Witches’ Butter

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While walking along the edge of a cypress swamp in southern Illinois last month, some small, yellow, irregularly lobed, gelatinous masses caught my eye.

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Witches’ Butter has fruiting bodies that are brain-like, sulfur yellow-to-pale yellow and have a gelatinous texture. It grows in masses on dead deciduous wood, especially oaks.

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This fungi’s full-time job is to inhabit dead wood as a parasite that gets nourishment by digesting the tissues of an unrelated fungus (a crust-like fungus that is itself parasitizing and maybe killing the tree). Witches’ Butter is therefore a parasite of a parasite!

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Witches’ Butter has a cosmopolitan distribution, having been recorded from Europe, North, Central, and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Its fruit bodies are formed during wet periods throughout the year.

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A type of Jelly Fungi, the investigation of the medicinal benefits of Jelly Fungi has revealed that they stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and are useful in the treatment of allergies and diabetes.

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This fungus is also known as Yellow Brain, Golden Jelly Fungus and Yellow Trembler.

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Three-toed Box Turtle

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While visiting a nature center in Missouri last month and walking the trails, I came upon a reptile that I have never encountered in the wild before.

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Three-toed Box Turtles are named due to the number of toes on the back feet, though there can be four-toed examples too. Their carapace (upper shell) is high-domed and tends to be olive or brown with faint yellow or orange lines. It’s small size (usually less than five inches), color and pattern allow it to blend in well with the forest floor.

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Generally a forest species, it also can be found on forest edges and in brushy fields. Young Three-toed Box Turtles consume mostly earthworms and insects, while adults tend to be more vegetarian, eating a variety of plants, berries and mushrooms.

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To protect themselves from predators, turtles are able to pull their heads, legs, and tails into their shells. Box Turtles have the additional ability to clamp their shells completely shut, due to a hinge in the plastron (lower shell). Very few predators can successfully prey on an adult Box Turtle.

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Because of this adaptation, once a Box Turtle reaches adulthood, its average life span is 50 years, while a significant portion live to over 100 years in age.

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This reptile is native to the south-central part of the United States and is the official reptile of the state of Missouri.

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Modest Katydid

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While exploring a cypress swamp in southern Illinois, I came across this fine creature. Native to the southeastern United States, this species is more common in the south, but appears to be expanding its range northward.

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It is found in a wide variety of both dry and wet habitats, though in more northern states, most reside in bottomland forests. The Modest Katydid is small and easily overlooked. Not only is the species size and demeanor modest, the song is barely audible in the field.

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Though it looks leaf-like like other katydids, a key identification mark it that it has a bold dark diagonal stripe through its eye. Like other katydids, it eats leaves from deciduous trees in wooded areas, parks and neighborhoods.

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The quiet, lispy ticks of the Modest Katydid are very hard to hear in the field. The nighttime chorusing of other katydids and crickets easily drown them out.

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Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad

01 Eastern Narrowmouth Toad_6944

While checking out this sand prairie in Missouri last month, I came across a tiny amphibian that I have not seen in many years.

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Narrow-mouthed Toads are small, flattened frogs with pointed snouts and a fold of skin across the back of their heads. These unusual, plump creatures are typically only around 1 to 1-1/2 inches.

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These amphibians are found throughout the southeastern United States, but are absent from high elevations. They use many types of habitats, as long as adequate moisture and shelter are present.

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Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toads primarily eat ants, although they also eat termites and small beetles. Their call is a bleating, nasal baaaa, which sounds like a lamb.

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It was really neat to see one of these cool creatures again in my travels.

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Striped Shiner

01 Striped Shiner_7143

While exploring southern Illinois this month, I caught this rather deep-bodied minnow with large, silvery scales that are are generally much higher than they are wide. Its common name refers to the occasional gold iridescence along its back.

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This fish occurs in clear, permanent-flowing streams with clean gravelly or rocky bottoms. It prefers relatively warm and quiet water. As far as minnows go, it is reasonably sizeable, at a total length of 3 to 5 inches and a maximum of about 7 inches.

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The Striped Shiner is an omnivore, feeding on both plants and animals. Minnows like this are high in ecological importance, because they are a great food source for other fish, birds and species that eat fish.

