Thursday, June 23, 2011


Through May and early June I occasionally heard a rapid, metallic drumming—almost a trill. "I'll bet a woodpecker is drumming on someone's aluminum siding," I thought, but I could never find the bird. On Memorial Day weekend however, I heard the sound again—very close, but where?
Caught in the act! See the little drummer bird, just beneath the metal cap on my chimney? It is believed that woodpeckers use drumming as a substitute for song. Woodpeckers don't have a song for claiming territory or attracting a mate like a robin or cardinal would employ. They don't need one. All a woodpecker has to do if find some resonant material—a hollow snag, or your aluminum gutter—and drill, baby, drill! David Sibley's website has a great article about drumming, complete with sonagrams and recordings of Downy and the similar-looking and similar-sounding Hairy Woodpecker.

Sibley notes some intriguing findings in the research: both male and female Downy Woodpeckers drum and at all times a year. We assume the male is trying to attract a mate with his drumming/song. Is the female doing the same? And if we hear drumming in January, is that drummer defending a territory even though it's not nesting season? My grainy photo doesn't show the red nape patch, but this was a male playing his drum for me, and the neighborhood. What is he trying to say with his 15 beats per second?

When I visited southeastern Arizona in the summer of 2000, I fascinated to see that birders decorated their yards with dried agave stalks. The stalks seemed to advertise to hummingbirds that dinner time had arrived. Fiesty little Rufous and Black-chinned hummers would perch on the stalk, survey the feeders, and dive in. I was dying to carry off one of these stalks for my own yard, but alas, it would not fit into my baggage. I cast around for a substitute, and saw the potential in a year-old Compass Plant stalk.

I wrote about Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) last August. It's one of my favorites. This spring I tied several Compass Plant stalks to my fence. Investigating the stalk this morning, I saw not a hummingbird, but a young female Downy Woodpecker. 

She drilled into the stems and pulled out something that was black. You can see tiny drill holes near the top of the right stalk. Even tinier ones are barely visible in the left stalk, just below the center of the photos. According to John Hilty's website, Illinois Wildflowers, inside the dried stem could have been the larva of the Tumbling Flower Beetle. What a great name! Check out MOBugs' post on this insect, with great photos.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Photo for Father's Day

This picture tells more than I can about my dad; his optimism and his love of people shine through. He grew up in the city during the 1930s, one of 7 children. Except during the war, when he was stationed in Hawaii, he never lived anywhere but St. Louis, and never wanted to. His dad was a city police officer. From the time he came back from the war till the day he retired, he worked for the same company.

I took this photo on a family vacation to Lake of the Ozarks in the late 90s. I think he had just sunk a long putt—as long as you can get in miniature golf. He loved family dinners and telling a funny stories. He always taught us to make the best of any situation. Thanks, Pop!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tick Protected and Trendy

Modeling the latest in tick protection. Stylin', ain't I?
In June, 2008, my furry friend, Rosie, and I set out to do our breeding bird survey at Busch Memorial Conservation Area. It's the same territory I still visit and wrote about in my 2 most recent posts. Lake 22 always delivers. That day, an adult and juvenile Orchard Oriole showed off near their nest. I spotted a Hairy Woodpecker and no less than 4 Pileated Woodpeckers! We had some tough going as we headed east from the small lake toward the creek. The gullies had washed even deeper than the year before and the grass was already above my shoulders. Suddenly Rosie started fighting me for the leash. Usually she was more than eager to head down a trail, but perhaps this terrain was too for a 14-year-old Cairn terrier, so I picked her up. I carried her for a short distance, but the trail was getting deeper and more slippery, so we headed back to the car and on to the next lake.

Once we were in the car I noticed that she had several tick on her head and neck, some already attached. I knew we'd have a long session brushing, combing, and tweezing ticks from her thick fur when I got home. I had always been a bit casual about ticks. I was annoyed and disgusted with the itchy red welts left after a bite, but I never freaked out or stayed home to avoid them. Other birders wore long pants, but in the heat, the comfort of shorts was worth the risk of a bite. Sometimes I'd use bug spray.

I headed for the shower when I got home, which is when I discovered that we had gone through a huge swarm of ticks. There were dozens on me! Rosie must have had a hundred. I don't know how long I spent removing them from her, and in spite of being rewarded with treats for tolerating the process, she was not happy. I checked her again the next day and found more. Was this what she was trying to tell me back at Lake 22?

