Friday, July 13, 2018

6:02 AM to 6:51 AM - A Cool Walk on a Hot Day

Somme Prairie Nature Preserve.
49 minutes of bliss and wonder. 

Is it too hot for you to enjoy nature - on a 90 degree day?
At daybreak, weather is heaven.
And just look at how the world glows!
 
At 6:02, the prairie was blanketed with mist. 
And just a minute later, with the sun rising and coming out from behind a cloud, the mist is on the run.

Purple Prairie Clover, a rare high-quality plant, is just starting to bloom.
And back behind it, the yellow Canada milk vetch is opening too.
Neither Purple Prairie Clover nor Canada Milk Vetch were at Somme Prairie when we first started caring for it. They came in with our seed mixes, from other nearby remnants.

The Milk Vetches are legumes that in cattle country are called "loco weed."
Perhaps these are beans that we shouldn't rashly experiment with re-frying. 
This patch is typical of many in the first quarter of the trail.
(I turn right at the fork, to see the best stuff before the light gets harsh.)
Weedy, aggressive Tall Goldenrod is dominant, often to the exclusion of most other vegetation. But here, Wild Bergamot, Prairie Clover, Black-eyed Susan, and other prairie species seem to be coming in. 
Other areas are just grass. That's not quality or natural either. A rich prairie mixes grasses and wildflowers.
Yes here, the grasses are diverse and include the rare Prairie Dropseed, a quality species.
The tall, colored stems are Big Bluestem.
Seeding quality prairie wildflowers will work wonders here. 
If you come bright and early, which I definitely recommend, be prepared to get wet.
Down the middle of this photo is the preserve path.
You're in the ecosystem, and this wet ecosystem will soak you.
The footpath trails may not look like much in photos, but they're easy to follow, intimate, and allow you to see un-trampled vegetation most everywhere else.  
Wild Bergamot, Mountain Mint, and Big Bluestem (back right). 
Two mints. Both have square stems and opposite leaves.
Bergamot is the flavoring of Earl Gray tea.
Mountain Mint tea was appreciated by Native Americans. 
Here the path goes between two clumps of dropseed grass and just to the right of a clumpy plant of rosinweed.
Rosinweed oozes a sap that Native Americans are said to have mixed with berries and other flavors to make a kind of chewing gum. 
Here the bergamot is backed up by Lead Plant, with purple flower fingers. 
Compass Plant towers over the tallest person.
Those white flags marked the trail when the vegetation was shorter. 
Wild Quinine
The rare and beautiful Kalm's Brome or Prairie Brome hangs down elegantly.
But that petty Tall Goldenrod (right) shows up in photo after photo.
Over the years there will be less and less of that species, as the higher quality plants slowly squeeze it out.
Culver's Root.
I don't know who Culver was.
Or what he used this plant's root for.
Anybody? 
I know, but don't want to tell the name of this plant.
If you know, don't spread its name on social media.
With enough protection, it may "graduate" and not need the cages any more.
But for now, given that Somme has one of the world's largest and apparently more sustainable populations, the deer and vole exclusion cages are a good investment. Thanks, stewards!
This Michigan Lily is blooming much more often than it did for years.
Perhaps the deer control efforts are paying off.
At sites with more sustainable, natural numbers of deer, it may bloom with five flowers per stem, or twenty.
But it's nice to see even one.
Here and there along the trail you may notice dead patches, sprayed with herbicide.
This Reed Canary Grass, without control, could wipe out much of the natural vegetation.
It's invasive, and a killer. Thanks again, stewards.
(Notice the glacial boulder in the background? It's a reminder.
There is something glacial about restoring health to a challenged ecosystem.)
Just past the boulder is a brush-pile burn scar.
Yes, this ecosystem is "under construction." 
These dead leaves were a precious Violet Wood Sorrel.
That they're dead now is natural. This plant is an "ephemeral."
They enjoy the spring but always go dormant above ground for the summer. 
This same plant of Violet Wood Sorrel was shown in full bloom in the June post about this new trail. As you get to know the vegetation, it's feels good to sense past and future as part of your recognition of all these species.

Here the trail is rich with forbs (wildflowers) but poor in grass.
A healthy prairie needs both to prosper.
Stewards will sow more rare grass seed here.
This is Cord Grass - the tallest of the prairie grasses, a wetland species.
Here, it's in full flower and, unlike many grasses, is visited by lots of pollinators. What's going on?
(That building on the horizon is Underwriters Labs - our neighbor on the north.) 
The northwest part of the loop trail goes through dense brush.
Winter work for the stewards here. 

People once compared the vast and wind-rippled prairie to a sea. Here, what looks like waves are lines of brush. Most of that should be gone, as the prairie recovers. The other element to see here is the lack of diversity. The wetland in the foreground was degraded hydrologically. Some day it will be rich and flowery once again. 


