29 July 2009

An Unexpected Detour

Lindsay and I are still working on labeling our photos from our recent trip to Colorado. It certainly is quite a task! In the meantime, here's a quick post just to keep you interested...

On July 15, after driving from Broomfield to Avon, Colorado the day before, we left our lodge early in the morning in anticipation of a long day of arduous hiking at Missouri Lakes in Holy Cross Wilderness. Our morning started off on the wrong track, literally, as we turned the wrong way on I-70 from Avon and had to turn around. Oh well... we had an early start, so we were still in good shape for the expected 8 hour hike from montane forest through subalpine and into the alpine before heading back down. After turning off of Highway 24, we had another 30 minutes or so of driving up gravel roads to the Missouri Lakes trail head. Approximately 3/4 of a mile from the trail head, Eric noticed the smell of maple syrup, and then he saw steam coming from under the hood of his car. When we opened the hood, there was antifreeze spewing everywhere.

Not being much of "car people," we weren't sure what to do. We were stranded on a mountain with no cell phone service. The good news was that it was 8 AM, so we had all day to figure out what to do, and there are much worse places to be stranded...

So we waited. A few hikers driving up the mountain drove by and asked if they could help, but none of them were "car people" either. Then two guys driving down the mountain, who had been hiking and camping at Missouri Lakes for several days, stopped and offered to help. They were heading towards Leadville, 45 minutes away, and offered to drive us to town. Eric didn't want to leave his car there unattended, so he offered to go to Leadville, leaving Lindsay and me at the car. Once Eric left, Lindsay and I had at least an hour and a half to burn, so I ventured off botanizing. It was then and there that I first saw Colorado's State Flower, Colorado Blue Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea). We saw quite a bit of this conspicuous, showy plant during our trip, but I wouldn't have found this individual had we not broken down.

When it is at peak bloom, the sepals (the blue parts) are more spreading than they are in this photo

About 30 minutes later, two guys driving up the mountain stopped to ask if we needed help. I told them, "Not unless you're mechanics," and explained that Eric had headed to town and intended to have a tow truck pick up the car. They drove to the front of our vehicle, got out, and, to our astonishment, said, "Actually, we are mechanics." What are the chances? Both guys just happened to work for Beaver Creek Ski Resort near Vail, repairing vehicles and equipment! Within 45 minutes, they had determined that there was a split in the radiator bipass hose, had taken off the hose and taped the split with electrical tape, and had put the hose back on. Amazing. And they would accept no form of compensation... they said they just didn't want to leave anyone stranded. We are forever grateful.

Lindsay and I started driving back down the mountain towards Highway 24, stopping to look for birds and to check the hose periodically. Along our drive, we saw the only Western Scrub Jay of our trip. The electrical tape seemed to be holding up, but we didn't know where Eric was, and we didn't want to start driving to Leadville and have him pass us on his way back to Missouri Lakes. We stopped at Highway 24 so I could try to call Eric. I still didn't really have cell phone reception, so I started to walk up Highway 24. There was one spot along the road where I had mediocre reception; if I went any higher up the incline, I lost reception; any lower, I lost reception. I called Eric, and during our broken phone call, heard him say "nothing is working out... Lisa is coming to pick us up... if you can, get to Leadville." We decided to head to Leadville.

About 25 minutes later, Lindsay was able to call Eric, and we found out where to meet him. Upon meeting up with Eric, we found out that it would have cost ~$600 to tow the car to Leadville. We were able to take the car to a local shop, where it was fixed for $64 in an hour while we ate lunch. We were back on the road by around 1 PM, and instead of going back to Missouri Lakes, went to Independence Pass where we saw an amazing subalpine/alpine community that we had not intended to visit. I'll post photos from Independence Pass at some point. We were still able to go to Missouri Lakes the following day, so we really only lost half a day due to our detour.

22 July 2009

My Newest Favorite Place

Last week, Lindsay and I visited friends in the Centennial State. We had never been to Colorado, and after our visit, we vowed to go back to visit once a year. What beautiful country! Unfortunately, I can't post my best plant photos, because I have to hold onto those for Botany Slideshow 2009. But here are a few photos from our journey.

