Another Grafton Eastern Screech Owl

A gray morph Eastern Screech Owl examines its surroundings from the entrance to its roost tree.

This year it looks like the popular roosting tree at the Grafton, IL Visitor’s Center is playing host to this gray morph Eastern Screech Owl. I have photographed red morph individuals in previous years that were using this same cavity. You can find a few photos of those here and here. There have been reports of brown or “chocolate” morphs being found here or in another nearby location over the past couple of years, but as of yet, I have not been able to photograph that color morph.

My friend Dave and I made this visit and were fortunate to find this bird somewhat active. For a Screech Owl in the daytime, this is fortunate indeed. By “active” I simply mean it would move in and out of its tree cavity and open its eyes to have a look around once in a while.

An Eastern Screech Owl giving us a lookover.

We were told by a local constable that the name they have given the bird was “Winky,” which I find to be pretty apt for an owl. One thing we noticed during this visit is that the unobstructed viewing lanes are becoming harder to find due to the encroachment of the bush honeysuckle growth. Dave and I could only find two lanes that worked well for photography purposes. If I can confirm they do not use this cavity in the summer, I would like to return to do a little landscaping.

While we waited for the owl to return from its hiding inside the tree, we had a nice opportunity to photograph a Pileated Woodpecker that had flown in to forage among the dogwood berries.

Pileated Woodpecker eating a dogwood (Cornus sp.) berry.

Thanks for the visit and take care.
-OZB

Myrmecochory – Seed dispersing ants!

An Aphaenogaster rudis ant shown in the act of myrmecochory – here dispersing the seed of the forest understory forb, Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot).

Myrmecochory is a term that comes from Greek, created from “myrmeco” – of or pertaining to ants, and “chory” – plant dispersal. It is one of approximately seven plant “dispersal syndromes” classified by ecologists, is found in approximately 5% of the angiosperms and occurs in numerous ecosystems around the world.

Showing the extreme relative strength of the ants, this Aphaenogaster rudis is moving a diaspore that must be several times its own weight.

Mutualism is thought to be the basis for this dispersal syndrome. Although this is not necessarily crystal clear, the ants are attracted to the eliasome – the fleshy structure attached to the seed that is a rich source of lipids, amino acids and other nutrients. The ants typically will move the diaspore (eliasome + seed) back to their nests. Dispersal distances vary, but are generally not great – most often 2 meters or less. However, for small forbs this distance is often adequate for moving these propagules outside the range of competition of the parent plant.

Two Aphaenogaster rudis ants attempting to move this Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) diaspore. This was not seen very often and shortly after this image was taken, one ant gave up its pursuit.

Distance dispersal is not the only selective advantage that plants gain from this mutualistic relationship. When the ants have moved the seeds to their nests, they remove the eliasome to feed their young and typically dispose of the seeds in their midden heaps or eject them from the nest. Seeds that are moved to midden heaps or other such locations benefit in multiple ways. First, they are placed in microenvironments that are conducive for germination and early growth. They are protected from heat of fire that could destroy the seeds and benefit from not being accessible to birds and other seed predators. This is referred to as ‘directed dispersal.’ Some studies have shown that the removal of the eliasome may promote germination, similar to the process of seed being removed from their fleshy fruit as it is passed through the gut of a vertebrate.

I rarely had to wait more than 15 minutes before the first Aphaenogaster rudis foraging scout found the pile of diaspores I placed on the ground. Mere minutes after that it was advertised across the colony and other workers showed up to carry the spoils back to their nest.

Their is typically no specialization of particular ants dispersing a particular plant species, with almost any ant species being ready to take advantage of a free meal. The possible exception being that larger diaspores must be dispersed by larger ant species.

Using one of nature’s great predators to disperse your seeds can be risky business. As seen here, the testa (seed coat) of this Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) as well as most myrmecochorous plants is hard and smooth to avoid the bite that ants can deliver.
When a Camponotus pennsylvanicus ant finds a diaspore, the photographer must act quick. They don’t need much time to haul it away!

My hope was to photograph myrmecochory across a variety of species this year. I was fortunate to find success with Sanguinaria canadensis but had no luck in my attempts with Dicentra cucullaria (dutchman’s breeches). I tried hard for trillium species as well but discovered the plants I was waiting for mature fruits for weeks were being harvested most likely by SNR staff. I will be trying for these again in the future and hope to photograph prairie species as well.

A freshly fallen Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy) fruit with diaspores waiting for the ants to disperse them. Note the different testa pattern and eliasome structure compared to Sanguinaria canadensis.

The fruits of Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy), I discovered, had a much smaller window of ripening. I had to check at least every two days or  I would miss the opportunity of a large fruit full of diaspores.

The ubiquitous Aphaenogaster rudis is a key disperser of Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy).
As with many mutualistic relationships, cheaters are known in myrmecochory. Too small to properly move and disperse a diaspore of this size, this Nylanderia faisonensis is seen eating the eliasome on the spot. This was not a very common observation and it is doubtful that this would ultimately hurt the plant species.

