How to be an “iPhone nature photographer”

My passion for insect macro-photography is well known, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I have, during the past year or so, also become an avid “iPhone photographer”—i.e., I actually use my iPhone for “real” photography and not just selfies or quick snapshots. This is not to say that an iPhone can do everything that a digital SLR camera can do, especially when one considers the resolution of and wealth of lens options available for the latter. Nevertheless, as the world’s best selling smart phone, the iPhone has, by way of its camera function, also become the world’s best selling camera, and even though it cannot match the power of a dSLR, there are certain situations and types of photos for which the iPhone is perfectly adapted. Having gained some level of proficiency in learning what the iPhone can and cannot do when it comes to photography, I thought I would offer this photo set of a hike I did today along the Courtois Section of the Ozark Trail as a primer for the types of photos at which iPhones excel, along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned to get the most of the iPhone’s capabilities.

An iPhone is basically a fully automated, wide-angle camera (although the user can control exposure to some extent by touching the screen at the desired point). As such, it excels at landscape and general nature photos, and its small-diameter lens also allows some use for “wide-angle macro.” iPhones do not do well in low light situations or take true macro photographs (although one can use a variety of “clip-on” lenses to achieve fairly decent macro-photographs of larger insects—I have not tried this myself). As a result, I tend to use the iPhone mostly in good light situations and break out the big camera when the lighting is more challenging or if I want to take “real” macrophotographs. As with all digital photographs, good post-processing is necessary for making iPhone photos look their best, and in general a more aggressive approach than is typical for dSLR photographs will be required. The photos that follow are intended not only to give a flavor of the day’s hike, but also demonstrate my photographic approach and provide tips on composition, exposure, and post-processing. If you have gained experience in iPhone photography and have additional tips and tricks that you would like to share, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them in the comments.

Courtois Creek - immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

Courtois Creek – immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

This photo was taken into the sun, which can easily result in a washed out sky. To avoid this, I minimized the amount of sky in the photo (which also allowed the ripples in the foreground to be included for a sense of motion) and then touched the screen on the sky to set the exposure. This resulted in a dark photo, but it preserved the rich colors which could then be brought out with aggressive brightening and increasing the contrast in Photoshop. A standard set of commands that I generally use for all iPhone photos (slightly increased saturation, sharpening, and de-speckling) produced the finished version.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek - massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallend boulders the size of dump trucks.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek – massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallen boulders the size of dump trucks.

Another photo taken in the direction of the sun, causing the shadowed side of the rock to turn out very dark. Again I touched the screen on the sky to preserve the blue color and then aggressively lightened in Photoshop. Aggressive brightening generally requires a more aggressive increase in contrast, followed by the standard command set mentioned for the first photo.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

This photo required fairly minimal post-processing since it was shot away from the sun and, thus, had decent native exposure. The bluff face was a little dark and needed minor brightening, but as always I set the exposure in the brightest area of the photo and then post-corrected the dark areas (this is much easier than the opposite, i.e., darkening areas that are too bright, as such areas are often blown and cannot be fixed).

Ozark Trail blaze.

Ozark Trail blaze.

A very close-up shot of a trail blaze. The main watch out with such photos is to ensure the plane of the camera matches the subject precisely, otherwise distortion will cause elongation of one side (making the blaze a trapezoid rather than a rectangle). In post-processing I set the white point in levels by greatly magnifying the image and clicking on a very white part of the blaze to get a more natural looking white rather than the dirty gray that often results when shooting largely white subjects.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek - from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the treefall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek – from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the tree fall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

This was another photo taken fairly towards the sun. I wanted just a thin band of sky to add a sense of scale to the downward-looking view, but with little sky the camera automatically wanted to expose for the darker foreground, thus blowing the sky. To prevent this, I tilted the camera up slightly to get more sky, touched the screen on the sky to set exposure, then tilted back down to the composition I wanted and took the shot. Post-processing involved aggressive brightening as described for the first two photos above.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

I approached this tree from an angle facing the sun, so I simply waited until we passed it and could turn to place the sun behind me while shooting this tree. The trick is to get the right distance for a composition that doesn’t include too much wasted space at the foot of the tree or in its canopy, so this requires some walking back and forth until the right composition is achieved (I do not use the zoom function on the camera unless I have to because of the loss of resolution).

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

A closer view of the sapsucker damage—again this is mostly a compositional challenge, which I met by getting close enough to have this interesting “looking up” perspective but still far enough away to include the lowest ring of damage at the bottom of the photo and the highest at the top. Little post-processing other than the standard set was required for this sun-behind-me photograph.

Crystallifolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

Crystallofolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

For photographing crystallofolia and other small, ground-dwelling features, I like to turn the iPhone so that the lens is on the bottom edge to achieve a true ground-level perspective. The macro capabilities of the iPhone are limited, so in this case I used the zoom function (maybe about 1/3 to full zoom), centered the feature in the photo to get the best exposure and focus, and then did a little more cropping post-processing at the bottom of the photo to minimize the amount of blurred foreground. Again, a mostly white subject such as this tends to come out dull in the native photograph, so I enlarged the image greatly in Photoshop, opened Levels, clicked on set white point, and then clicked on the whitest portion of the subject that I could find to achieve a more ‘naturally’ white subject. It can take a few tries to find a spot in the image that doesn’t result in unnatural over-whitening of the subject—one must play around a bit to find it.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the "Narrows" - a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the “Narrows” – a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Again, I like to use a low perspective for ground features such as these lichen-encrusted rocks strewn across the forest floor. If you let the iPhone focus naturally, it tends to focus on subjects closer to the middle of the photo, so be sure to touch the screen on the foremost subject to set the focus in the foreground. Photos with contrasting colors such as the greens, browns, and blues in this one generally benefit from a little more aggressive increase in saturation (maybe 15-20%) than I normally use for iPhone photos (usually 5-10%).

