Chorus frogs are really done for the year

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.

When I am 90

Wildflowers have been ticking into bloom this past week, a few per day. One day was Jacob’s ladder. Yesterday was geranium and Uvularia grandiflora. The day before yesterday, I realized that the false mermaid that I had reported as dying back just last week is in fact bolting in many parts of the Arboretum and putting out flowers. I think this must be the way with this plant, one of our few winter annuals: walking around the woods this week, I’m finding plenty of patches where there are short yellowed leaves that appear to be dying back right next to tall flowering shoots. Blue cohosh was abruptly up and in flower the same day. The first true leaves of touch-me-not are about the same size as their cotyledons. White-throated sparrows have come back into town. American maples and hop hornbeam are mostly in full flower, with some floral buds and catkins just perched on the edge of fully open. American toads started singing in the pond by our house Easter weekend. Tree swallows can be heard in the fields and edges of the woods. Mosquitos buzz in your ear in the still morning. It’s bright enough to botanize now by about 5:45.

Today I get to the Finley gate about 10 minutes past sunrise. The redbuds are in full bloom on the east-facing slope, a cloud of purple intermixed with a couple of smaller flowering sugar maples glowing in the sun that’s shining in from under a bank of clouds. Garlic mustard is in bloom. I turn the corner and head uphill to the main road. The redbuds are on the hilltop now, backlit, flowers nearly the same color as the sky. Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) has leafed out. I bike the road slowly to the entrance of the woods. Yellow violets and small-flowered buttercup are in bloom. Carex hirtifolia is putting on an anther show that rivals any other sedge in the woods. Poison ivy leaflets are a centimeter long. Wild ginger flowers are still in bud; in our garden at home, they are open for business, but that patch consistently gets too much sun for its own good. Solomon’s seal and false Solomon’s seal are leafing out here, a few with the tiny floral buds just emerging underneath the stem: in our garden, the Solomon’s seal flowers are already nearly open.

I pick up the trail south of the bridge. Anemone quinquefolia is in full flower, while the Enemion and Thalictrum thalictroides, the false and true rue anemones respectively, are starting to look a bit bedraggled. Our old friend Ken Wood insisted on calling “false rue anemone” by its scientific name — it was Isopyrum rather than Enemion at that time — pointing out that it wasn’t false anything: it actually is what it is. I still falter over the common name. Toothwort in this part of the woods is going to seed. A patch of prairie trillium is flowering. Field sparrows are common now, singing from the fields adjacent to the East Woods all through the morning. I see a bumblebee patrolling over the leaf litter: I run after it, but it’s gone, and with several minutes of looking I don’t find it again. What a great time of year to be a bumblebee! I’d be happy to be a bumblebee for a few days, botanizing low to the ground, solitary in the woods on these perfect spring mornings.

Further down the trail, the Thalictrum dioicum is in bloom, about 70% of the staminate flowers fully open, the remainder packed with stamens huddling in the doorway. I cross the road at Parking Lot 11 on the trail that leads to Big Rock Visitor Station. There is a magnificent stand of mayapples here with leaves as big around as pie platters, floral buds nodding in the crotches of the double leaves. This part of the woods sports a flotilla of Virginia bluebells every year. Is it awful not to like them? I find them oppressive, over the top, as though the woods were being taken over by someone’s garden.

I hustle past to the hilltop overlooking the ephemeral pond that is full of chorus frogs. The view is magnificent: lemon yellow flowers on the sugar maples in the canopy below, hillside green with false mermaid and trout lily, white flowers of the Dutchman’s breeches floating above like tiny schools of fish in an enormous aquarium. The ravine below is carpeted with false mermaid and Ranunculus hispidus. One patch of wood’s sedge (Carex woodii</>) stands by trail with erect narrow leaves, bases burgundy, stamens wobbling in the breeze, stigmas akimbo. Trillium grandiflorum is in floral bud. A nuthatch passes through. A woodpecker starts up behind me. I walk on further to find a patch of T. grandiflorum in full outstanding flower. Blue cohosh flowers along the trail and a bluebird passes by.

A truck rounds the corner. The workday is starting, and I need to pick up a vehicle to get to Chicago Botanic Gardens. It’s for a PhD defense by good student and a good person. I’m looking forward to the conversation and the science and even the drive over, coffee in hand and lots of ground to cover with a friend and colleague who has come into town for the defense. Still, I’m reluctant to change gears. Spring comes every year… but it only comes every year, and every day is different than the one before it. What will be in flower tomorrow? When I’m 90, I’ll still be watching this patter of moths awakening, plants emerging and flowers opening, birds coming into town, woodcocks starting and then moving on, frogs starting and then being done for the year, warblers coming through, trees leafing out, ferns unfurling, Will it be less exciting? I love this as much now as I did 25 years ago when my wife and I first met. I can’t wait to see what next week looks like.

Towhee, flocks of Enemion, Richardson’s sedge in bloom

There was lightning way off to the north as I left the house this morning. A few robins were calling. The sky lit up in the distance and I counted to 50 seconds without hearing any thunder. I stopped counting after the third lightning flash. By the time I got to the high school, I could hear a very low thunder in the distance and feel a few rain drops. The full moon was mostly hidden behind clouds.

