Playing Catch-up 1

by Carl Strang

Photographs have been accumulating in the blog file, but the inspiration to tie them together sensibly hasn’t come, so this week I will simply empty the file out. These all are from Mayslake Forest Preserve, and today’s collection is a miscellaneous one.

We’ve had more rain than usual this far into the summer. Here some fresh mud captured a set of chipmunk tracks.

We’ve had more rain than usual this far into the summer. Here some fresh mud captured a set of chipmunk tracks.

The parking lot marsh surprised me last week with an array of a plant new to the preserve. This is an aquatic buttercup, the yellow water crowfoot.

The parking lot marsh surprised me last week with an array of a plant new to the preserve. This is an aquatic buttercup, the yellow water crowfoot.

This has been a good year at Mayslake for a bumblebee species that varies in numbers considerably between years: Bombus auricomus. The yellow cap on the head, large size, and bold black and yellow pattern are distinctive.

This has been a good year at Mayslake for a bumblebee species that varies in numbers considerably between years: Bombus auricomus. The yellow cap on the head, large size, and bold black and yellow pattern are distinctive.

Queen Anne’s lace is blooming, and on Friday it pointed me to two arthropods new to the Mayslake list. This one has a name I like: Strangalia luteicornis. It is a woods-edge long-horned beetle whose larvae bore into woody plants including grape vines.

Queen Anne’s lace is blooming, and on Friday it pointed me to two arthropods new to the Mayslake list. This one has a name I like: Strangalia luteicornis. It is a woods-edge long-horned beetle whose larvae bore into woody plants including grape vines.

Here a northern crab spider, Mecaphesa asperata, feasts on a flower-visitor fooled by the spider’s camo.

Here a northern crab spider, Mecaphesa asperata, feasts on a flower-visitor fooled by the spider’s camo.

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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.

Eastern Cottontail Dossier

by Carl Strang

My species dossiers focus on vertebrate animals, and as there are many more birds than other terrestrial vertebrates, most of the dossiers I have shared had avian subjects. Today’s focus is a mammal.

Cottontail, Eastern

These live in weedy and brushy habitat. Occasionally enter forests, especially in fall and winter. Maintain a network of trails and runs. Have aboveground forms or beds used for much of the year, but take cover in sheltered spots (in firewood pile at Warrenville, IL, for instance, during daytime in a neighborhood with little cover) and in burrows (woodchuck burrows at Culver’s fish ponds, skunk burrow at Willowbrook), and culverts. Predators may influence this: in winter of 1998-99, cottontails seldom appeared in the open, but coyotes were omnipresent and often dug at ends of drainage culverts under the nature trail, where rabbit tracks led.

Cottontail nest, opened slightly to show hairless infant.

Young born blind and hairless. Nest in short grass areas (e.g., lawns, examples seen at Boiling Springs, PA, and in IL), in shallow depression lined and covered with a mix of fur and grass. Nest well hidden. Young become independent when about 4 inches long, when ears stand up and fur becomes shaggy. Mother simply abandons nest (normally she visits it only at night), young find their way out. Observed a youngster at Lombard, IL, learning to recognize food. Sniffed every plant, occasionally nibbling one, occasionally chewing one down to ground. Can be tame and easily caught first day or two out of nest.

Summer food green plants, for instance dandelions (watched one at Boiling Springs, PA, as it ate fruiting stalks, biting them off near ground then nibbling them into mouth endwise, seed poofing out as it reached the end). Browses in winter. In DuPage County, rose family preferred (or at least eaten first, then when other foods depleted, larger rose and Rubus stems cut to bring twig ends within reach), others eaten include twigs of maple, elm, bittersweet Solanum dulcamara, poison ivy (the last toward winter’s end). Patches of red to orange urine at this time. Bark of cherry, elm, sumac, taken in leaner winters.

Often the toenail marks are the only clear indicators of a cottontail track. The furry feet do not make a clear impression in hard soil.

Droppings distinctive, round. Tracks occasionally show the 4 nailed toes in good conditions. Hard substrates sometimes reveal 4 toenail marks in wedge shaped pattern. In snow, typically nothing more than round depressions for front feet, elongate ones for hind feet. Rarely anything but a gallop gait with one front foot in front of the other.

