It’s not often that I see an insect that completely stumps me, especially on my regular morning walk in my own neighborhood. However, this morning I noticed a large(ish) brown insect lumbering across the road, and my first reaction was “What the heck is that?! Initially I thought it was some kind of beetle, but when I bent down and got a closer look at it, I saw that it was actually some kind of fly. But what kind – I’d never seen anything like it before.
It took a little sleuthing, but eventually I determined its identity as Coenomyia ferruginea—the so-called “stink fly” in the family Xylophagidae. I’d never heard of this family before, probably because they formerly were considered a subfamily of the family Rhagionidae (snipe flies), which together are thought to be a sister group to the family Tabanidae (horse and deer flies) and it’s relatives. Like those other groups, xylophagid larvae are thought to be scavengers or predators, some of them doing so in dead and decaying wood as predators of wood-boring larvae (the name “Xylophagidae” means “eats wood”).
Sadly, the fly’s slow and clumsy movements lulled me into a sense of complacency—I had picked it up to bring back home a put in my collection, but such thoughts quickly evaporated when it suddenly took flight and drifted slowly up and into the canopy before disappearing from sight.
Last week I went on the first collecting trip of the 2023 season, which was actually the second phase of a study initiated last year to evaluate the efficacy of “jug traps” and baits for trapping longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae). In the first year of the study, I set out 24 traps at 12 locations across southern Illinois and Missouri—one trap at each location baited with “pure” (99.5%) ethanol (EtOH), and the other baited with a 50:50 mixture of ethanol and sweet red table wine (SRW). The traps proved to be highly effective at trapping not only a diversity of Cerambycidae, but also Cetoniidae and Elateridae. Additionally, and in what was a bit of a surprise, the 50:50 mixture (EtOH/SRW) proved to be much more efficacious than EtOH alone. The reasons for this are not clear—-perhaps SRW contains other volatiles besides EtOH that are also attractive to the beetles, or possibly the sugars in SRW permit additional fermentation and, thus, extended volatilization of EtOH. Either way, the ability to substitute at least a portion of relatively expensive EtOH with cheap SRW without negatively impacting trap efficacy (actually improving it) allows cost savings and begs the question: how effective are traps baited with SRW alone?
To answer that question, I decided to conduct a second season of trapping, this time comparing three possible baits: SRW alone, 50:50 SRW/EtOH, and EtOH alone. I also wanted to conduct the study in a different area where a different longhorned beetle fauna might be expected to increase the diversity of species shown to be attracted to the traps, and for that I could not think of a better place than northwestern Oklahoma. The insect fauna of the area is decidedly more “western” than southern Missouri, and in fact I have collected several species of beetles in the area that represent new records for the state—most of which are more typically found further southwest in New Mexico and/or Arizona (manuscripts containing these records are currently in progress). Most importantly, I can reach the area from my home near St. Louis, Missouri in less than a day of driving, allowing me to make the repeated visits over the course of the season that will be necessary to service the traps and collect the data. Since three traps will be deployed at each location (instead of two as in 2022), fewer locations (six) were chosen, resulting in 18 total traps. The traps were set out May 16–18, during which time my good friend and collecting buddy Rich Thoma joined me, and I will return every five weeks to check the traps until early October, when they will be taken down.
Note: all field identifications are preliminary pending confirmation.
Day 1—Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.) This is one of my favorite spots in northwestern Oklahoma, though not quite west enough to be considered part of the “panhandle.” The gypsum-capped mesas atop red clay soils have a decidedly “New Mexican” look, and I have collected several beetles here that represent new state records for Oklahoma, including Plionoma suturalis, Chrysobothris octocola, C. quadrillineata, and Paratyndaris prospopis. I decided to set two set of jug traps here because of the two distinctly different habitat types: one on/near the top of the mesa in copses of gum bumelia, netleaf hackberry, soapberry, and/or eastern red-cedar, and another in the mesquite chaparral along south border in isolated mesquite trees.
Things were still a bit early in the season, and I did not spend anytime beating the newly leafed out trees, but I did find one Phyllophaga cribrosa on the ground and several Plionoma suturalis (gave a mating pair to Rich), one Trichodes bibalteatus, and one Monophylla terminalis on living Neltuma glandulosa [= Prosopis glandulosa].
Other sightings of interest were an eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) at the edge of the mesa and a Manduca quinquemaculata (five-spotted hawkmoth) getting an early start on its evening pollination rounds on still unopened Oenethera macrocarpa (Missouri primrose) blooms.
Day 2—Alabaster Caverns State Park (Woodward Co.) There is no camping at Gloss Mountain State Park, and we were hungry as well, so we drove to Woodward to grab some dinner and backtracked up to Alabaster Caverns State Park. Arriving at the campsite after sunset and setting up a new, never-before-erected tent in the dark was an interesting experience; however, the tent went up quickly enough that Rich and I were able to relax and enjoy a beer and conversation before turning in for the night. In the morning, after getting a good look at the canyon forest, I decided this might be a good spot to hang one of my Lindgren funnel traps before hanging the jug traps further up in Cedar Canyon. There are many very large gum bumelia trees in addition to hackberries and red-cedars—surprising to me given the riparian nature of the forest, and I found a nice secluded spot to hang the trap, which was baited with 50:50 SRW/EtOH, before breaking camp and heading to Raptorroost Trail to access the upper reaches of Cedar Canyon.
