Archive | June 2012


Yesterday  I had a few hours to kill and decided to do some exploration.  I had my kayak on my car, and thought it would be nice to put it in the water, so I set off so find a small lake to paddle around… somewhere between Sagola and Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Knowing me, it wouldn’t be any fun unless I drove my car a few miles down a road that isn’t really meant for anything without high clearance… even though there was an easier way to access the same body of water!  I found myself at one of the Groveland Mine Ponds, within the Copper Country State Forest, in Dickinson County, in the western Upper Peninsula.  The crumbling iron ore processing plant itself was visible at a distance, out of operation since the 1980’s.  The ponds used to be used as reservoirs to hold water for use at the plant, but they, and thousands of acres around them, were given to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources after the mind permanently closed.

At first glance it didn’t seem like much, and the 5 boat trailers in the parking lot made me wonder if I’d be able to get any peaceful paddling in with all the fishermen around.  A flooded forest made up much of the lake, and provided obstacles to dodge – sometimes a veritable field of small stems, other times widely-spaced larger pines, birch, etc, recognizable by the forms, wood, or scraps of bark hanging on. By the time I’d gotten around most of it, though, I was pretty happy with my new find.  In fact, I wished I had my camera to get photographs of some awesome events, like an osprey buzzing my boat, so close that I could see every feather in its breast and tail!  Or the deer that waded out nearly to meet me, deciding that my drifting boat wasn’t a threat, and idly using its white tail to shoo away flies, rather than raise the alarm.  So… even as all the other boats were pulling out in the face of an impending storm, I went back to the boat landing and grabbed my phone, so I could take a few shots of the wonders of the Pond.

View from the boat landing as I headed back out into the lake. The storm to the west and south made for some impressive scenery, but never actually hit the pond.

Choppy “seas”

There were 3 or 4 gulls that flew around the lake, sometimes being chased by tenacious swallows a fraction of their size, but they came back to roost in this grove of stumps, trading position on the prize – a comfortable seat 8 feet above the water.

Can you see the loon? It’s that tiny dot at the center, near the tree line! This bird swam around this sections of the lake the whole time I was out there, but any time a boat got much closer than this, it dove under and, second later, came up several hundred yards away.

Grove of stumps

The trees above the water are bleached by the sun. Below, they are stained by the accumulated tannins from decomposing vegetation. The water in this lake is so clear in part because of the presence of Zebra Mussels, an invasive species that eat many of the plants that otherwise provide cover, food, and oxygen to the fish and native invertebrates that live in aquatic ecosystems.

Some of the neat rocks cliffs that rise out of the water – these would have been the tops of hills before the land was flooded.

After the storm passed, the water was like glass, and I could hear some of the quieter songbirds that had been drowned out by the wind. In this bay, the Hermit Thrush, one of my favorites, was able to make himself heard over the crying Red-winged Blackbirds and warbling White-throated Sparrows.


One More Mystery

Today I’m looking for assistance from nature enthusiasts out there – what species is this??

I’ve decided that it’s time to give up the “Monday Mystery,” at least for a while.  In case you haven’t noticed, I rarely get it published on Monday, and I even more rarely deliver the answer on Friday!  It turns out that summer evenings and weekends are pretty full of outdoor adventure, and I don’t have much patience for sitting indoors plugged into the computer.  Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I’ve noticed that some of the other blogs out there that I’ve found most interesting have slacked on recent postings as well – perhaps we’re too busy enjoying the flora, fauna, and recreational potential of our various lands to spend much time writing about it.  So – I’ll keep writing, but won’t promise to adhere to any deadlines!

That said, I have one more mystery – and this one I need help solving, myself!  That’s right, I don’t have the answer, and I’m hoping that some of my naturalist readers out there will be able to provide some insight.

I saw hundreds of these tiny frogs – or toads? – last weekend in northern Wisconsin.  They were as small as my little pinkie nail – 1/4 of an inch or so. It was in a dry oak-pine woods, with rather sandy soil, next to a small, shallow lake.

Anyone??  I have some more photos, but I think this is the best array.

Look how small it is next to an average-sized red oak leaf!

Here it is on my tackle box… next to some red pine needles!

Here’s one on my rear windshield (I put it on the trunk to try to get a photo, but it quickly hopped off and away.

Top 10 Places I Want to Go Next

It has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog.  This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.”  Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock.  Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more.  To kick it off, on this rainy day,  I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road).   I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!

