Edging into Autumn at SJF

by Carl Strang

October is the main transitional month from summer to winter, and this has been evident at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Insects continue to be active, holdouts of the warm months.

Autumn meadowhawks have been one example.

Autumn meadowhawks have been one example.

Plants shift their resources into their roots, shutting down their leaves for the coming winter drought. The process produces the color that characterizes the fall.

The beautiful subtle browns of the prairie grasses are upstaged by the brilliant maples and other trees.

The beautiful subtle browns of the prairie grasses are upstaged by the brilliant maples and other trees.

Though September is the peak migration month for birds that will winter in the tropics, those wintering in the southern U.S. pass through in October.

Sandhill cranes have begun to cross DuPage County on their way to Florida. They will continue for a couple more months.

Sandhill cranes have begun to cross DuPage County on their way to Florida. They will continue for a couple more months.

Fox sparrow, a species that nests well to the north of Illinois

Fox sparrow, a species that nests well to the north of Illinois

Diverse sparrows have been stuffing themselves with seeds in the prairies and meadows of St. James Farm and other preserves, fueling for their continued journey south. Others, such as kinglets, hermit thrushes and the fox sparrow shown above, feed in the forest. If the winter is mild, a few of these may hang around.

 

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Mayslake November Highlights

by Carl Strang

The first half of November brought reminders that life continues through autumn at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The preserve’s prairies draw flocks of goldfinches.

This messy eater enjoys some stiff goldenrod seeds.

This messy eater enjoys some stiff goldenrod seeds.

Though most plants were shutting down in keeping with the season, there were some anomalous exceptions.

This Amur honeysuckle opened a few flowers on November 4. May and June are the usual blooming months for that species.

This Amur honeysuckle opened a few flowers on November 4. May and June are the usual blooming months for that species.

Late-season insects were holding on.

The autumn meadowhawk is well named, but few are able to remain active into November.

The autumn meadowhawk is well named, but few are able to remain active into November.

At the same time, some species already are preparing for next year.

Mallard courtship is well under way, and tentative pair bonds already have formed.

Mallard courtship is well under way, and tentative pair bonds already have formed.

 

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.

Here They Are!

by Carl Strang

In a recent post I mentioned that I have not seen many meadowhawks at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Two days ago I finally found a bunch there, around the edge of the stream corridor marsh. I saw several white-faced meadowhawks.

There also were a number of autumn meadowhawks.

These latter males were, I suspect, hanging around waiting for a heavy rainstorm. On several occasions I have seen pairs of this species laying their eggs on days after late season rains, the females depositing their prospective offspring on the mud just above the waterline, instinctively trusting that spring downpours will raise the pond level enough to submerge the eggs and stimulate hatching.

That same day, up near the friary demolition site I saw a late-flying shadow darner.

And, as a non-odonate bonus, near the off-leash dog fence I spotted a persisting female fiery skipper.

I treasure these last colorful insects. Soon we enter the long season of quiet.

Some Late Season Odonata

by Carl Strang

October is not a month that comes first to mind when thinking of insects, but its first week this year has brought some new species of dragonflies and damselflies into view at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Having said that, though, I’m sure that shadow darners have been around for a while.

This one simply was the first that landed where I could get a good look at it. Those who know dragonflies associate the late part of the season with the meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum). For some reason Mayslake’s marshes don’t produce a lot of meadowhawks. I have found over the past three autumns that I can expect to see, at best, a dozen altogether. These include common species like ruby, autumn, and white-faced meadowhawks like this one.

On the other hand, for the third year in a row I have seen at least one saffron-winged meadowhawk there.

This is an uncommon species in our area, not one I would expect to see so consistently at a site. I’ll close with a species that was new not only to the Mayslake list, but new to my experience.

Spotted spreadwings are not a rare species, but I have been slow to learn about the spreadwing damselflies as a group. The spotted spreadwing is the one we are most likely to encounter in October in our area. The two black dashes on the underside of the thorax are just visible in this male and female in wheel position.

Saffron-winged Meadowhawk

by Carl Strang

It’s nice to solve a minor mystery and, in the process, gain new insights into past observations. I experienced an example of this last week after encountering an odd dragonfly at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Saffron-winged meadowhawk 6b

This small dragonfly perching on the trail near May’s Lake clearly was a meadowhawk. The abdomen, though nearly black like the rest of the insect’s body, was mainly dark red in color. I took a number of photos, and though none were perfectly sharp they allowed me to take some time with my reference books and identify it. At first I leaned toward cherry-faced meadowhawk because the dragonfly’s face was dark red, but references insisted that its abdomen should be bright red. I carefully read accounts of all the region’s meadowhawks, and found that male saffron-winged meadowhawks can become very dark with age. In the photos I found that the leading veins of the wings were dark red, the tops of the last abdominal segments were black, and the black edging on the sides of the abdomen was more in the form of a line than a string of large triangle shapes. All these characters confirmed the identification. By now my memory was prompted to go back through some photos from last year, because I remembered seeing a similarly dark meadowhawk. Here is a photo I took at Kettle Lakes Provincial Park in Ontario.

Saffron-winged  meadowhawk 2008 2b

It likewise proves to have been a saffron-winged. But I also found that I had documented another dragonfly of this species at Mayslake.

Saffron-winged Meadowhawk Mayslake 2008 3b

This last photo, from November, 2008, I took close to the location where I saw the dragonfly last week. It proves likewise to have been a saffron-winged meadowhawk. The meadowhawks as a group tend to be late-season dragonflies, but now I have the impression that the latest of them all are this one and the autumn meadowhawk (the following photo of which I took just before encountering that saffron-winged last week).

Autumn meadowhawk b

This case again vindicates my practice of photographing any dragonfly for which I have any doubt of its species identity.

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