30 September 2009

A Rare Find At Houghton Lake

In 2006, The Nature Conservancy of Indiana acquired a fantastic property in Marshall County. The property, known as Houghton Lake, consists of a fen surrounding a lake that has become alkaline as a result of the calcareous groundwater flowing through the surrounding soil and into a basin. I had visited this property in the past, before it was purchased by TNC, and had assisted with compiling a plant species list that boasts over 180 vascular plant species.

Houghton Lake and surrounding fen

The soil in the fen consists of marl, which is a mix of clay and calcium carbonate that is gray in color and often speckled with remnants of shells. Surrounding this marly substrate at a slightly higher elevation is alkaline peat soil. Typical fen species can be found growing in both of these soils, but the fen itself was likely historically found mostly in the mucky soils surrounding the marl. The marl footprint most likely outlines the historical area of Houghton Lake. As the land was drained for agricultural use, the lake level dropped, exposing marl soils that were then colonized by the encroaching fen species.


In addition to the existing 100+ acres of lake and fen, approximately 90 acres of lower quality natural land and 180 acres of agricultural fields surrounding the fen were purchased by TNC. Stuart Orr, North Central Indiana Land Steward for TNC, is tasked with restoring the degraded and agricultural lands to a more natural state. This past Saturday, Stuart held a work day at Houghton Lake to collect seed to be installed in the area now in agicultural production after subsurface drainage tiles have been removed and ditches have been plugged or filled and a more natural hydrologic regime has been restored. The goal is to restore sedge meadow, wet prairie, and even fen in this area where these communities were present prior to being drained for agricultural use. On Saturday, our target species for collection was Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata). This member of the Asteraceae has a dense terminal spike of discoid flower heads (there are no ray flowers). It is most commonly found in wet prairies, mesic prairies, and sedge meadows throughout eastern North America.

Dense Blazing Star in bloom in a Marshall County, Indiana fen, July 2004

Given my busy schedule, I don't get to attend many work days (in fact, I think this was my first TNC work day), but helping out with these is something that I feel strongly that everyone who visits and enjoys our natural areas should make time to do. I am involved with several local conservation organizations who all hold numerous work days of their own throughout the year, and I try to attend at least one or two of these events per year. This isn't much, but every little bit helps. Site stewards have very limited staff and rely heavily on volunteer work to accomplish their enormous management goals, and they should be commended for the grueling work that they do. It isn't fair to them or to our natural areas to simply visit these sites for pure enjoyment without giving a little back. I encourage everyone to assist these conservation organizations with their management objectives as much as possible. This is also a great way to have a chance to see these preserves and learn more about the plants and animals that call them home.

Dense Blazing Star in seed

In the four or so hours that we were at the site, our small group collected what Stuart thought would amount to 5 pounds of Dense Blazing Star seed once the seed was dried and separated from the stems, involucres, and chaff.

Seed collecting

Near the end of the work day, I had some time to take a few photos of plants and insects at the preserve. A species that used to be dominant in the fen but that has been reduced a bit by management burns is Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda). As populations of this low shrub, which is in the family Rosaceae, were thinned by fire, habitat for herbaceous fen species that don't deal well with competition was restored. White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum) in particular has responded well to the prescribed burns. While Shrubby Cinquefoil is a native and desirable fen species, it can suppress the growth of other desirable fen species in the absence of periodic disturbances such as fire or flooding.

Shrubby Cinquefoil

Another characteristic shrubby fen species is Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Along with dogwoods (Cornus spp.) and willows (Salix spp.), this native shrub can often encroach on fens, leading to shrub-carr communities when fire or flooding is removed from the system. In the fall, the drooping white berries contrast sharply with the compound crimson leaves, making this member of the Anacardiaceae far more beautiful than it is ever given credit. For some reason, and I assume that it is the dermititis caused by contact with Poison Sumac, this species is considered a noxious weed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Poison Sumac

Many people pigeonhole Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) as a tallgrass prairie species. While this member of the Poaceae is a dominant component of mesic prairies, Big Bluestem is also a characteristic species of alkaline fens. It can be found throughout most of the eastern two-thirds of North America, growing up to 8 feet tall.

Big Bluestem

Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum) is a member of the Asteraceae that is found throughout the eastern half of North America in wet prairies, fens, bogs, marshes, and swamps. With appressed phyllaries that sometimes have short apical spines, this is a thistle that does not poke you when you attempt to touch the sticky involucre. The specific epithet muticum means blunt and without a point, referring to the shape of the phyllaries.

Swamp Thistle

An easily overlooked composite (Asteraceae) of fens, wet prairies, tallgrass prairies, and streambanks is Purple Rattlesnakeroot (Prenanthes racemosa). Found in southern Canada and the northern half of the United States (except the northwest), Purple Rattlesnakeroot has smooth stems from the base to the middle of the plant (but the stems are pubescent above). The similar Rough Rattlesnakeroot (Prenanthes aspera) is found in drier habitats, has stems that are pubescent throughout, and has cream to yellow-colored ray corollas.

Purple Rattlesnakeroot

In a recent post about another TNC fen property, I included photographs of Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis procera). The similar Greater Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) grows at Houghton Lake in the drier portions of the fen. This member of the Gentianaceae has wider leaves than Lesser Fringed Gentian, and the petals are fringed both along the sides and along the apex. The flowers of Greater Fringed Gentian also seem to be a deeper blue than those of Lesser Fringed Gentian. Greater Fringed Gentian is found mostly in states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes, but it is also known from the northeastern and southeastern United States, North Dakota, Quebec, and Manitoba.

Greater Fringed Gentian

Meadow Spikemoss (Selaginella apoda) and Hidden Spikemoss (Selaginella eclipes) are two very similar species in the Selaginellaceae. Both are easily overlooked in wet areas, as they often are well hidden beneath dense herbaceous vegetation. They also look a lot like mosses in the genus Mnium. Meadow Spikemoss is found in swamps, meadows, marshes, pastures, damp lawns, open woods, and streambanks, in basic to acidic conditions. Hidden Spikemoss is found in moist to wet calcareous areas, swamps, meadows, pastures, and open woods, but rarely on rock. I believe that the plant in the photograph below, taken at Houghton Lake, shows Hidden Spikemoss, which has median leaves with long acuminate tips (versus acute tips in Meadow Spikemoss).

Hidden Spikemoss

The best I can tell, the meadow katydid in the photograph below is a Short-winged Meadow Katydid (Conocephalus brevipennis), a common species of the eastern United States. This species usually has short wings (as the common name suggests) and has a dark brown band that runs from the top of the head down the back. This individual is a female, as evidenced by the long ovipositor.

Short-winged Meadow Katydid

The singing insect below is what I believe to be a Round-tipped Conehead (Neoconocephalus retusus). This species has a shorter, rounder cone than most other members of this genus, and there is a narrow black line across the front of the cone (that can be seen if you click on the photograph to enlarge it). The song of the Round-tipped Conehead is very intriguing, as it consists of a long, raspy buzz that sounds like an electric short.

Round-tipped Conehead

Finally, at the end of the day, we happened upon a very interesting moth hanging out on one of the blazing star inflorescences we had collected. Stuart guessed that maybe it was a Blazing Star Borer Moth (Papaipema beeriana). When I got home and downloaded my photos, I compared this photograph with those in my books and online, and it appeared that Stuart's guess was correct. We've sent several photos to moth and Papaipema experts, and they agree that in fact this is the fairly rare Blazing Star Borer Moth. If you only ever click on one photo on our blog, you have to click on this one and look at the eyes of this moth. Amazing! As the common name suggests, the Blazing Star Borer Moth is dependent upon blazing star for survival of the species. Females deposit eggs in the soil at the base of a blazing star plant in the fall. When the eggs hatch in the spring, the larvae climb to the base of the blazing star plant and bore into the stem to feed. In late summer, the larvae burrow into the soil and pupate prior to metamorphosis into an adult moth.

Blazing Star Borer Moth

So there you have it... if I hadn't attended this work day, I wouldn't have had the chance to see these interesting plants and insects or to learn about this rare moth. This is incentive enough for me to attend more work days.


Beth said...

Love the moth picture! Looks like a brown-eyed girl. :)

I like the Conehead, too. When I see something that looks like that, I think Katydid. I'm assuming they're related?

Scott said...

Thanks Beth. Coneheads are also called conehead katydids. There are several groups of katydids in several genera (true katydids, meadow katydids, coneheads, etc.).

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Love the moth picture, and I did click to make it bigger. How do you find out about the work days? The Angel Swamp tour came to me via e-mail, but there was no similar e-mail regarding Houghton Lake. buckoclown@aol.com

Scott said...

Hi Ken. Most conservation organizations have newsletters that advertise their work days. Others send information via email. I found out about this one in an email, but this was the first time I had heard about a TNC work day via email. There is another work day for seed collection at Houghton Lake on October 17, I believe. You could send an email to Stuart Orr (sorr@TNC.ORG) for more information.