Cedar Canyon represents a collapsed cave system, now appearing as a jagged, forested gash cutting deeply into the gently rolling gypsum landscape. The area first came to my attention in 2009, when I “discovered” a healthy population of Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle)—then considered one of North America’s rarest tiger beetles—living in the sparsely-vegetated gypsum exposures above the canyon. Checking in with the park office to show them our permit, we were surprised to learn that I should have also contacted them ahead of time to apply for a “separate, park-specific” permit, which after a bit of wrangling and cajoling we were able to convince them to grant on the spot (the vagaries of state park permits, where “some” park managers have a tendency to want to demonstrate the fact that they have ultimate authority over their piece of the earth). While we waited, we enjoyed looking at the Saurophaganax maximus skull found somewhere in northwestern Oklahoma and on display in the park office. A relative of the smaller but better-known Allosaurus, S. maximus lived during the late Jurassic (150 mya) and was, at that time, the largest meat-eating dinosaur in North America.
After receiving our “re-permit,” we headed for Cedar Canyon to hang three jug traps in the canyon forest. This was eventually done, with traps hung at three points in the forest of mostly red-cedar, hackberry, and gum bumelia. Hanging the traps in the canyon was quite difficult—the trail into and out of the canyon was steep and technical, and finding places to hang the traps where they were unlikely to be seen and disturbed by park visitors while still being accessible to me was even harder. Before accessing the canyon via Raptorsroost Trail and hanging the traps, however, we quickly became distracted by goings on in the gypsum/red clay shortgrass prairie above the canyon. We first noted Moneilema armatum (cactus beetles) on Opuntia macrorhiza (prairie pricklypear cactus), collecting about a dozen individuals.
As we searched the cactus and the morning sun warmed things up, I also began noticing adults of Acmaeodera tubulus coming to the flowers in bloom, mostly Tradescantia occidentalis (western spiderwort) but also Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory) and a yellow-flowered Oenethera sp. (primrose). I was rather surprised to see this eastern U.S. species occurring this far west in such a decidedly “western” habitat—surely this must be near the western limit of distribution for the species!
At any rate, hanging the traps and indulging our distractions burned about three hours (and finding/photographing a beautiful female collared lizard [Crotaphytus collaris] and a few other interesting things burned even more time), so we went back down to our previous night’s campsite, ate a quick lunch, and then headed towards our next stop.
Beaver Dunes City Park (Beaver Co.) Beaver Dunes is a former state park, now a city park managed by the nearby city of Beaver primarily for ORVs. Despite the impacts on the dunes, there remain vast areas of the dunes that are closed to traffic and, thus, not impacted by ORV traffic and boasting a unique dune flora and fauna. Bordering the dunes on the east is a riparian zone boasting large Populus deltoides (eastern cottonwood) trees and smaller Celtis reticulata (netleaf hackberry) and Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) trees. Notably, some years ago I collected a nice series of Poecilonota cyanipes (family Buprestidae) off the stunted cottonwoods in and around the tent campground—the only time I have collected this species other than a single individual up in Michigan even more years ago. We first drove through the tent campground and then the picnic area to scope out a camping spot and decide exactly where I wanted to hang the traps. Ultimately, I decided neither location was suitable for the traps as the wooded areas were adjacent to either dunes or prairie with little woody vegetation and where prevailing winds were likely to carry most of the scent emanating from the traps. Instead, I decided to hang them in a strip of woodland stretching north off the RV campground (Pioneer Campground).
Afterwards we explored the dunes, immediately finding several Batyle ignicollis apparently bedded down on the inflorescence of Styllingia sylvatica (Queen’s delight). I have seen this species doing the same thing on a previous visit some years ago, and in that case many individuals were found on many plants. In this case, however, beyond the three individuals seen on this first plant (two of which escaped as I tried to photograph them!), only one more individual on one other plant was seen.
A couple of tenebrionids crossing the road were picked up before working our way to the picnic area and exploring the dunes in their vicinity. There was surprisingly little in bloom—primarily S. sylvatica and just a few sparsely blooming Penstemon fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon). We checked the former, finding only a few Euphoria kernii (all three color forms), one E. sepulchralis, and the one additional B. ignicollis on the former and nothing on the latter. The only other insects seen, or at least collected, were a large(ish) weevil on a grass stem and a Cicindela formosa (big sand tiger beetle). After exploring for a while and not seeing much activity, it seemed that further searching was “beating a dead horse,” so we started back towards the car. Along the way, I decided to beat once again the Celtis reticulata (netleaf hackberry) trees dotting the roadside and, unlike my earlier (limited) attempts, was immediately rewarded with a couple of Chrysobothris purpureovittata (family Buprestidae). Further beating continued to produce additional specimens as well as a few Agrilus lecontei and/or A. paracelti, and by the time I finished beating the last tree I had collected perhaps 12–15 C. purpureovittata and 6–8 Agrilus spp. I felt this was a happy note on which to end the day’s collecting, and we decided to run into town to look for dinner (we ended up bringing carry-out pizza back to the campground and enjoying it with a beer!).
