Category Archives: Biology

Don’t Be a Silly Goose! Fly South for the Winter!

Whose idea was it to spend winter here?

Recently, I was walking Loki, the family dog, when I saw a flock of Canada Geese (a gaggle ?) on a frozen pond in my Kansas City area neighborhood. It was a beautiful sight. The low afternoon sun cast a golden glow onto the melting water, reflecting the geese and the yellow foliage of grass and cat tails. If you didn’t look too closely, you wouldn’t see the goose poop scattered artistically across the frozen surface. I took the dog home and returned with my camera. The geese don’t like paparazzi, so they headed to the opposite side of the pond.

These geese like the neighborhood.  After a heavy snow, I saw the geese gathered on a golf course, taking advantage of a lack of golfers.

About Canada Geese.

This golf gallery is a gaggle of geese gawking on a golf green (now white with snow.)

This golf gallery is a gaggle of geese gawking on a golf green (now white with snow.)

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Humor, Kansas City, Natural History, Photography

Camouflage #Fail

Katydids are usually heard, but not seen. With their leaf-shaped green wings they blend in perfectly with greenery. This katydid didn’t get the memo.

I rarely see katydids, unlike their grasshopper distant relatives, which boldly munch on my flowers and vegetables. Katydids are more reclusive, heard but not often seen.  They are related to crickets, another noisy insect.  Katydids’ green leaf-shaped wings help them to blend in with the greenery. This “katydidn’t” get the memo. He (or she) was resting on the sidewalk, where he definitely didn’t blend in. How long before a hungry bird finds him?

True Katydid.
About the katydid family.

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Pure Water

People are always attracted to water. We hiked up the mountain to this cascade in Le Tigre National Park, Honduras.

(This post has been sitting in my drafts for a couple of years.  Now, that we’re on a “boil” order in my county in northeast Kansas in July 2011, I thought again of how we take our clean water for granted.  I wrote this about a visit to Honduras, where you can’t drink the water from the tap.)

It’s early on a February morning in 2007, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and already hot.  I don’t mind.  Back home in Kansas City it’s freezing.

Behind the courtyard wall, I wait at the gate, listening.  I’m an early riser so I volunteered to make the water bottle exchange.

“You’ll know when they’re coming,” my friend Michael told me the night before.  “They call out “Agua Azul, Agua Azul.”  He likes the sound of it.  “It’s like a call to prayer.”

Most societies and religions find spiritual and cleansing properties in water, so Michael is right about that.

Three large empty bottles sit on the driveway near the gate.  I hear the faint call, and I lean out to look.

I see a truck slowly rumbling down the steep incline of street in this affluent neighborhood in the capital city of Honduras.  The back of the truck is stacked with large water bottles.

“Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.

I wave my hand at the truck. A man darts to the gate, grabs the empty bottles and replaces them with full ones.  He hops back on the truck and continues his call.  “Agua Azul.  Agua Azul.”

Now we’ll have purified water for the next couple of days.  We go through it quickly, using it for everything that passes our lips. The water truck comes three mornings a week.  It saves the trouble of taking the bottles to the store. The house has running water, but it’s not purified.  We have to be careful not to drink it or even use it for brushing our teeth.  I keep a small bottle of purified water in the bathroom during my visit.

You can’t be careful everywhere, and on a trip to see the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, some of us come down with horrible gastrointestinal distress.  I’ll spare you the details (worst diarrhea of my life!), but it was touch and go on the drive home.  Michael and Anita knew the roads and the rest stops, and thankfully, my husband is an Eagle Scout, prepared with supplies at all times, including a roll of toilet paper.

At home, we take pure water for granted.  But civilization has long been plagued, literally, with contaminated water.  Cholera is one disease spread by water fouled by bacteria.  People would often drink alcoholic beverages, rather than water, because they were less likely to get sick. Steven Johnson writes about a cholera epidemic in “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.”

Hacienda San Lucas overlooks the Copan River Valley, where the early Mayans settled more than a thousand years ago. Maintaining pure water is always a problem wherever people gather in cities.

In Copan, we visited Flavia Cueva, who owns the Hacienda San Lucas.  Anita, who is with the U.S. State Department, had met with Flavia before on an official visit.  Local people and members of the International Rotary were working to improve the water quality. International Rotary is providing water distribution and health education to six remote villages in the area.

My water district at home, WaterOne, sends out an annual water quality report, summarizing what’s in the water and provides lots of facts, which are also available on the website.  WaterOne was one of seven utilities worldwide selected as a finalist for a global water award for its Wolcott Treatment Plant. We’re very lucky we don’t need to buy bottled water, regularly, although there is a run on bottled water now because of the boil order.

Here’s a copy of the story in the Kansas City Star about our boil order:


Raccoon Believed Culprit in John County Boil Order

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

Posted on Fri, Jul. 01, 2011 03:57 PM

A raccoon appears be to the culprit in a water pipe rupture that led to a boil advisory for more than 400,000 water customers in Johnson County.
Officials of Water District No. 1 found the animal dead inside an electrical unit at the Hansen treatment plant on Holiday Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
Eric Arner, a spokesman for WaterOne, said the animal may have chewed into wires or just brushed by the equipment, triggering an event that will affect customers at least until 5 p.m. Saturday during one of the hottest spells of the year so far.
People in the WaterOne service area — which includes most of Johnson County but excludes most of Olathe — are advised to use bottled water or to boil their tap water at least two minutes before consuming it. Unboiled water is safe for washing and bathing.
Retail stores in Johnson County are reporting brisk sales of bottled water. People are buying shopping baskets full of it at the Lenexa Sam’s Club, 12200 W. 95th St.
“We’ve got plenty for today and two more semis were dispatched when we heard about this,” said club manager Eric Rector. “We should have more in stock tonight.”
The Price Chopper at 8686 Antioch Road in Overland Park was sold out by mid-afternoon. A new shipment was expected over the weekend but store management did not know when it would arrive.
The boil precaution is necessary because the pipe rupture led to a drop in water pressure, which may have drawn contaminants into the system. Officials are testing tap samples from across the 275-square-mile water district for safety. That process, and flushing any contaminants out of the system, takes at least 18 hours.
Arner said water officials noticed a sudden drop in system pressure at 7:20 a.m., which they later attributed to a raccoon that got inside the housing of one of the huge electrical switches that run the pumps. The animal apparently shorted out the switch.
“The pumps themselves are designed to trip off when there is any fluctuation in power so they don’t fry their circuits,” Arner said. “So when the power was restored in a matter of seconds or even milliseconds the pumps turned back on and created a water surge.”
Officials believe that surge caused a 54-inch pipe near the Hansen plant to rupture at a joint. Arner said the pipe should not have failed even with a surge and WaterOne is investigating whether there were any other factors involved.
Water officials were able to restore pressure throughout the system shortly after the pipe break but some areas may have less pressure than normal.
While most of Olathe is outside WaterOne, between 6,000 and 7,000 people in northwestern and southwestern areas of the city are affected, said city spokesman Tim Danneberg.

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Filed under Biology, Drink, Health, Life, Personal, Random, Travel

Why Did The Mongoose Cross The Road?

When it stands, this mongoose looks like its relative the Meerkat.

Years ago in a biology class, I learned about the Indian Mongoose’s introduction to Hawaii (in 1883) as a predator to kill the rats that were thriving in sugar cane fields.  Well, like so many ideas like this, it was a disaster (rabbits to Australia, for example…) The mongooses ate the native birds and their eggs instead.

I’d forgotten about the mongoose  until I recently saw one dashing across the road on the Big Island of Hawaii, where they are pests. As it dashed, it looked like a small ferret.  Every so often, my husband and I would see another one running like mad across the road.  I was never fast enough with my camera.  Finally, I did get a few blurry photographs of a mongoose that seemed to live in the bushes of someone’s yard outside of a botanical garden.  When it stands, it looks like a meerkat, which is one of its relatives.

Standing here, he looks like his relative the Meerkat. He may have a burrow in the yard of this house.

