Meadow grasshoppers, katydids, puffballs puffing, slime molds erupting

At around 11:30 p.m. this past Tuesday, getting off the train, I found that the katydids are all hanging out down by the railroad tracks, calling from the treetops.

In 9 years, I believe I have never heard a katydid in my Downers Grove neighborhood. I heard them all the time when we lived in Madison, and I have heard them in Millennium Park, but never here. At around 11:30 p.m. this past Tuesday, getting off the train, I found they are hanging out down by the railroad tracks, calling from the treetops. Why should they be in Dane County, downtown Chicago, the Downers Grove train depot, seemingly everywhere else in the world, but not in my neighborhood? Perhaps they are missing something they need here. Perhaps someone is eating them up along the residential roads. As I walked away from the train station, chatting with a friend who happened to be on the train as well, the katydids faded out behind us. They hardly penetrated into the neighborhoods. By the time we reached Lincoln Avenue, I could no longer hear them.

I dreamt that night that the white-throated sparrows and cranes were just coming through on their March journey northward, and Jay Sturner and I were talking birds in his living room. It was a disorienting dream to have in late August. I awoke at 4 a.m. Orion was tilting over the southeastern horizon. Tree crickets were singing. At 4:40, a cardinal started singing, then grew silent after about 10 minutes. By 5:30, the sky was starting to light up. On my bike ride in, the drive through the east woods was littered with bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) acorn caps. Two chipmunks were fighting over one, or courting, I couldn’t tell which. Crickets were tramping off to bed, singing their final rounds. This is the sound of early fall.

Bur oak acorns, west side of the Arboretum

The acorns on the bur oaks are still green, but developing into shooter-size nuts. The ones falling now I think are aborted acorns that the trees have given up for dead. White oak (Quercus alba) acorns are also still green, but red oak (Quercus rubra) acorns are ripe and starting to fall. Two wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) I’ve come across this week in both the East Woods and Maple Grove bear nearly spherical, translucent galls that I initially found on the fruiting stalks and thought to be berries… foolishly of course, as wood nettle produces achenes. Laura Rericha, in Flora of the Chicago Region, reports that “Dasineura investita, a gall midge, causes both globose-apiculate semi-translucent galls and pyriform-acute galls on both surfaces of the leaves.” This matches what I’m seeing (see also this report from Turkey Run State Park, Indiana: The last seeds on blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) are bright blue. Hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) has finally started blooming after its twining vegetative sprint of the past two weeks. White rattlesnake-root (Nabalus albus, the old Prenanthes alba) has bolted and gone from ca. 1/3 in flower to fully flowering over the past week. Giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) anthers are transitioning from clenched little fists to fully open and dehiscing. Joe-pye weed are in fruit, sunflowers are still flowering, burdock fruits are just sticky, not yet dispersing. Stickseed (Hackelia virginiana) fruits have just started clinging to my pants and socks on walks through the woods. In the fields and wetlands, meadow grasshoppers have started to call, climbing-black bindweed (Polygonum scandens) and dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) are flowering. Near bur-reed marsh, a red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is in bloom, presumably escaped from planting, not native to the area.


Puffballs, trail west of Spruce Plot

A clone of brownish puffballs appeared on the mulched trail west of the spruce plot in the East Woods this week. On Wednesday they were still moist inside but furry, a few towards the center of the clone dispersing spores. Pressure builds as you squeeze them, then a pore splits open at the center of the puffball and a tiny jet of spores shoots out, then flattens into a plume before it wafts away. They were covered with gnats. By Friday, the clone had gone completely to dust. Beneath a wood nettle in the spruce plot, I found an exquisite cup fungus that I haven’t identified. Reaching for it, I brushed against the wood nettle, and the back of my hand stung ferociously. My go-to plant in this case is usually jewelweed (Impatiens), the juice of which is a balm for nettle stings, but the plants have become so woody and dried out that you can not use them effectively for this any longer. Later, I popped a jewelweed flower into my mouth–the nectar spurs are delicious–only to find a tiny bee inside that stung the inside of my lip.

Orange mycena in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

In Maple Grove Forest Preserve, orange mycena (Mycena leaiana) has appeared on fallen logs, and after several days of damp heat, white slime molds have erupted on the bare soil trails like clumps of white flour wetted by the week’s rain. Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) fruits are perched atop the withered calices, as shiny as black ceramic beads. Doll’s eye (Actaea pachypoda) berries have dried out, some blackened on the plants. The soil is crumbly with earthwork droppings under the skeletons of maple leaves. Buckthorn berries are ripe. A great-horned owl called from the forest on my walk through the other night, about 7:30.

