Mrs. Monday Jumper

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

In my previous post, Monday Jumper, I featured a photo of a strikingly colored jumping spider (family Salticidae) that apparently represents an adult male Phidippus princeps. Far too skittish to attempt photographing in the field, I placed him in a vial and photographed him later in the hotel room but still only got one photo that was good enough to post. Shortly after gathering him up, I came across another jumping spider that proved far more cooperative for field shots. This was no doubt due in large part to the fact that she had just captured a fat, juicy caterpillar. I find predaceous insects to be far less skittish when they are involved in the act of consuming prey. This not only makes them easier to approach and photograph, but also adds a desirable natural history element to photos that is sometimes missing in “portrait-only” photographs.

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

I say “she” because of the classic female characters exhibited—relatively large and rounded abdomen (males tend to have a smaller and more tapered abdomen), smaller carapace, somber coloration, and absence of a “boxing glove” aspect to the pedipalps. Like the male I had just collected, she was on the foliage of an oak sapling, and as I began taking photographs I noticed in the preview screen the brilliant, metallic blue chelicerae that are a hallmark of the large salticid genus Phidippus. I had also presumed the male I had just collected belonged to this same genus based on gestalt, but I could have never imagined that the two individuals actually represented male and female of the very same species. Such appears to be the case, however, as a thorough perusal of the salticid galleries at BugGuide leads me to believe that the individual featured here is the adult female of Phidippus princeps.

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

These photos still may not approach the technical and aesthetic perfection exhibited by master salticid portraitist Thomas Shahan, but I think they do represent an improvement over my first attempt at photographing a feeding female. The first two photos are fine, but the third suffers from the focus being a little too “deep”, which seems to be my most frequent macrophotography mistake on higher mag shots. If you have any tips on how to overcome this particular problem I am all ears!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Monday Jumper

Phidippus pinceps, adult male | Howell Co., Missouri (studio shot).

Phidippus princeps, adult male | Howell Co., Missouri (studio shot).

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after my friend Rich and I began hiking a 9-mile stretch of the North Fork Section of the Ozark Trail in the far southern reaches of Missouri, we encountered this colorful jumping spider (family Salticidae) on the foliage of an oak sapling. He was not at all in the mood to be photographed—dashing persistently from one side of the leaf to the other and finally dropping to the ground as I tried to close in for some shots. So active was the little guy, that even had I managed to get him within the camera’s field of view it would have been nearly impossible to get him properly focused, much less achieve a nice composition. Hoping he would be a little easier to work with in the confines of a hotel “studio”, we coaxed him into a vial with a sprig of foliage and then got him out and placed him on a branch of dogwood flowers (Cornus florida) that evening once we were in our room. Yes—he was easier to work with, but only by the fact that being in a hotel room made it more difficult for him to escape! He was just as active as in the field, darting from flower to flower in his persistent efforts to elude the large glass eye that kept trying to look at him. For many subjects, I would have given up rather than spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get photographs that likely would not turn out to be what I wanted. But this spider was just so attractive—red and black and white with flashy blue chelicerae! I persisted in my efforts, got about two dozen shots off before he finally did escape, then promptly deleted all but five immediately after seeing them on the computer. The photo shown here is the only “keeper” that I can actually bring myself to post—the focus is a bit too deep, but not so much that it detracts greatly from what is otherwise a fairly decent composition. The more I shoot jumping spiders, the more I am amazed at the portraits that Thomas Shahan achieves with these delightful little arachnids.

After browsing through the salticid galleries at BugGuide, I am inclined to believe this is the species Phidippus princeps, with the coloration and white-stripes on the pedipalps suggesting it is an adult male. ID correction welcome.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

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

“Trying” to photograph whirligig beetles

Nobody figured out exactly what I was doing in the photograph shown in the previous post (does anybody now see the whirligig beetles in the lower left corner of the photo?), but I sure enjoyed the guesses.  Several people alluded to dropping the camera or falling into the water, while others mentioned my heretofore unrevealed contortionist abilities.  However, Morgan Jackson‘s tale of trying to photograph Platypsyllus castoris has it all – rarely photographed species and the inordinate lengths we go through to get the shot.

