Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kids & Butterflies on Wisconsin's Rustic Road 107

It's one of the best and most interesting 6.7 miles I've ever driven. 

That's what I told Andrea, my neighbor-down-the-road, when she asked me to recommend a place to take her kids (Rocco, 8-1/2 and Skylar, 6-2/4) to get up-close with nature in west-central Wisconsin's Lower Chippewa River valley.

Today my husband, Tom, and I took them on a guided tour.

We hopped into my Prius and went for a spin down Wisconsin's Rustic Road 107.  Rocco and Sky are in to butterflies right now - and this is one of the best places for a local butterfly safari.

After a quick pit stop at the Durand Library, we headed off to County Road M, where we stopped to watch a dickcissel up on an electrical wire between the road and newly mowed field.  As he sang his signature "dick-ciss-el" song, I wondered if he had found a mate this year and if they'd managed to "beat the mowers" to fledge their young.

Further down the road we spotted a Lark Sparrow hunting insects along the roadside.  We stopped to watch him dart out on to the road to finish-off the bugs that had been hit by cars.  Easy pickin's.

After we turned on to R107, we focused our attention on butterflies.  We stopped several times so Rocco and Sky could practice using the net - catching, getting a close look then releasing several species of butterflies - but mostly sulphurs, whites and emperors.

We stopped for a picnic lunch (while watching birds - fledgling grackles, a spotted sandpiper and several of Wisconsin's official state bird - American Robins) at the boat launch in Meridean.  Before we knew it, it was time to head for home.

The highlight of the day:  finding a huge Monarch caterpillar and tiny (as in "the size of the head of a pin") Monarch eggs! Rocco knew just where to look - on the underside of a soft fresh milkweed leaf.

For Rocco, the worst part of the day was the discovery the TICK that had had him for lunch!  Ouch!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Skink!

As we pulled in to our regular parking space where County Road M intersects the Chippewa River Trail just outside of Durand, Tom looked out the car window and said:  Look, there's a lizard on the trail!

I grabbed my camera and hopped out of the car.

I caught a glimpse of the 4-legged gray and black striped reptile with a blue tail as it scurried off into the plants along the trail.  It was gone before I could get my camera to focus.

Athough I've never seen one in Wisconsin, but I knew immediately what it was:   a five-lined skink.   Juveniles and young females of this species have that blue tail.

The Chippewa River Trail, built on a former railroad right-of-way, provides ideal habitat for them:  damp rotting logs, rocky outcroppings (for basking in the sun) and food (insects, snails and spiders).

Now that I've found one, I know where to look again.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Snails on the Trail: Striped White Lip Land Snail

I headed out early this morning to look for birds and butterflies on the Chippewa River State Trail in Durand.

What caught my attention, however, was not flitting among the flowers or singing from the trees.  It was at my feet, leaving a slime trail as it slowly slithering across the macadam:   a land snail about the size of a quarter.

I'd seen one before, several years ago.  Back then I didn't have a clue what species it was.  I went to the internet and discovered that there are over 100 species of land snails in the Badger State.  Where to begin?

I'm not a shell collector, but I did meet one years ago at a wildlife workshop in Florida - R. Tucker Abbott.  What I remembered from his program was how approachable malacologists are.  If you have a question, just ask. 

That's what I planned to do - find a malacologist and ask him/her to look at my photo.

I started with the "ask a scientist" page at the UW-Green Bay website.  They didn't know, but they gave me the name of a malacologist (at a University out west) who specializes in Wisconsin land snails.  I sent him my photo.

He said the picture didn't show enough for identification - sorry.

I really wanted to know its name.

So I went to the Milwaukee Public Museum website and contacted their malacologist, Joan Jass.  She forwarded my photo to a colleague at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, who identified it based on the thin reddish-brown stripes on the shell.  The other shell colors, he said, are variable, but the stripes are key identification characteristic:   Striped White Lip, Webbhelix multilineata.

Dr. Jass also recommended a website where I could find out more about this creature.

