Monday, December 21, 2015

Darkest Days

Happy Winter Solstice!  We've hit the darkest time of the year... these days, our shadows are long, our sun is low in the sky (when it shines at all, which is only a short part of each day)... it's the day when the northern hemisphere is most tilted away from the sun. And now, we begin the slow but steady process of welcoming the sun back.

Though winter seems like it's just beginning, at least our days will start to get a little bit longer from here on out!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Seeing Signs

In March, this would be a welcome sign of spring.  Since I took this photo on December 16, it's a sign of something a bit more... disturbing.  At any rate, I don't think those daffodils will survive -- winter weather has finally set in, with cold and wind yesterday and today.  (And, OK, it's supposed to be back up in the mid- to upper- 40's next week, but right now, it feels like winter!)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Salatin Said it Best...

Folks, this ain't normal.

It ain't normal that yesterday -- December 13 -- I ran in short sleeves (and was hot despite being rained on).  It was 60.  I had to pay attention to the ground so I didn't step on worms, which have come out again (or puddles, which abound).  It ain't normal that today, the temperature is dropping -- it's gone into the upper 40's! -- and kids are complaining that it's cold.

Part of me appreciates this (the runner part).  Part of me wants to report on frozen ground, frozen lake, solstice, and take a break for a couple of weeks before I start reporting on false-hope signs of spring.  You know, normal.

In human phenology, this weekend I also received my first seed catalog for the 2016 summer growing season (3 of them actually).  Somehow, this isn't inspiring the wistful longing for summer that it usually does, given the current weather.  They are still colorful and lovely.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Dense Fog Advisory

You think?
Maybe because it's December and it's supposed to be in the 50's a couple of days this week... 

Everything is coated in icy mist.  It's quite pretty.  The oddest thing is these ice strings -- very hard to photograph -- but they just look like strings of ice, some well over a foot long, connecting twigs and plants.  I assume they're old spider webs, but it looks just like these random strings of ice.  (Most don't have these drips, but I think that was what allowed the iPhone camera to actually focus on that one...)
Just another example of the drippy ice covering everything...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Walkin' in a...

It doesn't take much snow -- if the snow is wet -- to make a winter wonderland.  This morning's 1 or 1.5 inches turned the world magically beautiful!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Last Flower

Witch Hazel -- known by some for its use in natural astringent products -- is known by me as the last flowering plant of the fall.  (It is also the first flowering plant in the spring... Hamamelis virginiana has these yellow flowers in late November-December, while Hamamelis vernalis, the vernal witch hazel, has orange blooms in late February-March.)  Though tiny, the flowers look very celebratory, brightly colored streamer petals unfurling from the center. 
So I'm starting to feel bad for these worms.  Last week they came out to escape the saturated ground, and many of them were caught still on the pavement when the snow event occurred.  I saw quite a few frozen worms left behind.  Then it warms, the snow melts, saturating the ground, it rains, leaving REALLY saturated ground, and the worms come out again... but it's December, and I feel like not a lot of good can happen to these worms.  Ah, well.  Best of luck to them. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Frozen Again

Re-freezing has caused lovely frost this morning, with crystals coating plants and trees in sparkly white. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Storm Follow-Up

A few more details on our first big winter storm of the fall.  Everyone seemed really excited on Friday, as the forecasts predicted lot of snow... so much so that I was certain it was going to be a bust, and we'd get barely a dusting.  Not so.  Sleet started to fall around 8 on Friday night, wetting everything down before it quickly turned to snow.  Snow falling on wetness meant it stuck to everything -- more on that.   It was really hard to determine how much snow actually fell, since the ground wasn't frozen.  It melted on impact and when it started to stick depended on the surface.  On our deck -- which has air flowing under it so gets cold fast -- where the snow stuck immediately, we had a foot and a half, easily, by the time the snow stopped falling mid-Saturday.  On the driveway, I think it was closer to 8 inches, the bottom 3 of which were slush... which weighs as much as water.  Which is heavy.  Which made shoveling really, really painful.  

