Ok, I’ve been running into a lot of birds lately, so it’s time for some bird pictures! No, not as many (or as flamboyant) as I saw in Florida, but they are amazing nonetheless. (The birds, that is, not the photos).

I was out assessing our 2018 tree planting in the rain a couple weeks ago. I stumbled across yet another Red Winged Black Bird nest.

Can you find the nest?

Ok, look a little closer…

They’re one of the most abundant birds in N. America. Flashy, loud, and not happy about sharing space! Mom and dad were definitely not happy with me being so close, so I moved on before getting pelted in the skull.

Very soon afterward, I was startled by an explosion of feathers from my feet, as an American Woodcock (I think) sprung up and away. I took a few paces backwards and another couple birds – juveniles – also fluttered away. I was pleasantly surprised to find this when I looked at the ground.

Hold on, let me get a little closer…

At least, I think it was a Woodcock. It might have been a Wilson’s Snipe. I really should be better at distinguishing the species, they are just so darn fast. Being that it was out in the rain without momma, I got out of there after snapping a photo.

More recently, I was checking our pastures and hay fields for breeding grassland birds. This guild of birds have been in decline for some time, and their habitat requirements vary by species, but most involve the need for a relatively undisturbed nesting period with a certain size and composition of grassland habitat.

We are fortunate to be hosting several grassland nesting birds, including Eastern Meadowlark, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. Click these hyperlinks to learn more about the birds’ ranges, vocalizations, habitats, etc. Although I usually just point and shoot with my smartphone, this time I trudged along my telephoto lens and digital camera.

I spotted several female Bobolinks (as is typical for most bird species, they are not as flashy as the boys), seen in photos #1 and #2. They were carrying insects in their beaks, which is a good sign that they are feeding newly hatched chicks. We usually have to use this as an indicator rather than directly monitoring individual nests, because 1) the nests are extremely hard to find, and 2) this avoids nest disturbance.

Bobolinks winter in Argentina and other places in South American, then fly all the way up to the upper Midwest and Ontario to breed again the following year. They have a high nest site fidelity, which means they prefer to come back to the exact field they were at last year. I think it’s because the males aren’t afraid to ask for directions (sorry, couldn’t resist a quick Dad joke there).

While walking through one of the pastures, I flushed an Eastern Meadowlark fledgling. The white tips to the tail are a giveaway for this one.

As in previous years, we have Sandhill Cranes hanging around. There is definitely one nesting pair off to the south. Additionally, there’s a loner that’s been hanging around Moontree Studios and collecting a little bird seed when available. Sr. Mary suspects it’s a one-year old bird who has emancipated his/herself.

A typical Sandhill nest has one fledgling that survives to migrate with mom and dad down south. “Mated pairs and their juvenile offspring stay together all through the winter, until the 9- to 10-month-old juveniles finally separate from their parents the following spring” (Cornell University). They don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 2 year olds, so if I might anthropomorphize a bit, I suspect this tween/teenager is perhaps spreading its wings to explore the wide world on its own, before it settles down for a domestic life in due time.

Lastly, an update from the Indiana DNR. They are now recommending that the public stop feeding wild birds, at least temporarily. There is an unknown illness that is spreading among several bird species throughout the region. Any site of concentrated food increases the transmission risk of disease among wild animals, hence the guidance. Hopefully we will get some clarity on what is happening. In the meantime, the birds can return to find their daily bread in the way they have known for a very long time.

Another reason to focus on protecting and enhancing the native ecosystems on which they (and we) depend.

Mountain bike and hiking trail opens by Plymouth (SB Tribune article)

I’m very happy to see The Trails at Mill Pond highlighted by the South Bend Tribune today. Here’s a link to the article.

Glad also to see that it featured our neighbor and active Flat Lake Watershed member Eric Howard. (Flat Lake is a waterbody that is downstream from PHJC property, and our watershed group helps coordinate stewardship in the vicinity with habitat improvements, trash clean-ups, water monitoring, and hunting).

Here’s hoping we can continue the momentum for the Marshall County Park and Recreation Department!

opening day! with more improvements to come…

Poison Hemlock and its discontents

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is considered an invasive species in N. America. That is, it is both non-native and causes ecological and/or economic harm. Mums, garden tulips, Bleeding Hearts and the like are non-native, but since they don’t bother anyone and just sit there looking pretty, they aren’t invasive. Only a fraction of the many non-native species are considered invasive.

