European Grasses

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I shared some newly flowering native grass species. Today I’ll shift to European imports, generally regarded as weeds. The first is decidedly unpopular.

Hairy crab grass is a familiar enemy of lawn enthusiasts. This one is growing in parking lot cracks at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Two species of foxtails also have appeared at Mayslake. The first is giant foxtail.

Not only is it relatively large, but the spikes have a distinctive droop.

More diminutive, but sharing the bushy fox’s tail impression in its spikes, is the green foxtail.

This one I found growing in mulched areas beneath trees on the mansion grounds.

None of these weedy grasses is common at Mayslake, a tribute to the work of restoration volunteers and groundskeepers.

Native Grasses

by Carl Strang

We are moving into the second half of summer, and late season prairie grasses are beginning to bloom at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Big bluestem has the tallest stature.

The stems reach above your head.

Another name for this grass is turkey foot.

The spikes radiate like a big bird’s toes.

My favorite among the common prairie grasses is Indian grass.

The beautiful color of the coppery spikelets contrasts with the yellow anthers.

Drier places in the prairie support side-oats grama.

Here the anthers are bright red.

Earlier in the season a grass began to flower that I could not identify. Now, with the seeds well developed, I find that it is an unusual species in DuPage County.

A couple clumps of slender wheat grass, Agropyron trachycaulum, are growing at the very edge of the prairie adjacent to the parking lot. I assume the seed came in with a vehicle.

It is native to the area, but apparently seldom finds suitable soil in DuPage.

Vertebrate Miscellany

by Carl Strang

Today, a few vertebrate notes from Mayslake Forest Preserve last week. The redtail youngster still is around.

Though it mainly sits perched in trees or, in this case, on a light fixture, calling frequently, occasionally it changes locations.

One skillful fisherman pulled a nice largemouth from May’s Lake despite the heat.

The bass looked to be 2 pounds or so. The man was fishing early in the morning.

Another example of fishing success was provided by a great blue heron in the stream corridor marsh.

The question is, what was the prey?

The bird was way over on the other side of the marsh. The prey was floppy when the heron shook it, shiny and smooth from the reflected light, and somewhat elongate and irregular in shape at times as the bird shifted its catch. My impression, supported by the dark color (though it was somewhat backlit) is that the prey was a bullhead, which is news because I didn’t think there were any fish in that marsh. The other possibility is a frog, which might better fit certain irregularities in its shape. I’m left with some uncertainty on this one.

Odd Plant Notes

by Carl Strang

Today I have a couple botanical notes to share. First is a plant I ran across at Mayslake which didn’t quite match up to any species’ description. The flower heads took it to the sow thistles, genus Sonchus, and the yellow heads were small, but the leaves were very odd.

The leaves had large triangular end lobes, with narrow fringes otherwise.

There were several individuals just like this, in the shaded south savanna. After weighing all the possibilities I eventually went with Sonchus asper, the spiny sow thistle. The basal lobes wrapping around the stem are rounded, with only their teeth making them look pointed. Though less spiny than is typical for this species, I attribute that as a response to the low light, limiting the plant’s resources for producing spines.

Nearby, I was struck by the lush growth of a ring of first year garlic mustard plants.

They formed a narrow zone around the scar where a pile of cleared brush was burned last winter.

The minerals leached out from the ash clearly are benefitting these plants. They also may be reaping a nutrient harvest from underground parts of plants killed or weakened by proximity to the fire. The garlic mustard plants themselves grew from seeds this spring, well after the fire had been doused; the seeds clearly could withstand the nearby heat, though any directly under the fire were destroyed.

Friary Site Prepared

by Carl Strang

Last fall I covered the demolition of the old friary at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The building had deteriorated to the point where it was an attractive nuisance.

Over the winter and early spring the site waited for the final touches.

Uneven holes marked where buried concrete had been removed.

In recent weeks the contractor finished the grading, and spread some topsoil.

The savanna is ready to expand south.

The exclusion fence was removed, but a silt fence remains to contain unprotected soil. Once the prairie seed mix has been broadcast, this place
can move on to the next stage, a living stage, of its story.

Mid-Summer Grasses and Bulrushes

by Carl Strang

Newly flowering grasses, sedges, and rushes are appearing less frequently at Mayslake Forest Preserve as we move away from spring. Also, the proportion of native grasses is increasing.

Switch grass was the first of the typical prairie tall grasses to bloom this year.

Two species of wild rye have flowered so far.

The Virginia wild rye grows in somewhat shaded areas.

Another species, the Canada wild rye, commonly occurs in more open locations.

Note the droop in the flower heads, characteristic of this species.

Barnyard grass has striking purple flowers in a spiky array.

This species occurs in more weedy situations.

Two added species of bulrushes brought the preserve’s species count to four.

Scirpus cyperinus, known as wool grass, is an impressive tall bunched bulrush. Up close, the flowers appear white-tinged.

The dark brown, spherical clusters of dark green rush spikelets are distinctive.

The bulrushes I have seen so far are visually very different from one another.

Though new species are slowing their appearance, there are more to come.

