04 October 2014

From Billions to None

Don't miss your opportunity to see the film From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction at Indiana University South Bend on October 14 at 7 PM.  In addition to the documentary, Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across the Sky (about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon) and one of the major contributors to the documentary, will be on hand to answer questions and sign his book.  Hope to see you there!

15 September 2014

Orchids Are Weeds

Okay, so maybe saying that orchids are weeds is a bit of a dramatic exaggeration.  However, while mowing the trails on our St. Joseph County, Indiana property yesterday, I had to slam on the brakes inches from mowing the fourth orchid species that we've documented on our property, October Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata). If you're a follower of this blog, you may know that the previous three orchids we'd found on our property were Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera), Purple Twayblade (Liparis liliifolia), and Green Twayblade (Liparis loeselii).  After finding the third of those, I asked readers of this blog (tongue in cheek) which orchid species we would find next.  Keith Board has to win some kind of prize for predicting that we would find this species.  My find today is even more interesting because I saw this species growing on the St. Joseph and Elkhart county line on Friday last week and came home to look for it on our property in a young successional wooded area.  I struck out.  I guess I was looking in the wrong place and instead needed to be sitting on a riding mower to find it.

Sure, a weed is often defined as a plant out of place.  In that sense, I don't necessarily consider orchids weeds.  However, the more I see and learn, the more I think that many of our orchid species require disturbance to grow, reproduce, and continue to be evident above ground, and without that disturbance, they cease to exist (at least until the disturbance returns) (see the dialog in the comments of this post for a discussion on this topic).  In this case, the orchid I found is growing right at the edge of the trail that I mow regularly, in old-field, with mostly non-native species and weedy native species such as Tall Fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus), Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia), and Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans ssp. negundo). 

As seen in the photograph below, the flowers of October Lady's Tresses (also known as Oval Ladies'-tresses) are usually in three spiraling ranks.  The flowers (and specifically the lip) are smaller than many of the other members of the genus Spiranthes, with the lip reaching only approximately 5.5 mm; the other two species that have flowers that minute in the lower Great Lakes region have either a yellow or green spot on the upper surface of the lip.  The lip on October Lady's Tresses is quite recurved and is usually inrolled, giving it a narrow appearance. Another good field character used to help identify October Lady's Tresses is seen in the photograph above... notice that the leaves are present and conspicuous when the plant is in flower. 

Whereas many of our Spiranthes grow in full sun habitats, October Lady's Tresses is more shade-tolerant and does best in openings in woods, along trails, and in young successional woods.  It also is found in thickets and in old-fields.  When forests mature and less light can reach the forest floor, this species tends to be less prevalent, an indication that it requires disturbance. You can see the habitat where I found the plant on our property in the photograph below (it is just about in the middle of the photo).  Not an area that anyone would consider "high quality" by any means.

The range of October Lady's Tresses includes the eastern United States and the province of Ontario.  However, it is not known from more than a large handful of counties in any of the states in which it occurs, and its county distribution is fairly even over its range.  That said, this species is increasing its range and distribution, likely in part due to the increased level of disturbance to our natural areas.  So... is it just a weed?  Certainly a unique and welcomed one on our property!

27 June 2014

Frog Monitoring Comes to a Close

During the last two nights I conducted my third of three sets of frog and toad call monitoring for the year at five sites for the FrogWatch USA citizen science program. This year was a pretty good year for my sites, as I logged 10 of the 11 species that could be expected in the South Bend, Indiana area:
  • Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)
  • Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata)
  • Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
  • American Toad (Bufo americanus)
  • Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)
  • Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris)
  • Blanchard's Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi)
  • Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor)
  • Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)
  • American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)
I did not hear a Fowler's Toad (Bufo fowleri) at my sites in 2014.

Calling Eastern Gray Treefrog in South Bend, Indiana, June 25, 2014
Chamberlain Lake Nature Preserve is one of just a few places in this area where you can find Blanchard's Cricket Frog.  In the video below, you can hear the "clicking marbles" call of that species, as well as the loud  "Red-bellied Woodpecker-like trills" of the Eastern Gray Treefrog and the "banjo twang" of the Green Frog.


