Friday, October 24, 2014

Water Returns to the Creek

Following a three month absence, water has returned to the creek.  Gentle precipitation spread over a two week period resulted in a total of five inches of rain falling on Blue Jay Barrens.  This recharged the ground water enough to cause a rise in the well level and to allow water flow through the creek channel.

Most of the aquatic life has yet to become active, but the pools are full and shallow riffles sparkle in the sunlight.  It won’t be long before the creek animals reclaim their domain.

The water flow is still below its wet weather norm.  The rate of flow suggests that the ground water has been recharged sufficiently to maintain a stream flow until the wet weather does arrive.

The rain fell at a slow enough rate to allow practically all of the water to penetrate the ground rather than run overland to the creek.  Leaves in the channel lay undisturbed except in the lowest part of the channel where the water flow originated.

The upper portion of the creek channel is more entrenched and has a steeper grade than the wider channel downstream.  This generally results in a more rapid water flow.  Even in these reaches, the water flow was so slow that leaves in the water were not carried away.

Decomposing leaves are a prime source of energy for organisms living in headwater streams.  The longer the leaves remain in place, the more benefit they are to the stream ecosystem.  In years where the leaves are not washed away by flood waters, there is a noticeable increase in stream insects and other organisms.

Reflections of sky and trees on large bodies of water usually result in an attractive image.  Reflections on a small creek are often less appealing.  The green and yellow leaves reflecting on the water make this creek appear to have acid mine drainage or similar contaminant fouling the water.

A colony of Coltsfoot has become established on the toe of this bank.  Coltsfoot is a non-native that can form dense colonies on gravel bars and creek edges.  I always remove it when I find it, but seed from upstream continues to bring me new colonies.
Flood water hasn’t yet come close to reaching the bottom of the new bridge.  The support beams sit just above the record flood level for this stretch of creek, so it’s going to take a flood of disaster proportions to cause any damage here.

Water Striders were quick to reclaim the surface of the newly filled pools.  When the creek is dry, the Water Striders shelter beneath flat creek rock in the channel or beneath vegetation on a moist bank.  They emerge from hiding as soon as water appears.

The only fish left in the creek in early summer are the recent hatchlings from the spring spawn.  Most of those perish when the creek pools dry up in July or August.  A lucky few manage to end up in the one pool that holds water in all but the driest of years.  Now considerably larger than they were a few months ago, they will begin to spread out along that section of creek.  It’s always a good feeling to have the water return to the creek.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I was passing a group of small Redbuds growing in a sheltered place beside the garage, when I noticed a triangle shape in the foliage.  The sight of a shape not naturally produced by growing stems caused me to stop and examine more closely.  I found this looper type caterpillar apparently beginning a journey up a leaf stem.  It doesn’t matter how well you mimic a twig, if you put yourself into an untwig-like position.

The caterpillar possesses a remarkable camouflage.  Body form, color, pattern and texture all match components of the actual twig.

The two conical projections on the head help to identify this as a Cleft-headed Looper, the larval stage of the Pepper-and-Salt Moth.  The projections remind me of terminal buds and play a part in the twig mimicry.

Located behind the head are three pairs of legs.  Caterpillars sometimes appear to have many legs, but these six are the only true legs.

At the other end of the body are leg-like structures known as prolegs which are short, hook tipped appendages used for gripping.  It’s not uncommon to hear a tearing sound as the ends of the prolegs are pulled from the substrate, especially if you are removing caterpillars from your clothing.  The hooks work in the same manner as those found in Velcro.

Looper caterpillars lack prolegs in the center portion of their bodies.  They travel in typical inchworm fashion by extending the body until the front legs get a firm grip and then bringing forward the rear end by arching the body into a loop.

Hopefully, this fellow got where he was going without attracting any predator attention to his triangle pattern.  It would be best if it just stopped forming these abnormal shapes.  Of course, this species is in the family Geometridae, so it’s to be expected that this guy would know a little something about Geometry.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Orchids Eaten

I was sorely disappointed when I went back to check on the group of Spiranthes magnicamporum orchids that I found a couple of weeks ago.  A short stalk was all that was left of the largest of the flowering plants.

Evidence of browsing Whitetail Deer.  Six of the 14 blooming plants suffered this fate.  All were within a few feet of the trail that is used by me and the deer.

Other plants that were farther from the trail were left alone.

This shot was taken from the trail.  The stalk of the eaten plant is in the center foreground.  The flower spike from another plant can be seen emerging from the clump of brown grass in the upper right.  Distance between plants is about four feet.

Each of the eaten plants had a set of arrow shaped hoof prints pointed to what was left of the flower stalk.  Deer have a taste for orchids and many orchid species that were once common here, such as the Showy Orchis, have not been seen for many years.

Loss of a few flower spikes was just the first disappointment.  I had come out in hopes of witnessing insects pollinating the orchids.  In two hours of watching I didn’t see anything come near those flowers.  Before leaving the site, I fashioned a pollinating tool out of a dried grass stem to mimic what happens when a nectar seeking insect inserts its head into one of these tiny flowers.

