Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eastern Bluebird

As a nature enthusiast and bird lover I spend a lot of time outdoors and one of my favorite pastimes is feeding and watching birds. Several years ago I was on a mission to attract Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis) to my yard; I knew they were in the area as they did frequent fly-bys through my yard, but none ever stayed. I had many feeders full, as well as bird baths, but it seemed whatever was on the menu did not appeal to these beautiful birds; as they flew over you could almost see them turn up their nose (or beak whichever the case may be) in distaste. I had numerous bluebird houses placed in strategic locations throughout my yard all met with the same disdain as the food supply. What was I doing wrong? This called for some research. I learned after much reading that they preferred berries, bugs and their favorite was mealworms. Okay, that was easy to remedy, but what about the houses? My husband (who is not a bird watcher, nor even much of a bird lover) suggested that perhaps I had the houses in the wrong location, and maybe putting them on a fencepost would be better. Thinking he was crazy, after all how would he know, when he didn’t even really like birds? I was sure they would be too low to the ground, but I agreed to move them. We took one of the houses off the tree and proceeded to hang it on the fencepost. I was willing to try anything; after giving some thought to his suggestion I did recall most of the bluebird houses I’ve seen have been on fence posts, so maybe, just maybe, there was something to what he said. After securing the bird house next to the pasture gate, all there was to do now was wait and see if any bluebirds showed up. Even though I was somewhat skeptical, I was also hopeful, I returned to the house to search the internet for a mealworm source and place an order. Approximately 3 hours after relocating the bluebird house my husband came into the house and told me we had bluebirds checking out the house we just put by the gate, thinking he was pulling my leg; after all things just don’t happen that fast or go according to plan so perfectly…right? I played along and followed him outside (expecting any second for him to say “just kidding”) to the blue bird house in question and much to my surprise and delight sat a male bluebird on top of the gate and then a female poked her head out of the house and looked at me as if to say “took you long enough!” I was so excited I know I squealed. I simply could not believe it was as simple as that; and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I hadn’t figured all this out sooner. Several days later the mealworms arrived in my mailbox, and after setting up a feeding station, and supplying it with the new entrĂ©e it wasn’t long before there was a flurry of activity. Not only were the bluebirds feasting on these delicious worms, but also robins, yellow warblers and blue jays. As soon as the blue jays showed up, it lit a fire under the male bluebird and the chase was on. The much smaller bluebird ran the larger more aggressive blue jay off in record time only to return immediately and check on his sweetheart who was dutifully sitting on eggs. After making sure all was well and letting her know he was keeping vigilant guard, and that no harm would come to her or their soon to be offspring as long as he was on watch, and only after exchanging a few twitters and calls did he seem satisfied that all was indeed well. He went back to his post as sentry. This scenario played out numerous times all day long each day, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for our poor soon-to-be dad. Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse for our dedicated Mr. Bluebird, the eggs hatched! His responsibilities just increased ten-fold as he now had to keep up guard duty and help feed a hungry family. He seemed to take these new feeding duties as seriously as he previously did guard duty, frequently made trips to locate food for his hungry offspring, and sometimes even fed momma. Many times he would return to the nest with a juicy insect of some sort and feed one baby, only to be met with many more hungry mouths all demanding to be fed, which would send him off yet again in search of more food.

 In between trips he would chase off a blue jay or two then he was off again on foraging duty; this went on all day, with him only taking very short breaks on a nearby tree. Eventually I noticed the female join him on the food gathering expeditions, at which point he stayed behind to keep watch over the young featherless babies. Many weeks passed, and soon it was time for the babies to leave the nest. All the dedicated, hard work of this devoted pair paid off as all four babies successfully fledged and took flight to the nearest tree for the first time. Their first flight, though awkward, was endearing and beautiful. After much encouragement from mom and dad these young bluebirds were ready to be on their own. I spotted these young fledglings in the area for many months, and often they came to drink from a bird bath or partake of the offered mealworms. It wasn’t long before I noticed activity at the bluebird house again, and it soon became apparent that our bluebird pair was once again embarking on the family life. Our busy couple continued much the same way as they had for the first brood. Many weeks later, three more little babies took flight with the same awkwardness and courage as their previous siblings. My wish came true far beyond what I had hoped for, I not only had one bluebird, but now I had 9! They stayed throughout the summer and into the fall, and although no more babies were forthcoming it was a joy to watch these bluebirds and their activity in my yard. Later as the weather cooled I saw them rarely and eventually not at all as they headed for warmer areas. It wasn’t long before House Sparrows took over the bluebird house and used it as a winter shelter. They packed themselves into that house in large numbers. I would notice them fly out of the house one-by-one and I was reminded of the clowns in the “clown car” at the circus, as you watched in wonder as more and more clowns would exit the car, and just when you were sure not another clown could possibly exit the car, sure enough one did….it was the same with the sparrows. I allowed them their winter reprieve, knowing that once spring returned they had to be evicted. 

