Friday, July 30, 2010

The Real Rock Pigeons

Paris and Pigeon, photo by Fabio Venni

Much has been made of the critical remarks by pigeons, dropped on the band Kings of Leon during their recent concert in St. Louis. Sharon Stiteler, The Birdchick™ speculated that the birds disapproved of the lyrics of the Kings’ hits, “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” Well, I could see it if this were a Tom Lehrer concert. After all, one of his hits was “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” But why would these birds hate on Kings of Leon?

Rock Pigeons, as they’re officially called, are capable of spreading disease to humans. Bob Dylan had to cancel a European tour in 1997 when he contracted histoplasmosis, probably from pigeons. They can carry other nasty diseases too, but for the most part, people with healthy immune systems have little to fear from pigeon-borne diseases. That being said, I helped some friends repair a porch where neighborhood pigeons had roosted for years, and it was pretty unpleasant.

Pigeons are not native the western hemisphere and are pretty much the Rodney Dangerfield of birds. They gather in big, messy flocks, they don’t have a beautiful song—to human ears. In fact it’s hard to believe that European settlers brought them here in the 1600s. Perhaps they were homesick for the whitewashed buildings of home. More likely they raised them for food. 

photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
The US Army Signal Corps used pigeons to deliver messages during World War I. The most famous of these, Cher Ami, carried a message through heavy fire, saving 194 American lives. Cher Ami was awarded a silver medal from the US and the Croix de Guerre by the French. Poor Cher Ami died of wounds he received on his last mission. He is now a mounted display at the Smithsonian. During peace times, carrier pigeons have been trained to carry medications. And lest you think that carrier pigeons are so 5-minutes-ago, note that the carrier pigeon is Twitter’s mascot.

If you give pigeons a chance, they do have some good qualities. I remember a friend telling me, “I saw the most beautiful birds flying around the hospital.” When I informed her that they were pigeons, she insisted, “Oh no, they weren’t pigeons. These birds were beautiful!” And they are. 

Photo by Tony Roberts/Pickersgill Reef

Where would I be without my Flickr friends? Thanks Fabio Venni, Scott Beale, and Tony Roberts for licensing your photos through Creative Commons!

PS: I spoke with a young friend who works at the outdoor theatre where Kings of Leon cringed. She told me that the consensus among employees is that there were 3 pigeons or less above the stage. Does it seem likely that large numbers of birds would choose a well-lit, noisy stage as a roost for the night? It may be that our feathered friends are not to blame after all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Way down yonder in the Pawpaw patch

Zebra Swallowtail nectars on Dogbane, photo by Joby Joseph

The only place I seen Zebra Swallowtails in numbers is at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri, where they were doing exactly what Glassberg describes in Butterflies through Binoculars. The group flew close to the ground, and they made quite an impression with better than 3-inch wingspan and “tails” up to an inch long. In my own yard however, I usually see a single Zebra flying near the top of my pawpaw tree.

Pawpaw leaves are large and tropical looking AMcC
I got my pawpaw at the spring native plant at Shaw Nature Reserve. It took some teamwork to get it in the car. My friend Pat and her sister helped pack the tree, all the trays of plants, and me into the back seat. We rode back home with the tip of the tree peeking out the window of the car. My motivation for planting it a shady corner of the yard was Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People. Author Dave Tylka writes that pawpaw is the “only Midwest larval food for zebra swallowtail.” Like Pipevine Swallowtail and Monarch caterpillars, Zebra Swallowtail larvae chow down on a plant that other plant predators can’t abide. In an article on Beetles in the Bush, Ted MacRae mentions the alkaloids that protect the plant’s bark and seed from insects.

Besides Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars, I would dearly love to see some fruit on the tree. At the camp where I worked many summers, a grove of pawpaws grew at the base of the hill we called Sunnytop. Remembering the song—“pickin’ up pawpaws, put ’em in your pocket”—I looked for the fruit every summer. No luck. Knowing that he had grown up in rural Jefferson/Ste. Genevieve Counties near camp, I asked the property manager, Jim LaPlant, about the fruit. Jim laughed and told me that as a boy, others had called him “a Pawpaw-eatin’ Frenchman.” Exactly what that meant I don’t know. Reportedly pawpaws are messy to eat. Is that what these mean kids were talking about? Or was it because supposedly only unpopular people would eat them? Or was it just another in the long and regrettable tradition of insulting a person by referring to his ethnic food? Well, lots of folks do like pawpaws. By golly, Pawpaws have their own Flickr group. What’s more, on September 17-19 this year, Lake Snowden, Ohio, holds its 12th Annual Pawpaw Festival. They have an atalatal-throwing contest there too and you just don’t see that every day!

