Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Examining Grasses

Fall is when our native grasses come into their own.  I am thrilled to live in an area where once tall grass prairies were part of the landscape, and, more importantly, where patches of this ecosystem still exist.

For years I have loved the russets, purples and subtle reds that the grasses display, but this is the first time I've had the opportunity to really examine grasses up close (outside the Ice Meadows on the Hudson River).

The colors are astounding.  The shapes, the bits and pieces - they delight the eye. 

Today I've been examining the photos I recently took of one of our native grasses:  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi).  Just what are all those colorful parts...and why aren't the colors consistent from plant to plant?  Does it have to do with degree of ripeness?

First up, we have a blurry picture of big bluestem (blurry because, as usual, the wind started to blow once I took out my macro lens - really must build a wind box if I'm going to keep at this).  Note the pink feathery bits and the yellow or orange bits.

Here is another image.  Pink feathery bits and yellow bits - not an orange bit to be seen anywhere.

And, finally, specimen three.  Its feathery bits are a pale yellow, bordering on pale green.  The other bits are pink with barely yellow tips - not yellow or orange at all.


What is going on?  
First I had to figure out what all these bits are.  These are flowers, after all, so the bits must be similar to any other flower:  anthers, stamens, stigmas, ovaries, sepals, etc.

It took a while, but I finally tracked down a sketch of the parts of a grass flower.  Here's what I found out.

The feathery bits are the stigmas - part of the female reproductive system.  They are attached, via a style, to the ovary, which you cannot see in these photos as it is tucked inside.  The stigma is the part that "receives the pollen."  The feathery nature of the stigma sure makes sense, since grass pollen is blown about by the wind. I love these bits - one doesn't expect to find feathers growing on a plant.

The dangly bits, be they yellow, orange or pink, are the anthers.  This is the terminal part of the male reproductive system, and it is here that the pollen is made.  The thread-like bit attached to the anther is the filament, and that's what tethers the anther in place.

The long scales are the sepals, which are modified, sterile leaves.  Sometimes sepals can be quite colorful and mistaken for flower petals.  And as colorful as they might be, these grass sepals will never be mistaken for petals.

If you see what look like long hairs at the tips of the sepals, these are the awns.  On some plants the awns act as triggers, which are activated when an insect (or a bumbling naturalist) brushes against them, sometimes (depending on the plant) causing an explosive release of pollen (see this post I wrote about bunchberry).

As for the colors, well, I still don't know.  I suspect, though, that they reflect the age of the plant.  I know my coloration is certainly changing as I age!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Do You Ever Feel Like... are being watched?

Me, neither, but yesterday when I was mowing the back forty I looked up and saw a huge silhouette perched on top of one of my bluebird nest boxes.  I was being watched by an enormous praying mantis. 

Fortunately, I'm too big for it to consider for a meal.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I am in Love

...with a river.

This last Sunday GREAT (The Grand River Environmental Action Team) hosted another paddle, this time on a more southerly section of the Kalamazoo River.  The previous trip took  us through marshland and farmland, but this section, oh, it was beautiful!  And we had a perfect day for it.  There was some chance of storms, but, well, you'll see what happened.

First, we all met off Goose Lake Road, west of Hanover and Horton, south of Concord.  GREAT provides boats and gear for paddlers who have neither, and the trips are free - what a deal!  Of course, they hope you will join.  I really must mail in my membership.

So, here we are at the launch site.  Paddlers included newbies, old hands, and several pups.

Due to circumstances, we launched about an hour later than intended, but soon everyone was on the river and we were off.

For about the first third or so of the trip I coached this lady along.  This was her first time in a kayak, first time paddling anything, so she had a bit of a learning curve.  However, she rose to the challenge and did a fantastic job!  We only passed a very few houses along the way - mostly we were in wooded lands, the only signs of civilization the sound of distant chainsaws and some trash in the water.

Already the leaves have begun to change.  In fact, since this trip, I've suddenly noticed a LOT of color in the trees, especially the sumacs.  Autumn is on its way.

I saw several more ruby spot damselflies this trip, but this ebony jewelwing was the only damsel whose photo I took.  I've learned my lesson about chasing these insects in a boat just for a photo op.  

Here are some views along the can see why I fell in love with it.  It's just a beautiful stretch of river, and I imagine in full fall colors it is spectacular!


We passed a few glorious patches of wildflowers.

