An icon clothed in prairie scrub

Only 2 weeks after the visit to Lodi Marsh recounted in the previous post, I went out to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. The alteration in the surrounding life was stark. The leaves had been mostly green, with tints of gold and red; now, aside from a few bright-red outliers, mostly either decked with dry, brown leaves or entirely. The grasses had turned a ghostly pale yellow. Where grasshoppers had flown up from every step, too fast to even see, now every dozen paces or so, one would leap away, but with a slower, considered movement, as if conserving energy. The wind had ice in it.

In short those two weeks marked a transition from early fall to late fall. Enough warmth remained, especially in the shelter of prairie undergrowth, for continued insect activity besides the grasshoppers; in particular there were several oil beetles (genus Meloe):
Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Middleton WI, 10/27/13
including a pair keeping warm the old-school way:
Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Middleton WI, 10/27/13
Oil beetles lead an interesting life. (I’m not just saying this because of the above photo.) They undergo hypermetamorphosis, which means they have distinct larval stages; the first is a tiny thing with three claws on each foot, called a triungulin. Here’s what those claws are for, apart from giving a cool name: after hatching, oil beetle triungulins lurk in flowers and wait for the right species of solitary bee to wander along. Some species will even emit chemicals resembling bee sexual pheromones, to help this wandering happen faster. Once a hapless bee lands on the flower, the larvae jump onto it, and it carries the larvae back to its nest or burrow. They then eat the bee’s collected pollen, the bee’s eggs, and sometimes the bee’s own larvae. After all that they turn into something closer to the usual beetle grub. (BBC Radio’s The Living World did a good show about oil beetles.)

The path through the prairie leads up to highest point in the Conservancy: Frederick’s Hill, with a stand of oak savannah on the summit. The prairie and oak savannah are remnants, not restored; the hillside was too steep to put under cultivation. You can look out between the oak branches out across Lake Mendota to the Capitol, and at the foot of the hill a stream – Pheasant Branch itself – rises and meanders towards the lake:
Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Middleton WI, 10/27/13

“A stream rises” is a vague turn of phrase. To be more descriptive, it bubbles up energetically through silt, looking like a pot on the boil. Thanks to the exertions of some local high school students, you can basically sit right on top of this process and watch it. Some 1400 gallons of water a minute come out. For readers in the Rest of the World, that’s about 5300 litres; for anyone back home in Canada, it’s about 212 bags of milk.
Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Middleton WI, 10/27/13

Speaking of Canada, in fact, in the 1830s a trading post nearby was built by a Métis fur-trader from Canada, Michael St. Cyr; he gave the springs the accurate though unoriginal name Bellefontaine. The present name of Pheasant Branch was applied by one Colonel Slaughter, who I swear I am not making up.

With the weather as it is this may end up being my last expedition for the year. Rather than go dark altogether, I plan to while away the winter with more reports of local science-y events, and some ramblings about math and programming with connections to nature.


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