Photo by Beautiful Rust

To grow fruit, a tree needs a pollinator. In the case of the pawpaw, it’s not butterflies, though it is a type of fly. Being an understory tree, pawpaw blooms early, before the canopy of trees block most of the light. It’s strange maroon/brown blossoms hang off the bare limbs. The scent has been described a rotting meat or, as Don Kurz describes it in Trees of Missouri, like fermenting grapes. I’ve never noticed any scent myself, but if I did, I don’t think I’d be confused between rotting meat and rotting fruit.

Kurz also explains a bit about the scientific name, Asimina triloba. “Triloba” refers to the 3-lobed shape of the flower. “Asimina” is a Latinized version of the French rendition of an American Indian name for the tree. I didn’t find any explanation of what that American Indian word was or what it mean. I didn’t find any satisfactory explanation of the word “pawpaw” either, except that it is  also applied to papaya, a unrelated fruit tree.

Pawpaw Sphinx moth,
photo by Seabrooke Leckle

Whether or not my tree ever bears fruit, it will one day host larvae of either the Zebra Swallowtail or the Pawpaw sphinx moth, Dolba hyloeous. Seabrooke Leckle writes about this gorgeous moth and other large moths in a 2009 post in her blog, the Marvelous in Nature.

The scent is not the only confusion. California Rare Fruit Growers state that it is pollinated by  “unenthusiastic” flies & carrion beetles. James Trager mentions that the flowers a probably pollinated by fungus gnats, a type of fly that feeds on decaying plant material. Either way, the flowers are self-incompatible—that is, they need to be pollinated from an unrelated tree if the fruit is to form. I actually found an “unrelated” pawpaw about a thousand feet from my tree. I wonder how far a 1/8th of an inch-long fungus gnat can fly?

Special thanks to my Flickr friends (credited in the caption under the photos) who were kind enough to license their photos through Creative Commons.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Missing Moon Rocks

Harrison Schmitt, geologist & astronaut, on Apollo 17
On July 10, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story about Missouri’s missing moon rock. In 1972, Richard Nixon gave each state and many countries a “Goodwill Moon Rock.” The gifts were handled very casually to say the least. Someone absconded with Honduras’ rock and tried to sell it to an undercover agent. He is the one that got caught. At least one of the moon rocks wound up in a former governor’s garage. Of 270 “lunar samples, ” gifted to US states and foreign governments, more than 100 are unaccounted for. For a thorough discussion of the missing moon rocks, check collectSpace. Missouri’s governor at the time of the gift was Kit Bond. Missouri is among 15 states that cannot account for the rocks. Bond says he doesn’t remember receiving the Apollo 17 rock. We Missourians have no doubt that he’s being truthful when he says he doesn’t remember it.

At the time, no one seemed to understand the value of a chunk of the moon. Most people expected that the Apollo missions would continue, and Mars would be next. There would be plenty of rocks to come. Other issues occupied the front page in the 70s, like Watergate, Star Wars, the death of Elvis, the end of Gunsmoke, and the beginning of The Love Boat. Like the space race itself, souvenirs of a trip to the moon dropped off the public’s radar.

No one cared, that is, till a Professor Gutheinz at the University of Phoenix decided to give his students a bit of investigation practice. He assigned “The Moon Rock Project,” whose purpose it is to track down all of the goodwill moon rocks. Thirty-eight years after the last eagle landed on the moon, it turns out these lunar knick-knacks are worth 5 million. Dollars! I mentioned the story to my mom, who casually replied, “Oh, your dad had a moon rock.”

Stunned silence. “Oh, yeah, Herb gave him one.” If anybody in St. Louis could get his hands on a moon rock, it would have been Herb (not his real name). “He got it from someone at McDonald’s.” That would be McDonnell-Douglas, now Boeing. “It was just pebbles. Your dad put the pebbles in an envelope and wrote something on it.”

We searched every closet and old dresser drawer we could find, but like Missouri’s goodwill tchotchke, it had vanished. I wondered what my friend Randy Korotev thought about the story. Randy is on the research faculty at Washington University and studies moon rocks for a living. He also writes the top-ranked website on lunar meteorites—meaning the moon rocks that came to earth without the help of Buzz Aldrin or Tom Hanks.

Anne: Hey Randy! Thanks for spending some time with us at GwB! Did you know anything about the “Goodwill” rocks, covered in Lucite and mounted on a plaque, before this story hit the news?

Randy: I knew that many heads of state had received them, but I didn’t know that US state governors had received them until a student involved in this project e-mailed me a year ago to ask if I knew where the one that had been given to the Missouri governor was.

