The year 2020 has been smiling upon me with my attempts at photographing all the orchid species of Missouri. So far this year I have seen five new orchids and have photographed three of them in bloom. The focus of today’s post, Corallorhiza wisteriana, is known by its common names Wister’s coralroot or spring coralroot. The name coralroot is used due to the apparent likeness and growth habit of the plant’s rhizomes to undersea coral. There is one other known coralroot that I need to photograph in Missouri, that is the autumn coralroot, C. odontorhiza that I hope to photograph when it blooms this fall.
C. wisteriana is one of, if not the earliest orchid to bloom in the state. Going by the number of posts from folks on Facebook, and the fact that I and a couple of friends found well over one hundred stems with just a few minutes of searching, this species is having a terrific year.
This orchid is small, with a lowercase s. The leafless stems can grow 10 to 35 cm high and an individual flower when open is only but ~ 8 mm long – A challenge to photograph. I anticipated this, but what surprised me is its showiness. Looking closely, this plant is beautiful, with many stems and flowers colored deeply with maroons and purples and the labellum/lip with purple spots on white.
I found these flowering stems in singles, pairs and large-sized colonial groups. Typically, stems from these close groupings will be from the same plant. Below is from the largest colony I saw this spring.
Corallorhiza orchids are considered to be ‘myco-heterotrophic’ plants, meaning these plants parasitize mycorrhizal fungi (fungi that get their carbon needs from symbiotic relationships with green plants) to get their primary nutrients. Therefore these orchids contain little to no chlorphyll, do not produce leaves and photosynthesis is a very negligible part of how they make their living.
The photo above shows an aberrant flowering stem – the only one I found, that was very lightly colored and that had no spots on the labellum whatsoever. After realizing how strange this was, I went back to it a few days later to better photograph the whole stem. Alas, the stem was smashed because this was located on the very edge of the trail.
The preceding photo shows a hymenopteran nymph (~5 mm in length) that is hiding underneath this flower’s lip. I am unsure whether or not this insect is responsible for the webs seen here. These threads were often seen covering these orchids.
I hope you enjoyed getting to know this little beauty. Stay tuned for more orchid profiles in the near future!
Until this spring, I assumed that spring ephemerals, like Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) and others that begin flowering in early spring, did not provide much sustenance for early season pollinators. For no reason in particular, I assumed that most of these plants preferred selfing versus providing the resources to attract insect pollinators.
After taking a closer look at the blankets of C. virginica that lie on the slopes of Beckemeier Conservation Area near our house, my eyes were opened. I found pollinators everywhere on multiple trips during this long and cool spring. Unfortunately many species were so quick that they eluded me and my camera. However, I managed to nab a few of the more cooperative and with some help of those smart folks at BugGuide.Net, I got as close to the right identifications as I could.
Have you heard of oligolecty? Until doing this research, I had not either. Oligolectic is a term that describes certain bees species that have specialized preference to pollen from only specific plant groups – plants from a small group of genera, a single genus, or in this case, one single species.
The spring beauty bee (Andrena erigenidae) is a mining bee (Andrenidae) that feeds exclusively on the pollen and nectar of C. virginica. In fact, the larvae of this species cannot grow optimally on any other pollen source. So, it may not come as a surprise that this was the most common bee I found foraging on the fields of spring beauty.
These mining bees will take the pollen during a flight run that may last up to more than an hour and then bring it back to their self-constructed nursery hole in the ground. There they will turn the pollen into cakes and lay a single egg on each. This will be all the material needed for an individual larvae to develop into an adult.
The next pollinator is a bee from the same genus, Adrena. This is a huge genus, comprised of more than 450 species in the U.S. Most often they are impossible to identify to species without having the bee in-hand and available for close inspection.
This beautiful and hairy ginger was considerably larger than the previous Andrena. I estimate this bee was about two-thirds the size of the domesticated honeybee.
I’m not sure if this individual was a male, or if it was only interested in getting nectar, but I never saw this species actively collecting pollen from C. virginica.
The long tongue on this one will allow for it to collect nectar from a larger variety of flowers, while the hairs on this bee definitely help it meet its pollinator status.
I found a couple cuckoo bees foraging amoung the C. virginica as well. This “nomad cuckoo” pictured below is a cleptoparasite, meaning the female will lay its egg inside the nest of a different host species. The cleptoparisitc larvae will hatch first and will often kill the eggs or larvae of its host and then use the pollen provisions the host mother left to complete its development. This particular genus, the Nomada, is known to primarily use species in the above discussed Andrena genus as its host.
The cuckoo wasp, like this metalic green beauty in the Chrysididae family are also cleptoparasites that likely will use Adrena bees as hosts.
Bees and wasps were not the only pollinators I found on spring beauty. I also found a couple species of ants (not pictured because they never stand still long enough) and a couple of dipteran species, like this tachinid fly.
