24 December 2010

A Real Snowbird

Here in northern Indiana, some of our birds are summer residents, others pass through during migration, and yet others are here only during the coldest time of the year. I like to refer to the latter group as "snowbirds." One of our more abundant snowbirds, pictured below, is just over six inches long and can be identified by its gray face, rusty cap and eyeline, dark "stickpin" on the chest, and distinct white wingbars. This is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), a real harbinger of winter in these parts.

One could only expect that a bird referred to as a "tree sparrow" would nest and/or forage in forested areas. You may be surprised, then, to learn that American Tree Sparrows nest on the ground, forage on the ground, and breed at an elevation above which trees are even able to grow. How, then, did this species get its name? As the story goes, early North American settlers were reminded of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) when they initially saw our "tree" sparrows, and thus dubbed them American Tree Sparrows without understanding the behavior and habits of the species.

It's no secret that American Tree Sparrows like it cold. They breed and spend the summer only in the extreme northern parts of North America, where the temperature never gets above 50 degrees Farenheit. While in the harsh environment of the arctic tundra, American Tree Sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects; in the winter, however, their diet is comprised of seeds, especially those of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).

This winter, be sure to listen for the beautiful, high-pitched, tinkling "tweedle-eet, tweedle-eet" coming from old-field habitats, and watch for the characteristic ground-scratching underneath your feeders, and you are sure to see one of our hardiest winter residents, the American Tree Sparrow.

17 December 2010

Oh Christmas Tree...

Every year (well at least for the last 11 years we've been together) it has been tradition that Scott and I venture out into the cold in pursuit of the perfect Christmas tree. We love the look and smell of real trees and also enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

We skim through each and every row checking the tree for the perfect height, making sure there are no bare spots, seeing if it has sturdy branches, and don't forget it has to have a nice top in order to place the star.

Scott is obviously still working on perfecting his tree selecting skills. Although his choice does have some "Charlie Brown" Christmas value, there is no way it could fully display the 31 years of ornaments I have acquired. It has always been O'Connor tradition that you get a Christmas ornament each year (many years I have received more than 1). I have oranaments that include everything from Baby's First Christmas, the Campbell's Soup Collection, Valpo University collectors from my years in college, Grandma and Aunt Ruth's homemade specials, to the Irish Santa that takes center stage.

Ahhh, that one is more like it.
(I'm referring to the tree, not the view.)

Complete with lights, ornaments, and the star.

A very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year from our home to yours!

10 December 2010

Mimicking Moths

We have definitely moved into the slow time of the year. It is dark when I drive to work in the morning, and once I get home from work I barely have time to get Bootypants through our trails before they are too dark to see. As a result, I have only taken photos on three days in November and three days in December. Because of this, I was clicking through photos from earlier in the year and came across this one that I thought was worthy of a post...

These are sphinx moths in the genus Hemaris. The best that this botanist can tell, these are Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis). I took this photograph in Lake County, Indiana on August 7, 2010. Snowberry Clearwing Moths, which are found throughout almost all of North America, are said to mimic bumblebees, and it is pretty easy to see why someone unfamiliar with these lepidopterans might get confused.

In looking through my old photos, I found the two below of moths in the genus Hemaris.

I feel pretty good about calling the moth in the photograph above another Snowberry Clearwing Moth. This individual seems to fit the description well, with black legs and a very clean margin between the thicker black portion and the clear portion of the forewings. I took this photograph back in May of 2005 in St. Joseph County, Indana.

Here is another old photograph, taken in July of 2006 in St. Joseph County, Indiana. From the descriptions I have seen, I would call this a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe). This species has lighter-colored legs and a thicker, more ragged-edged reddish-brown forewing margin. As the name implies, Hummingbird Clearwing Moths are often mistaken for hummingbirds, as they hover over flowers while probing for nectar. They are found in North America but seem to be absent from the southwestern part of the continent.

03 December 2010

A Serious Swoop of Sandhill Cranes

It's never easy to get up early on a Saturday morning (and by early I mean at 4:30 AM), but when there is good reason, I am all for it. Last weekend, Brian Miller, Lynn Vernon, and I joined Kip Miller and several other members of the Berrien Birding Club on a trip that started out with us meeting at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area at 7:15 AM. Our purpose? To see a swoop of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), of course!

