Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mourning Cloaks

The recent spate of terribly warm, nay, hot weather has caused the overwintering butterfly species to emerge from their hibernation spots and seek nectar sources. I noticed the first mourning cloaks last week. Their numbers increase as the warm days continue their constant path towards summer. Officially, mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa antiopa) are dark brown or maroon, but they look black, hence the common name. They are one of the few hibernating butterfly species that emerge on warm days, even in winter. During the winter, they hibernate behind tree bark and in hollow cavities.

Mourning cloaks, like most other butterflies, breed in the spring. They lay their eggs on host plants: black willow, hackberry, poplar, and hawthorn species. Adult butterflies can lay up to 200 eggs and the larvae are gregarious. They feed on leaves of host plants, tree sap, and rotting fruit. They tend to congregate in moist areas. The caterpillars are black with red spots running down their bristly backs.

Unlike most butterflies, mourning cloaks seldom visit flowers. They seek sustenance in tree sap and mud puddles, which is why they are most active in early spring when tree sap flows from damaged areas procured during the winter. The butterfly's main predators are flycatchers, dragonflies and mantids. The flycatchers haven't arrived yet, but the dragonflies are everywhere. I've never seen a dragonfly devour a butterfly, but with all the mourning cloaks in the woods, it's inevitable that I will soon. Mourning cloaks aren't very secretive; apparently they make a slight "click" when they fly off a resting spot. I thought the constant clicking in the woods these days was from deer ticks falling on the leaf litter, but hopefully I'm wrong.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring comes to Crowley's Ridge

Plants of the uplands are so dramatically different from bottomland species. Traditionally, serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is the first understory shrub to bloom in upland habitats; serviceberry is also called shadbush because it blooms when the shad on the Atlantic coast begin their spring runs.

As soon as the mayapples come up, it's morel time. We need a good rain and warm temperatures for morels to come out, but for now the mayapples are poking through the leaf litter..

The best peaches in the state of Missouri are grown on Crowley's Ridge, right next to the state park's border, in fact. Knowing how often the farmers spray their peaches for bugs and fungus, I wouldn't touch one with a ten foot pole. The peach trees are pruned so severely that they only vaguely resemble trees. The Bader family pulled out 25 year old trees this year and planted a crop of winter wheat in their place.
Finally, a carpet of Claytonia virginiana, or "Spring beauty."
You can click on the pictures for a larger view, by the way. A couple of them look better enlarged.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The migration begins

I saw my first blackpoll warbler today. His presence ushers in the great songbird migration up the Mississippi Flyway. Every fall, roughly 60% of all North American birds fly from as far away as the Arctic Circle to the warmer climates of the Gulf Coast, Central and South America. In the spring, songbirds, waterfowl and waders generally follow the Mississippi River as a route to their breeding grounds. Along the way, the birds stop in advantageous spots for a few days at a time searching food and rest. Last year, during the migration, I saw several chestnut-sided and bay breasted warblers, two birds who spend their breeding period in Canada's boreal forest. I have a few migratory birds that I really want to see this year, but it's going to take a lot of effort.

I'm not a very deft birder. Like everything else I do, I have to work hard at birding. I don't have natural talents and have to work really hard to be good at anything. I'm terrible chess, pure math, piano. On the other hand, I can learn foreign languages pretty quickly. On a related note, if I hear a birdsong several times, I can learn it. But if I haven't heard the call before, which is more often the case during migration, I have to try to see the bird to identify it. Without leaves on the trees, seeing drab little female warblers isn't too much of a challenge, but now that the trees are starting to leaf out, I am spending on average 20 minutes in one spot looking for a bird who offers nothing but a nondescript "chip!" as a call. In woods with an average canopy height of 170 feet, little warblers are downright hard to see. In postage stamp-sized habitat patches, however, woodland species congregate in high numbers. I anticipate checking off a lot of birds on my list this spring, if I'm attentive.

Several years ago I went birding on the Louisiana coast with colleagues from the Louisiana Nature Center. We perched at the edge of the brackish water in Pointe la Hache, waiting for migratory birds to make their first stop since the barrier islands. All around us were brightly colored birds: warblers, buntings, vireos, flycatchers. My serious bird-watching friends logged 90 species in one morning. The smaller songbirds tended to fly in and perch on shrubs for minutes at a time. Geese and ducks sat motionless as we observed them. It was the easiest bird watching experience I have ever had. After spending over 45 minutes this evening trying to find a bird who was loudly singing across the bayou, I think fondly of birding on the Louisiana coast. Alas, this migration I'll just have to work hard in Missouri.