From wikipedia: The 1800s were a huge century for sugar cane, and plantations shot up on many tropical islands including Hawai’i and Jamaica. With sugar cane came rats, attracted to the sweet plant, which ended up causing crop destruction and loss. Attempts were made to introduce the species in Trinidad in 1870 but this failed. A subsequent trial with four males and five females from Calcutta however established in Jamaica in 1872. A paper published by W. B. Espeut that praised the results intrigued Hawaiian plantation owners who, in 1883, brought 72 mongooses from Jamaica to the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island. These were raised and their offspring were shipped to plantations on other islands. Populations that have been introduced to these islands show larger sizes than in their native ranges. They also show genetic diversification due to drift and population isolation.

Only the islands of Lana’i and Kaua’i are (thought to be) free of mongooses. There are two conflicting stories of why Kaua’i was spared. The first is that the residents of Kaua’i were opposed to having the animals on the island and when the ship carrying the offspring reached Kaua’i, the animals were thrown overboard and drowned. A second story tells that on arriving on Kaua’i one of the mongooses bit a dockworker who, in a fit of anger, threw the caged animals into the harbor to drown.

The mongoose introduction did not have the desired effect of rat control. The mongoose hunted birds and bird eggs, threatening many local island species. The mongooses bred prolifically with males becoming sexually mature at 4 months and females producing litters of 2-5 pups a year.

If that isn’t bad enough, Mongooses can carry the infectious bacterial disease Leptospirosis.

About the mongoose.

More about the mongoose.

News report about trapping Mongooses.

 

This mongoose ran back and forth on this road on the Big Island of Hawaii near Hilo several times. He kept checking to see whether I'd left.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Life, Natural History, Nature, Travel

Egret on a Red Bridge in a Cypress Swamp

An egret perches on a red bridge in a cypress swamp in a South Carolina botanical garden.  Spanish moss hangs from the trees.

An egret perches on a red bridge in a cypress swamp in a South Carolina botanical garden. Spanish moss hangs from the trees.

The egret perched on the red bridge is the focus of this photograph, but what intrigued me in this cypress swamp was the Spanish moss. Spanish moss is a strange plant. It has no roots. Its leaves look like stems. It has tiny, inconspicuous flowers. It looks dead.

A ghostly gray color, Spanish moss hangs from trees like tattered shrouds. Although it sometimes almost engulfs the trees it lives on, Spanish moss is not a parasite. The main damage it does is block light from the tree leaves, slowing the tree’s growth. The burden of the extra Spanish moss foliage also makes the trees less wind-resistant and more prone to falling during hurricanes.

Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoidesis, is an epiphyte, which means it absorbs nutrients (especially calcium) and water from the air and rainfall. Spanish moss is also known as “air plant”.

Several kinds of creatures, including rat snakes and three species of bats, live in Spanish moss. One species of jumping spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae, has been found only on Spanish moss. Spanish moss is found in the humid, warmer climates of southeastern United States. It was also introduced to Hawaii, where it is known as a Pele’s Hair, after the Hawaiian goddess and is sometimes used in leis.

I took this photograph in a botanical garden near Charleston, South Carolina. The egret was kind enough to pose for me.

 

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Filed under Biology, Bird-watching, Birds, Natural History, Nature, Photography

The Prairie Center

 

Botantist and Environmentalist Frank Norman displays a sumac shrub on a recent nature walk at The Prairie Center in Olathe, Kansas. Smooth Sumac is a native shrub that is widespread across the country.

 

October is a favorite time of year in the Midwest.  It’s not too hot, there’s a crisp feel to the air, and a tangy fragrance wafts in the wind.   This smoke-tinged perfume could be just the dying breath of trees as they shed their leaves and hunker down for winter, but it brings back sweet memories of apple harvests, and trick-or-treating and shuffling in the leaves on the walk home from elementary school.  (On the way to school, I trudged rather than shuffled through the leaves.)

I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for most of my life, but I’m still discovering its treasures.  One is the Prairie Center in Olathe, Kansas. On Oct. 10, some friends, family members and I joined two dozen others on a stroll through part of the center’s 300 acres.  Frank Norman of Norman Ecological Consulting led the walk, which focused on native medicinal prairie plants.  Sue Holcomb of Grasslands Heritage Foundation also pointed out many of the native plants in the prairie preserve, which includes 45 acres of virgin prairie. Virgin prairie means that the land was never plowed, which is very rare to find.  Only five percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains today in the United States.

 

 

The Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) is a beautiful, rare find. It's small, but because of its brilliant blue color, it's easy to spot if you're lucky enough to find some.

 

 

The partridge pea (Cassia chamecrista) is a bright spot among the browning fall grasses at the Olathe Prairie Center.

 

 

In Autumn, sunflowers tower above the asters and other plants at the Prairie Center in Olathe.

 

 

Milkweed pods and willow-leaf purple aster at the Prairie Center in Olathe.

 

Here’s a post I wrote in the summer of 2008 about the Kansas City Symphony’s performance in the Flint Hills: Kansas City Symphony in the Flint Hills.

To learn more, click on these links.

Olathe Prairie Center

Grassland Heritage Foundation.

Dennis Toll has stopped blogging here, but the blog still contains a lot of information about the prairie, as well as useful links.

Flint Hills, Tall Grass

Sumac.

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Filed under Biology, Conservation, Education, Environment, History, Kansas, Kansas City, Life, Nature, Photography, Science

One Woman’s Garbage…

Eating a banana peel

I toss banana peels in my flower beds because the peels are good for the soil. I rake mulch over them when the weather is better. Here an opossum quickly gobbles up a peel within minutes after I tossed it. The flowers won't get the potassium. I'm fine with that. It will be recycled through the opossum.

 

“Waste not, want not” is my motto. It’s almost a sickness, so I have to make an effort not to be one of those hoarders who pile up junk.  I try to find a good home for everything, rather than hang onto it, but you might not think so if you saw my closet. 

I even hate to throw away garbage.  We have a compost pile in a natural area of our yard.  Sometimes I toss banana peels into the shrub beds when it’s too cold to walk to the compost pile, which I admit is most of the time in the winter. The peels shrivel and then I eventually rake them into the mulch.  I tossed four banana peels and a few pear cores into a shrub bed Thursday afternoon.  Soon a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) ambled across the lawn.  I ran for my camera and fumbled to change lenses.  I wanted to send photos of North America’s only marsupial to our friends in Australia, whose interest in our local wildlife when they visited us made me appreciate squirrels more than I had.  (Cockatoos are the Aussie equivalent of a ubiquitous neighborhood mildly pest-like animal.) 

Opossum eating banana peels in my yard.

 

There are about 334 species of marsupials.  More than 200 of these species are native to Australia and nearby islands to the north. There are also species in South America.  The Virginia Opossum, pictured here,  is the only marsupial native to North America. 

The best known marsupials are the kangaroos, koalas and wombats of Australia. 

 

I was sure the opossum would be gone by the time I could screw in my telephoto lens, but I found him in the shrub bed gulping the peels.   

We live near woods, so there are always wild animals visiting. I probably shouldn’t attract them, but I am living in their territory.  I never dreamed any animal would find a banana peel appealing… It’s been a colder than normal winter with more snow covering food sources, so any plant-based food I toss into the compost heap will be gobbled up. (Don’t put animal products into the compost heap.) 

Links about the opossum below. 

From National Geographic:  There are more than 60 different species of opossum, which are often called possums. The most notable is the Virginia opossum or common opossum—the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States and Canada. 

A female opossum gives birth to helpless young as tiny as honeybees. Babies immediately crawl into the mother’s pouch, where they continue to develop. As they get larger, they will go in and out of the pouch and sometimes ride on the mother’s back as she hunts for food. Opossums may give birth to as many as 20 babies in a litter, but fewer than half of them survive. Some never even make it as far as the pouch. 

Opossums are scavengers, and they often visit human homes or settlements to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and other containers. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near roadkill. Opossums also eat grass, nuts, and fruit. They will hunt mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens. 

Opossum eating banana peel.

These animals are most famous for “playing possum.” When threatened by dogs, foxes, or bobcats, opossums sometimes flop onto their sides and lie on the ground with their eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. They extend their tongues and generally appear to be dead. This ploy may put a predator off its guard and allow the opossum an opportunity to make its escape.

 

Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals. 

Learn about the Virginia Opossum on Wikipedia. 

The National Opossum Society. 

Learn about the Virginia Opossum on National Geographic. 

Banana peels make a fine meal.

 

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Filed under Animals, Australia, Biology, Environment, Humor, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science