Later there's a section with a lot of soon-to-be tall grasses, scattered brush, and few wildflowers. This area was bulldozed before it became forest preserve. It's been seeded, but recovery takes time. 
A few Smooth Phloxes still bloom. Notice the one in the middle, with most petals shriveled and dropped, busy making seeds. This is a classic first-quality species. But it's later hard to find those seeds perched on thin stems and leaves. 
Last photo. Thanks for joining me.
6:51 AM. Time to go to work.
A beautiful way to start the day. 
Credits:

The Forest Preserves of Cook County deserve mammoth credit for buying the land, empowering the stewards, and conducting the burns in recent years.

Laurel Ross, steward, and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project deserve equal credit for detailed restoration over forty years.

Thanks to Kathy Garness and Eriko Jokima for correcting typos and editing.


























Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ka-Bloom! Late June, 2018

Blossoms opening every AM.
Remnant-dependent butterflies flit - and pose.
Songbirds feed chicks.
These photos show Somme Prairie Grove in late June.
Flowers and pollinators depend on each other.
Here a hairstreak works on wild quinine. 
The uncommon purple milkweed has become frequent in the Somme savannas.
Deep purple flower clusters and somewhat purplish leaves, for some reason.
Here it's backed up by prairie sundrops. 
Now in the foreground, prairie Indian plantain.
Mostly here we're just looking at buds.
The few open flowers have their yellow reproductive parts sticking out, eagerly. 
x
Indigo bunting males are easy to see and sing constantly. Many pair have their little territories.
They've raised one brood and are nesting again.
The females don't stand out so much. They're shy, subdued, and busy. Once the nest is built, they'll be sitting on the eggs.
Both defend the nest and feed the chicks. They help keep insect populations in balance. 
The monarchs flew here from Mexico. Then laid their first eggs.
Caterpillars ate, grew, and re-arranged their chemicals inside their chrysalises.
Now this one is freshly emerged - new to the world -
its color more intense than the butterfly milkweed that feeds it. 
These beauties also starting to bloom. Often hidden. Sometimes visible from the trail.
Federal endangered. Please don't post their name searchably on the Internet.
We won't list it here. With or without a name, it's precious.
The only insects that can pollinate it are a few uncommon hawkmoths. 
The precious pale spike lobelia (light blue) is here upstaged by black-eyed Susan.
We rejoice in the lobelia, because it is typical of high-quality prairies and savannas.
We embrace the Susan, because it thrives from the best prairies to the meanest vacant lots. 
A few scarlet painted cups still bloom.
Here they barely emerge out of lead plant and rosinweed. 
Spiderwort has been blooming for a long time, but only in the mornings.
On sunny afternoons, they're mostly closed up. Why? 
Great spangled fritillaries love the sun and heat.
Their caterpillars eat violet leaves in the cool of spring.
The adults emerge and fly when the purple milkweed blooms.
That long tongue is drinking sweet nectar as the photo snaps.  
Delicate winged loosestrife thrives where the paths pass through wetlands. 
Under the denser oaks, the "sulfur shelf" or "chicken of the woods" shows off.
But we just pass through briefly, because the sunny savanna steals our attention today. 

Among Somme's many nesting birds of conservation concern is the northern flicker.
This unusual woodpecker feeds mostly on the ground, among the vegetation, on ants. 

This flicker chick is hungry. Most young birds eat mostly insects.
Better them than us? 

In the open savanna we are arrested by one of the grassland's rarest plants. 
The prairie lily is very special.
And this year, for the first time, we have them in spades, eleven plants in bloom or bud,
visible from the trails in many places. 
You can tell the prairie lily from the much commoner Michigan lily by the fact that this one's flower doesn't nod.
It stands so proudly and preciously erect. 
It's one of the most "conservative" of the grassland species - rarely found away from such high quality species as those shown here: dropseed grass, lead plant, and compass plant. 
And the prairie lily (Lilium philadephicum andinum) gives us a lot to think about. The deer eat them mercilessly. Prairie lilies (and some other conservative species) can be extirpated from a site by too many deer. So we cage them, hoping their population will build. But we've also found, even in their habitats in the highest quality original prairies, perhaps because of the reduction in predators, overabundant voles chop them down and eat their seeds. Voles (cute little gerbil-like creatures) can consume every plant. So the little collars inside the deer cage sometimes protect them from those ground-hugging rodents. We stewards try to find solutions. You'll see the cages if you visit. Please don't disturb them. 

Lead plant in bud. Butterfly milkweed in bud.
Huge flowerings coming soon. But by then, what we see now will have departed until 2019.
If you'd like to visit this recovering wilderness, July, August, and September are all highpoints. But come now if you'd like to see these plants. It's too late to see the yellow pimpernels, downy phloxes, alumroots, and veiny pea flowers shown on this blog, blooming just two weeks ago. 

