The Virtue of Patience

by Carl Strang

One of the many lessons I am learning as I dive into the world of sedges, grasses and rushes is the importance of patience. I see a sedge bristling with anthers (the pollen-dropping male flower parts) and grab a sample, stick it under the microscope and dig out the botanical key. The result is unsatisfactory. I find I have to wait for the female flowers to mature. A case in point was a sedge I found in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s south savanna, near the shore of May’s Lake.

It grows in tufts, and has fairly wide leaves for a short plant.

Though it resembled the common wood sedge, Carex blanda, the female flowers looked smaller and more strung out on a longer section of stem.

When I keyed out this sedge, however, I nevertheless kept coming up with C. blanda.

I decided to wait, but keep an eye on these plants. Last week I noticed that the female flowers had grown larger.

Can you see the difference from the previous photo?

That change made the difference, and now the sedge keyed clearly to Carex grisea, the wood gray sedge.

Incidentally, You may have noticed that I have begun to use more scientific names in these posts. This is in part because these plants are less familiar, known by fewer people, and so their English names are less standardized than in forbs and woody plants. The main reason, though, is the uninspiring English names that have been bestowed on many sedges. Wood gray sedge? Broad-leaved woolly sedge? Running marsh sedge? Is that the best we can do? At least the scientific name, Carex grisea in today’s example, has the advantage of economy.

Demolition Restoration Begins, and Botanical Erratum

by Carl Strang

This week I was happy to see the return of activity in the friary demolition site at Mayslake Forest Preserve. As I reported last fall, the old friary was taken down and the way cleared for the return of its site to a wild state.  The ground still needed grading, the deposition of new topsoil, and seeding. Early in the week, heavy equipment returned.

A bulldozer levels the ground while new soil is delivered.

It’s been a rainy week, so the effort has been slowed. I’m looking forward to the project’s completion.

I need to point you back to my post of a few days ago, describing new sedges and grasses. My photos of the curly-styled wood sedge, Sedum rosea, were not good enough, and so I have replaced them. Also, I reported an incorrect identification of Mayslake’s first flowering grass of the season. It was not timothy, which blooms later in the summer, but rather the meadow foxtail, Alopecurus pratensis. A tip of the hat is due to Scott Namestnik of the Through Handlens and Binoculars blog for helping me with this. I have corrected these items.

Experiment on Self: Time Out

by Carl Strang

From time to time I have been describing my progress in a physiological experiment: using a low-impact style of long-distance running to see if I can return to the sport years after joint problems forced me to give it up. There has been continued progress, but it hasn’t been without challenges. One of these has been an injury to the joint between my left second toe and its metatarsal bone.

Note how the second toe sticks up on the left foot, relative to the right.

I don’t think this injury was from running. I help teach Eskimo roll at a swimming pool kayak class in winter, and wasn’t quick enough to dodge a student’s flailing paddle in February. Months later, the joint still hasn’t healed, and in fact began to get worse when I reached my target weekly mileage.

Here are the feet entire. Not works of art, but they carried me miles at a time. Though I use the barefoot technique, I wear shoes when running.

After moving outside, I gradually increased my regular run length to 6 miles (4 of these per week), and my long runs to 10, with up to 2 days cross-training on the bicycle. A year ago I would not have thought this possible. I still was not fast, but where I was running 2 miles at 9 minutes each when I started last September, I’ve been running around 8.5 minutes per mile even on the long ones. So, progress was encouraging. A few weeks ago I developed an inflamed right sciatic nerve with occasional local numbness. Fortunately this did not prevent me from running, but the pain has been a distraction (you may have noticed that many recent blog posts have been brief; I’m minimizing sitting at the computer). It’s great to feel like a runner again, and I have to credit the barefoot running technique.

However, I have decided to stop running and go back to the bicycle until the foot heals. My physician has referred me to a podiatrist for the foot, and physical therapy for a possible pinched nerve; I’m awaiting x-ray results. I enjoy bicycling, but running is part of my identity and I am hopeful
the respite won’t last long.

