Category Archives: Ozark Hills

Walking and learning about the Ozark Hills

Monarch Butterfly Migration

In the dim recesses of my memory I am standing on the baseball diamond of my southern California elementary school as the monarch butterfly migration flutters by. Hundreds of butterflies surrounded us.

member of monarch butterfly migration
The fall monarch butterfly migration brings butterflies to the area to lay eggs on the remaining milkweed plants and drink nectar from the wildflowers before flying further south.

Back then no one taught much science in school. Ecology wasn’t a familiar word. DDT was popular.

Yet the wonder of these beautiful orange and black butterflies stopped our gym class game. Even the most nature unaware students stood in awe.

monarch butterfly caterpillar
Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat a lot of milkweed leaves and grow quickly. Even the seed pods are considered food. This one at about five inches long is ready to find a place to form a pupa.

The monarch butterfly migration is moving through the Ozarks now. Those clouds of butterflies have dwindled to one or two a day. And I’ve seen more this year than for several years.

Monarch butterfly pupa
A Monarch butterfly pupa is a little over an inch long and half as wide. It is a delicate green. It hangs in a sheltered place to a couple of weeks as the caterpillar inside becomes a butterfly.

Monarch butterflies are the species shown in science texts as they cycle from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult. One year we got to watch this for real on the milkweed plants growing around our house and barn.

The adults fly south laying eggs as they go. These adults don’t make it to Mexico. Instead the new generation continues the flight south. A final group makes the last leg of the journey to hibernate.

Monarch butterfly pupa ready to hatch
A day or so before hatching the monarch butterfly pupa becomes transparent allowing the colors of the wing to show through.

The monarch butterfly migration is dwindling as those milkweed patches they rely on disappear. Farmers spray their fields and the herbicides drift into ditch rows. Ranchers spray wetlands to increase their pastures. Road crews mow them down. Even conservation department crews mow them down.

Monarch butterfly emerging from pupa
The new Monarch butterfly pulls out of the pupa and hangs on it as its wings expand. This can take an hour or more.

People are urged to plant milkweeds. Butterfly weed or purple milkweed are probably the best garden varieties. Common milkweed is spectacular, but it’s tall and tends to spread. Swamp milkweed needs moisture.

There are many other kinds of milkweeds. Most of these are much smaller and their flowers are not as showy. Some require special conditions. Others don’t.

new member of the monarch butterfly migration
Once the new monarch butterfly’s wings are expanded and dry, the butterfly walks carefully off the pupa case to someplace solid. The butterfly launches and flies off a short distance to continue fanning its wings to make sure they are dry and ready to fly. It then flutters off to find some flowers before joining monarch butterfly migration south.

Seeing a monarch butterfly migration was a wonderful experience. Our common milkweed and butterfly weed plants are one way to help such sights happen again.

Find out about Missouri’s milkweeds in Dr. Rintz’ “Missouri Milkweeds, Milkvines and Pipevines“.

Wind Riders

Milkweeds have been getting ready for this all summer. Now their seeds are becoming wind riders.

Inside each milkweed pod is packed a double row of seeds. Each seed is topped with a silken parachute.

swamp milkweed seeds are wind riders
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, pods are thin and smooth. Inside the seeds are still packed in a double row. When the pod splits open on a dry, windy day, the wind pulls out the silk to send the seeds blowing on the wind.

At one time milkweed seed pods were gathered. The silk was used in life jackets. Now the more buoyant and easier to cultivate kapok has left milkweeds relegated to weed status.

Milkweed bugs have spent a month or more stabbing down into each pod seeking the developing seeds. Those they find are sucked dry. Those that escape have a center bulge with a flat wing around them perfect for gliding on the wind.

The common milkweed, purple and swamp milkweed pods ripen in early fall turning brown and dry. The seam down the side bursts to expose the seeds. Then they wait.

Rain is a disaster. The silk gets wet and mats gluing the seeds into a heavy mass. Even drying out doesn’t break up the mass which eventually falls to the ground.

wind riders being pulled out of milkweed pod
The silk threads on common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, seeds is a couple of inches long. They are soft to the touch and tough. The many threads come from a single point on the top of the seed and break off when pulled sharply.

A soft breeze can pull a few seeds loose to drift away. These seeds rarely get even ten feet away. Dr. Rintz found this is the usual case.

Lucky seeds have a dry, windy day. The silk pulls loose. The wind grabs hold. The seeds become wind riders blowing across the pasture.

Even lucky seeds aren’t to the goal line yet. The seed must reach the ground. This sounds easy. The wind riders settle down like a hot air balloon to rest on the dirt.

milkweed seeds blowing in the wind
A stiff wind quickly pulls common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, seeds out of their neat formation inside the pod. Most seeds pull out separately to go their own way. Some travel in a tangled clump.

Bare dirt is rare in nature. Plants grow on most of it in the Ozarks. The silk catches in the giant ragweed or the trees leaving the seed dangling.

A stiff breeze will break the seed loose to glide down and bounce its way down to the ground. If all goes right, the seed isn’t eaten and lands in a good spot, it will grow up in the spring to produce its own batch of wind riders.

Want to grow your own milkweeds? Find out more about handling seeds and seedlings in “Asclepias” by Dr. Richard Rintz.

Coyote Arrives

One morning the gray fox and three pups were playing in the back yard, sitting on the wood pile, running up and down the pile, wrestling in the yard. The next morning a coyote arrives and the foxes are gone.

Foxes are the smallest of the dog family. They are attacked by coyotes, bobcats and people. They rarely live more than three or four years.

gray fox and pup
Left on her own, this mother gray fox raised her family of five pups in the relative safety of the house so she could leave them to hunt. The little ones were almost as big as she when they moved onto the hillside.

We hear coyotes calling back on the hills. The neighbors complain about coyotes killing their chickens. Their dogs are no deterrent.

Coyotes rarely come up to our house. We don’t actively chase them away, but we are usually home and out around the place. They don’t like the activity.

This seems to make our home area a somewhat safe haven. Deer keep their fawns nearby. This is the third time gray foxes have raised pups under the house.

I do have chickens. I do lose a few to the foxes. We come to an understanding. I keep the chickens up unless I am around. The foxes avoid coming near the chickens when I am there and don’t attack them in their yard.

coyote arrives
Coyotes are enemies of foxes. This coyote moved onto the hill where the foxes were staying. The foxes vanished. The coyote seems to have moved on. Coyotes look a lot different than foxes.

When a coyote arrives, everything changes. Coyotes are bigger predators than foxes. I’m not so sure about yelling at one and chasing it across the yard would work. And a coyote would not drop off an unharmed chicken as it ran off.

Coyotes usually run in packs. I saw only one. Perhaps it was run off by its pack and hadn’t found a place to go yet. I hope it kept on moving.

Wildlife lives here. We see it. We live with it or take action when we must.

