Botanizing the Scour Trail at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

It’s been too long since I’ve been able to go out with the WGNSS Botany Group on their weekly Monday outing—a consequence of travel and renovations on top of the frenetic-as-usual insect-collecting season. The result is that my attendance on the Botany Group outings is semi-regular during fall/winter but spotty at best during spring/summer. That may seem exactly the opposite of what would be optimum for studying plants, but as a naturalist to the core I have no trouble finding things of interest no matter the season. Especially when the destination is a place as fascinatingly diverse as Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park—best known previously for its rhyolite “shut-ins” but now mostly for the gashing scour zone that was ripped across it in Dec 2005 when a catastrophic failure of the reservoir atop nearby Proffit Mountain released one billion gallons of water that tore through the landscape in a matter of 12 minutes. The geology exposed by the scour and the living experiment of biological succession that began afterwards are both fascinating, making the Scour Trail one of the Missouri Ozarks’ most interesting day hikes.

17-year-old “scour zone” below Proffit Mountain Reservoir.

Our chief target for the day was Hamamelis virginiana (common or American witch-hazel), which blooms in November and December and is restricted in Missouri to a few counties in the St. Francois Mountains and the extreme southwestern corner of the state. Interestingly, there is a second species of witch hazel—H. vernalis (Ozark witch hazel), more common in Missouri but much more restricted globally—that occurs here, but as it blooms later in winter (January/February) we did not expect to see it on this trip. We found the former reliably, though not abundantly, and among the last plants we found in bloom were some with the freshest (and best-illuminated by the low-angled sun) flowers. At one point while we were still within the dry-mesic upland deciduous forest uphill from the scour zone, we saw a nice colony of the patch-forming Diarrhena obovata (beak grass). This is an attractive grass that does well in shade and should be utilized more as an ornamental.

Hamamelis virginiana (common or American witch-hazel).
Hamamelis virginiana (common or American witch-hazel).
Diarrhena obovata (beak grass) in dry-mesic upland deciduous forest.

The overlook provided a stunning overview of the scour zone from an elevated vantage—the since rebuilt Proffit Mountain Reservoir rising ominously above it as an almost deliberate reminder of its potential power—before the descent down into the scour zone. It’s an almost alien landscape with an irregular, unweathered floor of exposed bedrock strewn with rocks ranging from pebbles to boulders. Sycamore and willow are the early leaders in the now 17-year-old race to recolonize the barren swath of land, but lack of toeholds for roots to grow is a bigger problem for this future forest than lack of sunlight by taller neighbors. At one point, we spotted a large bush heavily laden with dense clusters of berries atop a pile of rocks. While the more astute botanists in the group recognized it for what it was, I was dumbfounded as to its identity until it was revealed to me to be none other than Toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy)—the largest, densest, most heavily berry-laden “bush” form of the species I have ever seen. So impressive it was that seven botanists gave it much more than just a trifling look.

“Bush” form of Toxicodendron radicans (eastern poison ivy).
Dense clusters of berries on “bush” form of Toxicodendron radicans (eastern poison ivy).

About halfway down the scour zone we encountered the “great unconformity”—previously hidden by topsoil and forest but now exposed. Here, knobs of 1.3 billion-year-old granite are surrounded by 540 million-year-old dolomite deposited atop the granite in the shallow Cambrian seas that once covered all but the tallest of these by then already ancient knobs—mere nubs of the towering mountains they once were but worn down nearly to sea level by nearly a billion years of relentless rain and wind. The exposures of pink granite, their large embedded crystals glistening sharply in the sunlight, contrasted starkly with the dark gray dolomite surround them, representing an incomprehensible gap of nearly 800 million years in the record of Earth’s history preserved in the rocks. The entire history of multicellular life on Earth could be swallowed by such a gap!

