Unexpected Finds

Some of my favorite outdoor moments involve finding something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be something rare, just something that shows up totally by surprise. I found a couple of unexpected things today during a trip to nearby and very convenient Watercress Park and that qualifies as a good day.

The first thing I found was a small stand of Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) growing in the bottom just upstream of the spring.

Leatherwood isn’t rare by any means, but I had never seen it in Carter County. I didn’t know what I had photographed until later in the day when I was browsing Don Kurz’ Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri and figured out what it was. And according to Kurz, it doesn’t occur in Carter County so I have a county record on my hands.

Interestingly, a new species of leatherwood (D. decipiens) was recently described but while it’s expected to occur in southern Missouri, so far has only been found in Arkansas and Kansas. The Kansas population is at the Overland Park Arboretum and was always assumed to be D. palustris. I know that the Missouri Department of Conservation is looking for the new species in Missouri, but to my knowledge, have not been successful.

The flowers of the new species has little or no flower stalk (D. palustris flowers start without a stalk but one rapidly elongates following fertilization) and the calyx is usually four lobed (D. palustris are unlobed.) Another good clue, especially if the plant is not in flower, is that D. palustris is usually found in low woods often near a creek or river while D. decipiens occurs in drier habitat on north facing dolomite bluffs and slopes above streams. A positive identification does require a plant in flower, however.

One more note on the new leatherwood. DNA studies indicates that while D. palustris is it’s closest geographic neighbor, it’s closest relative is actually D. mexicana, a rarity found from only one site in Mexico.

After photographing the leatherwood, I continued back down the trail towards the slough. Along the way I found a few Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) growing along the trail.

As I crossed the foot bridge, I could see something swimming in the slough some distance away and I had found my second surprise of the day.

Again, muskrats aren’t rare – far from it in fact. But there are not large numbers of them in the Ozarks, mainly, I suspect, because most of our streams are rock and gravel and that doesn’t work so well for an animal that digs and lives in burrows. There are places like here at Watercress where the bank is mud and soft enough for burrowing and in those places you will find muskrats.

Muskrats usually don’t allow a close approach – being too trusting leads to becoming dinner for something – and this one was no exception. He dove beneath the water before I could get close enough for a really good shot. Fortunately for me though, the water in the slough is all from the spring and VERY clear. I could see him swimming underwater and made an effort to get ahead of him. I got lucky, guessed correctly on where he was going to surface and was in a good spot when he crawled from the water.

I was about 15 feet from him when I took this photo (and a series of other very similar photos) and as long as I kept my legs still, he didn’t pay me much mind. I finally had to try to get closer and as soon as I moved my foot, he was gone. I had expected him to just slip back into the water, but he leaped from the bank, legs spread wide to bellyflop into the water, quickly submerged and was gone for good.


A New Narrowly Endemic Species of Dirca (Thymelaeaceae) From Kansas and Arkansas, With a Phylogenetic Overview and Taxonomic Synopsis of the Genus, Aaron J Floden, Mark H Mayfield and Carolyn J Ferguson – Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 3(2): 485-499, 2009

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