Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Monday, April 30, 2007

More on the Fen Burn

I recently blogged about the burn that took place at Bluff Spring Fen three weeks ago today. I promised updates to show the process of recovery from the burn. Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Chicago, and a visit to the Fen seemed like a great idea.



As expected, Bluff Spring Fen is greening up nicely following the born. Though this year it has taken longer than normal, because the burn was followed by an extended cold spell. Still, the recovery from the burn is rapid and dramatic, as evidenced by before and after shots. By August, the grasses will be taller than I am over much of the preserve.

Note the cattails in the background and dried vegetation from last year in the foreground

Skunk cabbage and other plants sprouting in the foreground. Charred stubble of cattails in the background- but they're greening up, too

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ah, Grasshopper...Part Dos

Back in February, when I was posting about my trip to Costa Rica, I lamented the relatively poor collecting that resulted from being there in the dry season. And while I both saw and collected a lot of cool stuff, almost nothing that I actually captured looked wildly exotic and tropical. The main exception to this was a single specimen of Tropidacris cristata dux. I caught it on my very last night in the country. Despite having (and using) all the requisite equipment for blacklighting, this critter was attracted to the porch light at our jungle cabana. I made Leon stay outside watching it while I rushed inside for my net. I'm delighted to have this little bit of the tropics in my collection. The quarter shows just how huge it is.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sycamore Canyon

I just got back from a spring collecting trip to southern Arizona. The bad news is that the collecting was really dismal on this trip. The good news ist that the weather was, for the most part, beautiful and I had a lot of fun hiking around that part of the world.

Trailhead to Sycamore Canyon

On Friday, I visited Sycamore Canyon, which is someplace that I have been visiting for about 15 years now. Sycamore Canyon is located right on the Mexican border. It runs mostly north to south, and terminates right on the border. I have never been all the way to the end. It's a place of incredible beauty in the Atascosa Mountains that are part of the Pajarito (Little Bird) Wilderness.

Low walls in the upper part of the canyon
The hike begins where the canyon is little bit mroe than a small stream bed. The trail parallels the canyon for about a quarter of a mile, then drops down into the first part of the watercourse where the word canyon really applies. It's still very shallow here, and the walls are only about 15 feet high.

Spring trees in the canyon

As you walk downstream, there is more an more permanent water, and the walls become progressively higher. One enjoyable feature of Friday's hike is that the cottonwood trees were newly leafed out and the fresh grean was a striking contrast to the towering dark canyon walls and spires.

Canyon walls and spires

I walked about an hour downstream before I encountered the first of the trees for which the canyon is named. All along the way, I was dazzled with a profusion of blooming flowers.

One of the canyon's many sycamore trees

Hedgehog cactus, a desert species, grows just a few feet away from...

Monkeyflower, a wetland species.

While down in the wetlands of the canyon, it can be hard to remember that you are actually in an arid region. For the most part, it's not quite desert- the high elevation reaults in an open oak woodlands. There are even endagered species of fish. The Sonora Chub can be found in the many pools that dot the canyon floor.

Desert wetlands

Sonoran Chubs

The other fascinating thing about Sycamore Canyon (and other, similar north-south oriented canyons along the border) is that it's a place wehre numerous species of plants and animals make their only appearances north of Mexico. Although I did not see one on this trip, I have encountered elegant trogons (gorgeous tropical birds) on several visits. On this trip, I captured a beautiful chestnut-colored species of grasshopper called Tomonotus ferruginosus that is predominantly Mexican. I turned around at a pint where one is confronted with a choice between wading through a waist-deep pool of water ar scrambling across a very steep, slick rock. As I was by myself and the canyon was otherwise deserted today, I opted for prudence. Right at the turnaround point, there is yet one more indication that extreme southeast Arizona is getting somewhat close to the tropics. Ball moss, an epiphitic bromeliad grown all over the juiper trees here.

