West Grady Knoll and Greene Prairie

Monarch on marsh milkweed

Monarch on marsh milkweed

Nine people attended our 1 p.m. tour to see what was happening on the Grady Knoll and Greene Prairie. It was a humid 82 degrees, partly cloudy and breezy. Due to an increase in mosquitoes, especially in the wooded areas, we walked rather quickly to the more open areas of the knoll and prairie.

During our visit we found 41 flower species in bloom, heard or saw ten different kinds of birds, and saw only two butterflies—a monarch and a yellow swallowtail—and the following beetles.

We entered the Grady Knoll at Y2 and were very excited to find several beautiful iridescent native dogbane beetles (Chrysocus auratus) on dogbane plants. They emerge in mid-June and can be seen for a month or two. They do very little damage to plants. I am very fond of these beetles and as a child referred them as “my jewelbugs.”

Walking on we found lots and lots of another similar looking beetle. Everyone was familiar with the name Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) but not how to identify it. I held one of the iridescent beetles in my hand and drew attention to the five or more white tufts of hair on the edge of the abdomen. Unlike the docile dogbane, the Japanese beetle tends to spread its legs out and either quickly drops down or flies away. The beetles are native to Japan. They arrived in New Jersey in 1916 in nursery stock. They have a voracious appetite and devour over 300 different kinds of plants. What a nuisance!

Nearby, and also on the knoll, we heard or saw 10 bird species. I was especially excited to hear the sweet, soft, whistled “bouncing bill” song of the field sparrow. This bird is not common due to habitat loss. We also heard the “drink your tea” song of the Eastern towhee and the song of the indigo bunting, song sparrow, gold finch, chickadee, and common yellowthroat. We saw a turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, and kingbird.

Now for those 41 kinds of flowers in bloom.

First the white species. The showiest of the white flowers were flowering spurge, white prairie-clover, and rattlesnake-master. Others not as showy include wild quinine, fleabane, mountain mint, Culver’s-root, yarrow, lyrate rock-cress, and in wooded areas enchanter’s nightshade and pokeweed.

Next are the 17 different kinds of purple or deep rose flowers we enjoyed. Purple prairie clover was stunning on the knoll. Near the entrance to Greene Prairie near Z1, a large group of light rose-purple hedge nettle plants were very showy. Heading towards Z6 we noticed a large patch of purplish-pink flowering plants far off the trail. Long ago my good friend naturalist Ken Wood and I identified the milkweed that grew in that area. It was prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), a Wisconsin threatened species. (Incidentally, we had permission to go off trail.) My guess is that patch of milkweed we saw on Sunday just might be prairie milkweed. Here and there gayfeather (Liatris pyncostacya) dotted the landscape with bright magenta “dense crowned spikes.” Other purple flowers in bloom were swamp milkweed, spotted and purple Joe-Pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum and E. purpureum), lead-plant, bergamot, Canada and Illinois tick-trefoil, pinweed, vervain, nodding wild onion, a few prairie phlox, heal-all, and one native loosestrife (Lythrum alatum).

And now, the 10 yellow flowering species we observed. On the knoll both slender and common evening primrose were blooming. On Greene Prairie the list included black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), sweet black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), ox-eye, St. John’s-wort, cinquefoil, lance-leaved loosestrife, and a few cut-leaf compass-plants. As we approached the east end (before Z5) we were treated to a wonderland of bright yellow early goldenrods (Solidago juncea). Most leaves had only one vein. The leaves of Solidago missouriensis have three parallel veins. The area was glowing with hundreds of goldenrods, possibly both species.

There were two orange flowering species. One butterfly-weed on the knoll and several Turk’s-cap lilies on Greene Prairie.

One should visit the prairie often because no two visits are the same. Every year I have noticed an explosion of a certain species and then it takes several years, sometimes ten years or more, for that to occur again. Have you noticed? Can you think of reasons why this happens? Several years ago I walked along the trail from Z1 to Z5 and was surrounded on all sides and overhead by bright yellow blooms on top of leafless silphium stems (compass-plant, Silphium laciniatum, and prairie dock, S. terebinthinaceum). This year the area is very different. No towering stalks of yellow flowers. Instead, lovely shades of green sedges and short grasses. Above the sea of green, the silvery-gray foliage of hundreds of semi-shrubby lead plants give the appearance of a mini savanna—quite beautiful!

After the tour I checked our 28-year-old 15-nest-box bluebird trail. I have the following disappointing news to report. This year bluebirds laid 35 eggs (last year 51). Twenty-six hatched (last year 44). Five babies and nine eggs disappeared—no evidence of nest disturbance by raccoon or sticks brought in by wrens. Snake? As of today, 15 have fledged (last year 40). However, three babies are about to fledge and another box has three eggs that were laid this week. My hope is that they will survive and our young bluebird total will be 21. Two boxes had two successful broods each.

—Sylvia Marek