Community

David Thompson Black Powder Shoot (2022)

This year’s David Thompson Black Powder Shoot was somewhat better attended than last year’s, perhaps due to a loosening of Covid strictures. 57 shooters competed in some combination of three separate events – rifle (a trail of 21 targets), pistol (a trail of 19 targets), and knife & hawk (both used at each of the ten stations).

For one’s shooting score to count, their muzzleloader must use open ironsights, and patched roundball (no peepsights, nor Minié ball or sabots, in the interest of a more even playing field).

The final station in the rifle trail – the long gong was about 160 yards away.

Saturday Evening’s dynamite shoot was a blast, but I became caught up in conversation, and neglected to get a photo of the event. This year’s final round was very well-shot, and anticipation hung in the air. The winner received a fine rifle wall mount.

The blanket prizes, laid out in front of the registration tent on Sunday morning.

Blanket prizes took place on the final day. To participate, a person brings some relevant item to exchange. The person with the highest overall score from the three main events selects a prize first, the second-highest score next, and on down the line.

The rendezvous concluded, targets dismantled and loaded up, camp was swiftly struck.

Hoping to see you all next year.
-Mr. Smiley

Community

Snow fleas have been out and about.

Snow fleas have been out and about this past week.

Despite their name, snow fleas bear no relation to the parasitic insects. Truth be told, snow fleas aren’t even insects! They have six legs, but aren’t divided into three body regions like insects, so instead belong to a larger grouping, the hexapods. Snow fleas are more properly called “springtails”, after the furcula, meaning “little fork” in Latin, a forked structure they use to fling themselves into the air.

Just below Lincoln’s shoulder, there is a snow flea – a Hypogastrura springtail.

Here’s a close-up video of a distantly-related springtail leaping, with a bit of an explanation of how the furcula works.

A few more snow fleas and a fir needle.

Unlike many arthropods, springtails grow to maturity faster in cool and moist conditions. Many are winter-active as well.

Similar to some of the insects I discussed in our piece on cold adaptations, many springtails have glycerol compounds in their blood, which lets them stay active in cold temperatures. Some food scientists are currently studying this blood antifreeze to make ice-cream less-susceptible to freezer damage.

Here’s a broader-field video than I was able to take of the snow fleas.

Despite being very common, and covering a vast range, very little is known about springtails. Most tend to live in the soil itself, either in woodlands or grasslands, but I’ve found them in caves and on the surface of streams before as well. Wherever there is moisture to keep springtails from drying out, as well as bacteria or mold for them to eat, there you can find springtails.

Community

Be wary of scams when deal-hunting.

As holiday shopping rears its ugly head, we can anticipate more scams.

Let’s say John Smith did some Black Friday/Cyber Monday internet bargain-finding.
He found a deal he’d been dreaming of. A price too good to be true, and, to his sorrow, several weeks later it turns out that it wasn’t true at all.

Here are several common scam types:

  1. You purchase from an online retailer, but never receive information or a package.
    The seller fails to reply when you try to contact their helpline.
    You contact your bank, card company, or PayPal, and have them cancel that transaction.
    Suddenly, the seller is responsive! They supply a tracking number that was delivered to your approximate area. Onward to scam type two.
  2. You receive a real tracking number, but never get the package.
    On further investigation, the tracking number was for something sent to the same area (town, zip code, etc.), making it easy to shift blame onto the package delivery service.
    However the tracking number isn’t for your package – it doesn’t have your address, and often has a very different weight. Even if you’ve been given a valid tracking number, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your package is real!
    And now you, the scam victim, are stuck with the burden of proof.
  3. You receive a tracking number, and the package associated with it is sent to you, but isn’t what you ordered.
    Perhaps you open it up, think “what the H-E-double-hockysticks is this?” and promptly forget about it…
    A month or so later, when you realize that you never got those fancy pajamas, you realize that the time window to contest the charge is now closed.
    (This is a common scheme for international scam packages – even if you want to return it for your money back, the postage to ship it back may be more than what the item or refund is worth). For example, mailing a package from China to the USA is far less expensive than vice versa.

eBay and PayPal will almost always side with the scammer if they can produce a tracking number that got delivered in your town. And, regardless of how they’re doing this, scammers seem to be pretty good at finding tracking numbers.
You can appeal this, by showing evidence that the item you ordered was not the item that they sent. The US Post Office, FedEx, and UPS all have the ability to check the addresses associated with their tracking numbers, and sometimes may have GPS coordinates for delivery as well. If you have a FedEx or UPS tracking number, chances are you can get the package weight and dimensions from their tracking websites, too.

