Snow Raptors

A few from a couple snow days this past January. Some of the first outings with the Canon R5. On one day, light levels were quite low and birds were at a great distance. Tried shooting with and without teleconverter to get more light. Difficult circumstances.

Short-eared Owl cruising over snow-covered grassland.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-3200.
Short-eared Owl shortly after leaving perch.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-2500.
Short-eared Owl with prey.
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/800 sec., f/4, ISO-2000.
Male Northern Harrier
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-2000.
Female Northern Harrier with prey.
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Squabbling Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier
Settings: 500mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/4, ISO-3200.
Whenever a Short-eared Owl tried and missed its intended prey, it would immediately shake the snow and other materials from its talons.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2500 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1000.
Short-eared Owl skimming snowy landscape.
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2500 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1000.
A great catch!
Settings: 700mm focal length, 1/2000 sec., f/5.6, ISO-1600.

Ozark Bill

Eastern Bluebird Nest – 2021

In the spring of 2021, I finally put up a couple of nest boxes in the yard of the new house. Both boxes were built and gifted by my father, Bart Duncan. Much appreciation! One box was designed specifically for bluebirds and a pair quickly staked their claim. They had an initial successful clutch, fledging three chicks, but on the next attempt, tragedy struck. During my monitoring visit, where there had been four half-developed chicks the day before I found not a single one. I believe the neighborhood racoons made a meal of them sometime during the night, leaving no evidence. It was early enough in the year that I wasn’t surprised that the pair tried again, but what surprised me was that they did not build a nest in the bluebird box, but used a box that was designed for Carolina Wrens that was bolted to the side of our screen porch. It made for some great photo opportunities that I am sharing here. I learned from my mistakes and have installed a baffle around the pole to the bluebird box along with a wire cage over the nest entrance. If a brood predator wants to get at them now they will really have to try hard. I am happy to say that to date, in the 2022 season, the pair successfully fledged two clutches – one of six and one of five chicks. Eleven new bluebirds this year, flooding the subdivision with bluebirds!

Here dad brings a green and juicy caterpillar for one of the four chicks in the box. I realized that this could be a great way of doing an entomological survey of the neighborhood!
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/8, 1/400 sec., ISO-800.
Here dad brings what looks to be a Hemipteran bug of some kind. I supplement the adults with dried mealworms in a special feeder but the chicks need fresh grub. I am happy to live in a neighborhood that can support the nesting of these birds.
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/7.1, 1/320 sec., ISO-1250.
Mom brings in a tiger moth. In my short time making observations, I found this to be the most common prey brought to the nest.
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/7.1, 1/320 sec., ISO-1250.
Dad brings a tiger moth.
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/7.1, 1/320 sec., ISO-1250.
Mom, looking a little well-worn. It was late into a rather busy nesting season for her.
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/5.6, 1/250 sec., ISO-640.
All four chicks waiting for the next visit by a food carrying parent.
Settings: 1,120 mm focal length equivalent, f/8, 1/400 sec., ISO-700.

Ozark Bill

Look at the Sweet Phyllaries on that One!

A look at the disk and ray florets of Symphyotrichum patens (late fall aster)

A lot of folks don’t seem to like attempting to identify plants in the Asteraceae family, more commonly known as the asters. This is a very large family of plants and there are definitely many difficult cases out there in terms of identifying. However, with a good dichotomous key, a hand lens and some patience, I think most anyone can have success in learning some of these interesting plants. The key is learning what characteristics are “key.” The group I am featuring here are three members of the Symphyotrichum genus, often referred to as the “new world asters.” Following recent taxonomic revisions, the genus now holds more than 100 species, of which about 25 can be found in Missouri. Most ray flowers are light blue to violet but some can be white or pink as well.

Photographs can be useful when attempting to identify the new world asters. These can be referred to when attempting identification on your own or sending to someone with more expertise on the group. Knowing what to photograph is important.

A good look at the distinctive involucre of Symphyotrichum patens.

First, both sides of the flower, referred to as the capitulum (composite inflorescence) in the asters, is important in making an identification. Photograph the ray and disk florets along with the involucre from the underside should be photographed. The involucre is a protective structure composed of a group of phyllaries (bracts) that can be beneficial in discerning between species. Asters in this group can be distinguished from one another by the number of ray florets per capitulum and the size of the flowerheads 

The growth habit of Symphyotrichum patens.

Two other photographs you will want to take when attempting to ID the Symphyotrichum are of the plant’s growth habit and the leaves – particularly details of how the leaves are attached to the stems. There are usually key differences here that will be useful when making an identification. Unfortunately, I neglected to take closeups of the leaves while working with these three plants in the front yard this past autumn.

