27 January 2009

Captivating Caterpillars

For some reason today, even with the thick carpet of white on the ground, I began thinking about caterpillars. I went through my caterpillar photos this evening, taken at various times over the past 5 years, and I have a few to share.

The caterpillar in the photo above is that of a White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma). White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillars can be found on almost any woody species in eastern North America, but they are most commonly found eating apple, birch, black locust, cherry, elm, hackberry, hickory, oak, rose, willow, fir, hemlock, larch, spruce, and other conifer. The hairs of the caterpillar can cause an allergic reaction, so be careful if you see this one.

This is an American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillar that I found on the side of our house. This caterpillar can range in color from yellowish to white. They are most commonly found in forests and woodlands in eastern North America, and can be found feeding on alder, American hornbeam, ash, basswood, birch, box elder, chestnut, elm, hazel, hickory, horse chestnut, maple, oak, poplar, redbud, sycamore, walnut, willow, and other woody plants.

The IO Moth (Automeris io) caterpillar is a member of a group of caterpillars that have many-branched, poison-filled spines that give a sting that apparently feels like that of stinging nettle (but lasts longer). The IO is found in fields, woodlands, forests, and streambanks in eastern North America from southern Canada to Florida. They can be found feeding on aspen, birch, blackberry, cherry, clover, elm, hackberry, hibiscus, oak, poplar, sassafras, willow, wisteria, and grasses (even corn!).

The Saddleback (Acharia stimulea) is another caterpillar that has stinging spines. In fact, the sting is said to be one of the most potent of North American caterpillars. Even the cocoon of this species can deliver a sting. Saddlebacks can be found in fields, gardens, edges of wetlands, and woodlands through the Midwest and south to Florida and Texas. They can be found feeding on a wide variety of plant species, including apple, aster, blueberry, buttonbush, cabbage, citrus, corn, grass, maple, oak, and garden and ornamental species.

This non-stinging caterpillar is that of a Polyphemous Moth (Antheraea polyphemus). They can be found in barrens, woodlands, and forests throughout North America (except in Arizona and Nevada). Polyphemous Moth caterpillars eat a variety of plants, including apple, ash, birch, dogwood, elm, hazel, hickory, maple, oak, rose, and willow. I've never heard this, but Polyphemous Moth caterpillars have been known to make a snapping sound with their jaws.

The two photos above are both of the same species, Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). They are found in open fields, farmfields, gardens, wet meadows, and other open wetlands in eastern North America from Canada south to Florida and Texas, and even into Costa Rica. Black Swallowtail larvae most commonly feed on plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae), but can also be seen feeding on rue and on species in the citrus family (Rutaceae). When provoked, black swallowtail caterpillars invert a v-shaped organ (called an osmeterium) from behind the head that looks like a pair of horns. The osmeterium emits a strong odor that is distasteful to predators.

And finally, my favorite caterpillar, the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). Spicebush Swallowtails are found throughout much of the eastern United States, most commonly in woodlands and swamps, but they can also be found in fields and gardens. They feed on sassafras and spicebush. This caterpillar is showing a form of mimicry. Its head looks like that of a snake, especially to a passing bird, who may then think twice before trying to make a lunch of this species.

You'll notice that there are a variety of plants, many trees and shrubs, on which these (and other) caterpillars prefer to feed. Oaks and black cherry are two of the most common food plants to native butterfly and moth larvae. By planting native trees and shrubs in your yard, you can easily attract a variety of caterpillars to your yard. The caterpillars in turn attract birds; you can easily create a functioning ecosystem in your yard just by planting the native species that attract the bottom of the food chain.
Most of the information from this post was taken from Caterpillars of Eastern North America. This is a great book with excellent photographs and valuable descriptions and habitat information. If you're ever looking for a book on caterpillars, I strongly recommend this one.

26 January 2009

By Popular Demand

In response to Jonas' comment, here's a picture of one of my college friends with a case of beer on his head.

Michael Walczak

25 January 2009

Merry Christmas!

A family photo, taken December 25, 2008.

Here's Bootypants on December 28.

Freezing Rain's Not So Bad

On December 19, 2008, northern Indiana was slammed with a freezing rain storm. While this storm led to many automobile accidents, down branches, and power outages, it also opened up an opportunity for some pretty unique photos. These photos were taken on our property on December 20.

These photos are both of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).
This is autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a nasty weed. Notice the brown scales on the underside of the silvery leaves.

On the left is common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); on the right is tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea).

This is the very invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora).

Happy Anniversary!

To prove that this blog won't just be photos of plants and dead animals, below are a few photos from our 6th weding anniversary getaway weekend in October. We had a wonderful time in and around Lake Mills, Wisconsin.

