Nature Blog Network

Monday, May 31, 2010

For Daddy

Foxglove beardtongue, so named for the feathery pistil that protrudes from the center, began blooming just a few days ago. Not as large and showy as the foxgloves in England, it is nonetheless a fascinating irregular flower, with faint stripes on the flower tube and stamen that curlicue up and around.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Creepy Crawlies of Starved Rock

I am not normally creeped out by creepy crawlie things in nature. (I make that last distinction because I am, I admit, less tolerant when they are inside my house.) But in general, there are bugs* I love... you all know of my odonate obsession (jewelwing, at right)... and who doesn't love a butterfly?...There are bugs I need, like the bees that pollinate my garden...


And there are bugs I am fascinated by, such as this millipede, measuring in at over three inches...

There are plenty of other bugs that I like just fine -- leafhoppers and grasshoppers, true bugs and beetles. There are bugs I respect but choose to keep at a distance if possible (most spiders). There are, of course, bugs I wish would leave my yard, like the wasps that build nests in everything and the ants that swarm out and bite when I try to weed around rocks. But they don't creep me out so much as annoy me. But there are a few bugs that creep me out. Ticks are one. I just don't like the idea of something latching on to me and feeding without my realizing it. If you're going to take my blood, at least have the decency to announce your presence with an itch or a pinch (so that I have the chance to slap). I'm not the biggest fan of mosquitoes, but you have to give them that. They're honest, not at all sneaky. But I digress. The point here is, I met another bug that gave me the willies, a little bit.

This wasp was part of a swarm that we found hanging out lazily on a dead log at Starved Rock. I can't identify it for certain -- I know its a hymenoptera but that's all I'll stake my life on -- but I think it's in the family Ichneumonidae, and it's possibly a Dolichomitus... and from all I've gleaned, they're perfectly harmless to humans. They don't sting, although they may try if you pick one up. Actually, they are credited with population control of harmful insects. Their size, well over an inch, maybe as long as 2 inches, and their shiny black and yellow coloring, make them look a little intimidating. Their ovipositors, some several inches long, which
hung down if they flew (they rarely did), made them look downright scary. Of course, an ovipositor is for laying eggs and not stinging, so in reality, the only things that should be scared are the larvae inside the dead logs. The moms sense the presence of larval insects inside a log with their antennae, and in they drill, laying eggs by the larvae. This process can take upwards of an hour. The baby wasps, then, are parasitic, feeding on the larvae when they hatch. But the adult wasps eat plant material, not flesh of any sort. I think our fear reaction to something like that is just instinctual, though. Oh, and most of th wasps did not have that flat, yellow disc seen in the one above. I don't have a clue what that is.
(photo by fearless Mike F.)

Another creeping, crawling discovery -- this swimming snake was less than 18 inches long, probably a baby, and I think a young northern water snake, if I have to make an ID.

*We are using the term "bug" here not in the technical, hemiptera sense, but in the unscientific sense, referring to all arthropods and possibly some gastropods, like slugs. Oh, and maybe to worms, too.
Best known for its canyons and waterfalls, Starved Rock, of course, has some very interesting flora and fauna, which I may have enjoyed more if I had not been groggy from a cold during my trip there last week.
Botanical (and other) highlights included:
Solomon's seal, flowering.
Fungi growing on a log.
Yellow irises in bloom.
Harebells.
Deer allowed us to watch them for quite a while, which is very exciting to students even if I would actually prefer to study plants.
Stonecrop flowering, and growing where it's actually supposed to grow, (on rocks), as opposed to in my yard, where it's a weed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Alien Day

Some non-natives blooming today... Dame's Rocket.












Star-of-Bethlehem.

Blooming but not pictured:
daisies, wild roses.

Check This Out.

This guy, about 2 inches long, is a fishfly. At first, we thought it was a dobsonfly, but I couldn't figure out why this dobsonfly had feathered antennae and none of the pictures I found did... nor did the two other, similar insects we found today. The answer, which Chris found, is hidden in the text (and not shown in the illustration) of the Peterson Insect guide... dobsonflies and fishflies are so similar they get the same entry, and are distinguished by this sentence: "Fishflies are smaller... and may have serrate or pectinate antennae..." So this, I guess, is a fishfly.