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

A semi- wide-angle macro photograph that combines a lichen encrusted rock in the foreground with forest and sky in the background. The camera will automatically focus on the background, so touch the screen at the top of the foreground object to set focus. It also helps to pan back a little bit to include more in the frame than is desired, then crop a little in Photoshop as the lower part of the foreground object will tend to be out of focus unless it is a perfectly vertical surface (rare). In this photo I cropped out about 1/5 from the bottom and a corresponding amount on each side to maintain original aspect ratio.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

Highly dimensional foreground objects add depth and perspective to low-angle shots. Again, it is better to get a little more in the photo than desired and the crop slightly afterwards than to get too close and not be able to do anything about it. Taking the native shot a little further back also ensures that the entire foreground object is in focus.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Like the close-up photo of the lichen-encrusted rock above, this photo of intermingled moss and fruticose lichens benefits from a low perspective with a high color contrast immediate background (fallen leaves) and blurred deep background (forest/sky) to add perspective. While the latter is not completely blurred, but it’s enough that it doesn’t detract from the main subject. The latter has maximal focus by backing up slightly for the shot and then cropping off the bottom out-of-focus portion in Photoshop. Again, I increased saturation a little more than usual to emphasize the value contrast.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

The main challenge with this photo was the shadow cast over Rich by the trees behind him. Setting the exposure on him resulted in a washed out sky, which I really wanted to preserve because of the textured clouds. I also wanted to include a good portion of the sky to give the sense of looking out over a far-below valley, so I set the exposure for the sky. The resulting photo had a good sky, but Rich was hidden in a darkly shadowed area. I used lighten shadows in Photoshop to brighten Rich and the shadowed area where he is standing, and I used aggressively increased saturation to make the many different shades of brown in the rest of the photo pop out.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This photo had largely the same challenges and was dealt with in the same manner as the previous. The ancient red-cedar snag is an interesting and unusual subject, and I first tried a portrait orientation, but I decided I liked this landscape orientation better because of the ability to include living red-cedar to add a sense of time contrast.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Whenever I find icicles hanging from a rock overhang, I like to provide a more unusual perspective by getting behind the icicles and looking out onto the landscape. It can be hard to get the camera to focus on the icicles rather than the distant landscape—just keep touching them on the screen until it works. I used shadow lightening in Photoshop to brighten the dark rock surfaces in the foreground.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This was a difficult photograph—sun on the pines/cedars on the left overexposed them, while shadows on the naturally dark rock bluff surfaces left them underexposed. This photo was made fairly acceptable by using both “darken highlights” and “lighten shadows” (careful—too aggressive with these features results in unnatural-looking photos), followed by brightening and increasing the contrast, and finally by increasing the saturation. It’s still not a great photo, but sometimes you get what you get.

More icicles.

More icicles.

This larger set of icicles was nicely positioned in front of an interestingly sloped landscape with the sun coming from the left. Again, I got behind them, kept touching the screen on the icicles until the iPhone focused on them, and then adjusted the white point setting in Levels in Photoshop to really make them pop against the rich browns of the landscape behind.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

A fairly easy shot due to the direction of the sun that required no more than the usual amount of post-processing. Note the perspective, which was to have the rock feature begin right at the bottom left corner of the photograph with some sky above it.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

This photo had some dark areas in the foreground that were cropped out, and to emphasize the ice I was more aggressive post-processing with brightening and increasing the contrast. Again, as with most photos with a lot of white in the subject, I adjusted the white point in Photoshop Levels to reduce the “dinginess” that seems natural for ambient light iPhone photos.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

In this case, the sun glistening on the icicles and a deep recess behind them provided a natural contrast that I further emphasized in post-processing, along with brightening and setting white point. The icicles suffer from distortion due to my low angle (I’m not that tall!), which I tried to fix with Photoshop’s distort feature but wasn’t satisfied with the result.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

The approach with this photo was very much like that used for the close-ups of the lichen-encrusted rocks and intermingled lichens/moss photos—i.e., I backed up a bit to include more foreground than I wanted (which will be blurred at the bottom after setting the focus point on one of the stalagmites) and then cropped it out in post-processing. White subject = setting white point and using more aggressive brightening and contrast.

 Ted MacRae Yesterday ·  Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Again, the formation starts at the lower corner, and in this case the foreground (the right side) also contains an interesting clump of icicles. With the sun behind me, little was required to assure proper exposure, and only normal post-processing was required.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

This moss on a fallen log was actually one of the more difficult photographs I took. I took the photo at an angle so that the background fruiting structures would form a solid, blurred red horizon to add depth, but in doing this the iPhone didn’t know where I wanted to focus and kept choosing the background. To force it to “choose” the foreground fruiting structures, I tilted the camera down so that only the foreground was in the frame, touched the screen on the fruiting structures in the back part of the screen to set focus where I wanted, then tilted the screen back again to include the background fruiting structures distant blurred background for perspective. One must shoot quickly when doing this or the iPhone will automatically readjust its focus to the background. I’ve tried shots such as this with the sky in the background, but in my experience the iPhone cannot focus on very thin foreground objects with the sky in the background, and the difference in brightness between the background and foreground is especially difficult to correct. Like the other semi- wide-angle macro shots above, I used the zoom feature (slightly), included a little more in the photo than I wanted, and then cropped out the overly blurred bottom portion of the photo.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Here is a typical photograph that someone might take of these large, saucer-sized mushrooms on a fallen log. In addition to being a pedestrian view of such a subject, it seems that iPhones sometimes have difficulty registering the correct color for photos taken straight down to the ground. This photo required quite a bit of color correction, and I’m still not overly satisfied with the result.

"Bug's eye" view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

“Bug’s eye” view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

As an alternative, I suggest getting low to photograph subjects such as this. The iPhone, with its lens against one edge and screen view, is well-adapted to take such low-angle photos, resulting in a much more interesting photo than the typical “looking down” perspective exemplified above. Inclusion of a little bit of sky in the background also provided some nice color contrast, made easier by shooting away from the sun, which was further emphasized in post-processing by increasing the saturation. As with the other semi- wide-angle macro photographs, a little bit of cropping along the bottom (but do keep the original aspect ratio) also benefited the photograph.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Last, but not least, this photograph of shaded, heavily moss-laden rock outcroppings bordering a small waterfall needed to be shot very dark in order to avoid “blowing” the sky in the background. Simply pointing and shooting into the shade will cause the iPhone to correctly expose the rocks, but the sky will be blown rather than retaining its blue color. Like the first two photos, I composed the image, then touched the screen on the sky to reduce the exposure. Again, this resulted in a photo that was very dark in the foreground, but this was easily corrected by aggressive brightening, adding contrast, and increasing the saturation post-processing to achieve a nice mix of browns and greens while preserving the blue sky background. In forest shots such as this with a lot of vertical objects, pay attention to distortion while composing the photo to avoid having trees at the edge of the photo “bowing” inwards at their tops. Sometimes this can be avoided by minor adjustments to the tilt of the iPhone while taking the shot, but if your position in the landscape is such that camera tilt alone is not enough to prevent this without losing the desired composition then go ahead and shoot the desired composition and use the “distortion” tool in Photoshop to correct the distortion this works best if bowing is minor).

