Friday, August 31, 2012

Not-So-Opulent Armadillos

They still seem like newcomers, and why shouldn’t they? Here in Central Missouri, we never “see” them—unless you count their poor bodies lying lifeless—like overturned baskets—on the roadsides.

Poor critters . . . cars are so rude.

And to people north of the Missouri River, they truly are newcomers; the river serves as a serious barrier to their northward expansion. Each time a few of them manage to get across the river here and there, and begin new population centers, a hard winter eradicates them from the whole region. Or, that’s what people have thought.

Armadillos are insectivores, and they don’t hibernate. A hard winter that freezes the ground and prevents them from getting to delicious, hibernating insects wipes them out. It hits the “restart” button, and when that happens, Missouri has few, if any, armadillos until immigrants of that species, expanding from firm populations south of us, replenish the species in our state.

In 1959, when Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz published the first edition of The Wild Mammals of Missouri (a book I could not live without), armadillos were not known to live in our state. By the time they first revised the book, in 1981, the Schwartzes listed the armadillo as “possibly occurring.” By 2001, when Elizabeth Schwartz presented to our state the second revised edition—an endlessly fascinating guidebook, textbook, encyclopedia, and lavishly, perfectly illustrated volume—armadillos had definitely become established as “full residents,” “having been collected in 66 counties.”

So the armadillo is no longer just the “state bird of Texas”!

Dr. Lynn Robbins and his students at Missouri State University have for decades studied the range expansion of these curious critters, which so many of us still equate with the Longhorn State, and not the Show-Me State. Here’s a request for citizens to help with their studies; this appeared in the March 1993 issue of the Missouri Conservationist (the official monthly publication of the Missouri Department of Conservation):

So Why Am I Writing about Armadillos Today?

Well, Sue and I have been hiking recently at Painted Rock Conservation Area, south of Jefferson City along the Osage River where it bends (at Osage Bend), and we were astonished to see several armadillos abroad in daylight. It was midafternoon, and they were wandering around in the leaf litter, in the oak-hickory forest, foraging constantly.

What does a foraging armadillo look like? Nose-to-ground! Their conical heads poke through the leaf litter, snout-first, and the rest of the body follows. They plow through the fallen leaves in a random zigzag path, leaving a rounded tunnel behind. The leaves atop the “tunnel,” parted by the body, fall back together somewhat, but you can see through them to the ’dillo trail.

Armadillos specialize in eating insects (though they opportunistically eat other little critters, as well). They whiffle along the ground, snuffling for grubs, beetles, ants, and whatever else. They dig into the earth as far as six inches to locate a juicy insect their noses have detected.

It’s really interesting to watch them. They have terrible vision and next-to-terrible hearing, so they tend not to notice if they’re being observed. I think the constant crunching of dry leaves around their heads drowns out the sound of voices and footsteps.

Apparently, armadillos have been remarkably active this summer in general. One of my friends thinks it’s armadillos that have been rooting up her garden over at Osage Bluff.

They’re supposed to be mostly nocturnal during the summer—so why are they out in daylight?

It appears to be environmental: Remember last winter, when it never really got to be truly “winter”? Presumably a large number of armadillos survived Missouri’s winter last year. During our usual cold, freezing winters, many of them simply perish. Even in good years, they don’t put on much body fat to shiver away to stay alive—and any mammal that doesn’t hibernate has to “stoke the fires” of life in freezing weather by “eating hearty.” Frozen ground is not conducive to digging. So many ’dillos die.

But it was hardly even cold last winter, so we probably had record numbers of armadillos survive until springtime. Then we had a nice wet spring (remember?) and plenty of insects had survived the mild winter, too. Things were looking up for the armadillos at that point—but then the drought set in.

I suppose the drought is doing to the armadillos what winter failed to do—limit the populations. By the end of August, insects have become hard to find, and so has water. The armadillos are close to starving—and that’s why they’re out during the day, even, hunting relentlessly for bugs, grubs, beetles, weevils, pupae, lizards, darn near anything, to eat.

I recently contacted Dr. Robbins with my hypothesis, and responding in an e-mail of August 27, 2012, he said he thinks I’m on the right track. He mentioned, however, that many armadillos do seem to be surviving our midwestern winters—somehow, decent numbers of them manage to find shelter and food, so the idea of them all perishing with cold weather is not as strict as once supposed. That they’ve been continuously present in Nebraska for fifteen years, he says, “leads me to believe that even if a high percentage do not make it through a winter, they do find refuges where they can find enough food to make it.” They don’t seem to “fatten up” before winter, but they seem to survive anyway, by finding “large amounts of food under the leaf litter and by digging in unfrozen ground.”

Regarding what we saw at Painted Rock, and the drought, Dr. Robbins noted, “If the drought continues, I too will be concerned, and the conditions you observed are similar to the way they [the armadillos] looked after the [recent] big snow event, including their frantic behavior to catch up. I have been seeing increasing numbers of road kills north of the Missouri River this summer.” He continued, “if there is a reduction in food as a carryover from this drought, it could be a problem.”