Two days later I realize the bird on the bayou is a hooded warbler, an easy bird for real birders to know by the call. And this is what separates me from real birders.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blackening the sky

As the shots rang out, I immediately pulled over. I thought I had blown a tire. Looking to my left on Dunklin County's Highway 61 was a USDA official shooting shotgun blanks into the trees next to the road. For the past several years, the USDA's Delta Research Center-Animal Damage Unit has tried various methods to stop large flocks of red-winged blackbirds from roosting in the county's residential area. The county has no trees except in front of a few businesses and homes. These trees invite flocks of almost 1 million birds to roost and deposit large amounts of guano, which negatively impacts the health of Dunklin Co. citizens.

The Animal Damage Unit began their research several years ago to determine how much crop damage was caused by blackbirds. Thousands of birds were killed in the early days of the project; feeding behavior and gut contents were examined. It was discovered that blackbirds didn't eat nearly as much rice, corn or soy as the researchers and farmers had originally thought. Weed seeds made up the bulk of their diet. But the blackbird guano caused serious depradation of crop quality. Local citizens began complaining that even though the birds were not eating crops, guano deposits were causing respiratory disorders. Now, when home or business owners discover a roosting flock in the area, the Animal Damage Unit is called to shoot blanks, firecrackers or small cannons to deter the birds from staying in one place. Researchers have learned that the birds have become accustomed to the loud blasts. Farmers in the area have resorted to poisoning their fields on occasion, but the state conservation commission penalizes farmers who do this. The latest technique to stop birds from roosting in local communities remains a vague mystery to me. Large cotton trailers baited with food are placed in fields. To access the food, the birds have to fly through a tunnel. Like a minnow trap, the funnel allows the birds to get in but they cannot escape. The agent would not tell me what happens to the birds once they are trapped in the cotton trailer.

Blackbird numbers are declining at a rate of 2.1% each year. Because blackbird flocks are so large and often mixed with grackles, cowbirds and starlings, many people haven't really noticed the general decline in the birds. Red-winged blackbirds remain the most common bird in North America; their numbers in the mid 1990s hovered around 180 million individuals. They belong to the Icteridae family which includes meadowlarks, bobolinks and American orioles. The birds in this family exhibit a remarkable foraging adaptation called "gaping." The skull of an icterid is formed to allow the bird to open the beak powerfully to force open holes in fruit, bark, soil and other substrates to expose food. Red-winged blackbirds use gaping techniques to open sedge stems to expose prey. Most icterids are long billed and have relatively short, deep wings which allow for rapid lifting.

Blackbird flocks are everywhere. Peter sees huge flocks in his Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. My mother's dogs hover under the bushes when the blackbirds descend on the backyard. Thousands of them roost in various parts of the park, always forcing me to go birding elsewhere. Maybe if a handful of trees were spared during the deforestation of southeast Missouri, the blackbirds wouldn't have to congregate in a three block area in Dunklin County.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Southeast Missouri's Strangest Hunt

In December 1932, St. Louis business owner Denver Wright called together 18 hunters and almost 22 "husky Negroes" to assist him in what he called "America's Strangest Safari." Wright planned to release 2 lions on Hog Island (a 200 acre batture island in the Mississippi River about two miles from here) and hunt them in the course of one week. His purpose for the hunt was outlined in the first paragraphs of his book, Missouri Lion Hunt: "I don't believe there are any thrills in hunting lions in Africa that we can't experience in southeast Missouri."

Wright was born in 1889 to an impoverished family in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The Wright family moved to Caruthersville and then to Cape Girardeau, Missouri where Denver began working as a leather cutter for a shoe factory. In 1918, Denver started his own leather manufacturing company, The Wright Company, in St. Louis, but longed to spend more time outdoors. He was an avid and skillful hunter, which he attributed to his youthful experiences hunting small game with slingshots and small rifles. Wright merely wanted the challenge of hunting lions in Missouri; he even hired a filmmaker to document the experience (The Lure of the Beast, by R. Chalmers Bennett). He writes his account of the lion hunt in the third person, sometimes referring to himself as "the courageous Wright."

Wright called together hunters from southeast Missouri who were familiar with Hog Island. Members of his party included the mayor of East Prairie, Frank Davis, who three years later would spearhead an effort to save 80 acres of bottomland hardwood forest from timber harvest, and Ted Bennett, Brother Bennett's father. Wright claims to have "ordered" the lions from Africa. The lion dealer guaranteed that the lions were wild caught, untamed animals, but later reports in various newspapers claim that both lions were "renegade, toothless remnants of a bankrupt circus." One was reportedly named Catherine de Medici.

The plan was simple. Wright, his son, Charles, and the motley crew of hunters and filmmakers from the area were to drive the lions from St. Louis to the bootheel. The crew would pitch camp and release the lions on the second morning. The third day Denver and Charles Wright would hunt the lions. The other members of the party were there to guard the camp from the released animals and to prepare rather lavish camp breakfasts (French toast, eggs, bacon, tenderloin, etc.). The 22 African American men, called "beaters", were instructed to go into the forest ahead of the two hunters. The beaters carried nothing but long sticks to defend themselves and the hunters from the lions.