The Striped White Lip can grow to a foot in diameter and up to 7" tall.  They live in wetlands and river floodplains from New York to Tennessee and west to Nebraska.   They feed on plants, rotting wood and fungi, bark and algae as well as empty snail shells, scat, sap, carrion, limestone and cement.

They are prey items for flies, firefly larvae, millipedes and beetles; other snails, turtles and salamanders; shrews and mice; and birds - thrushes, grouse and turkey.

When they're not crossing the Chippewa River State Trail, they can be found on skunk cabbage, moss hummocks, logs, rocks and on hillocks at the base of wetland shrubs.  If you go looking for them - watch out for all the poison ivy and stinging nettles along the Trail.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mayo Clinic Peregrine Falcons - An Update

I had the opportunity to visit the Mayo Clinic Peregrine Falcons again today.  What a difference a month makes!

At first look, I thought they'd all fledged.  There was one falcon on the nest platform - no little white fuzzy chicks.  The bird on the monitor looked like a banded adult.  I watched it walk around the platform and pick up what looked like left-overs from dinner (a pigeon wing).  Then the bird walked over to the edge of the platform and flapped its wings. 

This couldn't be an adult.

I looked closer and saw a few unruly down feathers.  Yep - this was the last of the chick trio, the last to take the leap. 

A little after 9am, I went over to the Information booth.   The three women staffing the booth looked surprised when I asked:  what's the news on the Peregrines?

One of the trio said:  I just got in, I don't know what's going on with the birds.  There was only one here this morning when I arrived.

Another said:  There were three in the box on Friday.

The third said:  We're not here over the weekend so we don't know what happened.  They banded them on June 2nd.  Three males:  Maverick, Hawkeye and Prince.

I couldn't stay, but I came back at noon and watched the little guy preen his down feathers (and eat the down), stretch his wings, flap, hop around, snooze and watch the world go by.

For the next 4 hours there were no visits from the parents.   No food drops.  This must be the way they "encourage" nestlings to take the leap.

A little after 4pm, the bird got very agitated - running back and forth on the tiny ledge, screaming and flapping his wings.  Unfortunately for me, it was time to go home.

Looks like he'll fledge later today or tomorrow.

Maybe next year Mayo volunteers will print a daily "Falcon Report" and tape it to the falcon display so interested viewers like me could make sense of what's been happening from day to day.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Lower Chippewa River Butterflies and a New Crop of Tiny Toads

I went out this morning to see how the birds and butterflies along the Lower Chippewa weathered last night's storm.  I expected to see birds bathing in the temporary puddles along the bike trail and in the potholes on the dirt roads.

I spotted a few birds, but the big surprise was the hundreds of butterflies. 

Hackberry Emperor
caterpillars feed on hackberry
adults feed on wet spots along roads, sap rotting fruit, carrion, dung
overwinter as caterpillars in dead rolled leaves

I spotted hundreds of orange and black butterflies along the road...

Red Admiral
caterpillar feeds on nettles
adult feeds on nectar and rotting fruit

Northern Crescent
caterpillars live and feed communally on asters
adults feed on nectar of dogbane, fleabane and white clover
overwinter as hibernating caterpillars

Eastern Comma
caterpillars feed on elms and nettles
adults feed on rotting fruit and tree sap
over winter as adults

Northern Crescent and Great Spangled Fritillary
Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillars feed on violets
Adults feed on nectar
overwinter as newly hatched caterpillars

Silvery Checkerspot
caterpillars feed communally on Rudbeckia and sunflowers
adults feed on nectar - milkweed, dogbane and clover
overwinter as caterpillars

Mourning Cloak
caterpillars are communal feeders on willows, cottonwood, aspen, birch and hackberry
adults feed on tree sap and rotting fruit, occasionally nectar
overwinter as adults

Spring Azure
caterpillars are "tended" by ants and feed on dogwood, spirea, cherry and viburnum
adults feed on nectar (dogbane, milweed, blackberry)
overwinters as a chrysalis

But the biggest surprise of all were the dozens of tiny (no bigger than a fly) Eastern American Toads on the road.   It's amazing that any survive the crossing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Still More Butterflies

While checking Eastern Bluebird boxes today, I bumped into several butterflies.  With all the wet weather lately, it's been easy to spot butterflies on damp roads.  I still haven't figured out how to approach them without scaring them off, but I managed to photograph a few, including the new-to-me emperors.

