Sound Ideas: The Edge

by Carl Strang

This recording is my narration of a true story, perhaps the most profound experience of my graduate study seasons in western Alaska. Fair warning, it goes more than 15 minutes, but many have told me it is worth it.

The bluffs, summer

The bluffs, summer

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tent frame, our field home

Tent frame, our field home

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Cut-leaved Teasel in Winter

by Carl Strang

When it comes to winter botany, some plants essentially vanish, others can be difficult to connect to their growing-season form, but then there are what I call cognates, the species that are so unchanged from their summer shape that we have no trouble recognizing them. Cut-leaved teasel is one of these.

The basic form of the head was established when it was flowering.

The basic form of the head was established when it was flowering.

Teasel in bloom

Teasel in bloom

The stems retain their spines in winter, and the leaves show their divided form.

Not a huggable plant.

Not a huggable plant.

Not huggable indeed, and one of our most undesirable invasive plants.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Our two species of kinglets are early season migrants. Today’s featured species usually shows up a little later than the golden-crowned kinglet.

Kinglet, Ruby-crowned

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

I have seen this little northern-breeding bird in migrations, in northern IL and IN. Usually they travel in flocks. In 1986 they moved north later than golden-crowned kinglets, in mid-late April, mainly, in DuPage County.

26OC86. Single seen in brush at Willowbrook.

18AP87. First of year seen at Dunes State Park, IN. Has louder, harsher voice than golden-crowned. More chatter. Resembles goldfinch with a burr.

24AP87. Pratts Wayne Woods (Prairie Path). Moving from bush to bush. No vocalizations. Also, little or no probing; foraging by sight only.

21AP89. First migrants of year seen in the little park across from the Newberry Library, Chicago.

22AP89. Both kinglets at Willowbrook, using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit. Also, this is the kinglet with the song, high and thin, that has one section of accelerating notes flowing into a “chee-chee-per-chi-bee” section.

24AP89. Still at Willowbrook.

25AP89. Lots of them at Willowbrook today. First warm early morning of the year.

26AP89. A few present at Willowbrook.

3MY89. Still a few.

21OC89. Present in West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Has song “tsee-tsee-…(accelerating)…tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee.”

15OC90. Ruby-crowned kinglets at Willowbrook.

23SE91. IL Beach State Park. Kinglet in black oak, reaching, lunging, and very short-flight hover gleaning. 3-12″ per move, less than 0.5 second per perch.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived.

20AP99. Ruby-crowneds are showing their red crests today (first time since they started arriving), defending little feeding areas along the stream at Willowbrook. Flycatching and flush-pursuit foraging.

21AP99. Today they still are foraging with much aerial pursuit, but are moving together in groups. No crests showing.

7MY99. A second major wave of ruby-crowned kinglets, probably females, at Willowbrook. None seen after this date that spring.

1&11OC99. Migrants at Willowbrook.

12AP00. Migrants at Willowbrook, singing occasionally.

16AP00. Willowbrook. Several ruby‑crowned kinglets on the preserve, some singing. Two observed showed much more flycatching than golden‑crowneds showed this spring, and some hover‑gleaning. Longer pauses on each perch while searching for an insect to pursue.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

14OC00. The past week at Willowbrook, and today at Fermilab, ruby-crowneds foraging mainly in prairie areas with scattered shrubs, concentrating on the shrubs but occasionally visiting goldenrods as well. This open area foraging contrasts with their usual spring woodland preference. Golden-crowneds this fall have been sticking to the woodlands.

7AP01. A couple ruby-crowns seen among numerous golden-crowns at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. One of them occasionally sang.

20OC01. A kinglet foraging alone in a tall herbaceous patch (mainly goldenrods that have gone to seed) at McKee Marsh. I have seen several others behaving similarly the past couple of weeks. It flies from stalk to stalk, perching just below the seed/flower heads and looking all around, apparently for insects. Occasionally makes a hover-gleaning move, often against a seed head.

13OC02. An individual giving a quick, 2-noted call similar to chattering of house wren or perhaps yellowthroat.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of the ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico

23OC07. Fullersburg. A ruby-crowned flashed red in a brief squabble with another.

9AP13. Mayslake. A ruby-crowned kinglet was perched in place and chattering much like an irritated house wren.

