A phenology year - gear up for grasslands!
Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation
What we have seen this past month
Wow! Spring migration and baby time reached its peak in mid-May.
As Gladys Black would say, “The Jungle Birds are back!” This time of year was one of her favorites to see all the colorful warblers, orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, and numerous others that come from South America. Some of these amazing birds call Iowa home for their breeding grounds, others continue on north into Canada to nest. It is a whirlwind of some of the most colorful birds we ever get to see. These birds are the latest to return as they need to have enough insects to survive. They fly an incredible long journey in their most beautiful spring plumage. Many who feed songbirds, add grape jelly and oranges to feeders to provide and extra boost to these migrants.
The end of May is considered peak songbird nesting time. A few birds to note for May returns: scarlet and summer tanagers, Baltimore and northern orioles, indigo buntings, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, yellow warblers, great-crested flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, chimney swifts, common nighthawks, eastern whip-poor-will, eastern kingbirds, American redstart, dickcissel, common yellowthroat, northern parula, bobolinks and many, many more. For a list of nesting birds in Iowa, visit this page from the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union.
The turkeys and pheasant have been nesting and some eggs are beginning to hatch.
The early migrant monarch butterflies have been trickling through Iowa and laying eggs along the way. If you look closely to milkweed plants, check them out for any of the pinhead size eggs. Many of the eggs have already begun to hatch. We should watch for this first generation of monarchs as we are out and about. Journey North is a great way to record sightings, follow migrations, and be a part of the comeback of our migrating monarchs and other butterflies. Other butterflies and skippers being located are least skippers, silver-spotted skippers, tiger swallowtails, cabbage whites, sulphurs, red admirals, painted ladies, American ladies, and spring azures. Last month we got to view Henry’s Elfin and we have not located any since the first part of May.
May is “wetland month.” The water warms, the underwater insects are flourishing, and some are ready to become airborne. Beaver kits are growing, wood ducks are out with their young, Canada goslings are swimming with their parents, and dragons and damsels (the raptors of the insect world) are beginning to make their appearance around the area. Salamander nymphs are hatching and growing legs, donning their feathery gills under the water. Painted and snapping turtle eggs laid last year have been hatching. The adult turtles are migrating from bodies of water to land areas to lay eggs now and will continue into the first part of June. Wetlands are a busy place in May, we sure hope you were able to get out and about to see some of the many mysteries that they hold.
two green dragons in the forest floor
The forest floor spring wildflowers are mostly done blooming as the tree canopy has filled in. These understory plants are some of the last to bloom and are now flourishing: Solomon’s seal, false solomon’s seal, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit, green dragons, mayapple, showy orchis, and large twayblade orchids. Maidenhair fern doesn’t bloom, but makes a most beautiful presence along woodland creeks. The buckeye trees have bloomed. The black locust are boasting white blooms now. Basswood blooms will become very fragrant and the box elder is blooming. The raspberries and blackberry vines are blooming and gooseberries are setting on this prickly shrub. Many have found morels, dryads saddle, and a few other edibles in the woodlands.
The itty-bitty large twayblade orchid is also referred to as mauve sleekwort. It is a new, late spring find at Cordova Park, and grows in disturbed areas of mesic woodland habitats.
The two tiny basal leaves are glossy and it may produce up to 30 blooms. This orchid requires a particular strain of a Rhizoctonia/Tulasnella fungus. Otherwise, it cannot survive.
One of the tallest native trees in Iowa is the yellow poplar, also known as the tulip tree, has been blooming since the latter part of May. Many birds, bees, and insects adore the yellow poplar. We always look forward to this blooming tree at Marion County Park.
Snakes discovered in Cordova Park in May were: smooth earth snake, red-sided garter, and plains garter snake.
On rare occasions, we get a glimpse of velvet covered antlers growing on the white-tail bucks. Fawns are being born. Seems as though the bloom time of the Canada anemone is a good time to note for fawns to be born.
Wood sorrel, wood betony, yarrow, pimpernel and spiderwort has been blooming in the rocky, savanna areas around Lake Red Rock. Numerous other species are beginning to show their green growth. We will look forward to what blooms in June, such as, alumroot, the continued bloom of spiderwort and four-o’clocks.
The Flower Moon was on May 18, but we had a cloudy day and viewing was limited.
