Making a Habit of Adventure Throughout the Seasons

If I learned anything this spring, it’s that our lives are an accumulation of habits sprinkled with a few deviations and vacations throughout the years. The contents of these habits, and what orients our pursuits, becomes our days and years and lifetimes.

Exploring outdoors during a Pandemic

The autumn leaves are starting to turn along the Milwaukee River

When this Coronavirus came calling in March, our field trips and programs were cancelled and Riveredge (aside from trails remaining open) overall closed down. Like many of us, I performed the bulk of my work from home. For months, I was removed from my conventions of stepping outside to take a video for our Instagram account, walking the trails to photograph blooms and landscapes, running into students on field trips delighted to explore the sanctuary.

As Covid research progressed, scientists published that the overall safest place to be is outdoors in nature. I rejoiced, and gradually returned to my regular jaunts throughout the 379 acres of Riveredge, gradually reacquainting my habit of walking out the door to discover what next wild creature or flower or unexpected insect was around the next trail bend. I reclaimed my habit of instilling my days with adventure and discovery.

Making a plan to flourish during the cold winter months

Plenty of wonder and awe to experience throughout winter at Riveredge.

As we go into another potential season of relative radio silence (whether due to pandemic or our cold weather conventions), I find myself considering which habits to keep and which to shed. We Midwesterners tend to turn inwardly home and hibernate for the cold months. Throughout the snowy season, many of us leave for work in the morning and it’s dark and when we return home the sky is again dark, save for eventual star reflections twinkling against the snow.

In this autumn season that transitions from flannels and warming palms by rubbing hands together into coats and hats and gloves, habits strike me as especially important. I invite you to join me in finding ways to inject a sense of cold weather adventure into your days. The trails at Riveredge are open to you, as they have been for 50 years. Think of these autumn brass-patina prairies and flowing kettle rising moraine forests as your restorative playground to breathe in. A Riveredge membership provides both motivation and opportunity to get outdoors year-round.

Sure, it takes a little extra planning to put on the socks and boots and ear coverings. But the reward – the sounds of rustling leaves, treetop owl echoes, and creaking oaks and maples singing through your soul – will be worth it your time. Think of it as an investment. The investment of your lifetime.

By Ed Makowski, Riveredge Marketing & Communications Manager

 

 

Bug o’the Week – End of Summer Scenes

Howdy, BugFans,

Wow!  The first day of fall!  Much as she loves a nice fall day, the BugLady clings to summer (maybe that’s why she keeps buying peaches even though she knows she’ll be disappointed).  If you want to find bugs, look at flowers, so the BugLady has been searching the riot of wild sunflowers, asters, brown-eyed susans, and goldenrod.  Here are some of the bugs that have posed for her in the past month.

This mothy-looking CADDISFLY is actually not too distantly related to moths and butterflies.  Caddisflies’ aquatic larvae use silk to form a portable shelter from bits of vegetation or tiny stones (https://curious.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/caddisfly-architecture/), though some skip the case and spin a net on a submerged rock so they can stay put in swift currents.  What are they good for?  Two words – Fish.  Food.  Fish prey on the larvae and on the emerging adults, and fly-tiers copy the caddisfly hatch https://www.orvis.com/p/slow-water-caddis/12a9.

Tiny (wingspread under an inch) EASTERN TAILED-BLUES have several broods throughout the summer.  They’re on the scene from May through September, and according to the Wisconsin Butterflies website (https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly), a few hardy individuals have been recorded into the first week of November!  In September, look for them close to the ground, ovipositing on white clover in mowed paths.  If your eyes are spry, you can see the contrast between their slate blue upper wings and their pale blue underwings in flight.

OBLONG-WINGED KATYDIDS should be green, right?  It turns out that color is negotiable in some Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, etc.).  This species comes in brown, orange,

tan https://bugguide.net/node/view/273155/bgimage,

yellow https://bugguide.net/node/view/139882/bgimage,

and Pepto pink https://bugguide.net/node/view/126381/bgimage.

Here’s a paper about their colors https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/in-north-american-katydids-green-isne28099t-the-dominant-colour-pink-is/, and here’s what they sound like https://songsofinsects.com/katydids/oblong-winged-katydid.

A female SWAMP SPREADWING damselfly deposits eggs into a plant stem as the male guards her by clinging to the back of her head.