I reached the gates and took the road along the east and north edges of the woods. The thunder picked up. I scared a skunk at the edge of the road, and he scampered into the low fields heading toward the woods. A deer shot across the road full speed, and I considered the unpleasant prospect of a head-on collision with a deer while I was biking. I once heard a horrifying story of a deer who came through someone’s windshield after a collision and, frightened and dying, kicked until he and the driver were both dead. I have no idea if this is true, but always think of it when I see a deer cross the road. Lightning flashed bright now, and it occurred to me I was riding under high tension lines and mostly in the open. It was still dark when I locked up by the visitor center and started up the trail around Meadow Lake.

I walked the path through the geographic collections toward Bur Reed Marsh. Song sparrows had begun singing. The sky was clearing and I could see a bit more now. There was a fallen red oak I’ve never noticed before, enormous, base facing the trail. False mermaid has already begun to yellow. I came abruptly into a stand of flowering bloodroot. Last week I noticed only the emerging flowers. This morning, there were bloodroot in flower all around the edge of the woods by the marsh, and petals had already begun to dehisce. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is a few inches high… when did that happen? Geranium leaves are full-size or nearly so. The buds on the oaks are beginning to swell noticeably. Stamens still appear not to have pushed out of the open ironwood catkins.

I stood at the marsh and listened to the peepers and the chorus frogs, who refuse to stop. It’s been almost two months now, hasn’t it? I know it was an early spring, and they do still sound great, but don’t the frogs get tired of this showboating? Walking east from the marsh, I scared two wood ducks from a tree branch overhead. In the oak collection, the little marcescent post oaks (Quercus stellata) I’ve been watching seem to be getting the idea that spring is on its way: they are still quite leafy, but they’ve lost most of last year’s leaves from the upper half of their crown. Not so the blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), which is still entirely covered with leaves. A field sparrow was calling from the south side of the road, and two chipping sparrows were moving around among the smaller oaks

Past the oak collection I turned north at Parking Lot 8. Flocks of false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum, the old Isopyrum) are in bloom, along with some rue anemone (the old Anemonella thalictroides, now Thalictrum thalictroides, the “thalictrum-like thalictrum”). I walked down to the bottom of the ravine. On the west-facing slope, dutchman’s breeches are in full flower. I walked the bottom of the ravine back toward the road. I ran across a little colony of Carex spregelii with bright green spring foliage.

The rain started to pick up. As I put my raincoat on, I noticed that the mayapples have opened almost fully, umbrella-like, since I was last out. Timely. An eastern towhee called. On the walk back, I watched a kinglet move around in the shrubs, I believe a ruby-crowned kinglet, though I wasn’t certain. I walked back along the edge of meadow lake and found, to my delight, Carex richardsonii in flower at the very edge of the plantings. Who planted that? It’s a little mystery I can ponder during work today.


Addendum, 4/20/2017:

What was I thinking?!! I walked past that “Carex richardsonii” today, and it’s no such thing. Carex pensylvanica, good old fashioned Pennsylvania sedge. Little mystery my foot!

Rain and wildflowers emerging, early April

The rain started early this morning and was still going lightly when I left the house. A robin was singing at our corner, and on the ride toward the high school I could hear another robin, solitary, to the north of Grant Street. The rain thrown from my front tire made a perfect disk in the headlight. I heard another robin or two, but nothing at the corner of Grant and Finley. The week after daylight savings time kicked in, I had begun to suspect that there was something special about that corner for the robins, but I don’t suspect that’s the case. Robins are widespread in our neighborhood, and whom you hear is probably a function of what time you’re out and what their mood is. Rain was hissing on the high tension lines when I arrived at the east edge of the Arboretum.

I biked counterclockwise around the road. By the ravine that crosses the road uphill from the big pond at the east end of the East Woods, I got a whiff of smoke from the last woodland burn. A few seconds later, an orange light downslope caught my eye. It looked more like a tail-light than a fire. I parked my bike and walked toward it. The woods were mostly blackened underfoot, some patches unburned. The light it turns out was the lit end of a fallen tree, which had burned through the middle, leaving a shadow of ash where that section of trunk had been. The fire burned from the underside of the log, just at the end, eating its way slowly toward the top of the tree that had fallen downward toward the pond. Flames licked over the edge of the trunk and receded again to the glowing interior. A flurry of sparks emerged and were extinguished in the damp air. My legs were wet, and the warmth was nice. A colossal bur oak stood nearby, and beneath it lay a deer-sized nest of mosses growing on cinders, littered with bur oak acorn caps. The moss was hairy with slender spore caps atop stalks about an inch high. I walked downslope to visit the frogs. A light from a distant building blinked slowly in reflection in the pond amidst the frogs, cooler than the fire.