Day 3—Beaver Dunes City Park (cont.) Overnight it rained heavily (which I did not hear, despite being in a tent), so before heading off to the Black Mesa area we checked out the dunes to see if we could find fresh tracks. We found a few deer tracks, a nice long stretch of wild turkey tracks, and some small tracks that most likely belong to red fox.
Black Mesa State Park (Cimarron Co.) Black Mesa State Park and Preserve are tucked into the extreme corner of northwestern Oklahoma, and it is here where “east” truly turns to “west.” Miles of shortgrass prairie suddenly give way, shortly before the park, to chaparral dotted with Cylindropuntia imbricata (cholla) and Juniperus monosperma (one-seed juniper). Arriving in the park after our 3½-hour drive straight west, we checked in at the office to show our permit (no hassle or “extra” permit needed), reserved our spot in the tent campground, and ate a quick lunch before heading to the Scenic Overlook where I’d planned to hang a set of traps in the hackberry/soapberry wooded ravine below the overlook. This was eventually done, but again we were distracted right off the bat when we noticed plants abundantly in flower around the parking lot. I quickly found a few Acmaeodera that I could not immediately identify—obviously members of the A. mixta/pulchella/immaculata group, but they are tiny, much smaller than any of those species! Most were on flowers of Tetraneuris acaulis (stemless four-nerve daisy), a few were on flowers of Melampodium leucanthum (blackfoot daisy), and one was on flower of Xanthisma spinulosum (spiny goldenweed). I’ll be anxious to get a better look at them once I return home. Traps successfully hung, we then headed to the next spot a short drive north of the state park.
1.6 mi E Kenton on Hwy 325 (Cimarron Co.) I’ve visited this sandstone outcropping colonized by an interesting oak identified on iNaturalist as Quercus × undulata (wavyleaf oak)—a naturally occurring hybrid between Q. gambelii and Q. turbinella and that occurs more typically in Utah and the Intermountain West. This seems to be the easternmost occurrence of this hybrid, and while I’m in no position to vouch for the veracity of the identification, I do think there could be some interesting beetles associated with it. The outcropping is also colonized by two other decidedly western trees—Pinus edulis (Colorado pinyon) and Juniperus monosperma (one-seed juniper), both of which seem to be at their eastern natural limit here and which could host some interesting western insects as well. Unfortunately, my previous visits (early May through mid-June) all seemed to be at the wrong season (too dry), although on my last visit (early June last year) I did manage to collect a nice number and variety of Acmaeodera, including a new state record (A. quadrivittatoides)! Once again, there seemed to be little going on—just a few Nemognatha blister beetles and some tiny flies on the various yellow composite flowers found in bloom—despite the series of Acmaeodera collected down the road within the state park. Perhaps it was more due to the thick cloud cover with distant rain showers that had moved into the area than the time of season, but the oaks very recently leafed out and just now flowering still suggests it is early in the season here. Nevertheless, I hung the last set of traps in the oak/pine/juniper woodland atop the outcropping and look forward to seeing what might turn up in them later this season.
Dinosaur Tracks (Cimarron Co.) Hanging traps at the state park and the sandstone outcropping just north of the park took a few hours but still left us with some time to explore the area and I wanted to show Rich the famous dinosaur tracks found just across the road from Black Mesa Preserve. There is no signage, and 10 years having passed since the last time I saw them, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to find them. Fortunately, a little Google sleuthing paid off and we came right to the spot. The tracks—apparently made by a theropod (one of the carnivorous groups)—were discovered in the early 1980s and are on private land but are open to the public during daylight hours. We were fortunate that it had rained the previous night, which filled the tracks with water and made them especially visible in the sandstone rock at the bottom of the creek in which they were exposed. The largest, deepest, and best-preserved of the dozen or so tracks that are still visible (many are covered by mud) measure approximately 16” across and clearly show the 3-toed footprint typical of theropod dinosaurs. Given their size, perhaps they were made by Saurophaganax maximus!
Black Mesa Preserve (Cimarron Co.) I had considered hanging a set of traps adjacent to this location, but I saw little suitable habitat in the area, save possibly for the ribbon of large cottonwoods lining nearby Carrizo Creek. Regardless, since I had already placed two other sets at the nearby sandstone outcropping and a bit further south at the state park, I felt my coverage of the area was sufficient. To pass the remaining time, Rich and I hiked through the juniper chaparral on the north side of the mesa. The area still had an “early spring” feel to it, with yucca and cholla barely beginning to throw up or develop their flower stalks/buds and the whole area looking like it needed a good rain. Correspondingly, there was almost no insect activity to speak of—we found lone individuals of Leptinotarsa decemlineata (Colorado potato beetle) and Eleodes sp. (clown beetle) crawling on the trail, and I collected a single Omorgus sp. (skin beetle). Whatever thoughts we had of ascending the mesa and hiking to the High Point Monument were dashed when our legs—already tired from the day’s previous hikes—began to protest and cried “Enough!” Turning around before the kiosk leading to the mesa top turned out fortuitous, as suddenly plummeting temperatures and the threat of rain caused us to make our way back to the car with some sense of urgency. It began raining as soon as we reached the car, and we were ecstatic to find “The Merc” open and serving up dinner in nearby Kenton (the only Oklahoma City in the Mountain Time Zone!).