For now we miss watching the foxes in the morning. But, when a coyote arrives, things change. Perhaps the fox will come back in the spring with new pups.

Flower Color Variation

Open any wildflower guidebook and the color of the flowers is the most important aspect noted. Open a nursery catalog and flower color variation is rampant.

Garden flowers are bred from wildflowers or are the wildflowers themselves. It isn’t hard to assume some of that flower color variation will show up in nature.

white rose gentian flowers
Rose Gentian flowers are bright pink with a small lime green center. The foot or so tall plants are covered with flowers. Tucked in among the pink flowers can be a plant with bright white flowers. The green center is still there.

Color is the main thing I look for as I go walking seeking wildflowers to photograph. It’s easier to spot that splash of color than the shape of a new plant. It makes me stop and focus on the flower.

incomplete flower color variation
Perennial pea flowers are a vivid deep pink impossible to miss. Here and there a plant has what appears to be white flowers. The pink isn’t quite gone.

Perennial peas are a vivid pink. It’s hard to miss a slope covered with these big pink splashes. The occasional white ones stand out.

Rose Gentian is another bright pink flower with a greenish yellow center. The white variety still has the center color.

White seems to be the main flower color variation. I’ve seen it in blue phlox and great blue lobelia among others.

white is a common flower color variation
Normally the flower of the great blue lobelia is blue, a deep almost purplish blue. That makes a plant with white flowers even more obvious.

Butterfly Weed, the bright orange milkweed, has the greatest range of flower color variation I’ve seen in the wild. The nursery catalog people need to do a little walking along my Ozark roads.

This is one of the wild plants found in nursery catalogs. These versions are usually a yellow to yellowish orange found more commonly west of the Ozarks according to Dr. Rintz who found this color in Kansas.

Along my road I rarely see the yellowish color. Instead I find deep red to fiery orange. Occasionally I come across a plant with two tone flowers, orange back swept sepals and deep red corona.

Flower color variation can mean a new species. One of my new plant finds this year is pale jewelweed with its pale yellow flowers. I found one of these plants growing next to a spotted orange jewelweed. They are definitely different plants.

Pale Jewelweed Flower
On first glance the pale jewelweed flower could be a color variation of the orange spotted jewelweed. But comparing the two, it definitely isn’t. The pale jewelweed plant is bigger. The flower is bigger and the center tube is larger compared to the flower length.

The brush cutter is busy elsewhere this year. That leaves me plenty of plants along the roads to look over for those splashes of color.

Flower color variation is another factor to consider when writing a wildflower guide.

Interesting Little Flowers

I first found these interesting little flowers years ago in a wetland area. The plant likes moist soil.

The interesting little flowers next appeared along the road at a cold water spring. And this year they are in a runoff ditch down the road.

Interesting little flowers
The stamens and pistil are inside the tube. Only the petals stick up outside the tube. The two top larger ones remind me of ears on a deer so I label the photographs ‘Ears’ when I place them in the unknown folder. I would like to move them out of this folder and give these interesting little flowers their real name.

Each year I put these interesting little flowers in the Unknown folder with the name Ears. Each year I search for an identification and fail to find one.

The plant is about a foot tall with multiple stems and branches. The stems are thin so the slightest breeze shivers through the plant. They are covered with short hairs.

flower tube of interesting little flowers
The petals stick up out of a tube covered with sticky hairs.

The leaves are opposite. The petioles are about a third the length of the leaf. The petioles are hairy. The leaves have no hairs.

Flowers are on stalks from the leaf nodes toward the ends of the stems. Looking head on two larger petals stick up (my ears) and two smaller ones hang down. Each is separate from the others. The flower is maybe half an inch long.

unknown plant leaves
This little plant has opposite leaves. Interestingly, the hairs covering the stems, the capsules below the flowers and the leaf petioles don’t occur on the leaf blades leaving them smooth and thin.

The flower extends from inside a cylinder covered with sticky hairs. This led me to think, since Royal Catchfly, Fire Pink and Wild Pink flowers are similar, perhaps this flower was in Caryophylaceae. I looked up pictures of all members of this group found in Missouri and came away disappointed.

The seed capsule forms inside this sticky cylinder. When the seeds are ripe, the cylinder splits to release them.

fruit of interesting little flowers
The flower stuck out of the top of this capsule. The seed pod is nestled inside the capsule and has just started to split open to release the seeds. All of those little hairs have a sticky glob of glue on them.

Finding these interesting little flowers is always a treat. They are much too pretty to be stuck with the name ears.

I am again trying to find these flowers on the internet. I am still having no luck.

Perhaps someone recognizes these interesting little flowers and can let me know what their name is. I would like to solve this long standing mystery.

Identifying Missouri milkweeds is easy with “Missouri Milkweeds, Milkvines and Pipevines“.

Strange Looking Spiders

Walking through the woods has a new hazard: spider webs. These stretch between trees or grass stems or any upright, sturdy stalks. Some orb webs have strange looking spiders hanging from the center.

On first glance these spiders might be a piece of twig broken off with points sticking up. The illusion is dispelled by the shine and the colors.

Strange looking spiders look like bird droppings
The large abdomen on this spider looks heavy. The spider hangs onto her web with it dangling down. It looks like a big bird dropping hanging in midair. Even the coloring evokes dropping.

Life is hard for these insect eaters. Cold, wet springs slow when the spiders hatch in the spring. Most web spiders die in the fall leaving eggs behind to survive the winter.

Minute spider hatchlings need minute food. Wind borne pollen works well, but the trees are slow to bloom in cold, wet springs.

Those hatchlings that survive spend the warm months trapping insects and trying to not become food. Birds, predatory insects, even other spiders see them as dinner.

Bigger spiders weave bigger webs until they stretch across pathways and between trees. The sticky silk grabs onto hair, face, hands and clothes. The only warning is spotting the spider hanging in midair.

strange looking spider with spikes
Spiders have spinnerets to make the silk for webs. On this spider they are in the black structure. The patterns go around the spinnerets.

Walking through the woods can quickly become a challenging affair. A web blocks this path so go around the tree where there is no web. If both ways are blocked, one must be torn down which is a shame as the spider spends a lot of time building her web and depends on it for food.

This year a great number of strange looking spiders are on those big webs. They are in a spider group called micrathena with spiny, hard, glossy abdomens stretched into spiked shapes. Most species are tropical. Several are found in the Ozarks.

strange looking spiders have fancy patterns
No one knows why these spiders have these large, hard abdomens, but the structures make them a big, tough mouthful for a bird. This one has a fancy light yellow pattern on black on the structure.

All of these big orb web spiders are females as, in their world, females rule. The smaller males are tiny risk takers as, if their courtship dance isn’t good enough, they are dinner.

Wildflowers can be easier to spot and photograph, but there are so many small creatures like strange looking spiders to see on a walk in the woods.

Yellow Flowers Blooming

Wildflowers of many colors are blooming now. Pinks, blues and whites are everywhere. But the yellow flowers tower over them all.