We certainly weren't the only lunatics with the idea of braving one of the first really cold mornings of the season. Birdwatchers, photographers, and nature lovers alike flock to J-P annually to witness this event, and sometimes I can't help but wonder if the cranes are there to watch the people.

Just like every other November, the Sandhill Cranes did not disappoint. Each fall (and to a lesser extent in the spring), thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes flock to the area surrounding Jasper-Pulaski during their migration from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern Indiana nesting grounds to their warmer wintering grounds in southern Georgia and Florida. During their stopover, they spend their days feeding mostly on grains and insects in agricultural fields, and their nights roosting in marshes, but the real spectacle is to see them congregate and socialize in Goose Pasture. When we were at J-P, their numbers totaled approximately 13,000. As of November 30, 2010, just two days later, almost 17,000 Sandhill Cranes were tallied. The highest number of Sandhill Cranes ever seen at J-P was in 1991, when 32,000 individuals were estimated.

Lindsay and I have visited J-P several times over the past ten years to see this event, but this trip was different. All of the other times we had made the hour drive to see the cranes, we had done so in the evening, just before sunset. Kip organized this trip for the opportunity to see the enormous, hungry flocks leaving for a day's worth of feeding.

It was definitely worth getting up early, making the long drive, and standing out in the cold!

As the cranes lifted off, their gutteral, rolling, trumpeting chorus blocked out nearly all other sound. As they made clumsy landing approaches with necks, wings, and legs extended, they reminded me of parachutist dropping to the ground.

It is difficult to get an idea of scale in these photographs, but if you've never seen a Sandhill Crane before, these are big birds. They stand approximately four feet tall and have a wingspan of six to seven feet.

As many times as I have been to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, I never tire of going back to see the cranes. If you are within a couple of hours of northwest Indiana and you have never been to J-P to see the Sandhill Cranes during migration, I recommend that you make the trip.

25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope that all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving spent with friends and family, and that your stomachs aren't still as stuffed as mine.

I am thankful for many things this year. One of those things is being lucky enough to get a photo like the one below of Greater Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) with my cheap work camera. This photo was taken in September at Miller Woods in Lake County, Indiana.

For more information on Greater Fringed Gentian and some of the species that are similar in appearance, visit my post from September 2009 on Get Your Botany On!.

19 November 2010

Sky-white Aster

Sky-white Aster? Say what? Maybe you've heard of Sky-blue Aster (Aster azureus, or Aster oolentangiensis, or Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, depending on who you listen to), but how about Sky-white Aster?

Okay, so I made up the common name, but it seemed silly to call a plant with nothing blue about it Sky-blue Aster. This is the form of Sky-blue Aster with white ray flowers, known as Aster azureus forma albidus (azureus, of course, means "bright blue"; albidus means "white"). This year must have been a good year for white-flowered forms of composites (Asteraceae); earlier in the year, I posted on Get Your Botany On! about two normally pinkish-purple-flowered species of Liatris with white-flowers. Just to prove that this is in fact Sky-blue Aster, I've included a photo below of the characteristic heart-shaped, rough-textured lower leaves from the plant.

A photograph showing the typical color of the ray flowers of Sky-blue Aster is shown below. Sky-blue Aster is a plant of open to semi-open areas with sandy, loamy, or rocky soils, where it is found in prairies, glades, barrens, savannas, alvars, and open woodlands. It is known from a good part of the eastern half of North America, to as far west as South Dakota and Texas, but is absent from the northeast and the Appalachian region.

11 November 2010

Only The Coolest Sedge In The World

You could say I'm a bit of a sedgeaholic. I've seen a lot of sedges in my time. I've gone out of my way to see certain sedges on more than one occasion, in fact. I've even pushed the limits of Lindsay's patience by staying out too late looking at sedges. It's a disease, I tell you... a downward spiral.

