Raccoon Skeleton

by Carl Strang

Last year in late March I found a dead raccoon in the south savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

It appeared that the animal died of canine distemper.

The carcass has decomposed over the past year, and now only the skeleton remains.

The roundish looking skull is worth studying. It seems that most of the skulls people find in our area are those of raccoons.

In time even the bones will be gone. It will be interesting to see if the plants growing there are more vigorous, with the extra nitrogen and other nutrients the raccoon’s body added to the soil.

Garden Bloodroot Disperses

by Carl Strang

I have planted 3 bloodroots in my shaded garden flowerbed. They are the earliest of my native plants to flower each year, and all have multiplied by root expansion. This year they demonstrated their fecundity in a different way. A fourth plant, growing several feet beyond the nearest established bloodroot, has matured enough to flower.

I had noticed leaves here the past year or two.

I would not have planted a bloodroot up against the edging like this, but it’s not an unreasonable place for an ant colony to do so. Ants are the main dispersers of bloodroot seeds, as well as those of a number of other plant species that bloom in our forests in early spring. Their seeds tempt the ants with fatty outgrowths called elaiosomes. Using these as handles, ants carry them to their nests. After consuming the elaiosomes the ants discard the useless (to them) seeds, having conveniently (for the plant) carried them into the protective soil.

This is very satisfying. Mine is not a hands-off garden. I have to work diligently, for example, to constrain the zig-zag goldenrods. But in this case I welcome the ants’ partnership, and look forward to watching the expansion of this newest bloodroot colony.

Marsh Survey Update


by Carl Strang

The marshes at Mayslake Forest Preserve continue to warm into the season. Less than a month ago, in late March, there still were mornings when skim ice formed around the edges.

The ice was thin and crunchy when I waded out to check amphibian traps.
In addition, there was plenty of humidity in the air for producing ice crystals.

One of the more remarkable events at the stream corridor marsh was the prolonged visit by a pair of bufflehead ducks.

Here the female takes a break from swimming.

The buffleheads stayed for more than two weeks, finding plenty of food while they waited for the weather to moderate.

Plants have begun to grow. Here a muskrat gnawed off some tips for its dinner.

The rodent’s incisors clip the leaves cleanly.

Over in the parking lot marsh, the traps have been producing some bullfrog tadpoles.

These have been around 3 inches long.

Last week in the stream corridor marsh I caught what appeared to be a second species of large predaceous diving beetle.

I was alerted by the filled zone of yellow at the back tips of the elytra.

Several characters pointed to Dytiscus hybridus. It was lucky to be alive. Overnight rain had elevated the marsh so that the trap was completely under water and the beetle could not reach the surface for fresh air.

It floated at the surface for a long time after I released it. The cold water, and some diffusion of oxygen into the bubble held beneath the wings, apparently allowed the insect to survive.

Now I have to look at all these beetles more closely. Later I caught one that seemed in some ways to be between the two known species.

For instance, there were thin yellow lines at both front and back edges of the pronotum.

Underneath, though, the brown color with some black placed it in the more common species, Dytiscus verticalis.

Now I’ll need to look at tops and bottoms of all of these I catch.

I thought for a time that I had caught a second crayfish species. Unlike the white river crayfish I caught earlier, this one did not have a dominant burgundy color.

It was mainly greenish.

It proved to be the same species, though, when I carefully went through all the physical features. Little experiences like this give one a concrete sense of the variability within species, which also is an aspect of biodiversity in the broad sense.

Migrants Trickle In

by Carl Strang

It’s time to play catch up on the migration season. We have been seeing mainly birds that spend the winter in the southern U.S., but the last week of April usually brings the first wave of tropical migrants, so I want to clear the deck of accumulated migrant photos from Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Every spring a few lesser scaup stop by the preserve’s lakes on their way north.

Last week a ruddy duck spent a day on May’s Lake.

This was a new species for the preserve bird list.

Waves of northern flickers have been passing through.

This has been more a migrant than a nesting species at Mayslake.

Brown-headed cowbirds have been around for a few weeks, now.

Some of these males have been setting up group territories and courting females.

Ospreys have stopped by a couple times, but we haven’t yet seen a prolonged stay by one as has happened the past two years.

Nevertheless, a glimpse of this species always is welcome.

 Swallows have been coming through in large numbers.

In addition to tree swallows, many northern rough-legged and barn swallows have been foraging over May’s Lake.

 While the golden-crowned kinglets mainly have shifted north of us, ruby-crowneds still are coming through.

These tiny birds delight with their active movement and their bubbling, forceful songs.

 As of last week, most early migrants have made their first appearances earlier than in 2009 and 2010 despite the cold weather we have been experiencing. While weather can influence them, they are driven mainly by photoperiod and will push north as long as they are finding food.

First Flowers

by Carl Strang

Spring advances, despite the unpleasant weather that has denied our enjoyment of much of it so far. As I have sloshed through the rain and the mud at Mayslake Forest Preserve, I have been finding the first of the woodland wildflowers, so I guess it hasn’t really been as cold as I have thought.

