I saw a couple of interesting insects on this morning’s walk with Beauregard. The first was an aggregation of stilt-legged flies (family Micropezidae) on the trunk of a standing dead white oak (Quercus alba). This particular species—Calobatina geometra—is one of several occurring in Missouri, none of which have a common name and most appearing to mimic parasitic wasps of the family Ichneumonidae. Whether this is purposeful or happenstance is not clear to me, but the resemblance is strong enough to suggest the former even if the reasons are not clear. An interesting feature of these flies, beyond their large size and greatly elongated “stilt-like” middle and hind legs, is the manner in which they wave their forelegs in front of them. The highly visible white band above the black feet suggests this may be a mechanism for calling attention to themselves—although again whether this is to communicate with others of the same species or deceive potential predators/competitors is unclear to me. Like most other flies, stilt-legged flies have very short antennae, so perhaps they have adopted this behavior to allow the forelegs to function as “auxiliary antennae.” There seems to be much more that is unknown about these insects than is known—here is a link to information about them by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Also making their appearance on the low vegetation along the roadway in my neighborhood (through dry-mesic upland deciduous forest) are moths of the family Geometridae—the one photographed this morning provisionally identified as Scopula limboundata (large lace-border moth). The long, thin, “inchworm-like” caterpillars of this species feed on a variety of shrubs and herbaceous plants throughout much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.
Welcome to the 11th “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a very short (4 days) trip to northwestern Oklahoma on May 3–7, 2022. My collecting partner for this trip was long-time friend and hymenopterist Mike Arduser. Mike is one of the best natural historians that I know and, like me, has a special love for the often overlooked beauty of western Oklahoma and its fascinating insect fauna. It had been 13 years, however—too long, in my opinion, since our last joint field trip when we sampled the bee (Mike) and beetle (me) fauna at The Nature Conservancy’s Four Canyon Preserve in Ellis Co. Thus, I was happy for the chance to once again spend some time in the field with such a knowledgeable naturalist in an area we that both know and love.
Day 1 – Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.) It took most of the day to get here—Tulsa threw us a couple of obstacles in the form of a construction-mediated wrong turn and a motorcycle engulfed in flames. I’ve been to Gloss Mountain a number of times, but never this early in the season. Skies were sunny (unlike St. Louis when we left this morning), but temps didn’t get much above 60°F and even dropped down into the upper 50s before we finished up at sunset.
Surprisingly, despite the earliness of the season and cool temps, beating was quite productive. Working the low areas around the parking lot, I beat a fair number and diversity of beetles and hemipterans—mostly chrysomelids—but only a single Agrilus sp. off of Prosopis glandulosa.
I knew there were other trees, principally Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry), on top of the mesa and wanted to see if anything was on them. Bingo! Even before reaching the top, I beat a few Agrilus (several spp.) from the Celtis, and up on top I beat quite a few more off the same. There were also additional mesquite trees up top, off which I again beat a single Agrilus sp. along with a few other things, notably a series of ceresine treehoppers. The Sapindus was just starting to leaf out, and I found nothing by beating them other than a single ceresine. A notable find was the pile of larval frass of Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer) at the base of a living Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia) tree—a sure sign of active infestation by a beetle I have yet to formally record from this place.
On the way back down from the top, we hit the sunset perfectly as it “touched” a peak in the foreground! Despite my success here this evening, Mike saw no bees of interest on the few flowers that were found due to the cold temps and chilling winds, so tomorrow we will continue west hoping for warmer conditions on the western edge of Oklahoma.
Back in town, we searched for an open sit-down restaurant—fruitlessly because of the late hour—and ended up with a mediocre breakfast burrito from a fast food shop I’ve never been to before. The local Buick dealership, however, with its 1950s neon lights shining brightly in the night sky, was a taste of Americana that makes these trips so enjoyable. Life on the road!
Day 2 – Black Mesa State Park (Cimmaron Co.) Welp! We awoke this morning to cold temps (low 60s), thick fog, and low hanging clouds, and the forecast for the area showed essentially no improvement through at least the day. Our plan had been to hit a spot about an hour southwest before heading back north to Beaver Dunes State Park, but the forecast for both those areas also was cold and wet. It was not until we looked at the forecast for Black Mesa—our last planned stop of the trip and a 4½-hour-drive to the west—that the forecast seemed to be in our favor, so we decided to blast on out there. We figured we would get there at about 2:00 pm and could spend the rest of the day there collecting, camp there tonight, and start heading back east tomorrow (assuming the forecast improved for the areas we missed).
Wrong! When we got there, it was not only cloudy and cold, but dry as a bone! Even if it had been sunny with warmer temps, there still would not have been any insect activity to speak of. The leaves of oaks and hackberries in the area were just barely starting to break bud, and the only flowers we saw at the park were a large willow in full bloom—but not a single insect visiting them. Knowing that there was no other place where conditions were better that we could drive to within the next couple of hours and collect for at least a short time, we instead decided to make it a hiking day and hike the High Point Trail at nearby Black Mesa Nature Preserve.
Black Mesa Nature Preserve (Cimmaron Co.) When we arrived and looked at the signage, we learned that the hike to the oracle at the official high point would be a more than 8-mile hike! Just reaching the top of the mesa itself would be a more than 3-mile-hike, with the high point another mile on top. Not knowing if we had the appetite for such a distance (or time to do it before sunset) and with the wind cold and biting, we started out anyway and gave ourselves permission to turn around at any point if we felt like it.
Nevertheless, we persevered. We checked the cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) along the way hoping to see Coenopoeus palmeri (one of the cactus longhorns, which I’m not sure has been recorded from Oklahoma) or at least one of the more widespread Moneilema species, but none were seen (nor really expected). The trail up the side of the mesa was steep and spectacular, and the trail atop the mesa was surreal—especially given the cold winds and low-hanging clouds. Eventually, we made it to the official high point and enjoyed the fun facts carved into each side of the granite obolisk marking the spot.
Coming back down was not much easier than going up, the steepness of the trail jamming my toes into the toe box of my new hiking boots (which performed admirably!), but I did find an insect—a largish black weevil torpidly crawling on the trail. Even on the relatively level lower portion of the trail once we got there was difficult, our legs really starting to feel the miles now. As we hiked the last mile back to the car, the temperature continued to plummet as it started to sprinkle, turning to rain soon after we reached the car and then heavy rain as we headed down the highway back to the east. The irony of the situation—rain coming to a parched landscape just when we are ready to leave—did not escape us. We’ll spend the night in Boise City and hope for a better forecast tomorrow!
Day 3 – Beaver Dunes State Park (Beaver Co.) Temps were down in the mid-40s when we awoke this morning, but skies were sunny and we were heartened by a promising forecast of continued sun and highs in the low to mid-60s. Our first destination—Beaver Dunes—was a relatively short 2-hour drive further east, and when we arrived sunny skies still prevailed. Unfortunately, temps still hovered in the mid-50s with a biting wind that made using the beating sheet difficult to impossible.
That said, I managed to beat a fair series of Agrilus spp. (probably mostly one species) and a few other beetles off living Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) dotting the roadside along the entrance to the Picnic Area. Under the main group of hackberries I noticed new growth of Cucurbita foetedissima (buffalo gourd) along with last year’s dead stems. I’ve never collected Dorcasta cinerea (a longhorn beetle that utilizes buffalo gourd as a larval host), so I began splitting open the old stems to see if I could find unemerged adults. I didn’t, but what I did note inside the stems was evidence of boring by some insects and, eventually, the tiniest little scolytine bark beetles that I’ve ever seen. They were always found right at the node, usually in pairs (perhaps male and female?), and I ended up collecting a series of about a dozen specimens from two different stems.
Also in the main group of hackberries, I noticed a dead branch hanging from the tree, which had fallen but gotten snagged on a lower branch to remain off the ground. The branch was obviously infested and showed a few emergence holes indicative of both buprestids and cerambycids, and when I broke into it I found two unemerged adult Agrilus (different species), which caused me to cut and bundle the branch to being back for rearing. At the entrance, I went to examine the stand of yellow flowers that greeted our arrival, determining them to be Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion). While I was on the ground photographing the flowers, I noticed a red and black hister beetle that proved to be Margarinotus bipustulatus—aptly named considering the two red maculations on the elytra. I also noticed a couple of tiger beetle larval burrows in the hard-packed sandy soil and found a long, thin plant stem to “fish” the larvae out. I managed to snag the larva in one of the burrows, which I believe is Tetracha carolina (Carolina metallic tiger beetle) by virtue of the thin white margin around the prothorax and the open habitat in which the larval burrow occurred. If this is true, then it is a second instar because it is slightly smaller than a typical Cicindela sp. third-instar larva.
Afterwards, I went over to the dunes to see if Mike had found anything, but temps were still too cold to see anything flying. He did, however, show me an interesting stand of Penstemon that he’d found and that we determined to be P. fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon). The plants were all on the north side of the dune in apparently protected spots, and I noted that on iNaturalist our observation was the northernmost record for the species (save one suspicious, disjunct Colorado record).
On the way back to the car, I beat a few more beetles off living Celtis reticulata. By now, we’d seen all we needed to see here and decided to head southeast to one of the Brachys barberi locations (that were the reason for this trip in the first place).
5 mi E of Harmon (Ellis Co.) This
Recently, another coleopterist collected Brachys barberi—more typically a southwestern species—on Quercus harvardii (shinnery oak) at this spot. I’ve not managed to find the species myself yet, and as it was collected on May 3rd last year I hoped the timing would be right. Quercus havardii dominated the landscape at this spot, mostly as thick stands of low-growing shrubs but also as a copse of small trees.
At first, I swept the lowest-growing plants, collecting a variety of mostly chrysomelids and curculionids and even one Agrilus sp., before moving to beating along the sunny edges of the patches of taller shrubs and collecting similar species (but no Agrilus sp.). Just to the north, I noticed a stand of individuals tall enough to be considered trees (presumably a clonal stand) and began beating them. Immediately I began collecting not only the chrysomelids and curculionds that I was collecting before, but also several Agrilus spp. and what must be Agrilaxia texana—a species represented in my cabinet by just two specimens that I collected in northeastern Texas way back in 1984.
I worked nearly the full perimeter of the copse, noticing that most of the beetles were being collected only on the south-facing sunny (and leeward) side. When I was just about ready to call it quits, a much larger black and yellow beetle landed on the sheet. For an instant I thought it was a lycid, but it moved characteristically like a longhorned beetle, and I quickly realized that I had collected Elytroleptus floridanus—a quite rare southeastern U.S. species that I have only seen once before when I reared a single individual from dead oak that I collected in the Missouri bootheel (and representing a new state record). I wasn’t sure the species had ever been recorded from Oklahoma, so I found Gryzmala’s revision of the genus online and saw that it had been previously recorded from the state—but all the way over on the east side near the border of Arkansas. All records from Texas as well are from the eastern side of the state, so today’s capture appears to represent a significant northwestern extension of the species’ known geographic range by about 300 miles!
Sadly, I never saw Brachys barberi, but collecting Elytroleptus floridanus (in Oklahoma!) was a pretty good consolation prize.😊
Day 4 – Prologue (“Good to Go” coffee shop) We awoke to bright sunny skies, and though a tad chilly it was still warmer than the previous mornings and with a good forecast to boot! It would take about an hour to drive to the day’s collecting spot—the one and only Gloss Mountain State Park (where we visited briefly a few days ago to start the trip), but not until after an unexpected and hilariously bizarre experience at a coffee shop in town called “Good to Go”.
Mike was the first to notice the velociraptor in the lounge—saddled up for a ride! Okay, that’s cute. Then he noticed the sign on the outdoor display that read “Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago.” At first I thought, okay, they’re a little confused on the timeline, but what they’re trying to say is that dinosaurs lived a long time ago.
Then I noticed a granite plaque in the background that clearly read “The Holy Bible”, and it dawned on me that we had entered a creationist’s den! Had we not already ordered our coffee, I might have surreptitiously tiptoed my long-haired hippy butt out of there before somebody pointed at me and began slowly chanting “Lucifer!”
Once we were outside the shop, our coffee secured and the need for hushed tones no longer muffling our reactions, we took a quick walk with the dinosaurs to admire their seeming scientific accuracy. I was impressed with the T. rex in particular, it’s body axis realistically horizontal with the tail straight and strong—not the lumbering, upright, tail-dragging version that I learned about as a kid. At least they were accepting some of the current body of scientific evidence on dinosaurs and ignoring only that dealing with their age—or so I thought…
The stegosaur as well appeared to be fairly accurately rendered, its tail also straight and strong and a youngster trailing closely behind, until I noticed something atop the adult—an angel riding it! ‘God’s creatures big and small’, I guess.
The coup de grace was the information plaque behind the stegosaur. Rather than providing information on dinosaurs, I was instead treated to a barrage of hilariously unsupported claims advocating the idea that humans and dinosaurs once lived together. Each “factoid” on the plaque was more bizarre and quotable than the one before. Did you know that the adult stegosaur probably died 4,000 years ago in the Great Flood, but that the baby—happily—likely survived by getting a ride on the Ark with Noah! And all that scientific evidence that pinpoints the Cretaceous extinction to 65 million years ago? Apparently it has merely been fabricated as part of a global conspiracy because scientists just don’t want to agree with the Bible. I just about lost it, however, when I reached “It is uncertain if humans ever rode Dinosaurs, but there is overwhelming evidence that humans saw living dinosaurs.” I mean—What?!