Anne: Were any of the rocks you studied from museums, or did they all come directly from NASA?

Randy: I get all my samples directly from NASA’s astromaterials curation office at the Johnson Space Center. That’s the only place that one can legally acquire an Apollo sample for study.

There are lots of Apollo rocks on public display. If NASA approves the request, the curation office turns samples over to the public affairs office and those samples become unavailable for scientific study. Nearly all of the samples on display in museums and all of the give-away samples were basalts (solidified lava). Some of these samples weigh several kilograms. All of the science you need to get from a basalt you can get from 10-20 grams. So, small pieces of these samples are the ones that are used for displays and politicians. I expect all the governors received a little sample of one rock.

Anne: Does it seem likely to you that moon pebbles are languishing in forgotten desk drawers around town?

Randy: If 50 governors got samples, then yes. But, not among the scientists. Every two years I have to do a complete inventory of the samples I have. So, if you have Apollo samples, you’re reminded at least every two years.

Anne: If I were to find an envelope of “moon pebbles,” would it be possible to look at them and determine if they were from the lunar surface or a parking lot surface? Or would it take extensive testing?

Randy: The short answer is that it would take a moderately expensive test to prove it one way or the other. (I’d do it for you for $200.)

The story you tell is familiar to me. I’ve been sent samples by people who have stories like, “My late father was given this moon rock by an Air Force general in 1972,” or, “My uncle was given these sample by a NASA security guard who knew Buzz Aldrin.” The kids of the late elders now want to know if the family legend is true. I’ve been contacted 10-12 times, and the lunar sample curator says that they get calls like that all the time. 

Sometimes I can take one look and say, “This isn’t a Moon sample.” I can’t say that a rock is from the Moon rock “just by looking.” None of the ones I’ve analyzed, however, has been from the Moon. I can tell that with 100% confidence on the basis of our analytical results (chemical composition). If you gave me a real Apollo sample, I could tell you which of the 6 landing sites it came from better than 9 out of 10 times. By the way, if it was my opinion that it really was an Apollo sample, I’d inform the NASA lunar sample curator. Then, you’d probably get a visit by guys who don’t smile and wear suits with white shirts.

Anne: Missouri’s missing rock is from Apollo 17. What their anything unique about Apollo 17?

Randy: It was the last mission and the variety of rock types was probably greatest. The basalts are distinct from those of the other sites. Some of the non-basalts are unique. Those samples aren’t given away.

Anne: The American public lost interest in manned space missions. We certainly undervalued the moon rocks and space exploration in general. Do you think that the public has ever appreciated the full importance of space travel?

Randy: Some people have. Some people think it never happened. I know a lot of students who are fascinated by the recent missions to Mars and asteroids. I’ve seen an upturn in interest in students in the past ten years. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indians are taking space exploration very seriously. 
Looking for moon rocks.
Anne: If you think you've found a moon rock, lunar sample, or meteorite, Randy says read this and this. Thanks Randy!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pipe Dream

Pipe vine casts deep shade. AMcC

I first read about pipevines—the plants—and its relationship to Pipevines—the butterflies—from an article in American Butterflies, Summer 2001, written by Jeffrey Glassberg. American Butterflies is the quarterly journal of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). NABA launched its “Pipe-dream Project” that year. The North American Bluebird Society (NABS) promotes nestboxes and habitat suited to bluebirds, and along with other organizations, has successfully expanded the range, increased populations and public awareness of Eastern, Western, and Mountain Bluebirds. NABA hoped to do the same for the Pipevine Swallowtail and its southern cousin, the Polydamas Swallowtail. Glassberg recommended growing the host plant, pipevine, either Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia macrophylla, or a pipevine species native to your area. I had never had a Pipevine Swallowtail in my yard so I couldn’t wait to try it. Dutchman’s Pipe is native to the Eastern US, and I would have preferred to plant Missouri’s species, Wooly Dutchman’s Pipe, A. tomentosa, but I was unable to find a source at the time. I planted two Dutchman’s pipe vines on a metal arch, set in concrete. I had intended that arch for climbing roses, but that another story.

The species name, macrophylla, means “large leaf.” Many of the leaves are 6 inches wide and more than 7 inches long. They arrange themselves like shingles on a roof, casting a deep shade. When people sat outdoors to cool off in summer, folks planted it to cover the porch. Now that most of us enjoy air-conditioning in the heat, the plant is rare in suburbs and towns.