Of course, whirligig beetles (family Gyrinidae) are much more commonly encountered than Platypsyllus castoris, but they can’t be any easier to photograph.  I spotted them as Rich and I balanced our way across a massive sycamore tree trunk while crossing the Black River during our early April hike of the lower Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail.  I don’t know much more about whirligig beetles (or aquatic insects in general) than your average land-lubbin’ entomologist (in fact, I don’t think I’ve collected any since college systematics – yes, that long ago!), but for some reason I felt the need to try to photograph them.  Sure, the fallen tree provided a rare opportunity to get reasonably close to these very skittish insects without having to wade, but I think it was actually just the challenge of trying to photograph something in constant zigzagging motion that appealed to me.  Rich’s warnings that I would drop my camera were not enough to dissuade me, and after reaching the other side I ditched the backpack and tiptoed out with just my camera.

It seems like I’ve said this often in recent months, but these are my new hardest insect to photograph.  Not only are there the usual difficulties of framing and focusing a subject that is always in motion, but that motion is fast, erratic, and unpredictable, making tracking through the lens an extraordinary challenge.  Moreover, balancing precariously on a debris pile in the middle of the river strains the body and adds an element of danger (yes, I would be in deep doodoo if I dropped that camera).  I kept my eye on one particular individual that was swimming nearest to me, and after watching for a bit I saw that it was making a relatively predictable circuit that passed fairly close to me each time around.  I started trying to follow it through the lens and snap shots as it passed by – most of them turned out like this (actually, most of them turned out worse than this):

However, with each pass I got better, and I started getting shots with at least part of the beetle in focus.  So intent I was on what I was doing that I didn’t even know Rich had taken the photograph of me in the previous post until he showed it to me afterwards (he said he wanted to document the camera drop!).  Eventually I got this shot:

It’s far from a perfect photo – I had to adjust the levels because I hadn’t figured out the best lighting to use for something on the water’s surface, and the specular highlights from the flash on the forward elytron are rather extreme.  But the entire beetle is in focus, and we can make a reasonable guess as to its identity.  There are only two genera of whirligig beetles in Missouri – Dineutus and Gyrinus – and the large size (~12 mm in length) and hidden scutellum clearly identify this individual as something in the former genus.  Moreover, the rounded elytral apices (seen on other individuals as well) narrow it down even further to just a few possible species.  Unfortunately, they are distinguished primarily by ventral coloration; however, the bad first photo clearly does show dark legs, suggesting this may be D. ciliatus and not the orange-legged D. emarginatus.  I don’t even really care what species it is (did you ever think you’d hear me say that?), I’m just happy to have gotten a reasonably good photograph of an insect that surely few people have photographed well.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Taum Sauk Mountain – Missouri’s High Point

Although spring is now well underway in the middlin’ latitudes of Missouri, it was only a few short weeks ago that winter was still with us.  For my last winter hike of the season, I returned to perhaps my favorite stretch of my favorite trail in all of Missouri – the Mina Sauk portion of the Taum Sauk Trail on Taum Sauk Mountain.  Located in the rugged St. Francois Mountains (the “epicenter” of the Ozark Highlands), Taum Sauk Mountain is Missouri’s highest peak.  I say “peak” with a bit of reservation – at 1,772 feet it hardly compares with the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains or even the much mellower Appalachians (and certainly not with those of my beloved Sierra Nevada).  Nevertheless, unlike the remainder of the Ozark Highlands, the St. Francois Mountains are true mountains initially formed through a series of volcanic events occurring well over a billion years ago.  They, and the rest of the Ozark Highlands, have been shaped to their current form by repeated cycles of uplift and subsequent erosion.  

During their Precambrian prime, the St. Francois Mountains reached heights of 15,000 feet (the “ancient” Appalachians, in the meantime, were still just a twinkle in Mother Earth’s eye).  Rain and wind and the vastness of time have reduced them to nubs, leaving only the most ancient of volcanic rocks as testament to their former glory.  Although most of what is now the Ozark Highlands was inundated repeatedly later in the Palaeozoic (laying down the sediments that were then uplifted and “carved” to their current shape), the highest peaks of the St. Francois Mountains may be among the few areas in the United States never to have been completely submerged under those ancient seas.  Standing atop Taum Sauk Mountain, it is tempting to visualize today’s craggy terrain as a fossil of that ancient landscape – the peaks representing the former islands of rhyolite, their slopes barren and lifeless in stark contrast with the exploding diversity of bizarre life forms appearing in the tropical waters that surrounded them.