(Thank you, Dr. Robbins, for helping me understand this interesting animal, and for your work in helping humanity to understand many kinds of mammals, too!)

So there you have it—although Sue and I were thrilled to see our first ever—living—armadillos, the situation wasn’t optimal for all parties. I hate the thought of anything suffering. Let’s hope the rain is bringing them some relief.

Bonus info! The scientific name for the nine-banded armadillo is Dasypus novemcinctus. Dasypus is the genus name for our armadillo and is used for six other closely related (living) armadillo species as well. (Dasypodidae is the name for the whole armadillo family, which comprises about 21 species, in various genera.) Dasypus means “rough-footed.” Since armadillos are diggers by trade, they have coarse, sturdy feet!

The only species of armadillo found in the United States is the nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus. The second half of the name means “nine-banded” (“novem-” for “nine,” and “-cinctus” for “belted”—as in “cincture,” an encircling belt, or to “cinch” up something).

SPECIAL THANK YOU to Susan Ferber, who took all the great photos in this post and has graciously allowed me to use them on my blog. Not only is she a talented and skilled photographer, but also: She is the best person in the world to go hiking with!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Another Spectacle Down by the Railyards

The evening of August 18, Sue and I were driving along West Main--and when she spied this "thing," Sue needed us to stop! We walked around it and took pictures. It was pretty doggone impressive looking, whatever it was!

It looked kind of like a side-wheeler paddle boat--only on a railroad engine!

Clearly, the wheels on each side were made for digging.

We figured it had something to do with railroad maintenance, and we were right!

This huge machine is a "ballast cleaner" that railroads use to keep the ballast (the mound of gravel the rails and ties sit on) free of dirt and mud. Railroads are built on gravel for a reason: Gravel sheds water. If mud builds up, clogs the gravel, and prevents it from shedding water, the water rots the railroad ties, or it can cause the rails to shift sideways, loosens the rail fasteners, can cause problems with frost heaving, and all kinds of other (very costly) mayhem.

After the wheel churns and picks up the filthy, dirty ballast, the stuff is moved on a conveyor belt to sifters and cleaners. The filth portion is spewed out to the side, while the now-squeaky-clean ballast is deposited back along the side of the tracks. Another gizmo then smooths the mound of clean ballast back into a slant.

Finally, some incredibly serious-looking brushes clear any stray gravel and dirt from the rails.

Between jobs, the latest model from the Loram company can travel at speeds of up to 48 miles per hour--that would be a sight, to see one of these things bustin' along the rails at nearly 50 mph, eh?!

Here's a video (from 1995, apparently before the rail companies learned about OSHA and required all workers to wear florescent jackets and all ballast-cleaner workers to wear dustmasks):

And . . . if you're interested in railroad stuff, be sure to see my post about the historic Union Pacific engine 844!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Green, Green Grasses of This Horrible Drought Year

I'd like you to notice something about our native prairies: All summer long, despite this awful drought, they've stayed green, green, green!

Unlike our pastures and old fields, which are filled with cool-season grasses, our native prairies have grasses whose favorite growing season is the hottest part of summer. Really, instead of calling them "warm-season" grasses, we should call them "hot-season" grasses. Because that's what they truly are. Not only is this their peak growing season, but also, they have super-deep roots that allow them to survive horrible droughts. (Like this one.)

For proof, here are some pictures I took at Tucker Prairie on July 29. All the pastures we drove through to get there had turned golden and dry. But the prairie--though not having a fabulous year--was getting along okay.

Tucker Prairie, in case you didn't know, is owned by the University of Missouri and is used as an ecological research area. This is 146 acres of true, virgin prairie, folks. You can see it as you drive along I-70: It's just west of Kingdom City. Apparently somebody knocked the sign down that used to be visible from the interstate, but you can easily recognize the native prairie by its greenness and the uniquely textured look of its vegetation. (By the way, the little research station building has attracted a great deal of vandalism, too. Which is very sad to see!)

You might have noticed that I-70 has a prominent curve between Tucker Prairie and Kingdom City, and this is no coincidence. When the government was planning the new superhighway, conservationists had to fight to keep it from plowing through and destroying this tiny remnant of original, untouched, native landscape.

Among the green grasses and sedges are hundreds of "forbs," which are herbaceous plants that aren't grasslike--in other words, broad-leaved nonwoody plants. There are something like 260 species of plants living on this small, precious patch of earth.

Below is one of my favorite prairie plants: Rattlesnake master! It looks a lot like a spiny ol' yucca plant, but Eryngium yuccifolium is actually in the celery, carrot, or parsley family. It's more closely related to "harbinger of spring" and "Queen Anne's lace" than it is to "Spanish bayonet"!

This is one of six species of sunflowers that occur at Tucker Prairie (I think it's ashy sunflower, Helianthus mollis, but I didn't photograph enough of the vegetative parts for this amateur botanist to be certain). There are 48 members of the sunflower family on this one small prairie (statewide, there are about 400 different taxa in the sunflower family).

