Snow Stories

November 15, 2014

One of the views exclusive to winter mornings

Another view of the prairie and woods in the distance. Notice the sparking snow 🙂

Spending time outside is an essential part to most people’s well-being. I am lucky in the fact that my job consists of daily outside time but I wanted more so I started walking to work. My 25 minute walk is not only a great way to start the day but it also provides me with the opportunity to see nature at its most incredible moments. I have been contemplating starting a blog to share my experiences with the community for several months but for me facing the elements on a daily basis is much less intimidating than committing myself to sitting at a computer indoors once a week.

This week’s walk contained several new experiences.  With an average weekly low of 10⁰ the biggest change from last week is the snow and single digits temperatures.  IT WAS GREAT!! Snow is something we really take advantage of and tend to complain about but for the handful of us that have grown to appreciate and accept Minnesota for its longest season we know that winter is something to be treasured. Besides the breathtaking beauty (and cold) that comes with winter, there is also what I like to call snow stories.

Animals aren’t able to communicate in the way humans can but their tracks easily tell stories.  Snow stories tell you a little bit about what the animals are up to when we are spending our time drinking hot cocoa and sitting under blankets. This week I saw one of my favorite snow stories: The bird and the mouse.

A little rodent highway right into their hole

Another well traveled mouse path into a hole. Mice and other small rodents will spend a lot of their time digging tunnels under the snow. This protects them and also helps keep them warm.

Tunnels under the snow can’t always protect the mice. Many predatory birds (such as owls) have an excellent sense of hearing and can detect their next meal from under the snow! That is exactly what happened here. You can see the marks from the bird’s wings and the area that the mouse was grabbed from. My favorite type of snow story 🙂

Please take some time to admire this underappreciated season! Bundle up, bring a warm drink and take a little time to discover (or make) your own snow stories! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Program Specialist for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

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‘Til Death Do Us Part — Nature’s Five Most Romantic Couples

Sarah Shimek

By Sarah Shimek, Education Coordinator

5. Bald Eagles

Bald Eagle Pair - adults   Photo by Len Blumin

Bald Eagle Pair – adults
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   ByLen Blumin

While bald eagles are known for their fantastically acrobatic aerial mating rituals, it is actually the nest-building that cements the bond between mates, building on the same nest season after season. Bald eagles are among the estimated 95% of birds that are socially monogamous – meaning they cooperatively raise their young over the course of a mating season and in most cases, will return to the same nest and mate year after year. One nest, used by an eagle pair for over 3 decades, measured 9 feet across, almost 12 feet high, and was estimated to weigh over 2 tons.  While genetic testing shows that they may engage in a little fling on the side now & then, known as “extra-pair copulation,” only several years of unsuccessful clutches or the death of one eagle will break up these super-couples.

Sandhill Crane Parents with baby By Matthew Paulson

Sandhill Crane Parents with baby
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  By Photomatt28

4. Sandhill Cranes

Another bird renowned for their elaborate mating dances, the sandhill crane is also known as a symbol of long-term fidelity.  Bonded pairs call in unison, spreading the word that they are in a committed relationship.  During the massive breeding-ground migrations in the spring, their synchronized “kar-roo” is thought to be a bonding activity, kind of like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing and singing their way across the stage. Unlike Fred & Ginger, crane pairs will stay together until one of them dies, even if they have a couple nests that flop.  Philandering among crane pairs is so rare that when a single extra-pair copulation event was witnessed in 2006 it was big news; in fact it was the first one ever documented.

3. Black Vultures

Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus   By Martha de Jong-Lantink

Black Vulture – Coragyps atratus
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  By Martha de Jong-Lantink

For black vultures, enforcing monogamy is a community affair. These ominous birds seem to be deeply serious about their commitment to a chosen partner. The pair will hang out together year-round and share parenting duties.  Individuals caught engaging in extra-pair copulation will not only be attacked by their mate but by neighboring vultures as well. Genetic study of 17 different vulture families found no evidence of extra-pair fooling around, giving new meaning to the phrase “It takes a village…”

Prairie Vole

Prairie Vole

2. Prairie Voles

Mammals – rodents in particular, are not necessarily known for their fidelity.  But the little prairie vole is a notable exception. Once they have lost their virginity, males will prefer to mate exclusively with that female, even going so far as to attack other females.  Scientists have traced this behavior to a hormone in the brain, which triggers lasting bond formations and aggression towards potential home-wreckers.  Once mated, these “high school sweethearts” share parental duties, groom one another, and appear quite affectionate. When presented with “unfamiliar, virgin females” in the wild, less than 10% of male voles succumbed to the temptation. Even more unusual, less than 20% of committed voles sought out a new mate if their partner died.

