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

The Sweetheart

One day I would love to know how many of our moths received their common names. So many of them are interesting and perfect, like this, the sweetheart underwing (Catocala amatrix). In this case, the Latin binomial agrees. Catocala referring to the namesake, hidden underwing and amatrix meaning lover.

This moth was found in Franklin County, MO.

Catocala amatrix (sweetheart underwing) – Hodges #8834

I’m never really fortunate enough to get a good image with their hindwings exposed, but here is a glimpse of the beauty they keep hidden, apparently useful for startling would-be predators upon their taking flight.

Catocala amatrix with hindwing exposed.

-Ozark Bill

Parasitoid Cocoon

We found this cocoon of a parasitoid wasp (Ichneumonidae) during a WGNSS Nature Photo Group Outing in September of last year. This distinctive cocoon is identified to belong to a member of the subfamily Campopleginae who are characterized as koinobiont (allows host to continue development) endoparasitoids that primarily parasitize lepidopteran hosts. We did not find any remains of a potential host nearby.

Campopleginae cocoon

Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)

The lemmings in the sub-arctic and arctic regions of Canada and Alaska must of had a bumper year in 2021 because the mid-west United States had an irruption 2021/2022 winter season for the Rough-legged Hawk (RLHA). Lemmings are the primary food source for this beautiful species during its summer nesting cycle. Typically, during our winters, RLHA are found in ones or twos in Missouri, south to the Missouri River. Around the St. Louis area we may only see one or two birds in a typical winter. This season was quite exceptional. Looking at the occurrences for this past season documented in eBird shows this species has been seen across the state, up and down the Mississippi River, even as far south as the Arkansas border. On a birding day in February, Miguel, Dave and I counted eight as we moved along the Hwy 79 corridor.

On an early mid-February morning Miguel and I hit one of our favorite winter birding locations in St. Charles County to see what luck we could have. We knew a RLHA or two had been reported and photographed by multiple folks and we had our hopes high. Nothing much was showing up on this frigid morning but I thought to check a specific area that was off the beaten path and had a history of holding birds that wanted to get away from the busy roads and throngs of gawkers. That is when we ran into an individual RLHA of our dreams. We wound up spending hours with this cooperative bird despite freezing fingers, toes and tips of our noses. We simply stood outside our vehicles and watched as the bird perched, hover-hunted, soared and fed, all the while seeming oblivious to our presence. The following video and images are the results of this day.

Rough-legged Hawk, February, St. Charles County, MO
The entire population of RLHA migrate for the winter. The light-colored iris of this bird suggests it is a juvenile. Juveniles are very difficult to discern the sex of, but juvenile males are more likely to travel further south during their migration.

The three images above show the bird hover-hunting. This process can be seen in the video as well. The RLHA will hunt by the more typical buteo standard of sitting on a perch and waiting for the right opportunity to show itself. However, because they spend roughly half of their lives in or around the tundra biome where there are few trees or other tall perches to do so, they have developed this method of hunting that allows them to stay high above their prey. They will often start very high, using their keen eyesight to spot the motion of a rodent. They will then descend in tier-like steps, getting closer to their eventual target until finally making their catch. It is quite a sight to watch a buteo of this size hover-hunting and something I doubt I could ever get tired of watching. I think these images show some modifications that help them in hover-hunting. Their wings are longer and narrower than most buteos and their tails are longer and broader as well. With these tools they can keep their heads nearly completely stationary in the sky for minutes at a time.

Right after the catch. This is the poor mouse that was eaten in the video. During winter, hawks of this size may eat 4-8 rodents a day.
The distinctive feathered legs can be easily seen in this image. This namesake trait is referred to in not only the common name, but in the specific epithet as well – lagopus referring to “hares foot”. This trait, found only in the Rough-legged Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk and the Golden Eagle in North America, is undoubtably an adaptation for survival in the cold environments that these birds inhabit.
Rough-legged Hawks come in a dark phase coloration as well. This bird was photographed in Lincoln County, MO this year.
This is a different juvenile that was photographed in Lincoln County, MO this season.

How I would love to see them in their nesting range some day! These birds typically nest on rocky cliffs and because there is often a lack of sticks and branches available in the tundra, they will often use caribou bones to build their nests. They line their nests with soft vegetation like moss and lichen as well as the fur and feathers of their prey.

Because they are so-well adapted to living on the wing, in more open and treeless areas, the RLHA will outcompete species like Red-tailed Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk that prefer to hunt from tall perches. If you have spent enough time in the field, you have probably watched Red-tailed Hawks attempting to hover-hunt when the winds are just right. However, they cannot keep this activity up for very long and do not do it nearly as well as RLHA.

Rough-legged Hawk taking off.

I hope this post gives a good glimpse into the winter life of the Rough-legged Hawk and why, when asked what is my favorite bird species, this is one out of ten or so that I would give as the answer.

-Ozark Bill