It's always a treat to get to see how these tiny frogs produce such a loud sound.  The video below shows a calling Eastern Gray Treefrog.


Frog and toad calls are starting to wind down a bit for the year, but that only means that the singing insects are just getting started.  Now is the time to start listening for them as they fill the night with their characteristic melodies.

26 June 2014

A Rare Treat

If you follow this blog, you know that I am a big fan of the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), not only for their unique flower morphology but also for their importance to a long list of insect species.  It is no surprise, then, that on a recent trip to Starved Rock State Park near Utica in LaSalle County, Illinois, I had to stop to snap a few shots of the somewhat uncommon Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata).

Unlike many of our milkweeds that grow in open to partly shaded conditions, Poke Milkweed thrives in rich soils and grows in partly shaded to shaded conditions of woodlands and forests.  Its range includes much of the eastern part of North America, extending west just past the Mississippi River into Minnesota and Iowa.

Although it isn't necessarily considered a species of conservation concern, when you are lucky enough to find Poke Milkweed, you generally don't see it in large numbers.  According to Swink and Wilhelm (1994), Poke Milkweed can be absent or found in very small numbers in a given forest for many years, and then inexplicably it will be found in great numbers in the same woods.

The flowers of Poke Milkweed are interesting in part because they are bi-colored.  The corolla lobes (petals) are greenish-yellow, whereas the hoods of the corona are white to faintly pink.

Although it has opposite leaves with milky sap, the leaves have a texture and venation that can superficially be confused with the alternate-leaved Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), giving rise to the common name Poke Milkweed. This similarity was noted by Frederick Pursh, who assigned the Latin name Asclepias phytolaccoides to this species.  The older name Asclepias exaltata, assigned by Carl Linnaeus, is the currently accepted Latin name.

Swink, F. and G. Wilhelm. 1994. Plants of the Chicago Region. 4th edition. Indianapolis: Indiana Academy of Science.

24 June 2014

Scenes from the Hill Prairie

Late May is a spectacular time on the gravel hill prairie.  The gravel provides a low-nutrient substrate that keeps vegetation competition to a minimum, and as a result several prairie species that are generally not as competitive have the opportunity to thrive.  The photographs that follow are from 28 May 2014 on a gravel hill prairie in McHenry County, Illinois.

Viola pedata (Bird's Foot Violet)

Minuartia stricta (Rock Sandwort)

Lithospermum incisum (Fringed Gromwell)

Geum triflorum (Prairie Smoke)

Geum triflorum (Prairie Smoke) in fruit

20 June 2014

Grass Identification and Ecology Workshop to be Offered at The Morton Arboretum

Tired of seeing "unknown grass" and "Dichanthelium sp." on your vegetation sampling datasheets?  Need to know what species that Elymus is to figure out if you're in a wetland or an upland?  Interested in learning vegetative characteristics for some of our more common grasses?  Just want to know more about grass identification and ecology in general?  If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then the workshop discussed below being held on August 21-22, 2014 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois may be for you.  If you have any questions about the workshop, email Scott Namestnik at snamestnik@orbisec.com.

Learn to identify the grasses that add beauty and interest to the summer and fall landscape. Grasses allow us to read the landscape: from soils, habitat, disturbance and past land uses. They form a critical component of the biodiversity and with nearly 11,000 species, this is the fourth largest plant family. This workshop consists of an intensive, hands-on approach incorporating both classroom work and field study.  Identify warm season grasses in the field and lab, learn the specialized terminology and distinguishing features, discuss their ecology, and practice identifying species from keys. 

