2020 Insect Wrap-up

This hag moth, or monkey slug caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium) was found on a pawpaw along the Meramec River at Shaw Nature Reserve in early September.

As it seems I say every year, I did not find the time to go out looking for insects as much as I had hoped for in 2020. Here are a few of my favorites from this past season. As always, please correct any inaccurate species identifications if you are in the know. I try my best, but can always be wrong. Thanks.

This punctured tiger beetle (Cicindelidia punctulata) provided quite a lighting challenge for Casey and me.
We found this crane fly in late April. It makes a nice compliment to the early oak leaf.
I tried capturing this greater bee fly (Bombylius major) in mid-air, but failed in that attempt. A portrait shot would have to suffice.
This monarch caterpillar was found feasting on the leaves of swamp milkweed that was in a planter near the SNR visitor’s center.
Sarah and I found this hanging thief robberfly (Diogmites sp.) feeding on a German wasp (Vespula germanica) on the side of our house in July.
While looking for cats at Weldon Spring CA one evening, I was thrilled to find this saddled prominent (Heterocampa guttivitta) that had been parasitized by braconid wasps. This particular species of parasitoid changes the chemistry of the host’s brain so that after the was larvae emerge the caterpillar spins its own silk around the developing pupae and stands guard over them. When touched, the caterpillar thrashes and hisses, guarding them until it starves.
One of my favorite cats to find is Apatelodes torrefacta (spotted apatelodes). They can be found in yellow, or this white form. One day I’ll have to track down an adult to photograph.
A White-blotched Heterocampa (Heterocampa umbrata) shows off its incredible camouflage that allows it to eat as it becomes one with the leaf.
A waved sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) that has been parasitized by numerous braconid wasps.
In September, I found this nice specimen of a fungus in the Cordycipitaceae family that had attacked a spider. This is most likely Gibelulla leiopus, an obligate parasitic fungus that preys on spiders with an almost worldwide distribution.
Of course I did a little slug moth caterpillar hunting this season. Here I photographed this crowned-slug (Isa textula) catterpillar by using the flash behind the leaf, showing the delicate patterns of the insect.
The highly variable stinging rose slug (Parasa indetermina) is always a welcome find.
The same species pictured above, here showing its bright red underbelly.
I found this spiney oak slug (Euclea delphinii) by searching the undersides of oak leaves at Babler State Park in mid-September.
The skiff moth (Prolimacodes badia) cats are highly variable, ranging from nearly a complete uniform green to being more decorated like this individual.
Here is the same individual as above, showing more of its interesting “senescent leaf” patterning.
A very common site while looking for slug moth cats, this Nasan’s slug moth (Natada nasoni) caterpillar has the egg of a tachinid fly on it. Most likely a death sentence for the caterpillar if the egg does hatch and the parasitoid larvae invades its host.
Only my second find of this species, this inverted-y slug (Apoda y-inversum) was found at Weldon Spring CA in mid-September.

Thanks for the visit and wishing you a great 2021 filled with more insects!
-OZB

2020 Bird Wrap-up

A Carolina Wren that paused long enough along the Lost Valley Trail (Weldon Spring CA) in early May.

Here’s a bit of a wrap-up on 2020 with a selection of miscellaneous birds that didn’t fit into any other blog posts.

A Kentucky Warbler with prey found at Engelmann Woods Natural Area in May.
This was definitely my year for Kentucky Warblers. In May and June they seemed to be everywhere I went. This one was photographed on my birthday near Greer Spring in June.
I’m always happy to get a photo of Yellow-throated Vireos. This one was photographed along the Lost Valley Trail Lost Valley Trail (Weldon Spring CA) in May.
Sarah and I found some Eastern Kingbirds in May while birding along Hwy 79. These guys were moving from perch to perch among the flowering weeds in ag fields.
The light was harsh, but I couldn’t help shoot these Eastern Kingbirds.
Sarah and I found this Killdeer doing its broken wing routine in May. We looked but could not find any sign of a nest or chicks.
On the same trip as the previous two species, we came across this solo male Bobolink singing. I slowly creeped along the weeds to get close enough for this photo.
This pair of Dickcissel were caught in the act on an orchid hunting trip in mid-June.
A photo taken at August A. Bush Memorial CA in very low light of a Worm-eating Warbler. Always one of my favorites!
A very cooperative Pine Warbler sat for Dave and I during our birthday trip to the southeastern part of the state.
This Wood Duck wasn’t buying me in my kayak and would let me get only so close at Mingo NWR.
While Dave and I were looking for Ammodramus sparrows at Weldon Spring CA, we came across this gorgeous Henslow’s Sparrow.
In September, while waiting at a watering hole in St. Louis County, this Red-tailed Hawk flew in for a drink. If you look closely you can see a prey animal it is carrying – either a squirrel or a mink.
A rare-for-Missouri Western Grebe was found at RMBS in late November.
During the same visit to RMBS, Dave and I found our first American Tree Sparrow of the season.

I likely have several other bird photos from 2020 that need processing, but this is all I have for now. Thanks for the visit.

