific name (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). This almost alien-looking blob spends its lifecycle bouncing back and forth between junipers and apples and crabapples (Malus sp.). One year, it will develop upon the cedars and the next, it will cross over to the crabapples.

 

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  (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae), seen here on Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Cedar-Apple Rust Fugus (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae), seen here on Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

In the years it is on the cedars, a small gall will begin towards the end of a small branch, where the juniper needles erupt from the branch. As the gall swells, it will begin the stages of the orange telial horns and, when the spring rains come, they will swell and form the spores from which it will reproduce. Specifically, these basidiospores will be blown by the wind once the fungus dries out, where they may land on crabapples in the area. Based on dispersal of fungi spores, I would suspect they could be carried quite a few miles... though, it's more reasonable to expect them to mostly affect crabapples within a couple hundred yards. .

Once they cross into their crabapple hosts, they will form blisters or lesions on some of the leaves of the tree. These lesions more or less hold to the orange color scheme, even being yellow with red borders (which, not all all by chance, are the two primary colors which make up the secondary color orange). The blisters will form aecia from which aeciospores will be released to begin the cycle upon junipers once again the following year.

Our second fungus is found in these small rust blisters on the pine needles, which are a clear indication of Pine Needle Rust, a member of the Coleosporium genus. These white to orange-white blisters will erupt along the length of pine needles that have been infected. I’ve seen a fair amount of this across the southeast, mostly on Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda). When discovered, there is little cause for alarm and not much need to worry about treatment. Trees are rarely killed by the rust fungus, but they may shed heavily infected needles. From a distance, the needles may look chlorotic and show signs of stress. This fungus is often passed between members of the Pinus genus and goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Aster spp.). Again, a rust fungus spending one part of it's life cycle on one plant, only to switch completely over to another host plant for the next stage, and back again!

 Pine Needle Rust (Coleosporium sp.) blisters found on the needles of Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda).

Pine Needle Rust (Coleosporium sp.) blisters found on the needles of Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda).

Our final photo is of Pine-Oak Gall Rust (Cronartium quercuum fusiform sp. quercuum). As its scientific name suggests, it is a close relative of Fusiform Rust and, again, as the scientific name tells us, it impacts oaks (Quercus is the genus name for oaks). 

 Pine-Oak Gall Rust (Cronartium quercuum fusiform sp. quercuum) found on Virginia Pine (Pinua virginiana).

Pine-Oak Gall Rust (Cronartium quercuum fusiform sp. quercuum) found on Virginia Pine (Pinua virginiana).

Effecting pine species with 2 and 3 needle bundles, these globe galls are a dead giveaway for this rust. In this circumstance, as you can tell from the short, twisty needle bundles in twos, it is Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) we are looking at (pictured above). This gall is on the back end of its life cycle and has already produced the spores it, like all fungi, uses to reproduce. How do we know this? Well, there are no open wounds or rippled areas producing sap and spores anywhere on the gall. Therefore, we can come to a reasonable conclusion that this gall is older.

What is amazing is the spores produced by a gall on a pine species will ONLY infect an oak species. And, any galls found on an oak will produce spores that will only infect a pine species. The same applies for the other two rust fungi. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty freaking amazing reproductive specialization for such an ancient group of organisms! Awfully complex for such simple life forms, don't you think?

Detective Work

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of reruns of old TV detective shows. Some of my favorites were Barnaby Jones, Quincy M.E., Magnum P.I. and Columbo. During my summer breaks from school, I watched countless hours of these detectives as they pieced together clues and solved mysteries. Perhaps this was early practice to become a naturalist. You see, very often, what a naturalist does is detective work; piecing together clues to solve natural history mysteries. I often get emails from people wanting me to identify plants and animals. Sometimes, they only describe what they saw and, using context clues, I offer potential solutions. When I'm lucky, they send photos and, in much the same fashion, have to occasionally use clues to determine what it is. In this installment, I will offer up the photos and we'll work together to put the puzzle together and solve this mystery.

I offer up two blobs:

The first photo is chocked full of clues... These clues will be invaluable to our success in working out this puzzle.

A second blob. This one is made up of the same material, but is in a different location. This photo also has many clues that will help us solve this mystery.

Our first clues will be time and place... These items were found in the upstate of South Carolina in the middle of an incredibly hot and humid summer.

The "blobs" are still intact, more or less. So, that lets us know they haven't been weathered or eroded very much. Let's take that into account, knowing the heat, humidity and winds haven't disbursed the objects... so, they're likely just a couple or so days old.

One of the blobs appears to be on some sort of railing. Hmmm... Looking at the railing, we can see there is definitely some water in the background. Where am I apt to find railing like that with that kind of water behind it? The railing looks a great deal like metal hand railing. The same handrails that one might find in parks and public areas along the edges of rivers and ponds. Our next clue has helped narrow our location to somewhere beside, or on, water. The other blob, found only a few feet away from the first one, is sitting on concrete. So, the objects were very close in proximity.

Can we make any sense of the shape of the overall object itself or, better yet, what is in the blob? They're sort of roundish, with the one on the concrete looking a little more oval. Well, take a close look and we can start to notice short, sharp objects and flat, thin objects within each blob. What in or around a pond could give us any clues as to what those shapes are? What do we know is in a pond? Hmmm... those short, sharp objects sure look a lot like little fish bones and those flat, thin objects resemble fish scales to me. What do you think? Nothing about the bones resembles amphibian and, while the bones could be reptile, the scales are those found on fish and not snakes. So, I'm thinking the blobs are completely made up of fish parts. what do you think?

The coloration of the blob, itself, as well as the bones and scales is bleached. While it is very true the sun can bleach bones and scales, but doing so in just a couple days is far from probable. What other natural process can bleach out organic items, such as bones and scales. The chemical processes involved in digestion certainly can... so, why don't we pursue this avenue?

So far, we have puzzle pieces of time (a couple days), location (a pond), probable items (fish bones and scales) inside recognizable shapes (round and oval), with colors (bleached white and clear) that are likely due to chemicals (digestive fluids). These pieces, when placed together, show fish that were digested and bones and scales that were then left behind. Hmmm...

What eats fish at a pond? Well, the picture can get a little mirky here; but, let's work through this part of the puzzle. We've gotten this far and, I think, once we get past this point, we'll be home free in finding out EXACTLY what we're looking at!

River Otters are often found in ponds and they absolutely eat fish. But, any evidence of scales and bones would be in scat... and there is no foul smelling, dark colored feces associated with these objects. Also, why and how would an otter defecate on safety railing? So, let's mark River Otter off of our suspect list. Furthermore, there is no "whitewashing" that occurs with feces of most species. Maybe it isn't scat?

Great Blue Herons and Green Herons are seen regularly at ponds. Could it be one of them? Do they ever perch on railing? They sure do. Let's look at their diets and see if we can narrow down our list of suspects. Do they eat fish? You better believe it! Is that the only thing they eat? Well, not at all. They both eat frogs, snakes and even mice and rats. We've already established the bones are all fish and the scales are not reptile. So, if one of these species left behind these objects, they have been eating only fish. Is it likely that two species of birds that eat a varied diet have decided to just eat fish? Probably not... Who does that leave? Well, there is another bird we haven't thought of just yet...

Belted Kingfishers eat a diet extremely high in fish. While they may occasionally take small frogs and invertebrates, they are masters of hovering over water and diving head first to catch fish. OK... we have a high probability in diet. Would they perch on the railing? Yes, they sure would. But, what about a Belted Kingfisher would leave this object behind? In talking about the River Otter, we decided it wasn't scat. What does that even leave us?

Well, like Hawks and Owls, birds that eat prey items with indigestible body parts must flush those items by regurgitating the material in the form of a "pellet". Also, like Hawks and Owls, the pellet will be a compact object with the indigestible material (whether it's fur, bones, fish scales or even insect exoskeletons). Belted Kingfishers are no exception.

After eating a couple of fish, they will digest the soft tissue of the fish, leaving just bones and scales. Attempting to pass that material all the way through their digestive tracts would be pointless (as no nutrient value can be obtained) and slightly dangerous (those bones can lodge into any number of places on the way out). But, by keeping them in the early stages of digestion, they are able to effectively compress the bones and scales into a pellet and regurgitate the pellet with little danger.

Would you look at what we just did? By taking the appearance, location and context of the mystery items in the photos, we just solved a natural history mystery, And, we proved that we are all naturalists!

Excellent work, my fellow naturalists!

(A Quinn Martin Production)

Lovely Lupines

Walking over the often rocky and hilly terrain of central Texas, it sometimes seems I’m in an entirely different world when compared to the Sandhill areas of South Carolina where I was born. Between the mixture of the karst limestone geology that dominates the high hills and low valley areas and the black gumbo, or Vertisol, type soils that occur here, there is little visual semblence to the gently sloping hills of white sand I knew most of my life. Still, there are a few species that overlap the ecoregions and connect the hill country to the Sandhills.

In a previous installment, we talked about the Turk’s Cap, or Bleeding Heart, (Malvaviscus aboreus var. drummondii) plant that my grandmother had planted in her yard. Besides that beautiful plant, quite a few species of birds occur both here and in South Carolina. I see species such as Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerine) and Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus) regularly here, as well as in South Carolina. Other common themes found in both places are punishing soils and temperatures that can put plants to the test. Though extremely different in particulate matter and nutrient levels, both well-drained sands and thick clay gumbo soils place stresses on plants that occasionally cause similar plants to have evolved to meet the challenges presented in differing soils. In this installment, we’ll look at very similar species that evolved just a little differently; but the family resemblance is uncanny.

The blooming of spring flowers is a favorite period of time for most people, whether they consider themselves naturalists or not. During my many years of working with Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the Sandhills and Coastal Plains of the southeast, one of my absolute favorite flowers was the Sandhill Lupine (Lupinus diffusus). Also called, Sky-Blue Lupine, Oak Ridge Lupine and Spreading Lupine, the sight of the delicate light blue flowers in the Longleaf forests in the early spring always makes me smile.

Sandhill Lupine (Lupinus diffusus) growing in the Sandhills Region of South Carolina.