I rode on to the Big Rock Visitor Station, locked up and left my backpack to stay dry under the shelter. The rain had picked up a bit and was pattering on the leaves and on me. I walked up the woodland trail to the north. I was antsy now to see what was growing, so I turned on my light. Black cherry buds were open, leaves the size of a pencil tip. Leaves were open on a single multiflora rose. Patches of false mermaid were up, but no flowers yet that I noticed. Toothwort leaves were up, and I found one flower bud. Spring beauty flowers were all closed. Further on I found trout lily leaves about two inches high, foliage of Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia waterleaf just visible above the leaf litter, geranium leaves as big as half-dollars. On the ride out yesterday, I biked past a carpet of false mermaid interspersed with prairie trillium shoots. Hepatica and Enemion (the old Isopyrum, false rue-anemone) are in bloom, Anemone quinquefolia foliage is open, and mayapple shoots are visible. The Carex are all greening up.

I finished the loop and went around once more, this time going off toward Big Rock along the trail overlooking the power lines. I walked up the trail with my eyes closed, opening them ever 30 seconds to make sure I wasn’t running into anything. I’m sure this is a great way to hone your listening skills, but mainly it left me feeling all the more grateful that I have sight. By now I was getting wet and antsy to get back, so I moved along pretty briskly and just listened. It was all frogs this early morning like, and it seemed to me the birds were sleeping in. One bird I did not recognize called with the peepers, almost th same tone. I biked back to my office and talked with Nick, started writing. The rain is still going and the redwing blackbirds are calling. Monday, I felt everything was ready to explode: today, it seems everyone is happy to wait for a warmer day.

Visiting the American Museum of Natural History

I’ve been away for a week in New York with my family. When I left the Arboretum last, yellow-rumped warblers had returned and spring beauty was in bloom. Woodcocks were still singing. This morning, I returned to robins singing in the dark, as they had been, but no more woodcocks, and nearing sunrise I heard eastern phoebes, a field sparrow, and a ruby-crowned kinglet along with the usual cast of characters. Chorus frogs and peepers are still going strong, even louder I believe than they were last time I was here. Onion shoots are halfway to my knee. The burned fields are bright green. Virginia bluebell flowers look like tight little grape hyacinth clusters. Touch-me-not cotyledons are the size of pennies. Buds on the beech outside my office window are swollen, and everything is poised and ready to leaf out. The place feels as though it could explode.

Last week Monday, my family and I were at the American Museum of Natural History. Rachel and I were last at this museum in 1999. It’s the only time I’d ever been, and it impressed me greatly at the time, when I was just making the transition from being a naturalist to being a researcher. The museum presents such an array of options: mammals, forests, ocean life, geology, peoples of South America, the Pacific, Africa, Asia — all of Asia? This time, we started with African mammals, and I can’t remember it clearly, just a few images. Gazelles on the Serengeti beside a termite mound, the panorama in the background sweeping. African water buffalos. More ungulates, this time in a multi species scene, with cranes in the background, papyrus on one side and Phragmites on the other. The few species of this genus are found around the world, and the sign tells us that you can find Phragmites in wetlands around New York. Two giant elephants.

We walked into the hall of biodiversity, which is sumptuous. Organisms are lined up ladderlike, strung on wire like pearls, perched on shelves, dried or preserved in spirits or modeled in plastic and fabric. Herbarium sheets of ferns and flowering plants are arranged placard like under a giant Rafflesia bloom. There is a necklace of propagules organized by size, from maize kernels to pine cones, with a short run of various white and red oak acorns in the middle. Beside them are models of boletes and morels and shelf fungi. Across the aisle are tree frogs the size of quarters and toads as bulky as grapefruits; a handful of lizards; sea turtles, tortoises, snapping turtles and what looks to be a spiny soft shelled turtle; cranes and penguins; a kangaroo and a capybara; a lobster; a horseshoe crab; an enormous, long-armed crab. A taxidermied fish swims above a translucent shark egg sac. Overhead in the middle of the room swims a school of striped fish and a ray. The room impresses you in the way that museums do best: by presenting not a few organisms in the framework of a theory–natural selection, common ancestry, homology, convergence–but by bombarding you with organisms in a systematic framework, and letting the mechanisms and theory seep into you slowly, by repetition. I think of Louis MacNeice: “I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.” I feel in these museums as I did when Rachel and I first met: 22 years old, and everything is brand new and exciting, all the time.

We turned and entered the hall of ocean life. You enter at balcony level. A life size blue whale hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the hall, and on the floor below people lie on their backs looking up at it. It is as big, we are told, as three school buses, but that hardly conveys the mass of the thing. It is as though someone had suspended a passenger plane from the ceiling of a high school gymnasium. I read that the blue whale is found in all oceans, feeds at 50 to 200 feet deep, lives mainly on krill, and is very poorly known. How long does it live? More to the point, how can such a thing exist? To a botanist who spends his time wondering about relatively subtle adaptations of oaks and prairie plants, the hugeness of a whale is almost inconceivable. I guess it is to everyone. On the walls hang phylogenies of crustaceans and fishes. There is a model of a pier piling in a bay, encrusted with barnacles and algae and anemones, fish swimming around it. Looking at the photo a couple of days later, I asked Rachel whether this was a model or an exhibit in an aquarium. She confirmed that it was a model, but from the photo I took I don’t think anyone would be able to tell. I walk down to the floor below and sit with my younger son, the whale above us. We watch a movie about shark research. We regroup and slowly make our way out, leaving time to ride the elevators an extra time or two from the ground floor to the balcony, watching the people recede as we ascend.

