Category: Nature Notes
October 1, 2009: Frost arrived overnight. Its white crystals settled down into the rough edges of the land – into the field and savannah, the hillsides and rock pikes, into every fold of every leaf. It was an early frost – weeks ahead of schedule – and much heavier than a first frost usually is. But then, it is October, the season when things change.
I dawdled in the morning, ignoring the late rising sun. I stopped for coffee along the road, and let the moments of the morning slip through my fingers, unaware. Under the trees in the forest melting frost fell like a light, steady rain. By the time I got to the old farmstead the frost was nearly gone. I managed just a couple of shots before the air temperature rose past some imperceptible tipping point, and the frost suddenly disappeared – all of it, everywhere, all at once.
So much for the frost.
But a good freeze changes things. It comes and goes, but leaves its mark behind. A glorious autumn day unfolded before me. Bright and still-warm sun in a deep azure sky warmed up the woods and fields around me, and I spent several hours knocking around the game area.
Bird hunters were everywhere, as you’d expect this time of year, but there were few gunshots.
Come October, I know that I won’t see any small dragonflies other than Autumn Meadowhawks. A few days earlier darners – common green and more exotic blue – could be seen dashing above the fields. Maybe it was the heavy frost – but even by mid afternoon, there were no darners to be found and only a handful of Meadowhawks stirred as I wandered through the fields.
When did the spring frosts stop? Was it long ago? It seems like yesterday, and here now the autumn frost curls up in the grass. Aside from a few holdouts, the dragons slumber underwater. Their nascent dreams, hardly formed, float like ghosts in cloudy dragon minds.
Flying out of Kalamazoo a few weeks ago, I looked down as the airplane made its way west towards O’Hare. The Allegan Forest stretched out below me, a deep green patch of trees standing defiant among the squares and rectangles and irrigation circles of the neighboring farmland. To my surprise, I was able to spot the field I call the Old Farmstead – an upside down “L” carved out of the forest, with a triangular, pork chop shaped pond at the southern edge. The patches of sandy soil that I know so well stood out – pale, off white blotches against the pale green of the field and the deep green of the forest.
The next weekend I wandered through the field, and looked back at the sky, trying to figure out where I may have been when I looked down onto this very spot. I have no idea. However, despite dry weather these last several weeks, the field was still green. A bit of brown was just beginning to show, but the patches of cactus, wild grapes, knapweed, and wild strawberries were still lush and green.
The weather this year is unusual. It always is. This July just passed has been cool and dry. The air is dazzling clear – like it is in October – and high clouds roil through the skies, always threatening rain but, lately, not making good on that promise.
Dragonflies were abundant. I finally got a chance to give the Pentax K7 a workout and did my best to get some shots of dragonflies with knapweed blooms in the background. I finally took a few hundred shots with this excellent camera – but was disappointed to come home and find a faint light band running vertically through every shot. Apparently, the sensor is defective. Oh well – the defect is invisible in web-sized images, so I will feel free to post the day’s shots. Meanwhile, I am in the process of returning the camera for one that has a sensor that operates correctly.
Meadowhawk Dragonfly with Knapweed in the Background
I should not be kind to Knapweed. It is, after all, an invasive plant. By today’s reckoning it is an undesirable plant. We wish it wasn’t here.
Over the ages, we humans have exercised peculiar logic in how we judge (and condemn) the natural world. In days gone by the calculus that human used to judge the worthiness of the natural world has ranged from the doctrine of signatures, to ideas of economic usefulness, to today’s notions based on whether or not that particular species was part of the ecosystem that was once – but is no longer – in place.
Personally, I’m reluctant to render judgment on a thing that grows up out of the ground, but that’s just me. It seems that those who engage in this calculus of judgment have always considered themselves to be the most knowledgeable of the natural world, the most eager to manage it, the closest and yet most removed from the thing they profess to advocate for. Well – it’s just knapweed, a good place to perch if you are a dragonfly.
This Saturday just past – August 1, 2009 – I returned to the fields. I was sadden to see that the mowing had finally caught up with this location, and the thick knee high vegetation was cropped down to a uniform 3 or 4 inch high fuzz covering the land. Wild grapes, prickly pear cactus, oak saplings, iris leaves all lay chopped together – a grim vegetable hash coating the sandy soil. Most trees less than a few inches in diameter were chopped down in this mowing process, though some individuals were left standing – many badly mauled.
Oh well – I knew this day would come. I first found this spot right after it had been mown. That was four years ago – the land had healed but is now wrenched back to its previous state.