16AP86. Rabbits eating gray dogwood bark in Willowbrook Back 40, both of standing shrubs and of stems I cut earlier this week.

9JL86. Watched a half-grown cottontail through the window at Willowbrook as it grazed. Seemed to select younger grass blades (pointed rather than mower-cut; lighter in color).

9FE87. Inside Willowbrook main building, cottontail escaped from intensive care room during night. Droppings and smears of dust suggest that it got into the clinic, somehow got up onto 3 foot high counter top, then another 4 feet up to cabinet top. [I asked Tom Brown about this; he has seen even higher vertical leaps onto ledges by cottontails].

This is the cottontail that escaped in the Willowbrook Wildlife Center hospital and hid by jumping from the floor to the countertop, then from the countertop to the top of the wall cabinet.

12FE87. Cottontail recently gnawed on crabapple beside trail.

15MR87. Meacham Grove. Rabbit moving fast, but turning: the space between the front feet and hind feet decreased as it approached the turning point, revealing a slight deceleration; the front feet pointed in the direction it had been going, then the hind feet pointed in the new direction. This rabbit placed its front feet side by side. The distance between the front and hind tracks was not related to the distance of the leap: large and small for long and short hops. I tracked this rabbit to its hiding place, partly under a log in open woods. I had passed within 8 feet of him twice, then stood 3 feet away for at least 2 minutes puzzling over tracks that seemed to go into there but not out, when he burst from hiding and ran away. The rabbit had climbed up on sticks and logs a few times (crossways to his route).

A typical cottontail footprint pattern with the more elongate hind footprints side by side, rounder front footprints one before the other. In each step the hind feet carry past the front feet.

MY87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontail browsing blueberries, oaks.

AU87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontails smaller here than elsewhere.

12AU87. Assateague Island, morning. Young cottontail eating clovers (several patches well nibbled, English plantain flower stalks, a wiry upright narrow-leafed composite, and another plant that resembled common ragweed. Avoided the abundant Senecio. Had several ticks in its ears, and appeared to have a partial cataract in the right eye.

18DE87. 4 days after an abrupt 1-foot snowfall, little but rabbit and squirrel tracks in Willowbrook Back 40. Former’s mainly at edge of field and woods.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Rabbits and foxes highly active last night (an inch of snow fell just after sunset). One rabbit, at least, was in underground burrow during snow. Unusual amount of side-by-side front foot placement by rabbits: slippery or uncertain new surface? One rabbit fed on grasses, edge of a tall grass field.

On slippery or unfamiliar surfaces (e.g., the first snow of the season), cottontails often lock their front feet together side by side. I assume this gives them more stability. You can see in the dossier text when I discovered this.

27JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit had moved along left edge of path, paused and looked back down path over right shoulder. Both front feet to right of their usual position and pivoted, right foot 45 degrees. This is enough to allow the rabbit to look behind it (eyes on sides of head).

28JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit did heavy browsing on a rose bush last night.

3FE88. Willowbrook. In the 2 nights since the last snow, not real cold, lots of activity. Rabbits, squirrels, mice, fox, raccoons, cats. Icy beneath. Again, lots of rabbit track sets with side by side front footprints.

LateFE88. Tracker Farm, NJ. Rabbit browsed rose since 1 JA.

6JE88. Baby rabbit tasting rocks, licking them, in Willowbrook streambed. Ate silver maple seed, elm seedling.

13DE88. Rabbits commonly placing front feet side by side on longer steps after about an inch of snow fell early last night atop the half inch that was there from 3 days previous.

1MR89. Rabbit’s front feet indicate the direction from which it came more reliably than the hind feet point to where it’s going, at least when it is traveling slowly. Look to pressure releases as well. In today’s crusty snow, the rabbit leans in the direction it’s going, so that in forward hops the toes are deepest. In an abrupt left turn the left edges of both hind prints were deepest.

12MR89. Hartz Lake. Dense poison ivy area between cemetery and prairie heavily browsed recently, mainly by rabbits.

25AP89. A rabbit nest, now empty with lining scattered. In the low, flattened blackberry tangle beside the nature trail at Willowbrook. Scattered taller brush on all sides.

These baby cottontails are weaned or nearly so. The mother simply stops coming to the nest and the young, driven by instinct and hunger, leave the nest and start learning which plants are good to eat.