There were many more stops to our visit, which seemed to go on without pause for the several hours we were at the museum. We lunched at the hotdog / shawarma / falafel cart outside the 77th Street Grand Gallery, passing the enormous stibnite crystal beneath the 60-foot canoe that hangs in the middle of the gallery. We passed by small mammals and birds: an ermine stalking a meadow vole, the latter completely unaware, perched on his haunches, eating; Andean condors, one flying and one feeding; a fox; armadillos. We spent an hour in the hall surrounding the Hayden Planetarium, where around the balcony you can take a logarithmic walk from a scale model of an atom to a scale model of the universe, your scale increasing by factors of ten as the scale of the models decreases. We walked down to the Cullman Hall of the Universe and weighed ourselves in moon pounds. We watched a simulation of the collision of, I believe, two neutron stars, and a video on the discovery of gravitational waves. We headed to the Discovery Room to look at a drop of water from the turtle pond under a microscope, identify gases using a prism, look at rocks sliced so thinly that light shines through, play biodiversity bingo.

After the Discovery Room, we left the museum. We went out through the main hall, crossed the street, and we were suddenly in Central Park. I don’t mean to imply that we were surprised to find ourselves there, or that we didn’t plan on it. We had planned the day around these two things, the museum and the Park. But the exit was like the exit from a backpacking trip, when you go from the trail one moment to riding in a car the next, and a curtain has fallen between the one and the other. In the park we stretched out and were happy to be on the move. We walked into The Ramble, a section of the park densely criss-crossed with trails nestled into a bend in the lake. White-throated sparrows were singing. Brown creepers were crawling up the tree trunks. My younger son ran up the giant boulders along the trail and back down to meet us. This must be the most most avidly birded park in the world. I imagine researchers streaming through the museum over its life of nearly 150 years, working in the collections for hours at a stretch and then coming out, minds packed, to the brushy woods around these lakes. The very existence of birds is a miracle, the diversity of them that much more miraculous… then to see them moving again after studying them in the museum is itself incredible. We walked along the edge of the lake, through Strawberry Fields, then back to the train line and down to Chinatown for supper.

Back from New York, we found our unplanted pagoda dogwood from last year’s plant sale had survived winter in its pot. We planted it in the front garden. Back at work, I find a short stack of western North American sedges right where I’d left them. My email holds news about an accepted oak paper, plus an email about another one in the mill and a paper on the flora of Indianapolis to finish up with colleagues. Louis MacNeice’s poem, quoted above, is set behind a “great bay-window… spawning snow and pink roses against it.” It ends:

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

So much happens at the margins, the edge between one exhibit and another, between the museum and the park, between home and work, between the woods and a pile of specimens. I think that’s all I’m trying to say this morning.



3 April 2017

First day of spring

Last week’s cool temperatures and snow slowed things down just a bit. Today is the first day of spring, and the woodland sedges in my yard are about two inches tall. The Carex trichocarpa in the rain garden is growing more slowly, and the crocuses are all in bloom. The cornelian cherry dogwoods are in full bloom. Iris leaves are 5” out of the ground. An old friend came into town last night and walked through the wetland by the school. Everything is mushy and caught between brown and green, but growing.

On my ride to the Arboretum this morning, I noticed that the robins didn’t start in earnest until I had biked about 2¼ miles west of my house to Belmont, where suddenly there was a noisy flock of them. I have noticed this other days, and I had assumed it had to do with the timing of my ride. But we set the clocks back for daylight savings time a week ago, so timing can’t explain it. It must be that the robins are simply more abundant at that corner. There’s a big field across the road at the Recreation Center; it may be that the robins like to feed there, and I’m catching the spill-over at the house on the corner of Belmont and Grant.

Just inside the gate, I saw a mouse run across the drive. He galloped like a deer mouse, I thought, though I am uncertain because I did see any tail to speak of. It may be that meadow voles are more scampery than I realized: to be honest, I mostly see tracks, not the mice themselves. In this woods I generally see deer mouse tracks instead of voles, but I leave the question open for now. I followed him with my bike light: straight across the drive he raced up into the brambles and moved along them as easily as if he were running along edge of the yard. What kind of intelligence does it take to think in three dimensions like that? Mostly we think of our movement in two dimensions. Even scaling a rock face is a two dimensional problem, with the surface curving beneath us. He moved along the canes from juncture to juncture and was soon lost to view in the shrubs.

I parked at Parking lot 8 and walked counterclockwise around the trail, which I hadn’t done yet this year. It’s remarkable how different a trail looks the other way around. At the low spot in the trail going east, the peepers were audible above the din of the interstate, but they trailed off as I worked my way upslope and the hill insinuated itself between the frogs and me. The large white oaks gave way to a denser tangle of oaks, and then the woods opened up again as I neared the top of the slope. Earlier this year, I had the impression that the oaks were bigger here at the top of the hill, but I think now that that’s not the case: there may be more clearing around them than there is downslope, but their average size looks to be about the same.

I turned north and saw a peculiarly branchy tree in the distance, branches jutting straight off the bole like branches off a white pine, crown reminiscent of a white oak. I walked to it and found the ground littered with black walnut shells. The bark had the furrows that I associate with this species. The trunk was straight and constant in diameter from bottom to top, with the dead, broomstick-thickness branches sticking straight out in near whorls all the way up. This strikes me as an odd arrangement of branches for a black walnut. I am struck this year at how little I know about the growth forms of trees.

I entered the stand of sugar maples to the north and stood still for a moment. Fat water drops from last night’s thunderstorm were falling to the ground at long intervals from a great tree overhead. I watched them fall one by one from a height of perhaps 20 feet, quivering and shimmering as they fell, as bright as Christmas lights in the flashlight beam. They appeared tawny in my light, and wondered whether in fact they might be maple sap. They fell far enough that I could maneuver myself to catch a few. I tasted them: pure water. Perhaps they were tannic from the tree bark or mosses growing on the trees.

From Big Rock Visitor Station, I could hear another pocket of peepers and chorus frogs singing in the pond just north of the road, one of the ponds that formed when the drainage tiles were systematically crushed a decade or so ago. A woodcock started peenting in the burned prairie along the path. I watched for him, shone my light where I thought he was, and he stopped calling. I didn’t see anything. I turned the light off, and immediately he called again, twice. I shone it again: he stopped. I watched and listened for awhile, but I didn’t see him. My friend Sylvia Marek used to stalk these guys to their dancing spots while they were flying so she watch them when they landed. I’ve tried a number of times but never succeeded. I see them on the wing, I’ve watched them racing between two-flats in Lincoln Square, I’ve seen them in movies, I’ve brought stuffed woodcocks to school for the kids to see, and I’ve been listening to them dance since 1993, but I have yet to see one dance up close. It still delights me to hear them and see them flying overhead, and this past four weeks of morning walks with them buzzing around and whistling overhead have been very nice.

Near the visitor center, the chickadees were calling. Juncos flew over the trail in front of me. It is a good first day of spring.

You might never know

I parked at the Big Rock visitor station this morning just after 5:15. Robins had been singing as I rode through the neighborhoods, but here it was quiet and just a little windy. I walked east, over the bridge at the edge of the parking lot and into the white oaks. The oaks here are large, and there is a gap perhaps 30 feet in diameter that I hadn’t noticed before. Up the hill to the east, the white oaks gave way to red oaks and sugar maples, though I’m not sure how clean this break is. My first impression was that I had gone abruptly from a stand of all white oaks to a slope of red oaks, but as I walked it back and forth, prowled around the woods checking trees, I decided that there was probably a more gradual transition here that would be worth coming back to in the daytime. I’ve become more aware as I grow older that I’m susceptible to my first impressions, and I’m trying to get into the habit of lodging them to look at more closely later on. This transition is one of many such.

Two chorus frogs called from the little valley that runs between the main trail east of the Big Rock Visitor Station and the Woodland Trail to the north. I walked downslope to hear them and got interested in the sedges on the slope. They were evident as dark breaks in the leaf litter even in the twilight. These were the narrow, dark-green leaves of Carex jamesii, I believe, though the clumps were not as dense as I recall finding with Sebastian in these woods in late January. The leaves were still evergreen; I didn’t see any fresh shoots coming up, but I expect them very soon. The two frogs called on, and I stumbled back to the trail.

A woodcock circled over the trail to the south, just east of the large field cleaved out of the forest, where I have collected senescent milkweed stems for the Cub Scouts to make twine bracelets. He flew high, kissing and whistling, then was silent as he dropped back to the ground. I couldn’t hear him peent, and I suspect I was lucky enough to catch him at the end of his dancing. While it’s possible that he dropped to the far side of the hill where I couldn’t hear him, I believe that particular sound carries too well to miss over such distances. It would be fun to map the soundscape of the East Woods through the year: woodcocks and chorus frogs, chickadees, nuthatches, robins, barred owls, then suddenly warblers and field sparrows, then vireos through the summer, then cicadas and katydids, then crickets and grasshoppers, then the sounds of geese flying overhead, then winter again. The problem, I think, would be integrating over the particularity of the place: this woodcock here at 5:30 on March 6, 2017; the next day quiet, then a barred owl the day after, all at the same time of the morning. Would you plot the probability of each sound by time by volume by location? Would it be a four-dimensional soundscape, crammed with piecharts colored by sound? This could be a person’s life work.

