Wednesday, July 27, 2016

2016 Midwest Roadtrip - Part II

Shortly after leaving the hotel the rain poured for 30-45 minutes.  With the humidity both vehicle windows and camera lenses fogged right up.  Not knowing the actual access point to the Mnoke Prairie I took this time to drive around down a few small backroads...which became hydro right of way roads, which, at the point they became brushy double track trails I decided we would try a different route.  We stopped and enjoyed some snacks plotting our route and debating "Is it really raining that hard?".

What turned into a nice morning became a great day visiting 2 Indiana prairies.  The Mnoke Prairie is largely recreated.  After early settlers had farmed the land and pastured agriculture here, the site became quite degraded, apparently to the point that it was hardly recognizable as a prairie.  Through the efforts of community and park staff brush was cleared, prescribed burns were reinstated.  These fire dependent habitats would historically catch the spark of a lighting strike and in time the odd train making a bank and sending sparks into the dry fodder.  Additionally fires were set by natives...some say to maintain hunting grounds, acts of warfare, even for the mere spectacle of it (picture a 2000 acre prairie fire in a time before Pokemon Go, where's the popcorn?).  The introduction of the mould board plough and the demise of fire took their toll on these spaces.

But there is so much going on!  Prairie's change up their colour palatte, their soundtrack, even their smell as you progress through the seasons.  The photo below shows a nice combination of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) alongside Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense).  As the species epithet suggests, Rattlensnake Master has leaves that resemble the Yucca plant, tough and with spines on the margins.  It is a member of the carrot family while true Yucca is a member fo the asparagus family.

The white blooms of Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and a single towering Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) with passing storms in the horizon.

I finally saw Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in it's natural range!  This species (or derivatives of it) are prolific in horticulture and natural medicines.  I would later strike out on spotting a single Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) which had retained it's petals throughout Missouri as these has passed their bloom period by a month or so .  The ones outside my window here at home have just passed their peak about a week ago.

An aster native to the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor, Willow-leaf Aster (Symphyotrichum praealtum) was one of the dominant forbs in many parts of the Mnoke Prairie.  It has glabrous purplish stems and grows in both open areas and among thickets and forest edges.  Under the right conditions this species can form large clones of thousands of stems.

A relative of Compass Plant, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaves kind of resemble tobacco.  This was one of the "wow" prairie species that sparked my interest during a hike in off of Spring Garden Road (near the Southwood Community Church) with Paul Pratt years back.

Word on the street is that Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is a bit of a pain in prairie management in these parts.  It resembles several other sumac species but the prominent wings in the central portion of the leaf are diagnostic.  I found some Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta) in Brant County a few years back that had similar wings but with the hairy leaves typical of that species, a potential hybrid but the verdict was that it was just a freakish Staghorn.

I saw my first Dickcissels of the trip at Mnoke, when it rains it pours!
FY (somebody's baby, although I can't tell if it's a Dickcissel)
Field Sparrows were well represented in the 120 acre site.

Another Silphium, Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) among a patch of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  There was no shortage of yellow in the prairie with Silphiums more or less at their peak and sunflowers starting to come on (of which there are a handful of species to be found).

What started as a cheerful call out to Alyssa "Hey! I've got Tall Green Milkweed over here!" became a game of Find the Tall Green Milkweed as it became rather common through some of the Missouri prairies we would visit a few days later.  There are a few individuals of this species in the Ojibway Prairie Complex; this trip really made me appreciate natural ranges of certain species. 

The "put your arms around them" shot made me look like a dweeb and didn't make the blog cut (says the guy with his pants tucked in his socks, sweating buckets and kneeling every 10m for shots of flowers).

 After a good stroll through the Mnoke Prairie we had lunch under a massively open grown oak, seriously, I'm estimating a crown diameter of 40m, it was nuts.  We punched the small town of Reynolds, IN into the GPS and started south down I-65 to stop at the Spinn Prairie.  I had chosen the Spinn Prairie as the one stop to make en route through the state.  A 29 acre site sandwiched between a rail line and a gravel road, this gem had been in the hands of the Spinn family since 1865 before it was gifted to the Nature Conservancy in 1987.  Corn field like hallways for miles and miles, then a pin oak woodland giving way to wet-mesic prairie.
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) bearing fruit.
The swollen seed capsules of White Indigo (Baptisia alba) - the next two photos, bring a contrast to the grasses and wildflowers.  This species and the similar Cream Wild Indigo (B. bracteata) share a similar range which extends down to the Texas gulf coast.

Winged Loosestrife (Lythrum alatum), one of the good guys.
Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
A few Bronze Coppers were flitting about.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) is about as Midwest as it gets, check out the range map.  One booth at the Prairie Conference had a "Guess the seeds in the vial" game, 5 vials, fill out a ballot, this was one that kept me from going 5 for 5!

Again, so much going on here!
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea), an iconic prairie species.
A whole lotta Rattlesnake Master, what a sight.
 I believe this is Rattlebox (Ludwigia alternifolia) and not a Loosestrife species.

Smooth Phlox (Phlox glaberrima), another lifer for the trip.  After spending a good part of the afternoon here we stopped at the Frosty Freeze, I had a mint chip cone meant for a giant and we drove west to St. Louis for a ballgame and some BBQ.  Flanked by a railway to the north much of the drive I enjoyed watching the yellows, purples and whites of prairie vegetation as we zipped along.

Next post, updates from the 24th North American Prairie Conference and a field trip to an Illinois scrub oak sand prairie.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 Midwest Roadtrip - Part I

I just returned this afternoon from a fun week in the US Midwest.  I'll provide some updates over the course of a few posts.

Some fun stats for the trip:
  • 4023km driven 
  • 11 - prairie sites visited (2 in Indiana, 1 in Illinois and 8 in Missouri)
  • 685 - photos taken
  • 23 - Van Halen songs heard on the radio (an estimate, but by far the front runner based on my preference for classic rock and lack of podcasts/ipod/CD player, thus hours of radio listening)
  • 1 - St. Louis Cardinals game taken in
  • $9.50 USD - Price of a Budweiser at Busch Stadium (12 for $7.95 at rural gas stations)
  • 125-150 - Wood Ticks pulled off
  • Most Common bird at the prairie sites visited - Dickcissel
  • Number of Northern Bobwhite heard - 5
  • Number of people encountered during prairie hikes sunrise to sunset, multiple days (Prairie conference field trip excluded) - 0
  • 2 Missouri BBQ meals consumed
  • 36°C high temperature with a humidex feeling like 42°C - pretty much every day in Missouri
The 24th North American Prairie Conference (NAPC) was central to this trip; Alyssa and I added some vacation into the mix to take in a few more sites.

I'm a bit of a a planner when it comes to trips like this; I like to maximize the fun stuff and minimize the humming and hawing about where to go and what to do.  The NAPC talks and sessions started on Monday so Saturday and Sunday I wanted to stop at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  I had driven by this area a couple of summers back on my way to Wisconsin and it caught my attention.  By Ontario standards it would be kind of like the Pinery, but bigger.

By way of the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia, then past Lansing and Kalamazoo, we arrived mid-afternoon.  My question to the lady at the nature centre "Where can I find your best oak savannah?" drew a blank stare.  It turns out the general tourism office staff share the desk and she directed me to a helpful park staff who suggested the Cowles Bog Trail.  The trail is named after Dr. Henry Cowles who studied succession, the impacts to plant communities and the effects of management techniques.

A few steps in and already interesting plants (it's gonna be a long trip Alyssa).  As it turned out Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) was common throughout the savannah/woodland.  This species has a provincial rank in Ontario of S2 (Imperilled) and is considered Threatened both provincially and nationally.  I won't get too much into Ontario rankings in these posts but suffice to say alot of what was seen during the trip had my interest as rarities back home.  This species comes up from time to time for background reviews for work (known from Essex, Haldimand and Niagara) so it's great to have the visual of it first hand.

The large, sharp spines of Catbrier.

The park staff had clearly been doing some aggressive (and possibly effective) management of the invasive Common Reed.  I wondered what cost this work might have on native flora but it's one of those things that within a few years you might just have a dead zone of wall-to-wall Phragmites and then where are you for native species biodiversity.  I suspect there would be reliance on seed bank germination to get the good stuff back.  The herbicides used in the US are a whole different thing from what is/can be used in Ontario.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) a shrub of wetlands.
 I have seen Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) in Spring Garden in Windsor as well as Backus Woods, but it was a bit more common here in the back dune sloughs where it could be found with it's "feet wet" at the edges of wetland areas.  My first thought for this one was Flowering Dogwood base don the platy bark but closer inspection of the habitat and leaves suggested otherwise.

This one was huge!  Not sure why I've turned grey in the photo, to blend in with my surroundings?

Fruits of Black Gum
Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) at the edge of the trail.
A Little Wood Satyr looking worse for wear.
Hairy Bush Clover (Lespedeza hirta) with spreading stem hairs.
Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)

The False Foxgloves are a group of plants which utilize oak roots in a sort of parasitic relationship.  I had expected that we could find some and although still early for their showy yellow flowers, before long we had come across Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava) and Fern-leaved False Foxglove (A. pedicularia) - the first and second photos respectively.  Both are rare in Ontario and currently being evaluated federally by COSEWIC.

Old seed capsules of a False Foxglove.
A member of the mustard family which is found in woodland or savannah habitat, Sicklepod (Arabis canadensis) has a raceme crowded with curved pods.

High dunes carpeted with Beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)
Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) is widespread and abundant.
Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) could be found all along the transition from woodland to open dune and hanging on to bluffs where the sand was eroding.

The Chicago skyline rising from Lake Michigan.

Getting late we decided to take a different trail back to the parking lot and I'm glad we did, an open savannah canopy yielded hundreds of Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).  This species has leaves and a stem so thin that it could be overlooked when not in flower.  I have found that even in the lack of flowers the upswept foliage and whorls of leaves stick out; in this case it's backdrop of Virginia Goat's Rue (Tephrosia virginiana) made it stick out like a sore thumb.

The peachy-pink flowers of Virginia Goat's Rue.
At first glance I thought I was looking at a White Cedar, but this strange looking tree with a flared base of the trunk and delicate (seemingly deciduous) leaves was actually Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum).  One for the life list, this tree was definitely not on my radar for the trip.  Actually, referring to this map, I suspect it may be considered introduced this far north.  Michigan Flora notes that in the 1 county it occurs in Michigan it has "sparingly escaped".

Fruit of Bald Cypress.
A warm looking Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) at sunset.

Plains Puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense) with it's wiry hairy stem.
Returning to the parking lot this Gray Catbird saw us off with a song.  Alyssa brought her new binoculars along so birding was big on her agenda for the trip.

Plan as I might, I had not booked a hotel for the first night, and on our second attempt we found a spot.  Little did I know, upon pulling the curtains open there was an amazing view of a wetland feature.  I mean, the development itself was about the worst thing you could do to a wetland but I found myself enjoying the views that evening and the next morning.

Taking my morning coffee to the balcony with my binoculars I panned the water, Mute Swans and Canada Geese, no other birds to be found.  But then not far from the balcony I saw riffles in the water and the murky outline of something.  To my surprise an Eastern Spiny Softshell turtle was foraging in the water!  What a way to wake up!  This species is rare in Ontario and was a real treat to see.  The turtle poked it's snorkel-like nose out of the water from time to time as it swam among the lily pads.

I would estimate that the shell measured 40-45cm; a big one in my limited experience seeing them on several occasions.

Other turtles could be spotted form the balcony including this mammoth Snapping Turtle.  I had never before had such a good vantage point to appreciate how they swim.

Despite cloudy skies and radar suggesting rain in 45 minutes, Alyssa and I packed up our backpacks and headed back to the dunes.  The morning would bring a decent rainfall, some drive-by car botany to pass the time, and eventually a hike through the restored Mnoke Prairie in the central portion of the park.  More to come in my next post.