Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Happy Fall!

The start of autumn officially occurred last week with the equinox, but, as I mentioned at the time, that day doesn't really mean much of anything to most people.  Some people say fall started after labor day, or when school started.  Some may have looked for a phenological event like the first red leaves or the goldenrod taking over the prairies... but if you want to judge the start of fall by the weather, it seems like today might be it.

Last night, I walked around my neighborhood in the early evening, it was in the 70's and the whine of cicadas was loud in the background.  At the time, being a follower of weather forecasts, I found myself wondering... will this be the last time the year that I hear them?  (In phenology, "lasts" are so much harder than "firsts."  The first frost is obvious, but the last one... what if I mark it down and then there's more frost tomorrow or the next day?  You have to keep noting the lasts until it really, truly is the last.  Sometimes it doesn't occur to you that it will be the last monarch or the last earthworm until much later, and you have to try and remember what the date actually was.  So we'll see, I guess...)

At any rate, after yesterday evening's warm, summery-sounding and -feeling walk, this morning dawned... not too bad, when I left for the gym at 4:45 am.  It was 65, and if it's 65 degrees at 4:45 am, it'll probably be in the 70's at mid-day, right?  Were the weather forecasts wrong?  (Wait, the internet can't be wrong!)  Did I choose the entirely wrong clothes?  Leaving the gym 2 hours later, if felt considerably cooler.  And it was still nearly dark with clouds, spitting almost-rain, and windy.  In the time I have been writing this post, the temperature has dropped another 3 degrees.  (It says it's 56 now.) The 10-day has highs in the low 60's or upper 50's for its entire duration...

Now I'm wondering if I dressed warmly enough!
Happy autumn.

Monday, September 28, 2015


In this line of sugar maples, most are still green, but a couple have turned a beautiful orange!
The world is definitely starting to look more autumnal, with bits of color here and there.  At this point, no species seems to be consistently turning colors... but there are early adopters out there (as though ceasing to photosynthesize was like deciding to wear skinny jeans, or jelly shoes...) that are starting to wear their fall hues.  

This is true not just of sugar maples, but other species as well... some locusts are turning yellow.  Some lindens are turning brown/yellow, some birches are turning yellow... but overall, taking the species as a whole, none of them are predominantly changing... yet.  With cool weather starting tomorrow and October around the corner, I'm sure it won't be long!

Snakeroot Update

Snakeroot started going to seed this weekend... 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Super Moon!

So... I will start by saying that iPhone is great in general, but for photos of the moon, more specialized equipment might help. Ah, well...

This is the super moon rising. It really was quite large on the horizon when it was first visible.  Very lovely, though the picture doesn't do it justice.
It took another hour and a half before we could really see it eclipsing. It just started to disappear in shadow, the left side darkening gradually. This picture was taken when it was a little more than half shadowed, though the glare makes it look more there than it was. 
Shortly thereafter, clouds covered the sky so I won't get to see the full eclipse but what I saw was pretty cool. And lucky, I suppose... It was cloudy most of the day!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Prairie Plants

Peak bloom for New England aster, and clouds of bees hovering around it...
Goldenrod actually past peak, some plants are still in full flower but many, like these, aren't as bright yellow, have brown setting in...


Many sumacs are starting to turn red in earnest this week... though this is a species with a lot of variation in timing. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Seed Burst Firsts on a Misty Morning

With the start of autumn, we look to seeds and colors... the things that characterize the end of a life cycle, in as much as a cycle has an end.  These are not the first milkweed seeds I've seen bursting open, but they actually are the first ones that aren't right next to the trail, and I'm always suspicious that maintenance mowers and, in the case of milkweed, hands alter the phenophases.  This morning I started to notice milkweed plants off the trail opening their seedpods, though these are early adopters.  Most are still green with potential for later!

The cattails are also starting to release seeds... The eponymous brown fuzzy hotdogs-on-sticks are packed so tightly with so many seeds for so long... and now they are starting to burst and explode! 