Our unplanned morning entertainment now done, we hit the road for our next—and final—collecting spot for the trip.
Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.) We arrived at about 10 am with a plan to spend the rest of the day there—whether the collecting was good or bad, this would be our final stand. We hiked up to the mesa, stopping at an accessible spot about halfway up to work the trees (me) or set out pan traps (Mike). Beating the Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) yielded a similar assortment of beetles as last time—a couple of Agrilus spp. along with the occasional chrysomelid or curculionoid and a few other beetles, and the same was true with Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite), with the exception that I did not find any Agrilus this time.
Atop the mesa, I decided to do an entire perimeter hike—something I’ve always wanted to do but never actually accomplished. The idea was to beat all of the C. reticulata, P. glandulosa, and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry) that I could find in an effort to “leave no stone unturned” in my quest for beetles. Soon after starting out, I saw a nice Pasimachus elongatus ground beetle running across the mesa top and “forced” it to cooperate for photos by pinning a hind tarsus to the ground with my finger tip (barely visible in the upper left side of the photo). I collected it, as well as another that I saw a short distance away, and then proceeded with the beatings! Beating the C. reticulata was quite productive, with perhaps three Agrilus spp. and numerous other beetles being collected off of nearly every tree that I beat. Beating P. glandulosa also was productive for various beetles, though again no Agrilus were encountered. The biggest surprise came when I started beating S. drummondii, most of which were still in the earliest stages of leafing out. I got nothing from most of the trees (the majority of which were clustered in a small copse near the front of the mesa), but in the back part of the cluster were a couple of trees with noticeably more foliage—beating them yielded perhaps a dozen Agrilus limpiae, a soapberry specialist that I haven’t seen in numbers since 1986 when I collected a series on soapberry in south-central Kansas.
I rarely get anything beating Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), but I beat most of the trees that I saw anyway and collected one cryptocephaline chrysomelid and two curculionoids. A single Eleodes hispilabris (apparently on its last leg) was seen near the north end of the mesa, which I photographed and collected, and on the way back I encountered a small patch of Sphaeralcea coccinea (scarlet globemallow) in bloom, from the flowers of which I collected a few small melyrid-type beetles and a small halictid bee for Mike. Also on the north part of the mesa I saw a young eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), who posed just long enough for me to get off a shot before blasting away from my approaching lens.
Throughout the hike atop the mesa I kept my eye out for “new-to-me” plants (of which there are many), finding for the first time Toxicodendron rydbergii (western poison ivy) and blooming individuals of Chaetopappa ericoides (rose heath). Physaria gordonii (Gordon’s bladderpod)—a relative of the federally threatened P. filiformis (Missouri bladderpod)—was blooming abundantly atop the mesa. At this point, Mike and I rejoined and relayed to each other our more notable findings. For Mike’s part, he had seen a couple of cacti that I had missed—Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) and Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus)—and took me to the spots where he had seen them. While retracing our steps, we also found Gaillardia suavis (pincushion daisy, perfumeballs) and the strikingly beautiful Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon).
By this time, I had been on the mesa top for five hours, and even though temperatures were mild (mid-70s) I desperately needed food and water. Mike, for his part, had also had a wildly successful day with bees, capturing many at the flowers and many more in the various pan traps (both in top and halfway up the slope). I descended the steep slope with its mixture of metal steps, cut rock, and wooden planks and enjoyed a quick feast of sardines and Triscuits (a decades-long bug-collecting-trip staple) washed down with Gatorade before getting back to work on the mesquite around the parking lot. I was committed to trying to find Agrilus on the plants—a single individual of which I’d beaten from the plants three days earlier, and after beating several plants and seeing none (but collecting a great number of clytrine and cryptocephaline chrysomelids along with other insects) I finally found one! I continued to work the trees and collect primarily chrysomelids, but no more Agrilus were seen. I am hopeful that it will be a southwestern species not currently known from Oklahoma—a situation I have found with several other Prosopis-associated beetles in this part of northwestern Oklahoma.
I hadn’t intended to work any additional Prosopis beyond the road into the parking lot, but there were a few particularly large trees along the front of the park next to the highway rest stop. The first one I beat yielded a very large cryptocephaline that I had not seen on any of the other Prosopis, so I continued beating them and collected a nice series along with a few other clytrines, pachybrachines, and curculionoids. At the furthest point west, I recalled having seen during a previous visit a western diamondback rattlesnake a bit further to the west, so I continued to the spot hoping to see another. No such luck, so I tiptoed through the tall grass back to safety and made my way back to the car to wrap up seven and a half hours of collecting on a spectacular day—sadly, the last of the trip!
Epilogue This trip was just a warm-up. In just over one week, I will head out again—this time to western Texas and southern Arizona for sure, and maybe elsewhere depending on how things go. At three weeks, it will be the longest collecting trip I’ve done since I went to South Africa in 1999 and Ecuador 10 years before that. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with a number of other coleopterists at various points during the trip—Jason Hansen, Joshua Basham, and Tyler Hedlund in Texas, and Norm Woodley and Steve Lingafelter in Arizona. If there is time, I may stop off at a place or two in northeastern New Mexico and at Black Mesa on the way back. Look for an iReport on that trip sometime in early-mid June!
Some years ago, I wrote about the skulls on my desk, asserting that any scientist worth their salt should have at least one. My skulls, however—six of them until recently, are not just “ordinary” modern human skulls (much as I would love to have one), but rather replicas of famous fossil hominid skulls and crania. It has been a while since I’ve added to my collection, but Santa was good to me this past Christmas, bringing me a replica of the “La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1” skull of Homo neanderthalensis, and for today’s birthday my wife gave me a replica of the “Toumaï” cranium of Sahelanthropus tchadensis.
The “La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1” skull was discovered in 1908 in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France and is thought to be about 50,000–60,000 years old. It was the most complete Neanderthal skull at the time it was discovered and had a brain capacity exceeding 1600 cc—more than most modern humans. Unfortunately, initial reconstructions of Neanderthal anatomy based on la Chapelle-aux-Saints material depicted the species with thrust-forward skulls, stooped posture, bent hips and knees, and a divergent big toe—reinforcing existing synonymy of the term “Neanderthal” with brutality and savagery. The errors were eventually corrected, but only after decades had passed, and even today this unfair characterization lingers still among the general public.