Unconformity with 1.3 billion-year-old Precambrian granite (pink rock) surrounded by 540 million-year-old Cambrian dolomite (gray rock) in scour zone below Profitt Mountain

As an entomologist, I cannot ever stop being on the lookout for insects, no matter what the season. Even though temps were well on the chilly side, I still managed to discern a couple of small wolf spiders, and somehow I managed to see a small ant cadaver on a twig that had succumbed to an insect-pathogenic fungus in the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis complex. Even the botanists around me started taking advantage of the opportunity for insect education. Len and Michael noticed a gall on a small Quercus muhlenbergii (chinquapin oak) which turned out to be the work of Disholcaspis quercusglobulus (round bullet gall wasp), and John noticed a colony of Prociphilus tessellatus (woolly alder aphid) on Alnus glutinosa (European alder). Closer inspection revealed an adult Harmonia axyridis (Asian lady beetle) preying upon the aphids.

Small wolf spider (family Lycosidae) on moss-covered rock in dry-mesic upland deciduous forest.
Pardosa sp. (thin-legged wolf spider) on exposed granite in 17-year old scour zone through dry-mesic upland deciduous forest.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis complex insect-pathogenic fungus infecting ant (family Formicidae) in dry-mesic, deciduous, upland forest.
Disholcaspis quercusglobulus (round bullet gall wasp) on Quercus muhlenbergii (chinquapin oak) in dry deciduous upland forest.
Harmonia axyridis (Asian lady beetle) preying upon Prociphilus tessellatus (woolly alder aphid) on Alnus glutinosa (European alder)

It was as enjoyable an outing as I’d hoped (how can four hours in the woods be anything BUT enjoyable), and I hope not to let so much time pass before the next time I’m able to join the group!

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

And the results are in…

I recently entered my first photo contest, a local competition sponsored by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (of which I have been a member for ~30 years), and although the competition was limited to its few hundred members there were some serious cash prizes on offer. Being a noob at photo contests and a still relative newcomer to photography in general, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought my photos might be good enough to compete, but I also knew I would be going up against some long-time and very skilled nature photographers. The basic rules were a maximum of two submissions in no more than three of the following categories:

  • Botany
  • Entomology
  • Ornithology
  • Landscapes/habitats

Since I’ve only photographed two birds ever, I decided to submit entries to each of the other three categories. It was an interesting competition—the judges (each category had a panel of three consisting of a WNGSS board member, a natural history expert, and a photography expert) had a chance to see all of the photographs prior to the event (held last night) and select the top ten from each category, but the rest of the judging was done live at the event. Eventually, from each category a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place photo was selected. The 12 winning photographs were then displayed in a continuous loop, and everybody attending the event was allowed to vote for one grand prize winner. The grand prize winner had to receive more than 50% of the vote, so a few runoff rounds were required to decide the final winner.

How did it go for me? I had a pretty good night, with three winning photographs:

Entomology—3rd place

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Botany—2nd place

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Entomology—1st place

Arctosa littoralis (beach wolf spider) | Lewis Co., Missouri

It was a thrill for me to learn that, out of the six photographs I submitted (and I really didn’t think my two landscape submissions were competitive to begin with), three were among the 12 final prize winners. That also made them eligible for the grand prize, but in this case I didn’t really expect the larger membership (which has a lot of birders) would really take to my closeup insect photographs. To my surprise, the first round of voting produced four finalists—two of which were my insect photos! The first runoff vote eliminated one photo—but not either of mine, and the second runoff eliminated one more photo—but again neither of mine. I had won the grand prize without yet knowing which photo would be the winner! In the end, the tiger beetle took the top prize. Personally, I was happy about that, because even though the photo took only 3rd place in the entomology competition, I thought it was the stronger of the two photos based on composition, the time and effort it took to work the beetle to finally “get the shot” (not that the wolf spider photo didn’t also take a lot of effort to get that close), and the natural history behavior that it captured (stilting and sun-facing for thermoregulation). I know blog commenting is becoming passé, but if you have any particular thoughts about these photos, good or bad, I would love to hear from you.

Overall I would have to say that, winner or not, participating in a photo competition was an extraordinary learning opportunity for me as I try to hone my craft. Listening to the comments of the judges in all of the categories, both on the natural history and the technical aspects of the photographs, gave me a lot of insight into how I might further improve my technique and take photographs that can be appreciated on both technical and artistic grounds. More importantly, the cash was nice, but the motivation to keep trying that I got out of the experience was priceless!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

BitB Top 10 of 2010

Welcome to the 3rd Annual BitB Top 10, where I pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year.  My goal for 2010 was to continue the progress that I began the previous year in my quest to become a bona fide insect macrophotographer.  I’m not in the big leagues yet, but I have gotten more comfortable with using my equipment for in situ field photographs and am gaining a better understanding of lighting and the use of flash.  I also began experimenting with different lighting techniques (e.g. white box) and diffusers and am putting more effort into post-processing techniques to enhance the final appearance of my photographs.  I invite you to judge for yourself how successful I’ve been toward those goals by comparing the following selections with those from 2009 and 2008 – constructive feedback is always welcome:

Best Tiger Beetle

Cicindela denverensis - green claybank tiger beetle

From ID Challenge #1 (posted December 23).  With numerous species photographed during the year and several of these dramatic “face on” shots, this was a hard choice.  I chose this one because of the metallic colors, good focus throughout the face, and evenly blurred “halo” of hair in a relatively uncluttered background.

Best Jewel Beetle

Buprestis rufipes - red-legged buprestis

From Special Delivery (posted July 13).  I didn’t have that many jewel beetles photos to choose from, but this one would have risen to the top no matter how many others I had.  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.

Best Longhorned Beetle

Desmocerus palliatus - elderberry borer

From Desmocerus palliatus – elderberry borer (posted November 18).  I like the mix of colors in this photograph, and even though it’s a straight dorsal view from the top, the partial dark background adds depth to the photo to prevent it from looking “flat.”

Best “Other” Beetle

Enoclerus ichneumoneus - orange-banded checkered beetle

From Orange-banded checkered beetle (posted April 22).  The even gray background compliments the colors of the beetle and highlights its fuzziness.  It was achieved entirely by accident – the trunk of the large, downed hickory tree on which I found this beetle happened to be a couple of feet behind the twig on which it was resting.

Best Non-Beetle Insect

Euhagenia nebraskae - a clearwing moth

From Euhagena nebraskae… again (posted October 21).  I photographed this species once before, but those photos failed to capture the boldness of color and detail of the scales that can be seen in this photo.

Best “Posed” Insect

Lucanus elaphus - giant stag beetle

From North America’s largest stag beetle (posted December 30).  I’ve just started experimenting with photographing posed, preserved specimens, and in fact this male giant stag beetle represents only my second attempt.  It’s hard to imagine, however, a more perfect subject than this impressively stunning species.

Best Non-Insect Arthropod

Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede

From North America’s largest centipede (posted September 7).  Centipedes are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their elongate, narrow form and highly active manner.  The use of a glass bowl and white box allowed me to capture this nicely composed image of North America’s most spectacular centipede species.

Best Wildflower

Hamamelis vernalis - Ozark witch hazel

From Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel (posted March 26).  The bizarre form and striking contrast of colors with the dark background make this my favorite wildflower photograph for the year.

Best Non-Arthropod

Terrapene carolina triunguis - three-toed box turtle

From Eye of the Turtle (posted December 10).  I had a hard time deciding on this category, but the striking red eye in an otherwise elegantly simple photograph won me over.  It was also one of two BitB posts featured this past year on Freshly Pressed.