There is an amazing amount of morphological diversity in this graminoid family (Cyperaceae), and particularly in the multi-sectioned genus Carex, which has been divided into approximately 2000 species worldwide and almost 500 species in North America. Until this summer, Waterfall's Sedge (Carex latebracteata), a Ouachita endemic with inflated bracts that conceal the spikes, was my hands-down favorite. Others high on my list include: Golden Sedge (Carex aurea), a crowd-pleaser with tiny, orange, pumpkin-like perigynia; Ravenfoot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi), a spiky-inflorescenced gem with long-beaked perigynia that look like little golf tees; Northern Long Sedge (Carex folliculata), a charmer with inflated, gradually tapering perigynia in unique-looking spikelets; False Hop Sedge (Carex lupuliformis), an elusive yet distinct character with diamond-shaped achenes that have quite knobby angles; Painted Sedge (Carex picta), a gorgeous dioecious species with showy scales that make it a strong candidate for native landscaping; and Little Green Sedge (Carex viridula), one of the only sedges with a common name nearly as adorable as the inflorescence itself.

However, upon seeing the graceful beaut pictured above and below in Douglas County, Wisconsin this August, I could only fall to my knees and gaze appreciatively at the long awned chocolate-brown scales that much exceed the suborbicular perigynia, assembled into a pistillate spikelet somewhat reminiscent of a rattlesnake rattle. This is Boreal Bog Sedge (Carex magellanica ssp. irrigua, formerly known as Carex paupercula).

Boreal Bog Sedge, a member of Carex section Limosae, is often found with Sphagnum moss in bogs, fens, and marshes of Greenland, Canada, New England, the northern tier of Great Lakes States, a few western states, and Eurasia. The specific epithet magellanica is a reference to the Strait of Magellan, a narrow strip of water near the southern tip of South America. So how did this northern species come to be named for a southern hemisphere passageway? Carex magellanica is a bipolar disjunct species, meaning that it is found at both extremes of the globe - the northern polar regions and the southern polar regions - but not in between. Plants in the cool temperate areas of South America are known as Carex magellanica ssp. magellanica. This unique global distribution, in combination with the elegance of its inflorescence, clearly makes Carex magellanica the coolest sedge in the world.

05 November 2010

Zoo Birds II

In March 2009, I posted about some of the interesting birds that Lindsay encountered on a spring trip to the St. Louis Zoo. Last weekend, Lindsay and I were back in St. Louis, visiting Jenny, Frank, and Allison, and we visited the zoo for Boo at the Zoo. After all of the tricks and treats, we walked through some of the exhibits, including a couple of bird exhibits. Below are some of the birds we encountered.

One of the exhibits, located in the 1904 World's Fair Flight Cage, features birds of North American cypress swamps. This was one of the most interesting displays that I have ever seen at a zoo... both the plants and the birds are native to the cypress swamps along the Mississippi River. Usually, zoos seem to feature mostly animals native to far away, exotic places; to see an exhibit highlighting the diversity found just next door was refreshing. The bird above is a Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), a common species that can often be found eating insects off of the backs of cows in pastures within its range.

Another bird we saw in the cypress swamp exhibit was Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), pictured above. This was certainly the best look we've ever had at this cute duck species. One feature that really stands out on this 15" long duck is the long, paddle-like tail that often can be seen sticking straight up when a Ruddy is on the water. Ruddy Ducks are known as divers, and when they are under water searching for food, they use this broad tail as a rudder to propel them towards prey.

"Oh, look... a flamingo!" If I could get just a dollar for each time I've heard this misidentification blurted from the mouths of awestruck observers who have no idea that there could be another species of pink bird, I would be able to blog about long, exotic trips instead of vacations to a zoo! One look at the spoon-shaped bill of this bird (you may need to click on the photo to see this better) tells you that it is not a flamingo at all, but is in fact a spoonbill... a Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), to be exact. You can see in the photo above that the nostrils are all the way at the base of the bill. This is very important, as Roseate Spoonbills feed primarily by "head-swinging" (sticking their partially open bills nearly all the way into the water and swinging them back-and-forth in arcs to create currents that bring insects, mollusks, crustaceans, etc. into feeding range). When the spoonbill feels the vibrations of its prey nearby, it closes its bill and scoops up a meal. With nostrils so far back on the bill, Roseate Spoonbills can breath while their bills are almost completely under water.

