Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Different Morning Chorus

Yesterday morning Toby and I passed this pair of cranes down the road from our house.  When Toby started to bark, they took objection.   The one crane started to bob its head, open its wings with a powerful whump, and lift both feet off the ground - jumping in place, suspended by its wings.  It was telling us that it was big and powerful and capable of defending itself should we decide to come any closer.

Of course, I didn't have my camera.

This morning I took the camera and the cranes were back.  But Toby decided to control his barking, so they did not feel threatened.  No dancing today.

Still, there is nothing quite like the prehistoric calls of cranes.

I've often held turkeys up as the example that dinosaurs still roam this planet.  If you don't believe it, just watch a turkey as it walks along a field.  Better yet, watch a whole flock of 'em.  Then recall the scene from Jurassic Park where a herd of dinosaurs goes galloping past the camera.  You will easily see the similarities.

But the calls made by these cranes...there's just something about them that echoes through time.  Close your eyes and listen to this video.  Then tell me if you can picture pterodactyls.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Morning Walk

We have had just a string of glorious days - temps in the '70s, nice breeze, low humidity.  It's been wonderful.  

So, of course, Toby and I took a long walk "around the block" Sunday morning.  Lots of things are in bloom, some of which are old friends, and some of which are new ones.

First up we have what I suspect is purple giant hyssop (another case of uncertain ID because I didn't have my field guide in hand on the walk, and photographs don't always do the trick).  I've only seen purple giant hyssop once, so I can't rely on memory.  I will take my book home today, however, and have it on hand for my next foray. Update:  my botany buddy back in NY (who is originally from MI) identified this as hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), which amazingly is is a native plant! 

The first flush of yellow goatsbeard has come and gone,

but the next generation is coming in strong.

'Tis the season for mullein, and here we have moth mullein, a mullein about which I have heard (it is considered up and coming on the list of bad invasives), but have never seen until moving here to Michigan.  It's been in Michigan since about 1840, so it's hardly a new plant, but these last few years it has been on the list of unwanted alien invaders.  

Another non-native, ox-eye daisy has naturalized across much of the country.  We like it, so we don't think of it as an invasive, but, well, there it is.  Sometimes the truth hurts.

Spiderworts were in full swing in this field.  And they are a native!!!  Happy day.  I am simply tickled pink by these flowers, for I had them planted in my gardens in Newcomb, and it is a joy to discover they are a native wildflower.  I will be trying to gather seeds from the plants in my neighborhood later this season, collecting them for planting in my field after I have it burned.  Local genotypes, don'tcha know.

Okay, back to non-natives, we have the first Queen Anne's lace in bloom.

I smelled them before I saw them:  wild roses.  So much nicer than the invasive multiflora rose, and they add such a lovely color to the landscape.

Catalpa trees are in bloom, although they peaked a week or two ago.  The somewhat orchid-like flowers are really quite lovely, and they stand out next to the giant heart-shaped leaves.  Catalpas are not native to Michigan, but they are native to North America.  A more southerly species, they were planted here by early settlers for use as fence posts (after they grew up and were chopped down).  

And it is milkweed season.  The flowers are only juuust starting to bloom, and soon the air will be filled with their cloyingly sweet scent.

Butterflyweed, a member of the milkweed family, is also just starting to flower.  Monarch butterflies will utilize both of these plants, so I've begun flipping over leaves in search of eggs and larvae.  So far I've found one caterpillar (another post for another day).

There's one plant that is growing and blooming everywhere, and it is a thistle.  Back in the Adirondacks I was familiar with Canada and bull thistles, both non-native species.  This thistle didn't match either description.  It turns out it's nodding or musk thistle (Carduus nutans).  It is, of course, a non-native species. Here is a series of photos of its flower in different stages of blooming.

Flowers weren't the only things we saw on our walk.  This striking butterfly posed for quite a while, a welcome change!  An eastern comma (one of the punctuation butterflies), it is a member of the brush-footed clan.  And for those who wonder what good nettles are, here is an animal who needs them:  nettles are one of the host plants for its larvae.