The sterile, volcanic rocks of the St. Francois Mountains support an abundance of open, rocky glades – especially on their peaks and southern and western slopes – that are home to a number of plants and animals more typically found in the tallgrass prairies further west.  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) thrive in clumps between the large, pink boulders that are strewn across the landscape and which provide shelter and sunning spots for animals ranging from the charismatic eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) to the smaller but no less beautiful splendid tiger beetle (Cicindela splendida).  The surrounding forest is historically an open woodland with a rich, herbaceous understory and widely-spaced, drought-tolerant trees such as shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), post oak (Quercus stellata), and blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica).  These woodlands and glades are a fire-mediated landscape dependent upon periodic burns to maintain their vegetative character.

A trail begins at “High Point”, marking the summit of Taum Sauk Mountain and the highest point in Missouri.  A granite slab next to the summit rock documents the elevation at 1,772.68 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level).  The Mina Sauk Falls Trail, a rugged three-mile loop that joins the Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail, leads to the tallest wet-weather waterfall in Missouri, Mina Sauk Falls.  During periods of high water flow, water gushes over the edge and drops 132 feet over a series of rocky ledges.  Water was flowing lightly during my late winter visit; nevertheless, looking out from above the falls (see photo above) offers one of the most spectacular vistas available in Missouri.  A rather difficult hike down the side of the mountain to the bottom of the falls is also well worth the effort, although clear views of the entire falls are difficult to find in the dense, moist forest below (it was here that I photographed the spectacular Ozark Witch Hazel).

A second unique geological feature lies about a mile farther down the Ozark Trail – Devil’s Toll Gate.  The rocks stand 30 feet high on either side of this eight-foot-wide, 50-foot-long fissure.  The gap probably began as a vertical fracture in the rock that has been enlarged by subsequent weathering. Over time the fissure will continue to widen, as the rocks on either side lose height.

Returning to High Point at the end of the hike, I noticed that the summit was a little higher than when I started my hike – whether this was through additional uplift of the underlying mountain or a depositional event I cannot say.  Nevertheless, I estimated Missouri’s new highest elevation to be approximately 1,773.01 feet MSL!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Clubmoss along the Ozark Trail

It has been a long, hard winter – one of the toughest I can remember during my years here in Missouri in terms of amount and frequency of precipitation and persistent cold temperatures. Tough winters, however, are no deterrent to my favorite wintertime activity – hiking. I’ve mentioned several times the goal of my friend Rich and I to hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail.  We’re at ~250 miles now (more than 2/3 done), thanks to the two 10-mile stretches of the Wappapello Section that we did on the days after Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

Hiking these trails is an opportunity to imagine the Ozark Highlands in their wild, pre-settlement state – expansive hardwood forests covering miles and miles of rugged up-and-down terrain.  Of course, try as I might to pretend otherwise, the Ozarks have changed, and evidence of man’s pervasive presence are everywhere.  Some are overt, such as this mass grave of domestic cattle, dumped by their former owner for others to worry about when disease prevented them from realizing their economic potential.  Others are much more subtle, but to the discriminating naturalist they are everywhere – even in the most pristine-looking of areas.  A cedar-choked glade here, it’s rich, tawny, native warm-season grasses pushed the margins and interspaces; a monotonous, stunted black oak forest there, sprigs of herbaceous plants giving a hint of the diverse understory just waiting for a fire to bring back the more open woodland it needs to thrive.  Settlement has brought with it not only direct impacts to the land, but also changes in its ecology and vegetational character.  Once a fire-mediated landscape with shifting mosaics of bald ridges, grassy woodlands, and riparian forests, a century of logging, grazing, and fire suppression have turned much of the Ozark Highlands into homogenous stands of oak with depauperate mid- and understories.

While loss of diversity has been the overwhelming trend in response to settlement, additions to the state’s flora are also being seen.  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the Ozark Trail sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County, and as we traversed the rugged terrain north to Sam A. Baker State Park, we encountered this most unusual of plants – a clubmoss.  Since they are vascular plants, clubmosses are not really moss (which are non-vascular).  Clubmosses are not flowering plants either, nor do they even produce seeds, reproducing instead by spores – just like ferns, horsetails, and other ‘primitive’ (sorry, Alex!) vascular plants.  Practicing botanists include them in a group known as “fern allies”, meaning that they are not ferns (ferns have multiple branching veins in their delicate fronds, while clubmosses have a single vein in their small, scale-like leaves), but they are somewhat like them.