Literature Review: Plant-Pollinator Ecology

by Carl Strang

Bombus impatiens queen on red clover flower head

Bombus impatiens queen on red clover flower head

Soon we’ll have flowers blooming and bees buzzing. Here are some studies of interactions between plants and their insect pollinators from last year:

Burkle, Laura A., John C. Marlin, and Tiffany M. Knight. 2013. Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science 339:1611-1615. They studied forest understory pollinators around Carlinville, IL, not far from St. Louis, comparing present-day species to those documented by a researcher in the late 1800’s. They found that 50% of bee species have gone extinct there. Changes have included the conversion of most forest and prairie land to agriculture, and an increase of 2°C in spring and fall temperatures which has resulted in phenological mismatches. Focusing on the interactions of forest floor forbs and bees, they found that only 24% of the original interactions had survived, though this was compensated in part by new ones, “such that the absolute difference of interactions lost was 46%.” All 26 species of forbs have persisted. The lost bees were predominantly specialists, parasites, cavity-nesters and those whose interactions with the plants were weak because of limited phenological overlap. They found a reduction in pollinator visits per flower, and expressed concern about this, about the loss of stabilizing redundancy in the entire network, and the continued weakening of phenology matches.

Rasmussen, C, et al. 2013. Strong impact of temporal resolution on the structure of an ecological network. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81694. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081694    They looked at day-to-day changes in pollinator-plant connections in a Greenland tundra ecosystem, and compared them to the season-wide summary typical of past studies. They found that the difference is significant. Many indirect links between species that had been implied by the static network proved to be impossible in the dynamical ones because the species are active at different points in the season. The nature of generalist vs. specialist species also becomes transformed because of the limited phenological availabilities of the various species. Their methods involved a focus on a 500m x 500m study area, with randomly selected plants (or 5x5cm clusters where individual plants were difficult to separate), observed for 40-minute intervals.

Eggs, B., and D. Sanders 2013. Herbivory in spiders: the importance of pollen for orb-weavers. PLoS ONE 8(11): e82637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082637 They looked at the diets of juveniles in two species of orb-weavers, and found that pollen, ingested when the spiders recycled their webs, made up 25% of their diet. Flying insects (flies and hymenoptera) made up most of the rest. The pollen ingestion was not incidental, as the spiders deliberately use an external digestive process to consume pollen grains too large to be eaten without such treatment. They regard these spiders as omnivores rather than carnivores.

Clarke, Dominic, Heather Whitney, Gregory Sutton, and Daniel Robert. 2013. Detection and learning of floral electric fields by bumblebees. Science 340:66-69. They showed experimentally that bumblebees can read electrical information from flowers. The bees themselves transfer electrons that quickly can change flowers’ electrical fields, so that bees can read which flowers have or have not been visited recently by others. Intrinsic electrical qualities also can be added to color and shape to help bees identify flower species and suitability for visits.

More Mayslake Mammal Action

by Carl Strang

As the snow rapidly melts away, mammals have adjusted. Meadow voles used the snow to advance their tunnel network into the lawns, but these now are exposed.

The voles had to retreat to more sheltered runways.

The voles had to retreat to more sheltered runways.

The voles’ larger relatives, the muskrats, at last are getting some open water to work in.

This one was quick to take advantage of the first few square feet of open water to appear in the parking lot marsh.

This one was quick to take advantage of the first few square feet of open water to appear in the parking lot marsh.

Coyotes now find the going easier.

This one’s muddy feet left a trail easy to see on the black-sealed pavement.

This one’s muddy feet left a trail easy to see on the black-sealed pavement.

Close-up of hind and front footprints

Close-up of hind and front footprints

Rabbits are better camouflaged now, but they have lost some of their advantage as the running surface hardens.

This cottontail lost a race with a coyote.

This cottontail lost a race with a coyote.

And I am happy to add myself to the list of mammals glad to see the snow departing.

Sound Ideas: Early Season Katydids

by Carl Strang

The start of the singing insect season still is a couple months away, but among the early species will be the three katydids I am featuring today. They are relatively hardy, hatching very early in the spring and developing quickly. Two of them, Roesel’s katydid and the protean shieldback, are known as predaceous katydids, and their dietary focus on animals is what allows them to get going so early. The gladiator meadow katydid is the earliest of its species group to hatch, and so the earliest to begin singing. The meadow katydids are generalists, and the gladiator probably has a greater proportion of animal foods in its diet than the others. Roesel’s katydid is a European species, introduced in the Montreal area and spreading south, east and west from there.