Eastern Comma

This is the first Great Spangled Fritillary I've seen this season.  Larvae feed on violets.  Adults feed on nectar (milkweeds, thistle, Joe-pye-weed).

Great Spangled Fritillary

The Emperors were new-to-me.   Both are associated with their larval food:  Hackberry leaves.  The Tawny is less common.  They overwinter in groups as caterpillars.  Adults feed on sap, carrion, rotting fruit - rarely nectar.
Tawny Emperor

Hackberry Emperor

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Mystery Cocoon : A Promethea Moth

I found a moth cocoon along the Chippewa River State Trail on March 15 and took it home to watch.

A moth emerged from the cocoon today...

Recognize it?  I wasn't sure, so I looked it up.

A female Promethea Moth.

The females of this species of giant silkworm moth are larger than the male, whose body is primarily black with two eye spots and light tan wing borders.

The adults live to breed - neither has mouth parts.  This female was ripe with eggs - ready to mate.

By the time I realized she'd hatched out of her cocoon, one male had battered himself trying to get to her (in a Reparium cage in which I put the cocoon) and another male was flying nearby.  The power of pheromones.

I snapped a photo and let them fly off to procreate.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Stinging Nettles

I was walking along the Lower Chippewa River Bike Trail before the rains this afternoon when I noticed several bumblebees hanging on to the lilac-colored flowers of this Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), an alien plant in the mint family.

I edged closer with my new point and shoot Sony Cybershot Wx1.  I was cautious, concerned that this bee might take offense and sting me.   It was alive, but wasn't moving.

Then I got stung.

Not by the bee.   My hand brushed a nearby plant:  the common nettle.

It's also known as Stinging Nettles.

I've only been stung by this plant once before, but it was so long ago that I'd forgotten the feeling.
It was disconcerting - and it stayed with me all day.

How does it this plant produce a sting?  

The leaves and stems are covered with brittle, hollow, silky hairs that when touched, inject chemicals into the skin:   a histamine (irritates the skin), seratonin (causes pain), acetylcholine (creates the burning sensation) and, according to some sources, formic acid (responsible for the sting).

The resulting rash is similar to poison ivy.

What can you do?

Spit on it.  Seriously, saliva can help alleviate the stinging.  Then, when you get home, take two aspirin and apply hydrocortisone cream.

If you're more adventurous, take a look at this reference to the culinary attributes of stinging nettles.

Friday, June 4, 2010

More Butterflies

The past couple of days I've learned how difficult it can be to get a "good" photo of a butterfly in the wild.  If they're in the "right" location, I can sneak up on them in my stealth Prius and shoot them from the window.  But when I move to get out of the car... they're usually flitting away before I can push the door open.

So I've become a butterfly watcher, and when I'm quick and lucky - I snap a photo to help me figure out who they are.  And yes, lately, I've been keeping a list of the "who, where and when" of what I've spotted on the Wisconsin Butterflies website (an "eBird" for butterfliers in the Badger state).

Milbert's Tortoiseshell (1.5 - 2")  
caterpillar food:  nettles  
adults feed on sap, dung, rotting fruit and nectar
overwinters as a adult

Viceroy (2.5 - 3.36")
 caterpillar food:  cottonwood and willow
adults feed on dead animals, rotting fruit and nectar
overwinters as a caterpillar in a leaf they cut and roll into a tight tube, a hibernaculum

Red-spotted Purple  (2.25 - 4")  
caterpillar food:  cherries, poplars, oaks, willows, basswood
adults feed on sap, dung, carrion, rotting fruit and flowers
overwinters as a caterpillar in a hibernaculum

Great Spangled Fritillary (2.25 - 4")  
caterpillar food:   violets
adults feed on nectar
 overwinters as a newly-hatched caterpillar

Northern Crescent  (1.25 -  1.87") 
caterpillar food:   asters
adults feed on the nectar of dogbane, fleabane, and white clover
 overwinters as a 3rd stage caterpillar