About week later I spiked a fever and called the doctor's office. The first thing they asked was, "Have you been exposed to ticks recently?" That gave me a pretty bad feeling. The doc gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and the fever soon disappeared. Unfortunately, the fever was only a small part of the illness. I was extremely tired. Each morning I'd get up after sleeping 11 hours or so, I'd drink a whole pot of coffee, and then I'd need to lie down to rest. I was taking 2 graduate credit classes at the time, so I'd drag myself over to the desk to work. By 5 PM, I'd be through for the day.

All my tests came back negative for 3 tick-borne diseases in my area of the Midwest: Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever, Lyme disesase, and Ehrlichiosis. At the time, my doctor said that the tests were not too reliable, and he believed that I had one—or more! In spite of treatment, my extreme fatigue continued throughout the summer. The garden was overrun with weeds.

In September, 3 months after the tick bite, I was determined to go to my camp reunion. I told my friends that I had to be back about no later than 9 PM. I had a great time of course, and got home at 9:30 PM. Normally the last thing I do before bed is check that the doors are locked.

When I awoke the next morning, I found that not only had I not locked the door, I didn't even shut it. It was another 3 months before my sleep pattern returned to normal.

Later in 2009, Rosie's blood work showed that she had contracted Ehrlichiosis at some point. It was just 2 weeks ago though that I had some tests, and when my new doctor called with the results, she asked, "When did you have Ehrlichiosis?"

My bout with the disease was debilitating and not at all good for my garden, but I was lucky. Tragically, this week a healthy, middle-aged local woman died from a tick-borne illness. Another St. Louisan died in from Ehrlichiosis in June, 2009.

Tick-borne illnesses are scary, but I'm not going to quit enjoying the outdoors. Here are some tips for protecting yourself from tick exposure:

  • Pull your socks up onto the outside of your pant legs and wrap with duct tape. Ya gotta admit—it's a look!
  • Use bug spray with DEET on clothing and exposed skin. Don't forget to spray the dog!
  • Spray with permethrin on clothing. I spray permethrin on my jeans the night before a birding trip.
  • As soon as you return home from the woods and fields, put all clothing in the washer and dryer, check for ticks, and shower. Fortunately, it takes about 24 hours before an attached tick can transmit any pathogens.
  • Get rid of that invasive bush honeysuckle! Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis did experiments at the very same Busch Conservation Area, and found a connection between the abundance of bush honeysuckle, concentrated deer populations, and high density of disease-carrying ticks. Just another reason we should care about the environment!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Songs of Summer and Scarlet

On June 11 and 12 I did more breeding bird surveys at Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles Co., Missouri, with my friend Kevin Renick. We didn't see the numbers of butterflies I mentioned in my previous post, but we saw and heard some great birds, including two not commonly seen: a Blue Grosbeak along the dam at Lake 37, and a brief view of a Blue-winged Warbler at the same spot.

Kevin is a singer-songwriter as well as a whiz at birding; his musical abilities extend into his nature hobby. What impressed me most this weekend was Kevin's ability to consistently tell the difference between the songs of the Scarlet Tanager and the Summer Tanager. Both birds nest here in oak-hickory forests of Missouri, and although their calls are very different, their songs are very much alike. I asked him to summarize the differences between the two songs. I'm accompanying Kevin's summary with video from the incomparable recordist of nature sounds, Lang Elliot.

Kevin's hints: "The Scarlet Tanager's song has sometimes been described as being like a 'robin with a sore throat.' It's a melodic warble, but it has a prominent screechy or raspy sound on one or two notes of its phrasing. The Summer Tanager on the other hand, is not raspy at all. It's a clear, sweet warble, a bit gentler than the Scarlet."

If you hear the bird's call—as opposed to its song—you've got it made. The Summer's call begins this video: "Picky-tucky-tuck." The Scarlet Tanager call, heard in the middle of his video, is "Chick-burrr. Chick-burrrr." David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, says that the Summer's song includes, "brief but distinct pauses between phrases." The Scarlet's by contrast is made up of a "fairly rapid, continuous series."