The first season the vines looked acceptable, but weak. By late summer, I had seen a few Pipevine Swallowtail adults, but no eggs or caterpillars. The next summer, I had more adults, but still no “cats.” Just before the plants’ third season, I met a woman who had grown the plant for years. She advised me to prune it to around one or two feet in the spring. I was horrified. Perhaps you’ve heard the old garden wisdom about vines, “First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap!” That summer, mine leapt. The vine covered the arch, headed down the fence, and made a grab for the gutters. I do prune my pipe vines in late winter now, and trim during the growing season if they misbehave. The plant laughs at pruners, and the butterflies seem to prefer to lay their eggs on the fresh growth.

Dutchman's Pipe bloom. Photo by Margy Terpstra ©

My plants bloom well in spring, though the flowers are small. They’re not showy, but their strange shape (like a meerschaum pipe) has an even more bizarre function. According to the Plant Diversity Website, the flower is perfumed like road kill. Fear not, gentle gardener! I have never detected this odor. A hungry fly enters the bloom and finds itself trapped in the convoluted shape. There the fly stays till it is covered with pollen and the flower matures, releasing it to play London Bridge once more.

This summer, Pipevines been particularly abundant. I can see them all day long. It took a long time for me to find the cats. Last summer I had several “hatch outs” and I learned what to look for. If you see a leaf with damage, try looking underneath it. Sometimes a dark shadow turns out to be a group of larva. For more about the caterpillars, see “Botanical Arsenic and Old Lace.” For more about the adult, see “Leaping Lepidopterists, Batman!” 
Dutchman's pipe grows on an arch. AMcC

Friday, July 23, 2010

Botanical Arsenic and Old Lace

Take a few minutes to watch this amazing time-lapse video by JCMegabyte. It covers the entire life cycle of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. Video footage is courtesy of JCM Digital Imaging.

Plants have a fascinating variety of strategies to defend themselves against herbivores, including ourselves. If a species is to survive in the wild it needs thorns or spines, or armor, such as thick bark or nutshells. One of the most intriguing is the use are the poisons plants manufacture and concentrate in their leaves or seeds. Sort of like a botanical Arsenic and Old Lace

Of course, Aunts Martha and Abby used elderberry wine with cyanide, while Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla) leaves contain a toxin called aristolochic acid. If you were to eat enough of it, it could be fatal. This is the plant that Pipevine Swallowtails require in their larval stage. How can a small caterpillar thrive on a plant that could kill great big humans? Co-evolution my friends—eons of it. The caterpillars are able ingest the toxin without any ill effects, making both the larva and adult taste terrible. Birds and other predators learn to avoid them.
Aunt Martha: One of our gentlemen found time to say, How delicious!”

The larvae are black, with hornlike protuberances of orange or red. They also like to hang out in gangs, which is actually pretty intimidating to see if you don’t know what they are. The bright orange spots set off by blue on the adult are warning colors too. Kenn Kaufman and Jim Brocks book, Butterflies of North America, lists 6 other black butterflies of the Midwest that gain protection by mimicking the Pipevine Swallowtails coloration. The colors are effective for me too. I’ve never been tempted to eat a Pipevine Swallowtail.
Late instar of Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar, on pipevine of course!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Leaping Lepidopterists, Batman!

Pipevine Swallowtail on Liatris, Yvonne Homeyer ©
Pipevine Swallowtail is one of the most exciting butterflies anyone can have in their garden. Pipevine Swallowtails are large, with a wingspan of 3-5 inches or so. Their hind wings are iridescent turquoise blue, which is fabulous, but hard to see because they “batter” their wings so rapidly. I just can’t stop chasing them around the yard, as they dart over, under, tilting, and disappearing. This is probably the butterfly that prompted the stereotype of the leaping lepidopterist.

I saw my first Pipevine Swallowtail of the year here in Missouri on June 18. Her black wings were just a blurs as she fluttered along my pipevine. Pipevine is the only plant that Pipevine Swallowtails use as a host. The only other member of its genus in the US is the Polydamas Swallowtail, which also uses pipevines. It’s interesting that the world’s largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing of eastern Papua New Guinea also lays her eggs on a pipevine relative.

Linnaeus, who gave our Pipevine Swallowtail its scientific name, Battus philenor, could have seen a relative of the butterfly in Europe. At first I thought that Battus might refer to its flight pattern, which actually is kind of bat-like. However, the Latin word for bat is “vespertilio,” so that can’t be right. “Battus” or “Battuti” refers to a 14th Century group of folks who paraded through town whipping themselves. Possibly the color of the butterfly is related to the costumes of the Battuti? No, reportedly, the Battuti did not wear shirts at all. Hmm. Could the rapid wing beat of Pipevine Swallowtail suggest the French “battus,” that is, “beaten”?

