Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dune and Swale

In Northwest Indiana, at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, you can find a remarkable ecosystem. Over the last 10,000-20,000 years, the Lake Michigan shoreline has been gradually receding. As the lake recedes, the sand dunes become stabilized by a shifting sequence of vegetative changes known as primary succession. What begins as a sandy community of grasses becomes a wooded ecosystem. The dune ridges remain as gently hills running parallel to the lakeshore. The swales between them remain wet, at least during parts of the year. The dunes and swales are home to a remarkable community of plants and animals.

Today Leon and I visited with John and Jane, longtime friends from the prairie restoration movement; Laurel, a longtime friend from prairie restoration who now works at the Field Museum. Our guide was Paul from the Indiana field office of The Nature Conservancy and steward of the two sites that we toured.

Robin's Plantain (Erigeron pulcehllus) on a wooded dune

Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa)

We had come in search of two species: The endangered Karner Blue butterfly, and Yellow Ladyslipper orchids. It was cloudy, and even sprinkled a bit as we arrived. But the plant viewing was so amazing that we didn't mind. Besides, the weather forecast was for clearing around lunchtime.

Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

It didn't take us long to find our first ladyslippers. This is an amazing orchid. It's reasonably large (the pouches are over an inch long. Although a rare plant globally, it's extremely common in the dune and swale ecosystems in Indiana. We saw thousands of blooming plants during our travels today. Some were individaul sprigs. Others small clumps.

A clump of ladyslippers

At times, there were large patches with hundreds of blooms in them.

Part of a huge patch of orchids

As we walked further, we had to traverse numerous swales. It was a day of wet feet (and ticks...but let's not dwell on unpleasantries here).

One of the swales where we got our feet wet

Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

At last, it the skies began to lighten. No butterfiles initially, but we did start seeing some other insects.

A bird dropping moth in the family Noctuidae

A net-winged beetle (Calopteron reticulatum)

Finally the sun broke through. Would be see Karners? Yes we would- almost immediately once the sun broke out.

Male Karner Blue (Lyciades melissa samuelis) basking

Karener Blue caterpillars feed on leaves of the lupines that are so abundant in the dune and swale ecosystems. It has vanished from over 90% of its range and was declared an endangered species by the fedreal government in 1992.

Male Karner Blue, underside
This one embiggens well

Such satisfaction. Endnagered butterflies. Rare orchids. Other fabulous plants and animals. What more could we possibly have wanted? I was thrilled. I would have gone home happy. I got to get another good look at another very rare butterfly.

Dusted Skipper (Atrytonopsis hianna)

The Dusted Skipper is a very rare species that lives in sandy areas. I am aware of only two populations in Illinois. They are a bit more abundant in northwest Indiana, but still a rare species. These posed for photos.

This was definitely a day to savor. I spent time with friends that I don't see often enough. We visited beautiful, rich and rare habitats and saw and photographed lots of rare plants and animals. Our day ended with pleasant conversation at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

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At 00:50, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an awesome day! Love the photos - especially the slippers and karners.

Though not near as interesting as the ecosystem you saw today, I've noted an analogous "dune/swale" topography in the bottomland forests bordering the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri - the ant-like tiger beetle (Cicindela... oops, Cylindera cursitans) seems to prefer only the drier dune ridges within the forest.


At 05:45, Blogger cedrorum said...

Wow, great day. Thanks for sharing this Doug. That is quite a unique area. My next visit to the Chicago area looks like it is going to have to be longer than it usually is. You are turning me on to all sorts of places I would have never known were around there. Looks like a visit to our friend in Elkhart during the Chicago blues festival needs to be put on our agenda. I really like the ladyslipper Orchid. They seem like a rather charismatic species. Do they get stolen often. We have venus flytrap on some of the properties I work on and it is a constant struggle to keep people from stealing them.

At 06:41, Blogger TR Ryan said...

What a feast for the senses. I've never heard of a dune and swale prairie ecosystem! Thanks for the introduction.

The bird dropping moth was jaw dropping. Are you serious? What a richly colored, fantastic insect.

The karner blue - a beauty to behold - just stunning. I can't think of a thing I would rather do right now then take a walk in there.

At 06:58, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

Man, that's quite a haul. I saw lots of lupines while bio-blitz-birding - but no butterfiles!

At 09:05, Blogger Celeste said...

Great day Doug, it certainly makes up for our last recent trip to Indiana Dunes!

At 09:26, Blogger Ur-spo said...

the bird dropping bug is fascinating. I really enjoy learning things like this. Sometimes I regret not pursuing botany/biology.

Such satisfaction. Endnagered butterflies. Rare orchids. Other fabulous plants and animals. What more could we possibly have wanted?

I can think of a few, starting with some beer.

At 03:33, Blogger SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

A fanastic post Doug. Love that Atlas Moth below too .... it is unbelievable!!

At 16:35, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Ted- Thanks, it was an awesome day.I'd love seeing the cursitans habitat.

cedrorum- Is their going to be an upcoming visit to the Chicago area? The Blues Festival is the weekend after next. Will you be here for that? Arrgh- if you will, I'll still be in New England.

TR- A walk in the dune & swale ecosystem at this time of year IS a fest for the sensed. Highly recommended.

Dave- I saw no butterflies while bioblitzing, either.

Celeste- Yes it did. However the field trip looked like it was going to be son of bioblitz. I'm glad that today worked out better than everyone was expecting it to.

Spo- Beer usually goes with black lighting more than with orchid watching.

Joan- Thanks.

At 17:58, Blogger Will said...

Ticks! I get paranoid. I've had five of them pulled out of me in the last nine months, in all cases followed by extensive swelling and itching. But the photos are gorgeous--as always from you, Doug. Thanks for introducing the dune/swale terrain to me. I was not aware of it before.

At 19:39, Blogger In Beauyt I Walk said...

Wow, what an amazing day you had. Such a rich ecosystem to explore. I will have to get out there myself soon. You took some wonderful photos! I especially like the dusted skipper! Just beautiful!!!

At 11:18, Blogger Seabrooke said...

The "bird dropping" moth is a Beautiful Wood-nymph, Eudryas grata, a fairly common species with a variety of edge and forest habitat hostplants (eg. Virginia Creeper). I really like these moths, they make me think of prostrate nuns worshiping.


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