Category: "Nature Notes"
The seasons are slowly following the path from spring into summer. It can be a bumpy ride – a hot and muggy week followed by a few days of shocking coolness. But the frosts are gone, the trees have greened, and most spring flowers have past or faded. Spring ephemerals are long gone, lupine is fading quickly, but coreopsis is just coming into its peak and the grey headed coneflowers are just building foliage.
And so the dragonflies change as well. Here are a few photos from the two weekends – first, Brown Spiketails - Cordulegaster bilineata - from this weekend and last:
A Common Whitetail - Libellula Lydia - perched over water:
Splendid Clubtail - Gomphus lineatifrons:
And lastly, a joined pair of Black Saddlebags - Tramea lacerata:
November mornings are quiet, cool, often foggy. The rising sun slips through the bare tree branches, casting long shadows late into the morning. Here and then a lagging tree, leaves still red or gold, punctuates the brown landscape.
Dried leaves whirl in morning breezes. No songbirds sing from bare November branches, no insects click and whir. If you are lucky you can hear a chickadee, chattering in the jack pines. But usually only the laughter of crows or shrill cries of blue jay greet the ears.
After a cold October, November arrives unseasonably warm and mild. Autumn Meadowhawks have taken advantage of the warm spell, and fill the fields in great numbers. They land on the rocks along the Swan Creek levee to warm themselves in the sun. They fly as joined pairs over the water and weave up and down, depositing eggs for next year’s brood. They land on the dark brown leaves that cover the ground, and eye the skies above for prey.
As the day warms, grasshoppers tumble through the dried grass and the occasional moth flits over the brown vegetation. Garter snakes sun themselves on the rocks as well. The little snakes are no longer black and gold, but rather a dull dark brown with yellow bands and orange flecks on their sides. No doubt the grasshoppers will offer up a welcome late autumn meal to these little serpents, before winter’s long hibernation.
In my heart I wish it was cold and miserable. The warm sunshine and summer-like temperatures are like a Halloween mask. They hide the realities of the autumn woods…
The rolling hills of the old farmstead have begun to recover from last summer’s mowing. Small oak springs have emerged from the ground, leafed out, and already are shedding their new foliage. The little springs transition from the rich tannin infused colors of new growth and take on almost day-glo colors as they prepare to drop their leaves.
Bare trees reflect in the smooth surface of the intermittent pond. A small patch of lily pads have emerged in the area I once called ‘the heart of the marsh’ back when this was a seasonal marsh. It was the one area that never got completely dry, no matter how long and hot the summer. Now as I stand by the edge of the water I hear the growls of logging activities. A section of the forest just to the south of the pond is being clear-cut. Florescent red ribbons have been tied around the larger pines near the water’s edge, and a pair of tire tracks gash through the sandy soil, running the length of the field. We take things for granted when we expect them to last.
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…