Friday, June 7, 2013

Bioblitz #4: The Perfect Use of Technology

Swamp Rabbit Habitat - The Bottomland Hardwood Forest
by Amy Ouchley

I learned so much at Bioblitz at Jean LaFitte National Historical Park and Preserve in May, but one of my most valuable insights was to see how environmentally conscious people are using technology.  I shared my great experience with meeting one of the creators of Project Noah in Bioblitz #3.  Now I want to share two more wonderful online resources.

Inside the National Geographic tent I met another innovative environmental educator.  Her name is Marie Studer and she is the Learning and Education Director at Harvard University for an online resource called “Encyclopedia of Life” (  She gave me a quick overview of this resource and I think it is perfect for teachers. 

This comes from their flyer.  “The Encyclopedia of Life brings together information about all life on earth – text, images, video, sounds, maps, classifications and more – all freely available on-line. “

Of course when I got home I immediately went to the site, registered, and discovered that it was very easy to use.  There is a good tutorial at their home page.  I built my first collection and called it “Swamp Rabbit Habitat – The Bottomland Hardwood Forest.”  To build the collection all I had to do was type the name of an organism that I wanted in my collection and it would bring up the resources related to that organism, including text and photos.  I could add this information to my collection.  Now I can add more organisms to that collection or I can create a different collection.  I can see that this would be a good classroom tool for students to build collections of organisms around the school or anywhere else.

Next I used my collection to create a “Memory Game.”  I discovered that I had to register at this site also ( to access the tools.  According to Studer, I will be able to create Field Guides in July 2013.  I made my memory game public so if you want to play it, go to the site and register.

Another resource is called “The Great NATURE Project” and it is sponsored by National Geographic (NG) and will be September 21-29. NG invites you to share plants and animals from your world with the whole world.  Celebrate the amazing and diverse life on our planet and help NG achieve a Guinness World Records© title for the largest online photo album of animals.  Find out more and submit a photo at (  You can create a Great NATURE Project mission at Project Noah and you can start adding photos for this project now.  I have done this and you can follow me on the Project Noah site.

I hope you will visit these sites and find out how to use them to help document the biological diversity of our planet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bioblitz #3 - Project Noah

Me with Yasser Ansari, the creator of Project Noah at Bioblitz 2013

It happened like this.  Last Thursday night Kelby and I were eating crawfish at Bayou Barn in Crown Point at a Bioblitz gathering hosted by National Geographic.  Yes, that’s right.  National Geographic was feeding us crawfish.  A couple came to sit with us with plates of crawdads.  We looked up from our feeding frenzy long enough to notice they weren’t eating.  “Want us to show you how to do it?” we asked.  “Yes,” they said with a non-Louisiana accent.  We did.

I asked, “What do you do?”  The man said, “I create software to document wildlife sightings.”  I looked up and said off-the-cuff, “Do you know about Project Noah?”  The gorgeous girl, whose name was Ariana, said, “He created Project Noah.”  That halted my consumption.  The man sitting across from me had created one of the most phenomenal internet sites that I had ever come across and which I had joined last year.  His name is Yasser Ansari.
Project Noah is a site where you can post your pictures of any organism that you come across on a page called “My Noah.”  If you don’t know what it is, then someone will identify it.  People from all over the world are continually posting pictures and you can get updates on Facebook.  That’s not all.  You earn badges for your efforts.  For example I have earned four badges:  Tadpole, Earth Week 2012, Deep Roots, and Keep it Steady.  You can also join a variety of missions.

Project Noah also has an easy-to-use application for educators.  Here are the three steps: 
1.       Join www. Project

2.       Register as a teacher and access the education tools

3.       Set up your classroom and reconnect your students w/nature
Now your students can take pictures of what they see and post it on the site.  Think of the excitement generated as they see their collections grow. 
Later when I talked to Yasser in the National Geographic tent at Jean Lafitte National and Historical Park and Preserve, he told me about the challenges encountered to get Project Noah started.  “There were many people, who said it wouldn’t work,” he said.  Yasser is enthusiastic about the impact of using technology in such a positive way to help connect people with nature.  His enthusiasm is infectious.
If you are a nature observer who takes picture, check out  It will broaden your horizons and it’s fun.

