“62nd” Annual “Season-Opener-Birthday-Bug-Collecting-Trip”

This past Tuesday was my birthday, and as I have done for my entire adult life I took the day off and went on my traditional “Season-Opener-Bug-Collecting-Trip”. In the past I’ve usually just had one friend go with me, but today I had three—Rich, Chris, and Bill!

We started off by heading south about 3½ hours to Tingler Prairie Natural Area in Howell Co.. I wanted to come here because: 1) it was a place I’d never visited before, and 2) there is a population here of the endemic Ozark trillium (Trillium viridescens) that I thought might be in bloom. Rain in the forecast and a patch of the real thing on the way down had us a little worried, but the day turned out spectacular with temps climbing to 80°F and skies partly to mostly sunny.

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Tingler Lake – the centerpiece of Tingler Prairie Natural Area.

We never did find the trillium—even calling another friend (Casey), who had seen them here before to find out exactly where he saw them. Turns out we hit the right spot, but apparently we were too early, especially given how late spring has been moving along this year. Nevertheless, we still found much to capture our interest, including a yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)—too quick for photos—and a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) that coiled up nicely under the end of a fallen log and tolerated my prodding and “cleaning” of the scene around him to get some good photos (albeit, only with the iPhone).

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Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The “cloudy” eye is actually an artifact of the flash lighting reflected by the retina.

Unfortunately, insect activity was very light. We saw no tiger beetles and only the earliest spring forms of most other insects. I took about 10 specimens each of the early-spring jewel beetles Acmaeodera tubulus and Pachyschelus purpureus, which I found on flowers and foliage (respectively) of wild geranium, Geranium maculatum. It was the first time that I’d found the latter as abundant as this, so the series of specimens will be a welcome addition to my cabinet. I also took a couple of A. tubulus on a flower of violet wood sorrel, Oxalis violacea and showed the others the characteristic end of an oak twig pruned by a twig pruner (Anelaphus parallelus) larvae (and revealed the culprit for them to see). Despite the paucity of insects, it was a beautiful and high-quality spot, and I look forward to collecting here again sometime when the season is more advanced.

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Several adult Acmaeodera tubulus feeding on petals of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers.

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Twig pruner, Anelaphus parallelus, larva cut from its gallery near the base of a pruned oak twig.

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Revealing the culprit while Chris takes notes on some of the birds he’s been hearing.

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Redspotted purple butterfly, Limnetis arthemis astyanax (family Nymphalidae), caterpillar on black cherry (Prunus serotina), one of its favorite host plants. The caterpillar mimics bird droppings for protection.

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Fire pink, Silene virginica (family Caryophyllaceae) thrives on a dry, cherty hillside.

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Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum (family Berberidaceae) prefers the rich, more mesic hillsides (this is where we expected Trillium viridescens to occur).

After finishing up at Tingler Prairie, we drove east an hour and bushwhacked over rough Forest Service 2-track to Bald Hill Glade Natural Area in Ripley Co. It had been close to 10 years since my previous visit, but I remembered the roads well. We had to park, however, about a mile from the entrance to the glade due to fallen trees across the final stretch 2-track. The landscape had changed considerably since my last visit—gone was the dense, close forest lining the 2-track, and in its place stood open woodland brought to this condition by active management that included the use of prescribed burning apparently as recently as the past season.

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Dwarf iris (Iris cristata).

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These diminutive plants are distinguished from other members of the genus by their short stature and sepals with midline beards.

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Bald Knob Glade Natural Area.

After hoofing through the forest we reached the glade and found a beautiful—if somewhat sterile—scene before us. The recent burn included not only the woodland but also the glade itself, and no unburned refugia could be found anywhere. Floristically, this is beneficial for the glade, which needs periodic fire to prevent woody encroachment, but in my experience such burns also result in severely depressed insect populations for years afterwards. It takes time for the insects to find and recolonize the glade, and in this case the lack of unburned refugia will only increase the amount of time that will be needed for the insect populations to recover.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike through the area, watched and listened to the calls and songs of a number of cool birds, including summer tanagers, indigo buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and—a first for me—the splendidly yellow prairie warbler. We also took photographs of the glade and some of its plants (with the big camera), and on the way back to the car we found several of the Polistes wasp-mimicking light flies, Pyrgota undata (family Pyrgotidae). Interestingly, all were mating pairs, and the ones we observed closely (as we photographed them with the big camera) were engaged in a most curious “French kissing” behavior. I can’t wait to read up more on this when I prepare to post the photos of this behavior.

