Long Weekend in July

The long weekend: a fine American tradition of pampering yourself. Sure, I spent some time cleaning and doing other important things, but I had plenty of openings in my schedule for hiking. Having Wednesday through Saturday off last week was a lucky little mistake of mine, as I meant to take off time in September instead. I’ve never accidentally given myself a vacation before, but I was glad to take it.

Wednesday evening found me at the Spring Green Preserve. The day was getting comfortably cool as I set out. The setting sun hit the grasses, making them golden and the shadows on them long. Lark sparrows (Chondestes grammacus) darted along the path and swallows flew overhead. There was a slight breeze and not a mosquito in sight. It was a good time to be in the “Wisconsin Desert.”

Spring Green Preserve before sunset
Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

A arrived back at the car just as the sun was setting. An idea struck me: I could redo the hike after sunset. I’d never been there after dark before. I listened to Harry Potter while waiting for the sky to grow darker. After the chapter ended, I turned the audio book off and headed back out into the prairie. I was glad I thought to bring a flashlight with me. I could make out where the trail was but there wasn’t much definition to the objects I saw. I didn’t want to trample one of the animals I claim to like. I had the flashlight on for most of the time except for the times I would stop, turn it off, and enjoy the twilight. I was wondering if I’d see snakes, coyotes, or foxes hunting in the night, but I didn’t see any critters larger than a spider.

Spring Green Preserve at night

The twilight changed as I went along. The warm glow on the horizon shrunk and a few celestial bodies stood out even with the cloud cover. I got home after ten.

Saturday was my last day off and I wanted to make it count. Early in the afternoon I asked my dad if he wanted to join me somewhere west of town. He said yes. Earlier in the day he and my brother went for a bike ride in western Dane County and went past Rettenmund Prairie State Natural Area near Black Earth. Neither of us had been there before so we decided to check it out.

The prairie is on a long, narrow hill surrounded by agricultural land. Parts of it are clearly remnant prairie, especially near the top. The prairie is on the drier side and short plants dominate the steep, rocky areas.

Rettenmund Prairie
Dad by a compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
Me by the same plant

It started raining before we got back to the car, just a few drops at first then it started pouring down. I hid my camera under my hat, cursing my decision to leave my backpack in the car. We waited out most of the storm in the car, then drove to our second location of the day, the Mazomanie Oak Barrens SNA.

Mazo oak barrens

The barrens doesn’t have any official trails, so we had to find the best way to get over to the center of the land. We cut through the maze of knee-height flowers and sumac to arrive at a slight upland where the cactus patches grow stronger than any other I have seen in the state. The individual plants often are taller and wider than the ones elsewhere. We didn’t find an incredibly large one I was wowed by last time I went, but we didn’t have a lot of time because the sky looked dark in the distance again and we wanted to avoid the rain this time. We did find some impressive prickly pears though, and a few other barrens plants that look alien compared to the typical Wisconsin ones.

A rather large eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)

And then, before I knew it, we were back in the car and I was getting ready for work on Sunday. A long weekend had been well spent.

Dragonfly Mania

Wow, what an unpleasant summer. It’s either hot, buggy, or both. I haven’t gone on nature walks much, and one time I did I had bumps of histamine regret all over my body. That was from a walk in the Arboretum… but it was for science! This summer I’m volunteering at the Arb with a dragonfly monitoring project. It’s right up my alley because I enjoy citizen science, but it’s not quite my alley because I have no prior experience with dragonflies. Each time I go out I learn how to identify a few more species. I’ve gotten pictures of most of them so far, so let’s take a look.

The eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) is a medium-small dragonfly (roughly an inch and a half long) that comes in a variety of bright colors. The females and juveniles are green, the adult males are blue, and males of intermediate ages are a combination of blue and green.

When young males start to turn blue, the color first changes on their abdomen then works its way up.
A male with only a hint of green on its thorax
The brilliant green of the female pondhawk

I have not seen the male of the common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), the sex which gives the species its name, but I have seen the female and she is just as gorgeous. Both her wing and body patterns are very beautiful, though not as colorful as many species.

Common whitetail

The smallest dragonflies I’ve seen have been members of the meadowhawk group. Unfortunately the juveniles of a few species cannot be differentiated so I can’t positively ID them. They were not much longer than in inch and were rather dainty-looking.

Juvenile meadowhawk

One of the most common dragonflies in the state is the twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella). It is the only one I knew how to recognize before I joined the monitoring project.  Their boldly-patterned wings are distinct even in flight. They’re on the larger side of the spectrum, at just over two inches in length.

Twelve-spotted skimmer- a larger dragonfly that’s hard to miss

The largest species I’ve seen so far is the only one I haven’t been able to photograph. The common green darner (Anax junius) measures in at at three inches and has some bulk to it as well. Out of all of them, its the easiest to identify without binoculars, as the green thorax and blue abdomen of the male are very striking. It’s the most interesting of all of them to watch. It never seems to perch (which is why I don’t have pictures) and the highly territorial males engage in aerial combat frequently.

The species I have seen the greatest numbers of so far is the blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). They have been at almost every pond I’ve been to lately, sometimes in great abundance. They’re almost one and a half inches long and have a distinct black tip to their abdomen.

The blue dasher rests with its wings farther forward than other dragonflies.

So I’ve identified a few species and had fun along the way.  I can’t wait to learn more so I can totally rock this citizen science thing.