Field Recording Methods

by Carl Strang

A recent comment by a reader reminded me that I have never explained some of my methods for preserve monitoring as I follow the continuing natural history of Mayslake Forest Preserve. Most of my observations I make during my lunch break, as I follow one of several routes I have developed to cover the 90-acre preserve. In spring and fall, when things are changing more from day to day, I sometimes will add a short morning walk on company time (preserve monitoring is one of my assignments, but not the highest priority). I carry with me binoculars, two cameras and a digital voice recorder.

Binoculars, voice recorder, and Pentax camera with telephoto lens. The other camera, a smaller Olympus model, I used to take this photo.

I take all notes with the voice recorder. It also is very good at picking up bird songs and calls, and some insect songs, which I then can compare to references if needed. The small camera is good for general snapshots, and I use it for most plant portraits.  It is not very good for telephoto work, and although it has a macro setting and takes decent close-ups, the auto focus can make the latter difficult. The Pentax camera usually bears a longer lens for telephoto opportunities. I can switch to a shorter lens for close-up macro work when hand focusing is called for.

I don’t carry a tripod, and I use the cameras’ built-in flashes, which are adequate for Internet postings and almost all my other applications. As I follow whichever route I have chosen, I count animals and note new flowers for phenology records, as well as behaviors, changes and events that collectively make up Mayslake’s ongoing story. I go out almost every day I am there, except in heavy precipitation. When I return to the office I take some time to transpose the recorded notes into my records, and these form the basis for various reports and summaries (including this blog) through which I share what I have learned.

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Experiment on Self: A Year Later

by Carl Strang

Here I am about halfway through the race.

A year ago I returned to distance running as my primary exercise after about 7 years of bicycling. I saw in the barefoot running technique the potential for a lower impact running style that would eliminate the joint problems that plagued me in my early 50’s. Hence, the experiment on self. Last spring I gave my most recent update, as injuries unrelated to running forced me back onto the bike for an indefinite period. That hiatus lasted 8 weeks, which had me close to starting over with running. I learned that my sciatic problem was the result of a deteriorating disk that had my vertebrae pinching the nerve root on my right side. Physical therapy has practically eliminated that obstacle, thanks to daily stretching and core strengthening exercises. The foot problem turned out to be two things: an arthritic toe joint, plus a neuroma (swollen nerve pinched between two foot bones). Physical therapy, in the form of ultrasound plus electrical stimulation, caused the neuroma to shrink most of the way back to normal. The arthritis mainly means I must keep that joint as straight as possible, and I have gone to stiffer soled shoes.

One of the two podiatrists I have seen during the course of this process, Dr. Brown, the one who filled the final piece of the puzzle by diagnosing the arthritis, proves to have a famous father, sadly deceased earlier in the year: Thomas Eisner. This turned up when she asked my occupation to get an idea of how I work my foot, and “naturalist” led to her revelation. Eisner was one of the world’s most distinguished entomologists, and his work touched significantly on a wide range of evolutionary and other topics.

When I started running again, I had only 8 weeks to prepare for a race I was determined to run. In the spring I had paid $60 to enter a half-marathon, and I’m frugal enough that I intended to try it no matter what. I altered my experimental running technique a little, switching to a midfoot plant instead of the barefoot technique’s forefoot plant. I still got most of the reduced impact, while minimizing the aggravation of that toe joint. By September 18, the day of the race, I had gotten my training mileage back up to 22 miles per week, about 2/3 of where it had been when I was forced to stop in the spring.

It had been years since I last raced, and the support provided in this event was eye-opening: many aid stations manned by an army of volunteers, three races run at once (my half-marathon was the shortest distance; this race is called the Fox Valley Marathon because that is the longest choice), more than 2000 runners altogether. We were given chips to put on our shoes, which are read and automatically entered into computers along the way.

Here is the chip, tied onto one of my new, stiffer soled Brooks running shoes.

I ran conservatively, and was able to finish in an hour and 55 minutes, under my target pace of 9 minutes per mile (pathetic compared to what I could do in my 20’s, but under the circumstances I’ll take it). Another nice thing about these high end races is that every finisher gets a commemorative medal. I was surprised and a little chagrined (considering the marginal training I was able to get in before race day) to find that I had placed second in my 60-64 age group. Best of all, despite the race being run almost entirely on macadam, my foot felt fine at the end. With the adjustments I’ve had to make, I have to call my experiment a qualified success. I am a runner again, though I have had to back off from the barefoot technique.

Walking Stick

by Carl Strang

As the singing insect field season winds down, I am pursuing the last of this year’s goals. One of these was to seek out tinkling ground crickets in southern Will County. I was successful in that, as described earlier. With that experience in mind, I went to one of the places in DuPage County most likely to have that species, the bluff woodlands of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. I rode my bike slowly around the 9-mile trail that runs through the preserve, taking several side trips onto service drives, with ears open. I did hear one probable tinkling ground cricket, and since have heard another in another location, but given the possible distortions of the cooler weather and the late season I will consider these tentative and try to confirm them next year.