I passed the bridge at the east end of the woods, crossed the road for the second time and got to the trail running west from the southeast corner of the woods. The chorus frogs have been most clear here, and today was no exception, but I also heard what I thought was a single spring peeper. I tramped south to try to find it, and I found not a single spring peeper, but a whole pondful of them. I had completely forgotten about the wetlands between the East Woods and the berm. These are fairly typical, weedy wetlands of the upper Midwest, ringed with the Phragmites and Phalaris that was brought in to stabilize creek edges and roadsides. There was a little bur oak along the edge of this pond, and the spring peepers were deafening. I listened for a few minutes, then walked up to the berm overlooking the interstate. From there, I could hear cars and the chuckling of a robin, but no frogs. An Aramark sign was lit up across the highway. You could drive this highway for decades, have been to Lisle 100s or 1000s of times for breakfast or a walk at lunchtime, and have no idea there were spring peepers cavorting in this pond. I walked back toward the trail. The spring peeper calls became deafening again. A song sparrow called. Back toward the trail, the peeper calls attenuated and then were out of earshot. You could miss them even on a walk through the woods.

Twilight had given way to morning. I continued west through P8, through the oak collection—leaves are still hanging on the little post oaks and jack oaks I’ve been watching—and around to the wetland where I’ve been listening to woodcocks the past two weeks. Nothing. Not even a frog call… maybe one, a squeaky thing, but then nothing. The wind had picked up again. In the wet meadow downhill from the geographic collections, a few peepers were still calling. A broad-leafed grass—orchard grass, I suspect—was pushing up young, rubbery first leaves. An elm was flowering.

Further on, burned dropseed bases pimpled the banks of Meadow Lake. The hazelnut catkins hung, about a third of them pendant, fully or nearly fully open. Outside the visitor center, all the elms were flowering, and it appeared to me that fruits were beginning to form. Mt. Fuji early spirea was in bloom, as was Cornelian-cherry dogwood. Male redwing blackbirds were at their treetop stations. Construction sounds floated over from the new building at South Farm. Folks were working in the research building, cleaning and getting ready for the day. We were just 10 minutes by foot from bucketloads of spring peepers and armsful of woodcocks, but you might never know it.

— March 6, 2017

Spring peepers and wood ducks

March 1, 2017

Last night’s thunderstorm emboldened the chorus frogs, who seem to have spread in the past week from a small stronghold along the southeast edge of the East Woods to much of the southeast corner. An inch of rain fell overnight, and the morning was foggy. I parked at P10 and walked through the burned woods, which are now completely cool. Last week sections of the forest were still smoking. There were pools of water along the edge of the trail even in this highest section of the woods. Across the interstate, through the oaks and partial fog, the office buildings and the cars and the lights were a different world. The chorus frogs could not have cared less.

After the warmth and excitement of last week, the drop in temperatures last Thursday and following had slowed everything down. When I left the house on Thursday, it was 50F, and I foolishly wore sandals. By that afternoon, it was rainy and 40F, and by nighttime it was nearly freezing. Over the weekend we had snow. But this morning is back to spring. There is a dusting of newly fallen leaves on the burned sections of the forest floor. I was hopeful that perhaps the marcescent oaks were actively dropping last year’s leaves. From what we know – based, I believe, on a single study of black oaks in Madison Wisconsin – marcescent oaks yield their leaves when secondary growth starts up beneath the bark, and the young cork forms an abscission layer where none had formed the previous year. But I suspect the fallen leaves had just been knocked down by the wind: the buds on the white and bur oaks I passed still appeared to be in winter, and beyond the woods in the oak collection, one of the marcescent young post oaks I have been watching still wore all its leaves.

I walked south of the oak collection hoping to hear a woodcock again. A deer startled and bounded off. I stopped at bur reed marsh to listen to an odd squeaking bird or frog at the edge of the pond. One moved close to the boardwalk. I thought at first of spring peepers, but that didn’t seem right. The call wasn’t as strident as I remember, but it had the rubbery squeeky precall of a frog. I wasn’t sure what else it could be. It might have been a shorebird of some kind… it reminded me of a sora rail, which I assume is nonsense at this time of year. A woodcock started peenting from an opening in the woods to the north of the boardwalk. The acoustics were funny, and every peent seemed to come from a different spot in the woods. I don’t believe there was more than one: the calls were regular and never overlapped, and he might well have been moving in and around sparse tree cover, projecting his voice in all directions. I haven’t roamed around off trail in that section of the woods, and today was wet enough that I was disinclined to. That’s a project for another day.

As I walked west of bur reed marsh, the woodcock took off and started his whistling, kissing flight overhead. I wonder if he favors the burned vegetation. I once heard that the woodcock likes the burned prairies because they show off his legs so nicely. Vain woodcocks. Was that Aldo Leopold? or Ken Wood, another great Madison naturalist? Ken was master personifier and brilliant observer, and this sounds like his sense of humor. It’s a luxury to have a woodcock show all to yourself so early in the morning. There have been times in Madison that I’ve watched woodcocks in the prairie with 30 other people, all perched along the trails watching up as the birds fly and squinting out when they drop to the ground and start peenting.

The trail crossed the road to a wet marsh. The day was growing lighter. I had walked into a cloud of spring peeper calls. I hadn’t expected to hear them so early in the year, but they were unmistakable, a din of songs all piled up on each other. This is most likely what I had heard in the marsh as well, with some variation that I didn’t recognize.