Height is one way these flowers tower over the other colors. Many of the plants reach eight feet or even more.

Leaf size is another way these flowers tower over the others. And cup plant is the tops in that category. Its leaves are a double leaf melding around the stem and forming a cup. Rain fills this cup.

yellow flowers on cup plant
Cup plant is unmistakable. It often towers over you to eight feet. The huge leaves merging around the stem are unlike any other sunflower. Rays are relished by insects. The flowers seem small compared to the plant, but are numerous shooting up like a loose bouquet out of the topmost leaf cup.

Flower size is yet another way yellow flowers tower over the other colors. These are composite flowers with little tube flowers forming a disc in the center. Ray flowers form the outside ring.

These rays can be several inches long. The disc can be a couple of inches across or more. Sunflowers are in this group of yellow flowers.

Rolling along in a vehicle this array of yellow looks much alike. Walking along and looking at the flowers and plants shows they come in many different forms.

yellow flowers prairie dock
The common question about this plant is about the huge leaves sticking up in a basal rosette. The flower stalk grows up several feet from the rosette and opens a series of yellow flowers. These rays are long and narrow. The tube flowers fall off by the afternoon.

Seeing the differences is easy. Trying to put names with flowers is difficult.

All of these flowers are in the aster family. Many of them are in a group called heliantheae. I opened my “Flora of Missouri” and turned to the key. The first choice used ligulate corolla. Corolla refers to the rays. Sigh.

Pictures are the way to go. Since I now have at least eight different yellow flowers without names, my visit to www.missouriplants.com will be a lengthy one.

yellow flowers ashy sunflower
This is one of the easier sunflowers to identify. The rays are distinct. The disc has a distinctive pattern. And the leaves have a slight scallop edge.

There are familiar flowers too. The cup plant, yellow ironweed, tickseed sunflower and prairie coreopsis are blooming now. Jerusalem artichoke will bloom soon.

Although Jerusalem artichokes are a garden vegetable, they are also a native wildflower. Both occur here, the one wild and the other attempting a garden take over.

Unknown sunflower
This is a typical sunflower. It is much like several others blooming now with its yellow rays and central disc of ray flowers. Several identification points are important. One is the size, shape and color of the main flower. Second is the cup holding the flower as the overlapping bracts can be smooth or stick out in points or rounded points. The leaves matter too. For sunflowers they are usually opposite, but vary in shape and having or not petioles. The edges can be smooth or toothed.

The wild version does have edible tubers, usually small. The garden variety, if well watered, has large knobby tubers. The wild ones bloom a few weeks before the garden ones.

Summer is winding down. The wealth of yellow flowers blooming along the roads celebrates the season. As said in “Exploring the Ozark Hills”, yellow is the color of summer.

Writing Wildflower Guides

For several years I scoured the roadsides, the hills, the ravines, the wetlands for wild plants with the idea of writing wildflower guides. I amassed over 400 plants in pictures and wrote pages about a hundred or more of them.

Why should I bother with writing wildflower guides? I am not a botanist. I can barely follow the descriptions in a botanical description. The identification keys are a struggle.

reject picture for writing wildflower guides
If I wanted a picture for a wildflower or grass guide, this would not be it. Why not? Because the light glares on the top of the foxtail grass bloom. If I just want a picture of a foxtail, I might choose this one because of how the light picks up the hairs on it.

More to the point, this information is easily accessible both on the internet at places like www.missouriplants.com and in print in books like the three volume “Flora of Missouri”, “Missouri Wildflowers” and “Ozark Wildflowers”. Why should I attempt to duplicate these? Leave writing wildflower guides to the experts.

I love taking pictures of plants and flowers. It is challenging to get that great shot. In sunlight or shade? What about glare? What about the plants around it? How do you picture a vine? How do you get to flowers several feet or tens of feet over your head?

Desmodium flowers used in writing wildflower guides
Beggar tick seeds come from plants in the genus Desmodium. There are a number of them and this is the largest. All of the flowers look similar in shape and color to this one. Lighting is what makes the flowers stand out. The background was in shade. A single ray of sunshine lit up the flowers.

The pile of pictures continued to accumulate. They filled a 16 GB flashkey. Another flashkey is now half full.

Some of the pictures end up on the website. If you are a regular visitor, you’ve seen them. Most of them sit on the flashkey for years.

wild potato flowers
In writing wildflower guides, photographs are usually confined to individual flowers. This saves space. Often I prefer to have more than one flower in a picture as the light qualities of each vary and the picture is more interesting. These wild potato flowers are best photographed in the morning in the shade or on a cloudy day.

My dream of writing wildflower guides had met reality and faded away. I tried to stop taking so many plant photographs, but couldn’t. And then I came across “Missouri In Flight” by Mundy Hackett.

This book wasn’t a bird guidebook, but was. It wasn’t a picture book of bird photographs, but was. It was about both the bird photographs and including a short comment about each bird.

Count the sparrow's feathers
One of the best things about taking my camera with me most of the time, is the opportunity to get a picture like this one of a sparrow. This sparrow was sitting in my garden fence. Fledglings are not as wary as adult birds and can give photography opportunities.

In writing wildflower guides the author has one picture of a plant and a lengthy description of the plant. What I love are the pictures and there are never enough of them or enough details in them.

So, instead of writing wildflower guides, I will hope to do wildflower photograph books with short commentaries and names of each plant. My stash of wildflower photographs is growing again.

Hunting Chanterelle Mushrooms

Warm, wet July weather has many good effects. Wildflowers are blooming their best. Mushrooms including chanterelle mushrooms pop up on the forest floor.

Considered to be one of the vase mushrooms, these mushrooms are one of the easy ones to identify out in the woods. Their bright yellow to deep orange color might make them easy to spot.

A vase mushroom from the side has a thick stalk that flares out to the top. From the top the cap is usually dented and the margins are irregular. Chanterelle mushrooms have gills going up the side of the stalk out under the cap.

hunting for chanterelle mushrooms
This chanterelle mushroom almost got overlooked. Dry leaves and twigs were partially over it. I saw it only because I was looking down searching for a glimpse of orange.

There is another orange mushroom called the Jack O’Lantern which is poisonous. It grows in clumps on dead stumps and is a definite gill mushroom with all its gills tucked up under its smooth margined cap.

I hadn’t gone out looking for mushrooms. I was looking for wildflowers and found an assortment. As I started up a hill through the woods, watching for glimpses of color, I spotted orange.

My wildflower walk suddenly became a search for chanterelle mushrooms. They tend to grow scattered in the leaf litter. They are often a smaller mushroom and the litter can hide them.

chanterelle mushrooms
Color is the easiest way to spot chanterelle mushrooms. They look messy with their uneven edges. These are fresh with a damp look. Older ones lose that sharp color and darken.

Many of the ones I saw were small. I passed them by. It’s a good idea to leave some mushrooms behind to scatter spores to start new fungus nets for mushrooms next year.