This small TREE FROG bit off a little more than it could chew.  It managed to swallow the front half of a meadowhawk dragonfly, but it doesn’t seem to have enough room to swallow the rear half.  Lots of roughage in dragonflies.

OAK SAWFLY LARVAE – If you turn over a partially-skeletonized oak leaf in summer, you may find these cute little skeletonizers, which look like slightly gooey caterpillars but are actually the larvae of members of a primitive wasp family.  They eat the tender leaf tissue and leave the tough veins, and the end result looks like a macramé project.

A MELOE BEETLE, a male, based on that crook in mid-antenna, descended the side of the log and joined another Meloe beetle, and hanky-panky ensued.  Meloe/Oil beetles, in the genus Meloe, are members of the blister beetle family.  “Oil beetles” because when they’re alarmed, they secrete oily drops from their joints that contain poisonous cantharidin, which causes nasty blisters on skin and does serious damage if taken internally.

AUTUMN MEADOWHAWKS are the last dragonflies of the season, able to survive a few light frosts and operate in daytime temperatures down to about 50 degrees (although by then, there’s not much prey in the air).  This one chose a backdrop of colorful dogwood leaves.

The BugLady found this handsome JUMPING SPIDER, Marpisa bina, at a nearby State Natural Area (thanks, as always, to BugFan Mike for the ID).  Not a lot is known about the 10 species in the genus, but most are wetland-dwellers.

Well-camouflaged CAROLINA LOCUSTS hunker on the trails, waiting until the BugLady practically steps on them before taking off on yellow-trimmed, black wings, and imitating, briefly, butterflies.

BUMBLE BEES, honey bees, and wasps of all stripes are abundant on flowers these days.  Honeybees maintain their hives throughout the winter, but bumble bee and paper wasp nests are annual affairs – started from scratch by new queens every spring.  The activities of the nest will cease with the frosts, but nobody’s told the workers.

MULTICOLORED ASIAN LADYBUG – Oh sure, it’s cute now, but pretty soon it will be looking for a way into your house https://uwm.edu/field-station/asian-multicolored-ladybug-redux/.

MONARCH – What would a late summer round-up be without Monarchs?  About a week ago, the BugLady walked the prairie trails at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve and saw 249 crisp, new Gen 5 monarchs (the migratory generation), most nectaring on asters and goldenrods, sometimes 10 or 20 butterflies on a single clump of plants.  Quality nectar plants are critical on the leisurely trip south – a newly-emerged Monarch has about 20 milligrams of fat in its body, but it needs to pack in another 100 milligrams of fat before it arrives in Mexico (trace that journey here https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=monarch-peak-migration&year=2020).  These fat reserves sustain it during the winter (if you never click on any of the BOTW links, please try this one https://fstoppers.com/documentary/drone-disguised-hummingbird-captures-incredible-footage-monarch-butterfly-swarm-480714).

Go outside – it ain’t over until it’s over.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

For Educators: Simple Steps for Mapping Your Schoolyard

 

Now that school is underway, you may be trying to incorporate what you gained from participating in Taking Education Outside the School Walls. We covered a lot of ground and I hope everyone walked away with a few nuggets of worthwhile information.

Let’s circle back to how valuable it can be to scout your school grounds – all of it – gravel, pavement, grass, trees, playgrounds, and the space around the school. Intentional observations on how and where you can teach outside. Here are the simple steps to do so.

Mapping Your Outdoor Areas

Grab a few items:

  • Printed view of your school grounds
  • Notepad
  • Pencil
  • List of topics you cover in all subjects

Here is an example of an Outdoor Map I’ve created. Start walking around your school and find spots where your whole class would be able to congregate as a group. Find multiple environments: shaded or covered areas; covered by trees or buildings in case it rains, locations out in the sun, and maybe a mix of them all. What does the area look like around these spaces? Are there playgrounds, trees, exposed soil, grass, prairie, pond, asphalt, hills, and landscaped areas? You do not need huge open green areas to teach outside, work with whatever assets your school has to offer. Consider how you can bring your lessons outside and teach in the space you have before you. Need materials? Students can carry materials outside – this gives them both purpose and responsibility.