After dinner, we returned to the campground and enjoyed what turned out to be only a brief respite from the rain—long enough to enjoy a beer—before getting chased into the tent as it picked back up again. It would rain most of the night and all the next day as we made the long drive back to St. Louis, but with 18 traps hung in six distinct habitats and some interesting beetles in the bottles it was hard to be disappointed. Stay tuned for updates as I begin checking the traps next month.
Earlier this month on May 10th, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (a.k.a., “WGNSS”) held its annual Spring Banquet at the Palm House in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis, Missouri—-the first Spring Banquet since 2019 (the last three years having been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). It was a lovely event in a beautiful venue with fantastic food, and I think all in attendance were happy to resume this annual society tradition. Part of this tradition includes announcing the year’s recipient of the WGNSS Lifetime Achievement Award—given to individuals that have made significant and sustained contributions to the Society. With three “lost” years to make up for, the WGNSS Board selected three individuals as recipients for those years. The 2020 recipient was the night’s featured keynote speaker and Past-President, George Yatskievych, formerly Curator of Botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden and now at the University of Texas in Austin. The 2021 recipient was my longtime friend and collecting partner, Richard Thoma, also Past-President, former leader of the Entomology Natural History Group, and current Society Historian. The 2022 recipient was, well… me! It was a complete surprise (at least until Rich began his introduction and it became clear who he was talking about), so I gave only a few short remarks in appreciation of the award. I am deeply grateful to the Society for the honor, and I can only thank their membership and the deep natural history talent that so many of them possess for helping me become the naturalist that I am.
Last fall, my good friend Richard Thoma and I visited “Snake Road” is a famous snake viewing area in southern Illinois—part of the LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area. Early October is prime season for viewing snakes there, principally northern cottonmouths (a.k.a. water moccasins—Agkistrodon piscivorus) as they move from the wetlands on the west side of the road to the towering limestone bluffs on the east side seeking crevices in which to shelter for the winter. With a string of cool nights and sunny skies and a forecasted high of 78°F, we couldn’t have picked a better day to look for them.
We arrived a little after 9am, so conditions were still a bit too cool for the snakes. Shafts of morning sunlight streaming through the trees were a sight to behold, and we used the opportunity to notice some plants that we’d not seen before, including two species of goldenrod—i.e., Solidago caesia (bluestem goldenrod) and S. flexicaulis (broadleaved or zigzag goldenrod), Decodon verticillatus (swamp loosestrife), and Laportea canadensis (wood nettle). I noticed small green berry-like structures on some of the latter, which I at first took to be fruits, but something about them said “gall” and I cut one open to find a small insect larva inside verifying this to be the case. I presume this to gall to have been caused by Dasineura investita (wood nettle gall midge) in the family Cecidomyidae.
As we hiked south along the road (closed to automobiles during spring and fall to protect the migrating snakes), and especially when temperatures climbed above 70°F, we began looking in earnest for snakes, reasoning that they might best be found by searching along the base of the bluffs and in nearby crevices. We searched one particularly promising rock ledge without success, then encountered a spring draining from the main bluffs and followed it to the base, where we split up and looked along the base in both directions. My direction took me around a bend and up the hillside, with many nice-looking crevices but no snakes in them, and when I reached to top of the exposed bluff face I turned back and retraced my steps. Just after reaching the bottom I noticed movement near where I’d taken a step, and there it was—a gorgeously-marked juvenile cottonmouth! I called Rich over, and together we spent about a half-hour taking turns trying to get the perfect photograph of the snake while trying to minimize the degree to which we disturbed it (lest it make a dash for the nearest crevice, or worse yet, take a lunge at one of us). The majority of the photos shown here are of this individual, and the only photo I wish I would have gotten was one with a fully-extended, flickering tongue.
Our spirits buoyed by the experience, we bushwhacked back to the road and almost immediately encountered not one but two fully mature individuals—both having already lost the distinctive patterning seen on the juvenile but beautiful nonetheless. We spent more time photographing these as well, as we were able to get several great shots of the distinctly marked throat and mandible as they reared their heads in cautious defiance. I used the big camera exclusively for these shots, as they were much too large and I would have had to have gotten much too dangerously close to photograph them with my iPhone (look for photos to appear eventually on my natural history blog—‘Beetles in the Bush’).
Further south we found an exposed bluff face very close to the road, and several additional mature individuals were seen there—two deeply ensconced within their chosen crevice but one fully exposed (two photos here) who even cooperated by gaping his mouth in alarm to show off the cottony-pink tissues inside.