This particular clubmoss belongs to the genus Lycopodium, or ground cedars – the name obviously derived from the resemblance of their foliage to various gymnospermous plants known as cedars (though completely unrelated) but growing very low to the ground. There are three species of Lycopodium in Missouri (Yatskievych 1999), all confined to the Ozark Highlands and all considered species of conservation concern due to their rarity in the state (Missouri Natural Heritage Program 2010).  Two of these species are highly restricted (designated S1 for “critically imperiled”), boreal species occurring only on moist sandstone bluffs in Ste. Genevieve County as Pleistocene relicts – holdovers from a time when glaciers advanced to within about 50 miles to the north and cool, wet conditions prevailed throughout the rest of the state.  The third species, shown here, is Lycopodium digitatum.  Although more widespread in the cool forests of the northeastern U.S. and Canada, it is apparently expanding its range and was first found in Missouri in 1993.  While still considered uncommon (and accordingly designated S2, or “imperiled”), its range has since expanded to a core of several southeastern Missouri Ozark counties that include Carter, Iron, Madison, Reynolds, and Wayne Counties (Doolen and Doolen 2008).  We found this colony at the base of a moist wooded slope amongst an invading stand of Juniperus virginiana (ironically, called “cedars” by local residents).

“Running ground cedar” has been used as a common name for L. digitatum, most likely due to its habit of spreading by rhizomes – or “runners” – along the soil surface.  From a distance, the spore-producing strobili stood out in bright yellow contrast to the dark glossy green foliage that carpeted the ground – itself in stark contrast with the surrounding brown leaf litter.  It is these club-like strobili from which the common name “clubmoss” is derived, and from a distance of 20 m away I knew instantly that this was something unusual and worthy of investigation.  Despite the gray November skies and cool temperatures, the strobili were actively shedding spores – clouds of yellow dust swirling briefly with each knock of the finger before dissapating into the air.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Carboniferous earth was covered with vast forests of giant clubmosses – extinct relatives of this species that soared to heights of one hundred feet. These giants eventually gave way to new kinds of plants – first the seed-bearing conifers, and later the flowering angiosperms. The giant clubmosses are gone, but their descendents have survived the vastness of time, represented today by these humble, diminutive forms – extant members of an ancient group hiding in the nooks and crannies of the modern flora. I don’t know whether the recent appearance of L. digitatum in the Ozark Highlands is a result of the anthropogenic changes brought upon the area in recent years, but given its ancient, relictual qualities, it is one change in the flora of Missouri that I do not mind.

REFERENCES:

Doolen, W. and C. Doolen.  2008.  Clubmoss wonders in southeast Missouri.  Perennis, Newsletter of the S.E. Missouri Native Plant Society 1(4):1–2.

Missouri Natural Heritage Program.  2010.  Missouri Species and Communities of Conservation Concern Checklist.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri, 53 pp.

Yatskievych, G. 1999. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, Volume 1. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 991 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Friday Flower: Crystallofolia (“Frost Flowers”)

Crystallofolia (frost flowers) on dittany (Cunila origanoides).

While hiking the middle stretch of the Ozark Trail’s Wappapello Section, my friend Rich and I witnessed a bounty of crystallofolia, or “frost flowers”.  These fragile, yet exquisite formations are, of course, not flowers at all, nor are they true frost (which forms directly from water vapor without first condensing), but rather are thin layers of ice that form as water is drawn from cracks in plant stems and freezes upon contact with cold air.  As the water continues to be drawn from the plant by capillary action, newly forming ice pushes older ice further out, creating delicate, folded, curling ribbons of ice that resemble many-layered flower petals.  Air trapped within the ice upon freezing imparts a frothy white appearance.

Frost flowers are not an uncommon phenomenon, and I have seen them on more than a few occasions during my frequent off-season hikes.  However, never before had either Rich or I seen the numbers that we saw during our hike on this, the second day of the New Year.  Frost flowers are normally encountered during the first hard freezes of fall when the ground is not yet frozen.  Water in the stems of certain plants expands as a result of the freezing air temperatures, causing vertical cracks to form along the length of the stem through which the ice ribbons are extruded. The formations are rather ephemeral, usually melting or sublimating away by late morning in fall’s typically mild daytime temperatures.  As fall progresses to winter, water stores in the plant stems become depleted after several freezes or locked up when the ground itself freezes, and as a result frost flowers are rarely seen later than December in Missouri. However, it has been a wet and mild fall and early winter, and after an extended period of moisture during December, Missouri was finally gripped by a severe cold spell with lows in the single digits and daytime highs remaining down in the teens and 20s.  The saturated, yet unfrozen ground provided a good source of moisture for plant stems to draw upon, and continuous subfreezing air temperatures allowed frost flowers to persist throughout the days and attain remarkable size. The photo above was taken in late afternoon as a sinking sun shone brightly on the west-facing slope where this formation was seen, persisting in all its fragile glory.