Matching Lessons with Outdoor Spaces

What lessons and topics do you cover with your students throughout the year? Are you working on addition or subtraction? Maybe you could you use sidewalk blocks, pine cones, trees, or work on that worksheet while sitting under a tree. If they are learning about insects seek a spot in the school yard where plants grow or ant hills spring forth, bring magnifying glasses out to explore these locations. Is there a great shade tree to read to your class beneath?

If learning about creating graphs, you can count birds during different times of the day. Are there spaces to take a sensory walk? Students can learn about human impact, plant identification, and soil all within your school yard. What material is your parking lot made of? In exploring this you can you teach about different surfaces, permeability, how water interacts with and absorbs (or doesn’t!) through them. You can explore the sun and moon while learning about shadows coming from any part of the building, structure, or landscaping.

Silent sit spots are a great way to make seasonal observations, and students can learn about how the natural world changes (what we call phenology) by going back to the same spot multiple times. Is there a pond nearby…if not you can observe puddles at a safe parking lot location where water pools. If learning about animals you can take students on an observation walk. Additionally, outdoor space is great for brain break movement activities. After all, there’s a reason why recess takes place outside!

You can move your teaching outside in many ways – one way is just to determine a new environment for teaching to take place and the second step is to incorporate that environment into your lessons.

If you have yet to map your school yard so you can have a quick reference to look at through the year, I highly recommend that you create one. It is easier to look at your map and remember spots then try to do it on the spot before a lesson. Enjoy whatever outdoor space you have!

Written by Rachel Feerick, the Riveredge Cedarburg School District Scientist in Residence

21+ Outdoor Dining and Drink Experiences in Autumn at Riveredge

Join Riveredge Nature Center for autumn outdoor 21+ food and drink series including Small Plates & Big Brews and Wine Walk hiking programs. Each program has limited capacity and takes place outdoors beginning or ending at the Riveredge Sugarbush House. These programs are scheduled throughout September, October, and November. These are intimate, collaborative experiences with local restaurants, producers, and purveyors in which participants are asked to wear masks in between eating and drinking.

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Small Plates & Big Brews

The Fermentorium is the main collaborator for Small Plates & Big Brews and the first event takes place with The Norbert on Thursday, September 17. Seating will take place outdoors in a manner that reinforces social distancing. Participants are asked to wear masks when not actively eating or drinking. Additional events take place on Thursday, October 1 and Thursday, October 15.

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Wine Walks

Evening Wine Walk collaborators include: Lovino Sangria, Mershon’s Cider, Vines to Cellar, and Sunshine Winery. Each walk is led by a Riveredge Naturalist Educator. Participants are asked to wear masks when not actively eating or drinking.

Here is our complete Wine Walks Schedule. Click for details and registration:

Bug o’the Week – Common Green Darners– a Love Affair

Howdy, BugFans,

We’ve had a major emergence of migratory Common Green Darners in the past 10 days.  They’ve been feeding along Lake Michigan’s western shoreline, zigzagging over the roadway and fields, socking away calories (those floodwater mosquitoes are good for something), and roosting in the cedars.  Pushed south by cold fronts, they’ll cover seven or more miles a day, and it will take them weeks to get to their destination.  They’re on their way, and maybe a little part of those of us who see them, goes with them.

Common Green Darners (Anax junius – “the Lord of June!”), hummingbird-sized dragonflies that, yes, sometimes attempt to prey on hummingbirds, have graced these pages before.  Here are some links to past episodes https://uwm.edu/field-station/common-green-darner-rest-story-family-aeshnidae/ and https://uwm.edu/field-station/dragonfly-swarm/, and a quick review.

Dragonflies have been around for 275 million years.  Back in the day (the Carboniferous and Permian day) some dragonfly ancestors had wingspreads of two-and-a-half feet and weighed a pound – crow-sized, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Entomology website.  There was more oxygen in the air then, and that allowed insects and other invertebrates, which take in air passively through holes called spiracles, more oxygen to nourish their cells.  Think six-foot millipedes.

Wisconsin has two populations of Common Green Darners (family Aeshnidae), and because of that, they can be seen in our skies from May through September.  The migratory crew arrives in mid-spring, fresh from their winter range in the Southeastern US, Texas, and Mexico, one of about a dozen kinds of dragonflies that migrates out of the 400-ish species in North America.  They mate, oviposit, and die off, but as they do, the resident population starts to emerge from the warming waters.  There’s a big difference in the phenology of their offspring (called naiads – or nymphs, if you must – but never larvae).  Naiads of the migrant darners mature quickly, ready to emerge from beneath the water by late August.  Naiads from the eggs of the resident population, deposited in submerged plant stems throughout summer, take about 10 months to mature.