1. Diplozoon paradoxum (parasitic worm)

As unattractive as it sounds, this worm takes the prize for most committed among Nature’s couples. I’ve spared you pictures of this particularly homely couple. This fish parasite practices an extreme form of monogamy. Individuals meet as virgin adolescent larvae and literally fuse together at their midsections. Sexual maturity is not reached until the worm fuses with a mate. Once fused, they remain together until they die sometimes several years later, when even then they are not parted.  As Dr. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle noted in an article in the New York Times, “That’s the only species I know of in which there seems to be 100 percent monogamy.” The only heartache here is in the unfortunate fish that hosts this epic romance.

Sarah Shimek is the education coordinator for the River Bend Nature Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in Faribault, Minnesota that specializes in nature and environmental education.  The Nature Center property includes 743 acres of original and restored natural lands with over ten miles of trails that are open to the public 365 days per year. River Bend Nature Center relies on donations and memberships to fund its operations, please join and give today. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Sources:

The Top 5 Scary Animals (That Aren’t Really That Scary)

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

Assassin Bug

An assassin bug having a bee for lunch! Photo credit Dave Wilson Photography.

During this spooky time of year it is popular to post lists of scary things. Often times these lists feature animals such as the Great White shark or the Grizzly bear – animals that are actually quite frightening when encountered in nature. The five animals I am going to write about are “scary” but they will not get your instinctual-adrenaline pumping. These animals either appear scary or have some type of behavior that is scary, but in reality they pose little threat to us humans.

5. Assassin Bugs

These small (less than 40 mm) insects from the order Hemiptera (true bugs) are real-life vampires. Like their name suggests, they are highly-skilled predators. Assassin bugs employ camouflage coloring, dust, and sometimes even the exoskeletons of previous victims to hide and wait for their prey. They have also been known attack while flying. Once they have caught their prey, they use their straw-like mouth, called a rostrum, to inject saliva into their victim’s body. This isn’t just ordinary saliva; this saliva dissolves the inner tissues of their prey into liquid which the assassin bug then sucks out through the rostrum. There are 7,000 species worldwide. The Assassin bugs that can commonly be found in the prairie here at River Bend are quite benign. However, there are several species that inhabit parts of Central and South America that do feed on the blood of humans while they are sleeping. A few specific species of these blood-sucking Assassin bugs carry Chagas disease which can be fatal.

Wrinkle Faced Bat

It is hard to forget a face like that! Photo credit Evets Lembek.

4. Wrinkle-faced Bat

This fruit-eating bat truly has a face that only a mother could love. Wrinkle-faced bats can be found in several Central and South American countries. The face of the male bat typically has more wrinkles than the female. These skin growths are thought to help direct sound waves to their ears. Also quite strange is that the male bats have a flap of skin on their neck that they can tuck their whole head into. Very interesting to note is that the wrinkle-faced bat’s head is wider than it is tall. This adaptation allows the bat to increase the strength of its bite. Some scientists have conjectured that this allows the Wrinkle-faced bat to eat tough-skinned fruit when soft fruit is not available.

Tailless Whip Scorpion

Just remember it can’t hurt you! Photo credit Brujo.

3. Tailless Whip Scorpion

Although not a scorpion, this arachnid is perhaps more visually startling than its relative. Besides its six walking legs and two pedipalps (the two claw/pincer type legs near the animal’s mouth) it has a long appendage on each side of its body which is the “whip”. These appendages are not actually used as whips, but they do help catch prey. Typically the Tailless Whip scorpion walks sideways with its whips probing in front and behind as it walks feeling around for prey. Once it finds its prey it catches it with the pedipalps which have thornish spikes to ensure the prey does not get away. These arachnids do not have spinnerets or venom. There are 155 species that live in tropical and sub-tropical areas (so nothing to fear here in Minnesota). These animals prefer a humid environment.

Pistol Shrimp

For being so small it sure packs a punch! Photo credit Debby Ng.

2. Pistol Shrimp

Yes, a diminutive, plain-looking shrimp is at number two on this list. So if it doesn’t look frightening, then why is it on this list? Because it can do something quite spectacular that makes me thankful that it is fairly small and lives on the ocean floor far away from here.  The Pistol shrimp, also known as the Snapping shrimp, is a predatory shrimp and has a very unique way of catching its prey. The shrimp has asymmetrical claws, with one of the claws being able to produce very loud (190 decibels) snapping noise that it uses to catch prey and communicate. When there are great populations of these shrimp they can actually disrupt sonar and cause noise pollution in the ocean due to their incredibly loud snapping. Now to the interesting part, how they catch their prey. Typically they feed on small fish and other shrimp. They lay in wait until they sense movement with their antennae. Then they cock back their snapping claw and aim it at their prey. Next it releases the claw (hence the pistol name) and it creates a cavitation bubble (the loud snapping noise creates a pressure difference in the water) which travels towards the prey at upwards of 100 km/hr and at a temperature of 9000 ⁰C. Yes you read that correctly. Nine. Thousand. Degrees. Celsius. And yes, that is hotter than the surface of the sun. This cavitation bubble eventually implodes, effectively and severely stunning the prey which allows the Pistol shrimp to grab it and bring it back to its burrow to feed. This shrimp lives in oceans worldwide.

