Monday, December 13, 2010

The Pasture on the Propane Tank

 Now that winter is here, it's nice to remember green pastures.  A few days ago, while I was at a place we call "The Landing", I saw this one on the propane tank.   
  This is a close-up view of the propane tank's algal pasture land. The meandering trails are the feeding marks of slugs or snails.  They move their head from side to side as they slime along, rasping up the algae with their radula.  Here's an even closer look.
Just think who passed this way last summer.  The little snail's house on the Prairie. 

A great resource for more signs and tracks of invertebrates, is the book

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Creep Trees

Classic creep trees.
What causes  trees on a slope to grow in the bent shape pictured above?
The short answer is soil creep.  This is a slow down slope movement of the soil that can be caused by several processes.  One of which is frost heave.

  Needle-ice lifts particles of dirt perpendicular to the slope.  When the frost thaws, the particles settle farther down the hill. This repeated lifting and settling moves the soil and other objects down hill.  The slow down hill movement of the soil will tilt trees, fence posts, or other objects like gravestones.  The trees, of course, have a guidance system to adjust their orientation.
The young saplings on the left have yet to correct their tilt like the older ones on the right.
There are many other fascinating processes at work, shaping the landscape around us. 
You will find this book informative about those processes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wood Pile, Part V

 Wood sharks.

 Okay, the face of decay.

 The face of the decomposers that are imperceptibly digesting and disappearing my wood pile.  I say "the face" because what you see is only the fruiting bodies of the fungi.  Pull some bark back and you'll find the real "monster". The magic mycelium. 

 The mycelium is made up of a mass of filaments called hyphae.  These branch out through the wood and basically eat it. 
That's why I say, "help the hyphae heat the house, heap the fire higher".
More poetically, Robert Frost's poem, The Wood-pile talks about the "slow smokeless burning of decay".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wood Pile, Part IV

 Those markings on the firewood are wood borer galleries. 

 They are packed with fine waste material called "frass".

 This little larva was lurking in on of those frass filled galleries.

 These beetle larvae were under the bark as well.

 Nasty looking mandibles, eh?  This larva probably eats the fungus permeated wood I found it in.

   Near the center of this picture is a tiny seed-shaped insect.  One of the many almost invisible creatures scurrying around on the underside of the bark.  The picture was taken with my Pentax Optio through
 a 10x hand lens.
   This is just a sampling of the many insects residing in - and under - the bark of a piece of my firewood.  That is plenty to think about as I "fry the frass".

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wood Pile, Part III

Are you enlichened?
   This evening I brought in some firewood to photograph the lichens growing on the bark.  Soon I heard my boys comment, "Wow lichens are neat!"  That was easy.  I wonder if they will notice the lichen encrusted trunks and branches of the oaks everywhere they go?  Or the lichen painted boulders? Or the miniature forest growing on fallen logs? Well, at least the wood pile is becoming more than just a pile of firewood.
 I'm lichen it!
Lichen are "neat".  The reasons are many.  They grow in abundance in a great variety of habitats.  To me, the most fascinating thing about lichens is they are a manifestation of a symbiotic relationship. 

   A lichen is a composite of a fungus and algae.  The fungus provides structure and moisture, while the algae photosynthesize and provide food for the fungus. This symbiosis or "working together" enables the lichens to be successful just about everywhere you go.

For more enlichenment, consider purchasing some of these books

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wood Pile, Part II

Have you ever met a sowbug face to face?

    Just look at those antennae and compound eyes.  Aren't sowbugs intriguing?  I think so, but my wife says they are repugnant.  Whatever you think, you may want to consider some of their interesting characteristics as you sizzle your sowbugs.
    To begin with, sowbugs raise their young in brood pouch called a marsupium. 

Secondly, they can excrete chemicals for defensive purposes.  In other words they have "repugnatorial glands" .  (See the behavior section on

    Lastly, notice the two projections on the end of the sowbug.
  These are the uropods.  One of their functions is moisture regulation. Sowbugs can take up moisture by capillary action by placing the uropods agaisnt a moist area.  The opposite can be accomplished by placing the uropods against a dry area. Ingenious! 
   This resident of my woodpile is also commonly known as a woodlouse. 
     You could also call it a terrestrial isopod crustacean, which seems more fitting considering the few details I listed above.
  For a few more details see  

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Wood Pile

If you burn wood and are squeamish about incinerating critters you may not want to read this post.
 That's because my wood pile is a veritable zoo, and I'm posting a few examples of the residents.

 A sowbug.
One of the myriad of critters hiding in the crevices.

 Bark encrusted with mosses and lichens.
What you can't see, without magnification, is the hidden world amongst them all.
Light the lichens.