This particular individual was a male, probably around 40 years of age at the time of his death, and in poor health. He had lost most of his teeth and was suffering from resorption of bone in the mandible and arthritis. This has been widely cited as an example of Neanderthal altruism, since with most of his teeth missing he would have been unable to process his own food. Later studies, however, have shown that the La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 individual still had enough teeth in place to chew his own food, although perhaps with some difficulty (Tappen 1985).
Sahelanthropus tchadensis was formally described in 2002 based on cranial remains of at least six individuals dated to about 6–7 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. “Toumaï” is the most complete of all the cranial remains, although it was crushed and badly deformed. To date, all the fossils found of Sahelanthropus have come from a small area of northern Chad.
The age of Sahelanthropus puts it around the time of the human-chimpanzee last common ancestor (HCLCA). At the time it was described, only cranial fragments were included in the original description, and the position of the opening for the spinal chord was used to infer that the species walked upright. However, a femur was also found alongside the cranium but was placed with animal bones and excluded from the original analysis. Later analysis of the femur concluded that Sahelanthropus was not bipedal (Macchiarelli et al. 2020), putting its status as a possible relative of the HCLCA into doubt. One alternative possibility that has been raised is that Sahelanthropus is not ancestral to either humans or chimpanzees, but rather to gorillas—a no less significant possibility since fossils attributed to the presumed gorilla lineage at this time consist only of teeth dating to about 10 million years ago.
Tappen, N. C. 1985. The dentition of the “Old Man” of La Chapelle-aux-Saints and inferences concerning Neanderthal behavior. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 67(1):43–50. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330670106
The pine flatlands of the southeastern Coastal Plain offer an interesting contrast to the upland forests of my home state of Missouri. Closed canopies of oak and hickory are replaced by open canopies of pond and longleaf pine. Dry glades—islands of prairie dotting the forests—are replaced by bogs and bays—oases of wetland punctuating the sandy scrub. In both places, however, fire plays an important role in shaping and preserving these unique habitats. In this ~10,000-acre preserve, prescribed burns spare the heat-tolerant pines—their trunks blackened and scorched but the living branches high above unharmed—and prevent woody shrubs from choking out herbaceous plants, including famously insectivorous plants such as Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants. I had yet to have seen any of these plants in their native habitats, and after learning of this place and their presence here from a local resident, Madam and I made a beeline to the preserve for an afternoon of botanical hiking.
Almost immediately after starting down the road from the parking lot, I noticed white blossoms dotting the forest floor. Approaching closer revealed them to be wild azaleas—in this case Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea). Individually, the petite plants with their crowns of oversized blooms were quaintly beautiful. En masse, clustered on the forest floor, they were an amazing sight to see.
The going was slow in the beginning, with something new to me at every turn. A species of Nuttallanthus (toadflax)—either N. texanus (Texas toadflax) or N. canadensis (Canada toadflax), depending on details of flower dimensions—bloomed abundantly in the sunny openings. A small purple flower was at first assumed to be a species of Tradescantia (spidorwort) but proved to be the related Callisia ornata (scrub roseling)—a new genus for me. A bit further down the road we encountered orange flowers that proved to be Polygala lutea (orange milkwort). This genus is represented in Missouri by several species, all having flowers of pink, yellow, or white.
Flowers were not limited to herbaceous plants. The evergreen woody shrub layer was just coming back to life with new growth, a few of which bore distinctive blossoms identifying them as members of the genus Vaccinium (blueberry). There are several potential species that could be here.
At one point, Madam called me to the other side of the road, pointing to a strange plant at the edge of a wet area and asking “What’s that?” Bingo—I recognized it instantly as one of the so-called “pitcher plants” (genus Sarracenia), among the most dramatically charismatic of the insectivorous plants. Pitcher plants trap insects using a rolled leaf with downward pointing hairs on the inside and the uppermost part of the leaf flared into a lid (or operculum) to prevent rain from diluting the digestive secretions pooled at the bottom of the leaf. Though a bit past bloom, it was easily identifiable as S. flava (yellow pitcher plant). We were thrilled to have seen our first pitcher plant in the wild, and we looked forward to seeing more (hopefully in full bloom).
As we scanned the edge of the wetland looking for more pitcher plants, I noticed tiny white flowers on the small shrubs underfoot. They looked rather “hollyish” to me, and indeed they proved to be Ilex glabra (gallberry), a species of evergreen holly native to the coastal plain of eastern North America and most commonly found in sandy woods and peripheries of swamps and bogs.
At this time of season, I was expecting to see insects well active, and this was certainly the case with butterflies—the most common being a species of swallowtail that oxymoronically reminded me of a small giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) but in reality were Papilio palamedes (Palamedes swallowtail). I’m a beetle guy, however, so I was happy to find a few Acmaeodera tubulus jewel beetles on flowers of Erigeron sp. (fleabane), and when I saw a standing recently-dead pine beyond the wet drainage I decided to check it for other jewel beetles on its trunk. As I started to step across the water, a small purplish plant on a piece of wood in the water caught my eye, and I immediately recognized it as one of the sundews (genus Drosera), another genus of insectivorous plants that capture and digest insects using stalked mucilaginous glands that cover their leaf surfaces. This is one of the largest genera of insectivorous plants, but I take this one to be D. intermedia (spoonleaf sundew).
About a mile and a half from the car, we finally found what we had been hoping to see since soon after we arrived—Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant) in full bloom. A rather large patch of them was visible from afar, their yellow blooms glowing in the sunlight, but sadly most of them were slightly or greatly past peak bloom. A bit further back, however, on the other side of the water, I spotted two single plants in perfect bloom, their petals fresh and intact and making the effort to find a way across the water well worth the effort. Other plants without blooms but with fresh, brightly colored “pitchers” were also seen along the water’s edge.
As we admired the spectacle in front of us, I noticed a clump of red within the vegetation at water’s edge and realized we were looking at another species of pitcher plant—Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant)! How fortunate we were to see this clump—the only one we saw—which was in perfect bloom and with colorful, freshly-formed pitchers whose squat form contrasted notably from the tall, slender, graceful pitchers of S. flava right next to it.
By now, the April heat had taken a noticeable toll on the conditioning of these two recently-escaped-from-winter Midwesterners. Having found the Holy Grail for the day, we began the long, tired slog back to the car—our legs dragging but our spirits soaring.
I belong (or used to belong) to several Facebook groups frequented by insect collectors—both professional and amateur. One question that frequently comes up—primarily for collections with species organized by unit trays—is how to deal with species identification labels. Not surprisingly, the opinions are as varied as the collectors. Some like to put a label on each specimen, while others put a label only on the lead specimen of a series. Some also print or write a separate header label that is placed in the unit tray. What about when names change? Or when reexamination of the specimen(s) reveals an erroneous ID? Should you remove outdated or erroneous identification labels? Fold them? Turn them upside down? Remove them altogether? These questions may seem trivial if one deals only with their own personal collection, but they become much more important when identifying specimens in institutional collections accessible to the public.
Here is my philosophy: an identification is a hypothesis, not data. As a result, ID labels are fundamentally different from labels indicating locality, date, ecological information, and collector, which are data—immutable and unchanging. Identifications can be “wrong” or may change over time, but regardless they merely reflect an individual’s opinion based on their level of expertise and familiarity with state of taxonomy and nomenclature at the time the identification was made. It then follows that identification labels do not need to be placed on every specimen—if a specimen without an ID label gets separated from the series, it does not result in a loss of data in the way it does for a specimen without a locality label, nor do old ID labels need to be changed as a result of nomenclatural changes or corrected identifications—a new label may be added (especially if it is an ID correction), but the old label should not be removed.
Almost as bad as removing old ID labels is folding them, which not only makes them difficult to read but results in mutilation—not just from the fold itself but also from the additional pin holes that are added when re-pinning the folded label. Old ID labels, even if incorrect or out-if-date, represent a historical record of opinion regarding the identity of the specimen, and degrading the labels obscures that history. If one simply must do something to denote a corrected ID, the old label may be turned over, but even then every effort should be made to reuse existing pinholes—just flatten with a fingernail before reusing so the label doesn’t spin. Seriously, however, this simply isn’t necessary—just add the new ID label beneath the old one, which denotes it as the more recent ID (another reason why year should be included on ID labels). Some people don’t like the way this looks, but to do otherwise is to greater priority on visual aesthetics than the integrity of the scientific data represented by the specimen.
As for dealing with nomenclatural changes—I don’t, at least not with already labeled specimens. That old ID label is not “wrong”—it accurately reflects the ID that was given to the series at the time the specimens were identified. Of course, any additional specimens that are added to the unit tray will receive an ID label the reflects the newer nomenclature. Case in point is the above photo, which contains longhorned beetles known for many years as Cosmosalia chrysocoma but recently reassigned to the genus Lepturobosca. You’ll note the older series of specimens bear ID labels with the older name, but the most recently added series contains an ID label with the newer name. There is no reason to go back and change or add ID labels for the older specimens, especially since newer specimens reflecting current nomenclature have been placed in the same unit tray with them. The mix of ID labels representing past and present nomenclature is not problematic—in fact, it adds historical perspective to the series as a whole. On the other hand, were I to receive a series of specimens labeled with an older name from another collection, I would be inclined to add my own, more current ID label (and would certainly do so if the ID—current nomenclature or not—was incorrect), since it was the result of subsequent examination by a different specialist.
Lastly, I don’t waste time creating header labels for unit trays—the ID labels on the specimens themselves are enough to indicate the identity of the species, and the time required to update header labels when nomenclature changes is just that much less time that I have to pin, label, and identify additional specimens being added to the collection.
For the past few years, I’ve been involved with the Missouri Native Plant Society (MONPS). To this point, however, my involvement has been limited to attending the monthly meetings of the St Louis Chapter—unfortunately, now only via Zoom since the beginning of the pandemic. I hope that soon we can return to in-person meetings (or, even better, a hybrid of the two, which allows person-to-person interaction without excluding participation by those who cannot attend in-person), but one activity that has resumed live are their periodic, multi-day field trips. The Spring 2022 Field Trip, held this past weekend in southwestern Missouri, was my first chance to participate in one of these events, and I looked forward to seeing the remnant prairies, limestone, dolomite, and sandstones glades, and chert woodland that were all on tap while rubbing elbows with some of the state’s best botanists and naturalists—some old friends and others new acquaintances!
Day 1 – Schuette Prairie I wasn’t able to make it to the actual Day 1, so I left St. Louis early in the morning to meet the group at the first stop of the following day—Schuette Prairie in Polk Co. Named after my friend and former Cuivre River State Park naturalist, Bruce Schuette, this recently acquired limestone/dolomite prairie with a wet swale contains many plants more typical of glades such as Silphium terebinthinaceum (prairie dock), Echinacea paradoxa (yellow coneflower), and Rudbeckia missouriensis (Missouri coneflower). Of course, on this cold, overcast, early-April morning, it was far too early to see any of these highly charismatic plant species (although some of the more astute botanists were about to point them out by their barely emergent foliage, which was easy to find in the recently-burned northern half of the parcel). Abundantly in bloom, however, was the more subdued Erythronium mesochoreum (prairie fawn lily, midland fawnlily, prairie dogtooth violet). Distinguished from the similar E. albidum (white trout lily) that occurs abundantly further east by its narrower, folded, usually unmottled leaves, all but a few of which remained stubbornly closed against the stiff, cold wind.
Precious few other blooms were seen—I recall somebody mentioning they had seen Viola sororia (common violet), and I photographed this little clump of Fragaria virginica (wild strawberry) that will eventually provide food for one of the area’s many box turtles.
Speaking of box turtles, I found this completely naked, bleached carapace and at first hoped that it might have been from an ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)—limited in Missouri to western prairies and a species I have not yet seen. However, the presence of a midline ridge and its relatively more domed shape suggest it is from a three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).
Many other carapaces were seen (though none in such good shape), and in fact bones of many types were easy to find in the burned portion of the prairie. This disarticulated skull from what appears to be a young calf (Bos taurus) was perhaps the most impressive bone find, but we did also find a dried skeleton of a smaller individual. Being the lone entomologist of the group, I just had to turn over the carcass and search for beetles and managed to capture a skin beetle (family Trogidae) and one other small unidentified beetle (but, unfortunately, no Necrobia rufipes [red-legged ham beetle]).
Rocky Barrens Conservation Area Later in the morning, the group caravaned to Rocky Barrens Conservation Area, a 281-acre area in Greene Co. featuring Mississippian limestone glades and site for the federally-endangered Physaria filiformis (Missouri bladder-pod). This plant, in the mustard family, is found only in four counties in southwest Missouri. The plants were readily found, but we were too early to see them in bloom—or anything else, for that matter. For me, however, the glade alone was still interesting, and I couldn’t help but take note of the similarities—and differences—between this limestone example and the dolomite glades south of St. Louis with which I am so much more familiar. Almost immediately, I noted the presence of Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), host for Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer)—surely one of North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetles! I didn’t see any frass piles at the base of any of the trees, the presence of which would indicate larval activity, but I’m sure the beetle is here. It would be interesting to come back during the season and look for it. While I didn’t find any signs of the beetle, I couldn’t miss the bright orange-yellow gold-eye lichens (Teloschistes chrysophthalmus) colonizing it’s branches.
Another tree that caught my interest was Celtis tenuifolia (dwarf hackberry). I see these small, gnarly versions of the genus in glades and other xeric habitats, and they always catch my interest because of the diversity of interesting woodboring beetles associated with it. As I looked at the trees, I noticed one small tree in particular that was the perfect stage of dead—branches brittle but bark mostly still intact with a little bit of peeling on the trunk revealing woodboring beetle larval galleries underneath! There were only a few emergence holes present—strong evidence that the tree was still infested and worth bringing back to put in an emergence box to trap the emerging adult beetles. With luck, I’ll be pinning a series of Agrilus ferrisi next winter!
Corry Flatrocks Conservation Area After lunch at a nearby city park, the group caravaned to Corry Flatrocks Consevation Area in Dade Co.—site of another federally-endangered plant, Mononeuria minima (formerly Geocarpon minima) (tiny-Tim, earth fruit). The sandstone glades at this site are among the largest in the area and, thus, host a large population of the plant. By this time of day, the sun had been out for awhile and the day had warmed considerably, so we hoped to see other flowering plants as well. Among the first that we encountered while walking towards the glade proper was Ranunculus fascicularis (early buttercup), distinguished from other “large-flowered buttercups” by its canescent (grayish due to hairiness) leaves with long and narrow lobes, their tips bluntly pointed or rounded. The dry, gladey habitat also distinguishes the species from the similar R. hispidus (hairy buttercup), which flowers at the same time but prefers moister habitats.
On the glade proper, we quickly encountered tiny little saxifrages in bloom, which turned out to be Micranthes texana (Texas saxifrage), restricted in Missouri to this part of the state (and thus with a high CC value of 9) and distinguished from the more widespread M. virginiensis (early saxifrage) by its small, compact stature. These first individuals we encountered had especially reddish-tinged flowers.
As soon as we reached the more open part of the glade with large expanses Of exposed rock, the group dropped to their hands and knees to find the diminutive plants we were looking for.
The plants were not uncommon, even abundant, in shallow, sand-filled depressions in the rock. Nevertheless, careful observation was still required to see and recognize them. Fortunately, the plants were already in bloom, their tiny styles barely visible to the naked eye within the green, not-much-bigger, petalless flowers. Photographing these plants, and especially those in bloom, proved to be a task almost beyond the capabilities of the smart phones that most in the group were using (me included).
The glades stretched on for quite a distance, inviting further exploration. At the margins, white flowering trees were noticed, and moving closer they proved to be Amelanchier arborea (downy serviceberry, common serviceberry)—among the first we have seen open this spring. (I typically see the first blooms of these trees in the final days of March, at least around my home in east-central Missouri.) an even closer looked revealed tiny insects (also among the first insects I have seen active this spring) flying around and crawling about on the flowers. These proved to be parasitic hymenopterans—family ID is still pending, but I suspect they will prove to be a species in one of the many families of “microhymenopterans” that are egg parasitoids. I am not sure whether they were visiting the flowers as pollinators (which behavior I am not aware of) or in hopes of encountering other pollinators which could potentially serve as hosts—a subject with which I will need to follow up.
Near the back end of the glade, we encountered a few more Micranthes texana (Texas saxifrage), these having more typical white flowers in perfect peak bloom.
Also in that part of the glade we found a few scattered individuals of Selenia aurea (golden selenia). While not quite as conservative as M. texana (CC value = 6), it has a similar range in the U.S. and in Missouri is also restricted to a handful of counties in the southwestern part of the state. The plant is known to occur in large colonies (which I have seen at nearby Corry Branch Glade)—its brilliant yellow flowers forming a spectacular display.
To this point, the only insect I had seen besides the microhymenopterans was a skin beetle (family Trogidae), which I found when I kicked over some dried mammal scats. However, on the way back to the cars we finally encountered an insect large enough in size and striking enough in appearance to pique the interest of not just me but the group as a whole—a large caterpillar feeding on the foliage of Penstemon digitalis (smooth beard-tongue). It’s appearance—dark with longitudinal yellow stripes and blue spotting—immediately called to mind one of the tiger moths (formerly Arctiidae, now a subfamily in the Erebidae), specifically the genus Haploa (commonly called haploa moths). A little detective work on BugGuide comparing photos and recorded host plants narrowed the likely choice to H. confusa (confused haploa moth).
Day 2 – Lead Mines Conservation Area The final day of the MONPS Field Trip featured a morning trip to Lead Mine Conservation Area in Dallas Co. Of particular interest to the group were several parcels within the area designated as Niangua River Hills Natural Area and featuring a diversity of habitats including dolomite glades, chert woodlands, and calcareous wet meadows (fens). Most in the group visited the northern parcel to see the dolomite glades; however, a few of us—primarily from St. Louis and well-familiar with dolomite glades—opted to visit the smaller southern unit of the natural area to see the fen and riparian woodland we needs to pass through to get there. It was a much warmer morning than yesterday, though still chilly starting out, so blooms were sparse as we hiked the woodland trail searching for any hint of color. At one point, someone noticed a shrub a bit off the trail with large, reddish pink flowers—the color seeming a bit unexpected for the situation. Bushwhacking toward it, we realized it was Chaenomelesspeciosa (common flowering quince), a common, ornamental non-native plant that rarely—but obviously sometimes—escapes cultivation. While the group looked at the plant, I saw my first insect of the day—Paraulacizes irrorata (speckled sharpshooter), one of our largest and most recognizable leafhoppers, sitting head-down on the stem of a small sapling.
Among the first native blooms we saw was Ranunculus hispidus (hairy buttercup). Though similarly “large-flowered” as R. fascicularis (early buttercup), it differs by its sprawling growth habit, differently shaped-leaves, and preference for moist habitats. Buttercups are a favorite flower host for jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) in the genus Acmaeodera, and one species —A. tubulus—is among our earliest-emerging beetles in the spring, so I checked each buttercup flower that I saw hoping to see these little beetles signaling the beginning of insect activity for the season. Sadly, none were seen.
At last we reached the fen—a large open area on the toe-slopes of the adjacent hillside where water draining through the underlying strata emerged to the surface to maintain a continually wet environment. The fen here is special, as two species of Cyprepedium (lady’s slipper orchids) are know to occur in the fen (and in fact, all four of the state’s Cyprepedium spp. can be found with Lead Mine Conservation Area). At this early date, the orchids would not be anywhere close to blooming; however, the group looked for evidence of their presence, walking gingerly through the fen so as to avoid inadvertently stepping upon any emergent foliage. No putative clumps were found, but already in my mind I’m thinking a mid-May trip back to the fen might be warranted! Unlike the orchids, Castilleja coccinea (Indian paintbrush) was abundantly evident throughout the fen, with an occasional plant almost ready to burst forth their scarlet blooms. Senescent flower stems of composites, presumably Rudbeckia, were also seen throughout the glade, which, combined with the abundance of Castilleja, created the promise of a stunning early-summer display across the fen.
