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.

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