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Widow’s cross (Sedum pulchellum).

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Me, Rich, Bill, and Chris.

Eventually, impending dusk signaled a close to the day, and after driving east another 1½ hours to have pizza dinner in Poplar Bluff we made the long drive back to St. Louis (arriving at my home at 12:30 a.m.!).

NOTE: All photos in this post were taken and processed with an iPhone X. The “real” photos taken with our “real” cameras will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

When hardcore botany meets hardcore nature photography—nature geekery at its finest!

Last Saturday, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Nature Photography Group was joined by several members of the WGNSS Botany Group and Missouri Native Plant Society to look for one of Missouri’s rarest plants—Geocarpon minimum, a.k.a. tinytim or earth-fruit (family Caryophyllaceae). This diminutive, federally-threatened and state-endangered plant grows only on sandstone glades, primarily in west-central Missouri with a few populations known also from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The window for finding this plant is short—it’s entire life cycle lasts only about 4 weeks, with an even shorter window for finding it in flower.

Our first stop to look for them was Bona (pronounced “Bonnie”) Glade Natural Area. I’d been here before, but it was about 10 years ago and at the wrong time to look for this plant (but I did find widowscross, Sedum pulchellum, in bloom). Some of the group had seen it here before and were able to coach us on the microhabitat where we would likely find them, and it didn’t take long before we did. Soon after finding the first plants, we found them in bloom as well—their almost microscopic flowers being the perfect subject for my macro lenses!

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Remnant sandstone glade at Bona Glade Natural Area, Dade Co., Missouri.

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Geocarpon minimum (tinytim or earth-fruit). Note the tiny open flowers just below center. (This is an iPhone photo—I have much better photos with my “big” camera.)

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Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) (family Montiaceae).

After getting plenty of shots of the plant and flowers, we moved to an adjacent plot of land across the highway, where we not only found more tinytim plants but also Corydalis aurea, commonly called golden corydalis (pronounced koor-ID-uh-lyss), in the family Papaveraceae—something I’d never seen before.

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Sedum pulchellum (widowscross) (family Crassulaceae).

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Corydalis aurea (golden corydalis).

Next the group moved on to Corry Branch Glade. It was originally our intent to look for more of the plant at this site, but immediately upon entering the glade we noticed a stunning display of Selenia aurea, or golden selenia. This small, striking species in the mustard family is restricted to just a handful of counties in the west-central part of the state, again primarily glade habitats. It was a surprising and pleasant find that occupied the groups’ attentions for some time before we finally decided to break for lunch (it was well into the afternoon!). While I was there, I not only photographed the plant but started having some success with my new 15-mm wide-angle macro lens, with which I had been experimenting all day (to that point without much success).

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Selenia aurea (golden selenia) (family Brassicaceae).

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Members of WGNSS & MoNPS go hunting for rare plants! Front to back: Ted MacRae (me), John Oliver, Casey & Anh Do Galvan, Steve Turner, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Deb Tyler, Adam Rembert, and James Faupel.

After “lunch” (which was closer to dinner!), a few of us (Bill, David, and I) wanted to go back to Bona Glade to take another crack at photographing tinytim with our wide-angle macro lens. I especially was not satisfied with what I had gotten earlier, that being my first serious attempt at using the lens in the field. Having a better idea now of how to use the lens and what our compositional goals were, we scoured the area looking for just the right plants in just the right situations. I can honestly say I finally got a feel for how to use the lens, the trickiest part of it being how to balance use of flash on the subject with the amount of ambient light from the background (I’m not a stranger to this concept at all, frequently having combined flash with “blue sky” in much of the macrophotography I’ve done up to this point). We photographed several plants on different substrates looking for the right combination of plant, substrate, and background, and we all walked away pretty optimistic that we’d gotten the photos that we wanted.

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Bill Duncan photographing tinytim with his wide-angle macro lens.

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Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry) (family Rosaceae).

My thanks to Casey and Ando Galvan for letting me ride down there with them, to David Seidensticker and Bill Duncan for letting me ride back with them, and for everyone in the group who so generously shared their great, collective knowledge of botany, photography, and natural history. What a fun day!

