Monday, September 26, 2016

Gentian and Spiranthes

A couple nights ago, my nature pal, Dale, enticed me to join him for an orchid quest in western Dane County, Wisconsin. I'm a whore for orchids and had not seen Dale in a few months, so it was a no-brainer to venture beyond my recently shrinking comfort zone for a nature rendezvous.

Downy Gentian, Walking Iron Park, Dane County, WI
With visions of spiranthes and gentian dancing in my head, I set off to meet Dale at Pleasant Valley Conservancy late Sunday morning. We quickly found a few Spiranthes species along the path in the burr oak savanna. However we were not certain if what we were seeing was the state Special Concern species, ovalis, that we had come seeking.

Spiranthes sp. ?magnicamporum, ?cernua Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
Spiranthes can be challenging to tell apart. I find some of the differences to be rather subtle in certain species. I am a bit unsure as to which species is pictured below. I suspect it is either Great Plains or Nodding Lady's-tresses. I am heavily leaning Great Plains, but am not entirely sure. I hope to narrow the ID. I found out afterward apparently one can tell the Great Plains Lady-tresses by their almond-like scent. We should have smelled them!!! Though tempted to go back for a sniff, I foresee no time in my near future to do so.

Spiranthes sp. ?magnicamporum, ?cernua Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI

As far as Spiranthes ovalis goes, identification of this orchid at Pleasant Valley only happened very recently after some orchid aficionados toured the natural area. You can read more about its discovery at Tom Brock's blog.

Spiranthes ovalis. Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
As we toured the savanna we found more specimens that we knew with certainty were Spiranthes ovalis. I won't lie, the Spiranthes group of orchids lacks the intoxicating appeal I find with other orchids. However I have to give the genus credit for its intricately spiraled inflorescences.

Spiranthes ovalis, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI

With the ovalis under our belts it was time to turn our attention to the various gentian species blooming.

Fringed Gentian, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia) were blooming abundantly throughout the drier areas of conservancy.

Stiff Gentian, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
The moisture-loving Fringed and Bottle Gentian (Gentianopis crinita and Gentiana andrewsii) were found in the lower prairie along the wetland trail. Both were still blooming though past peak according to Dale.
Fringed Gentian, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
Along the way Common Buckeye were encountered. They have been prevalent at most natural areas I have visited in recent weeks.

Common Buckeye, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
Tis the season for asters! I believe the asters I photographed along the wetland trail were New England Aster. However I'm certain we looked at 3-4 additional aster species. This is where I tell myself I should have been paying closer attention to things like the leaves, colors, structure etc. Alas sometimes I just want to enjoy my surroundings without getting caught up in the categorization and nomenclature of everything before me.

New England Aster, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
I spied a bloom in the wetlands I thought to be the invasive Spotted Knapweed. For a minute I was surprised an invasive would escape the impeccable management of this conservancy. However I quickly realized the bloom was some sort of thistle. My conclusion on ID: Swamp Thistle. My identification is further confirmed by this species being included on Pleasant Valley Conservancy's checklist of wetland plants.

Swamp Thistle, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
A whimsical bug photo-bombed my time with this bloom. I did not mind.

Not a fan of yellow, but I will still take time to admire certain yellow flowers on occasion. I am not certain if I've seen Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) before or if I simply overlooked it because it's my least favorite color. I wonder if it makes one sneeze?  I pondered this as I admired the plant, but lacked the motivation to carry out a sniff test to find my answer. Perhaps another time.

Sneezeweed, Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Dane Co, WI
Wrapping up at Pleasant Valley, we moved to Rettemund Prairie in search of more Spiranthes orchids. We found a number of Great Plains Lady's-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) blooming as expected. This is a far easier place to see this species than Spring Green Preserve where I have hiked nearly 3 miles round trip to view a single plant! These were a mere 50 feet or less up the trail.

Spiranthes magnicamporum, Rettenmund Prairie, Dane Co, WI

Spiranthes magnicamporum, Rettenmund Prairie, Dane Co, WI
Last stop was Walking Iron Park for our fourth, and my favorite, gentian species of the day, Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta). This is the truest blue of the gentians. The bluest of blooms, alluring and brilliant.

Downy Gentian, Walking Iron Park, Dane County, WI

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Changing of the Guard

Sunday morning marked the last moments I spent in the yard with Righty, the rambunctious hatch year male ruby-throated hummingbird that had been present since September 10th.

Morning in the backyard started off with three hummingbirds present, presumably the same three I had been seeing the past week. Among them was female "V" who survived her beatings by Righty. The day following his brutal attack, she was demonstrating agile flight maneuvering, successfully thwarting further aggression.

"V" the HY female being terrorized by Righty
Later that day, likely mid-morning, Righty and "V" departed my yard. This daytime exodus is consistent with hummingbirds being diurnal migrants. Not to worry though! The day brought replacements! In fact the early evening yielded my all-time highest total of ruby-throated hummingbirds, a whopping six!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, hatch year male
It is difficult to say if all those were new birds. I didn't seem to recognize the habits of any of the birds present. They were assuming different perches. No single bird seemed to dominate. The scene struck me as a different dynamic than the early morning.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, hatch year female

Monday marked the beginning of my weekend. I slept in until 8 o'clock. Upon waking I was eager to see what birds were around the yard after such an impressive showing the night before. I quickly assumed my perch outside with coffee and camera in hand, and waited...and waited. The yard was quiet.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, hatch year female
Finally after about 25 minutes a hatch year female quietly arrived to feed. No contact calls. No charging by another hummingbird. My heart sank as I felt Fall upon me, the season of goodbyes. Soon my yard will hold little entertainment...Then what? Venture away from home? endeavor surely laden with risk. Where will I find inspiration without baggage when winter is upon me?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, hatch year female
But wait! Another bird! Another hummingbird! At least for the time being I had the entertainment of watching two hummingbirds for the next two hours...

And the red-eyed vireo who was still hanging out feeding on the dogwood berries as it has for weeks...

Red-eyed Vireo enjoying its favorite treats
And some new visitors not seen in the yard before in the form of dragonflies and butterflies...

Black Saddlebags
Common Green Darner
Incoming! A third hummingbird! A hatch year male. With three in the yard that made for an easier time capturing birds nectaring at flowers. Usually while two are feuding, a third bird seizes the moment to feed uninterrupted. So all seems well for now and I am content with new batch of birds to entertain my morning and evenings for at least the next week or so.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, hatch year male
And whaddaya know, I did find the will to venture out a short distance...only to have the gorgeous sunny day devoured by a severe thunderstorm. I couldn't help but feel like Charlie Brown. The storm cloud had found me, menacing, hijacking my afternoon plans.

Silverwood County Park, far SE Dane County, WI

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hummingbird Madness

Meet Righty. He first showed up in my yard September 10th. He is one of at least three ruby-throated hummingbirds currently visiting.

By far, Righty rules the roost!

He seems to have replaced Patch on the dominant perch in the yard. 

Patch with his hint of "soul patch" gorget feathers center throat. Seen on his perch before his disappearance.
After what I witnessed tonight, for all I know Righty killed Patch.

Patch was my delightful male who hovered and posed for me on a wide variety of flowers. I named him for his central patch of gorget feathers.

Righty on the other hand sports his red gorget feathers on his right lateral throat. Here he is keeping a watchful eye on the feeders and blooms throughout the yard.

Tonight I was watching for him to come down from his perch to nectar on the flowers when I witnessed this! 

Hatch year male ruby-throated hummingbird pummels a hatch year female.
To my surprise he literally pummel this defenseless female. While it may look like mating, it was anything but.

Backing up before attacking again...
The violent back-stabbing

I walked toward the action to scare Righty away. He quickly left while the female remained perched, disheveled, preening, and panting.

After the attack....
It didn't take long for me to realize she was allowing quite close approach. I suspected she was more compromised from the attack than I originally thought. So I retrieved my small nectar feeder and offered her a drink. Surprisingly she accepted my offering. I captured some of the event on video with my iPhone:

After a short period she moved to a higher perch among the cup plants. Her flight was precariously weak. Out of nowhere Righty was on the attack again! Aggressively on her back. On impulse I darted the direction of the hummingbirds, scolding aloud, "Stop it!" I believe I may have officially crossed the line into absurd middle-aged lunacy scolding my neighborhood hummingbirds. However, I simply could not remain silent while the torture ensued. 

Righty hardly missed a beat before he was back at "his" flowers enjoying their bounty.

Righty the Terror nectaring at Black and  Blue Salvia
Within the next hour or so, I saw V, let's call her "V" for victim, nectaring at a couple of the feeders and perching nearby. She still appeared worn down, allowing me to feed her once more before she moved into denser cover. I have to wonder how she will fare overnight. Her flight was concerningly docile when she last relocated to a higher perch. She certainly has a rough road ahead if she tries to persist in my yard for much longer. A part of me hopes Righty will migrate soon and leave V to recuperate in peace before her demanding journey south.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September at the Lake

September hails my favorite season, fall. The season of senescence. The most poignant season of the four.

Witnessing nature's beauty in the north woods over Labor Day weekend ranks above any other holiday of the year.

September sees Lake Superior as its warmest and most inviting. The Big Lake. Comforting. Meditative. Home.

The mornings at Pike Lake (Luce Co, MI) were mostly socked in with fog. Still. Beautiful. Often giving way to blustery winds later in the day.

The fog decorated nature's bounty in dew.

As if Nature had wept for the loss of summer during the quiet moments of daybreak...

Webs woven in dew...

Like endless tears...

Repeating, contemplative reflections...

With the rising sun, the breath of Nature began erasing any trace of her morning's lament.

The loon that failed to breed this year, is it capable of flight? Finally free of  the fishing line that had been confining its wings? Ignorance and irresponsibility of humans wreaks havoc on nature's finest. It's been too many years without young.

Maybe next year...

Friday, September 9, 2016

Picture perfect

Late August through September appears to be prime time to find Splendid Tiger Beetles atop the bluffs at Spring Green Preserve. Last fall marked the first time I had observed this species. I missed them during their spring flight, so had been looking forward to returning to feast my eyes on my favorite and the most colorful of Wisconsin's tiger beetles. 

Splendid Tiger Beetle

Alex Harman had found Common Claybank Tiger Beetles atop the bluffs both this spring and earlier this month co-mingling with the Splendids. I was hopeful my venture to the bluffs of Spring Green would yield this would-be life tiger beetle. I was not disappointed. 

Common Claybank Tiger Beetle
I arrived at Spring Green Preserve shortly after 9 a.m. with the intention to ascend the bluff trail as quickly as possibly. I acknowledged the challenge of accomplishing such a task given the likely enticing distractions that would present themselves along the way. Fortunately insect activity was minimal which made my objective far easier. The prairie was saturated with moisture from recent rains. The temperature hovered around a pleasant seventy degrees fahrenheit. The prairie was just emerging from being socked in by fog. I scattered the occasional grasshopper, but far fewer than I normally encounter on a late day outing. Eventually I stirred the intermittent Punctured Tiger Beetle. With the relatively cooler temperatures, their flights seemed more like a sluggish stupor than their typical explosive rapid escape. Like Superman deficient in kryptonite, these creatures needed sun and warmth to energize. Though I vowed not to delay with an attempt at photographing Punctured Tiger Beetles, I could not resist the one trapped in a veritable "rabbit hole."

Shortly after I began my ascent up the wooded backside of the bluff,  I discovered leaving the mosquito repellent behind was a colossal error. Foolishly I assumed biting insects would not be an issue in September. WRONG. The recent rains had clearly provided the substrate for a nice hatch of mosquitoes. I succumbed to being the sole blood meal for the swarm that awaited me. Defending myself against the mosquitoes and weathering the high humidity made the trek up the bluff feel more laborious than other recent climbs this summer. Upon reaching the top, I felt exhausted and a bit defeated. I was not feeling "it." Would I get skunked on my tiger beetle quest? Hell no. Just as I was catching my breath and righting my attitude, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a beetle along the rocky trail. Common Claybank! 