The bird above was difficult to photograph, even though we knew a covey of them was within 15 feet of us. This is a Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Bobwhites are often heard (they produce a whistling "bob-white" song that rises in pitch through the second syllable; but don't be fooled by a mimicking European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)), but rarely seen. They are often quite well hidden amongst grasses and brushy vegetation.

Although it is much more exhilarating to find these species flying and foraging free in nature, having an exhibit to show the unknowing public some of the beauty and diversity that is within just a couple of hundred of miles is a good idea that can really open the eyes of potentially budding naturalists. I wish more zoos had local exhibits similar to this.

04 November 2010

Shhhh... It's a Secret

On our recent trip to Osage Beach, Missouri, Scott informed me that we needed to go past "The Secret of the Indian". A picture of the Indian is posted below. Can you identify his secret????

21 October 2010

Endangered No More

On 6-7 October 2010, I was in central Indiana (Hamilton County) helping one of my coworkers monitor a mitigation wetland. As recently as just a couple of years ago, the mitigation site was in agricultural production, as it had been for decades. The plant species present were not very exciting... Ambrosia trifida, Aster ontarionis, Aster pilosus, Aster simplex, Bidens comosa, Bidens frondosa, Carex vulpinoidea, Cornus drummondii, Cyperus strigosus, Echinochloa crusgalli, Eleocharis obtusa, Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. lanceolata, Juncus dudleyi, Lycopus americanus, Penthorum sedoides, Populus deltoides, Rumex crispus, Scirpus cyperinus, Setaria faberi, Sida spinosa, etc., until I found the sedge pictured below.

This is Short-pointed Flat Sedge (Cyperus acuminatus). Up until this May, when the Indiana Department of Natural Resources - Division of Nature Preserves published a revised list of endangered, threatened, and rare plants, Short-pointed Flat Sedge was considered endangered in Indiana; its status has now been downlisted to watch list, meaning that enough occurrences of the species have been found in the state to remove it from the endangered, threatened, and rare lists. I knew this species the second I saw it, in part because I had seen it at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area earlier in the year, but also in part because I had been asked to verify identifications of this species by two other JFNew monitoring biologists, both of whom found the species in mitigation wetlands (wetlands created or restored in areas that were previously upland) this year. One of our biologists found this species at a site in southern Indiana, where it seems to be becoming more and more common, but another of our biologists found it at a mitigation site in Lake County, all the way in the northwest corner of the state. The latter was quite a find, as the only previous record of this species from the northern 1/2 of the state was from Porter County in 1888 (Rothrock 2009). In addition, Rothrock (2009) notes that Short-pointed Flat Sedge is probably extirpated from Michigan and that it is likely limited to southern Indiana.

So why has this species been increasing in Indiana? Could it have just been overlooked for so many years? It is an inconspicuous plant, but this probably isn't the only reason. As Rothrock (2009) notes, its habitat is "wet, often sandy, disturbed soil, especially on pond margins." Short-pointed Flat Sedge is an annual, a pioneer species, a colonizer. Its ecological niche is to provide early cover after soil has been disturbed. It doesn't seem to persist as other plants move in and compete for resources. Disturbed, early successional communities like this are not heavily botanized, so maybe it has been overlooked for this reason. Or maybe there is just more habitat for it now because there is more soil disturbance and conversion of agricultural fields to "natural" communities. It is also interesting to note that Short-pointed Flat Sedge is shown from more than 3/4 of the United States on the USDA/NRCS Plants page, but clicking on the states to see county distributions, there are only a couple of states that show this species as present in half of their counties (USDA, NRCS 2010). Although its range is widespread, its distribution appears to be scattered. I can't help but to wonder if it is increasing outside of Indiana as well.

Rothrock, P.E. 2009. Sedges of Indiana and the Adjacent States: The Non-Carex Species. Indianapolis: Indiana Academy of Science.

