Tag Archives: the divine radiance of invertebrates

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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Siberian squill

A common experience in the life of an urban naturalist is this pair of reactions: “Hey that looks cool!” followed right at its heels by “Oh, it’s invasive.” It’s not really to the level of an emotional roller-coaster; more like going over a bump on your bike, a whee! with a bone-jarring thump at the end of it.

Now, “invasive” is a complicated and problematic concept, and I don’t want to get into the subtleties of it too much, in large part because as a nonspecialist I don’t actually understand them. I do know that people have some very strong feelings in the matter. Several years ago I read a book where the author suddenly want off for a paragraph or two about how much the Nazis loved native plants and encouraged their cultivation. The subtext, not to put too fine a point on it, appeared to be, “if you garden with native plants, you’re gardening with HITLER.” This was especially weird, given that it was not even a book about plants or gardening. I don’t even remember what it was about, because that rant drove the rest of it more or less out of my head to stay.

All this is really a preface, with apology, to pretty pictures of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica):
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Starkweather Creek
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Starkweather Creek
Siberian squill is a Eurasian native – though, puzzlingly, not actually native to Siberia – escaped from cultivation in North America and generally classed as a weed. Minnesota Wildflowers notes that:

It readily spreads itself and is difficult to get rid of, as broken roots often resprout. It is very hardy and cold tolerant, and is left untouched by critters from voles to deer.

and begs gardeners, in bold type, “please stop planting this”. Illinois Wildflowers is a little bit more restrained:

Siberian Squill is more robust and more likely to naturalize than many other spring-blooming flowers from bulbs, but it is not particularly aggressive.

For my own part, after the winter we’ve had I would greet even a triffid with some pleasure.

There was life stirring in the water as well; a great many little fish (far too speedy to photograph), and snails who posed more obligingly:
Snail, Starkweather Creek

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The stone centipede

In late March I went to the Lakeshore Preserve, on a quest for spring ephemerals. Despite the warm air, the trails still had a layer of snow on them, and though new shoots were poking their way up through the leaf-litter, nothing was in bloom and little living was to be seen out in the open.

But in the shelter of fallen and decaying trees there were definitely signs of activity. In particular, curled on the underside of a loose sheet of bark propped against a log was this splendid – and very calm – stone centipede (order Lithobiomorpha, class Chilopoda – the centipedes – and sub-phylum Myriapoda, the centipedes and millipedes):
Stone centipede, Lakeshore Preserve

The order takes its name from the genus Lithobius, a classification due to William Elford Leach, FRS, assistant keeper of the British Museum’s natural history department in the early 19th century. Leach’s Wikipedia biography states delicately “Leach’s nomenclature was a little eccentric”. The linked article gives a little more detail:

A Leach legend arose about a beloved Caroline (wife, sister, or friend?) who was immortalized in the mostly acronymic isopod genera Anilocra, Canolira, Cirolana, Conilera, Nelocira, Nerocila, Olencira, and Rocinela.

In the first episode of the rebooted Cosmos, you may recall seeing Tiktaalik, the renowned intermediate between fish and tetrapods, crawling up out of the surf at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s feet. Another scientific Neil – Neil Shubin – led the team that found Tiktaalik after several arduous expeditions to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic; the Inuktitut name pays a courtesy to the team’s Inuit hosts. As it happens, this Neil can also be seen on television, in a three-part adaptation of his book Your Inner Fish, on PBS; and you can stream it, if like me you don’t have actual television. As with Cosmos, by the bye, I can’t guarantee that the network is going to leave those streamable episodes up, so, apologies if you arrive here and they’re already gone. It’s great stuff, though, so if that’s the case I’d still urge you to seek out a DVD or find it on Netflix or Amazon or wherever it happens to land.

Tiktaalik is pretty ancient; but when that first Tiktaalik stuck its head out of shallow water to have a look at the land, it might well have seen a myriapod already quite at home. By that time, myriapods had already been on the land for some fifty million years; nearly as much time as separates us from the end of the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land animal is a myriapod, found in Scotland ten years ago by bus driver and amateur palaeontologist Mike Newman.

They’ve lived on the land through all but one of the great extinctions, without needing to change too radically in form or habits of life. That’s worth taking your hat off to.

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I heard the spring wind whisper

The spring equinox has come and gone, but it is still wintry – the temperature barely crept above freezing today, though it felt warmer in the sun. Piles of dirty snow are still lurking everywhere, and ice still festoons some tree-branches together with signs of life:
Ice and new growth, Starkweather Creek
Underneath the stones, a thin layer of ice still sits on top of the soil, but woodlice, beetles, and little spiders are venturing out upon it:
Wood-louse, Starkweather Creek
Beetle, Starkweather Creek
And best of all, new leaves are coming up through the leaf-litter:
Leaf, Starkweather Creek
There will be violets within a few weeks. Time to go farther afield and look for spring ephemerals!

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The edge of the lake

In the University of Wisconsin’s Lakeshore Preserve, where Willow Creek runs into Lake Mendota, are some reed-covered mud-flats, a favourite abode of geese. It’s fall and that always seems to render the otherwise brassy honking of geese faintly mournful. I love fall, and enjoy winter, but signs of fall do remind me that in a short while there’ll be several months with no insects, and no herps; unless I go to the Vilas Zoo and peer through plexiglass at the Galapagos tortoises and hissing cockroaches.

Lakeshore Preserve

A peculiar combination of circumstances renders these mud-flats admirably fitted to receive and retain any markings which may happen to be made on their surface.
-Sir Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1854

Lakeshore Preserve

The flats have several shallow pools, which teem – that’s definitely the word – with invertebrates. Tiny flies hover just above the water, little worms and various water-striders skitter over the surface:
Lakeshore Preserve
Small fish zip around underneath the surface, and snails move across the bottom at a considerable clip:
Lakeshore Preserve

It was a fine autumn day to be out. The air was cool and the trails lined with aster, goldenrod, and white snakeroot.

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International Rock Flipping Day at Starkweather Creek

Today is the 6th annual International Rock Flipping Day!
International Rock-Flipping Day, White Out

I had to spend a chunk of today at work, so I was a bit of a creature under a rock myself. But I managed to heave the rock off and avoid the allure of nap-time; before heading home I took a walk by Starkweather Creek, to see if any rocks looked like they might conceal some interesting tenants…
International Rock Flipping Day 2012 - Starkweather Creek, Madison, WI
As indeed they did. There was this beetle and millipede – armoured giants (relatively speaking) who showed no signs of alarm when I temporarily removed the roof over their heads:
International Rock Flipping Day 2012 - Starkweather Creek, Madison, WI
A tiny red centipede that made for deeper cover:
International Rock Flipping Day 2012 - Starkweather Creek, Madison, WI
Quite a few small, delicate little abandoned shells, that were hard to capture; this helical one was the most successful:
International Rock Flipping Day 2012, Starkweather Creek, Madison, WI
And of course a great many “common” earthworms and sow-bugs:
International Rock Flipping Day 2012 - Starkweather Creek, Madison, WI
Under a log there were some sow-bugs that had lime-green spots down their backs. It was a log and not a rock, and the picture didn’t come out that well, but I like them too much not to post:
International Rock Flipping Day 2012, Starkweather Creek, Madison WI


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