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Featured Animal

Gray Fox

Gray Fox:  Photo Credit: T. Kitchin & V. Hurst

Gray Fox: Photo Credit: T. Kitchin & V. Hurst

Gray Fox       Photo Credit: T. Kitchin & V. Hurst

The Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) ranges across most of the southern half of North America. The subspecies in Kansas is Urocyon cinereoargenteus ocythous. It roams forested regions of easternmost Kansas as well as riparian habitats, particularly along tributaries of the Arkansas River. The gray fox has relatively long, slender legs supporting a narrow body. It has triangular-shaped ears and an extremely narrow muzzle. Its has short coarse fur (salt & pepper) that becomes an orange swath running from the ears down the side of the neck and onto the throat. A dark, almost black stripe runs along the back and continues along the dorsal crest of the tail. By comparison, the red fox (a distinct genus) has a white tipped tail. In contrast to foxes, the gray fox has oval pupils instead of slit-like. The red fox also has “black stockings” not present on the gray fox. The gray fox is omnivorous, consuming mostly small mammals like cottontails and pocket gophers. It supplements this diet with insects and birds (doves & quail). This fox is adept at climbing trees as evident from the photo above. In late summer and fall, persimmons and acorns become its primary food. It is much more active at night but may be observed foraging during the day. Man is its most common predator followed by eagles, coyotes, and bobcats.

Longnose Gar

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) Photo from Casey Smartt Large female surrounded by many smaller males jockeying for position.

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) Photo from Casey Smartt
Large female surrounded by many smaller males jockeying for position.

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) Photo from Casey Smartt

Large female surrounded by many smaller males jockeying for position.

Today’s gars are derived from a group of fish that thrived more than 50 million years ago. Their unusual appearance is due to a long narrow snout that is more than twice as long as the distance from its eye to the back of its head. To exaggerate this appearance, the anal and dorsal fins are located near the rear of the body. These fins have bony spines. Large needle-like teeth on their upper jaws allow them to snare fish with a lateral motion of the head after remaining stealthy still. The sides and top of their bodies are greenish with dark spots on both the sides and fins. The body is covered with armor of thick interlocking scales that native Americans used as arrowheads. They are native to most rivers in the eastern half of Kansas. Their preferred habitat is the cover provided by weedy flats, bends, bays, creek mouths, swamps and backwaters where the water moves slowly. Gars can live in poorly oxygenated water because they have an unusual swim bladder that acts like a primitive lung. This enables them to breathe air directly from the atmosphere. The grown longnose gar preys upon smaller fish including other gar, frogs, snakes, invertebrates such as crabs, and even waterfowl. They usually feed at night. Longnose gar provided a high quality food source for Native Americans. These fish spawn in tightly clustered groups accompanied by dramatic splashing as several males deploy near a female. Although their lifespan ranges from 15-20 years, their population is in decline due to overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss due to construction of dams and roads.

Prairie Kingsnake

Prairie Kingsnake by Kory Roberts

Prairie Kingsnake by Kory Roberts

Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) Photo by Kory Roberts

The Prairie Kingsnake is a nonvenomous snake living in the eastern third of Kansas southwest to the Red Hills. However, its range also includes Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. It has dark splotches along its back that vary from gray to brown to reddish brown, each with black trim. These blotches float on a lighter tan field giving way to a white belly. It is distinguished from copperheads that have hourglass markings. It is immune to the venom produced by copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. During the summer it is nocturnal, preferring to spend the day under rocks and in burrows. During the spring and fall it may be observed during the morning or early evening (diurnal). It prowls for small rodents and other small mammals, certain snakes (even venomous ones), lizards and frogs that it overcomes by coiling around, constricting and suffocating. Around farmlands it keeps mice under control although some are killed by people ignorant of their nonvenomous and even docile nature.

Five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

Five-lined Skink  photo by John MacGregor

Five-lined Skink photo by John MacGregor

 

The following text from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plestiodon_fasciatus. Young five-lined skinks are dark brown to black with five distinctive white to yellowish stripes running along the body and a bright blue tail. The blue color fades to light blue with age, and the stripes also may slowly disappear. The dark brown color fades, too, and older individuals are often uniformly brownish.