Cardinal flower was in its prime.
At one point a couple of us pulled out for a break along a sandy stretch of shoreline.  Everyone comments on my Spitfire, and this gentleman was quite interested in it, so I let him take it for a spin.

 We weren't the only ones enjoying the river this day.  No deer or cattle were dipping their toes, but this duck was having a nice swim.  She was certainly keeping an eye on me - not completely sure I was harmless.

As mentioned above, the weather reports were off and on throughout the morning.  They said mostly sunny, but there was a chance of thunderstorms, especially in southern MI.  Well, here came the clouds.

There were a couple rolls of thunder, and it actually spitted a little rain, but it was hardly worth the effort of putting the camera away.  As quickly as the clouds rolled in, they rolled back out.  Whew!

We didn't have any culverts to shoot thru, but we did get to pass under a couple small bridges.

It was simply a delightful day on the river.

I'm not sure what was happening here, but this platform, with its steps to the river and its picnic table, was posted "No Tresspassing; Violators will be Prosecuted."  I wonder where the security cameras were.

All along the river we could see the devastation left behind by the emerald ash borers.  Dead ash trees blanket the whole state.  It's very sad.

There is very little vegetation in the river along this route.  We only passed a couple patches of spatterdock, and there was hardly any submerged vegetation, unlike the previous trip.

Bright red berries (cranberry viburnum, maybe?  I was passing too quickly to do more than guess) added their color to the scene.

All too soon it seemed we were at our take-out near Twin Pines Campground.  This stretch of the river is quite twisty - oxbows galore.  It made for a pleasant trip with a few little challenges, but perfect for a laid-back paddle on a sunny afternoon.

I'd recommend this stretch of river to anyone who is looking for a beautiful, easy paddle.  I know I'm certainly going to do it again!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Not Just Another Pretty Face

This Hickory Horn Devil, or, more beautifully named Regal/Royal Walnut Moth, was brought in to us at work today at the close of our Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival.  All squashed up, it measures about four inches in length.  When it is stretched out and on the move, it is much longer.

This is the first one of these I've ever seen.  (In fact, today had another first for me: not one, but TWO giant swallowtails, but I'll post that another day.)  This caterpillar is so impressive that  wherever we carried it, it drew a crowd.

Once a common species across bottomlands, woodlands and forests, from Florida to Massachusettes and westward to Texas, it is now disappearing across much of its range.  No wonder I've never seen one!

This behemoth spends a good portion of its life in suspended animation.    There is only one generation per year.  When the caterpillar gets ready to pupate (between August and November), it burrows into the ground, where it spends the winter in a subterranean cell - they don't spin any sort of cocoon.  Now that's different.

As the name suggests, these 'pillars eat the leaves of hickory trees, but they will also consume ash, butternut, cherry, cotton, lilac, pecan, persimmon, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore and walnut.  This list, apparently, it not conclusive - other species may also make up the diet.  This particular horn devil was found on the ground beneath a walnut tree, so that is probably what it was eating.  Right now we have it in a large jar.  We are hoping it is getting ready to pupate, based on its size and the fact that the folks who found it said its head was partially buried int eh soil.  So, I've filled up its jar more than halfway with soil, just in case it feels like going underground.

If/when it does bury itself, we will dig a hole and bury the jar outside for the winter.  This way the animal will have the greatest chance for survival.  Come spring, we will dig it up and, with fingers crossed, wait for it to emerge as an adult.

As terrifying as this caterpillar looks, it is considered to be quite harmless.  I noted that when touched, it swings its head sideways, and its tail end, making itself into a sideways c-shape.  Perhaps this is to scare off potential predators into thinking they are about to be gored.  However, when asked if she would hold it for a photo for me, so I could have a size reference, one of my coworkers said absolutely note.  She said that these caterpillars have a "strong grip," and looking at those claspers, I don't doubt her at all.

Below is (hopefully) a video of this wee beastie as it took off across the desk during the photoshoot.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Quick Prairie Flowers

It's a Tuesday morning, which means a group is here to walk the trails and get some natural history learning.  I wanted to release the stinkpot (see update in previous post), so joined the group this morning.  The group's goal this morning was to find more monarch butterfly eggs on the milkweeds out in the prairie, so I knew we'd be looking at flowers.  Here are a few quick snapshots of what we saw:

First up, green-headed (or tall) coneflower.

