Monday, March 22, 2010

Hummingbirds are coming!

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have established a firm presence on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and are heading north. Track their progress on the wonderful website here: Once they get to Michigan, you can track them, and report your own sightings, to the Great Lakes HummerNet.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is spring really on the way?

Last week, I mentioned the arrival of Red-winged Blackbirds and this week there have been courting Mourning Doves, arriving Common Grackles, and singing Tufted Titmice to reinforce the progression of the season. Now is also a good time to check out the website to track the progress of our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which are arriving along the Gulf Coast right now. Also, the Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in the back yard have now bloomed and, although this is a European wildflower not native to our area, it is always nice to see them bloom, always before the Vernal Equinox. Some years they get covered with snow when blooming...hopefully not this year!

Last summer was highlighted by a lack of insects, which allowed for greater explorations of wetland and bog areas than in most years. The flowers seemed to be relatively unaffected, but some of the birds may have had a tough time finding enough to feed their young. One of the more spectacular flowers in open marshes and wetlands in southeastern Michigan is the Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus palustris), photographed here at the Pte. Mouillee State Game Area. A better name might be marsh mallow...or perhaps not!

Smaller, but no less interesting plants in the marsh include the uncommon Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), which has many colorful relatives in the western U.S.

Much less conspicuous is the Marsh Bellflower (Campanula aparinoides).

I didn't spend too much time in prairie habitat in summer and fall 2009, but did search through some open fens, where in addition to getting a case of poison sumac, also found some other interesting flowers including the Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa).

In the wetter areas of this fen, the robust Water Smartweed (Polygonum amphibium) was found.

 And Michigan's most attractive species of milkweed, the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was fairly common in the fen areas that were explored in summer of 2009.

In the woodlands, the weird and wonderful saphrophytic Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) was a replacement for the Squawroot from spring.

An unexpected flower in the woodlands in summer is the aptly named Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), which commonly grows in light gaps in deciduous woods.

A trip to southeastern Ohio to give a hummingbird presentation in July allowed us to explore some new areas for flowers. The gangly American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is uncommon in Michigan but was easy to find here.

Common in Michigan wetlands, but interesting nonetheless, is the appropriately-named Turtlehead (Chelone glabra).

A very rare wetland species in Michigan is the Water Willow (Justicia americana), as we are near the northern edge of its range, but it was quite common at Lake Alma State Park, Ohio.

One of the flowers we really wanted to see in southeastern Ohio, as it does not occur in Michigan at all, was the Purple Fringless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena). With the help of a friend at the Ohio DNR, botanist Jim McCormac, we had a dozen "historical" sites to check where the species had been reported in the 1960s. This species seems to be closely tied to floodplains. We lucked out at two locations, one in a ditch along the highway through Lake Hope State Park where we were staying, and along the lakeshore at Lake Alma State Park. It was quite a striking orchid...

Later in summer and into early fall, the woodlands had fewer interesting plants but there were still a few, including a saphrophytic orchid species, the Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), represented by just a single plant at this locale.

And the Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens) had begun fruiting with its bright red bunch of fruits where the spadix had been in spring.

A short, but large-flowered aster species, the Large-leaved Aster (Aster macrophyllus), was also in this woods.

But once again I was drawn to the bog, where orchids and other interesting plants are found. One of my favorite orchids is the Grass Pink Orchid (Calopogon tuberosus), which bloomed nicely in 2009.

Often associated with the Grass Pink is the Rose Pogonia Orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides), a smaller species that grows lower to the ground, with a single flower per plant.

Of course with beauties such as these, it may be easy to see why orchids hold a fascination with some people, including me, but some species reveal their beauty only if you get down on your hands and knees to examine their tiny, fairly colorless flowers. The Club-spur Orchid (Platanthera clavellata) is one of these. It is odd in two ways. One is that the lower lip is saw-toothed at the end, and the other is that the flowers are usually tilted away from what one would consider the "normal" orientation.

Then there are the extremely rare species. If I told you were I'd found this tall, elegant Eastern Prairie Fringed-Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), I'd have to kill you! Just kidding of course. I'd never tell as it is a Federally Endangered species.

Once summer gives way to fall, members of the Composite family dominate the scene. One interesting flower, which persisted into early October in the bird banding area at Metro Beach until early October, was the Nodding Bur Marigold (Bidens cernua), which has seeds that will stick tenaceously to your clothing.

