Illinois’ Kankakee Sands

by Carl Strang

In the Chicago region when someone mentions the Kankakee Sands, usually they are referring to the Nature Conservancy project in Newton County, Indiana. There is, however, a nature preserve in southeastern Kankakee County, Illinois, also known as “Kankakee Sands,” which also is worth knowing about.

The preserve has very high quality oak savanna and prairie ecosystems.

The preserve has very high quality oak savanna and prairie ecosystems.

I paid my first visit to this site on Friday, and left with a good dozen singing insect county records.

Most species were sand-soil singers I had encountered before, but this was my first sprinkled grasshopper.

Most species were sand-soil singers I had encountered before, but this was my first sprinkled grasshopper.

He was buried in a grass clump, offering no chance of a good photo. Fortunately he was open to climbing onto my finger for a portrait. The all-black pronotum sides are unique.

The most common orthopterans were tinkling ground crickets and straight-lanced meadow katydids, unsurprising on this sand soil.

One of the many male straight-lanceds from Friday.

One of the many male straight-lanceds from Friday.

I was pleased also to find that my new friend the handsome grasshopper is common there.

Handsome grasshopper, male.

Handsome grasshopper, male.

Female handsome grasshoppers were a bit bigger and green rather than brown.

Female handsome grasshoppers were a bit bigger and green rather than brown.

Both mottled sand grasshoppers and Boll’s grasshoppers also were there, the former often punctuating the scenery with their bright yellow hind wings in flight.

Boll’s grasshopper also has yellow hind wings. These are concealed when both species are at rest.

Boll’s grasshopper also has yellow hind wings. These are concealed when both species are at rest.

There also were plenty of bush katydids.

Most were curve-tailed bush katydids.

Most were curve-tailed bush katydids.

One, slightly smaller, proved to be a male fork-tailed bush katydid.

One, slightly smaller, proved to be a male fork-tailed bush katydid.

Kankakee Sands are worth a visit on either side of the state line.

 

Bush Cicadas

by Carl Strang

Illinois has lost nearly all the remnants of its original prairie. Thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies and private organizations you can find prairies to enjoy, but these are restoration projects for the most part. Restored prairies are nice gardens, but they lack a significant portion of the animal life. It’s a mistake to assume that “if you build it they will come.” Too many obligate prairie insects and other animals are not good dispersers. The highest priority has to be preserving the remnants, when there is a choice between devoting resources to that or to developing restorations.

A case in point is the prairie cicada, which I have featured here in the past. Another is the bush cicada. I made a trip south of the Chicago region last week to get some experience with that species, so I would know what to listen and look for in my 22-county survey area. A 2-hour drive took me to the southern fringe of Iroquois County, to the Loda Prairie State Nature Preserve.

This remnant is only 12 acres, but its quality is excellent.

This remnant is only 12 acres, but its quality is excellent.

The term “charismatic fauna” is over-used. The bush cicada is the first Illinois insect I have encountered to which I would apply that term.

For one thing, they are big and colorful.

For one thing, they are big and colorful.

They also are noisy like the other species in genus Neotibicen (formerly Tibicen, the change justified in a paper just out this year from the UConn cicada group plus an Australian researcher). I was pleased to find bush cicadas are fully as audible as our familiar Neotibicen species.

Linne’s cicada, for instance.

Linne’s cicada, for instance.

The song is like a slowed lyric cicada song, the pulse rate closer to that of Linne’s but with sharp, separate pulses. The singing was in bouts, with sometimes 10 minutes of silence between, so that the males seemed to cue their singing off of one another. They also were very active, many of the males flying to a new perch after every song. Though their flight generally was well controlled, once one bounced off the side of my head.

A male bush cicada in full song.

A male bush cicada in full song.

In the following days I sought them in several Chicago region counties, without success. The silence of those prairie remnants, some suffering from invasion by gray dogwood and other problem plants, was a sad contrast to Loda Prairie. In fairness, though, the bush cicada is primarily a southern and western species that may never have reached into the Chicago region. That won’t keep me from continuing to seek it here, though.

July Flowering Phenology

by Carl Strang

July was the last month in which I collected phenology data from Mayslake Forest Preserve. The results provided a satisfactory conclusion.