Now, this butterfly I did not see on my walk.  This one was hiding in the shrubbery yesterday as I walked along one of the trails at work with a string of 4th graders behind me.   I believe it is a little wood satyr (Megisto cymela), a fairly common and abundant species that likes open woodlands, which is exactly where I found it.

Summer is now in full swing.  I've discovered sassafras growing in tree form (I've only ever seen it as a shrubby thing), smooth sumac growing as full fledged trees (with dbh of 10 or more inches), indigo buntings nesting down the road from me, meadow larks singing in the nearby fields, and whip-poor-wills calling in the fields at night.  

This morning I watched a pair of sandhill cranes in a neighbor's hard - one of which was dancing and jumping in front of its companion - either a defensive posture meant to intimidate me and the dog, or a courtship display intended to impress its friend.  

And two nights ago, just as I was about to step in to the shower, I saw a brownish blob in the tub.  I wasn't wearing my glasses, so my first thought was that one of the cats had left me a reminder that the litterbox needed changing.  However, as I bent over to get it into focus, it resolved into a grey tree frog!  How in the world a tree frog found its way into my house and tub, I have no idea, but a few moments later it was back outside where it belonged.

Add to all this the hundreds of fireflies that sparkle across the landscape each night, and it is easy to say that this move is turning into a very pleasant path of discovery.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Roach Patrol

One day last week, Gary and I headed over to the Falling Waters Trail to some naturalist stuff.  Along the walk, this little brown insect went zipping across the pavement (I believe I mentioned it in the post about our walk).  I stopped it with my foot (blocking its path, not squashing it) so I could snap its image.  Voila:

I then sent the photo to the trusty folks at BugGuide and lo! and behold! it turned out to be a cockroach.  And not just any old cockroach.  It is a female wood cockroach (Paroblatta sp.).  According to the fellow who identified it for me, female wood cockroaches are very difficult to identify to species, but that's okay - I'm just thrilled to know that it is a female wood cockroach!

Armed now with this information, I set off to do some research. 

It turns out this is not only not a pest 'roach, it is a native roach!  A denizen of moist woodlands (under logs, under rotting bark, etc.), this roach would not survive in most homes because they are just not moist enough for its tastes.  And, unlike many of its roach relatives, the wood cockroach is an active critter both night and day.  No hiding in the shadows or lurking behind toasters, nosirree; these guys will zip about in the open as bold as brass.

If a wood cockroach or six should accidentally end up in your house (someone must've brought them in), they won't really stay long enough to become pests - the habitat just isn't right for them.  And even if they did stay, they are no threat to the structural integrity of your home.  In fact, the only problem would probably be psychological:  you would no doubt freak out simply because you have a cockroach in your house.

Storm's Rollin' In

This was what was happening at my house when I got home last night.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Books!


So many books, so little time.

As previously mentioned, I was up at a conference (the No Child Left Inside Summit) up in Midland, MI on Thursday.  On my way home, I stopped at the Chippewa Nature Center, briefly, to  see what it looked like.  I stopped in the gift shop...just to peek at the books...not really intending to purchase anything...not really.

Twenty minutes later I left with four new books and some t-shirts for my friends (they were on sale, after all - a real bargain).

First up, we have a nice little pocket guide of  Butterflies of Michigan.   This handy little book has just enough information, and photos of adults as well as larvae.  It is a good one to add to any field kit.

Next, a Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets!  The world has been waiting for this book!  Or, at least I have.  General insect field guides are great, but they are limited.  If every insect was to be placed in them, one would need to hire a whole village of Sherpas so carry them around.  Not really convenient for a field guide.  So, I have usually had to content myself with "it's a grasshopper" and leave it at that.  Now, however, I can start to identify one grasshopper from the next, and ditto with crickets!  I've only encountered katydids in the tropics, but hey, I am now ready should I see one here in Michigan!

And finally, a two-volume set for identifying grasses.  Grass ID guides are few and far between, especially one(s) written for the layperson. These two are still not written for the layperson, but they seem to be pretty comprehensive.  With a little studying, I should now have no excuse not to be able to identify grasses.