I walked back along the north trail that runs the length of the east woods, studying the white oaks and the bur oaks. Catkins aren’t opened yet on the Ostrya, though they are on the alders lining the visitor center. The elms are in flower, and I looked for first leaves shoots of Hepatica and Anemone in the woods. Nothing yet that I notice, but at this rate they’ll be out soon.

On the walk back there were wood ducks, song sparrows, blue jays, robins and cardinals singing. Oddly, no chickadees that I recall.

Woodland burn

February 22, 2017

I left the house a bit before five this morning. Drippy fog settled down on the region overnight. It was about 50 degrees, and a robin was singing. On a May morning two decades ago, I awoke at about 4:30 to the sound of an exotic thrush singing outside. I had just taken an ornithology class, and my head was brimming with bird songs. I dressed quickly and raced outside: that also was a robin. This morning’s robin caught me almost equally off guard. I know robins are early-morning singers, but it seems so early in the year for this sort of thing. We have winter-resident robins here and in fact well up into Wisconsin, and they are perhaps primed and ready to go when the temperatures rise early in the spring, as they have this year, even with the days still relatively short. The robin had sunrise beat by about an hour and a half. Can you measure backwards from sunrise to the first robin song of the morning? If so, does the length of the robin-ruler change with the temperature? Does stamina increase and singing start earlier as the spring wears on, or does it decrease?

Temperatures have been higher than average for most of January and February, and reading the high 50s and 60s for about a week now. In the past two weeks, bluebirds and mourning doves have been singing and moving around the neighborhoods. Chickadees have been singing their hearts out. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been especially noisy, even for red-bellied woodpeckers. Enormous flocks of cranes flew over on Sunday, impossibly high, as loud as if they were in a park on the other side of the street. Male redwing blackbirds showboated around the pond behind the visitor center yesterday. I think about our little prairie experiment on the west side and worry about about how early the weeds will emerge this spring.

We burned our rain garden over the weekend, and the Arboretum has been burning the East Woods. This morning I started at P10 and walked south and east through the blackened forest. The charred leaves and naked trees had a subduing effect in the fog. Aside from the sound of I-88 blaring away to the south, I was completely alone there. The burned woods stretched off as far as I could see. Heavy, isolated raindrops hit the charred leaves at intervals. The sound was shorter, less resonant, than it would have been on dead leaves. A fallen log was still burning steadily, flames darting out from beneath the edge of the burned-out base. The tree had fallen and the bark had decomposed. The burning base was no bigger than a campfire. How did it feel to come across spontaneous fire like this in the wild when it was still easier to carry fire from place to place than to start a fire from scratch​? Over and over, groups of people must have rediscovered this mystery and felt grateful, awed. Was it a living thing? Was it a gift? Even today, it’s hard to believe that such a thing as fire can exist here with us.

Further on, a spark rose from the darkness about 20 feet up and arced down toward the ground, going out before it had traveled more than 5 feet or so. I walked toward it and found a tree smoldering in a small section where the spark had emerged. The fire had apparently hit the tree on the downhill side and flamed all the way up, leaving one section burning. Fire is capricious: this looks to me to have been a particularly thorough, even fire, but even so there are strips and patches of unburned leaves in the middle of the woods, and some logs that might have burned well go untouched while others burn slowly for days.

Chorus frogs called from the lower parts of the woods toward the interstate. I crossed the road at P8 and walked the path separating the burned section to the west from unburned woods to the east. This is where I typically start sedge walks, but there was too much happening in the woods this morning for me to pay attention to sedges. Some bird had been calling in the woods since I started walking, and now that I’d gotten used to the burn I was puzzling over it. It was reminiscent of a spring peeper, though certainly not that, similarly incessant but less methodical, less insistent. I crossed the road and hit the edge of the spruce plot. A fire break had been raked along the length of it and I followed this to the road, walking through dry woods and spongy places with the burn off to the left and the spruces to the right.

I caught back up with the trail and crossed the road to the unburned section east of Big Rock. There was a sudden noise in the woods, like something hitting the ground abruptly. I sometimes think of myself as unflappable, but at times like this I’m not. I shined a light at the deer or coyote or potential assailant. A raptor—barred owl perhaps? I’m not sure what else it could have been—fumbled around on the ground and turned to fly up into a nearby tree. I followed with my light, but the fog was still too thick to see where the bird had gone. Barred owls don’t spend a lot of time on the ground, I don’t believe, and I suspect what I had heard was the moment of impact when the bird hit the mouse on the ground. If so, what a quiet descent! I hadn’t heard a thing before the impact. I’m not sure this is what happened. I’ve seen mice get taken, and they scrabble at least a little bit. I once heard what I believed to be a rabbit scream in the woods, taken by predator. So much happens in the dark that we see only a bit of, and we imagine the rest. I guess that’s why the dark is scary. We’d be fine out there at night without our overactive imaginations.