Oak Leaves Expand

by Carl Strang

Last week I described the preference migrating songbirds were showing for an inferior woodland, rather than the high quality savannas at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I thought the security provided by the woodland’s buckthorn understory might be the significant factor. This week I found some support for that idea. The oaks have expanded their leaves.

Bur oak is the dominant tree in Mayslake’s savannas, followed by white oak, shagbark hickory, and Hill’s oak.

The migration is winding down, but there has been a clear shift of warblers, vireos and others into the savannas. The few remaining in the degraded woodland are species like yellow-bellied and alder flycatchers, which like low dense brush. Now that there are lots of hiding places in the oak canopy, it seems, that is the place to be.

New Plants for the List 2

by Carl Strang

Many recent additions to the Mayslake Forest Preserve species list have come from my focus on learning about sedges, grasses and rushes. I have found two species of spike rush on the preserve. Most abundant is the red-rooted spike rush.

This little plant grows in dense mats at the edges of Mayslake’s marshes and lakes, and in other wet places.

In one spot I found a second species, taller and more robust.

Known as the marsh spike rush, this one fittingly was at a marsh edge, in a patch surrounded by the previous species.

If plants can be cute, these spike rushes fit the bill. The cutest sedge to date has the charming name curly-styled wood sedge.

Easy to miss, the tufts of this plant are only a few inches tall.

The little flower clusters are only an eighth of an inch in diameter.

You have to have a magnifying glass or microscope to appreciate this plant’s name. The style is a part of the tiny female flower.

I was interested in the plants growing in a little depression where I found abundant meadow katydids last summer. One dominant plant there
keyed to the common fox sedge.

Portions of the low spot had only this species growing in them.

It is so much bigger and different looking from the curly-styled wood sedge that it is surprising that both are in the same genus.

And yet, both belong to the group of Carex sedges in which male and female flowers are combined in the flower clusters.

Soon I will be expanding my study to the grasses, as many are on the verge of flowering. One that is blooming already is the meadow foxtail.

The meadow foxtail is a Eurasian import.

The preserve plant list already has hundreds of species, and I have a long way to go.

New Plants for the List 1

by Carl Strang

How many species live in a 90-acre forest preserve? That question is part of the story of a place such as Mayslake. Here in my third growing season at that preserve, I have found more than 200 kinds of herbaceous plants, and that number continues to climb as I turn my attention to additional groups. I also find more woody plants, most recently this wayfaring tree, one of the viburnums.

This Eurasian plant is growing at the edge of 31st Street. It may have been planted there, or found its way on its own. I suppose with a name like “wayfaring tree,” the latter seems a good possibility.

The most recent forb has the charming name of Aunt Lucy.

This little annual is in the same family as the waterleaf.

More spectacular is the shooting star.

It had a chance to shine this year after the controlled burn cleared the way.

Of course, my focus this year is on grasses, sedges and rushes, and I will share some progress on them tomorrow.

Redwing and Spider

by Carl Strang

Earlier this week I was looking at a red-winged blackbird which, on the surface, was a female. Then I had to do a double-take when I saw some red in the wing.

You can just see the red, on either side of the obscuring plant stem.

This in fact was a yearling male, not yet in his mature plumage. I had thought at first that this was a female with nestlings, because of the food it was carrying. What is that food item, anyway?

Thanks to the ease of digital photograph manipulation, it’s clear the prey is a spider.

Perhaps I will know enough about spiders at some future point to identify this one. Photography has much to offer in food web assembly. After I took these photos the bird flew beyond my ability to follow it, so I didn’t get any more insight as to why it was carrying the spider.

Resolving the Green Mass

by Carl Strang

How do you perceive the wild landscape around you? There’s no correct answer to this question. Even professional ecologists wear blinders or, at least, view the world through the filters of their experience and biases. Speaking for myself, as a terrestrial vertebrate ecologist I am ignorant of much of what is going on beneath the surface of the water. I can sympathize with those who view vegetation as an undifferentiated green mass.

