Ripples 4/19/24

By Max Kornetzke, land manager

Early spring often evokes the imagery of showy flowers. Many are delighted after winter to see the native plants like trilliums, spring beauties, or bloodroot; or, for many Americans, ornamentals such as daffodils, crocus, and tulips.  But spring is also a time for some unique flowering plants to offer their unusual beauty.

Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) and Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) are two hemi-parasitic plants that bloom in mid-April to early May.  Hemi-parasites are plants that are partially parasitic; they have specialized root structures called haustoria that attach to the host plant’s roots in order to siphon nutrients, but they also still receive energy from photosynthesis. Because they photosynthesize, they produce chlorophyll, which gives them green leaves, unlike true parasites, which have evolved to receive all of their energy from their hosts and may have white (Monotropa uniflora), red (Corallorhiza species), yellow (Conopholis americana) even orange (Cuscuta species) coloration.

Though these two plants are not closely related, they’re both often found in the same habitat of dry, well- draining soils at the edge of or in open woodlands and prairies. As they push out their fresh leaves, they both often have reddish to purple pigmentation, a common adaptation for plants that protects their young leaves from the sun’s radiation.

Bastard toadflax’s common name comes from its elliptic leaves alternating up the stem resembling that of various species of toadflax. The white flowers form in clusters at the ends of the stem and upper leaf axils. If you find one, you will find many of this plant as they spread to form colonies via their rhizomatic root systems. It is also very generalist with what genera of plants it will latch its haustoria onto, including: maples, birches, oaks, roses, asters, sedges, and grasses.

Wood Betony’s leaves are very striking. They have many deeply cut, toothed, rounded lobes that have downy hairs and an overall wrinkly look. The initial growth is a small rosette, and as they send up their flowering stock smaller leaves spiral around the stem. The flower structure is just as interesting as the leaves. Yellow tubes poke out, spiraling around the inflorescence (flower head). These tubes are relatively long and attract pollinators with long tongues such as various bumblebees, butterflies, and skippers. The host plants for Wood Betony include asters and native grasses.

Make sure to keep your eyes on the ground this spring in search of the curious patterns created by these intriguing hemi-parasites.

Photo split: left care of Max Kornetzke, right care of  inaturalist  (c) Brandon Corder.


Ripples 4/11/24

by Kennedy Zittel, naturalist

Spring is here! And with that brings a lot of birds returning for the warmer months once more.  Among those returning birds is one of my all-time favorites! Perhaps not everyone’s top choice when thinking of their favorite bird, but it holds a top spot on my list. Soaring high in the sky with its wings held in a V-shape… the turkey vulture!

Now hold on, I know what you are probably thinking, but they are actually really neat birds with some remarkable adaptations that allow them to live as they do. They also do us and the environment a HUGE favor. Without scavenging animals like vultures, there would be dead animals and diseases everywhere…yuck.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t like them because vultures “look weird” because they have no feathers on their heads, but that helps keep them clean while they eat. Their lack of head feathers is where they get their name from – because they resemble wild turkeys (who also lack head feathers). 

Besides their iconic bald head, turkey vultures have dark-colored feathers with a 6-foot wingspan. When they fly they hold their wings in a V-shape. V for Vulture! With those large wings they can soar up to 200 miles in a single day.

Another reason people give for not liking them is because of what they eat. Turkey vultures aren’t the only raptors that eat carrion (dead things), other raptors like red-tailed hawks and bald eagles eat dead things too (and everyone loves those guys -how unfair). A lot of animals are opportunistic – eating dead animals is an easy meal for many. However, turkey vultures are the only scavenging bird that cannot kill their own prey. Their feet are not strong enough to grab live prey, so instead, they use their strong beak to rip apart already dead things.

Vultures have the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds – an adaptation that allows them to find food far away. They can smell a dead animal from over a mile away… whew

Vultures play a big role in keeping the environment clean AND healthy. Their stomachs help stop diseases from spreading in the environment – saving a lot of other animals (and us) from getting sick. Their stomachs are highly acidic, which kills bacteria and diseases. That means that if they eat an animal that has a disease, that disease dies in the vulture’s stomach. Their stomachs are strong enough to get rid of things like Salmonella, E. coli, botulism, rabies, anthrax, and more. 

Speaking of super stomachs, if they feel threatened they will throw up! Their stomach acid is around 100 times more acidic than a human’s (and stronger than battery acid) and they can send their puke up to 10 feet away. That is one powerful way to keep predators away! 

Super soaring, super smelling, super stomachs… all of those fun adaptations help keep them fed and the environment clean – a real life superhero! Nature’s clean-up crew hard at work, thank you turkey vultures!

Photo credit: Cornell, All About Birds


Ripples 4/4/24

chat Jessica Johnsrud: 

 By Jessica Johnsrud, education coordinator/assistant director

Recently, some of the staff and DNR employees were conducting surveys in the swales within the preserve. It was a cool, March day and the wood frogs were singing all around us. A few people were slowly wading in a swale, looking for amphibians and their eggs. One staff member noticed something moving slowly through the water and carefully used a net to scoop it up. We put the creature in a small container with water for observation and realized we found fairy shrimp!

Fairy shrimp are a bit of an oddball. They belong to the crustacean group, but do not have a hard exoskeleton like their relatives the lobster or shrimp. Adults have 20 segments to their body and eyes that stick out on the side of their head. Their tail is transparent and if you look closely, you may notice the beating of their tube-like heart. Fairy shrimp are found in temporary spring ponds and swales and are a signal that spring has arrived.  