1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan.  Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior!  I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!

2.  The Everglades, Florida.  I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure.  The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps.  I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!

3.  Central America.  At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit.  Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter?  I doubt it, but we’ll see!

4.  Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho.  I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!).  I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since.  I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.Challis Stream

5.  The Carolinas.  North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States.  Plus I have heard they are beautiful.  Suggestions very welcome for this one!

6.  Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula.  Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior.  Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite.  I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike,  swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.

7.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee?  Yes!  Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new.  I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town.  It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago!  Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!.  I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates!  Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!

8.  Louisiana.  I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town.  It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more.  I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored  Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture.  I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast!  If not this year, then next!

9.  Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose?  Or, more specifically, what not to choose?  Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category?  Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules!  So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one!  Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off.  I’m looking forward to it, though!

10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out.  Technically, I have never been to most continents.  But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy.  Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either!  It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…

How about you ? Where to next?  Or must-see places that I left off my list?

Leaves of Three…

Congratulations to everyone who chose “Photo E” in the Poison Ivy quiz – you will be rewarded by many rash-free camping, hiking, hunting, and canoeing trips!  For the other 37% of you… here is some more information that might help you in the future.

First off, what were the other photos of?

Photo A: Hog Peanut.  This is a very common plant in woodlands  – it twines around other plants, sometimes up trees, and often along the ground, creating a carpet of three-leaved plants.  As a legume, its growth is characteristic of others in the pea or bean family – it has three symmetrical leaves, and fine curly tendrils at the growing end of the plant (maybe like the peas in your garden).  It gets the name “hog peanut” from its tuber-like root that is edible… if you bother to dig up enough of them to make a meal!

Photo B: Raspberry.  A couple of you guessed this one – you’ll be missing out on some tasty treats this summer!  Raspberries and blackberries often look like they have three leaves on a branch, sometimes 5, sometimes more.  The leaves have toothed or serrated edges, though, the leaves are usually somewhat fuzzy, and the veins are very clear.  The stalks usually have hairs and/or thorns on them, so you probably don’t want to get in a thicket of them without shorts on.  The flowers are white, and the berries… well, they look like raspberries (in this case black raspberries)!  The plant grows on long canes that together look like a bush, often between head- and waist-high, though the young stalks are shorter and especially blackberries can grow well above my head!

Photo C: Trillium.  This is a woodland plant that has a big, showy, white flower in the early spring – there are many different species throughout the Unites States; this one is a Large-flowered Trililum (Trillium grandiflorum).  The “tri-” in its name refers to the fact that the flower has three petals and the plant has… you guessed it… 3 leaves!  Its leaves are large like Poison Ivy’s can be, and the shape of the leaves is not always perfectly symmetrical.  However, a few things set it apart: 1) if it is blooming, it will be obvious! Even if it is done blooming, you may be able to see where the flower came from – right in the middle of those leaves.  2) Trillium, being in the Lily family, has a few long veins, rather than many shorter veins off of a central mid-rib.  3) The leaves of most trilliums rarely appear glossy.  4) Each trillium plant is a stand-alone – just a stalk with three leaves at the top, and a flower.  There may be several plants in a patch, but each one is distinct.  While it is possible to see Poison Ivy with just three leaves and a stalk, it is more common to see that grouping as part of a larger plant.  5) Trilliums are herbaceous – they wilt and die back after a few months of growth; Poison Ivy has woody stems and thus the stalks persist even when leaves are not present.

Photo D: White Oak sapling.  No one guessed this, but to me it can be a tricky look-alike.  It has a woody stem, like PI. The leaves of young white oaks, in their first year of growth. can be of varying sizes, and may or may not be symmetrical, though all of the leaves have at least some waviness to them.  A clue to this one is that you can see even younger leaves starting to grow, and if you look around you should be able to find one with a very characteristic “oak” leaf.  Also, the stem is much more robust than that of Poison Ivy, because it is the start of the trunk that will one day support the “might oak.”