Fishfly or dobsonfly, I've never seen one as an adult before. (That is to say, the adult form of the insect, not that I wasn't an adult.) Like dragonflies, these fellows spend the majority of their lives underwater. Their larval form, often called a hellgrammite, I have seen, although never here. They are sort of creepy -- large, legged worms that prey upon smaller critters, including minnows. After spending one or more years as the familiar (to me) macroinvertebrates, they pupate on land. When they emerge as adults, they live for only a few days -- they can mate but they cannot eat. And so, the perfectly timed emergence of the megaloptera must be occurring... right. about. now.

This is good news for the local watershed... adult fishflies and dobsonflies do not stray far from their home body of water, and the hellgrammites are quite sensitive to pollutants. For them to live here means our water quality is good -- and even if I've never caught a larva here, the presence of the adults tells me they must be here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A New Monarchy

Today, as the temperature once again climbed to 90, I spent the day outside by a fire. It was quite warm, to say the least. There were times I couldn't tell if I was getting burnt from the fire or if my utensils, etc. were just really hot from being in the sun. (I never did get burned by the fire.)

But the redeeming quality of the day was the monarchs. I don't think I've seen one yet this season, but they were out in droves today. In pairs, they danced with each other, playfully tumbling across the prairie. Alone, they fluttered about, alighted on a plant, and moved again. At one point, between classes, I stood very still and one landed on me. Of course, I didn't have my camera. Probably, if I had, it would have sensed my urgency and not landed on me at all, so I suppose it's better I didn't. I'm telling myself that, anyhow...

Anyhow, they were a treat to watch, a breeze on a hot near-summer day.
Yesterday, summer started. The temperature hit 90 degrees, which is also roughly the percentage of humidity. Crazy.

Also, my Canada anenome bloomed.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Trip Journal: Leopold Shack and ICF

Just fifteen miles, but seemingly a world away from Devil's Lake, is the shack where Aldo Leopold was inspired to write part 1 of A Sand County Almanac... a book which is a phenologist's bible. Just down the road from that is the International Crane Foundation, where every species of crane in the world is viewable. Some notes from those places:
Now the grass has blue eyes.
Prairie Smoke seeds.
A small mustard that grew everywhere at the shack, from the woods to the shores of the river.
Pearl crescents on the river's edge.
This is my special treat every year. The hoary puccoon blooms when we go to the shack each May. I love its color so much -- an orangey yellow, a pure and deep and bright color.

Lupine Study.


Also, I saw/heard some great birds on this trip. No photos, but... among tons of either common or unidentifiable-to-me birds, I noted:
Baltimore oriole.
Scarlet tanager.
Pileated woodpecker (heard).
Sandhill crane.
Turkey vultures from above them.
Herons with babies. (A lot of noisy herons with a lot of noisy babies, not too far from my tent.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Trip Journal: Devil's Lake

Last year, upon returning from Devil's Lake, I wrote an essay about how I felt travelling, as an adult, to a place that was an integral part of my early childhood. Having already written about that, I think this year, I'll just show some plants I saw there.
Bunchberry... a northwoods favorite of mine. I planted some at my house and it does come back, but it has never flowered... I should have put it under my evergreens, as a lot of things won't grow there and bunchberry does seem to grown by pines quite often. If I ever find more...
Canada lily, its flowers so tiny most people say "where?" when I point one out...
Neat wrinkly fungi growing from a log.
Black raspberry, or blackberry.
The grass has eyes... and they're yellow! (Yellow-eyed grass.)
This lichen was such as spectacular color, which really doesn't translate here. It gradually went from a pale mint green to a dark army green...
These tent caterpillars -- not the invasive gypsy moths, but a native -- were everywhere, defoliating trees, especially cherries.
I sketched this mayapple flower but I didn't have the time, while the kids were working, to really do the leaves... Oh, well...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mystery (Solved) Plant

I have much to report from my four-day school trip to Devil's Lake, but I think for today, I shall begin with my mystery plant. Last year, upon returning from this same trip, I reported on a mystery plant -- a parasitic plant commonly called squawroot or cancerroot. I also came across that plant this year, in even greater numbers. How interesting, then, that this year's mystery plant is also parasitic...