I hope you have enjoyed this iPhone nature photography tutorial. If you have additional ideas or suggestions please let me know, and also I would be glad to hear of any related subjects you would like me to cover.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Best of BitB 2011

Welcome to the 4th Annual BitB Top 10, where I get to pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year. As an insect macrophotographer I still feel like a relative newcomer, although with three seasons under my belt fewer and fewer people seem to be buying it anymore. Granted I’ve learned a lot during that time, but the learning curve is still looking rather steep. I don’t mind—that’s the fun part! With that said, I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite photographs featured here during 2011. I hope they reflect the learnings I’ve had the past year and maybe show some progress over previous years (2009, 2008 and 2010).

One more thing—I’m including a special bonus for the first time in this year’s edition. Each of the photos shown below is linked to a 1680×1120 version that may be freely downloaded for use as wallpaper, printing in calendars, or any other use (as long as it’s personal and non-profit). It’s my way of saying thanks for your readership and support.

From  (posted 8 Jan). I’ve done limited photography with prepared rather than live specimens. However, the recreated aggressive-defensive posture of this greater arid-land katydid (Neobarrettia spinosa)—or “red-eyed devil”—was too striking to pass up. A clean background allows every spine and tooth to be seen with terrifying clarity.

From  (posted 6 Feb). I had never seen a cactus fly until I encountered this Nerius sp. I’m especially fond of the bizzarely-shaped head and un-fly-like spines on the front legs.

From  (posted 17 Feb). This photo of a fungus weevil, Phaenithon semigriseus, is one of the first where I nailed the focus right on the eye at such a magnitude of closeup (~3X) and also got the composition I was looking for. I didn’t notice at the time, but the beetle seems to be “smiling.”

From  (posted 28 Mar). One of the field techniques I’ve been practicing this year is actually holding the plant with the subject in one hand, resting the camera on my wrist and controlling it with the other hand, and manipulating the position of the plant to achieve a desired composition. It’s a difficult technique to master, but the results are worth it. The jumping spider, Euophrys sutrix, represents one of my earliest successful attempts with this technique.

From  (posted 30 Mar). This South American tree fruit weevil looks like it is sitting quite calmly on a branch. In reality, it never stopped crawling while I attempted to photograph it. Crawling subjects are not only difficult to focus on but also almost always have a “bum” leg. I achieved this photo by tracking the beetle through the lens and firing shots as soon as the center focus point flashed, playing a numbers game to ensure that I got at least one with all the legs nicely positioned. I’d have been even happier with this photo if I had not clipped the antennal tip.

From  (posted 4 May). Face shots of predatory insects are hard to resist, and in this one of the fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, the angle of the subject to the lighting was perfect for showing off every ridge and tooth in its impressive mandibles.

From  (posted 10 May). I’ve taken plenty of lateral profile shots of tiger beetles, but I like this slightly panned out one especially because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.

From  (posted 18 May). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.

From  (posted 15 July). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymphal lichen grasshopper, Trimerotropis saxatilis, is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 

From  (posted 23 Aug). I know this is the second beetle face shot I’ve included in the final selections, but it was while photographing this rare Florida metallic tiger beetle, Tetracha floridana, in the middle of the night that I discovered the use of extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size). This is perhaps one of the best illuminated direct flash photographs that I’ve taken, and I also like the symmetry of the composition.

From  (posted 17 Sep). The three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) is a common pest of alfalfa and soybean in the U.S. However, despite its abundance, I’ve never noticed the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes until I took this photo. Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition. Bumping up the ISO and a lower FEC setting prevented overblowing the light greens—easy to do with full flash macrophotography.

From  (posted 4 Oct). This longhorned beetle had settled in for the night on its Ericamera nauseosa host plant, allowing me to use higher ISO and lower shutter speed settings with a hand-held camera to achieve this very pleasing blue sky background, while retaining the sharpness of detail of the subject that comes from full-flash illumination. The blue sky background provides a more pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers than the black background that is more typically seen with full-flash macrophotography.

From  (19 Dec). An uncommon underside view of these purple tree fungus (Trichaptum biforme) caps and use of flash illumination allows the colors to literally glow against the bright green lichens also growing on the tree. Keeping aperture at a moderate setting allows blurring of the caps further back, adding three-dimensionality to the photo and preventing it from looking ‘flat.’

Well, there you have it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections. Please do tell me if you have a favorite among theses (and if there were other photos posted during 2011 that you think deserved making the final selections).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

A Riot of Colors

Turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) on lichen-encrusted trunk of fallen post oak (Quercus stellata)—ventral view.

For my friend Rich and I, Thanksgiving week marks the official beginning of the winter hiking season.  Fifteen years ago we began our quest to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail, and with only ~50 of the 350 miles constructed to this point in Missouri to go we find ourselves tantalizingly close to reaching that goal. This year we started the season with 10+ miles of the northernmost Courtois Section. The rains of the previous few days had stopped, but the moisture-laden air still hung heavy under gray, overcast skies.  Such a day may not be considered optimal for photography, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lichens and fungi, normally muted and inconspicuous, spring to life when awash with moisture and splash the woodlands with a riot of colors rarely seen on dry, sunny days. The dark, almost black, color of the wet bark adds to the contrast and further emphasizes the ubiquity of these “lower forms of life” amongst the now leafless trees.