Darner swarm

Big assemblages of Common Green Darners – swarms – may be seen from early August on, depending on the weather.  An aquatic entomologist who blogs under the name of “Dragonfly Woman” collects reports of dragonfly swarms.  Dragonfly Woman divides swarming behavior into low-altitude, static (mostly feeding) swarms and higher-altitude migratory swarms (and she wants to hear about both).  Static swarms tend to be localized, with groups of dragonflies milling around no higher than about 20 feet off the ground.  Migratory swarms are fast-moving “rivers of hundreds of thousands of dragonflies all flying in a single direction and covering large distances.”  Both migratory and feeding swarms can contain a mixture of species.

Explanation: The BugLady’s first internet connection, back in the dawn of time, was dial-up, and she’s still traumatized by it (she used to start downloading a picture and go wash dishes until it was complete), so she tries not to send huge picture files.  The attached “darner swarm” picture is a big file, but if you can zoom it, you can see a feeding swarm of darners glittering over a low, wet field at the end of August.  How many?

At this time last year, the BugLady spent parts of three or four days on a hawk tower counting migrating raptors, surrounded by a river of dragonflies – tens and hundreds of thousands of dragonflies, from horizon to horizon, moving steadily south.  It was a religious experience.  Primordial.  The fall dragonfly migration is no secret from the raptors, and several species of falcons grab the darners out of the air and dine on the wing.

The BugLady visited Forest Beach Migratory Preserve recently on a windy day when the Common Green Darners, various mosaic darners, and Black Saddlebags did not want to be aloft; they wanted to shelter in the grasses and trees.  As she climbed a low hill, darners exploded from the conifers at the top, circled, and settled back down, and it seemed like every plant stem and tuft of grass hid a few.  What a thrill!  She walked around the trail apologizing to the darners for kicking them up, and laughing at herself, because even though she imagines that she has a pretty good “dragonfly search image,” they almost always see her long before she sees them (and she confesses that in one of the pictures with two darners in it, she didn’t see the second until she put the picture up on the monitor).  In one shot, you can scan the edge of the mowed path, as the BugLady does, except that most darners aren’t pre-marked by red “X’s.”

She has said it before and she’ll say it again – with apologies to major conservation organizations everywhere – she is more concerned about the fates of dragonflies and other insects than of giant pandas, cheetahs, elephants and grizzly bears.

Go outside, park yourself on the edge of Lake Michigan, and enjoy the show.  And report your dragonfly swarms at https://thedragonflywoman.com/dsp/report/.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Bug o’the Week – Shore Rove Beetle rerun

Salutations, BugFans,

The BugLady is getting close to 600 of these episodes (probably would have done a few things differently if she’d known).  Some are memorable to her because the writing has stood the test of time, others because the star of the show is a particular favorite, and still others because the bug turned out to be just so cool!  That has been the fun of BOTW – discovering the amazing and sometimes surprising design features and super powers that insects have.  The shore rove beetle was one of those.  The BugLady found it by accident 6 years ago while she was doing something else.  She hasn’t seen one since, but it just stuck in her brain.

Sometimes (often), the facts about an insect do not come tied up neatly with a bow, and the research seeps out of the realm of the six-legged and raises as many questions as it answers.

In early May of 2014, the BugLady was photographing Equisetum/Horsetail (because it’s such a neat plant) not far from a wetland edge.  Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense), a common roadside species, first raises a tan, non-photosynthetic, fertile stalk topped by a structure called a cone, which bears the spore-producing sporangiophores (modified leaves).  Spores are released, and this stage is followed by a sterile, green plant that looks like a mini-pine tree and that photosynthesizes, its energy stored in a perennial rhizome.  In other species of equisetum, the fertile cone is located on top of the sterile stem (for an equisetum side trip and The. Most. Awesome. Video. EVER! see http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/flying-for-free-the-horsetail-spore-way/).