This year's discovery is Orobanche uniflora. Its common names are many, and include one-flowered cancerroot (odd, right? both have cancerroot as a common name...), one-flowered broomrape (its family, incidentally), and ghost pipe. The parasitic plant feeds underground on the roots of other vascular plants. It lives throughout most of the US, but tends to keep to rocky forests. It seems to come in a range of colors, from nearly pure white to deep purple, but the ones I saw were interestingly pale with deep purple tinges on the petal edges and a darker calyx as well. I noted, if you can read my handwriting in the sketch, that it was leafless, but it turns out that there are small (well under 1 cm) leaves at the base of the stem if you dig for them.

Other notations I made in my journal: The stem and entire flower are fuzzy. The flower has two bright yellow pistil stigmas (I think) and, inside the tube, only visible upon dissection, which I did to one that was already dying, 5 small stamen.



Monday, May 17, 2010

Weekend Update

A cute and fearless baby robin waits for its mom to bring it a meal.
An early spiderwort. Mine isn't close, and looks to be more on what I think of as a normal track -- blooming in June.
Lewis' prairie flax. A lovely, delicate blue flower, I like this plant especially because of its connection with the Corps of Discovery -- it is named for its describer, Meriwether Lewis... it's a native of more western prairie states, but I got the seeds at Monticello and I couldn't resist planting some and I quite like them.
In other news this weekend...
  • ducks have started having baby ducks.
  • We planted all the frost-intolerant planties outside in the ground, taking our chances on a freak weather occurrence... peppers, squash, tomatoes, basil, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... it's all out there.

Friday, May 14, 2010

It's Just Galling!

This is one of my favorite periodic occurrences because it is just so strange. The cedar trees which, for most of the year have unremarkable brown growths on their branches, suddenly look as though they're carrying bright orange, slimy pompoms. And right now, they look like their game got rained out, because the recent rain has bogged down the usual gelatinous koosh-ball appearance of them. They are cedar-apple rust galls, but these galls are a totally different animal than the goldenrod and oak galls about which I wrote in the fall. Actually, these galls aren't an animal at all. But they are still called a gall because they, like the insect galls, cause the plant itself to form growths of its own tissue. Technically, cedar-apple rust galls are a pest and bad, but I think they are fascinating. This orange phenophase is when the rust is sending out spores into the wind... where they land on an apple (or similar) tree and infect it. On these hosts, they cause bright orange leaf spots, and eventually, later in summer, they also bear spores, which in turn land on cedar trees and cause their branch growths. Quite a life cycle!

Also just starting to bloom:
cream indigo, and
bladder campion.

In sad (for Naomi) news... some of my carefully cultivated Jewelweeds have bitten the dust. This is through no fault of their own, or nature, or me... I have these neighbor kids. They are nice, curious, and sometimes mischievous children. They play outside a lot (of which I approve). They play in my yard more often than I'd approve of, especially on the day when one of them ate a poisonous jack in the pulpit berry because it "looked like red corn"... but that's another story for another day. Anyhow, we've had many chats about not stepping on plants. Well, yesterday, the area between our two houses was a lake from all the water, and on my side of the lake is where the jewelweeds grow among the daylilies. They were playing in the lake with boats or somesuch and needed to go on my side. The daylilies are quite large, the jewelweeds still small spindly things... so they very carefully stepped around all the daylilies. They were actually so proud of themselves they called me over. "Look, Ms. Naomi, we didn't step on any of the plants!" Well, OK... but these little ones were plants, too and you stepped all over them! I did show them; we'll see if it still happens again. Anyhow, I hope the remaining ones will spread a lot of seeds again, and eventually... those kids will grow up.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why I Haven't Written

Spring has stopped. We have gone back in time and are having our early-April weather... cold (like, not above 50 some days) and rainy. So rainy that this morning, there was a puddle inside my back door, which was properly closed and locked. So rainy that to get out of our neighborhood this morning, we had to drive through about 8 inches of water. Local roads that have underpasses had to close. So rainy that our garden paths are flooded between the raised beds. And the rain is supposed to continue all day today.

