Locks on Locks!

Augusta, Georgia is located on the Savannah River at what is called the “Fall Line”. Where the Piedmont province meets the Coastal Plain province in Georgia (and most of the Southeastern U. S.), there is an abrupt change in topography and rapids (falls) occur in streams which cross this boundary. These rapids made boats unable to pass upstream past the rapids, and cargo usually had to be portaged around the rapids.

To ameliorate this problem, Augusta built a canal to bypass the rapids. To accomplish this, a dam was constructed at the upstream end of the rapids, and a set of locks allowed boats to safely enter or leave the canal.

 Dam on the Savannah River at the head of the Augusta Canal.

Dam on the Savannah River at the head of the Augusta Canal.

This photograph shows the dam on the Savannah River at the head of the rapids.

Lock structure at the head of the Augusta Canal.

Lock structure at the head of the Augusta Canal.

This photograph shows the structure built to manage the water flow through the locks. At the arrow there is a metal fence along a walkway along the downstream side of the lock structure.

A fence full of locks.

A fence full of locks.

At some point it occurred to someone to attach a lock (padlock) to the fence along the face of the lock structure. This idea caught on in a big way, as you can see from this photograph. Now virtually every structure along around the locks is covered with locks.

Some of the many types of locks found at the head of the Augusta Canal.

Some of the many types of locks found at the head of the Augusta Canal.

A great variety of locks are present among the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of locks present. This photograph shows only a few of the many types present.

So, if you get a chance, take a trip to the upstream end of the Augusta Canal and have a look at all the locks on the locks.

 

Skunks

A Striped Skunk dead by the roadside.

A Striped Skunk dead by the roadside.

A Striped Skunk dead along the roadside.

A Striped Skunk dead along the roadside.

I always like to stop to examine road kill. On this day I found 2 dead Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) along the road. The animal in the first photograph was a full-grown male, about 24 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail. It has a large amount of white fur relative to black. The second animal was about the same size, but it was entirely black, except for a white patch on the top of its head and neck. These two photographs illustrate how the amount of white fur can vary considerably between animals, with some being nearly entirely black.

Skunks used to be a very valuable source of pelts for the fur trade. The higher the percentage of black on the animal the more valuable would be its pelt. Skunk pelts were graded #1 to #4. The nearly all black animal in the second photograph would be a #1 pelt, while the first photograph shows a skunk that would grade as #4, the least valuable.

Large scale trapping of skunks for the fur trade started in the middle 1800s. The market for skunk furs was in Europe, however, not in the U.S. Skunk farming began about 1880 in the U.S., and prospered for a while. More than 2 million skunk pelts were traded in London in 1911. The First World War interfered with European fur trading, but American auction houses took over the business, and Americans began to warm up to using skunk furs. After the war was over, the “Golden Age of Skunk Fur” began.  In 1920, for example, the average skunk pelt sold for $5.14. That is more than $60 in today’s money. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a Farmer’s Bulletin entitled “The Economic Value of North American Skunks” in 1914 and revised it in 1923. It makes very interesting reading if you are at all interested in the subject. Incidentally, one can still buy skunk  pelts from a variety of suppliers on Amazon.com.

Striped Skunks have a sort of relaxed manner about them as they move around. When one is encountered, it usually will make no serious effort to run rapidly away. They appear to be confident that their ability to spray an odorous musk from scent glands located near their anus will discourage potential predators. The musk is a mixture of low molecular weight sulfur-containing thiols (also called mercaptans) which have a powerful odor. Ernest Thompson Seton described the smell as “essence of garlic, burning sulfur and sewer gas magnified a thousand times”.

Automobiles driven by Man are probably the greatest killer of Striped Skunks, and Striped Skunks, such as the ones pictured in this post, are frequently seen dead (or smelled) along roadsides. Striped Skunks have few natural enemies. Apparently, Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are the main natural predator of Striped Skunks in our area, but Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamacensis) are known to take the juveniles. We have a shortage of other large predators, such as wolves, mountain lions, and eagles which might take the occasional Striped Skunk. Some birds, (such as the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), do have a sense of smell and might be repelled by the Striped Skunk’s musk. Great Horned Owls and Red-tailed Hawks, however, have no ability to smell and can attack skunks with impunity.

The generic and specific names of the Striped Skunk are Mephitis, who was a minor Roman goddess of noxious or poisonous gases or of places where noxious gases were emitted, such as volcanic fumaroles. It is thus appropriate for Striped Skunks. Striped Skunks used to be classified in the family Mustelidae, which would make them close relatives of weasels, badgers, mink, otters and similar animals. Now, however, on the basis of molecular evidence, they are no longer thought to be so closely related and have been placed in their own family, Mephitidae, which contains skunks and creatures with the lovely name “stink badgers”.