The goose in this photo isn't especially phenologically relevant, really... We have geese year-round now.  In the 40's, Also Leopold poetically described the return of the geese in March as one of his tell-tale signs of spring.  Thanks to office parks with aerated ponds that never freeze, geese never leave (at least not a lot of them) so their presence means not a lot... but the mist on the lake is an interesting phenomena that's been happening these mornings as it's been getting chilly at night.  Since it's still been warm during the day, the water and ground are warmer than the night air, causing these misty fog-clouds each morning.  They're quite lovely.

The morning fog really strange... you can see this layer of fog hanging over some parts of the land and not others.  In places it's not as tall as my head so I walk through with my head above clouds and my body in them.  When you move in and out of the misty areas the temperature drops by what feels like 10 degrees, then rises again just as quickly...
My last sighting of the morning -- this pair of sandhill cranes flew almost right over me.  Thanks to their distinctive call, I knew they were around before I saw them, and was able to get totally prepared to take pictures... but still, the ones where they were right overhead turned out totally blurry.  This was the best of the bunch, though it's still not awesome.  You almost can't see enough leg to know they're not geese, but, trust me, they're cranes!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Happy Fall

At around 3:30 am today, autumn officially begins.

That's right -- it's the fall equinox.  It seems like this day has little importance to us now... though it's the official start of a new season, most people count fall as starting either after Labor Day (the unofficial end of summer), when school starts and cooler weather typically sets in.

However, this day had great significance in the lives of our ancestors.  In many cultures, a major harvest festival takes place around this time, harkening back to the significance of this date.  In a world when people were more immediately connected to the natural world and dependent upon it for their survival, this was an important turning point in the year... the time to start focusing on caching and preparing for winter.  It meant multiple things.  On the one hand, life was about to get hard.  Food wouldn't be as easy to come by, great amounts of energy would be needed just to keep warm and survive.  On the other hand, summer means long days often filled with work from dawn 'til dusk, whereas winter actually meant more time inside, connecting with family and friends.  The pace of life changed, became more reflective.

Equinox translates to "equal night;" it is the day when day and night are each 12 hours in length (though not really -- due to refraction and latitude, it's slightly off, but... close enough!)  It's the day when the sun passes over the equator.  It will now spend the next six months in the southern hemisphere, from our earthly perspective, (and oh, we northerners will miss it!)

One of the most noticeable things to me about the days surrounding the equinoxes is the daily change in daylight.  If you think about a graph of daylight hours over time (example), the largest changes each day are going to happen not at the top and bottom of the waves, but in the middle, at the equinoxes.  From yesterday, 9/22, to today, 9/23, we lost 3 full minutes of daylight.  In comparison, it's about a minute a day different in December. Three minutes may not seem big... but that's a 21 minute difference in day length over the course of a week.  That's a noticeable change.  

At any rate... Happy Autumn!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Good Camo

If it weren't for the leg, you'd probably not even see the katydid in the photo!  Talk about good camouflage... The wing veins even look like leaf veins.  

(This insect was actually found by a colleague on the ceiling of the building... where it did NOT blend in nearly as well.  We performed a rescue mission, as it was way up high, and were able to set it free with no harm done.  YEA!  I have no idea how it got inside in the first place.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sunshine Day

It must be a good day for sunning because I saw 5 garter snakes in about 1.5 miles of trail... All little guys, about a foot long.