Here’s a story from a relatively local eastern Idahoan who experienced a valid tracking number scheme earlier this year. The comments below the story are good and discuss a number of scam websites and apps to avoid buying from.

Safeguard your purchases ahead of time by checking the sale websites – google it, and see if folks think it’s a good place to shop, or if the website sells lower-quality items than it claims. Do a search on the Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Tracker” to see if the site you’re contemplating buying your firepit or that steal of a computer from is legitimate.
Consider trying to call the helpline phone number provided on an online retailer’s website. Be wary if an online retailer redirects you to a new website to pay via PayPal.

If you receive a package you’re not expecting, take pictures of it while you open it.
Photograph the label and tracking number, and record the weight and parcel dimensions – it might pay off just a little ways down the road.

Community, Weird Words

Two bits on inflation.

Recently a friend explained the meaning of the phrase “two bits” to me.
It means “25 cents”. He recalls hearing a song on the radio when he was young that went “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”. While I was unable to find this song (the closest I came was a Florida state sports cheer), I did stumble on some more of the history behind the expression.

Back when the Age of Discovery was still underway, many countries were basing their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. Spanish silver dollars were often cut into eight pieces (like the slices of a pie). These smaller pieces were used as coins worth fractions of a dollar. Thus the Spanish silver dollar coin was also sometimes called “a piece of eight”, as it could be cut into eight “reales” or “bits”.

See the source image
A silver dollar, as well as 4-bit, 2-bit, and 1-bit pieces.

Many fledgling governments based their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. In 1792 the US government created a standardized currency for itself. The newly-founded U.S. Mint fixed the value of the American dollar to that of the Spanish silver dollar. When the first American quarter-dollars were minted, each was worth two 1/8 bits of a Spanish silver dollar.

Of course, inflation happened, as it usually does, and the Spanish pieces of eight (or “pesos”) were made with less silver than older ones, and their size kept dropping. The same could be said of Mexican Pesos, which started out based on the Spanish silver dollar as well. Eventually America went off the gold standard as well.

This brought the tune of “shave and a haircut (two bits)” to mind… Those words accompanying the tune date back to the 1930s… and provide us with an inkling of prices then.

It’s hard for the younger of us to imagine that a quarter used to be worth that much.
Nowadays I understand that a haircut tends to cost about $25.00 – one hundred times as much, in less than a hundred years.

It’ll be interesting to see how much one costs five years from now.

Community

Mushrooms abound!

It’s been a good couple weeks for mushrooms here – puffballs, many ready to be made into mushroom steaks, some already releasing spores, seeding future years’ mushrooms.

A “Giant Puffball” that was a wee bit small to turn into steaks –
left another week, it has ruptured, releasing tiny gray-brown spores.
Tap a mature puffball, and it’ll send up a cloud of spores. Hence the name.

And shaggy manes, good for eating fresh, or letting sit and turn into “mushroom ink”. The first time this happened to some shaggy manes we’d collected, I was devastated. Turns out that shaggy manes left sit for a half-week turn into a black inky sludge. It’s still good to cook with, and can make a pleasant sauce. While I might prefer fresh firm shaggies chopped up and sauteed in bacon grease… I do intend to improve my grasp of shaggy ink. After all – it’s a great way to store them, and doesn’t mind the freezer.

A rather small Shaggy Mane.
Note the dark spores on my palm – see how the gills take on a darker color at the fringes?
Mature shaggy mane spores turn black.

If you haven’t done so recently, go take a hike through some Forest Service land – it’s a good time to be sampling the local fungi. I’ve spotted oysters and chanterelles as well as puffballs. Just take care that those you bring home are safe as food. There’s a number I’ve not yet managed to identify.

As the saying goes, all mushrooms are edible… some only once.
Be responsible in your mushroom ID, and see to it that you can have leftovers tomorrow.

Ask The Entomologist

Our inchworms and their violent kin

Mike found this inchworm in the woods recently.

Inchworms are moth caterpillars, specifically members of family Geometridae. Their family name means something like “the earth measurers”, after how they fold up and then stretch themselves out, like a surveyor’s measuring rope.

As you can see, this little fellow nearly lives up to the name.
About 6 millimeters too short, though.
And its classic gait. – note that it has all three pairs of real legs right by its head, at the left. The footlike things on the right are just extensions of the abdomen.