In Missouri, frost flowers are primarily associated with dittany (Cunila origanoides), species of Verbesina (V. virginica, white crownbeard; and V. alternifolia, yellow ironweed), and camphor weed (Pluchea camphorata).  Frost flowers are rarely seen on any other plant in Missouri, and I don’t know what it is about these plants and not others that make them suitable for frost flower formation.  Dittany is a daintly little member of the Lamiaceae, and as such has square stems – perhaps the angles on the stem are prone to splitting.  However, there are many other lamiaceous plants and non-lamiaceous square-stemmed plant species in Missouri that do not form frost flowers.  Likewise, Verbesina and Pluchea belong to the Asteraceae and do not have square stems.  They are, however, larger, more robust plants with thick, pithy stems that may be capable of holding a large amount of water and mature late in the season after most other plants have already dried up, perhaps allowing them to retain sufficient moisture in the stem late enough in the season to allow frost flower formation when conditions are right.  The majority of the frost flowers we saw were on dittany – dainty, delicate, fragile formations 2-3 inches across. However, at the end of the hike, as we were exploring the area around the parking lot, we found a stand of Verbesina (I suspect V. alternifolia), with which some of the most enormous and robust frost flowers that I have ever seen were associated.  Following are additional views of some of the more impressive formations we saw and the plants they were associated with.

Frost flowers on dittany - shaded, protected areas produced the largest formations.

Partial thawing during ribbon formation causes exquisite twists and turns.

Like snowflakes, each frost flower is one-of-a-kind.

Dittany (Cunila origanoides) dried stem, leaves, and fruits.

Verbesina sp. frost flowers were enormous - this one was approx. 5 inches wide.

Dried fruits of Verbesina sp. (poss. alternifolia).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Mass Grave

My friend Rich and I have begun hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail this winter in our quest to eventually hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (to this point we had completed ~230 miles).  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County and traversing rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest along the west side of Wappapello Lake as it courses north to Sam A. Baker State Park.  The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built and manages Wappapello Lake primarily for flood control in the rich farmlands the lie just downstream in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in extreme southeastern Missouri.  Because of this, stretches of the Ozark Trail are subject to frequent inundation.

Such was the case the day after Thanksgiving, when Rich and I tackled the northernmost 10-mile stretch of this section. Because of the flooding, we had to bushwhack to higher ground for a significant portion of the hike. This sounds easier than it was—elevational relief in this rugged southeastern portion of the Ozark Highlands is as much as 500 ft, with steep grades and thick leaf litter atop loose, cherty soils. We did our best to stay oriented using a basic contour map and the experience we’ve gained over the years in judging terrain.

Sometimes, diversions from the trail lead to unexpected discoveries. On an earlier hike, we had gotten lost trying to find our starting point (not a designated trailhead)—we drove through hill and dale and ended up on a losing 2-track that was quite obviously not where we wanted to be. While turning the vehicle around in the tight space between the trees, we noticed something white peeking out from under a black plastic tarp, and upon investigation discovered the clean and nearly complete skeleton of a horse (or mule? These are the Ozarks, afterall). A shattered left occiput and lead projectile protruding through the right maxilla of the skull told the story of this sad beast’s demise. Despite its gruesome origins, I simply cannot resist clean, whole skulls of any kind, so I placed it in the vehicle before we resumed our search for the trail. It now rests permanently in my “museum” and has been named Horace (sitting next to an even cleaner skull of a feral hog that I found a few years earlier—named Boris. Get it? Horace the horse and Boris the boar?).

On this day, as we blazed our own trail on higher ground roughly parallel to the actual trail, we happened upon the gruesome scene shown in these two photographs. Natural historians that we are, we began conducting our own “crime scene” reconstruction—first determining the identity of the remains, then hypothesizing the reason for their placement there based on what we could observe about them. As far as we could tell, the remains of at least three individuals were present, each in a different state of decay from the others and with no apparent evidence of trauma. Rich and I are pretty sure we know what these are, and we have our own ideas about how they got here and why, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think (click photos to embiggen).

This scene made me a little nervous—not because skeletons give me the creeps, but because the Ozark Highlands have a reputation for harboring what many people insultingly refer to as “hillbillies.” The stereotype that this term engenders—i.e., a barefoot man with a long beard and ragged clothes, banjo in one hand and shotgun in the other—may be an extreme and unfair caricaturization. Nevertheless, the presence of this mass grave, with apparently no effort to conceal it, made at least the shotgun part of that image seem a little too real for comfort.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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