The BugLady noticed that the tops of some of the cones had been grazed.  Who did it?  Based on the height of the truncated stalks, the likely suspects are rabbits or red squirrels.  The BugLady found a lot of information about the unwholesomeness of the sterile Equisetum plants for livestock, and about its medicinal uses, but not much about the fertile stalk.  The spores pack no nutrients for the future plant – they do contain chlorophyll and some moisture – they have to hit the ground running (pollen, on the other hand, is rich in nutrients).  Are the spore-producing tissues nutritionally desirable?  Similar structures in certain fungi contain lipids and proteins.  The fertile Equisetum plant has apparently been eaten (with caution) for millennia, and the cone is listed as “edible” in a few (very few) foraging books.

She was not expecting to see any Equisetum– insect interactions, and yet she observed a sawfly ovipositing into a horsetail stem (a story for another day), and she found this small rove beetle in the genus Stenus, doing — something.

Rove beetles (family Staphylinidae) comprise the largest beetle family in North America (in the World, maybe, with the possible exception of the weevils), and they are a very diverse bunch.  The US hosts more than 5,000 species of these typically small, slender, speedy beetles, with their much-shortened elytra (wing covers).  Although they may look wingless, their wings are folded underneath https://bugguide.net/node/view/170319/bgimage (like Origami, said one source), and they are good flyers.  When alarmed, they posture like a scorpion http://bugguide.net/node/view/885251/bgimage, but they’re harmless (well, except for the caustic/nasty-tasting chemicals that some deliver from the tip of the abdomen).  Their lives are often lived under the cover of leaf litter.

The genus Stenus is in the subfamily Steninae, the Water Skaters/Water Gliders, and they’re described as semi-aquatic.  It’s a large genus, with 167 North American species, and for once, the BugLady is not going to try to guess which.  Turns out that there a number of super powers residing in that bug-eyed little body.

So, what was this rove beetle doing on the Equisetum?  Not eating it (probably…) – these are carnivores (OK, the Peterson Beetle guide says “all are believed to be carnivorous”).  They make their living hunting springtails, mites, aphids, and other tiny invertebrates along the marsh and stream edges they inhabit.  Whether Stenus is eating the plant tissue or going after another invertebrate feeding there, it would seem to be taking advantage of a break in the cone that was initiated by something larger.

Watch a shore rove beetle in action at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_MB6GHlXJY&index=91&list=PLzr0J2sWC1QiypVYj-TSWGdOzJlTmvN7r

Stenus has developed a pretty awesome adaptation that increases its odds of putting food on the table – a mouth part (labium) that it can extend like a telescoping pole just by increasing the blood pressure to that area.  Springtails have pretty fast reflexes, and sources disagree about whether that they are too quick for Stenus to be successful consistently (and springtails are covered with slippery scales that are sacrificed if they get grabbed).

Rather than being a sharpened “harpoon,” the labium is covered with a variety of bristles and by pores that secrete a glue that sticks to about any surface.  When it scores a bulls-eye, the Stenus retracts its amazing mouthpart, pulling its prey up to its mandibles (which are described as “sickle-like”) and injecting pre-digestive juices that soften the hapless critter.  The BugLady likes to photograph mini-critters, but the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) does it better https://scrubmuncher.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/ravenous-rove-beetles/.  This highly specialized mouthpart seems to argue against herbivory.

Stenus also enjoys Better Living through Chemistry.  Some, but not all, members of the genus live in close association with water, where they are small enough and light enough to scoot across the surface film (at 2 – 3 cm/second) without breaking through.  In the event that they do perforate the surface film or if they need to move more hastily, they can release a hydrophobic (water-repelling) alkaloid called stenusine from the tip of their abdomen.  Stenusine spreads quickly and forcefully across the water’s surface, and the “equal and opposite reaction” is that the beetle shoots forward at speeds between 45 and 70 cm/second (the equivalent, say the people who did the math, of a human-sized beetle being propelled up to 550 mph).  After a few such squirts, the beetle must replenish its stock of stenusine.

But Stenus species that are not intimately associated with water also produce stenusine.  Why?  Stenus rove beetles groom themselves.  A lot.  And they spread stenusine and a few related chemicals all over themselves (it’s called “secretion grooming” – isn’t scientific terminology grand?).  Why?  Turns out that these substances are toxic to fungi and bacteria that might afflict the beetles, and they act as “feeding deterrents” for the beetle’s predators.

