Hug a Tree for Science!

A picnic shelter at Kiroli Park turned out to be a great place to begin. Birdsong, an occasional frog, early morning light and a gentle breeze provided a delightful backdrop to Dr. Joydeep’s introduction to Ecosystems & Restoration Ecology.

How does one convey in a short period of time the “flavor” of a field that begins with the premise that “everything is connected”? It’s a tall order, but Dr. Joydeep engaged us with tales of his own research in the Himalayas, basic concepts well explained, and activities that gave us a taste of what an ecologist does, whetted our appetite for citizen science and affirmed our value as naturalists.

insect collecting
Stephanie & Maggie Herrmann collected insects for Maggie’s school project along the way.      (photo by Charles Paxton)

“Ecology is grounded in patterns.” I had never thought of it that way before, but it made sense immediately. And then with one aerial photo of a landscape, we dived in, making observations, identifying patterns, and generating questions for further investigation.

We could have spent all day listening and discussing, but… there we were in a park full of trees! So we learned how to estimate the diameter of trees. I was astounded that after practicing on just 5 trees, we were able to estimate the diameter of 5 other trees within a few centimeters. I used the “hug a tree” method and it served me reasonably well.

Before leaving Kiroli Park, we walked a short way down a trail to a platform on the lip of a small ridge overlooking a wet area. From that vantage point, we could see the change in plant life from the mesic habitat at the top of the ridge (white oak, musclewood) to the hydric habitat at the bottom (water tupelo, river cane).

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Dr. Joydeep goes way out on a limb to drop the water testing sensor into the still water of a pond at Restoration Park while I read off the numbers for others to record.     (photo by Charles Paxton)

We reconvened at Restoration Park after lunch. There we did some water quality testing in order to observe the differences between a stagnant pond (lentic) and a flowing stream (lotic), and between water on the edge of the park and water deeper into the park.

One of the great values of natural areas like Restoration Park is their ability to improve water quality, and we were able to demonstrate that. The moving water deeper inside the park was cooler, contained more dissolved Oxygen and had a lower pH.

All in all, it was a fascinating and fun day. Many thanks to Charles Paxton for providing photos for this post and to David Hoover for sharing his excellent notes.

green snake
On our way out of Restoration Park, we encountered this adorable little rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus).     (photo by Charles Paxton)

Fish Creek & FS 568

The Catahoula Ranger district of the Kisatchie National Forest encompasses 121,500+ acres extending from Ball, La., all the way to Saline, La. It offers an awesome variety of plant species for master naturalists in training to practice their skills on, and Dr. Charles Allen, our workshop leader, seems to be on intimate terms with every one of them!

Our morning field work took us to an area along Fish Creek that was new to me. What an interesting variety of trees! We parked our cars at a trail head, and identified at least six species before we headed down the trail.

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is one of the 20% of plants that have opposite leaves.          ©Bette J. Kauffman

These included several things you don’t get to see everyday: a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) with upturned sprays of not-quite-open flowers, an American hop-hornbeam (Ostraya virginiana) with hundreds of its hops-like blooms hanging down, and a chittimwood (Bumelia/Sideroxylon lanuginosa).

I photographed 36 different species of plant on the short hike in to the Fish Creek swimming hole and out again, but I know I did not get photos of everything Dr. Allen showed us and talked about.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
The sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) holds out her sprays of recurved blooms like a woman drying her nail polish. I had heard and Dr. Allen confirmed that these flowers make for excellent honey.         ©Bette J. Kauffman

After a short break back at the Georgetown gas station, we headed straight west on Hwy 500 then north on FS 568 to an area where wide trails extend east and west. We took the eastbound one, as it was higher and drier.

Sadly,  the many red buckeyes I saw blooming profusely when I scouted the area in late April were now just lovely dark green bushes. This short hike turned into a bit of an “edibles” class, as Dr. Allen introduced us to peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum), which flavors bread wonderfully, and ground cherries (Physalis spp.), which I remember eating on the Iowa farm where I grew up.

A highlight of this walk, especially for me, was the female swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) we spied depositing eggs on a piece of rotting wood. Ovipositing females are pretty easy to approach, being focused on their work, and I got pretty close to this one. Suddenly, much to my surprise, she turned away from the log and began buzzing my head.

My first reaction was startled self-defense and I swatted at her, until someone suggested I allow her to perch. I held up my right hand and she immediately landed on the side of my pinky finger–and stayed there for an amazingly long time! But she was on my right hand, so I couldn’t take a picture. To see this, you’ll have to go to Charles Paxton’s Wild Open Eye blog post, which I shared in the LMN-NE Facebook group. What a delight!

Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) (female)
A swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) deposits eggs in a crevice in a rotting log.        ©Bette J. Kauffman

It really is an island!

So… ever since moving to Louisiana, I have wondered how a little town in the south central portion of the state surrounded by seemingly flat farmland got named Sicily Island.

No longer! Our geology workshop cleared that up for me, and Gerry Click’s information was driven home when I began posting my observations from our field work on iNat. Just look at this map. Do you not see an island?!

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The J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA is the green area covering most of the western portion of the geological island you see between the Ouachita River Valley on the west and the flat farmland surrounding the town of Sicily Island and extending to the east pretty much all the way to the Mississippi River. The pink tear drops marked A and B are observations of plants I made at the St. Mary Falls and Rock Falls trailheads, respectively, and posted on iNaturalist.

I will not try to repeat the entire explanation Gerry gave for this rocky island, but it is an Ice Age formation. It is also one of the few places you can go in Louisiana to see lots of rocks, and it is definitely the only place you can go to see a 20-foot cascade!

Rock Falls
Bette Kauffman and Gerry Click enjoy the view from the top of Rock Falls in the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA on the Rock Falls Trail.     (photo by Charles Paxton)

BTW, shortly after Charles Paxton took the above photo, Amy Ouchley made our day by standing IN the falling water!

Blooming trillium and red buckeye all over the place were among the many delights of the day. Both love a sunny slope, and the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA has lots of them. And I can report with confidence that the trillium blooming here are a different species from the trillium that bloom a few miles north on the ULM Biological Station, Charles Allen Nature Preserve.

Trillium (Trillium
Trillium (Trillium sp.)

I can narrow it down to two species. Based on Charles Allen’s wildflower book, the only two possibilities for these locations are Trillium ludoviciana and Trillium gracile. I have long thought the trillum near Columbia were T. ludoviciana. But now that I have a point of comparison, I’m inclined to think that these are T. ludoviciana and the ones up near Columbia are T. gracile. And if that is so, I have a LOT of photos of trillium to re-label!

Hiking the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA has been on our agenda for awhile. You might recall that we planned a family fun hike there a year ago and got rained out. I now understand why hiking those trails when wet and muddy would not be a good idea! They are challenging trails, rocky with some very steep stretches, but well worth the effort.

Kim Paxton and I are both working on species lists. I’m sure our birders Suzanne Laird and Roselie Overby will contribute as well. Thanks again to Gerry Click and all who came and made it another great workshop adventure for LMN–NE.

Now… how did a small town in south central Louisiana get named Sicily Island?

In Search of Sign

And there’s plenty to be found, not only at Russell Sage WMA I’m sure, but that’s where we were today doing field work for our Mammals of Louisiana workshop, led by Dr. Kim Tolson of the ULM biology program.

IMGP7916 72-15Who knew so much animal poop is around! We saw raccoon, otter, beaver and coyote for sure.

Then there’s the photo to the right. Doesn’t look like any of the above to me. Too glossy black and seed/berry free to be raccoon? Muskrat, maybe? Nutria? We were on a primitive “road” between flooded woods on one side and a flooded field on the other.

And where there’s mud and mammals, there are tracks. No short supply of either in Louisiana!

So we saw lots and lots of white-tail deer tracks; no surprise there. Raccoon tracks were probably the second most plentiful. Most exciting? Bobcat tracks! How do we know? First note the absence of claw marks at the ends of the toe pads. Then there’s the distinctive 3-lobed shape of the anterior edge of the foot pad.

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In the photo above, one track is partially superimposed on another, so you see distinctly the four toe pads on the track in front–minus claws, of course, because cats walk with their claws retracted.

The two center toes of the back track land right in the foot pad of the front track, but… if you look at the anterior edge of the back track, you can clearly see the 3-lobed pattern. I’ve outlined it below to make sure everyone sees it.

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BTW, was this bobcat running? Look how deep the toe tracks are, and might that account for why the back track partially overlaps the front track? If you have a thought, comment below!

So… we also saw beaver and otter slides, deer trails and deer rubs, an armadillo den, and more. Charles Paxton started our very own LMN-NE Natural History collection by picking up bones: a striped skunk skull, a raccoon skull and more. I picked up a bowfin skull left behind by a well-fed otter. It will have to spend some time in a fire ant nest before it can be brought indoors.

Finally, I should mention all of these signs came at the end of a highly informative morning in a classroom poring over specimen trays and learning about mammal dentition. We even took a quiz! Thankfully, we were not required to actually calculate our score.

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Harbinger of spring. Yes, the violets were blooming!

Photos by Bette J. Kauffman.

Birds, Birds, Birds!

In fact, we saw thirty-six species in about two hours of birding, with several unexpected treasures among them: An American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and a squadron of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) did fly-overs.

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We were met by this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) sitting on the fence along the top of the Lake D’Arbonne spillway.

A somewhat chill wind drove us off the spillway after awhile, but we then moved along the tree line surrounding the parking area. The little birds were there: juncos, sparrows, nutchatches and more.

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Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Here’s the list:

bird species list

Thanks, Kim Paxton, for keeping a list in the field.

Our two hours at the spillway came after a super-informative morning in a LaTech classroom where Terri Maness walked us through an intimidating diagram of bird taxonomy in an impressively coherent, easy-to-follow fashion.

I enjoyed the taxonomy, at least as much as one can enjoy taxonomy! But the physiology discussion that followed was fascinating. Birds are truly amazing creatures. Did you ever wonder how ducks stand on ice in their bare feet and don’t freeze to death? I did, and Terri explained it today.

How about migratory birds traveling long, long distances without getting lost? They can see magnetic fields and navigate by them! How do birds get enough oxygen to not pass out, indeed, to fly at great altitudes? They have a 2-stage breathing system that enables them to take a much higher percentage of the oxygen out of the air they breath than we can.

Bird brains are much more densely packed with neurons than those of other critters, so go ahead, call me a “bird brain”! But don’t tell me I eat like a bird because if I ate as much of my body weight per day as a bird does, I’d soon be dead from morbid obesity.

Terri ended her classroom presentation with a few words about conservation. At some level we know this, but… we need to become more vocal and active. Cats–domestic cats–and plastic are two hazards birds face that we all should do whatever we can about.

It was a glorious day, but a frustrating one for me photographically. These are okay, but I have a folder full of “not quite sharp” ones, among them the eagle, the red-shouldered hawk, and many more.

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Zoom in on the lead pelican and you will see that it has a bump on top of its bill. It’s a male and that’s a breeding bump.