Bloody Practical Inquiry

by Carl Strang

Today’s account has a lot of blood in it, which perhaps makes it suitable for Halloween month, but if you are squeamish you may want to skip this one. A little over a week ago I was returning home from my bike ride workout. My curb was coated with layers of wet leaves, and I hit it at too shallow an angle. Down I went, painfully striking the inside of my right ankle. I got up, and as I limped to the house walking my bike I thought that I should have been more careful, but here was a lesson learned.

I unlocked the front door, brought the bike inside, but when I bent down to untie my shoes I found squirts of blood decorating my tile entry platform. That was not a happy moment. I got the shoe and sock off, and found that a stick, pebble, or perhaps something on the bike had struck the knobby lower end of my tibia, punching a hole that opened a small vein just under the skin. Blood poured down the ankle, but fortunately I remembered my basic first aid and did the Dutch boy thing, applying pressure with a fingertip. Here’s the hole a few days later.

Ankle 1b

I had stopped the bleeding for the moment, but now what? My right foot was covered in blood, I had nothing to wipe it off with, and I still was holding the bike up with one hand while the other was occupied with dike maintenance. I had the living room carpet to cross before I could reach the bathroom, and I didn’t want blood or bike grease on the rug. And how to get the bleeding stopped permanently? This all made for a high-motivation inquiry. I wiped the blood off the ball of my foot as best I could, hobbled in an awkward bent over position for a couple steps until I could put the bike down, then continued to the bathroom.

I cleaned the foot in the bathtub with a washcloth, amazed (appalled, really) at how the entire bottom of the tub was red with the bloody water. At one point I lifted my finger to take a look, and was surprised to find that the hole had stopped bleeding. When I flexed the ankle the bleeding started again, but a few more minutes’ pressure stopped the flow for good. I slapped a few layers of bandaids over the hole (the first one I grabbed, humorously, was a Tasmanian Devil cartoon bandaid I’d gotten from who knows where), and wrapped the whole with a strip of adhesive tape. There would be no more bleeding.

As I cleaned up the blood, continuing to be amazed at how much there was, I marveled at how quickly the platelets had done their job and plugged the breach. I remembered how, when I give blood, the opening made by the relatively large needle is quickly sealed by applying pressure for a minute with the arm held vertical. Physiology works. Early vertebrates with the capacity to quickly seal their wounds had a selective advantage, bequeathing us this wonderful adaptation.

Later I found the squirts of blood had left a trail all the way from where I first had fallen to the front door.

Ankle 3b

This was a vein, not an artery, so the squirts presumably were caused by muscle contractions in my leg as I walked the bike.

Ankle 2b

I haven’t tried to clean these stains from my sidewalk. In part they will serve as a reminder to be more careful, and perhaps they will add to the Halloween mood when Trick-or-Treaters come to my door for candy in a few weeks.

Union Township, 1830’s

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I began to recount my study of what my home township in Indiana was like in the 1830’s, before Americans began to transform it from wilderness to a predominantly agricultural landscape. Here is a more detailed line drawing of the final map.


The surveyors’ description provided enough information for me to rough out the map. Getting to the final version required another step. I acquired a soils map of Marshall County, and looked for correlations between soil types and vegetation categories as the surveyors described them. A specialist might have done it differently, but for my part I was satisfied that the correlations were good enough to draw the detailed boundaries of vegetation areas by combining the surveyors’ records with the finer-scale soils map.

Of the various communities defined by woody plants, swamps are the ones most absent from today’s Union Township. The characteristic swamp tree was the tamarack. Here is some foliage of that species, which is unusual in that it is a deciduous conifer.

Tamarack foliage b

I remember seeing a tamarack tree at the old state fish hatchery that was formed out of the south end of Moore Lake, but that tree died years ago and I know of none surviving in the township today. There are bits of shrub swamps here and there.

A relatively moist (mesic) forest occupied much of the east half of the township, on the rolling Maxinkuckee Moraine. Sugar maples and beeches were characteristic trees, though not necessarily the dominant ones. A remnant of this forest is preserved by the Culver Military Academy in its Bird Sanctuary.

