Sunday, July 29, 2007

Jonathan, 1995-2007





Sunday, July 22, 2007

Little stinkies


Weighing in at an average 170 grams with a 4 inch long carapace (though highly variable throughout their range), stinkpot turtles are the smallest turtles in Missouri and one of the smallest turtles in the world. Stinkpots (Sternotherus odoratus, also known as common musk turtle) belong to the family Kinosternidae, which is represented by 25 species of four genera found only in the New World. Underneath the carapace near the back legs are musk glands that excrete a relatively foul-smelling musk when the animal senses danger. Hence the name "stinkpot."
Stinkpots are found throughout the eastern United States from Texas to Wisconsin and east through New England, northern Ontario and down to Florida. They are listed as rare in Iowa. Because stinkpots are so widespread, their sizes range from 2 to 4.5 in. long, with the largest on record measuring 5 3/8 in. Stinkpots are seldom seen because they spend most of their lives in water, generally coming on land to lay their eggs and to search for available habitat. Unlike red-eared sliders and many other species of freshwater turtles, stinkpots aren't very often seen basking on logs.

Where populations exist, stinkpots are generally abundant. They make up a significant portion of an area's biomass. Studies suggest that on average, 100-200 individuals live in a single hectare. My herpetologist, Bones, studied stinkpots at a slough in nearby Reelfoot Lake for his Master's thesis. He discovered a population density of 984 individuals/hectare, which translates into roughly 101 kg. of stinkpots/hectare. The great pictures, by the way, are from Bones' vast collection of wildlife pictures.

Permanent swamps, sloughs and slow moving portions of rivers are required habitat for stinkpots. They prefer areas with vegetative debris where they feed primarily on crayfish, aquatic insects, fish eggs, minnows, and algae. Bones and I are 6 weeks into the turtle survey and have found only 17 stinkpots in the park (and almost 600 red-eared sliders). The low number of stinkpots is somewhat surprising, considering our proximity to Reelfoot Lake. The park's hydrology has been so drastically altered to assist in the drainage of adjacent farmland that areas that should have permanent water dry up each summer. Bones suggests that as stinkpots move throughout the park in search of permanent water, they become easy prey. Their small size makes them vulnerable to large raptors like eagles, who managed to pluck off at least 30 individuals last winter, leaving a collection of stinkpot shells under their massive nest.
With the park's hydrology restoration project beginning this fall, there may be hope for stinkpot populations. Our turtle survey is lacking several species that should be in southeast Missouri and probably were before the drainage projects began. Population estimates for southeast Missouri endemics like stinkpots, cooters, false map turtles and Southern painted turtles are abysmally low considering the same populations at places like Reelfoot Lake. The drainage of the area's swamps, sloughs and backwater habitat may have been too drastic for certain animals like the state endangered Western chicken turtle to deal with.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Prothonotary warblers


It's been 3 months since the woods have seen any appreciable rain. When storms clobber the rest of the county, the woods stay dry. Most of the swamp is dry now, making the turtle project a serious challenge while making vegetative studies a cinch. The absence of water means the absence of hovering dragonflies and invertebrates of duckweed mats. The dry part of the swamp is quiet now, too. The loud, consistent "Tsweet, Tsweet, Tsweet, Tsweet!" of prothonotary warblers can only be heard, occasionally now, in the deep swamp where water levels have dropped to a mere 3 feet in a month. Aside from their water source drying up, I think a few have gone south to their wintering grounds already.

Once appropriately called the "golden swamp warbler," the bright yellow and dull grey songbird was renamed by a handful of Creoles from South Louisiana. The warbler's colors connoted the vestments of a prothonotarius, a high-ranking papal assistant. The prothontary warbler was classified as a waterthrush for many years, but was eventually given its own genus, Prothonotaria. Like Lucy's warbler, the prothonotary warbler nests in cavities. Found along streams, rivers, swamps and sloughs in the eastern U.S. in small numbers, high numbers of breeding pairs live in the swamps of the southeast U.S. Go here to see a day-by-day photo log of the interior of a prothonotary warbler nest.

Abandoned downy woodpecker cavities are the preferred nesting sites, but prothonotary warblers will also use natural tree cavities, the broken tops of cypress knees, and even nest boxes. When natural nest sites are unavailable, they have been known to occasionally use open nests of red winged blackbirds. They don't just require cavities for nesting, they also require proximity to water. It has been suggested that nest sites over water are less prone to predation. Water introduces other dangers to nesting birds: if the nest is too low in the tree, it can flood. Fledglings can fall into the water and become a turtle's meal, though some suggest that fledgling prothonotary warblers have the ability to swim.