Roesel’s is the only katydid in the Chicago area with a color pattern anything like this.

Roesel’s is the only katydid in the Chicago area with a color pattern anything like this.

Its song is a long, fast, constant buzz:

I am at an age where I have a little more difficulty hearing this one each year. The pitch rises with temperature, and on a hot mid-day I now need the SongFinder pitch-altering device to hear individuals that are audible in the morning and late afternoon.

The protean shieldback, like Roesel’s katydid, is a species of the meadows, but also is common in brushy areas and open woodlands.

Protean shieldback female. This is a relatively heavy-bodied katydid

Protean shieldback female. This is a relatively heavy-bodied katydid

Its song is an extended buzz, but has much more of a slower, rattling quality than Roesel’s song.

It is not as loud as it may seem from the recording, but is not really difficult to hear. The protean shieldback begins singing in mid- to late afternoon, and continues into the night.

The gladiator meadow katydid is similar in appearance to other large meadow katydids.

This photo shows why the meadow katydids once were known as “long-horned grasshoppers.”

This photo shows why the meadow katydids once were known as “long-horned grasshoppers.”

The gladiator meadow katydid’s variation on the generalized tick-and-buzz meadow katydid song pattern de-emphasizes the tick portion. I often don’t notice ticks at all, though they may be softly produced more often than I suspect, as in the following recording:

The buzz is similar in quality to the protean shieldback’s song, but it is shorter in length, rhythmically produced, and the volume rises at the end.

Hispid Sunflower in Winter

by Carl Strang

Our wild sunflowers are composites that mostly are perennials with flower heads somewhat reminiscent of, but much smaller than, those of the annual garden sunflower. The hispid sunflower grows in savannas to open woodlands.

As you can see, the disk portion of the head is minuscule compared to that of the garden species.

As you can see, the disk portion of the head is minuscule compared to that of the garden species.

The rays are lost in winter, of course. The heads expand a bit as the seeds mature.

The heads remain less than an inch across.

The heads remain less than an inch across.

Note the curling, narrowly pointed bracts on the undersides of the heads. The sandpapery roughness of the upper stem is just visible on the far right one.

A few of the opposite leaves are retained.

A few of the opposite leaves are retained.

This species forms colonies that can become several feet across.

Striped Skunk Dossier

by Carl Strang

As striped skunks complete their mating season, this seems an appropriate time to share my dossier of observations on the species.

Skunk, Striped

Striped skunk

Striped skunk

I rarely saw skunks around Culver as a child, perhaps because of their nocturnal activity pattern. Saw one on a road south of town near S.R. 110 while on a run, at dusk, as a teenager. I took plaster castings of tracks at the Bird Sanctuary, Culver Military Academy. Later I saw some in the early evening, visiting picnic grounds at the state park on South Mountain in Pennsylvania. They moved with a somewhat rolling, unhurried walk. Individuals brought to Willowbrook in live traps almost invariably spray as soon as the trap is opened. The spray has a very sticky, lasting quality, and causes a sickening sensation when fresh and concentrated. Youngsters discover their spray ability when 6-9 weeks old. The distinctive black and white color pattern almost certainly is aposematic. That pattern is highly variable in detail, i.e., width and length of stripe, amount of white on head, and number and position of scattered small white spots. The skin beneath is white or black, corresponding to the fur color. Stomping, used as a threat, essentially is an emphatic dancing from one front foot to the other. It is employed against both conspecifics (littermates) and potential predators. The tracks have 5 toes showing, both front and back feet. In suitable substrates, the toenails of the front feet register distinctively distant from the ends of the toes. When toenail marks are missing, the track gives the impression of a miniature cat track (though with the extra toe). Generally, the entire footprint appears as a solid, unlobed block; creases across the soles of the feet are evident in medium-consistency substrates. Tracks rarely are encountered, however. Apparently there is very little activity in winter.