I guess this is karma. Over spring break we had 80 degree days, and now we get this curl-up-with-a-book-and-a-cat weather, except I can't curl up with a book and a cat because I have outdoor classes scheduled. Pffft.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

No More Water

The first few flowers have opened on the Virginia waterleaf, although, as I noted in illegible handwriting, the watermarks for which they are named have disappeared by this time in the year. A month ago, they were prominent and noticeable, but today it is the flowers -- what few are open -- that catch the eye. While guidebooks and websites don't seem to mention the tendency for the waterspot markings to fade, I have found a few references to it. Not shown in the picture -- every little sepal, and every leaf, is edged in delicate white hairs.

When I was a kid, I thought these flowers resembled little white crowns. The way the stamen rose up, for some reason, made me think of a 5-pointed fairy-tale crown, with jewels on each tip (thus the drawing). In fact, the way the flowers grow in clusters, I used to imagine something like the many-headed mouse king from the Nutcracker (but benign). Looking at it now, I suppose they more closely resemble a jester caps than princess head wear, but still, I think of crowns.

In other news, we may have had our last frost last night... after a windy, cold, rain-spitting day, weather stations were predicting widespread frost in the Chicago region after 1 am. I was up late and didn't wake as early as usual, but by the time I looked, I didn't see evidence of said frost. But it was sunny and warming, and the frost may have occurred earlier. Either way, today is a world different from yesterday -- calm, bright, sunny, not hot but pleasant...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sketches Here and There

Art can be frustrating. I do these drawings, you see. I haven't had an art class since... junior high school art class, like, the one you have to take in school. I sort of want to, but I'm also sort of scared to -- could formal training actually mess me up? I have these fancy pencils that I received as a very thoughtful and wonderful gift, but I don't know how to use them. All those hardnesses and whatnot... I draw with a cheap mechanical pencil (which is supposedly the worst kind for subtlety and shading). Actually, I can't draw most things, but somehow... somehow, I see plants, I see plant forms, and my brain can translate them and my hand can draw them, and I think I'm pretty good at drawing plants. And I'm not one to publicly say that I'm good at something, so I must really think so. Last week, I did some sketches that I was pretty proud of -- I thought the shooting star and the trilliums were quite realistic. But this weekend, I seem to have lost my touch. The golden Alexander, above, wasn't even identifiable, and I just gave up on the leaves. I thought the lily of the valley would be an easy draw, something to make me feel good after the geranium leaf and the golden Alexander. But it turned out to be a challenge to me, also. Ah, well. I show them, anyhow, not to solicit reassurances or anything, but, hey... why not? As for the drawing talent, it will happen, or it won't. I enjoy the sketching only partly because I like the final products. I also love how it makes me look at things... patterns and symmetries, textures, the way shadows and light play. I learn things, details, that I won't ever forget... lily of the valley have this little bract-like thing where each flower splits from the stalk; geranium sepals are slightly fuzzy...
Lily of the valley are my comfort flower. Like a hamburger to a carnivore, they remind me of home and of youth, and of my mom. She always liked them, I believe, because they remind her, in turn, of her mom. So I guess we have passed an affinity for these fragrant, not-as-simple-as-they-look flowers on through the generations...

Some Actual Phenology

Sweet grass, a very early-flowering prairie grass, has flowers-turning-to-seeds. This short grass is rather aggressive (I may have made a different planting choice years ago, if I'd known how aggressive it was). It has crept into the lawn and now when I mow, the vanilla aroma for which it is named fills the air.
Honeysuckle blooms. These shrubs are the current bane of my gardening existence. If they were in my yard, they'd be removed, but alas, the neighbors don't have the same taste in plants as we.
Prairie alumroot. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much what they look like in flower. Not the showiest native plant...
Red baneberry blooms. I quite love this plant -- although more for its eponymous berries than these flowers -- so I am glad to see this one back... but also a little sad because I had two, and only one came back this year.

Also noted: Lewis' prairie flax bloomed mid-week at school, but in my yard the buds are still tightly closed.