Five-lined skinks are ground-dwelling animals. They prefer moist, partially wooded habitat that provides ample cover or inside walls of buildings as well as sites to bask in the sun. They can also be found in broken, rocky areas at the northern edge of their habitat.

Fertilization in five-lined skinks is internal, with eggs laid by the female between the middle of May and July, at least one month after mating.

Females lay fifteen to eighteen eggs in a small cavity cleared beneath a rotting log, stump, board, loose bark, a rock, or an abandoned rodent burrow. Females prefer secluded nest sites in large, moderately decayed logs. Soil moisture is also an important factor in nest selection.

In evasion of various predators including snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons, and domestic cats, skinks may disconnect their entire tail or a small segment. Skinks run to shelter to escape their distracted predators as the disconnected tail continues to twitch. Skinks may also utilize biting as a defensive strategy.

Flower Seeds for the Goldfinch

Goldfinch eating Bee balm seeds.

Goldfinch eating Bee balm seeds.

Goldfinches on Purple coneflower seed heads.

Goldfinches on Purple coneflower seed heads.

Particularly during late August or most of September in Kansas, certain flower seed heads should be left alone after the blooms have been spent to allow birds to feed on the seeds. This practice particularly benefits American goldfinches that love the seeds of bee balm, Purple coneflowers, and all varieties of sunflowers. It’s often tempting to cut off the seedpods to make the flower garden look neat but it deprives these birds of a vital food source. When I watch them pecking seeds from my helianthus, they will often complete their meal by selecting one yellow flower petal that they gulp down almost as quickly as the seeds. The slender stems of bee balm are still sturdy enough to support Gold finches standing on the seed head while they extract the seeds one at a time. Many seeds often remain behind even after purple coneflower seed heads have turned dark brown or black. Usually Gold finches will be seen in groups dining on the seeds of all these flowers whose seeds become available in September when the birds are moving through the area. Gold finches may be permanent residents in other parts of Kansas but where I live in northeast Kansas, they are just pausing for a few weeks on their way further south. If you have bee balm, purple coneflowers and sunflowers in your yard, expect to see many visits from the American goldfinch this fall. – Ted Beringer

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter:  Photo Credit: River Otter Academy 

The River otter (Lontra Canadensis) is a semiaquatic mammal in the weasel family. Its head is flattened with small ears. It has short legs with webbed toes, and a tapered tail designed for swimming nearly 7miles per hour. The fur on its back consists of a soft oily underfur interspersed with longer glossy guard hairs. River otters construct dens under tree roots, in thickets, in burrows abandoned by woodchucks as well as abandoned beaver & muskrat lodges. In the 1800s and earlier, River otters lived along all major rivers and numerous permanent streams across Kansas. However, overtrapping and agricultural development of land along water habitat severely reduced river otter population throughout the Great Plains and much of the Midwest so that River otters were extirpated in Kansas by 1904. However, in 1983 and 1984, 19 river otters from Idaho and Massachusetts were reintroduced on the South Fork Cottonwood River in Chase County. Also, multiple reintroductions of River otters from Missouri established a large population of otters by the year 2000. Today, river otters live in eastern Kansas along portions of the Cottonwood, Neosho, Spring, Marmaton, Marais de Cynes, Deleware, Kansas, and Missouri rivers. Although mostly active after sundown, river otters may be observed during daylight hours also. They forage along streams and rivers mostly for nongame fish and crayfish depending upon the time of year. When opportunity provides it River otters will consume various fruits, voles, deer mice, muskrats, young beavers, reptiles, birds, bird eggs, frogs, crayfish, molluscs, large insects and worms. They are susceptible to water pollution since they accumulate mercury and other toxins. The Clean Water Act has reduced pollution of the large rivers but small wetlands and stream are still vulnerable to polluters.

Silver Chub

Silver Chub:  Photo from North American Native Fishes Association.

Silver Chub: Photo from North American Native Fishes Association.