Common Claybank Tiger Beetle
Common Claybank Tiger Beetle, in situ

And further up the trail Splendid! 

Splendid Tiger Beetle
Splendid Tiger Beetle
My adrenaline kicked in and suddenly I was ready to traverse the ridge top to the old quarry. But not before I relished in the spectacular presence of the 14-16 Splendid Tiger Beetles scurrying around with the less numerous (all of two), but cooperative and sexier than ever Common Claybank Beetles. 

Scratching that itch, Common Claybank Tiger Beetle
Common Claybank Tiger Beetle strikes another pose

The sun emerged from the fog in perfect time to accentuate the intricate colors of these two species. 

Common Claybank Tiger Beetle

The numerous Splendids provided great opportunity to study the variations in maculations of this species. 

Splendid Tiger Beetle
After about an hour's time, the noon tornado sirens were ringing below in the town of Spring Green prompting me to make my way to the old quarry and western bluff of Spring Green Preserve East. I was in search of the Spiranthes magnicamporum, Great Plains Lady's Tresses orchid. Not a rare orchid, but this is the only place I've seen this species. I make it an annual trip to come back and visit this bloom that I first discovered a few years ago. The plant was not quite in peak fluorescence, but beautiful to behold nonetheless. 

Great Plains Lady's Tresses orchid
Once again I scoured the rocky terrain of the old quarry for signs of reptiles or tiger beetles. Not a one. 

Shadow art
By now the sun was heating up the landscape and I was low on water. It was time to make my way back down the bluff.  Along the wooded trail I encountered the fourth tiger beetle species of the trip, Six-spotted. This species is most typically seen in May/June. I am told a few can be seen in late summer/fall. This year seems to be a bit better than most for late season sightings of this species.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
It was well into the afternoon when I finally emerged back on the desert prairie trail. The sun was blazing and temperatures had climbed into the uncomfortable 80s. Insect activity was strikingly much more abundant than during my cool morning hike. Festive Tiger Beetles (species number five for the trip) were flushing with great frequency. I estimated at least 15-20 individuals.  

It must have been race time because I encountered a larger racerunner bolting by me on the trail. When I rounded the bend in the traditional racerunner sand blow, I flushed at least five more Six-lined racerunners!
Six-lined Racerunner next to acorn cap for size reference

The sixth tiger beetle species of the trip, Big Sand, was also seen in this sand blow. I found one attacking prey and was sure this would afford an easy opportunity for a photo. Alas it did not and I was too weary, several hours into my desert trip, to maintain the patience to get a photo. 

I noticed during my morning and afternoon hike through the prairie that there seemed to be a decent flight of Eastern Tailed-Blues. In general, butterfly diversity seemed fairly good as far as my novice eyes could surmise. Additional species I encountered in singles to a few included Clouded Sulphur, Common Buckeye, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Comma species, American Copper, Silver-spotted Skipper, Monarch and what I believe is a Leonard's Skipper. 
Leonard's Skipper?
American Copper
To my surprise, I encountered two more Splendid Tiger Beetles along the prairie trail, far below their traditional rocky bluff habitat. One had more pronounced maculations than I have observed on this species.

Splendid Tiger Beetle with more pronounced maculations

More than five hours had past as I reached the conclusion of one of my most memorable adventures to Spring Green Preserve. 

Spring Green Preserve, east
The beetles were divinely picture perfect, yielding to my camera unlike before. And the Six-lined Racerunners, I was downright feeling giddy and spoiled by nature by time my eyes feasted on number three, four, five and six of this species! Nature had once again brought me joy unmatched by anything else. This was DEFINITELY what this girl was in need of. 

Rough Blazing Star