Ours around here aren’t all that interesting. They’re pretty standard caterpillars – standard herbivores, or opportunistic omnivores. And, like most larvae, they are very hard to identify beyond family until they molt to adulthood.

Hawaii, however, has an interesting lineage of carnivorous inchworm caterpillars. The prevailing thought is that when the Hawaiian islands were first colonized by insects, few of those pioneering species were predatory. After all, carnivores require a healthy prey population to do well. As time went on, a certain group of inchworm caterpillars adopted a predatory role – after all, there wasn’t much competition.

A good videoclip of an ambush hunter inchworm.

As time went on, the caterpillars radiated into different species with different preferred prey and hunting tactics. Some mimic twigs, others mimic leaves. Some rely on ambushes alone, while others bind up their prey with silk before consuming them. The ones I first read about prefer hunting flies, while others eat things as strange as snails.

Looking at a caterpillar move, it’s initially hard to fathom it ever moving with sufficient speed and dexterity to grab a fly, but amazing things can happen with time and the right selective pressures.

And another brief video of one of the fly-hunting species.

While we in the lower 48 do have a few omnivorous caterpillars, I’m not aware of any strict carnivores. Omnivory is easy to understand – say you have a passel of siblings all competing for the same leaves… sooner or later that sibling rivalry will result in somebody taking a bite out of a brother, and realizing that he’s pretty decent food.

Many insect mothers lay extra unfertilized eggs, just in case some of the early hatchers are in the mood to eat potential siblings. Gives the slow larvae a bit longer to escape their hungry siblings.

Wildlife

Bears know that the apples are ready…

It’s time to pick apples – at least according to the local wildlife. This weekend, we happened upon an adult black bear and her cubs munching on the apples down by the Trego railroad crossing in the wee morning hours.

Bears aren’t too picky about ripeness. Like many mammals, they’re attracted to the smell of fermentation – (the smell indicates a fruit has the highest calorie content it’s going to get). As apples get ripe (and then overripe) they become even better bear attractants.

Can bears become inebriated? Certainly! Glacier Park had a number of incidents back in the 80’s. Several railroad spills released thousands of tons of barley and corn. Buried by cleanup efforts, much of the grain fermented anaerobically, producing high volumes of alcohol. Upon emerging in the spring, bears promptly dug up the fermented mash, wish predictable consequences.

While unattended grain can ferment well, fruit left to its own devices rarely produces enough alcohol to have an effect on large mammals. Bears may be in your apple trees in the near future, but at least you won’t have to worry about them being drunk and disorderly. Not from that, anyway.

Community

On the sex lives of bandwing grasshoppers

I know that our grasshopper levels are higher than desirable at present, but today I caught one of my favorite types. A bandwing grasshopper, as opposed to their slantface and spurthroat kin (our most economically damaging grasshoppers here tend to be spurthroats).

While beetles aren’t always the most discriminate of lovers… grasshoppers tend to be rather selective in their choice of partners.

Bandwing grasshoppers have showy courtship displays – males fly, preferably into a breeze, staying fairly stationary but bobbing up and down. As they do this, they make clacking noises with their wings (entomologists call them “crepitations“), and show off their bright wing colors. Here’s a great example video of this behavior.

Females come to admire the display and assess the performing male’s suitability as a sperm donor. Males, also attracted by the display, come and join in. After all, if other males are performing here, there must be some females nearby who might be interested in me!

If the performing male(s) are sufficiently impressive, and have the right wing color, and the right clacking sound, an interested female will respond in kind. She’ll fly up, clacking her wings, before landing near a suitable spot for romance.

On the ground she’ll make further investigation of her suitors – someone who looked appealing in the air might not on the ground. If not interested, she’ll hop away, and may raise her hind feet and brandish them threateningly at the suitor.

If, however, her meets her standards, there are a variety of come-hither beckons, which vary from species to species. Common variants include moving the hind legs up or down, to provide better access to the abdomen. There may also be chirping noises, leg-stamping dances, and stroking with antennae.

Mating time varies from less than half an hour to upwards of half a day, depending on the species.

While I know that my fondness for grasshoppers is thought a bit odd, the Judeo-Christian god had a soft spot for them as well. When I see grasshoppers arcing over the fields like breaking waves, I hear the words of Joel in my head, and think of how terrifying the lord’s army of grasshoppers can be. “Σαλπισατε σάλπιγγι ἐν Σιών!”

