Beach Trash

Have you ever noticed all the small miscellaneous items on the beach? This afternoon while on a beach, I noticed many plastic items being exposed in the eroding beach dune. All the items in the accompanying phots are items I found still in or on the exposed vertical edge of a small beach dune at Olive Shores Park on Lake Michigan. Notice that most of the items are plastic. You can obviously see that plastics, Styrofoam, foam ear plugs and cigarette butts do not break done. The say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let the images do the talking.

Don’t forget to click on the title of this post to see all the images.

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Michigan Milkweeds

Michigan has 11 species of milkweeds that are native to the state. How many have you seen? I would guess most people are familiar with at least three of the common species like Common, Swamp and Butterfly or Orange milkweed, but some of the rarest are the most beautiful to see. Last week I traveled about 1300 miles round trips to find the last three species to complete my list of our native Asclepias species. Was it worth it? You bet!

Dwarf Milkweed

On Tuesday I visited Menominee to find the endangered Dwarf or Oval leaf milkweed. I could see Wisconsin across the river form near where these little gems grow. Asclepias ovalifolia is a western species and is only known from one county in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. They are found in a savanna which also has a small stand of Porcupine grass, June grass and some Frost weed. Common milkweed was also in the savanna and Marsh milkweed was on the river bank nearby. Dwarf milkweed is a cute little plant with creamy white flowers with a tinge of dark pink on the lower petal tips.

Sullivants Milkweed

For several years I have spent the day on July 4th visiting the great American landscape, prairies. This year was no exception. On Saturday I traveled to Algonac State Park near Port Huron for the last two species of Asclepias that I was searching for. As you drive along the front of the park, you can see Canada across the river. A short distance into the prairie that is in the park, the threatened Asclepias sullivantii was right on the edge of the path. What gorgeous flowers and an interesting leaf with its prominent mid vein. The flowers somewhat resemble those of Common milkweed but the petals are a bit longer, the flowers are larger and a nice pink color. The top of the flower is also more closed than Common milkweed. A. sullivantii is only know from five counties in Michigan. It is a much taller and showier plant than I expected.

Purple Milkweed

In the same prairie as A. sullivanti was a milkweed that I have been searching for, for many years. After finding the threatened Asclepias purpurascens and comparing pictures from five years ago, I realized I had indeed seen this beauty before. But now I am sure and have much better photos of it. Purple milkweed is a beautiful showy species that on average is a smaller plant than I had imagined. The intensity of the purple flowers makes it easy to see form a distance if it is sticking up above the other vegetation. While A. purpurascens can be found in the same moist prairies as A. sullivanti, it can also be found in dry savannas. The intensity of the purple can vary but the outward curling of the pointed lower petals makes this quit a showy flower.

Other species of milkweeds found in dry sandy prairies in Michigan include Clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillate) and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora). Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is found in a variety of conditions and is common in old fields and roadsides. The threatened Prairie or Tall Green milkweed (Asclepias hirtella ) is found in both moist and dry open situations. Lastly, Poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is our only true forest understory Asclepias. It is easily recognized with its loose clusters of white flowers along forest openings where it can get a bit of sun light.

Milkweeds are the only host plant for Monarch butterfly larvae, with Common and Swamp being the most favored for egg laying. While Monarchs will use any milkweed species, these two are the ones most often used in Michigan with the orange Butterflyweed being third on the list according to my nearly 50 years of observations. Many species of butterflies also nectar on the flowers of milkweeds. On a good year, Butterflyweed is alive with an abundance of feeding butterflies when in bloom in early to mid-July.

Michigan History Museum Display

There are also uses for the fibers from this plant, which is considered by many to be just a weed. Research has been done on using the plant for paper, textiles, lubricant, fuel and rubber. Currently the most used part or by product of the plant is the silky white floss attached to the seeds. The purpose for this floss is to carry the seeds away to a new location by “floating” on the wind. This floss is hollow and six times more buoyant than cork. This light weight floss has been used to stuff pillows, mattresses and quilts and as tinder to start fires. During World War II, it was collected and used to stuff life vest for Navy aviators.

Next time you see a milkweed, take time to look it over and study the details. If you find a patch of Common milkweed, enjoy the beautiful fragrance which can often be detected before you even see the milkweeds.

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Galls Aplenty

Wool Sower gall on Oak

Even though galls can be caused by bacteria, insect galls are much more numerous and common. In this very brief look at galls, we will focus on a few galls caused by insects. First, we need to know what a gall is. An insect gall is a growth that forms on different parts of a plant as a reaction to the feeding stimulus by insects or mites. They range from simple enlargements or swellings of the leaves or stems to highly complex novelties of plant anatomy, but are always specific to the gall former. Galls can be on the leaf, stem, flower, fruit or root and take many different forms. With around 1500 gall forming insects and mites in the United States, the diversity of galls is as diverse as the gall former itself. Oaks alone, are host to 800 different galls. Each gall is unique to the former and the plant it is found on. Knowing the plant species is the first step in identifying the insect that formed the gall. Galls are formed by midges, flies, gall wasps, mites, aphids, sawflies, moths and beetles. Gall forming insects overwinter in different stages, depending on the species. Some overwinter in the gall itself while others may spend the winter as an egg on a particular part of the host plant.

Pine Cone Willow Gall

The most common galls that you may be familiar with or see, are the round and elliptical galls on the stems of Goldenrods. They are especially easy to spot in winter and the larvae inside have been used as ice fishing bait. Another common gall is the Pine Cone Willow gall that resembles a pine cone and usually sticks up at the tip of a branch of shrub willows. It has layered scales like a pine cone and not only does it provide a place for the forming insect to develop and complete its life cycle, but can also harbor other insects in various stages through the winter.

Maple leaf Eyespost gall

You may have notice bumps, raised protrusions or bull’s eye spots on leaves in your yard, these are galls, but don’t worry they won’t harm your trees. Before you think they are unsightly on your trees, do a little research and get to know them. Understanding what is really going on may help to actually be interested in them and realize they are a normal part of nature. I find it interesting how many there are and have fun looking to see how many I can find.

Petial Gall with Aphids inside

Some galls like the Poplar Petiole gall have an opening to allow the adult aphid to escape. Others like the stem galls on Goldenrod do not have an opening, therefore the larvae or adult must bore its way out. Here is a very short video of the aphids in the Petiole gall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKmU6cPX-4c.

Cherry Flower Gall

I had posted the photo above on my Facebook page as a mutated Choke Cherry flower. Someone commented that they thought is might be a gall. With a little research, it seems they are correct. I will be revisiting this tree to see how the gall develops over the summer. This gall appears to be a relatively little know gall, so there is an opportunity to learn here.

Mite Galls on Poison Ivy

Galls are found on a wide range of plant species, even on Poison ivy!

Start watching when you are out your yard or natural areas and before long you will be amazed at home many and the diversity of galls you will see.

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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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