In all, we would see nine individuals by the time we hiked to the southern parking lot and turned around, and on the way back, not trying nearly as hard and making a more direct line to the car, we would see another five individuals (two of which could have been individuals we’d seen on the way out) for a total of 14. We also watched in amazement as a tiny juvenile eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris) chased down a fly on the road before dashing back towards the forest, and we were particularly amused by a nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) who lumbered stupidly out of the underbrush straight towards us, completely unaware of our presence until Rich made a sudden movement with his hand that sent the little brute scurrying back into the underbrush.
Almost as we reached the car, we found a ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus) stretched out across the road. Snake sightings notwithstanding, the return hike back to the car was not nearly as enjoyable as the hike out, as by this time quite a number of other people had shown up and we no longer had the place to ourselves. I can only imagine what it must be like here during the weekend! Nevertheless, we couldn’t have imagined a more successful and enjoyable outing than the one we experienced today.
Welcome to a new series that I’m calling “BitB Bits,” an irregular collection of random natural history observations recorded in my notes over the previous month. The individual snippets are, by themselves, too short for stand-alone posts, but I hope that readers will find their collective and chronological nature interesting and informative.
March 9. Welcome home walk. Good to be home and glad to see we didn’t miss the start of spring here. Non-native daffodils are blooming everywhere (I must admit they make an impressive display); however, we also have our first native blooming plant—spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Apparently only the male plants are blooming so far (distinguished by their flowers with stamens/anthers only but lacking a central pistil); the female plants should follow suit shortly.
March 12. Spring on hold. Now that spicebush is in bloom, a succession of flowering trees and shrubs should follow. Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) would be the next to follow, but the rain of the last few days has put it on hold. The buds are swollen and ready, however, to burst forth on the next sunny day.
March 13. In my happy place. I didn’t get enough hiking at St. Francois State Park to satisfy my desires, so on the way back home I decided to stop off at Victoria Glades, one of my favorite places, and walk the perimeter of the main glade. I don’t think there’s another place on earth where I feel more connected to myself as a naturalist than here. I first visited way back in 1983 – the year after I moved to St. Louis after finishing grad school, and every year for the next eight years I came here once or twice per week throughout the summer to collect insects. I essentially “grew up“ here as an entomologist! In the time since moving back to St. Louis (now 27 years ago), I have resumed my regular visits – more in some years, less in others, and each time I do I feel rejuvenated. I have instructed Madam to sprinkle my ashes here (at least some of them) – if I depart and you happen to read this, please follow up with her to make sure that she does just that!
March 15. Beware the Ides of March. On this day, in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a mob of Roman senators led by his friend Brutus. The senators believed that Julius had consolidated too much power (he had only a year earlier been named dictator for life and was implementing sweeping imperialist offensives in an effort to expand Roman territory), and that his death would lead to the restoration of the Republic. Sadly (or fortunately, depending upon your perspective), the “Ides of March” plunged Rome into centuries of civil war that ultimately led to utter collapse by the 5th century. In the final years of the empire, a series of emperors took the throne in quick succession (usually after the murder of their predecessor by the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguards), each of whom plundered the state while they had the opportunity. The Roman Senate, engaged in their own corrupt practices and suffering from incompetence, was unable to curb the excesses of these emperors, leading to a waning of civic pride and loss of trust by the Roman citizenry before the final collapse.
March 17. C-c-cold! Once again, the bright sunshine was deceptive, belying how cold it really was – especially with that wind! Temps plummeted even further once the sun set, but the views around my home are still spectacular.
March 21. Still waiting… …for native blooms to begin. Until then, here is yet another non-native early bloomer—Scilla forbesii (Forbes’ glory-of-the-snow), which invaded the woods near my home after a neighbor planted some in their woodland garden. They are not nearly the problem that some other invasives are (like bush honeysuckle or burning bush) in that they don’t smother out nearby native plants, but they can provide a pollinating “sink” that competes for insects that would otherwise be pollinating the flowers of native plants.
March 22. Vernal equiNOT. Spring began two days ago, yet I’m still waiting for the first appearance of any native wildflowers in the neighborhood. Until that happens, here is yet another non-native species—the thankfully noninvasive hyacinth—that my neighbor planted in their garden.
March 24. Spring at last, spring at last, thank God Almighty, spring at last! Finally, after sitting dormant for more than a week, the flowers of Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) have opened—in my opinion the true opening salvo of spring. Even so, it’s not like the weather suddenly turned spring-like, but more like the sumacs finally said F this and decided to open despite the continued dreary conditions.
March 25. How do snail’s eyes differ from slug’s? They don’t—they’re both eye tentacles. 🥁
March 26. Spring beauty. Now that spring is truly here, Claytonia virrginica (spring beauty)—the icon of spring ephemeral wildflowers—has begun popping up everywhere.
March 26. Water spider. I saw this large fly sitting on the curb. Of course, I knew it was a crane fly—a member of the family Tipulidae, but I hear people often confuse them for a “giant mosquito.” There is no such thing, and while I admit that they do look superficially like a mosquito on steroids (they happen to be distantly related to mosquitos), they do not bite or suck blood—arguably the most important part about being a mosquito. In fact, crane flies often do not eat anything once they become adults, with some species even lacking functional mouthparts. The family name is derived from the Latin word for “water spider,” perhaps because the larvae live in water and have a ring of tentacles around their head—just guessing. Anyway, I snapped a few pics of the little guy before he feebly began flapping his wings in the chilly air and took flight, probably looking for something to not eat.