Before pitching camp at Hog Island, Wright brought the lions to the local elementary school to show them to the students. When Wright asked the mayor, who was on his team, why he wasn't presented a key to the city, the mayor said "there is no lock on the City's door. You are always welcome, just use the latch."

The first day on Hog Island was stormy. The lions were fed pork steaks in their pens. Ted, identified by Wright as a "typical bearded southeast Missouri woodsman" was instrumental in setting up the camp. Barbed wire was installed around all the tents and the campfire ring so that if the lions happened to get out of their holding pen, they might be deterred for a few moments before barging through the camp. During the night, the stormy weather disturbed the hunters' rest. Several men were convinced the animals had escaped their pen; they checked repeatedly through the night to make sure the lions were still caged. Ted and several others stood guard around the camp all night. One of the beaters made an elaborate dinner. Wright slept peacefully in his tent.

On January 13, 1933, the lions were let loose. Ted stood on top of the pen and pulled the latch. The beaters stood in front of the hunters who were "safely" inside the barbed wire fence. Everyone in the party expected the lions to barge out of the pen and disappear into the woods. Instead, one lion slowly ambled out of the pen and began licking and scratching himself a mere 100 yards away from the camp. Rather than using the chute that was built for him, the lion casually broke through the barbed wire, marched through the camp and went into the woods. After several minutes, the second lion finally made his way out of the cage and walked towards the other lion. They began fighting and then took off into the underbrush. A few hours later one lion came back to the camp and loitered all day while the other one rested 1/4 mile away. Around 1:30 am, both lions began roaring, which frightened everyone in the camp. The animals would be hunted just after sunrise.

The following morning, after a long breakfast, the beaters led Denver and Charles Wright into the woods to look for the lions. Both cats had not left the immediate vicinity of camp; one lion was found 500 yards away from camp and the other 300 yards. Wright raised his small caliber Savage rifle and shot at the first animal. He approached the wounded animal and saw that the lion was still very much alive. Wright shot the animal again and killed him.

The second cat was nearby. As the Wrights approached him "the huge cat drew into springing position, forepaws well out in front, hindquarters up under the body, tail swishing the sand behind him into little sand showers. The approach of his mortal enemies made no impression on the beast save to increase his arrogance."

The rest of Wright's narration fills only half a page. The second cat was killed, the beaters trussed both cats and took them out of the woods. Wright quickly returned to St. Louis where he was admittedly "anxious to get out of hunting clothes, get back to civilization, a bath and rest." Ted and the mayor picked up the camp and took down all the barbed wire.

When Wright was contacted by local newspapers to give an account of his lion hunt, he repeated what he had written in his initial proposal offered to the citizens of Mississippi County:
There is nothing wrong with the lion hunt idea. For centuries kings of foreign countries have imported big game which they have liberated and killed within their barricaded private hunting grounds. Game and Fish Departments in this and other countries raise quail, pheasants, turkeys, deer, etc., in captivity, which they liberate for the sole purpose of sportsmen killing. Lions are destructive, dangerous. The former are harmless and self-supporting if given their liberty.

To close his book, Wright pays the citizens who worked for him a big compliment: "I don't think I'll ever be able to let those folks down in Mississippi County know how I appreciate their kindness to me. They're the salt of the earth." That's the least he could say. Brother swears that his father was the one who shot the lions.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ring-billed Gulls

Often mischaracterized as seagulls, ring-billed gulls may spend their lives without ever seeing saltwater. Found in freshwater marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes and sometimes the coast, ring-billed gulls primarily feed on aquatic invertebrates and fish. They have been known to catch food in flight, to eat eggs and even rodents, which they catch while following tractors plowing up grain fields. Yesterday afternoon, a small flock of about 15 ring-billed gulls garrulously trailed Gene's tractor as he tilled the field across the road. They could have been feasting on earthworms, but just as likely on field mice.

These gulls only winter in Missouri, primarily in the southeast lowlands. Migratory populations can be seen sporadically throughout the state from October through April as the birds head south from their breeding range. They breed near lakes and rivers from Maine to Oregon and south to Iowa and in the west, down to the Mexican border. Unlike other gulls, ring-billed gulls return to the same breeding and winter locations each year. The young often return to the place where they were born. Studies on young birds discovered that they can follow magnetic patterns to their breeding sites within their first few months.

Like a lot of birds, their numbers dropped drastically when the millinery industry was in full swing in the late 1800s. Like some birds, their populations rebounded immensely; ring-billeds are now the most common gull in America. In cities, they hang out in parking lots and city parks looking for handouts. But here, they have to catch their food before it's plowed under.