AN OCCASIONAL WEB PUBLICATION - Issue Three, July 2006
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INTRODUCTION
 Playing outside, taking pictures, writing about what I saw and did. Can it get any better than that? Hope you enjoy this newsletter. The background is meadowlark eggs. Thanks for hiking through! Use the links at the bottom to see a schedule of programs and book signings. I'm in PA in August, have several programs in MI this fall, as well as presenting at the ALDHA Gathering in WV, and will be making a tour of southern IN in February.
                                                                         -- Joan
A POST-EASTER EGG HUNT
 Hiding those eggs in plain sight Read more
QUICKIE TRAIL TRIVIA
 
  1. easier: Which trail was recently honored in the Wonders of America series of USPS postage stamps? Click for the answer (a popup window)
  2. harder: Why are some of us unhappy about that designation? Click for the answer (a popup window)
THE EAGLE AND THE MUSKRAT
 An afternoon adventure by canoe Read more
FRED MEIJER - WHITE PINE TRAIL
 A chunk of money comes with a price Read more
IT'S PUZZLING
 A laddergram for word puzzle lovers Read more
MILKING THE WEED
 You've seen one milkweed, you've seen 'em all. Or have you...? Read more

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A POST-EASTER EGG HUNT
 Can you find the eggs? One summer a killdeer built her nest (if you can call it that!) in the parking lot at a facility where I was working. If you can't find the eggs, roll your mouse over the picture for some help.

Birds that nest on the ground rely on the eggs being well hidden by some means (in this case camouflage), and then when the eggs hatch the nestlings mature much faster than birds who are hatched in trees. Sometimes the babies are on their own in just a few days. I couldn't catch a picture of the baby killdeer in their cute little "tuxedos," but if you've ever spotted a line of them following the mother bird around you will know what I mean.
 This spring, I was walking in the field in back of my house when suddenly a meadowlark flew up right at my feet. Since this was the view in front of me, I sure had no visual clue as to why she had waited so long to fly, but I suspected a nest in the grass.

Again, roll your mouse over the picture to see where to focus your attention.

Got that clump of weeds? (It happens to be cow vetch.) OK, now we'll peek underneath it.
 


The meadowlark had created a perfect bower under the vetch, and laid 4 creamy eggs, speckled with maroon, neatly in a grass-lined cup. If I had not practically stepped on it by accident, I would never have known it was there.

Meadowlark at e-Nature
Killdeer at e-Nature

 

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THE EAGLE AND THE MUSKRAT
 "Just call me the little muskrat," spluttered Ellen as she wriggled between another tree trunk and the sandy depths of the South Branch of the Pentwater River. She was not seeking cattails to gnaw, but for a way to drag our canoe through the branches of five trees lying across the water.

It's not certain what role I was playing except that of the local idiot. I had volunteered to trot, in shorts and sandals, across the nettle-and-multi-flora-rose-covered point of land to see if the river ahead was clear. "No problem, here!" I called, and the muskrat proceeded to weave our red craft through the tangled branches.

We two small females had begun by hefting the canoe on to the roof of my Forester, and then off again at the public access near River Barn on the Pentwater River. We put in about 11 am, and drifted to where the South Branch of the river flows in to the main channel. There we turned upstream, but with a good tailwind to help us along. Two hours later we had reached a sand dune behind the Trading Post (which is all of a five- minute walk from where we began).

We clambered up the dune, sat down and slid immediately back to the water's edge. Next we dug holes in the sand to hold our derrieres in place. These we daintily covered with a towel because we are such delicate girls. Ellen had provided a surprisingly sophisticated lunch for a muskrat. We dined on smoked fish, home-pickled asparagus spears and local black sweet cherries. I know I got the best end of this deal. All I had to do was show up with a vehicle and a muscle. Ellen provided the canoe, the plan, and the lunch!

After eating we continued upstream. The river meandered between steep wooded banks, much more interesting than the open marshes of the earlier section. In another 30 minutes we passed under the US 31 expressway bridge, a five minute drive from where we began. Soon we reached the aforementioned trees, and we did manage to manoeuver the canoe through them. In a few more minutes, however, we came to a large tree completely blocking the river. We would need to portage past this one. Since the land route was barricaded with nettles we turned around. Next time we'll bring long pants.

Ellen had promised that we'd spot an eagle, but so far the noble creature had not cooperated with her plan. While we were paddling furiously downstream (now we had a headwind), from the marsh beside us flashed a large white and brown streak which rose to soar on the stiff breeze. Surprisingly, a red-tail hawk was riding the same column of air without interacting with the eagle. We watched the birds' graceful dance, while struggling to paddle enough to keep from being pushed upstream.

Total distance on the river, about 3 miles each way. Rivers have a way of wiggling around the landscape in much more interesting fashion than the roads. And despite the fact that this awesome adventure took place on the 4th of July, we did not see another human until just as we reached the end of our journey. There a large male appeared who helped us get the canoe back on top of the car.

Next time we'll start from Hart and see if we can paddle back to the large tree. Perhaps then the muskrat will reappear.

