Monday, July 6, 2009

Cool Findings at Volunteer Events!

Volunteers at the June weeding event at Crosby Park spotted this female painted turtle laying eggs at the edge of the prairie. The very next evening, volunteers at Hastings River Flats also saw the same sight - another female painted turtle laying her eggs near Lake Rebecca. Painted turtles mate in the spring and have a super adorable courtship ritual where the male swims up to the female and tickles her cheeks with the backs of his forepaws. When the female painted turtle is ready to lay her eggs, she will find a suitable spot, preferably one with soft, sandy soil and good sun exposure, and use her hind legs and claws to dig a hole. She'll then lay 4-15 eggs in the hole, cover them up, and leave the nest. Lots of predators like to eat turtle eggs, but if they manage to escape this fate, the eggs should hatch about 72-80 days later, around mid to late August. The little hatchlings will crawl out of the nest (though some hatchlings overwinter in the nest) and make their way to water.

The following week, volunteers removing invasive species like spotted knapweed and hoary alyssum at the Pine Bend Scientific and Natural Area found this skink! Skinks are a type of lizard with no pronounced neck and relatively small legs. Their movement resembles a snake more than a typical lizard. There are three types of lizards in the state of Minnesota - the prairie skink, the 5-lined skink, and the 6-lined racerunner. This little guy is most likely a prairie skink.

One especially skink-experienced volunteer was able to catch the speedy little guy so that everyone could get a closer look at him. Skinks are able to shed and regenerate their tails, and this one seemed to be in the process of growing a new tail. The new tail will look a little different and be shorter.

Volunteers at the July Crosby weeding event found this perfect little bird's nest in an American Hemp plant in the middle of the prairie they were removing yellow mustard and burdock from. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you'll notice that two of the eggs have brown speckles and one is plain white. The brown speckled eggs are likely cowbird eggs. Brown-headed Cowbirds are notorious brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds and relying on them to incubate and raise their young. Scientists have recorded over 220 bird species that have been parasitized by cowbirds, and though some reject the cowbird eggs, at least 150 species are known to have raised the cowbird chicks. It's hard to say what kind of bird made this nest and laid the white egg - our best guess is a chipping sparrow.

That same plant was covered in beautiful irridescent, metallic green beetles, like the one on this volunteer's hand. These are dogbane beetles. They feed mainly on plants in the Apocynum genus (dogbane), as well as milkweed. Dogbane and milkweed plants contain poisonous chemicals in their sap, or milk, that are toxic to many animals - in humans, for example, these chemicals can have lethal effects on the heart. These plants likely developed these chemicals as a defense mechanism to keep animals from munching them. However, dogbane beetles are able to eat the leaves, and instead of being poisoned by the chemicals, they store them in glands and then secrete them when they are threatened by predators!

And last but not least, that same evening we also spotted this mutated black-eyed susan! The stem was thick and flat, and instead of a normal flower, the brown center was bigger and flipped kind of like a hamburger patty, with the petals coming out of the top and bottom. Deformities like this can be caused by a variety of factors, but are typically a response to some sort of pathogen or pest, quite often a fungus.

Restoration events will be taking a bit of a break in August, and then kicking back up in full force for September and October. Be sure to check our upcoming event listings at or sign up for our twice-monthly e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages, at


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