Of course, if this is not done then the land will simply revert to forest. I suppose the mowing is a substitute for the fires that once kept the Pine Barrens from being overgrown. Yeah - it’s a bit of charade. There is no real ecosystem in lower Michigan, or really in most places in the US. The ‘management’ of natural systems is a house of cards balanced on a tight rope. Can we ever manage our way back to the ecosystem that once was in this place – free of invasive species, with rivers flowing the tracks they once travelled?
It seems unlikely. When you can’t go forward and you can’t go back – what is there to do but maintain an artificial normalicy.
I told all this to a red dragon, perched on slim branch near the pond’s edge. He was unimpressed.
Back in June, when the days were the longest, I’d listen to the robins sing in the dead of night. They would start up around 2:30 AM, first one lonely singer, then another. Dawn was hours away but the birds sang to the darkness, or perhaps to the promised light.
Just as the pre-dawn twilight emerged, other birds joined the song. First cardinals, and then myriad house sparrows with their chatter – not really a song except when hundreds of birds join in. Mourning doves, fox sparrows, finches and chickadees all would join in; at times crows added their dour “caw-caw-caw” to the mix.
This morning I awoke at 2:30. People were talking outside the window, the garage door was open and the light was on. I rushed out, ready to fight, but found no one there. The voices were gone. A cluttered garage basked in the light. Nothing was missing - did I just forget to turn off the light and close the door?
Locking up, I thought to sit back and listen to the robins sing and let the adrenaline ease away. But no bird spoke in the darkness. I had trouble getting back to sleep, and listened in vain until the sun was coming up. The tardy July sun.
Around 6 a few birds picked up the call, and dozen or so voices rose to the morning chorus. Bless them for thier singing, though it was an faint echo of days gone by.
And so – the turning point, again. The sun is already rising later, and soon the mornings will be silent.
Here’s a photo of a prickly pear cactus in bloom. It was taken last year. I had intended to take a photo of one of this summer, but did not realize that the one day in June when I saw them blooming on the barrens was the only day this year I’d see these flowers.
There was a surprise in my photos from last June. While shooting dragonflies in the usual haunts, I saw this specimen. I took it to be a dot tailed white face, but was perplexed by the whitish coloration at the base of the abdomen.
Looking through field guide I realize that this is a Frosted Whiteface -Leucorrhinia frigida. Considering the yellowish dots on the abdomen, this would be an immature male Frosted Whiteface. I don’t recall having ever seen this species before, and I’m sure I never photographed it. Great to see something new out there.
Shot on June 20th, 2009, in the Allegan State Game Area.
Saturday morning. Rain spatters on the windowsill. Cars passing outside splash through puddles. Now and again, a rumble of thunder churns through the clouds. These are all good reasons to linger a bit in bed… and so it isn’t until late morning that I head out for my weekly photographic session.
I leave under cloudy skies with the occasional puddle still in the road, but by the time I get to the game area the skies have cleared. The July sun quickly dries the oak savanna, but cool gusty breezes make the day mild and comfortable.
Despite the morning shower, the fields are finally starting to show a bit of summer brown. The sandy soil in Allegan County holds little water and even a week or so without rain is enough to make the green grass fade.
I decided to start on the north west end of the game area, and work my way back to the Old Farmstead.
Twelve Spotted Skimmer
I have been spoiled by the years in which I freelanced. In those days, I never visited the woods on weekends – too great the chance that I’d see a person. Now I only venture in on Saturday, Sunday afternoon, or perhaps some summer holiday. Most of the places I visit are still secluded and quiet. A few, though, are not.
On this afternoon, the sound of gunfire peppers the air in the fields north of the river. There’s lots of hooting and hollering, cheering, and some left over July 4th fireworks – sounds of people having a good time. The dragonfly fields are just on the other side of the stand of trees I talked about last fall – where the pine got so shot up that it fell over. The place *is* a recreation area, so I can’t complain – but the noise was a distraction.
Nonetheless, here there were twelve spotted skimmers, a few blue dashers, and the very last
rapidsmidland clubtails of the season. Shortly after stepping into the field I observed a gorgeous northern black widow spider – a large female, ebony and ruby colored - taking down a grasshopper at least four times her size. Sorry – she disappeared before I could level the camera at her.
One new thing on this particular day – the camera I was carrying is the Pentax K7. It arrived Friday, and as soon as I opened the box my old K10D was officially retired. Nothing wrong with that camera – it is a fine one – but I know how it goes when a new tool lands in your hands. IN my case, I have spent zero time reading the manual thus far. I simply snapped the A* 200mm macro lens on the camera, completed with my DIY flash bracket, and kept on shooting like nothing had changed. I did have to adjust flash settings, but aside from that, it was business as usual for shooting dragonflies.
Anyhow – I spent the day visiting a few places, dodging bullets and finding dragonflies. I ended up at my favorite new pond. Here I found the trees taking on autumnal colors – leaves turning yellow, orange, and red. The trees that have been submerged in a few feet of water since the pond rose last fall are finally starting to show the stress. A few smaller bushes have flat out died, but now the trees in the 20 to 30 foot tall range are showing signs of stress. What the water level has dropped a bit – a few inches – I doubt they will see much relief. When this place is a marshy grassland in a few years – like it was a few years ago – I fear that dead trees will linger on as monuments to the rapid emergence of this new pond.
And now – the big news of the day. The first red dragon of season made its appearance - a Ruby Meadowhawk. The season turns on the back of the red dragon, and the seeds of autumn are sown.
July. Summer has officially arrived. Long days come and go like waves rolling on the sea. Since I am working now I don’t visit the Allegan Forest as often as I use to, but still make it out there at least once a week, usually visiting a few favorite places.
It’s a cool, wet summer, and the sandy savannah is lush and green. The pond near the old farmstead has stopped rising, but shows no signs of receding back to being a simple marsh. It’s hard to believe that last year at this time deer would spash across the shallow marsh - and in years past I would walk through high grass where now these is open water.
Some of the trees that have been inundated since this spring are finally giving in to being underwater. Most still look fine, but here there trees and bushes turn pale green, then brown, as they succumb to the new water level.
Twelve Spotted Skimmer
Along the pond’s edge I regularly see raccoons scurrying about in the shallow water, probably looking for frogs to dine on. When the raccoons spot me they make for the nearest tree. The sound of water draining off their fur coat follows them as the climb up the branches – it’s like the sound of a dish rag being drained into a sink full of water.
A small group of Canada geese have also taken up residence in the pond. They glide away into the shallow water almost silently. They hang out in a grassy area, not far from the patch of wild raspberries that reached it’s apex this time last summer – but this year is completely underwater.
Sorry – I’ve seen no snakes these last few weeks.
Among the Odonates, Dot Tailed Whitefaces are still abundant, though the larger Twelve Spotted Skimmers and Common Whitetails are now firmly established. Blue dashers have finally appeared. Calico Pennants and Spangled Skimmers have been around for a while. I have yet to see a Halloween Pennant yet this year – a species that is usually common and abundant. Surly they will arrive soon.
Meadowhawk Dragonflies have arrived, though. They are still in their immature gold and black colors, but I spotted a few that are just taking on a reddish orange glow – a shadow of the vibrant color they will soon bear.
Immature Meadowhawk Dragonflies
The coreopsis has come and gone. A few red spotted purple butterflies and a very few great spangled fritillaries and tiger swallowtails hit the yellow flowers. During the week or two when the coreopsis is at its peak I to try to get photos of perching dragonflies with the yellow wildflowers in the background – but this year saw no luck with that. The dragons are late in arriving.
Tiger Swallowtail on Coreopsis
Vetch would normally be blooming this time of year, and in some places small patches of it manage to eek out a few purple flowers. But the fields that I visit were mowed last summer, and that has beaten the vetch back significantly.
Now in early July butterfly weed is blooming. I always hope to find some stunning butterflies on these orange flowers - last weekend all I managed to come up with was this rather ragged old butterfly making its way along the prairie.
Swallowtail on Butterfly Weed
North of the river is still home to a good number of large
Rapid Midland Clubtails. Blue dashers have begun to appear in these fields as well, and from time to time, I spot a large spiketail or two, but have yet to get a photo of them.
Overall, the lazy summer days continue to roll out across the forest and the Pine Barrens. Maybe due to the wet weather, I see more wildlife than usually – raccoons, deer, turkey, and coyotes. They all enjoy the long and bountiful days of this season. Like I said - I’m only here to photograph the dragonflies…
The 2009 spring wildflower season is all but over. But every year I learn something new that helps me with future shoots. This year’s revelation is a simple one – watch for the pollinators. In those early days in spring when you’re not sure if the wildflowers will be out or not, check to see what bees, flies, and other pollinators are flying around. If they are out, the flowers are out. Of course.
Here’s a native bee in a trillium flower:
I am standing by the edge of the pond. The vegetation here is thick, and I had to make my way in carefully – the wild raspberries have been mostly washed out by the rising water, but the ones that remain are tall, thick, and full of thorns.