Here I am botanizing with Eric at Jewel Mountain, a xeric tallgrass community near Boulder. Mountains can make any photograph more attractive, don't you think?

We spent a little time at a place called Hanging Lake, where the water was so clear that you could easily see identifying characteristics of fish without taking them out of the water.

We also explored several alpine communities. The alpine has to be one of my favorite plant communities, where the plants only get a few inches tall because of the resilient winds and colder climate. You wouldn't know it from the photograph above, but this golf course-looking vegetation growing almost on exposed rock is actually a dense mat full of native wildflower diversity.

The subalpine meadows, like the one shown above at Missouri Lakes near Leadville, Colorado, are breath-taking (literally) as well.

Thanks to Eric, Lisa, and Julia for giving us a place to stay and showing us around for the week. We can't wait to get back.

More to come as we continue to label and go through our ~800 photos.

12 July 2009

Expanding My Horizons

I am a botanist, first and foremost. That's why last weekend, when I saw what you see in the photograph below, my first thought was, "cool... Asclepias hirtella!". Tall Green Milkweed, as it is commonly known, is primarily a plant of prairies and glades throughout the middle of North America.

Luckily, about the time Tony Troche and I found this plant, renowned Chicagoland entomologist and biologist Ron Panzer just happened to be walking by. While Ron also saw the Tall Green Milkweed, he had the careful eye to also note the presence of several Acadian Hairstreaks (Satyrium acadica). I would have known that this was a hairstreak, given the small size, grayish color, and small hairs on the hind wing, but that's where my identification would have stopped.

This small (up to 1.25") butterfly species is found in a narrow band from New England to the east side of the Rocky Mountains, most often near willows (Salix spp.) in wetlands. In fact, caterpillars of this species feed exclusively on willows. Adults feed on nectar from various plant species, including Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), thistles (Cirsium spp.), and milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), and fly from June to early July. While their numbers are considered globally secure, this is considered by many to be a rare butterfly.

I am constantly trying to expand my understanding and appreciation of our natural world. Thanks to great naturalists like Ron, who are passionate and eager to teach others, I can continue to expand my horizons.

Worth the Drive

After the heavy rains passed through on the morning of July 11, 2009, Tony Troche and I set out for a fine day of botanizing. I used almost an entire tank of gas throughout the day, as one of our destinations was a prairie on the south side of Chicago from where the Federally Threatened Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) is known. I don't do much botanizing in Chicago because of the distance from home, and usually the traffic is horrible. But on this day, the trip was definitely worth the drive.

Unfortunately, while the plants were still in flower, they were just a bit past their prime. While Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid can be over 3 feet tall, it can still be somewhat difficult to spot, especially when it is growing with so many other white-flowering species, including Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Annual Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), and White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba v. macrophylla). The plants that we saw were in less dense, lower growing prairie vegetation than was present in other parts of the prairie.

While its geographical range is centered in the Great Lakes states and provinces, Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid is also known from North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Maine. It is very rare throughout most of its range. A single plant can live up to 30 years, which is a long time for members of this genus.

Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid can be found in bogs and dry to wet prairies. It can also withstand some degradation, to the point that it has been found on roadsides and in ditches.

Only four species, all hawk moths, are known to pollinate Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid. This important fact emphasizes the point that our natural world is a delicate chain of intertwined organisms, and that if any link of this chain is removed, the entire system is threatened.

09 July 2009

Purple Loosestrife Biocontrol Update

About a month ago, I blogged about using Galerucella spp. beetles to control Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). At that time, Galerucella beetles had just recently emerged, and we saw eggs, larvae, and a few adult beetles, but not much damage to the newly emerged leaves. I visited the same site a few days ago, and the damage to Purple Loosestrife was a much different story.

In the photograph above, you can see what looks somewhat like an herbicided plant. That's Purple Loosestrife after the beetles have done their job. This plant surely won't be producing any seed this year.

The photograph above is a close-up of the damage to Purple Loosestrife leaves.

In the photos above and below, you can see numerous Galerucella beetles covering Purple Loosestrife plants. I counted nine beetles in the photograph below!

