SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

Advertisements

OK, Spring

by Carl Strang

In my idiosyncratic 6-season calendar, Late Winter begins March 1, and ends on the day that I see the first native wildflower blooming away from the warming influence of buildings. Last week that criterion was met when I saw a spring beauty flowering in Parson’s Grove at Danada Forest Preserve. This was a little earlier than usual, but we’ve had plenty of warm weather to date, so that is to be expected.

Spring beauty, though not this year’s first. Didn’t have a camera on me.

Spring beauty, though not this year’s first. Didn’t have a camera on me.

Yesterday many spring beauties were in bloom at St. James Farm as well.

 

Spring at Last

by Carl Strang

My own idiosyncratic reckoning gives us 6 seasons in the Chicago area: spring, summer, fall, early winter, mid-winter and late winter. Subjectively, at least, winter seems to take up half the year, and that was truer this year than most. Late winter begins March 1, but its length varies greatly from year to year. My equally subjective designation of the first day of spring is when I see the first native wildflower blooming away from buildings. This year, as it happens, that date was my birthday, April 17, and was marked by two of the 3 usual species.

I saw spring beauties first. For once, the delicate pink of the flower is not overexposed in this image.

I saw spring beauties first. For once, the delicate pink of the flower is not overexposed in this image.

Some common blue violets were intermixed with the spring beauties.

Some common blue violets were intermixed with the spring beauties.

Though many individuals had open flowers that day, cold weather had held them back from opening sooner. The third species, which sometimes blooms first, is the white trout lily. Though abundant leaves were up by the 17th, I did not see flowers until Monday of this week.

Ephemeral Senescence

by Carl Strang

One of my winter projects has been to study the herbaceous plants, so see how they might be identified in the snowy season. There have been many posts on that subject here over the past few winters. As I run down the list of species at Mayslake Forest Preserve, though, there are many I have not been able to find. Therefore I am trying to keep mindful of them this growing season, to follow their careers and see what becomes of them.

One group of plants in this category are the spring ephemerals, the woodland plants that send up shoots at the beginning of the growing season, bloom, set seeds, and finish as the forest canopy closes and light becomes greatly diminished at ground level. Some of the Mayslake species in this category are spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort, and white trout lily.

A trout lily blooms on April 22.

A trout lily blooms on April 22.

The bottom line is that these plants withdraw to their roots and cut off their tops, which wither and are recycled by the efficient decomposers in the soil. This is true even of the trout lilies, whose leaves are thick and waxy.

The trout lily tops were well into their senescence on May 20.

The trout lily tops were well into their senescence on May 20.

This past week I looked, but failed to see any sign of the trout lilies where they had been so thick just a few weeks earlier. The same is true of the entire category of spring ephemerals. Here, then quickly gone…except that the roots or bulbs persist beneath the soil, patiently waiting for another year to pass.

Spring

by Carl Strang

By my own subjective criteria, I have to declare that spring finally arrived, with a whimper, on April 16. I wasn’t at Mayslake Forest Preserve that day to see it, but the next day was a cold one, and it was clear that a few trout lilies and spring beauties had bloomed but then closed up in the lowered temperature. The weather stayed cold then, and so it wasn’t until Monday of this week that spring was manifestly present. One of its heralds was a patch of white trout lilies.

A representative bloom.

A representative bloom.

Spring beauties were scattered in little patches across the savanna.

Pink guidelines point the way to the flower’s center.

Pink guidelines point the way to the flower’s center.

A bonus was a colony of bloodroots.

They formed a circle reminiscent of a fairy ring.

They formed a circle reminiscent of a fairy ring.

That warm day also brought the first green darner dragonfly, and mourning cloak and cabbage white butterflies. We haven’t seen the last of the cool weather, but winter appears to be done.

The Soil Computer

by Carl Strang

The recent moderation in temperature at last makes it seem like spring is nearly here. How do you decide that winter is done and spring has arrived? I don’t know about you, but for me the astronomical or calendar spring doesn’t cut it. In the Chicago area it seldom feels like spring, yet, at the equinox. That leaves us with subjective measures, which can be different for every person. There are all kinds of signs and indicators we might use. I am outside during my lunch break at Mayslake Forest Preserve most days of the week, so I know that I will find my measure of spring there. At first I considered the date when the ice is off the lakes, but that varies wildly and inconsistently among years.

Mays’ Lake on March 19. Mays’ Lake was clear soon after, but a shelf of ice persisted on Trinity Lake several days more.

Mays’ Lake on March 19. Mays’ Lake was clear soon after, but a shelf of ice persisted on Trinity Lake several days more.

This year Trinity Lake was not clear until March 29, 11 days later than the previous record in my 5 years at that preserve. My next thought was to look at the phenology data, and here I found something more satisfactory. There are 3 flowering plants that consistently bloom earlier than the others (not counting horticultural imports). Looking back over the records, whichever of those three I find blooming first could well mark the start of spring. Here they are:

Common blue violet

Common blue violet

Spring beauty

Spring beauty

White trout lily

White trout lily

This measure takes advantage of the soil computer. The soil adds up the degree-days of heat, influenced by the warmth of the days, the cold of the nights, and the depth of the snow. Eventually that sum produces an output, expressed by the plants when the soil warms enough for them to grow and to bloom. By this date last year, all three of the indicator species were blooming for more than a week and a half at this point. This year, they still are still some days away. That fits for me, subjectively, because I’m not feeling spring, yet.

