Category: Allegan Forest
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.
Sunday, September 20th, 2009. The equinox is just a couple days off, and another summer draws to a close.
The itinerate pond has receded sharply these last few weeks. I stand at its edge, on soft, muddy earth still head together by the dead roots of the grass that used to grow here. Waterfowl whirl around the pond – mallards, scaups, Canada geese. They glide by the bright foliage of inundated trees whose colors are more a sign of distress than of the changing season.
A garter snake wiggles away as I trudge along the water’s edge. Not the one that hung in the foliage last June – too small. But the same type of snake.
Autumn Meadowhawks are everywhere. The young ones are dull brown or dirty yellow, but some individuals have reached full maturity and have a bright red back and matching stigmata. They perch low to the ground – favoring the red leaves of fading, thorny strawberry plants, and dead coreopsis.
I have the best luck in the fields that were mowed last year, but the dragons congregate capriciously. Dozens converge on a small spot in a huge field that is otherwise empty. The spar with each other and jockey for perches, dance away from the thorny strawberry vines and snatch mosquitoes and flies out of the air.
Autumn Medowhawks, formerly known as Yellow Legged Meadowhawks… They seem to be the only dragonflies remaining; all of the others have already left. But with a little luck, they will be around for a while…
This is the time of year when squirrels start to run around with an air of frantic desperation. It’s hard to tell what has them so wound up – it’s still warm, the trees are mostly still green, and though the days be shorter the sun still shines in blue skies. Winter’s clouds, rain, and snow are a good ways away yet. However, I admit I feel a lot like the squirrels this time of year – wondering how long the summer weather will last.
And subtle changes have already taken place. This summer was not a great one for dragonflies, and around this time of year it seems that all but the Autumn Meadowhawks and Green Darners disappear. They are fine dragons and worthy of photographs, but diversity is gone. In June and July you can enjoy the challenge of finding Widow Skimmers, Calico Pennants, Spangled Skimmers, Dot Tailed Whitefaces, Ruby Meadowhawks and Halloween Skimmers. When you spy a bit of motion is an invitation to investigate and see what’s there…
That’s less so in mid to late September. Certainly not the case at all in October. And you’re lucky to find any dragonflies in November, in Michigan. That’s when the Autumn Meadowhawk, formerly called the Yellow Legged Meadowhawk, reigns.
Yesterday I toured the woods and forests of the Allegan Game Area, looking for dragonflies. Hours went by without a snap of the shutter – fields north of the river, by the ‘Silo’ off 44th street (it’s really a big sewer pipe propped up on its end), the tall tree savanna off 115th avenue – these and many other places hosted no dragons. It was only in late afternoon, at the end of a small two track that boarders the end of the refuge that I found dragonflies in abundance. Each and everyone one was an Autumn Meadowhawk – but I was glad for finding them.
September. The morning dew is heavier, the days are noticeably shorter, and the nights are cooler. The fireflies have departed for another year. Morning s are silent – no singing birds greeting the dawn; but the evenings are raucous with the cries of crickets and katydids – raising their voices as the sun sets in the west.
Last weekend marked the final days of August. The fields that I love to visit have all been mowed – some last year, some this year. The dragons flit around in the stubble. Maybe it’s the weather patterns, maybe it’s the marsh changing over to a pond – but I saw very few of the familiar red dragons this season. I have only a handful of shots of White-faced, Ruby, or Cherry faced Meadowhawks. Now when I see a glint of red in the mower stubble, I stoop down and find Autumn Meadowhawks – a.k.a. Yellow Legged Meadowhawks.
Last weekend’s trip was no exception. Sunday was a clear, warm day. It felt like autumn only because the air had that haze-free clarity that only autumn skies get. It was warm when the sun was shining, but scattered clouds imposed their shadows on the earth, brining a bit of chill and a bit of gloom. I had toget down in the stubble to get to eye level with the dragons. One actually obelisked when the sun broke out for a few minutes – the only example of this display / cooling behavior I managed to get this season.
There were a few swaths of tall grass in some of the fields – places that the mower missed – and I worked those areas since they were havens to the few dragonflies that were out and around. A pair of diminutive Band Winged Meadowhawks were hanging out in one small clump of grass. There are the smallest of the Michigan Meadowhawks, and rather small compared to most dragonfly species. The clump of grass was in the midst of an enormous ant hill, so I paid a bit of a price every time I laid down to get an eye level shot. And still no shots of the male!
Band Winged Meadowhawk
Band Winged Meadowhawk
Over the past few weeks I’ve been remarking on the little toads that seem to have popped up everywhere. After a little bit of web research, I’m pretty sure they are Fowler’s Toads. The individuals I’ve been seeing are all a bit small – most an inch or les sin size – but I assume that’s because ethey are just very young.
I’ve been seeing these creatures in the Allegan Game Area, and since they like woods and fields with sandy soil, that seems like a perfect habitat for them. During today’s visit I saw 5 individuals within a few moments of arriving at a sandy field. Here’s one shot:
Sometimes I can’t think of anything to do. I get out into the woods or the fields, but can’t tell my left hand from my right. I bump along muddy dirt roads or down sandy two tracks, oblivious to the things around me.
I did manage to spot another tiny toad – this one a few hundred yards from the pond where I saw the last one. It was no larger than the other, but was much more animated as it made its way through the dried and cut up grass.
Other than that – one yellow dragon and one red dragon, and that was the whole day Sunday…
When I was a youngster my family lived on the edge of a hill. The land dropped off sharply at our property line, made a quick descent of 30 or 40 feet, and then flattened out again. A small drain ran along the bottom, and on the other side of this drain was the back of a shopping center and a small railroad switchyard. The side of the hill was overgrown with trees and brush. It was also littered with old tires, a junk washing machine, rusting barrels, and other rubbish. My family called that little strip of semi-wild land “The Gully.”
Cricket Frogs were common in The Gully. As children we’d find them regularly in the summer – so regularly that they became a pretty common-place feature of our world. Once or twice I tried to keep a cricket frog in a terrarium – it never worked out. But they were more or less taken for granted back then.
I don’t know when I last saw one.
I thought I saw one last week, but was wrong. I was in the Allegan Forest, by the edge of the New Pond. The water has been receding and now a few feet of mud boarders the pond. A very cooperative green frog has taken to sunning itself in one particular spot. I saw it there and knelt down into the muck to get a snapshot.
A bit of movement caught my eye, and I saw what I thought was a Blanchard’s Cricket Frog. The tiny amphibian was less than an inch long, and I had to get close with my insect macro rig to get a shot of it. Here’s a photo with an SD Memory card for scale:
I was pretty excited about possibly finding one of these now uncommon creatures. But once home I looked at the photo and realized that it was really just a really small toad. I didn’t know smalls could be so small – I guess this one metamorphosed from a really small tadpole.
Here’s a shot of the samll toad toad without the memory card:
Well – the experience brought back some nice memories. The last toad I saw – a few weeks ago – was about the size of a baseball. It did not seem to like the attention that I paid it, and slowly but surely dug itself down into the sandy soil. It just sank in, as if the earth was just water and it could float a bit lower if it wished. It was many time’s the size of this little creature.
Here’sthe green frog (shot the week before) that I was originally going after:
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.