Look out world - she's armed and dangerous now.

And...Speaking of Invasives...

Driving in my car...put on the radio...

As I was cruising home two nights ago (6.5 hours on the road - I was at a conference up in Midland), I saw these large, blooming plants along the side of the road...MY road. 

I did a double take.


Could it be?

I asked Gary yesterday:  is giant hogweed in Michigan?  He said yes, but not too prevalently, yet.  Well, I said, I think I saw some yesterday along my road.

So this morning I stopped and took photos.  As you can see from the first image, it is large; the only thing I could think to use for scale was the road sign (I didn't want to go near it).  Y'see, giant hogweed, another invasive species, is also highly dangerous.  Any contact with this plant can cause severe "contact dermatitis" that is exacerbated by exposure to light.


Have you ever had a rash from poison ivy?  Well, this is many many times worse.   Here, I'll show you (I swiped these off the internet):

This plant has been used to poison (kill) people.  It is a baaaad plant.  If you see giant hogweed, do NOT approach it (unless you are heavily garbed in clothes you are willing to throw out).

It can, however, be controlled, especially when the infestation isn't too large.  Here is a notice on eradication put out by the NYS DEC.

Still, I wasn't 100% sure that this was giant hogweed.  After all, I do have a tendency to rush headfirst to conclusions only to bash into a wall of misidentification.  So, I continued to look, for I know there are some look-alikes for this horrid plant.

Sure enough, I was right - I was wrong!  The leaves were the key for correct identification of this plant.  It turns out that what I found is cow parsnip (which I erroneously thought had yellow flowers).  Cow parsnip (a native plant) can also grow to monumental heights (up to ten feet), and also has enormous leaves, but the leaves are more like a maple leaf than, oh, say a fern leaf.  They are lobed, but not deeply lobed.  Take a look at the bottom leaf in the second photo.  Now compare it to the giant hogweed leaf below.

These two plants are related, and although cow parsnip is not as dangerous as giant hogweed, it, too, contains a phototoxin that can cause some pretty bad contact dermatitis (burns) for those who choose to tangle with it.  Like poison ivy, though, it seems that not everyone is sensitive to the chemical, so it is possible that one can contact the plant without any adverse reactions.  But why take the chance?

I'm just glad to know that it isn't the highly invasive giant hogweed growing along the sides of my road.  Whew!  Dodged a bullet there.

Lime Lake

Shortly after I rolled in to work yesterday, Gary asked if I'd like to accompany him on a jaunt over to Lime Lake, a local park that is part of the Falling Waters Trail.  He'd taken the Tuesday Morning Group out there and had see so many terrific things, but had left his camera at work, so he wanted to go back and get photos of some of the nests they found.  How could I refuse?  So, of course, I said "Sure!"

Here we are at Lime Lake, which is actually two smallish lakes, sort of man-made.  On the far side here there is a fen, so there was definitely water in the area prior to man's involvement.  And why did man get involved?

Here you can see some of the remnants below the water's surface of the once rather prolific marl mining operation that was here.

Only a few feet from the shoreline the lake's bottom drops dramatically to a depth of 30 feet or so.  This was the mine pit.

Marl, which is a limestone, was dug up here for use on the agricultural fields all around.  The soils in this part of Michigan are no the best in the world, as I've noted before (especially on my gardening blog).  Some parts are acidic, others are alkaline.  The marl, which is a crumbly substance, was used to help balance the pH and make the soils a bit more fertile. The sign below tells all about it.

But, our primary reason for this trip was the nest below.  It's the nest of a warbling vireo, a small grey bird with an oriole-like song.  Sort of.  Gary described the song as "squeeze me, squeeze me, squeeze me 'til I squirt."  We did see the bird, and we definitely heard one or two, but no one was at the nest when we stopped by.  If it weren't for Gary's eagle eyes when it comes to all things bird, I don't think anyone would have seen this nest - it is very well hidden. (It is in the center of the photo.)

