Snowy Owl Quest

American Goldeneye-Phantom Snowy Owl

American Goldeneye     L                                                                Phantom Snowy Owl R

I met Trapper Dave and Bobcat Bill at Foote Dam on the Au Sable River. Mallards and Common Goldeneyes swam below the dam. Cold air, -10 degrees F, and a five mile an hour breeze stung my cheeks. We headed toward the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base and possible Snowy Owls. We scanned the snow covered runways for owls. We saw no owls. Our only birds were a flock of Rock Pigeons on one of the hanger roofs. We decided to continue our owl quest at Tuttle Marsh.

Tuttle Marsh National Wildlife Area covers 5000 acres and is managed by the Huron National Forest. A loop road leads around the impoundment and my imagination turns every snow covered stub or small snow mound into an owl. We stop frequently and at one stop we find an otter slide. The otters crossed the road, slid down the bank and then pranced across a frozen pond. They are the only Michigan mammal to play solely to have fun.

We continue to the mouth of the Au Sable River and walk out the catwalk into Lake Huron. Shards of ice, several feet across, line the shore. Ice chunks float down the river and several Goldeneyes swim among them. On the lake side of the walk several round ice disks spin with the wave action. The turning disks contact other disks or rocks and wear down any sharp edges. I can see the disks growing in size as small pieces of floating ice adhere to the outside of the disk. Red-breasted Mergansers float in the waves out in the big lake. A stiff wind blows and we don’t dare stand in the open too long at these temperatures. We flee back to the warmth of the truck.

Otter slide and tracks

Otter slide and tracks

At Loud Dam we see a hundred Trumpeter Swans below the dam. I hear them call as I get out of the truck. Trumpeter Swan recovery is one of the greatest conservation stories. In 1933 only 66 Trumpeter Swans existed in the 48 states, fewer than I have in my current view. They are a common sight now in the Grayling area and we find one or two nests every year without searching. Buffleheads, Goldeneyes, Mallards, Common Mergansers are mixed in with the swans. David Sibley has some helpful tips for separating Trumpeter Swans from Tundra Swans.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Ice crystals form unique patterns at these temperatures. We find pretty crystal shapes along small streams and at the edge of the river.

Ice Crystals

Ice Crystals

We spent the day wandering through Nature even though the temperature never reached zero. We dressed for it and knew when to seek shelter from the wind. Despite the lack of a Snowy Owl it was a fun day. There are things to see outdoors in Michigan no matter the season. Get out and look.

Copyright 2018 by Donald Drife

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Bird’s Nest Fungus

Cyathus stercoreus

Dung-loving Bird’s Nest fungus in various stages of develpment

Recently I found two species of Bird’s Nest Fungi growing on wood chips. Although they are small and their brownish or grayish color allows them to blend in with the mulch; they are easily found because they form large groups.

They do resemble a tiny bird’s nest complete with eggs. The egg is a peridiole, its stalk is called a purse, and the nest is called a peridium. Rain ejects the peridiole and shatters the purse exposing an inner cord (the funicular cord) with a sticky pad (the hapteron) attached to the loose end. This pad adheres to a plant or other solid object elevating the peridiole. When the peridiole dries it splits releasing the spores. The peridiole contains the spores and resembles a tiny puffball. The periduim is capped with a lid known as an epiphragm. It disappears as the spores ripen and prevents immature spores from being discharged by rain. I attempted to discharge the peridioles by applying water from and eye dropper into the splash cups. It did not work.

Cyathus striatus

Fluted Bird’s Nest

Cyathus striatus

Fluted Bird’s Nest                                                      R-inside of fluted cup showing peridiole and purse

Cyathus striatus

Fluted Bird’s Nest

Fluted Bird’s Nest (Cyathus striatus) occurs world-wide. The eggs are gray. The inside of the nest is fluted and its outside is covered shaggy brown hairs even when old. The lid is hairy when young and sheds the hairs just before it disintegrates. Dung Nest Fungus or Dung-loving Bird’s Nest (Cyathus stercoreus) occurs around the world. Although the common name is Dung-loving I find it on wood chips. The Latin word stercorarius means of filth” or “of dung.” The eggs are shiny and black. The inside of the nest is gray and smooth while the outside is brown and shaggy on developing fruiting bodies but it becomes smooth with age. The lid is thin and white. Some botanists state that animals eat plants with attached peridioles, and expel the spores in their dung.