Instructor: Scott Namestnik, senior botanist, Orbis Environmental Consulting
Notes: Held both indoors and outdoors. Please dress for the weather each day. Limit 20
Supplies: Please bring a water bottle, a hand lens, and wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes for walking over uneven terrain. Fee includes all workshop handouts, morning refreshments and a box lunch.
Intended audience: Advanced students and professionals.
Certificate information: Can be used as a Naturalist Certificate, WSP elective (14 hours)
Prerequisites: Prior experience with plant identification required
Course number: S318

Thursday, August 21 and Friday, August 22, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Botany Lab, Research Center, The Morton Arboretum

Nonmembers: Fees include admission to the Arboretum.
$150.00 members
$176.00 nonmembers
$50.00 students; call 630-719-2468 or email registrar-ed@mortonarb.org for student rate


CALL: 630-719-2468
IN PERSON: Stop by the Visitor Center during open hours.
ONLINE: REGISTER NOW at http://www.mortonarb.org/courses/grass-identification-and-ecology

20 May 2014

Spring is Mustard Season

In early April I made a trip down to extreme southern Indiana with Mike Homoya and Roger Hedge to see a unique spring ephemeral native mustard in bloom.  Our target was Michaux's Gladecress (Leavenworthia uniflora), and we weren't disappointed.  We met up with Jason Larson and Derek Luchik to see this little gem.

Michaux's Gladecress is a tiny plant, with the largest specimens only reaching about seven inches tall when in flower; most plants are much shorter than this.  As an annual calciphile that can't tolerate competition from other plants, Michaux's Gladecress is restricted to areas with limestone at or near the surface, such as glades, rocky old fields, roadsides, and rocky ledges. In Indiana, this habitat is only found in the southeastern part of the state, near the Ohio River.

Limestone glades aren't common in Indiana, and as a result Michaux's Gladecress isn't common in the Hoosier State.  Even within the glades that are present, this little mustard is really only found in areas of nearly bare soil; it is more common in areas with exposed limestone that are near but not in the glades.  In areas meeting this description, the species can be rather abundant, growing in tiny cracks in the limestone or areas where a miniscule amount of soil has accumulated.

Michaux's Gladecress is only known from Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.  In Indiana, its populations are restricted to Clark County, and as a result it is listed as endangered; globally it is apparently secure (G4).

What a great way to start off the botanical year!

11 May 2014

Cooper at Bendix Woods

Lindsay, Cooper, and I took a quick walk this afternoon at Bendix Woods County Park in St. Joseph County, Indiana for me to prepare for a field trip I am leading there next weekend for Shirley Heinze Land Trust.  Lucky for us, Cooper loves hiking, and he seemed right at home with the blooming Trillium grandiflorum, Enemion biternatum, and Asarum canadense.

Happy dog!!

After hiking at a new park, Cooper seems amazingly more calm when we get home.

05 April 2014

An Uncommon Visitor

I can get used to this working from home gig.  Nearly every day for the past two weeks I've watched Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly past my office window, including one mature eagle at very close range flying up my driveway being chased by a blackbird.  Just a couple of days ago, we had another visitor that probably would have gone unnoticed had I not been working from home.

The chunky, brown, streaked body, conical beak, and bold white eyeline help to identify this bird as a female Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus).  We've only observed Purple Finch on our property a few times; this is the first female that we've seen.  In many bird species, the females are more difficult to identify because they are less colorful than the males and look similar to females of other species.  In the case of the Purple Finch, the male is definitely more colorful, appearing to have been "dipped in raspberry juice" according to famous American naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, but the female is actually more easily identified.  Male Purple Finches are often confused with male House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), but female Purple Finches are easily distinguished from female House Finches because of the white eyeline that the House Finch lacks.

Purple Finches are in northern Indiana only in winter; they spend their summers further north of here in moist, cool forests.  Their populations seem to be decreasing, and some think this may be a result of competition with the invasive House Finch.   

I can't wait to see what species I can add to our yard list working from home this spring once songbird migration is well underway.

"Bootypants" by Jason Haney

A nice addition to our living room...

Thanks, Jason!  She looks great!