I was happy to see this familiar-looking plant:  sumac.  To the untrained eye, this looks like it could be staghorn sumac, the species I am familiar with from back home.  However, it has no fuzzy coverings on its stems, and the leaves are very smooth.  This is smooth sumac, another native, and one that is quite prolific in these parts.  I may, in fact, already have some on my property.  It is certainly a species to cultivate for a) it is native and b) it produces fruits that are important to our native birds.  I need to acquire some more.

Now, this fellow was a surprise.  It was zipping along the paved path in quite a hurry.  It's rather cylindrical shape and striking coloring made me want to photograph it, but I had to slow it down first.  Voila!  My foot made a great barrier.  I snapped a couple shots and off it dashed again.  Gary thought it looked rather cockroachish.  Hm.  The only cockroaches I've ever seen were the Madagascan hissing cockroaches we had at the zoo where I worked.  I've written about cockroaches, I have a great book about cockroaches, but I've never lived where cockroaches lived.  I sent this image off to BugGuide, and within minutes I had an answer:  it is definitely a cockroach, but it's been forwarded to the appropriate experts for species ID.  Will keep you posted.  On the one hand, it's rather exciting to add a new critter to my life list of things I've seen, but on the other hand, shudder, cockroaches!  I'm not sure how I feel living where these guys exist.

There are many (and I do mean MANY) bluebird nest boxes along the trail, quite a number of which are there because of Gary's involvement with the creation of this trail.  We didn't see any bluebirds, but the boxes were all in use.  This one was stuffed full of plant material - house sparrows.  Invasive species - Gary removed the nest.

Most of the residents, however, were tree swallows, and there were tree swallows by the dozen flying around.  In fact, there were so many that it seems they'll nest in any available box, including boxes in need of repair,

and kestrel boxes, which are built for rather larger birds.

The general rule of thumb when putting up bluebird boxes is to pair them.  This is because tree swallows are rather territorial and will evict bluebirds in order to have the nest box.  If the box is paired with another, the theory is that they swallows will keep other swallows from nesting next door, allowing the bluebirds to move in in peace.  Well, here are two bluebird boxes and a kestrel box, all in a row, and each one had a tree swallow family in residence.  Many of the swallows had fledglings that had either a) just been kicked out of the house and the parents were now rebuilding for a second brood, or b) were in the process of coaxing the kids out for their first flights.

This turtle nest didn't make it.  Raccoons, skunks, foxes...they are all known to dig up turtle nests to have a fresh egg meal.  These eggs seemed a bit on the smallish side, so the nest probably wasn't the usual snapping turtle nest.  It could be a painted turtle's nest.  When Gary and the group were out here on Tuesday, they saw a large softshelled turtle (think pancake with legs, tail and head) laying eggs.  This is why one should always bring a camera along.

There were plenty of insects flying around, including this little European skipper - yes, a non-native butterfly.  It was "accidentally" turned loose 101 years ago in Canada, and is now taking over North America.  Skippers in general have a rapid and rather erratic flight, and they usually fly close to the ground.  This makes sneaking up on them a bit of a challenge.

And speaking of sneaking up on insects, I had some fun trying to sneak up on this calico pennant dragonfly.  It seems that every time I about had it lined up for a shot, it took off (I swear it was thumbing its nose at me).  Eventually, however, it perched for a few seconds allowing me to get a few nice images.  This is the male of the species.  The female would look similar in pattern, but instead of red and black, she would be yellow and black.  This seems to be a rather common trend in dragonflies.

We found a small patch of Deptford pinks in bloom.  It's a pretty little plant, native to Europe, and although it is found rather extensively here in the US, it doesn't seem to be a problematic plant.  Although, Gary did point out that even though it isn't really "invasive," he wonders what native plant would be blooming here instead if this plant hadn't come over.  It's an interesting question.

While not all non-native species are problematic, too many wreak havoc within our native ecosystems.  All along the trail ash trees were marked for cutting.  Some were dead, some still had leaves, but all were impacted by the emerald ash borer.  Back in New York, this highly destructive insect is only starting to get a hold on the landscape, but here in Michigan it's work is already done.  There are no (or nearly no) mature ash trees left.  The adult beetle bores into the trees, lays eggs and leaves.  The larvae eat the tree, and when they emerge, they leave these rather large holes behind (see below).  The end result:  the tree dies.  It seems that, like the American beech, young trees (saplings) are unaffected, but as long as this insect remains here, we will not have any more mature ashes in this country.  