Ball Moss

After enjoying the delights of the MExican border area of southeast Arizona, I headed up to Phoenix on Saturday to spend some time with friends. It all made for a most excellent travel adventure.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


I love extreme weather. Give me blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes and 20 below. I find it all fascinating. Yesterday, for my last day in New England we had a fine noreaster. The forecast had been predicting the storm for days, and on Sunday, I found myself wondering if it would be another case of excessive hype. We had a steady, sleety rain and not much more. By evening, the rain and wind had both picked up some, and it was seemi g a bit stormy by the time we left for Salem and Dad’s birthday party.

Monday morning at White Beach

On the way home from the party, the wind was really howling. We drove past White and Black beaches on the way home. The tide was very high, and waves in the normally quiet Black Beach side were crashing against the seawall and onto the roadway. But it was dark, so little was visible. All night long, I listened to the wind howl outside. Early this morning, the wind was still very high, and Leon and I went to drive along the shore. Most of these pictures are his.

Coolidge Point

At 8:00 Am, three hours from high tide, the water was alwready nearly at the road on White Beach. Black beach was not so bad- the wind was blowing the tops off of the waves there. As is typical for bad storms, the real drama was over in Magnolia. The pictures here only hint at the violent show that the ocean was putting on. Winds were clocked at 46 mph sustained out of the northeast at about that time, with gusts to hurricane force. I wondered what high tide would bring.

An angry sea off of Magnolia Massachusetts

By 11:00, roughly high tide, the wind had subsided considerably. Flooding had reached a point that we were unable to drive down Ocean Street to White and Black Beaches for a good view. The entire salt marsh was flooded. The really damaging storms are those where the peak winds coincide with high tide. This was not the case in this storm, however there was lots of damage all up the coast. This is already being referred to as the Patriots Day storm, and was a big enough one that it will be remembered. My flight home has only been a bit delayed, and I’m glad that we got an opportunity to see the spectacle.

How we wash our windows on Cape Ann

Labels: ,

Monday, April 16, 2007

Old Cape Cod

Sagamore Bridge - Gateway to Cape Cod

I’m blogging from Massachusetts today. I’m here for my Dad’s 75th birthday celebration. The weather is bad today. We’re having a cold, sleety rain. Yesterday was a beautiful day, however, and Leon and I journeyed to Cape Cod.

Cape Cod is someplace that I love and that has been part of me for my entire life. I was born there, and moved up north of Boston when I was about 6 months old. This was part of my regular stomping grounds when I was growing up.

The Old Grist Mill

It was cloudy as we started down to the Cape, but the sun came out just after we crossed the canal. We had lunch at an old grist mill. The mill stream is a spawning run for herring, also called alewives. People used to fishe for them here, but that’s no longer permitted.

A great disappointment. I was planning on practicing my herring pickup lines. "Hey, baby you look real smart. Spend a lot of time in school?"

After lunch we went off to the outer Cape for a hike near Marconi Beach. There’s a beautifu hike that leads through bear oak/pitch pine scrub on to a swamp of Atlantic White Cedar. The walk leads across the swamp on an amazing boardwak, through land that looks like it could have come out of Louisiana. Other unusual plants that we saw on the forest floor included trailing arbutus and pipsissewa. I had hoped that the arbutus would be in bloom but, alas, it was only in bud.

Pitch Pine and Bear Oak

Atlantic White Cedar Swamp

Trailing Arbutus

Common Pipsissewa

Marconi Beach is so named because it is the site of G. Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast in 1903. Some of the remains from the transmitter site are still present there, and we photographed Leon holding his cell phone while sitting on the footings of the old transmission tower.

Dune heath above Marconi Beach

Leon with both ends of the ...um...lack of a wire

Our late afternoon talk was at Great Island, on the bay side of the Cape. The walk takes you through scrub woodland, salt marsh, and beach. The beach was littered with skate egg cases. I’ve found and opened thousands of the in my lifetime. This was the first one that I’ve ever found a skate embryo in. When I first opened it, pink ooze came out. I thought that it was just decaying contents, but it was actually the yolk sac of a well-formed skate embryo.