I walked back to my bike, retrieved my backpack, and rode toward the visitor center. To the west of the oak collection, I heard the unmistakable whistling of a woodcock flying low overhead. He landed and uttered a single peent in the field between the planted buckeyes and woods adjoining the Carex lacustris marsh. I waited a few minutes, but he had no more to say, not this time of day. I think evening is more a woodcock’s time. This is the second earliest in the year I have heard a woodcock call. The earliest was February 19, my mom’s birthday, up in Madison, Wisconsin, and I believe that was the record for our area at that time. Welcome back, woodcocks.

I was almost back to my office, trucking along, when suddenly a song sparrow began singing in the field to the east of the visitor center. Still foggy, sun still down, still February, and he was singing as though his life depended on it. Spring seems to have come.

Make it new

February 8, 2017


Do not move
Let the wind speak.
that is paradise.

Ezra Pound, Canto 120


This morning I locked up at Parking Lot 11, the northwestmost intersection of the main trail with the road. The temperature is hovering around freezing this morning. For a minute, the very faint sound of wind mixed with the the pattering of ice crystals in the branches above, and frozen mist drifted across my face and glasses. The air smelled smoky from a brush pile that had been burned earlier this month. The trail was gray in the glow from the clouds at two hours before sunrise.

I walked to the woodland trail that circles north and east from the Big Rock Visitor Station. I recall walking this with Larry Pinto, a neurobiologist from Northwestern University, when I first started working at the Arboretum. It was spring, and we walked the hilltop past a flock of Virginia bluebells. I don’t remember how I met Larry, and I am sure that’s the only time we went for a walk. Moreover, I think that was the only time I’d walked this particular trail before this morning. I am always seduced by the Big Rock, which leads me due north and then sometimes off to the west around the Heritage Trail. But the Woodland Trail was great, trailing out through the same forest I have been walking through but somehow altogether different. I think of Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” Any new trail changes your perspective and makes the familiar unfamiliar. The woodland trail turned to the northwest overlooking the prairie and wet meadows that run along the northeast edge of the Arboretum beneath the power lines, lined with red and white oaks upslope and bur oaks below. I looked down at the road I sometimes bike in on: I’d never seen it from above. I followed the shortcut trail to the Big Rock to keep walking along this overlook. There is a monstrous bur oak and many large ones. A cloud of scrubby little trees mushrooms up along the edge of the meadow – willows? If there are sugar maples in the woods, I’m not seeing them.

Looking at trees in the dark this past month has been a change in perspective. Tree silhouettes are largely unfamiliar to me. I’m a sedge systematist by training, and I spend much of my time with a hand lens, belly-down or pulling an inflorescence to my eye to study. I constantly tell students to bring the hand lens to their eye, bring the specimen up, maximize their field of view. You see more this way. I’ve approached oaks similarly: endbuds and acorn caps, trichomes, leaf characters. At night, these don’t serve quite as well. You get the tree against the cloudy sky, generally intermixed with others. You get the texture of the bark, the carpet of leaves beneath. You get the whole landscape: you get everything except the things you need a hand lens to see.

I spent yesterday plunging through a checklist of the world’s roughly 2000 sedges (Carex only, my friends… with the whole family it would have been closer to 6000), putting them into Tree of Life order. I have never had a great enthusiasm for sedge classification. I love sedges, the places they grow, the ways they divvy up the landscape and fill space, their shapes and textures and colors and shapes. But for whatever reason, I could not get enthused about infrageneric classification. That changed over the course of a one-week meeting late last month, when we had more than 20 sedge taxonomists in a room talking about the Tree of Life. The primary reason for our meeting was to take the work we’ve done on the phylogeny of sedges and try hammering it into a new classification. As the group talked, I took notes. My friend Eric has a brilliant way of keeping a conversation going, and with him leading, we walked through the Carex Tree of Life in a way none of us could alone. At each node we would stop and someone would say, in effect, “I know this place. This is where…” and the conversation would run off into why the sedges in that particular lineage might belong together despite the fact that they’ve been classified under disparate sections for so many years. We had the perspective of field work and herbarium study spanning numerous countries and all the continents where sedges grow. Like any walk in the woods with a group of excellent naturalists, I felt the place was completely new. I saw species I’ve known for 20 years in their correct context for the first time.

Yesterday I dove back in to reconstruct the structure of that conversation, align 2000 sedges according to their relations, hang them up under a mix of formal and casual names that seem to have been waiting in the wings for years. The Himalayan Clandestinae. The Bladder sedges. Everyone in the group is excited to start describing groupings. We’re seeing old friends by new paths and meeting new ones along the way. At every turn, there a surprise or something that is not expected, but satisfying in retrospect because of how it makes sense. It is a walk through evolutionary history, peppered with folks you know and folks you’d like to get to know.

I passed the Big Rock, and the geese were honking in the wetlands across the road to the north. We had a soaking rain the night before last, and water is still pooled at the base of the boulder. On the walk out, I heard a barred owl calling from the east end of the woods. I expect to hear great horned owls one of these mornings, then the screech owls will start up. I expect it will be two and a half months till the bluebells bloom. In the meantime, I have plenty of oaks and sedges to work on, and many to get to know.