Left: Claws on the front foot of a Striped Skunk Right: Head of a Striped Skunk.

Left: Claws on the front foot of a Striped Skunk Right: Head of a Striped Skunk.

The photograph on the left shows the heavy claws on the front foot of a Striped Skunk, which are adapted for digging. The photograph on the right shows the head of the animal shown in the first photograph.

Striped Skunks are omnivorous. At times their diet may consist mainly of insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars; at other times they may eat fruits and berries, or eggs and young of ground-nesting birds. Striped Skunks are among a small number of mammals that have been able to cope with man’s encroachment on their natural habitat, and their populations seem to be stable. Other such adaptable species include Raccoons (Procyon lotor), Opposums (Didelphis virginiana), and Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).

 

Momma Long Legs.

Longbodied Cellar Spider with an egg case.

Longbodied Cellar Spider with an egg case.

I found this spider on our front porch this Fall. It is Pholcus phalangiotides, a member of the group called “Cellar Spiders”. Its common name is “Longbodied Cellar Spider. This species has a worldwide range, and is commonly found in and around buildings. The photograph shows a female clutching an egg sac full of very large egg (about 1mm in diameter).. The other striking thing about this creature is its very long legs. In fact, the long legs of this species cause it to be mistaken for a Daddylonglegs, a completely different creature. This female has suffered a bit of damage, because it only has six of its eight legs remaining.

Inside buildings the Longbodied Cellar Spider builds a tangled web in some corner. However, it commonly ventures outside its web to prey on other spiders. After it approaches another spider, it uses its long legs to draw silk from its spinnerets and then tosses it at the other spider, Only after the other spider is thoroughly entangled, will the Longbodied Cellar Spider approach and subdue the prey with a bite.

Longbodied Cellar Spider with egg case,

Longbodied Cellar Spider with egg case,

This is a slightly larger view of the same spider. Several of its eyes can be seen as black dots just behind the egg case.

Fall Orange?

Southern Indian scenery.

On our last trip to Indiana (over the Thanksgiving Holiday), I took a ride through the countryside with my friend Ronnie.We saw several  interesting things, including this view from a hill overlooking a small Southern Indiana town. Would anyone care to guess what makes the hillsides in the distance such a nice, bright orange?


Some varieties of Cucurbita pepo.

Southern Indian pumpkin field.

Pumpkins in a Southern Indiana field.

Pumpkins in a Southern Indiana field.

If you deduced the orange color must be from a field of pumpkins, you are right. However, the term “pumpkin” can be used to denote several types of cultivated plants in the family Cucurbitaceae and the genus Cucurbita. This genus originated in Central and South America, and an amazing variety of cultivated plants have been produced by selection and intercrossing. Many of these are varieties of the species Cucurbita pepo including the types we call summer squasth, winter squash, acorn squash, yellow squash, crook-neck squash, zucchini, spaghetti squash, pattypan squash, and many other types. Some of these can be seen in the photograph below, which I took at a roadside stand in North Georgia. Remember these are all varieties of C. pepo, and all can be intercrossed to produce yet more varieties. And C. pepo is not there only species used, C. moschata also produces fruits called pumpkins. In fact, I would guess that the pumpkins seen in the field above are a cultivar of C. moschata, and, since they are in the field long after the time when they would be picked for ornamental purposes,  they are being grown for processing.

Varieties of Cucurbita pepo.

Varieties of Cucurbita pepo.

The story of Jack o lanterns is an interesting one. Many authorities believe that the custom of carving vegetables into grotesque faces originated in Ireland. Of course, no pumpkins were available to such carvers, so they used turnips (Brassica rapa var. rapa)  or  related plants such as rutabaga, or mangelwurzal. The idea was the same, namely to ward off evil spirits.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they encountered pumpkins being grown by the native peoples, and they soon realized these produce Jack o Lantern superior to turnips. Nowadays, of course most Jack o Lanterns are produced from pumpkins, even in Ireland.

A Golden Chain.

A Chinese Flame Tree

A Chinese Flame Tree

This is a fairly common street tree in our area. It is Koelreuteria bipinnata, and the tree has several common names including: Articulated Golden Chain Tree, Chinese Flame Tree, Chinese Golden Rain Tree, Bougainvillea Golden-rain and Gold Raintree.  As you might guess from the common names, it is a native of Asia. The genus name is in honor of Joseph Gottlieb Kölreuter (1733 –1806), a German botanist who conducted many experiments on plant hybridization. The species name bipinnata refers to the twice pinnately compound leaves of this species.

