Wildflower Videos on YouTube

For the past couple of years, I have been wanting to do some interpretive videos. Well, with the stay at home order canceling some of my Spring Wildflower walks at the Hudsonville Nature Center, this is a good time to start these. Since we are able to go out and hike alone or with those that live with us, I can still get out to explore, photograph and shoot some video footage. The videos I am producing are a combination of video and still images to show the plants and some features as best I can. Video is a bit different than shooting stills, with one of the biggest challenges being that of unwanted sounds. Between wind, noisy vehicles and people running through the woods making lots of noise, am having to learn to do some voice over. This requires recording the video imagery in the woods and coming back and recording voice separately and then combining them. As much as I would like to have the same feel of actually being in a group and talking about the plants as we do on Sunday afternoons, it is different.

So, enough rambling. I invite you to visit my YouTube channel check out what is there and watch for more coming in the next couple of weeks. The most recent video is on Skunk cabbage and Harbinger -of-spring. To find my channel simply go to: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC38Z_2K0Jk5gLFRjSqlQlEQ/videos. Or search for Craig Elston and find me. Hint, I’m not the body builder.

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Covid 19 Stay at Home Order


With Michigan having a stay at home order from the governor, I decided to take the camera out in the yard today. It was warm in the mid 50’s and sunny. A great day to get out and explore while getting some fresh air before seeding garden seeds indoors. This post will mostly be pictures of some of the things I found either in my yard or within a hundred feet it. If you are bored, take time to look for lichens and mosses on the trees or lay on the sidewalk with a magnifier and look for black lichens there.

Hoary Bittercress

Many of the early spring wildflowers are starting to show growth above ground. The crocuses are blooming and so is the winter annual, Hoary Bittercress.

Garter Snake

Snakes are starting to come out on these warm sunny days, so watch where you step. I almost stepped on this Garter snake.

Take time to look at trees and shrubs for colorful, swelling buds and for early flowers on them. Silver maples have been blooming for at least a week here.

Ground Bees

In an area of the edge of my yard and more in the next-door neighbors were many ground bees emerging and flying low while the sun was out and warming this area. This particular spot of maybe 100 square feet or less, seems to be a favorite area for these bees to lay eggs underground.

So, while we are locked with the coronavirus, take a walk around your property or nearby park look for some early signs of spring. This is also a good time to practice with your camera. I played around with an extension tube and reversing a lens. Try and learn new techniques you can use later.

Stay healthy and safe.

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Small Winter Finds

With the mild winter we have had thus far, with very litter snow, it is a good year to get out and try finding the smaller things we so often overlook. I am talking about the world of lichens and mosses with some fungi thrown in as well. Lichens are interesting and complex organisms which are a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga. The fungus is the dominant partner, giving the lichen the majority of its characteristics. The alga in lichens are green, blue-green or many times both are types. Lichens come in many, many shapes, colors and growth forms. To really appreciate them you need to look very closely. A good hand lens or loop are helpful. I like to shoot them with a macro lens and then enlarge the image to 100 percent on the screen to look at the detail. Lichens do not have vascular structures like plants to move water. They absorb all their water and food from the surrounding environment from the air and rain. When you find lichens start looking closely to see how many different ones you can find. On the trip when these photos were taken, I found at least five different ones on one split rail fence rail.

Wild Leek Seed

Another thing to watch for in winter are plants in their winter state. Many plants remain upright and identifiable in winter. One woodland flower that can be found all winter, if it is above the snow is the Wild Leek. Its shiny black seeds will be where each flower was in the rounded umbel from the July flowers. Identifying plants in winter can be fun, challenging and rewarding. So, get out and see what you can find.

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Cold Weather Insects

Bruce Spanworm

On a couple of occasions in early and mid-November I found the female Bruce Spanworm Moth, also know as Winter Moth. There were a few of them on the trunk of a Box Elder tree. The females have under developed wings to the point that you would think they have no wings. These moths hatch after the first freeze in the fall. The females wait for flying males to find them to mate and then the crawl up the tree to lay eggs on branches where they hatch in the spring. There is one brood per year and the adults may be found in October and November and possibly December. Leaves of Sugar Maple, American Beech, and Trembling Aspen, are the preferred food, but they will also feed on willow and various other deciduous trees.

On the same outing in the middle of November I also found the Green Stink Bug pictured below.

Even when it is cold out, you never know what type of life and activity you will find. Some insects overwinter in Michigan as adults in leaf litter, under tree bark and other sheltered places, so keep an eye out to see what interesting creatures you can find when everyone else thinks there is nothing worth looking for in the woods.

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Friend or Foe?