          Nature waits for you.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bioblitz #2 - Experiential Learning in the Swamp

The Calm before the Storm
USDA Entomologist Joe Ballenger in light blue shirt on left
At first it seemed chaotic. There were dozens of volunteer science experts in yellow shirts milling around and collecting gear intermingled with National Park rangers and National Geographic employees, who were doing their best to orient and direct us.  Meanwhile at the gate of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve busload after busload of students of all ages were arriving and heading toward us.  I thought to myself, “This is really going to happen.  I am going out in the swamp with inner city third graders to do a biodiversity survey and collect data.”  I was  not at all sure how it was going to work?????
Fortunately I paired up with an expert, a young entomologist with the USDA by the name of Joe Ballenger.  I found out three things about Joe right away (while we were gathering our collecting nets):  first he is passionate about insects and started looking for them immediately, second his knowledge about insects is vast and he likes to share it, and third and most importantly he had done this before.    I have led many nature hikes with all kinds of students, but never had I been directed to collect, identify, and count macroinvertebrates with third graders many of whom had never been in the swamp much less identified a macroinvertebrate.  I was grateful to be with Joe.
We headed down a muddy trail called the Plantation trail to Plot #12.  Plots were assigned to each group and we and the students were to survey in a 20 foot radius in our plot.  Here are the four collection methods we used:
1.       Look up!  Use aerial nets and wave over the tops of flowers and other plants.
2.       Look down!  Get on your hands and knees for leaf litter sorting.  Watch for poison ivy.
3.       Log busting!  Carefully break open a log and look for invertebrates in the rotten wood.  This was very productive.  We were careful to turn logs back over and put the bark back on to protect the habitat of the critters.
4.       Look all around!  Use sweep nets and beating sheets.
Here are 2 pages of our data collection sheets:
A Page from my Bioblitz Field Notebook

As you can see we had to identify what we collected to Family, which was fairly easy for me with Joe's help.
Amazingly these third graders embraced the activity wholeheartedly.  I kept saying, "We are National Geographic explorers.  We are doing real science."  The teachers had prepared them and they felt as if they were making a real contribution to science.  They waved nets, got down and dug in leaf litter, helped me bust logs and remove bark, and asked many questions.  "Look at this!  What's this?  Come see what I found!"  They picked up caterpillars, bessbug larvae, and looked at spiders.  They were hot and sweaty, but they experienced field biology on this day.

Joe at work teaching about a longhorn beetle
I think this day was a great day for kids in nature.  Many of these students had never visited the swamp or touched a caterpillar and who knows what kind of difference it will make for them in the long run.  It was a privilege to be  a part of this phenomenal event in Louisiana.
Amy in palmettos with third graders

Here is our own Allyn Rodriguez, National Park Service environmental educator, Louisiana Environmental Education Association Newsletter writer, and Bioblitz organizer extraordinaire.

Congratulations, Allyn, for an outstanding Bioblitz!

Quote from Joe:  "What's the use of being a scientist if you can't inspire the next generation to be scientist."
Amen & Amen