A flying ant that landed on the ground below our lawn chairs, before sloughing off her wings.

Yesterday morning, Rachel and I found several cicadas dead or dying on the sidewalk as we walked to and from the farmer’s market. There were thunderstorms in early morning, and perhaps these were blown from the branches. By 7 p.m., sitting in the front yard, we could hear cicadas all over the neighborhood, and they seemed no quieter than usual despite all the mortality. Rachel suddenly pointed up at the swamp white oak along the tree. It was swarming with little insects that looked like sweat bees. They were in fact brownish-red ants, perhaps 5 mm in length, that appeared to have emerged from the canopy of our tree (though I’m not certain that is where they originated). One flew down to the top of our little free library box, sat still, seemingly stunned, then after 15 seconds regained composure and flew off. Others were doing the same on the hydrangeas, on our lawn chairs, on the table. Many landed in the soil. One I was watching on the soil under our chairs sloughed her wings off against a piece of bark mulch. I have read of ants doing this, but I’d never seen it before. Rachel and I followed them out to the pin oak next door, to the lot across the streets, then back again. A dragonfly darted around overhead, plucking them out of the sky. Where were the nighthawks? They would have been so happy.

As I write this, Rachel has just called me over to the goldenrods in our front yard. They are flowering at last, buzzing with wasps, soldier beetles, flies and bees. When the goldenrods flower, it must be almost September.

Great blue lobelia is flowering, jumpseed and lopseed fruits are falling, sedges are stockpiling for winter

Saturday morning, earthworms at Maple Grove Forest Preserve reclined on the surface of the churned soil under a canopy of wild ginger, the air saturated with water vapor.

Saturday morning, earthworms at Maple Grove Forest Preserve reclined on the surface of the churned soil under a canopy of wild ginger, the air saturated with water vapor. There were no clouds in the sky, but the air was murky, and the sun crested over the trees as orange as if it were coming at us through dense smog. A few widely branching Verbesina alternifolia were flowering in the sea of touch-me-not and wood nettles that fill the St. Joseph Creek floodplain. A red-eyed vireo was calling and the crickets were wrapping up their night’s work as I arrived at the woods.

In the past 10 days, jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum) fruits have started to ripen: about one third of them will snap off when you shake the plant roughly (which I hope you don’t). Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis) and lopseed (Phryma leptostachya) are nearly ripe as well: they can easily be gathered by hand, though they don’t spring off readily at the touch. Beggar’s-lice (Hackelia virginiana) fruits are almost ready to go. I brushed past numerous plants Saturday morning and found at the end of my walk a single spike stuck to my pants. I’d guess that within a week or so, it won’t be possible to get through a walk without picking up substantially more hitchhikers. Bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula) has dropped half of its spikelets. False nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) inflorescences are bristling with achenes. Doll’s-eye berries (Actaea pachypoda) are fully ripe now, filled with pulpy flesh and chestnut-brown, wedge-shaped seeds. I tend to a nibbler while I’m out walking, but I’m glad I didn’t with these… I’d forgotten until I got home that they are toxic. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is festooned with little green berries, soft agrimony (Agrimonia pubescens) is shedding its bristle-margined, crownlike fruits, and the wild leeks that I have been watching all year have finally started fruiting. They are so patient! All those weeks underground after photosynthesizing and dying back, only to flower for a few days and then fruit.

In the middle of the forest preserve there’s a wet depression ringed with Carex grayi and C. lupulina, with big clumps of rice cut grass Leersia oryzoides. A few individuals of water plantain (Alisma subcordatum) are in fruit along the edge, producing what look like little cheese-wheels of wedge-shaped achenes. Others, however, are sending up asparaguslike shoots that I presume will produce a second flush of flowers. Do they do this all through the summer? Surrounding them, filling the opening in the woods, is a carpet of delicate grass seedlings. It is exquisite. I don’t know what this grass could be, but as soon as I stepped into it a few feet, I regretted having sullied the otherwise perfect carpet. The grass appears to be an annual, otherwise the marsh would be a forest of it all summer long. I should know what this thing is. At the edge of the depression, clearweed (Pilea pumila) is flowering. Craneflies and skippers were patrolling the margins of the marsh as I walked through.

Calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) is branching in the woods in anticipation of autumn. Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) is looping over fallen logs. The lovely purple sheaths of Carex woodii have paled as the leaf blades have elongated. Carex radiata clumps are flattened to the ground. The wet forest sedge Carex tribuloides is sending up shoots from its nodes, endeavoring to spread around the woods. This is a nice trick that is unusual in the genus, which mostly lacks specialized stolons, but found in this species as well as the closely related C. projecta and a distant cousin from California, C. harfordii. The common white bear sedge (Carex albursina) has aged remarkably in the past few weeks. Its leaves are tattered and darkened, much as they look under the snow in midwinter, and etched with whitish leaf-miner trails. The mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have all but given up: some are still yellow, others have withered altogether.

There are a few new beauties in the woods. Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), northern bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus), and mad-dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) have come into flower. Artist’s bracket (Ganoderma sp.) and one of the gilled mushrooms (possibly Oudemansiella megalospora, according to a colleague) have emerged. Throughout the western suburbs, bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) acorns are swelling and look as though they may be ready to drop within the next two weeks or so.

By midday, the moisture had largely blown away, and by evening temperatures had dropped into the 70s. Rachel and I sat outside with friends and ate and talked, lit a fire, watched the moon and stars shining. I imagine the earthworms were back out in force.

Cardinals in the morning, crickets in the evening, fruits of the forest herbs in between

Tuesday morning, I sat outside at an hour before sunrise and heard only the cardinals singing against a quiet pulsing of crickets. A nighthawk flew overhead. Monday had been the same, and yesterday as well: cardinals whistling, a downpour

The I occurs in philosophy through the fact that the ‘world is my world’.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.641, transl. C.K. Ogden

Tuesday morning, I sat outside at an hour before sunrise and heard only the cardinals singing against a quiet pulsing of crickets. A nighthawk flew overhead. Monday had been the same, and yesterday as well: cardinals whistling, a downpour, then again cardinals, and no robins. How is it that I am finding only at the age of 47 that the cardinals replace the robins in the early mornings of late summer? Are the birds behaving differently this year? I doubt it. There are just more corners of the world that I don’t know than that I do. Many of them are quite obvious and right in the neighborhood.

In the East Woods, White oak (Quercus alba) acorns are starting to fill out. They have grown to about marble size under their nobby caps. Pin oak (Q. palustris) acorns are also swelling up, though they are barely larger than chickpeas with caps that just cover their scalps. Black walnuts hang thick on the trees (Juglans nigra; for a great individual close to the visitor center, check out accession 572-30*1, south of Parking Lot 2). Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) fruits have darkened in the past week to a waxy bluish-green. Three dark lines running lengthwise from stalk to fruit tip, marking the septa between the three locules of the berry. The seeds inside are a rich, creamy color. They stand in sharp contrast to the seeds of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): the fruits of this species are still green but bruise when you squeeze them, breaking the juice sacs inside and pressing the black, lenticular seeds against the fruit wall. Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) have ripened in the past 5 days, and honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis) fruits have hardened to the point that a thumbnail dents them only with difficulty. Touch-me-not (Impatiens) fruit are at their ripest, springing open at a touch. Sporophores have withered on the rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum), leaving the bright green sterile blades, the trophophores, to sop up sunlight for the remainder of the season. Turkey-tail fungi are fleshy and seem to be spreading over logs, field mushrooms have unfurled like umbrellas. In the marshes, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) are in full flower.

At 8:40 last night, I realized that the cicadas, which had been calling while I weeded along the side of the house a half hour earlier, had given way to crickets about 10 minutes earlier than they did a week ago. Jupiter was low in the southwest, and through the telescope I could pick out three of its moons, two trailing off to the west of Jupiter, one straggling off to the east. The great Dane County naturalist Ken Wood, when he was in the Peace Corps, decades before I knew him, used to have his students sketch Jupiter’s moons over the course of a few nights to show themselves that the moons revolved around the great planet. In the car yesterday afternoon, my sons and I had discussed whether it does people any good to know about the world, or to know about other worlds. I argued that it does, and I said something vague about how knowing about other planets tells us about our own. It’s true, of course: we do learn about our world by studying other planets, and this is often the stated reason for studying the universe. Neither of the boys were compelled by this, however, nor was I. I don’t spend time studying the world primarily because of the things I can do with that knowledge. I do it because I like it, and any justification I could give you that strayed far from that wouldn’t be entirely true.

My sons came home from the park at about 9:00 p.m. and looked through the scope with me. Venus was sinking below the horizon. We found Jupiter again, and while we tried to get the planet and its moons in focus, the boys told me about their visit to the park. They could hardly contain their excitement and were talking over each other, but from what they said I believe they simply hung a hammock between two trees and took turns swinging. They appear to have had the place to themselves, and they got to watch night coming on in a park they know well, but only by daylight. It sounded lovely.