The loss of wetlands and hardwood forests have caused prothonotary warbler populations to decline at a rate of 1.6% annually since 1966. In the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, where breeding populations are dense, steeper declines have been recorded by the annual Breeding Bird Survey. Because the birds don't nest in the shrub layer like other warblers, early successional regrowth isn't sufficient for breeding populations. In the southeast U.S., only about 10% of bottomland hardwood forests remain, mostly in small, disjunct patches. The Audubon Society has authored a Bird Conservation Plan, which calls for the reforestation of 1,500,000 hectares of bottomland hardwood forest in the MAV. The reforestation tracts will join all of the small patches into one continous tract. Prothonotary warblers are one of the targeted species that one, large, uninterrupted forest will help.

Unfortunately, regardless of conservation efforts in America, the logging and drainage of wetlands (epecially the mangroves in Panama) in the Central and South American wintering grounds is seriously impacting the population. Several nonprofit groups, including the Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative, are working directly with industry, governments and private landowners in Central and South America to help conserve and protect the wintering grounds for roughly 62% of North America's songbirds, including the prothonotary warbler.

The prothonotary's bright yellow plumage is easy to see in a swamp, but most people don't spend time in swamps or other backwater areas where the birds live. Alger Hiss apparently did. From the Smithsonian Institute:
The sight of a Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac River once made a birdwatcher named Alger Hiss so excited that he told a friend about his experience. Unfortunately, the fact that Whittaker Chambers knew about the prothonotary sighting was one of the links that a freshman congressman named Richard Nixon used to prove that the two men knew each other, leading to the conviction of Hiss (a suspected spy) on a perjury charge.
You might say that Nixon had the Prothonotary Warbler to thank for his subsequent rise to the Presidency!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sweetcorn harvest

I visited my 84 year old neighbor, Brother, at his job today. He officially retired from the grocery/tire patching/fried bologna sandwich-making business a few years ago and, ever since, has helped out his farmer friend with the annual sweetcorn harvest. Brother gave me vague directions to the sweetcorn stand. He gives directions based on field ownership and buildings, which are few and far between down here. Today he could have told me to follow the stray ears of corn that littered the county road. I must have passed 50 perfectly good ears of corn lying in the asphalt; I swerved to miss them in the vague hope that someone would pick them up.

Yesterday, as I was working a knot out of his shoulder, Brother described his job to me. He sits under a tent all day putting stray ears of corn into plastic burlap sacks, filling each sack to make a bushel. He pulls in to the tent at 6 a.m., parks next to a retired school bus emblazoned with "Hernandez Harvesters," and gets to work. He described every aspect of the sweetcorn harvest operation, from the time the trucks come in until another truck hauls off pallets of corn. Unlike most elementary schools, mine didn't send us on fieldtrips to factories, dairies or agricultural processing stations. So, I had to see the sweetcorn operation. I brought Brother a sandwich to justify my gawking.

Huge trucks arrive all day with literally tons of corn and plant debris, backing up to a 1950s blue clapboard building filled with conveyor belts. They dump their load into a holding area. Fieldhands shuttle the corn onto two separate conveyor belts which move quickly past about 30 immigrant laborers who pick out the good ears of corn, packing them into crates. As soon as one worker fills a crate, a girl walks by and gives him a small numbered poker chip to keep track of how many crates he packed. The bad ears and chaff continue on the conveyor belt where they are shunted into the back of another truck, headed for a cattle farmer or the dump. Brother's job is to cull out good ears that were initially passed over by the conveyor belt and pack them into his burlap sacks. Each bushel of corn (roughly 40-60 ears)sells for 8$. Local grocery stores sell 4 ears of sweetcorn for a dollar.

Ears of corn that are rejected by Brother have moldy tassels, are shorter than other ears or have had less water and haven't fully matured. Of course, the rejected ears are fine to eat. The rejected ears are the ones that I grew up eating, the ones that end up in grocery stores throughout the South or as hog food. Brother hates throwing good corn away. I hated to see good corn getting tossed, too, and I didn't grow up in the Depression.

Huge trucks pull up to the clapboard building to buy bushels for local resale and pallets for widespread distribution. When Brother included in his directions the line: "just look for all the truck traffic," he wasn't kidding. In my idle amblings through the sweetcorn harvest operation, I almost got creamed about four times by trucks moving corn.

Over lunch, Brother complained to me that the immigrant workers work a lot harder than the local hires. The locals work, slowly, he says, for a day and then don't show up the next. They complain about the heat. They complain about the hours. Brother doesn't complain about anything but the laziness evident in young, local workers. Working in any kind of monotonous job can't be easy. Doug still has nightmares about working the berry retorts at Oregon Fruit Products; his nightmares are like everyone else's work-related nightmares (required steps are forgotten, he shows up late and has to work on the belt, he forgot to set the timer and cans explode). He worked at OFP during his summers off from Reed almost 20 years ago. And he still has nightmares about it.