There were several comments to my previous post on this topic. We don't know for sure what will happen long-term as a result of the introduction of these beetles. They may feed on our native Winged Loosestrife (Lythrum alatum) and cause similar results to that species. I had suggested that Hybrid Cattail (Typha x glauca) often becomes dominant in areas where Galerucella have been released; I have to correct myself. At these sites, Hybrid Cattail is in fact becoming the dominant in some areas, but native species including Blue Joint Grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), Water Sedge (Carex aquatilis), Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and Dotted Smartweed (Polygonum punctatum) are becoming dominant in other areas.

A Dragon and Two Damsels

Until recently, I didn't have many photos of damselflies and dragonflies. Maybe it's just the fact that I've been in good habitat, but it really seems like these insects have been much more photogenic lately. Here are a few of the species I've seen in the past week.

While in the field in northwest Indiana along the Little Calumet River on July 9, 2009, I heard the familiar sound of a dragonfly drying its wings in preparation for flight. I turned around, expecting to see a very common species like a 12-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella), Common Whitetail (Libellula lydia), Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), or Common Green Darner (Anax junius). But when I found the insect, it was obviously none of those. Instead, it was what I believe to be a Cyrano Darner (Nasiaeschna pentacantha). According to the books that I have, this species is uncommon in Ohio and common in Indiana, but not known from the northwest Indiana counties near the lake, where I observed it.

A bit later, a damselfly landed on my pants. For the most part, you can distinguish a dragonfly from a damselfly by the orientation of their wings when they are resting. A dragonfly rests with its wings held perpendicular to the body, while a damselfly rests with its wings above and together. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including spreadwing damselflies and a few others, that rest with their wings out, but spread apart. Another difference between dragonflies and damselflies is that the hindwings of dragonflies are wider than the forewings, but in damselflies, the hindwings and forewings are similar in shape. Damselflies seem much more difficult to identify than dragonflies. Carl Strang of Nature Inquiries has identified the damselfly below as potentially a brown-form female Blue-fronted Dancer (Argia apicalis). See the comments below for Carl's justification of this identification.

Then, on July 11, 2009 in a wet prairie at Round Lake Nature Preserve in Starke County, Indiana, a spreadwing damselfly landed on a nearby stem and posed for me. You can see that, at rest, this damselfly has its wings spread apart, but the hindwings and forewings are of similar shape. I believe that this is a male Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis). A good field character for this species, which I think I see in my photo, is the pale edge of the wingtips. Slender Spreadwings are common and widespread in Ohio, but from what I can find are only known from 13 counties in Indiana. Most of those counties are in the northeastern part of the state, and it does not appear that the species was previously known from Starke County.

Please feel free to correct me if any of these identifications are incorrect.

Poor Man's Weather-glass

The other day while walking our trails, I saw one of my favorite little weeds (have I already called a plant one of my favorite weeds on this blog?). Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) is in the Primrose Family (Primulaceae) and has been introduced to most states and provinces in North America from Eurasia. I have never seen this plant act aggressively.

The genus name Anagallis comes from the Greek words for "to delight in again," which is a reference to the plant closing its flowers as inclement weather approaches and opening them again once clouds have passed. This is also where the common names Poor Man's Weather-glass and Poor Man's Barometer originate. There is apparently a blue-flowered subspecies (Anagallis arvensis ssp. foemina) that is common in some parts of the geographical range, but I have never seen it. Scarlet Pimpernel can be found along roadsides, in gardens, in waste areas, and in pastures.

05 July 2009

It's a Fourth of July Miracle!

Independence Day is Lindsay's favorite holiday. It's summer, there are cookouts, bonfires, and fireworks, and it is a holiday that requires little effort (no gifts, large meals, etc.). Yesterday was a memorable 4th of July, for sure. Prior to heading into North Liberty for the best burger in town at the Wabash and the parade of fire engines, tractors, and people on goofy bicycles, I took Bootypants for a walk on our trails (as either Lindsay or I do every day). We certainly didn't purchase our property for its floristic quality, as the land, which was formerly a hog farm, is severly degraded and covered mostly by tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and non-native pasture grasses such as Hungarian Brome (Bromus inermis), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), Tall Fescue (Festuca elatior), Timothy (Phleum pratense), and Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis). Sure, there are a couple of more average quality native plants, like Swamp Agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora) and Spring Avens (Geum vernum), but it's a weedy property. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when, while walking the trails, I saw this...

Yeah, mostly weeds: Hungarian Brome, Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Tall Fescue, Field Hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum), Kentucky Blue Grass, Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), and Tall Goldenrod can all be seen in the photo above. But look at the plant in the middle of the photo.

I was completely shocked. Astounded. Baffled. I think my response, when I saw the plant, was, "Holy crap, Habenaria lacera!" I called Lindsay, who was in the house, from my cell phone, first to make sure I was really awake, and second to have her join me on the trail with a camera and notebook. I had found a single plant of Ragged Fringed Orchid, Platanthera lacera (=Habenaria lacera) among a bunch of weeds in our upland old field. Plants of the Chicago Region (Swink and Wilhelm, 1994) lists acid bog, peaty sand prairie, mesic prairie, and artificially disturbed moist peaty areas as habitat for this species. Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Case, 1987) adds sandy wet meadow and roadside ditch to the list of known habitats for Ragged Fringed Orchid. Orchids of Indiana (Homoya, 1993) includes calcareous fen, acid seep spring, dry field, mesic flatwoods, and mesic upland forest to the list of known habitats for the species. Of this long list of habitats, Homoya's dry field comes closest to what we have on our property. However, he later states that Ragged Fringed Orchid is found most frequently in moist, sunny, mildly acidic habitats, which are more common in some of the northern Indiana natural regions, but that in southern Indiana it can be found in old fields dominated by Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). This seems different from the silty clay, weedy field in which the plant grows on our property.

All of this leads me to question my plans for our property. When we purchased the land, we assumed that the area was historically mesic upland forest, and the historical survey notes agree. I had fully intended to plant trees throughout the property to restore this pre-settlement plant community. After finding this species, which is most commonly found in prairie-like communities, I wonder if there were historically patches of prairie on our property, and if instead if I should manage for a mosaic of prairie and mesic forest instead of a uniform mesic upland forest.

It is interesting to note that the Ragged Fringed Orchid on our property is located approximately 1 1/2 feet off of our mowed trail, approximately 4 feet from a deer path, and approximately 10 feet from several large Autumn Olive shrubs. Ragged Fringed Orchid is a species that can show up one year and not the next, so it is possible that conditions at our property were just right this year for the species to show up, where it hadn't been there the previous two yeas that we've owned the property, and it may never show up again. Ragardless, it made this 4th of July memorable, and has really made me rethink how to "restore" our property. Any insights would be much appreciated.

03 July 2009


In a recent post, I talked about a bird nest on our front porch that used to house Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica), but that this year was commandeered by an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). I had mentioned that I wasn't sure whether this nest was initally created by Barn Swallow or Eastern Phoebes. After that post, I discussed this topic with Kirk Roth at the Loblolly Marsh Bioblitz. Kirk told me that it sounded more like a Barn Swallow nest, as Eastern Phoebes create nests that are supported by a structure underneath them because they don't use as much mud as a Barn Swallow. The mud holds the nest to a vertical structure, allowing it to be created without any supporting structure beneath. Barn Swallows will also create nests supported by a structure underneath, but their nests are still made up of more mud than an Eastern Pheobe nest.

I mention this because my coworker, Robert Wolfe, recently sent me an excellent photograph of a Barn Swallow nest from his barn.

Photograph by Robert Wolfe

In the photograph, you can see six near fledgling Barn Swallows (notice that there is a sixth bird second from the right, with only the beak showing). Females can have up to seven offspring at a time; that's a pretty crowded house! You can see that the nest is identical to the one on our front porch, with the exception that the Eastern Phoebes had added a moss layer inside the nest. There is nothing supporting the weight of this nest except the heavy mud caked to the side of the barn. Rob tells me that the nest is just 7 feet up and in the most heavily used part of the barn. Therefore, these birds are pretty tolerant of human activity close to the nest. In fact, Barn Swallows have thrived around humans and became more abundant as humans spread throughout the world. Humans, in turn, have benefited from these insectivorous birds near dwellings. I remember when I used to mow baseball fields during the summers, and thought that the Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows were swooping at me... instead, they were swooping to feast on insects that I was kicking up with the mower.