Among the most distinctive of these is turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), an extraordinarily common polypore fungus that grows on the trunks of declining and dead deciduous trees—especially oaks. Like all polypore fungi, turkey tail feeds saprophytically within dead and dying wood but is more familiar to us by way of its externally produced reproductive structures, or “tails,” for the release of spores. As the specific epithet suggests, turkey tail comes in a variety of colors ranging from gray through browns to black, and the association of older tails with algal growth even adds greens to the mix. The diversity of colors is found not only within a single locality, but even on a single tree! The especially colorful example shown in these photos, made even more so by its intermixture with green crustose lichens, was found on the trunk of a post oak (Quercus stellata) tree that had fallen across the trail, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the range of colors present and the contrast between the dorsal and ventral surfaces.

Update 30 Dec 2011: Kathie Hodge has provided the following correction to my identification:

Hate to tell you, but the turkey tails in your post aren’t turkey tails, alas, they’re Trichaptum biforme. It’s one of a bunch of shelf fungi that resemble true turkey tails.  You can tell them apart by the small, regular pores of Trametes, whereas Trichaptum has a rugged toothy thing going on.  Also, T. biforme is paler on top, not as strongly zonate, and has a distinctly purple growing edge (and sometimes the hymenium is delightfully purple too).

Thank you, Kathie, for keeping me on the straight and narrow (and maybe I should stick with beetles in these quizzes!).

Natural light (ISO1600, f/5.6, 1/60 sec)

Full flash (ISO160, f/16, 1/200 sec)

Of course, color is a matter of perception, and I wondered what effect lighting would have on this. When it comes to macrophotography I’m an unapologetic flash-man, preferring the flexibility and sharpness of detail that flash lighting offers over the dreamier “natural” images produced with strictly ambient light. The above comparison, looking at the dorsal surface of the tails with their characteristic concentric zones of colors, did nothing to change that opinion. While some might insist that the natural light photo is a truer representation of the actual colors witnessed, to me it looks gray and faded—no doubt a result of illumination by a large gray light source (the cloudy sky). While my eyes might have seen muted shades of gray and brown, my mind saw vivid shades of rust, orange, and green—colors captured more faithfully by the full-flash illuminated photo.

The strikingly zonate upper surfaces present contrasts in texture as well as color

Congratulations to those of you who guessed some kind of polypore fungus in Super Crop Challenge #10, although nobody correctly deduced an ID below the family level. I fear my challenges have gotten too difficult, as this is the  in which nobody arrived at the correct answer. Nevertheless, on points Mr. Phidippus takes top honors with 11, while Roy, Tim and John earned enough points to receive podium mentions. Session 5 overall leader, Marlin, didn’t play this time, so Mr. Phidippus now takes over the top spot—can he hold onto it as the session plays out?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Pipestone National Monument

Grandson, do not expect to accomplish much in this lifetime, for no one shares your vision… – The Oracle

Wednesday was my birthday, and it has been my custom for many years now to take the day off and go hiking/bugging somewhere. Coming as it does in early spring, it is usually the first real bug collecting trip of the year. This year, however, I was roped into a short business trip to visit a USDA lab in Brookings, South Dakota, so tradition would have to take a back seat. My visit at the lab ended early, though, and my flight back home from Sioux Falls didn’t leave until that evening, so I studied the map to look for any possible nearby points of interest in this landscape that has, for the most part, been unforgivingly converted to fields of corn, soybean, and wheat. I quickly noted a place called Pipestone National Monument just over the border into Minnesota. I love stopping at national monuments while traveling – they usually have some significant historical or geological interest, and their typically (though not always) small size means one can fully explore the area in a relatively short time. I did not know or had never heard of this place, but what I found was a charming little jewel tucked within a remnant of tallgrass prairie. At this far northern latitude, spring is still in its earliest of states. Few insects would be seen, but nevertheless I felt thankful for the chance to spend time outdoors and in a place of beauty where I could reflect on the years gone by and those (hopefully) still to come.

The area is named for a thin layer of catlinite – pipestone – exposed in this small area that has been quarried for centuries by Native Americans for carving into pipes (both war and peace). Quarrying within the monument continues to this day, with permission to do so reserved by law only to registered Native Americans. The area is identified as a sacred site associated with Native American spiritual beliefs and is preserved as a significant cultural and ethnographic landscape. Of particular interest to me was the site’s distinct hydrologic/geologic landscape and the native tallgrass prairie associated with it. A short ¾-mile trail loops through the area, providing a diverse glimpse of the area’s unique features. Pipestone may have provided the area’s namesake, but a narrow exposure of Sioux quartzite is the area’s most prominent geologic feature. Sioux quartzite is derived from billion and a half year-old layers of sand/silt sediments deposited thickly on the floors of ancient, Precambrian seas and compressed over the vastness of time into a hard, reddish metamorphic rock. Normally covered in this area by glacial till, the layers at this site are tilted upward 5–10 degrees towards the west and break through the surface to form a jagged, mile-long west-facing escarpment 23-30 feet high. Underneath the quartzite is the pipestone, a thin layer of metamorphosed shale. This fine-grained rock is derived from clay deposits, thus it is much softer and redder than the harder-than-steel quartzite. Pipestone Creek bisects the escarpment, giving rise to the lovely Winnewissa Falls, flowing over the escarpment and running down to a small, natural empoundment (Hiawatha Lake) before continuing its journey back into the glacial till and tallgrass prairie (for anybody surprised that there should be “falls” in this part of the country, it is interesting to note that nearby Sioux Falls is named after a grander example of of such flowing over quartzite exposures in its downtown).

Precious little remains of the expansive tallgrass prairie that once extended from horizon to horizon in this area. A few small parcels managed to escape the plow, but even in those tiny remnants dramatic alterations in plant communities have occurred due to fire suppression and the introduction of more than 70 non-native plant species. Prescribed burning programs are now being used at the Monument to restore the prairie’s native plant composition and appearance. Looking out over the tallgrass prairie remnants above and below the quartzite escarpment, it I was tempted to visualize circles of teepees on the higher ground away from the quarries (all Native American tribes worshipped this site and would never camp directly within it), with herds of American bison dotting the landscape in the distance. Contrasting with the openness of the prairie, the escarpment itself is densely studded with trees – American elm (Ulmus americana) along the top edge, and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the escarpment itself. Unlike the large, sometimes towering examples of their kind found further to the east, the trees here are dwarfed and spreading, almost gnarled. Below the escarpment, woodland quickly gives way to pure stands of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and choke cherry (Prunus sp.), which just as quickly yield to the surrounding sea of prairie. Along Pipestone Creek below the escarpment, lower layers of exposed quartzite provide nooks and crannys where enough moisture collects to support the growth of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) trees, until glacial till once again covers the quartzite, and riparian woodland yields to grasses and forbes. It’s not hard to imagine why this became a special place to the Native Americans, even before they discovered the pipestone that was to become so important to their culture.