Bloodroots have been blooming for what seems an extended period, though. Perhaps the temperatures have been marginal for them.

Lots of spring beauties have taken advantage of last fall’s burn in the south savanna.

These haven’t hit their peak, yet.

Views of pollinators still have been few.

In addition to this bee fly, I have seen the first of the year’s queen Bombus impatiens bumblebees.

The expansion of the Dutchman’s breeches population is gratifying.

These make me smile whenever I see them.

Ongoing restoration clearing of buckthorn has shown the quickest response by trout lilies, which now can be found in great numbers in many places on the preserve.

Their flowers haven’t been open on many days, yet, needing temperatures above 50F or so.

It’s a little early yet to do a serious phenological comparison, but so far, compared to the last two years at Mayslake, first flower dates in 2011 have been the earliest for one species, latest for 2 species, and between those of 2009 and 2010 for 5 species.

Stream Sampling 3

by Carl Strang

Today I finish reviewing my initial catch-and-release session with the animals in the little stream that runs through the north half of Mayslake Forest Preserve. I was impressed by the diversity turned up with only a small sampling effort. I wasn’t surprised to find some crayfish, but the two that washed into the net were very small.

Perhaps a centimeter long, these had only tiny front claws.

They were colorfully marked, but I wasn’t sure how to identify such young ones. I’ll hope to catch their mom or dad in a future sampling session. Near the stream’s origin I caught a couple isopods.

These aquatic sowbugs have terrestrial relatives in our forests.

According to my reference these are omnivores, but get most of their nutrition by consuming dead organic matter.

The biggest surprise in the sample was a fish.

This green sunfish was less than 2 inches long.

Green sunfish can turn up anywhere, and I suppose this one washed in from May’s Lake. I doubt that there is a self-sustaining population in this tiny stream.

I’ll close with snails. Three different families were represented in the sample. Most abundant in the downstream end of my sampling area were tiny snails that appear to be ram’s horns, family Planorbidae.

They were only 2-3mm in diameter. Perhaps when larger they will prove to belong to a different family.

There were pointy snails, too (such adjectives underline my lack of sophistication, here). Some had the open end oriented to the left when the point is up. These belong to family Physidae.

To perceive the left-handedness, you have to imagine rotating this snail so the shell opening faces you.

Others belong to one of several families with a right-handed orientation.

In order to place this snail in its proper family I would need to see its operculum, the little door which covers the shell’s entrance when the snail withdraws. Some snails don’t have them, however.

Some of the snails were beautifully patterned.

I look forward to studying these pretty little things further.

This was an encouraging start. Maylake seems like such a mundane forest preserve at first glance, but the more I look, the more diversity I find in it.

Stream Sampling 2

by Carl Strang

Today I’ll continue the inventory of animal life found in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s tiny stream, focusing on the insects. Among the first to turn up, farthest downstream from the stream’s origin at May’s Lake, were a couple species of beetles. One was, at first glance, the size and shape of a whirligig beetle, but a closer look proved otherwise.

This is a strong underwater swimmer, with threadlike antennae.

Its features were by now familiar thanks to my recent experience with a larger member of its family in the nearby marsh. This is a predaceous diving beetle. There is a pale marking at the posterior edge of its elytron that bends inward over the surface, probably distinctive but not matching anything in my reference. Without a more distinctive photo or specimen I’ll have to be content with the family. I had better luck with the other beetle.

This little guy belongs to a different family, the Haliplidae, known as the crawling water beetles. I wouldn’t have named them that, because they swam pretty well in the tray, but I understand that in their habitat they mainly crawl over the bottom and vegetation. They are primarily vegetarians. They look very much alike, but if I’m reading the details correctly, this one is Peltodytes duodecimpunctatus. That is a ridiculously long name for an insect only 3-4 millimeters long.

I was pleased to pick up a caddis fly larva in the sample. Many members of this insect order build distinctive protective cases that they carry with them.


According to one of my references, the fact that this larva built its case out of roughly rectangular pieces of dead leaves places it in family Lepidostomatidae. These live as detritivores, consuming dead leaves. That underscores a significant aspect of stream ecology. There is so much edge, relative to the volume of the stream itself, that the stream’s economy and physical features are strongly influenced by, and dependent upon, the adjacent terrestrial environment.

Two kinds of damselfly larvae appeared in the sample. Both appear to belong to the pond damsel group.

The overall shape, and the trio of gills at the tip of the abdomen, are distinctive to these little predators.  

The final insect species showed up very close to the May’s Lake outlet; I caught two. These were worm-like, and 1-2 inches long.

Guess which is the head end.

The ring of tentacles around the tail end, and other features, place these in the crane fly family. Tipulidae is the only family for crane flies but it is huge, and I don’t know where I would begin for an identification. I like crane flies, though, the adults with their gangling long legs. Most larvae are, like the caddisfly, decomposers in their ecological role.

After all of this I still have an assortment of half a dozen organisms to cover, in one final chapter to close this series tomorrow.

Stream Sampling 1

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve has a small stream, much of it less than 3 feet wide, which is the outlet for a string of lakes including the preserve’s May’s Lake and Trinity Lake. Ultimately it winds its way to Salt Creek, thence to the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. I have been curious about what forms of life call that little stream home, and last week I took part of a morning to begin a survey.

Here the stream is roughly halfway from May’s Lake to its exit from the preserve.

I used a fairly standard method, planting the flat side of a D-shaped net on the bottom of the stream and then shuffling my feet upstream from the net and allowing the current to carry any disturbed animals into the bag.

Here the net is placed in the stream, ready to receive any animals washed into it.

I lift up the net, then, to see what I have caught.

This is a fun moment, anticipating the delight of discovering what fell into the net.

I transfer any recognizable critters to a white tray with a little water in it.

The white background makes the little animals easier to see.

In the initial sampling effort I found too many different organisms to cover in just one post. Having described the methods, I’ll share a few of my finds today and then spread the rest over a couple more chapters. Let’s begin with some worms.

A free living flatworm, or planarian.

Planaria are tiny flatworms found in every one of our streams, as far as I know. With kids I have used the descriptive nickname “cross-eyed triangle-head.” They function as scavengers, and are renowned for their regenerative abilities. Also in the initial sample I saw a couple elongate forms that brought back childhood memories: leeches.

These are segmented worms, recognized by the suckers on each end.

Some but not all leeches are blood-sucking parasites. Many are predators of small invertebrates. Planaria and leeches were familiar, but I also encountered something new to my experience: aquatic earthworms.

This one looked just like the worms one finds in terrestrial soils.

My references indicate that many aquatic earthworms live much like their terrestrial counterparts, tunneling through the mud, swallowing soil and digesting microscopic life within it. Another such worm I caught was a little different.

Note the longer bristles, or setae, on the body of this worm.

I didn’t pay much attention to differences in substrate in this initial exploration. I wonder if the bristles help secure this species against current. Perhaps it dwells in riffles, or is a species that remains closer to the surface and acts more like a predator.

This is just the start. I found a dozen other kinds of animals that day, and will share them in future episodes.

Dead Muskrat

by Carl Strang

Last week I found a muskrat carcass not far from the southeast corner of May’s Lake.

I found it like this, lying on its back.

I took advantage of the opportunity to get some photos. The feet are remarkable objects.

The muskrat’s front feet are small, but I hadn’t realized how large the claws are. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, considering how well they dig dens into the banks of marshes and other bodies of water.

The muskrat apparently died in mid-bite.

The dead vegetation in the rodent’s mouth does not appear to be dietary. Perhaps it was gathering nest material, or bit the plant in a random final throe.

I rolled it over. There were no clear signs of what killed it.

The eyes appeared as though they might have cataracts, but I’m guessing that is a postmortem color change.

One or more muskrats were active in that lake earlier this season. Often I saw one swimming far from shore. Was there more than one? Time will tell.

Da Big Six Oh

by Carl Strang

As of yesterday I have survived 60 winters. Decadal space-time milestones tend to inspire jokes and retrospection. The jokes I’ll leave to others; I’m happy to be alive to be the butt of them. So, I’m jumping back to my first year to begin a retrospective.

Mom, and me at 6 months. I’m the one on the right. Can’t say I remember this.

In my first decade I discovered my love of natural history. We all were impressed when a strong thunderstorm took down a big black locust in the back yard.

That’s not a choke hold. I’m keeping my beloved little brother Gary from falling off the tree. On either side of us are kids from a neighboring family.

It wasn’t all nature stuff, though. Sometimes we were cowboys.

Gary always shows more personality in our childhood photos.

In our second decade, brother also won the hair competition.

Dad, Gary and me with a day’s catch on an Arkansas vacation. Note how I am holding the light end of the stringer.

I went on to Purdue to study wildlife. After my sophomore year I got the opportunity to go to western Alaska as a research assistant.

I’m the one holding the cackling goose after a banding drive. Raincoat on a nice day? The ungrateful geese tended to crap on us. Behind me is Dave Eisenhauer, the graduate student I was there to help. Cal Lensink, legendary Alaska waterfowl biologist, is in the orange cap.

In my early 20’s I was able to do my own thesis study in Alaska, and also got to take a graduate class in tropical ecology that included a month in Panama.

Holding a sea snake was a real treat. Of course I did it carefully as they are highly venomous, but this one was placid.

Now I have to jump ahead to my mid-30’s, as I don’t find any digital format pictures from my college teaching years.

Can you see me? Yes? Then I guess I could have done a better camo job at one of the Tom Brown survival classes.

After an acting class and some storytelling study, I was ready to be a decomposer in my 40’s.

My friends all call me Fun Gus.

As I approached 50, I looked forward to my trip to Australia.

Here I am driving the audience out of the room with my didgeridoo solo.

That 5-week trip had many highlights.

I really enjoyed my little camel ride, for instance. You can tell the camel is excited, too.

As for my life in recent years, I’ve been putting a large part of it into this blog. So now you know, if today’s exercise in self-indulgence hasn’t driven you away, that you need to interpret future blog posts as the product of my growing geezerhood.

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: