24 March 2013

The Gray Area between Work and Hobby

I remember my cousin's reaction the first time he found out that I botanized for fun.  He was pretty amazed that I would go out and slosh through wetlands to get covered in ticks, mosquito bites, and poison sumac.  Why would anyone do that and not get paid for it?  Why wouldn't they?  How can someone work in the environmental field and not be passionate about it?

That gray area is something I deal with all too often.  On a trip to Superior, Wisconsin to do vegetation sampling in late August 2012, a few of the people on my crew joined me on our day off for a trip to Buckley Creek and Barrens State Natural Area in Douglas County.  This 900-acre property was our "site of choice" that day because of the range of plant communities present, from very dry to very wet.  The resulting flora provided a wide range of interesting species for us to feast our eyes and lenses on that fine summer day.  Below I will discuss some of those species and communities.

Agastache foeniculum
Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a plant of northern North America that I had read about but never seen, so it was a nice surprise to find it on the edge of the oak barrens at Buckley Creek and Barrens.  Primarily found in the upper Midwest, west of the Great Lakes, and into Canada, this mint also ranges as far west as western Montana, and it is found in scattered counties in the eastern United States. In addition to scrubby barrens, Blue Giant Hyssop can be found in dry upland forest openings, prairies, fields, and thickets.

Aster oolentangiensis
Many of us learned the plant in the photograph above as Aster azureus; the specific epithet is a reference to the ray flowers of this composite, which are said to be "sky blue" in color.  However, the rules of botanical nomenclature came into play when it was determined after many years of using the name Aster azureus that a different epithet for the same species had been published several months earlier than the specific epithet azureus.  The plant then became officially known by the first published name, Aster oolentangiensis.  This specific epithet is a reference to the Olentangy River in central Ohio where the specimen at the center of this debate was collected.  Some people seem to despise the specific epithet oolentangiensis, which rolls right off the tongue, but the inimitable Ed Voss was a fan of this name change, as he grew up in a town along the Olentangy only a few miles upstream from the location where the plant was first collected.  Descriptiveness and hometown pride aside, I'm happy to use the name Aster oolentangiensis to stay in line with nomenclatural law.  Many people now call this plant Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, the genus having changed as a result of molecular research.  Sky-blue Aster is found in prairies, barrens, glades, open woodlands, on dunes, and in savannas, often in sandy or shallow soil.  Its geographical range includes the central United States in a band along and just west of the Mississippi River, as well as areas around the Great Lakes.

Oligoneuron album
Speaking of name changes, this one's a doozy.  I first learned Prairie Goldenrod (Oligoneuron album) as Upland White Aster (Aster ptarmicoides).  In the 1970s, botanists began calling this plant Solidago ptarmicoides because the floral structures were more closely aligned with goldenrods.  Then, just about the time this name started gaining widespread use in the 1990s, the name Oligoneuron album came into play.  Many other names have been used for this composite in the past as well.  Prairie Goldenrod has its greatest distribution in the upper Midwest, west of the Great Lakes, but it is also found in numerous Missouri Ozark counties, in scattered counties in Michigan, and scattered elsewhere in the United States and in eastern Canada.  It has an affinity to calcareous soils, where it is found in dry sand, in limestone pavement communities, on glades, on rocky outcrops, and in prairies.  One habitat that is not mentioned in the references I've seen is in barren slag pits that have displaced dune and swale communities.  In this crime against nature "community," Prairie Goldenrod is one of the few native plants that seems to persist after years of degradation.

Liatris aspera
Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera) is an attractive species of a variety of habitats including prairies, barrens, dunes, glades, fields, savannas, and woodlands.  It is most frequently found growing in sand and silty loam soils.  This composite is found throughout much of the eastern half of North America, but its greatest distribution is in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and just west of the Mississippi River.  Rough Blazingstar is said to have edible corms that can be used as a survival food, but rodents are said to also feed on these corms and in some places are responsible for reducing the Rough Blazingstar population.  The blazing stars (Liatris spp.) have determinate inflorescences, meaning that the oldest flower clusters are at the tip of the inflorescence and the youngest flower clusters are at the bottom, so the inflorescence does not continue to expand in length as the season progresses.

