Friday, May 6, 2016

Apple Cedar Rust Gall

This spring’s frequent rains may be messing up my planned outdoor work schedule, but they have been a boon to many forms of life.  Apple Cedar Rust Fungus depends upon high moisture conditions to properly complete the reproductive portion of its life cycle.  The fungus has a two host life cycle, shuttling back and forth between apple trees and cedars.  Each spring, the cedar bound fungus sheds spores that will make their way to apple trees.  In its spore producing form, the fungus resembles some weird sea creature that has washed up onto a tree branch.

Many people are put off by the appearance of this fungus, but I find it to be quite attractive, as well as fascinating.  From a distance, the cedars appear to have sprouted large orange blooms.  I’ve heard some ascribe Blob-like characteristics to these fungal masses, but I’ve never seen one reach out and engulf passers-by.

The fungus reaches the cedar by way of airborne spores produced by the fungus during the summer while in its apple host phase.  Spores that successfully colonize the cedar will form a small, hard nodule on the new cedar leaves.  The nodule, called a gall, will grow in size until it matures approximately 18 months later.  When spring rains and temperatures produce the proper conditions, filaments called telia emerge from dimple-like structures on the gall’s surface.  Fully hydrated telia produce the spores that will be released to colonize an apple tree.  Spores produced by galls on the cedar cannot establish themselves on cedar.  They can only colonize on apple, and spores from the apple can only colonize cedar.  In order for the fungus to survive, both apple and cedar must be present in the vicinity.

In most fungi, what we notice most are the reproductive structures that must be exposed to successfully spread spores to the wind.  This gall has been halved to reveal the body of the fungus from which the spore producing telia emerge.

After the rain has passed, the telia begin to dry.

The telia will dry back to short stalks, but will swell again when the next suitable rain occurs.  This process can recur several times during the spring season.  So far, this has been an exceptional season for the Apple Cedar Rust Galls.  Judging by the weather forecasts, the cedars may bloom several more times before the season ends.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Back After A Ten Year Absence

I just recently welcomed back a plant that hadn’t been seen at Blue Jay Barrens for over 10 years. The Showy Orchis was commonly seen here 30 years ago. It wasn’t long though, until the numbers of blooming plants began to dwindle. It became more and more common to find plants that had been eaten almost to the ground. And then there were none. Since I personally witnessed a Whitetail deer eat two of these plants, leaving nothing but the bases of the leaves and flower stalk, I figured that the increasing deer population was partly responsible for the decline in the orchid population.

The most colorful part of the flower is hidden from the view of aerial observers. You must get down to ground level and look up into the flower to get the best effect. Like most orchid flowers, the Showy Orchis does a fine job of mimicking a face within the blossom.

Although the plant is small, it is easily seen from a distance in the woodland.  The lack of great drifts of spring wildflowers in the Blue Jay Barrens woods may be partially responsible for the clear visibility of this plant.

This particular specimen was found growing on the steep slopes dropping away from a high ridge. If my typical luck holds true, I’ll come back to find that the dead tree in the right of the photo has fallen squarely atop the orchid.

Along with the blooming plant, I found a couple of leaves that looked as though they could be a source of blooms in future years.

The day after finding the orchid, I found a second blooming plant growing about 100 yards away from first. I would like to believe that the appearance of these two plants indicates a resurgence of the Blue Jay Barrens population of Showy Orchis. Unfortunately, I’m too much the pessimist to be entertaining such thoughts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Edwards' Hairstreak Hatchlings


The eggs laid last summer by the Edwards’ Hairstreak butterflies have recently hatched and the buds of the Blackjack Oaks on the barrens are now full of Edwards’ Hairstreak larvae and their attendant Allegheny Mound Ants.

Most of the action takes place on these small Blackjack Oaks. The Edwards’ Hairstreak butterflies sometimes lay their eggs on the larger Oaks, but it’s much more likely that they will use an oak that is less than 6 feet tall.

In order to consume the sweet secretions, called honeydew, produced by Edwards' Hairstreak larvae, Allegheny Mound Ants stand guard and protect the larvae from predators.  The ants protect the larvae from hatching until emergence of the adult butterfly, even though the larvae only produce honeydew during the final few instars prior to pupation.  This type of behavior, where two different species interact to each species benefit, is called mutualism.  In the photo above, two larvae are located just to the left of the ant's head.