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bioblitz #1

Bioblitz Gator

A major biological inventory and biodiversity festival will occur on May 17-18, 2013 at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.  The event termed “Bioblitz” combines the efforts of National Geographic and the National Park Service.  The two-day celebration of biodiversity centers on a 24-hour discovery of species.  Teams of scientists, students, and the general public will explore the park’s Barataria Preserve swamps, marshes, and forests to find as many species as possible.
According to their literature the goals of the Bioblitz are as follows:
·         Discover, count, map, and learn about the living creatures in the park including insects, fish, alligators, plants, microorganisms, and more.
·         Provide scientists and public an opportunity to do field work together.
·         Add to the park’s official species list.
·         Highlight the importance of protecting the biodiversity of this extraordinary national park located in and around New Orleans.
To learn more and see how you can participate, visit and
Children aged 8 and older accompanied by adults may participate in inventories, and younger kids can enjoy hands-on fun at the Biodiversity Festival at the Barataria Preseve.  All Bioblitz and festival parking will be at Bayou Segnette State Park (7777 Westbank Expressway, Westwego, LA).  Everyone going to Bioblitz will receive free park admission, free parking and free round-trip shuttle service to the preserve.  Handicapped-accessible shuttles will be available.
The free Biodiversity Festival will feature music, science demonstrations, hands-on activities provided by prominent science and environmental organizations, food and art.  The festival will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.  “Explorers” of all ages can enjoy the festival, watch scientists at work and “graduate” from Biodiversity University by participating in activities.  No registration is required for the festival.
I will be there reading letters from “Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit”, helping kids make a nature journal, and observing the fantastic south Louisiana ecosystem.
Look for some wonderful resources at
                                                           Nature waits for you. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Web of Light by Tammy Slocum

Nature is light.  Light is nature.  The two are inseparable.  When I saw the picture of this glowing spider web, it reminded me of something I had learned about light from educator Kathy Holt at Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana.  I had gone down on a Math Science Partnership field experience with a group of teachers from north Louisiana.  Kathy was using bubbles to teach us about light waves and had asked us, “What causes the colors of a bubble?”  Now this was something I had never thought about and it’s great when someone pushes your brain in a new direction.

Kathy said that light waves, like ocean waves, have peaks and valleys (crest and troughs).  Red light has the longest wavelength and violet the shortest.  Remember “ROY G BIV” or the sequence of colors in the rainbow.

“All waves, including light, have a curious property:  If two waves combine, the waves can meet each other crest-to-crest, adding up and reinforcing the effect of each other, or they can meet crest-to-trough, canceling each other out so that they have no effect.  When they meet crest-to-trough, for every ‘up’ vibration in one wave, there is a corresponding ‘down’ vibration in the other wave.  This combination of equal ups and downs causes complete cancellation or interference.  Interference is responsible for the pearly luster of an abalone shell, the beautiful colors in some bird feathers and insect wings, and the flowing patches of color in an oil slick – and for the color of bubbles.”

So when I saw the picture of the spider web, I knew that interference was the cause of the colors emanating from the web.  It’s fun to merge two sciences like life science and physical science in your nature observation.  Thanks, Kathy!  I remembered!
                                                                       Nature waits for you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


Twilight on Moon Lake on the Ouachita River by Burg Ransom

This morning before sunrise a cardinal sang outside my window.  I looked out and saw the pink glow in the morning sky.  This time of day is called “twilight.”  An animal active during the twilight moments is called “crepuscular.”  The diffuse light of twilight gives the forest a soft, mystical appearance, which is accentuated by fog or mist. Other terms used for this time of day are:  dawn, daybreak, dusk.

The website called is a good source of information about celestial events like phases of the moon, meteor showers, and planet visibility.   Here is their definition of twilight:  “You can define twilight simply as the time of day between daylight and darkness, whether that’s after sunset or before sunrise.  It’s a time when the light from the sky appears diffused and often pinkish.  The sun is below the horizon, but its rays are scattered by Earth’s atmosphere to create the colors of twilight.”

According to the website, there are three types of twilight defined by how far the sun is below the horizon.

Civil twilight:  It starts as soon as the sun dips below the western horizon and ends when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon.

Nautical twilight:  It begins when it’s fairly dark outside and ends when the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon.

Astronomical twilight:  It ends when all traces of sky glow are gone or when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon.  Now stars can be observed if the sky is not cloudy.

I bet you did not know this twilight trivia.  Nevertheless, I beseech you to enjoy all the phases of twilight for it is a magical time in the natural world.