The pipestone quarries are located a short distance to the west of the escarpment – where the hard quartzite layer is thin enough to break through – and, thus, have had little impact on altering the physical appearance of the escarpment itself. Winnewissa Falls (meaning “Jealous Maiden” in the Dakota language), lies at the center of the escarpment, providing a stunning centerpiece. Despite its beauty, it is but a shadow of what it was before early settlers in the area blasted away the top 18 feet of the ledge to create a reservoir for drinking water. A century of weathering and recolonization by lichens and mosses have softened the scars on the rocks, leaving little to indicate that such a dramatic alteration took place. However, standing in front of the falls, finding that “zone” where the temperature suddenly drops and cool wet mist blows on the face, and thinking about the significance of this place to the Native American tribes who held it so sacred, I was left feeling bewildered at how such drastic measures could have been contemplated for so beautiful a place.

In addition to the falls, nature has created some striking sculptures in the rock. “Old Stone Face” can hardly be mistaken for anything else – despite its human likeness, it was created entirely by natural forces. “The Oracle” is another naturally-formed human likeness found (though not as easily as Old Stone Face) in the outlines of the rocks. Tribal Shamans (Medicine Men) believed it served as a guardian of the valley and that voices issued from it’s cold stone lips. I stared for awhile and strained to listen, trying to imagine what words it might have spoken. At first, it seemed as if all was silent. Then I noticed the sound of the wind rolling over the prairie and twirling through the gnarled oaks. I heard the falls in the distance. I heard birds in the midst of frantic early-spring songs. I thought perhaps these might be the voices that guided the Shamans – spoken so loudly, yet so easily unheard.

The first U.S. government expedition to the quarry occurred in 1838 with Joseph Nicollet, a French scientist who was sent to map the upper Mississippi country. He and the members of his expedition carved their names in the rocks atop the escarpment, as did many of the early pioneers that first settled in the area. In studying the surface of these rocks, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible diversity of lichens to be found. Around 75 species are known from the area, and as shown in the photos I share below they come in a fantastic array of forms and colors. Lichens are primary colonizers of rock surfaces, able to do so as a result of their nutritional autonomy. Lichens are merely fungi that have evolved a specialised mode of nutrition: symbiosis with photosynthetic microalgae or cyanobacteria. Often, the algal component is capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, while the fungal organism attacks the rock with organic acids to release minerals. This is the basis of soil formation. Over time, enough soil accumulates in small depressions to allow mosses to colonize the rock surface. As successive generations of moss grow and die, more and more organic material accumulates on the rock surface, eventually supporting the growth of vascular plants (which extract nitrogen from the soil, rather than from atmospheric sources). These cycles of growth and death act in concert with the forces of erosion to ultimately convert barren rock to tallgrass prairie, hardwood forest, or other climax habitat. Mind you, this is an extraordinarily slow process – it can take a full century for a lichen to grow one inch! As I looked at the abundance and diversity of lichens on the rock surfaces, I tried to visualize the breadth of time encompassed by what was before me and quickly became lost in eternity.

While the trail that loops through the area is less than a mile in length, it took me an hour and a half to complete it. What started out as a few hours to kill ended as a hurried rush through the museum and interpretive center, trying to cram a few last morsels of knowledge into my head in those final moments before I would have to submit to the drive back to Sioux Falls. As I left the area, I noticed these oddly out-of-place boulders known as “The Three Maidens.”
Native Americans believe that these boulders shelter the spirits of maidens who demand offerings before permitting them to quarry the pipestone. Science tells us that the boulders are composed of granite and were likely carried here by glaciers during the past 1 million to 10,000 years ago. Originally a single boulder some 50 feet in diameter, repeated freezing and thawing over the millenia since it was dropped here have split the boulder into the several pieces seen here. Perhaps only The Oracle knows which is true.

For a more detailed, yet highly readable account of the geology of this area, please consult Minnesota Geology, Field Trip, Summer 2000 and Other MN DNR Workshops, by Arlyn DeBruyckere.

Ozark Trail – lower Courtois Section

The Courtois Section is the northern terminus of the Ozark Trail (OT). Despite its proximity to the St. Louis metro area, it feels just as remote and wild as the more southern sections. Rich and I played hooky from work on Friday and made our first visit to this stretch of the Ozark Trail. At 40 miles in length, we’ll need to break it up into at least three parts, so for our first attempt we hiked the lower portion from Hazel Creek (where the Trace Creek section begins) north to the Hwy 8 trailhead. Apparently this portion of the OT is very popular with mountain bikers and equestrians; however, we didn’t encounter a single person all day.

I expected the terrain to be rather mild at this northern end of the OT, but the first few miles were quite up and down. There was still some snow on the ground from a big storm a few days earlier – mild temps and sunny skies since then had caused a lot of melt. As a result, south facing slopes were completely devoid of snow cover, while north facing slopes still had and inch or two of snow, creating “split” scenes such as this:

Right away we noticed a lot of fresh woodpecker damage on oak trees. This is likely the result of infestations by the red oak borer (Enaphalodes rufulus), a cerambycid beetle that preferentially attacks red and black oaks suffering from drought or other environmentally-induced stress. The larvae of these beetles mine beneath the bark on the trunks of these trees before tunneling into the sapwood to pass the winter. Overwintering larvae are tasty morsels for woodpeckers, who hammer into the trunks with their beaks and extract the larvae with their barbed tongues. Interestingly, conventional wisdom has it that the tongue “stabs” the larva, and the barbs aid in pulling the larva out of its gallery. However, recent experiments with a West Indian species suggest this is not the case. Rather, the larva “sticks” to saliva on the tongue, and the barbs help to grab the larva as the tongue is wrapped around it. This picture shows a small black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree with fresh damage, probably from a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) judging by the size, going after one of these larvae.