The larvae tend to begin feeding at the base of the bud. Leaves that unfurl in a couple of weeks will be laced with holes made by the larvae munching their way through the bud.

Blue Jay barrens has four different Prairie openings that contain quantities of young Blackjack Oaks. I found Edwards’ Hairstreak larvae on trees in all four areas. Some of the buds were really loaded down with larvae. There may not be anything left of these buds to produce leaves later on.

The key to finding the larvae is in finding the ants. If there are no ants on the tree, there are no larvae.  In a couple of cases, ants congregated to protect tree hopper larvae, which also form a type of honeydew. Even in these instances there were butterfly larvae feeding at the same location.

On occasion I would get a bit too close with the camera, causing an ant to take action against me. In each instance, I would direct the ant back onto its bud so it could continue with its duties.

I have been nurturing small Blackjack Oaks at Blue Jay Barrens in hopes of expanding the population size of the uncommon Edwards’ Hairstreak butterfly. I’ve been seeing signs of success during the past couple of years, but this year, the quantity of young larvae far exceeds anything I have seen in the past. The ants have always been present, and now the addition of more trees means more butterflies. The numbers of adult butterflies should be truly amazing this summer.

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I’ve included a couple of short videos showing Allegheny mound ants interacting with the Edwards’ Hairstreak larvae. You can watch the above video on YouTube by clicking HERE, or the below video by clicking HERE.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Henslow's Sparrows

Henslow’s Sparrows returned to Blue Jay Barrens about three weeks ago, and they are still sorting out their territories.  Territory boundaries have not been a problem before because we’ve never had more than two singing males here at any one time.  This year there are at least three males vying for the best spots in the field.

The first Henslow’s Sparrow showed up in this 11 acre field about 15 years ago.  At that time only about half of the field had been colonized by Indian Grass.  The rest of the field was either Canada Goldenrod or cool season grasses.  It was about eight years later that Indian Grass came to dominate the entire field.  Soon after that, a second Henslow’s Sparrow arrived with the spring migration.  The two males took up positions at opposite ends of the long field and left each other in peace.  With three males, there have been some border squabbles.  Two males perch close to each other and fire calls back and forth like a fast paced ping pong match.  I inadvertently walked up on one of these skirmishes and flushed five sparrows from the grass.  All five took short flights and dove into the tall grass.  Five males?  Two males and three females?  Two singing Henslow’s and three Field Sparrow spectators?  They moved too fast for me focus, so I’m not sure of the group’s composition.

The singing males have been perching about half way up the dead Indian Grass stalks, so it’s been difficult to see them, let along take any photographs.  Today, a Henslow’s Sparrow was calling from a position about 50 feet behind my vegetable garden.  I could see him, but he was partially obscured by Indian Grass stalks blowing in the breeze. 

Then he shifted his position by a few feet and became more visible.  I managed to get one shot before he moved off to the north.

Seconds later, another male flew in from the south.  This bird was slightly closer and a little more exposed than the first.  I’m not sure what he was doing in this shot, since he didn't actually sing at this point.  Possibly he was just limbering up in preparation for singing.

He sang and sang and sang.  This is the area where I witnessed territorial battles.  Maybe the birds have worked out their differences and were just out to remind each other of the location of their agreed upon border line.

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Here is a short video of a singing Henslow’s Sparrow.  I managed to keep the bird in frame, but I was leaning sideways to see around a clump of grass and the image bobs a bit.  If that bothers you, close your eyes and just listen to the song.  You can view a possibly clearer version of this video on YouTube by clicking HERE .

Friday, April 15, 2016

Big Yard Birds

This is the time of year when the size of the birds visiting my feeder suddenly increases.  For the past couple of weeks, this pair of Canada Geese has been making regular morning visits to my yard.  A lot of loud honking advertises their intent to make a splash down on the pond in front of the house.

They spend a few minutes eating some of the submerged greenery around the edge of the pond. 

I believe this pair is nesting near a neighbor’s pond.  Each morning and evening the geese fly a circuit around the area, noisily announcing the fact that this is their chosen territory and other geese should stay away.

After a few minutes in the water, the geese normally have a little foot race up to the feeder to gobble down some cracked corn.  However, on this particular morning, they have come to a halt at the top of the pond embankment.  For some reason, they are not running for the food.

Turkeys have beaten the geese to the feast.  A flock of turkeys generally has the feeding area all to itself.  The geese may be large, but they won’t try to move in on the turkeys.

Wild Turkeys typically spend the winter in the woods.  Once breeding season arrives, the turkeys suddenly show up back in the yard.  Hens, Jakes and Toms will travel in mixed flocks of 12 to 18 birds.  Sometimes two or three of these flocks will show up in the yard at the same time. It may be that food in the woods is becoming harder to secure or it could be that the turkeys are wanting to bulk up for their breeding efforts.  Whatever the reason, spring seems to signal the arrival of the big yard birds.  It also means I have to watch where I step when I go out to fill the feeders.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Redbuds and Butterflies

Blooming of the Redbuds coincides with the emergence of two of my favorite butterflies.  Unfortunately, this is also the season for windy days, so each year my efforts to photograph these species is thwarted by gusty winds.  Today, about two hours before sunset, the wind stopped.  I took advantage of this uncommon calm to make a search for the elusive Henry’s Elfin and Olive Hairstreak butterflies.

I soon found Henry’s Elfins, but the position of the Redbuds allowed only backlit views.

I took my search to the east side of the field where I found a group of Redbuds receiving sunlight from just the right angle. 

Several Henry’s Elfins were in the trees, but they were keeping to the tree tops.  Besides that, most seemed to have buried themselves in the clusters of Redbud blooms.

Finally, I found some that offered a clearer view.  Their numbers are already higher than usual, and their season has not yet peaked.

Larvae of the Henry’s Elfin feed on Redbud.  Early season eggs are commonly laid on the Redbud flower.  Young larvae will consume flower parts and developing seed pods.  Older larvae typically move on to consume young leaves.

The bright green of the Olive Hairstreak is easy to spot among the pink Redbud blooms. 

Olive Hairstreaks visit Redbud flowers strictly for the nectar.  Their larvae feed on Eastern Red Cedar, which is extremely common here.  Looking for these butterflies on the Redbuds is the easiest way to assess their numbers.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Temperature Records

Blue Jay Barrens has been the site of many scientific inquiries over the years.  Researchers have visited to collect data on such things as magnetic anomalies, bedrock patterns, amphibian distribution and ant behavior.  The latest endeavor, a two year collection of air and soil temperatures, has just been completed.

Personnel from the Missouri Botanical Garden placed these temperature sensors in some of the barrens of Blue Jay Barrens to capture data on the microclimatic conditions of these unique ecosystems. Air temperature data was collected by sensors located near the top of a 5 foot aluminum rod. The sensors were shaded by two white plastic discs. The largest disc set at the highest point of the apparatus, while a smaller disk set a couple inches below that. Both discs functioned to provide shade for the sensors. The gap between the two discs was to allow air circulation so that neither blazing sun nor cap of snow would influence the air temperature sensors.  Soil temperature sensors were placed near the base of the aluminum rod, at a depth of approximately ¾ of an inch.

I knew that the unprotected soil of the barrens had always appeared to be baking in the summer sunshine.  The soil temperature readings provided data to which I had not previously had available. During a two-year period there were 105 days where the soil temperature exceeded 100° F. The highest soil temperature recorded was just above 120° F.

Blue Jay Barrens was chosen as a site for this temperature study because of this plant, Leavenworthia uniflora.  This area is close to the northeastern most limits of this species range. The species itself is being studied with the expectation that it may be an indicator of how rare plant species react to changing climate conditions. The Leavenworthia cooperated by producing outstanding crops in the vicinity of the temperature sensors.  Leavenworthia seeds need to go through a period of heat before breaking dormancy.  It appears that any seed spending the summer on the barrens is going to get all the heat it needs.

The air temperature sensors were contained within orange balloons held in place by rubber clips. Even though they were protected from direct sunlight the balloons deteriorated dramatically over the course of a single year.

As I was gathering up the equipment in preparation for shipping the sensors back to the Missouri Botanical Garden, I noticed a small jumping spider perched beneath the plastic disc.

At first glance it appeared to be a typical, healthy spider. Although, I couldn’t remember a species that exhibited a yellow abdomen.

A closer examination showed that the yellow was not a part of the spider at all. That, and the fact that the spider was not moving at all, cause me to reevaluate my assessment of its health.

The spider has been long dead. It probably died sometime last fall. The fuzzy yellow substance covering the abdomen is a fungus. It looks quite similar to the zombie fungi that attacks various insect species. This is the first time I’ve seen a spider that seemed to be afflicted by the same ailment.