House Centipede

So terrifying!!! Photo credit AussieBotanist.

1. House Centipede

This centipede is only five centimeters long, which is dramatically smaller than its largest cousin, the Amazonian Giant centipede, which can be up to 35 centimeters long.  However, this centipede can be commonly found in your house, it moves uncommonly fast, and is not pleasant to look at. It may be of consolation that if this centipede is found in your house, it means that it is getting rid of other pests including ants, silverfish, small spiders, and even bed bugs. To catch this prey it moves very fast- up to .5 meters per second. Like many other centipedes, the house centipede uses venom to kill its prey. This species has specialized legs near its mouth that inject the venom instead of using mouthparts. House centipedes have been observed jumping onto their prey, lassoing them with their legs, and even bludgeoning their prey with their legs. Another adaptation that makes this centipede a great hunter is that it has highly developed eyes which are unusual among centipedes, although it still uses its antennae quite a bit. If you are quick enough to squash this arthropod, you better be accurate. House centipedes are notorious for being able to drop appendages that are trapped. However, if you squash too hard the centipede may drop all of its legs and essentially explodes. Originally from the Mediterranean, the House centipede is found almost worldwide. Just hope that the next time you move a piece of furniture you don’t see this creepy crawler speed away to its next hiding spot.

I hope that these animals did not scare you too much. Just remember that most of them don’t live here in Minnesota and that you as a human are much larger than they are so in reality they are probably more scared of you than you are of them. Enjoy Halloween!

Garrett Genereux is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

The Ever-Changing Prairie

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

One part of River Bend that I feel is sometimes overlooked is the prairie. The prairie here, although small compared to the forest, has a great diversity of plant species. Not only does the prairie have a variety of plants but it also contains an assortment of animals.

Swallowtail Butterfly on Wild Bergamot

This includes many kinds of insects, deer, 13-lined ground squirrels, several other mammals, and quite a selection of birds. Despite all of that perhaps my favorite part of the prairie is that it is always changing. One week you may take a walk  on the Prairie Loop and notice several beautiful species of grasses and flowers blooming, then two weeks later see a whole new set of plants in bloom.

White-tailed Deer

Showy Goldenrod in bloom

Already this year we have seen lupine, butterfly weed, penstemon, wild parsnip (definitely not my favorite plant), purple coneflower, yarrow, golden alexander, and wild bergamot come and go. Right now we are perhaps in the “peak” blooming season. Currently big bluestem, daisy fleabane, snakeroot, tall bellflower, yellow sweet clover, Indian grass, purple prairie clover, bird’s foot trefoil, prairie coneflower, sage, side oats gamma, white prairie clover, thistle, showy goldenrod, black eyed susan, and rattlesnake master are all in bloom! If you are too busy or would prefer cooler weather to go for a hike do not worry! There are still more blooms to come. In the coming weeks several species of aster, gentian, goldenrod, and round headed bush clover will all come into bloom.

Later in the fall, prairie plants will get ready to scatter their seeds. This is summed up beautifully by American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale:  “For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.”

Another way that the prairie changes is through controlled burns that mimic the fires from pre-settlement times.  These fires burn the grasses and plants to the soil, but do not damage the extensive perennial root systems that native prairie plants have. This has many benefits. For one, it returns essential nutrients to the soil. Another is that the fire removes invasive species who often do not have as deep of a root system compared to the native plants. Lastly, the fire also keeps trees in check in the continuous battle between the forest and the prairie. Here at River Bend we typically burn sections of our prairie every other year. It is likely that we will be burning this upcoming spring!

Purple Prairie Clover blooming

Please come out for a visit and see the prairie! Walking from the Interpretive Center up and around the Prairie Loop will allow you to see most of the prairie that we have here at River Bend Nature Center. Also please check out the informational brochure on prairie plants, so you have a guide for your walk. There is also a display of current blooms with names and color pictures on the backside of a divider just beside our kitchenette in the Interpretive Center. If you wish to learn more about prairie burns, come to our public program on September 15th, from 9:30-10:30 am, aptly titled “Fires on the Prairie.”

Garrett Genereux is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.