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.