Aside from that, and from adding a few singing insects to my species list for that preserve, the highlight came when I spotted a walking stick crossing the trail.

This is a male Diapheromera femorata, North America’s most common walking stick species.

I have seen only a few of these in DuPage County. Usually they are well up in the tree canopies. I would have missed this one if I had been riding at my normal workout speed. Impressively camouflaged, this insect not only has a stick-shaped body and legs, but the brown body and mottled femora contrast with green tibia. Quite the striking critter. I was reminded of one of my few other DuPage sightings.

The bird is a red-eyed vireo, which has caught a walking stick and is trying to figure out how to eat it.

This was a few years ago at Fullersburg Woods. The proportions and size of the prey are comparable to the one I found at Waterfall. Walking sticks are leaf-eating relatives of the katydids, crickets and grasshoppers though they have been removed to a separate, closely allied order, the Phasmida.

More Confused

by Carl Strang

I made a final attempt to photograph confused ground crickets at Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve on a recent weekend. These little guys have been great teachers, forcing me to polish my stalking skills. I had forgotten the importance of placing one’s foot or hand on the ground before putting any weight on it while taking a step, and with these crickets that is essential. Twice I got within inches of singing males, lifted leaves and saw them. The second one I was able to photograph.

This was the sharpest shot. The white palps that distinguish the confused ground cricket are visible just outside the antennae. Notice how the little guy’s tail end mimics the front end. A predator might miss a grab as a result.

Unfortunately the only sharp photo was taken from an angle that produced too much reflection from the flash, but for now it will do.

Leaf Miners in the Understory

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I reported on one of my herbivory studies at Maple and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves. Today I have the data for the first part of the other study, a decades-long following of 4 leaf miner  genera in sugar and black maples in the understories of the two forests. While attempting to photograph confused ground crickets at Warrenville Grove, I had noticed a high incidence of tent mines, produced by the micro moth Phyllonorycter clemensella.

This photo from Warrenville Grove shows many leaves with one or more Phyllonorycter mines.

Consequently I was wondering if I would find a lot of mines at my study preserves this year. In fact, Phyllonorycter incidences were relatively high in both forests, in 15 percent of understory leaves at Maple Grove and 4 percent at Meacham. Statistically there were more at Maple than at Meacham, which has been true over the years, probably because of more intensive management at the latter site (controlled burning, and culling of maple saplings). Numbers were not different from last year at Maple Grove, but there was a statistically significant increase at Meacham for this species, possibly because there was no burn last year.

The other leaf miners were present in lower numbers that were indistinguishable from last year’s values. The two species of moths in genus Caloptilia, which leave their mines early and construct little cones or boxes in the leaf lobe tips for most of their development, were more abundant at Maple Grove (8 percent incidence) than at Meacham Grove (2 percent of leaves had them). While 3 percent of leaves at Maple Grove had blotch mines of Cameraria saccharella (another tiny moth), none of the 300 leaves in the Meacham Grove sample had any (only one had a mine last year). The fourth mine is distinctive in having a winding linear form.

The linear mine is visible in the lower part of this maple leaf at Warrenville Grove. I have not reared this one; it probably is produced by a caterpillar of the non-native moth Stigmella aceris.

This one was present in low numbers that statistically were indistinguishable between the preserves (8 leaves at Maple, 1 at Meacham). In November I’ll return to assess canopy incidence of these moths.

Trailing Strawberry Bush 2011

by Carl Strang

One of my autumn rituals is to visit Meacham Grove and Maple Grove forest preserves to continue a study I began in the 1980’s, of two plants and their herbivores. One of these, which occurs only at Meacham Grove, is the trailing strawberry bush.

Trailing strawberry bush is a low, sprawling member of genus Euonymus.

Once an abundant understory plant, this species was reduced to a minor component of the forest community by the colonial caterpillars of the ermine moth, which defoliated the plants repeatedly in the 1980’s. Though I have not seen signs of that moth in years, the trailing strawberry bush has not grown much, in part because of browsing by deer, and in part because of scorching by controlled burns. No new fruits have been produced since 2000.

This year, herbivory again was minimal though a couple study patches had been browsed a little by deer. There was no burn last year, and two of the 16 study patches showed some growth, but 5 were smaller, probably because of overtopping by other plants. One of these apparently is gone as I could find no trace beneath the Virginia creeper and other plants. Mean and median measures of patch size were close to last year’s, but these are very small (median ground coverage by patches is 0.1 square meter).

There is no question that the overall floristic quality of this forest has improved thanks to the burning and other management measures, but such good work has its casualties as well. The trailing strawberry bush is not endangered there yet, but at best it is holding on.

