Playing with Mud

That’s what we did! And learned a lot as well.

It was a very hands-on workshop. Our classroom was Marty Earnest’s farm in Caldwell Parish. Marty has a long history of experimenting with conservation farming methods that have enriched his soil and reduced the cost of farming, for example by reducing the number of tractor passes on his fields.

Rachel Stout-Evans, soil scientist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, laid out the basic principles of conservation farming that will improve soil health:

  • minimize disturbance
  • keep roots in the soil year-round
  • rotate crops
  • maximize plant diversity
  • incorporate livestock (the newest addition to the list)
Anne Frazer focuses on evaluating the texture of the ball of mud in her hand.

Most people know that soil erosion is a problem. Using simple field set-ups–like water in a tall cylinder–Rachel demonstrated the difference following these principles can make. The secret is protecting and feeding soil microbes that enable soil to absorb water rather than be washed downstream by every rainfall.

We dug our own soil plugs, and examined and rated them on a chart of soil qualities. Then La Tech forestry professor Bill Patterson taught us how to identify soil type from texture by making mud in our hands. I haven’t had so much fun since making mud pies as a child growing up on an Iowa farm!

We conducted a simple infiltration test in a field by pounding an aluminum ring a few inches into the soil, pouring in a measured amount of water, and timing how long it took to disappear into the ground. Marty Earnest’s soil performed pretty well.

While waiting for water to disappear into the soil in our infiltration test, I focused my macro lens on the critters popping out of the ground. You should see two in this photo.

It was, all in all, a most interesting morning, and we came away with knowledge and simple tests we can conduct to improve soil health in our own gardens and yards.

7 Things–

–simple things–you can do to help birds:

  • Drink shade-grown coffee
  • Citizen science (e.g., eBird, iNaturalist)
  • Reduce plastic use (good for the entire planet)
  • Make windows safer
  • Keep cats indoors
  • Plant natives
  • Avoid pesticides

And it is vitally important to do these things because we have lost almost 3 billion birds, just since 1970. For more information about these measures and about why we should care about birds, visit the 3 billion birds website.

Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

This and much more we learned last Saturday from Terri Maness, instructor for LMN-NE’s birds certification workshop. BTW, did you know that although a few particular points about the evolution of birds are still debated, most experts agree that birds are dinosaurs. Well, direct descendants. Think flying reptiles.

The rain quit by noon Saturday, so we piled on layers against the dropping temp and blustery winds and went out looking for birds at Black Bayou Lake NWR. We quickly learned that in open areas, the birds were hunkered down. Those with better hearing than I could hear them but we didn’t get many glimpses of them.

However, twice we went into wooded areas, where trees broke the back of the wind, and immediately began seeing the little birds. What a delight to be surrounded by ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets! We heard song sparrows and saw white-throated and swamp sparrows.

White-throated Sparrow(Zonotrichia albicollis)

Out on the open water of the lake we saw a few ducks but mostly lots of pied-billed grebes–which we learned from Terri’s lecture are not ducks, but a different family of the Avian line. (I feel so smart knowing that now!)

And then there was the red-tailed hawk, perched on a tree overlooking the prairie out in front of the visitor center at BBLNWR. See it in my photo? No, you don’t. Because I never spotted it. I thought sure I was looking in the right place and I clicked away, but… in vain. Others saw it. I know because they have posted photos in our Facebook group. So go there, please, to see the red-tailed hawk.

Black Bayou Lake NWR

One day I’m going to publish a collection of my photos of clumps of leaves, sticks, shadows, etc.–all kinds of things that were supposed to be birds and weren’t! So goes bird photography.

See the Events list in the right hand column of this website to see what’s upcoming and I’ll blog about it as quickly as I can get to it.

A Face Only a Mother Could Love

And maybe a bunch of naturalists? We were certainly enthralled!

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

That’s the hand of Nelle Jenkins, one of Dr. Kim Tolson’s biology graduate students, who is doing her thesis research on turtles in Bayou Desiard. This awesome critter wandered into one of her live traps. Note that she is firmly grasping the carapace right behind the turtle’s head. Does anyone doubt that those jaws could snap off a carelessly placed finger in a heartbeat?

Today was our Herpetofauna of Louisiana workshop with Dr. John Carr. We were graciously hosted on the ULM campus by the Museum of Natural History and its director, Dr. Kim Tolson, who opened the Museum for us so we could explore before the workshop proper began and again on our lunch break. What a fantastic resource for our community!

Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps)

So… after exploring the Museum, learning herp taxonomy, meeting this impressive snapper plus a bunch of other turtles on Bayou Desiard, and observing graduate students in action capturing, measuring, tagging and releasing turtles… we went out to Black Bayou Lake NWR for more field work.

To be honest, I lost track. But I’m certain that at least three cottonmouths were sighted, two broad-banded watersnakes, two broad-headed skinks and several little brown skinks, a southern leopard frog, probably a dozen cricket frogs and one green tree frog.

Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea)

All in all, it was a most rewarding day. Thank you so much, Drs. Carr and Tolson and ULM Museum of Natural History.

Forage on!

It’s been almost a week since our fungi workshop. It was a busy one, which is why this report is so late. But it has also been a delicious one, featuring eggs scrambled with black trumpets, stir fry veggies with chanterelles, and mushroom soup–some of which is still marinating in the frig!

Black Trumpets and Chanterelles

That’s the reward for doing a workshop with a guy who is highly skilled at foraging delectable mushrooms. Thanks, Todd Maggio, for the great information and for taking us to some of your “secret” sites in Lincoln Parish Park.

The truth is, I’m not very confident I will ever find a black trumpet in the wild again. They are definitely hard to see! I think it was halfway through our field work before I saw the first one on my own.

Black Trumpets in the Wild

Here’s a fun fact: Todd says black trumpets love hurricanes. Well, that we seem to be able to provide. So.., after Delta moves through… 🙂

Chanterelles are a good bit easier because of their distinctive bright gold color. However, this is not the time of year for them, so we found only a few. I’ll be out there with a collecting basket come spring.

The only downside of the day was that we accidentally left Suzanne Laird Dartez behind. She got to our rendezvous point in the parking lot about 10 minutes late. No one noticed that we were going into the woods short one person. Folks, we need to do a better job of exchanging phone numbers and counting heads! Suzanne will get a free workshop, but I really don’t want that to happen again.

Buggin’ Out!

Mason bees (genus Osmia) do not sting! They also don’t make honey, and in spite of their name, they do not drill holes in wood. They occupy already made holes, and they pollinate. Like crazy. So, you want more pollinators for your flowers and vegetable garden? Get or make yourself a mason bee hotel!

A mason bee hotel can be a piece of wood with holes drilled into the end of it or a collection of bamboo tubes stuck into soup can. Be aware that some of the cute ones available online, like the one above, are too shallow. The holes must be at least 5 to 6 inches deep and capped at one end.

This is just one of the tidbits of interesting and valuable information we got from Stacy Blomquist of the U.S. Forest Service at our Saturday workshop. It was a very hot day, so we spent just a short time outside netting and examining bugs, but Stacy’s presentations kept us enthralled. I am deeply grateful to Erin Cox for allowing us to use the Conservation Learning Center for the day, and to Jim, the volunteer who unlocked for us.

Stacy’s presentation of taxonomy was one of the clearest I have heard. We all came away with a better understanding and handouts that provide a framework for us to continue to learn on our own.

The critters we tend to call “bugs” comprise the phylum Arthropoda, in turn comprised of 30-32 orders, of which we learned a bit about 24. The critters that make up all of these orders range from tiny “springtails” of the order Collembola that live in the dirt and are mostly unknown to us, to much more recognizable Lepidoptera–moths and butterflies–which we know and love.

Stacy brought a few exotic specimens with her. These are giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Now here’s what I found most helpful. These scientific names that many of us find so confusing, in fact have meaning. “Lepido” means “scale” and “ptera” means “wing.” Did you know that the beautiful colors and patterns in the wings of moths and butterflies are created by tiny scales of different colors that cover the wings? Hmmm. Makes me think we need a workshop on taxonomic Latin!

In fact, it is challenging and often impossible to get to the species level of identification when dealing with many of the orders of Arthropoda. One reason for that is sheer numbers. For example, the order Orthoptera (ortho=straight, ptera=wing), which includes grasshoppers, crickets and katydids, contains 20,000 species worldwide. Ooops! I can’t image learning that many.

Another reason is that sometimes the differences between critters that determine species identification are too small to see with the naked eye or cannot be seen without dissecting the critter. But we also learned that Arthropoda have open circulatory systems with pumped blood–that is, bugs have a heart! So we really weren’t in the mood to take any apart.

One of our outdoor captures: a male Great Blue Skimmer (Libelulla vibrans). The mason jar does not do him justice, but we kept him only long enough to confirm the identification, and then he flew free again.

As always, so much more could be said about a great workshop. And so will the next one be. Yes, the Oct. 3 fungi workshop is on. I am currently making plans with our instructor Tod Maggio, so stay tuned!