Skate Embryo

Fiddler Crab

Our walk ended with the late afternoon light slanting off of the dunes. A great day.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Media Madness

It's getting to be a bit much this month. Chicago area readers can catch me being interviewed about the upcoming emergence of 17-year cicadas on tonight's 9:00 news on WGN Channel 9. This interview will be rebroadcast on tomorrow's noon WGN Chicago news that appears nationally via cable.

Below, find my first YouTube experience created by videographer David McGowan.


Butterflies and Conservation

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Death and Transfiguration

We have again passed the high holy days where we undergo the purifying rituals of renewal and celebrate death and resurrection. I am speaking, of course, of the annual prairie burn, which happened yesterday at Bluff Spring Fen. (What, did you think I was talking about a different holiday?) As I have mentioned her before, prairies are fire-dominated ecosystems. Without periodic fires, invasive shrubs and trees move in and shade out the native plant communities. Other organisms, like insects, that depend on these communities to survive also vanish.

In my holiday finery

Each spring, the stewards of Bluff Spring Fen don our holiday vestments, which in this case means fire-retardant Nomex jumpsuits and preform prescribed burning on the site. We use a drip torch, a canister of fuel designed to drip flaming drops of liquid to start the fire. The flames are controlled by water backpacks with spray nozzles, and flappers, which are squares of flexible rubber on rake handles.

Part of the work crew. Sue (facing away from the camera) is wearing a water backpack.

Me with flapper. Does this Nomex make me look fat?

We carefully burn a perimeter around the downwind side of the area we plan to burn. The flames burn slowly into the wind, and we extinguish the edge of the fire that wants to burn with the wind. This creates a fuel-free black zone that the fire can’t carry through. They we go to the upwind side of the area that we want to burn, start the fire, and let ‘er rip.

Steve uses the drip torch to start the burn perimeter.

The fire that follows can be quite dramatic. In the picture below, we are burning through a cattail marsh. The highest flames are reaching about 40 feet off of the ground. The column of smoke that we produced could be seen 10 miles away.

A 40-foot high wall of flame advances through the cattail marsh.

Following the fire, the prairie looks blackened and lifeless. But this isn’t the case. Prairie plants evolved with the influence of fire. They are deep rooted species, and will sprout vigorously from the underground parts in the weeks following the burn. I’ll try to follow up with some photo documentation of the greening up of the burned areas over the next few weeks.

Scorched earth- and the promise of a new growing season

Despite difficult conditions for burning this year (it’s been a very wet spring), we got a good burn in yesterday, and I look forward to a beautiful growing season at the Fen this coming year.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Media Madness

Too busy...must...blog...more. I've been meaning to post about now having birds in our butterfly exhibit. The media have picked up on this (our PR department's press release probably had something to do with it). There's a short piece in today's Sun Times that you can see here. Chicago area readers can also hear yours truly in a radio interview on the subject on WBBM News Radio (AM 780). I don't know exactly when it will air, they typically air multiple times on the day of the interview.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Miserable Failure

No, I'm not referring to the Bush administration (though the shoe fits). I had my first complete failure at cheesemaking on Sunday. It's entirely my own fault, as I tried to get clever and do an experiment. There are a variety of plant extracts that can be used as rennet to coagulate the cheese. One of these is stinging nettle, which is just coming up outside right now. I thought that I'd make an infusion of stinging nettle leaves and use it to rennet the cheese. I did not try to find instructions or look it up on the internet. After all, how hard could it be? After getting not even a hint of coagulation, I did go to the internet and found very little in terms of specifics. Several of the methods called for steeping the nettle leaves in boiling water. This is a bad sign, rennets usually work through an enzyme action. You can also coagulate cheese through the actions of acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice), but this is generally not used to make hard cheese. Boiling water should destroy enzymes, so I suspect that the coagulation that you can get with this method just comes from the formic acid that nettles contain (it's the chemical source of the sting that the plants can give you). Formic acid is also produced by ants, whence the name. I wonder if anyone has ever tried ant cheese? At any rate, I don't plan on trying the experiment again. There is a bit more information about using thistle flowers as rennet, and this does appear to involve enzyme action. I may give that a try later in the summer.