Horlock Hill

by Carl Strang

Horlock Hill Prairie is regarded as one of the highest quality bits of dry prairie in northern Illinois. It is located right at the start of the Great Western Trail in Les Arends Forest Preserve in Kane County, and I have zipped right past it on my bike many a time without realizing its significance.

The designated natural area itself is small, at 2-3 acres, but I was impressed by the floral diversity.

Adjacent meadows and prairie restoration projects enlarge the effective area in prairie or prairie-like vegetation. In one of these I spotted a small meadow katydid which appeared at first to be a short-winged, but lacked the orange abdomen tip. He allowed me to get some photos, and when I looked at them later I was pleased to see the distinctive cerci of a straight-lanced meadow katydid.

The cerci are the little pincer-like structures at the tip of the abdomen. They are long, straight, abruptly flattened in the tips, and the small, inward-pointing tooth is near the base of each.

I found a female of this species at Mayslake Forest Preserve last year, but this is the first male I have seen. The only congeners I heard around Horlock Hill through the SongFinder were abundant short-winged meadow katydids. It was a cool, cloudy day, however, and the song of the straight-lanced is a steady uninterrupted faint buzz that may have been too faint to hear under those conditions. Certainly the short-wings were slowed quite a bit.

Otherwise the singing insects there were all of common species, except that I heard a couple probable broad-winged tree crickets. All of this points to a return to that site under warmer conditions.

Assorted Photos 2

by Carl Strang

Today I’ll share photos of some colorful insects. Fiery skippers are described in references as a southern species that sometimes appears in the North. It seems to me, though, that a year seldom goes by when I fail to see them.

I have seen fiery skippers several times at Mayslake Forest Preserve this year. This one’s on sneezeweed.

With summer waning away, it’s appropriate to begin seeing autumn meadowhawks.

AKA yellow-legged meadowhawks, for obvious reasons.

Finally I want to focus on some very small insects. They are tiny, but so abundant this year that it’s been impossible to overlook them. The shiny black beetles, each at most a couple millimeters long, first showed up in sweep nets the kids were swinging at the Forest Preserve District’s employee parent-child event at Mayslake in August. Then they were mainly in Queen Anne’s lace flowers. Lately they have shifted to goldenrods.

They plunge their heads into the little florets of this Canada goldenrod.

Their simple hump-backed oval shape, shiny elytra, and abundance all made it seem likely they should be common enough to find in references. I tried probing them, and they showed no jumping talent, so I ruled out flea beetles. I found a likely match while scanning photos representing the various families of beetles in the BugGuide website. They appear to be members of the shining flower beetle family, Phalacridae. One common genus is Olibrus.

Assorted Photos 1

by Carl Strang

Photo opportunities arise frequently during my preserve monitoring walks at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Sometimes these lead to blog posts, sometimes they simply are for identifying organisms when I’ve forgotten the distinguishing features, and sometimes they improve or add to my collection of species portraits. This week I’ll share a few of the last.

Hummingbird at cardinal flower.

That first one won’t win any photography prizes, but it does serve to document the use of one plant species for food by the bird, and the use of the bird by the plant for pollination. Another bird photo op came when I encountered a couple cooperative house wrens.

This bird adopted a humorous pose while grooming itself.

I also added to my photos of singing insects. The only picture I had of a Carolina grasshopper was one I took in Canada, and wanted a local example.

An area recently cleared of brush at the edge of the north stream corridor prairie has hosted a concentration of Carolina grasshoppers this year.

Live Tibicen cicadas usually are too high up in trees to photograph. When I found a dog day cicada singing from a tall coreopsis stem in the middle of the prairie I got a rare opportunity.

The wind was swaying the plant, so the insect isn’t perfectly sharp, but close enough for practical purposes.

More photos tomorrow.

Two Flower Flies

by Carl Strang

Fresh eyes are a huge help in preserve monitoring. I always benefit when others join my exploratory walks at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Now I have it even better, as a second naturalist now has an office at Mayslake. Nikki Dahlen has a special enthusiasm for arthropods, and the first fruits of her presence are the topic of this post. I had noticed that plenty of flower flies have been active on the preserve in recent days, but when Nikki made mention of them, I was encouraged to take a closer look. They turned out to be almost entirely in two groups, which for now I am assuming are two species. Photos were enough to identify the genera of both, and the probable species of one.

The longitudinal stripes on the thorax, yellow cross bars on the abdomen, and a peculiarity of wing venation, place this fly in genus Helophilus, but I don’t know which species.

Obviously a bee mimic, as was the case in the narcissus bulb flower fly I featured earlier in the season. The other abundant species of recent days meets the criteria for Eristalis dimidiata.

Different in color, but similar in general body shape and size to the Helophilus, Eristalis also loves flowers. Notice all the pollen stuck to it.

I look forward to additional insights from Nikki, and to seeing if these two flower flies are equally abundant in future autumns.

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