Robins and cardinals, great horned owls, slime molds and katydids

On Tuesday morning we awoke to a great horned owl hooting at 4:20. The cat had been milling around the room, irritated that we weren’t up yet. The owl cut off after ten minutes, and I could hear the cardinals and robins far off in the neighborhood, calling at about equal volumes. This is the season for the robins to back off as the cardinals take the morning shift, and most years I miss the transition, realizing at some point in late July or August that they’ve made the switch, and the predawn robins I’ve been listening to since March are largely replaced by morning cardinals. I wonder whether I’ve caught them this year in the midst of the hand-off. On July 4, robins were singing by 4 a.m., but at 4:30, a cardinal started quite loud, seemingly in the foreground as the robins sang on in the background. By 4:45 they were pretty evenly mixed at 4:45; an hour later, I was only hearing cardinals. I most likely haven’t had my ears tuned properly in July of previous years.

I got up to make coffee, and at 5:00 the owl called again. Then the house wren began singing. The wren goes on for much of the morning. We have a family of them nesting in our rain-garden bluebird box every year, and when we sit outside, one of the parents likes to yell at us, neck outstretched and standing on tiptoe, twitching along the top of the fence as it scolds and patrols the perimeter of the yard. At 5:20, a white-breasted nuthatch and blue jay called, then the first cicada wound up for the morning but gave up. It was still chilly. At 5:45 a couple—a human couple—had an awful fight down the street, loud and unhappy and unpleasant, screaming at each other. I have not often heard such a fight, and never sitting in my backyard in the morning like this. I walked down the street to see if I could do something, though I didn’t imagine there was much that could be done. A white car was stopped in the middle of the road, canted to the right, as though caught in the middle of a turn, whether watching or participating I don’t know. Then the yelling stopped and the car drove off. The cardinals and house wrens were quiet by this time.

Goldfinches were flying overhead. They have been singing at around 5:15 these days. I hardly noticed them two weeks ago, but they have been all over the garden since we arrived home this weekend, feeding on the aphids that are focused on siphoning sap from our cup plants. We watched one perching on the telephone line over our table out back after supper the other night, cleaning its breast, looking around for we-knew-not-what, giving us a good show before it flew off to the front of the house again. Hummingbirds have been abundant. They particularly favor the red beebalm flowers in the garden, but they also like Rachel: one hovered right in front of her face the other day, considering its options before it moved off to the large patch of Monarda nearby. Saturday night, we sat outside in the dark on our friends’ patio, talking about music and kids and school and books. A hummingbird materialized without warning in the flowerboxes, churring among the petunias, wings a haze along its sides as it turned its attention to each flower in turn. It could not have been there more than a few seconds before we noticed it, but I couldn’t say for sure. None of us had seen a hummingbird working at night before. Of course, as soon as we could see better, it turned out we were not seeing one now: when our friend Paul turned a light on it, the abdomen and proboscis of an enormous hawkmoth were obvious. Its movement between the flowers was deft, but not as fast as a hummingbird’s. Its wings seemed to slow for a moment as it shifted to the edge of the flowerbox, considering its options. Then it was off.

The stickers of brittle cinder fungus that were stamped onto the sides of fallen logs in Maple Grove at the beginning of July are gone. A small fungus I take to be stinking earthfan has started to emerge along the trails in Lyman Woods. Enormous, fleshy boletes have sprouted in Maple Grove. The slime molds are not as abundant as usual, which surprises me given how much rain we had in the second part of this summer. Perhaps I missed the best time for them while we were out of town. Or maybe they are not as prolific this year because of the summer’s early drought, which was deep: at some point in June, a colleague from our living collections department told me we were eight inches under the average for our time of the year. Whatever the reason, aside from a massive pool of dog vomit slime mold at the base of a neighbor’s tree—which I thought was kind of exciting but that he didn’t like so well—I have mostly been seeing only honeycomb coral slime mold and something else growing near it that resembles little tapioca pearls. One exception: I flipped over a log the other night in Lyman Woods, and its underside was coated in small, slender Cribraria sporophytes, like glandular hairs. Interspersed with it were the alien rice grains of Arcyria. Other than that, very few slime molds.