Bird’s Nest Fungi in North America north of Mexico comprise approximately 30 species in five genera. All of them are in the family Nidulariaceae. Check out Michael Kuo’s key to the bird’s nest fungi at mushroomexpert.com to identify other species.

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Is it a Butterfly or a Moth?

Recently I was asked the difference between a butterfly and a moth. They are both in the order Lepidoptera which has 160,000 described species worldwide. Butterflies have 20,000 species and moths make up the rest of the order. North America has 800 species of butterflies and 11,000 species of moths.

 Butterflies Buckeye - L Monarch - R

Butterflies:        Buckeye – L                                                                        Monarch – R

Butterflies at rest normally hold their wings upright, pressed together, or opened slightly in a V shape. They have clubbed antennae resembling straight pins. Most butterflies are day flying.

Moths: Ailanthus Moth - L Blinded Sphinx Moth - M Gypsy Moth - R

Moths: Ailanthus Moth – L                  Blinded Sphinx Moth – M                            Gypsy Moth – R

Moths at rest hold their wings flat resembling paper-airplanes. Their forewings are above their hindwings. From above, the wings normally cover their bodies.

Male Ctenucha Moth - L Female Ctenucha Moth - R

Male Ctenucha Moth – L                                                              Female Ctenucha Moth – R

Moth antennae are feathery on males and a single undivided filament that tapers to a point on females. Most moths are night flying but several species are day flying moths. Moths also tend to be hairier than butterflies. Many moths do not feed as adults. They emerge, mate, and die in a matter of days. Most adult butterflies eat.

Chrysalises Black Swallowtail L Harvester M Monarch R

Chrysalises: Black Swallowtail – L               Harvester – M                                     Monarch – R

The pupal stage of a butterfly is a chrysalis. The larva sheds its skin and then its outer shell hardens. Moths spin a cocoon of tough fibers.

Cocoon Polyphemus Moth

Cocoon of Polyphemus Moth -L                   Closeup of fibers of cocoon – R

One of the best internet sources is bugguide.net. It has species pages for all insects not just moths and butterflies. You can submit images for expert identification. I use this site often.

With a little practice it is easy to distinguish a butterfly from a moth. Get out and look before winter sets in.

 

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Mayapple: A Favorite Fruit

Podophyllum peltatum

Mayapple in flower and in fruit

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is common in rich woods in southern Michigan. Flowering in the spring, its fruit ripens in the late summer, and then the plants die back for the season. Emerging in early spring, plants resemble small umbrellas on the forest floor. Early leaves are sometimes frost damaged which causes reddish spots in the center of the leaves. Leaves are peltate with the petiole (leaf stalk) attached in the center of a mostly round leaf blade. Plants with single leaves do not flower. Larger two-leaved plants have flowers hidden under the leaves. Mayapple flowers produce no nectar to attract pollinators. I see bumblebee queens gathering pollen from the flowers. Some studies seem to indicate that pollinators are attracted by other nearby woodland flowers then visit Mayapples. I saw one bumblebee visit a Mayapple flower after feeding on Wild Geranium nectar. Fruiting is not needed because colonies reproduce via rhizomes.

Podophyllum peltatum

L-flowering plant                         C-non-flowering plant                    R-reddish plant damaged by frost

All parts of the plant including the seeds are poisonous except for the flesh of the ripe fruits. Another common name is Wild Mandrake eluding to its poisonous nature. A friend became ill after eating ripe fruit so use caution if you experiment with eating this plant. Whenever I eat a new species of wild food I always keep an uncooked sample and eat only a small amount. You can have an allergic response to a plant other people safely eat. I have found ripe fruits only three times in my life. Twice, I found single ripe fruits  and only once did I find enough to make jam. Raccoons followed us through the colony and climbed into the basket as I carried it picking fruit. Fruits have a sweet citrus flavor.