My own theory is that Linnaeus named the genus after Battus of Cyrene, who was worshipped after his death as Aristaeus. Aristaeus is described as a one of the Greek’s minor gods, who taught humans to raise bees and make cheese. “Aristaeus” also means “the best”—well deserved if he’s responsible for cheese—and a word that seems suspiciously like Aristolochia, the genus name of the plant that Pipevine larvae eat. Still with me? Thus, it could be that Battus is the synonym for the genus name, Aristolochia, which the insect requires. More about that plant in later posts.

Philenor, the specific name, comes from the Greek for “loving one’s husband.” Linnaeus didn’t explain that one either.

A warm thank you to Yvonne Homeyer who sent me a photo above from our fieldtrip with St. Louis Chapter of North American Butterfly Association. It shows a Pipevine Swallowtail on Liatris. What a sight Jeff Pippin saw at this “puddle party” of Pipevines! Apparently, these guys are sipping minerals from the damp sand—sort of like meeting at Starkbucks.
Puddle Party of Pipevine Swallowtails, Buncombe Co., NC by Jeff Pippin

Monday, July 19, 2010

Join a Flickr Group

I have to talk a bit more about Flickr, the photo storing and sharing website, and then it’s back to the back yard. Yesterday I talked about searching Flickr and copyright issues. Another cool thing about being a Flickr member is joining a “Group.” All that means is that someone has organized a page dedicated to a certain type of photo. Almost all groups are open to everyone and have some guidelines. Usually there is an active moderator who looks over the photos and edits if necessary. For example, my nature study club, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, has a group called Nature Study with WGNSS. Anyone who has an interesting photo of nature is invited to join the group and share it. Visit the group, click “Join.” Then use the “Actions” menu above your photos to “Add to a group.” 

Of course, you don’t have to share a photo or be a member of WGNSS to join our Flickr group. The main advantage to joining a group is that Flickr makes it easy to find your groups out of the infinite number of groups offered. There is also a discussion board for each group, most of which specify that only members can participate in discussion posts.

The next cool thing is to view the “slideshow.” The group’s home page will display 12 photos. At the bottom right is a link to “>>More.” You can choose to look at one photo by clicking the thumbnail or—better yet—at top right, click “Slideshow.” Flickr now shows each of the photos at full screen for a few seconds.

Some groups I like are: The Ozarks, Missouri Birds, Signs Signs, Missouri Native Plants, and Droplets on Leaves, just to name a few. With a free membership, you can join 10 groups. On your Flickr home page, you can search for a group thats centered around your favorite topic.

Maybe the most fascinating group is ID Please! People submit a photo of a bug, bird, fern, or fungus that they can’t identify. Members from around the globe respond by commenting on the photo. Now, when I can’t be out in the field arguing over an Empidonax flycatcher or a skipper butterfly, I can trade ideas and hear from experts online.
Thanks to my Flickr friend Hector for his amazing photo of Northern Flickers© in Coquitlam, British Columbia!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Knock, knock…

I realize Flickr has been around since 2004 but I really have just gotten active with it this summer. Flickr is a site that allows you to upload your photos to share with others. You can have a free membership, which has pretty generous limits on how many photos you can upload per month. If you find that you use Flickr more than that, a “pro” membership is $25 per year. That pro membership has advantages, including the fact that if you delete your photos on your own computer—or it fails—you can replace them by downloading the original from your Flickr account.

Think about this: Even if you don’t own a camera, you’ll want to join Flickr. You can enjoy and sometimes “borrow” photos from other people—and we’re talking about a pool of 4 billion images! Need a photo of a Unicorn Clubtail dragonfly for your presentation? How about Hairy Lip Fern or LeConte’s Sparrow?

Officer Friendly: What’s the rush, ma’am? Do you have a license for that photo?
Nice volunteer lady: Oh, I don’t have to worry about it if I’m just using the picture for an educational purpose…do I?

Actually, you do.

Borrowing an image from the Internet is legal if the owner of the photo allows it. When you upload your photos to Flickr, you designate whether or not your photo will be viewable by the public, or only by invited folks. You also specify what kind of copyright you want. The default setting is “all rights reserved”—meaning no one can make use of your photo in any way except to view it on Flickr. I changed my default setting to a “creative commons” (cc) license, meaning that others have my permission to use the photo for non-commercial purposes, as long as they attribute the photo to me.

