Just your typical country road in Michigan…

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White-tailed doe and fawn, photographed 07/22/2014 northwest of Adrian, Michigan.

Living and working in rural southeast Michigan, I spend a lot of time driving along gravel country roads. Along the way I get to see a fair number of interesting plants and animals. The largest animals to be found here are white-tailed deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus virginianus). Although they’re pretty common I never get tired of stumbling upon them.

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Plant-Insect Interaction: Spicebush swallowtail on a common buttonbush

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Spicebush swallowtail (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae: Papilio troilus) feeding on the nectar of a common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, Rubiaceae). Photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Spicebush swallowtails (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae: Papilio troilus) are relatively large butterflies that can be found in a variety of habitats in eastern North America. Adults spend much of their time feeding on the nectar provided by a number of flowering plant species. The individual shown here was visiting the unique flowers of a common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, Rubiaceae) in northwest Ohio. Adults spend much of the rest of their time looking for mates. Eggs are laid singly on the undersides of leaves and larval hosts include several species of trees and shrubs, especially spicebush (Lindera benzoin, Lauraceae).

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Random Plant: Canaigre dock

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Canaigre dock (Rumex hymenosepalus, Polygonaceae) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Canaigre dock (Rumex hymenosepalus, Polygonaceae) is a rather unique plant that is native to the southwest United States and northern Mexico. This member of the buckwheat family can be found growing in sandy soil at lower elevations, and is well-adapted to the dry climate. The large, waxy leaves help collect the limited rainfall and direct it toward the plant’s tuber-like roots. This perennial also features thick and fleshy stems and dense clusters of small, six-parted flowers. The stems and flowers can range from green to red, and the flowers give way to red or brown seed pods.

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Canaigre dock (Rumex hymenosepalus, Polygonaceae) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Also known as wild rhubarb, this plant has had a number of uses throughout history. The tissues are rich in tannin that is used for tanning leather, and it can be made into several colors of dyes. The young leaves are edible and may have been used as food by Ancestral Pueblo peoples, and other parts of the plant have been used in traditional medicine.

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White-tailed prairie dog

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White-tailed prairie dog (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Cynomys leucurus) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Although the black-tailed prairie dogs (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Cynomys ludovicianus) of the Great Plains are the most common, most widespread, and best-known prairie dogs, there are four additional species that can also be found in North America. Among them are the white-tailed prairie dogs (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Cynomys leucurus) that inhabit parts of eastern Utah, western Colorado, and much of Wyoming.

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White-tailed prairie dog (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Cynomys leucurus) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

These large rodents live in underground colonies among higher-altitude desert shrublands and grasslands. After emerging from hibernation in the spring, they soon begin mating. The rest of the year is spent raising young and fattening themselves up for the next winter. They will eat a number of different plants, depending on what’s available at a given time.

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White-tailed prairie dog (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Cynomys leucurus) photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

White-tailed prairie dogs are preyed upon by many other animals including ferrets, badgers, eagles, hawks, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and foxes. None of these predators, however, have had such a devastating effect on them as humans. Although prairie dogs improve soil quality and plant growth by aerating, tilling, and fertilizing the earth, they can also be pests in crop fields. Because of this humans embarked on a large-scale eradication campaign early in the twentieth century. Millions of acres of prairie dog towns were poisoned and over 95% of the population was wiped out. Conservation measures in more recent decades have helped them recover somewhat, but their numbers are still only a fraction of what they once were.

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Stuff I’m Reading: “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey (3)

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View north from near the Windows area. Photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope…”

–Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire

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Random Insect: Robber fly

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Robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) photographed 06/20/2014 near Clayton, Michigan.

Robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae) are sometimes also known as assassin flies, and for good reason. These stout-bodied predators routinely hunt down a variety of insect prey, some often larger than themselves. Wasps, bees, dragonflies, and grasshoppers are usually on the menu. They’re typically seen resting on high surfaces in relatively dry, open areas, watching for movement. When they see a potential prey item they swoop down, catching it while in flight. In addition to being dangerous to other insects, they can present a hazard to humans as well. Mishandled robber flies will not hesitate to deliver painful bites.

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Robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) photographed 06/20/2014 near Clayton, Michigan.

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Great Blue Heron on the hunt

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Throughout the summer Great Blue Herons (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) can often be seen in and around a variety of North American waters. These large birds spend a lot of time in both saltwater and freshwater environments, wading and patiently waiting for prey. Once a fish, frog, or other small animal wanders too close, these herons can strike with lightning reflexes and grab it with their long bills.

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

Last week I came across this individual on the edge of a large pond at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio. At first it seemed odd to me that it would be hunting in a section that was completely covered in duckweed. I thought the duckweed must have made it impossible for it to see prey. On the other hand, however, the duckweed probably made the heron invisible to animals in the water. I suspect that when the prey animals moved near the surface, they must have disturbed the duckweed enough to draw the heron’s attention. At one point I almost got to witness the heron strike. Something seemed to catch its eye and it began to move…

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

…but then a moment later it stopped and went back to standing motionless. Must have been a false alarm.

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Great Blue Heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae: Ardea herodias) photographed 07/13/2014 at Oak Openings Preserve Metropark near Swanton, Ohio.

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