22 February 2015

A "Three New Sedge" Day!

It's not everyday that I get to see a sedge (Carex) species that I haven't seen before.  Imagine my surprise and excitement, then, at having the opportunity to see three sedge species I'd never seen in a single day... just one state away in Michigan!  Well, I guess the Upper Peninsula technically counts as Michigan, even though it feels a bit more like Alaska.
Carex media
On 11 July 2014, I was in the Upper Peninsula to prepare for a field trip I was leading at the annual Michigan Botanical Club Foray.  Prior to our trip, Brad Slaughter contacted Janet Marr about getting access to an island just off of the mainland, and Janet made contact with the landowner and was able to get permission for us to borrow canoes to access the island.  During our free time, Erin Victory, Brad, Janet, and I paddled out to the island with hopes of seeing Intermediate Sedge (Carex media) and Ross' Sedge (Carex rossii).  Janet had recently been to the island and was able to take us directly to a clump of Intermediate Sedge. 

Carex media; note the fresh spikelet.
Intermediate Sedge has a circumboreal distribution, and although it is widespread in Canada, it is only known from eight states (and that includes Alaska).  In Michigan, it is only known from Keweenaw County, where it is found on Isle Royale and on the north shore of the peninsula. As such, it is considered threatened in Michigan. This handsome sedge grows in thin soils of forest openings and on rocky shores.

Carex media along the shore of the island.
As we continued our hike across the small island, our next target was Ross' Sedge, and it wasn't long before we started locating populations of this rarity as well. Ross' Sedge is in section Acrocystis, meaning that it shares characteristics with Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica), Whitetinge Sedge (Carex albicans), and Parasol Sedge (Carex umbellata).

Carex rossii
Similar to Intermediate Sedge, Ross' Sedge is state threatened and known in Michigan only from Keweenaw County. This is one of several western disjunct species that occurs in the Upper Peninsula; it is much more widespread in the western United States and most of Canada.

Spike of Carex rossii.  Note the leaf-like lowest pistillate bract of the non-basal spike.
Ross' Sedge occurs in sandy and rocky soils in a range of habitats such as coniferous woodlands and prairies; in Michigan, it grows on rocky bluffs and slopes.

Carex rossii
The third new sedge of my trip, Back's Sedge (Carex backii), was found at Brockway Mountain after receiving a tip from Tony Reznicek.  To find this unique sedge, I drove in persistent rain to the approximate location of the plant, located it from the car, and hopped out for some very quick photographs.

Carex backii
Back's Sedge is morphologically similar to James' Sedge (Carex jamesii), putting it in section Phyllostachyae.  If the somewhat hidden spikelets were overlooked, it may look like a vegetative sedge in section Laxiflorae.

Carex backii.  Note the wide bracts that conceal the spikes.
Back's Sedge has a mostly northern distribution in the United States and is also known from Canada. In Michigan, it is found throughout much of the western Upper Peninsula, as well as in a handful of mostly northern Lower Peninsula counties. It grows in dry rocky and sandy ground, either in the open or in shade

03 February 2015

In Case You Missed It...

Scott was recently featured on an episode of Outdoor Elements, a television program on the local PBS station.  To see the episode, titled "Science at Work," which also features Brad Bumgardner and Brendan Grube discussing bird counts and Jeremy Sheets discussing bat surveys, click here.

Photograph by Evie Kirkwood

13 January 2015

Christmas Bird Count Season Comes to a Close

Have you noticed a lot of people out in the cold peering through binoculars lately?  Were you driving behind a car that inexplicably kept slowing down and that had its windows down despite the howling winds, freezing rain, or barely double-digit temperatures?  If so, you likely experienced someone participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count.  The count took place at hundreds of locations throughout the western hemisphere from December 14 to January 5, just as it has for the past 115 years.

Participants in the Northeast LaPorte County Christmas Bird Count look for a particularly vocal Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus).
I had the opportunity to assist with four Christmas Bird Counts in Indiana and Michigan this season, including two that I have helped with for many years and two that I joined for the first time in 2014.  The first count that I joined was a new one for me, the Northeast LaPorte County Christmas Bird Count, on December 15, 2014.

An inquisitive Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) observed on the Northeast LaPorte County Christmas Bird Count.
For this count I joined Dennis Richardson, Frances Sipocz-Richardson, Jo Brugos, John Brugos, and Kip Miller.  Upon arriving at the Richardsons' home, I heard Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) and Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis); a nice way to start off the day!

One of several Common Loons (Gavia immer) that we saw in northeast LaPorte County on Christmas Bird Count day.
Our group visited a variety of habitats during the day, ranging from lakes to wetlands to pine plantations to forests.  Although bird numbers seemed low, we tallied a very respectable 48 species, birding from 8:00 AM central time until dusk. 