Fresh green grass stalks break the surface of the pond. Maybe it will revert to a marsh again, after all…
A flash of gold catches my eye and I turn to see a serpent, draped on the tall raspberry bushes. She’s almost at eye level – more like chest level – four or five feet above the ground. She seems unconcerned by my presence – a Ribbon Snake
common garter snake. It seems pretty relaxed, maybe this is one of the snakes I photographed a few weeks ago.
Wait a minute… This is the Allegan Forest, not the Amazon Forest – I don’t expect to see snakes hanging from the branches here. After a few moments, the snake glides away – sliding into the bushes on which it was perched, weaving itself into the shadows below.
A few moments later, I have the next encounter with a snake. This time I’m lying on my stomach, trying to get a shot of a dragonfly perched on a stalk, just inches above the ground. As is usually the case, I get no photo. But as I turn to leave I suddenly realize that I’m eye to eye with a blue racer. The snake is much smaller than the ones I saw a few weeks ago – this one is only about 3 feet long. I can’t even photograph it – it’s too close. I rise up and step aside, and the snake darts off towards the water’s edge, and the thick bushes there.
Well, this morning is off to a good start…
Of course, I’m more concerned with finding dragonflies, so I scour the fields off 48th street to see what is new. As in the past few weeks, dot tailed whitefaces remain in charge. They are actually incredibly numerous – I try to estimate how many appear in a square yard of the field, and it seems like there are at least 3 and sometimes as many as 6. Here are a couple of shots of the dot tails:
Aside from the dot tails, twelve spotted skimmers have also appeared. Though they are never as abundant, these dragonflies are much larger and more elegant in their flight. Here’s a snap:
Leaving the pond and fields along 48th street, I head to the coreopsis field a mile or so away. In the past week the coreopsis has really come into bloom, but I only spot a couple of butterflies on the flowers. I spent a bit of time pursuing this eastern tiger swallowtail, only to find that it had a nasty bite out of the top layer of one wing – close call with a bird, most likely:
So I wound up wandering through the open field. The coreopsis looks great, and will only get to be fuller in the next few weeks. After wandering and watching for a while, I found a handful of
Rapids Midlands Clubtails, which I first spotted last week in the fields north of the river. While the individuals I spotted last week were vibrant yellow, the ones I saw this week were much more greenish yellow. They still liked to pose on the sandy soil – here’s a shot:
From there I moved on to the fields to the north of the river. I saw a delta spiketail, but was not able to get a photo. The
Rapids Midland Clubtails were still prominent, and I managed this shot of a mating pair – hmmm, maybe the difference in color has to do with gender.
All in the all, the spring dragonfly season is off to a good start. I’m surprised to not see any Blue Dashers. But they should be along in due time.
A parting shot of the
garter ribbon snake, high up in the brush:
Every time I visit it, the seasonal pond has gotten higher. It did rain last week, but sooner or later the water should start to recede. The roadway a short distance off has been washed out for the last few months. Maybe some dike or levee broke, maybe someone forgot to close a valve, maybe it really is raining so much -but whatever the reason, the water keeps rising…
Saturday was an odd day. I arrived with hopes of finding more dragonflies (which I did) and with a lingering hope of again encountering the huge blue racers that I had seen the week before. But instead I had a couple of interesting encounters with other critters.
Despite a rather cool week, the woods are finally leafing out and the grass on the savanna is now long and green. The irises near the old farmstead have begun to bloom. The wet weather has really encouraged the wild strawberries, which seem to go on forever. Even the prickly pear cactus has started to perk up, and new growth is emerging from the withered, brownish segments that endured the winter.
There are a few walnut trees at the top of a sandy hill. Grass grows in their shadows. As I neared the top of the hill I was startled when a while turkey burst out of the grass from beneath the nearest tree. It literally ran circles around me, weaving and dodging but mostly just circling counterclockwise.
Here’s a couple snaps of the bird, taken with my insect close-up setup (200m lens):
After several circumnavigations the bird ran straight to the wood line, and took up position just inside of the brush. I expected it would disappear – wild turkeys are exceptionally good at that, but instead it paralleled my movements and tracked me for several yards, clucking a squawking the whole time. When I had advanced about 30 yards the bird suddenly broke out of the woods and charged past me, running like made through the field and making it to the pine forest on the other side.
I’m not sure what was on the bird’s mind. I’ve seen similar behavior from turkeys with chicks, but in those cases the mother bird leads an orderly retreat of the young birds away from danger. In this case, I saw no sign of young birds or a nest, but then I only took a cursory look by the walnut tree- if eggs or chicks were there I really didn’t want to disturb them.