See below for my attempts at filming myrmecochory. This was definitely challenging. I had troubles predicting the ants’ behavior, especially while under the bright, continuous lighting needed for high-magnification photography such as this. Something else to try and improve upon next year.

I’d like to thank James Trager for his assistance with ant species identification.

-OZB

So it Begins

First Snowy Owl of the 2020/2021 season in eastern Missouri.

Although it looks like the next official Snowy Owl “irruption year” is predicted to be in the winter of 2021/2022, eastern Missouri has had its first bird of the season and other states have had a few handfuls of sightings as well. This bird was recently spotted in the area of BK Leach Conservation Area and the town of Elsberry, about a 45 minute drive north of the St. Louis metro area. Sarah and I hopped in the car yesterday afternoon and thought we would give it a try.

It didn’t take long to find the bird – by means of finding the birders who had found it for us. This bird looked healthy and was quite active, hunting from perch to perch. Most of our looks were from pretty great distances but we were fortunate to be able to see it up-close, perched on this utility pole just outside Elsberry in the last light of the day. See below of the bird from far away but on a natural perch.

Snowy Owl from our first vantage point from about 200 yards.

If you chase after this one, be aware of the ‘local flavor’. Sarah and I had a couple run-ins with more than the average passive-aggressive douchebags but I guess it takes one to know one. I was pleased to see several birders younger than me (teenagers, actually) out looking at this one as well. From what I heard, these guys were pretty serious birders.

We then went slightly south to BK Leach C.A. proper, hoping to find some opportunities to view and photograph Short-eared Owls. We found approximately five birds during limited light but they were quite active, fighting amongst themselves and the Northern Harriers. The one photographed below came out from a group of birds carrying its prize.

Short-eared Owl flees with its rodent prey.

Overall it was a nice afternoon on another warmer than average December day.

-OZB

Meeting new shut-ins in the St. Francois Mountains

A sharp drop of approximately 8 feet (to pool’s surface) ends one of the nicest series of shut-ins – located on private land in Madison and Iron Counties (location 1).

This year I was fortunate to be introduced to two new-for-me shut-ins in the southern region of the St. Francois Mountains. Both of these locations are currently on private land and with assistance from a couple of friends, it was quite a thrill to be able to visit and photograph these stunning geologic features.

We would of have liked to have more flowing water on our couple of visits to these shut-ins (loc. 1), however, these creeks are both partially spring-fed so there is always at least some flow.

What surprised me most about both of these locations was that they were not covered in Beveridge’s “Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri”. I am not sure if this was because he did not know of them or because he chose not to feature them for some reason. I sure hope it was the later.

This phot was taken at the same location as the previous image, but in the autumn.
Definitely wild country. We pushed through witch hazel and other streamside brush, taking deliberate steps over slick-as-ice rocks to find the next small section of cascades.
The tile-red rhyolite porphyry that makes up the majority of this streambed matches well against the warm tones of autumn foliage.

My recent delves into geology and astronomy have really been eye-opening, tying together everything else I know of natural history into place. There is so much more for me to learn, with Geology I know almost nothing, but it has been such an aid for me in remembering that most of what everyone worries over is so insignificant compared to the real that is right under our noses.

Lava-gas bubbles (lithophysae), thought to be formed by expanding gases prior to solidification into rock, can be seen on this rhyolite protrusion.
Talk about your tile-red rhyolite porphyry!
Don’t confuse this with lava flows from Kīlauea. This is ancient igneous rock that solidified approximately 1.5 billion years ago.
This creek bed at location 2 is located in Iron County. Here, the rock would be considered more of a purple porphyry and is nicely capped by royal fern (Osmunda regalis).
Found near the creek at location 2 was this splendid Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) growing against a bed of Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower). A nice October find.

This is all I have to share from these two locations for now. I am looking forward to visiting again with hopefully more water flow and at different season. Thanks for visiting.

-OZB

 

Wildlife photography from a boat

A Great Egret poses in front of early autumn colors.

Back in September I was fortunate to join the boat owners club when I picked up a single-seater canoe/kayak hybrid. After my typical dive into researching the best potential model for my usage and pocketbook, I was pretty certain it would suit my needs. Excited to give it a try, my first stop in getting it wet was an early morning vacation day at Creve Coeur Lake.

The “Discovery 119” hybrid – very stable and easy to move to and from the water.

On this first outing, only minutes from my house, I did not expect the photographic opportunities to be very abundant. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the looks at wildlife and photos I was able to get.

A Great Blue Heron, usually quite timid, was easy to get close enough to capture with a 400mm lens.

Maneuvering the boat into position while trying to get the photos was a bit of a chore and will definitely take more practice to get right. Facing your subjects is key and in still waters was usually doable before the subjects could complain.

A Great Egret grabs a quick bite.
A quick flip to align and down it goes.

This boat sits very shallowly in the water, allowing me to maneuver easily in the shallows wetlands found at the south end of the lake. I was often moving in less than three inches of water!

Green Herons tend to have a strong tolerance for humans in more populated settings, often allowing close looks.
It’s not every day that you can get this close to a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
The boat was stable enough for me to handhold track this LBHE in flight.
Birds were not the only ‘reptiles’ I was able to get close to on this outing. This is an age-induced melanistic male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) who was bold enough to stay on his sunning perch after his smaller conspecifics had fled to the water.
This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) was showing opaque eye scales, indicating it will be shedding its skin within a few days.

This wraps up the best of my keepers from my first day out in the boat. Needless to say I was quite satisfied with this activity and I am looking forward to getting out more often with it.

Great Egret

Thanks for visiting!

-Ozark Bill

Missouri Orchids – A Trio of Tresses

Spiranthes cernua (nodding ladies tresses) found in Jefferson County, MO

I finished 2020 having found all but one species of Spiranthes orchid expected to be found in Missouri. Many thanks to John Oliver for giving me a bit of education and help in making correct identifications; however, any errors found here are my own and no one else should be blamed. I also want to thank John and Casey Galvin for giving me the clues as to where each species could be found. Identifying these was not as difficult as I originally expected, minus the exception pictured above.

Spiranthes cernua belongs to a species complex that is still being worked out. In addition, I have read that there may be up to 20 or more “races” within this particular species. Not that all of these races are found in Missouri, but generally, this species blooms with leaves. I had a hard time coming to the correct ID because the plants I had found had no leaves at bloom. It took me some time to find out that there is a race in Missouri that does indeed bloom without leaves being present. I will stop here as I cannot speak in more educated terms about this plant other than to say I that I found it stunning.

Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies tresses) photographed in Franklin County, MO

Found across much of northern and southwestern Missouri on limestone glades and other calcareous substrates, Spiranthes magnicamporum, or the Great Plains ladies tresses was only just recently separated from S. cernua. It is distinguished from S. cernua not only by a few morphological floral characteristics, but also by its fragrance. S. cernua is either fragrance free, or with only a hint of olfactory cues, while S. magnicamporum typically exudes a lot of fragrance. On just the right day one may be able to find it by nose before finding it by sight. I found it to have strong vanilla and coumarin hints.

Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies tresses) photographed in Franklin County, MO
Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies tresses) photographed in Jefferson County, MO
Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies tresses) photographed in Jefferson County, MO
Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains ladies tresses) photographed in Jefferson County, MO. Note the widely spreading lateral sepals that arch above most of the flowers, a floral trait that is distinctive to the species.

The flowers of the next Spiranthes, little ladies tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) were described perfectly by Homoya as “jewelaceous”. Here he was referring to the jewel-like look that a magnified view of the flowers have. Many orchid flowers have this look, with each of the “jewels” being composed of individual cells. This is one of the daintiest of orchids found in the state. In Missouri, they are found in dry, sandstone habitats away from competition. Although quite small, when in bloom they should be easy to find as they stand virtually alone in brutal xeric habitat.

Spiranthes tuberosa (little ladies tresses) found on private sandstone glades in Jefferson County, MO.
Spiranthes tuberosa (little ladies tresses) being visited by an halctid bee, one of its primary pollinators.
Spiranthes tuberosa (little ladies tresses) with a crab spider, lying in wait for a solitary bee to visit.

A Pair of Prairie Platanthera

Platanthera lacera (green fringed-orchid) – a sole individual found in Franklin County, MO.

Today I’m showing a couple of orchids from the Platanthera genus. The title of this post suggests these are both prairie obligates, however this is not true with the first species shown here – P. lacera, the green fringed-orchid. Placera most likely appears in more different habitat types than any other orchid in the state. You can find this orchid in places ranging from dry hay fields to fens to forest habitats. The sole individual I was able to find this year was on a reconstructed prairie in Franklin County, MO. Unfortunately, this plant was several days past peak bloom so, I’ll be looking for others in the coming seasons.

Platanthera praeclara (western prairie fringed orchid)

Sarah and I had quite a treat when we made a long day trip to north-western MO in mid-June of this year. We were able to find a few western prairie fringed-orchids just past peak bloom. This was a first for both of us. Platanthera praeclara is a globally endangered species and listed as an S1 species (critically imperiled) by the state of Missouri. This is just another of the many species in such a status due to the unregulated destruction of prairie habitat in the midwest for crop cultivation over the past 200 years. The large white flowers of this species are pollinated by nocturnal sphinx moths – a potential photography project in years to come.

A closeup of a single Platanthera praeclara flower.

-OZB

White-eyed Vireo Nest – Part One

May seems such a long time ago. I don’t know how I get so behind on photo processing, but, better late than never. Here is the first of what will probably be three videos with stills of the White-eyed Vireo nest found by Miguel Acosta at Weldon Spring C.A. this past spring. I hope you like it.

-OZB