I now want to introduce what was probably the most interesting thing I learned about spring beauty this year. Having been able to work on Asian Soybean Rust for a couple years during my career, I have since been very interested in the complex life-cycles of plant rusts. I suppose due to the dense population of C. virginica at this location and the cool and wet spring we have had, I found that many plants were infected with spring beauty plant rust (Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae). With just taking a cursory estimation of the hillsides, I think that as many as 50% of this population was infected with this rust. When I took the succeeding photo ( I so wish I had taken more and better photos of this), little did I know that my investigation would take me into a complex relationship that not only involved this plant host and rust relationship, but would also involve slugs (yes slugs) and the very pollinators that enticed me to bend the knee in the first place.
I am sure that anyone who has taken the time to appreciate spring beauty more than during one season and/or place has noticed the variability in flower parts coloration. The majority of what is to follow here comes from an intriguing bit of work by Frank Frey (2004). C. virginica can vary from almost completely white to being mostly colored with pink to mauve to crimson stripes and other floral parts. Frank describes that plants that with higher levels of theses reddish pigments are preferred by pollinators and therefore, “…floral redness was associated with higher percentage fruit set.” Well then, this should beg the question, if this is the case why are there still plenty of individuals and populations of the less-fecund whitish pigmented flowers? Shouldn’t selection have taken care of this by now?
Here is where the slugs and rust comes into the story. These two, surprisingly, affect opposing selective forces on the coloration of C. virginica flowers. Plants with more white-colored flowers hold up better against predation by slugs due to the anti-herbivore properties of the flavonol pigments that produce the white coloration in these plants. In addition, for reasons that are not completely understood, the rust pathogen does better at infecting and propagating new spores on plants with redder-colored flowers. This was eye-opening for me to learn that something besides pollinator preference was manifesting a selective force on floral morphologies.
This is a highly simplified summary of the story this paper holds. I highly encourage you to check it out for yourself by following the link below.
I love the never ending stories that can be learned from a single, common and seemingly simple spring ephemeral wildflower. I’m sure that spring beauty still has a number of stories to tell. I wish I had taken more photos of the rust and I will try and see if I can find plants with telia, the next form of spore-producing legion by this rust. It occurs later in the lifecycle of the plant. I just hope I’m not too late to get it this season.
Never have I worked so hard to get mediocre photos of such an ugly bird. The sky was clear, the air cool and this combination created a terribly turbulent atmosphere over the mud flats the bird was foraging in, making it near impossible to get the sharpness desired in a photograph.
The Ruff is a bird that is native to Eurasia, visiting North America somewhat regularly. There have been sightings of this species in Missouri and Illinois in the recent past (at least three during this spring), but this is the first one I’ve been able to track down and photograph. Josh Uffman happened to discover this bird near Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary on April 18th while we were in the area. I want to thank Josh who turned on the St. Louis birding community to this special visitor from overseas.
The Ruff is a member of the Calidris genus of shorebirds. Local members of this group include many of the sandpipers we are familiar with, like the peeps, Dunlin and Red Knot.
I know I called this particular bird ugly earlier in the post. However, if you are not familiar, look this bird up on the internet or your favorite bird guide. The birds in breeding plumage are absolutely stunning and their behavior on leks makes them a very special bird.
These were just a few of the couple thousand or so photos of this bird taken on that day. Most were boring shots of the bird foraging in the flooded farm field. Perhaps one day I’ll be fortunate enough to see these guys on their leks.
I have traveled to Kaskaskia Island, IL at least 7 times in the past four years in hopes of being fortunate to find these beautiful birds in close distance to a road. Most visits result in being able to find them, but most often they are a football field or more away. Back in early January 2020, Sarah and I finally won the lottery.
We found these birds quite close to the road and actively foraging in the permanent drainage canals of this river valley farming area.
Whooping Cranes are still endangered; however, thanks to the USFWS/USGS captive breeding and reintroduction program, this species has come back from the brink of extinction. In 1941 the species was down to only 21 individuals due to rampant conversion of natural habitat to farmland, coastal development, and unregulated hunting. The captive breeding program was initiated in 1967 and today there are now more than 800 birds in the wild.
Captive breeding and reintroduction has now been transferred from the federal institutions to a good number of other organizations who will continue towards the goal of making the Whooping Crane self-sufficient again. This efforts is not completely without problems as there have been and continue to be problems associated with getting the reintroduced birds to migrate, interact and successfully nest.
A case in point may be the recent history of these birds in the state of Missouri (only the 8th record in MO since 1953). The first reports of a four-bird cohort observed in Columbia MO was in May, 2016. These were the same birds observed over-wintering in Kaskaskia Island, IL. These four birds were from a release who then strayed from their population that was following the traditional Wisconsin to Florida migration route. Since then at least two of the original four birds have died. Hopefully these two (I have been told, but have not yet been able to confirm that this is a sexual pair) will get back on track one day and do their part in propagating the species.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find time to get out this spring and add some spring ephemeral wildflowers to my photographic list. Englemann Woods NA near Wildwood, MO has been a great place for this along with other nature observations. Today’s photo is Trillium flexipes. It is one of the white trillium that can be somewhat confusing to identify properly. I found a number of associated common names, but ‘nodding trillium’ seems to be the most commonly used.