We’re just a month out from the solstice, typically our hottest weeks of the year, but the temperature has turned cooler and pleasant. The plants are turning their attention to fall. Black walnuts are larger than golf balls. White and bur oaks are dotted with immature acorns. Woodland tick-trefoil flowers are converting gradually to fruits, sticky flat loments, each segment bowed like a sheet sagging on the line after being caught in the rain. Buttonbush is in full bloom along the lower trail in Lyman Woods, the individual flowers long-tubed, four-petalled, nutlets developing at their bases. The flowers are aggregated into a globe that bristles with exerted stigmas and are outstanding to see right now. American bellflower is blooming throughout the Arboretum’s East Woods. Black elderberry fruits are developing in the floodplain of St. Joseph Creek, each hardly larger than a mung bean and dry, many falling off already. Solomon’s plume berries are hardly developing at all, most plants devoid of fruits. These and a few other species seem to me to suffering now from the drought of early summer, though I have taken no careful head-counts.

But others look fine to me. Broad-leaved leek (Allium tricoccum in the narrow sense) is not in full bloom, perhaps a fifth of the flowers fully open; but fruits maturing on the narrow-leaved leeks (Allium burdickii) are as abundant to my eye as they are in any other year. Prairie trillium seeds inside the pale, fleshy, three-winged berries are white and firm, a little pulpy still, but growing. Black snakeroot and bottlebrush grass are thriving, fruits ripe and brittle and dropping at a touch. Blue cohosh berries are developing slowly, as they always do. Woodland sunflowers are beginning to bloom along the road just past the Arboretum’s oak collection. In a week or two that stretch of the forest will glow.

Thursday morning the great horned owls started up at 4:00 on the nose. Two of them moved into the white pine that overhangs our driveway. A third was calling on its own from a few houses away. I stepped outside to watch them more closely and moved beneath the pine, and the couple became silent. I could see one of them about thirty feet up, surprisingly slender, immobile. It was the first to fly off, silently to the south. I suspect it was the male. A half a minute later, the other owl flew away into a neighbor’s tree across the street to the north and started hooting again. Its voice was the low intoning call of the female, inviting a response, not the pleading response of the male. At 4:45 the cardinals started up, with a scattering of robins. At about 5:00, the wrens were going strong. All three owls went on singing without a break until 5:20, then they stopped.

It’s Friday as I write this. It rained this morning at about 3:00, for only 15 minutes or so. The birds are subdued nonetheless. Until the first cardinals started calling just before the neighbor’s sprinkler kicked in at 5:00, there were no birds at all, not robins or cardinals or owls, only crickets. Now it is only cardinals, and few of them. Jupiter is hazy and high in the southwest. Chicago is lighting up the clouds to the east. Last night I walked out through Lyman Woods as the sun was going down. The bur oaks were packed with small acorns, which if they keep maturing will I think make it a mast year. Two joggers were running through a tunnel of buckthorn in the northeast quarter of the preserve, where the Hill’s oaks are abundant. I passed the quiet bee hives, passed an older man carrying a camera, passed the joggers again. The mosquitos came out and were suddenly fierce, and I turned up into the woods and back towards my car. The katydids were fired up in the canopy. The crickets were going strong. There were owl droppings on the foliage along the trail. I passed the joggers one more time.

I’m hopeful our owls will be calling again tomorrow morning. Perhaps they’ll nest here again this year.

The week spanning June and July

June 30-July 4, 2021

With all the rain of the past week or so, we have hardly been outside. The canopy we purchased last year has been cinched down low over the chairs so it won’t blow away in the storms. The cushions have stayed on the chairs, which are old and a little rotten, and they have all stayed pretty dry. Thursday morning I had raised the canopy and was sitting under it as the sun rose, and I found after a few minutes that ants were crawling up my arm. I stood to find my cushion swarming with them. I flipped it over. A hundred ants scrambled, furiously moving their babies from the safe cover of the cushion down to the wood chips below. They reminded me of the foxes and geese that roamed out into the streets and sidewalks in the first weeks of the pandemic shutdown last year. The non-human world is quick to pick up where we leave off.

I visited Maple Grove Wednesday just before supper time. The fallen sugar maple that I described on the solstice as “A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health” is still lying where it has been for several weeks. Its fall, however, is no longer quite the mystery it was to me as I sat at my desk writing about it after the solstice. The tree turns out to be rotten in the middle. Moreover, it is snapped off at a point where the bark burled up around its middle, a scar from some affliction or wound of a decade or more ago. It was at this seam that the bole broke, and it is thus less than surprising that it went down. I should know better than to write about things like this from memory, especially when evidence is close at hand. My memory is fallible, my impressions subjective. I see most clearly with a notebook in hand. In the herbarium world, we generally hold that an observation is suspect unless it’s accompanied by a specimen or at least a georeferenced, time-stamped photo. It’s similar with my own observations. Unless I note it at the time in the field, or take pains to recall the details right after a walk, all bets are off.

