Encounter with a Bluebird Family

As I approached a place where a meadow meets a narrow strip of woods, I noticed some movement in the shadows cast by a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).  The light was low, so I had to use binoculars to be able to see that the bird flying from the ground to a low branch was an immature Eastern Bluebird.

Immature Eastern Bluebird

This is just the kind of habitat Eastern Bluebirds prefer, open meadows or even lawns with trees nearby for perching and nesting.  Bluebirds nest in cavities, using natural cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. This kind of real estate is in high demand, so Bluebirds also use nesting boxes.  The male brings materials to the nesting site, including grasses, spent plant stems and pine needles for the outside of the nest, finer grasses and sometimes animal hair for the inside.  The female is in charge of construction, building the nest inside their chosen cavity.

This youngster was apparently already learning and practicing a common Bluebird food foraging behavior, that of sitting on a low branch and flying down to capture an insect meal.  As is the case with most birds, insects and spiders are an important part of a Bluebird’s diet. Bluebirds eat quite a variety, including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and caterpillars.

Grasshopper – A good meal for a hungry Bluebird!

Tulip Tree Beauty – Nothing beats a caterpillar as a tasty treat!

In fall and winter fruit is added to this insect diet.

In fall and winter, Bluebirds add fruit like that offered by this Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) to their diet.

While I focused on this young bird, someone else entered my line of sight.  It was a vividly colorful mature male Bluebird.  He landed in a low bare branch of the Tuliptree, the remnants of last year’s fruit only slightly obscuring my view of him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

This dazzling male seemed intent on mesmerizing me with his beauty so that I would forget about his offspring in the shadows behind him.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

His strategy was pretty effective.  While I didn’t forget about the young bird, I couldn’t take my eyes off its father.

Male Eastern Bluebird in Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

But eventually my peripheral vision picked up some movement behind this stunning male.

A female Eastern Bluebird was flying from a nesting box in the meadow, to the far edge of the tree line.  She flew back and forth, until the young bluebird finally followed her and they disappeared together through the trees.  When I looked again for the male, he had also taken off.

I walked to the lawn on other side of the wood line toward the place where the Bluebirds had escaped from my view and found lots of activity.  The female, now with two immature Bluebirds, flew back and forth from the lawn to the trees.  Practice flights?  One of the youngsters decided to stay in the grass, poking at the ground in search of insect food.  Mom stayed for a while, coaching her young student.

Female Eastern Bluebird (left) with tutoring her young offspring

Eventually Mom flew back to the shelter of the trees.  After a moment, the young bird followed the rest of its family, disappearing into the trees.

Young Eastern Bluebird

 

Resources

Eastman, John.  Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket.  1997.

Harrison, Hal H.  Eastern Birds’ Nests.  1975

Sibley, David Allen.  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.  2001.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

 

A Winter Show-off

My first encounter with Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata) was in late fall when the warm brown seed heads caught my eye.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Throughout fall through winter, this plant is at its most dramatic, easily compelling attention away from nearby vegetation.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

When in bloom, Round-headed Bush Clover’s appearance is much more subtle, blending in with the grasses, Mountain Mints, asters, goldenrods and other plants that may share its territory.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Round-headed Bush Clover has dense clusters, or heads, of small white flowers.  ‘Capitata’ in the scientific name means ‘growing in a dense head’, reflecting this arrangement.  The upper petal of each flower has a bit of an art deco vibe – they’re smudged with pink at the throat with ray-like veins radiating above.  This display may look delicately pretty to us, but to the many bees that visit the flowers it’s a beacon advertising food availability.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

The flower petals are protected by hairy sepals, green when the flowers are in bloom, then turning deep brown for fall and winter.  It’s these brown sepals that provide the eye-catching winter display.   If Round-headed Bush Clover’s strategy for enticing pollinators to visit is successful, dry (not fleshy) fruits will be tucked inside the dried sepals.

Hairs on plants are often an adaptation to protect the plant from being eaten, or too discourage free-loaders from stealing nectar when the flowers are blooming.  For example, ants visit flowers for nectar but rarely help with pollination because they are not a good anatomical match for the flowers’ reproductive structures, nor do the ants have the type of surface to which pollen might adhere.  The hairy sepals surrounding the flowers are likely to discourage ants from foraging the flowers, preserving the nectar for more effective flower visitors.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Round-headed Bush Clover has three-part compound leaves, an arrangement that is common with clovers. It grows to a height of two to five feet (.6 – 1.5 meters).  Although the plant is somewhat shrubby-looking, it is herbaceous, that is, its above ground parts die back in the winter, and new shoots emerge from its roots for the next growing season.

In addition to offering food for pollinators, Round-headed Bush Clover is a food plant for the caterpillars of several butterflies, including the Silver-spotted Skipper,

Silver-spotted Skipper ovipositing (laying an egg) on Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Silver-spotted Skippers have the unusual habit of laying their eggs on plants near their caterpillar food plants.

Eastern-tailed Blue,

Eastern-tailed Blue on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Gray Hairstreak,

Gray Hairstreak on White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Southern Cloudywing, Northern Cloudywing, Confused Cloudywing, Hoary Edge, and the Io Moth.

Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Bobwhites and Wild Turkeys are among the birds that may eat the seeds when they are available.

Dark-eyed Junco

Round-headed Bush Clover is native in most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and in Ontario and New Brunswick in Canada.  Searching for it in a meadow near you gives you a reason to go out for a winter walk!

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)

Resources

Beadle, David; Leckie, Seabrooke. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. 2012.

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Illinois Wildflowers

Natural History Museum Hosts Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database

 

 

Crayon-colored Hickories

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

The compound leaves of Hickory (Carya species) trees still clinging to their branches are displaying colors that remind me of crayons:  yellow-green, yellow-orange, lemon-yellow, chestnut, burnt umber.  Together with the reds and browns of Oaks, the tans and peach of American Beech, they are part of the mid-fall forest pallette.   Shagbark (Carya ovata), Mockernut (C. tomentosa) and Bitternut (C. cordiformis) are the Hickories I encounter most often.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa).

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa).

Those Hickory leaves may have supported up to 200 different species of butterflies and moths as food for their caterpillars, all without any negative impact on the appearance of the trees. Some of the species Hickories support are Banded and Hickory Hairstreak butterflies, and many moths, including Hickory Tussock, Yellow-shouldered Slug, and the dramatic Hickory Horned Devil, the largest of our native North American caterpillars.

Banded Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). Banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat Hickory leaves, as well as some other woody species.

Banded Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). Banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat Hickory leaves, as well as some other woody species.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Yellow-shouldered Slug

Yellow-shouldered Slug

The aptly named, acrobatic Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar.

The aptly named, athletic, Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar.

All of those caterpillars are fair game for birds, looking for food for themselves and their growing offspring. Insects, especially caterpilIars, are an important source of food for birds.  It can take thousands of caterpillars to raise a hungry clutch of baby birds.

Wood Thrush at the nest with babies

Wood Thrush at the nest with babies

Some caterpillars may fall victim to other predators, like spiders, predatory wasps or flies, and assassin bugs.

Brown Assassin Bug (Acholla multispinosa) on Bitternut Hickory bud.

Brown Assassin Bug (Acholla multispinosa) on Bitternut Hickory bud.

Hickory nuts also supply food for animals, including people. The husks have four sections that split open to reveal the hard shell protecting the nut ‘meat’ inside.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) nuts split partially open, like this one.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) nuts split partially open, like this one.

Hickory nut on the right, empty husk pieces on the left

Hickory nut on the right, empty husk pieces on the left

Eastern Chipmunks, Red, Gray, Fox and Flying Squirrels, Raccoons, and rabbits all eat Hickory nuts. Squirrels may bury some of the nuts rather than eating them right away.  This habit helps to disperse the Hickories if the squirrels don’t come back and eat the nuts at a later date.

Eastern Chipmunk (with full cheeks!)

Eastern Chipmunk (with full cheeks!)

Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

Fox may also eat Hickory nuts, or they may eat the smaller animals who eat the nuts.

Red Fox eating Gray Squirrel

Red Fox eating Gray Squirrel

Wild Turkeys, Bobwhites, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and even Wood Ducks are among the birds that consume the tastier species of Hickory nuts.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Male Wood Duck in non-breeding plumage

Male Wood Duck in non-breeding plumage

Hickory trees provide food and building material for humans, too.   Shagbark is the species whose nuts are most often sold commercially.  As you might guess from its name, Bitternut Hickory is not sought after for its nuts.  Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are in this same genus and are an important commercial crop.  Hickory sap can be used to make syrup or other sweeteners.

Shagbark is also the species whose wood is most often used commercially for making handles, ladder rungs, wheel spokes, flooring, and a hickory-smoked flavor for cooking. Named for its shaggy strips of bark, Shagbark Hickory stands out from the crowd.

Can you pick the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) out of the crowd?

Can you pick the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) out of the crowd?

The bark offers warm, dry accommodations for insects and others trying survive the winter.

Spider web on Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Spider web on Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Eastern Comma butterflies survive the winter as adults, if they can find a warm dry shelter like a space under the loose bark of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).

Eastern Comma butterflies survive the winter as adults, if they can find a warm dry shelter like a space under the loose bark of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).

Mockernut Hickory also has distinctive bark, but in a completely different way. Its gray, smooth-looking, corky exterior forms sinuous ridges along the length of the trunk.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa). Notice the curved ridges in the bark, especially in places where branches have fallen off.

Look for Hickory trees even after their leaves fall. You may be able to identify them by their bark and their buds.  Hickories typically have a single large end bud at the tip of their branches that is usually quite distinctive, different for each species.  There are smaller buds spaced alternately along the length of the branches.

Mockernut Hickory buds are somewhat rounded, echoing the curved pattern of the bark ridges.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) branch in winter. Notice the large end bud with rounded sides.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) branch in winter. Notice the large end bud with rounded sides.

Shagbark Hickory usually retains contrasting bud scales, which you might think of as being reminiscent of the shaggy bark.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) bud. Notice the bod scales hugging the sides.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) bud. Notice the scales hugging the sides of the bud.

Bitternut Hickory buds are a bright mustard color that is difficult to mistake for anything else.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis), showing its distinctive mustard-colored buds.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis), showing its distinctive mustard-colored buds.

As winter turns to spring, watch for these buds to swell and unfold like flowers.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) leaves unfolding in spring.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) leaves unfolding in spring.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) in spring

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) in spring

The range for Shagbark and Bitternut Hickory includes much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. Mockernut’s range is similar, but it does not include the Canadian provinces, or some of the northern tier of the United States.

Enjoy the colorful foliage while it lasts!

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Related Posts

Nutritious Fall Foliage: What Makes Leaves So Colorful

American Beech

In Praise of Black Walnut Trees

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Marshall, Stephen A. Insects Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home.  2007

Wagner, David L.; Caterpillars of Eastern North America, 2005.

Illinois Wildflowers
http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/btnt_hickory.html
http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/mock_hickory.html

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home

USDA NRCS Plant Database
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CAOV2
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=caco15
https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CAAL27

The Wood Database

Partridge Pea Puzzles

Bright yellow Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flowers peek out from between the stems of taller grasses and flowering forbs in meadows, prairies, stream banks and other open areas from July through early September.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Partridge Pea’s flowers are tucked in the leaf axils down the length of the stem.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Each flower has five yellow petals, with one much longer than the other four, and another partially curled toward the center of the flower, where its reproductive parts are located. A 1992 study showed that the curved petal directs floral visitors to the flower’s reproductive parts, first to the pistil (female reproductive part), and then the stamens (male reproductive parts).[1]  The red smudges on the petals are part of the visual allure to pollinators.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

In the Partridge Pea flower in the photo above you can see the three evenly sized petals at the top, one petal in the lower left that curls toward the center of the flower, and an over-sized petal at the lower right. The stamens are mostly clustered at the middle of the flower.  The pistil resembles a hook projecting from beneath the right-most stamen. It is visible at the top of the over-sized petal.  Imagine a pollinator coming in for a landing using the over-sized petal as a runway, guided by the curved petal, with the red smudges on the petals as beacons. The pollinator brushes first against the receptive stigma at the tip of the pistil, depositing pollen from the last flower visited, then moves on to harvest pollen from the stamens.

Bumble Bee harvesting pollen from Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flower. Bumble Bees are adept at buzz pollination.

Partridge Pea flowers offer pollen as a reward to their visitors, but they don’t produce nectar. As a result, bees that collect pollen are the most likely visitors of the flowers.  But the bees have to have skills in order to harvest Partridge Pea’s pollen, since it requires special handling in order to access it.  The pollen is dispersed through a slit at the tip of the stamen’s anther.  Pollen can be shaken out of the anther as a result of buzz pollination, a technique in which a bee clings to the flower while vibrating its wing muscles without actually moving its wings.  ‘Milking’ the anther with a series of strokes is another method of successfully harvesting Partridge Pea’s pollen.[2]

Honey Bee harvesting pollen from Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flower. Honey Bees can’t perform buzz pollination, so may be using the ‘milking’ technique.

Eastern Carpenter Bee harvesting pollen from Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flower.

Butterflies aren’t interested in Partridge Pea flowers, since they don’t offer nectar. But several butterfly species use Partridge Pea as a food plant for their caterpillars, including the Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphur.

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from Winged Loosestrife (Lythrum alatum)

Cloudless Sulphur

Gray Hairstreak and caterpillar on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). Can you see the tiny caterpillar clinging to a leaf in the lower left of the photo?

When I saw a Gray Hairstreak butterfly spending time walking around a Partridge Pea plant, it seemed possible that this was a female laying eggs. Gray Hairstreaks use some Pea family members as caterpillar food, including clovers and tick-trefoils, although I haven’t seen any confirmation that they would use Partridge Pea.

Gray Hairstreak on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).

A closer look showed that the butterfly was visiting Partridge Pea for nectar after all, but it was nectar that is made available through extrafloral nectaries on the base of the stem of each leaf.  This was a great benefit for the butterfly, but not much help for the plant, since the butterfly offered no services in return.

Gray Hairstreak drinking nectar from an extrafloral nectary on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

When present, extrafloral nectaries are generally a plant’s adaptation to entice insects that are predators of herbivores to visit and protect the plant. Ants are especially important in this role, since caterpillars are a very desirable food for them.  Some wasps and lady beetles are also potential protectors of plants.  While they are interested in nectar for themselves, they are also on the hunt for insects to feed to their larvae.  The wasps and lady beetles may rid the plant of the caterpillars or other insects who would eat it.  Nectar is provided in exchange for this protection.

Partridge Pea’s extrafloral nectaries look like tiny open pots, glistening with nectar, an open invitation to thirsty insects cruising through, not all of whom will offer services to the plant.

The two round pot-like appendages near the base of the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) leaf stems are the extrafloral nectaries. Notice the glistening drops of nectar oozing from them.

While I have seen ants working Partridge Pea extrafloral nectaries, I was surprised at the variety of insects I saw drinking from them at one location I visited. It makes me wonder whether the cost of providing this nectar is worth the protection gained from them.  In addition to the Gray Hairstreak, I watched while a Bumble Bee spent more time visiting the extrafloral nectaries than the flowers.

Bumble Bee drinking nectar from a Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) extrafloral nectary.

After visiting several extrafloral nectaries, the Bumble Bee moved on to a flower.

I saw several Paper Wasps visit the nectaries. Since these wasps hunt caterpillars to feed their larvae, they do have the potential to provide a service in exchange for a tasty drink.

Paper Wasp (Polistes species) drinking from an extrafloral nectary on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Paper Wasp (Polistes species) drinking from an extrafloral nectary on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

‘That was tasty!’ Paper Wasp (Polistes species) on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Some accounts of Partridge Pea say that the leaves will sometimes fold up when they are touched. I’ve tried it several times, but I have never had Partridge Pea respond to my touch.  However, I have seen Partridge Pea plants with their leaves folded, so I’m guessing the plant folds its leaves in response to some stimuli, but I haven’t found an explanation for what it might be.  Maybe it’s a mechanism to prevent excessive water loss on hot, dry, or windy days.  Or maybe the plant responds to the touch of a butterfly laying eggs, and wants to minimize the leaf surface available to her.  I wish I knew!

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) with leaflets folded. What prompted this?

If the name didn’t give away its family heritage, the fruits identify Partridge Pea as a member of the Pea or Bean (Fabaceae) family.  These fruits are an important winter source of food for birds, especially Bobwhites and Greater Prairie Chicken.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) with fruits typical of the Pea (Fabaceae) family.

Partridge Pea is an annual, but reseeds itself readily.  It likes sun, and can tolerate poor, dry soils.  It helps to fertilize soils through its release of nitrogen, and is sometimes used in stream bank stabilization.  Partridge Pea is native from Rhode Island to Minnesota in the north, south as far as southeastern New Mexico, and from Texas to Florida.

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate)

Related Posts

Will Work for Food – Extrafloral Nectaries

Cloudless Sulphurs Are on the Move

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA NRCS Plant Guide – Partridge Pea

[1], [2] Pollination and the Function of Floral Parts in Chamaecrista fasiculata, Andrea D. Wolfe and James R. Estes, 1992.

Natural Selection on Extrafloral Nectar Production in Chamaecrista Fasciculata: The Costs and Benefits of a Mutualism Trait