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?!

IMGP9437 72-15
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.

IMGP7882 72-15

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.

IMGP7882 outlined 72-15

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.

IMGP7927 72-15
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.

imgp7578 72-15
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.

imgp7683 72-13
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.

imgp7658 72-15
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.


1 Ecologist, 2 Parks, 16 Naturalists

And it all added up to a fabulous Ecosystems and Restoration Ecology certification workshop!


IMGP3237 72-12
A baby skink (Plestiodon sp.) tries to hide in the gravel of the path in Restoration Park. Sorry, not enough info here for a species ID.     (photo by Bette J.Kauffman)

We met Dr. Joydeep at Kiroli Park and hiked the Wildflower Trail, then went to the Ouachita Valley Branch Library to learn some basics of ecology, and ended the afternoon at Restoration Park just south of I-20, all in West Monroe.

And we came away with new questions to ask about the natural world. What happens over time when a hole opens in the forest canopy and shrubs and vines are allowed to grow unchecked? How does a beaver dam affect not only the flow of water but the plant and animal life that surrounds it?

Netted Chain Fern
Netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata) in Kiroli Park.     (photo by Bette J. Kauffman)

Most specifically, why is Kiroli Park experiencing an “invasion of ferns”? It’s not that they are an invasive species, although Kiroli does have some of the dreaded Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum). But the “invasion” is by the native and lovely netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata). We saw several large patches of this fern that has not historically been a feature of Kiroli Park.

These are the kinds of questions ecologist asks. And along with the questions came a barrage of new terms and concepts: canopy gap dynamics, canopy shyness, arrested succession, edge effect, and more.

Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense) w bee
Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) being ravaged by a bee. Note the “saddlebag” full of pollen on the bee.    (photo by Bette J. Kauffman)

Ecology is about how organisms interact with their neighbors. And they do. No creature is an island. Everything is interconnected and interacting. Here’s one of my fave John Muir quotes to illustrate the point: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

BTW, all of this sounded a little familiar to a communication scholar! I think I know the topic of my certification final interpretive project. Now to identify an “ecological niche” to focus on…

And, yes, we saw many plants and critters. There will be two species lists, one for each location. I’m counting on Suzanne Laird and Roselie Overby to send me bird lists, and I’m still going through my photos.

Red-spotted Purple
Red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) in Restoration Park.     (photo by Bette J. Kauffman)