Thanks to Kevin Renick for his song analysis and to Lang Elliot for making his videos available.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hits and Misses on the Breeding Bird Survey

Wild Rose
I got a chance to do a bird surveys this week at one of my favorite places, Busch Memorial Conservation Area, in St. Charles County, Missouri. Busch is a mixed use area, with many artificial lakes, stocked with fish, and some fields rented to farmers. It's also the area of a long-running Christmas Count. On Thursday, July 9, I birded with my cousin, Ginny. We started birding together back before the Beatles appeared in Ed Sullivan. Back in the day, we shared field glasses, the Zim guide, and recorded our list on a Big Chief notebook. As we walked through the neighborhood and nearby cemetery, our list looked like this:

English sparrow
blue jay

Our list was a bit longer this year, but it was hazy, hot, and humid even at 6:30 AM. The heat kept many of the birds from singing, and if you're going to bird when the leaves are full-sized, you need those birds to sing. We started at Lake 22. This small lake has been part of my territory for 8 years. Some dead trees stood in the lake and Tree Swallows nested there. Each year the snags decayed, and this year, none were left. Not a swallow was seen. A deeply eroded road leads down to a beautiful creek where I've recorded Kentucky Warbler and Black-and-White Warblers, but the area was fenced off, presumably because of an erosion control project. A half-dead elm near the parking area hosted an Orchard Oriole nest, but the tree had been removed and the orioles were missing. We did find this Three-Toed Box Turtle in a wet area on the far side of the lake. His red eye and face markings show that he's a male.

The bird of the day was the Acadian Flycatcher. It's a common bird in the woodlands in our area, one of a complex of similar-looking small flycatchers in the genus Empidonax. You hear 10 for every one you see. Near Lake 23, one perched on a thin branch over the road, allowing us a good long look as he surveyed his domain. Another surprise was a female Wood Duck. Not an uncommon bird, but it can be difficult to find. I don't think I've ever recorded one on the summer bird survey before.

If the birds were a bit shy, the butterflies were not. Thousands upon thousands of fresh-looking Hackberry Emperor butterflies (Asterocampa celtis) dotted the gravel roads for several miles. Hackberries are known for the fondness for landing on humans, lapping up the salt in sweat. They seemed to enjoy Ginny's arm:

Great Spangled Fritallaries (Speyeria cybele) were out in numbers too. We saw them everywhere we found Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) or Purple Milkweed (A. purpurascens).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Scream, You Scream…

I scream,
You scream,
We all scream
For ice cream!
It was inevitable. If they can make tequila lollipops, complete with worm, some entrepreneur somewhere—in this case, Sparky's Ice Cream, in Columbia, Missouri—had to make Cicada ice cream. And why not? Missouri is right in the heart of the Brood XIX, which I wrote about in my most recent post. The story, first reported in Columbia's newspaper, The Missourian, has gone viral, appearing in The Daily Mail (UK—great photos too), Sydney Morning Herald, and NPR.

Thanks to Justina Kochansky for licensing her hysterical photo with Creative Commons. Be sure to read her info about the environmental impact of exfoliants.

Here's a short video of this story, courtesy of WTVY in Dothan, Alabama.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Sweet Gum Ball of the Insect World

13-year cicada rests on Gum Plant (Grindelia lanceolata) AMcC
I usually remember the details of the first time I saw a new bird species—where I was, what the weather was like, who I was with—but I don't usually recall the first time I observed a new insect. The cicada is the exception, and it's exceptional in so many ways. We had just moved to the west part of St. Louis County, and there were still vestiges of rural Missouri there then. We had a magnificent apple tree in our back yard since our subdivision had once been an orchard. I was picking up apples when I a saw something clinging to the trunk: a large, translucent insect with enormous eyes and hook-like legs. I fell back in horror at the ugliest thing I had ever seen. (I was 13 and my journey to appreciate insects had not yet begun.) Later I learned that what I had seen was the "exuvia," or molted exoskeleton left behind as an adult annual cicada emerged.

This year our area is overrun with the "Great Southern Brood," also known as Brood XIX—periodical cicadas, 3 different species in the genus Magicicada. Here's the story: A female periodical cicada lays eggs in a slit she makes in the bark of a twig. The eggs hatch, and the larva drop to the ground, and burrow down to feed on the meager resources of tree roots. In the case of Brood XIX, they will feed for the next 13 years! Then they all emerge, molt into the adult form, mate, and lay eggs. The emerging, molting, and egg laying in my area must all be completed between mid-May and early July.