October in Nashville

I was in Nashville, Tennessee in October 2008 for the Natural Areas Association annual conference. Nashville is located in what is known as the Central Basin of Tennessee. While this natural region is now at a lower elevation than the surrounding Highland Rim, before being eroded it was at a higher elevation in the form of a dome. Caves and sinkholes are very common throughout the area.

We first visited a limestone barren. I expected something similar to the dolomite glades of Missouri, but this community was very different. I now understand why these areas are sometimes called "pavement."

One of the plants I was hoping to see on the limestone barrens was the Federally Endangered leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa). I've seen this prairie clover on dolomite prairies near Chicago, so I wanted to compare the habitat and associate species. Unfortunately, our guides had not located any leafy prairie clover this year in the places it had been seen in past years. They thought it might have been due to weather conditions. When they showed us the place it had been seen in past years, I was surprised at how shrubby it was. I'm wondering if this rarity hasn't been shaded out at the site we visited.

While we didn't find leafy prairie clover, we did see Gattinger's prairie clover (Dalea gattingeri) (but it wasn't flowering). While this species is not Federally or State listed, it is restricted to the limestone barrens of the southeastern US.

Also on the limestone barrens, Theo Witsell and I came across the small skullcap (Scutellaria parvula).... not rare, but often overlooked because of its size.

After the limestone barrens, we visited a couple of cedar glades. As seen in the photo below, the cedar glades have the obvious presence of more grasses and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It's hard to believe, but these communities have apparently not been fire-maintained.

One of the plants we saw in the cedar glades was narrowleaf gumweed (Grindelia lanceolata). The genus is named for the Latvian botanist David Hieronymus Grindel. This isn't an uncommon plant, but it was one I'd never seen. I'm surprised to see that it's known from Wisconsin, as it seems to have more of a southern distribution overall. It would be interesting to compare the few remaining cedar glades in Wisconsin to those in the southeastern US.

Along a roadside near a cedar glade we saw the State Threatened tansy rosinweed (Silphium pinnatifidum, or S. terebinthinaceum v. pinnatifidum). I'd only read about this gem in the past. It grows in cedar glades in scattered counties within Tennessee (and in a band from Wisconsin to Georgia).

If you've actually read this far, you're in luck. The next two species that we saw in the cedar glades are rare in Tennessee, and one of the two is endangered in the US.

Tennessee milk vetch (Astragalus tennesseensis) is listed as Special Concern in Tennessee, but it's only known from a handful of counties in the state on cedar glades and limestone barrens. Unfortunately, it flowers in the spring, so we were only able to find the remains of some fruit.

Lastly, Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis, Federally Endangered); the first species from Tennessee ever to be designated as Federally Endangered. This species is only known from three counties within one watershed in the Central Basin of Tennessee, even though plenty of appropriate habitat is present in other watersheds nearby. Where it is present, it is abundant. At the first cedar glade, we only found it in fruit.

Rain had started to fall pretty steadily by the time we arrived at the next cedar glade. I decided I would leave my camera in the bus, as I assumed we wouldn't find anything else exciting in flower. After a 1/2 mile walk, we arrived in an opening full of Tennessee purple coneflower, and several were still in flower. I took a few photos with my cell phone, but decided it was worth a jog back to the bus in the rain to get my camera. Well worth the exercise...

Composite Poetry

In September 2008, Karen Quinlan and I led a workhop on Composites for Shirley Heinze Land Trust. Composites are plants in the family Asteraceae, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. They are called composites because they typically have two different types of flowers (ray flowers and disk flowers) making up a single flower head. Think daisies, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, mums... these are all typical composites. That round disk in the middle of the flower head... that's a group of disk flowers. Look more closely the next time you see one of these, and you'll see the tiny flowers with petals fused into a tube. The appendages you pulled off as a kid, saying "she (he) loves me, she (he) loves me not," those aren't petals. They're each ray flowers. You can often see three to five strap-like petals fused together to form the flower. Pretty neat, huh?

As part of our workshop, we put together a slideshow of plants in the Asteraceae, and as we showed a slide we read a few sentences of poetry. Below are some of my favorite poems/quotes.

