When I reach the gate this morning, Venus is bright in the east. I can’t see much detail on the ground. I lock up at Parking Lot 10 and pull out my breakfast. Sitting on the edge of the drive in the dawn, eating a banana, backpack open on the ground and my bike propped up in front of me, I think of the bike trip my wife Rachel and I took through the upper Midwest when we were 27. We did a lot of stopping to eat along the side of the road just like this. The chorus frogs and spring peepers are silent. Yesterday at the forest by Little Red Schoolhouse in southern Cook Co., my son’s scout den and I saw a couple of enormous bullfrogs, but no frogs were calling there, either. It’s a different season altogether.
I hang my helmet on my handlebars and deposit my lunch and breakfast inside. It occurs to me that chipmunks might get to them, but I have them bagged well, and getting the weight off my back is worth the risk. The birds have replaced the frogs now: it’s still too dark to botanize easily, but the towhees and chickadees are starting up. A wren and a field sparrow are already calling. Robins are of course everywhere. As the morning goes on, the white-throated sparrows will begin, then the song sparrows, then the blue jays, approximately in that order. By the middle of the walk, wrens and field sparrows will be calling all over the place. I keep thinking I’ll pick up a frog call. Two weeks ago I asked whether they’d ever get sick of singing. I guess they are really done for the year.
There was a lot to keep track of this morning, and I seem to have forgotten it all within just an hour… I won’t try to keep the wildflowers in order today. Carex hirtifolia has transitioned from a flag of stamens to a feathery plume of stigmas. Wild ginger flowers are fully open. Bloodroot is in fruit, and the leaves have swollen to full size. Jack-in-the-pulpit, which I didn’t even notice poking out of the ground one week ago, is in full flower. Nodding trillium has produced floral buds. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is tipped with tiny white flowers. The oaks are leafing out: a pin oak late last week along the east prairie was dripping with catkins, and the leaves of pin oaks I find today are the size of a gray squirrel’s paw print. The young marcescent oaks I’ve been watching in the oak collection have dropped their leaves at last, and the leaves on the blackjack oak are about as long as my pinky nail, red and still uncurling. The post oak buds are swollen but not opened yet. Basswood leaves range from the size of a nickel to a silver dollar. Hop hornbeam leaves are soft and crinkly. Ohio buckeye is in full flower next to bur-reed marsh, and the sedges in the marsh are coming into flower. At the bridge, marsh marigold is flowering.
The trail along the north side of the woods, leading east toward Big Rock Visitor Station, is particularly beautiful today. I am struck at how much false mermaid there is in these woods. It may be the most abundant plant right now by individual in the entire East Woods. Yet a lot of people never learn this plant, probably in part because the flower is an inconspicuous little thing, and soon after flowering, the plant dies. I find a log that burned through in the middle this spring. It’s bare dirt beneath, where the log had presumably been sitting tight and shielding the ground from falling leaves. How long will the effect of this log hold? Will this be a rich little garden flanked by the unburned tree trunk sections a year or two hence? I turn the corner and find a brilliant green patch of ferns. I don’t know ferns well. This looks to me to be a Cystopteris, of which we only have one species recorded from the Arboretum (C. protrusa, which I learned as C. fragilis). I don’t know what other genus it could be.
Near the east end of the woods, a barred owl flies overhead. She is utterly silent, her enormous wings bearing her upward to settle onto a branch. After a minute, a second, smaller barred owl lands in a tree nearby. I have seen plenty of owls, but this time more than any other the area of their wings impresses me. It’s this low wing loading–the low amount of body weight per unit area of the wing–that in part allows owls to move so quietly through the air. I watch them for a minute, then walk closer. They turn, the larger one moves to a nearby tree, and they don’t pay me much more mind.
The sun is well up by now. I return to my bike to find my lunch unmolested. As I ride into work, the song sparrows and field sparrows are calling. Redwing blackbirds are declaring from the wetlands. A bluebird flies across the road to perch in a white oak. Where are the owls headed for the day? Probably they are perched on a branch in full sight in the East Woods, but unnoticed. Probably most days they go unnoticed. I hope they are sleeping well.