A rich diversity of plants and interdependent animals. We're blessed to have them in our midst. Directions, trail guides, and more at the Somme website. 

Credits
Thanks to Lisa Culp Musgrave for the bird photos.
Thanks for proofing and edits to Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.
Thanks to the Cook County Forest Preserves and scores of dedicated and high-spirited stewards for the health of the ecosystem. 

A more technical (but not all that technical) discussion of some of these same photos and issues will be published soon in the Strategies for Stewards blog.

More info and volunteer work schedules (everyone welcome) at: the Somme website.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

What's In Bloom? June 15, 2018. Somme Prairie Grove.

Should I call this post: "Open For Business"?
Or "We're Ready To Reproduce!"?!?

Here are photos of 55 species and 4 scenes - that caught my attention as the path wound through groves and openings - with captions and comments. 

Scarlet Painted Cup and Purple Vetch.
The scarlet painted cup, now rare, was once typical of our finest prairies and especially savannas.
The purple vetch is an sprawling savanna vine.
A morning glory - hedge bindweed. Its halberd-shaped leaves are distinctive.
Another vine - it's wrapped around old and new stems of Illinois rose - in a thicket that favored by both.
Although Illinois rose won't bloom for some time, Carolina rose (shown here) and smooth rose are already knock-outs. 
Alumroot flowers are a quiet yellow green. This species is typical of high quality prairies and savannas.
Its maple-shaped leaves are not visible here. The big leaves are prairie dock.
Here alumroot is in one of its favorite savanna haunts - in a thicket with dropseed grass, gray dogwood, hickory and grape. 
Again, the big leaves are prairie dock. The big spray of white pea flowers is white false indigo.
That red oval toward the bottom left is a strawberry leaf that has turned, for some reason.
It's kind of fun that - when the chlorophyll goes, the leaf is colored like the fruit. 
Wild Quinine (bottom left) and White False Indigo
And a look at the landscape, with the messy trees savannas often have. 

Here the indigo is backed up by the big, lobey leaves of compass plant.
Now the blue spiderwort comes in, with indigo, compass, and a budding tuberous Indian plantain front right. 
Big old trees are worth a look as well.
This behemoth has a history. Perhaps in revery you can plum it. 
This rich herb community features diverse leaves and just a few flowers. In bloom: black-eyed Susan, spiderwort, and a hint of downy phlox. Leaves: prairie dock, rosinweed, gayfeather, lead plant, bush clover, mule ear, dropseed, Indian grass, rattlesnake master, early goldenrod, wild quinine, and so many more, if you look close.  
Carrion flower is "pollinated by deceit." The spherical flower heads smell like rotting meat, and flies come to lay eggs. Their feet pick up pollen, before they fly off to be fooled again. Here the tendrils of carrion flower and the tendrils of purple vetch are twining around woodland sunflower and each other. Cosy. 
Gray dogwood puts out handsome and fragrant flowers.
Indigo buntings, yellowthroats, and other birds nest in the shrubs.
Short's sedge is distinctive for its nearly black fruits.
Daisies are common, in many senses. They are "aliens" - from Europe. I can't see that they do any harm.
In the short run, they're pretty, and their roots help secure damaged turf.
As the ecosystem recovers its diversity, the daisies fade out. 
Since we're walking the trail, from time to time we look down.
The two flowering alien weeds here are dandelion and red clover.
A friend says "don't get your undies in a bundle over a few weeds. These species do no harm." 
Spreading Dogbane. Beautifully delicate. But hard for me to photograph. 
Philadelphia fleabane. Another fine native weed. 
Here the gray dogwood is in a thicket with hedge bindweed and red and Hill's oaks.
This scene is special to me for its June grass (upper left center).
It's a locally rare species that doesn't bloom every year.
Here it's growing with black-eyed Susan, dropseed, fleabane, quinine, bastard toadflax, rattlesnake master,
strawberry, purple prairie clover, prairie dock, and a multitude more.  
Most of the grasses this time of year are cool-season species like the Junegrass and Leiberg's panic grass. They're important to the ecosystem, but they don't make a lot of fuel - as will the big warm-season grasses that are just starting to rise. It's those grasses that burn out the non-fire-adapted trees (and will trim the lower limbs off many of the oaks as well). 
Veined Pea. Was absent from Somme for more than three decades. We knew of no local sources of seed. Then we noticed a few leaves. We put a deer-exclusion cage over them, and within a few years this rare beauty was sprawling around with abandon. We looked more carefully. Found leaves in five places along three long-abandoned fence rows. Now it thrives.
Meadow Rue. Big, brawny, and delicate. 
Prairie sundrops has begun to open only in the last few days. Spreading, low plant of moist prairie. 