After I found Brother's dog, Tip, cooling off under one of the trucks, I made my last round of the operation, looking with awe at the methodical harvest techniques and functioning machinery that has run every year since about 1951. Seeing all of that non-stop hard work made me feel lazy and inefficient. Brother went back to work culling corn. Tip went back to sleep under the truck. And I went home, dodging stray corn in the road, intending to work a token 4 hours on my day off.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ohio shrimp


Long held beliefs that Ohio shrimp were extirpated from the Mississippi River in Missouri were scrapped in the early 1990s when a small population was found south of Cairo, Illinois. The largest of all freshwater shrimp in Missouri, Ohio shrimp are invertebrates of the embayment, living in big river systems from South Carolina to Texas. Their populations in Missouri and southern Illinois were almost knocked out in the 1940s by overfishing and, subsequently, by the dramatic channelization of the Mississippi River.

Ohio shrimp prefer warm, slow moving water that backs into sloughs and channels along big rivers. While the clear-bodied invertebrates live most of their lives in freshwater, they migrate some 1,000 miles to brackish waters to breed. They then return to backwater areas along the southern length of the Mississippi and other rivers to spend the rest of their lives. Alterations to their natural habitat have reduced and disturbed many of these backwater areas and changed the natural flow patterns required for reproduction and migration.

In 2006, biologists from the Cape Girardeau Nature Center (where the picture comes from)collected several shrimp for research and display purposes. Through trial and error, biologists have learned that the shrimp eat dead minnows, other invertebrates and decomposing vegetation. Changing the temperature and mimicking the salinity of south Louisiana brackish waters isn't enough to trigger breeding. But at least, one biologist told me, "we can keep them alive now."

Populations of Ohio shrimp are stable in South Carolina and they're found in small numbers in the Ohio River where they hadn't been seen for about 50 years until 2001. Listed as a state species of conservation concern (SCC), the Ohio shrimp's status is S1, Critically Imperiled in Missouri. It's doubtful that without massive changes in the Mississippi River's flow patterns these animals will ever become plentiful enough to harvest, but at least they're still around, hanging out with crayfish and spawning fish in the slackwaters where boats can't go.

Speak Out!

It's been a while since I posted entries from Cape Girardeau's Southeast Missourian call-in "personal rant" section, Speak Out!. As usual, some are racist, some are very personal, and others are downright strange.

THANK YOU to the gas station on Kingshighway for putting in a beautiful fountain. I go past it a couple times a day and really enjoy it. That glimpse of flowing water is such a treat. It's a little corner of heaven. I hope other businesses follow suit. We could be the city of fountains!

ALL RESTAURANTS should have music playing. I don't want my private conversations overheard.

I HAVE to say kudos to the Indians for their inventive skywalk over the Grand Canyon, providing it doesn't fall down. I get so many letters from the Indian reservations asking for help. I'm glad they came up with a way to solve their own problems, because there's only so much that all of us out here can do. I thought the price they were going to charge was a little excessive however for going on a skywalk to look over.

I SPENT time in the county jail, and I saw a lot of things going on there like smoking in the showers, passing notes under the door to the other cell block and even inmates trading food for prescription drugs. Wake up, people! The doors between the pods are under the stairs. The deputy can't watch all of them at once, even with the cameras!

TO THE person who scoffed at the idea that children are a gift of God: Think of it this way. Everyone receives gifts at Christmas, and we all know that some of those gifts are not welcomed by the recipient. Other times, the recipient welcomes the gift but, due to circumstances either within or beyond their control, nothing good comes from it. I received an exercise bike one year. It sat in our bedroom, I'd trip over it, and it ended up being sold for a few dollars at a garage sale. That doesn't mean the gift wasn't good. It just means that for some reason things didn't turn out as intended, because I have free will. This is a simplistic example, but you get the idea.

HOW MANY of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens have regular tuberculosis? How many have drug-resistant TB? How many have the blood-transmitted Chagas disease that infects millions in Latin America?

ABOUT THE illegal immigrant costing the county: This man is illegally in our country. Why try to make things easier for him? Do you honestly think this man is going to pay his hospital bill? Prosecute him and deport him. He doesn't care about our laws. Why should we care about his financial troubles?

TO WHOEVER took my grandchild's Power Wheels Jeep off Bainbridge Road: If you return it in good shape I will not release the videotape.