Many of Mayslake’s prairie plants first open their flowers in July.

Many of Mayslake’s prairie plants first open their flowers in July.

First flower dates become less different among years as the summer progresses, and that was true this year as well. The median difference from 2014 was 0 days for 47 species, an insignificant 2 days earlier than in 2013 for 31 species and the same vs. 2011 for 37 species, 1 day later than in 2010 for 37 species, and a slightly larger 5 days earlier for 35 species in comparison to 2009. The odd early year of 2012 continued to be the outlier, but even that difference was down to 10.5 days for 38 species.

Michigan lily provides one of the preserve’s more extravagant floral displays.

Michigan lily provides one of the preserve’s more extravagant floral displays.

All those medians were smaller than those for June, except the one for 2013, which was the same.

 

Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

Between trips to Indiana for parental care, and vacation days for research, I haven’t spent as much time as usual in Mayslake Forest Preserve. Life goes on there, of course, and I have some glimpses to share.

This summer’s deer have been more secretive than usual. This doe, photographed at the beginning of July, showed no signs of nursing.

This summer’s deer have been more secretive than usual. This doe, photographed at the beginning of July, showed no signs of nursing.

However, she sometimes has accompanied another doe, and this week I saw tracks of a fawn, which I expect to encounter at some point.

There have been a few tawny edged skippers this year, a species I have seen at Mayslake before but not in most years.

There have been a few tawny edged skippers this year, a species I have seen at Mayslake before but not in most years.

A new species for the preserve list was Mydas tibialis, a large and impressive, flower-visiting fly discovered at Mayslake by Nikki Dahlin.

A new species for the preserve list was Mydas tibialis, a large and impressive, flower-visiting fly discovered at Mayslake by Nikki Dahlin.

The rains of spring and early summer, along with the prairie burns, have resulted in Mayslake’s prairies blooming with unprecedented beauty.

The first swamp rose mallow I have seen blooming on the preserve.

The first swamp rose mallow I have seen blooming on the preserve.

Prairie blazing stars are just now peaking.

Prairie blazing stars are just now peaking.

Banks of yellow coneflowers and wild bergamot are providing gorgeous backdrops.

Banks of yellow coneflowers and wild bergamot are providing gorgeous backdrops.

The Burn Extended

by Carl Strang

As I reported earlier, Mayslake Forest Preserve had a thorough controlled burn of its highest quality restored prairies in late March. On Monday I discovered that had not been the end of it. The Forest Preserve District’s crew returned and conducted a burn of the north savanna and adjacent meadow areas.

The top of the savanna ridge after the burn.

The top of the savanna ridge after the burn.

This burn likewise was a good one, leaving little in the way of last year’s dead herbaceous growth. This is the most complete burn coverage of the preserve in the 5 years I have been there, and along with the vegetation went the eggs and nymphs of many species including tree crickets, meadow katydids, and greenstriped grasshoppers. From a scientific standpoint this is more opportunity than it is disaster, as there are no rare species at Mayslake. The remaining, unburned meadows and wetlands, as well as a few pockets that did not burn well, will be source areas for the spread and repopulation of the burned areas by survivors. Also, the fire probably did not affect the species whose eggs were in the soil or treetops, including fall field crickets, ground crickets, and some katydids.

The burn extended into adjacent meadows to the east and north.

The burn extended into adjacent meadows to the east and north.

I will be able to make a number of comparisons to assess the impact of the fire. How well will the affected insect species spread from the refugia, and where will they go first? Will there be differences between burned and unburned areas in the unaffected species, which stand to benefit from the higher quality plant growth in the wake of the burn? What will be the species count differences between years in the various habitat blocks? What about the impact of specialist predators and parasites? The first species to note will be the greenstriped grasshopper, which has been common in the early season.

Lessons from Travels: Kansas Prairies

by Carl Strang

I had heard that Kansas was the state with the best mix of high quality prairie sites, so I spent a few days touring there in June, 1999. Eastern Kansas gets enough rainfall to support tallgrass prairie, and the Flint Hills region has some good examples.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, part of the National Park system, is one such area. It still was being developed when I visited.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

Access then was by guided tour only. I remember being struck by nighthawks roosting on the ground.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Another site worth visiting is the Konza Prairie, a preserve and research station operated by Kansas State University.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

The Horsethief Canyon area provided some interesting topographic relief, along with an example of midgrass prairie on the upland plain.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

Finally, Cimarron National Grassland provided an excellent example of desert prairie.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

I was impressed by the diversity of plant species, and by how subtle differences in topography and erosion made large differences in vegetation. Higher, drained areas were more desert-like, with more yuccas, sagebrush and pincushion cacti, and the plants were more widely spaced. Lower areas had more grasses and prickly pear cacti, and less bare soil.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This was paradise for orchard orioles and both eastern and western kingbirds, which nested in the trees and foraged in the prairie.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Speaking of plants, here is one example.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

I certainly can recommend this state to anyone who wishes to get a good feel for the North American prairie biome in all its variations.

Friary Prairie Grasses

by Carl Strang

A prairie is in its early stages of developing on the site of the former friary at Mayslake Forest Preserve. On my most recent check, I was pleased to find scattered prairie grasses in seed, both Indian grass and big bluestem. There is some risk when introducing Indian grass so early in a restoration project, as it can spread quickly and dominate an area. The plants appear to be few and widely scattered, however, so there may not be a problem in this case.

Seeing them reminded me that I need to resume my project of photographing the preserve’s plants in winter. This week’s example will be that big bluestem. Here in its still intact winter mode is a fruiting top.

Note how tightly the seeds are pressed against the branches of the inflorescence, which gave this plant its alternate (and November-appropriate) name of turkey foot.

Here is an inflorescence in bloom, back in the summer:

The flowers are more relaxed out from the stem, and the anthers are releasing their pollen to be wind-carried to other plants.

This is one of the characteristic species of the tallgrass prairie.

Big bluestem can tower above many other of the prairie plants.

So, this made for an easy start. Not all plants are so recognizable in their winter form, as we’ll see.

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.

Plant Progress

by Carl Strang

Botanical progress continues on two fronts at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The intrepid restoration team continues to remove buckthorn from the edges of the north savanna, scattering bottlebrush grass seeds to hold the ground thus gained.

Here the brush has been cleared, opening the savanna ridge all the way down to the trail.

The south stream corridor prairie, scene of earlier restoration work, is looking beautiful with bur marigolds highlighted by cardinal flowers and blue vervain.

Migrating hummingbirds have been visiting the cardinal flowers. Of course, later in the season it would be wise not to wade through here as the bur marigolds are in the beggar’s ticks group, ready to coat clothing with barbed seeds.

I have continued to add plants to my preserve list. Up in the friary demolition site, a new weedy but beautiful little flower is the ivy-leaved morning glory.

Tiny, hairy, and with interesting shaped leaves and big flowers for such a small plant, this morning glory is among the rapidly growing species that have bloomed in the brief period since this area was graded with new topsoil.

Somehow I have managed to overlook a patch of Jerusalem artichokes until last week.

This native sunflower was a significant food plant, historically.

Also I am remembering to look down and pay some attention to the tiny weedy species.

This is the spotted creeping spurge. It grows in gardens and other disturbed soils.

Similar at first glance, but differing in detail and family membership, is the sidewalk knotweed.

This one, unlike the previous, has alternate leaves and a knotweed’s little stem sheaths.

The herbaceous plant list is creeping toward 300 species on this 90-acre site.

Native Grasses

by Carl Strang

We are moving into the second half of summer, and late season prairie grasses are beginning to bloom at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Big bluestem has the tallest stature.

The stems reach above your head.

Another name for this grass is turkey foot.

The spikes radiate like a big bird’s toes.

My favorite among the common prairie grasses is Indian grass.

The beautiful color of the coppery spikelets contrasts with the yellow anthers.

Drier places in the prairie support side-oats grama.

Here the anthers are bright red.

Earlier in the season a grass began to flower that I could not identify. Now, with the seeds well developed, I find that it is an unusual species in DuPage County.

A couple clumps of slender wheat grass, Agropyron trachycaulum, are growing at the very edge of the prairie adjacent to the parking lot. I assume the seed came in with a vehicle.

It is native to the area, but apparently seldom finds suitable soil in DuPage.

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