Most of my life I have believed that Praying Mantises are natural beneficial insects for our gardens and environment. But are they really? I would even suggest we begin, as I have, treating them as an invasive species. Now hear me out before you go calling me crazy.

First of all, we do not have any “native” Mantis species in Michigan, the closet is the Carolina Mantis which is native south of Michigan and has been recorded on a few occasions mostly in the southeast part of the state. This North American native is only about 2 inches long and likely does no harm to our native insect populations. The egg case is small and narrow with two lines visible on it.

Next, we have the mantis that I grew up with thinking it belonged here but later found that it was actually the European Mantis and native to Europe. This species is about an inch longer than the Carolina Mantis and may have a minor impact on our native insects. The European egg case is a bit bigger but still long and somewhat narrow, it is shown on the left in accompanying photo.

Finally, we have my nemeses mantis, the large Chinese Mantis that was introduced from China in 1896 to combat pests. It has been and is being sold as a beneficial insect control for pests in your garden. This species is the largest in North America coming in at about 5 inches long, give or take a bit. They are voracious eaters, devouring almost everything that moves in front of them. If handled incorrectly they will attempt to bite and can give a painful pinch to the hand holding it. They are known to eat almost anything that comes before them including insects of all types, hummingbirds, insect pollinators, butterflies, small reptiles and amphibians. One that we captured this past some on a Prairie walk at the Hudsonville Nature Center was eating a honey bee. This mantis lays not just one, but can lay two or more egg cases each year. The egg case is shorter and larger around than the other two species making it easy to identify, it is pictured on the right in the accompanying photo.

At the Hudsonville Nature Center, we have a six-acre planted prairie. In the past it has been occupied by many pollinator and butterfly species. A few years ago, I noticed the decline in the presence and numbers of both species and individuals of the many species of not only the pollinators and butterflies, but insect in general in this parcel. Then while walking through this prairie the end of March 2018, I began to find a large number of Chinese egg cases. That afternoon I collected over 100 egg cases in the six acres. Many were attached to woody stems and higher up from the ground than the few European ones I found that day. I collected all that I found and removed them. This past summer the butterflies are returning and the other pollinators are slowly being seen again.

So, I ask you is the Chinese Mantis a friend or foe in our Michigan ecosystems? Personally, I go so far as to call them an invasive species causing much harm.

Left: European, Right: Chinese

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Baby It’s Cold Outside

What a winter we have been having. Like they say about Michigan’s weather, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes it will change”. Well this time it’s a bit more than five minutes. Two weeks ago, there was little ice in the area and it wasn’t safe enough to be on, then we had a couple of nights with temperatures below 0. Now that we have ice on the lakes, rivers and along Lake Michigan for the first time this winter, it’s just too cold to go out. I normally like to shot ice formations along the Lake Michigan shore line and on the light houses. But with high temperatures today around 0 and the windchill hovering around -25 or colder I haven’t left the house.

So, what do you do on these kinds of days when you are getting the bug to get out and shoot? The first thing is to set the camera and tripod by a clean window and shot the snow clinging to the trees and bushes by the house. I would have shot some finches in the Lilac bushes but they didn’t go there today. Any time you can use your camera, you are practicing and hopefully refining your knowledge and understanding of the settings. Then you catch up on seed orders, newsletters, listen to webinars or whatever else needs to be done so you can get out as soon as it’s safe enough.
Well I hope to get out and shoot some yet this week but as soon as this Polar Vortex moves on it is forecast to be 49 degrees and rain, so much for the ice formations on the light houses and such. But that’s Michigan, get used to it!

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Intriguing Ice Formations

A few years ago, I heard of a phenomenon that happens on Frostweed plants when it freezes. I have wanted to see and photograph these formations that go by many names such as ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fingers and ice filaments to name a few. My problem is that I never think about going out and looking for them until it gets cold in November, particularly during gun deer season, not a time I frequent the Allegan State Game Area (ASGA) where these plants grow in abundance. But a couple of weeks ago I was out early enough one morning to catch some frost on the prairie plants and trees. As I walked to a picturesque scene I had seen from the road, I noticed what looked like odd shapes of cotton around the base of some plants and upon further exploration realized it was ice. The ice was soft with a texture reminiscent of fine cotton but very fragile when touched. There were no two formations the same, some in delicate ribbons and others in what looked like spun ice around the stems.

Frostweed Flower

These formations can happen on various species of plants but the genus Crocanthemum is best know for this, hence the common name Frostweeed. In Michigan we have two species found in dry sandy plains or savannah type areas such as the ASGA. Both species have noticeable yellow flowers when in bloom. When the first frosts of fall come, the plant extrudes water from the lower stems near or just above ground level. With the freezing temperatures the water freezes, causing some very interesting ice formations. Many of these are very thin layers of ribbon like ice, each one taking on its own style.