Woolly alder aphid. 7/3/2021, Maple Grove.

It’s midsummer in the woods. Woolly aphids have been drifting across the Maple Grove trails to alight on leaves, like the cottonwood seeds that clogged the sidewalk cracks as late as early June. Ebony jewelwings flounce around in the foliage. Morbid owlet moths are rampaging in the understory. I watched an ant about the length of my pinky nail carry in its mandibles a severed grasshopper leg one-and-a-half times its length. It travelled several inches down a smooth, decorticated log. I wrestled the leg away to get a photo. The severed thigh was striped, the exoskeleton apparently devoid of meat. What can an ant do with the empty shells of its prey? I doubt it was just a battle trophy: do animals do such things, drag mementos home to show off or just to prod their memory? Do they have a feeling, as we do, that this moment is unique and bears marking in some way? I do not imagine that they do, but could we know?

Great-crested flycatchers are calling, and toads and chorus frogs have been singing from the marshes embedded in the neighborhoods of Downers Grove, recalling spring. Corollas have started dropping from the tips of enchanter’s nightshade flowers, leaving the swelling burs at the tips of the inflorescence branches. Black elderberry is in full flower. Midge galls have been showing up sporadically on the wood nettles for at least two weeks. Black cherry leaves are pricked with spindle galls. The leaves of wild grape (Vitis riparia) and enchanter’s nightshade are filigreed, whether from leafminers run amuck or from aggressive snails or slugs I do not know. Solomon’s plume is weighted down with hard, speckled berries. Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits are green and hard, and difficult to find: many plants appear not to have put up infructescences this year, perhaps a legacy of the long drought at the beginning of summer. Spent anthers are falling from the flowers of Elymus villosus. Lopseed flowers are near their end, still perfume-mauve and divergent at the tips of the inflorescence, ripened into reflexed but still rubbery fruits toward the base. White baneberry fruits are forming doll’s eyes but still creamy in color. American pokeweed in the shady understory is just forming inflorescences, slender, white, and densely packed with tight white fists of floral buds. White coral slime mold is piling up thick on the sides of logs that have been wet for the past week and a half or so. A few logs are speckled with brittle cinder fungus, many are growing colonies of honeycomb coral slime mold. Chantarelles are emerging.

The wild leeks, which I wrote about on the solstice, are still balanced across the reproductive divide separating our two species: the narrow-leaved leek, Allium burdickii, has essentially completed flowering and is already producing fruits. It is mostly on the upslopes. The red-based, broad-leaved leek, Allium tricoccum, is just starting to open into inflorescences, spathes tearing along the edge over the past week to release a profusion of white flowers like fireworks. It is mostly in richer soils than A. burdickii. These two have minimal chance to interbreed, and if I were a plant or a pollinator I would never have seen them as the same species in the first place. That I did so for years I can only chalk up to a predisposition to lump species and a fixation on the similarity of their foliage, which comes out earlier and fills the understory in the spring.

I sat outside writing on Thursday or Friday morning at the end of June, about 5 a.m., and the cardinals were going full force, robins chuckling in the background. I believe there were exclusively robins singing earlier that morning, but I won’t swear on it (I didn’t write it down, and even an hour later I wasn’t sure whether I was remembering the morning of the same day or a morning from a month earlier). I wrote an essay earlier this month in which I made the point that I write not so much to convey information as to see more clearly myself. This is true, but it’s only one side of the story. I also write to remember, to lock into my mind trails and plants and people and moments that I want to dwell on. Any time the writing becomes just a way of getting information out of my head and onto the page so others can read it, I lose interest. That’s not to say I don’t care if people read it: it makes me happy to think that you might be reading this now, whoever you are, despite the fact that you have a world of interests and projects of your own, things you should be getting off to do, and that we might have some connection across the page about landscapes and plants and birds. But the reason I write is for the clarity of thought and the occasion to remember things, to recall things, and to correct memories. This week, I correct a memory of the fallen maple tree and perhaps won’t be confined to misremembering it every again. Tomorrow morning, perhaps I’ll correct a memory of the robins calling today at 4 a.m., find that in fact it must have been cardinals already at that time.

But for now, the sun is a few minutes from rising and a mourning dove has just started singing from the neighbor’s roof. Brooklyn has wandered outside to see what is going on. My coffee is cooling, the fire is getting smoky, and it’s time to start the day.