27 June 2010


In May 2009, I botanized at a private property in Jasper County, Indiana. The property owners were so excited to know what was on their property that this spring, they gave me a bluebird box that they had made in exchange for spending time on their property. Because the early spring was so busy for Lindsay and me, I didn't get a chance to get the box up right away. In mid-May, we noticed a male and female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) hanging out around our house, often on our platform feeder and the window sills in front of our house. It really seemed as though they were looking for a place to call home, so I decided to mount the bluebird box that was given to me on the side of a large Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) in our front yard.

Almost immediately, the Eastern Bluebirds started checking out the box...

... and soon, they were collecting nesting material and loading it into the box.

It was pretty exciting to see the male patrolling the box while the female was inside building the nest (be sure to see the female's head sticking out of the box in the photograph below). I thought for sure that soon enough, baby bluebirds would be buzzing about our yard.

Unfortunately something happened, and I haven't seen the pair of Eastern Bluebirds in front of our house since late May or early June. I couldn't figure out what would have caused the bluebirds to abandon their house, so I decided to check it out. I opened the box, and there was a nest, but no sign of eggs or feathers in the nest. I then took a closer look at the box. If you look at the bottom right corner of the side of the box, you'll see a dark spot.

Upon closer inpsection, that spot was actually a hole... a hole that didn't exist when I mounted the box on the tree in mid-May. There was, however, a dark spot on the box at this location that might have been a weak spot in the wood.

The only thing that I can think of is that a woodpecker began pecking at this weaker spot, scaring off the bluebirds. I'm not sure if this happens commonly, or if maybe there is another explanation for what happened, but unfortunately, our bluebirds have abandoned their nesting box this year. Hopefully they will come back and nest in this box next spring.

22 June 2010

Grassland Birding at Kankakee Sands

This past weekend, I went on a field trip with South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society to Kankakee Sands (and briefly Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area) in Newton County, Indiana. Kankakee Sands is a nearly 8000-acre restoration area where prairie (ranging from dry to wet) is the target plant community. Many of the grasslands where we were birding are still quite weedy botanically, but the birds didn't know the difference.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), shown below, and Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) seemed to be the most common birds, singing incessantly while we were birding.

Our bird list for the morning:
Northern Bobwhite (heard only)
Great Blue Heron (while driving)
Turkey Vulture (while driving)
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane (while driving)
Ring-billed Gull (while driving)
Mourning Dove
Red-headed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
Bell's Vireo (heard only)
Blue Jay
American Crow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Field Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow's Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Blue Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
American Goldfinch

15 June 2010

Happy Nature Photography Day!

June 15, 2010 is Nature Photography Day, so here are a few nature photos I've taken recently...

Bog, Belden Swamp, Douglas County, Wisconsin

Bog, Belden Swamp, Douglas County, Wisconsin

Black Spruce - Tamarack Muskeg, Erickson Creek Forest and Wetlands, Douglas County, Wisconsin

Black Spruce - Tamarack Muskeg, Erickson Creek Forest and Wetlands, Douglas County, Wisconsin

Waterfall, Pattison State Park, Douglas County, Wisconsin

13 June 2010

Bog Buckbean

I was in Superior, Wisconsin last week for work, and once our fieldwork was completed, Tony Troche and I spent a morning checking out several Douglas County preserves. We thoroughly enjoyed botanizing the bogs, muskegs, and boreal forests of the northwoods. One of the highlights for me was finally getting to see Bog Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) in flower. I had seen this species vegetatively a few times, and I knew that the flowers were quite extravagant, but I was blown away when I saw them in person.

Bog Buckbean, which used to be treated as a member of the family Gentianaceae, is now placed in the family Menyanthaceae. It is circumboreal in distribution and known from much of North America, with the exception of the southcentral and southeastern United States. However, it is considered vulnerable to critically imperiled (S1 to S3) in 16 states and extirpated from Delaware. This attractive plant with legume-like leaves and beautifully bearded petals grows primarily in bogs and poor fens, but it can also be found in acidic marshes and pond margins.

I hope to have time to post some of my other photos from Douglas County, Wisconsin, both here and at Get Your Botany On!, at some point in the future.

12 June 2010

Roesel's Katydid, And Why The World Needs More Scientists

In February 2009, Lindsay and I attended the Wild Things conference in Chicago. One of the presentations that we attended was given by Carl Strang of Mayslake Forest Preserve and Nature Inquiries. Carl discussed the singing insects, a group of species to which Lindsay and I were nearly oblivious. Carl's talk opened our eyes and ears, and we've been watching and listening for singing insects since.

Fast forward to 12 June 2010. I had just finished mowing our trails and was taking Bootypants for her daily walk when I heard a singing insect on our property for the first time this year. The song was a soft electric buzz that lasted for 10 to 15 seconds or more, sometimes broken into a series of shorter calls, sometimes continuous. I thought it sounded a bit like a meadow katydid, but I thought it seemed a bit early for them to be calling. I couldn't resist getting a look at the insect that was singing. Shortly after my search began, I saw what looked like a short-horned grasshopper, but then I noticed that this was in fact the insect that was rubbing his wings together to make the electrical buzzing sound I was hearing. Then I noticed the long antennae... clearly not a short-horned grasshopper.

I came inside the house to look through my references and to check online to determine the identity of this Orthopteran. My references quickly pointed to the group known as shieldback katydids (named for the shieldlike plate covering the thorax). I clearly recalled seeing a yellow to yellowish-green crescent behind the head at the base of the lateral portions of the shield, and after comparing the songs that I had heard to the sonagrams of shieldback katydids, I realized that I was seeing a Roesel's Katydid (Metrioptera roeselii).