Incidentally the snakes are right... It's 70 degrees, sunny with a Simpsons-intro sky and a light breeze. Nearly perfect.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Wildlife Sightings

I had a great day for suburban wildlife sightings... I saw:
  • A muskrat, dragging a stick through the water.  It was right in front of me, very close, until JUST the second when I had my camera out and ready... then it dove under.
  • Green herons, which seem to be very common right now.
  • A poor baby vole, who seemed to be injured, which made me very sad.
  • Some other rodent -- I think a chipmunk based on its size and color, atop a compass plant eating the seeds.  We scared it away before I got a great view, but you don't often see mammals six feet off the ground on something as slender as a compass plant stem.  It was cool.  
  • A cormorant on the lake.
  • Tons of woolly bears -- which I think of a cool weather caterpillars, so I guess that's a sign of fall. 
  • Leopard frogs.
  • Monarchs, practically posing on NE aster:

  • This egret, either several times, or I saw several egrets throughout the course of the day.  In this instance, it landed on a dead tree near the class of kindergarteners I was teaching, then swooped into the pond, where we watched it walking in its smooth, deliberate way for a while. We had hoped it would catch a fish in front of us, but it didn't.  Speaking of fish, we also saw those, including a really big one that flopped out of the water.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


The last of the rosinweed flowers are blooming. The least-mentioned (at least in my world) Silphium, rosinweed is probably often mistaken for one of the many sunflower species currently in bloom... though its leaves do have the stiff sandpapery-ness of the other Silphium, they aren't as large or interestingly shaped.  Plus, the plant isn't nearly as tall as its siblings to attract notice.

These DYCs bloom earlier and finish before the numerous sunflower species, which are still in peak bloom while these peter out.  (The stem I drew had 3 green seedheads-to-be and one actual still-flowering flower... but several of its petals were curled up in the throes of death.)   Another interesting difference that I just learned: sunflowers and most other disk and ray composites have fertile disk flowers and often sterile ray flowers.  Rosinweed is the opposite -- all those little flowers in the  middle can't make seeds (that's probably why the middle of the seedhead-to-be is fuzzy... the flaky Silphium seeds will form a ring around them); only the ray flowers produce viable seeds.  Who knew?

Rosinweed is also extremely tolerant of drought and poor soils, meaning it can be a good choice for gardeners with those conditions... but that if we planted it it would probably grow 8 feet tall (which is 3 feet taller than it's "supposed" to get) because that is what seems to happen in our yard.  We had an interesting conversation this weekend with our native plant provider, in which we mentioned that most of the native prairie plants that we have cultivated seem to grow MUCH taller than their estimated heights, making our garden somewhat of an impassable jungle at the moment despite carefully planning NOT to have many really tall things.  Apparently those estimates are often based on poor soil conditions, and when you put these plants in good, well-amended soil, well... they get really tall.  So now we know.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Going to Seed

This side-oats gramma is a lovely little prairie grass, nice to use in landscaping because it doesn't grow terribly tall.  Right now the seeds are ripe and ready to fall!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Socratic Method

Hemlock berry!

ps -- it warmed up and the cicadas are calling again!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Golden Opportunity

I started sketching this Canada goldenrod, figuring it was by far the most common flower blooming right now and it would be remiss to choose something else.  I almost immediately regretted it.  Seriously? It would take hours, and probably considerably more skill than I possess, to capture all the detail... The stem branches off numerous times in every direction, and each branch contains multitudes of individual flowers.  The top ones are in full bloom, the lower branches contain yellow-green buds.  At any rate, I tried to rescue the experience by drawing one tiny flower as seen through my 10x magnification jewelers' loupe, and I also studied the leaf venation that way... a fascinating net not really discernible without a lens.  
PS -- Today is the coolest day since summer began back in June, with highs in the low 60s.  But fear not, fellow lovers of sun, short sleeves and Indian summers, we are predicted too be back in the 80s next week!  Still, this made for quite a change this afternoon.  There's an eerie silence/stillness... even though there are plenty of noises -- wind and cars, airplanes and goldfinches... but the cicadas are conspicuously quiet.  It actually took me a few minutes to realize what it was, but it's so obviously different without that constant drone in the backgrouns.  Being cold-blooded and all, they like it to be in the 70s or hotter to make noise. I'll expect them back next week!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On My Door

This beautiful female eastern pondhawk dragonfly is hanging out on the outside doorhinge of my office.  Probably doesn't want to leave due to the rain. 