3MY89. Willowbrook. Another rabbit nest yesterday on the side of the hill constructed of fill from marsh excavation. Like the nest last summer on the steep hillside at Clarks’, this hole was deep.

4MY89. Willowbrook. Yet another rabbit nest, this one in fairly thick brush 5 feet beyond the cleared edge of the main trail.

9MY89. I mistook moss for a cottontail. Sometimes the agouti pattern resembles mossy mottling.

22JE89. Rabbits eating common ragweed at Willowbrook.

31JL89. Willowbrook. Rabbits bending down Queen Anne’s lace and common ragweed and eating tops, along Nature Trail.

18AU89. Cottontails reaching common ragweed tips 4 feet off ground. Apparently, from bruise patterns and broken stems, they are pulling the plants down.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. Rabbit stopped, sat, turned. Entire left edges of both hind feet show pressure releases.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. No consistent ratio of track-set length to space between sets. A ratio of 3-4 common in shallow snow (front feet side by side, mostly). Degree of forward lean or toe-dig of back feet a better indicator of step length.

16FE90. Rabbit sitting on top of snow in Warrenville, IL, back yard, out of reach of anything edible, chewing cud. Bent down a couple of times to get feces for re-ingesting, taking them from anus with mouth.

16MY90. Rabbits have been eating fleabane tops.

12SE90. Watched young (nearly full grown) cottontail feeding, at close range. Eyes cranked forward, showing the tiniest bit of white at the back, as the rabbit examined and ate plants. Ate fruits and leaf blades of roadside rush and crabgrass. Seemed, however, to be using smell more than vision in checking out potential foods. I could get away with some movement when the eyes moved forward.

5JL96. Cottontails chasing each other 11a.m., picnic shelter area at Willowbrook. The chases were brief, sometimes extending into brush, but generally about 20 yards at most and often half that. They then would stop as the pursuer peeled off, but then often the chased animal approached, clearly soliciting another chase. Sometimes the chases were moderate in speed only, sometimes there were brief very fast spurts in the middle.

16MY98. Cottontail at Willowbrook eating blue violet leaves (nearby: flowering motherwort mint, garlic mustard).

28JA99. Cottontails this winter not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out or, perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10MY99. Cedar Springs, Michigan. Cottontails mating. Smaller adult chased larger, caught up, mounted and very quick small thrusts for a couple of seconds, then larger ran away and pursuit resumed. In woods clearing.

Here a mother rabbit at Mayslake covers her nest shortly after giving birth.

29AP09. Mayslake. As I drove in, I saw a rabbit digging in the lawn of the long parking lot island beside the drive. Three other rabbits were nearby, and one eventually chased her away from where she was digging and I saw him mate with her once. I thought she was still digging soil, but perhaps she was digging out grasses to cover the nest with (supported by her relative skinniness in photos). I returned at mid-day, found 5-6 babies in the nest there. Soil still beside the nest, but flattened. Babies born last night or this morning, it appears. (These rabbits eventually weaned and left the successful nest).

Mayslake Miscellany

by Carl Strang

A highlight at Mayslake Forest Preserve this year was a successful red-tailed hawk nest. The single fledgling stuck around the mansion grounds and prairie area for several weeks, frequently making its presence known with high-pitched calls (“feed me!”) or perch choice on favored high points.

The bird has been absent from that area in recent days. We wish it well.

One day in mid-August there was much activity by black-capped chickadees and blue-gray gnatcatchers among the goldenrods and Queen Anne’s lace.

Their small size and acrobatic ability allows them to exploit a temporary abundance of insects in such places. I suspect the gnatcatchers were migrants. Already the season is turning.

The red-colored saddlebags dragonflies have vanished, after being a daily presence for the early part of the season.

Like this male, I suspect that all or most were Carolina saddlebags. I wasn’t the only observer in northeast Illinois seeing more of these than usual. That’s the way it is with insects. A species has an outbreak year, for reasons we often don’t understand, then usually drops back to its typical low level the following year.

Three Easy Winter Plants

by Carl Strang

One reason to appreciate plants in winter is to expand one’s ability to identify them in any stage and season. Some are easier than others to identify, and today I will focus on three that are both common and distinctive. The most widely distributed of these, Queen Anne’s lace, is not native to North America.