Remember:  Nature waits for you.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sketching and Journaling: "Watchmen on the Way"

                                            The Nature Journal of Maggie Hart

My dear friend, Maggie Hart, lives in California.  Her passion is nature observation, sketching, and journaling.  She also loves to share the wonder of nature with others.  We have inspired each other for years and it is so rewarding to have a close friend with a common interest.  Even though she lives in California and I live in Louisiana we somehow manage to connect on a regular basis.  She will call and throw out an idea to get my feedback.  Her idea never fails to inspire another idea in me.

There is great value in sharing ideas.  Keep a notebook handy to write down your ideas, because if you don't record them they will slip away.  I don't like trying to remember a brilliant idea that I did not write down. 

Maggie's brief journal entry includes so much of her history and life.  She has this beautiful moment to share with others.  I am so happy that she shared with me.

Remember:  Nature is waiting for you to pay attention.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt Writes about Swamp Rabbits

Swamper Swimming by Gay Brantley
Theodore Roosevelt recorded events of his 1907 bear hunting trip on the Tensas Bayou in northeast Louisiana in an article called "In The Louisiana Canebrakes."
Here was his description of the swamp rabbits that he saw.
"Coon and 'possum were very plentiful, and in the streams there were minks and a few otters.  Black squirrels barked in the tops of the tall trees or descended to the ground to gather nuts or gnaw the shed deer antlers - the latter a habit they shared with the wood rats.  To me the most interesting of the smaller mammals, however, were the swamp rabbits, which are thoroughly amphibious in their habits, not only swimming but diving, and taking to the water almost as freely as if they were muskrats.  Thy lived in the depths of the woods and beside the lonely bayous."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Seeking Wonder: Linking Literature to the Landscape

Louisiana Educators Seeking Wonder at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Workshop funded by 2012 Louisiana Environmental Education Commission Grant
Literacy is a vital part of any kind of education.  Nature literature blended with life & environmental science is a good combination.  On Saturday, April 6, I had the privilege of sharing books about Louisiana’s natural world with a group of outstanding educators and librarians.    The Louisiana Environmental Education Commission funded this professional development workshop called “Seeking Wonder:  Linking Literature to the Landscape” through their 2012 Environmental Education Grant Program.  This program also funds individual teacher grants and research grants and it promotes environmental education programs across the state and in the classroom.  It is a fantastic program.  I conducted the workshop on Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge with U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ranger Nova Clarke.

Someone can learn about the bottomland hardwood ecosystem by reading and looking at pictures, but experiencing the environment and observing some of the interactions in the ecosystem makes the learning come alive.  Doing both is even better. The workshop provided educators the chance to see what is happening out there in the environment after reading and learning some information about it.  What did we see?  We saw the food web in action.  We saw a big black ant tackle a damselfly and watched as the damselfly tried to escape.  One teacher made this great remark, “damselfly in distress.”   We spotted a bronze frog perched on a log over the water, and then someone shouted, “Look there’s a snake!”  The snake, a broad banded water snake, was closer to us than the frog.  Later we saw another frog and there was another snake.  Then we noticed:  damselfly-frog-snake.   Someone said, “see a frog, see a snake”, which is a good rule of thumb in this food web.  A green anole was displaying on a twig and we watched a turquoise ribbon snake glide from one branch to the next.  American coots walked on mats of aquatic vegetation and the pied-billed grebes dove under the water.  An alligator snoozed in the sun and red-winged blackbirds were busy defending breeding territories with their trills.   Cypress trees were in flower and we noted the difference in the condition of cypress trees trapped in the lake and the trees along the edge that experience the normal wet/dry cycle.  The trees out in the lake are slowly dying and the trees along the edge are thriving.  We experienced spring in the swamp with birds calling all around, everything turning greener by the minute, and the pungent way the swamp smells in the spring – wet and alive.  We jotted our observations in little notebooks, so we could remember what we saw when we returned to the classroom.  Then we could use our notes to create poems, essays, sketches, food webs, etc.

