color me beautiful

The Amur Maple forest has once again reached its full fall splendor.

amur-maple-forest-

The introduced Amur Maple is really more of a tall shrub, but it grows so densely along the roadside it forms an almost impenetrable forest.

Dense thickets of Amur Maple crowd out and shade out natives that might grow there —  really the only thing this species has going for it (in my opinion) is the brilliant color display of its fall leaves.  The ground cover beneath the trees looks like a collection of fallen leaves, but on closer inspection, it seems to be a mini-forest of Amur Maple seedlings, ready to bolt up as soon as a light gap appears in the forest overhead.

fall color - Amur Maple-

Bare branches above, lots of colorful leaves on the ground — right?

fall color - Amur Maple-

There are some fallen leaves here, but there are more tiny seedlings, each with just a few leaves, carpeting the ground and leaving no bare areas for anything else to invade.

fall color - Amur Maple-

It’s a very photogenic forest, and easy to walk through since there is no understory.

fall color - Amur Maple-

The birch in the background established itself first here, but the Amur Maple seedlings beneath the birch will make it impossible for birch seedlings to get established.

fall color - Amur Maple-

but what color!

fall color - Amur Maple forest

Another glorious Indian Summer day

colorful rivers

Well, not so much the color of the river per se, but it was the color along the river last week in Wisconsin and Michigan during the peak of the fall color show that was impressive.  Some examples, seen between rain showers:

wolf river, wisconsin-

Along the Wolf River on the way to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the sumac is intensely red, and maples have turned a brilliant yellow, orange, or red.

Wolf River, Wisconsin

Places like this are where you wish you were in a canoe, drifting down a lazy part of the river, gazing at the glorious color along the shoreline.

wolf river, wisconsin-

Not a huge waterfall by Lake Superior north shore standards, but a pretty scene nonetheless.

We know that warm days and cool nights of fall stimulate plants to break down their chlorophyll, unmasking all the xanthophyll and carotene photo pigments in the leaves, and those changes in leaf metabolism produce the yellow, orange, and red colors.  I have written more about the chemistry of leaf color change earlier — (“you know it’s fall when…”).  But what accounts for the synchronous color changes of rural northern hardwood forests, compared to the more prolonged sequential color changes we see in urban landscapes?

Summit peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Synchronous color change in mature beech-maple hardwood forest, Porcupine Mts., Michigan.  You don’t see sights like this in many urban areas.

Lots of factors might be responsible:  urban areas are generally warmer with a less homogeneous climate than surrounding open countryside; plants in a natural forest most likely respond to climatic changes in similar ways, whereas planted urban trees, often non-native, adapt to a mixture of environmental cues with different schedules for leaf fall.  Leaves might change color more slowly and stay on trees longer in the urban environment simply because temperature and moisture conditions there are so different from the surrounding countryside.

Fall color in the “Porkies”

I’ve always wanted to visit the Porcupine Mountains in northwestern Michigan, and fall is the perfect time to take in the color change in the forest, as well as the dramatic cliffs in the park.  Rising to a peak of just under 2,000 feet and lining the southeastern shore of Lake Superior, they provide great views of the most extensive old growth of northern hardwood forest west of the Adirondack forest in New York.

Lake Superior from Summit Peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

A view from the 75 foot observation tower at Summit Peak on the southern edge of this 31,000 acre park.  The climax forest of maple, basswood, yellow birch and hemlock stretch beyond what the eye can see. Lake Superior is in the far distance.

Observation tower at Lake Superior from Summit Peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

An extensive series of boardwalks, platforms, and an observation tower ensures great views of the forest landscape.

One of the star attractions of the park is Lake of the Clouds, so named for its mirror reflection of the sky. But equally impressive are the sheer cliffs of ancient volcanic rocks that form a long escarpment on the northern side of the park. These are the exposed remnants of the volcanic action that formed the mid-continent rift that runs from western Lake Superior all the way down to Kansas.

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Outflow from the Lake of the Clouds also reflects some of the sky.

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Glacial action has polished the surface of the volcanic rocks here, making them almost slippery.

On the western edge of the park, the Presque Isle river churns through volcanic deposits scrubbing out holes and undercutting cliffs.

Presque Isle river, Porcupine Mts., Michigan

The river is lined with hemlock forest where trees are so close together, barely any light makes it to the forest floor.

Hemlock forest, Presque Isle river, Procupine Mts., Michigan

Well-marked trails and wonderful scenery make this an exceptional place to visit, especially during the peak of the fall color season.

Ridges and Swales

It might sound like this is about a fashionable department store, but beach ridges and the shallow, watery swales between them are natural features of the Great Lakes shorelines. We hiked at one example of this complex ecosystem at the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor on the eastern side of the Door peninsula.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The entrance walkway to the Sanctuary crossing over a swale, with the shoreline lighthouse at the end.

Ridges and swales are most likely to develop where coastal land is uplifted or where lake levels fall, which is probably what has been happening here in the past 10,000 years since the last glacial recession.  Sediments are deposited with gentle wave action against the shoreline in a protected harbor, leaving behind a low hill of sand and gravel in which hearty colonists establish themselves.

Map of The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Map of the Ridges Sanctuary, showing the parallel rows of beach ridges separated by low-lying wet swales.  Black lines are the trails through the area.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The most recent beach ridge on the shoreline is being colonized by 3-foot tall conifers and grasses, which will slowly add humus to the sandy matrix, improving conditions for further growth.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Between each of the Ridges, is a low, wet area (the swale) where sedges thrive, and assorted moisture-loving plants, like orchids thrive.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Raised walkways guide hikers across the swales and provide views of wildlife and exotic plant species along the edges of the ridges.

The variation in environment from dry to wet, or coastal to inland makes this an extremely diverse ecosystem, home to more than 500 species of plants, 60 some species of birds, and more than a dozen mammals.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

Fringed Gentian is one of the 500+ plant species to be found in this diverse ecosystem.  Summer blooms include at least 25 species of native orchids, along with bog species like pitcher plant and sundew.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The ridge furthest from the coast begins to look more like mature coniferous forest, with tall red pine, white cedar, and fir trees. The path here is spongey, needle duff rather than sandy gravel.

The Ridges Sanctuary was founded in 1937, becoming Wisconsin’s first land trust, designed to protect the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem.

Door county sights

The Door county peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to enjoy a different climate than the surrounding part of the state.  Stepping back a couple of weeks from the peak fall color of central Wisconsin, trees are just barely tinged with red and gold, and the weather is balmy instead of chilled.  Maybe it’s the lake effect.

We hiked along the limestone cliffs at Cave point county park on the eastern edge of the peninsula and marveled at the way the trees could seemingly grow right out of cracks in these 400 million year old rocks that have been polished smooth by glacial action.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Pounding waves undercut the limestone bluffs and create caves along the shoreline.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water near the rocks is crystal clear and a beautiful jade green color.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

A mixed forest of white cedar, alder, beech, and maple is mostly stunted in its growth because of the lack of soil covering the limestone.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water runoff from waves or rain/snow fall removes a lot of what little soil accumulates, and most of the trail along the shoreline involves walking over exposed tree roots.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

In a couple of weeks, the fall color here will be stunning, just as advertised in the Door county brochures.

Whitefish Dunes state park, Jacksonport, WI

Adjacent to Cave Point park is the much larger Whitefish Dunes state park, which runs the length of the sandy shoreline here.  Plant life here faces a different challenge than growing through cracks in limestone, namely establishing roots in a shifting surface of sand with little subsurface moisture.

but as always, wherever you go, life seems to find a way…

Birds in Art

On the road again, we stopped off in Wausau, Wisconsin to visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum and see their amazing exhibition of birds in art.  This place is definitely worth a weekend field trip, and in addition to all of the paintings, carvings, and sculptures to marvel at, there are classrooms and materials for creating your own bird art (primarily for kids).  A small sample of the pieces…

Outdoors, pieces are scattered around the extensive gardens.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

15 foot tall Sandhill Cranes greet you by the parking lot.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A life-size sculpture of an ostrich

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Turkeys in bronze.  I like the way the bronze yields the same iridescence that turkey feathers do.

Indoors, smaller sculptures and paintings draw you over for a closer look.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

One of several rooms in the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Metal sculpture of a Kestrel. It’s minimalist in construction, but captures the most important characteristics of the bird that make it instantly recognizable.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A Bittern carving in tupelo wood and painted with acrylic, and amazingly life-like.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

The photo doesn’t do justice to this amazing wood sculpture of two skuas chasing a tern. There are no external supports for the free-flying forms, and the wings only touch in one small area. Instead the support is internal within the sculpture somehow.