Podophyllum peltatum

L- typical Mayapple flower                 C & R-doubled flower showing extra parts

I found a colony along the Red Cedar River on the campus of Michigan State University with multiple carpels (forma polycarpum) and additional flower parts. Beal Botanical Garden’s collection manager gathered a few plants for their garden and gave me a single non-flowering plant. Seventeen years later they form a stand of 80 stems in my woodland garden. They have never set fruit.

Allodus podophylli

Mayapple Rust on upper and lower sides of leaf

A bright orange rust, Mayapple Rust (Allodus podophylli) occurs on Mayapples. This is the only species of rust reported from Mayapple. It disfigures the plants but normally causes no harm. I find the aeciospores attractive when magnified. Mayapple Rust requires no alternate host and completes its lifecycle on the Mayapple. This rust was placed in the artificial genus Puccinia until recent studies placed it in the long disused genus Allodus.

Allodus podophylli

Aeciospores of Mayapple rust

Now is the time to look for ripe Mayapples. Get out in a rich woods in southern Michigan and see what you find. It might not be a Mayapple but it’s always fun just to look.

 

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Wool Carder Bees

Silene coronaria

Mullein Pink

I saw an insect in my yard today that I did not recognize. Hovering as if it were a fly, it darted around a Mullein Pink (Silene coronaria). When it landed I could see it was a bee of some type; however, bees are not normally this jumpy or skittish. It rolled the Mullein Pink’s white, felt-like fuzz into a little ball. Eventually it flew away carrying the ball gripped in four of its legs. If alarmed, it flew off abandoning its little rolled ball.

Silene coronaria

Abandoned ball of plant fuzz – L                                      Stem of Mullein Pink showing fuzz – R

It was a European Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) gathering plant material from a species which naturally grew within its native range. They pack their brood cells with plant hairs, add pollen and nectar, then lay an egg. They nest in a pre-existing cavity or on a building.

Anthidium manicatum

Wool Carder Bee collecting plant material from Mullein Pink

This species is black and yellow and could be confused with a Yellowjacket. Wool Carder Bees have more black than a Yellowjacket, orange legs, and tend to hold their wings over their abdomen.  Also, they are solitary bees not social nesters like Yellowjackets.

Insects are fascinating to observe. They are diverse and I still find new species in my yard, even after 25-years. I wonder where the nest is.

 

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Spittlebugs: Nature’s Meringue Makers

Spittlebugs

Spittlebug foam masses on host plants

Recently, I was asked what causes the frothy masses on the stems of some plants. They are formed by the nymphs of Froghoppers and are known as Spittlebugs. In North America there are approximately 30 species in seven genera and they are part of the family Aphrophora. Nymphs are 4mm [3/16 inch] long. Adult forms are inconspicuous and if I have seen them I did not identify them.

Spittlebugs

Spittlebug nymphs with foam removed

Spittlebugs drain fluids from the plant, combine it with a glandular secretion, and then blow it out of their anus. Foam is a combination of bubbles created when this mixture is blown out and added bubbles formed by the flexing of plates along the body of the nymph. Extending its body causes plates to separate, then they are rapidly contracted which whips the solution. This results in a foam that is stiff and difficult to remove. The foam protects them from predators and I believe shields them from sunlight. When under my photographic floodlights the nymph kept moving to the side of the stem opposite the light.

Spittlebugs

Spittlebug nymph generating foam by extending and contracting its abdomen.

Spittlebugs feed on a wide range of herbaceous plants and also on pines (Pinus spp.) While the stem may become stunted I can see no real damage to the overall plant. Spittlebugs raise only one generation a year in the Great Lakes region. In mid-summer the foamy masses disappear as the nymphs mature.

Spittlebugs should be around for the next few weeks. Get out and look for them. You might find some in your own yard. If you remove the foam from one please do it only once. Nature is fascinating to study but we must do it without causing her harm.

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Moonworts

Botrychium matricariifolium

Moonwort habitat – L                                                             Daisy-leaved Moonwort – R

Moonworts or Grape Ferns are small ferns. Most are less than 10cm [4 inches] tall. Herb Wagner called them “belly plants.” They have a vegetative blade, called a trophophore, and a separate fertile segment, called a sporophore. Sporophores resemble tiny clusters of grapes hence the common name. Characteristics of the vegetative blade help to distinguish the species. As you learn the plants other subtle features become apparent such as the color of the plant, timing of spore dispersal, and branching of the fertile segment. The Michigan Flora website has a workable key and range maps. Another great resource is Dr. Farrar’s work found on the Ada Hayden Herbarium website. This site includes species treatments of all of our Moonworts.

Moonworts grow along stable sand dunes or in fields that have had mild disturbances. I find them growing under Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) or Apple (Malus spp.) trees with Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron spp), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Hawkweed (Hieracium spp.), or Wild Strawberry (Fragaria spp.). These habitats are not where most botanists look for native ferns. They also grow along stream banks and along deer paths and old dirt roads through woods. The plants cannot withstand competition from other vegetation and require some type of minor disturbance in order to survive.

Botrychium-matricariifolium

Daisy-leaved Moonwort             (Botrychium matricariifolium)

When I began studying this genus there were five species known from Michigan. Now there are eleven species and perhaps one more still unnamed.

Botrychium simplex

Least Moonwort   (B. simplex)

I recently visited a colony that once had seven different species but now could only find Daisy-leaved Moonwort (Botrychium matricariifolium) and Least Moonwort (B. simplex). Dense grass moved into this old orchard choking out Moonworts. At one time there were 15,000 individuals in this colony. Now there are no more than 500 plants. The National Guard used this field for helicopter gunship firing which tore up the sod slightly, allowing the plants to flourish. After we discovered two threatened Moonworts species, Michigan Moonwort (B. michiganense), and Prairie Moonwort (B. campestre), the Guard discontinued firing to “protect” the area. Currently the sod is too dense and Moonworts are dying out.

Botrychium minganense

Mingan Moonwort                       (B. minganense)

In the 1990s we discovered a colony of 20,000-30,000 Moonworts along ten miles of forest service road in the Upper Peninsula. We visited the area in 2003 and noticed that the road shoulders were growing up. Last weekend we found about fifty plants of four species, Daisy-leaved Moonwort,  Moonwort (B. neolunaria), Mingan Moonwort (B. minganense), and Spatulate Moonwort (B. spathulatum) along the road. Plants occurred mostly on sandbanks kept a little raw by erosion. Lumbering is not happening in the area so road grading is not disturbing the road shoulders and keeping them open.

Botrychium neolunaria

Moonwort               (B. neolunaria)

Moonworts are more difficult to find now than they were 25-years ago. Tony Reznicek stated that Michigan’s open areas are growing up. I believe he is correct.

For such an inconspicuous plant a great deal of lore surrounds it. If you place a Moonwort into a box and leave it overnight it will produce silver. Herb and I tried it and it did not work. Herb said it would have been easier than getting National Science Foundation grants.  Moonwort opens any lock that its spores are placed into. If a horse walks over a plant it will throw a shoe. It is also an ingredient in several love potions.

June and July are the best months for hunting Moonworts. Most species disperse their spores and  wither away before August. Get out and look for plants. They might be difficult to identify to species but they are still fun to find.

 

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Trout Lily Reproduction

Erythronium americanum

Clump of Yellow Trout Lily (L) and developing stolon (R)

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is a common spring ephemeral in Michigan. Most colonies consist of some two-leaved flowering plants and numerous single leaved non-flowering plants. Many of the non-flowering plants are not seedlings but are produced via stolons. Stolons, from Latin stolo meaning shoot, twig, or branch, are runners that extend on top of the ground and then the tips burrow into the ground sometimes emerging again. New plants develop and root at these tips. Normally the stolons are covered by the duff, but areas with disturbed duff expose the coils of stolons. Plants in the colonies I examined had 0 to 3 stolons each. In a good year a single stolon produces up to four new plants. Look for the stolons in rich woods. They can be found even after the leaves have died down.

Erythronium americanum

Yellow Trout Lily leaves and stolons (L) and Canada Mayflower leaves with Trout Lily stolons (R)

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Geranium Pollination

Geranium maculatum

Wild geranium in flower

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is a common woodland species in southern Michigan. Heather Holm in her book Pollinators of Native Plants explains the plant’s mechanism for insuring cross-pollination. The outer anthers develop first and discharge pollen. Next the inner anthers discharge pollen. This two-step process allows for a longer period of pollen production. Only after the anthers dry up does the stigma become ready to accept pollen. I photographed a selection of flowers in Tenhave Woods in Royal Oak on May 24th. Flowers were in all stages of development from bud through the beginning of seedpod formation. While the plants did not strictly follow Holm’s description, the pollen had developed first in most plants, and plants lacked pollen when the stigma was ready to receive pollen.

Geranium maculatum

Closeups showing development of pollen

Geranium maculatum

Closeups showing anthers withering (L) and receptive stigma with pollen grains (R)

While photographing Geraniums I found a Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp.) pollinating the flowers. Holm in her book explains that Cuckoo Bees “lay their eggs in the nests of ground-nesting bees.” This one was feeding on nectar, moving rapidly from flower to flower.

Geranium maculatum

Cuckoo Bee (Nomeda sp) on Wild Geranium

In the future, I will pay closer attention to how pollen develops in different plant species. I find it interesting to observe the varied mechanisms by which plants maintain genetic diversity.
Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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False-puffball Slime Mold

Enteridium lycoperdon

False-puffball Slime Mold development and changes in less than 24 hours.

Recently, my friend John pointed out a white blob on a rotting log in Royal Oak’s Tenhave Woods to Mushroom Mary and me. It looked similar to a puffball but not one that I was familiar with. I took a photo with my phone and returned later in the day to photograph it with a better camera. It had already changed shape. It was a slime mold. Mushroom Mary identified it as Enteridium lycoperdon also known as Reticularia lycoperdon. It has the common name of False-puffball. I began a series of photos showing how the fruiting body developed.

Enteridium lycoperdon

False-puffball Slime Mold further development.

Slime molds are an odd bunch. For most of its existence, a slime mold lives as an organism with many nuclei but only one cell wall and is referred to as the plasmodium. During this stage, it moves, feeds, and dispels undigested organic matter. When mature, the plasmodium will form a fruiting body and produce spores. This happens over a period of hours to days, and the change is quite dramatic. Although it is known that exhaustion of food supplies and changes in temperature, moisture, and pH can trigger the change, the process is not fully understood.

False-puffball produces a relatively large, single, fruiting body called an aethalium. When I first saw it, its surface had a defined structure. This surface smoothed over in less than a day.

Enteridium lycoperdon

Closeup of surface of False-puffball Slime Mold showing changes in texture. The left and center images are less than 24 hours apart.

False-puffballs occur around the world with most records coming from North America and Europe. Africa, Asia, and South America also have a few records. (The distributions of all slime molds are poorly known.) False-puffballs produce brown spores. A similar species, Tapioca Slime Mold (Brefeldia maxima), produces black spores.

If you find a slime mold try to watch it for a few days. Some last only forty-eight hours. It’s fun to observe them changing and eventually disappearing. Watch one if you can.

I thank Mushroom Mary for teaching me about slime molds and for identifying this one. I also thank John for pointing out a “white lump” on a log that most people would have just passed by.

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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