Category Archives: Observations

I thought the woods and the world were connected

This post is a little unusual: it’s also written to fulfill an assignment for one of Chicago-based Prairie Lab‘s Biomimicry Immersion courses, which I attended last month in a very rainy Morton Arboretum. Life’s Principles, which are referenced several times over the course of the post, are described here. The assignment was to observe these principles in action in an ecosystem local to me.

The place I observed was in Caretaker’s Woods, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Preserve. It was early evening on May 20th, cloudy, and a brisk 10C – unseasonably chilly for late May in Madison, but humid.

Looking out and up I can see that the trees (maples and oaks) are more or less fully leaved. This makes for considerable shade at ground level; as a consequence, almost all of the spring ephemerals are gone for this year. The only early-spring flower which is still abundant is waterleaf (Hydrophyllum); their shade tolerance allows them to stake out a niche in time with less competition from other ephemerals. I wonder what sensitivity to local conditions they employ in order to emerge later, unlike ephemerals which shoot up with the first warm weather and sunny days. From the ever-authoritative Illinois Wildflowers website, I learn that they are liable to be displaced by invasive garlic mustard. In the Preserve, eagle-eyed hordes of volunteers regularly harrow the garlic mustard, so there is little to be seen.


Illinois Wildflowers also tells me that sunlight bleaches waterleaf flowers; I don’t see much evidence of this on my walk. There appear to be as many white flowers in the deep gloom as there are purple ones in half-sunlight under the eaves of the woods. This seems like a flag for embodying resilience through variation.

In the shade and damp, fungi are sending up fruiting bodies; on several fallen logs I see large brackets of dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus). They are busy breaking down the wood into re-usable constituents, part of a recycling process. As well as the fallen logs, whose nutrients are in the process of being returned to the soil, the space cleared by their fall is full of seedlings: a very simple mechanism of self-organization and renewal.


The woods are structured into layers, from the leaf-litter up to the treetops in the open air. High above, I can hear rather than see squirrels running quickly and loudly across treetrunks. I wonder at how loud they are, and what trade-off of speed versus stealth is involved. No doubt there are fewer predators up in the treetops, but there are still hawks and owls.

Birdsong is also audible; I don’t know of what species. They are making sound on purpose; to attract mates? Stake out territory? I recently listened to an interview with scientist Shigeru Miyagawa, who has an interesting hypothesis about the wellsprings of human language: many vertebrates have an active system of signs, such as chimpanzees which make gestures to give directions to one another and have sounds for certain types of food; singing birds have songs with complex structure, but which communicate little beyond, as Lewis Thomas summarized it, “Thrush here”. Only in humans have these two strategies been combined to give rise to language proper. In the call-and-response of the songs, I seem to hear a trace of the feedback loops which hold this community of birds together.

Going over the various strategies I’ve observed, I can see the various Principles at work: Adapting to Changing Conditions (the variation of Hydrophyllum colours, the self-renewal of the seedlings sprouting in clearings); Being Locally Attuned and Responsive (Hydrophyllum‘s timing and the feedback loops of the birds exchanging song); Using Life-Friendly Chemistry (the action of the dryad’s saddles in decomposing); Being Resource-Efficient (the recycling of materials, and the shade-tolerance of the ephemerals); Integrating Development with Growth (the way that the fall of old trees allows for growth of new ones). Nothing immediately calls Evolving to Survive to mind: certainly due to my unpracticed eye, not to its absence!

In my day job as a software engineer, old code rarely does much to foster the growth of new code – really, mostly the old actively inhibits and obstructs the new. What lessons does a forest have for the long-term software lifecycle? How could obsolete code be constructively “decomposed”? I also remain, obviously, intrigued by the Hydrophyllum‘s late-early-spring strategy, and need to read more about how it does this, and think about what more general strategies for adaptation can be abstracted from it.

Thanks to Prairie Lab’s Amy Coffman Phillips for the course, and to the many University faculty and staff, and volunteers who maintain the Lakeshore Preserve in the middle of the city. (It probably helps that grad student no longer live there in tents in the summer, mind you…)


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One of the attributes of matter

Despite the still-looming threat of night frosts, spring continues to make daily advances. I haven’t yet seen any turtles, which remain to my way of thinking the irrefutable mark of the year’s turning; but there have been snakes, and, more recently, frogs.

The first frogs I heard this year were at Willow River State Park, north of Hudson, WI, right by the Minnesota state line; my wife and I stopped there for a brief wander on the way back from a weekend in Minneapolis. There was a spot where chorus frogs were distinctly audible, like fingernails on a comb. Not a huge throng, but definitely there.