 (Bluebird letting a sparrow know she was not welcome)

Spring arrived and along with it the bluebirds, I cleaned the house out of all sparrows and old nesting materials and was rewarded once more as nest building resumed. It was time to order more mealworms. I chose a different supply house where I could buy in larger quantities and purchased 2000 of them. I came home from work to find a card from the post office in my mailbox letting me know I had a package to sign for; this could only mean the mealworms had arrived. I made a quick dash to the post office and handed the clerk my card. After signing on all the appropriate lines she went to retrieve my package, it was at this point I hear a loud squeal and the clerk uttering the words “Oh my goodness what are those things and where did they come from?” Ever get that sinking feeling in your gut? Well I had it, that ominous feeling that says you’re in trouble, thru no fault of your own. I had two choices at this point I could make a break for it, or stay and take my medicine. Well the decision was made for me as the post master came out of his office at the sound of the commotion and I hear him speak rather loudly “Shelly, what did you order?!” It was at that precise moment that I envied the ostrich its ability to bury its head, because if any sand would have been forthcoming that is exactly what I would have done! The post master came out from the back room to the front of the lobby where I was standing. He had my box in one hand and a handful of mealworms in the other. I took the box, and noticed more mealworms were beating a hasty retreat from the confinements of the box. I placed the box on a nearby table and tried with much difficulty to replace the errant mealworms back inside, and then took the ones the post master was holding, so patiently; and also tried to put them back from whence they came. 

After securing all the escapees I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, because it was at this point the humor of the whole situation was hitting me and I didn’t want to crack up laughing at this apparent “serious” situation. Before I could leave though, he had to ask me “Why can’t the birds find their own worms?” I just smiled, since I really didn’t know how to answer him and I was afraid if I opened my mouth all that would come out would be a giggle! I left in short order and got into my car and proceeded to laugh so hard I cried, and each time I pictured that woman squealing and thought about all the customers that would be coming into retrieve their mail only to find hitchhikers in the form of mealworms, I would start laughing all over again. After I returned home, my sides hurting from all the laughter, I finally secured all the mealworms including the escapees in my car seat into an escape proof container. Two weeks later a good friend of mine called me and wanted to know about the mealworm incident at the post office, seems this little matter was the talk of the post office and the town. I was shocked she had heard about it, but explained it to her, after having a good laugh all over again, she said the post master told her they were still finding mealworms, I told her wait until those worms turned into big black beetles and they tried to figure out where they came from!
My suggestion, if you order mealworms online, try to make sure you are home when the box is delivered, unless you want to be the story of your local post office and hometown.

These wonderful birds were worth a little humiliation on my part, and I continue to enjoy them each year. It was in 1927 that Missouri declared the Eastern Bluebird the State bird and I can’t imagine a better choice. Their bright blue wings and gorgeous cinnamon colored chest helps them stand out as one of the most beautiful birds to call Missouri their native home. Often considered a symbol of happiness, and anyone having heard their melodious song can attest to this being true. You can’t help but smile as these lovely birds sing their way into your heart. While these birds are in our area year around the most common time to see them will be from April through November.  If you too would like to attract these wonderful little birds to your yard, all you need is a water source, a suitable house, placed on a fence post or other similar location, away from trees and preferably near a open field (for insect hunting). And if you are feeling brave, provide some mealworms you’re sure to be glad you did once these endearing birds brighten your landscape as they have mine. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

One of my favorite conservation areas to visit in Northwest Missouri is Bluff Woods. Located in southend St. Joseph off of 59 Highway it is nearly 2300 acres of pure outdoor exploration. Walking trails, woodland, grassland, old fields, and a small prairie. There is even an old cemetery there to explore should the urge strike you.

This area has been declared an important birding area by the Missouri Audubon Society. Areas designated with this title are unique in their large diversity of bird life that call it home. Many birds that have experienced declines in their populations use Bluff woods as their nesting home range. Still many others pass through Bluff woods on their way to more Northern ranges.
(juvenile Blue Jay)
(Baltimore Oriole)

Do you like trees? Most of us do, after all the forest would be a lonely place without them. Bluff woods will not disappoint. There are Paw Paws, Oaks, Hickories, Maples, Basswood, Black Walnut,
as well as other hardwood trees.

(Paw Paw)

Over hundred species of animals typically associated with woodlands can be found here. The habitat is perfect for raccoons, opossums, white-tail deer, squirrels, flying squirrels, box turtles, snakes, etc. 