Final “Whys” of the day.  Stenus beetles also manufacture a chemical called cicindeloine; it’s part of the anti-predator/anti-microorganism cocktail.  There’s a (European) rove beetle with the name Stenus cicindeloides https://eol.org/pages/3386562 that looks like a cookie-cutter Stenus.  But chemicals are generally named after the organism that produces them, and Cicindelidae is the family name of the Tiger beetles,.  So, why is there a rove beetle species and a rove beetle protective chemical named for Tiger beetles?

A day in the life of a BugLady.

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Here’s an electric blue Stenus from Asia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Stenus_fretus#/media/File:Stenus_fretus_Cast._(3211755041)_(2).jpg.

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

Riveredge is Seeking Homeschool Education Volunteers

For a decade, Riveredge Nature Center has hosted a premier Homeschool Program helping families add science, environmental education, and inquiry-based outdoor exploration to their home curriculum. In the current Covid-19 landscape, the Riveredge Homeschool Ed-Ventures Program is seeing unprecedented registration, and has even added an extra day of homeschool scheduling. As a result, Riveredge is seeking additional volunteers to aid in homeschool education efforts.
Homeschool volunteers help inspire young learners about the great outdoors. Every other week on either Monday,  Wednesday, or Friday, homeschool students come from all over southeast Wisconsin to Riveredge Nature Center to learn about science and the environment. Homeschool Assistants are responsible for aiding our education staff in keeping the group together while outdoors, supervising for short periods, helping students with their activities and crafts, and creating a safe, positive environment for students. Consistency is preferred, must be able to hike up to 1 mile on unpaved terrain. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday shifts are available. Each shift is from 8:45am-12:15pm. Please follow this link to complete our volunteer application and receive training. As these volunteers will have direct interaction with children, a background check is required.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Volunteers are protected by a mask requirement for themselves and all guests of the program while indoors or unable to social distance 6ft apart. Additionally, Riveredge can provide clear face shields for volunteers who would like to wear them. Learning tools are wiped down between volunteers and cleaning spray is available to volunteers to re-wipe any area if guests touch surfaces. We have separate enter and exit doors to keep traffic flow going in one direction. If you have additional questions regarding our COVID-19 procedures please feel free to contact us.

For additional information, please contact Kacey Tait, Riveredge Inquiry-Based Curriculum and Instruction Manager (also copied in this email) at ktait@riveredge.us or (262)375-2715 x13.

The Uncommon Beauty of the Oak Opening

I must admit, when I first encountered an Oak Opening, I had a hard time initially wrapping my brain around what was unique about the habitat. I looked up and could recognize that it contained oak trees, standing high in their far-reaching, craggy-branched splendor. “Ok, they’re oak trees,” I shrugged. Then one day it dawned on me: an Oak Opening possesses a vast amount of open space compared with what I understood a forest to look like.

A great distance of space can exist between trees, sometimes 100-feet from one another. This is why these habitats are also known as “Oak Openings,” and is the name for this one-acre area at Riveredge Nature Center overlooking the Milwaukee River. This portion of the property also boasts uniquely untilled original soil and a rarely seen guild of native plants. But what else is unique about Oak Openings?

The Oak Opening, as the name suggests, is a surprisingly open forest.

Oak Openings have become incredibly rare

The numbers of Oak Savanna (a somewhat similar habitat with less tree density than an oak opening) previously standing and currently in existence are staggering. Of the 5.5 million acres that once existed, according to the Natural Heritage Inventory, less than 500 acres exist that had plant assemblage similar to the original Oak Savannas. Similar to savannas, Oak Openings are one of the rarest and most threatened habitats in the world. Summarily, many of the plant and animal species that flourished in these systems have perished, or their populations have taken hits as they struggled to find other, less suitable habitats.

Autumn Oak leaves in the sun at Riveredge

Pre-settlement, wildfires and fires set by Native Americans took place across the US throughout the year, burning off smaller trees and invigorating understory plant seeds to sprout. Oaks have thick bark and a deep taproot, which equips them uniquely to tolerate fires more than other woody species. After a fire the only plants that stood throughout the charred landscape were oak trees, such as Bur Oak.

What happened to Oak Openings?