Clearly a lupine, the genus name is very appropriate. Because some lupines have the ability to choke out other plants competing for resources and because it was believed lupines depleted soils of nutrient value, they were named after the apex predator, Lupus (Wolf). The species name refers to the plants ability to spread, or diffuse, across the ground. The sky blue pea flowers grow around multiple racemes that may reach a foot in height, then open and mature to have a white spot on the standard, or upper petal. Thickly surrounding the racemes are very pubescent simple, green leaves covered in silvery hairs, giving them a nearly blue-green or greenish-gray appearance. These elliptical simple leaves are between 3”-5” in length.

The racemes (flower stalks) on this lupine were about 10" in height. The white spot on the standard is obvious in each individual pea flower.

As all lupines are in the pea family, or Fabaceae family, the flowers eventually mature into seeds encased in pods after fertilization. Upon fruiting, the entire plant will dry into a black and gray color and die. The first year of each plant’s life will be spent in a stage in which only leaves will grow, not flowering until the next year; making it a biennial.

Growing quite a taproot to extract maximum nutrients from the quickly draining and poor soils of the sandhills, this plant is notoriously hard to transplant. My friend, John Cely, and I have had several conversations about the difficulties of attempting to transplant Sandhill Lupine into identical soil conditions from where it was taken. Knowing how finicky they could be, I once used a wheelbarrow to hold a Sandhill Lupine plant and an enormous amount of the sand around it and placed it into the sandy soil at my previous home. It did not take. The only way I finally got a few plants to begin growing was to scatter a fairly large number of seed upon the poor, sandy soil at my former residence. Of 50 seeds I scattered, 5 germinated before I left South Carolina. A whopping 10% germination rate! (John, if you’re reading this, I did start figuring out how to get Farewell-To-Summer (Polygonella americana) to germinate and did have about a dozen or so take before I moved to Texas)

Now that I’m in Texas, I don’t have to go far at all to be reminded of my lovely Sandhill Lupine. In fact, the state flower is a very close relative. The Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is ubiquitous and, this time of year is found in front yards, fields, pastures and vacant lots everywhere. With flowers growing on nearly identical racemes as the Sandhill Lupine, the similarity is obvious. Far more common than Sandhill Lupine, the Texas Bluebonnet can grow into very dense stands, turning areas into a lovely blend of blues and greens.

The deeper blues and palmately compound leaves of the Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis).

The spots on the standards of these Texas Bluebonnets have begun turning lavender.

Unlike the light blue of the Sandhill Lupine, the Bluebonnets are a deep blue color with the white spot in the standard turning into lavender as the flower matures. The leaves of the Bluebonnet are also quite different, growing palmately compound and not simple. Still pubescent like it’s cousin, the leaves of the Bluebonnet are usually in leaflets of five; though four are not uncommon. Also like its cousin, the Bluebonnet grows in a difficult soil. The black gumbo soils around here are much more nutrient rich than the sands of South Carolina, but the levels of montmorillonite clay and limestone rock in the soil makes the ground hard and difficult to penetrate. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to dig or till this ground and he or she will tell you it could make Billy Graham cuss on national television. When it’s dry, it’s cracked and hard as a brick. When it’s wet, it sticks and cakes to every surface and is still hard as a brick.

Limestone rocks and black gumbo soil.

Roots must make a way in this difficult terrain.

Texas Bluebonnets are great for pollinator species in the early spring in Texas. They began blooming here in mid-February and should continue through early April, allowing butterflies and bees to visit when other flowers have yet to bloom.

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) on Texas Bluebonnet.

So, though my roots have been transplanted 1200 miles from the Sandhills, I don’t have to go far to see beauty in nature that reminds me of some of my favorite plants from South Carolina. Next time, we’ll look at two plants from South Carolina and Texas that have similar names, but have little in common past that.

What's Our Excuse?

While living in SC, I was fortunate enough to have a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) hang around my home from December 2013 to April 2014. This tiny vagrant was a reminder of just how fragile, yet strong, nature is. Facing not one, but two significant snow and ice storms during her accidental stay in SC, she seemed to reside in that small area between survival and succumbing to the harsh elements that winter flung at her. I kept a steady supply of warm nectar for her to have easy access to and placed heating lamps for her to utilize during the coldest days. She became an instant celebrity, attracting people from all around to come see her; even being featured in a front-page story in the local newspaper.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufusat feeder in the snow. A heat lamp and fresh nectar was provided throughout her accidental winter stay. Showing up in December 2013, she stayed until April 2014. (Click to enlarge)

One of the coolest visitors to come experience the Rufous Hummingbird was on February 9, 2014. Ann Humphries, from Columbia, SC, is easily one of the most inspiring naturalists I’ve ever had the opportunity to hang out with. Ann is constantly on the move, frequently visiting parks all over SC and soaking up all nature has to offer wherever she may roam.

By early February 2014, quite a few people had come to observe the tiny little off-course-winged-wonder. Many saw her quickly, but some had to wait quite a while to catch even the slightest glimpse of her as she zoomed to drink up from the feeders I had placed in my front yard. Fewer still had the luck to hear the twittering vocals of the miniscule selasphorus. Unfortunately, more than one person was even blanked in their efforts to see the hummer; it proving to be quite shy from time-to-time. Hilda Flamholtz was one of the people who had previously come by and was even able to take a few nice photos of the bird. Shortly after her visit, Hilda asked if she could bring a friend by for a chance to admire the lost drifter. I replied that I would be thrilled to have another birder come by and soon went back to preparing to teach an upcoming natural history class. As fate would have it, I was soon to get one of the more lasting natural history lessons I have ever received.

The determined little survivor braving her second snow storm of the winter. (Click to enlarge)

 

That morning, Hilda and her husband, Jon, pulled into my driveway and introduced me to Ann and her companion, Brego. Ever faithful, Brego joined Ann everywhere she went; by her side on adventure after adventure. I greeted them both and walked with Ann over to a bench about 15 feet from the hummingbird’s preferred feeder, reminding them they may have to wait a while before the star of the show came out of her favorite hiding spot. Ann and Brego sat, preparing to be as patient as they had to be. Within a couple of minutes, the Rufous zoomed straight out of a Camellia near us and went directly to Ann. This diminutive aerial dancer, who had been more than a little coy during other visits, hovered just a few feet from Ann’s face and was now staring directly at her. In what I can only describe as a moment captured by my senses in slow motion, Ann’s eyes grew wider and wider with each passing millisecond.

Hearing the soft hum of the bird’s wings, Ann turned towards me with a smile filled with wonder and amazement. It was at that moment the Rufous began vocalizing like never before, causing Ann’s face to light up as with the warm glow of the morning sun. After a few moments, the hummingbird darted towards the nearby feeder and drank her fill, then went back to the safety of her favorite hidden perch. Though only a few fleeting seconds, that instant gripped the attention of every one of us fortuitous enough to witness it.

Ann and I have stayed in contact as well as two busy adults can. But, as we all know, time and distance adds to the difficulty of staying in touch on a regular basis.

Fast-forward two years and I am halfway across the country. Just last week, I was walking through an airport terminal here in Austin, TX. Through the crowd, I thought I saw Ann walking through the airport. However, I didn’t see Brego with her. Instead, a new young fella walked with her and I decided not to work my way through the crowd to potentially embarrass myself by calling out to a stranger. What I decided to do was to email our mutual friend, Hilda, and let her know I saw someone who bore a striking resemblance to Ann. Shortly after I sent the email; I boarded my plane and went on my way. That evening, Ann sent me a message to let me know it was, in fact, her I’d seen! She was in Austin and the surrounding area visiting family and, as luck would have it, she has a sister who lives about 10 minutes from me.

Thursday morning, Ann and I were able to meet for coffee and I met her lovely sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, Jack. Sitting there enjoying our coffee and catching up on lost time, Ann told me she’d been hiking all through the Frio Canyon the previous day. Ever the naturalist, she made sure to get some hiking in while visiting the hill country. Always interested in what others have observed, she asked me what birds I’d seen lately and what I thought of the natural history of central Texas. As we talked the morning away, I was continually thinking of that morning in February 2014.

Now, at this point in our story, I must take a second to inform you that this amazing naturalist; this enthusiastic birder, is blind. And Brego, her trusty companion? He was her guide dog that fine day. As it turns out Brego is now retired and her new young companion, Monti, is doing a terrific job of keeping up with Ann’s love of nature.

And me? Well, in fifteen years of capturing and banding scores of birds across the country, climbing trees, running after snakes and gazing into the magnificent compound eyes of dragonflies, I’d like to think I’ve seen a lot of nature’s magic. Very few things; though, could ever compete with the magic of a moment in which a lost hummingbird floated out to have a close encounter with a very special naturalist. I also had a concrete reminder Thursday morning that, no matter how we take in the enchantment around us, nature touches us all. As I rode away on my bike, I looked at the beautiful blue sky and, smiling, had only one thought… “Despite what many of us would consider a major disability, Ann soaks up nature as often as her schedule allows and delights in new adventures outside. So, what’s our excuse?”

 Just before leaving for the airport to head back to South Carolina, Ann met me for coffee here in Texas. My career has been punctuated with encounters with great naturalists. She is on that list.

Just before leaving for the airport to head back to South Carolina, Ann met me for coffee here in Texas. My career has been punctuated with encounters with great naturalists. She is on that list.

'Tis The Season

Now that all of the Thanksgiving feasts and a fraction of the leftovers have been consumed, the holiday season is in full swing. For many, this time of year often brings much needed time away from the office, more time with family and friends, travel and preparing for the colder temperatures that December usually brings. While we’re gearing up for the holidays, some of our feathered friends are gearing up for an entirely different season.

Culturally, we as humans have always seen the shorter and colder days of winter as a time to lower our activity levels and rely on the food we’ve harvested to help get us through until the warmth and brightness of spring brings the new life of another year. For large birds, such as Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls, they must get a very early start on nesting. Pair bonding and nest construction for these massive birds of prey begins as early as late October, depending upon location. Though these species don’t usually begin until late November or December in South Carolina, I encountered a pair of Great Horned Owls dueting and setting up their territory the week before Halloween in Schulle Canyon here in Texas. Whether in SC or TX, it isn't at all uncommon for the eggs to be laid in middle of December.

You may be wondering why birds would ever think of starting their nesting season with the coldest days of December, January and February ahead of them. I’ve certainly marveled while watching eagles and owls sitting in a nest with snow falling around them. Well, the necessities and pressures of reproduction in nature sometimes overrule our human sense of logic. These very large birds have three particular needs that require them to begin courtship and mating rather early.