Bloomin’ Early

by Carl Strang

With a string of record highs, and temperatures remaining warm overnight, the degree-days have accumulated to the point where lots of plants are flowering already. Usually I don’t have much to say about phenology until the end of April, but this year it is clear that many species will be showing their earliest flowers of the past four years at Mayslake Forest Preserve by a significant amount. Today I’ll share a few of these early bloomers.

In previous years I hadn’t recorded the first flowering date for weeping willows, but they were going full blast last week.

Another woody plant that opened flowers last week was the wild plum.

These flowers have superior ovaries, though it isn’t obvious until you dissect one.

Spring beauties are expected to be among the first native wildflowers to bloom, but not in March!

Already by March 10 they were abundant on the savanna hillside below the former friary.

Swamp buttercups also were earlier than in past years.

I am having to brush off my identification skills earlier than expected.

Today’s final species is a new one for the preserve list, a product of my altering survey routes from past routines.

The hairy bitter cress is a weedy plant, nothing spectacular, but any new species is stimulating.

Next week I’ll provide the statistics quantifying this year’s difference from the previous three.

First Flowers

by Carl Strang

Spring advances, despite the unpleasant weather that has denied our enjoyment of much of it so far. As I have sloshed through the rain and the mud at Mayslake Forest Preserve, I have been finding the first of the woodland wildflowers, so I guess it hasn’t really been as cold as I have thought.

Bloodroots have been blooming for what seems an extended period, though. Perhaps the temperatures have been marginal for them.

Lots of spring beauties have taken advantage of last fall’s burn in the south savanna.

These haven’t hit their peak, yet.

Views of pollinators still have been few.

In addition to this bee fly, I have seen the first of the year’s queen Bombus impatiens bumblebees.

The expansion of the Dutchman’s breeches population is gratifying.

These make me smile whenever I see them.

Ongoing restoration clearing of buckthorn has shown the quickest response by trout lilies, which now can be found in great numbers in many places on the preserve.

Their flowers haven’t been open on many days, yet, needing temperatures above 50F or so.

It’s a little early yet to do a serious phenological comparison, but so far, compared to the last two years at Mayslake, first flower dates in 2011 have been the earliest for one species, latest for 2 species, and between those of 2009 and 2010 for 5 species.

Early Flowers

by Carl Strang

The spring of 2009 was remarkable for its rain and low temperatures. This year has been much warmer so far, and the early first flowering dates at Mayslake Forest Preserve have been reflecting that difference. Spring beauties were the first forbs to bloom this year, 18 days ahead of last year.

Soon they were followed by last year’s earliest, common blue violets, which began flowering 9 days before the first one last year.

White trout lilies showed their usual amazing rapid appearance, their colorful mottled leaves followed closely by their initial blooms. Their first flowers appeared 11 days earlier than in 2009.

I have found only one little colony of bloodroot on the preserve. It did not flower last year, but this year was different.

The most recent new flowers were on this winter cress.

These were 14 days ahead of the first flowering date for that species last year. Mayslake also has a legacy of introduced domestic or garden plants, and these, too, are responding to the rapid increase in soil temperature. I found Siberian squills flowering 27 days ahead of last year’s first date.

I will continue to follow the phenology of flowering at Mayslake. The typical pattern is for early species to reflect the weather of the current year, but as summer progresses the differences between years tend to diminish.

Bee Fly

by Carl Strang

Recently I saw the first bee flies of the season at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Sources agree that the common species in North America, including northeast Illinois, is Bombylius major.

Beefly 2b

They are remarkable looking, with their densely hairy round bodies and long, needle-shaped proboscis. The proboscis is not for biting people, but for probing flowers. One of the ones I saw in late April was visiting spring beauty flowers south of May’s Lake. They are active early in the season, when conserving the heat from the muscles that power their blurring wings would be a valuable property of that fur-like body covering. Here is another, photographed from behind at an angle.

Bee fly flight b

It was hovering over the trail, holding still long enough for me to take this tele-macro photo, and also to lead me to think there was some kind of displaying or patrolling taking place. Looking back at my brief dossier  on the species, I see that I have observed this behavior before.

5MY87. Showing territorial behavior on paths of Willowbrook Back 40. Rest on ground, occasionally move into hovering flight, patrolling small area or chasing others.

8MY87. Still territorially active, also 14MY.

12AP88. First one of the season seen at Willowbrook.

Returning to the photo, I see that the wings were moving too rapidly for my equipment to catch. I’m interested in the legs that are sticking out in an odd asymmetry: what’s with that, I wonder? Another question for the file.

According to my references, the larvae are parasites of ground-nesting bee larvae.

I should add the caveat that my identification is not based on the keying out of collected specimens. All the references I have at my limited disposal point to these insects being Bombylius major. They have the long proboscis, the round yellow-haired bodies, the same black pattern on the wings, and the correct body size as shown in references. They are widespread and common every spring in DuPage County. If there are other similar species of bee flies that need to be considered, I would appreciate hearing about it.

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: