29 July 2011

Harsen's Island Milkweeds

During the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to spend five days botanizing and doing rare plant surveys with several coworkers in the globally and state imperiled to critically imperiled Lakeplain Wet Prairie and Lakeplain Wet-Mesic Prairie communities on Harsen's Island in St. Clair County, Michigan. These communities have developed on glacial lakeplains and have an impermeable clay layer several feet below the sandy surface layer. This results in inundation in the winter and spring and very dry conditions later in the summer. One of the greatest threats to the remaining lakeplain prairies is invasive species... you can see this impending threat in the photograph below, where there is a dense wall of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) in the background, below the tree line.

Two of the plants of conservation concern that we were looking for on this site were milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). We saw numerous milkweeds on our site, including several common species and both of the rare species.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) was one of the common species that we saw. As seen above the blossoms of this milkweed are bubblegum pink... and coincidentally they also smell like bubblegum! With its primary geographic distibution centered in the upper Midwest and New England states, Swamp Milkweed is known from most of the Lower 48, with the exceptions being Mississippi, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. It grows in many different wet plant communities, including wet prairies, emergent marshes, swamp forests, bogs, and along streams and pond margins.

The milkweed above, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), grows in much drier conditions and often in well-drained sandy soils. You can find this handsome orange-flowered species growing in prairies and savannas as well as along roadsides and on glades throughout the eastern half of the United States and adjacent Canada, as well as in the southwestern United States. Unlike the other milkweeds, which have a white, milky latex, Butterfly Milkweed has clear sap.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca, above) was abundant on the site we investigated on Harsen's Island. Although it is an opportunistic native species that grows in heavily degraded areas, Common Milkweed also grows in various prairie types. The corolla of this species can be pink, as in the photograph above, or more cream-colored. Although its North American distribution includes 39 of the states in the contiguous United States, Common Milkweed is most abundantly distributed in the upper Midwest, the Great Lakes states, and New England.

Now for the species of conservation concern...

We saw numerous individuals and populations of Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens). As seen above, the corollas of this State Threatened species are a deeper pink than those of Swamp Milkweed or Common Milkweed, ranging even to reddish or purplish. The center of Purple Milkweed's geographical distribution is Missouri and Illinois, with peripheral populations scattered throughout much of the rest of the eastern United States and Ontario. St. Clair County, Michigan, where Harsen's Island is located, is approaching the northernmost limit of the species' distribution. Purple Milkweed is found in wet prairies, oak savannas, and glades, as well as on woodland borders and in thickets.

We also observed some stunning populations of Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), also known as Prairie Milkweed. With glabrous, ascending leaves that have a striking pink midvein, the large, pink corollas of this State Threatened milkweed don't need to be present to make a correct identification. Of the species of milkweed discussed in this post, Sullivant's Milkweed has the most narrow geographical distribution, being found in the prairie region of the Great Plains and the Midwest, north into Ontario. As the common name suggests, this attractive milkweed is a prairie obligate.

22 July 2011

Unscathed... Mostly

Just as I was getting over the worst case of poison ivy that I've ever had (here's a hint, genius... don't weed whip poison ivy while wearing shorts and flip flops), I joined Scott Holaday and Lee Casebere last Sunday to check out a property near Culver, Indiana. Scott and Lee had visited this private tract in the spring looking for Four-toed Salamanders (Hemidactylium scutatum), and their description of the site, a swampy forest with a lot of ferns, sounded too good to pass up. Had I known ahead of time that there would be as much Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) as there was in this swamp, I still would have wanted to join Scott and Lee, but I'm not sure if Lindsay would have approved of me going.

Shortly after arriving, Lee found a mole salamander (Ambystoma) in the laterale-jeffersonianum complex, a group that is notorious for hybridization and that requires genetic analysis to accurately determine the species. This interesting complex of salamanders includes an all female triploid group that requires sperm from a male salamander from a related species in the same genus to initiate reproduction, but the sperm is often then discarded and no genetic material from the male makes its way into the offspring. This asexual form of reproduction is known as gynogenesis. The best that I can do is to say that this is either a Blue-spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale), a Jefferson's Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), or one of the Ambystoma hybrids.

Our focus quickly shifted kingdoms when Lee exclaimed, "Here's a Purple Fringed Orchid!"

When Scott and Lee first told me about this site, the possibility of finding Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) amongst the Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) and beneath the Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra), and Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) immediately registered. Little did I know, however, that we would find the largest population of this attractive orchid that any of the three of us had ever seen. Had I done my research ahead of time, I might have thought that there would be less of a chance of finding Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid on this site, even though the habitat was perfect, as it was not mentioned in the monumental 1920s work by Evermann and Clark on the physical and biological resources around Lake Maxinkuckee. In addition, none of the distribution maps that I've seen show this species in Marshall County, Indiana. This makes our finding of an estimated 50 to 100 Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid plants an even more exciting find, as well as a potential county record.