The Silver chub (Macrhybopsis storeriana) lives near the bottom of large sandy rivers. In Kansas it is found in the lower Arkansas River, portions of the Ninnescah River and the Missouri river. However, it has not been observed in the Kansas River since 1980 in spite of once having been abundant there. Most are about 5 inches long but may grow to 9 inches. The Silver chub feeds on insects, plant seeds, small mollusks and crustaceans along the bottom of the river. Its large eyes can see very well except in murky water. In turbid water, mouth barbels hanging from the corner of the mouth are used for smell. They have a complete lateral line for detection of water vibrations along their flanks. Its body is greyish-green on top and silver underneath. Recent drought has dramatically reduced their populations in the Ninnescah River in southern Kansas. Ground water withdrawals can also do harm. Biologists at Kansas State University report that river fragmentation caused by dams adversely affect aquatic systems in the Great Plains needed by native fish species like the silver chub. Once dams breakup a river into small enough sections, fish eggs released into the river cannot drift downstream for enough distance to develop completely. An additional aggravating problem is the stocking of reservoirs behind dams with nonnative fish, e.g. Largemouth bass that prey on native fish like the silver chub.

Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cyanthus latirostris) Photo by Tom Grey http://tgreybirds.com

Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cyanthus latirostris) Photo by Tom Grey http://tgreybirds.com

Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cyanthus latirostris) Photo by Tom Grey

Although the hummingbird is tiny, it exhibits prodigious feats. In order to hover at a nectar-producing flower, its wings beat typically 50-80 times per second, its heart beats up to 1250 beats per minute, its breathing rate is 250 breaths per minute. They visit hundreds of flowers a day to acquire just enough energy to survive overnight. During the summer in North America they must add enough fat reserves to sustain them during migration flights across the Gulf of Mexico to wintering sites in Central America or Mexico. Ten different types visit Kansas including the Broad-billed hummingbird shown in the photo above. Hummingbirds co-evolved with specific flowers that are only pollinated by birds with long slender beaks that can reach the narrow tubular flower structures containing nectar. These structures ensure contact between the pollinating hummingbird and the stamen and stigma that results in pollination. Hummingbirds are extinct everywhere except the Americas. Their nests are also tiny and often have bits of lichen attached to them.

Cicada

Cicada by Texas Eagle

Cicada by Texas Eagle

Cicada:   Photo Credit: Texas Eagle

Their eyes are prominently set on the anterior lateral corners of their head (plus three additional tiny eyes between them). Their sturdy wings have conspicuous veins. Male cicadas make a loud mating sound that is not stridulation (as is produced when crickets or katydids move body parts together). Instead, male cicadas have a special modified exoskeleton on their anterior abdomen called a tymbal. Internal muscles can buckle the tymbals inwards to generate a clicking sound. When these muscles relax, the tymbals bow outward to their original position making another click. Some species of cicada can generate sounds up to 120 decibles. This sound can cause pain in the human ear; and, make it difficult for predators like birds to communicate in groups. If the sounds of the male are successful, mating will occur and the female deposits her eggs into a slit in the bark of a tree. After the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground and burrow to a depth of 1-8 feet. The nymphs live underground for most of their lives where they drink sap from roots of plants. The annual species we see and hear in Kansas trees in mid-to-late summer emerge from the ground in a year. Some emerge at the end of a seventeen-year cycle in greater numbers. In the final nymphal instar, nymphs emerge above ground, attach to a nearby plant or wooden fence post and molt (shed their skins) to become adults. Their abandoned and vacated exoskeleton remains left behind.

Longnose Snakes

Longnose snake; photo by Michael Cravens

Longnose snake; photo by Michael Cravens

Longnose snake.   Photo by Michael Cravens

Longnose Snakes 
(Rhinocheilus lecontei) are nonvenomous, nocturnal snakes found primarily in southwest Kansas although they also occur in the southwestern states.They have a slightly upturned snout that allows them to burrow into loose sandy soil where it resides during the day. It has black and red banding on a creamy yellow background. The black bands have a creamy colored speckling. This tricolor appearance resembles the venomous coral snake. However, the bands of the longnose snake do not completely encircle the body; and, their nose is slightly upturned. It becomes active nocturnally and eats lizards and their eggs, small snakes and rodents.