Dry forests and savannas were dominated by oaks and hickories, which grew on more sandy soils. They represent a continuum, with the forests shading the ground fully in the summer and the savannas’ trees scattered enough that prairie-like vegetation grew between them. A forest of this type was the site of the town now known as Culver. Gradually over my lifetime I have noted the passing, one by one, of the town’s largest surviving old oaks that were part of that forest. Dry forests persist mainly in the many “wood lots” preserved by the township’s farmers.

I am grateful to all the individuals and organizations, from private landowners to The Nature Conservancy, who have made the commitment to preserve and restore these reminders of the wilderness that once was.

Ghost of a Landscape

by Carl Strang

The places we live and work all were wilderness at one time. National parks, state parks, and nature preserves protect and restore areas intended to represent the landscape as it was before large scale agriculture began the sequence of alterations that have brought us to the present day. A number of studies have produced maps showing, in some detail, what the counties of northeast Illinois looked like 200 years ago. In the late 1980’s I decided to do the same for my home area, Union Township in Marshall County, Indiana. Here is a watercolor rendering of my results.

Union Twp painting 2a

I was reminded of that project by Scott’s excellent recent post on Houghton Lake in his blog, Through Handlens and Binoculars. Houghton Lake is the small lake closest to the map’s upper left corner. Recently it was acquired by The Nature Conservancy, and is getting the attention needed to preserve the rare plants and vegetation communities that have persisted there.

My mapping study began with a visit to the County Surveyor’s office in Plymouth, the county seat, to copy the original survey notes. Two different surveyors explored the local wilderness in 1834 and 1836, marking out the land on behalf of the federal government for purchase by American farmers. The 1836 survey covered the Indian reservations east of Lake Maxinkuckee, the township’s largest lake. That land became available to eastern farmers after the forced removal of the Potawatomis via the Trail of Death in 1838.

The surveyors’ main job was to mark the section corners and quarter-section corners (a section is a square mile). They also described the land, so that potential buyers back east could make informed choices. For example, after passing through what is now the center of the town of Culver, on Maxinkuckee’s west shore, surveyor David Hillis wrote, “Land rolling. 3d rate. Hickory etc.” Usually the description was dispassionate, but sometimes a surveyor revealed the sweat and discomfort of the experience. After crossing an extensive marsh at the south end of Maxinkuckee, Jeremiah Smith allowed, “In Sec. 34, at 1.20 (an) inlet 80L. wide coming from S.E. A nasty place.”

One of the surveyor’s helpers blazed and inscribed two “witness trees” at each section corner. The surveyor wrote down the species of tree along with its distance and direction from the corner. The tree species suggests to us what kind of vegetation community occupied that corner, and the tree’s distance from the corner hints at how close together the trees grew in that spot.

The surveyors also were careful to map the edges of lakes and rivers. In Union Township only Lake Maxinkuckee and Lost Lake, off its west edge, still have their 1834 outlines. Houghton Lake, and Moore Lake beside it, today are remnants of the larger water bodies they were in the early 1800’s. Two other lakes in the west-central part of the township no longer exist. They were shallow and easily drained for agricultural purposes before 1900.

Plant communities described by the surveyors as “wet prairies” or “marshes” were extensive mixtures of cattail marshes, sedge meadows and wet to moist prairies. Some of these featured insect-eating plants, the pitcher plants and sundews. See Scott’s post for photographs of some of the botanical beauty preserved around Houghton Lake. I’ll continue this account tomorrow.

Garden Experiment Results

by Carl Strang

In earlier posts I described the gardens around my home and this year’s experiments in which I am trying to improve them. In one experiment I trimmed patches of zigzag goldenrod and Culver’s root so as to get progressive increases in height front to back, hoping to produce little walls of flowers. The best result was in the sunnier patch of goldenrods behind the urn.

Yard 4SE 2b

The effect is being enhanced day by day as the Virginia creepers on the nearby silver maples increase in color.

Yard 26SE 10b

Earlier I mentioned how the Culver’s root did not respond well to the trimming. I still suspect that this year’s cool cloudy summer had an impact there. On the other hand, I’m convinced that such trimming will not work in the shadier part of the garden, so next year I will apply the same treatment only in the sunny area.