The larger ones I found were two to three inches tall and nearly that wide across the top. A half dozen were plenty for our dinner that night.

“Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” by Maxine Stone from the Missouri Department of Conservation has recipes for many of the popular edible mushrooms including these choice ones. But I decided to do a simple dish.

Diced and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms mixed with fried rice made a good side dish for a stir fry dinner.

Find out more about chanterelle mushrooms and morels in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Capturing Bird Photographs

My local library had a display of Missouri books out as the state approaches its 200th birthday. I took home one called “Missouri In Flight” by Mundy Hackett about capturing bird photographs.

capturing bird photographs takes planning
This flycatcher had nested in the nearby tractor shed. It commonly used the gate and fence as a landing spot from which to launch to grab nearby insects. Knowing a particular bird’s habits lets you set yourself up for a good photograph, one of the hints from Mundy Hackett.

Hackett is a professional with cameras and equipment I don’t and never will have. He has time to travel to good places to see birds, time to sit and wait for that great photograph. His photographs reflect this with birds so close, so real, so ‘want to reach out and touch the feathers’.

I am an amateur who loves to take pictures. My camera is a good one, but with one lens and lots of settings of which I use very few. Although I own tripods, I rarely carry or use one. I do not travel or have time to sit and wait for birds to show up.

use telephoto lenses to capture bird photographs
I had read to avoid using the zoom feature on my camera as much as possible, to get close to the subject. This is not good advice when it comes to birds as they tend to leave when approached. The problem with magnifying the bird is that it magnifies any movement blurring the picture. But using magnification allows for getting bird photographs not otherwise possible.

But those spectacular photographs inspired me to try capturing bird photographs of my own.

I am lucky. As “My Ozark Home” shows, I live in a place with a wide variety of habitats and lots of open land. This year the brush cutter has not visited yet. (Dance for joy!)

wild turkey feeding
This year two tom turkeys are feeding in the pastures. They have gotten a little used to having me around, but still stay far away. I set my camera on the top of a gate to steady it to take this picture. It was one of several pictures and the only one I kept as the turkey moved around and sometimes gave a good shot and often didn’t. That is an advantage of using a digital camera. You can take multiple shots and review them immediately to choose the ones you like best.

My first obstacle was to get over trying to not use the zoom much on my camera. As Hackett mentions in his Introduction, the greater the magnification, the larger any movement is to distort and blur the image. If I don’t have a tripod set up, how can I stabilize the camera? For shots out across the creek, I use the top rail or the gate. For other shots I sit down and use my bent knees. In desperation I plant my elbows on my chest to create a tripod (Remember: don’t breathe until after taking the shot.).

ground squirrel
The same techniques used for capturing bird photographs can be used for other subjects. Luck is part of getting a good photograph. This ground squirrel is living on borrowed time as a fox family lives near the yard. It stays on the alert and near cover.

Even when taking photographs of wildflowers, the hints and suggestions Hackett makes turn out to be helpful. But the big pluses of the book “Missouri In Flight” are admiring the amazing photographs and the inspiration to go out capturing bird photographs of your own.

Flannel Leaf Mullein

Living down in a creek valley, one direction to go is up and a nearby road does just that. The climb is stiff as the slope is steep and often in the sun. This is a perfect place for flannel leaf mullein to grow.

flannel leaf mullein plant
This mullein plant is near a ditch along the road going down a hill. it evidently has gotten just the right amount of water as the flower stalk was six feet tall when it began blooming. The bottom leaves are easily a foot long.

Usually this plant is referred to only as mullein as it is unique. However flannel leaf mullein is very apt.

The plant is a biennial. The first year it is little more than a rosette of fuzzy triangular leaves. These rosettes grow in any sunny place like lawns, along roads, the edges of fields.

group of flannel leaf mullein
Mullein reproduces primarily by seed. The seed obviously doesn’t travel very far many times as this group, only partially shown, had three or four dozen individuals in it. These were higher up on the road cut and competing with each other so they weren’t big plants, mostly four to five feet tall.

The leaves are light green. Turning them a misty green is the layer of soft hairs. Stroking one explains the name flannel leaf mullein.

Making the stiff climb up the road I find a row of mullein lines the road where the electric line right of way emerges. The opposite side of the road has electric lines on top of the ridge so the entire area is cut short. A patch of mullein has moved in along the road cut and top edge of the ridge.

soft hairs make flannel leaf mullein soft
Soft hairs cover upper and lower leaf surfaces as well as the winged stems. These are short, maybe an eighth of an inch long, but give the plant the feel of flannel.

This is the second year for many of these plants. They have put out great, long, wide, flannel soft leaves in rosettes. A thick flower stalk rises from the center up to six feet.

Mullein is a night bloomer seeking moth pollinators. The brilliant yellow flowers wilt as soon as the sun hits them.

Wanting to see the open flowers I made the climb mid morning after finishing chores. A few stalks were still in the shade with their flowers open.

mullein flowers
Many plants with flower stalks bloom from the base to the top. Mullein flowers open more randomly, but move up the stalk. The buds are covered with hairs.

Photographing these flowers presented another challenge. The flowers were a foot over my head. The thick stalk is stiff, but a little flexible. Pulling one over brought the flowers within reach.

The petals are smooth and flare. Inside some of the anthers are wreathed with hairs.

Releasing the flower stalk gradually I enjoyed the soft feel of the flannel leaf mullein and turned to walk slowly and carefully down the loose gravel on the steep road leading home.

More Ozark wildflowers are found in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Summer Thunderstorms

Big clouds billow up over the hill behind the house. They begin talking to themselves with low rumbles of thunder. Summer thunderstorms are moving in.

The weather forecast is for scattered showers. This means it depends on which cloud sails overhead whether or not rain falls. Talking clouds coming over the hill behind the house will probably rain here.

thunderhead clouds building
As thunderstorm cumulus clouds pile up, they can take many shapes. I see a creature in the center. Do you? The colors vary from blinding white to deep blue.

In the winter into spring great sheets of clouds slide over the sky. They take days to go past and often leave rain behind.

In the summer there are no great storm systems. Instead humidity rises up until the water vapor becomes tiny water droplets in a cloud. These pile up higher and higher to form fanciful cumulus clouds.

summer thunderstorms turn the sky black
Serious thunderheads are thick, blocking out the sun. A bright sunny day settles into shadow and can become as dark as late dusk as the clouds cover the sky.

These are the puffy clouds forming parades of pictures as they sail across the sky. Dragons, goats, rocs, people, whatever the mind can imagine can be found in their shifting shapes.

When these build up into huge gray into black mountains, summer thunderstorms are forming. The wind rises. The temperature drops. It’s time to run for cover.

Each cloud is separate even though they travel in groups. One cloud may drop curtains of huge drops for ten or fifteen minutes while its neighbor sails by dropping nothing.