Needing a large and sturdy nest to raise large chicks means they must set up territories and begin nest construction early. When I say large, I do mean large! Bald Eagles add to their nests each year, causing the nests to grow and grow each successive year. I have been fortunate enough to monitor a number of Bald Eagle nests and they are quite a few feet wide and several feet high. But, the nests I’ve monitored are nothing compared to the largest recorded eagle nest. It was found in Florida in 1963, was 9 ½ feet wide, a little over 20 feet high and weighed in at an astonishing 4000 pounds!

For Bald Eagles, nest building may mean anything from starting a new nest from scratch or simply adding to and tidying up the previous year’s nest. For Great Horned Owls, this may be nothing more than finding a suitable nest previously constructed by another bird and stealing it. Being one of the strongest and toughest birds on the block, Great Horned Owls will take over nests built by Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Ospreys and even Bald Eagles. There aren’t many birds that have the consistent ability to fend off a pair of Great Horned Owls wishing to usurp a nest. Before you get angry with my nocturnal feathered friends, remember the owls are taking over the nests at a time when most other species aren’t looking to nest.

Bald Eagle on nest in SC. The adults at this nest made a very good living taking wintering gulls from nearby lakes and ponds (and even a landfill). Photo taken 12/31/13

The second and third requirements both deal with time; time for incubation and time for raising their chicks. Their eggs require a considerable incubation time, usually around 30-35 days. This long incubation time is followed by a long period of time feeding and rearing young, with the chicks not leaving the nest for at least 10-12 weeks. This isn’t all that uncommon for larger birds of prey, but getting an early start allows them to successfully begin rearing their chicks long before other birds of prey even begin nesting. This is an effective way of reducing competition and it is an extremely successful way to have their fledglings begin learning the art of the hunt without the pressures of other newbies flooding the prey market.

Adult Bald Eagle sits alert out on a limb, while two nestlings (one sits on the rim of the nest and one sits down inside the nest) wait for the other adult to bring the next meal. I watched the nestlings exercising their wings before the photo was taken. They fledged four weeks later, taking to the sky with the adults. Photo taken 4/12/12

These large birds of prey approach nesting in a very similar way some of us approach shopping.  Just as it is easier to get your holiday shopping done early and not wait until the night of December 24th to race out to find gifts for your friends and family, it is better for them to start their breeding season early. Evolutionarily, these birds have benefitted greatly from getting a jump on their shopping lists!

Seven Days, Four Salamanders and One Snake

One thing that I am truly grateful for as a naturalist is the terrific opportunity to spend time in the field with other naturalists. More often than not, those naturalists are more gifted than I, allowing me to learn and experience more than if I were walking alone. During my most recent visit to SC, I was able to connect with my friend and fellow naturalist, Josh Castleberry, for a day in the field. For those that know him, you already know Castleberry (or Alpha Josh, as I know him) has an almost supernatural gift for herpetofauna. If there is a cool reptile or amphibian nearby, he can almost sense where it is.

Out riding the trails, we stopped at a small, spring-fed pool of water. I've stopped at this pool to look for turtles and frogs many times this spring and summer, always finding just a few common species leaping or dropping into the water from the edge or the dead wood just above. As Castleberry and I walked along the edge of the pool; however, at least one hundred tiny frogs began leaping around us. Looking down at a collection of frogs freshly done with metamorphosis, we spotted the scurrying of a tiny salamander. Alpha Josh's herpetology mojo was working!

Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata) in the leaf litter at the edge of a small, bring fed pool.  Click to enlarge

Suddenly, with a diminutive salamander before us, two grown men became giddy little children. Castleberry reached into the leaf litter and gently lifted the creature for us to admire. This salamander was extremely small and, as it turns out, it was a Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata). Rarely getting longer than two inches in length and maybe weighing a single gram, Dwarf Salamanders are true to their common name. Even their species name, quadridigitata, hints at the fact that they have only four toes, instead of the usual five toes in the Eurycea genus. Despite them having a range that extends from the Carolinas, throughout the southeast and into the piney woods of East Texas, this was my first personal encounter with the species. I have since learned from speaking to several biologists and naturalists that, though it isn't an uncommon species, they are rarely seen very often. This is likely due to their fossorial lifestyle. Living under a layer of detritus tends to keep a dull-colored, tiny salamander concealed. Having finally seen one, I was one happy naturalist.

A fully grown Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata) in the capable hands of Josh Castleberry. Click to enlarge

A couple of days later, as I prepared to return to Texas, I was still pretty excited about having spent the day with Josh Castleberry and seeing the Dwarf Salamander. Little did I know that Alpha Josh's mojo would fly back with me and give me a herpetology week to remember.

Just six nights later, beneath a birdbath in my backyard, I would get to observe and handle a snake that, until that point, I had only imagined seeing. In the dark of the night, I would see in the beam of my flashlight, a snake of near myth and legend in the American southwest.

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) blending into the dead leaves in my backyard. Notice the black-and-white banded tail, giving it the colloquial name "coontail rattler". Click to enlarge

I often talk about having watched lots of the old black-and white TV westerns growing up. Often, during the course of an episode of one of the many shows that were in that genre of television, a character encounters the meanest creature to ever roam the mountains and prairies. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) is portrayed as ornery and quick to strike. For a very quick lesson in the scientific name, Crotalus, is from the Greek word 'krotolon", meaning castanet or rattle. That's a pretty accurate genus for a rattlesnake, I do believe. This term is also used in the plant genus Crotalaria, for Showy Crotalaria or Rattlebox. The species name, atrox, means horrible, dreadful and savage. It also can be made into the Latin genitive atrocis, the root word from which we get the word "atrocious". So, it would appear we have a heinous thing with a castanet. After dealing with the one pictured above, I could not disagree with that stereotype more. This snake was well-mannered and beautiful. (Yes, I said beautiful... it truly was a gorgeous snake and I am honored to have handled it).

After admiring it, I got my trusty snake stick and scooped the Western Diamondback, which was a little less than two feet in length, and placed it in a pillowcase. Taking it to an open area next to a large park, I released it and wished it well. As it prepared to slither away, I took a short video of it and texted Castleberry. I knew he'd appreciate something that cool.

The next day, I was to have a day for the ages. As a naturalist, to see one very rare threatened or endangered species is a treat. To see two in a single day is noteworthy. To see three rare species in a single day... well, that's something to be remembered. 

Just under the ripple of crystal clear waters, as almost every bit of water in the hill country is, I saw the ghostly pale image of another creature I don't get to see enough of. Sitting atop a rock just below the surface was the unmistakable silhouette of a Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni)!

Even through the ripples, there is no mistaking the haunting beauty of a Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni). Click to enlarge

Another salamander in the Eurycea genus, the Texas Blind Salamander has evolved to a completely underwater life history and spends the vast majority of its life in water underground. Found most often in caves, this species has no eyes, merely tiny black spots under the skin that are likely used as only photoreceptors. As happy as I was to see a Texas Blind Salamander, there were two other species yet to come.

Both the Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sosorum) and the San Marcos Salamander (Eurycea nana) are underwater salamanders found in the springs and rivers that give them their common names. Both are rare, with the Barton Springs Salamander being listed as endangered and the San Marcos Salamander being listed as threatened. Both are beautiful and very difficult to photograph (which is why I don't have good photos to share, yet). And both of them made me smile like an kid at Christmas when I saw them. Castleberry's golden touch with reptiles and amphibians had rubbed off and, in doing so, gave me a week I won't soon forget!

As a postscript, I was walking Gus the other night and saw a Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) hopping beneath a street light just across the street from us. I'm not sure if it was attempting to catch an insect or merely playfully bounding, but I do know Gus and I watched in utter silence and, at least one of us was amazed by the sight. I suppose I enjoyed it, too. Gus is my little naturalist Great Dane... ok, maybe not so little. The Ringtail is mammal, and not a reptile or amphibian, I know; but still a sight I don't think I could tire of seeing. Especially after such a week as that.

As I've already been asked, I will provide more in-depth species accounts of each in later posts. This post is meant to narrate an amazing seven days in the life of this naturalist. May it also serve to encourage you to always wonder what wonders the next week may bring your way.

Night Time Is the Right Time

As naturalists, we are all amazed by the magic of nature.  The sight of an eagle flying effortlessly overhead, the fluid locomotion of a snake as it slides away, the glimmer of dragonfly wings in the sun... these and so many more things awaken the childlike wonder we have and remind us why we continuously fall in love with Mother Nature.  Metamorphosis is probably nature's greatest magic trick.  Changing the physiology of a creature into something that is often so different than the way it once was.  A caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly and a nymph into a damselfly; nature still amazes me in all her glory.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched just such an event and, though I've seen this and other changes before, I was still dancing around like a young teenage boy trying to contain himself around his biggest crush.  Though this is a transformation we're all familiar with, I couldn't help but watch in awe.

I'd begun hearing the grinding song of the Resh Cicada (Neotibicen resh) in late May.  But, it was an uneven and surprising sound.  It was just an occasional song here or there.  June passed and the songs became more prominent and more ever-present as I'd walked my boys in the evenings. Then, July came.  And with it, the sounds of the cicadas became so loud you could hear them even inside.  One very hot afternoon, I had to turn the volume of the TV up to compete with the chorus singing in the trees outside.  Well, it was one of those July evenings that I saw a Resh Cicada emerge from a hole in the hard, dry ground beneath a Texas Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis) in the front yard.  I watched it, with dried hill country gumbo clay upon its back, as it slowly began climbing up the trunk of the tree.  

Freshly emerged Resh Cicada (Neotibicen resh) nymph preparing to molt.  The dried soil on it is what is often referred to as "black gumbo" soil by the locals in central Texas. (Click to enlarge)

I took Gus for his evening walk, but immediately searched the tree for the cicada when I returned.  It was now just a couple feet higher, working out onto a branch.  I got Anderson and took him down the block, hoping not to miss the magic.  Sure enough, the cicada was now getting near the end of the short branch and I knew it would begin soon.  Lucky for me, Sharpie, my old and trusty black lab, takes short walks.  When we returned, I put him inside and got a front row seat for the unveiling!

The diagnostic slit along the thorax had just begun to open and the show was starting!