Vertebrate Notes

by Carl Strang

Today I have a few observations on vertebrate animals to report from Mayslake Forest Preserve. The first was a personal nostalgia trip as I watched a green heron foraging in the stream corridor marsh.

While green herons sometimes wade, they more often hunt from a perch.

This brought back childhood memories of watching green herons hunt from the piers at Lake Maxinkuckee in north central Indiana.

Here the heron takes aim at a tadpole or other small animal.

Nearby, at May’s Lake, I found a log protruding from the water a few feet offshore that has become a marking station for a mink.

The mink at Mayslake typically travel in the water, seldom leaving tracks on shore, so such depositions of scats are the best clue to their presence.

In recent days we have been hearing the familiar incessant complaints of a fledgling red-tailed hawk.

It frequently perches in the top of a tree.

This probably is an offspring of the same pair that nested on Mayslake preserve last year. They decided to nest elsewhere this spring, but frequent sightings hinted that their nest was nearby, and the arrival of this youngster supports that idea.

Singing Insect Season Heats Up

by Carl Strang

We have entered the part of the season when first appearances of mature singing insects accelerate. The transition in DuPage County began with the first gladiator meadow katydid singing on June 30. This was relatively early, though 9 days later than the earliest I have heard them in the 6 years of my study.

Gladiator meadow katydid.

I have to append my description of this species’ song. In the past I have said that they seldom include ticks in their song. I have been listening closely this spring, and in fact there usually are very faint ticks between the much louder buzzes. The ticks are variable. Commonly they seem to trail off from the end of a buzz rather than to lead into the next one as is typical of meadow katydids, but sometimes the latter pattern appears. Most of them have an irregular stuttering pattern in the ticks, though occasionally they are regular. The main distinction remains, however, that the ticks are very faint compared to the volume of the buzzes.

The “annual” cicadas of genus Tibicen were led in by a Linne’s cicada on July 3. The next day brought the first canicularis (dog day) cicada song, in my own yard. A lyric cicada debuted on the 11th, and finally a scissor-grinder (pruinosa) offered the first song on July 15. All of these were middle-of-the-road start dates.

Ground crickets also are due this time of year. The first was, as usual, a striped ground cricket, on July 13.

The most recent start-up was by broad-winged bush katydids, several of which were singing their short, lisping day songs at Fermilab on July 15, an early start for the species.

It’s appropriate here to remind you that I can e-mail my free guide to singing insects of the Chicago area to those who request it at my work address:

Parade Marshal

by Carl Strang

Today I step aside from the usual content of this blog (mostly; see below) to celebrate the ongoing traditions of small town America, particularly my home town of Culver, Indiana. It is prompted by pride in my father’s selection as co-marshal for the annual Lake Fest parade.

Ted Strang, settled into his jeep seat and ready to go.

Along with another surviving World War II veteran, Jim DeWitt, Dad eschewed the parade wave for a more manly straight wave to the crowd.

Though I am sure he was not fond of being a center of attention, Dad understood his symbolic role, kept his smile going and never uttered a mumble of complaint.

I was relieved that these two senior gentlemen were given chairs in the shade to watch the following train of the parade from the review stand.

Best seats in town.

The parade was a long one; it seemed that half of the town of 2000 was in it, and the other half spread out along the route to watch.

Bands, such as the local high school marching band, are a necessary ingredient.

Culver’s location on Lake Maxinkuckee is the inspiration for the annual festival.

Golf carts have become a common form of transportation in small towns. This one was dressed in a nautical theme.

The summer school at the Culver Military Academy contributes several units to the parade. The Black Horse Troop has been a part of the Academy for the greater part of a century.

As you might imagine, the horses were placed toward the end of the parade.

The festival is more than just the parade. There are footraces and other competitions.

I had to sit out the 5-mile run as the neuroma in my foot undergoes treatment.

I do have a token natural history note. I found, in a flowerbed behind the parade review stand, a number of large wasps behaving in a territorial manner.

This is not a species I have ever seen in DuPage County, Illinois. Cicada killers specialize in feeding Tibicen cicadas to their young, and live only where the soil is sandy enough for them to dig their natal tunnels.

An ex-girlfriend once delightedly, and perhaps with some accuracy, referred to Culver as “Mayberry.” Such towns still are out there.

June Phenology

by Carl Strang

Flowering phenology is connected to seasonal weather patterns. Springs that are relatively cold and late, like this year’s, delay plant growth. Median dates tend to converge as the season progresses, however, and that has been clear this year. Median first flower dates for Mayslake Forest Preserve in June were one day earlier than in 2009, 5.5 days later than in 2010. These compare to respective May values of 4 days later and 14 days later.

Newly identified plants such as the old-field panic grass of course cannot be included in these comparisons.

In May, insect species first appearances were 9 days later than in 2010, 5 days later than in 2009. Again there was a convergence with the advancement of the season, with medians for 2011 two days earlier than in 2010, 2 days later than in 2009.

The Virginia ctenucha likewise was added to the Mayslake species list this year, and so was not included in the analysis.

Year to year differences that are dramatic in the spring tend to vanish by late summer.

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