I want to thank all the educators who gathered at the refuge to experience the swamp spring with me and Swamper, the swamp rabbit.  And thanks to the Louisiana Environmental Education Commission for the great work that they do.  Remember:  Nature is out there waiting for us all.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Explore-A-Swamp Workshop

Explore-A-Swamp Workshop Participants
Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge
March 23, 2013
The first of four Louisiana Environmental Education Association statewide workshops happened at Black Bayou Lake NWR on Saturday, March 23.  Fourteen of us explored the bottomland hardwood forest at the edge of Black Bayou Lake on a cool spring morning.  It was a gray day and the light was subdued, but mosses, lichens, ferns, and liverworts glowed rich and green beside the nature trail.  We had our notebooks handy to write down our observations of the day.  We noted the many adaptations of plants and animals in this wetland.  For example:  overcup acorns float so they can disperse in high water, trees in the wetland can tolerate water around their roots for a limited amount of time, cypress trees can not germinate in the water so they must have dry conditions to do so, spanish moss is not moss but a bromeliad - a flowering plant, and many fish reproduce in the rich ecosytem of the backwater.  Birds were busy in the thickets and we heard many calling especially the tufted titmouse and the Carolina wren.  Miriam Norris, a self-taught butterfly expert, informed us of the declining numbers of monarch butterflies.  This disturbed us all and we discussed the importance of small patches of flowering and host plants that can be used by migrating butterflies.  Gay Brantley, a retired ranger/naturalist from U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reminded us not to purchase cypress mulch and support the destruction of cypress trees in Louisiana wetlands.
I was happy to give each participant a copy of my book "Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit" and my husband, Kelby's book "Bayou-Diversity, Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country.  Since literacy across the curriculum is an important part of the Common Core Standards I hope that these books will be of use to educators.  Each participant made a pair of Ecology Vocabulary gloves, which is a "hands-on" (pun intended) activity that I developed to give students a visual clue to important science words like biotic, abiotic, habitat, and niche.  After making the gloves I told the group that they were now all official "Environmental Educators".  It was a great day.  If you are interested in attending one of the three other workshops, please check the website:

Thanks to LEEA for providing funds for this training.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Epitome of Spring

Male luna moth by Amy Ouchley

Finding a Luna Moth Cocoon
From Amy's Nature Journal
March, 2004

In early spring there are nocturnal visitors at Heartwood.  At night in March a thumping and fluttering sound at the window announces the arrival of a luna moth.  Poems tell of moths flying into the flame of a candle and luna moths are attracted to our lights.  These pale green moths can be 4 inches across and have long tail-like extensions of the hindwing.  They seem to be the essence of a moonlit spring night.

 The moths emerge from fragile cocoons constructed of leaves and silk.  They have over-wintered in their delicate cases as pupa and when they come out they begin their search for a mate.  Since luna moths do not have mouth-parts and can not eat, they must breed quickly.  Male moths have large, feathery antennae that are sensitive to special chemicals released by the females called pheromones.  Lunas have perfected their “signature” fragrance.

After mating the female moths search for a suitable location, a host plant, for her eggs.  This is important because the next stage of the life cycle is an eating machine called a caterpillar.  Luna moth caterpillars prefer hardwood species such as birch, hickories, walnuts, sweet gum, and sumacs.  A good, diverse upland hardwood forest provides habitat for them.  When the egg hatches on the food supply, the caterpillar begins to eat voraciously and grows quickly.  If the caterpillar does not become a meal for a migrating warbler or a resident wren, it will build a cocoon out of leaves and silk and pupate or rest.

Luna moths in the south can complete this cycle 2 to 3 times a season.   The last caterpillars to pupate will become next year’s earliest adults.