A Chinese Flame Tree Flower

A Chinese Flame Tree Flower

This tree is interesting in both flower and fruit. An individual flower is shown in the photograph above. The contrasting red and yellow colors are striking. The flowers are “perfect” which in botanical lingo means they have both male (stamens) and female (pistil) organs. In this view the eight stamens protrude nicely from the flower. The base of the pistil is the shorter, trumpet-shaped structure just above the lowermost stamen.

Pods of a Chinese Flame Tree

Pods of a Chinese Flame Tree

After the tree has flowered, it produces these interesting capsules, which remain on the tree for quite some time. These are sometimes called “Chinese Lanterns” and can be used in dried flower arrangements.

Capsules of a Chinese Flame Tree (left) and the Seeds Inside (right)

Capsules of a Chinese Flame Tree (left) and the Seeds Inside (right)

Inside the capsules are several seeds that at this stage look remarkably like green peas. When mature they are used as beads in necklaces.

Shrew for You

Underside of Shrew Nose

Underside of Nose.

What do you think this creature is? I was blowing off the leaves on our driveway when I found it. Unfortunately it was already dead. This view shows its pointed nose, abundance of whiskers, and impressive teeth.

A front view. The eye is just to the left of the yellow arrow.

A front view. The eye is just to the left of the yellow arrow.

Here is a front view of the little creature. It is covered with soft fur, and its whiskers are shown again.  The yellow arrow points to one of its very small eyes. This combination of small eyes and many whiskers indicates a nocturnal existence.

Dorsal view of a Short-tailed Shrew.

Dorsal view of a Short-tailed Shrew.

As you have probably already guessed, it is a shrew. Its scientific names is Blarina bevicauda, and its common name is Short-tailed Shrew. The view above shows its small size and short tail. Blarina is apparently a name coined by John Edward Gray in 1838 and thus has no particular meaning. The specific name brevicauda means “short tail” in Latin.

 

Ventral view of a Short-tailed Shrew.

Ventral view of a Short-tailed Shrew.

In  this ventral view one can see the short legs and streamlined shape.

Shrews are in the mammalian order Insectivora, along with moles, hedgehogs and desmans (small, semiaquatic mammals found in Europe). There are many species of shrews and they have a world-wide distribution. Shrews are ferocious predators with a very high metabolism. Heartbeat rates of 1000 per minute have been recorded in some species, and some must eat every two hours to avoid starvation. Short-tailed shrews eat about three times their weight each day. Favorite food items include worms, insects, voles, mice, snails and even other shrews.

Some shrews, including the Short-tailed Shrew pictured in this post, have poisonous proteolytic saliva. A bite to a mouse will paralyze or kill it. A bite to a human will cause a lot of pain, but will not be lethal. Short-tialed shrews are quite common, but are rarely seen. They spend most of its time in their burrows or beneath the leaf litter.

 

 

Buttonbush

A flower head of Buttonbush.

A flower head of Buttonbush.

The plant featured in this post is Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). It grows around the shores of the lake behind our house, and it is always found in wet places around here. You can find it in the wild in zones 5-9.

The photograph above shows a flower cluster of the plant as it appeared last summer. If you look closely, you will see that the structure is actually a group of small five-sided flowers. A long style  protrudes from the center of each flower and gives the flower cluster a pincushion-like appearance. Each long style has a yellowish stigma on the outer end and is attached to the ovary of the flower on the end nearest the flower cluster. Pollen must land on the stigma for the flowers to be fertilized and ultimately produce seeds. The stamens are short and do not protrude much from the petals of each flower. You may be able to see some stamens on flowers near the center of this photograph. They appear as small dark dots around the inside of each flower. Mature flower heads are 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter.

The tubular nature of Buttonbush flowers.

The tubular nature of Buttonbush flowers.

At a slightly more mature stage, many of the flowers have been fertilized and the tubular nature of the flowers can be clearly seen. The petals of each flower are attached to a bright green, round core at this stage. (A bonus if you spot the spider in this photograph).

A flower head of Buttonbush.

A flower head of Buttonbush.

In this photograph, all the petals have fallen from the green core. The ovaries of the flowers are in the compartments of the green core, so the seeds will develop there. At this stage, the core is about  3/4 of an inch in diameter. The red color visible at the base of some flowers has been selected in some cultivars of Buttonbush so that the entire seed head is a deep red.

A nearly mature flower head of Buttonbush.

A nearly mature flower head of Buttonbush.

I collected this flower head just this past weekend (November 11). The larger bases of the flower head have arisen from fertilized flowers and are expanding to produce seeds. Each large compartment should produce two small black seeds. I will try to collect a later stage when the seeds are more mature and visible, but I will have to beat the birds to them.

The smaller, crowded compartments are the remains of flowers which were not fertilized.

Please note: The various photographs in this post are from different plants, so this is not a true developmental sequence of a single flower cluster.