This cicada decided to attach itself to the shed exoskeleton of another.  The process of emerging always begins with a vertical slit along the mesonotum region of the thorax.  Meso means middle and notum refers to the back... the middle of the back. (Click to enlarge)

Now, as we often do, let's discuss a little about this insect.  The name Resh comes from the perceived Hebrew letter Resh (or Reish) on the thorax of this cicada.  Not that you wanted to know, but Resh is the letter meaning "head" or "beginning".  I personally think it looks more Aramaic than Hebrew, but I'm not a graphologist.

It is a common "dog day" cicada, signaling the heat of long summer days throughout its range, which extends from here in central Texas, up to Oklahoma and eastward.  Reports of these making it into Georgia and the Carolinas are still debated.  As with other fauna with large ranges and populations, Resh Cicadas come in a few variations of color; though most look extremely similar.

They are usually associated with oaks and seem to be very much aligned with the oaks I find out here.  Though I've seen them climb up the trunks of other trees, I've only found the holes for them around Texas Live Oaks.  They live underground for about three years, going through several instars and feeding on the sap and liquids they find in the roots of oak trees.  Upon emerging from holes about the size of a nickel, they molt from the final instar stage and begin seeking a mate.  Eggs are most often laid on dead or dying twigs and bark.  The dead wood often falls to the ground and assists the nymph in reaching the soil to begin the burrowing process upon hatching.  Final emergence is almost always in the late evening, night or early morning.

Like other cicadas, their lifespan post-emergence is short and meant only for reproduction.  They are preyed upon by a number of other insects, reptiles, birds and mammals.  I watched a Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticals) work on consuming one just yesterday.

As the cicada pushes out, it is still very soft and must take care not to damage the nodes that will later unfurl to become its wings.  This is also the case with butterflies and moths.  It is very vulnerable at this time.  Take a look at the beautiful compound eye, now fully freed from the clouded old exoskeleton.  (Click to enlarge)


Almost completely free of its old shell, the wing nodes are now very easy to see.  As with other insects, vascular processes will pump hemolymph into the wings to unfurl them for drying.  Another terrific look at the fresh compound eye.  (Click to enlarge)

The wings have now become completely unfurled and are beginning to dry.  The "Resh" letter is starting to become apparent on the thorax. (Click to enlarge)

Finished product, now dry and back on the branch.  This cicada began singing very soon after drying and was broadcasting quite a high decibel rating! (Click to enlarge)

From being observed climbing from the soil until it finished drying, about three hours passed.  From the moment it began pushing from the thoracic slit until the wings completely unfurled was right at one hour.  Amazing transformation!  What came out as a rather unattractive nymph was now a lovely cicada (if I may call a cicada lovely).  I hope to never tire of nature's magic!

Allow me to also welcome my new subscribers!  Feel free to jump in the conversations and let's naturalize together!  Tell me what you're seeing and let's keep the ball rolling... Nature is for sharing.

One Tough Coleoptera

While having a nice, cool beverage in my front yard yesterday, I spotted a strikingly beautiful beetle.  For me, it is often nature's most uncomplicated designs that elicit the highest levels of appreciation.  Simple arrangements of black and white will cause me to stare in amazement as quickly as any technicolor patterns.  I find as much stunning detail in the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as I do in an after second year male Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) and the Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) will turn my head as quickly as any butterfly I've encountered.  It is with that in mind that I present the lovely Texas Ironclad Beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani).

Texas Ironclad Beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani)  Click to enlarge

As always, let's start from the beginning.  All beetles are insects belonging to the Order Coleoptera.  Coleoptera means "sheathed wing", referring to the hardened outer forewing, called elytra.  Elytra serve as the protective cover (the sheath) for the hindwings used for flight.  As I'm always trying to bring you cool natural history, the Texas Ironclad Beetle, like all other Ironclad beetles and members of the Genus Zopherus, has elytra that are fused together, causing it to be a completely flightless beetle.

Continuing our etymological journey through the names of this beetle, the Genus Zopherus means dark and gloomy.  The members of this genus are generally dark in color and, I suppose, may appear gloomy to the casual observer.  (I disagree!)  The species name nodulosus is given due to the nodes, or small knots on the back of this beetle.  It almost looks as though splotches of black paint were dripped upon the back of a clean beetle, with the black paint drying to become the nodules on the exoskeleton.  This beetle is, in this naturalist's opinion, a walking work of art rivaling anything Pollock ever produced.

The final name, haldemani, is for the brothers Haldeman.  Born in Pennsyvalnia, the brothers were to be enamored by insects their entire lives, with Horace doing much of the collecting in Texas and Mexico while Samuel taught natural history back in their home state.  For six years, between 1848 and 1854, Horace collected the majority of his insects (mostly beetles) while stationed in Texas with U.S. Army.  Many of the beetles he collected would be during his time spent in the Fort Gates area of Texas, just north of present-day Fort Hood.  Horace would collect the beetles and send them to his brother, Samuel, for identification.  Occasionally, he would send collections to the one and only John Lawrence LeConte; arguably the finest entomologist in America during that time period and the foremost authority on beetles.  It is here that I point out the bird Le Conte's Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei) was discovered by John Lawrence during an Arizona collection trip and Audubon named the bird Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) after him.  

You'll notice, the space in Le Conte for the birds' names does not match the spelling "LeConte".  Well, based on his signature, John Lawrence LeConte did not put the space in his surname, as his father did.  So, I will spell it as he did: LeConte.

The common name Texas Ironclad beetle is just as cool.  It is found in a few counties in central Texas and has an exoskeleton so hard, as though clad in iron, that entomologists must first drill a hole into the elytra before they pin a specimen!  That's ironclad, if I've ever heard of it!  From time-to-time, this beetle is called the Southwestern Ironclad Beetle, but Texas Ironclad seems to the the most widely accepted common name. (Wow! four paragraphs from just the NAME of the beetle!)

Another look at Texas Ironclad Beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani)  Click to enlarge

Good thing we took a little time on talking about the name of this beetle, because that's where much of the definitive knowledge about this insect stops.  As a matter of fact, very little is known about it's biology.  We are sure it eats lichens, dead wood and plant material, even taking fungi.  We know some specimens have been collected from members of the Pecan (Carya sp.), Oak (Quercus sp.) and Elm (Ulmus sp) families of trees.  We also believe that all stages of (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani) eat lichens on dead, or mostly dead, trees.  The females seem to lay their eggs in the crevices of the trees and the bark found upon them, providing a highly probable area for the larvae to be able to find and consume lichens.  Once more upwardly mobile, the adult beetles are able to walk great distances in order to find food and potential mates.  As most beetles find food and mates by pheromones, it is believed the Texas Ironclad beetle does the same.  There is also no evidence, whatsoever, that this beetle damages any living plant and it is completely harmless to humans (it doesn't have a sting or bite that would bother a human).

Despite the scant concrete life history knowledge of this beetle, or maybe because of it, I have to smile.  That is what we, as naturalists and scientists, thrive upon; the mysteries and the reminder that we don't have it all figured out, yet!  I am just grateful that this gorgeous beetle decided to walk across across my yard and allow me to admire it for a while.

One final note, it isn't uncommon for species of Zopherus in Mexico to be bejeweled and decorated to become "living brooches" and animated jewelry.  I think it is perfectly pleasing to the eye just the way it is.

The yellow mouth of the Texas Ironclad Beetle Texas Ironclad Beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani)  Click to enlarge


An Interrogative Lepidoptera

As a naturalist, you learn to look for things in places others may not look.  Sometimes, we look for things in places others don't want to look.  This is such a moment...

Yesterday, I was hiking along a trail and found some scat.  This story isn't about the depositor or the contents of the scat, though it was domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) left by an idiot owner too irresponsible to pick up after their pet.  I'll save my full feelings on that for another installment.  Instead, this is about the animals attracted to scat.  Sure, we all know insects such as flies and beetles are attracted to scat.  But, this time, a familiar and beautiful butterfly was sitting atop the dog scat.

The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) feeds on nutrients in scat.  The distinct sideways silver-white question mark found in the middle of the underside of the hindwing, seen in the photo above, gives this beautiful butterfly its common name.

(Click to enlarge)

Belonging to the group of butterflies we call anglewings, The Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) owes its scientific name to both the "angles" of its wings and the punctuation mark found on its hindwing.  As we remember from elementary school, polygons have many angles and a question mark ends an interrogative statement.  Well, (Polygonia interrogationis) literally means having many angles and asking a question!  The Question Mark can be differentiated from a close relative, the Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma), by the period dotting the question mark on the hindwing.  Without the period dotting the question mark, the Eastern Comma only has a comma on its hindwing. (Be careful, as the occasional Question Mark has a reduced period dotting the question mark!)  As I've said during many nature walks and natural history classes, the anglewings look almost like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with their uniquely-shaped wings.  This jigsaw appearance is more than nature's artistry.  When they sit with folded wings, they look very much like a dried and dead leaf from a tree.

Green Comma (Polygonia faunus) for comparison. Note the lack of period under marking. I spotted this lovely butterfly while hiking in Coeur d"Alene National Forest, in Idaho. It is lapping up nutrients from what appears to be old Mountain Lion scat.

The most common larval food plants for the Question Mark Butterfly are American Elm (Ulmus americana), Winged Elm (Ulmus alata), Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and Sugarberry (Celtic laevigata).  Hackberry trees are an incredibly common tree in this area, in yards, parks and undeveloped areas.  The caterpillars are pretty amazing, with their many spines along the length of their bodies.  As soon as I get good photos of a caterpillar, I'll be sure to post them.  The range of this gorgeous butterfly is just about the entire United States east of the Rocky Mountains, so many of my subscribers are very likely to encounter this species.  (Sorry Montana, Utah and other subscibers west of the Rockies! You guys have your own beautiful butterflies that aren't seen east of your locations.)

The many angles of the wings of a Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis).

(Click to enlarge)

The many angles of the wings of a Question Mark Butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis).

(Click to enlarge)

Now that we know the butterfly and its hosts, let's look into why a butterfly would be feeding on scat and not the nectar of a flower.  Many butterflies will seek nutrients, like salts and minerals, in wet areas on the ground.  This is known as puddling.  It isn't uncommon to see dozens of butterflies lapping up nutrients in the sandy soil next to a seepage area in the sandhills and coastal plain of the Carolinas.  Likewise, many butterflies actively seek out rotting fruit, scat and even carrion to find fairly abundant sources of nutrients and minerals.  The Question Mark will utilize all of these and will usually only feed at flowers as a final choice. 