Go Nuts!

Many walnut trees are very unceremoniously losing their leaves... no flash of color, just leaflets turning brown and falling inconspicuously to the ground.  Those that bore nuts this year have dropped some, but have kept most on their branches so far.  Without leaves to hide them, they look like jewelry adorning the branches.  

Black walnuts bear nuts alternate years.  It's funny, because I never knew that despite growing up with huge black walnut trees -- my parents yard has two of them... and they seem to be on alternative schedules, so we always had walnuts to substitute as baseballs, golf balls, and whatever other sort of projectiles we imagined up.  It wasn't until I took a tree class a few years ago that I learned that they were on alternate-year schedules!  (I guess I'm not always the most observant nature nerd...) 
Currently, I don't have a mature walnut tree in my own yard, though I have one little one that we're letting mature. But the neighborhood must have several because I am constantly pulling walnut seedlings up from the most inconvenient of places.  Squirrels seem to especially like to bury them in my vegetable garden (good soil to dig in!).  This would be a terribly place to have a walnut tree; besides from the shade, the juglone that they release into the soil is toxic to many other plants, including tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and many berries!  (Note... the toxicity zone for mature trees is is usually a circle around the trunk with a 50 to 60 foot radius.  As I mentioned, my parents have two very large trees... this may help explain why my feeble attempts at gardening as a young person always failed.  Though I suspect there were other factors.  Full shade.  Bad soil that I didn't know to amend.  Complete failure to follow through.  You know...)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why Phenology is Hard

One of my favorite quotations is, "Ecology is not rocket science -- it is far more difficult." (Hilborn & Ludwig).  Ecosystems are incredibly complex systems made up of numerous other systems.  There are countless interrelationships that we know of that affect the life of each plant and animal... and probably even more about which we don't know.  The factors that influence patterns of growth and decay are many, and constantly affect each other.  As John Muir eloquently pointed out, "when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."  

Yesterday I was contemplating a clump of bottlebrush buckeyes.  These shrubs are all growing together in a relatively open area... that is to say, they are subjected to roughly the same conditions vis a vis precipitation, sunlight and other weather factors, as well as animal pests and pollinators.  And yet, in this small group of bushes, I found plants in very different phenophases.  We can only imagine the variation in plants that live in slightly or vastly different conditions.  And, of course, this species is just one example among many we could look to... makes it hard to know exactly what to report when, just saying...
The most common phenophase (seeds, green leaves).
The hangers-on -- still flowering (see how they get the name bottlebrush buckeye?)
The early adopters, already getting their fall color and shedding some leaflets. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Letting Go

Upon returning from my trip up north, what I notice most about my native prairie habitat isn't what's here but what's gone.  When I left, there were a lot of hangers-on... plants that were well past their peak bloom, but there were still a few left.  But, despite hot weather all week, a lot of the hangers on have let go, and in their place there are only seed-heads.  Among those things that are now totally absent:
  • purple coneflower (peak bloom early July, but some of those things hang on forever)
  • wild bergamot (peak bloom also late June'early July, but a few lasted)
  • mountain mint
  • blazing stars (even the rough ones are pretty much gone)
  • ironweed
  • yellow coneflower
  • cup plant
So now, the prairie is dominated mainly by grasses and DYCs, especially goldenrod.  A lot of goldenrod this time of year!  A few NE asters (DPCs?) add a little purple color to the mostly yellow hues.

Here's one exception... I just this weekend noticed this boneset in bloom.  Either it really just started (Several Eupatorium species do bloom late!) or I missed it for all the other things going on! 

Friday, September 4, 2015


The problem with phenology... Travel 5 hours north and nothing you see is really relevant to the place-based seasonal timing I am typically recording... And what have I missed during 4 days up north?

But I have seen a lot of remarkable things... Bats swooping close overhead, a universe of millions of stars, sunrise over the lake... And of course, fungi in almost every color of the rainbow!