Meandering galleries of wood-boring insect larvae. 
Fry the frass.

The fruiting body of a fungus.
Busy slowly disappearing the wood.
Help the hyphae.
Remnants of mycelium of the honey mushroom.
When the temperature and moisture were just right, the "foxfire" shone.

Foxfire light.
The cool green light of bioluminescent fungi.
Actually, I enjoy both.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Brick Riders

   Last night the river receded enough to allow us to return to our home.   We took the furniture and appliances down off of the bricks we had placed them on.  The historic crest of the river had brought ankle deep water on our first floor, so we hoped that placing those items on a few bricks would raise them out of danger. Fortunately the river crested far below that level.  While moving out some bricks I noticed we had some brick riders.

 Who wouldn't enjoy looking at that Lilliput world up close? 

Beautiful isn't it?

   Well, there is more than beauty on that brick.  There is a whole world. In order to observe some of that world, we need to use a microscope.  Other parts of that world just need a closer look.  For example, the mosses have an ingenious spore dispersal system.  I'm not prepared to delve any deeper tonight other than to post a picture of moss and a spore case.  Those posts can wait until another day.  Suffice it to say that observing "brick riders" can keep me busy for awhile.
For the reader who finds this interesting, I would recommend  a 10x hand lens for examining these tiny worlds. Also a book that gives an overview of mosses and lichens as well as miniaturized gardening, is the book  Forests of Lilliput; The Realm of Mosses and Lichens by John Bland.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wasp Mud Balls

What's up with a wasp making a mud ball?
As I mentioned yesterday, these wasps make mud balls and fly away with them.  This picture shows a wasp with a mud ball held in its front pair of legs and preparing to take off.

   Last night we had to flee our home because the river came over its banks and our home became an island.  So we headed for higher ground and spent the night with friends.  There on the wall (see picture below) was a clump of mud that looks as if someone threw it up against the wall and it stuck.  You may find these mud lumps on your rafters or under the eves of your garden shed.  Look for them where its "high and dry".  These are the mud nests constructed by the Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber Wasp (Sceliphron caementarium). That's what's up with a wasp making mud balls.   Those mud balls are part of a fascinating life cycle.
Inconspicuous mud clump
   Here is the foundation of a Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber nest.  As you can see, she constructs parallel tubes.  Each tube is about the size of a AAA battery.  The mud tubes are constructed  side by side and also may have another row stacked on top.

The foundation of the mud nest of a Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber
The wasp places a mud blanket over the bundle of tubes which results in the finished nest looking like just a clump of mud.
The finished product - The mud nest of the Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber

 Let's pull back the blanket!  
Triple barrel
 This particular nest had three tubes.  The top one has remnants of a reddish brown cocoon.  The hole on the right is the escape hole indicating a successful  hatch of a wasp.  The hole on the left is one I made to see the contents of an unsuccessful tube.

Cross section of the wasp's mud nest
By opening up the unsuccessful tube in cross section more of the work of the industrious wasp is exposed.  She filled the tube with spiders.  This tube contained 13 spiders.

Tube contents
   The wasp hunted these spiders, paralyzed them, and stuffed them in the tubes for a food supply for the larvae that would hath from her eggs.  In this nest, two of the eggs hatched, fed on the spiders, pupated, and emerged as a new generation of wasps to start the busy mud balling, spider hunting life cycle all over again. The third tube was a dud and the spiders dried up.  Quite a story lies hidden in a mud ball. 

You might like to see the series of pictures I took of the Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber making mud balls to build a nest.
Here is a post on a Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber Wasp using mud balls to build her mud nest

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Muddy Day Mud Dauber

Today is a very muddy day.  The river is bank full, our yard is full of puddles, and there is mud everywhere.  All the mud brings to mind another muddy day back in October when I saw these markings in the mud.
I like to know what is going on around me, even who is making tracks on the edges of my mud puddles.  Don't you?  So, I took some close-ups of the culprit with my new Pentax Optio w90.
   Here is the mark maker in action.
 The Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) working industriously.

  The wasp begins making a ball of mud.  Notice how the wasp uses its jaws and front pair of legs to form the ball, the middle pair of legs as a fulcrum, and the last pair of legs for "pistons" to tip into a head stand position.  Fascinating process!

Black-and -yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) making a mud ball

 Once the mud ball is formed,
the wasp carries it with the front pair of legs as it flies away.

So, what's up with a wasp making mud balls?  Check back tomorrow.
Here is a link to the post on the mud nest of the Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber.
Here is a post about the Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber Wasp depositing mud balls on her nest.