The way that the heavy snow stuck to everything was really lovely and magical.  This oak tree image captures that...  
It was also rather destructive.  These trees (and many others) bent under the weight until they were literally touching the ground.  
They were the lucky ones... all over our neighborhood were trees like this, that lost huge limbs which couldn't bear the weight.  Especially heavily hit were those species still carrying leaves.  I don't think there was a single Callery pear in the neighborhood that didn't lose at least some major sticks.  
Sunday was sunny but cold, so not much melted at all... today, if it gets above freezing (which is predicted, though not by much) things will be treacherous.  All those tree limbs still carry snow/ice.  I hope I'm not standing under any when it decides to fall!  It's supposed to be in the 50's by Thursday, so we'll be losing this all, I assume, and we'll have really wet feet!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

White Autumn

And still coming down...

Friday, November 20, 2015

More Highs and Lows

Sandhill cranes continue to fly by in large numbers.  Today I actually got a photo of a flock... this was one group of birds that flew by with two other V's right nearby.  At least one other large group -- hours separate -- flew by today... and of course, I may have missed any number while not outside!
Maybe not as exciting, but today when I looked in the other direction (down), I saw... ICE!  Not on lakes or anything, but little bits where there was standing water on the trail.  And this photo was taken during my lunch walk, around noon today (not early morning).
We're excited to be expecting quite a bit of SNOW tonight -- though with all the talk, I'm kind of expecting a bust.  But I'll definitely report tomorrow!  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Flying High

As I was taking yet another wind-blown lunch walk... side note: pretty much the only day this week that we haven't had crazy, blow-you-off-course winds was Tuesday when it rained.  You know how much I love strong gusty winds, so... it's been a great week for me.  Yea.  Anyhow.  I was walking, looking down to avoid having leaves or other detritus blown into my eyes, when I heard the distinctive, primordial call of Sandhill cranes.  I looked up to see them, and was immediately blinded by the sun, which didn't bother me because I'm just happy to see the sun.  When my retinas healed, I was able to find the flock -- about a hundred birds, flying due south, up so high that they looked like barely more than specks in the sky.  Migration!

In the other direction (the one I spent most of my walk looking, ie, down) there are still woolly bears braving the elements.  Woolly bear lore says that the wider the orange bands are, the milder the winter will be.  This year's crop seem to have pretty wide bands.  Although I have heard non-larval predictions for a mild winter this year, I don't know that I put any stock in caterpillar predictions.  (Although this is interesting... I've noticed that the woollies this year seem to have one really tiny black side and one larger black side... I've also heard that this winter will start mild but have a brutal end.  Can these caterpillars be that specific?  If that comes to pass, will it mean the woolly bears really do predict the weather? Hmmm.)  
I also saw a grasshopper today, though it was slow and didn't jump very far to get out of my way.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

One of those Wormy Days

Today's steady rain has made today one of those wormy days, when you have to look everywhere you step to avoid not only puddles, but the worms that have come out of the soil to avoid the saturation. You'd think, on November 17, that the worms would be well out of sight in estivation... curled up in their mucus-coated caves deep below the frozen surface*... but you'd be wrong!  Hasn't been that cold, for that long,that the soil has gotten even a little bit frozen.  And so, a wormy day!

*so poetic, and yet... 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Berry Bliss and Apple Elation

With leaves down, berries have become much more noticeable ornamentation.  The sumac berries stand out, red, atop their naked shrubs.  The choke berries crown the branches of the shrubs in large clusters.  Today I was particularly struck by the crab apples adorning trees... they come in deep red, yellow/green, and some, like the one I enlarged and actually colored, are yellow-orange with red tinges.  The apples are in all states of decay.  Some are still plump and round, while others are shriveled like raisins, and many are in between.  (Note: after this sketching experience, I will not be drawing raisins any time soon.)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Chill in the Air

This photo from this morning shows two important things... first, notice the frost.  We've had frosts before (as noted) but this weekend was the first real deep freeze, where things on my deck (which is protected and therefore often escapes the ravages of a patchy frost) were good and truly frozen.  This morning's was quite lovely; as the sun rose, everything sparkled and glittered in the side-ways light.  It looked rather wintry, though.  (I will note... by lunch time, it was in the 50s, and I saw both grasshoppers and a yellow butterfly... so it didn't kill everything!)

The other thing to note in the above photo is that its of a recently burned area.  The fall controlled burn season started late last week (that was the first time I saw anyone burning, at least).  Despite the frost, walking through this area smelled like a fire. 