For many years I searched for a luna moth cocoon.  I knew two things:  the first that a luna moth uses leaves to construct its cocoon, the second that the cocoons would be near or on the ground.  Since leafy things decompose quickly in the moist woods of Louisiana, I knew that finding a luna moth cocoon would be unlikely unless I found a newly emerged luna moth before it took flight.  Last spring this happened.  While walking a new path I chanced upon a luna moth still pumping up its wings after emerging from its winter’s sleep as a pupa.  The moth had climbed to the top of a twig.  I followed the twig down and there was the empty luna moth cocoon.  It was a male moth, because it had feathery antennae for detecting the titillating scents of the female.  Since it had no further use of its leafy cocoon, this fragile treasure made of moth silk and dogwood leaves sits near my desk to remind me of the ephemeral stages of life’s recurring cycles.


Sunday, March 10, 2013


Most of us, who are passionate about getting kids out in nature or teaching them about nature, don't need a reason.  We just adore what we do.

Richard Louv ("Last Child in the Woods") posted this quote on Facebook and I thought it was wonderful. 

"Memories of awakening to the existence of some potential, aroused by early experiences of self and world, are scattered through the literature of scientific and aesthetic invention.  Autobiographies repeatedly refer to the cause of this awakening as an acute sensory response to the natural world."  Edith Cobb

Always remember that those experiences in nature, which you provide, could awaken someone's potential.
Extraordinary idea, isn't it?

Check out this website:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Twayblade at Heartwood: A Fairytale

Southern twayblade by Kelby Ouchley
OK, it's not a fairytale.  It could be and this is surely a plant from a fairytale.  This tiny orchid (Listera autralis Lindl.) is called southern twayblade.  It is about 6 inches tall with two opposite, sessile, ovate to elliptic leaves which are about 1/2 inch long.  It grows in moist upland pine and hardwood forests.  I find it blooming in the upland forests around my home in February or March.  I am always enthralled by its tiny reddish, brown flowers and stem.  It rises out of the leaf litter like a bit of magic and the individual plants are widely scattered across the forest.  Surely the fairies strew the seeds.
"Once upon a time a fairy named Listera lived beneath the oak trees in the forest.  Her favorite task was planting the seeds of a tiny orchid.  How she adored this job and only she could do it."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Frogs Go A Courtin

Bullfrog by Burg Ransom
Searching in an old nature journal I found these notes on frog calls in Louisiana.  Identifying the frog calls by something familiar helps me know and remember who is calling in these late winter chorus sessions.  The frog that starts a chorus is called a “bout leader.”  Male frogs call to attract females.

Print this list and put it in your nature journal.  Have fun identifying the frogs and toads in your area.

Frog or Toad
The call sounds like…….
Northern cricket frog
two pebbles clicking together.
Upland chorus frog
pulling thumb over the teeth of a stiff comb.
Spring peepers
a whistle or a peep that rises in pitch at the end.
Bird-voiced tree frog
a “chorus” of birds (birds don’t sing in chorus though).  It is a trill or whistle-like and very melodious.
Gray tree frog
short, high trills. Common in late spring and summer and usually heard overhead.
Green tree frog
“qwuonk” or beating a cowbell with a stick.
Bronze frog
“tunk” or “tunk, tunk, tunk”.  Some say it’s like plucking a banjo.
Leopard frog
a guttural chuckle or rubbing a balloon.
Pickerel  frog
a barely audible snore.
Southern crawfish frog
a deep snore.
a deep bellow or jug-a-rum.
Woodhouse toad
a nasal “whaaaaah.”  Hold your nose and say it.
Narrowmouth toad
an electric buzzer.
Spadefoot toad
a sudden deep “mwaaaaah.”


Wednesday, February 13, 2013


The rabbit has a simple heart,
simple things he craves,
a sheltered nook,
a patch of cane,
the heart to be brave.
From him I learn that I all need
dwells just outside my door,
and that my simple heart
needs very little more.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Supreme Court of Vultures

turkey vulture (red head) and black vulture (gray head) by Kelby Ouchley

Every morning on my walk I pass a metal tower beside the road where the vultures roost. They always look so serious and solemn in their black robe of feathers as they perch side by side and face the rising sun.  It seems that court is in session.  A few do rise up from their sun-worshipping ritual and circle over my head.  I am always aware of the possible unpleasant consequences of this action.