One dark and stormy night in 1994 I was awakened from a deep sleep by a loud thump. Creeping carefully down the stairs, I discovered to my astonishment that a large bouquet of Aster on the dining table had disappeared! In its place was a cornucopia of composites, including Symphyotrichum, Ionactis, Eurybia, Sericocarpus, Doellingeria, Ampelaster, and Oclemena! Once again, a plant taxonomist had struck in dark of night, taken a simple two-syllable genus with the same English common name, and replaced it with a handful of four- and five-syllable Latin tongue-twisters. Whatever can we do about such things?
-Alan Weakly, The Curious Case of the Disappearing Asters

When on the breath of Autumn's breeze,
From pastures day and brown,
Goes floating, like an idle thought,
The fair, white thistle-down;
O, then what joy to walk at will,
Upon the golden harvest-hill!
- Mary Howitt, Corn-Fields

All summer she scattered the daisy leaves;
They only mocked her as they fell.
She said: "The daisy but deceives;
'He loves me not,' 'he loves me will,'
One story no two daisies tell."
Ah foolish heart, which waits and grieves
Under the daisy's mocking spell.
- Helen Hunt Jackson (Helen Hunt), The Sign of the Daisy

Flowers construct the most charming geometries: circles like the sun,
ovals, cones, curlicues and a variety of triangular eccentricities, which
when viewed with the eye of a magnifying glass seem a Lilliputian
frieze of psychedelic silhouettes.
- Duane Michals, The Vanishing Act

Little girls, and boys come out to play
Bring your dandelions to blow away
Dandelion don't tell no lies
Dandelion will make you wise
Tell me if she laughs or cries
Blow away dandelion, blow away dandelion
-The Rolling Stones, Dandelion

One by one the prairie species come,
Fill every niche of time and light.
Their names spill into poems on the tongue,
Liatris, aster, needlegrass. We watch
The wash of Renoir's colors through
The bluestem grass, the herons sweeping
Home. In evening light the junipers
Could almost be bison, gently grazing.
-Robin Chapman, Prairie Restoration

Look at this vigorous plant that lifts its head from the meadow,
See how its leaves are turned to the north, as true as the magnet;
This is the compass-flower, that the finger of God has planted
Here in the houseless wild, to direct the traveller's journey.
Over the sea-like, pathless, limitless waste of the desert,
Such in the soul of man is faith.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

I am half dead with Aster. I got on very fairly until I got to the thick of the genus, around what I call the Dumosi and Salicifolia. Here I work and work, but make no headway at all. I can't tell what are species and how to define any of them ..... I was never so boggled ..... If you hear of my breaking down utterly, and being sent to an asylum, you may lay it to Aster, which is a slow and fatal poison."
- Asa Gray, late in his life

Upon a showery night and still,
Without a sound of warning,
A trooper band surprised the hill,
And held it in the morning.
We were not waked by bugle notes,
No cheer our dreams invaded,
And yet at dawn, their yellow coats
On the green slopes paraded.
- Helen Gray Cone, The Dandelions

Hydrastis canadensis

On July 22, 2008, I was working in Will County, Illinois when I came across several colonies of fruiting goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). This plant is very difficult to miss when it has mature fruit, as the fruit looks a bit like a bright red juicy raspberry sitting in the middle of a large maple-like leaf. As you may know, this plant has been used in a variety of ways throughout history, including medicinally (antibacterial, antispasmodic, diuretic, laxitive, sedative, and tonic, among others), as a yellow dye, and as an insect repellent. Unfortunately, overcultivation from the wild has made it uncommon in some parts of the country. The photo on the right was taken on April 26, 2006 in Columbus, Ohio, and shows the many stamens characteristic of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).

24 January 2009

Rare Mammals

Lindsay and I have lived here in North Liberty since Spring 2007. From the time we moved in, we have kept a yard list for birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, mammals, etc. To date, our bird yard list is 99 species; most of those have been seen on our property, but some have been seen or heard from our property but actually occurred across the street.

Most of the mammals we've seen on our property are the common ones... White-tailed Deer, Eastern Cottontail, Muskrat, Raccoon, Eastern Fox Squirrel, Red Squirrel, Oppossum. However, on September 14, 2007, we were surprised to find a dead Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) in our driveway (with keys for scale). The smallest of the carnivores, these stunning little mammals probably aren't as cute if you're a Meadow Vole. When it catches up to its victim, the Least Weasel will pounce on it, wrap its legs around its prey, and kill it with a swift bite to the base of the skull. And they're fast... they can run up to 6 mph! Because Indiana is at the south edge of their range, Least Weasels are on the Indiana protected species list as Special Concern. Hopefully this wasn't the only one on our property.

Then, on July 13, 2008, I found a second State Special Concern mammal on our property. This time, it was a dead Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata), found in our corn crib. These unique-looking mammals most often prefer moist soils, but also will live in dry meadows. Those strange tentacles on the nose serve a couple of purposes. Along with keeping soil from entering their noses while burrowing, the tentacles also are constantly moving and touching their surroundings during normal foraging activities. Star-nosed Moles feed mostly on earthworms and aquatic insects. Indiana is along the western range of this species, causing it to be considered a species of concern in the state.