Let this be a lesson in how beautiful things in nature use things we may find repulsive and disgusting.  Let's also remember that anyone who doesn't pick up after their pet in public places is an idiot.  Wait... I said I'd save that for another time.

Ma-Ma's Bleeding Heart (Plant)

If you've been on one of my nature walks, read very many of the articles I've written for newspapers or even followed this blog much at all, you know my paternal grandmother was a major influence on my love of nature. (See The First Naturalist I Ever Knew)

The distinct smell that accompanies open areas of white sand found in the middle of Longleaf Pines, often called "sugar sand" by locals, still brings memories of my grandmother flooding back.  The sense of smell is profoundly connected to memory, as the olfactory nerve is located very close to both the amygdala and the hippocampus. These areas of the brain are associated with emotional memory and memory, respectively, and having the major sensory nerve for smelling so close is the reason we often associate certain smells with specific moments in our lives.  While visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, it would be something I saw, not smelled, that would bring this sweet lady back to mind, once again.

Rounding the corner along one of the many pathways at the Wildflower Center, I saw the bright red flowers of a familiar plant and, as though a switch had been flipped in my mind, an almost involuntary smile widened across my face.  There before me was a plant I haven't seen in quite some time; a plant that had been a fixture in my grandmother's yard in the Cedar Creek community outside of Bishopville, SC (the Cedar Creek in Lee County, not Richland County).  Halfway across the country, here in Austin; however, I was near the area where the plant was originally discovered and described.

I stood there admiring Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), remembering Ma-Ma calling it Bleeding Heart.  She adored her Bleeding Heart and I remember the insects and hummingbirds working the flowers during the summer.  Known by a laundry list of common names, including Texas Mallow, Wax Mallow, Mexican Apple and Manzanilla, this beautiful native owes its variety name to Scottish naturalist Thomas Drummond.  He spent much of his career studying the Edward's Plateau area of Texas, and it was there he found this unique-looking flower.  Though the native range extends from Texas to the Carolinas, it was in the Edwards Plateau where this member of the Mallow family was first described by Drummond.

(Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) Turk's Cap, or Bleeding Heart, as my grandmother would call it. Notice the way the petals twist and overlap to resemble a turban, giving it the common name Turk's Cap. (Click to enlarge)

 

The Turk's Cap flowers never fully open, folding and overlapping each other to give it the "turban-like" appearance.  As most of you know, most flowers open their petals to reveal their reproductive organs to encourage pollination, be it by wind or by animal.  Since the petals of this flower never fully open, it sends a stamen column high above the petals.  The attraction of a large amount of pollen from such a small flower, the taste of a little nectar and the bright red flower contrasting against the beautiful green of the plant mean the Turk's Cap is a pollinator favorite.  Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are highly attracted to this plant, making it a welcome addition to any yard.

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) is a pollinator favorite and can bustle with insect activity.  This Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) blends in with the greens of the leaves while it patiently waits for a meal. (Click to enlarge)

If you're in the native range of this plant, there is a high likelihood you, too, could have success with it in your landscape.  It can handle shade and full sunlight and takes to nearly any soil type, from the high lime clays of the hill country of Texas to the nutrient-poor sandhills of South Carolina.  It can be readily started from seeds, from cuttings or from root division.  There is one going in my yard right here in central Texas and I smile remembering... Well, I just smile remembering.

Thirty Minutes

One of the things I did while in the Carolinas on a visit was to take a look at some property a private landowner is potentially looking to purchase.  Along with a representative from a local land trust who dropped by for a visit, we set out to hit a few points of interest on the large tract of land.  After driving to the entrance, we set out hiking along a creek swollen from the previous days' rains and then over to a power line right-of-way (minus the power lines).  Our next stop would be the opposite side of the right-of-way and then to one of several ponds on the property.  We walked up and down the rolling topography, taking the time to look and listen to the story the land would tell.  

Going to a few more places that we felt would be most interesting, we noticed a couple of hours had slipped right by us.  As cool as the property was and as nice as the things we saw were, none of it was unexpected.  There was at least one more place worth seeing and we decided it was worth pushing our afternoon schedules another thirty minutes to visit.  Nature, as she often does, had a little something up her sleeve for us.

Primary flight feathers and numerous pellets left by Barn Owls (Tyto alba)

(Click to enlarge)

Rounding a corner, we saw an old, abandoned structure that piqued my curiosity.  I asked if we could take a moment to investigate and then walked into the dilapidated building.  Immediately, I knew my suspicions were right and there was a very cool bird around.  In the small amount of sunlight that streamed through the holes in the structure's walls and roof, I could see the floor was littered with molted feathers and regurgitated pellets.  There was no doubt Barn Owls had been there!

I looked up into the rafters and saw two ghost-like faces staring back at me.  Two Barn Owls were reading my every movement.  These birds had not been intruded upon before and they were not happy with my presence.  I snapped a quick photo of the floor (see above photo) and quietly excused myself from the structure as not to stress them more than I'd already done.  The people outside knew by the grin that stretched across my face that I'd seen something special.  We walked down to a beaver pond as I talked about birds of prey vomiting the undigestible parts, such as fur and bones of mice, of their prey.  With the numbers of pellets I'd seen, Barn Owls had been in that building for a while.  From the center of the pond ahead of us, there was a loud coughing sound I'd only heard a couple times before that moment.

A female River Otter (Lutra canadensis) was alarmed by our approach and was, in one vocalization, warning us to stay back and warning her two pups behind her to be cautious.  Like the abandoned structure we'd just seen, this beaver pond had not been disturbed in a while, providing wildlife with a quiet and safe place to exist.  Wishing to give them their space, up the hill and away from the otter family we hiked.  At the top of the trail, a covey of Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginiana) flushed along the edge of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) stand, giving us a good startle.  Wow!  A bird that was once common in my childhood, a covey of Bobwhites are just about a thing to celebrate nowadays.  The smile that had started a few minutes ago with the Barn Owls was growing even larger.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming trailside.

(Click to enlarge)

Getting back into the vehicle, we headed back toward the paved road, but something caught my eye.  Was that a plant that is vital to an insect whose population isn't doing well?  "Can you back up a minute for me?", I asked.  Sure enough, it was a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in full bloom.

Just one plant caught my eye as we passed, but I noticed another blooming over here and another over there, until I realized we were standing next to a a nice patch of it.  And it was swarming with pollinators!  There were Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) and Silver-spotted Skippers (Epargyreus clarus) everywhere and they were gathering pollen and nectar at a fever pitch.  Members of the genus Asclepias are vital to Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly whose population has been dropping at alarming rates for years now.  To see such a nice patch of Common Milkweed, many of which were well over 3 feet tall (and a few that were pushing 5 feet tall), was cause for optimism.  

Two Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

(Click to enlarge)

Patch of Common Milkweed (Asclepius syriaca). Note the many plants in various stages of blooming.

My attention was soon broken by the playful song of a Yellow-breated Chat (Icteria virens), a bird I don't get to see enough of.  As a matter of fact, in fifteen years of banding birds, I've only banded a handful of Chats.  Listening to the almost comedic variations in the song, I noticed another Chat calling.  Soon, they were joined by a third and, then, a fourth.  One popped up atop a thicket of Rhubus and I handed my binoculars to one of the people present.  "He's very yellow!", he exclaimed.  I told him they can sometimes be tough to spot and to watch it for as long as it sat up.   

Two Yellow-breasted Chats banded at Fort Jackson, 5/21/13.  It is with great fondness that I remember mist-netting and banding with Nicole Hawkins and Stanley Rikard.

(Click to enlarge)

In thirty minutes, we went from Barn Owls to Otters, from Bobwhites to Milkweed.  Now, we listened to a chorus of four Chats.  Climbing back in the vehicle, nature had one more gift.  A female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) lit on my knee.  She was still quite new and glistened in the sunlight.  Reaching to grab a photo, I frightened her onto a nearby blade of grass.  I was able to get one shot before leaving.  I thanked nature for the time and the gifts given to me and went on my way.  With any luck, this property will soon be protected and under a larger conservation management plan.  Time will tell, but I'm hopeful.  It's too special not to be protected...

Female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa).

(Click to enlarge)

Texas Flooding Impacts Area Flora and Fauna

The recent flash floods in Texas have most certainly changed lives, displacing hundreds and destroying homes, roads and bridges.  While donating clothes, food and toiletries to a shelter yesterday, the human toll was very clear as the faces of those effected told stories that words could not convey.  We have been very fortunate and want to thank the many that have called, texted and emailed to make sure we were ok.  As we live up on a hill, the flooding hasn't come near our neighborhood and we are grateful.  Let me be very clear when I say this, our main concern continues to be with the individuals and families who lost so much, especially the families who have lost loved ones.

As I stood along the blown out banks of the Blanco River below the I-35 bridge, I was taken aback at the change in the scenery before me.  There were bales of hay scattered great distances from fields down the road, large pipes on the roadside that belonged to construction sites and companies well away from where I stood.  I cross over this bridge on my way to and from the airport a couple times a month, not to mention each time I head into Austin.  I drove over this bridge just a few days ago and almost didn't recognize where I was now.  It may sound cliche, but it looked as though a bomb had gone off.  I stood in a scoured area where once lush vegetation had been.  What vegetation remained was bent over and now laid on its side and, when you surveyed the area, you could use it as an indicator of just how far the Blanco spilled from its banks.  There were massive cypress, sycamore and elm trees splintered and tossed aside, revealing the sheer force and power of the raging waters.  

Blanco River at I-35 bridge, San Marcos, TX, after flash flood. (Click to enlarge)

This river always seemed so sluggish and shallow, staying about 5 feet deep.  Just hours before I stood there, it was above 42 feet in places.  It went well above the bridge over my head, some 15 to 20 feet higher than it was even at this moment.  There was debris jammed underneath the bridge, illustrating the height of the flow and the amount of material washed downstream.  As I struggled to comprehend the changes, I heard Cliff Swallows as they flew around.  It was then I realized there were more victims of this flood than just my fellow Texans.  I set out to at least get an initial determination of the impact to the breeding birds and other fauna.  

Debris under the bridge, even lodged underneath the bottom.  (Click to enlarge)

Having not done a pre-flood population assessment of the flora and fauna of this specific location, I offer these post-flood accounts having a firm grasp of what should be there.  The Cliff Swallows that flew over my head were a fraction of the numbers I'd noted driving over the bridge in the days and weeks before.  As I walked under the bridge, I was able to see exactly why.  There were nests only on one part of the bridge, the lee side of the very outside of the bridge, away from the river current.  These surviving nests had been somewhat protected by the barrier of the concrete bottom wall of the bridge.  Upon closer look, all nests that had been on the front side of the bridge, facing the current of the river, had been washed away.  There were a few outlines showing evidence of the mud nests that had been there the night before, but most had been completely washed away.  Based on what I saw, there were probably over a hundred nests lost.  My focus soon turned to noting the condition of the nests that remained on the back of the bridge.

What remained of the Cliff Swallow nests was feverish with activity.  Birds flew in with mouthfuls of mud, shoring up the entrances to the ceramic jug-like nests still there.  We were smack in the middle of breeding season and nesting was still going on for many pairs of swallows.  Those that had already fledged chicks and those that had not begun nesting yet were in the best shape.  They still had all of their efforts behind and before them.  Those that had eggs may be able to renest.  There is still much of the spring left. Those that had chicks in the nest here were not so fortunate.  I watched an adult Cliff Swallow perched above the remnants of a nest, with the lifeless body of a chick dangling from the nest above the racing waters.  The vocalization was not one I'd heard before.  It was plaintive and it conveyed a universal message. Though we communicate differently, I understood the tiny swallow completely.

As you can see in the video above, there are dozens of Cliff Swallows, but nothing compared to the scores I'd noticed before the flash flood.  The sounds of House Sparrows began to join in and I noticed a few opportunistic individuals looking to get a free house, as these invasives often do.  What I did not hear; however, were the songs or calls of other species of birds.  There should've been more species singing.  There should have been notes from several other species singing.  There were none.  The reason was obvious, the river washed the trees and vegetation that would have contained nests away.  Let us not forget that there was more destruction here... more than we initially recognize.

The power of the river.  (Click to enlarge)

This flood is part of the larger climate change issue surrounding us all.  Last year, the hill country was parched and dry.  Most of the plains were brown and thirsty.  We've already gotten more rain this spring than was recorded all last year, with some places seeing more rain just this month than all last year.  Wimberley is a lovely town that I enjoy visiting, just 20 minutes from here.  Wimberley was hammered by this flood.  San Marcos, Austin, San Antonio and Houston have seen flooding after historic rainfalls.  Extreme swings in precipitation are indicators of climate change; droughts followed by deluges and vice versa.  

This morning, I went back to survey for birds and I am pleased to report that, along with the Cliff Swallows, I heard a Yellow-billed cuckoo, a Belted Kingfisher, two Red-winged Blackbirds and a Blue Grosbeak.  Nature has begun to recover, just as my fellow Texans have.  It will be quite some time before the vegetation will rebound and it will be generations before those giant trees can be replaced; but, nature is constantly working and it marches forward.  Like the citizens of the hill country, it is resilient and it will recover.  It may not be today, but it  has begun.

Sunset after the storm.

Painting the Pastures and Prairies

One of the advantages to living in the Austin-Round Rock area is the convenience of living in the city, but the ability to quickly get out into very rural areas.  This is a win-win for me, as I have rapidly gotten accustomed to being within a hop, skip and jump of restaurants, cafes, retail stores and places to grab a drink and listen to live music.  But, there are parks nearby and to get away from traffic and noise only takes a short drive.  Earlier in the spring, when the weather was perfect for the windows down, wind in your hair drives we all love, I headed out towards Lockhart and Luling to see what there was to see.

Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) in a meadow.  Notice the orange becomes almost solid as you look towards the top of the photo.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Besides Crested Caracaras and a Ferruginous Hawk hanging out in the pastures outside of Lockhart, there was a beautiful quilt of orange blanketing many of the open fields.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still very excited about watching the Ferruginous Hawk chilling out low on the branch of a fallen snag in the middle of an old pasture; but, there was no denying nature's artistry of wildflowers in bloom.  One flower, in particular, seemed to extensively cover much of the meadows and prairie-like pastures.

Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) is a common native wildflower across much of Texas and Oklahoma, with its native range extending into Louisiana and Arkansas.  Known also by the common name Scarlet Paintbrush, when it is in bloom, it is nearly as common as the Texas Bluebonnets. In the case of the Texas Paintbrush (which is what I choose to call it, as I am not a fan of using terms other ethnicities find offensive), common is anything but drab, ordinary or easy to overlook.  True to their name, they look very much like a ragged brush that has been dipped in brightly colored paint.  For this Carolina boy, to come around a curve to see the road and the landscape open up and become a palette of blues and oranges for the first time was pretty breathtaking.  That's really saying something, too.  As a graduate of The University of South Carolina, orange is far from my favorite color; so, please take a moment to comprehend just how grand this must have been to touch me.  Fortunately, that bright orange blanket often turns much more of a reddish-orange color upon closer inspection of individual plants.

Texas Paintbrushes (Castellija indivisa)

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Texas Paintbrush is not just a lovely flower, it has a really cool life history.  It can be either an annual, but is usually a biennial.  This means that, though it normally takes two full years to complete the cycle of seed to full flower and fruit, it may occasionally go from seed to flower and seed in the same year.  The roots are what give it a true slant on what you might expect from this scarlet beauty.  Paintbrush roots grow until they encounter the roots of another plant.  they will then tap into and penetrate the roots of a neighboring plant and take a portion of the nutrients it needs to survive.  This partial parasitism means they are hemiparasitic or semiparasitic, as Paintbrushes do not require a host for all their needs.  As it does photosynthesize and produce much of what it needs on its own, the Paintbrush only takes a portion of the nutrients it requires from a host plant.  

Though a variety of plants are used, Texas Paintbrushes seem to prefer grasses as hemiparasitic hosts.  This is a pretty good strategy, as Paintbrushes require full sun and open areas to grow, such as meadows, pastures and prairies full of a number of grass species.  Furthermore, this requirement of deriving some nutrients from neighboring plants makes transplanting Texas Paintbrushes quite difficult.  They do; however, grow fairly readily from seeds when in the right environment.

Close up view of this spring wildflower, Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa)          

(Click on photo to enlarge)

One more interesting fact is the showy bright orange and red parts are bracts that subtend the much less conspicuous greenish flower.  These bracts do; however, serve to bring a large number of pollinators in to investigate the Paintbrush.

Though the Texas Paintbrushes have run through their beauty and are done for this spring, I can only hope to see them painting the pastures and the prairies next spring as I head back out into the wide open areas here.

Forgive me, but I thought I'd get a little artistic with this photo to relay a little of the sheer wonder and beauty of a simple scene of rural hill country Texas.  Striking small pasture filled with Texas Bluebonnets and Texas Paintbrushes... Bonnets and Brushes.                                

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Caterpillar

This has become one of my more popular posts since beginning this series. If you don't mind letting me know how you found it, drop a line in the "comments" below (what you searched, was link to this somewhere, etc.). As always, thanks for stopping by and subscribe for more posts in "Musings" !

As spring continues to march along, insects are abundant in all life stages.  While outside yesterday, yet another larva caught my attention as it walked along a concrete wall.  In continuing with our theme of caterpillars and their lookalikes, let's take a closer look.  The American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillar, shown below, belongs to the group of caterpillars known as "hairy caterpillars".

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillar.  One of the "hairy caterpillars", this moth caterpillar feeds on the leaves of a variety of trees. (Click to enlarge)

Hairy caterpillars usually cause one of two reactions among people.  Most people are are fearful of touching them and find them weird to look at.  Some other people want to reach out and "pet" the fuzzy little critters.  Admittedly, they do not look like your typical caterpillars, but I don't think they look really weird.  Touching them; however, is rarely advised unless you know which species you're dealing with and how to handle such a caterpillar.  Many of the hairy caterpillars, like the Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) and the Saddlebag Moth (Acharia stimulea) caterpillars can pack quite a sting.  As I always tell people when it comes to snakes, unless you're 100% certain of the identity of the species, treat it as though it is venomous. That means treat it with respect and give it plenty of space.  That does not mean kill it!  The same rule applies to caterpillars.  Don't know what it is?  Don't pick it up!

When a person comes into contact with the hairs (setae) of a caterpillar like the American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana), the hairs break off of the caterpillar and imbed into the skin of the person.  These hairs are connected to glands just below the surface of the caterpillar's skin which produce toxins known to cause a variety of irritations to potential predators.  In this case, even a human simply wanting to touch the caterpillar is the potential predator.  A wonderful evolutionary adaptation, this sting causes the potential predator to leave in pain and allows the caterpillar to live to eat more leaves another day.  Unlike the intense burning pain that accompanies the sting of the Southern Flannel Moth or Saddleback Moth caterpillars, American Dagger Moth caterpillars mostly cause a small itchy rash that affects mostly people with sensitive skin.  Thus, not every person touching the American Dagger Moth caterpillar will feel the sting or feel the effects of the caterpillar's setae.

Notice the black tufts, pairs beginning at A1, then A3 and the single tuft at A8..  When you see that, you can immediately identify this caterpillar as an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillar. (Click to enlarge)

On this particular caterpillar, the setae which are capable of "stinging" are the longer black tufts located on the back of the caterpillar.  These tufts are the identifiable characteristic of the American Dagger Moth caterpillar.  The head is always a patent leather black, but the overall color of the caterpillar can be lemon yellow, as with this caterpillar, or fade to white as they age.  The black tufts, on the other hand, will be consistent and are the definitive way to identify this caterpillar.  Notice the tufts appear in pairs at the first and third abdominal segments (A1 and A3) on the caterpillar, with a single tuft sprouting from the very end, abdominal segment eight (A8).  This single tuft is often referred to as a medial lash, as it isn't paired with another tuft or groups of tufts.