USDA, NRCS. 2010. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov/, 22 October 2010). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

15 October 2010

Hocus Pocus

For the past several years, Lindsay and I would join Brian Miller of South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society for a fall camping trip to Indiana Dunes on the first weekend of October. This year, Brian wanted to try something different. Instead of a camping trip, the three of us joined Pat Underwood and the Berrien Birding Club on 2 October 2010 for a field trip to Chicago to, among a few other places, a birding hotspot known as the Magic Hedge. More formally, this location is known as Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.

After getting out of our vehicles, our view of a stormy Lake Michigan with the metropolis of Chicago as a backdrop didn't seem like such a great place to spend a blustery October morning looking for birds, but the Magic Hedge never fails to produce. A short walk from this location yielded the Magic Hedge itself, which consists mostly of non-native honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) shrubs planted decades ago to block the view of the army barracks that previously were present. The Magic Hedge is named both for these shrubs and the fact that an abnormally high number of migrant birds find shelter here each year during migration. Although warblers and sparrows usually provide the most excitement, our highlight bird at the Magic Hedge was initially seen with a flock of gulls flying over land. As our highlight bird emerged from the flock, I noticed that it was dark in color, had narrower wings than the gulls with which it had been flying, and its wings were sharply bent at the "elbow." My first thought was Black Tern (Chlidonius niger), but I quickly realized that the bird had an extension on the tail characteristic of jaegers. Our bird turned out to be a Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus), a seabird rare in the Chicago Region that is normally seen far out over Lake Michigan! With a Parasitic Jaeger and a plethora of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Dendroica coronata), Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), and other passerines, I was so busy looking at birds that I failed to take a single photo of "the hedge" itself!

Another part of Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary consists of the beach community pictured above. Normally this is a good place to find LeConte's Sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii), Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis), and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), but on this windy Chicago day any bird that we saw was blown out of view almost as quickly as it arrived.

Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) don't normally grab my attention, but I couldn't resist a couple of photos of this one walking into the wind on a breakwall.

Our next stop was at Wooded Island, aka Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary at Jackson Park. Our target was Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus), an escaped species that has become established at a few locations in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. We were able to find a nest and we saw one of the characteristic neon green feathers on an opening in the nest, but no birds were seen.

This was certainly the strangest thing we saw all day. The best we could tell, this Raccoon (Procyon lotor) had climbed 25-30 feet into this tree, into the hollowed out portion of the trunk, and couldn't get out. We were pretty sure that it was no longer alive.

Lindsay couldn't resist a couple of shots of this statuesque Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias).

At Wooded Island, we saw our first-of-season Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) having a snack in an ornamental pine tree (Pinus sp.) in the Osaka Japanese Garden.

We saw this odd couple from a distance. You can get a better look by clicking on the photo. On the left is arguably the cutest of all of the ducks, a Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis); on the right is a snake bird, a Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

The Parasitic Jaeger was the highlight of the day, but a close second was the insect shown above. For as long as I have known of their existence, I have wanted to see a mantidfly. Lindsay and I were behind the group birding when we noticed many in our group beginning to congregate. Wanting to know the cause of the commotion, we caught up to the group and saw the insect that had landed on a member of our field trip. As others were trying to figure out what kind of insect would have the forelegs of a mantis and the body of a fly, I blurted out "mantidfly!" This mantidfly is Dicromantispa sayi. Thanks to Ted MacRae of Beetles in the Bush for verifying my identification.

The final stop on our Saturday excursion was at the Migrant Trap, aka Hammond Lakefront Park and Bird Sanctuary in Hammond, Indiana. Like its counterpart the Magic Hedge in Chicago, the Migrant Trap is a small wooded area within highly urbanized surroundings that is a haven for migrating birds that are exhausted from their flight across Lake Michigan on their trip south for the winter. Also like the Magic Hedge proper, there aren't many botanical wonders at the Migrant Trap, but the birds don't care.

We didn't spend much time at the Migrant Trap, and most of the birds were hunkered down to stay out of the relentless winds. This Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) was out in the open but blended in quite well with the River Birch (Betula nigra) on which it was "creeping."