Solidago nemoralis
Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is a very common composite found across much of North America with the exception of Alaska and extreme northern Canada and the western third of the United States.  It grows in fields and prairies, along roadsides, and in open woodlands in sandy, gravelly, and clayey soils.  The common name comes from the fine gray hairs that cover the stems, giving the plants an overall grayish cast.

Polygonella articulata
One of the more interesting looking yet overlooked plants of sandhills, dunes, beaches, pine barrens, and other sandy coastal and lakeshore habitats is Coastal Jointweed (Polygonella articulata).  As the first half of the common name implies, this species of the buckwheat family is found along the Atlantic coast and in the Great Lakes states and provinces, particularly in counties bordering the Great Lakes.  The second half of the common name is a reference to the jointed-like appearance of the plant, and especially of the inflorescence before buds emerge.  This appearance is a result of the ocreae (on the stems) and ocreolae (in the inflorescence).  These structures are short sheaths formed by the fused stipules, or leafy structures at the base of each leaf.

In addition to spending time in the dry oak barrens, we also tromped through a boggy area with typical bog/muskeg vegetation.  This bog had strong representation by plants in the heath family and sedges.

Eriophorum virginicum
One of those sedges was Tawny Cottongrass (Eriophorum virginicum), a striking species of bogs, conifer swamps, fens, marshes, and wet meadows.  This cottongrass is unique in that it has brown scales, and perianth bristles that instead of being pure white often have some brownish or orangish color to them.  It grows in the New England states and southwest along the Appalachians, as well as in the Great Lakes states and provinces. 

Thanks to those who joined me on this weekend outing to see such a unique Wisconsin natural area.

23 March 2013

Bird Quiz

I took the following photograph today while on a field trip at Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area with South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society.  The photo quality isn't spectacular, but I think at least five bird species can be identified in this photograph.  Get out your binoculars and spotting scopes and tell me which species you can identify! Good luck!

01 March 2013

2012-2013 Winter Feeder Count Results

As we have in 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012, Lindsay and I participated in the Indiana Audubon Society Winter Feeder Bird Count this past November through February.  This count is conducted on the 20th to 25th of November, December, January, and February at feeders throughout the state.

Various feeder birds, including Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-winged Blackbird, and American Tree Sparrow
We haven't been able to match the numbers we had in 2008-2009, when we had 19 species in November, 20 species in December, 18 species in January, and 25 species in February, for a total of  27 species during the count.  Our species numbers during the 2012-2013 count were similar to the past four years, however.  We had 17 species in November, 16 species in December, 15 species in January, and 19 species in February; over the past four years of the count, we've never had less than 15 species or more than 19 species during one of the count periods.  We tallied 23 species at our feeders during the count periods in 2012-2013, the second most that we've had during the last five years.  Our complete list is included at the end of this post.

Male Downy Woodpecker
Species observed most frequently (those present during all four count periods) in 2012-2013 were Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). Species observed in greatest abundance during a single count period (with the greatest number observed at one time in parentheses) were House Sparrow (31 in December, 13 in January), American Tree Sparrow (16 in February), Dark-eyed Junco (15 in January), Mourning Dove (14 in January), European Starling (13 in December), and American Goldfinch (13 in November). The most abundant species based on average over the four count periods were House Sparrow (14.25), American Tree Sparrow (10.25), Northern Cardinal (9.0), and Mourning Dove (8.5).  Numbers of individuals were down substantially from last year, when we had four species that averaged over 10 individuals over the count period.  The most notable observation that we made this year was a lack of White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys).  During the 2012-2013 count, we only had one White-crowned Sparrow during one of the count periods (November).  The number of individuals of this species seems to have been decreasing at our feeders each year.  In 2011-2012, we had one individual during each of the four count periods; in 2008-2009, we had 7 individuals in November, 2 individuals in December, 2 individuals in January, and 1 individual in February.

Female Hairy Woodpecker
Although overall it has been another mild winter, the temperature range during the count period was comparable to that in previous years, with a low temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit in January and a high temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit in November.  However, the most snow cover that we had at any time during the 2012-2013 count was 3 inches.

2012-2013 Winter Bird Feeder Count Species List
Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
European Starling
Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow