The Friary Juncos

by Carl Strang

This has been a very slow winter for birds at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The main exception has been a flock of dark-eyed juncos that has taken residence at the former friary site. The area grew a lot of annuals in the late summer and fall, including a number of weedy species, as well as oats.

The juncos most often are to be found around the edge of the site, especially here where the garden used to be.

The seeds from those annuals are keeping these gray sparrows going through the winter. There are enough of them that I doubt that my counts have ever been complete. The high count, in December, was 19. That is many more juncos than I have found on this preserve in previous years.

This week, when I took this photo, I counted 17.

Juncos tend to establish winter home ranges and stick with them, so I expect to see this flock for several weeks, yet.

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Red-legged Grasshopper

by Carl Strang

Over the past couple months there have been large numbers of grasshoppers at Mayslake Forest Preserve, especially around trail and parking lot edges where mowed lawns come up against a variety of unmowed forbs and grasses. My focus in recent weeks has been on singing insects, but with that research checklist essentially complete for the year I decided to look into those grasshoppers. Perhaps I waited too long, as every hopper I got a good look at last week appeared to belong to the same species. I collected a couple of them and, after a session with references and the microscope, settled on an identification.

Red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum

As I went through the references and keys I was surprised by the number of similar species and the small features that can separate them. Very close ones often segregate by habitat, however, and red-legged grasshoppers are one of the most abundant, weediest species. Ecologists think of weeds as organisms which reproduce in large numbers and occur in disturbed habitats. Therefore, animals as well as plants can be weedy.

While scrutinizing grasshoppers in the field I also got looks at several small (Conocephalus) meadow katydids. All clearly were short-wingeds, except for one.

The oddest feature on this female is the kink in her ovipositor.

She had an abdomen tip colored like that of a straight-lanced meadow katydid, but the shorter ovipositor and leg striping pattern pointed to short-winged meadow katydid, so I am staying with that more conservative identification.

Scab Plants

by Carl Strang

On Friday I went up to the former friary site at Mayslake Forest Preserve to check on the progress of plant growth there. Most prominent were a number of weeds, some of which already were flowering. I was pleased to see my tentative identification of barnyard grass proved out.

For such a relatively large-bodied, coarse plant, this grass proved its ability to grow rapidly and in large numbers on a site that had been bare soil a short time earlier.

The other dominant species was velvetleaf, though none of those I saw were flowering yet.

This import from India is one of the earliest weeds to appear in sterile-looking soils.

A very few crabgrass plants also were present, along with a few quick-growing nut sedges.

These proved to be an annual species I had not observed previously at Mayslake: the rusty nut sedge.

Other plants also were additions to the preserve list.

This one is called flower-of-an-hour because of the ephemeral nature of its blooms.

Another new one was the green amaranth.

Amaranths sometimes were cultivated by Native Americans in their early agricultural period.

It’s easy to disparage such weedy species, but I found myself remembering how Tom Brown calls them “scab plants.” They grow quickly, protecting the wounded soil and sequestering carbon and minerals until giving way to more competitive perennials. I’m looking forward to seeing the longer-term native plants that were seeded here.

Another Round of Weeds

by Carl Strang

Late summer’s fade into early autumn brings out more weeds in the botanical parade that I have shared from Mayslake Forest Preserve this year. Weeds as defined in this blog are generally plants that are annuals or biennials, grow fast in disturbed places, produce a lot of seeds, then die. I also include non-native and undesirable plants in this category. Thus far, it has been easy to show that weeds can be beautiful. This time I am a little pressed to do so, as today’s collection is showiness challenged.

Common ragweed b

This, for instance, is common ragweed. It is wind-pollinated, so rather than investing in colorful petals or other animal attractants it produces huge volumes of tiny, non-sticky pollen to drift on the breezes and fertilize large numbers of seeds. People with pollen allergies suffer as a result. We have two ragweeds, the other being giant ragweed:

Giant ragweed b

Earlier in the season we met three fleabane varieties common at Mayslake. Much less conspicuous because of its tiny flowers is the fourth species in genus Erigeron, horseweed.

Horseweed b

Here is an example of the confusion that can result from the use of common names for plants. Two vastly different forbs are known as “fireweed.” The one at Mayslake is a member of genus Erechtites in the sunflower family.

Fireweed 2b

I have attempted to accommodate botanically astute friends who question my use of common names in the blog by listing the scientific names in the tags at the head of the blog entry. People in the know will have no trouble figuring out which scientific name goes with which common name. I use the names in Swink & Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region.

Here and there at Mayslake are scattered common burdock plants.

Common burdock b

Their flowers also can be purple. Finally, I am indulging myself by including stickseed in the “weeds” category, though it more properly is a woodland species.

Stickseed b

Though this is a native plant, there are moments when I am pulling its incredibly grabby seeds from my clothing that I unambiguously regard stickseed as an undesirable.

More Sparklers

by Carl Strang

Today I’m sharing the next group of flowering weeds at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Like sparklers or other fireworks, these often are annuals or biennials, colorful but short-lived. I also include non-native species and undesirables in this category. Three of this group are North American in origin: common evening primrose,

Common evening primrose 2b

horse-nettle (the name refers to its spines),

Horse-nettle b

and black nightshade, a smaller member of the same genus (Solanum).

Black nightshade b

The remaining plants have their origins in Europe or Eurasia. New to my experience was the showy centaury, blooming in huge numbers along the edge of St. Paschal Drive.

Centaury b

Black mustard resembles its early season relative, winter cress, from a distance.

Black mustard b

Catnip plants can be found here and there around the preserve.

Catnip b

The next one, common groundsel, is easy to miss. These flowers look like they are preparing to open into something more spectacular, but they already are in full bloom.

Common groundsel b

The first of the wild lettuces at Mayslake is the prickly lettuce.

Prickly lettuce b

Now for some true undesirables: bull thistle,

Bull thistle b

bird’s foot trefoil, a legume which can become problematic in open areas,

Bird's foot trefoil b

and cut-leaved teasel, which can take over entire patches of ground.

Teasel b

So far, at least, these last three species occur only in small numbers at Mayslake.

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.

More Beautiful Weeds

by Carl Strang

Time for another installment in the Mayslake phenology series, this one adding the latest flowering plants that are non-native, undesirable, or with a weedy life history strategy . Let’s begin with musk thistle.

Musk thistle b

This European plant reaches impressive size, so that the large flower heads are dwarfed by the enormous spiny stem: a definite undesirable. A smaller, even more problematic thistle (same family, different genus) is the Canada thistle (native to Europe, not Canada).

Canada thistle b

Canada thistles take over patches of open habitat and can be difficult to eradicate. Other European species that are less problematic are the field hawkweed

Hawkweed b

and common St. John’s wort.

Common St John's wort b

Native plants with weedy ecological traits include hedge bindweed,

Hedge bindweed b

annual fleabane,

Annual fleabane 2b

daisy fleabane,

Daisy fleabane b

and black-eyed Susan.

Black-eyed Susan b

Some non-native shrubs on the preserve, no doubt planted for landscape purposes but now growing in wilder spots, are downy mock orange,

Mock orange 1b

and two (count ‘em) 2 (yes) too! privets. These are the common privet,

Bombus bimaculatus privet 2b

which proved  to be the identity of my mystery seedling in Culver, Indiana, and the similar border privet.

Border privet b

The first two shrubs are European, the last Asian.

More Weeds

by Carl Strang

Time to catch up on the weeds at Mayslake, as many more have begun to bloom. Remember that here I am using a very broad definition for “weed,” that includes the meanings of undesirable plant, plant not native to the area, and plant with a weedy life history strategy . An example of a native plant in the last category is annual bedstraw.

Annual bedstraw b

The rest of today’s species are imports. Two are from Asia, and perhaps it is no coincidence that these two both had specific agricultural uses. One is alfalfa.

Alfalfa b

The only place I have seen alfalfa at Mayslake so far is in a location that once held a dairy farm, and I wonder if this plant’s history traces to that operation. The other Asian weed also very much meets the definition of “undesirable plant.”

Multiflora rose b

Multiflora rose was widely planted as a thorny hedge, decades ago. Too late people realized how uncontainable this shrub is, and I have gotten many a piercing while trying to remove it from places under my protection. The rest of today’s weed list comes from Europe, and most probably were hitchhikers. One exception is red clover.

Red clover b

Another, European highbush cranberry, is planted widely as a landscape shrub.

European highbush cranberry 2b

Crown vetch has been planted in an effort to control erosion and enrich the soil cheaply in highway construction projects.

Crown vetch 1b

Like multiflora rose, it has become a problem plant because it won’t stay put. As far as I know, the remaining European species were incidental rather than intentional imports. These include ox-eye daisy,

Ox-eye daisy b

sulfur cinquefoil,

Sulfur cinquefoil b

bittersweet nightshade,

Bittersweet nightshade b

English plantain,

English plantain b

and yellow sweet clover.

Yellow sweet clover b

So far I have not seen white sweet clover at Mayslake.

Beautiful Weeds

by Carl Strang

I have fallen way behind in reporting on new wildflowers at Mayslake, which I am tracking to begin phenology  records for that preserve. Today I want to feature weeds. This is a term I use with care, as it has several distinctly different meanings. In everyday use a weed is simply an undesirable plant. To a restoration specialist they are not native to the local landscape. If they are good competitors, a special effort is needed to remove them. If not, they simply will be pushed aside by native plants as the latter get established. To an ecologist, “weedy” organisms can be plants or animals, and are defined by their life history strategy. In comparison to other organisms they have short lives, grow quickly in disturbed habitats where there is little competition (weeds are poor competitors), and produce large numbers of small seeds or young that can disperse widely. One or more of these definitions apply to the plants I am sharing today, and I am trying to use photos that reveal their beauty . So, let’s begin with dame’s rocket.

Dame's rocket b

I have found it in only one corner of the preserve, near the friary, but as you can see it is abundant in that spot. In the cracked pavement around the friary I found this field bindweed.

Field bindweed 2b

Its flowers place it in the morning glory family. One of the friary’s abandoned gardens has some horse radish growing, and that patch may be the source of a few plants growing more than 100 yards away, near the parking lot for the off-leash dog area.

Horse radish 1b

Other weedy plants can be found in lawns around the main parking lots and mansion. They include white clover,

White clover 2b

black medick,

Black medick b

and mouse-ear chickweed.

Mouse-ear chickweed 2b

Amur honeysuckle is a bane of our woodlands, but it has a beautiful floral display this time of year.

Amur honeysuckle b

I admit to confusion in the white flowering members of the genera Silene and Lychnis, but believe I have the identification correct for this white campion, or evening lychnis, L. alba.

White campion b

Common wood sorrel is regarded as native, but it certainly has a weedy life history strategy.

Common wood sorrel 1b

Finally there is the Indian strawberry, named for its origin in south Asia and the small red fruits that resemble strawberries but are inedible.

Indian strawberry b

The leaves also bear a resemblance to our native wild strawberry, but the yellow flowers are a giveaway.

A final note is to thank Scott N. again for his assistance, this time with the field cress. Once that former mystery plant started elongating its fruiting stalk it became, to my eye, less beautiful and mysterious, but much more recognizable.

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