I made my way down to the pond. As I neared the water’s edge, I spotted a young raccoon wading in the shallows – probably looking for some tasty frogs for brunch. The raccoon spotted me almost instantly, and ambled up a small tree where it paused and glared at me.
Raccoons are normally nocturnal animals, and there’s a risk that individuals who are out in the day light might be rabid or otherwise ill. Even though this individual was out and about in the late morning sun, it seemed perfectly well. When I returned to the spot after a short wander along the water’s edge, it was gone.
As I said, the pond continues to grow. The small pines and brush that are inundated are finally dead or dying. I don’t know what standing in a few feet of water will do to the mature trees – but the summer should reveal that. I see no sign of fish in the pond, which may be why the mosquito population near the water is staggering.
There were lots of dot tailed whitefaces along the water’s edge, along with hundreds of damselflies. I’ll leave off here with yet another Dot Tailed Whiteface. Later in the day I encountered several other species of dragonflies, and those will be the subject of the next post.
In the days ahead, I won’t be spending as much time as usual in the Allegan Forest. So last week I visited all of my favorite locations, and lingered extra long in the few places I feel closest to. I hit the Ottawa Marsh, the Coreopsis Field, the Swan Creek Dam, the bluff at the end on 125th Ave, the many empty fields on either side of 44th Street…
My favorite place of all in the Old Farmstead, off 48th street. You won’t find that name on any map – I made it up. But as a son of Adam I reserve the right to name things as I see fit.
On my last visit there, a chipmunk who lives near the entry point paused in its home – a hollow log. In the winter the snow in this place is a riot of fox and coyote tracks. They surely prowl the area, looking for prey like this little rodent. But somehow it manages to survive, and on this visit it poked its head out of its hole and watched me as I struggled to photograph dragonflies. Even as I turned my attention to it, the chipmonk remained unflinching – curious as to what I was doing, and more than willing to allow me to get close enough to make its portrait with a mere 200mm lens.
There is nothing about this place that suggests a farm – at least to the casual viewer. There is a crumbling corner of a small building’s foundation – you have to look for it to find it. There is a pile of field stones, rising out of the sandy soil. And that’s about it.
But the plants tell the story. In the spring the daffodils bloom. Apple trees rub elbows with dogwoods and redbuds in the forest. Near the pile of field stones one beleaguered apple tree still produces tempting fruit, and in late summer proffers a handful of bright red apples.
There are other signs. Lily of the Valley covers the forest floor. Palms – of all things, Palms – send their spiky leaves up through the sandy soil, right next to huge patches of Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus. Around this time of year, Irises push up from the soil – not one or two, but dozens. Only a few bloom, but their sword shaped leaves stab up at the sky, as if to say “I am still here.”
And then there are the strawberries. Acres and acres of wild – or is it feral – strawberries. Their thorny, wiry, stems make my style of “crawl on your belly” photography difficult – I often return with elbows and knees bright red from crawling on these inhospitable plants. In the spring they produce a few small, pale flowers. In mid summer they produce a few small berries. But year round they cover the ground with their spiny branches.
The soil here is very sandy. In places its breaks open with pure, white sand – the kind you’d expect to see at a beach. There are two – count them, two – asparagus plants in the sandy fields. They blend into the surviving vegetation every spring, and by midsummer wave their feathery plums in the breeze. The final remnants of a crop that some farmer may have pinned his hopes on, years ago.
The sandy hill slopes down to what I used to call a seasonal marsh, and now call a pond. There are some large white pines here, lots of wild raspberries, and other trees and shrubs. Many of the plants that lined the edge of the marsh are now dying – drowning under the now high water levels.
In the summer when I visit this place I frequently encounter deer. Sometimes it’s a fawn hiding in the tall grass under the walnut trees. Other times the deer have charged across the marsh as I’ve come close, kicking up spray as they run through the shallow water.
The marsh has been home to dragonflies, frogs, snakes, and turtles. I’m not sure how things will change now that it is an open body of water. These days, geese and ducks land in it, and frogs line the shore. I hear a lot more frogs than ever at this place – the twang of bullfrogs in particular.
On this last visit I wandered past the crumbling foundation stone, past the pile of rocks, down the hills along the pine forest to the pond. I followed the edge of the pond a ways, and then made my way back. I ran into two huge Blue Racer snakes in the dried grass – both verging on 6 feet in length – and we went our ways. I spent of a bit of time sitting on the pile of rock, and then made my way back to the car, passing through knee high Goat’s Beard as I left this place, leaving it to go its way in the summer months.