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It was neat to come across this cool creature which I have never encountered before.

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Six-lined Racerunner

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While visiting this sandy habitat in Missouri, I came across several of these quick little reptiles. Their ground-dwelling habits and impressive speed are often sufficient to identify them from a distance.

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Growing 6 to 9-1/2 inches, the Six-lined Racerunner is the only lizard in the southeastern United States with six light yellow or white stripes down its back.

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This species is most common in hot, open areas such as fields, woodland edges and sand dunes; it is almost always found on the ground. It is fond of heat and is active even on the hottest of Summer days.

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Six-lined Racerunners rely on sight to hunt small insects, arachnids, other reptiles, and occasionally, even mammals. They are voracious predators that hunt during daylight hours.

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It was fun to observe these fast-moving and agile escape artists that can quickly disappear into thick cover or small burrows when they perceive danger.

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Camphorweed

01 Camphorweed_9364

While visiting a sand prairie in Missouri this month, these yellow flowers were quite noticeable.

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Camphorweed is an annual, warm-season native that generally emerges from the ground as a single stem, then branches several inches above the ground.

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As the common name suggests, camphorweed has a medicinal camphor-like aroma (or odor, as some might suggest), particularly when the leaves are disturbed.

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Camphorweed is beneficial for use on sprains or bruises and can reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. Camphorweed lessens the reactive inflammation process, making it best for acute and painful injuries.

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This plant typically blooms in Summer and Fall, although in certain conditions it may bloom year-round. Its copious blooms consist of bright yellow ray florets and vivid yellow to orange.

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Sometimes known as Golden Aster, it is commonly found across the southeastern United States. Its daisy-like yellow flowers with hairy stems and leaves are often overlooked in fields and yards.

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Black Vulture

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While visiting southern Illinois, I saw several examples of this impressive bird. With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky with teetering a flight, Black Vultures are compact with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats.

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The two species often associate: Black Vultures makes up for their poor sense of smell by following Turkey Vultures to carcasses. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged.

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In the United States Black Vultures are outnumbered by their red-headed relatives, Turkey Vultures, but they have a huge range and are the most numerous vulture in the Western Hemisphere.

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Vultures are part of nature’s clean-up crew. They rid the landscape of deteriorating carcasses and help curb the spread of dangerous diseases and bacteria. Their stomachs have strong enzymes that kill off dangerous toxins and microorganisms.

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Sword-bearing Conehead

01 Sword-bearing Conehead_9448

I found this cool creature while looking for snakes in southern Illinois.

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Easily recognized by their slanted faces and pointed cones that extend from their foreheads, the Conehead Katydids look like insect battering-rams, ready to poke holes in whatever gets in their way. Scientists do not know the significance or use of the cones.

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This species has long, slender wings and is a strong flier. At nearly 3 inches in length, it ranks as among among the longest of our native katydids.

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Residing in tall grass, weedy fields and shrubby edges, male coneheads sing mostly at night and have loud raspy or buzzy songs.

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The Sword-bearing Conehead is named for the extremely long ovipositor of the female, which can be nearly as long as her abdomen. In the photo above, you can see the dark brown tip of this female’s ovipositor extending beyond her wings.

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Other types of commonly encountered Conehead Katydids are also cleverly named, such as the Slightly Musical Conehead, Modest Katydid and the False Robust Conehead.

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Ironweed

01 Ironweed_8109

I’ve been seeing a lot of this plant while out on my hikes in recent weeks; it’s kind of hard to miss.

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Named for its tough stem, this plant has excellent posture. Its flowers of are like purple torches in the late Summer landscape and when blooming next to Goldenrod, it creates a picturesque scene.

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This plant prefers to grow in areas such as meadows and pastures where the soil is fertile and conditions are moderately damp. I photographed these at Canalway Center and along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath.

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Ironweed has a highly visible dark red stem and grows over seven feet tall. It is widely branched at the top. Loose clusters of quarter-inch flowers give it a burst of vibrant color.

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Attached to the stem are lance-shaped, pointed leaves that have short downy hairs on the lower surface.

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This species flowers in July to September. Not only is it nice to look at, it is also an excellent nectar plant and is visited by many species of butterflies and bees.

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