Instead of being released as loose grains, orchid pollen is contained in a sticky mass called a pollinium that attaches itself to a nectaring insect.  If this grass stem had been the head of a bee, the pollen mass would have attached to the bee’s head.  The pollen would then be in position to pollinate future flowers visited by the bee.  I have yet to see this activity performed by a live insect.  I may just have to pack up and live with the orchids some summer.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Young Black Rat Snake

My house, barn and garage are home to many Black Rat Snakes, but until now, I’ve never seen a first year youngster.  This fine fellow gained entrance to the house when I left the door to the garage open while I carried some items out for storage.  I came in to find him scooting across the family room carpet and quickly moved to intercept.  The house is not a snake friendly environment and I would hate to find one like him dead and dried out on some future date.

Young Black Rat Snakes are often mistaken for Eastern Milk Snakes.  The Milk Snake shows a light “Y” shaped pattern surrounded by dark coloration that is clearly visible just behind the top of the head.  The Black Rat Snake has a gray “V” that blends into the gray on top of the head.

A black stripe begins behind the eye and ends when it reaches the corner of the mouth.

The back is marked by a series of dark blotches.  The coloration of the young snake bears little resemblance to that of the adult.  The pattern changes to an almost solid black as the snake grows.

Broken vertical bars mark the sides.  The body shape reminds me of a train tunnel.  Flat belly, straight vertical sides and a rounded back characterize the Black Rat Snake.

A double row of dark blotches runs down the belly. 

Overall, this is a very handsome looking snake.  The snake was quite docile, but by the time this shot was taken, it had warmed up enough that it wouldn’t stay still for any more photos.

I let the snake down into one of my growing containers to keep it confined long enough for a full body shot.  This guy is probably not more than a month old.

Then I let the snake go in a brush pile near the house.  The pile contains large rotting logs that will provide security from predators while my scent dissipates from its body.  I’ve noticed several animal species, especially dogs, that are attracted to the scent of humans.  I wonder if handling wild animals might put them at greater risk from these predators.

The snake wasted no time moving down into the pile of logs.
I may run across this snake again, but for now, that’s the end of this tail.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The diversity of active insects at Blue Jay Barrens continues to decline as we proceed into autumn.  Fortunately, one of my favorite insect groups is still well represented by active adult individuals.  I’m referring to representatives of the order Orthoptera, which I generally think of as Hoppers, because of their specially adapted hind legs capable of sending the creatures bouncing across the landscape.  The most conspicuous of this order are the grasshoppers, such as this Two-Striped Grasshopper, so named for the twin lines that run backwards from the eyes and onto the wings where they merge to form a “V”.

The Two-Striped Grasshopper is part of a group known as spurthroated grasshoppers, so named because of the protruding spike found between the front legs.  The wounds on the underside of the thorax, along with the cream colored object that appears to be an egg, suggest that this individual is infested with parasites.

In large numbers, this species is sometimes an agricultural pest.  At Blue Jay Barrens the population seems to remain in check, making this just one of many species feeding on the diversity of prairie vegetation.

Many grasshoppers employ camouflage to help avoid predation.  This Kiowa Rangeland Grasshopper illustrates how easily it can avoid detection.

Removed from its rocky background, the grasshopper displays a bright and colorful pattern.

This is a quite variable species.  A diagnostic characteristic is a double hump located atop a structure known as the pronotum, which sits like a collar directly behind the head.

The grasshopper quickly blends into its surroundings once placed back on the ground.

Displaying the art of camouflage as a leaf mimic does this Lesser Anglewing little good when it sits on the tree trunk.  Anglewings are distinguished from other similar looking insects by the bend in the upper margins of the wing along the insect’s back.

The Lesser Anglewing can be separated from its close relative the Greater Anglewing by the presence of a dark patch on its back directly behind the pronotum.

Well concealed among the Indian Grass is a Fork-Tailed Bush Katydid.  I believe I interrupted some courtship activity in my discovery of this female.  I had actually been following the sound of a singing male of the species.  The vegetation was quite thick and as I pushed aside some grass stalks in an effort to catch a glimpse of the singer, I scared him from his perch.  The female, who was positioned about six inches further up the grass blade than the male, remained long enough for me to get a couple of shots before she too left the scene.

As a youngster, I always believed that the pale looking Broad Winged Tree Cricket was suffering some illness.  I never took any home to raise in captivity, because I believed that whatever ailment they suffered, might be transferred to the healthy insects in my collection.  It was years later that I found out that this was the normal appearance of this species. 

The red coloration on the head and antenna bases is distinctive.  The transparent forewings contain an intricate veined pattern that reminds me of fine crystal.

I’m a fan of insects that are so distinctively patterned that identification is unmistakable. Unfortunately, this specimen doesn’t fall into that category.  It is one of those that is part of a group of closely related species that share common physical traits.  This is most likely a Black-Horned Tree Cricket, but I am unable to make that identification with 100 percent assurance.

This handsome young lady is a Straight-Lanced Meadow Katydid.  The long sword-like appendage trailing from the end of the abdomen is the egg laying apparatus, the ovipositor. 

I’ve been seeing a lot of these Woodland Meadow Katydids this year.  In general they all seem little disturbed by my intrusion.

After only one photograph, this inquisitive lady went from corn stalk, to camera, to my hand, where it didn’t want to leave.

It migrated to my thumb where it began nibbling away at the skin.  I wasn’t sure if it was after salt or dead skin cells or the residue of ornamental corn sap that gave my thumb that purple blush.

When it moved around to my knuckle, which had not been corn contaminated, I decided that it was most likely grazing on dead skin cells.  I had to remove it from my thumb, however, because I didn’t have time for the full manicure.