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Hammerhead worms (Bipalium adventitium) Along Hardwood Ridge Trail in Oglebay Park

By Jake Francis, Director of Environmental Education – Recently, while catching my wits on the forest floor after a fall, I noticed an interesting invertebrate moving through the decaying leaves. This organism is closely related to the aquatic planaria that many of our Nature Day Campers and School Groups would recognize by its ‘crossed eyes’ and it ability to regenerate from both ends if cut in half. This turbellarian, known commonly as the hammerhead worm, is in the same order (2 taxanomic levels higher than genus) as the common freshwater planarian in our streams, and shares its ability to regenerate after an injury.

The hammerhead worm (Bipalium adventitium) preys primarily on earthworms,which they locate using chemical sensors along the front of their enlarged head. To eat the worms they exude their pharynx (located in the middle of its body), digests the worm, then absorb the nutritious liquid. Here is a link to a hammerhead worm digesting an earthworm showing the pharynx (large white appendage), but be warned the image of digestion is not for the faint of heart! 

This species of flatworm is introduced from Asia, and some scientists believe they pose a threat to north american earthworm populations. For more reading on this interesting beast check out some scientific articles at:

Feeding Behavior of a Terrestrial Turbellarian Bipalium adventitium

Reproductive ecology and evolution in the invasive terrestrial planarian Bipalium adventitium across North America

Observations on Feeding Behavior by the Terrestrial Flatworm Bipalium adventitium (Platyhelminthes: Tricladida: Terricola) from Illinois

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Sparrows Threaten Eastern Blue Birds

Male Bluebird

Greg Park, senior naturalist at the Schrader Center, was recently featured in an interview concerning the threat of European Sparrows to Eastern Bluebirds on WV Public Broadcasting. Check out the audio link here or read the story below.

By Glynis Board, WV Public Broadcasting — May 18, 2012 · According to an eye-witness in Marshall County, a family of Eastern Bluebirds was recently murdered just outside of Moundsville. The mother and father bird are reported as missing but the three healthy chicks, just days before their first lessons in flight, were found with their heads pecked in. The suspect seen leaving the bird house was, of course, a European Sparrow.

The marauding European Sparrow, otherwise known as the English Sparrow, is an invasive species introduced to North America 200 years ago. The sparrow is known for its hostile and brutal nest take-over techniques. The birds were introduced in an effort to control insects despite the fact that 96% of the English Sparrow’s diet consists mostly of grains and only 4% insect. Naturalist Greg Park says in times of heavy horse traffic in cities, the birds were probably helpful.

“There were a lot of road apples,” Park says, “and the English Sparrows would pick them apart to get the grain out of them that was pre-digested, oats and corn and stuff the horse fed on—eating all the fly eggs that would hatch into maggots. So it probably helped. Their population sky-rocketed.”

Today the brown and black sparrows can be found at most any fast food drive-through collecting discarded french fries and bread crumbs. Because they are so aggressive in competing for cavity-style nests, they pose one of the biggest threats to Eastern Bluebird populations—also cavity-nesting birds.

Albert Dague is a retired steel fabricator of 45 years. He took up birding after retirement and today he monitors 50 bluebird boxes in Oglebay Park in Wheeling every week during the spring and summer.

Dague says while sparrows are one of the biggest threats to bluebirds today, the use of insecticide called DDT almost wiped them out completely.

“DDT was introduced in 1939,” Dague says. “They sprayed along road banks, and Bluebirds are ground insect-eating birds, and from the DDT, they basically pretty nearly destroyed, it’s estimated, up to 90 percent of the Bluebird population into the 1960s.”

DDT was eventually banned and since then, Bluebirds have been making a comeback. Today there are bluebird groups and birding clubs that work to protect and foster bird populations.

Dague says he enjoys showing off the birds he monitors.

“Various people in the park will wonder, ‘What are you doing bothering the nest-box for?’ And then when they find out what you’re doing—I’ll open the box and show them the birds—most people will say, ‘I never saw a bluebird before!’ But they’ve probably really never looked for one.”

Both Park and Dauge say that bluebirds are very accommodating and friendly birds and that they get people interested and excited about the natural world and stewardship.

“If anyone wants to start bluebirds you can buy a cheap box that you can open. If you have bluebirds in your area and you put up a box, it might take a while, but you’ll eventually get bluebirds.”

Dauge advises putting the boxes on posts with some kind of tubing beneath them to protect against raccoons and snakes; and Park says you can tell what kind of bird lives there by looking at the nest.

“If you open a nest box and find a really neat little nest made of all grass or else sometimes pine needles and it’s really neat and squared away with nothing else added—that’s a bluebird nest,” Park says. “If you open the box and find all sticks, about four inches long, you know it’s a wren. So you can tell when you open a box who is using it.”

Park says it’s equally easy to identify the nest of an English Sparrow.

“Their nest looks like a teenagers room. It’s just a big mess. There’s grass and pieces of twine and there’s pieces of plastic bags and there’s everything in there. And it’s all in a big mound clear up to the ceiling of the nest-box. There’s no mistaking what you have.”

“And I do whack every English Sparrow I can,” Park adds.

Park says it’s legal to kill non-native birds like Starlings and English Sparrows and because they don’t spread lead in the environment the beebee gun is his weapon of choice.

So, Why is the Egg Blue?