The next step for the presentation/report is to search for an image you want that has a creative commons license. Say you know a fourth-grader named Tyler who needs a bobcat picture for a report. My favorite way find it is to go to Compfight, enter “bobcat” in the search box, set Creative Commons to “only,” be sure “Safe Search” is turned on, and browse. Now Tyler has 4,210 choices. Simply display the name of the photo’s owner by the photo. In a presentation, you can also link to the photographer’s Flickr page. You may have noticed that many of the images in “Gardening with Binoculars” are attributed to “Flickr friends,” including the Northern Flicker above, by Matt Ward My blog would be a lot less interesting without their generosity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

Naturalist Ellen Rathbone wrote a wonderful post for Adirondack Almanack this week on a topic dear to my heart, cattails. She brought back some memories that gave me a laugh. If you’ve ever been in a cattail fight, it’s a plant you’ll always love. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure—and you pretty much need to be under 16 for this—take a dry, mature, fluffy cattail seedhead. Now wallop your friend with it. Hilarious.

Growing up a nature nut in the 60s, of course I read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Euell was the butt of many a joke on late-night TV, but I’m sure he laughed all the way to the bank. I loved him. I tried a few of his recipes, persimmon bread, grape vine salad, sassafras leaves, and sassafras tea. The cattail recipes were intriguing, and I was fortunate enough to have a small area of cattails near my home. It was spring, so I gathered some of the young, hard green “tails”—Rathbone explains that these are the male flowers of the plant—and boiled them. With a little butter and salt, they were like corn on the cob as promised, though they tasted more like zucchini.

Later that day my hands and feet began to swell. It hurt to walk or hold a pen. The next morning it was worse, so Mom got me an appointment with the pediatrician. It’s tough for a teenager to go to a pediatrician’s office for any reason of course, but it got worse. The first thing the doc asked me was, “Have you eaten anything unusual recently?” Now I was really humiliated. I lamely explained about Euell and the cattails. As you botany folks have already guessed, male flowers of the cattail are 100% pollen and I was having an allergic reaction. My family has never quit laughing.

I still had a few chapters of Stalking the Wild Asparagus to cook through, but it seems I’d run out of goodwill in the kitchen. I had to make due with Grape-Nuts. They taste like “wild hickory nuts” you know.

Thanks to my Flickr friend Ken Spencer for his great photo of cattails!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Guest Blogger: Fishing with an Owl

By J Bowen
A few weeks ago I had the chance to go fishing at Montauk State Park down in Licking, MO. The Current River begins from springs here so the water is very cold and runs fairly swiftly. It was about 8:30 in the morning and I was the only person down along this portion of the trout stream when a large barred owl flew up into a tree directly across from where I was fishing. He was so magnificent that I just smiled and started talking to him. “Well, good morning handsome (although I didn’t know if it was a male or a female), how are you this morning? Looking for breakfast?” He just kept tilting his head like he was listening to me attentively and then checking out what was in the stream. I said, “Hold on a minute and I’ll get you one,” and I went back to fishing. I looked back a moment later and he was gone. I glanced upstream where I had a stringer of three trout—you’re allowed four a day—and there was the owl with his wings spread and his talons holding onto my stringer! 

“Whoa there, fella, you can’t have all of them!” I yelled and started towards the owl. He flew up into the same tree where he had been across the river. I walked down to my stringer and continued fishing. I looked up at the owl at one point and said, “Just hold on a minute and I’ll catch you one.” I went back fishing when I heard the sound of his wings close to me. He was now in a tree about 10 feet from me, sitting on a low branch. I could see every feather, design, movement, facial features—everything. He was truly magnificent. I watched him watching me and then went back to fishing. A few minutes later I caught a trout, removed the hook from its mouth and called, “Here ya go buddy!” I tossed it just under his perch. He kept looking at me, looking at the fish, looking at me, looking at the fish when suddenly he swooped down, grabbed the trout with his talons and off he flew with the fish in tow! It was one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever seen! What a gift to have experienced that moment.

My guest blogger J is an expert at fishing. We met one summer at Girl Scout camp when we were teenagers. She was lighting firecrackers under the camp director’s window at the time. Today her career is in law enforcement and investigations. Love your stories, J! Thanks for sharing around our virtual campfire! And thanks to Richard Crook who shared this photo of an owl looking as though he’s about to steal a stringer!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Things you didn’t know you didn’t know

One of the great things about learning about nature is meeting really interesting people. I  knew the name Ted MacRae from our nature study group and found his blog, Beetles in the Bush. It challenged me to learn about creatures I had never even noticed before, especially those beautiful tiger beetles! Its always great to learn things you didnt know that you didnt know. Later I met Ted in person and found that he was not only a great  entomologist and writer, but also a friend. His invitation to write a post on Beetles in the Bush was intriguing. I enjoyed writing Dogbane for Dinner so much, I started “Gardening with Binoculars.” Thanks, Ted!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why do people think that bird watchers are nerds?