Photo E: POISON IVY!!  This really is Poison Ivy.  Note a few characteristic features: 1) Glossy leaves – that is the oil that is going to cause the nasty rash!  2) A-symmetrical leaves – often one half of the leaf has a smooth edge, while the other half has a couple serrations, teeth, or waves in it.  On larger plants the leaves will sometimes look like a mitten – just a thumb and a finger showing, with the rest smooth.  If there are several plants visible in one location (which there almost always are), it is likely that all of the leaves will look a little bit different.  These leaves are the best way to ID poison ivy!  3) Poison Ivy has woody stems, but that is sometimes hard to tell.  It can grow like a small shrub, like an individual plant, or like a vine, up a tree or neighboring branch.  It doesn’t have to look like a vine, though.  4) Poison Ivy grows in a “rhizominous colony,” meaning that all of the plants in one area are likely connected by the same roots – this is what makes it grow up trees, and spread quickly once established.  5) As I showed in the previous post, PI has white berries and flowers – but you may not get close enough to be able to see that!  6)  As I also mention, PI, though characteristically found in the woods, can also grow in open fields and riparian areas.  Here in Wisconsin, our “western poison ivy” grows in open prairies, and the “eastern poison ivy” has done a great job of colonizing the floodplains of the major rivers.

Photo F: Virginia Creeper.  This is a common vine that grows in the woods.  It has a woody stem, and you can see it twining around many of the trees around you, I’m sure.  But…it has 5 leaves!  So it is clearly not Poison Ivy.  You were all smart enough to know that, and no one chose it in the quiz!  However, I know some very intelligent people who have spent their whole lives avoiding the harmless Virginia Creeper because they thought it was the dreaded PI!

Photo G: Desmodium glutinosum.  This plant has a common name, too, listed in my book as Cluster-Leaf (or Pointed) Tick-trefoil.  It is a relative of the Tick-trefoils that grow in western prairies, but this one grows in the woods.  It has somewhat irregularly-shaped leaves, in groups of three (it’s another legume – they’re tricky!), but it is yet another harmless wildflower growing around us.  A couple things that set it apart from Poison Ivy are: 1) the flowers grow on a long stalk coming up out of the center of the plant; 2) While it appears that the leaves are in groups of three, those are actually the leaflets – there are 3 leaves on the plant, but each one consists of three groups of leaflets, emanating from the central stalk.  If you can see this pattern, it’s a good bet it’s not PI; 3) This plant usually grows singly, not in large bunches, so the above pattern should be easy to discern.

Did you find any Poison Ivy this weekend?  Or avoid any near misses?!  Have more tips for identifying Poison Ivy in the wild, or tricks for healing the rash once you’ve acquired it?

Itch Factor

It’s not too late to test your PI skills… that stands for “poison ivy,” not “private investigator!”

Check out my previous post for the full array of choices to see if you can identify Poison Ivy as well as you thought!  To give you an extra hint, here’s a photo of it from underneath, showing its characteristic white flowers and berries, which are not visible all year ’round, but are now, if you dare to take a close enough look!

Poison ivy

Poison Mystery!

Well, it’s definitely getting to be summertime, and that means one thing… Poison Ivy is everywhere!  However, it has recently come to my attention that there are an awful lot of people who either have no idea what it looks like, or, maybe worse, actually think they can identify it but are looking at a different plant!  So, as a public service, I’m going to let you test your poison-ivy skills!  It will start today, with this short quiz, to see if you can pick out which one of these photos represents poison-ivy.  At the end of the week, I’ll post a few more challenging photos, to see if you can pick poison-ivy out from a group of look-alikes all growing together. Whether you are out in the woods every day, like me, or you just like to take a Saturday morning walk with the family, or you’re planning an outdoor vacation, it’s a good idea to know how to avoid this plant!

All of these photos were taken in Wisconsin, where we have 2 species of Poison Ivy: Toxicodendron radicans and Toxicodendron rydbergii.  They look pretty similar, so you should consider them interchangeable for the purpose of this quiz.  One or the other is present throughout most of the United States, at least east of the Rockies.  Good luck!

(click on photos to see larger)

Photo A

Photo B

Photo C

Photo D

Photo E

Photo F

Photo G

Lupinus Perennis

To everyone who thought this week’s mystery was a Lupine, you are correct!  Here are some photos from my observations of it on private land in Sauk County, WI, and on the Emmons Creek Barrens SNA in Portage County (along the Ice Age Trail, adjacent to Hartman Creek State Park).  There is some of it right outside my window here in north-eastern Wisconsin, too, but it has been planted and there is no record of it occurring naturally in this county.  Guess it was too beautiful to resist!

Even the leaves are amazing!

This field of Lupine (along with some other pretty cool plants) may be a home to Karner Blue Butterflies

Cool seed pods, too!