It has the appearance of an umbrella’s ribs from which the fabric has been torn. You may find it open, as above, or closed.

When flowering, these heads likewise have two forms. In some cases there is a purple flower in the center,

and in some, that flower is missing.

Numerous experiments have failed to demonstrate a difference in seed set between the two. Today’s second species is the common evening primrose. Its flowers in late summer were pale yellow.

In winter, the appearance is distinctive even at a distance.

Up close, the stalk is topped with a cluster of vase-shaped pods distinctively spreading at the tips.

Yet a third unmistakable shape is the spherical seed head of the wild bergamot.

The seed head is composed of tiny tubes radiating in every direction. Step back a little and the plant still is unique in appearance.

This species has become so successful in prairie and savanna restoration projects, spreads so readily, and also has become popular in garden plantings, that finding them in winter is no challenge. Here is one reason for its popularity.

Soon we’ll have green plants again to enjoy.

Parade of Weeds Continues

by Carl Strang

It’s time to update the list of newly flowering weeds at Mayslake Forest Preserve, following the broad definition of non-natives, undesirables, and species which gain high reproductive rates and dispersal by trading off competitive ability and lifespan.

I’ll begin with a surprise. I was crossing a wooded area and looked down to see an orchid. But it turned out to be our only non-native orchid, the helleborine.

Helleborine orchid 1b

Thanks to the dense, competitive meadows and prairies I have, so far, found only one common mullein plant on the preserve.

Common mullein 2b

Chickory can tolerate some shade, and so has done better.

Chickory b

Thanks to the former residents of the friary, Mayslake has to be the oregano capital of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Oregano b

Not only is there a huge patch of this herb in the old friary garden, outliers have spread as far as the meadow west of the off-leash dog area. Last winter I wrote about the interesting dispersal mechanism for Queen Anne’s lace . Here it is in bloom.

QA lace 2b

So far there have been two sow thistle species flowering at Mayslake, the common sow thistle

Common sow thistle b

and spiny sow thistle.

Spiny sow thistle 2b

Vying for the honor of most beautiful tiny flower is the Deptford pink, relative of carnations.

Deptford pink b

The white sweet clover now is blooming abundantly, starting well after its yellow-flowered relative.

White sweet clover 1b

Common milkweed, weedy in its life history strategy but a native species, has been a bumblebee and butterfly magnet.

Common milkweed 1b

Another native, famed food of pop music’s “Poke Salad Annie,” is the pokeweed.

Pokeweed b

Once it’s this big, though, it’s poisonous. I’ll finish with a real undesirable, which I have been finding scattered around the preserve’s northern meadows.

Purple loosestrife 1b

Purple loosestrife can become a serious problem in wetlands.

Seeds on Snow

By Carl Strang

 

There is a magnificent paper birch near the entrance of Mayslake Hall which has managed to evade the bronze birch borers long enough to become robust and beautiful.

 

paper-birch-2b

 

Yesterday I noticed that the birch had dropped seeds onto the snow.

 

paper-birch-seeds-2b

 

For a moment I was a little surprised that there were any seeds left. A couple weeks ago that tree was filled with goldfinches, juncos and pine siskins pigging out on seeds they were digging out of the tree’s cones. Obviously they missed some, for the snow was covered with yellow-brown seeds and shed cone scales.

 

paper-birch-1b

 

After taking some photos, I thought about the timing. Now, with leaves dropped from deciduous trees, the little winged seeds have their best chance of being carried away on the wind. Furthermore, if there happens to be snow on the ground, the wind can further push the seeds, increasing the area over which they are spread. This might improve the possibility that some will find suitable places to grow.

 

That thought brought out a memory, of a presentation decades ago at an Ecological Society meeting. Someone had studied Queen Anne’s lace and found that its seeds are contained within the closed umbrella of its flower/fruit support struts.

 

qa-lace-closed-b

 

The struts remain closed when the air’s humidity is high, but open as humidity drops, so that seeds are released in the dry air of winter when there is a good chance the ground will be snow-covered, allowing the seeds to be wind dispersed over a smooth surface.

 

qa-lace-open-2b

 

Later during my lunchtime walk I found some Queen Anne’s lace, and sure enough, though some were closed, others had opened and begun to drop their seeds onto the snow.

 

qa-lace-and-unknown-seeds-2b

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