A Tale of Three White Giants

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

Missouri is home to three giant white swan species that can be difficult to distinguish without a bit of training or education.  All three swans belong to the genus Cygnus and rank among the largest waterfowl on the planet.  The first species we will consider is the Trumpeter Swan (C. buccinator).  Ranked as both the largest waterfowl species in the world and the largest flying bird of North America, the Trumpeter Swan is considered a conservation success.  Beginning in the 1600s the birds were collected for their meat, skins and feathers.  This unregulated slaughter lasted until the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which provided the species some protection. Their population rebounded from a level as low as 32 birds documented in 1932 to 15,000 – 20,000 estimated today.  Trumpeter Swans only winter in Missouri, spending their summer nesting season from the upper great plains up to Alaska.  As many as 600 birds have been counted at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary during a winter season.

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

The Tundra Swan  (C. columbianus) are more widespread across North America compared to its larger relative, the Trumpeter.  And, although they far outnumber the Trumpeter in total population, the Trumpeter is actually the more abundant winter resident in Missouri.  For reasons unknown, this winter we have seen an unusually high number of the comparatively rare Tundra, giving birders something to be excited about.

In single species groups, especially at a distance, the two species can be challenging to tell apart.  However, when seen up close and spaced closely together, the differences are more easily identified.  On average, the Tundra is 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the Trumpeter.  In addition the border of the black color surrounding the bill is different in the two species and the Tundra usually has a yellow spot on the lores, near the base of the bill.  I’ll guide you to your favorite field guide for more specifics.  With this information, can you spot the four Tundras in the image below?

Mix of Swans
Mix of Swans

Here is a closeup of the two species in flight.  Easy to spot the Tundra here.  Right?

Trumpeter : Tundra - 2.1
Trumpeter : Tundra – 2.1

It was such a treat being able to watch a group of Tundras carrying on…

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans

Finally, our last (and quietest) of Missouri’s Cygnus – the Mute Swan (Color).  The Mute is native to the old world and exists in North America as a naturalized resident.  Still raised and sold on the captive market, the Mute is typically a year-round resident in these parts, moving only to find open water in the dead of winter.  These birds are easily recognized by the large, orange-collored bills, often with a bulge at its base.  I photographed this pair at Binder Lake S.P.

Mute Swans
Mute Swans

There you are, a quick overview of the Missouri’s white giants.

Thanks for the visit.
-OZB

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A Straight-snouted Weevil

Baptisia alba
Baptisia alba Seedpod

Almost reflexively, I pull the baby rattle-shaped seed pod from the stately White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba) as I meander through Shaw Nature Reserve’s prairie trails.  I can’t help it.  I make sure the pods are always black, mature and any seeds left unravaged I simply help to disperse along my walk.  But in doing this so often in the late summer and autumn for so many years I have come to notice that this common forb cannot disperse many seed.  Because, inside the seed pods, like the one pictured above, I usually find multiple seed predators – the short-snouted weevils, Trichapion rostrum (Family Brentidae).

Trichapion rostrum
Trichapion rostrum

Baptisia seed are favored among other insects as well, but what they may lose in this stage of life, they pick up as they grow, for the false indigo are long-lived, drought-tolerant perennials that contain large amounts of secondary compounds that make them absolutely unpalatable to grazing mammals.  The photo below shows these tiny beetles (3.0 – 3.5 mm) among the husks of a number of seeds.  I have not been able to find a source that suggests if both larvae and adults feed on these seeds, or just one of the growth stages.

Trichapion rostrum
Destroyer of Seeds

Here is an image of a couple, shortly after I split their double-wide…

It's the Visitors, Martha!
It’s the Visitors, Martha!

These little one have been a source of fascination for me.  I hope to learn more about them someday.

-OZB

Groundhog. See Woodchuck

Groundhog
Groundhog

I met a couple new friends this late summer.  I had begun to notice a couple of Groundhogs, aka – Woodchucks, at Wild Acres Park in Overland, not too far from home.  These fascinating animals are quite tolerant of people and will allow for close viewing in areas like parks where they are accustomed to those who mean them no harm.  See the photo below for what I am assuming/hoping is a reproductive pair.

Groundhog
Groundhog Pair?

Groundhogs undergo hard hibernation.  I began to see less of these guys, foraging for their favorite plant foods around the entrances to their burrows, as the autumn advanced.  I believe the last I saw of them was late November or early December.  Once asleep, Groundhogs will hibernate in their burrows until February, in which they may loose up to half their autumn body weight.  A brief courtship/mating season is then held, followed by  an average of 4-5 pups in late March.  I will be keeping an eye out for that.

Lookin' Out My Backdoor
Lookin’ Out My Backdoor.

The photo above shows a Groundhog doing its second favorite past time, basking in or near a burrow entrance.  I have been able to find four burrow entrances in the park so far.

'Till the Spring
‘Till the Spring

Hopefully this crazy El Niño winter is not affecting these guys too badly as they take their winter naps deep inside their burrows.  I’m looking forward to spring.

-OZB

The Bee Wolves

Bee Wasp
Bee Wolf

I was thrilled when I took my camera inside from shooting in my wildflower garden on a past summer day and identified this hymenopteran as a Bee Wolf.  Philanthus gibbosus (Family Crabonidae) is what I am calling this one.  Bee Wolves get their name from doing what you expect, feeding primarily on bees.  These solitary wasps will load their brood chambers with pretty much any bee or wasp smaller than themselves that they can catch as a provision for a single egg they deposit prior to sealing the chamber shut.  Some taxa have specific bees they prefer to catch and this can aid in identification.  This poor thing was quite beaten up as you can see in the photograph below.  Missing a few legs, it probably escaped a bird or larger insect, and was not happy to have me and my camera in its face.  In the photo above I captured it doing a rapid vibration of its wings, something I read that these guys are known for doing as a communication.  I can’t imagine what she may have been trying to tell me…

Bee Wolf
Bee Wolf

I believe the insect below to also be a species of Bee Wolf, but have not yet been able to put a name with this one.  I photographed this one having a drink in a wet area of Shaw Nature Reserve early one morning.

Bee Wolf?
Bee Wolf?

-OZB