This pretty tree is a Callery pear.  Though they aren't native, they don't have any invasive qualities and I think they're really nice looking in landscaping... especially this time of year.  Some cultivars are deeper red, some are more like this one, with red-orange-yellow mixed together.  But they all seem to hold onto their leaves quite long, coming to peak color in November after most everything else is way past.  Every autumn I admire them.  (It is sad, though, that nothing seems to eat their blueberry-sized pears.  They're really cute but I guess not too tasty!)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

On the Last Warn Day (Maybe)...

This is what yards are looking like... a carpet of leaves surrounding trees that are naked or approaching naked. 
We don't have too many sweetgum trees around here -- we're right at the northern tip of their historical range.  (Maybe with climate change we'll be smack dab in it!)  At any rate, they are lovely this time of year -- bright red and yellow.  Here's the one I know of in me area!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Wonderful Warmth

After Saturday disappointed both me -- who was looking forward to a good run outside in the light of day -- and multitudes of trick-or-treaters by being chilly and solidly rainy all day long, Sunday dawned beautiful.  I took today off work and so I have had 2 free days to enjoy the unseasonable warmth (over 70 today!) and I have been taking full advantage.  In the last 2 days, I've walked/run about 30 miles, visited 5 forest preserves, and gotten a lot of yard work completed (although actually Chris beat me to the punch on that and did a lot while I was out running!)  I've  seen 3 species of hawks, crows and geese, blue jays, robins, countless small birds including a lot of juncos, which have returned. I've seen deer and chipmunks and squirrels and more... 

Here are a few photos to show what the days are like... In this one, I tried to capture the oak leaves that were falling falling falling as I went through the woods.  It was just a constant shower of dancing leaves -- they were twisting and twirling, spinning, floating, flipping and flopping (sometimes right onto my head).  Despite the fairly constant shower, it took me several tries to get a photo with a leaf actually visible floating through the air.  That the picture has the moon behind the oak branches is so much the better!
This photo shows how rapidly the trees are losing their leaves... quite a difference from last weekend and even mid-week!
I like this photo because it shows the carpet of leaves through which we were wading -- and it shows the long shadows (including of me) characteristic of this time of year.  This photo was taken not long after mid-day... and, with the time change, not long before sunset either!  Not too many hours between them!
Finally, because I can't resist... here are just a few of the fungi I saw:
We look forward to another couple of warm days (though I'll be at work) before the seasonal weather returns at the end of the week!

Friday, October 30, 2015


Oh, what a difference a day makes!  I described yesterday as cold, damp and windy -- those were the objective terms... I left out unpleasant, etc.  Today, however, was perfectly lovely.  Though I woke up to ice on the porch (tried to take a photo, too dark), it has warmed nicely and turned into a brisk fall day... it's sunny, lightly breezy, and altogether pleasant!  Here is a picture of the prairie with the woods in the background.  Though past prime in the color department, they were still looking remarkably pretty.  
Today's wildlife sightings were increased over yesterday, too... I did see a woolly bear yesterday, but that was it for the creepy crawlies.  Today, in addition to woolly bears, I saw dragonflies, grasshoppers, bees, and butterflies (a sulfur and a monarch, though there's not much left for them to eat.  The monarch landed on a dandelion in a lawn.)

I also noticed, walking along, a great many deer tracks on the trail.  I was just thinking in my head how there were really a lot today when this young buck charged across the ag field, saw me, stopped abruptly and stared at me for a minute, then took off leaping again, tail lifted in warning.  
Among the birds I saw, the red-tailed hawks were most notable.  They were soaring and circling, and calling out to each other like eagles in an old western (which, of course, used recordings of red-tails dubbed over footage of eagles).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

When Green is Bad

This time of year, if you're walking through the woods and everything is still verdantly green, you might be tempted to celebrate the what's left of summer... But on closer inspection, you'll see that things aren't well.  The last trees/shrubs to hold stubbornly onto their green color are always the undesirables -- the buckthorn and the honeysuckle.  In this photo from my cold, damp, windy lunch walk, the trail is surrounded by a buckthorn monoculture.  It will pretty much be just as green at Thanksgiving.  The few taller trees are silver maples (their leaves, to the extent that they're still hanging around, are not green). Silver maple isn't the most desirous tree species in the world, either, but with all that buckthorn, neither they nor anything else will be able to reproduce anyhow.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Peak Color

Well, I'm back!