The caterpillars of American Dagger Moths feed on the leaves of Maple, Poplar, Willow, Hickories, Oaks and Alders, meaning you may very well be able to find them near you.  They are rather common in the eastern United States, but do occur fairly regularly throughout the western states.  So, by all means, get out there and start exploring!  Oh, and PLEASE use caution around these caterpillars!  If you do not know how to handle them, then don't!  Though it is usually fine if you let them crawl over you, I do not advise doing it and take no responsibility for any stings you may incur.  I'm not teaching you how to handle these caterpillars nor am I teaching you how to handle venomous snakes.  (My friend and attorney, Blaney Coskrey, III, Esq. would probably ask me to add, "Please do not try this at home!")

Also, please be advised that caterpillars occasionally fall out of the trees in which they are feeding.  If one should fall down your shirt, use the very best of care in getting it out.  Try not to come into contact with the back of the caterpillar.  I've spoken to people that thought a bug went down their shirt and swatted at it, only to imbed the hairs of a Southern Flannel Moth caterpillar into themselves.  I love nature and want you to get as much enjoyment out there as I, but always know things can happen and nature can be a pretty tricky place to be.

Wait... That's Not A Caterpillar

One of the more common trees in the hill country of Texas is Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and my backyard is no exception.  There is a large Cedar Elm that arcs over much of my backyard, providing shade to the back deck, the kitchen and living room downstairs, even shading the upstairs windows of the master bedroom.  A couple of weeks ago, there was a large amount of frass, or insect excrement, near the grill on the back deck.  Not long after the frass began appearing, I saw what looked like a caterpillar on one of the Cedar Elm leaves and, as I was in a hurry to head to the airport, assumed it was the larval stage of a butterfly or moth.  When I arrived back in Texas from visiting a client, I got a closer look and saw exactly what it was.  And, for our conversation, what it wasn't!

Working its way down the trunk of the tree and onto my backyard fence was the same larva I'd seen eating away at the Cedar Elm leaves.  Much to my surprise; however, in spite of the way it looked, this larva was no caterpillar!  Instead of a Lepidoptera, I would be spending a few minutes admiring a Hymenoptera.

Elm Sawfly (Cimbex americana) larva 

Hymenoptera?! Lepidoptera?! Wait a second... For those of you that have never been on a nature walk with me, I don't just throw out big words for the sake of proving I can speak multisyllabically.  I always break these things down so we can all understand what we're talking about.  So, before you close your internet browser or click over to another site, give me a second.  

Butterflies and moths are insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera, which can be literally translated to "scale wing".  This refers to the scales that all butterflies and moths have on their wings.  Ever pick up a dead moth and get that fine dust on your fingers?  That isn't dust, but wing scales rubbing off onto your fingers.  

Wasps, bees, ants, and sawflies are insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera, which can literally be translated to "membrane wing".  This refers to the delicate membranous wings, from the root "hymen".  It would be this order of insect that my visitor belongs.  

Sawflies, including the Elm Sawfly (Cimbex americana) are Hymenoptera that look more like bees, but are more closely related to wasps.  They lack that tight, petite waist that transitions from thorax to abdomen in wasps, which often confuses people into thinking they are bees.  True to their name, Elm Sawflies  use a saw-like ovipositor to cut into the twigs and small branches of members of the Elm (Ulmus) family of trees to lay eggs.  They aren't; however, strictly confined to Elms, as they will often lay eggs on the twigs of members of Maple (Acer) and Willow (Salix).  Another defining characteristic of sawflies are larvae that strongly resemble Lepidoptera caterpillars.  I think we can all agree the photos above and below look extraordinarily like caterpillars!

Count the prolegs of the Elm Sawfly (Cimbex americana) larva in this photo and you'll quickly see how to distinguish it from the caterpillars of butterflies and moths.

Now, you're likely wondering how to tell the larvae of sawflies from the caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  Well, it's just as easy as it can be.  Simply count the prolegs, or the short, unjointed appendages that look like stubby legs on the larva!  Lepidoptera larva have five pairs of these appendages.  Sawfly larva, like the above pictured Elm Sawfly, have anywhere from six to eight.  Most often, as seen above, there are seven pairs of prolegs.  Being unjointed means these aren't true insect legs, giving them them the name "prolegs".  Prolegs also have really cool hooks on their tips that look like crochet needles which they use for gripping.  They're even called crochets.  For a quick comparison, just flip to my last entry about Lepidoptera.  You'll quickly notice the Wilson's Wood-nymph caterpillar in the photos has five pairs of prolegs.  Remember, count the short, stubby and unjointed appendages; not the jointed true legs at the very front of the larvae!

Elm Sawflies are pretty widespread and you are likely to see them over much of the United States.  They don't tend to do enough damage to trees to be considered an economic problem and they have their fair share of predators.  Often, they are attacked by other members of the order Hymenoptera, like Ichneumon Wasps  They may strip your favorite shade tree of some of its leaves or rain frass down upon your patio, but their populations vary quite a bit from year-to-year.  If you see a lot of them this year, you may very well not see many at all next year.  The larvae will burrow into the ground and pupate in a rather papery cocoon, where they won't emerge as adults until next year.  Occasionally, when you're digging near trees that sawflies have used as a food source, you'll find last year's cocoons scattered quite shallow below the surface of the ground.

So, next time you see what you think is another caterpillar, take a closer look.  You just might have a sawfly larva of your very own!  As always, let me know if you see anything cool out there in the field and in the woods!

Common and Not-So-Common Lepidoptera at the Park

Red Admiral Butterly (Vanessa atalanta)

While on a morning hike yesterday, I was staring through a Honey Mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) to observe a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) as it fluttered past.  Red Admirals are in abundance here.  Their larval food sources (host plants), members of the nettle family (Urticaceae), are ubiquitous throughout the hill country.  I've never seen so many admirals lapping up sap from tree wounds or puddling around scat on trails as I have since moving here.  It was in the midst of watching this very common species that I caught a glimpse of something on a limb of the mesquite tree that really intrigued me.  It wasn't a butterfly, but instead the larva of a moth, that would hold my attention from this point on.

Making its way along a small branch was an odd looking caterpillar, bright orange head and black body.  The first thing I saw were a few pairs of tentacles on and behind the head of the caterpillar, (later I would note the tentacles at the back of the larva).  While most people think these long, thin parts of caterpillar anatomy are antennae, they are actually sensory tentacles.  Antennae on most caterpillars are rather short and are found very near the mouth.  I approached the larva and noticed very pronounced spiracles along the length of the body, holes which the caterpillar uses for respiration.

Wilson's Wood-nymph Caterpillar (Xerociris wilsonii) - note the spiracles (holes) along the length of the body used for respiration.

Upon examination of the caterpillar, I realized I was looking at a Wilson's Wood-nymph Moth (Xerociris wilsonii) caterpillar.  Between the two of us, I was rather excited!  It was my first look at this species and I intended to take my time observing this one.  After spending quite a long time admiring and studying the larva, I snapped a few photos to share with you.

Wilson's Wood Nymph (Xerociris wilsonii) caterpillar on Honey Mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) limb.

Wilson's Wood-nymph caterpillars feed on members of the Vitaceae plant family.  The members of this plant family are most often woody vines sporting tendrils used for climbing and attaching to structure.  The most famous members of the Vitaceae family are grapes and Virginia Creeper.  I found Sorrelvine (Cissus trifoliata) growing not twenty feet away from the Honey Mesquite tree where the caterpillar was.  Sorrel vine is also a member of the Vitaceae family of woody vines which sport tendrils for climbing and attaching and a frequent larval food source for this species of moth.

Now, I can't wait to return to the same park to observe the adult!  The Moth that this caterpillar becomes is elegant and striking in its beauty.  Even if the caterpillar has a face only a mother could love...

Wilson's Wood-nymph Caterpillar, with head-on view of tentacles.

Standing Among Giants

I have always been a firm believer that people should be acknowledged for making a difference. Whether it is a direct impact, or something a little less apparent, there are those who have worked to make things around them better than they were. Leaving it better than they found it, these people have changed the world. This will be the first of a periodic series that I would like to present on individuals that have had far more substantial influences on my view of the natural world than they could imagine. In doing so, I hope they will receive a bit of the recognition that they so richly deserve.

When I started working in conservation nearly fifteen years ago, I was just about as green as the fresh shoots on the cat briar vines that grew so prominently in the Carolina Bays in Poinsett Electronic Combat Range. Despite being raised in an extremely rural environment, I had very little knowledge of nature. I was; however, very motivated to make up for the lessons I never learned as a child and began reading every natural history related book and magazine I could get my hands on. Between the covers of one particular magazine, I found the writings of a genius from Camden, SC. 

For a number of years during the 1970s, John Madison Culler served as the editor of South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. Each issue began with an article written by Culler that was informative, humorous, and timely. Culler has the heart of an outdoorsman and the soul of a poet. These qualities would shine through in every single article he wrote, whether it was the fictitious tale of a coon hunter or his wonderful interview with Roger Tory Peterson. The fact of the matter is John Culler could write about watching grass grow and make it sound so interesting that I would drop the magazine, go outside and stare at my yard. He used his pen to laud the natural resources of his beloved state, placing the hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation found in South Carolina on a higher level. That is certainly what he did with, what was at the beginning of his tenure, a small magazine. He made it the finest in the nation among wildlife periodicals, no question about it!

One of the most incredible things Culler did with his pen was to write intensely biting editorials about the plight of a swamp just outside of the city of Columbia, SC. This swamp was special. This swamp was sacred. This swamp was home to some of the most interesting animals found in our state and was also home to some of the most gigantic trees ever seen in the eastern United States… trees so large, they were measured and declared World Record Trees. Along with a number of other foresighted people, Culler realized just how special this swamp was and knew it needed to be protected. 

While awaiting federal protection for this incredible area of the state, there were those that wanted very badly to get to those gigantic trees with chainsaws and remove them from the landscape forever. John Madison Culler reacted by doing what he does best. He settled behind his typewriter and, in a poignant and frank style, wrote of the urgency and the absolute need to protect what has now become Congaree National Park. It should be no secret to anyone that loves the outdoors and has ever visited Congaree National Park that John Culler deserves as much credit as anyone that there is even a Congaree National Park to visit. For that, I am grateful. For that, we should all be grateful.