Some places are taking action by cutting down all their ashes before the beetle arrives:  if there is no food, the insects will die off (that's the theory).  They did the same thing with chestnuts back in the day.  It's a nice idea, but I don't know how effective it is in the long run.

I suppose some folks may think that we naturalists harp a bit too much on alien invaders/non-native species.  The truth of the matter, however, is that with this highly mobile global world today, insects, plants, fungi, etc. have easy access to new frontiers.  When they arrive on foreign shores, if they are able to find food or a host, then they go to town unchecked, for their natural predators/control agents stayed back home.  There's nothing to slow 'em down.  People who are not in touch with the outdoors may think this is a non-issue - there are plenty of other plants (etc.) around, so what difference does it make if one or two species disappear.  The things is, it's not just one or two species.

Remember the food web?  We all learned about it when we were kids.  Everything is attached to everything else in nature.  If you wipe out all of a particular native plant, for example, what happens to the insects that depended on that plant for a food source?  If those insects now die out, what happens to the birds who depended on those insects to get them through the first days of spring, for even seed-eating birds rely on insects for their young?  Like ripples on a pond, loss of native species have far-reaching impacts that we many not realize until it is too late.

This is why we naturalists go on and on about eradicating non-native vegetation and replanting areas with the native plants.  We don't want to lose all those things that make North America, Michigan, New York, Alabama, Oregon special. 

End of rant.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meet the Neighbors

There's nothing quite like waking up to the prehistoric calls of sandhill cranes.  These birds are considered about the oldest species (of birds) on Earth, displacing the loons, which have traditionally held this coveted position.

Yesterday morning there was quite a ruckus coming from the neighboring field.  Baby cranes are now on the move, so I was hoping to see some juveniles (saw my first ones the day before), but when Toby and I sallied forth across the field, it turned out that it was a group of adults making all the fuss.

They tolerated our presence for a few minutes, and finally decided that we were too much of a threat.  Off they took.

There's a pond over yonder, not too far from my house as the crane flies, and we think this is where these birds are hanging out.  I often hear them calling from that general direction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

First Paddle in Michigan

Sunday morning the weatherman told us that it would be mostly sunny, in the high 60s, low 70s, with a breeze of 5 to 15 mph.  It sounded like good weather for paddling.  GREAT, the Grand River Environmental Action Team, was sponsoring a paddle on Stoney Lake, a private lake owned by the YMCA Camp Storer.  I've heard a lot about this camp throughout my career, so I was especially eager to see the place, which, it turns out, is only a few very short miles from where I live!

Well, we drove up to the lake and unloaded our boats, only to stare doubtfully at the grey, overcast sky.  Where was the sun?

In fact, the longer we stood there, the cooler it seemed to become.  The temperature was actually dropping!  Still, this didn't deter the crowd that gathered for this special paddling adventure.

Kenny, GREAT's current president, asked Gary, our naturalist at work, if he would "lead" this trip - the idea being that many paddlers would actually like to know what they are paddling past.  Gary is a phenomenal birder, so that was him primary focus on this trip:  the birds that nest and hangout in a fen and relatively secluded lake.  By 1:00 we were launching.

Now, I like birds as much as the next guy, but I find them notoriously difficult to spot, which is why I focus more on plants - they aren't about to move when you sneak up on them.