March 28. Back to winter (midge). A few tantalizingly warm, sunny days had my hopes up that spring was finally here, but the return of cool, wet conditions have brought back that late winter feel. Perhaps appropriately, one of the first insects I’ve seen this season is this small, mosquito-looking fly that is actually a distant relative belonging to a group known as winter midges (genus Diamesa—also called snow midges—in the family Chironomidae). As their common names imply, the adult flies are seen active primarily during winter and can even be seen walking about on snow during warm spells during the winter (a scenario mimicked by the styrofoam on which this individual was photographed). Like the crane flies that I featured a couple days ago, winter midges do not feed as adults—if only for lack of suitable food sources, while the larvae feed on organic debris in cold, running water.
March 29. What’s up, buttercup? Buttercups are popping up in the “more natural“ lawns of my neighborhood. We have a number of species buttercups in Missouri – this one is Ranunculus harveyi (Harvey’s buttercup). In general, you can distinguish buttercups by their small, bright yellow flowers and bristle of anthers surrounding the central disc.
March 30. Bloodroot. I made a rather exciting wildflower find in the woodlands around my house this morning—a small patch of Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) with (thus far) but a single bloom. This poppy relative (family Papaveraceae) is so named because of red, fleshy root, which gets its color from alkaloids, chiefly sanguinarine, in its toxic sap. First Americans traditionally used bloodroot to treat fever, rheumatism, ulcers, ringworm, and skin infections, and it is still used to produce natural red, orange, and pink dyes. There is likely some truth to the bioactive properties of bloodroot alkaloids, as they are currently being studied for use as anti-cancer agents, particularly for the treatment of skin cancer, and as a dissolving agent for skin growths such as warts. Bloodroot is also interesting from a natural history standpoint in that the seeds have fleshy appendages that are attractive to ants. The ants collect the seeds and bring them to their nest, thus effecting dispersal of the seeds. This is an advantage for these small plants growing in wooded habitats, where wind speeds are usually too low to aid natural seed dispersal.
March 31. Sweet William. I saw these plants yesterday while their blooms were still closed and wondered if they would open before March closed out. I normally think of Phlox divaricata (sweet William) as a mid-April bloomer, but clearly it can begin earlier if conditions are right (as they have been the past several days).
I had a good showing at this year’s WGNSS (Webster Groves Nature Study Society) Photo Contest—held last night at the Webster Groves Public Library. All four photos that I entered—one each in four different categories—were selected for a prize: 1st place in the Invertebrates category, 2nd place in the Bonus category (Missouri Species of Conservation Concern), 3rd place in the Vertebrates category, and Honorable Mention in the Plants and Fungi category. There was a fifth category (Habitats and Landscapes), but I don’t take many landscape photos (at least, not with my “real” camera) so did not submit to that category. Three of the four photos are now eligible (along with 13 others) for the Grand Prize (the bonus category is not included in the grand prize competition), which will be selected via popular vote at the WGNSS Spring Banquet, to be held next month at the Piper Palm House in Tower Grove Park.
1st Place – Invertebrates
2nd Place – Bonus (Missouri Species of Conservation Concern)
Today the WGNSS Botany Group visited Little Lost Creek Conservation Area to see Dirca palustris (eastern leatherwood) in bloom. Leatherwood is a distinctive, slow-growing shrub that occurs sporadically in primarily the Ozark and Ozark Border region of Missouri. Like the much more Lindera benzoin (common spicebush), the flowers open in spring before the foliage appears, during which time the planta are easily identified by the pendulous blooms surrounded by wooly bracts. The species has toxic properties and was used by First Americans as an emetic, and it has been cultivated for many years despite its sporadic natural occurrence. As the name implies (palustris means “growing in a swamp”), the plant grows in moist (though not necessarily swampy) habitats, and as such we would have to hike across the dry-mesic upland deciduous forest and down into the riparian forests along Little Lost Creek where the plant can be found.
With sharply warmer temperatures arriving yesterday after a rather protracted cool period, the early-flowering trees and shrubs were ready and waiting, seemingly popping open before our very eyes. A patch of Prunus americana (American plum) in a more open area along the trail caught our attention, it’s blooms just beginning to open. We based our identification on the shrubby growth habit and apparently clonal nature of the stand of plants, which distinguishes P. americana from the closely related P. mexicana (Mexican plum), which generally grows as more tree-like individual plants.
Also in the more open areas along the trail was Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) in full bloom. I stopped to examine one particular individual with especially dense clusters of inflorescences and noticed movement on the flowers. Closer examination revealed a crab spider (family Thomisidae) which I took to be Mecaphesa asperata (northern crab spider)—perfectly camouflaged on the bright yellow flowers and awaiting the arrival of an unsuspecting bee or other pollinator.