Here sundrops shows it can shine in a partly shaded savanna situation with purple vetch, daisy, gray dogwood and two classic savanna specialists. In the middle are the leaves of cream gentian, which won't bloom until fall. The wide leaves with a purple tinge at the bottom right is purple milkweed, some of which is starting to bloom now. 
Once in a while we stop to appreciate the present openness of the bur oak woodland.
Somme Prairie Grove was one of the first places where this ancient, nearly forgotten community began to be restored. 
A patch of orchard grass - a European species planted long ago by dairy farmers - stands between the trail and a bur oak. We have watched the natural woodland and savanna flora gradually replace the cultivated grasses. 
Pale Spike Lobelia. Looking insignificant next to the big daisy?
But to an ecologist the lobelia looks like power - and the future, as this ecosystem recovers. 
Downy phlox is special. But if you can zoom in on the left, you'll see something special-er.
Leiberg's panic grass has a little purple flower where each seed will form. This little grass is another indicator of quality. You won't find it many places. 
Wild Quinine (right) and Beardtongue (left).
Close up of wild quinine. Note the black and gray beetles working it.
The insects are more varied and numerous than the flowers. How wonderful it would be one day to have a guide to their identification and fun ecology tidbits about the insects. 
The flora of the most open areas has much in common with the prairie. Here for example are prairie phlox, prairie dock, prairie dropseed, lead plant, hard-leaved goldenrod (sometime called the fine old name "mule ear") and other classic prairie species. But, if you can zoom in, and know your plants, you can also see such savanna indicators as carrion flower and re-sprouting oaks and dogwoods, kept low by regular fire.
Downy phlox and prairie phlox are two names for the same plant. It thrives across wet to dry and savanna to prairie. 
Red bulrush is a quiet plant, but many people ask about it, because it lines the footpath in many areas.
No, we didn't plant it there. It comes by itself. 
Next come a series of plants in the same family as the humble carrot - the Umbelliferae. Typically their flower heads are "umbels" - in which all the branches radiate from a one point. Some are edible. Some poisonous. Some common; some rare. Most have white or yellow flowers.
Cow Parsnip (white) rises over Golden Alexanders (yellow).
To me, "cow parsnip" is a poor name for so colossal a plant.
Latin name: Heracleum maximum: translates to something like "Hercules the Great."
Golden Alexanders may be the commonest plant in Somme's spring woodlands.

Sanicle or Black Snakeroot (Sanicula marilandica).
Another quiet flower - a rare plant that's a survivor at Somme from earlier times.
We rarely see it anywhere else, but it's common and happy here. 
Thicket Parsley. Hard for me to photograph. (Can you send us a better likeness?)
Elegant, spare, delicate, rare.
Here it stands in the savanna over purple vetch and mountain mint. 
Another attempt at thicket parsley (Perideridia americana).
Grows in savannas or, as here, in open woodlands.
(But the leaves you see behind it are the coarser leaves of the Alexanders. We found the seed of thicket parsley only in the forest preserve across the street from the Riverside-Brookfield High School - exactly where Floyd Swink reported it in his Plants of the Chicago Region. 


Another rare plant - meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum). This species was also here when we started, another bit of savanna heritage. It looks much like golden Alexanders, but it is slighter, often has heart-shaped basal leaves, and its outermost leaflet often has a heart-shaped base as well. 
Yellow Pimpernel. 
And here finally is golden Alexanders itself. Most of them are now setting seed.
This one was a large bloomer. 
And now for my last four - the apology photos.
Two-flowered Cynthia.
A glorious, uncommon flower, looking like a dandelion at first, but then emerging as gracefully special.
The apology is for showing only these yellow blurs.
It doesn't come close to the trail. But it will, one of these decades. It's increasing. 
Another blurry third-rate attempt.
This species has many common names. These include:
Wild Coffee. Tinker's Weed. Horse Gentian. 

Another beautiful umbel. Yarrow or Milfoil or Quaker Lace.
It's another alien, like Queen Anne's lace.
What do I have to apologize for? I like it, despite its lack of pedigree. 

And I must sort of apologize for ending with one of my favorite shapes and colors, even though it's not a flower. The early leaves of young bur oaks can be wonderfully maroon-ish. Unlike in most forests these days, bur oaks reproduce prolifically at Somme Prairie Grove, as they celebrate the sun and fire.

Thanks for joining in this walk of June 15. 

Note to photographers:
We'd like your better photos to replace or add to these.
But please take them from the trail.
You may notice trampled trails to pretty flowers, smashing rare vegetation here and there...
... even though a great specimen of the same species stands beside the path a little further on.
Help us protect this rare site.
We hope you'll keep both feet on the trail.

Thanks for any trailside photos you might offer.
Thanks for sharing your appreciation of this precious place.
Thanks for proofing and edits to Kathy Garness.