Last weekend I checked out one of Madison’s frog hot-spots, the Picnic Point Marsh, in the Lakeshore Preserve on campus. It did not disappoint! The calling was loud and sustained, and after I stood still by the water’s edge for a few minutes, I even started to see the frogs: a little wedge-showed brown head would pop up above the waterline, to be shortly followed by another, and then a flurry of arms and legs.

Here’s the phone recording of the walk from the lake’s shore down to the edge of the marsh; the background picture is the closest I could get to one of the frogs before startling it:

The sound was so dense I’m not even sure what kind of frogs these were; individual calls were hard to pick out; really, I should load them into Audacity and have a look at the frequency spectra.

Picnic Point is also a terrific place for trout lilies (Erythronium), which were also present and starting to bloom:

Picnic Point, Lakeshore Preserve, UW Madison

Back in the realm of sounds, my wife and I went to hear They Might Be Giants that weekend. They started off their encore with “Mammal”, the source of one of this blog’s tags. So that was pretty great!

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Vital signs

Some of early spring’s usual pioneers are unmistakably showing themselves above ground. There is skunk cabbage, thermoregulating its way up, and hardy Siberian squill. Looking just about ready to flower are significant patches of cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Also, some clumps of leaves that I think will shortly become Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Ready to take advantage of this new growth there are a multitude of tiny flies, and a few bees, all keeping down near the ground; one fly obligingly settled on my sleeve:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
… and, alas, already roving and prepared to take advantage of more active mammals, ticks:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
By the looks of it, Sister Tick here has already had a pretty good meal.

There was even a garter snake basking, which I startled into taking cover under dry leaves before I could get a good picture. Well, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of garter snake pictures already posted.

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North American English needs a lot more terms for phases of seasons than it actually has. There’s “Indian summer” for a warm spell in late fall; but there’s no corresponding term for thaws in early spring, the ones where you never know until after the fact whether it’s the thaw, or whether at least one freeze and/or heavy snowfall is in the works.

I say this on account of we are having one of these spells right now, and I don’t know whether to tempt fate by going “yay spring is here!” or to hedge my bets, and having a single word or short phrase to do that in would be nice. So I’m going to dub this weather springoid. Right now we are in springoid, a collection of distinct though related spring-like objects. Maybe they’re all the same, and this is actual spring! Or maybe there will be one or more winter-like object intervening! Who knows?

At any rate, permanent or not, going outside no longer hurts the face, and there are signs and smells of life. This comma butterfly (Polygonia sp.; most likely an Eastern comma Polygonia comma) has most likely over-wintered as an adult, curled up in the bole of a tree or some human-made crevice:

Eastern comma, Starkweather Creek
Eastern comma, Starkweather Creek

Meanwhile there were seedlings starting to emerge from under the leaf-litter:
New growth, Starkweather Creek

and people sitting in the back garden of Café Zoma, looking happy if vaguely gobsmacked.

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Some highlights, August-September 2014

So I do have some expeditions and observations to write up, but after the final post on the Mississippi trip, my day job revved into crisis mode and has more or less stayed there since. I’ll get back to a regular schedule soon, I hope, but in the meantime here are a few snippets from the past couple of months:

More milkweed denizens

This year I have seen a great many things on milkweed, though not, alas, any monarchs of any stage; but other people have been seeing them, which is good news. I did see this striking milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle) at Curtis Prairie in the UW Arboretum:

Milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle), late-stage larva, Curtis Prairie, UW Arboretum

and at Starkweather Creek, rather late in the season I thought, these amorous red milkweed bettles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus):
Red milkweed beetles, Starkweather Creek

Freeport wetlands

More on the ride I did in late August, following the combined Badger State/Jane Addams trail system all the way to its end in Freeport, Illinois, anon; but just past the trail’s end – and right off the highway – Freeport has a nice little Wetland Preserve Park, where I snapped this leopard frog (Rana pipiens) in the grass:
Leopard frog (Rana pipiens), Wetlands Preserve Park, Freeport, IL
and, just outside the gates, this great blue heron (Ardea herodias):
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Freeport, IL
When I lived in Redmond, Washington, I used to see blue herons on my commute all the time; they are still common enough there that the stylized one on the city’s logo is not inaccurate. Vying with the heron for pride-of-place in Redmond iconography is the penny-farthing bicycle, and though I saw plenty of bikes during my 2 years in Redmond, I don’t think I ever saw a penny-farthing, so there you go. To be fair, penny-farthings are terrifying and hazardous to ride; there’s good reason that the currently-dominant frame design was originally dubbed the “safety bicycle”.

Fall fungi

Okay, I realize having favourite things about fall has become a cliche. But, there it is: more than pumpkin ale, more than jumping into piles of dead leaves, I really like walking in woodlands full of fungi, and the one outing I’ve managed in September – just to the UW Arboretum, through Gallistel Woods and Wingra Woods – has not disappointed.