A few miles into the trail, we came upon some curious “pits” covering one hillside. We speculated what they might be – sinks was an early thought, but I didn’t think that was so because the ground was mounded around the edge like they had been intentionally dug. Rich then remembered reading something about miners digging such pits in past years looking for minerals – we decided that must be what they were, and this was later confirmed in our Ozark Trail guidebook. Certain hillsides were literally covered with these pits, spaced ~10-15 feet apart.

After passing through Snapps Branch (where we noticed a small calcareous wet meadow, or fen – thankfully fenced), the trail leveled out for awhile before descending down to Boiling Springs Hollow where we stopped for lunch. Many of the larger valleys along the OT show some evidence of prior habitation – either by remains of old structures or by the stage of succession exhibited by the bottomland forest. Right at Boiling Springs, I noticed this large, old oak tree along with several large sugar maples (Acer saccharum) surrounded by younger forest – I suspect these “founder trees” were planted at some point when people lived near the spring (or at least spared from “the saw”) and remain as the only evidence of the people who lived here in the past.

I love bones and pick them up whenever I get the chance. After leaving Boiling Springs I noticed this half mandible of a white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) laying on the trail, still partially embedded in the snow. It was remarkably clean and complete, containing all of its dentition and with no remaining tissue except for a small piece attached to the nerve fossa. It’s completeness begged the question – where was the other half? We looked around and couldn’t find it. We then wondered if it had been dragged there by a scavenger, although we thought that if that was the case it should show signs of gnawing or at least have lost some of its dentition. At any rate, I have a white tailed deer cranium in my collection but not a mandible, so this will be a welcome addition.

Eventually we entered Machell Hollow, where we followed a beautiful stretch through the upper reaches of the valley. In this area we noticed a large number of dead white oaks (Quercus alba) that were all about the same size (~4-8″ dbh) and in about the same stage of decay, as if they had all died about the same time (maybe 4-5 years ago). There were still plenty of larger living trees, and I began to suspect that a fire had moved through this area and began looking for the evidence. Soon we found several larger trees showing some blackening around the base of the trunk that seemed to confirm this thought. We had a lot of fun “pushing over” some of these trees, with one in particular probably representing our champion pushover to this point. I didn’t think it was gonna go, but Rich chipped in, and against our formidable combined weight the tree gave way and came down with a crash. I noticed evidence of tunneling by wood boring beetles (probably a species of Buprestidae) inside the trunk of this tree where it cracked upon falling and lamented that I could not take a piece with me for rearing. All of the dead white oaks had this one type of shelf fungus growing from their trunks, which were particularly numerous on this already fallen tree:

Climbing up (briefly) out of Machell Hollow, we saw this cut shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) laying by the side of the trail. Interestingly, the accumulated ice on the cut end of the trunk was not the result of water running off the trunk, but through the trunk, apparently through insect galleries and perhaps even the vascular bundles of the wood itself. The slow melt and freeze resulted in these interesting little ice columns joining the trunk to the moss-covered ground below.

Back down into the lower reaches of Machell Hollow, evidence of prior settlement was obvious, as the bottomland forest in this area was replaced by young successional forest comprised primarily of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and brambles (Rubus sp.). We saw this lone little fruticose lichen growing on a small honey locust. Apparently, of the three main groups of lichens, fruticose lichens are the most sensitive to environmental disturbance. Perhaps the existence of this one colony suggests that the health of this bottomland forest is returning as succession proceeds along the path to maturity.

Here’s a picture of Rich taking his own picture of the lichen. I don’t know why he didn’t just wait and steal mine once it got posted 😉

Much more abundant on the honey locust trees were these foliose lichens. Lichens in this group are probably the most commonly noticed lichens in the Missouri Ozarks (although the less conspicuous crustose lichens may actually be more diverse). If you click on the photo to see the full-sized version, you can see long, black “hairs” around the margin of each “leaf” – if anyone knows the identity of this or any of the other lichens pictured on this site please let me know.

While ascending out of Machell Hollow, we noticed this small canyon about a hundred yards off to the left and decided to go investigate. Along the way we noticed the small creek coming from it was actually a ‘losing creek’ – which means that the water flows into the ground at certain points and is ‘lost.’ This is another feature of the limestone/dolomite-based Karst geology so common here in southern Missouri that results in its abundance of caves and springs. When we got to the canyon we saw it was comprised of a layer of sandstone. This must be a rare western exposure of the LaMotte sandstones that are more common just to the east in Ste. Genevieve County (see earlier posts on Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs Natural Area). This sandstone layer overlying dolomite has created an interesting geological feature, where a losing creek originates from a box canyon. Ice stalactites were dripping from the north facing slope of the canyon walls.

Back down into another hollow leading to Lost Creek we saw more dead white oaks with shelf fungi growing from the trunks. This one was interesting in that the shelf fungi were themselves supporting the growth of algae on their surface – an exquisite example of the interconnectedness of life.

We had seen a flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) moving through the forest earlier in our hike. We were too clumsily noisy to get close enough for more than a cursory look at them as they trotted off on high alert, but evidence of their activity was obvious as we saw their fresh “scratchings” over a wide swath through the forest as they searched for acorns to eat. Tracks were abundant in the snow around the area also, but I couldn’t get a good picture of them. Later, as we neared Lost Creek, I saw more tracks in the mud, so I was able to get a good picture of one. It looked fairly fresh (well defined, with nail holes evident):

Lost Creek represented the end of our hike, but it proved to be a more than insigificant final hurdle, as the water level was quite high due to all the recent snow melt. There was no choice, we would have to get wet. Rich is smarter than I and had thought to bring along some flip flops, so he took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants, and forded the creek. I let him go first to see how deep the water was – it reached above his knees and got is rolled up pants wet. I decided to get my boots wet – I didn’t want to walk on those rocks barefoot, which would slow me down far more than I wanted in that cold water. I could handle wet boots for the final quarter mile in exchange for the comfort and speed they would provide on the rocks. Rich may be smarter, but I took a better line and didn’t even get my pants wet, so for me it was only a matter of changing into my comfy shoes back at the car, with no need for a change of clothes (which I also wasn’t smart enough to bring, either). We completed the hike in 7 hours – yes, we’re lollygaggers, constantly distracted by little things that most people either don’t see or don’t care about. It was a wonderful hike on another beautiful day, and we ended it with another traditional post-hike visit to the nearest pizza parlor before the short drive back to St. Louis.

