Sunday, January 12, 2020

Winter Plums, Winter Wildlife: Part I (Birds)

Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge,
from McDowell Creek, looking west.  Winter
is settling in!  

I used to feel sad when the "growing season" ended, as it meant the end of blossoms and pollinators.  

But I am learning that winter just means a different kind of growing.

For example, plum thickets in winter are Life Central!  


A plum thicket along McDowell Creek
after an ice storm, January 2020
Birds newly arrived from the tundra overwinter here and love to roost in the reddish branches of Prunus americana, American Plum, and Prunus angustifolia, Sandhill Plum.  (Both species grow here.)

The plums host Harris's Sparrows:







 Tree Sparrows:








An occasional Lincoln's Sparrow:



And our year-round resident Song Sparrows:

The thickets provide protection from the cold and from predators, such as this female Merlin:  



She sits above the plums and would love to grab a sparrow-meal.  

If she succeeds occasionally, the remaining sparrows are still numerous.  They crowd noisily into the plum thickets as the sun sets.  Their chatter and whistles as they settle in to roost are among the loveliest sounds of a winter dusk.  That clear whistle is coming from the Harris's Sparrows.  But all the species are cheeping and chirping!


Many thanks to Tom Ewert for confirming bird identifications.  All photos and videos by Margy Stewart, unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Winter Plums, Winter Wildlife: Part 2 (Invertebrates)


Plum thickets blend with the grasses on the edge of the Creek Field, a restoration of bottomland tall grass prairie.  


Once most of the plum leaves have fallen, so many signs of life appear!




Here is the egg sac of a Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia), suspended from plum twigs.



The tiny spiderlings inside are waiting out the winter.


A neighboring Garden Spider was even more prolific.  She produced two batches of A. aurantia: 


A. Aurantia egg sacs, attached to plum twigs.




While spiderlings grow strong inside some egg sacs, inside others they become food for predators.

Here is an egg sac of A. aurantia ripped open by some hungry bird, possum, or raccoon (thank you, Betsy Betros, for explaining the scenario):

A preyed-upon egg sac attached to plums.

Chinese Mantises also attach their oothecas (egg cases) to plums:

The ootheca of a Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinesis) on a plum twig.

But woodpeckers love to snack on the eggs and nymphs of Chinese Mantises.   Here is the tell-tale hole drilled by a woodpecker:  


An occasional bagworm appears on the plums...


...along with the cocoon of a Promethea Moth or a Tussock Moth (the experts at bugguide.net think either could be a possibility):

The cocoon is carefully wrapped in a plum leaf, just like a cigar, and firmly attached by silk to the end of a plum twig.    

This rather tattered cocoon attached to a plum twig and leaf might have been made by a Polyphemus Moth, according to entomologist Dick Beeman (thank you, Dick! ):

But other signs of invertebrate life are harder to identify.  I found the following in the plums and submitted photos to my expert friends, Kansas Arthropods, and bugguide, but so far no one has confirmed an ID.  If viewers of this blog can help, your assistance would be welcome!

Among the mysteries were various combinations of silk and leaf attached to plum twigs:







And there was a strange, disk-shaped egg case, smaller than a dime and deposited on a plum twig, that sported three yellow eggs on the surface:
An egg sac on a plum twig with three yellow eggs on the surface.

Was this the product of one species or two?

For the moment, these invertebrate signs remain unidentified--perhaps to declare themselves at a later time.

Even when encased in ice, the plums are interacting with  with winter wildlife--both the kinds that are familiar to us and the kinds that are still mysterious.  




All photos were taken in the Creek Field at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge along McDowell Creek in Geary County, Kansas, in December 2019 or January 2020, and are by Margy Stewart unless otherwise indicated.