-OZB

 

 

 

Loess Bluffs NWR – Autumn, 2020

A mass-lift off of Snow Geese at dawn. Loess Bluffs NWR, MO.

A visit to Loess Bluffs NWR in Holt County near the far northwestern tip of Missouri is a must for any nature enthusiast who has the means to do so. I’ve made this trip approximately seven times during the Thanksgiving week over the past ten or so years. You can see more photos I’ve taken at this location here, here, here, and here. This year, since the pandemic limits so much of social gatherings and we hoped visitor numbers would be low, we made the trip on a very warm  Thanksgiving day itself. Today, I am sharing some of my favorite images made during this visit.

Use low-light situations to try your hand at an artistic pan-blur shot. A relatively slow shutter speed of 1/100 sec produces a greater sense of motion in the flight of these Snow Geese.

Not wanting to stay in a hotel during the great pandemic, we decided to make this a long day trip. We left St. Louis around 1:00 am. This gave us plenty of time to make the ~5 hour drive with stops and allowed for a quick nap before first light when we arrived.

During late autumn in Missouri, light is typically usable for nature photography all day. However, the warm glow of the golden hour is still the best time to be in the field, ready with camera in hand.

I highly recommend to anyone making the visit to be sure and be here for as much of the day as you can, whether it is one full day or over the course of days. I always find it amusing to watch photographers arrive 2-3 hours after sunrise or leave before last light. By doing so, you are missing some of the best light of the day and perhaps the most activity of the birds and other wildlife.

A great day on the refuge will be when more than 100,000 Snow Geese are present. Here, both phases of Snows can be seen – both juvenile and adult “blues” as well as the “snows”.
With the numbers of geese and the often-times great distances, finding a pair or a few geese to isolate from the group can be a challenging but rewarding way of creating a different type of photograph.
A trio of Snow Geese coming in to claim their spots.

Snow Geese may be the main attraction, but they are not the only species worth paying attention to. Approximately 25,000 Green-winged Teal were present on the refuge on the day of our visit. Not only that, but they were focused on foraging near the eastern banks of the large pools of the refuge, allowing easy access for getting a little closer.

Sitting still and low can yield a pleasant, eye-level view of your waterfowl subject.
A Green-winged Teal drake and hen. This species nests in the northern half of North America but follow the ice-line south during winter.
A handsome Green-winged Teal drake preens in shallow water.

We found this Pied-billed Grebe preening near the road and stopped to shoot way too many photos of it.

A Pied-billed Grebe preening under good light.
Reaching its head to collect secretions from the oil gland above the base of its tail, the Pied-billed Grebe will spend large amounts of time preening and water-proofing its feathers.

I have had much better success with raptors on other visits but we did find a few Bald Eagles. These birds are always present on the reserve at this time of year. I was surprised there were not more of these and other scavengers. We found at least a dozen goose carcasses in the pools of the refuge, likely the result of mid-air collisions as the blizzards blast off into the air.

This yearling Bald Eagle perches above the refuge drive, likely waiting to find an injured or dead waterfowl.

I have spotted Sandhill Cranes at the refuge during previous trips, but not in the numbers we saw this year. With a final count of near 35 birds, it was very nice to see. Unfortunately distance and light angle limited our photographic option.

A group of Sandhill Cranes forage together across a flooded field.
This individual Sandhill Crane was displaying in front of another, likely a subordinate or mate.

Muskrat mounds are always worth a closer inspection as you make the drive around the refuge. Not only will you likely find muskrat, but several species of birds like to perch upon the them.

An American White Pelican stretching and preening atop a muskrat mound.

Of course daylight is at a minimum this time of year and it’s always surprising to notice how quickly the sun begins to set. This is a fantastic location for sunsets and the snow geese are just as active as they have been all day.

A “blast off” of Snow Geese. I would love to know why these geese use their resources to lift off the water several times a day simply to fly around and land virtually in the same places of the pool they left from.
Situations like this may be my favorite. Here you can see that multiple large groups of Snow Geese have “blasted off” the pools at the same time. Seeing close to 250,000 geese in the sky at once is something that should not be missed!

Hopefully these images might persuade you to go and see this spectacle for yourself. It is a natural wonder of the world found in Missouri and should not be missed!

Snow Geese are still active during the last light of day.

-OZB

Missouri Bird #290

White-winged Crossbill – a northern invader

I haven’t been much focused on chasing down new birds to photograph lately, so my count for “Missouri and Contiguous States” hasn’t grown very rapidly during the past few years. With the news that a White-winged Crossbill, a bird with only a handful of records in the state, was visiting a feeder at the offices of the Missouri River Bird Observatory in Arrow Rock, MO, Sarah and I thought it worth going after.

A White-winged Crossbill taking a break between visits to the feeder.

A very cooperative bird, indeed. We stayed on the patio and watched as it came to feed underneath the feeders along with great winter species like Red-breasted Nuthatch and Purple Finches.

The remarkable White-winged Crossbill.

Hopefully this winter continues to bring the winter “invasion” even if we don’t wind up with much of a winter at all.

-OZB

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

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

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