Becoming aware of any corner of the world gives you a new part of the world to love. When you become familiar with the timing of the constellations, with where the deer mouse tracks run across the road after a light snow and where the wood thrushes like to hang out in the spring, with the sounds of park around the corner after nightfall, with the birds waking up in your backyard, you build a new room in your imagination. Your love of life becomes richer. You become a little bit larger.

A cool summer morning with all the ordinary birds, fruits and yellowing leaves

At 4:45 Wednesday morning, the cardinals were the only birds singing in our neighborhood. I heard no robins, which are usually the first to rise. As I rode through the park at the intersection of Lee and Grant, a pewee called, just the final descending “peweeer,” a warm-up for a morning full of song. At about 5:00 a.m., a killdeer made an abbreviated call over Finley north of I-88, and as I entered the Arboretum there were common yellowthroats singing in the reeds. I rolled slowly down to Parking Lot 8 by the oak collection, where the field and chipping sparrows and indigo buntings were going strong, and robins were chuckling all over the place. It was 5:15. At 5:30 a towhee called, and just before sunrise at the top of the hill overlooking the westernmost field in the East Woods, the buntings and pewees were singing at full tilt. A few minutes later, a pileated woodpecker called from near the Heritage Trail.

My friend Jay Sturner pointed out on Sunday that the shorebirds are coming through now, but other than this the woods are mostly filled with residents, and I find it comforting to hear our common species each morning. When my wife Rachel and I biked through the upper Midwest in 1998, we would lie in our sleeping bags in the morning and listen to the morning starting up. I wrote down the birds in the order in which I heard them each morning on our route through Wisconsin, the western shore of Michigan to Indiana, Indiana to Ohio. The constancy from site to site surprised me. Aldo Leopold wrote that he would start his mornings outside in the darkness with a pot of coffee and a notebook, writing down the birds in order as they started to sing. Sounds mark the progression through our days: bird songs in the hours before breakfast, the sound of news on the radio as the family wakes up; traffic gearing up as the sun rises; crickets stopping as the sun starts to bear down; cicadas and lawnmowers at midday; the sounds of dinner being made; robins at evening; cicadas giving way abruptly to crickets about 30 or 40 minutes after the sun sets; crickets through the screen as you sit reading by the window. Of all these times, the first hours of morning, before the sun rises, are my favorite. John Cheever felt that hour between five and six was most filled with possibility; once the sun came up, the day grew harder.

In the East Woods, Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) berries are hard, beadlike, glossy salmon mottled with darker red. Sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis) schizocarps have split, the tails arching outwards. Lopseed (Phryma leptostachya) fruits have stiffened in just the last week: they are still rubbery to the touch, but run the stem between your thumb and forefinger and you’ll gather a small bouquet of them. The common woodland ticktrefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum, which I and perhaps you learned as Desmodium glutinosum) is shedding sticky half-moon shaped fruits. Wild lettuce (Lactuca biennis, I believe) ranges from chest-high to taller than my head and is caught between flower and seed. Bristly fruits have almost all fallen from the broad-leaved bedstraw Galium circaezans, while the smaller G. odoratum is still in flower and fruit. Blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) are ripe and delicious. Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) seeds have fallen from the withering calyces, but the foliage is still deep green and reclining, sopping up the light and heat of midsummer. Carex hirtifolia foliage has kept growing since the fruits dropped, and some plants have leaves more than a foot in length. Purple meadow-rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) leaves are dark green and glaucous, though the seeds have all fallen. Hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is still twining over everything it can get its hands on, sending out new leaves the size of orzo grains.

More plants are yellowing this week than last. On the trail just northwest of Parking Lot 14 stand about a dozen yellowed mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) squeezing the last of their energy into the enormous ripening berries. Seeing these, I wonder whether the mayapples yellow early because their fruits are so demanding. On the north-facing slope overlooking the frog pond just north of Parking Lot 12, the touch-me-not (Impatiens) and swamp buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) look as though they are perhaps three weeks closer to senescing than the rest of the woods. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), great waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) and jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana) similarly look peaked. Does fall come earlier on this slope than elsewhere in the woods? Is this slope drier than it appears?

As the sun came over the horizon and hit the tops of the oaks, the chickadees and bluegray gnatcatchers began calling and moving around excitedly. The fog was still hanging low over the east prairie and the service road between Hidden Lake and the Arboretum. I walked into work past ripening elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), flowering white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), emerging amanitas and a Polyporus clinging to the trunk of a planted chalk maple (Acer leucoderme). A spiderweb in the lawn was glazed with dew. The birds had quieted down and people were starting to walk the trails. Early morning had passed.