During our time in the fen, two species of butterflies were seen flitting about the herbaceous vegetation: tiny blue Celastrina ladon (spring azure), and one of the dustywing skippers in the genus Erynnis. The former were impossible to photograph due to their persistent flitting and skittish behavior, and the latter almost were as well. Only when I locked the focus on a preset 2x zoom and fired shots in rapid succession while moving the smartphone ever closer to the subject did I manage this one imperfect but passable photograph of the last one I tried. The genus Erynnis is diverse and notoriously difficult to identify, and my expertise with skippers and butterflies pales compared to my skills with beetles, so the ID will have to remain Erynnis sp. until a more authoritative opinion is offered. [Edit 4/6/22, 11:38 am: According to my lepidopterist friend Phillip Koenig, Erynnis horatius and E. juvenalis both fly in early spring, and they cannot be reliably separated from the dorsal side. Erynnis juvenalis has one or two dots on the ventral hind wing that E. horatius lacks and only flies in the early spring, while E. horatius can be seen through the summer. If only I could turn the picture over to see what it looks like on the ventral side!]
Returning through the riparian woodlands after visiting the fen, the day had warmed considerably, and numerous flowers not seen earlier were suddenly in full bloom. These included Erythronium mesochorium (prairie fawn lily midland fawnlily, prairie dogtooth violet)—the same species we saw yesterday so reluctantly in bloom at Schuette Prairie. Most were of the familiar form with unmottled leaves; however, we found one individual with notably mottled leaves that resembled those of E. albidum (white dogtooth violet) (1st photo). Nevertheless, the leaves were still narrower than that species and folded, and the plant was growing a mere 12” from another individual with no trace of mottling (2nd photo).
Claytonia virginca (spring beauty) was also blooming in abundance as we took the trail back. I am always amazed at the variability seen in the flowers of this species—from pure white to vividly pink-striped to pink at the tips. This especially vivid pink individual was about as pink as they come.
Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) also was popping up regularly. We had seen isolated plants sitting the trailsides when we first part through—their flowers tightly folded in stubborn response to the chilly morning temperatures. By early afternoon, however, they were spread wide open as invitation to any of the flying insects that had surely also been awakened by the warmer temperatures of the afternoon. While most were seen as isolated individuals, a particularly idyllic clump captured our attention, almost begging “photograph me!”
With that, we rejoined the main group to recount the days experiences and cement new relationships before heading back towards our respective home areas.
Long Ridge Conservation Area On the way back home, I decided to check out this conservation area in Franklin Co., which I’ve never visited before. The afternoon had gotten quite warm, so I reasoned that maybe today would be the day when insects start coming out in abundance. I was right! As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a Prunus mexicana (Mexican plum) in full bloom, and walking up to it I immediately saw an abundance of bees and small beetles all over the flowers. The latter turned out to be Orsodacne atra (a leaf beetle) and Ischnomera ruficollis (rednecked false blister beetles).
Inside the woods along the Blue Trail, there were the usual suspects in bloom—Claytonia virginica (spring beauty), Cardamine concatenata (toothwort), Antennaria parlinii (Parlin’s pussytoes) and Ranunculus hispidus (hairy buttercups).
Eventually I happened upon an Amelanchier arborea (downy serviceberry) in full bloom. There were more O. atra and I. ruficollis on the flowers (though not so many as on the Mexican plum), along with a Mecaphesa sp. crab spider that had caught and was feeding on a male Andrena carlini (Carlin’s mining bee)*.
On the back third of the trail, I found two fallen branches under a Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) that had been pruned by longhorned beetles—presumably Anelaphus villosus. At the end of the trail I found a third such branch of the same species of oak. All three will be placed in an emergence box, and hopefully the culprits will emerge as adults.
This week’s destination for the WGNSS Botany Group outing was St. Joe State Park, where the western portion of the Bicyle/Hiking Trail runs along a prime example of dry post oak woodland. Such woodlands were common in Missouri during pre-settlement times but have been largely eliminated from the present-day landscape due to incompatible land management practices, including fire suppression. Post oak woodlands depend upon periodic fires to maintain an open canopy, allowing a rich ground layer of native grasses and forbs to flourish in the abundant sunlight. In pre-settlement times, this happened naturally as a result of lightning strikes; however, remnant post oak woodlands exist today largely as a result of active landscape management including the use of prescribed burns and selective thinning. Evidence of these practices was easy to find in this remarkably restored example of an original post oak woodland.
At the end of January, there is still a lot of winter left to endure—far too early to be thinking about the still-distant-spring even at our “middlin’ latitudes.” Nevertheless, even at this early date, the buds of Ulmus rubra (slippery elm) are noticeably swollen. (I’ve always felt “slippery” was a misnomer for this species. I know it refers to the slippery texture of the inner bark when chewed, but the leaves are rough, and the twigs are rough, and the buds are rough as well—and who even does that [chews the inner bark] anymore?!) It is this roughness to the leaves that most easily distinguishes U. rubra from the similar U. americana (American elm), but during winter it’s fuzzy, rusty-red buds provide the clue instead. If one has a pocketknife, a slice into the bark to look for alternating light/dark layers (the absence of which signifies U. rubra) can also be used.
The rich ground layer of a post oak woodland dazzles during spring and summer, the temporal sequence of floral displays belying the diversity that produces it. This diversity does not disappear during the winter, nor does the evidence of it—it merely expresses itself in different form. To recognize the plants that are there, one must train their eyes to see these different versions of them. Bright yellow flowers are replaced by dry seed boxes… fleshy green leaves with purple ball inflorescences are replaced by naked stems with dehiscent pods… delicate white petals are replaced by prickly pods. The ability to recognize the elements of a landscape at any moment—not just at their most beautiful—makes it easier to enjoy the landscape itself at any moment. Following are some of the plants we saw, no doubt distinctive when in bloom, but also recognizable when not if one knows what to look for.
During the previous week’s outing at Hawn State Park, the group spent a fair amount of time distinguishing Missouri’s five species of Betulaceae—all of which can be found growing together along the banks of Pickle Creek. One is not likely to see three of them along the margins of a dry post oak woodland, but the two remaining—Corylus americana (American hazelnut) and Ostrya virginiana (American hop hornbeam), both much more tolerant of drier situations—were seen in abundance. These two species also happen to be the two that are most often confused with each other—especially during winter, giving the group another opportunity to study their subtle differences. Both develop male catkins during the winter, but those of C. americana tend to be larger, lighter in color, and frequently occurring singly along the branch. The winter twigs are a bit more distinctive—with tiny hairs and rounded buds in the former, versus hairless with pointed buds in the latter. Of course, of the two, only O. virginiana produces the distinctive hops-like fruits that often persist into the winter, so their presence immediately identifies any plant possessing them.
Direct comparisons of winter twigs proves to be a useful identification technique for other similar species pairs—even those in the same genus. Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and A. rubrum (red maple) often grow in close proximity and are similar enough to be frequently confused. When twigs of the two are placed next to each other, however, the differences are apparent. Color alone—A. rubrum usually exhibiting a reddish tinge to the twigs and buds—is not always diagnostic, and both species have what could be called pointed buds. Touch the tips, however—the buds of A. saccharum are sharp enough to prick the finger, while those of A. rubrum are blunted just enough to avoid feeling the prick.
Along the length of the trail, I noted an abundance of dry, persistent flower stalks of Hydrangea arborescens (American hydrangea) colonizing the bordering rock ledges. Normally found in moist (and frequently inaccessible) situations, its presence in a dry post oak woodland suggests drainage through the layers of dolomite underneath the woodland reaches the surface in these exposed toe-slopes, keeping them persistently moist. While the promised floral display in June is reason enough to return, my interest in woodboring beetles provides additional motivation, as its flowers are a favorite of a diverse group of woodboring beetles call flower longhorns (subfamily Lepturinae)—some of which having been associated only with this plant. Time to mark the calendar!
Nestled in the northern foothills of the St. Francois Mountains lies one of Missouri’s most remarkable of places—Hawn State Park. I have written about this place onseveraloccasions and visited even more often, yet I never tire of exploring its sandstone canyons, rhyolite shut-ins, and stately pine forests. As such, I was happy to see it as the selected destination for the WGNSS Botany Group Monday Walk.
It was a chilly winter morning when the group met at the picnic area parking lot, and after a bit of discussion to orient ourselves on the plants we might see, we crossed the foot bridge over Pickle Creek to explore the habitats off the Whispering Pines Trail. Almost immediately (in fact, even before completely crossing the bridge), we noticed Alnus serrulata (smooth alder) lining the edges of the creek banks. Unlike many trees, A. serrulata is easy to recognize during winter by virtue of its persistent female cones and newly-formed male catkins. Alnus serrulata is one of five species in Missouri belonging to the family Betulaceae—all five of which occur together here in Hawn State Park (and, in fact, can be found within feet of each other). In the case of this species, the female cones are unique, the male catkins are green and red and occur during winter in clumps, and the winter buds are red with two scales.
Immediately after crossing the bridge, we saw the second betulaceous species on slightly higher ground—Corylus americana (American hazelnut). Like A. serrulata, this species is usually a small tree, but it lacks the persistent cones during winter, has more brownish male catkins that may be clumped, especially at the branch tips, but also tend to occur singly along the length of the branch, and has brownish, rounded winter buds and noticeably fuzzy twigs.
Entering the mixed pine-oak forest (and pondering Fr. Sullivan’s oak ID quiz—which turned out to be Quercus coccinea, or scarlet oak), Kathy noticed the persistent fruiting stalks of one of our native terrestrial orchids—Goodyera pubescens (downy rattlesnake plantain). Normally, this orchid is noticed during winter by virtue of its striking white-veined green leaves, but in this case they were completely hidden under leaf litter. Had it not been for the fruiting stalk, we would never have noticed its presence. Hawn State Park has a healthy population of these orchids, and hopefully the fruits of this individual will bear an abundance of its tiny (spore-sized) seeds.
Continuing our off-trail bushwhacking, we eventually reached a series of sandstone canyons that promised not only spectacular ice formations from their constant moisture drip, but the potential for seeing plants that rely on the cool, shaded, moist, acidic nooks and crannies they offer.
Two fern species were seen. The first was Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort)—not uncommon and distinguished by the dark, reddish-brown, glossy stipe and rachis (on fertile fronds) with simple pinnate leaves and alternately-arranged leaflets with a basal auricle (ear-lobe). Two columns of elongated sori (spore-bearing structures) oriented diagonally to the central veins can be found on their lower surface of the leaflets. Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern) was also found on the sandstone ledges. This fern is most easily identified by the location of its sori on fertile fronds, which occur along the margins of its subleaflets (some other less common species will have the sori placed more interiorly).
The most exciting find on the sandstone ledges was Mitchella repens (partridge berry). This member of the Rubiaceae (same family as coffee) is characteristic of sandstone canyons and ledges and occurs in Missouri only in a few counties in the southeastern part of the state where this habitat exists. The plant is unmistakable and easily identified, especially when in fruit. Interestingly, each of its bright red berries is actually a fusion of two fruits, as evidenced by the pair of minute, persistent calyces at the tip.
Back on-trail, the group focused on identifying the many different tree species along the trail (Quercus coccinea was dominant). One small “tree” had us stumped, however, it’s giant terminal bud with small lateral buds clustered nearby seemingly suggesting oak—until we noted the curious whorl at the branch node and, on a subsequently-seen individual, persistent fruit capsules that immediately identified it as Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea). Another lover of acidic pine woodlands, this species is restricted in Missouri to high-quality habitats in the Ozark Plateau, and Hawn State Park has some of the finest populations to be found.
As the group ascended the trail and began pondering whether to turn around, the characteristic leaves of a small saxifrage were seen at the base of an oak tree. Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage, Virginia saxifrage) shows a preference for rocky acid soils and reaches the western limit of its distribution in Missouri, where it is limited to a few counties in the Ozarks. A similar but much smaller species, Micranthes texana (Texas saxifrage) can be found in sandstone glades in western Missouri.
Returning to Pickle Creek, the group focused on the remaining three species of Betulaceae found in Missouri—and Hawn State Park, all growing in the immediate vicinity of the foot bridge. The three species—Betula nigra (river birch), Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech), and Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam), all have numerous subtle characters that distinguish them from the other two members of the family (Alnus and Corylus), but in winter they are most easily recognized by their bark. The flaky, peeling, cinnamon-brown bark of B. nigra is the most distinctive and cannot be mistaken for anything else. This contrasts completely with the smooth, gray, sinuous look of C. caroliniana (which I can’t help but stroke whenever I see it—should I be admitting that!?). In between is the rough, shredded, brownish appearance of O. virginiana (which is further distinguished from C. americana by its pointed rather than rounded buds).