However, I have spent some time studying insect-plant interactions. I have seen how plant-eating insects are dietary specialists to various degrees, and the literature has enlightened me on how plant chemical defenses force this specialization. Insects that eat forbs typically are limited to a single species or group of closely related species. Because woody plants commonly defend themselves with tannins, insects that go after woody plants often have broader diets. Such patterns enrich my understanding of ecosystems, and inform my understanding of vertebrate ecology. Animals which eat plants or insects are influenced by what is going on between plants and insects. Plant diversity leads to insect diversity leads to terrestrial vertebrate diversity. A consequence of all of this is that I have learned to identify woody plants and forbs, and so no longer view those many kinds of plants as a green mass.

Now I am trying to go farther, by studying the non-forb herbs. I want to improve my understanding of grasses, sedges and other plants of that ilk. It begins with learning to identify them and grasping their local biodiversity. The process particularizes the remaining green mass. Lately I’ve been focusing on sedges at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I found a species with an amazing ecological range, from partly shaded woodlands to open prairies and marsh edges.

This I have identified as the common wood sedge, Carex blanda. If I am correct in assigning all these plants to this same species, the ones growing in more open environments are a little larger, and the clusters of male flowers at the ends of the stalks are on slightly longer stems. Note that the female flowers are segregated onto separate clusters below the male flowers.

Another sedge is somewhat more restricted ecologically, and so is less common.

This one keys to Carex pellita, the broad-leaved woolly sedge. Again the male and female flowers are segregated, but the scale is larger, so that the plant is taller, the flower clusters longer. The plant also is more erect in its stance. This species is limited to edges of marshes and wet prairies at Mayslake.

Another marsh edge species remains unidentified.

Here each flower cluster contains both male and female flowers, the females at the tips and the males below them.

This one would key strongly to Carex sartwellii, the running marsh sedge, except that it appears to grow in tufts rather than from runners. I hope to get some resolution as the seeds mature. The point is that I am gaining enlightenment about the diversity and habitat specificity of this group of plants. Bit by bit, the green mass is resolving to a mosaic of separate species, allowing me to build an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the Mayslake landscape.

Another Mystery Death

by Carl Strang

Perhaps the question has occurred to you: moving through a wild landscape you see so many animals and signs of their activity. You know they all die, sooner or later. Why do we so seldom see the bodies? Part of the answer, I think, is that some animals die in hidden places, knowing they are vulnerable from illness or injury and wanting to avoid predators. Others are killed by predators and consumed. Scavengers can make quick work of corpses. Still, if you spend enough time in the out-of-doors, especially off trail, you will find bodies. Here is a recent example from Mayslake Forest Preserve.

This fox squirrel was beneath an oak in the north savanna. If I had stuck to the trails I never would have found it.

There was no sign of violence that I could see. I noticed fur missing from the squirrel’s belly.

One possibility was mange, or another hair-loss illness.

When I rolled the body with a stick, I saw that this was a mother squirrel. The hair was a normal loss around the nipples. Sadly, this implied that there were baby squirrels in a nest whose survival was unlikely, though this was near the time of weaning. There is a story here, but I don’t have the skill to discern more of it.

Some Birds Prefer the Savanna

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I made a case for why migrant birds may prefer a habitat that, from an ecologist’s perspective, would seem inferior. But at Mayslake Forest Preserve, a few migrants have shown a preference for the more open savanna. It’s no surprise that one of these is the clay-colored sparrow.

This bird often forages on the ground, and prefers more open savanna habitats.

Somewhat more of a head scratcher last week was a prothonotary warbler.

This beautiful bird, the first of its kind I’ve seen at Mayslake, foraged and sang its way through the oak canopy of the north savanna.

I have come to think of prothonotary warblers as streamside skulkers. This one seemed uncharacteristically exposed in the oaks. On the other hand, it remained within 75 meters of Mayslake’s stream and lakeshore, and never went into the upper canopy, so I am left with simply an expanded understanding of this uncommon warbler’s capabilities.

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