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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Draba & Leavenworthia Blooms

Here we are again with two of my favorite plants, Leavenworthia uniflora and Draba cuneifolia. These particular plants are some that are growing in one of the beds of my vegetable garden. I get to see them every day, and every day I am more impressed with the size and vigor of these pampered specimens. What a difference good soil and lack of competition make in the development of these species.

These two Leavenworthia uniflora plants have grown together to form one. Leaf and flower production has been compromised where the two plants collide, but even when considering that impediment it’s fair to say that each plant has produced a remarkable number of flowers. At some points there are so many flower stalks that they almost obstruct the view of the leaves below.

Each one of those flowers will produce a pod containing 10 to 12 seeds. These two plants alone will produce hundreds of seeds.

The Draba cuneifolia hardly bears any resemblance at all to the much smaller plants found growing in their typical habitat on the barrens. Flower stalks come out of the main plant from all directions.

The typical wild plants generally have a single flower stalk that rises vertically from the cluster of basal leaves. These garden specimens produce a few vertical stalks, but far more of the flower stalks grow horizontally from the bulk of the plant.

Each stalk has no shortage of blooms.

Hidden by the wreath of open flowers are clusters of new buds, some ready to open and others just beginning to form.

Each flower leaves behind a small flat pod.  Each of these pods could easily hold over 100 seeds. The flowers remain clustered at the top stock, but once a seed pod begins to develop, the stock elongates so that there is a gap between each pod.

Most of the Draba cuneifolia plants already have a dozen or more active flower stalks, but that is only the beginning for this season. Dozens more stalks are already beginning to push their way upwards. My harvest of seed from these plants should be phenomenal. That seed will go a long way in helping to expand the populations now growing on the barrens. I’m just hoping that the 20°F temperatures and possible snow forecast for this weekend doesn’t have an adverse effect on the yield.

I would offer an apology to that individual who is tired of seeing me blog about the Leavenworthia uniflora and Draba cuneifolia, but I am certain that he would never have read down to this point.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Breeding Toads

American Toads have recently moved into the pond for their annual breeding event.  I’ve seen a total of four toads; three singing males and one female.  It’s not a great turnout, but it beats last year’s total of zero.  These two males were in the center of the pond, requiring a long lens and flash in order to capture an image.  Animals with reflective eyes just aren’t good subjects for flash photography.

Frequent rains have kept plenty of water in the pond.  The runoff water has brought in a load of nutrients from the township road.  The nutrients, along with uncommonly warm weather, have triggered an excessive growth of filamentous algae.  The algae pads have allowed the male toads to perform their courtship songs far from shore.

The algae growth actually benefits developing frog tadpoles.  The tadpoles feed heavily on the algae, and the algae makes it more difficult for predatory salamander larvae to stalk and capture the tadpoles.

Long, black strands of eggs are the result of the toad’s breeding activities.

Here is the couple responsible for all of those eggs.  The male hangs onto the female’s back and fertilizes the eggs as they are released.  The female determines where they eggs will be placed.  She moves the couple around through the vegetation, while the male just goes along for the ride.

I’m hoping that these eggs will be responsible for a mass of small toads leaving the pond in a few months.  I saw young toads in abundance last year, but I never found the breeding site.  I’ll be taking a few of these eggs and putting them into the pool I built specifically for breeding toads.  If some toads actually hatch from that pool, maybe a few will eventually return there to breed.