I've been wondering how to tell the green-headed from the grey-headed, because to me, they both have sort of greenish centers.  It turns out that the green-headed has shorter, fatter centers, and the petals don't "blow back" anywhere near as far as they do on the grey-headed.   Mystery solved!

 Tick trefoils are out and blooming quite well right now.  A couple of us had out our Newcomb's and were trying to figure out which one this was.  We think it is panicled, another native! 

This lovely purple flower had us all scratching our heads for a while.  It's not in Newcomb's.  However, I took out my Michigan Wildflowers book when I got back to the office and there it was.

This is field milkwort.  What a lovely, lovely flower.  And it doesn't look at all like racemed milkwort, the first milkwort I met, which looks a lot like gaywings.  The only similarity between this milkwort and that is the color!  Still, they are in the same family, so there must be some other traits they share, like the narrow leaves.

Tall sunflower - not necessarily as tall as you might think from the name.  These small-flowered sunflowers are quite beautiful and blend in with all the other coreopsises (coreposii?) and yellow-flowered prairie plants.  One needs a keen eye, a good field guide, and a sense of curiosity to get out and find the differences.

We didn't ID this little sunflower.

Here's the coreopsis I noted last week (perhaps on the Dahlem blog).  Turns out, it is called oxe-eye, and shouldn't be confused with oxe-eye daisy, which is an entirely different plant.  Oxe-eye is also known as false sunflower (why, I don't know, because it is in the sunflower family).  This one also had us on a merry chase to try and ID.

And, it turns out the ironweed is indeed New York ironweed, not common ironweed.  Huzzah!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wee Stinkpot

 It was after 9:00 last night when Toby and I headed out for our walk.  I was hoping the heat and humidity would be down, but it was only marginally so.  The sun was only starting to set, so there was plenty of light, but even so, I brought a flashlight along just in case.

We don't go very far these days, partly because of the weather, and partly because poor Toby is having some difficulty getting around.  His get-along has quite a few hitches in it, and he stumbles more often than I like.  So, we were only heading up about a quarter mile or so from the house.  Just as we were getting ready to turn around, he caught a scent and began pursuing it across the grass.  I noticed a small black lump in the grass, which I thought maybe was a bit of broken branch, or perhaps a chunk of asphalt.  It turned out to be a small turtle:

 As you can see, I brought it home.  Partly for ID purposes, partly because I felt so sorry for the thing.  Here's what it's shell looks like:

This poor fellow has seen some rough days!  Encounters with lawnmowers?  Combines?  Who knows - but he's certainly had luck healing, even from this hole:

This is one of the musk turtles (Sternotherus sp), which share a family (Kinosternidae) with mud turtles (Kinosteron sp.).  This particular musk turtle is the stinkpot (S. odoratum), also known as a common musk turtle, skillpot, and stinking Jim.  Hm...must be they are smelly.  My little specimen here isn't particularly odiferous, but according to the literature, they have "four musk-producing glands whose tiny pinpoint orifices may be seen on the underside of the marginal scutes of the carapace.  Freshly captured individuals often produce a drop of the yellowish musk from each of the glands." (Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, by Gibbs, Breisch, Ducy, Johnson, Behler and Bothner.) Apparently the stink is not enough to drive away predators - my specimen might be evidence of that. 

Another book claims that these turtles are feisty little biters, capable of reaching their back legs with their powerful jaws.  Hm!  Awfully glad I didn't know that when I picked him up and carried him home.  He pretty much drew himself into his shell (there is a hinge on the front end of the lower shell, or plastron) and stayed there.  He pulled his front legs and head inside, and tucked up his back legs and tail - almost completely hidden.

The way to tell the males from females is based primarily on the size of the plastron.  A male stinkpot has a very small plastron, which allows him greater mobility - his legs can move around a whole lot more without that shell getting in the way.  Also, males have thicker tails that are tipped with a blunt nail.  Females have thinner tails, and may or may not have the nail.  My guy here hasn't given me a good look at his tail yet, so I can't confirm the nail. 

My Audubon field guide to reptiles and amphibians claims that if you are walking along in the woods and a "rock" falls on your head, it is probably a stinkpot, for these turtles are quite able climbers.  How 'bout that, eh?!  Maybe that's why this one is so beat up!

I like the two little barbels under his chin.  What purpose do those serve, I wonder.