We have two kinds of vultures here in Louisiana: the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).  I tell the difference by their tail shapes when they are soaring.  The black vulture has a short, broad tail and the turkey vulture has a long, narrow tail.  Also the adult turkey vulture has a bare, red head, where the black vulture has a bare, gray head.  The term “buzzard” is a misnomer.

The bird book says that turkey vultures are more common and that is the kind I see most often.  Vultures are a part of a healthy environment since they are scavengers and eat mostly carrion.  They help clean up the environment.  I especially appreciate the work they do along the roadsides by eating  roadkills.  Another interesting fact about vultures is this:  they nest on the ground or on hollow logs.  According to one source, black vultures depend on their sight to locate food and turkey vultures depend on their sense of smell.  Both species soar in Louisiana skies seeking food sources. Look for them in urban areas, because they are also fond of garbage.  And the verdict is…….

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Brer Swamper and Brer Sly



Pondering predator-prey relationships in the ecosystem is an interesting pastime.  Animals in both categories are well adapted to survive in their environment.  Survival often becomes a game of wits.  Consider the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) and the red fox (Vulpes fulva).  Each has a bag of tricks that will help it survive.
The swamp rabbit, a common denizen of bottomland hardwood forests in Louisiana, has traits that have evolved to help it evade one of its main adversaries, the red fox.  Swamp rabbits are well camouflaged.  Their streaked black and brown fur blends into the surrounding vegetation.  They have long, mobile ears that can detect the slightest noise.  They have eyes on the sides of the head as do many other prey species, which gives them good lateral perception of movement.  They also have a keen sense of smell and are wary, a trait vital to their survival.  The first trick they use to prevent detection is to crouch and freeze.  If discovered, they escape by running in a zig-zag manner that can be hard for a predator to follow.
The red fox also has a bag of tricks for survival.  He has an acute sense of smell.  Red foxes probably detect swamp rabbits by smell before they see them.  Their ears are large and upright  and can also sense the least noise.  The red fox is a swift runner and has eyes on the front of its head that provide good depth perception.  He runs in a straight line to chase prey.
So in this game of wits, who wins?  Both species must win some of the time if they are to survive.  Swamp rabbits have one trick that other kinds of rabbits don't have.  They don't mind swimming.  So if the red fox is hot on his trail, he heads for the nearest body of water and dives in.  He waits then with his nose poking out of the water until the fox leaves.  Red foxes aren't fond of water and may forfeit the hunt.  If this happens, the swamp rabbit has outfoxed the fox.  But if this doesn't work, then the rabbit may just plead "please, please don't throw me in the briar patch."
Note:  I wrote this essay for the public radio program called "Bayou Diversity" that my husband, Kelby, records each week on KEDM 90.3 F.M. The program airs at 9 a.m. on Monday and 1 p.m. on Thursday or you can listen to it at the listening room
Also, check out his website:
The photos are by Burg Ransom and are from my book:  Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Swamp Squealers and Snakes

Wood Ducks by Bob Rickett
The squeal of the wood duck (Aix sponsa) is a sound of the swamp.  Duck hunters call them "squealers."  A male wood duck is one of the more exquisitely colored birds in Louisiana.  He is bedecked in iridescent green feathers bordered in white and accented with black trim.  A helmet of green feathers adorns his head along with red eyes and a red patch on his upper mandible.  This regal head perches on a white-feathered neck fronted with rufous breast feathers.  The more sedately colored female has a distinctive tear-shaped white eye patch.  Both vocalize with high pitched, rhythmic shrieks when flying.  Unlike other kinds of ducks they perch in trees and nest in cavities.  Since many large, old-growth trees with cavities have disappeared from southern swamps, wood duck boxes provide good sites for successful reproduction.  Black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) take a toll on wood ducks, because they are expert tree climbers.  I have seen a black rat snake systematically searching tree branches and cavities for nests in the swamp.  Watch and listen for wood ducks on swamp walks.  Also watch for the nonvenomous black rat snakes, for both are part of nature's web in Louisiana swamps.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Visitor with Marvelous Adaptations

Eastern mole by Kelby Ouchley
Yesterday an interesting creature came to visit.  The Eastern Mole (Scalopus aquaticus) showed up on our doorstep, because a nosey dog had extracted him from his tunnel.  Fortunately, the mole was wet, but not injured.