For the day, our group tallied 49 species:
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Ruddy Duck - one at Wooded Island
  • Cooper's Hawk - at the Magic Hedge; more than we've ever seen in one place, unless the same bird flew by us 10+ times
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Peregrine Falcon - one in Illinois (at the Magic Hedge) and one in Indiana (at the Migrant Trap)
  • American Coot
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Parasitic Jaeger - (!) one at the Magic Hedge
  • Rock Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • Chimney Swift
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - several at the Migrant Trap
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • American Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch - our first of the season
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Winter Wren - at the Migrant Trap; we didn't see it, but the group did
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet - lots
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet - lots
  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Nashville Warbler - at the Migrant Trap
  • Cape May Warbler - one of the first birds seen by our group at the Magic Hedge, but Lindsay and I missed it
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler - everywhere, couldn't miss 'em
  • Black-throated Green Warbler - at the Migrant Trap
  • Pine Warbler - one at Wooded Island
  • Palm Warbler - here and there
  • Blackpoll Warbler - one at the Magic Hedge, with characteristic yellow feet
  • Northern Waterthrush - one at the Magic Hedge
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Song Sparrow
  • Lincoln's Sparrow - at the Migrant Trap; the group saw it, but Lindsay and I missed it
  • White-throated Sparrow - I love their songs, which are filling the air right now
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco - many; our first of the season
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow
Hocus pocus! A magical day, indeed!

07 October 2010

"Barking Dog"

Translated to Latin, "barking dog" is Canis latrans... we call the mammal represented by this name a Coyote.

At the time of European settlement in North America, Coyotes were restricted to the prairie region of the continent west of the Mississippi River. As a result of clearing forests for agriculture and corridors for roads, as well as the removal of the dominant predators Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and Red Wolf (Canis rufus), the range of the Coyote began to expand. By the early 1900s, Coyotes were found throughout much of the western two-thirds of North America. By 1990, Coyotes had expanded their range from coast to coast.

The photo above was taken last weekend from our car at the intersection near Gary Avenue, Cline Avenue, and I-90 in Gary, Indiana. As stated above, Coyotes are benefitting from the geographical expansion of the human population, and are now showing up in the strangest of places (such as this one that was found in a Chicago sub shop). However, researchers have shown that Coyotes are becoming more nocturnal as a result of pressure from humans.

27 September 2010

A Fen-tastic Saturday Morning, Part III

In my previous two posts, I discussed the plant communities and some of the plants present in three of northeastern Indiana's highest quality fens. While botanizing these preserves, Nate Simons and I noticed a few common butterflies and moths that certainly deserve a place on this blog.

In the photograph above, a Monarch (Danaus plexippus) is feeding on nectar from Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus). Monarchs are protected by chemicals they obtain as caterpillars that are toxic and taste bad to potential predators. These heart toxins come from milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), and are often many times stronger in the Monarch caterpillar than they are in a milkweed plant.

While most people are familiar with the phenomenon of bird migration, relatively few are aware that millions of Monarchs depart on similar journeys each fall and spring. Many of our butterfly species overwinter as adults, caterpillars, or pupae; however, our winters are just too cold for Monarchs, so they annually travel south (some up to 3000 miles!) at the end of our warm season. Monarchs who have summer homes in eastern North America all travel to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, whereas those in western North America make their way to California. To stay warm during their migration and during the winter, congregations of up to tens of thousands of Monarchs cluster together on a single tree. I hope to someday visit the Sierra Madre Mountains in February to see this amazing sight. As seen on the Journey North webpage, this year's Monarch migration is already underway!

The most amazing part about this migration phenomenon is that the butterflies that migrate this year are several generations removed from those that migrated last year. Once Monarchs return back to North America in the spring, they lay eggs in March and April and then die soon after. Those eggs eventually develop into caterpillars, then into adults that lay eggs and then die. The next generation hatches in May or June, and the next generation after that is born in July or August. Finally, after all of these adults have lived their short lives, another generation is born in September or October. It is this generation that migrates, hibernates, mates, then migrates back to North America to lay eggs and die. One of the great mysteries of our natural world is how the migrating generation of Monarchs knows where to go each fall, as it was their great-great-grandparents, who died several months earlier, that last made the long journey to Mexico or California.

After reviewing the fritillaries in several of my resources, I came to the conclusion that the butterfly above is an Aphrodite Fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite). On another of my photos, the silver spots on the hindwing undersides of this butterfly are conspicuous. Aphrodite Fritillaries have only a single brood each year, with adults typically present from June to September. Eggs are laid in the late summer and caterpillars hatch in the late summer or early fall. The caterpillars then overwinter and begin feeding on violets (Viola spp.) the following spring.

Question marks and commas aren't just forms of punctuation, you know. In fact, they are both species of butterflies. The butterflies going by these names are also quite similar in appearance. When looking at the upper surface, the two species can be distinguished by looking for an extra dark spot on the forewing present in Question Marks (Polygonia interrogationis) but not in Eastern Commas (Polygonia comma). This extra spot is the horizontal rectangle near the top and outside edge of the forewing on the Question Mark shown above.

Another way to tell a Question Mark from an Eastern Comma is to look at the underside of the hindwing, where each species bears the tiny silvery punctuation symbol for which it is named. As seen above, this butterfly is therefore a Question Mark; an Eastern Comma would lack the dot underneath the comma on the underside of the hindwing. Another way to tell the two similar species apart is that Question Marks have longer hindwing tails than do Eastern Commas.

In addition to feeding on nectar from flowers, Question Marks also feed on tree sap, decaying fruit, animal droppings, and carrion. They often overwinter as adults.

The first three species highlighted in this post are butterflies, but the caterpillar above is that of a moth. Specifically, this grayish-green larva is the caterpillar of the Hitched Arches Moth (Melanchra adjuncta), feeding on leaves of Ohio Goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis, or Oligoneuron ohioense). Thanks to Ben Hess of Ben and Joy, who let me know that Janet Creamer of Indy Parks Nature Blog and Midwest Native Plants, Gardens, and Wildlife had identified this caterpillar for him just a few weeks ago. And thanks, Janet!

That wraps up my account of my visit to some of the fens of northeastern Indiana this September. As you can see, these unique communities are home to a nice variety of unique plants and animals, but my reports barely scratch the surface.

22 September 2010

A Fen-tastic Saturday Morning, Part II

As promised in my previous post, this entry will focus on some of the plants that Nate Simons and I saw while touring some of the fen preserves in northeastern Indiana last weekend.

One of the characteristic (and often dominant) plant species found in northeastern Indiana fens is Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda, previously known as Potentilla fruticosa), pictured above. This low-growing shrub in the Rose Family (Rosaceae) has a North American range that includes much of the northern and western half of the continent. Nate referred to this plant as the "McDonald's Plant," as it is often found in the landscaping of fast food chains. A calciphile, Shrubby Cinquefoil is often used in wetland rapid assessments as an indicator of a fen community.

Another species found in nearly every Indiana fen in which I've ever set foot is the inconspicuous but intricate Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), shown above. With a distribution restricted to northeastern North America, this unique member of the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae) or Parnassia Family (Parnassiaceae) has flowering stalks up to two feet tall topped by a single flowers; foliage consists of a single egg-shaped leaf clasping the lower stem, as well as a basal rosette of small, stalked, egg-shaped leaves.

I am not normally one to get overexcited about our charismatic macroflora, but the plant pictured above definitely gets a free pass in my book. This is Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis procera, which is now apparently treated by some as Gentianopsis virgata ssp. virgata). Lesser Fringed Gentian or the similar Greater Fringed Gentian (G. crinita) are found in nearly all northern Indiana fens, but the two members of the Gentian Family (Gentianaceae) are very rarely found growing on the same site. Few plants can match the beauty of Lesser Fringed Gentian.

Quite showy in its own right but often ignored because of its similarity to sister species, Crowned Beggarticks (Bidens coronata, also known as B. trichosperma, shown above) is a plant of wet areas including marshes and fens of eastern North America. This member of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae) can look most similar to Tickseed Sunflower (B. polylepis) and Bearded Beggarticks (B. aristosa), as all of these have leaves with 3-7 (or more) linear to lanceolate lobes and large, showy, yellow ray flowers. Crowned Beggarticks often has leaf lobes that are more linear with fewer teeth, and its fruit are narrower and longer in relation to their width than those of Tickseed Sunflower and Bearded Beggarticks.