This is a water turtle, not a land tortoise, which is why I was so surprised to find it in someone's yard last night.  I'm in an agricultural area, with lots of fields.  I'm also near some state wildlife lands, and there are shallow ponds around, but not all that close to where we stood there on the roadside.  The nearest body of water was probably at least a half mile away.  Seems an awfully long way for this guy to have come.

Normally, musk turtles are found in wetlands with shallow, muddy waters that have little to no current.  My book claims they don't wander far.  Once again, I wonder why he was where I found him.

One of the things I love about these little turtles is the nose.  It's a little piggy nose, and makes a pretty nice snorkel when one is walking along the bottom of a shallow pond or stream.

For now this little guy is taking a well-earned rest in a terrarium at work.  I was going to make it an aquarium, since he is aquatic, but there's a tag on the tank that says "do not fill with water."  So, I filled an artificial pond for him and gave him a couple worms.  Next week, when I get back to work, I will take him out on the property and turn him loose in our glacial pond - it is a good shallow wetland that is well off the beaten path and far enough from roads that he should have a good remainder to his life.

Turtle Update:  When I came in to work this morning, the turtle was out and about in the tank.  I was thrilled!  I didn't see the worms, so I'm hoping he ate those.  The Tuesday Morning group was going out for their weekly walk and I decided to join them, with the goal of releasing the turtle at the glacial pond.  He was very active when I took him out of the tank - stuck out his long neck and pushed at my fingers and hand with his feet.  He was rarin' to go!  I placed him in a container and off we went.  I didn't quite get down to the water's edge; it's quite marshy around the perimeter of the pond, and since the grasses were so tall I couldn't quite see where I was going, I went as far as I felt comfortable going (while simultaneously fending off hundreds of mosquitoes), and set him down with his face towards the water.  The rest is up to him.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I came across this video lecture today via a link in the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education's e-newsletter. It is something, in my humble opinion, that everyone should watch.


This video addresses the history of the Weeks Act, which is what enabled the establishment of national forests, especially in the east. What makes it remarkable, is how issues of the mid-1800s are still the issues of today. The arguments for, and against, land preservation are amazingly similar.

Anyone today who advocates the "drill, baby, drill" mentality should take the time to actually listen to what Char Miller is saying in this presentation. And I do mean LISTEN. Don't listen with your mind closed and your agenda the only thing within your vision. The phrase "those who don't know their history are bound to repeat it" is so very true - and it is painfully obvious when it comes to our natural resources.

So, if you can, at some point, set aside about an hour of your day to watch this video. It might just open your eyes as to why preserving our natural areas is important.

Char Miller on the Legacy of the Weeks Act from Pinchot Institute on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Larvae in My Life

Yesterday I posted on my garden blog a photo taken a couple days ago of a tomato hornworm in my garden.  It was covered with the white pupal cases of a braconid wasp that had parasitized it.  Last night I went back into the garden to see if I could find it again, and I did.  It wasn't looking too happy.  Upon closer inspection, I noted that the pupal cases had all "hatched" - the wasps had matured, emerged and flown away.  

According to the literature, the caterpillar should be dead by now, since the wasp larvae had mostly turned its innards into soup before pupating.  Yet this fellow was still hanging in there.  It raised it's head when I plucked its leaf from the tomato plant.  By the end of the photo shoot, however, it was decidedly more limp. Bummer for the hornworm, but GREAT for the garden - more little pasarsitoidal wasps have entered the world to wreak havoc on the hornworm population!

Not all caterpillars are detrimental, at least from a human standpoint.  Case in point - here we have a curled up leaf on a native spicebush plant.  What could be inside?

Oo!  Peek-a-boo!  Look at that!

This green and yellow lovely is a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar.  Like all caterpillars, it eats the leaves of its host plant, in this case the spicebush.  However, it doesn't seem to destroy the whole plant like, oh, say, the tomato hornworms do.  These are lovely black and blue butterflies when they become adults.

This beautiful little caterpillar was perishing on the sidewalk out in front of the office when I found it a couple weeks ago.  I knew it didn't wasn't long for this world, so I brought it in to photograph and ID.  We thought it looked similar to the cecropia moth caterpillar, so that 's where I started.  Sure enough - it was on the page opposite the cecropia in my caterpillar ID book:  a tulip tree moth larva.  The tulip tree moth is a silk moth, like the cecropia, and as an adult it sports large brown wings with tan and white markings.  According to this book, when the adults emerge, the main courtship flight takes place about 15 minutes before dusk high in the air near the tops of the tulip trees.  It is something to look for!