As the trail veered directly into the forest, I noticed several butterfly species—a Vanessa atalanta (red admiral) that paused briefly on the trail before bolting erratically into the distance, several Eurytides marcellus (zebra swallowtail), presumably males patrolling for females among stands of the still leafless Asimina triloba (pawpaw) which it utilizes as a larval host, and—most interesting for me—several Anthocharis midea (falcate orangetip) which, for the time being, frustratingly refused to perch and allow even an attempt at a photograph.
As the trail began the long descent into the valley and the forest became increasingly mesic, spring ephemerals began appearing on the forest floor in abundance. Most abundant was Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) and Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort), which have been in bloom for some time now, but finally making their appearance as well were Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot)—the first seen being a charming little patch nestled against a rock—a single blooming plant among the stands of Erythronium albidum (white trout lily), and several still-unblooming Trillium sp. (wakerobin).
At last we reached the valley floor, and immediately the leatherwood plants were seen in abundance and in full bloom. Leatherwood plants in bloom are not among the showiest of blooming shrubs, but the distinctiveness of their flowers, sporadic occurrence, and lack of close relatives provided ample botanical interest that resulted in me spending a fair bit of time observing and photographing them.
As I looked at the leatherhood, I encountered a an unusual cocoon-like structure at the tip of one of its branches. Closer examination revealed it to be “packed” white tiny, white, grub-like larvae, at which time I noticed the cadaver of a moth caterpillar also clinging to the branch tip. I knew then that the grubs were the mature larvae of a parasitic wasp in the family Braconidae, likely in the subfamily Microgastrinae, that had just exited their host and were spinning cocoons nearby in communal fashion. (Many people have seen one of these wasps in the form of cocoons on the backs of tomato hornworm caterpillars.) Braconid wasps are often quite host specific, but a more specific identification is difficult since the identity of the caterpillar itself or whether it was utilizing Dirca as a host plant are also unknown.
If the spring ephemerals were abundant during the descent, they were overwhelming in the valley proper. A few blooming plants of Collinsia verna (blue-eyed Mary), a winter annual were seen, their distinctive bicolored white and blue flowers a pleasant contrast to the mostly white to pinkish color of the majority of the ephemerals. Some especially large-flowered individuals of bloodroot were seen underneath a patch of blooming leatherwoods, prompting me to spend a bit more time photographing them. As I was doing so, I found it ironically humorous that I was crouched on the ground photographing what is by all measures a rather common plant while surrounded by a much less frequently encountered plant.
The hike back up out of the valley was long and deliberate, the pitch in some stretches reaching as steep as I ever encounter on trails in the state, but the slow pace allowed an opportunity to look for things missed on the way down. At one point I picked up a fallen oak branch that looked like it might have been pruned by a twig pruner (Anelaphus sp.), a type of longhorned beetle (family Cerambycidae) whose larvae feed within living branches of deciduous trees—primarily oak—and then cut the branch internally before pupation. The cut end is distinctive, and I checked the base of the branch to see if it demonstrated this distinctive cut pattern. It did not, but I explained what I was looking for to a curious member of our group. Just as I finished the explanation, I saw another oak branch laying on the trail, picked it up to examine the base, and, sure enough, it exhibited the cut. I believe the branch is that of black oak (Quercus velutina), and I kept the branch to place within a rearing box so I can see the adult when it emerges later this spring.
Along the final stretch back to the parking lot, the falcate orangetip butterflies continued to torment me with their erratic, never-ending flight. I watched a few after reaching the parking lot, hoping one would alight and give a chance to photograph it, but no such luck. At the edge of the parking lot I noticed some Taraxacum sp. (dandelion) flowers with small insects on them, which turned out to be Acmaeodera tubulus—usually the first jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) to appear in the spring and commonly found on dandelions. I crouched to take a few photographs, and as I was doing so a falcate orangetip butterfly landed on the dandelion flower right next to the one with the beetles I was photographing. I managed to get one shot of the butterfly, it’s wings not well spread out but the orange tips still easily visible, before it took flight again—a nice punctuation to end the outing with.
Two days ago, the WGNSS Botany Group met in the Visitor Center parking lot on a not-as-cold and not-as-cloudy day compared to previous days with the plan to walk the Natural Wonders Trail—a relatively easy 1.3-mile loop that features mesic forest on north-facing slopes, dry forest and glades on the south-facing slopes, and a spring-fed creek that meanders through the riparian corridor below. The upland portions of the trail pass through Meramec Mosaic Natural Area, boasting an amazing diversity of natural communities and associated flora all in relatively close proximity.
We walked clockwise around the loop, which took us up and out of the riparian forest onto the north-facing slopes. Lindera benzoin (spicebush) was abundant in the understory at the lower elevations, with male and female plants both being immediately recognizable—the former sporting noticeably swollen buds that will produce the male flowers in spring, and the latter still bearing many of their now-faded berries, their earlier bright red color lost to a dull purple-black. Two members of the Betulaceae were also seen commonly in the understory—Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam), with its hop-like fruit clusters and almost always adorned with rich-brown marcescent leaves, and Corylus americana (hazelnut) sporting distinctive hanging male catkins.