The next species I would like to feature is the spectacular Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, or “aromatic aster.” These plants are quite impressive. Pinch them back once sometime in the month of June and they will bush out, forming impressive globes of violet blooms. The accompanying habit photos are from our front bed and is only three plants! Although these plants create enormous amounts of blooms, I find that it is almost too late in the year. Most of the blooms don’t open until well into October. During this time, most of the pollinators that visited these blooms were honey bees, at least in my yard. I think most of the native pollinators had finished their season by this point.

The above images show the growth habit at flowering of Symphyotrichum oblongifolium.

I hope the next couple of images exemplifies how the phyllaries are important diagnostically for identifying these plants whose flowers look very similar when viewed head-on.

The capitulum of Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. Notice how strikingly different the involucre is compared to S. pattens.

The straw-colored disk flowers of Symphyotrichum drummondii will turn maroon to purple in color late in the season.
Symphyotrichum drummondii – named after Scottish botanist Thomas Drummond, who spent time in St. Louis prior to his famous plant collecting trip to Texas in the 1830s.

Finally, the third member of this genus I have tried in the front yard beds is Symphyotrichum drummondii (Drummond’s aster). This one looks a lot different from the other two, not only in the characteristics of the capitulum, but in its growth habit as well. This is much more of a small, dainty plant that is found in open woodlands and savannahs in the northern sections of Missouri.

A look at the narrow and widely-spaced phyllaries of Symphyotrichum drummondii.

When Splitting is a Good Thing (Spiranthes niklasii)

Anyone who has hung around biologists and naturalists long enough has surely heard the complaints of how taxonomists are going too far in their evil over-splitting ways. Their notion being that phylogenies painstakingly developed via decades of phenotypic comparisons should not be overturned by a few afternoons of running gels in a lab. I’m sure most of us can point to a convincing example of over-splitting amongst our favorite groups of organisms, but I hope that the subject that I am featuring tonight will give you pause before reaching for that familiar defense and realize there are circumstances where a group benefits from a fine dissection when the appropriate tools are available.

A great example of a group that has benefited from a well-executed genetic taxonomic treatment is the Spiranthes cernua species complex of the “ladies tresses” orchids. This species complex has long been known for cryptic species with curious cases of plants being plants – exhibiting hybridism, polyploidy (having more than two sets of chromosomes) and apomixis (reproduction without fertilization). The species, Spiranthes cernua, which is found in Missouri, has been problematic and considered as a polyphyletic taxa (derived from two or more distinct ancestral taxa). In attempting to shed light on the phylogenetics of this species complex, Mathew Pace and Kenneth Cameron have published a fantastic treatment in which they attempt at “Untangling the Gordian Knot”. Most of what I write here is paraphrased from their paper cited at the end of this post.

Spiranthes niklasii – an ancient case of kissing cousins in the Ouachita Mountains.

A common method of speciation in plants is interspecific hybridization. Pace and Cameron identified three instances of ancient hybrid speciation involving S. cernua. One of these circumstances that has now been given specific status is Spiranthes niklasii. This species is near-endemic to the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and is likely a result of a proposed ancient hybridization event between Spiranthes cernua and Spiranthes ovalis.

Pace and Cameron describe S. niklasii as being quite similar in appearance to S. cernua, but can be distinguished by “a central ridge of small papillae on the adaxial surface of the labellum, more strongly campanulate flowers, and usual preference for a more xeric habitat.” When I read this and found out we had an opportunity to see this species, I knew I wanted to try and capture those papillae in a photograph. We found this species in bloom in Saline and Pulaski Counties in Arkansas on 10, October, 2021. While my photos cannot do justice to the excellent figures found in the above mentioned work, I was still thrilled to be able to capture these minute structures while on a camping trip in the Ouachitas.

The ridge of papillae on the labellum of this flower, as seen above, is a diagnostic trait of Spiranthes niklasii.

By the way, one of the other cases of hybrid speciation involving S. cernua that was identified by Pace and Cameron has further implications on my work. Spiranthes incurva is a newly described species that is hypothesized to be the result of an ancient hybridization between Spiranthes cernua and Spiranthes magnicamporum. In Missouri, the result of this split is that S. incurva now lies roughly above the Missouri River while S. cernua is found south of the river. This means that I now have added another species to my orchids of Missouri. A new orchid for me to photograph!

I would like to thank Casey Galvin and Eric Hunt for helping me find these plants.

Literature Cited

Pace, Mathew C., and Cameron, Kenneth M. 2017. The systematics of Spiranthes cernua species complex (Orchidaceae): Untangling the Gordian Knot. Systematic Botany. 42(4): pp. 1-30

Until next time,
-Ozark Bill