Kalm's Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii, above) is a common and often abundant plant of Indiana fens, but with flowers that measure up to only 1/2 inch long, it often goes unnoticed (especially when not in flower). Found throughout the northern half of North America, this member of the Bellflower Family (Campanulaceae) or Lobelia Family (Lobeliaceae) grows in bogs, wet meadows, and along streams in addition to in fens and other calcareous situations.

If you are ever in a fen or a bog and you see the shrub pictured above, your best bet is to keep your distance. This is Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), a species found regularly in northern Indiana fens and bogs. The common name and genus (meaning "poison tree") both refer to the rash that results from making contact with the urushiol present in all parts of the plant. Found primarily in the eastern third of North America, this member of the Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae) possesses stunning fall foliage in colors ranging from yellow to orange to red to purple; the drooping white berry-like fruit add to the aesthetic value of what I think is one of the most attractive of our native shrubs.

As mentioned in my previous post, fens in northeastern Indiana are often dominated by grasses and sedges. Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta) and prairie grasses such as Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are the most conspicuous and well-known of these graminoids, but one of the matrix species found in nearly every fen is the grass shown above, Marsh Wild Timothy (Muhlenbergia glomerata). Marsh Wild Timothy is found in the northern half of North America in a range of plant communities including bogs, fens, hot springs, marshes, and wet meadows.

It seems that anytime I see Greater Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) or Lesser Fringed Gentian (G. procera), I also see Nodding Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) nearby, and these northeastern Indiana fens were no exception. Nodding Lady's Tresses (above) is in the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae), and is found throughout much of the eastern half of North America in open plant communities ranging in wetness from wet to dry. In northern Indiana, this is one of our most common orchids.

Standing taller than many of its companion species in northeastern Indiana fens, Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum, above) is a more attractive and better behaved version of the non-native thistles that threaten many of our natural areas. With a similar geographical range to the previous species, this member of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae) grows in bogs, fens, wet prairies, marshes, and open wet woods.

During our outing, we saw two species of Juncus, both of which possess seeds with (relatively) long white tail-like appendages. The more common species that we encountered was Smallhead Rush (Juncus brachycephalus, not pictured), but we also saw Canadian Rush (Juncus canadensis), shown above. Some people would look at the photograph above and think that it was a grass or a sedge, but like other members of the Rush Family (Juncaceae) and unlike grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae), Canadian Rush has flowers that are radially symmetric with three sepals and three petals, looking much like a tiny version of a classic flower. In Canadian Rush, the flowers are clustered into round or nearly round heads. This species is found throughout the eastern half of North America, as well as in a few locations in the Pacific Northwest, in a variety of wet areas including those with high acidity, alkalinity, or salinity.

One reason that fens are so interesting to me is that you can go back to the same location at various times throughout the year and see a different suite of species blooming during each trip. In later summer and early fall, goldenrods (Solidago) provide much of the color. The following three species of goldenrod were found in all of the fens we visited.

Ohio Goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis, or Oligoneuron ohioense for those who choose to split Solidago) is one of the most common fen species of goldenrod. Restricted to states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes, this member of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae) grows mostly in calcareous wet soils. This and the next species both possess flat-topped inflorescences.

A goldenrod similar in appearance to Ohio Goldenrod and found growing with it in northern Indiana fens is Riddell's Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii, or Oligoneuron riddellii), shown above. Riddell's Goldenrod has a slightly greater geographical distribution, extending west across the Mississippi River. Riddell's Goldenrod has leaves that are folded in half lengthwise and often pointed at the tip, whereas the leaves of Ohio Goldenrod are flat and often blunt at the tip.

A third goldenrod species that we saw in all three northeastern Indiana fens is Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa). Unlike the previous two species, the inflorescence of Bog Goldenrod is not flat-topped. This species (treated in the broad sense) is found throughout much of the eastern half of North America in bogs, fens, marshes, and wet woods.

I hope that this brief account of northeastern Indiana fens in the late summer/early fall gives you a good idea of why fens are so special and amongst my favorite places. My next post, in about a week, will conclude my recap of Nasby Fen, Sawmill Fen, and Lime Lake Fen, and will touch on some of the butterflies we noticed while botanizing.