Prior to settlement, about half of Wisconsin was covered in Oak ecosystems (such as oak woodland, oak savanna, oak opening). When settlers moved west into this territory, these oak ecosystems appeared, and proved to be ideal areas for farmland and more readily cleared than a dense forest. Many of the soils were rich in nutrients after centuries of plants and animals had built up the soil. The removal of indigenous peoples, their customs, and traditional ecological knowledge, as well as the removal of fire fuel continuity by turning over original ground with the plow, worked to suppress fires that had been previously afforded greater affect on the landscape.

The Riveredge Maple Sugarbush, across Highway Y from the Oak Opening.

Oak trees provided ideal building material for houses and barns, and if any was left over it became firewood. Millions of linear board feet would be shipped to become furniture, tool handles, and flooring throughout cities such as Milwaukee. While the wood lasted, logging was a bustling business in Wisconsin.

In areas of Oak Savannas that still stood, without fire management or grazing by wild or domesticated animals, smaller trees would begin to grow up between oaks, competing for sunlight and rain. Invasive species such as Buckthorn would begin to fill in areas that were previously the domain of native plants that grow more slowly. When we picture a forest, this, comparably more cluttered, landscape is likely what we imagine.

Today, an oak opening gives the same reprieve from a forest’s overstory as it always has; however, it now represents some of the best of what many areas have lost. For ecologists, oak openings and other similar rare habitats now act as living libraries of species and their interconnected assemblages, to reconstruct in our restoration efforts.

This summer, experience Wisconsin’s natural heritage by visiting the Oak Opening at Riveredge Nature Center, and continue visiting throughout the seasons. This location is also one of our most picturesque locations from which to view the Milwaukee River. In this now uncommon location, you can experience the tranquility that can only be found within trees that live for hundreds of years.

Overlooking the Milwaukee River from the Oak Opening at Riveredge Nature Center.

Bug o’the Week – Floodwater Mosquito –an homage

Howdy, BugFans,

Homage: “something that someone does or says in order to show respect or admiration.” (Macmillan).  In this case, it’s a grudging tip of the hat – we may not appreciate them, but we acknowledge that they are very good indeed at what they do.

The BugLady struck a deal with mosquitoes a very long time ago – she doesn’t bite them and they don’t bite her (alternatively, as one of her offspring suggested, she may just be tough and sour).  The only species that didn’t sign off on the pact, and the only species that raises a welt on her, is what she’s always called the “August mosquitoes” – the small, aggressive floodwater mosquitoes that seem to be biting with one end before they’ve fully touched down with the other.

There’s been a lot of rain in the BugLady’s corner of Wisconsin lately (including a localized 7” deluge that drowned the BugLady’s car in its parking lot, a story for another day).  Ample rain in the weeks before that had given the floodwater mosquitoes a start.  The BugLady will be trying to squeeze in a lot of trail time now, in an attempt to beat the inevitable population explosion.

Floodwater mosquitoes made the news here in 2018, when a dry July was followed by massive rainfall in August, which was followed by a massive mosquito hatch that made September miserable.  School groups that traveled to the local Nature Center for outdoor experiences were begging to go inside after only 15 minutes outside.

With some insects, you look at the common or the scientific name and wonder about the story behind it.  Not so with the floodwater mosquito/inland floodwater/freshwater mosquito.  The common names are pretty straightforward; the scientific name Aedes vexans comes from the Greek aedes, meaning odious or unpleasant and the Latin vexare, meaning “to annoy, torment, or harass.”  A century ago, it was called Culex sylvestris, the swamp mosquito.

They’re found in damp areas on five continents (they haven’t discovered or been inadvertently carried to Hawaii, Antarctica or South America yet), and they’re less common in far southern, far northern, and high-altitude North America.  Their needs are simple – food, in the form of nectar (him) and the blood of a large mammal (her), shelter, and a suitable place to deposit her eggs.

Males https://bugguide.net/node/view/1340555/bgimage, of course, are strict vegetarians, feeding on nectar and honeydew.  Females also consume carbs, but she needs protein from a blood meal in order to form eggs https://bugguide.net/node/view/11025/bgimage.  Larvae https://bugguide.net/node/view/1751200/bgimage eat bacteria and other tiny goodies they find in the water and on underwater surfaces.  For a Mosquitoes 101 review, see https://uwm.edu/field-station/the-mighty-mosquito/.

Their egg-laying protocol, which is typical of the genus, calls for the female to gamble.  She lays around 150 eggs, placing them on the ground, one at a time, near water at damp, grassy edges and in roadside ditches and depressions – spots that are destined to get wet – rather than directly into standing water like most mosquitoes.  She makes her choice based on her read of the existing soil moisture and on the presence of enough leaf litter to keep the soil damp until it floods.  When these areas become pools after a rain, her eggs can hatch into aquatic larvae within a week and emerge as adults in another week, especially in warm temperatures.  There are multiple generations per year, and they are with us throughout the mosquito season – one exterminator says that at any given moment, 40% to 50% of mosquitoes on the wing are floodwater mosquitoes.  The final generation overwinters as eggs, ready to get down to business the following spring.  Adults live for three to six weeks.

And if it doesn’t rain?  No worries – her eggs can dry out and wait for years for the right conditions to come along and rehydrate them.

Unlike other mosquitoes, floodwater mosquitoes are no stay-at-homes, traveling ten miles and more from breeding sites.  They are certainly tenacious – one sat on the BugLady’s wrist as she changed camera lenses so she could take its picture – denim does not faze them, and, they’re hard to photograph because most of them head directly for the ears, face, and neck.

When it comes to the floodwater mosquito’s epidemiological reputation, the reviews are mixed.  Aedes is a largely tropical/subtropical genus that contains some notorious disease-spreaders.  One source was relieved that, since there are so darn many of them, floodwater mosquitoes don’t carry diseases (on this continent).  Other sources say that they have the genetic potential for carrying several kinds of encephalitis, Zika, and West Nile Virus (and have transmitted them under laboratory conditions), but they are not a factor in transmission in the field.  Still others say that they do spread these diseases, plus dog heartworm, but they are “secondary vectors” – that is, other mosquito species, notably Culex species, do the heavy lifting and the floodwater mosquito simply dabbles.

Who would have guessed that laying eggs on land would be a successful strategy for mosquitoes!

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://uwm.edu/field-station/category/bug-of-the-week/

What’s Blooming at Riveredge? An Updated Phenology Report

One of the fantastic Riveredge volunteers, who has been exploring Riveredge trails for years to both take photographs and record observations, is letting us know what she sees blooming at Riveredge. In scientific terms, this is called “Phenology.” What is phenology? It’s very similar to another word, phenomenon. Phenology means what happens, and when, in nature. Some of the most common examples are: when flowers are blooming, when buds are present, when specific migratory bird species return, when birds are nesting.

Chances are, you already notice phenology you just might not call it that. If you notice when your garden is blooming, when the trees are budding, or when butterflies return to the skies – you’re observing phenology! Read below to learn what you can find along the trails when you visit Riveredge Nature Center right now.

Wild Bergamot at Riveredge Nature Center

In Bloom

Bullhead Lily
Fragrant White Water Lily
Yarrow
Heal All
Pretty Bedstraw
Bergamot
Cowbane
Marsh Hedge Nettle
Hoary Vervain
Blue Giant Hyssop
Culver’s Root
Grey Headed Coneflower
Purple Prairie Clover
Prairie Dock
Canada Tick Trefoil
Flowering Spurge
Compass Plant
Orange Jewelweed
Wood Nettle
White Prairie Clover
Purple Coneflower
Agrimony
Dotted Mint
Rosinweed
Mad Dog Skullcap
Virginia Mountain Mint
Evening Primrose
Cup Plant
Whorled Milkweed
Gayfeather
Nodding Wild Onion
Spotted Joe Pye Weed
Rattlesnake Master
Carpenter’s Square Figwort
Canada Goldenrod
Small Purple Fringed Orchid
Clustered Poppy Mallow
Sawtooth Sunflower
Purple Joe Pye Weed
Wild Cucumber
Large leaved Aster
Stinging Nettle
White Snakeroot
Hog Peanut
Great Blue Lobelia
Ironweed
Common Boneset
White Wood Aster
Showy Blazing Star
Rough Blazing Star
Guara
Wild Senna
Round Headed Bush Clover
Canada Milk Vetch
Virgin’s Bower
Indian Pipe
Swamp Lousewort
Swamp Thistle
Green Headed Coneflower
Branched Coneflower
Obedience

Flowers In Bud

Grass of Parnassus
False Boneset