The latest bloomers are typically the goldenrods and asters, which are notoriously difficult to identify, especially for amaterus like me. So, while I have some confidence that the flower in the photo below, the last flower I saw in 2009 (mid-November), is a Small White Aster (Aster vimineus), I won't argue if anyone else has a better idea what it might be! [March 12 update! A more experienced botanical friend has suggested that this might be Bushy Aster (Aster dumosus), and after reviewing various guides in my library, I agree.]

This concludes the reminiscences of last summer's flowers and as spring arrives this blog will again turn to birds as the main subject. Hopefully this little diversion into the deep, dark, botanical corner of my interests helped you get over your cabin fever.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The end of cabin fever?

Although the male Red-winged Blackbirds singing outside my window, where there are still piles of snow, signal that spring is coming, it is still about two months until we'll see our first major push of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds into Michigan. In the next week or two, the Snowdrops will be blooming in my garden, and we have clearly once again made it through the deepest, darkest depths of winter. But cabin fever can get the best of us, so I thought this might be a good time to look back on some of the wildflower photos I took last year. I'll post in two installments, one with spring flowers and another with summer and fall flowers.

Most years, I spend some time with the spring wildflowers in April, but this year we made a special trip to an undisclosed location to see, and photograph, one of the rarest (and smallest) species of Trillium in Michigan, the Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale) which blooms in early April and is known from only two or three locales in the state.

Another rare Trillium species, found only in one county in the state (but widespread farther south), is the Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum), which blooms during May.

While doing breeding bird surveys in late May at the Barton Nature Area north of Ann Arbor, I was surprised at the abundance of the Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus).

Rich woods are a great place to find wildflowers, and in particular one of my favorite families, the orchids. Some friends who share the same enfatuation were very kind in sharing information on where these blooming jewels were located, and of course whenever possible I returned the favor. One particular location in Washtenaw County is particularly good for an orchid called Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale), or sometimes called Adam and Eve Orchid. It is fairly inconspicuous when in flower, consisting of a spike of perhaps a dozen flower each about 1/2 inch wide, but is unusual in that its leaf emerges after blooming and persists all winter.

Another woodland orchid that can be difficult to find is the Showy Orchis (Orchis spectabilis). Not to be confused with the much larger Showy Ladyslipper, this orchid is small, but beautiful.

And in a wet swale, in an open area in this woods, the Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium calceolus) was found as well.

There were other interesting plants in these rich woods as well, including a rather inconspicuous but fairly uncommon plant, the Green Violet (Hybanthus concolor).

A trip was made to southwestern Michigan to see a "lifer" orchid, and one of the strangest species to occur in Michigan. The Lily-leaved Twayblade (Liparis lilifolia) is most common in prairie areas, and sometimes in woodlands, and a good friend in Kalamazoo County had some on his property. Another name I've seen for this orchid is one of my favorite plant names; Mauve Sleekwort.

Each flower is perhaps 3/4 of an inch long, but note the interesting details, including the broad pale pinkish lip, and the narrow hairlike tendrils, which are actually specialized petals, dangling from each flower.

In late spring, bogs become more interesting although very often they can be difficult to access as insects very quickly become a problem. In 2009, the cool conditions seemed to reduce the biting bugs significantly, with the result that "bog trotting" was a very pleasant experience. One bog that I visited several times in 2009 was reached by going through a rich woodland, which contained some interesting flowers, including the odd Squawroot (Conopholis americana) which is saphrophytic, drawing its nutrients from the roots of trees.

Another interesting, and uncommon, plant is the Indian Cucumber-Root (Medeola virginiana). This plant always draws the eye of the orchid-searcher as the whorled pattern of its leaves is very similar to one very rare and one endangered species of orchid. But the blooms of course are very different, looking like small (one-inch diameter) greenish-yellow tiger lilies.

Once in the bog, the vegetation changes dramatically, and among the many carnivorous Pitcher Plants and Sundews one can also find the tiny flowers of the Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), if you're willing to put your chin down into the mat of mosses!

Of course bogs are the domain of orchids, and several species were found here in late spring, including the Pink Ladyslipper (Cypripedium acaule), sometimes called Mocassin Flower.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular orchids in Michigan is the Arethusa (Arethusa bulbosa), sometimes called the Dragon's Mouth.

This ends the first installment of my wildflower wanderings from 2009. Until the next posting, try to stay warm!