A closer look at something from the previous month
Many woodlands in southern Iowa hold manmade ephemeral ponds plus some naturally occuring. Ephemeral (seasonal) ponds are usually shallow, may dry up without rainfall, and do not hold fish. These small bodies of water are great for many species of frogs and toads and their survival rate is much greater without having larger predators in the water gobbling them up. The insects in these small ponds can also flourish. These shallow bodies of water are normally filled with macro-invertebrates like dragonfly nymphs, diving beetles, water beetles, scuds, and numerous other insect larvae. There is not much wind, so the water is very calm and covered with duckweed. In the spring, wood ducks may appear within their woodland nesting habitats and feed from these small areas. Turtles awaken in late April to sit upon the logs or fallen trees. The vocals of chorus frogs and cricket frogs are appealing. Other wildlife also visit these seasonal ponds for water and nourishment.
Marion County has a few of these ephemeral ponds dotted within our woodland areas. These areas may appear to be a large watering hole, but on further investigations of life under the water, so much more! You might find something that resembles the transformation of a frog from tadpole to adult, but yet, different. These are salamander nymphs. Not tiger salamanders, but small-mouthed salamanders. Small-mouthed salamanders are nocturnal mole salamanders, living most of their adult life under the ground.
Small-mouthed salamander nymphs!
The adults can range from 5-7 inches long and are typically black or dark brown in color with light-grey/silver blotches. They prefer these moist habitats, and usually congregate early in the spring to breed and lay eggs. A female can lay as many as 700 eggs, but are spread out onto submerged logs, rocks and plants about 30 eggs at each area. The adults feed on slugs, earthworms, and insects. When the larvae hatch, they will be feeding on daphnea (a water flea) and other small invertebrates that live within the water.
When these amphibians hatch, they are tiny and almost transparent. Their beginning life cycle is one that occurs when the larvae undergo metamorphosis. The salamanders will become longer, grow legs and toes, gain feathery gills and continue life under the water. As summer begins, the salamander gills will slowly change into lungs and they become terrestrial (living on land) and will continue to mature within the woodland ecosystem surrounding their breeding area. Stay with us next month to see how the process changes with small-mouthed salamanders.
What we are expecting to see next month?
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has set aside the weekend of Friday, June 7-9 as FREE fishing weekend. You can try your hand at fishing in Iowa waters without a license (fishing regulations still apply). It is a great time to go with your children or just reconnect with fishing. The largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish are beginning to spawn in Iowa lakes and ponds.
More and more species of dragons and damsels will be hatching from our local wetlands.
We will be hearing and seeing many baby birds fledging nests in our woodlands and woodland edges.
The bobwhite quail and turkeys will be hatching.
More moths will become more noticeable, especially the polyphemus, luna, and cecropia. We look forward to the clearwing moths as they begin to journey through our prairies and roadsides feeding on the aromatic prairie plants.
June will be a good month for berry picking.
The prairie areas come to life in June. We will see blooms within reconstructed prairies, pollinator plots, prairie remnants and backyard plantings. This is a really fun month to gather more sightings of butterflies, birds, moths and some very exotic looking insects. Explore the grasslands this month!
June is also a big recreation month around many of our reservoirs, lakes, and rivers in Iowa. Just a reminder to make sure to clean boats/trailers and equipment after your outings to help prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species such as the zebra mussel. We are fortunate to have not located this species in our Central Iowa area. If boating… please wear your lifejacket!
Jupiter will be the closest to the earth and the brightest. Grab a scope or a pair of binoculars to see the four brightest moons.
Be sure to check out the Poweshiek Skipper Project and their monthly butterfly forecast for central Iowa.
An activity to try!
Scavenger Hunt Ideas
Participants can locate things on their own, without everyone finding the exact same thing.
Please do not remove anything from its place, unless it is trash.
Take a photo or sketch a picture of what you found!
- A feather
- One seed dispersed by the wind
- A maple Leaf
- A thorn
- A bone
- One camouflaged animal or insect
- Something round
- Something fuzzy
- Something sharp
- A piece of fur or animal track
- Something BEAUTIFUL
- Something that is of no use in nature
- A chewed leaf (preferably not by you!)
- Something that makes a noise
- Something important in nature
- Something soft
- Something that reminds you of yourself - be prepared for explanation/sharing
- A BIG SMILE
Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa
As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.
Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.