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FRED MEIJER - WHITE PINE TRAIL
 
If you live in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky or Ohio you almost certainly know the name Fred Meijer. In my opinion, which I get to expound here, it's everything good about box stores. High quality groceries and good general merchandise at prices that are affordable, mean that most of my shopping happens at Meijer stores. But Fred Meijer, the founder, is a well-known philanthropist as well, and as of July 2006, he has stepped into the arena of trails.

The White Pine Trail is a rail-trail on the former Grand Rapids and Indiana line from Cadillac to Comstock Park, just north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. And Meijer offered to donate $1 million dollars towards paving a section of the trail. $2.2 million more will come from federal sources. The catch, his name must now be included in this linear state park's title. Some legislators fussed, saying that this goes against state policy to include the names of private individuals in public resources. But Governor Jennifer Granholm instructed the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board to accept the gift and add Meijer's name to the park after it turned out that there is no clear policy on this question of naming.

Here's my next opinion. The North Country National Scenic Trail is trying to build a 4600-mile trail on a budget of less than $1 million a year. They aren't about to re-name this trail, but they sure wouldn't mind if someone threw that amount of money their way!

White Pine Trail

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IT'S PUZZLING
 
Laddergrams are fun without being too difficult. The theme for this one is SEEING YOUR WAY IN CAMP. Download it here as a Word document and try your luck.

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MILKING THE WEED
 
common milkweed
common milkweed, dusty rose, Asclepias syriaca

That milky sap is messy if you have to walk through a field of them, and all those seeds in the fall with silky parachutes can be a real nuisance. If you've seen one milkweed you've seen them all, right? Definitely not! There are almost 40 species of milkweed that grow in the Northeastern US, and many near relatives. There are over 3000 species worldwide in the family Asclepiadaceae, in 315 genera (that's the first part of a species name such as ASCLEPIAS syriaca. You could easily spend a lifetime just studying the humble milkweed cousins!

I happened to find one this month that I had never seen before, not 30 miles from my house, so I began to think about them again, and to collect some photos. Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of some of the most unusual, yet...


white milkweed
white milkweed?,
Asclepias variegata

But first, here's a simple variation on the familiar theme, white milkweed. It has white blossoms, rather obviously, but the leaves should be broader, so I'm not sure if my specimen is truly variegata or just a variant of the syriaca.

All milkweeds have the same flower structure with five swept-back petals, and a five-part cup with five little horns inside curving over the center of the cup. So no matter what the leaves look like, if you are seeing that flower structure you have some kind of milkweed.

Most everyone knows that monarch butterfly larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds. But did you remember that toxic glycosides in the milky sap are incorporated by the caterpillars, and that is what makes the monarchs so distasteful to birds?


Butterfly Weed
butterfly weed, orange,
Asclepias tuberosa.

One of the showiest is butterfly weed. People like this one for their gardens, although it is difficult to grow from seed. Over the centuries many milkweeds have been used as ornamentals. There are very few truly orange flowers, and this is obviously one of them. This is also one milkweed that doesn't have milky sap! You might also note that its leaves are much narrower than the common milkweed.

"Asclepias" comes from the name of the Greek god, Asklepios, god of medicine. Milkweed was believed to have medicinal properties. A tea made from the seeds and roots of some species is purported to be a gentle laxative, and to be good for the heart. (Experimenting without more knowledge is not recommended!)

The tough fibers of dogbanes, another milkweed cousin, have been historically used to make cordage. Yet the fluffy silk from the seeds is so soft that goldfinches seek it out to line their nests. That silk can be carded and spun into thread, and was used to make candlewicks which burn cleaner than cotton ones!




swamp milkweed
swamp milkweed,
Asclepias incarnata

purple milkweed
purple milkweed,
Asclepias purpurescens

showy milkweed
showy milkweed,
Asclepias speciosa



One of my personal favorites, since I love to puddle around in wetlands, is swamp milkweed. Its beautiful magenta blooms, and tall habit with smooth, narrow leaves make it easy to spot.

If you find a milkweed that looks pretty much like the common one, but the flowers are much brighter in color, and the leaves more pointed, you probably have purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurescens

And if you like pink, the great plains sport showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. These are large star-like blossoms, still with that same structure, and twisted, recurved flower stalks.


poke milkweed
poke milkweed,
Asclepias exaltata

But I promised you one that was new to me, and now we have arrived. I was hiking down a sand two-track road, when I was grabbed ("new" plants have clutching little hands that thrust themselves out and twine their fingers in my clothing and hair and drag me over to look at them) by a plant nearly as tall as I am.

Something had been chewing on this specimen, something large, perhaps a deer? The leaves were pointed at both ends, the clusters of flowers were loose and very droopy. Each blossom was 3/4 of an inch in length, just huge, yet their shape clearly said "milkweed." Sure enough, this one is called poke milkweed.The blossoms on this plant really looked two-toned, with the swept back petals a pale green, and the cup a creamy white.

I suspect that the name comes from a similar appearance, when small, to pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. The two plants surely can't be confused when they are more than a foot tall.

So after feeling so elated at seeing a wildflower I'd never seen before so near to where I live, can you believe that in the following week I found 3 MORE "new" species? The rest are not milkweeds, so I won't share them here. I will confess that I found 2 of the previously unseen plants within 300 yards of my house! I really feel like I know how Robert Louis Stevenson felt when he wrote, "The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."

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copyright 2006 Shark Enterprises
Joan H. Young