Below is one of my favorite pictures from our visit--it's an insect you don't want to play with, though it's awfully interesting to watch one. This is a female robber fly (Promachus vertebratis) depositing her eggs into the flowerhead of an ironweed (Vernonia missurica, I believe).

Yeah, she was big and made an ominous buzz when she flew--she looked and sounded "stingy"! Robber flies are insect "wolves" that often prey on creatures much bigger than themselves. And they have a venomous bite that every account says hurts very bad.

Like all other wild creatures during this drought, she seemed pretty frantic, trying to do what she needed to do before water, and life, ran out on her. The 100-degree temperature itself must have cranked her metabolism up about as high as it ought to go. The wild critters of Growing Season 2012 deserve medals of valor! These will be awarded in spring of 2013, upon the hatching of their progeny.

One more thing. Every Missourian should know about the Missouri Prairie Foundation. They have some upcoming events of interest:

Thurs. Aug. 30: Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, will speak at Lincoln University's Scruggs University Center. There will be a whole bunch of native plant stuff going on, too, with food, tours of Lincoln's Native Plant Outdoor Laboratory, and so on.

Sat. Sept. 8: Workshop on Prairie Planting from Seed, with Jon Wingo and Frank Oberle. Learn how to convert lawn or fescue fields to drought-tolerant, beautiful native prairie plants that provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Morning presentations, lunch, and tours of Prairie Star Restoration Farm (between Belle and Bland, Mo.). You have to RSVP for this. Click on the link at the bottom of this post.

Sat. Sept. 15: Prairie Day at Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray Summit, Mo. This is fun event for the whole family!

Sat. Sept. 22: "In Touch with Nature Field Day," at the Alan Busby Farm on US 54 west out of Jefferson City. Exhibits, hands-on demos, tours; more family fun!

Sat. Sept. 29: Prairie Jubilee at Prairie State Park, near Nevada, Mo. Celebrate Prairie State Park's 30th anniversary! Another family-friendly event.


Early July Trip to Ohio

Get excited! I'm belatedly posting some pictures from our trip to visit Sue's family in northern Ohio!

This is Sable, who belongs to Sue's brother and his family (they were visiting from South Carolina). Sable's an incredibly well-behaved German shepherd. She sat quietly in the living room of Sue's parents. Outdoors, Sable chased woodchucks!

We were there for Independence Day, and this year instead of driving to see a professional pyrotechnics display in one of the nearby towns, we had fireworks in the driveway. Nothing big--you can't buy fireworks in Ohio, except for sparklers, snakes, and snap-and-pops, which can be purchased there in common drugstores. So we had fun with those fairly mild incendiary entertainments.

Sue and I have been together nineteen years (our anniversary was last week!), and in all of these years I've never witnessed "the cannon." Long ago, a friend and former coworker of Sue's dad fabricated a genuine, working, miniature version of a cannon. The barrel is brass, the wheels are iron. And it really works!

Sue's family used to load this thing up with black powder, a fuse, and stuff a paper napkin or something in the barrel and use it to blast in the new year each December 31! It's a tradition in their family. They also used to fire it every July 4. But this was apparently all twenty years ago--at any rate, I've never seen them shoot THE CANNON!

And yeah, it was LOUD! Take that, you silly bottle-rocket people! --Boom!!

No summertime trip to northern Ohio would be officially complete without a trip to Cedar Point amusement park. Do I look like a big fan of amusement parks? No. But Cedar Point is different--it's on a narrow piece of land that pokes out into Lake Erie, and cool breezes keep it relatively tolerable--even during this hot summer. And there's something to be said for the therapeutic primal-scream therapy delivered by some of the crazier rides.

I took the picture above from the Giant Wheel, the park's venerable, huge Ferris wheel. The green rollercoaster in the background is my favorite ride in the park, the Raptor (click for a point-of-view video!). It's one of those "feet dangling" coasters. It's so cool--it's like you're flying!

This one's called the Skyhawk. It's a huge giant terrifying "swingset"--very interesting to do, on account of the great height and speed, but overall it's not as much fun as the big rollercoasters. (Sue took this picture--that's me in the circle! Wahhhhh!!!!)

As of July 4, this is what was left of the big Con Agra grain elevator that used to be a major landmark in Huron, Ohio, and the Sandusky area in general. Most of it was destroyed during a controlled implosion in early January, but the big silos have had to be knocked down more gradually with wrecking balls. I hear the thing is completely gone now, though I understand a great pile of rubble remains to be dealt with. Condos, apparently, will replace the famous symbol of Ohio's agricultural productivity. (Click here to see a video of the implosion of the plant--pretty exciting! The community made a big party out of the occasion.) (Do you get the idea that people in northern Ohio like to blow up stuff--?)

Toft's ice cream is another of those things we must do when we visit northern Ohio in the summer. To my Central Missouri friends, Toft's is the northern Ohio equivalent of Central Dairy: If you don't feel like tackling an entire vat of ice cream, better ask for the "kiddie" size! (Pictured is a "small" serving of their "Buckeye Bites" flavor--peanut butter and chocolate, like mini "buckeyes" candies!)