Over the past weekend, we did some traveling... First we attended the Midwest Environmental Education Conference in Madison, WI; then we went the opposite direction for a funeral in Indiana. After all that driving, I'm going to go ahead and declare that this past weekend was peak fall color in this region.  In both directions, we got stunning colors...

The russets and burgundies, scarlets and browns of the oaks, the bright golds, oranges and reds of the maples, the purple-and-yellows of the ashes... It was like an artists palette of every warm color on the color wheel -- with some left-over green thrown in.  All of it was framing the classic Midwestern landscape of rolling farm fields, so it was very picturesque.  (Not that I took a picture, mind you...)

Upon arriving home, I discovered that the ash tree in our yard was bare nekked, no leaves left at all... it looks ready for winter.  By yesterday late afternoon, I looked across the prairies and saw a lot more empty branches.  We really did our driving at the perfect time!

And speaking of the prairies... they are BROWN.  Solidly and pretty much only brown, though there are many different shades of brown with all the seeds.  But no asters or green leaves left (except grasses near the ground).  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Puffball World

This morning I came across several logs just covered in puffballs. 
They are at that place where if you touch them, clouds of spores come out like a brown plume of smoke.  I tried to capture that in a photo with less success than I'd have liked...
In other news, serviceberries are looking lovely this time of year, no? 

Sunday, October 18, 2015


That's some frost...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Getting the Chills

Though it's not actually that cold at this moment, we are officially in a "freeze watch" until 9 am on Saturday.  According to the National Weather Service, "freezing temperatures are possible Friday night through Saturday morning... high pressure sliding south from Canada... may allow temperatures... to fall to around 30 degrees..."  As always with cold extremes this time of year, warmer near the lake!

So monitor your thermometers and watch for frost, people!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


I put a sumac leaflet next to this tiny snapping turtle so you could tell how small it was -- body inch and a half, maybe? 
Here is a list of things I saw this weekend that might be "lasts" for 2015:
  • a monarch butterfly
  • a dragonfly
  • a turtle
  • a snake
  • a cicada (saw it, not heard it.  It looked fine, but technically, I didn't check for signs of life and it might have been dead.)
  • a toad and a frog (which I don't think will be the last...)
  • weather in the 70's (upper 70's on 10/10/15)
I would also like to say a word about red-wing black birds.  I certainly don't associate them with fall... I think of their distinctive shrill calls piercing the March chill as signs of spring-to-come.  I think of the constant threat of being dive-bombed as mid-summer perils.  But they fade away in the fall.  I noticed a lot of them this weekend, though, in flocks, even.  They were vocalizing but not a lot or loudly/distinctively.  They were near the trail but didn't appear at all interested in harming me (thank goodness!).  I guess they're getting ready for their winter retreat... 

Saturday, October 10, 2015


It's supposed to be a lovely weekend but I'm just noting... The temperature now is 39, which I think is the first dip into the 30s this fall... Cold run to look forward to!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ash Tree Musings, etc.

The ash tree in my front yard is changing color -- deep purple with yellow hiding underneath.

I shall miss these lovely fall colors with the decline of ash trees.

As you can see, the one in my yard is robust and healthy.  We've been treating it for about 6 years now, long before the borers were even in the area.  My arborist applauds me for this foresight, as my tree is healthier even than others that started getting treatments later.  Of course, my arborist is making a small fortune off this decision, and I find myself wondering... how long can my ash tree, and the others being treated, survive?  Will it become some sort of relic, a living fossil almost?  How much money will I end up spending on it, and will it be worth it?  In 25 years, will I look out at my yard, think of the thousands of dollars I've spent over the years, and see, in my mind's eye, the sugar maple I could have planted back in 2010 and how big it would be 30 years later?

Am I just delaying the inevitable?  Am I providing some sort of service to nature and humanity by preserving this species?  Will it ever become unnecessary to treat the trees -- will the borers run out of food, move away, and make my ash tree safe again?  Or will they adapt, find new food sources, or keep living off the baby ash-lings produced by treated trees like mine?  (Isn't that ironic, don't ya think?)

Can you tell, dear readers, that I am conflicted about my ash tree?