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

17/18FE86. I followed a fresh skunk trail. Gaits in deep snow (4-8″) were diagonal walk and lope, primarily, on an early spring ramble. This skunk ate some mushy crabapples from the previous fall. It went about half a mile on Willowbrook preserve plus an unknown distance on adjacent properties. The den (near Willowbrook picnic grounds) was a tunnel dug in a well-drained location, on an east-facing slope, sheltered by a crabapple. Tracks suggest it was shared with 1-2 cottontails.

4NO86. Diagonal walk in mud, probably the same skunk described in the previous account, at rehab area west gate.

28NO86. Sand seems to stick unusually well to the flat soles of a skunk’s feet, deposited on sticky mud to form roundish or oval spots of sand grains (Culver Fish Hatchery).

29NO86. Memorial Forest near Culver. Lope (bound?) In sand, 6″ between sets of tracks, each set 12″ long.

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

28JA87. One or perhaps more than one skunk on walkabout last night in Willowbrook Back 40. Paths extremely convoluted and interweaving, not enough time to sort them out. No skunk came out of the picnic grounds burrow.

3FE87. Skunk on walkabout again, same area. Suddenly it seemed to be taking great leaps. The snow crust froze in open spots at night, so the skunk did not break through in those places.

5FE87. Skunk pulled dead shrew (previously cached by fox) to center of trail but left it.

27OC87. A skunk ran across the road in our Warrenville neighborhood (Summerlakes subdivision) in early evening (around 6pm). It elevated the middle of its tail, giving it a strange, double-humped appearance.

18OC88. In Cactus Camp prairie, tracks show where a skunk dug out a yellow jacket nest recently. A few wasps still were flying in and out.

12JA89. A dead skunk on Park Boulevard at Willowbrook, came out mid-winter.

8SE89. Skunk diagonal walk, flat soft topsoil. Hind foot landing in front of and slightly overlapping front foot. HF 1-5/16″ wide x 1.25″ long.

8JA90. Willowbrook. On the night of the 5th or 6th, a skunk was out. Those were warm nights.

7MR90. Willowbrook. Skunks have been very active the past couple of nights. One has a burrow at the south edge of Willowbrook preserve, south of the stream. They made a couple stream crossings (water, not ice). One of these continued straight north all the way across the preserve.

Typical bounding gait pattern

Typical bounding gait pattern

1SE90. As I ran on the Prairie Path in Warrenville near the library in early evening, what appeared to be a large cat emerged from the vegetation at the side and then stopped in the middle of the path as I approached. Thinking to frighten it out of the way, I began to snap my fingers and accelerated. The cat was strange…it seemed to change shape. Then I saw the stripes and quickly backpedaled. It was a family of skunks, so tight together they seemed one animal in the distance in the dim light. There were at least 3 young with the mother. They had stopped and faced me, partly lifting their tails, all of which made the stripes easy to see even in the darkness. After I backed off they continued on their way.

25FE99. I found a skunk den in the far NE corner of the new Willowbrook preserve addition, under a pile of stacked old telephone pole segments. As many as 4 skunks were active on the preserve the previous night.

16FE00. A skunk on walkabout at Willowbrook last night, the first sign of skunk activity this winter there.

12SE05. Caesar Creek campground, southeastern Ohio. There is much evidence of skunks in the area. In the dusk, a large beautiful individual whose broad back stripes had joined, giving it a white back with just a little black between on the lower back, passed my campsite. Later in the dark, a smaller individual was digging grubs in the lawn of the adjacent campsite. This one was all black with a tuft of white on the head and another at the tip of the tail. It turned away when I shined a light in its eyes, coming as close as 15 feet. It moved slowly, its head sweeping back and forth sniffing, but when finding something to dig it moved quickly, excavating and moving on within about 3 seconds. The next morning I took photos of some of the holes, and of a pile of scats. The holes were mostly neat, ½” diameter, dug out on one side with toenail marks clear, occasional larger ones up to 2” diameter. The scats were stacked weasel fashion, each ½” diameter X 2” long, 3 pieces, one broken with a tiny root sticking out.

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

19JA11. Mayslake. From the night before last, which was the warmest this month (only dropping into the 20’sF), tracks of a skunk. It may have originated from the known den in the north stream corridor. Its winding trail covered much of the north stream corridor prairie, parts of the main prairie, cut from the small savanna at the north end of the prairie across the driveway’s turning circle into the strip of vegetation along the west edge of the preserve, wound through that as it worked its way north, eventually crossed the driveway again at the 31st Street Woods, and continued heading east along the north end of the parking lot marsh.