We had scarcely reached the upper slopes when we began noticing a diversity of green foliage—not from the numerous trees and shrubs, but rather from a variety of ferns, hangers-on from earlier times that continue to find niches within the woody-dominate community that now dominate the landscape. The first example seen was a single Sceptridium dissectum (cutleaf grape-fern), its leaf now in reddish-bronze winter dress. Shortly afterwards we began to see prominent outcrops of dolomite as we neared the north-facing bluffs, their surfaces thickly covered with mosses and providing a perfect situation for Asplenium rhizophyllum (American walking fern). The long, tapering leaves of this species root at their tips and give rise to new plantlets—an asexual method of reproduction that allows a single plant to quickly colonize an entire rock surface.
The bluff faces themselves provided the greatest diversity of ferns. An unusual species observed in abundance was Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern, bulblet bladderfern, or bulblet fragile fern). Unlike many ferns, the fronds of this species turn completely brown during the winter (although a few small green plantlets of what may be this species were observed growing among them). It’s most notable feature, however, is the small “bulblets” that form on the underside of its leaves, providing the plant a most unusual method of asexual reproduction.
Two Pellaea spp. (cliffbrake) we’re found as well growing from crevices on the bluff face: P. atropurpurea (purple-stem cliffbrake or purple cliffbrake) and the more uncommonly encountered P. glabella (smooth cliffbrake). In some cases the plants were growing very near each other, allowing the group an opportunity to compare and contrast. Pellaea atropurpurea is distinctive in both habit and appearance, with fertile leaflets narrowly elongate—sporangia arranged along the curled under margin and the sterile leaflets broader and “T-shaped” at the base. In addition to its dimorphic leaves, the distinctly pubescent, purplish-brown rachis separates it from P. glabella. The latter species can be found scattered throughout the Ozarks and a few northern counties and is less likely to be seen growing in soil as opposed to exposed rock.
Two more species of Asplenium were found as we continued to examine the moss-covered rock exposures, one being the commonly encountered A. platyneuron (ebony spleenwort or brownstem spleenwort)—distinctive by its purple-brown rachis and “offset” pinnae with asymmetrical basal lobes, and an as-yet-undetermined species provisionally assigned to this genus. We would see additional examples of A. platyneuron away from the rock faces growing in the soil—their fertile fronds tending to grow more erect than the sterile fronds. This same habit was seen in the eighth and final fern of the day, the very common Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) which we encountered regularly in more mesic areas of the forest floor.
Despite the botanical focus of the walk, we are all naturalists at heart and quick to notice anything that piques our natural history curiosity, regardless of what kingdom of life it pertains to, and when John called out, “Okay Ted, here’s a quiz for you,” I suspected my entomological skills would be put to the test. What he’d found were three strange-looking structures hanging from a small Ostrya sapling that would have, to anybody less-observant, been passed off as some plant fruiting structure. Of course, we knew that Ostrya fruits bore no resemblance to these structures, and when we noticed they were connected to each other and had apparently been “tied” to the twig by some sort of insect, we then guessed they may have been the fruiting structures of an as yet unidentified herbaceous plant or vine. That idea was quickly dispelled, however, when cutting into one of the structures revealed it was filled with bright yellow spheres that I can only surmise to be lepidopteran eggs, with the structures themselves and their attachments to the twig consisting of the silk that many caterpillars use to construct cocoons in which to pupate. Could these be the eggs of an usual type of bagworm moth, the females of which are typically wingless and larvicida and remain in their cocoon after emergence, where they mate, lay eggs, and die? The structures and their egg-like contents, at this point, remain a mystery, but I did collect them and am attempting to hatch the “eggs” (if that is what they are) in an effort to gain further clues about their identity.
Turning back to the east the forest changed dramatically. The tall canopy of mesic-loving hardwoods such as Quercus alba (white oak) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple) gave way to a shorter, more open canopy of trees preferring dry to xeric conditions such as Q. muhlenbergii (chinquapin oak), Rhamnus caroliniana (Carolina buckthorn), and Sideroxylon lanuginosum (wooly buckthorn or gum bumelia). Entomologist that I am, I couldn’t resist the chance to check the ground around the bases of the trunks of each of the latter, hoping to see evidence of larval activity by the spectacular and highly host-specific Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), but no such evidence was seen. At one point, the dry oak woodland yielded to a bona fide dolomite glade (more properly called “xeric dolomite prairie”), with evidence of mechanical removal of woody plants and prescribed burns serving as testament to dedicated management practices intended to restore and preserve the original character of the glade by park management.
The final stretch led back down into the valley, where a disturbing amount of Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle) was observed on the forest floor and growing up the smaller trees. A grove of Pinus echinata (shortleaf pine), apparently planted some time ago, looked oddly out of place given the dolomitic substrate in the area but did provide an opportunity for dramatic up views. After regrouping in the parking lot (and remarking on what a “fern-tastic” walk it had been), a number of participants caravanned to Clark Street Cade and Bakery in nearby Sullivan for a welcome resumption of the traditional post-walk lunch.