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken with an iPhone X. The “real” photos, taken with our “real” cameras, will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Ozark Trail – Marble Creek Section

If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go…. This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future. – Terry Tempest Williams


During the past several years that Rich and I have been hiking the Ozark Trail, most of our hikes have taken place in the fall and winter months. From a hiker’s perspective, I really enjoy these off-season hikes – the foliage-free canopy affords unobstructed views of the terrain and vistas, the cool (even cold) temperatures are more comfortable under exertion (provided one has properly layered), and there are no mosquitos to swat, ticks to pick, or gnats to incessantly annoy. I also enjoy them as a naturalist, for the world is quiet and still, allowing me to focus on things I may not notice amidst the cacophany of life during the warmer months. By the end of winter, however, the biologist in me yearns to once again see bugs and flowers and the great interplay of life. Unfortunately, this makes something as simple as hiking from point A to point B rather difficult – too many distractions! Nevertheless, each spring Rich and I try to hike a small leg of the Ozark Trail before the crush of summer activities fills our calenders. Last week, we chose the Marble Creek Section, an orphan stretch (for the time being) in the rugged St. Francois Mountains that eventually will connect to the famed Taum Sauk Section. It would be our first return visit to the St. Francois Mountains since we first embarked on our goal to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail.

The St. Francois Mountains are the geologic heart of the Ozark Highlands. Since their primordial birth 1.5 billion years ago, recurring cycles of erosion and deposition have worn them down and covered them up, only to see them reemerge once again as the younger rocks covering them were themselves stripped away. The Ozarks are an ancient landscape with ancient hills, and none are older than those of the St. Francois Mountains. It’s as if the Earth itself began in these mountains. We began our hike at Crane Lake, a clear, blue 100-acre lake built in the 1970s by the Youth Conservation Corps. The trail surrounding the lake was built in 1975 and is, in its own right, a National Recreation Trail. It meanders along the lakeshore and through hillside igneous glades and descends into a deep ravine below the dam where Crane Pond Creek cascades through spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. East of the lake the trail connects to the Ozark Trail proper and continues to Marble Creek campground. All told, we would be hiking a 9-mile stretch.

I knew we were in a special place almost from the beginning when I noticed a small flowering plant growing next to the trail under the mixed pine/oak canopy. I’m not a very good botanist, but I instantly recognized the plant as dwarf spiderwort (Tradescantia longipes), an Ozark endemic known from only a handful of counties in Missouri and Arkansas. I knew this only because I had just the night before read about this wonderful plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri, a superb natural history blog focused on my beloved Ozarks. Reading about this lovely, diminutive member of the genus, I wondered if I might encounter it on my own hike the next day. As we searched off the trail and near the lakeshore we encountered dozens of the plants, each with one or two exquisite blue flowers. Our excitement at seeing a true Ozark endemic increased with each plant we encountered, giving us confidence that its future, at least in this area, appears secure. Of the numerous photographs I took, I share two that show its short, squat habit and filament-covered stamens. Eventually we decided we needed to move on – we had spent 20 minutes and only hiked 100 ft!

Looping around the south side of the lake, the trail traversed mesic to dry-mesic upland forest and afforded spectacular views of the lake and rugged north shore. The spring ephemerals had already come and gone, replaced by such classic woodland denizens as birdfoot violet (Viola pedata, pictured), fire pink (Silene virginica), cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucophaea), four-leaved milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), Pursh’s phacelia (Phacelia purshii), and shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). Insect life was abundant, however, the only species seen in one of my chosen specialties, metallic wood boring beetles (family Buprestidae), were early spring species of Acmaeodera – pictured here is A. ornata on a dewberry (Rubus sp.) flower. This pretty little beetle occurs throughout eastern North America in early spring on a variety of flowers, where adults feed on pollen and mate. Eggs are laid on dead branches of certain hardwood trees, through which the larvae tunnel as they develop. Dry, dead wood contains little nutritional value, and the larvae cannot digest the cellulose. As a result, they eat considerable volumes of wood, extracting whatever nutrients they can for growth and ejecting the bulk as sawdust, which they pack tightly in their tunnels behind them. A year or more might be required before they have grown sufficiently to transform into the adult and emerge from the wood. A smaller relative, Acmaeodera tubulus, was also seen on flowers of native dwarf dandelion (Krigia biflora).