There I was, minding my own business, binoculars around my neck, three dogs in tow, and a plastic bag filled with the products of our walk. Why should I feel self-conscious? Just because I was blocking the sidewalk, my binoculars straight up, unaware that a small group of 10-year-olds were gathering. 

Overhead, not much higher than the treetops, circled two Mississippi Kites. Long, narrow grey wings, white secondaries (the trailing, inner portion of the wings), and a graphite grey tail, appeared and disappeared as they swung silently among the trees. “What are they?” one boy asked. I knew the answer would be confusing. “They call them kites. Aren’t they cool?” “Yeah,” they agreed, watching, half-on, half-off their bikes. Maybe bird watching isn’t so geeky.

We think of birds of prey eating rabbits, or elephants, in the case of the mythical Roc. Kites are smaller and lighter than the hawks we’re used to. Two of the five North American species eat mostly insects, including the Mississippi Kite. It’s described in National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds as having a “buoyant” flight. I could not imagine what that meant till I saw one floating, almost motionless over a field.

I’m lucky enough to see Mississippi Kite several times a week here in the St. Louis, MO area. Today I saw one that I swear did a loop-de-loop like a stunt plane at the VP Fair. A little further on in my walk, I saw two circling over a lawn, perhaps looking for their favorite snack, dragonflies. One later sailed over carrying a twig in its talons. It disappeared then, returned without the stick. Why it would be carrying nesting material in mid-July is a mystery to me. This is a good spot to say thanks to my Flickr friend Ned Harris for his terrific photo, above. Check out his awesome photos of birds and insects.

Last summer I spotted one as I drove by the Kirkwood Farmers market. I followed, and suddenly it stalled, then spun away after a bat. All this in broad daylight! The bat swooped down and under into the thick foliage of a catalpa tree and the bird followed. The end of the story—whether happy or sad for the bat—is unknown.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are they edible?

Those pesky stinkhorns sure are conversation-starters! Ive had several people ask if they are edible, and the answer seems to be Yes, and No. Tom VolkFungus of the Month article says that they are, with certain cooking techniques. Another source, Wildman Steve Brill found them to be revolting, even when cooked in broth. The totally amazing 2006 BBC series Planet Earth had a time lapse video of a Netted Stinkhorns growth. Id love to embed the video, but the embedding is disabled. Click this link, or better yet, watch Planet Earth. I came across a discussion on this topic at GardenWeb. I was glad to see at least one gardener recognized that they are harmless, interesting mushrooms. Just think of them as fun-guy!” Thanks for all the comments and photos!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Those Ever-Lovin' Vines!

Pop used to call them “Those ever-lovin’ vines!” and it was clear he was not in love with them. I don’t know any gardeners that are. I’m talking about those vines that spring from nowhere just to deface your Japanese maple. Edgar Denison calls it Angle-Pod, others use the common names Climbing Milkweed, Bluevine, Honeyvine, or Sandvine. Or Everlovinvine.
This plant is a stalker—literally. The stem twines slyly around the stalk of your treasured perennial. You won’t even notice it till it starts to bloom. By then it’s tied a dozen plants into an impenetrable tangle, snapping stems under the weight of the hitchhiker and the next rain. Its blooms are insignificant and white, but put out strong perfume, calling bees and flies to pollinator duty. The fragrance is sweet to humans too, but for my money, it’s too sweet.
Removing Cynanchum laeve requires delicacy and restraint. The vine twines with a counter-clockwise motion, so to remove, you must carefully twist it in a clockwise direction. The temptation to pull is usually too much for me, and that yanks off the flowers I’m trying to save. A better strategy is to use scissors to clip the vine every few inches, then pick off each piece. The root is deep. It looks like long, thin, white carrot. If you choose to leave the root, the vine will sprout right back. You understand, of course, that removing the root will pretty much destroy that section of your garden. The best plan is to let the vine grow long enough so that you can safely hit it with herbicide, leaving the rest of the garden untouched. Good luck with that.
When all else fails, comfort yourself with the knowledge that Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars love this plant. I’ve seen caterpillars on it a number of times. Sometimes I just hook it with the side-view mirror as I back out of my driveway and drive around town with a vine and black-eyed Susan dangling from my passenger side. Works for me!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Even more stinkhorns!

Just received this photo from Gine421! Gin, I think your little prize might be Phallus ravenelii, the Common Stinkhorn. See the comments on today's post below. Thanks for sharing Gin--I think!

Or are you just glad to see me?