As for all the others... I haven't been reporting ash tree phenology this fall.  I have no idea if the ones that are losing their leaves are doing so because of borers or because of the season.  A lot of the yellow color we've been seeing is ash trees changing, though, and more recently the purple... (The green ash trees turn yellow, I think, and ours is a white ash that turns the purple color).
In other tree news, most locusts have yellowed (the color is off in this photo -- it's yellow) and are promptly losing leaflets almost as soon as they change color. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Aphid Uprising and Other Updates

These little guys are just covering the stem of this milkweed plant... Aphids are considered to be a pest.  (Look them up on the internet, and the vast majority of the search results will be about aphid control or how to get rid of them).  They can be extremely destructive to plants.  But they're SO COOL!*  I mean, they're so tiny but they come in such bright colors -- in addition to this beautiful orange shade, I've seen them in red and yellow and greenish.  They're fascinating to watch, the way they wiggle and their black legs move even as they're attached to their host plant.  If you get a chance, observe them through a hand lens...

Aphids basically puncture the plant and tap into the phloem, which provides their food source.  They don't need to move, and their sugary drink basically just flows into them.  (Like every couch potato's dream...)  I think it's obvious why this would be harmful to the plant, if you look at the sheer quantity in the photo, but they can also spread diseases to plants when they attach on. 

Notice in the left of the picture there are some ants.  Ants often protect aphids; they benefit from the relationship because they eat the sap the aphids release.  (Don't actually know if that's occurring here, but it does happen!)  Ladybugs, on the other hand, are one of those beneficial insects known for eating aphids.  They're a great natural method of control!

*I will note that I have never found aphids in my yard, and may not think they're as cool if I did... 

Fall is a seedy time of year... 
Blazing star seeds were literally blowing off as I stood watching.  I tried to actually snap a photo with the flying seeds in it, but timing was hard.  Maybe that is one on the very left, in the middle there... 
Onion seeds are falling out, and the least bit of rustling causes some to fall. 
It's also the time of year when people start to celebrate bugs -- they may be the last ones! -- instead of fearing or being annoyed by them. 
For a while we were seeing multiple monarchs every day, but I haven't seen one at all for a while... until this one!
Just a really awesome grasshopper guy!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wonderful Woolly Bears and Water Bugs

I noticed that there were a LOT of woolly bears today, so at one point during my run, I decided to count.  The rate of woolly bears was approximately 1 every 20 (running) steps.  The one pictured was one of the tiniest ones -- about an inch -- but most were big and fat and fuzzy!

Also, check out this awesome water scorpion I caught this morning with kindergarten students.  It was rather a slow day, macroinvertebrate-wise... I was getting the typical dragonfly and damselfly larvae, snails, scuds... but slower than usual.  And then, right at the end -- this fellow!  I didn't even see him (or her) at first, due to his excellent camouflage as a stick. 
Water Scorpions have a name that's worse than their bite... you hear that, you're thinking that the long tail is maybe some sort of poisonous stinger. In fact, it's a sort of snorkel.  These true bugs breathe air, though they live under water!  Another interesting factoid... it looks like a 4-legged insect (which wouldn't be an insect) with some crazy mouth parts.  Actually, those are modified front legs, used for grabbing prey and pulling it in to their mouths.  Said mouths, called rostrums, are like suckers, which pierce prey and inject digestive juices.  The remaining four legs are used for movement, though they're not especially fast or graceful.  Water scorpions spend most of their time clinging to plant material (which those back legs also do) and not moving at all, except when prey (smaller water critters) pass by.  Then those back legs will straighten, springing the scorpion towards its prey with those "pincer" legs.   And that's your aquatic macroinvertebrate lesson of the day!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


After days of wind and chill, cloud and drizzle, today is a beautiful, sunny (and, I should add, windless) fall day.

Today is one of those days when, as you walk , swarms of grasshoppers jump out of the way, a constant wave of motion preceding you by a foot or two... 

Also still around: dragonflies (though green darners aren't so common anymore, mostly the red ones), butterflies (not monarchs, but sulphurs and whites), bees and wasps.
In the bird world, there are grebes on the lake (above, tiny) and goldfinches are officially brown, not gold.  This happened a few days ago but today I was watching a few eat seeds.  (No photo, though, they don't sit still!)

The prairie is looking autumnal, with lovely colors in the grasses.  The only flowers left in full bloom out there are the asters... New England a vibrant purple, and also the little weedy white ones. 
Bluestem shows its true colors... red.  (This is little bluestem.  Big bluestem is purpler, but neither is blue!
 In the tree world, sugar maples are turning... I'd estimate about 30% of them have gone orange.  The rest are still thinking about it.  Red maples look like this: