Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rodent Cache

One of the previous owner’s last activities prior to my purchasing Blue Jay Barrens was a harvest of large Eastern Red Cedar logs.  As a result, there are numerous short lengths of tree trunk that were discarded after the log was trimmed to marketable length.  Being highly resistant to decomposition, cedar logs remain on the ground for a long time.  The younger wood near the outside of the log is the first to break down, giving a good foundation for mosses and other small plants to take hold.


The side of the log in contact with the soil breaks down much more rapidly.  Eventually, the most rot resistant portion of the log, the heartwood, is left in contact with the ground.  As microorganisms work on the organic matter in the soil beneath the log, the volume of material reduces.  In dry upland areas, it is not uncommon for the underside of these logs to lose contact with the soil.  Air freely flows beneath the log and the log acts as a roof protecting a dry environment.


That’s the case here.  A dry cavity has formed that was used by a small rodent to cache a supply of food items. 


I’m guessing the owner of this stored food was a White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus.  I once maintained a captive White-footed Mouse for almost three years and periodically fed it mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers.  If given more than it could consume, the mouse would eat the heads from the excess insects and store the bodies for later.  This headless grasshopper is exactly what my pet used to produce.  Besides that, the White-footed Mouse is extremely common here.


Included in the debris were several scraps of bright, blue-green exoskeletons.

There were enough body parts to account for at least three of these insects.  The various parts reminded me of what was left behind when my pet mouse ate crickets.  Large cricket bodies were routinely butchered and the soft insides eaten along with the smaller legs.  Thorax and abdomen exoskeletons plus the wings and wing covers remained.


The insect in question seems to be a Southern Green Stink Bug, a common non-native garden pest.  I find a few of these on my tomatoes and squash every year.  It’s always nice to see a native species reducing the numbers of a non-native, but I doubt that a little mouse predation will have an impact on the bug population.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Opossum

I’ve been noticing a lot of fresh digging in the yard and fields, so I decided to set one of the live traps and see what has been foraging during the nighttime hours.  It was no surprise to have the first capture be a Opossum.  Opossums are quick to enter a baited trap and after making a meal of the bait, settle down to await the door to be opened.  If you set your trap in the same location several nights in a row, the Opossums will sometimes make the trap a regular stop in their foraging pattern.


The bald patches around the eyes identified this individual as one I have been seeing regularly in the evenings.  Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other Ohio mammal.  Add some hisses and a low growl and this animal can put on quite a threatening display.  It seldom bites, but I would rather not be the recipient of one of those rare attacks.


There are five toes on each foot and each toe, except the inside toe of the hind foot, has a well developed claw.  The claws are super tools for digging up grubs, worms and any other tasty morsels.  They also aid in climbing.


The tail is definitely rat-like with its scaly, naked appearance.  The tip of the tail appears to have been lost.  Damage to ears and tails from freezing temperatures is common.  Considering the many nights of subzero temperatures we experienced this winter, I’m surprised that this guy isn’t showing more damage.


One of my reasons for capturing these animals is to see what they are carrying in the way of an external parasite load.  Ticks find the Opossum quite attractive and I often find dozens of ticks around the ears and neck.  We usually have active ticks as soon as the temperature hits 70 degrees and we’ve had several days of temperatures in that range.  So far this year, I’ve seen no ticks and the Opossum seemed tick free.  I hope that’s a sign that it’s going to be a light tick year.


When caught in the open, a Opossum usually becomes immobile and waits for danger to go away.  If it appears safe to do so, the Opossum will begin to move slowly away.  Often it will rock forwards and backwards as if mimicking a small shrub being blown by the wind.  I had to back off about 40 feet before this guy began to move.


Once they reach some cover they pick up the pace.


After going about 60 feet through the tall grass, the Opossum broke into the open and raced along the tire tracks left by the electric contractors who installed new wire and poles last fall.  At the intersection of the old fence line, the Opossum took a quick turn and disappeared into a brush pile.  I imagine I’ll probably see him in the yard again this evening.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Winter Annuals - Pot vs. Barrens Grown

The rains have come and temperatures have warmed.  That means the little winter annuals of the barrens are growing rapidly in order to gather sunlight and produce a crop of seed.  This must be done before neighboring plants grow tall enough to block the source of light.  The plants of my container bound barrens show change on an almost daily basis.  Blooms are not too far in the future.
 

The Draba cuneifolia that made such exceptional growth early in the season have developed a central stem and numerous side branches.  Below freezing temperatures during a period of no snow cover caused one plant to die and several others to develop dead areas on the leaf tips.  That bit of adversity hasn’t slowed these plants down any.  If our County Fair had a Draba category, I think this plant would be a sure winner.


Flower buds crowd the tip of the main stalk.  This cluster of buds alone will produce an amount of seed equal to at least a dozen normal sized plants.  Add to that the seed that will come from the flowers developing at the ends of the many branches and this plant will produce as much seed as 40 or 50 normal plants.   The total amount of seed from this one plant may exceed the total of all the plants growing in one of the barrens openings found at Blue Jay Barrens.


This is more typical of the container grown Draba cuneifolia plants.  I would expect this plant to produce two or three flower stalks.


Although I try to reproduce the barrens ecosystem in my containers, the true barrens provide much harsher growing conditions.  You won’t find any super sized Drabas growing out here.


This Draba cuneifolia is typical of the maximum sized plants found growing in the barrens.  It is just slightly smaller than the average pot grown specimen and will produce one or two flower stalks.  Fortunately, each flower produces an abundance of almost dust sized seed, so chances are good that some seed will survive to produce plants next year.


Container grown Leavenworthia uniflora is an impressive sight.  Leavenworthia produces no elongated stem.  The leaves radiate out from a central base in the same manner as the common dandelion.  Several pairs of short, pointed leaflets line the leaf stalk which terminates in a flat, roughly five lobed leaflet. 


Flower stalks emerge from the center of the plant at the base of the leaves.  Each stalk will bear a single flower which produces about a dozen seeds.  A plant of this size will produce ten or more flowers.


The barrens grown plants are noticeably smaller.  This plant was so small that the leaf stalk never got long enough to produce leaflets.  This small leaf cluster is capable of supporting only one or two flowers.  A single flower stalk is seen here, but it is early enough for the plant to produce a second if conditions remain favorable.  Annuals have only one chance to produce seed, so every bit of the plant’s energy goes into the effort.


Draba reptans is the smallest of the Drabas.  It could easily take 40 of these plants to equal the leaf area of one average sized Draba cuneifolia.  Most of those rocks seen in the photo are actually sand sized.

The Draba reptans that I find in the barrens are about equal in size to those grown in pots.  One reason for this may be the fact that I have a tough time actually spotting any plants smaller than this.  If I crawled around with a magnifying lens, I may find some of those extra tiny plants.  There’s no question that a lot can be learned about a plant by growing it in a container, but you can’t always apply that knowledge to field situations.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Escape of the Potato Dandelions

This is the site where once stood a small outbuilding filled with precious possessions.  Fire consumed the wooden structure and left behind a pile of junk.  Previous tenants found this to be an ideal place to deposit additional junk.  Every spring I take some time to comb through the junk pile soil and remove all manner of glass, metal and plastic artifacts.  No matter how much I collect, winter frost heave of the soil brings an entirely new batch to the surface.  I’ve done a good job of clearing the outlying area, but the ground that was once beneath the shed floor seems to be more junk than soil.  It’ll be a few years before this task is completed.


These tubers came to light as I pulled a short length of thin aluminum wire from the ground.  There’s no mistaking Potato Dandelion, Krigia dandelion, especially when there are some leaves attached to the tubers. 


I have to admit that the Potato Dandelion tubers are the most valuable item I’ve ever pulled up in this location.  The question is why this state threatened species was growing in this particular spot.


Here’s where it should have been, growing with its fellow Krigias in the designated pot.  I’m not surprised to find it thriving away from its pot.  Potato Dandelion is an exceptionally vigorous grower and can quickly spread out to fill any sized opening.  Except for two things: 1. It competes very poorly with other plants and loses out in crowded growing conditions; and 2. Every animal in the world that eats plants will eat Potato Dandelions and they will continue eating until every leaf, root and tuber is consumed.


Potato Dandelions grow so well in the pot because I have used screen and a woven wire lid to keep the animals out.  The screen was added two years ago when Chipmunks squeezed through the woven wire and ran off with 95% of my tubers.


Apparently, some of the stolen tubers were cached in the junk pile soil and at least one survived the Chipmunk’s appetite long enough to establish a small colony.  They have now been returned to a safe pot environment.  The Blue Jay Barrens patch of Potato Dandelions, from which came my pot bound population, rarely produces flowers and never produces viable seed.  I’m surprised that it persists and even more surprised that, through vegetative means, it continues to expand.  I suspect that the species originally arrived here by way of a tuber, possibly carried in the tread of logging equipment.  Then I begin wondering where the source was.  The entire population may be a mass of clones originating from a single tuber, or seed.  I will probably never be sure.


A couple of rainy days and the newly planted Potato Dandelions have settled in and are actively growing.  If I keep at it long enough, I may unravel some of the mysteries associated with this neat little plant.

Monday, April 7, 2014

First Woodland Blooms

I spent a little time yesterday walking the woods in search of early spring flowers.  At first glance it didn’t appear that I would a green leaf, let alone a blooming plant.  After 29 years of walking these woods, I’ve had to accept the fact that Blue Jay Barrens is a disappointment in the category of spring woodland flowers.  The shallow soils and dry conditions, along with historic land abuse, have not allowed massive quantities of the typical spring woodland wildflowers.


It wasn’t long before I spotted Blue Jay Barrens’ most common early spring bloomer.  White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum, grows throughout the woods, but is generally found as scattered plants instead of thick stands.


Leatherwood shrubs, Dirca palustris, were in full bloom.  The droopy yellow flowers are quite showy from a distance of a few feet.  From farther away they are hardly noticeable in the sun drenched woodland understory.


Hazelnut, Corylus americana, was also in full bloom.  Leatherwood is a beacon compared to the diminutive flower of the Hazelnut.  Unless they are actively seeking it, most people never see this bloom.


Hazelnut is one of those plants that has separate male and female flowers.  What people see are they highly visible pollen producing catkins that hang like miniature opossum tails from the branch.  The female flower from which the edible nut will develop is represented by a tiny cluster of red pistils that wither soon after pollination.

The showiest blooms came from this Red Maple, Acer rubrum, growing at the edge of the woods.  The vibrant red blooms make this tree hard to miss.  This is another species that has separate male and female flowers.  Shown here are the male flowers.  I couldn’t find any female flowers anywhere on the tree.  The lack of female flowers causes me no distress since Red Maples can be aggressively invasive in open fields.  I would be happiest if the tree didn’t produce any seeds.


A few other woodland species had reached the point of developing flower buds.  This is Toad Trillium, Trillium sessile, my most common Trillium species.  Unfortunately, the deer browse heavily on this plant and many will be eaten before they have an opportunity to bloom.


Purple Cress, Cardamine douglassii, can also be found throughout the woods.  This is a hairier and slightly shorter version of the common Spring Cress.  Spring Cress tends to be confined to the areas of moister soils, where as Purple Cress thrives from the flood plains to the driest ridge tops.


Not even a flower bud here.  The distinctive leaves of Puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale, are a promise of blooms to come later in the summer.  It won’t be a showy bloom, but it’s what I’ve come to expect from the woodland flowers of Blue Jay Barrens and I know it will be enjoyed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Wood Frog Eggs Hatching

Wood Frog egg masses are falling apart and the developing larvae are breaking through the egg membrane into open water.  Even though they have left the egg, the larvae are not yet free swimming.  Most just flutter to the pond bottom where they will rest for the next couple of days.  During this time they will use up the remaining yolk in their egg sack as they develop into a more typical tadpole shape.


Some egg clusters lost their globular shape and floated about on the water’s surface.  This did not seem to affect hatching at all.  Even so, there were several larvae that emerged on the upper surface of the raft and seemed in danger not making it down into the water.


Other egg clusters fell to the pond bottom.  No matter where they ended up, all of the egg masses produced healthy larvae.


Egg masses laid a little later in the season were still in the early stages of development.  The pond was ice covered on many mornings during the past two weeks.  I imagine the cold temperatures played a part in the delayed development.

The floating tree branch did an outstanding job of keeping the frog and salamander eggs from being exposed during times of falling water level.  A shortage of rainfall during March caused the pond water level to drop to record low levels for this time of year.  I was able to maneuver the tree branch into the deepest part of the pond and the eggs on the branch were spared exposure to the air.


Jelly masses that once protected salamander eggs broke lose and floated freely about the pond.


Almost all of the jellies were empty.  Most successfully produced salamander larvae, but a few contained unfertilized eggs that were consumed by fungus.


There were just a few larvae that had not left the egg.  Now I just have to wait a few weeks for the larvae to grow large enough for me to see them in the pond.  Water won’t be a problem for a while.  Thunder storms earlier today dropped 1.2 inches of rainfall and the pond is now near its full level.  More storm clouds are hurrying in from the west and I’m rushing to type this and get it posted before the heavy rain once again blocks my internet satellite link.