Here some millipedes are equally pleased:
Mushrooms & millipedes, Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

Splash cups (Cyathus striatus):
Gallistel & Wingra Woods, UW Arboretum

El is a Sound of Joy

On the Labour Day weekend I took a bus down to Chicago to observe members of my species about one of our most admirable characteristic activities, making music – specifically the Sun Ra Arkestra, still led with style by saxophonist Marshall Allen at the age of 90, closing out the Chicago Jazz Festival with a bang.

In a crowd of thousands at Millennium Park, I didn’t get very close, but there was a screen at the back of the stage for a closer look at the musicians:
Sun Ra Arkestra, Chicago Jazz Festival

Chicago itself, where Sun Ra spent a fair chunk of his early career, made a terrific backdrop as the sun sank down:
Chicago Jazz Festival

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Like a moth that tries to enter the bright eye

It’s National Moth Week! I haven’t made any nocturnal outings in search of moths, because twilight is when the mosquitoes are starting to get really dire. At home I’ve stayed home in the AC, and over my 3 day bike camping trip (on which more anon), I zipped myself into my tent at nightfall and more or less passed out.

Daylight excursions have, however, brought me face-to-face with some day-walking moths, which do exist. At Wyalusing State Park, by the banks of the Mississippi, I saw this vivid black and yellow lichen moth (Lycomorpha pholus):
Black and yellow lichen moth (Lycomorpha pholus), Wyalusing State Park
and no more than a hundred feet from Lake Michigan, at the South Shore Cultural Centre Nature Preserve in the heart of Chicago, was this ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea):
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea),  South Shore Nature Preserve,  Chicago
… which until I found it in a field-guide, I didn’t realize was a moth at all!

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Suddenly, no giraffe!

Camelopardalis is one of those early-modern constellations of the northern sky, too dim to really pick out without a telescope, which astronomers seemed to quite literally name after the first thing that popped into their heads. This is how, for instance, we came to have the now-defunct Quadrans Muralis– named for an instrument that was doubtless hanging right there on the wall of Jerome Lalande’s observatory. Lalande also provided Globus Aerostaticus, the hot-air balloon, and from Johann Bode came several other gadgets in space: Machina Electrica, for instance, and Officina Typographica, the Printer’s Workshop.

Bode also dabbled in the other major source of early modern constellation names: blatant toadying. Thus, Frederici Honores (the Glory of Frederick the Great). I don’t want to be down on Old Fritz, as Brandenburgers still affectionately call him, but this seems like a solid case of if-you-get-one-they’ll-all-want-one; in fact, in much the same region of sky, there was also Sceptrum et Manus Iustitiae (the Sceptre and Hand of Justice), honouring King Louis XIV of France. Which is just a bit much, considering he already had the Sun. Anyway, both of those have been split up and divided among neighbouring constellations, so Frederick will just have to content himself with Bach’s Musical Offering. (Mind you, Scutum, the Shield, was originally the shield of King Jan Sobieski of Poland; but without him coffee would have taken much longer to arrive in the West, so it’s understandable that European astronomers are willing to make that exception.)

The other major naming theme, which brings us slowly back on topic, is animals. Lalande also created a cat, being a cat-lover and figuring he had done enough astronomical work he was entitled to put a cat-picture in the sky, which is a 21st-century enough sentiment. And the Fleming Petrus Plancius supplied Musca Borealis (the Northern Fly), Gallus (the Rooster), and Camelopardalis – the Giraffe, which made the cut as one of the 88 standard modern constellations. Regarding the motivation for the name, Ian Ridpath writes:

The German astronomer Jacob Bartsch included Camelopardalis on his map of 1624 and wrote that it represented the camel on which Rebecca rode into Canaan for her marriage to Isaac, as told in the book of Genesis. But Camelopardalis is a giraffe not a camel, so Bartsch’s explanation is unsatisfactory.

So I’m falling back on “Plancius was just thinking about giraffes that night” as the null hypothesis.

In general there’s not a ton going on in the area of sky subtended by Camelopardalis, although there was a supernova there recently, and Voyager 1 is headed in that general direction. In the past couple of months, though, Comet 209P/LINEAR crossed the Earth’s orbit, leaving debris in its wake; and astronomers predicted this debris would cause a new meteor shower, peaking the night of May 23rd-24th, with its radiant in Camelopardalis.

As indeed it did. They predicted, too, that the shower might be quite spectacular, and this didn’t pan out; but I would much rather that astronomers let me know that something might be an impressive sight, rather than that they play it safe and leave me slug-a-bed while the show of a lifetime plays out in the heavens. In the worst case I have gone out and enjoyed the company of the night sky.

And, in fact, that was what happened; I spent about twenty minutes watching, and no meteors, but it was a decent night’s stargazing all the same. Those with more patience and/or kit did see a few, evidently.

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