Why the tag "Great Southern Brood"? First, here's a terrific map of reported sightings, sponsored by the Magicada Mapping Project. As you can see from the map, the greatest cluster of reports comes from midwestern and southern states of the US. Why "great"? Well, the periodical cicada is the sweet gum ball of the insect world. I took a photo of the first ones I noticed on May 17. By May 21, they were everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of dead cidadas and their exuvia filled my driveway--just like sweet gum balls. Unlike gum balls, however, birds and squirrels helped me clean up.
This week I watched a squirrel climbing a tree. With each bound upward, another 2 or 3 dozen Magicicadas popped out of the top of the tree, till there were hundreds flying over the roofs. So many fly clumsily around me as I work in the yard, they frequently land in my hair or crunch underfoot. Last week I took the dog out in the middle of the night. The next morning I found a dead cicada in my bed. Apparently, I'd acquired a hitchhiker on my back during our short trip, and I'd crushed him overnight.

I was cleaning out my little pond when one dropped dead into the water. No doubt it had fallen from the beak of a Common Grackle, too stuffed with cicada chow to swallow his most recent catch. This is likely the strategy of their almost simultaneous emergence: overwhelm the predators.

Predators may be overwhelmed, but they try to keep up. On the MOBirds listserve, a friend in Columbia, MO. (about 116 miles west of here), reports that she observed Cedar Waxwings gobbling up newly molted cicadas. Their tactic was to perch against the trunk of the tree as a woodpecker might, snatching these delicacies before the exoskeleton hardens. The cicadas have the last laugh however. Predators, such as Cedar Waxwings may raise more young this year because of the bounty, but in 2012 there will be no Brood XIX to feed on.
How can I describe their song? Imagine one of those "rain stick" instruments tipping back and forth. Now imagine about 10,000 more. The males vibrate a membrane on the abdomen called the tymbal to create their own kind of music. The singing can reach over 100 dB, according to the "tymbal" article in Wikipedia. In a different entry, Wikipedia notes that periodical cicadas may number "more than 1.5 million individuals per acre." In my yard, it's comparable to the noise of a nearby lawn mower. Fortunately, Magicicadas are comparatively late risers. By 8:30 AM they're just getting started. They knock off for the day when the shadows get long. By 7:45 PM, not a tymbal was stirring.
The most recent post on Beetles in the Bush describes some differences in the songs of the Magicicada species. Ted has some great photos too, as always. For a recording of the song, check out "Singing Insects of Missouri," published by the Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1998.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Strong Bonds

I've lived with a dog or cat or both almost every minute of my life. Certainly our ancestors of every culture lived with animals. Some considered them gods. Many cultures saw animals as sentient beings with their own languages and customs. In the photo above, doesn't Josey look as if she's about to make a clever remark?

Archeologists have found evidence that dogs were kept as pets in a 14,000-year-old grave in Germany. Evidence that dogs lived with humans has been found in a cave in  11,000-year-old site in Utah. A Wikipedia article dates the domestication of the dog to  15,000 years ago in east Asia and Africa. In a dig in Jordan, anthropologists found the oldest evidence remains of a what may have been a pet fox buried with human remains 16,500 years ago. Pet lovers, we have tradition solidly on our side.

Dogs, cats, and even foxes lived with people in ancient times because they were useful. They hunted rodents that could destroy food stores, gave early warning of danger, aided hunters. People were useful to dogs and cats too, but the connection between the species must at times have been more than simple exchange of benefits. People and pets can share a very strong bond, whether in the Stone Age or the Digital Age.

My vet once described me as the woman who runs a home for geriatric dogs, and that sums it up nicely. A year ago I had three dogs. Last fall, I wrote a post about Rosie, my companion for 16 years. This past week, Josey, oldest and last of the three, died. Caring for Josey, along with other obligations in spring, is partly responsible for my infrequent blogs posts this month.

Josey was a long-haired dachshund and a sweetheart! I inherited her and Ginny, a Shih Tzu, when my friend and neighbor, Georgia, died a year and a half ago. With a yard to investigate, treats in the evening, and an occasional piece of chicken in the food bowl, the dogs adapted to the change and life was good.

My friend Dodie says that dogs make us more human. I have no doubt that she's right.