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.

19 September 2010

A Fen-tastic Saturday Morning, Part I

This past Saturday morning, I had the opportunity to visit three of northeastern Indiana's best fen preserves with Nate Simons of Blue Heron Ministries and Indiana Department of Natural Resources - Division of Nature Preserves. In this and my next two posts on this blog, I will focus on the plant communities and some of the plants and butterflies we saw during our five or so hours of botanizing these highly diverse and interesting sites.

A fen is a unique wetland type that receives much of its water via groundwater flow. Fens are often mineral-rich systems, but mineral-poor fens also exist. Another unique wetland community that occurs in northeastern Indiana is bog; bogs differ from fens in that they are located in historic glacial lakes and therefore are not connected to groundwater flow, receiving nearly all of their mineral-poor water from precipitation. In northeastern Indiana, fens are often located at the base of glacial moraines. Groundwater coming from the sandy or gravelly moraine picks up calcium and other minerals and often surfaces as a seep or spring, then begins to flow downslope through the soil towards a river or lake (as in the photograph above, taken at the point where Nasby Fen is adjacent to the Pigeon River). A hardpan layer (often marl) beneath the ground surface keeps the water close to the surface as it continues to follow the gradient. This results in a surface soil layer (often muck) that is nearly always saturated with calcium-rich water. This groundwater often surfaces at other points in the fen, known as marl flats, where the marl layer is at the surface.

Above is another photograph of Nasby Fen, the larget fen in the Pigeon River system (and maybe in the state). In this photograph, you can see the diverse structure and composition of a typical northern Indiana fen. These fens consist of a mix of species common in other plant communities that are not expected to be seen growing together. Plant species typical of tallgrass prairies, such as Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are often found associating with plant species typical of sedge meadows and marshes, such as Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta), Shining Aster (Aster firmus), and Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus). In addition to these plants, fen indicator species that thrive in calcareous conditions make this seemingly hybrid plant community a distinct entity. Some of these species include Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda), Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), and Sticky Tofieldia (Tofieldia glutinosa).

In the photographs above and below of Sawmill Fen, you can see more of the species richness and diversity that helps to define these nutrient rich systems. Fens and sedge meadows often can be found at the same site, and it is sometimes difficult to determine where the fen ends and where the sedge meadow begins, as many of the plant species found in fens are also found in sedge meadows. Fens in northeastern Indiana are usually graminoid-dominated systems, but in the absence of disturbance (such as fire) and with a lack of soil moisture, shrubs including dogwoods (Cornus spp.) and willows (Salix spp.) increase in abundance, leading to a decrease in grasses, sedges, rushes, and forbs.

Extensive restoration in the form of shrub removal and prescribed fire has taken place to maintain the high level of biodiversity present in these graminoid fens. This biodiversity includes more than just the plants. For example, the rare Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) is at home in fens, making use of the adjacent glacial moraine uplands later in the season.

As you can tell, the photograph above is not a fen; instead, this is one of the gravelly glacial moraines adjacent to the third preserve we visited, Lime Lake Fen. The plant community on this moraine consists of an oak-hickory woodland, with approximately 100 trees per acre. Nate told me that before restoration began in this woodland, you couldn't see five feet in front of you as a result of the dense undergrowth of the non-native shrub Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). These shrubs and some native species including Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) were removed, and native species characteristic of woodlands were seeded to restore this important but often overlooked and underappreciated habitat. Burning has also been utilized to maintain the open understory characteristic of an oak woodland. Several species from the oak woodlands present historically at this location are now reoccurring at the site, coming back either from the seed bank or from propagules that had been suppressed by the dense woody understory for many years.

The photographs above and below show Lime Lake Fen, which, as the name implies, is adjacent to one of the several lakes known as Lime Lake in northern Indiana. You can see a distinct difference in the plant communties in the two photogaphs. The photograph above was taken near the base of the glacial moraine, where groundwater is flowing through mucky soil towards Lime Lake. The photograph below, on the other hand, was taken in a marl flat on the perimeter of Lime Lake. If you click on the photograph above to expand it, you can see 18-wheelers in the distance; amazingly, this beautiful site is adjacent to the Indiana Toll Road! Unfortunately, the nutrient input from the toll road has led to an abundance of the invasive Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia) and Hybrid Cattail (Typha x glauca) closest to the highway.