This was a new insect species to our yard list, but more importantly, the range maps in my references did not include Indiana! Roesel's Katydids are native to Europe and were accidentally introduced in Montreal in the 1950s. Since that time, they have spread into the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, with a supposedly isolated population in northeastern Illinois. I then did an online search for records of the species in Indiana. The results were shocking... the only records I was able to find for Indiana were recorded by none other than Carl Strang just under one year ago.

All of this leads me to my rant on why the world needs more scientists. How long has this non-native shieldback katydid been in northern Indiana? How extensive is its true distribution? How has it been overlooked? Is there anyone studying the distributions of singing insects, particularly rare or introduced species? As Carl states in his post, he looked for this species at three locations in three different northern Indiana counties, and he found it in all three; St. Joseph County represents a fourth northern Indiana county. I would have to believe that the ease with which Carl found this species, and the fact that it is fairly abundant at his locations and on our property, suggests that this species is much more well distributed than anyone knows. If a singing insect, one that can be located and identified not just by site but also by sound, can go unnoticed as it spreads rampantly across the country, what about the unseen species that make no sound?

When I looked back at my notes from the Wild Things conference at which I first heard Carl Strang speak on the singing insects, I also reviewed my notes on the keynote address given by Doug Ladd to open the conference. Doug's first point on what we need to do to keep our natural areas natural was that we need to understand how little we know about our natural environment. Doug also pointed out how important it is to know the threats to our biological systems (which include non-native species), including both current and future threats. In discussing Roesel's Katydid in a paper entitled The Beautiful Katydids, Piotr Naskrecki states:

This aggressive, predaceous species came from Central Europe, probably sometime at the beginning of the last century, and has been spreading like wildfire along the East Coast and steadily moving west. Although nobody has yet looked at the actual impact of this species on local katydids, the fact that it hatches and matures earlier in the season than local species do - and then feeds on nymphs of other species - is bound to have serious implications for the native fauna.

If there aren't people out there looking at the spread of invasive species such as the Roesel's Katydid, it is possible that we could lose our native species before we even realize what is happening.

Just A Pup

We have a large barn on our property that is home to what seems to be a healthy population of bats. Several people/groups rent space from us through the winter and into the spring to store their campers and trailers. We let the bats stay for free. Recently, one of our renters picked up their trailer, which had been stored for nearly a year with a tarp over it. When the tarp was removed, it was covered in guano, as expected. To our surprise, however, there was also an immature bat (known as a pup), most likely a Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), on the tarp.

To give an idea of scale, in the photographs above and below, I am wearing a standard leather work glove. Big Brown Bats are common and widespread in North America, as they are known from southern Canada through the United States, with the exception of south Florida and southcentral Texas. Big Brown Bats often overwinter in buildings, though some will migrate and overwinter in caves. During the summer, they roost in buildings or hollow trees. An impressive fact about the species is that they can fly up to 40 mph.

Bats are very beneficial, as they feed on insects including wasps, ants, and beetles, some of which are serious crop pests. No need to worry about this little one. Pups often fall from the roosting location; those that can climb are often retrieved by their mothers. I took this bat back into the barn and climbed a short distance up a ladder before putting the bat near a vertical beam. It immediately began climbing up towards the rafters.

Special thanks to my coworker Jeremy Sheets for providing his opinion that this likely is a Big Brown Bat.

06 June 2010

Lindsay's First Half Marathon

Lindsay and her dad participated in the Sunburst half-marathon this morning. This was Lindsay's first ever race of this distance, and she did a great job. In the photo below, she is with her dad in the middle of the photo (Lindsay in red tank top with black shorts, her dad in white tank top with black shorts). They are about half way home in this photo.

Below is a photo of Lindsay just shy of the 11-mile mark, as she realizes she's reached the hill that everyone has been talking about.

After about two hours of running (2:15:18, to be exact), she made it to the finish line!

Great job, Lindsay! I'm proud of you!

05 June 2010

A Herd of Marsh Wrens

This past week, I was at the Lake Station Mitigation Bank in northwest Indiana. This large wetland created by restoring wetland hydrology through removal of subsurface drainage tiles harbors what must be one of the largest, if not the largest, Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) populations in the state.

The Marsh Wren photograph above is from the Lake County Forest Preserves' Species Database. These secretive but brave and territorial birds are endangered in Indiana. They require emergent marsh habitat; at the Lake Station Mitigation Bank, Hybrid Cattail (Typha x glauca) has become abundant in places, and Marsh Wrens have certainly benefited. Below is a video from the Lake Station Mitigation Bank in which you can hear the bubbly songs of several Marsh Wrens (in addition to the conk-la-ree songs of Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoenicius). The song of the Marsh Wren is described as sounding like a gurgling warble followed by a dry, rattling trill. Unfortunately, the songs in my video don't sound exactly like they did when I was in the field, but this video at least gives an idea of how much they were singing at this site.

Although cattail is generally considered undesirable at mitigation wetlands, it seems there has been a positive correlation between increasing cattail populations and an increasing Marsh Wren population at this site. This introduces the management question of which is more important - a state-listed bird species or a diverse plant community. Prior to development and habitat fragmentation, this likely was not an issue, but now, it seems increasingly likely that we are going to have to make this difficult decision.