When asked about Congaree National Park, I often refer to the feeling of being so small while standing among such giants. I have felt that way each time I have had the opportunity to talk to John Culler. I sat on his front porch one evening many years ago and listened to him speak about his time with Roger Tory Peterson, one of history’s greatest bird experts, as nonchalantly as I would describe picking up steaks from The Fresh Market. I listened to him talk about the infancy of Red-cockaded Woodpecker management in South Carolina and of his safaris in Africa in the exact manner a small child would watch a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. 

Every word he spoke to me was impressive and intimidating. He is, in my opinion, every bit as tall and impressive as the trees he worked to save in Congaree Swamp. In his words and appearance, Culler is, at once, connoisseur of expensive single-malt scotch and friendly neighbor. At least that is they way he appears to me. He is still very high on my list of people I would love to sit down, have a drink with and just converse an evening away.

When I began my career, I would ask those individuals whom I admired to pick their favorite bird in my well-worn field guide and autograph it for me. John Culler was the third signature added to that field guide, when he signed his name next to the Peregrine Falcon on September 30, 2002. There have been many, many more names added to that field guide since that evening, but his signature is still one of my absolute favorites. Odds are, if I shared that drink with him anytime soon, I would simply sit there and hang on his every word… just as I did over a decade ago.

Truly Honored

Accepting award at Central Carolina Technical College graduation ceremony

Photo courtesy Becky Rickenbaker

Central Carolina Technical College recently announced it’s Outstanding Alumni Award recipients at dual graduation ceremonies held May 9 at Sumter Civic Center.

Josh Arrants of Camden, a 2002 CCTC Magna Cum Laude graduate with an Associate Degree in Natural Resources Management, was recognized as an Outstanding Alumni award recipient at the 3:00 p.m. commencement. A naturalist and cultural ecologist, he also earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, Magna Cum Laude, in Anthropology with a focus on cultural ecology from the University of South Carolina.

Mr. Arrants started his career in 2001 at Shaw Air Force Base by working to save the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, along with birds of prey, and songbirds. Since that time, he has become one of the most respected authorities on birds and natural history in the state. Having also worked with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health and Environmental Control, he has extensive environmental experience in air and water quality management. He was part of the emergency response team awarded the Michael D. Jarrett Outstanding Customer Service Award from DHEC for efforts in response to the Graniteville chlorine spill in January 2005.

He is an instructor for the South Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Master Naturalist and Palmetto Pro Birder programs and sits on their Board of Directors. A sought-after naturalist, speaker and field trip leader, Josh Arrants has lectured on and been sent to study natural history all over the country. He has also served as guest lecturer at a number of schools, including The Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. Most recently, he was sent to Washington, D.C., where he met with legislators to discuss the importance of funding conservation programs in South Carolina and throughout the United States.

Dr. Tim Hardee presenting Outstanding Alumni Award.

Photo courtesy Becky Rickenbaker

Community service and volunteering have been of particular importance to him since leaving Central Carolina. Leading nature walks and presenting natural history education programs, Mr. Arrants has dedicated more than 3,000 hours to volunteering with various federal, state, and local government agencies, land trusts, and conservation-based initiatives in the 12 years since graduating from CCTC.

Becky H. Rickenbaker | Director, Public Relations
CENTRAL CAROLINA TECHNICAL COLLEGE

The First Naturalist I Ever Knew

Last year, I was asked to speak at the South Carolina State Museum.  When contacted, I was told they wanted me to discuss my influences and, more specifically, what is was that made me decide to do what I do.  Now, this isn’t a terribly unusual question to ask a person of any profession.  I have friends who are physicians, lawyers, and engineers and, I have to admit, I have asked them the very same question.  I am sure that you have likely been asked why it is you chose your vocation, so you know just how ordinary this question can be.  However, this particular request had a bit of a twist to it.  The gentleman who asked me to deliver this address wanted to know if there was an especially important individual who impacted my decision to become a naturalist.  He challenged me to trace my career path as much as I could, if possible, to an exact person.

After giving it some thought, I knew precisely the person that would be the topic of my presentation.  This person, this prominent figure, was the very first naturalist I ever knew and though I had no idea at the time, this same person helped chart the course of my professional life.  The following is a portion of what I told the audience that gathered at the State Museum:

I was not a child of the outdoors.  I did not spend my very young years running through the woods, nor did I come from a remarkably outdoors-oriented family.  It was not until my teen years that I cared to be outside very much and, if I’m completely honest, it was my desire to play basketball which took me out-of-doors then.  What I have possessed throughout my entire life; however, is a nearly insatiable curiosity about science and an equally strong craving to get the answers to questions because of that that curiosity.  As an adult, I had simply viewed the significance of science in my life and my analytical nature as evidence of a mutation, as they are quite an aberration from the usual traits expressed in my lineage.  Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t exceedingly difficult to find the source of what has become not just a career, but also a lifelong passion.

When I was seventeen, I decided to swing by a fast food restaurant for a quick breakfast when I saw an easily recognizable vehicle.  In the parking lot was the SCETV NatureScene van, large dragonfly emblem plastered on the side.  This would be no drive-thru visit!  I walked in and was able to see a man I’d watched on television many times over the years.  As he emptied his tray into the trashcan, I walked towards him and nervously introduced myself.  He was extremely kind, he was very friendly, and he took a genuine interest in the fact that I was interested in his work.  He gave me sincere words of encouragement as he prepared to leave and wished me best of luck.  I am, of course, talking about Rudy Mancke.  While it is very true that he is without compare as a naturalist and knowing him has impacted my career, this was not the provenance of my life in natural history.  Despite my appreciation for him and this notably providential meeting when I was a teenager, he was not the first naturalist I ever knew.

Mabel Arrants

One part naturalist and one part saint.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

As a child, there was a dear lady who had the greenest of thumbs and an admiration for every creature I ever witnessed her observing.  There was no plant she could not grow, no seed she could not nurture to maturity, and no critter she did not love.  Mabel Arrants was my paternal grandmother and, in my eyes, she was equal parts horticulturalist, zoologist, and gourmet cook.  Known to all of her many grandchildren as “Ma-Ma” (pronounced like ha-ha, with both syllables receiving equal stress), Mabel was a woman of very simple means and meager resources.  Though she never even came close to finishing high school, she knew plants more intimately than any other person and though she was no academician, she had an innate knowledge of the creatures that surrounded her tiny home.  Short in stature, she still stands head and shoulders above many I know today.  She never had the opportunity to travel very far from her Lee County home in the eighty years she lived; but, she was with me as I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the edge of Niagara Falls, as I watched the sunrise in Yosemite and sunset in Yellowstone, as I hiked the Northern Rockies and the Sierra-Nevadas, and she was with me as I walked the halls of the University of South Carolina and the U.S. Capitol Building.  She may have passed away when I was sixteen, but I still carry the lessons learned from her these many years later.

The greatest of her attributes, which had the deepest impact upon me as a human being, was her conservationist spirit.  She had no political power and she most assuredly did not have the financial wherewithal to affect policy pertaining to land usage or endangered species; but what she did have was an abiding sense of worth and value for all things great and small.  I remember a lizard that frequented her kitchen window and which she nicknamed Lizzie.  She took great joy in this reptile’s visits, which would have frightened the life out of the majority of other older southern ladies.  I can recall her taking me under her arm and walking me to the window, showing me Lizzie, (which I now know was a Carolina anole), telling me how beautiful Lizzie was and that Lizzie was helping her with bugs.  As it turns out, anoles love to eat insects and Ma-Ma had a free exterminator in her scaled friend.  Others might have tried to run the lizard off or even indiscriminately killed it.  Not her.  Instead, she used Lizzie as my very first lesson in natural history and in the intrinsic value of nature.  Truly, she had a conservationist’s heart.

Chuck-will's-widow nest.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Nature brought her joys simple, yet profound.  Ma-Ma would often step outside during the day and whistle back and forth with Northern Bobwhites.  She could mimic Bobwhites with an accuracy that even Rich Little couldn’t attain.  She would send out the familiar “bobwhite” call and smile in great delight when a bird would respond to her.  She would do the same thing in the evening when the Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows would begin their nightly serenades. Whistling out to them, that same smile would illuminate her face when an answer was received.  With her legendary green thumb, the seeds for conservation and ornithology were being planted in my mind.  Is it any wonder I work with birds and am a naturalist?

Of equal influence upon me were the old wives’ tales and superstitions that my grandmother spoke of regularly.  Hardly a visit would pass that she didn’t have some strange story of luck being dictated by the presence, absence, or behavior of an animal.  Owls brought dark and ill fortunes, hummingbirds brought good weather, cardinals brought good luck, and frogs were able to plead for rain until it finally came.  As a youngster, a steady diet of these tales both tantalized and vexed me.  Little did I know these hard to believe stories were nurturing my future studies in Native American iconography and cosmology; all while sopping syrup at Ma-Ma’s table.  That need to find answers and explanations to questions my inquisitive nature raises would lead me into the field of cultural ecology to find the real, scientific, natural reasons behind nonsensical narratives told by my beloved grandmother.

Superstitions are nothing more than an attempt to explain natural phenomena by prescribing supernatural origins.  Make no mistake; Mabel Arrants was a superstitious woman.  Much of this, unfortunately, was caused by her limited exposure to science and higher education. When it comes to superstition, the deeper the perceived relationship between nature and some supernatural cause, the more elaborate the story will be tying the two together.  As mentioned in a previous article, Ma-Ma believed Eastern Screech Owls brought certain death; but not all of her superstitions were so funereal.  To stop an annoying Whip-poor-will that may be keeping you awake all night, simply turn a shoe upside down under your bed and that bird will hush up.  At least that’s what Ma-Ma believed.  I can assure you that bird could care less what you do with your footwear under your bed.

Most of us have terrific memories of grandparents and I’m aware time has accentuated the positive images I carry of her.  There is; however, no overstating the significance of this lady.  Memory is a funny thing.  I bet I couldn’t give you the names of three people I attended high school with; but I can recall, in the greatest of detail, precise moments with Ma-Ma.  Time wipes away the unimportant details, but it leaves us jewels.  Jewels like my cousin, Allan, pulling into Ma-Ma’s front yard on his Honda motorcycle as she implores him to be careful.  Jewels like the smell of peanut butter cake drifting from that miniscule kitchen in her small home.  Jewels like a young boy eating chocolate pie and sitting in amazement as he listens to the words of the first naturalist he ever knew.