By Jake Francis, Director of Environmental Education — There have been a number of bird species nesting in and around the Schrader Center for the last month (including red-shouldered hawks, red-bellied woodpeckers, mallards, and many more).  Recently we found hatched robin’s eggs on the ground along the Hardwood Ridge trail.

There are two interesting things going on in this photo. First, we see that the egg is bright blue (in fact this could be any thrush egg, but we know it is a robin because of the robin’s nest situated above the shell). The blue coloration of the egg is created by the deposition of the mother’s blood pigments on the egg, notice that the outer portion of the egg is blue while the inner side of the shell is not. There have been many scientists who have hypothesized about the adaptive significance of the blue coloration in thrush eggs. Some claimed that color blind mammals would be less likely to see a blue egg in a brown nest than a white egg, others believed that the blue coloration helped protect embryos from sunlight damage. Recent research suggests that perhaps the blue coloration of thrush eggs serves as a signal of their mothers’ fitness to male thrushes, causing them to invest more energy in feeding the young after they hatch. Some data supports that egg coloration correlates with the mother’s fitness in other families (e.g., Pied Flycatcher).  And, male Robins seem to feed supposed hatchlings from brighter eggs.

In this photo we can also see that an invertebrate was likely eating the remainder of the amniote of this egg (notice the trail of slug or snail excretion at the opening of the egg). This is the first instance that either I or Greg Park, Senior Naturalist, have heard of gastropods eating the left-over amniote of bird eggs. Perhaps some of our readers can lay out egg shells and try to catch a snail or slug red-handed!

Environmental Book Club to Discuss Theodore Roosevelt

Join the Environmental Book Club tonight, May 17, 2012 to read THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley. If you’ve read a book about Theodore Roosevelt, come join us with your perspective!

We meet at 7pm at the Schrader Center in Oglebay park, Wheeling WV, typically on the upper floor. Check out our blog at www.ecobookclub.wordpress.com  for past discussions and future books.   Hope to see you there!

Spring Blooms Abound on Oglebay’s Trails

Yellow Violet

By Jake Francis, Director of Environmental Education  — These flowers were seen in flower or fruit along the trails of Oglebay Park on April 20.  A recent hike proved that many are still in bloom, if not further along than they were 2 weeks ago! Come hike the trails at Oglebay and experience the beauty of spring as it blooms.

Blue Violet

Two-leafed Miterwort (Mitella diphyllum) — This plant is named after a clerical hat– miter, also called bishops cap because the flowers are similar in shape.  Falls Vista Trail.

Sweet White Violet

Blue Violet (Viola sororia) — This small purple flower is very common along the trails.  Most violets produce two types of flower; one that is open for sexual reproduction and one that never opens, called a   cleistogamous flower, that self fertilizes.  All trails.

Round-leafed Violet (Viola rotundifolia) — This plant is similar to the blue violet except for its rounded leaves.  All trails.

Northern White Violet (Viola canadensis) — A beautiful white violet that is slightly less common than its congeners on our trails.  Falls ravine trail and Hardwood Ridge Trail.

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) — A large plant that causes birth defects in mammals, the blue cohosh generally escapes browsing from the deer.  This genus is only found in Eastern US and Asia.  Hardwood Ridge trail.

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) — Similar leaf arrangement to the blue cohosh but with acute leaf apicies. Hardwood Ridge trail.

Bear Corn

Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) — This long-blooming spring wildflower has five fused petals that form a tube and spread at the apex of the flower.  This shape is called salverform.  All trails.

Blue Cohosh

 Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) — One of the earliest and showiest spring wildflowers, the Large flowered trillium ranges from white to (the more uncommon) deep red.  the white form blushes pink with age. (hardwood ridge trail–uncommon on trails)

Bear Corn (Conopholis americana) — This plant is a saprophyte, and is non-photosynthetic.  It parasitizes the roots of trees, particularly beech and oak.  This plant gets its name from its extrememe laxative properties, which bear take advantage of after their winter hybernation! All trails.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) —This large-leafed blue flowered plant is easily recognized by its large round-elliptical leaves growing in clumps throughout our woods.  Hardwood Ridge trail.

Virginia Bluebells

 Giant Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) — Though this plant is called the giant chickweed the flowers are rarely larger than 12mm across.  All trails–very common.

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) — See our earlier blog post for some interesting ecological stories about the spring beauty; this plant is almost done flowering!   All trails.

Golden Ragwort

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) — This aster is common along roadsides and along our trails. All trails.

Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) —  An interesting inflorescence called a spadix surrounded by a leafy spathe.  This flower is a perennial that stores starches in an underground root, and produces anthers (male parts) when small, and carpels (female parts) when it becomes larger. All trails.

Jack in the Pulpit

Spotted/ Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) —  This showy spring wildflower is fairly common in the park.  All trails.

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) — This wildflower gets its name from the shape of its perennial rootstock.  The root is marked along its length with scars from previous years flowering stems, and when cut in cross section is said to resemble letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Falls Vista trail.

Large Flowered Trillium

Bracken Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) — This plant will be in fruit almost all summer, and though the bright red aggregate fruit (that resembles a strawberry) is not palatable, birds have been observed picking and eating the fruit.  All trails.

Creeping Buttercup (I)– Ranunculus repens

Garlic Mustard (I)– Alliaria petiolata

Common Chickweed (I)– Stellaria media