A good reference is George Lowery, Jr.'s book, The Mammals of Louisiana and its Adjacent Waters, so the next step after examination was to read about the mole.  "Moles are among the most highly specialized of all terrestrial mammals,"  writes Lowery.  "They are indeed a marvelous bundle of adaptations to their particular way of life, which involves spending probably 99 percent of their time in their subterranean passages."

The mole's front legs and feet look like good digging tools.  The legs are short; the big feet turn outward and possess five spade-like claws.  The mole's head is unique.  The delicate nose protrudes like a pink probe, there are no external ears, and no eyes are apparent..  According to Lowery, natural selection has reduced the ears and the eyes to tiny openings.  Also, the tail is a short, bare stub.  The moles doesn't need ears, eyes, or a tail underground.

Many books describe mole fur as soft as velvet, which is perfect.  Their soft, velvety fur allows the mole to go forward or backward with ease in his tunnel.

I have found mole skulls in owl pellets during my years as an environmental educator, but had not encountered a live mole since my college days.  After looking and photographing the unusual animal, I released him and he disappeared into a brush pile to get back to his work IN the earth's ecosystem.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Mossy creek bank
Three unique terms are:  moss, liverwort, hornwort.  The bryophytes are a primitive group of plants that are small in size, but large in greenness and beauty.  All three live in moist areas and lack vascular systems or tubes to carry fluids.  Thus they stay little and close to their water.

I learned something about identifying mosses on a fieldtrip at the 2011 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It seemed an overwhelming task to learn a few of the 450 moss species found there.  Mostly I enjoyed wandering around with the bryologists looking at some of their characteristics with my 10X hand lens.  One interesting fact I noted involved the huge, rotting logs covered with moss called "nursery logs".  The mossy carpet on the log has the ecological value of trapping moisture and holding the log together as it decomposes.  The log becomes a fertile substrate for germinating maple and hemlock trees and gets the name "nursery log".  Here was another great example of nature's economy.

I have never seen a hornwort in Louisiana, so I asked my botanist friend Dennis Bell if they grew here.  "Yes," he said, "being so small, they are easily overlooked."  He's found them on wet ground in late March or early April next to his church. 

In the winter green blankets of moss catch my eye and stir my imagination.  Mounds of mossy earth glow in the bare winter woods along the creeks.  Down in the swamp the liverworts get thick and fleshy after a rain giving the tree branches a rich, green luster.  I find moss in the most unexpected places like in the cracks of a sidewalk or beside an asphalt road.  I will keep my hand lens with me and let you know when I get to see a hornwort.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nature's Ways

Mayhaw blooms in ice

Moss-footed oak & crane-fly orchid leaves
Moss-footed oaks stand silently as the icy rain falls in the forest.  As the ice accumulates on each twig  and branch, the world becomes crystalized and enchanted.  Since it was 70 degrees F. on Saturday, a mayhaw (Cretaegus  opaca) down in the swamp decided to bloom.  Today in 32 degrees F. it has changed its mind.  The fickle Louisiana weather confuses everything.  In the leaf litter under the leafless oak canopy the crane-fly orchid's (Tipularia discolor) green leaves attempt to photosynthesize since the sunlight can reach them on the forest floor.  This plant will store food when the sun shines again to prepare for its spire of tiny orchids that bloom in late summer.  The leaves disappear at that time.  Nature's ways are fascinating if only one stops to look and ponder them.