Fifteen minutes may not seem like a long time. But the rain may amount to half an inch or more.

summer thunderstorms leaving
As the storm clouds blow away, they again take on fanciful shapes. The air is washed clean, crystal clear. The trees look closer and sharper.

When the thunderheads join forces, a simple summer storm may be much more. Lightning with its accompanying thunder lights up a world turned dark as late evening. Hail may pelt the ground. And rain too heavy to see across to the pasture can bring sudden high water to the creek.

Summer thunderstorms often move through late in the day. As the storm runbles off to the east, the setting sun can light up the sky with a rainbow. Maybe a double or triple rainbow forms.

This storm is over. Tomorrow may bring another.

Follow a thunderstorm in “Exploring the Ozark Hills.”

White Yucca Towers

In late evening as the pastures dim and darken, white yucca towers seem to glow against the dark. Perhaps from a distance they can make a person think of ghosts.

Yuccas look more like desert plants than Ozark natives, which they are. Their long leaves stick straight up for a foot or more from a basal rosette.

white yucca towers above the leaves
Yucca leaves are twelve to eighteen inches long growing in a rosette. The flower stalk shoots up from the center of the rosette reaching for to five feet tall lined with little flower branches. The flowers seem to glow in the late evening.

Each leaf is thick with a center vein making them into a long fold. During winter cold the edges curl around until the leaves form a tube.

Leaf edges have strings curling off. These strings are tough and remind me of sewing thread.

In late spring older yuccas put up a single thick stalk. Its tip moves to point it in the direction of the sun all day.

Side branches push out from the main stalk once it reaches three feet. It can keep growing to five feet putting out more and more of these flower stalks.

white yucca flower
During the day yucca flowers are bell shaped and hang down. In the evening the flowers flare open for the night. The next day they will have a yellow tinge, be bell shaped and hanging down again.

Then the white yucca towers begin to open.

Each bell shaped flower appears to be waxed. They are slick and reflect light. The bells begin to open late in the afternoon and open fully about dark.

Inside each flower is a single fat pistil with six curved stamens around it. All are white.

Night flowers are often pollinated not by bees that sleep at night, but by moths. Yuccas have a special moth, their only pollinator. A Missouri entomologist gained fame for finding it as mentioned in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

white yucca moth
Hiding up in some of the yucca flowers are the moths, usually one to a flower. These moths can be hard to spot as their wings are the same vivid white of the flower. With the wings folded over the back, the moths resemble the anthers they are clinging to. These moths are only pollinator for yuccas.

Like the yucca flowers, a yucca moth is white. It sits inside a flower up against the stamens looking like an extra one.

After pollinating a flower, the female moths lay eggs against the pistil. The larvae burrow in and use the seeds for food.

We had no yuccas when we moved to the Ozarks. We took a few from a neighbor’s pasture and planted them here.

white yucca towers in a field
Yuccas are spreading both by seed and by offshoots so that they put on impressive displays in several old fields. The last light of the sun has hit this group.

Yucca plants die after blooming, but put up side shoots so the original plant soon becomes a colony. The seeds start new plants nearby.

Now we have lots of white yucca towers lighting up our evenings.

Visiting Pickerel Frog

Gray tree frogs and American toads frequent my vegetable garden. Another visitor has moved in for a time: a pickerel frog.

I rarely see the American toads as they are nocturnal. The gray tree frogs are common on the rain barrels. The new frog shows up in various places wherever plants grow tall.

I’ve seen pickerel frogs in the garden before and assumed they were green or southern leopard frogs. They leap off and vanish into the vegetation before I get a good look at them.

side of pickerel frog
Another way to recognize a pickerel frog is to see the brown bars across the back legs. The round patch behind the eye is the ear. These frogs like to hang out in areas with thick, tall plants, especially grass better known as weeds in the garden. It moved down into the lambs quarter section.

This particular frog was in a patch of walking onion plants. I was removing weeds when it leaped out of the last patch. Unfortunately from the frog’s point of view, the weeds along the workshop wall had all disappeared leaving it in the open.

Several pictures later I left the frog to find the hollyhocks in the bottom corner. They need weeding too, but are huge and in full bloom now. The weeds will wait.

Looking over the pictures I got out my copy of “The Amphibians and Frogs of Missouri” by Tom R. Johnson from the Missouri Department of Conservation and looked up green frogs. This was definitely not a green frog.

back of pickerel frog
The folds down each side of the back with two lines of white rimmed brown patches are typical of a pickerel frog. Another identification is the orange yellow under the arms and belly. The gathered back legs are ready to launch this frog if I get too close.

Next I checked out the Southern Leopard Frog. These pictures didn’t match very well. I browsed and found the Pickerel Frog. This was a match.

These are interesting frogs and often associated with wet caves (a cave with water), one of the only frogs to stay back in caves. We have a creek, but no known caves.

The frogs do live along the creek especially the small flood ponds near the creek. When I walk along the creek I hear the frogs plop into the water and sometimes catch a glimpse of legs disappearing beneath the leaves at the bottom of the water.

Rarely I spot the frog before it leaps. They are spotted is all I have time to see as these frogs are very wary.

My best chance to observe a pickerel frog will be spotting my garden visitor.

Frogs are diurnal. Toads are nocturnal like the one in “Waiting For Fairies“.

Summer Bird Watching

There are lots of kinds of birds around here. All winter into early spring I go looking for them. Summer bird watching is not the same.

From late fall all the way into early spring the trees are bare. Birds hop along and sit on the branches. With a little patience a birdwatcher can spot and watch them.

The problem with this is migration. Many kinds of birds fly south for the winter. That leaves the winter birds: cardinals; red bellied, pileated and Downy woodpeckers; various hawks and owls; and morning doves. Some winter visitors arrive: the juncos, fox sparrows, chickadees and nuthatches.

morning doves
Before the black walnut leafs out, the lines of morning doves waiting for seeds to appear on the bird feeder are easy to see.

Starting in February the migrants return. Turkey vultures soar across the sky. Blue jays hog the bird feeder. Several finches show up.

So many kinds of birds move back bird watching becomes interesting. Bird songs come from every direction.

Then the trees leaf out.

Bird songs still sound from all around. Birds flit from tree to tree. They disappear into the leaves.

Summer bird watching is frustrating.

A bird calls from a tree. I stand scanning every branch or where I assume a branch is. And the bird remains invisible or flicks a tail into view only to vanish again.

Seeing a bird in summer takes luck. Getting a picture of a bird in summer is even harder.

summer bird watching of a kingbird
Kingbirds eat flying insects. They perch watching for one going by and swoop down to catch it. The white bar at the end of the tail makes identification easy.

There are a few exceptions. Flycatchers and king birds sit on the pasture fence wires diving off after insects flying by. Barn swallows swoop over the pastures.

The best place to do summer bird watching is the bird feeder. First come the morning doves. Blue jays, titmice, cardinals and goldfinches follow. Brown headed cowbirds take the place over for a time.

