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.
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.
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.
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.
…comes the newest in reality based, sustainable living instructional programming: Corruption Construction!
In a previous post I wrote a bit about the Warty Leaf Beetle (Neochlamisus gibbosus), a member of the Cryptocephalinae subfamily. Fascinating due to the fact that the adult form seems to be a perfect mimic of caterpillar frass, this species is much more interesting than I had imagined.
This species is highly, if not solely, associated with blackberry as a host plant. While watching these guys and looking for other insects on these plants I kept noticing gall-like structures, usually on the undersides of the leaves.
Paying closer attention, I noticed that these structures were not galls, nor were they attached directly to the plant tissue – they moved. On closer inspection, I could sometimes see the legs of the creature that resided within the house.
I had to crack one open to see if I could get an idea of what sort of organism built and resided within. As you can see in the photograph below, the animal appeared to be a beetle larvae.
It took me a while to put it together, but eventually I confirmed that the larvae belonged to the same species as the adult beetles that I observed all over the blackberries. My next question was, on what materials did the larvae use to build its shelter? Usually, an insect will use detritus or perhaps fresh plant tissue that it processes to make a protective enclosure like this. These guys do it a bit differently.
It starts with mom. As she oviposits, she encases each egg with a layer of her own feces and some rectal secretions. As the larvae hatches and grows, it continues to expand its home by building with its own feces to accommodate its increasing bulk. Here is a photo of an adult and larvae close together.
From one of my favorite birds to one of my favorite plants, the shrub known as Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).
I have featured and discussed this plant a number of times on this blog and on Flickr over the years, but there were (and still are) a number of things I did not know and hoped to discover about this fascinating shrub of the Ozark Highlands. As the species name vernalis suggests, these shrubs flower from January through late March, while their sister species, the more easterly Common Witch Hazel (H. virginiana) blooms in the fall. There may be some overlap in flowering and hybridization might actually occur in certain circumstances, but I was unable to find anything that suggests how frequently this might take place.
Here is an image I made this year. Notice the snow and ice in the background.
One of the things I wanted to get to the bottom of, either through direct observation or finding in literature is what are the specifics of pollination for a shrub that blooms in the winter months? Nearly all of the scholarly articles I could find dealt mostly or exclusively with H. virginiana, but I believe that we can assume that most of these results can be used to describe OWH as well. There are several things to consider. The first and perhaps most logical consideration is that the plant may predominantly self pollinate or rely on wind-pollination. A couple of papers suggest that although self-pollination does occur, self-fertilization does not, making the species self-incompatible, so we can eliminate that option. The potential for being primarily gravity or wind-pollinated does not make sense when considering that the plants put some considerable resources into making colorful flowers with a noticeable and pleasant odor. The flowers of OWH have all the classic signs entomophily – brightly colored, nectar producing, fragrant, large, sticky pollen, with male and female structures found in close proximity to one another.
The long strap-like petals of these flowers (see photo below) will unfurl on warmer days and odors increase, thus suggesting the strong likelihood of attracting diurnal pollinators.
Assuming there must be an active pollinator that moves the sticky pollen from plant to plant, what are the potential options for such an insect species in the Ozark Highlands? An interesting article written by Bernd Heinrich of popular science writing fame gave one possibility, at least for the more eastern H. virginiana. In this paper he recorded that winter-active moths he was researching used that shrub’s flowers as a food source. This has been picked up by a number of writers on the internet who have jumped to the conclusion that these moths must be the primary pollinators of the North American Witch Hazels. However, as these primarily warm-colored (preferred by bees) flowers often roll their petals closed and cease odor production at night, the case for nocturnal moths as pollinators should be considered fortuitous at best, and not a reliable vector for pollination by this plant.
I wanted to visit a good stand of blooming OWH on a warm, sunny day in early February or March and see if I could identify and hopefully photograph a pollinator. No such luck. We were able to see a few small midge-like flies and a few native bees surrounding the plants, but photographing one while visiting a flower was to be impossible. Next time I will bring my handy corn syrup in order to coax pollinators to stay a while longer. To get an answer, it was off to the literature. In a study focused on Common Witch Hazel, insects of six orders were identified as visiting flowers. Of these, flies (order Diptera) were most prevalent and comprised 73% of floral visitors and 52% of the identified species, followed next by Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants).
Why flower during colder months? Advantages and disadvantages can be identified with a little thought. What are the advantages of an entomophilous plant that opens its doors for business in the colder months? Not many plants will be flowering in such cold conditions, therefore, on warmer days that allow for flying insects to move about and earn a living, there will be little competition and most pollen collected and moved from flower to flower will be of a compatible, intraspecific origin. In contrast, insects moving about in mid June might be carrying loads of pollen from a number of species, and if these other species provide a higher quantity or superior quality of nectar and pollen, you might find yourself unable to be cross-pollinated.
This strategy is not as clear-cut of an advantage as it may sound, however. It has been found that the North American Witch Hazel have a pretty poor flower to fruit ratio – with a less than 1% fruit set on average (the average fruit set in angiosperms is close to 25%). This makes sense. If you bloom in the winter then there will be generally fewer pollinators, and in particularly long and harsh winters fruit set can and has been documented to fall to zero in Common Witch Hazel. One thing the Hamamelis do to assure that a minimum number of successful seed are produced is by increasing the number of flowers. It has been studied and determined that these plants produce more flowers than similarly sized shrubs. So, although the success rate of each flower is generally poor, when factoring in the number of flowers produced per plant along with the fact that these plants are usually found in dense stands, the total number of seed produced per season is enough to keep the population sustained.
Another of the fascinating natural history notes of the North American Witch Hazels are their means of seed dispersal. These plants exhibit what is termed “explosive dehiscence”, similar to another Ozark native – the Jewelweed. The drying fruit capsules split suddenly, ejecting the seed(s) contained within up to three meters. In the following photo you can see an empty fruit case some time after it has expelled its seeds. An observer will notice another interesting characteristic in the photo. These plants hold onto their spent fruits long into the next season, in this case the plant is in full bloom with its next flowers while still holding onto last years spent fruits.
For now, that is about all I have to say and share about the Hamamelis of the Ozark Highlands. If you find yourself in a sandy stream-bed within the St Francois Mountains during the first quarter of the calendar year, be sure to keep your senses open and prepared for an unexpected blast of spring.
Please note – other than a few easy observations and a little bit of thought, I produced no original work in the written portion of this post. If I was worth my carbon, I would have cited the source of each work I used within the text, but this is my blog, so I don’t have to. Instead, here is a list of works I consulted in writing this.
Anderson, G.J., & Hill, J.D. (2002). Many to flower, few to fruit: The reproductive biology of Hamamelis virginiana (Hamamelidaceae). American Journal of Botany, 89(1): 67-78.
Bradford, J.L., & Marsh, D.L. (1977). Comparative studies of the Witch Hazels Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis. Arkansas Academy of Science Proceedings, 31: 29-31.
De Steven, D. (1982). Seed production and seed mortality in a temperate forest shrub (Witch-Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana). Journal of Ecology, 70: 437-443.
Gapinski, A. (2014). Hamamelidaceae, Part 1: Exploring the witch-hazels of the Arnold Arboretum. Arnoldia, 72(2): 2-17.
Yatskievych, G. (2013). SteyerMark’s Flora of Missouri Volume 3 – Revised Edition.
These three images were taken this past September during a hike that Steve and I took around the Heron Pond area of RMBS. By far the most commonly come across rail in this part of the world, the Sora, fills the perfect role of chicken in the fresh-water marshes. I never get tired of watching these guys wade out into shallow open waters to feed, ready to sprint back into the cover of the marsh plants at the least sign of danger. At just the peak of migration, I have been fortunate to see nearly 100 of these birds at Heron Pond at a given time.
A bird with a song more reminiscent of a hiccup, the Henslow’s Sparrow is a secretive little guy, except while singing. Due to habitat loss, this species has dropped in numbers in recent decades and is currently listed as “near-threatened”.
Known for their tendency to hang upside down while foraging for prey, the Golden-winged Warblers are partial to early successional habitats. Pressures from habitat changes and from the closely related Blue-winged Warbler have forced a downward shift in overall numbers of this species.