Weird Words

Weird words: Petrichor, stone’s blood.

Stepping outside after this weekend’s much-needed downpours, I was met with a familiar fragrance. The smell of the earth after rain, sometimes called “Petrichor”.

This is a fairly modern word, cobbled together by a couple of scientists in 1965.
It’s derived from two Greek word roots. Petra (πετρα) meaning “rock” and ichor (ιχωρ) meaning “blood”. But ichor is usually a special sort of blood – the juice that flows in the veins of a god or giant, perhaps a monster, not a mere mortal.

Petrichor’s scent is strongest after rain beats down on hot, dry soil. When rain pummels the earth, it stirs up waste from tiny soil bacteria called Actinomycetes… tossing tiny particles of something chemists have named “geosmin” into the air.

Interestingly enough, this same compound that brings us that lovely post-rainstorm aroma is also responsible for strong earthy flavors.

It’s why catfish and other bottom-feeders can taste a bit muddy at times (especially when caught in hot weather). It’s also why fungi and vegetables can taste a bit earthy, even after being thoroughly washed. Personally, I’m fond of strong-flavored catfish and earthy beets and mushrooms, but to each their own.

If you’re not fond of those earthy flavors, consider adding an acid during cooking (such as vinegar). This will cause geosmin to break down and give you less-fishy tasting fish or vegetables that taste less of dirt.

On a more entomological note, mosquitoes are attracted to geosmin’s smell in preparation for laying their eggs. A number of entomologists and chemists are currently experimenting on traps using geosmin extracted from beetroot skins.

I look forward to seeing how geosmin trap technology develops – but I suspect it’d be quite possible to come up with a homemade trap based on the same principles that’d work well. After all, if we can collect and destroy many mosquito eggs, we should see some dint in next years’ mosquito populations.

There are few scents I’d rather breathe in.

Ask The Entomologist

Amorous Beetles

With fire so near to us, and this oppressive ground-clinging smoke left after last night’s badly-needed rain, I’m reminded of beetles. Specifically, amorous beetles.

Wood-boring beetles, such as jewel beetles and long-horned beetles, are attracted by the smell of distressed trees. Burnt forests draw them in, as does the smell of wood on the air after I’ve been running the stump grinder.

But, much like humans, male jewel beetles are visual creatures. What really gets them in the mood for love is the sight of a female. Or something that looks a lot like a female.

The Emerald Ash Beetle is an invasive jewel beetle, currently approaching us from the East. It’s just a matter of time until it gets here, and entomologists are working hard at devising good traps for it. Traps are most effective when they match the beetles’ taste in mates’ colors – light green (preferred by the males) and purple (preferred by the females)…

Many insect traps also use sex pheromones to complete the illusion of “single bugs near you looking for love”. But either way, the fragrance of a distressed tree is a near-must if you want to attract its wood-boring insects.


In most cases, that is. Distressed plant scents aren’t always involved.

Julodimorpha bakewelli male having a good time with the most attractive female he’s ever met.
(photo credit: Darryl Gwynne – one of the two young entomologists who discovered this phenomenon)

Australia very nearly lost a large and very attractive species of giant jewel beetle, Julodimorpha bakewelli, thanks to male sexual confusion.

You see, just as in the Emerald Ash Borer, color and sheen are very important to the Australian Jewel Beetle. Females of this species are a lovely golden brown, with wingcases covered with little dimples that catch the light. To males of this species, the ideal female is one much larger than them – well-fed, healthy, and able to lay many eggs.

Unfortunately, textured beer bottles discarded along Australian highways proved irresistible to the male beetles. “Her size! Her color! The way she glimmers in the light!I’ve never known anyone this stunning”

It was simply impossible for females to compete for their males’ affections. All across Australia, female jewel beetles were spending nights alone by themselves in the Eucalyptus trees.

Meanwhile generations of males spent themselves on discarded beer bottles who never reciprocated their affections. The most beautiful female jewel beetle or a beer bottle? Males had a clear preference.

As the years went by, it became clear that the giant jewel beetle birth rate was severely affected. Surprisingly, the beer industry stepped in and designed a new bottle, less attractive to beetles. Thus saving the Australian Jewel Beetle from extinction. Here’s a brief video on the beer-bottle-loving beetles.

We can only dream of stumbling on something as attractive to control our lumber pests.