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

North Shore color

And so it begins, the slow march toward another winter.  But first we are gifted with the brilliant colors of fall.  We traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior to get our first glimpse of this year’s color show, and weren’t disappointed.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (2)

Arriving in the evening at Lutsen ski area, I wasn’t sure we would get any good views of the fall color on the hills.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (3)

But the weather cleared up for at least a couple of hours early the next morning.

And the hike around the trails on Oberg mountain was definitely rewarding.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (4)

Trails were muddy and slippery, but colorful.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (5)

View of Oberg Lake from the north side of the mountain trail, looking northwest where the color change was most evident.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (6)

Next to Oberg Lake was an enticing wetland area that should have had ducks, loons, or at least one moose.

ake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (9)

Lake Superior in the distance was overcast and gray instead of its usual brilliant blue which makes such a nice contrast with the orange and yellow of the hillsides.

With the recent rain just days before we arrived, the rivers and waterfalls were overflowing with rapidly rushing water.

Ray Bergland wayside park, Lutsen, MN-2

Even the smaller creeks had rapids. It’s easy to see how trees get swept downstream with high volumes of water flow that wash away the soil around their roots.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-4

Cascade Falls, south of Grand Marais always has impressive waterfalls, but their volume and noise level after recent rains was remarkable.  The water is coffee-colored from the leaching of leaf tannins in the wetlands upstream: the more extensive the drainage of wetlands, the darker the amber brown color of the water (and waterfall).

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN

One point in the waterfall trail gives you a view of three of the six or seven cascades in Cascade Waterfalls.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-2

Another view of the cascade with a slower shutter speed.

a pretty pest

Fall blooming plants attract such an interesting variety of pollinators.  Among the many species I was able to capture with my macro lens last week was this very pretty moth.

Flowerflies, or hoverflies as they are often called, feed on plant nectar and pollen. Their larvae, however, are often carnivorous and devour many species of plant pests, like aphids.

I didn’t know what this species was, and was surprised to see a moth out in the daytime.

There are a few moth species that do forage in the daytime, but this one really is largely a nocturnal forager and disperser, quite distinctive with its well insulated body of fuzzy tan “hairs” and huge green eyes.  It’s a corn earworm moth — the larvae of which are major agricultural pests on a variety of crops, especially corn, tomatoes, and cotton.

Corn earworm moth, Helicoverpa zea

Adults feed on flower nectar, but the larvae are not at all fussy about the host plant they feed upon. You have to admit, it’s an attractive looking moth, although its prodigious reproduction and polyphagous (eat lots of different plants) larvae make it a real threat to agricultural production.

As a major pest of commercial crops, corn earworm has been subjected to pesticide exposure for years, and over generations, the larvae have developed resistance to some pesticides, which makes controlling them even more difficult.  Each female can lay 500-3000 eggs in her lifetime, and the combined damage of corn earworm larvae runs in the 100s of millions of dollars in the U.S each year.

Fortunately for us (in the northern midwest), corn earworm is not a permanent resident but must re-invade with short, northerly directed migratory flights each summer.  They cannot survive sub-freezing temperatures and will die off each winter.

it’s not a bee…

Among the many insects buzzing around the fall blooming plants, especially the asters, daisies, and stonecrop (Sedum) are the flower flies (Heliophilous species).  I caught some of their feeding action with my macro lens the other day.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Flower flies, or hoverflies as they are often called, feed on plant nectar and pollen. Their larvae, however, are often carnivorous and devour many species of plant pests, like aphids, during their development.

Slightly smaller than a honeybee, this particular species of hoverfly looks very much like a bee with its yellow and black striped abdomen.  But they lack stiff hair-like insulation of bees, have much larger eyes, and only a single pair of wings that project outward from the body when the fly is at rest, instead of folding over the abdomen as those of bees do.  Nevertheless, the bee-like warning coloration and their hovering habit may protect them from naive insect predators.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Hoverflies make an up-and-down motion with their body to insert their proboscis deep into the disc flowers of asters.  They turn in a circle systematically probing all of the flowers before moving on.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

The proboscis and tongue extension are relatively short and quite wide. Halteres (ovoid, silvery structures located just behind the wing) are modified hind wings that control the fly’s balance in three-dimensional space.  They vibrate along with the forewing; sensory organs at their base detect the fly’s position in space to correct or modify the action of the forewings.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Although the proboscis looks like a continuous tube, it seems to have some rough edges to it.

Unlike hummingbirds, hoverflies don’t hover to feed, but the males often do hover over their territory, moving quickly up, down, backward, and forward to fend off intruders, or perhaps to show off for females.