Ozark Trail – upper Trace Creek Section

Last Saturday Rich and I finished the Trace Creek Section of the Ozark Trail by hiking the upper 12.5 miles of the section – from Hazel Creek to the Hwy DD crossing. Today was a special day for us – we would be completing our 200th mile of the Ozark Trail! Unfortunately, I came down with a cold the day before, making it somewhat difficult to fully enjoy that milestone. Nevertheless, it was a milestone that we’re quite proud of. Since we started hiking the Ozark Trail some 7 years ago, we’ve completed the Taum Sauk, Middle Fork, Blair Creek, Current River, Between The Rivers, Eleven Point, and – now – Trace Creek Sections. Of these, the Taum Sauk Section is unquestionably the finest, crossing the rugged granite outcroppings of the St. Francois Mountains, and the Eleven Point Section with its towering bluff top views is a close second. We still have much to see, however. Completed sections still awaiting us are the Karkaghne, Marble Creek, Wappapello, and Victory Sections, and the Coutois and North Fork Sections are nearing completion. By the time we complete these sections, I expect additional parts of the planned route will be constructed and ready for our enjoyment.

But back to Saturday’s hike. We started at Hazel Creek with mild temps and cloudy skies but no precip in the forecast. We talked briefly to a mountain biker with a 29er who took this photo of us:

These cabin remains lie in the campground at the trailhead – those are sandstone blocks which I suppose must have been transported from the Lamotte formations some 30 miles to the east near Ste. Genevieve.

There was much to see in the vicinity of Hazel Creek. As an orchid enthusiast, I was pleased to find these Adam and Eve orchids (Aplectrum hymenale), also known as puttyroot, growing in healthy numbers on the hillside above the valley. The single leaf of this unusual plant is dusky grey-green in color, deeply creased and looking like crepe paper. They appear in late summer and persist until the plant flowers the following spring.

Another of the shelf fungi was found growing on the trunk of a large, dead deciduous tree.

My preoccupation with lichens continues. This colony of British Soldiers (Cladonia cristatella) was found growing in trailside rocks. This lichen is named for its resemblance to the uniforms worn by English soldiers during the Revolutionary War, although the spore-producing reproductive structures are not the brilliant red color as seen during the summer. Lichens are not plants, or even a single organism, but instead a symbiotic association between an alga (in this case, Trebouxia erici) and a fungus (in this case, Cladonia cristatella). Lichen scientific names are derived from the fungus part of the relationship.

Puffball mushrooms have been a favorite of mine since I found my first colony during childhood and delighted in watching the ‘smoke’ fly as I slapped them with my hands. These days I’m satisfied to just look at them (and maybe poke one or two).

The term “puffball” actually refers to a polyphyletic assemblage of fungi distributed within several orders in the division Basidiomycota. I’m no expert (or even a novice), but I wonder if these apparently mature individuals might represent the pear-shaped Morganella pyriforme, a saprobic species that is considered a choice edible while still young. Please leave a comment if you know its identity.

The trail was not particularly rugged but traversed across a number of ridges between the Hazel Creek and Trace Creek valleys. The bedrock was mainly chert, and along the trail we saw this quartz formation with its intricately formed interior exposed.

Approaching Trace Creek, this fireplace and chimney were all that remained of what was probably once a cozy little homestead. Obviously this house had not been constructed of sandstone blocks like the one at Hazel Creek. On each side of where the house once must have been stood two grand, old sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) – we speculated they had been planted by the former residents and wondered what life was like in this isolated little part of the Ozarks back in the day.

We reached the trails namesake, Trace Creek, about halfway through our hike, and by this time we were the Ozark Trail’s newest 200-mile veterans. It was a pretty little valley, and we stopped here for a bit to eat and rest. Adam and Eve orchids were plentiful here, and in looking for them I became surprised to notice how large a variety of green, herbaceous plants one can find in these deciduous forests during the winter, especially in the lower elevations (moister?).

On these hikes, it has become customary to ‘push over’ trees – dead trees, that is. The larger the better, but of course the larger they are the ‘deader’ they must be for us to be able to push them. I did not push over a single tree on my previous hike of the lower Trace Creek Section, so I made up for it this time and found three trees to push over. Here, Rich finds out what all the fun is about:

The final miles of the hike became more difficult, as my sore throat and congestion combined with the miles started taking their toll on me. We finished our hike at the Hwy DD crossing after 7 hrs of hiking, portaged back to the other car, and met up in Sullivan for our traditional post-Ozark Trail hike pizza dinner.

Pickle Springs Natural Area

Pickle Springs Natural Area lies in Ste. Genevieve County, about an hour south of St. Louis. Like Hawn State Park, the geology of this area and its effect on the flora have resulted in a unique collection of geologic features and plants found in few other places. The Lamotte sandstone outcrops that dot the landscape were formed nearly half a billion years ago when sand deposited in an extensive maze of braided river channels was cemented and buried under younger layers of limestone and dolomite formed from deposits on the floors of ancient seas that covered the interior of the continent. Later, the periods of uplift that created the St. Francois Mountains and resulting erosion of overlying strata once again exposed the sandstones at the surface. Millions of years of water, ice, rain, wind, and plants have further shaped the exposed sandstones, creating fanstastic shapes and formations and cool, deep canyons. The weathered sandstone created acid soils which support many unique plants. During the ice ages, northern plants and animals moved into the area ahead of the advancing glaciers. Mammoths roamed the landscape grazing on the northern vegetation supported by the area’s acid soils. Eventually the ice retreated, and so did the mammoths. But many of the plants remained – able to hang on in the cool, moist canyons long after the mammoths that once roamed these canyons disappeared. Because of this unique concentration of rare plants and geologic features, the area has been designated a Missouri Natural Area and a National Natural Landmark.

Yesterday I hiked the aptly-named ‘Trail Through Time’ with my family. This 2-mile trail is one of the most “feature-packed” trails in the state, with something to look at around almost every bend. Almost immediately the trail leads to the Slot, the result of a vertical fracture in the Lamotte sandstone that was loosened by leaching and then widened by erosion. The unique partridge berry (Mitchella repens) was seen on the moist, vertical walls of the rock, growing among strange holes, pockets, and ridges that formed as a result of the sand grains being variably cemented.