Woodpeckers work on the suet cake. Red bellied ones swoop in and plop onto the cake cage. Downey woodpeckers land on the posts and climb up until they see the cake is available.

If it weren’t for the bird feeder, summer bird watching would not happen.

More about feeding wild birds is in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Grass Seed Bounty

Late spring with lots of rain equals lots of grass seeds. The seed stalks shoot up tall enough to hide the goats, the turkeys, most animals as many of them harvest this grass seed bounty.

People have eaten grass seeds for millennia. We call these seeds wheat, barley, rye, oats and rice. All are grasses.

pasture expanse of grass seed bounty
My pastures are green expanses of waving grass stalks topped with seeds. Hidden under the grass seed heads are clover blooming in white and red, English plantain, summer grasses and other plants. Snakes, turtles, birds, squirrels and so many other creatures are hidden down below the thigh high grass.

Grass is at its nutritious peak when it blooms, before it sets seed. Books say this is when to cut the grass for hay. Spring Ozark weather laughs at these city people and sweeps the pastures with rain and wind.

Many years ago I read a book called “A Lantern In Her Hand” about a pioneer family crossing the prairie grass. The breeze ripples through it making it bend in a giant wave. The grass stands up again after the wave passes by only to repeat as the wind blows by.

The tall grass seed stalks in my pastures do the same. This wave pattern turns the pastures into green seas almost hypnotic to watch.

goats savor grass seed bounty
The goats love eating grass seeds. They hate not being able to see around them. It makes the herd hard to spot as only backs and ears show over the grass. Kids call all day trying to stay with the herd as they see little more than grass stalks.

My goats are paranoid about going out into these grass seas. They rustle and whisper. They might hide monsters.

Wild turkeys are not so worried. This grass seed bounty comes at a good time for turkey poults. Older tom turkeys get fat on the seeds.

wild turkeys feasting on grass seed bounty
This pair of wild tom turkeys was near the edge of the hill pasture. Even so, they were hard to spot in the tall grass. As they walked up into the pasture, the grass closed in behind them making them seem to vanish except for an occasional head poking up.

I put my chickens into their yard in the afternoon before going to the house. I don’t care much about the deadly game foxes and chickens. A periodic yelp made me stop and listen wondering if I was missing a hen.

A lonely tom turkey was walking along the edge of the hill pasture calling. Another came to join him eating the grass seed bounty as they walked toward the hill to roost high up in one of the trees for the night.

Tomorrow these turkeys and the goats will again go out into the pasture seas to harvest more of the grass seed bounty, a gift of a wet Ozark spring.

Read more about wild turkeys here.

Plant Common Names

People name things. Scientists devise a single name for each animal and plant. Plant common names aren’t that way.

A scientific name can describe some trait of a plant. More commonly they are from a person’s name or the place the plant was found.

There are mistakes. Our common milkweed has the name syriaca and is not found in Syria. The origin of this mistake goes back a few hundred years and is traced in “The Syrian Milkweed”.

Plant common names tend to describe some aspect of a plant. There is the purple milkweed called that because of its purple flowers. The swamp milkweed grows in swampy areas. Butterfly Weed is a milkweed that attracts butterflies.

A good plant to never taste is poison hemlock. Other plants to avoid are poison oak, ivy and sumac. However aromatic sumac is well worth a moment to take a whiff.

plant common names include bloodroot
Bloodroot is a poppy and a spring ephemeral wildflower. As soon as the weather warms, the plant sends up its single flower stalk. The flowers last for one day. A single leaf is wrapped around the flower stalk and unfurls. Once the seeds are made, the plant vanishes until the next spring.

In my garden chickweed tries to take the place over every spring. Chickens love it.

Back in the ravines the bloodroot is an early spring wildflower. Its root is blood red.

Another spring wildflower is dead nettle. The leaves are similar to those of stinging nettle, but without the sting.

plant common names include dead nettles
A member of the mint family, dead nettle seeds sprout in the fall, but grow fast and bloom in the spring. It is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom and are favorites of bumblebees. The plant is an annual and produces lots of seeds.

Presently one of the cranebills is blooming along the road and in the lawn. This common name is from the seed pod with its round top and long ‘bill’ hanging down resembling the head and bill of a crane.

Some plant common names are confusing as more than one refers to the same plant. The calloway pear can be called the Bradford pear and a couple of other names. The Rose of Sharon is also the Althea bush.

Just as there are books giving the meanings and origins of people’s names, there are books about the origins and meaning of common plant names. I have one called “Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?” by Mary Durant on my shelf. It is interesting to browse through a few names now and then.

Knowing a name for a plant does make the plant more interesting.

Hard Working Father

June is coming up with a holiday honoring fathers. There is one hard working father living at my place who will not be honored because he is a gray fox.

This poor male has a family to feed. His mate and five pups depend entirely on him for their food.

hard working father gray fox going off to hunt
The female fox is hungry again. The male gray fox is off to see what he can catch. These predators don’t live very long. Perhaps all the hard work wears them out.

The fox family has been living under one end of my barn. They tend to sleep in until mid morning. Then the male goes off to hunt.

The gray fox pups are now big enough to come out following him. They don’t come very far, only out in front of the barn to play in the grass for a few minutes.

These pups aren’t old enough to eat much meat yet. This takes some of the pressure off this hard working father as he is mostly feeding only himself and his mate who is feeding the pups milk.

gray fox pup
The male gray fox is off to hunt. This is the signal for the pups to go out to play. They mostly explore. A couple are starting to tussle. This is a young family. The pups are not very wary and stay out while being watched for several minutes.

I see the fox go out the gate and trot off down the road a short distance before going up on the hill. Once I saw him come back down carrying a ground squirrel. These rodents reproduce prodigiously as do the mice and voles. The foxes will also hunt moles.

Gray foxes are small predators. The male is about twice the size of my cats. This makes them easy prey for the local coyotes and bobcats.

Fox enemies stay away from my house and barn making it a safer place to raise those pups. Doe deer often keep their fawns near the yard for the same reason.

hard working father gray fox
The gray fox male stops to look back on its way down the road to go hunting. These small predators can climb trees, something red foxes can’t. The foxes are normally very shy, but are getting used to my comings and goings.

The fox did grab a couple of my chickens and I am not happy about it. But he seems to leave the chickens alone now as I am out in the area when they are out.

Many people would get out their guns and shoot this hard working father. It does take some adjustments to coexist. But we both live here and he may have the greater claim to belonging here. And the various gray foxes who have lived near the house for a time have earned my respect.

Deer, squirrels and other Ozark creatures are featured in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Tom Turkeys Are Calling

Spring turkey season is almost over. Early in the morning the tom turkeys are calling on the hills.

Flocks of turkeys call these hills home. I’ve spooked them from their night tree roosts now and then when I’ve been out hunting lost kids. If I’m really lucky, I spot a hen turkey escorting her poults in a pasture. Over the summer and fall the tom turkeys gather in loose groups to eat grass seeds.

tom turkeys are calling
Wild tom turkey are big, but low key until they start displaying. They erect their feathers and fan their tails and wings making themselves look two or three times larger than normal. The dark feathers hanging down are the tom turkey’s beard.

Walking out to milk shortly after dawn I hear them. Tom turkeys are calling from the hill beside the house, the hill hanging over the creek, another hill over the hill pasture and the hill over the south pasture.

In past years the tom turkeys would strut and display in the hill pasture. Lately they don’t leave the safety of the trees.

By midmorning the hills are quiet now. The tom turkeys are resting up for their next big effort to attract those hens not yet sitting on clutches of eggs.

tom turkey out in pasture
After a tough morning calling hens, this tom turkey is out eating insects and grass seed.

Food is an important part of this routine. The insects are busy in the grass. The grass is starting to put up seed heads.

One of the tom turkeys, probably the one from the hill overhanging the creek, was out eating in the hill pasture. He was wary. Wild turkeys have excellent eyesight.

Anyone curious about wild turkeys, and don’t confuse them with the domestic varieties, might read the book “Illuminations In the Flatwoods” or watch the movie. It’s about a man who raises a clutch of wild turkey poults to adulthood as though he were a wild turkey hen.

tom turkey spots camera
This tom turkey is over half way up the hill pasture, across the creek bed and some pasture before the tractor gate (about 200 yards) where I am standing using 50 zoom to take some pictures. He still sees me. He wasn’t too worried, but did start wandering over into the woods on the hill.

I find raising my goats and chickens challenging and would never tackle raising a wild flock. I’m glad he had the time and dedication to do so and the information about the turkeys made me respect them greatly.

For my part I will enjoy the times when the tom turkeys are calling in the spring and watch for them the rest of the year.

Read about more Ozark wildlife in “Exploring the Ozark Hills

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks

We keep a calendar with large writing spaces up on the wall to record the daily temperatures – low and high – and anything special that happens. Spring bird arrivals are that. The rose breasted grosbeaks were a day earlier than last year and the hummingbirds were a five days late.

female hummingbird on feeder
A favorite bird to feed is the Ruby Throat Hummingbird. Our first birds arrive in April. We put out quart sized feeders filled with sugar water from then until the last of them fly south in late October.

Over the years we’ve had a number of new birds move in and a few disappear. There is still a single whip-o-will that returns every April instead of the many who called all around us when we moved here. Mourning doves and blue jays are among the new ones.

Since the bird feeder is up year round and has been for almost thirty years, migrating birds seem to know about it. Last year a rusty blackbird stopped by one day. It is much larger than the other blackbirds and cowbirds who stay in the area. It was back again this year.

Indigo Bunting male on bird feeder
One of the summer visitors in the Ozarks is the Indigo Bunting. This seed eating bird likes open fields with lots of insects. They have moved into my area in the last few years and found the bird feeder to their liking. They enjoy the sunflower seeds and the suet cakes.

The red wing blackbirds live next door over the summer because of the cold water fen and cattails. One has discovered the feeder and comes by to snack.

Baltimore orioles stopped by one year to enjoy the hummingbird feeders. Cedar waxwings visit the various red cedars for a day or two.

A few years ago a single grosbeak stopped a day or two and flew on. he came back the next year. This year there are four males with several females stopping over for several days.

The mourning doves and blue jays began similarly. Then a few pairs stayed over the summer. The doves stay most of the year now.

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks on bird feeder
Rose Breasted Grosbeaks are large birds easily recognized. The males are black with a gray breast with a rose colored spot. Females are colored a lot like sparrows. Both have large beaks for crunching seeds. They show up for a few days on our feeder eating sunflower seeds and resting up before flying further north.

We are hoping the rose breasted grosbeaks will move in too. They are lovely birds and would be welcome additions to the cardinals, mourning doves, blue jays, titmice, Downey and red bellied woodpeckers and others we enjoy seeing daily.

If not, we will enjoy their visits each spring and fall.

Read more about nature in the Ozarks in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Downey Woodpecker Hole

With acres of woods on our property, we burn wood for winter heat. Mostly we cut newly dead or blown over trees. One of them had a woodpecker hole in it.

There are several kinds of woodpeckers living around the property. We regularly see Downey and Red Bellied woodpeckers at the suet cake on the bird feeder. An occasional Hairy woodpecker drops by.

woodpecker hole entrance
Spotting a small hole like this is really hard when it is thirty feet up in a tree. The hole is neatly chiseled out and big enough for a Downey woodpecker to disappear into quickly. The woodpecker hole piece has a new bottom and is again up in a tree in case anyone wants to move in.

Pileated woodpeckers stay back on the hills. We mostly hear them calling, but see them flying across the pastures now and then.

Red Headed woodpeckers nested here several years ago. At least one is still in the area. They seem to like going up and down the creek banks.

Woodpeckers drill holes into trees and build their nests down in the holes. I spotted one pileated woodpecker hole many years ago when one of them swooped over and disappeared into it.

woodpecker hole tunnel
Light shines into the entrance hole. Any woodpecker sitting in the bottom of the hole would be in the dark. The walls of the tunnel are rough to the touch, but smoothly chiseled out. Creating the hole was a lot of work for a small bird like a Downey woodpecker.

This year we’ve been clearing out dead trees along the creek. They fall over, break up and tear out the banks and bridge when high water carries them down to the river.

This old sycamore was still standing and solid. The wood burns hot and fast making it good for starting a fire early in the morning to take the chill out of the house.

When cutting it up, we found a round hole about an inch and a half across up near the top. At that point the trunk was only about six inches in diameter.

bottom of woodpecker hole
The base of the woodpecker hole may be wider than the tunnel down to it, but it isn’t very big. A Downey woodpecker would have room in this 4 inches wide spot.

The hole led into an eighteen inch vertical tunnel down into the trunk. It was a bit less than three inches across and widened a little at the base. The size indicates this woodpecker hole was for a Downey woodpecker. None of the others would have room to turn around.

A lot of work went into chipping out this hole. It hadn’t been used for a nest which we are glad of. Perhaps it wasn’t up to standards and was abandoned in favor of some other hole in another tree.

Finding a woodpecker hole is a reminder that not all dead trees should be cut down. Some of them may have residents inside.

Read about other Ozark birds in “Exploring the Ozark Hills.”

Butterfly Clusters

Walking along my road or around the trail at ShawneeMac Lakes Conservation Area I sometimes notice butterfly clusters. There was one yesterday of three different kinds of swallowtails.

Swallowtail butterflies in a butterfly cluster
This patch of ground is wet with a sheen of moisture over it. Several swallowtail butterflies landed to sip this mineral water. There are the regular yellow and black swallowtails. A smaller white and black swallowtail joins them. the black swallowtail may be either a Pipevine or a Spicebush swallowtail.