In addition to Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid, Cinnamon Fern, Royal Fern, Black Ash, and an abundance of Poison Sumac, some of the more uncommon plants that we discovered in this swamp forest included Slender Sedge (Carex leptalea), Bulblet-bearing Water Hemlock (Cicuta bulbifera), Crested Wood Fern (Dryopteris cristata), Pipes (Equisetum fluviatile), Floating Manna Grass (Glyceria septentrionalis), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Stalked Water Horehound (Lycopus rubellus), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense var. canadense), Chokeberry (Aronia prunifolia), Dwarf Raspberry (Rubus pubescens), Great Water Dock (Rumex orbiculatus), Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago patula), Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and Smooth White Violet (Viola blanda).

After sludging through mucky soils, swatting at bloodthirsty mosquitoes, losing a gallon of sweat, and brushing up against Poison Sumac plants while trying to squeeze between them, I was convinced that the title of this blog post was going to be "Worth The Rash." Luckily, it appears as though I've escaped with only a small spot of the nasty underneath my left eye. To see 50 to 100 Lesser Purple Fringed Orchids, a single spot of poison sumac is definitely acceptable.

10 July 2011

It's Like Looking In A Mirror

In June, Lindsay and I, joined by Lindsay's parents, took a vacation to Costa Rica. This was our second visit to the rich coast, and this time our travels took us to Guanacaste on the Pacific side of the country. We are still going through photos, so more will show up here as we have time to get through them all.

On our first visit to Costa Rica back in 2007, the hatching Green Sea Turtles were the overwhelming highlight of our trip. This time, though, the primates provided some of the most memorable moments. We saw three of the four species of monkeys that Costa Rica has to offer; we did not see the smallest species, Central American Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii), and we didn't get photographs of the largest species, Geoffroy's Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi). The three species that we saw all have prehensile tails that are used as one-fingered fifth limbs, allowing them to move with swift agility through the treetops.

Nearly every day on our week-long trip, we heard the grunting and roaring of Mantled Howler Monkeys (Alouatta palliata) from our hotel room. We also saw these large platyrrhines on three or four occasions during our day trips. Our best looks were along our drive to a boat tour through Palo Verde National Park on the Tempisque River. Mantled Howler Monkeys have a geographical range from Mexico to Ecuador and live for up to 15 to 20 years.

Some sources consider Mantled Howler Monkeys the largest species of monkey in Costa Rica, at least by weight, as large males can weigh up to 22 lbs. Other sources say that this species only gets to 16 lbs., and that therefore the Geoffroy's Spider Monkey, which gets up to 18 lbs., is the largest monkey in the country. Geoffroy's Spider Monkeys are more slender than Mantled Howler Monkeys, however. Mantled Howler Monkeys are strictly vegetarians that live in groups usually ranging from four to 40 individuals. These groups have home ranges of 25 to 150 acres. The adjective "howler" in the common name of this species comes from the loud noises that are made by the males (most often at surise and sunset) to communicate with group members and define territories; these communicating sounds can be heard up to three miles away. When disturbed by people, Mantled Howler Monkeys are known to throw feces with precise accuracy.

While on our boat tour at Palo Verde National Park, we had some nice looks at White-faced Capuchins (Cebus capucinus). This species is known from Honduras to Ecuador and has a life span of more than 50 years.

White-faced Capuchins, also known as White-headed Capuchins, are middle-of-the-road in terms of size in relation to other Costa Rican monkeys, weighing approximately 8 lbs. Unlike the Mantled Howler Monkey, White-faced Capuchins are omnivores, feeding on fruit, leaves, insects, and even small mammals and other vertebrates. They live in troops that can consist of up to 40 individuals and have home ranges of 79 to 210 acres. Whereas Mantled Howler Monkeys have not been observed using tools, White-faced Capuchins, which are said to be highly intelligent, have been seen using tools to obtain food and as weapons, and they also apparently use certain plants as herbal medicines by rubbing them on their fur. White-faced Capuchins get their common name from the resemblance of their coloration to the cowls worn by Capuchin friars. If you have seen the Friends episodes where Ross has a pet monkey, this species likely looks familiar to you, as Marcel was a capuchin monkey.

Stay tuned for more photographs and commentary from Costa Rica.

01 July 2011

Who's Up For A Pint Of Bitterns?

American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus) are pretty secretive birds. It's a treat when you actually get to see one, as they are often in amongst the cattails and bulrushes. When approached, instead of flushing like herons and egrets do, they stand straight up and sway back and forth, blending in beautifully with vegetation blowing in the wind.

Photograph by Walter Siegmund

I don't think I've ever seen more than one American Bittern at a time, and I can probably count on both of my hands the number of American Bitterns I've ever seen. Tony Troche and Jenny Allison, however, can now say that they've seen a pint of American Bitterns. While working in Superior, Wisconsin in early June, Tony and Jenny flushed an adult American Bittern. Shortly after, they came across the amazing scene below...

Photograph by Tony Troche

... four hatchling American Bitterns in a nest! Amazingly, it seems that they've already learned the "freeze and stretch your neck, bill to the sky" routine when approached by people. And even at this young age, they blend in pretty well.

Thanks to Tony for allowing me to post his excellent photo.