As shown above, the urn was a good addition. I also like how the variegated Solomon’s seals worked out.

Yard 10MY3b

Finally, in the vegetable garden, I got very poor results with Swiss chard, but the Tuscan kale grew well and I will expand its allotment next year.

Yard 26SE 1b

Soon we enter the season when gardeners dream their plans for next year.

Turn, Wheel

by Carl Strang

I didn’t really expect to add any more species to the Mayslake Forest Preserve dragonfly list this year. The wheel of the seasons turns inexorably, and it’s late. But on the last day of September I encountered a different kind of wheel.

Lance-tipped 2b

There are two dragonflies in this photo. They are in the wheel position, a posture assumed by mating Odonata. The male, above, has grasped the female behind her head with the tip of his abdomen. She has brought the tip of her own abdomen to the base of his thorax, where she is acquiring a sperm packet and completing the wheel shape. These dragonflies clearly belong to the blue darner group of species, so I made an effort to get photos of the sides of their thoraxes and the tops of their abdomens.

Lance-tipped 3b

The stripes on the sides of the thorax are relatively straight here, with slight but significant wavers in their edges. Spots on the top of the abdomen are relatively large.

Lance-tipped 2b cropped

These characters point to lance-tipped darner as the species identification. Earlier in the season I found the similar shadow darner, with its distinctively smaller abdominal spots, at Mayslake.

Trailing Strawberry Bush 2009

by Carl Strang

A continuing study that I began in the 1980’s regards a low forest shrub, the trailing strawberry bush (Euonymus obovatus), at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve. Last year I outlined the history of this study. The plant’s nemesis, colonial web-spinning caterpillars of a tiny ermine moth, have been absent from the scene since 2002, and did not return in 2009. The photo below shows a caterpillar-free sprig this past June.


September is when I make my annual check of Euonymus patches at Meacham. Leaf consumption by herbivores was minimal in 2009, less than 10% in 14 of 16 surviving patches. The other two patches lost around 10%. Though the plants were affected by a controlled burn in 2007, the net effect for them appears to have been positive as competitors were hurt more than were Euonymus. Of the 16 patches, 14 showed growth in 2009, one was the same size as last year, and one was smaller. The median product of patch length x width is 5.5 m2, an increase from last year’s value of 1 m2. Since these patches are rather sprawling, containing a lot of empty space, a better measure is the rough coverage if the scattered elements of the patch all were brought together. In 2009 the range was 0.01 – 2 m2, median 0.25 m2. Even 2 m2 apparently did not provide enough photosynthetic power for fruit production. I have not seen fruit at Meacham since 2002.

Euonymus obovatus fruit b

However, if growth continues I expect to find the beautiful fruits of these plants returning in the next few years.

Bush Katydids

by Carl Strang

One of the goals in my singing insects research this year was to get a better handle on two of the bush katydids, the broad-winged bush katydid and the Texas bush katydid (in the “W” years I was repeatedly amused by the fact that there is such a thing as a Texas bush katydid: nature nerd humor).

Texas bush katydid 3b

The above photo is of Scudderia texensis. I have found Texas bush katydids much easier to approach and photograph than broad-winged bush katydids (S. pistillata). During my recent trip to the U.P. I found one of the latter that held still long enough.

Broad-winged bush katydid 3b

While the two look very similar to one another, the broad-winged is a distinctly smaller insect. Also, the wing proportions are different, as you can see roughly by comparing wing lengths to hind leg femur lengths in the above photos. This broad-winged is missing the end of its left forewing, but the longer hind wings are intact.

With such great camouflage, these katydids are not easy to find, and in survey work I want to identify them by song. Each of these species has two different songs, one very brief and one more extended. The more commonly produced songs, especially in daylight, are the short songs. To my ear the short songs of these two katydids are so similar that I remain uncertain about distinguishing them. These songs are very quick, lasting one-third to one-half second, and are series of 3-5 pulses. I think that the pulses of the Texas bush katydid may prove to be more distinct, like separate syllables: “dig-a-dig.” The pulses of the broad-winged may be more run together and with less of a raspy, more of a lisping quality.