(White-tail Deer)

(Red Fox kit)

(Timber Rattlesnake)

(Woodhouse Toad)

The high bluffs over look the Missouri River valley and make for great hiking opportunities. The views from the vantage point of the bluffs is spectacular and well worth the effort to expend the energy that it will take to hike these steep trails. Many wild plants dot the woodlands along your trek, including Jack-in-the-pulpit, green dragon, orchids, wild phlox, ferns, and many others. Please respect the area and take pictures only.


(May Apple)

(Green Dragon)

 Many types of fungus can also be found here. Many morel seekers tromp through these woods during April and May looking for this elusive mushroom. Many more unique and fascinating fungi also call Bluff Woods home. 

(Morel Mushroom)

(Devils Urn Mushroom)

If you live in Northwest Missouri and have never visited this area it is well worth checking out and spending some time there. Anyone passing through St. Joseph and in need of a leg stretch and a scenic view head to this easily accessible conservation area and plan to wile away the hours exploring, bird watching and just enjoying the great outdoors.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Devils urn

The Devil's Urn (Urnula craterium) is a very common spring season mushroom that can be found in deciduous hardwood forests throughout Eastern North America. Look for them in March thru May after seasonal rainfalls. These mushrooms share a symbiotic relationship with hardwood trees, especially oaks. All mushrooms have a network of fungal cells called mycelium, these mycelium attach to the roots of trees and feed off the sugars in the roots. This breaks down the dying roots and wood of the trees speeding up the decaying process.

Devils' urn mushrooms were first described in 1822 by American botanist Lewis David de Schweinitz as Peziza craterium, based on a specimen found in North Carolina. In 1849, naturalist, Elias Magnus Fries described this mushroom and placed it in the genus Urnula. After this placement there was much debate over where this mushroom belonged and it was placed in the genus Geopyxis. It wasn't until many years later and after microscopic inspection that this mushroom was once again categorized in the genus Urnula.

The Devil's urn mushroom resembles the very delicious black trumpet mushroom, but is not considered an edible mushroom. Although not particularly poisonous they are not considered nutritious or worth bothering with . While not edible they do appear in the woodlands at virtually the same time as morel mushrooms. For some people the appearance of robins herald in the spring, but for those who love mushrooms it is this very mushroom that is the harbinger of spring. Consider this quote found in Petersen's: A Field Guide to Mushrooms: "The black cups emerging through the fallen leaves from March to May are true harbingers of spring."

The genus name of Urnula translates to little urn, and the species name craterium translates to small crater. When they first emerge through the ground they resembled little grape clusters after a few days they will look like little fingers before finally reaching the last stage of little open urns.The appearance of these mushrooms is a sign of healthy soil.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Scarlet Elf Cups

This tiny reddish colored cup-like fungus is called a Scarlet Cup or sometimes referred to as Scarlet Elf Cup. I personally like the reference to elves. It brings to mind tiny wood faeries sipping tea among the foliage of the forest. 

These little mushrooms are quite common and have been found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including North and South America, Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe. They were first described in 1772 by an Italian naturalist, Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, and was originally named Helvella coccinea. It has been called many different names throughout history, but phylogenetic testing attributes them to Sarcoscypha. Mushrooms in this category are distinguished from other mushrooms by the presence of oil droplets in their spores. There are several species within this genus and a microscope is needed to determine which species you are looking at. Most field guides and internet sources will list this as Sarcoscypha coccinea, but that is incorrect unless you live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. In the Midwest and eastern United States you are finding Sarcoscypha dudleyi and Sarcoscypha austriaca.

These mushrooms are found in woodland settings often hidden in leaf litter clinging to moist sticks and branches. They may also appear to be growing out of the moist ground, but in actuality they are growing from buried sticks or logs that you cannot see. The most common time of year to see these little beauties is in late winter or early spring. They prefer cooler, damp weather for fruiting. Because of their diminutive size they are easily over-looked. Measuring a few millimeters up to a few centimeters in diameter they range in size from a small pea to a large marble.

 Are they edible? It is unknown if they are edible or not, but because of their small size, tough texture and small distribution sizes they would not be a favorite for the dinner table. Even though they might not taste all that well, they were used for medicinal purposes by the Iroquois Indians. They would dry the tiny cups, and grind them up into a powder. This powder would be applied as an agent to stop bleeding , particularly in the case of newborn babies who's naval would not heal properly after the umbilical cord had been been severed. They would also use the powder to apply to wounds under bandages.

When you head out to the woods this spring looking for the ever elusive and tasty morel mushrooms, slow down and search a little deeper and you might find the tiny, but beautiful elf cups.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Landscaping with Native Plants

When selecting plants for landscaping and agriculture, there are many advantages to planting native over non-native foliage.

Native plants are resistant to diseases found in their natural ranges. For example, the non-native pine trees in Missouri are susceptible to attacks from several insects such as the bark beetle. This beetle removes the tree bark in order to build galleries to lay eggs. The damage to the bark causes a lack of sap flow which immediately kills the tree. The insect population then moves to nearby live trees and infects them. In contrast, the native Redbud and Burr Oak trees have no predators. These adaptations to the environment result in the need for no pesticides or herbicides to be used to sustain a healthy population.

Native plants are not weakened by temperature fluctuation and are, therefore, able to survive in winter and drought conditions. Native plants to Missouri are able to withstand variation in water temperature due to the natural changes in seasons. Plants that are native to locations where there is a large amount of rain will quickly dry up and die during years with less rain.
Using these plants in landscaping will also help support the life of native animals. Hummingbirds are attracted to the native Trumpet Creeper. The American Basswood supplies nectar for bees while American Holly provides food and a place for birds to nest. The color of plants, such as the blue-black fruit of Arrowwood, attracts birds and other wildlife. Growing what is native to Missouri will continue to preserve the ecosystem dependent on these plants.

For additional information on buying native plants visit Grow Native! by the Missouri Prairie Foundation at www.grownative.org.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Molly Eye-Winker

These brightly colored discs are a type of fungus known as an eye-lash mushroom belonging to the family Pyronoemataceae. Fungus in this family are saprophytic  which basically means they gain their nutrients from other sources, such as from  rotting logs, stumps, damp soil, wet leaves or even ashes. With optimum conditions these fungus will thrive and grow. They are often found in clusters, like pictured above. The tiny black "lashes" are visible under a magnifying glass, but are difficult to see with the naked eye. I had never seen this species before and it wasn't until I took the pictures off the camera and looked at them on the computer that I noticed the lashes. These are charming, colorful albeit tiny mushrooms with no culinary value. There are reports that claim they are inedible, still others claim they are edible, either way they would lack any real interest in the culinary world as they lack an flavor, odor or texture.

 These little fungus' are found nearly Worldwide; in North America they are more commonly found in winter and spring. Look for them in damp areas on logs and stumps. They are extremely tiny, measuring up to 1/2 inch in diameter. If it weren't for the bright orange-red coloration they would most likely go unseen.
The underside and edges are brown and the lashes are black. The cup is smooth and may vary in color from bright red, to reddish-orange.

The ones photographed here were photographed at Honey Creek Conservation Area in Andrew County, MO. We had a wonderful warm, damp winter that was conducive to a lot of fungus growth. The morels arrived early with the first ones found March 17th. By the first of April here in NW Missouri the morel season was over which is unheard of around here, typically it is just beginning at that time.

 I found numerous other species I've never seen before this year and will be posting them here periodically. This one is perhaps my all time favorite of the new varieties I found. When spring gave way to summer we had already been without rain for weeks and headed into what looked to be a drought. We are midway through August now, and it has been the hottest, driest summer since the 1930's. Where I live we've had about an inch of rain in 10 weeks. Most any living plant has died, trees began losing their leaves a couple of weeks ago. I believe we will see and early fall. With all this dry, hot weather there have been no interesting fungus to photograph this summer. I am hoping that once fall does arrive we will get some rain with it.  Perhaps with the return of rain, the fungus will follow. I know the rest of us will sure appreciate some much needed rain.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hoary Mountain Mint

Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) is a native herbaceous plant Native to Eastern North America as far west as Tennessee and Illinois. The genus name Pycnanthemum means "dense flower-clusters" in Greek. This perennial is in the mint family and grows up to 6 feet in height. The tiny pale lavender blooms appear from July to September and are favored by butterflies, bees and other nectar loving insects. The stems are covered in a white downy substances and the leaves appear frosted. In Vermont and New Hampshire this plant is listed as endangered and efforts are in place to monitor that last remaining locations within these two states. It is also listed as endangered in Ontario where there is only two remaining locations known for this species in oak savannas in Burlington. In other areas where this plant occurs it can often become invasive and spreads by rhizomes. It is predominantly found in woods, thickets, open fields and along hills. It is presumed that it earned its common name of Mountain Mint from its preferred habitat of hill ground. 

As with other plants in the mint family it is often used in teas. When crushed this plant gives off a strong aroma. Mountain Mint contains tannin which is often used as an astringent. 

The Choctaw put the mashed leaves in warm water, which the patient drank, and which was poured over the head to relieve headaches. For patients who were sickly all the time, the leaves were mashed in water, the doctor took a mouthful of water, and blew it onto the patient, three times on the head, three times on the back, and three times on the chest. Before the next sunrise, the patient was bathed in the medicine.*

The Koasati mashed the leaves in water, and used the water to treat laziness. The patient bathed his face in the cold water and drank it. For nosebleeds, the plant was wetted, and put up into the nostrils to stop the bleed. The roots were boiled along with Black Willow, and drunk to relieve headache.*