If you want to experience the beauty and uniqueness of these formations, you should locate Frostweed when it is blooming in the summer and return to the area when we have some of the first frost of the season. Go early as the ice melts away when the sun hits the plants and the temperatures rise above freezing.

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Life on a Rock

Columbine on Rock

As one drives along the Lake Huron shoreline, heading east out of Cedarville on highway 134, one begins to notice a fair amount of rock. This rock is likely a type of limestone known as dolomite or dolostone. Dolomite is a magnesium-rich form of limestone and in the eastern Upper Peninsula it appears as exposed bedrock. Especially along the shoreline where there are huge boulders and plates of bedrock exposed. While there are large bare areas that may be covered in lichens, some organic matter does collect in depressions and crevasses allowing for plants to grow. As impressive as this harsh environment is for plants to survive, the real area of amazement and awe is to the east on a large rock known as Drummond Island.

While Drummond Island is an area of diverse and interesting natural habitats and features, the one that draws me the most is the alvar known as Maxton Plains. Alvar is only found in three areas of the world with the Upper Peninsula being one of them. Being one of the most popular four-wheel drive destinations in the United States, people bring jeeps and other four-wheel drive vehicles from all over the country to off road on this big rock. But as they drive through this flat rock area, raising clouds of dust as they pass, do they realize all the resilient and rare plants that they pass by? In these flat areas that look like pavement, you will find large open areas which appear to be barren except for some lichens. But look more closely. With top soil at 10 inches or less and many areas much less, there is an amazing world of smaller or even stunted plants. Rock Sandwort and Early Saxifrage seem to rise from the rock. Creeping Junipers seem to reach their tentacle like limbs from a central spot which may be a crack in the rock allowing them to put roots down in search of moisture and nutrients. Some of the low grassy areas on this bed rock may harbor rare and threatened species like the Small Skullcap, a small blue flower I found purely by accident.

Maxton Plains

As you move away from the barren areas of exposed rock to the areas with a little more soil or organic matter, you will find large flat open areas of grasses and sedges. The time of year will dictate the color and intensity of the show from the forbes growing there. Sone areas this past week when I was there where yellow with Ragwort and Indian Paint Brush which tends to be more yellow and orange than red on the island. Some drier sites where pink with the feathery seed plumes of Prairie Smoke, another threatened species.

Field of Prairie Smoke

How can these plants persist in such a harsh environment? Many are either unique to the island or are also found in dry prairies in other parts of the state. There is an inundation of water in spring or after rains that sustain the drought tolerant plants. Others are in areas closer to the forest where the topography may drop off slightly and hold water longer and these areas may have more soil. All of these conditions make for a tremendous diversity in such a small area.

Next time you are in the eastern UP or on Drummond Island, take an hour or two or three and explore the flat plains, you won’t be disappointed. If you are four-wheeling, take a break and spend a little time out of the vehicle here rather than just stopping long enough to read the interpretive sign if you stop at all.

Be sure to click on the title at the beginning of this entry to see the full photo collection of one afternoon in the Maxton Plains.

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Snow and Red Trillium

Snow Trillium

Last June I wrote a piece entitled “Chasing Rarities” and in that piece I state that Snow Trillium was know from only one location in Michigan. Later in the year I was contacted by Bill S. and informed that there were more populations. So, on April 21 Bill and his family graciously took me to and told me about more locations. The above photo was taken on the 21st at another location along the Grand River. While Trillium nivale is still the 2nd rarest Trillium in Michigan, I am pleased to learn that there are other thriving populations. Thank you, Bill and family, for your time and for sharing this information with me as I like to be as accurate as possible. I have also update the previous blog post to reflect this.

Snow Trillium in snow

Also, we have known that Trillium nivale blooms in early April each year. With 2018 being one of the coldest springs on record, I wanted to know if they would still bloom on time. While we usually say they bloom on April 4, I was not able to visit them until the 8th or four days later. Yes, there were several plants in bloom. Then on the 17th I was able to stop after being near Lansing and see them actually still blooming through the snow and ice. Again for those willing to get out early there are wildflowers to find and enjoy while most people think spring doesn’t come until May.

Red Trillium

While weather can affect when some plants bloom, many native species seem to bloom by the calendar rather than the weather. Yes, in the north with snow and ice lasting longer this year many may be a bit behind but I expect that they will catch up sooner than we think. A case in point is the Red Trillium or Trillium erectum. As I traveled north to near Traverse City on the May 15, to photograph this Trillium, both red and white were blooming nicely.
Depending on where you live, south to north will determine what you see blooming, but there is still time to get out and enjoy Michigan’s many spring wildflowers.

