Friday, March 28, 2014

An Adventure with a Teachers' Hiking Club

When I received the invitation from a friend of mine to go on a hike with a group of teachers, I was excited.  These teachers are friends of mine, and I hadn't seen them in awhile.  The afternoon was to be almost 50 degrees which would be perfect for hiking.  And they were going to a place unknown to me...a new adventure.

The place was Clifty Creek Conservation Arean near Dixon, Missouri.  We parked in the small parking lot and prepared to hike. 
The trail was a 2.5 mile loop out to a natural bridge and back.  It was listed as moderately difficult, but we took our time, stopping to check out scat, rock formations, and the scenic beauty along the trail.  So it didn't seem too hard to me.  For most of the trail, we could look down and see the creek below.  It was relatively low; this has been a dry year.  And we commented on that fact along the way.

When we came to the natural bridge, it was breathtaking.
With this as a back drop, I felt pretty small!

Crossing the creek and continuing on the trail, we were rewarded with the first spring wildflowers that I have seen this year.  They covered one hillside. At the time I forgot the name, but later remembered it was the Trout Lily or Dog-tooth Violet.  No wonder I has two common names.

Later, I looked this species up in a field guide, The Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Eastern Region.  In Missouri it is called the White Dog-tooth Violet. This name refers to the tooth-like shape of the underground bulb.  We were on a natural area, so I did not dig up to see the bulb.  I'll take Audubon's word for it.  The other name, which is more appropriate since the flower is not like a violet at all, is Trout Lily.  This is due to the distinctive leaf markings that resemble a brown or brook trout. Whatever you call it, the spring flowers were a welcome sight.

We continued on the trail and soon returned to the parking lot.  It was a great way to spend an afternoon.  To me, there is nothing better than sharing nature with friends.

As we parted, we thought this should be called the Teachers' Hiking Club.  And with this group, I'm sure there is another adventure in our future.

Friday, March 21, 2014

One of Nature's Mysteries Solved

Earlier this winter, I wrote a post in my other blog: Snapshot of 21st Century Nature Study. It is a blog I use while I teach a college class on nature study.  Here was the post. Read on for how this mystery was solved:

Mysterious Pellets

Lots of things in nature are mysteries waiting to be solved.  And each time I encounter something mysterious, it leaves me in awe of nature and aware of how much I do not yet know.

So this winter, for the first time, I saw something mysterious underneath my birdfeeders..a mystery that I hope the readers of this blog will help me to solve.

Under the feeders are small, about one inch long, pellets composed almost entirely of the hulls of sunflower seeds (the food in the feeders).
It seems likely that something that visits the feeder left these behind. But what?  We have lots of visitors, but I thought only raptors made pellets.  Could other birds?  Could mammals?

I had read that crows, blackbirds and pigeons could also produce pellets.  We do have flocks of blackbirds, but they do not come every day.  These pellets are deposited with great regularity.  At first I thought it might be the mourning doves that we see, but they are usually not under this feeder--the closest one to the house.

So I googled "regurgitated sunflower seed pellets" to see if I could find the answer there.  There were a couple of blogs that mentioned strange pellets.

One blogger ended up trapping a chipmunk and saw the pellets in the cage with the chipmunk. But we don't have any chipmunks in our woods.  At least that solves the mystery of "could mammals produce pellets of regurgitated food".

Another blog called the pellets "possum pellets" and has observed young possums at the feeders.  I certainly have plenty of possum in my woods, and they are great scavengers.  So this may be the "culprit".

The post had a better picture that looks identical to the situation at my feeder:

So, while possums are a good bet in my situation, I was still not totally convinced. After consulting my mammal books (Wild Mammals of Missouri  by Schwartz and Schwartz and Mammals of Illinois by Hoffmeister), I found neither mentioned sunflower seeds in the diet of opossum or this ability to form pellets.  Perhaps it is a big omission.  It is noted that possums are scavengers and eat corn, a less preferred food, in winter when other foods are not available.  It would seem to me that sunflower seeds would also fall into this category. 

What do you think?  Is it an opossum leaving the pellets...or something else??

Mystery Solved:

A week or so ago, my husband and I saw an opossum under our feeder. It was clearly chewing sunflower seeds.  It would take a mouthful and chew and chew, then open its mouth and spit.  This action reminded me of baseball players that chew sunflower seeds, move them around in the mouth to get the meat out, and spit out the hulls.

We watched as the possum slowly moved on...looking for food elsewhere I imagine, after a hard winter.

So the pellets we saw were not regurgitated because they never left the mouth to enter the digestive system.  And they are held together by the saliva of the animal. 

I am still amazed that this behavior is not documented in any reference book.  It just shows that we don't know everything about even the commonest animals.

I was glad that, through continued observation, we could solve this mystery.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Subtle Signs of Spring

Last week, after a long hard winter, I noticed some subtle signs of spring which brought hope that this winter would soon be over.

It seems the birds are the first to know spring is near.  One evening last week, snow geese flew overhead.  They had been flying back and forth to the fields to feed all winter, but this time was different.  They were flying much higher than normal.  Their migration north had begun, but I was left with questions.  Why did they leave so late?  Normally they leave sometime in mid February, but here it was, one week into March and they were finally heading to their summer breeding grounds in Canada and points north.  Did the harsh winter have something to do with it?  It is thought that day length is the cue to migrate, but there must be other cues as well.  Perhaps the geese were delayed due to snow covered fields that did not allow enough weight gain to take on this long journey.

As I watched the geese leave I wondered, which bird was the first to decide to leave?  And why did they wait until nearly sunset to head out?  My husband postulated that it was the female who nagged the male all day until he finally decided to go!  I think that is a bit anthropomorphic.  And will they travel just a short way and stop, or will they fly on through the night?  Their behavior bothered me because I would never leave on a long journey just when nightfall was descending.  I guess I was being anthropomorphic too. 

But these nagging questions prodded me to research the migration.  But I found no answers.  I'm just left with the silent hours now that the noisy flocks have left.

This mystery reminds me of the poem by Rachel Field, "Something Told the Wild Geese".
                                   Something told the wild geese
                                   It was time to go.
                                   Though the fields lay golden
                                   Something whispered, "Snow".

This time, I think the whispering was "Spring". 

Will my questions ever be answered?  It doesn't matter as long as the migration of the geese brings the hope of spring  soon to come.  Subtle signs that bring great hope.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Time to Die

Yesterday seemed like spring had finally come to the midwest.  After the harshest winter I can remember, temps would top 80 degrees.  It was time for a walk along the familiar trail to see what had changed while I was experiencing "cabin fever".

One of the first things I saw along the trail was this dead shrew.
It was dried up and had probably died under the piles of snow and ice that only recently have melted away.

Farther along the trail I approached our deer head area.  These heads, the result of a chronic wasting disease project, had provided food for many animals during the winter.  We had seen hawks, bobcat, fox and others near the area.  And the smell had now dissipated.  Much of the flesh had either rotted or been eaten leaving some bare bone exposed.   The skulls would soon be used to mark the trail.
 Finally, I approached the house and our bird feeding station only to discover a dead opossum under one of the feeders.  When I had seen it only a couple of days ago, it had seemed sick.  This animal almost made it through the roughest part of the year---but not quite.

My hike this day reminded me that there is a time for all things.  Winter had been a time to die for many of the inhabitants of our woods.  I look forward to spring....the season of renewal.  Surely it can not be far away.