In trying to sort this out I have been seeking the conditions in which these two insects sing their longer songs, which are very distinctive but less often produced. The Texas bush katydid sings its long song mainly at dusk. The song is like an extended version of the short song, lasting 3-4 seconds, dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig, with the final syllable louder.

Texas bush katydid 8b

The broad-winged bush katydid is renowned for its long song, called its counting song. The elements of the song are lispy buzzes, each lasting a second or so. The remarkable thing is that these buzzes are grouped, and the buzzes increase in number from group to group as the song progresses. Within a group, buzzes follow one another immediately, with a few seconds between groups. A sequence might begin with a single buzz, followed by a group of two, then a group of four, then a group of 5 or 6. Commonly there are four groups in a song, but sometimes there are more. Then the katydid waits for a longer pause before starting a new sequence. Somewhat frustrating is my experience that the season in which broad-winged bush katydids sing their longer songs apparently is very brief in DuPage County. This year I went repeatedly to Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, after I first heard bush katydid short songs on July 20. At dusk on the evening of July 26 I heard only broad-wingeds singing counting songs. In 2008 I heard them at Blackwell on July 21. This year I heard them for the last time on August 2. On my next visit, August 7, there were none, and none on several visits thereafter. Though many nighttime singing insects extend their singing into the daytime later in the season, this does not seem true for the long songs of these two bush katydids in DuPage County. However, near the tip of the U.P. in late September, broad-wingeds were singing counting sequences in the late afternoon. It may or may not be significant that Texas bush katydids do not occur there.

This year I heard Texas bush katydid long songs only on August 6 and September 2. Last year I heard them on August 27 and September 2, and in 2007 on July 15 and October 4. So far, then, all years taken together, the season for long songs in DuPage County has been July 21 to August 2 for broad-wingeds, July 15 to October 4 for Texas bush katydids. The broad-winged’s season is longer, or at least later, farther north. And that’s where it stands. Lately all the short songs I am hearing have the distinct-syllable quality I associate with Texas bush katydids. Next year I will continue to sort out this puzzle.

Incidentally, there are other species of bush katydids in our area. One I’ll mention here is the curve-tailed bush katydid, S. curvicauda. It is more a forest edge species than the meadow-loving Texas and broad-winged bush katydids. Its songs are composed of loud rasping “zik!” syllables. Commonly it produces these in sets of three, but it also has simple counting sequences. Aside from the different sound quality, these differ from those of the broad-winged by having fewer groups (only 2-3 groups per sequence) and simpler sequences (2-3, 2-3-4, 3-3-4, etc.).

As always, you can find recordings of these various songs on line. I recommend the Singing Insects website  and the Songs of Insects website.

Mast Year

by Carl Strang

Mast is a collective term referring to nuts and acorns. Trees do not produce these in the same amounts each year. In some years very few nuts or acorns develop in a given species, and in other years prodigious numbers appear. High production seasons are called mast years. 2009 is proving to be a mast year for bur oaks and white oaks at Mayslake Forest Preserve, where the trails in places are littered with the fallen acorns. Here is an example for bur oak.

Bur oak mast b

Here, white oak acorns abound.

White oak mast b

Though elsewhere I am seeing lots of walnuts, this does not seem true for that species at Mayslake, which also is having an unremarkable year for hickory nuts. Nearby, at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I noted in 2007 that walnuts, hickories and red oaks had a mast year. It is common for members of the white oak group and red oak group of species to be decoupled from one another in their mast years.

Fox squirrel 1b

As you might imagine, animals such as tree squirrels are impacted by mast years. Mayslake’s gray and fox squirrels will have an easy winter with so much food available. They help their cause by biting acorns before burying them in an effort to kill them. The acorns, in a countermeasure, are quick to sprout when they fall to the ground. A study published in 2006 in Science (314:1928) found that red squirrels (which live north and south of us, but not in DuPage County) themselves reproduce more heavily in mast years (perhaps responding to an increase in flowering or other advance cue). Such adaptive interactions between species are referred to as coevolution. The phenomenon of the mast year itself likely is, at least in part, an evolutionary tactic by the trees. By coordinating their mast production they can limit their seed-predators’ survival in some years, overwhelm them in others. Such an episodic mass reproduction is reminiscent of the periodical cicadas.

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