I’ve seen Poison Hemlock become more and more common along Indiana roadsides. It “is a biennial weed that exists as a low growing herb in the first year of growth and bolts to three to eight feet tall in the second year, when it produces flowers and seed” (see more from Purdue extension).

By the name, you should have enough common sense not to consume it. It’s what they made Socrates drink on death row. But don’t touch it either… exposure to bare skin can cause serious reactions in some people. Many plants in the Carrot family, Apiaceae, are like this, with Queen Anne’s Lace / Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) a noteable exception.

In Northern Indiana, the plants are coming into full flower. The window for spraying the plant with herbicide is closed, as there isn’t time enough to stop the plant from producing viable seed. Remember, as a biennial, all the flowering plants you see will be shortly dead, the species living on through seed. Cutting is the only option left, and even that isn’t foolproof. Even when cut, a few robust plants will have enough moisture available in the stem to take the flower all the way to a viable seed. Talk about tenacious! If you want to be absolutely sure at this point, you have to cut and landfill the flowers.

Poor photo of a Poison Hemlock plant about to flower. Hmmm… why does it look so scraggly?

But a few weeks ago I was out spraying, and I saw a few plants with scraggly and curled leaves. I was very excited! It sure looked like insect impacts to me.

One reason that we think some plants become “invasive” is that they are out of place from the web of life in which they evolved over a long period of time. Any given plant species has numerous rusts, viruses, fungus, insects, and animals that are adapted to feeding on it. Most plants have evolved a specific chemical resistance that works against most insects, except for a small suite of species or group of species who evolved a way around it (think of milkweed and monarch butterflies).

This complex and biodiverse web ensures that any one species isn’t permanently dominant. There is an ebb and flow with the cycles of each species, the variation in climate, and stochastic events. When liberated from this web of checks and balances, sometimes plants go berserk and can dominate native communities.

Back to the insect-impacted plant! I didn’t know what it was right away, but after some Googling, I suspect it’s the European Hemlock moth (Agonopterix alstroemeriana), which was accidentally introduced to N. America in 1973. I didn’t actually observe any larva or moths, so I’m basing that just off a quick observation of the leaves. To my knowledge, the moth has not been documented feeding on native plants, so that’s good!

So… problem solved, right! Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the moth provides any serious control of the spread of this plant. Nonetheless, I decided not to spray the plants that had insects present (since I didn’t know anything about it upon first observation).

It turns out that there is a native wasp (Euodynerus foraminatus) that parasitizes moth larva, and has learned to also do so to the European Hemlock Moth. This, in turn, may limit the moth’s ability to impact Poison Hemlock. What a tangled web!

It’s a good reminder that our terms native/non-native, invasive, naturalized, etc. are just human constructs that attempt to make sense of the world around us. Nonetheless, I still think they are important concepts. Lots of things are “merely” constructs! But it’s good not to be overly-ideological about it, and remember to continue to test the concepts with observation.

So… learning to identify Poison Hemlock (especially in the year 1 rosette stage, long before final flourish of flowering) and control it will still be important tasks. Should you choose to go into battle, just be sure you wear proper PPE for skin protection!

As a reminder of why we choose to spend so much time on invasive species, I’ll share one more carroty photo.

Poison Hemlock (left) right next to it’s native cousin, Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea).

On the left is Poison Hemlock, growing adjacent its native cousin, Great Angelica, aka Purple-Stemmed Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), seen towering on the right. Angelica is one of our tallest herbaceous (non-woody) plants. It’s usually indicative of high-quality natural wetlands. It sure looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss. Like the hemlock, it’s growth is biennial. It contains furanocoumarins, which can cause phytophotodermatitis, which happens if you touch the plant and then expose the area to UV light from the sun. Which is why I’m very careful while harvesting the seeds from this plant. Like I said, don’t mess with the carrots!

So: if we can keep the invasive species at bay, we can let the native plant community (and insects, etc) do their thing. Doing so isn’t rocket science, but it does require attention, diligence/commitment, trial-and-error, and strategizing/triage.