These organisms are small, only about ½-1 inch long and move slowly through the water. They swim with their belly-side up and have several long, leg-like appendages that gracefully sway back and forth. The legs help with locomotion, breathing and directing tiny organisms like protozoans, bacteria, algae and detritus (dead stuff) to its mouth. Their diet, along with their age and the bacteria present in the water, affect the color of the fairy shrimp, which can range in color from whiteish to orange to blue to red to green.

Male fairy shrimp have noticeably large heads because they have claspers for holding the female during mating. Mating takes place in April and May and the males die shortly after. The female carries her eggs in a sac on the underside of her body and the eggs are released every 2-6 days during her 1-3 week lifespan. The eggs are technically cysts or fully-developed embryos, meaning they can hatch as soon as conditions such as temperature, light, and water levels are optimal.

The cysts are incredibly hardy and stay dormant through the dry summer and freezing winter. They can even remain viable for several decades! Once snow melt and rain returns, the cysts hatch into larvae, which continually grow and molt until they are adults. The cysts have adapted to the uncertainty of life in a spring pond and only a small portion hatch at a time. This ensures that a bank of fairy shrimp cysts remains for the future.

Fairy shrimp are an important food source for salamanders, frogs, and waterfowl and their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem. They are truly a unique part of the ephemeral ponds and swales of spring.

Photo by Nancy Nabak


Ripples 3/21/24

Written by Kennedy Zittel, naturalist

As each day passes, it is looking and sounding more like spring every day here at Woodland Dunes! Animals are returning and plants are budding… Hello spring! 

Near the Nature Center:
Cardinals and robins perch at the top of trees and sing their springtime songs for audiences below. The woodchucks have woken up, and now spend each sunny day sprawled out on the boardwalk behind the barn – soaking up the sun. Red squirrels sit at the bird feeders and chatter away at one another… and everyone else that goes by of course. 

In the Marsh:
Bald eagles can be seen soaring over the West Twin River, scanning the water below for a bite to eat. Killdeer call out their name across the marsh, announcing their return. Cattail stalks swish back and forth in the breeze while the muskrat uses its tail like a boat rudder to steer around them. The “vote-for-me!” call of the red-winged blackbird echoes across the marsh once more. The river otters that scamper and slide across the boardwalk are full of extra mischief it seems, leaping off of the boardwalk into the marsh like kids playing at a pool. 

By the Prairies:
The ants that form large mounds in the prairies have become more active, they spend their days marching across the grassy trails on the search for food. Sandhill cranes fly overhead, with their loud calls making their presence known long before they come into sight. Little bluestem grasses swish and sway in the breeze. On sunny days, garter snakes bask in the sun on the edges of the prairie. 

Out in the Forest:
Skunk cabbage emerged weeks ago, its unusual shape dotting the wetland landscape and causing giggles from kids when they hear why it’s called that. Speaking of, spring brings more field trips – the sounds of kids laughing and learning can be heard out in the forest. Along with staff and students competing over who can make the best chickadee sound… the real “cheeseburger!” call of the black-capped chickadee can be heard throughout the forest too. Blue-spotted salamanders cross the forest on the search for an ephemeral pool to lay their eggs. The loud laughing calls of the pileated woodpeckers ring out through the tree canopy. Some trees have begun to bud, new leaves waiting for warmer sunny weather. Wood frogs and spring peepers have begun to sing from the swales. 

Spring always feels like the fastest season, with many programs and many changes with what animals and plants are around, it seems that each day something new and exciting is happening. Try to come on out here to see what new things are happening here at the Dunes, as you never know what fun surprises can be seen or heard across the preserve.

photo by Kennedy Zittel

Ripples 3/14/24

Contributed by Nancy Nabak, communication coordinator

Last week we shared a story from our March 1978 Dunesletter, which was received with great enthusiasm. This week, we are staying with that issue and sharing the original Ripples from that newsletter, written by A.G. OLIUS.

“Silvery-grey pussy willows are familiar harbingers of spring. By the time the exquisite gold-spangled staminate blossoms are fully developed, however, they are generally overlooked… out-rivaled by their wetland companions, the marsh marigolds.

The pussy willow is a member of a family that also includes the various poplars. Both the pollen and seed-bearing flowers of these trees appear in tassels knows as aments, more commonly called, “catkins.” The male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, with rare exceptions.

Because they flower so early in the spring, willows are prepared for encounters with weather. Flowers are formed under the single bud scale.

As the flower cluster begins to grow, with the first warm rays of spring sunshine, it pushes back the waxy scale, but is further protected from damage by wind and bright sunlight with hairs which tip the flowers. In this stage they are the well-knows willow “pussies.”

As the season progresses, pollen-dusted stamens on the male trees reach out from their fur-bordered scales, while on the female trees, each fur-ringed scale of the greenish catkins thrusts our Y-shaped stigmas.

Nectar-seeking insects and wind carry pollen from staminate trees to the stigmas of the pistillate ones. Bees search out the early spring bounty of pollen and the honey supply from the nectar, which is produced at the base of the catkins. These attractive “goodies” assure pollination, in addition to wing-borne encounters.

In June, the willow seeds are ripe. The pistillate catkins are then made up of numerous tiny pods, filled with seeds, each equipped with a fuzzy parachute, forming “willow cotton” which drifts off with the wind. The staminate catkins have long-since withered and fallen to the ground.

Willow seeds retain their ability to germinate for only a few days, and under the right conditions do so immediately. The multitudes of their kind would soon crowd out other species in the forests, except that they need extra bright light. For this reason, they are pioneers in sunny wetlands, or often move in after burns or clearing of the land.

Willows hybridize readily. The lineage of a willow “pussy” may be as questionable as a stray cat’s litter of kittens.”

Artwork by Mary Beth Prondzinski