An iconic Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) soars over a northeast LaPorte County wetland.
Some of our highlights during the Northeast LaPorte County Christmas Bird Count included American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Canvasback (Aythya valisineria), Redhead (Aythya americana), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus), Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), and Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus).

A White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi, in the back on the right) stole the show at the Northeast LaPorte County Christmas Bird Count.
A couple of days later, on December 17, 2014, I was at it again, this time across the state line into Michigan to help with the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count.  I was teamed with the amazing Kip Miller, and we were joined for most of the morning by Helen Obenchain.  Before Helen arrived, Kip and I got an early start with owling and had spectacular looks at a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio).  We then searched to no avail for a Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) that Kip had seen at the New Buffalo harbor the previous day, but we were at least treated to a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) as a consolation prize.  Again, I can certainly think of worse ways to start out a day of birding!

Early morning owling during the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count produced a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio).
Kip and I (and Helen for part of the morning) visited various habitats, including lakefront, deciduous forest, fields, planted prairie, and wetlands.  My eyes were thoroughly tired when I headed home after seeing 42 species during almost 11 straight hours of birding. 

Birds were difficult to see on the choppy Lake Michigan waters during the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count, but this pair of Horned Grebes (Podiceps auritus) was relatively close to shore.
We had plenty of highlights during the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count, including Redhead (Aythya americana), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator), Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata), Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus), Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), and Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

Winter Wrens (Troglodytes hiemalis) can sometimes be difficult to come by, but this one seen during the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count was quite cooperative. 
Since Kip coordinates the New Buffalo count, he sometimes observes areas outside of the section that he is specifically covering.  Species in the table below that are marked with an X were seen outside of our section.  While searching for the Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) pictured above, we ran into a couple of other birders who had seen Eurasian Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto) in their count area, so Kip and I made a late afternoon trip to see these birds, which are as yet uncommon in southwest Michigan.

Eurasian Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto) had never before been observed during the New Buffalo Christmas Bird Count.
I was at it again just a few days later, participating in the South Bend Christmas Bird Count on December 20, 2014.  I coordinate the southwest quarter of the count circle, and was lucky enough to have two other teams helping out with our area.  Lindsay and I covered the southern portion of the area, owling and birding from 5:00 AM until about 4:00 PM.  We started the day with four gray phase Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) and 2 Barred Owls (Strix varia) on our list before most of the population of South Bend had even rolled out of bed.

One of four gray phase Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) that we saw during the South Bend Christmas Bird Count.
I enjoy the area that we cover during the South Bend Christmas Bird Count because of our variety of habitat, ranging from deciduous forest to pine plantation to old field to agricultural fields to suburban feeders to wetlands, but what we really lack is open water areas.  Consequently, we don't get many ducks or gulls, but we were able to tally 38 species and good numbers of individuals on one of the birdiest days I can remember for a South Bend count.  Other birders on the count, however, felt that it was a pretty slow day.

A Barred Owl (Strix varia) looks on just before sunrise on the day of the South Bend Christmas Bird Count.
Amongst our highlights during the South Bend Christmas Bird Count were the following: Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Barred Owl (Strix varia), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus), and Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus).

A Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) observed during the South Bend Christmas Bird Count looks for its next meal.
The final count in which I participated was the Elkhart County Christmas Bird Count on January 3, 2015. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative that day, with rain, freezing rain, and snow all day long. I began owling before 6:00 AM and quickly picked up two red phase Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) at one location and a gray phase at another.  I was joined by Ted Miller for the remainder of the day, and we birded until we lost daylight, covering habitats including suburban feeders, river, ponds, wetlands, deciduous forest, old field, and agricultural fields.  The constant precipitation prohibited any photographs, and birds were sparse.  We were able to tally 32 species for the day, but even the numbers of individuals were down, presumably due to the weather and visibility conditions.  I often add species by ear while driving, but all that we could hear was the sloshing of slush beneath the tires and the monotonous beat of my windshield wipers.  Highlights for the day included Gadwall (Anas strepera), Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Barred Owl (Strix varia), and Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris).
My 2014-2015 Christmas Bird Count totals.  An "X" designates a species observed in the count circle on count day but in a different sector than where I was technically counting.
Overall for the 2014-2015 Christmas Bird Count, I tallied 70 species with the help of several wonderful birders.  I'm already looking forward to assisting with these counts, and maybe a couple of others, next December and January!  

03 January 2015

Make Plans to Attend the 2015 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival!

The 2015 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival will take place on May 7-10, 2015.  Many excellent field trips and programs are planned for this exciting event.  For more information on the festival, visit http://www.indunesbirdingfestival.com/.

24 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from Lindsay, Scott, and Cooper!

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