From my commentary and these photographs, I hope that you can see why fens are amongst my favorite plant communities. My next post will take you from these landscape views into the dense vegetation, highlighting some of the colorful flowering species that we saw while botanizing these preserves.

14 September 2010

Garden "Pests"

I had hoped to be able to post about the St. Joseph County Parks - Spicer Lake BioBlitz that took place this past Saturday, but because the rain never let up from the time we began until about 6 PM, I never even took my camera out of its case.

Instead, here are a couple of "pests" that I found in our garden when picking vegetables this past Friday. Personally, I enjoy having these "pests" around, and considering how tired Lindsay is of trying to come up with new ways to prepare and preserve tomatoes and peppers, she is probably pretty happy to have them as well.

This is the caterpillar of a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly, feeding on the leaves of our carrot (Daucus carota) plants. Black Swallowtails not only thrive in areas of agriculture, but they are even said to be declining in the northeastern United States, where former agricultural areas are being converted to forests. In addition to carrots, Black Swallowtail larvae can be found feeding on other members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), as well as members of the citrus family (Rutaceae).

I have only ever seen these caterpillars with this coloration of lime green with black bands, each with six yellow spots, but apparently the green coloration can be replaced by white on some specimens.

Another "pest" that I found was munching on our jalapeno pepper (Capsicum sp.) plants. This is the larval stage of the Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta) moth, also known as a Tobacco Hornworm. This is one enormous caterpillar, reaching a length of 9 cm! As the common name implies, Tobacco Hornworms are often found devastating tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) crops, but just as commonly they are found on tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicon), peppers (Capsicum spp.), and other members of the nighshade family (Solanaceae). Because of their attraction to tomato plants, they are often referred to as Tomato Hornworms, but this common name is said to refer to a different species, the caterpillar of the Five-spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca quinquemaculata).

Before I found this caterpillar, which in spite of its size blends in very well, I noticed that the fence around our garden had been broken in one spot, coincidentally near our pepper plants. Considering that Tobacco Hornworms are voracious eaters, I can't help but wonder now if it didn't eat through our fence to get to the peppers!

03 September 2010

Gotta Love A Good Parking Lot Weed

There are not many places that I can go where I can't find a way to quench my botanical thirst. Let me take that back... I don't think there is anywhere I can go that I can't find something green of interest. Just ask Lindsay... we could be walking through downtown Chicago, and you will find me scouring the sidewalk cracks and decorative planters for naturally occurring weeds of interest. You never know what you might find.

Take, for example, the parking lot at the Best Western Bay Walk Inn in Superior, Wisconsin. The photograph above, taken in this parking lot, shows most of our sampling crew for the job we did in Superior a couple of weeks ago, learning about Phragmites australis ssp. americanus from Tony Troche. If you click on the link to the hotel above, you will see another shot of this parking lot. Seems like a pretty unassuming place, on all accounts. However, if you were at the location from which the photograph on Best Western's web page was captured during the summer, you would see this growing along the edge of the parking lot...

This is Alkali Buttercup (Ranunculus cymbalaria), also known as Seaside Crowfoot. "So what?"... you say? Although widespread throughout western North America and considered native in parts of Eurasia and South America, Alkali Buttercup is a species of concern in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. That's right, I said Wisconsin, where it is listed as Threatened.

In Wisconsin, Alkali Buttercup is known from wet areas along Lake Michigan, as well as from salted roadsides and parking lots in and near Superior (on the other side of the state). It spreads by stolons, often forming large colonies where it occurs, as is the case in the Best Western parking lot.

Alkali Buttercup was used in a variety of ways by Native American tribes, including as a ceremonial medicine and as a way to induce vomiting.

This is just another example of a tiny-flowered weed that goes completely unnoticed to 99% of the people that walk by it, and in this case, it is a state-listed plant. I can't imagine how many people have been in that parking lot without even the slightest idea that they were in the presence of a plant considered rare in the state. Sure, most don't care, but I'd be willing to bet there are even botanists, ecologists, and native plant enthusiasts who have walked right past this population in a hurried effort to get from their vehicle to their room. That's why my assessment of a field botanist's skills has nothing to do with their ability to identify the showy, charismatic macroflora, but instead has everything to do with their familiarity with the weeds.