Best “Super Macro”

Phidippus apacheanus - a jumping spider

From Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those multilayered retinae? (posted October 5).  I’m not anywhere close to Thomas Shahan (yet!), but this super close-up of the diminutive and delightfully colored Phidippus apacheanus is my best jumping spider attempt to date.  A new diffuser system and increasing comfort with using the MP-E lens in the field at higher magnification levels should allow even better photos this coming season.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel

Spring is beginning its “march” across the nation, and in typical fashion the month started out with the promise of pleasant weather but is throwing a few tantrums before giving way to April. For most folks in the lower Midwest, spring began a week or so ago when daffodils began popping up from nowhere and dotting the suburban and semirural landscapes with their yellow smiles. Forsythia are also set to burst forth, their appearance temporarily put on hold by this latest cold/wet snap, but when they do most people here will be satisfied that spring has finally come. For me, spring comes much earlier, and it’s not planted ornamentals that mark its beginning, but native trees.  Silver maples (Acer saccharinum) and American elms (Ulmus americana) are first, bursting open in the very first warm days of early March.  These are followed by the sugar maples (A. saccharum) and red maples (A. rubrum) that are in full bloom now, which will themselves give way to the redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and serviceberrys (Amelanchier arborea) that will close out the month before flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) dominates the area’s understories in April.

There is one tree in this part of the country, however, that shows its amazing blooms in January and February while winter’s grip is still strong.  Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is restricted to the Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas, where it grows along the rocky creeks and streams that dissect this ancient landscape.  I have long wanted to see its striking blooms, but despite my many wintertime hikes throughout the Ozarks, I have never found myself in the right place at the right time – until a few weeks ago when I hiked the Mina Sauk Trail at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park.  I found these plants growing below Mina Sauk Falls and along Taum Sauk Creek below, and even though it was the first weekend of March (and the very first warm day of the season), many of the plants had already passed their peak bloom.  Fortunately, I was able to find these several plants with flowers still in good shape.

There is only one other species in the genus – eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  Although distributed widely across eastern North America, it is restricted in Missouri to these same St. Francois Mountains where I saw H. vernalis.  The two species are very similar by the characteristics of their foliage but can be easily distinguished by floral characters.  Hamamelis virginiana blooms in fall rather than winter, and its flowers, while nearly twice the size, rarely show the amount of red on the inner calyx that is seen in this species.  Hamamelis vernalis flowers are also quite fragrant, having what has been described as a “vanilla” scent.  The photographs here show the rather unusual color range of the flowers of this species, which can vary from orange to deep red to deep yellow.  I suspect that flower color also changes with age, in that petals are initially deep red and later fade to yellow, as in the photo below.  It’s difficult to explain why H . vernalis is restricted to the Ozark Highlands while H. virginiana occurs so broadly, but the Ozarks are a well-known refugium for a number of other plants and animals, especially Ice Age relicts.

Sitting on a rhyolite ledge overlooking Taum Sauk Creek as I ate lunch, I wondered about the pollination biology of a plant that flowers during winter.  It was a warm day – certainly an unusual occurrence during the period in which this plant flowers – and even still it was too early in the season for a lot of insect activity.  I watched one of the nearby plants as I ate to see what insects came to the flowers, and for a time all I saw were a couple of European honey bees.  Clearly, the plant did not evolve in association with this now ubiquitous insect.  I continued watching, and at last I saw a native insect visiting the flowers – a large species of hover fly (family Syrphidae), perhaps something in the genus Helophilus.  After taking a few more photographs (unfortunately, none of the fly), another of the same species visited the plant.  Flies in general are famous for appearing during warm days in winter, and I wonder if the unusually extended bloom period of this species is intended to take advantage of those few, unpredictable days during winter when temperatures are sufficient for flies to become active.

Photo Details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D
Photo 1: ISO 100, 1/200 sec, f/11, MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen-Puffer diffusers.
Photo 2: ISO 200, 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ambient light.
Photo 3: ISO 100, 1/60 sec, f/9, flash w/o diffusers.
Photo 4: ISO 200, 1/250 sec, f/5.6, ambient light.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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