We stopped for lunch on a little point extending out towards the lake. The forest overstory was dominated by an open mixture of white oak (Quercus alba) and shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata). Thickets of highbush huckleberry (Vaccinium stramineum) and carpets of reindeer moss in the open areas belied the acidic nature of the igneous substrate. Stands of bastard toad flax (Comandra richardsiana) in full bloom were found at the tip’s dry, rocky tip. These interesting plants feed parasitically on neighboring plants, attaching to the roots of their hosts by means of their long, thin rhizomes. Resuming our hike, we descended down into a shaded, moist draw feeding the lake and saw a huge royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis) bush. I had never seen this aptly named fern before, but it was immediately recognizeable by its large size (~5 ft in height) and presence of distinctive, fertile leaflets on some of its upper branches – a very striking and handsome fern, indeed. Nearby was a smaller, but no less attractive species of fern that I take to be marginal sheild fern (Dryopteris marginalis) – another species I have not seen before (or at least made the effort to notice).

Soon, we reached the dam and for the first time saw the spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. While perhaps not quite as impressive as the nearby and much more famous Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Rich and I nonetheless watched entranced as the water roared over the smooth igneous rock exposure, forming elegant cascades, rushing through narrow chutes, and swirling into small pools. Steep canyon walls rose sharply on each side of the shut-ins, as if standing guard. Clambering amidst the pines and cedars that cloaked them, we found this maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) nestled within a crack on a vertical rock face under continuous deep shade. Reaching the top of the bluffs, we were greated by one of my favorite of all Ozark habitats – the igneous glade. Glades are natural island communities surrounded by a sea of forest. Their shallow, dry, rocky soil conditions support plants and animals more adapted to prairie or desert habitats. Specific communities are influenced by the type of rock below – igneous and sandstone substrates support lichens, mosses, and other acid soil-loving plants, while limestone and dolomite substrates support a more calcareous flora. The photo here shows the massive boulder outcroppings typical of igneous glades and their weather-resistant bedrock. We hoped to see a collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), perhaps Missouri’s finest saurian reptile, but today was not the day. We did, however, see adults of the beautiful and aptly named splendid tiger beetle (Cicindela splendida) sunning themselves on the bare rock surfaces – flashing brilliant green and clay-red. The adults we saw had spent the winter deep inside tunnels dug into the rocky soil the previous fall and were now looking for mates. Male tiger beetles grab females by the neck, their jagged, toothy jaws fitting precisely in grooves on the female neck designed specifically for such. As I looked upon this prairie island within the forest, I thought about how the St. Francois Mountains were once themselves islands. I realized the landscape we were exploring today was itself a fossil – with rhyolitic ‘islands’ amidst a ‘sea’ of cherty dolomite laid down a half billion years ago in the warm, tropical, Cambrian waters that surrounded the St. Francois Islands, by then already a billion years old themselves. Yes, the Earth itself seems to have begun here.

Leaving the glade and once again entering the acid pine forest, we came upon one of the most striking floral displays that either of us have ever witnessed – wild azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) in the midst of full bloom! I have known about several colonies of this plant for many years now but had only seen them at the very end of the bloom period, with just a few, pitiful, limply hanging flowers still attached. Today, the plants were absolutely dazzling. The blossoms were not only visually attractive, a deep pink color, but also unexpectedly fragrant. We stood amongst several specimen plants as tall as ourselves, taking picture after picture amidst the clovelike aroma wafting around us.

We checked our watches – we were now 3 hours into our hike and had traversed just 2 miles. Clearly, this was not a sustainable pace, so we put our heads down and focused on covering ground. Once leaving the vicinity of Crane Lake, the trail became rather difficult to follow – it obviously receives little use, and in one stretch some logging activities had obliterated the trail completely. Were it not for the sporadic pieces of orange flagging tape tied just within sight of the previous, we would not have know where to go. At one point, we got completely off-track and had to backtrack a full half mile before we found the proper trail. The day put our contour map reading skills to their greatest test yet. It was difficult and strenuous terrain, with steep up and down grades and few long ridgetop stretches until (thankfully) the final 2 miles, which terminated in a long descent (more thankfully) to Marble Creek Campground. Despite the difficulties in following the trail and our not bringing enough water, I would have to rank this section a close second to the Taum Sauk stretch for its ruggedness, spectacular vistas, and unique plant communities. Yes, the St. Francois Mountains are truly the heart of the Ozarks.