21JA11. Mayslake. I went to the known skunk den hole in the north stream corridor to see if it was the home of the skunk I tracked 2 days ago. It had not been entered or exited. I picked up the skunk’s trail where it had gone around the N end of the parking lot marsh, and followed it to a hole in the top of the ridge between that marsh and the stream (created when the marsh was excavated), and even with the marsh’s center. It appeared that the skunk had emerged and entered the hole, but the tracks were obscured by large ice crystals developing around the hole’s edge.  Later it occurred to me how unusual those crystals were. Are they growing on moisture from the skunk’s breath?

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

23FE11. Mayslake. For a time I mistook a skunk’s trail for that of a mink. What threw me off was the first impression, where the toes spread an unusual amount in thin snow over slick ice. I failed to attend the other tracks carefully enough for a long time, though I was somewhat bothered by the long toenails and the animal following the trail rather than the lake edge. As I approached the den near the friary site I saw similar tracks, confirmed much coming and going and digging at that den, then went back and found that if I had paid closer attention to all the footprints I had been following, I would have realized sooner that they were skunk tracks. The main underlying condition was the thin layer of snow over ice, with enough of a percentage of round-looking tracks resulting to sustain my error.

Literature Review: Inside the Earth

by Carl Strang

Sea cliffs, Adak Island. Formations like this have inspired scientists to discover the dynamics of the Earth that produced them.

Sea cliffs, Adak Island. Formations like this have inspired scientists to discover the dynamics of the Earth that produced them.

Naif, S., K. Key, S. Constable, R. L. Evans. 2013. Melt-rich channel observed at the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary. Nature  495 (7441): 356 DOI: 10.1038/nature11939  As described in a ScienceDaily article. They found a previously unknown layer of magma in the upper mantle which apparently is the lubricant for tectonic motion of crustal plates.

Livermore, P.W., R. Hollerbach and A. Jackson. 2013. Electromagnetically driven westward drift and inner-core superrotation in Earth’s core. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1307825110  From a ScienceDaily article. The solid iron inner core of the Earth, about the size of our moon, rotates to the east but at a faster speed than the planet as a whole. The outer core, also of iron but liquid, rotates slowly to the west. These dynamics result in the planet’s geomagnetic field, which itself rotates very slowly to the west. At the same time, the field produces the observed motions of the two parts of the core.

Kerr, Richard A. 2013. The deep Earth machine is coming together. Science 340:22-24. In this news review article, Kerr reports on progress geologists are making in understanding and mapping out details of the planet’s mantle. It is increasingly understood to be a complex mix of descending crustal slabs from plate boundaries, various masses of somewhat mysterious deep matter, and rising plumes from the deep mantle. This mapping is difficult and produces some contention over results, but consensus is growing. Plumes are recently accepted by many as existing, and accounting for a variety of phenomena including the Hawaiian Islands, the extraordinary eruption history of the Yellowstone area, Iceland’s volcanism, and the large volcanic traps eruptions involved in some of the massive species extinction events (most notably the end-Permian one). At present there are two very large “piles” of deep matter, one centering in the equatorial Pacific Ocean region, and one extending down the west coast of Africa and into the ocean to its south, with which are associated most of the active hot spots (mainly around their edges) and, in the African one, concentrations of diamond-bearing Kimberlites. The descending “curtains” of plate edges from subduction zones may be driving the movements and concentrations of different materials in various depths of the mantle. Heat from the core interacts with these materials in ways that remain to be determined.

Sound Ideas: Garlic Mustard-O

by Carl Strang

The snow is melting, and before too long the warmth of the new season will bring its gardening and restoration tasks. These include the weeding of garlic mustard.

This invasive biennial is a bane of woodland restorations.

This invasive biennial is a bane of woodland restorations.

As researchers have found (and I have illustrated through this blog), well established stands of garlic mustard can be killed by mass cutting of the tops close to the ground as they are about to flower. Hand pulling is effective, but only efficient when scattered plants have begun to appear. Hence this week’s song still has some relevance:

Garlic Mustard-O by Carl Strang copyright © 2006

Here is a spot, a nasty little spot, it’s filled with the garlic mustard-o.

My arms are torn, and I am so forlorn, for I’m pulling in the black raspberry-o.

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