A garden is a world unto itself, it had better make room for the darker shades of feeling as well as the sunny ones. William Kent

Deep in the dark heart of my rain garden, a monster had been waiting, biding its time, till this cool summer morning to burst forth—a monster so vile, it has earned the name “The Stinkhorn!” The Dog Stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus), to be exact. Its genus name comes from a Roman god of fertility—a fellow with the unbelievable handle of “Mutunus Tutunus.” The scientific name indicates its resemblance to human—actually, in this case, canine—anatomy, but what about the English name? Even though I was close enough to take the photo, I wasn’t aware of an odor.

Stinkhorn is a fungus; less than 5 inches tall, but attention getting nonetheless. The cap is slimy, dark yellow-green. I learned that the cap is where the plant holds it spores, that is, the fungal equivalent of seeds. To distribute its spores, the fungus recruits flies, drawing them in with its delectable—to flies—aroma. Evidently, flies have better sense of smell than I. I took these pictures about 7:00 AM. Before noon most of the mushrooms had liquefied and almost disappeared. On warmer mornings, stinkhorns visible at 8:00 were gone by 9:00. References tell me that stinkhorns are common fungi, but these are the first I have ever found. Look for them where there’s shade and plenty of dead plant material. But don’t expect Sr. Mary Ignatius to appreciate the photos.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rootin’ Tootin’ Rufous!

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On January 13 of this year, Fred Dietrich banded a female Rufous Hummingbird in Tallahassee, Florida. As he released it, no one dreamed this little female would break more records than Virgin America airline’s discount! On June 28, it was recaptured by another hummingbird bander in Chenega Bay, Alaska. That’s 3,523 miles in 166 days. If she traveled in a straight line, and didn’t fly on the weekends, that would be slightly less than 30 miles a day for 24 weeks. All this for a bird that weighed 13 hundredths of an ounce when banded! That straight-line path would have taken her over the Canadian Rockies, including Banff and Jasper National Parks, and then the largest national park in the US, Wrangell-Saint Elias NP, with it 18,000-foot peak.

I never hear of Chenega Bay. It’s roughly 100 miles by air east of Anchorage. I say roughly, because there are no roads between the two, so Google “couldn’t calculate directions.” Chenega is the only town on Evans Island. I counted less than 30 buildings. Main Street leads northeast into the Chugach National Forest, then dead ends at Chenega Bay Airport. According to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Rufous hummers have the “northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird in the world.” By the range map in The Sibley Guide to Birds, this little lady had arrived at the absolute extreme northwestern tip of the Rufous’s summer range.

There are many amazing things about this story. The fact that this bird beat the previous record of 2,200 miles is incredible. The fact that there are people on an island in the Gulf of Alaska banding hummingbirds is mind-blowing. But what are the odds that any hummingbird will be recaptured? I asked my friend my friend Lanny Chambers about it. He’s a hummingbird bander and maintains the best hummingbird site on the web! Lanny captured a female Rufous hummingbird in my yard in November 1999 and we were thrilled that day to find that she already had a band. His take: “This spectacular recapture is like a blind golfer making a hole-in-one on a million-yard hole! I've banded about 2500 hummers in 10 years. Exactly two have been recaptured elsewhere.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reincarnated Cowboys

Photo by Richard Skoonberg
If binoculars are basic equipment in your garden, you’ve gotta have purple coneflowers! Being native to this area (Midwestern USA), they don’t demand much—just sunlight and an occasional rain. No need for fertilizer or insecticides. Echinacea purpurea is native to Missouri, but so are pale purple coneflower (E. pallida), whose petals droop even more than the “regular” purple, and yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa).

Hybridized garden varieties are shorter than the species—that is, less than 4 feet tall. Nurseries have developed purple coneflowers that are orange, red, or deep purple. If you like to play with scale, try ‘Little Annie,’ a new variety. It’s miniaturized—less than 10 inches, with many small flowers. I have one in a container one the front porch. Modern garden varieties hold their petals closer to horizontal, but I prefer the charming droop of the unimproved native plant.

Of course the main reason to have loads of purple coneflowers is goldfinches. Cornell doesn’t mention it in their fantastic bird website, but rodeo-riders—and perhaps the clowns too—are reincarnated as goldfinches. When the blooms are finished and most gardeners would get out the shears, that’s the time little yellow birds hop onto that bloomed-out conehead and ride, Sally, ride! My Flickr friend Richard Skoonberg captured this photo as a male goldfinch tweezes the seeds out, then flies off to feed his nestlings. American Goldfinches are one of the few species of birds that feed seeds to their young, not insects. In the process, they drop a few seeds in new areas, allowing the plant to spread. Purple coneflowers are indispensable in a wildlife garden!