Butterflies are pretty and people think of them as friendly, pretty, carefree creatures. They are belligerent and constantly on the alert for predators. That doesn’t distract from their lovely wing patterns.

Gray Hairstreak Butterflies form butterfly clusters
The tiny extensions from the lower wings mark this butterfly as a hairstreak. The deep blue indicates this gray hairstreak is a male. These small butterflies often form large clusters with as many fluttering over those that are on the ground.

Butterfly clusters are good reasons to stop and admire these insects. The clusters can be on flowers such as butterfly milkweed. More often they are on manure piles or rain puddles in the road.

Pearl Crescent butterfly
Butterfly wings are delicate and soon start fraying on the edges as on this Pearl Crescent. This is another smaller butterfly. These sometimes join gray hairstreaks in a cluster around puddles.

Nectar is a great energy food and butterflies need plenty to keep flying. Nectar doesn’t supply proteins and minerals. Manure and dust do.

Although butterfly clusters are one way to see lots of these flying wonders, there are other ways. Single butterflies land here and there.

On my recent return to ShawneeMac Lakes the day was cool. I saw several butterflies sitting and sunning themselves. They spread their wings or slowly fanned them soaking up the sun’s heat.

Fritillary Butterfly
Sometimes called dead leaf butterflies, the outside of a fritillary’s wings are mottled dull browns mimicking leaf litter. The jagged edges complete the disguise. These butterflies are more solitary than others.

As long as I don’t cast a shadow on the butterfly, it will sit there ignoring me until I get within a few feet. Different kinds of butterflies have different distance triggers. The gray hairstreaks, pearl crescents and fritillaries are more tolerant. Sulfur butterflies have a trigger of about ten feet making them very difficult to photograph.

Another insect was out and about around the Lakes Clear wing dragonflies are a smaller member of the group. Dragonflies have excellent eyesight and are normally very wary. It was a surprise to get within a few feet of a couple and almost step on a few more before they zipped away.

Once the weather gets more settled and stays warm, these close encounters will become more rare. The butterflies and dragonflies won’t need to bask in the sun to warm up. But the butterfly clusters will still happen.

Find out a lot more about water in “The City Water Project“.

Exploring River Banks

The upper Meramec River is an easy walk down the gravel road. It is a popular destination for people out running the roads. On quiet mornings I enjoy exploring river banks for the many wildflowers growing there.

exploring river banks along the upper Meramec River
Most of the Meramec River current went down the far side of the channel until the last couple of floods. Then the main current shifted to the near bank taking out numerous trees and wiping out a local fishing hole. In places the gravel is high enough to attempt walking across, if rain has been scarce for a couple of months. For now the water is too deep and the current too swift so exploring the river banks is done on one side only.

Before we moved here a bridge went across the river passing an old cemetery and leading off somewhere. The center of the bridge collapsed and was never repaired. The remains have washed away over the years.

exploring river banks special flower find
Common blue violets are blue, all blue. Except for the confederate blue color variety I find down along the river bank. I’ve since seen it other places, but still look forward to finding it along the river every spring.

When the river floods, the flood plain is washed clean. The channel shifts from one side to the other. Pools form and disappear.

Trees wash out. The water carries fallen trees down the river, piles them on the bank and later washes them on down the river.

pale corydalis flowers
Pale corydalis is one of those plants that sneak in along the road or lawn edges or along the river banks. It isn’t very noticeable until the bright yellow flowers open. Even these are low key as they are small.

When the logs are piled high, it’s hard to walk down along the banks. When the logs are mostly gone, the walking is easy.

Exploring river banks is a way to find many wildflowers not very common elsewhere. And the open ground makes it easy to spot them.

ground ivy makes good ground cover
This little plant called ground ivy was first found in a friend’s yard as a ground cover. Finding it along the river was a surprise. It is a tough little plant holding dirt and shifting sand in place through floods and high water. The flowers are pretty and cover the plants.

When rain has been scarce, it’s possible to walk across the river. The far bank is much different from the one I usually walk. Crossing the river takes care as the current is strong.

The river is too high to cross so far this year. I’m hoping the cows often on the pastures on the far side won’t eat the giant cane down to nubbins before I can get across.

exploring river banks for Virginia bluebells
Virginia bluebells like moist soils so the river bank is a great place. The main patches were some distance up along the river. Now the patches are all along the distance I usually walk. The pale blue flowers look so fragile. Occasionally a plant has white flowers.

Once I found an American basswood tree while exploring river banks looking for a way across. It is washing out now so its upper branches are head high. I’m hoping to see it bloom one last time so I can complete the picture set for the tree.

This will be a great place to walk for another few months. Then exploring river banks will have to wait until the stinging nettle gets blasted by frost.

Read more about nature in the Ozarks in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.

Canada Geese Arrive

Plants are beginning to sprout defying the up and down temperatures of an Ozark spring. At ShawneeMac Conservation Area the main attractions are the Canada geese.

I hadn’t walked the trail there in months. The trees are still bare. The grass is thinking about growing.

The mowed area had lots of early saxifrage blooming. These plants were only four inches tall, but trying to set seed before the mowers start arriving.

Canada goose swimming
This Canada goose was curious about me as I walked along the trail around the upper lake at ShawneeMac Conservation Area. It swam toward me and then paralleled me for fifty or sixty feet until the trail turned back inland.

The honeysuckle was leafing out. The burning bush buds were swelling. These invasives are easy to spot along the trail.

The American holly was easy to spot as well. It’s the dark green plant scattered here and there off the trail. I am hoping to catch it in bloom this year which is challenging as it blooms for only a few days each spring.

group of Canada geese
Geese eat grass among other things. This group is on the edge of a picnic area mowing the grass. I guess the big one in the back is the male. The group honks quietly to each other while eating.

The honks of Canada geese kept me company during my hike. There were a couple of dozen birds in various groups around the upper lake. A couple swam by watching me watch them. Cameras are so interesting.

Much of the time the geese were behind lake edge vegetation and hard to spot. That changed when I got back to the parking area where I had left my truck.

pair of Canada Geese
One of these Canada geese is swimming quietly along. The other one came up beside her honking loudly and seems to be putting on a display for her. She is ignoring him.

A half dozen Canada geese had taken over a small point of land extending into the lake. Evidently it had one big male and several females. I really can’t tell the difference however another loudly honking goose started swimming over. The biggest goose in the group attacked and drove the interloper away.

Canada goose landing in lake
This Canada goose was up on shore when another goose came across the lake. It flew up and over landing in the lake to attack the approaching goose. Both were honking loudly.

Other geese swam, took baths, walked around in other areas and generally took over the lake shore. Some will be staying over the summer. Others move on to other lakes and ponds in the area or go farther north. The next Canada geese arrivals will be their goslings in late spring.

Read more about nature in the Ozarks in “Exploring the Ozark Hills“.