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!

Phenology Phun! (2)

For scientists tracking climate change, a weekly observation of one tree in one yard for 5 years is worth more than 50 unique observations of different trees in different yards. So says Dr. Joydeep, our certified phenologist who taught us so much in our March 14 workshop.

And who can’t do that? Sunday after the workshop I established a phenology trail in my yard. I’ve now made weekly observations of two trails, the one at BBL around the Education Center I wrote about in the earlier post and the one in my own yard. Here’s a smidgen of data from the “My Yard” trail:

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Interpretation: My willow oak tree went from tightly closed leaf buds March 15 to a full canopy of mostly full grown leaves by April 7. When I compare it to the same data for my buttonbush and American beautyberry, I see that the two shrubs are much slower. Indeed, they both still have breaking leaf buds and lots of leaves not full grown.

But the true value of this data is, again, in the long haul: How will this year’s timing compare to next year’s and the next year’s and 5 years down the road? That’s what the climate scientists need to know. And Dr. Joydeep also emphasized, there’s a real data gap for northeast Louisiana.

So… welcome to Northeast Louisiana Phenology Project, NLP2 for short. This is Dr. Joydeep’s vision: That we Master Naturalists will join in filling in the data gap for northeast Louisiana. I’m still learning, but I’ve started. Hope others will join me.

Be assured, I did not set up a spreadsheet and enter this data by hand. Rather, I entered and uploaded the data via the Nature’s Notebook app on my phone while walking my phenology trails. Here’s a screenshot of my dashboard for my Nature’s Notebook account, which is connected to the National Phenology Network website:

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Notice the “How-to-Observe Module” and the link to click to take it! These two interconnected websites, the NPN and Nature’s Notebook, are a treasure trove of information and instruction.

BTW, I have also signed up to take their online course this summer. But… don’t wait for me. We’re kind of confined to home, right now, right? So get your learning on….!

Phenology Phun! (1)

And not just fun, but inspiring, compelling, highly educational. I knew phenology was important, but… now it’s a mission!

So… rather than try to summarize my extensive notes from Saturday’s Phenology workshop with Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, I’m going to cut to the punch line: We learned to make sound phenological observations using “Nature’s Notebook,” a smartphone app available from your app store. It’s free.

Setting up an account for yourself is also free. Then you must create a “site” for observation. I created a site called “BBL Education Center” and picked 5 trees to observe at that site. The screen shot from my phone (below, right) shows most of them:

BBL Edu Ctr pheno trail 1Once you have created a site and selected plants (or animals) to observe, click “go to observe.” There you will find a checklist, like this one (below) for my observation yesterday of the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) directly behind the BBL Education Center.

BBL Edu Ctr pheno trail 2

Notice that we estimated the number of “breaking leaf buds” on the tree, the percentage of the tree’s expected total leaves that were present at point of observation, and the percentage of leaves that were full size at point of observation. There’s a learning curve here, but it was less difficult than I expected. Nature’s Notebook offers sufficiently broad category choices that even an amateur can feel confident estimating.

For pawpaw, Nature’s Notebook offers 10 “phenophases” to rate. These include flower buds, open flowers, fruit and more. But it took just 3-5 minutes to make the observation and upload the data.

And here’s the coolest thing about this: The moment you upload, the data you have just created becomes part of a huge database used by scientists to track climate change and many other things important to the well-being of our Earth home.

Dr. Joydeep emphasized that consistency in observation is important to the quality of the database. That can be achieved in a couple of ways. Obviously, I can go back to this site on a weekly basis and observe each of the selected trees again. And I would love to be able to say I’ll do that, but I know better. However, YOU can download the app, locate the “BBL Education Center” site I created, go make a set of observations of those same trees, and Voila! We have another set of data points and are building consistency.

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Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

Watch for Phenology Phun! (2) in which I will introduce the Northeast Louisiana Phenology Project, whereby we will participate in closing the phenological data gap of northeast Louisiana!

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).

water testing
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