As expected, we had some of the usual cast of characters, like fragrant white water lily,

Update:  from US Forest Service website, I found the following about the white fragrant water lily:  
One flower's pollination strategy tells a tale of the macabre that even Edgar Allen Poe would enjoy. Water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) have a broad open flower with numerous petals. On the first day that the flower opens, the stamens do not release their pollen. The female part of the flower is covered by a pool of fluid produced by the flower. When a potential pollinator visits the flower, the arrangement of the petals causes the insect to fall into the pool of fluid where it dies. Any pollen grains on the pollinator's body from a previous visit to a water lily where the stamens were releasing pollen, gently settles to the bottom of the pool of fluid and comes in contact with the female part of the flower completing the pollination process. The following day, the flower produces no fluid, the stamens release their pollen, and visiting pollinators, covered in pollen emerge from the flower to begin the deadly cycle once more.

and spatterdock.  These plants must be pollinated by flies, for whenever I find them, they are playing host to a large number of these insects.

Update:  spatterdock, aka yellow pond lily, is pollinated, possibly, by adult leaf beetles.  However, the plant produces a brandy-like odor that attracts many insects.  Halictid bees and Syrphid flies are frequent visitors, the adults coming in to feed on the flower's pollen.  The part of the flower that we think are petals are actually sepals; the real petals are within the cup formed by the sepals and they are rather inconspicuous.  Historically, the yellow pond lily met many needs of the people who knew it.  The roots were collected for food, as were the seeds, which could be ground into flour or dried and popped like popcorn.  The leaves are styptic - they stop the flow of blood.  The roots were made into a poultice that was applied to cuts and wounds, and to reduce swelling.  The leaves and roots were both used for dyes, thanks to their high tannin content.  Overall, this is a rather versatile and useful plant.

But the flies weren't the only insects enjoying the plants - here we have a damselfly who has recently emerged from its juvenile skin (the whitish one lower on the flowerhead).  The empty case is called an exuvia.

 Did you catch the word "fen" above?  For those who don't know what a fen is, it is a type of wetland, much like a bog, but with alkaline waters (bogs are acidic).  This part of Michigan is riddled with fens...or at least it was historically.  Many fens were filled in for agriculture or development, but today those with vision are working to restore these important habitats.

The photo below is of the fen on Stoney Lake.  Up until a few short years ago, this fen was full of buckthorn, a highly invasive species.  Three years of controlled burns and many many hours of cutting and poisoning invasive species have restored this wetland to its former glory.  Many of the native plants, whose seeds were still viable in the soil, have made a remarkable comeback.  Marsh wrens have returned to the lake, and hope springs eternal that sedge wrens will follow suit. 

Red-winged blackbirds were the most common birds we saw here.  

Which is fine, because we also found this lovely redwing's nest:

Just check out the workmanship on this nest - it looks like a master weaver made it (and perhaps one did).

I thought for sure this had to be a crane or swan nest, but it is a muskrat platform!  There were quite a number of this all along the water's edge, tucked into the cattails.  Muskrats like cattails, which provide food, shelter and materials for making platforms on which they can eat at their leisure.

Here we have a marsh wren nest.  Gary told me that the males make several of these ball-like nests in hopes that a female will find one of them to be her dream home.  So, when you find one, if you look around, you are bound to find three or four more.

This was an interesting plant.  Gary said it was called chukka (?).  Whatever it is, it is very coarse.  It feels like it would be ideal for scouring pots and pans.  Apparently it wreaks havoc on motorboat propellers. 

 There were two families of mute swans on the lake.  Mute swans are non-native birds, so lovely as they are, they are, well, invasive.  They have a tendency to be prolific nesters, and rather aggressive, too.  They have taken over where our native swans used to nest.  Still, a swan remains an impressive bird.  Gary warned me, however, that the male can be quite protective of the family.

 So, while the male was distracted (that's him with his head underwater),

I paddled up towards the rest of the family, although at an angle so I wouldn't seem too threatening.

Got a nice series of shots of Junior stretching his wings.

Gary heard a least bittern out in the tall grasses, but the only other birds I saw and heard were these two sandhill cranes.  They blended in very well with their background.

I was happy to see these bladderworts.  There's just something about carnivorous plants that's intriguing.

The day wrapped up around 3:30.  The sun came and went, and I was grateful for the windbreaker Gary loaned me.  That's the last time I believe the weatherman!

Everyone went home satisfied with the tour they had of this special little lake.  I'm glad we had the opportunity to see it.  Many thanks to Bill and Irene for inviting us to paddle here!