A short distance from The Slot lie Cauliflower Rocks – large moundlike formations (also called hoodoos or rock pillars) formed from jointed or fractured sandstone that undergoes deep solutional weathering followed by erosion and weather-mediated shaping. Hoodoos occur primarily in this type of rock due to its granular, variably cemented and cross-bedded matrix.

On the south side of Cauliflower Rocks lies a special type of buttress arch called Double Arch. It occurs at almost a right angle to the adjacent rock outrcrops, suggesting formation along a set of fractures running perpendicular to the main fracture trend of the area, but the precise details of its formation remain a mystery.

After leaving Cauliflower Rocks the trail descends steeply into a deep valley, at the bottom of which lies Pickle Creek just below its origin in a box canyon south of the Natural Area. Lush vegetation in this cool, moist valley contrasts with the stark rocks seen earlier.

The creek is fed by a series of seeps, allowing the valley to remain moist even during the dry summer months, and along with the acid soils support a unique plant community. Lush colonies of ferns (I believe this is Polypodium virginianum L.) covered the rocks adjacent to the creek…

…while this rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyera pubescens) was seen in a colony growing at the base of a black oak tree (Quercus velutina) just above the creek.

Mosses and lichens were also abundant in the valley. This little hair cap moss (Polytrichum sp.) with its distinctive fruiting structures was growing in a colony at the base of another black oak tree. The members of this genus prefer acidic environments.

Further ahead, along Bone Creek, several colonies of wooly aphids (family Aphididae) were seen on the branches of a small hop hornbeam tree (Ostrya virginiana).

The highlight of the hike had to be in Spirit Canyon at Owl’s Den Bluff. The horizontal layers of sandstone, each deposited on the steep downstream slopes of sandbars, are clearly visible in the towering bluff face. At the bottom lie bluff shelters – formed where lower sandstone layers collapse due to weathering or leaching, and where native Americans almost surely camped out. The sun never reaches parts of these shelters, providing ideal conditions for a variety of mosses and liverworts – many of which are known only from this area. Fallen boulders and collapsed portions of the bluff face provided photo opps for the daring…

…and good exploring for the nimble.

By now, the trail has passed the halfway point and is looping back to the west, where it ascends to Dome Rock Overlook. Along the way, a fascinating variety of lichens, including reindeer lichen, covers the forest floor where they are supported by the acid soils.

Dome Rock Overlook is a the largest hoodoo complex in the Natural Area. The thin soils and exposed conditions create a harsh, dry, windswept environment that only the hardiest of plants can withstand. Only a few small blackjack oaks (Quercus marilandica), shortleaf pines (Pinus echinata), and farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) survive here. Despite their small size, some of the trees growing here are at least 150 years old.

The trail descends from Dome Rock Overlook and passes underneath, providing spectacular views of the sheer rock face below the overlook. The trail completes its descent back into Pickle Creek Valley, where Pickle Spring can be seen. This small, permanent spring – an unusual feature in sandstone where seeps are more common – was an important source of water for early settlers.

Further along the trail lies one of the areas most unusual features – Rockpile Canyon – formed some 50 years ago (a fraction of a second in geologic time) when part of a sandstone bluff collapsed in a rumble, leaving behind a sheer bluff face and a jumbled pile of large boulders. A short spur in the trail leads to the head of a small box canyon, where some of the 20+ ice age relict plant species can be seen growing in the acid soils and cool, moist canyon walls.

Near the end of the loop lies Piney Glade, an area where the exposed sandstone bedrock once again creates a dry, harsh environment. Poverty grass and little bluestem grow in small, shallow pockets of soil scattered amongst stunted shortleaf pines and blackjack oaks – creating a small prairie surrounded by a sea of forest. All three forms of lichens can be found on the rocks and soils of the glade – the aptly named crustose lichens cling tightly to rock surfaces amongst foliose (leafy) and fruticose (branched) lichens.

Ozark Trail, lower Trace Creek Section

The Ozark Trail is a part of a vision, conceived in 1977, to build a scenic and varied route through the Missouri Ozarks, stretching from the St. Louis metropolitan area southwestward to the Arkansas border, eventually connecting to the Ozark Highlands trail–creating a 700 mile through-trail. Almost 550 miles of trail have been completed, with 350 miles in Missouri.
Ozark Trail Association

My friend Rich and I have been hiking sections of the Ozark Trail for several years now. So far, we have completed ~175 miles, and we hope to eventually hike the entirety of the trail. Yesterday we hiked the 11.5-mile southern stretch of the Trace Creek Section, starting at the Hwy DD crossing in Iron Co. and finishing at the Hwy A trailhead, where the Trace Creek Section joins the Bell Mountain portion of the Taum Sauk Section. The first few miles traversed relatively mild terrain as we followed the Telleck Branch, but after crossing the upper reaches of the Big River the terrain became progressively more rugged. The trail ended with a spectacularly steep descent down to Ottery Creek at the foot of Bell Mountain.

It was a gray day with light drizzle and increasing fog. The air was heavy with moisture, but with temperatures in the upper 30s and only light winds it didn’t feel too cold. While many sections of the Ozark Trail offer spectacular vistas overlooking the regions many spring-fed rivers, few such vistas are found on this section. What we did see were bright green lichens on rocks, on oak trunks, and on the ground underneath pines, small openings in the forest eerily shrouded in fog, and a variety of ferns along stream banks and in rock crevices, dripping with moisture. It rained lightly at one point, forcing us to break out our ponchos, but the rain didn’t last and we were able to stow the ponchos for good afterwards. It was a serene, beautiful experience with not another soul in sight during the entire day. The solutide contributed as much to the splendor as did the visual beauty. Following are some pictures from the day:

A foliose lichen plasters the surface of a rock outcrop

Closeup of the above, showing an highly convoluted 3-dimensional structure

I believe this is type of “reindeer lichen” – Cladina sp. – growing in a colony on sandy soil underneath a pine tree

Close up of the above, showing the intricacies of its fruticose structure

Water hangs heavy from leafless petioles of a downed oak tree

One of the shelf or crust mushrooms, growing on the trunk of an oak tree

Closeup of the above