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What’s All The Buzz About?

We seem to be hearing more and more about the loss of bees, Monarch butterflies, and other insects in general. There are groups on both sides of the issues and they may both have some valid points, but also be aware that what has been reported as facts may not always be exactly true. Should we be concerned? I think so. I will share some information and thoughts, but I encourage each reader to do his or her own research and observations to draw your own conclusions.

The above photo was taken of me when I was 10 years old in 1970. This was only a portion of my insect collection. While most of the species in this photo are common, we seem to be seeing less and less numbers of them each year. Some of them have not been seen by most of us in the area in a very long time. I first noticed this when I was in my early 30’s and while I maintain a smaller insect collection for educational purposes, I try to collect photos of insects when possible. You see, I realized or thought that my over collecting as a child may have played a part in the disappearance of some less common species in the area in which I did much of my collecting. The farm chemicals or pesticides I am sure may have also contributed to this decline as well. There may also be other unseen factors at play here. A more recent practice (not by me) that I believe has affected moth, butterfly and other tree leaf eating insects was the unbridled spraying of forests and urban trees for the Gypsy moth not so many years ago. Another out of control and rampant practice is the over use of pesticides on completely unnatural lawns and landscapes. These chemicals turn our yards into toxic waste dumps, killing many beneficial organisms. You see, we have accepted this idea from the chemical companies that “bugs” are bad and should be euthanized. By not educating ourselves and understanding them we have developed unnecessary and unfounded phobias of spider, insects, and bats; all of which can be very beneficial. Only one tenth of one percent of all insects worldwide are pests or harmful. Many of our pest are form other continents and not natural here.

There are groups that say the Monarch butterfly is headed to extinction. Well numbers have been lower in the past and they have come back. The problem now is that we are on a constant down slide overall with higher years being lower and lower across the graph at https://monarchwatch.org/blog/uploads/2018/03/monarch-population-figure-monarchwatch-2018.png. Is there one answer to the loss? No, but rather a combination of loss of habitat, especially for fall nectar sources when preparing for and while migrating. Winter grounds are possibly also being destroyed according to some reports. The real areas of concern for milkweed loss may be the Midwest grain farming areas where milkweed is sprayed with herbicides, creating a gap in enough places to lay eggs on the journey north. Many Monarch groups strongly advocate for planting more milkweed, but we have more milkweed than Monarchs in most northern areas. We should be planting and maintaining native nectar sources as well. If you are planting milkweeds, use only native species and locally sourced seed. Also remember Monarchs are not endanger worldwide, only the eastern US migrating group. There are other populations that monarch groups seem to forget, so the species really isn’t endanger of extinction.

What about the bees? The exact amount of your food pollinated by bees is being debated by both sides. The truth is that our major source of food like corn, soy beans, and grains are all wind pollinated. We might better compare the amount of healthier fruits and vegetables that need bees. Tree fruits like apples, peaches and cherries as well as blueberries all need bees. There are several problems plaguing our honey bees, which are not native to North America but are used widely in crop pollination. Native bees are disappearing, most due to habitat loss. We have many species of native bees, over 340 species in Michigan alone. These are not major crop pollinators but do play an important role in pollination our native plants.
I have noticed over the last couple of years that my windshield gets many less bug splats than before. This is one gauge being used by scientist to indicate that insects in general are on a steep decline. So what, you may think. The ramifications are huge. Many birds, amphibians, and some mammals that rely on insects for food are declining. Insects help in pollination, decomposition of plant and other dead materials as well as being the food source I just mentioned.

To sum things up, the problems are compound and complex. But there may be some simplicity here as well. Putting our health and the wellbeing of the environment ahead of greed and not following the status quo will have far reaching but positive implications for all of us. The cause of these losses is not a single cause or source, but many. We have lost valuable tree cover that cools and purifies the air, cleans run off storm water helping to keep our waters clean. Natural habitat that provides homes, cover and food sources for bees, butterflies, bat, mammals and a whole host of other insects is slipping away to progress at alarming rates. Amphibians are vanishing along with the wetlands, particularly vernal pools that they breed in. These are all indicators of a very large and serious problem; loss and misuse of natural habitats and contamination of our waters, air and lands. Maybe, just maybe, taking better care of creation is better for us and our health.

I leave you with the following quote from a great man that was before our time but has affected all of us in a positive way. “I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifice to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor. The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder.” Thomas Jefferson

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