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Contents tagged with spring

  • The Benefits of Weeds

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    Tags: weeds, violets, maple tree, lake trout, spring

    Created: 6/10/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Ok. Ok. There are a lot of Norway maple haters out there, and I think they are justified in their position.  I agree with everything Seth said in this post, and I’d certainly see a sugar maple instead of a Norway.  That said, there’s an old one outside my house and everyone (including me) enjoys the shock of bright yellow when the leaves turn colors overnight in the autumn. Few people though notice the flowers of the maple. Lots of trees flower before they leaf out in the spring and maples are among these. The flowers are pretty small and the petals are about the same color as the bracts, resulting in a powdery yellow cloud appearing in a cloud around the twigs of the tree. If you’re lucky enough to have squirrels in your neighborhood, you may notice them clipping off these flowers. They are doing this to access the sweet sap, maple syrup in the raw, and unintentionally they are pruning the tree, keeping it a nice, compact shape. They are also delivering little monochromatic bouquets of maple flowers to you.  My kids have been decorating the dinner table with bowls of floating bouquets of maple flowers and arranging them in tiny vases in their doll house. Take a moment to give inconspicuous flowers like those of the maple a close look. You’ll find a cheerful beauty.

    Norway Maple Blooms
    Norway Maple Blooms

    Speaking of cheerful weeds, violets are blooming in profusion these days. Sure they’re weedy but they are not to aggressive and I think they are cute. Plus, their flowers make any dish more beautiful. Sometimes the flowers even have a delicate violet pastille flavor, but you can’t guarantee this with the weedy ones.

    Violets
    Violets

    Finally, this is the week to work on garlic mustard. It’s a vilified weed in this country and rightfully so.  It crowds out our native wildflowers both physically and chemically. (Within its native range, it is a valued wildflower itself and host of a butterfly). Wherever you see it, pull up the beast. This is the best time of year to do so because it has not begun to seed and the soil is easy to work. You may see patches of trillium, ginger or other wildflowers that are surrounded by garlic mustard. Help them out and carefully pull all the mustard nearby. Make sure to clean your boots and pats when you are done though, especially once the plants begin to set seed. It has been observed that garlic mustard is often more common in the gardens of nature lovers and their neighbors. Presumably we are tracking seeds around. 

    Lake Trout with garlic mustard pesto
    Lake Trout with garlic mustard pesto

    The reason this is my favorite week for pulling garlic mustard though is because the plants have begun to bolt—they’re sending their flower stalks up. Pick these stalks before many flowers have opened and steam them as you might asparagus, or mince them into a pesto. You can eat the leaves, too but they are often more bitter. No matter what, I like to add quite a bit of salt to counteract the bitterness and I often cook the shoots with an acid like lime juice or balsamic vinegar, depending on the cuisine. You can often add garlic mustard to Southeast Asian dishes without modifying the recipe. Burmese and Cambodian both regularly make use of bitter herbs; my daughters love adding garlic mustard to Vietnamese spring rolls. As with violets, since these are not cultivated m the flavor can vary from plant to plant so taste as you pick. By adding a bit of garlic mustard to your springtime diet you are helping native ecosystems, eating sustainably, and adding interesting variety to your diet. 

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • Harbingers of Spring

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    Tags: spring, red-winged blackbirds, birds, ornithology, mating calls, Biology

    Created: 3/26/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bluebirds have been the traditional avian harbinger of spring throughout our nation’s history. However, with the various pressures applied by habitat conversion, heavy pesticide application, and the introduction of exotic competitors like house sparrows and starlings, the bluebird is a species few city dwellers will ever see in their neighborhoods again. On the other hand, human activity has been generally good for the red-winged blackbird and throughout the region---city, suburb and rural areas alike—wherever there is tall grass and some standing water, male red-winged blackbirds are arriving in droves.

    As with many bird species, the males arrive first to stake out the best territories; he with the best territory will have the most mating opportunities later in the spring when the females arrive. The male proclaims his fiefdom with a loud metallic call that sounds a bit like a squeaky swing set. At the same time he leans forward to display his eponymous red wings, really just a patch of bright red feathers on his wrist that contrast well with the rest of his jet black body. While it’s a small patch of color, it makes all the difference.  The bigger and more intense patches attract the most mates. 

    In fact, scientists have influenced mating opportunities by experimentally cutting the red feathers off of some males and gluing them on to others. Much like humans who are stereotypically impressed by a man driving a red sports car, regardless of his age or personality, female red-winged blackbirds apparently look no deeper than the red patches on a boys wrists.

    Red-Winged Blackbird with vibrant plumage
    Red Sports Car

    Red-Winged Blackbird with dull plumage
    Hand-me-down van from your parents

    Once the male has established his territory, he will aggressively defend it against all interlopers, including you. It can be fun, and a little daunting, to walk past a breeding colony of red-winged blackbirds. Most will simply scream at you but usually one will sneak up behind you and, when you are not looking, he may drop out of the sky and hit you on the back of the head. Keep your eyes to the sky this spring.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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  • To Bee or Not to Bee

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    Tags: bees, honeybees, winter, spring, honey, pollinator, pollinators, beekeepers

    Created: 3/6/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    We had a mini moment of truth up on the roof this past week -- we took a look into our honey bee hives to see if by chance, some had survived the winter so far. Honestly, there was not much hope. With beekeepers around the country reporting major losses it seemed too much to hope that any of our hives had made it through one of the harshest Chicago winters on record. 

    Honey from the Hive

    Last fall we made the decision to leave all the honey in the hive for our bees, taking none for our traditional honey sale in the museum gift shop. You can buy a little taste of the previous seasons labors in a jar from our gift store. The jars are small, just enough to taste how special our roof top bees are, and not so much that we did not leave them what they need to get through that year, or so we thought. 

    Truthfully, even in the best of years it seems a bit rude and even a little crazy to take honey. Open up a box of bees and take some of their most precious resource, without getting stung…too may times.  We spend the whole summer watching and waiting for this other moment of truth.  How strong is the hive? How much were they able to produce and store? Can they spare some for their caretakers and fans?

    It’s not a new story. People in cultures around the world have been after honey for centuries. There is evidence of humans harvesting honey in cave paintings. Only bees can make it, with their remarkable nectar gathering skills, specialized honey stomach, and a work force to rival whole cities. 

    The manner in which bees are kept, and the ease with which we are able to take a little of the extra honey, has made some real strides over the years. It used to be that you had to completely kill a colony in order to harvest that honey. Now with the use of moveable frames we simply take a few out, process them for honey and return them with much of the comb still in tact.

    Harvesting honey
    Harvesting excess honey in a banner year.

    The previous year it was a hard winter for many of the honey bees in the area and the ones on the roof of the museum were no exception. Like many of the local beekeepers we were sad to see that despite our efforts, few of our bees made it through the winter in 2012/2013.

    We started fresh this past spring with new colonies. With the help of our local beekeeper Anne, we installed them in June and were happy to see them get as busy as, well, bees. They could be seen around the grounds buzzing around flowers and collecting nectar in the various habit recreations featuring native plantings throughout the growing season. 

    Supplementing hives with sugar water
    Supplementing the hives with sugar water.

    So without taking any of the fruits of their labor, we tucked our bees in for the winter of 2013/14.  We added a little extra nutrition to tide them over and some insulation so it would be less drafty. We hoped for a strong start in the spring.

    Hope Springs

    Rooftop hives with snowmelt
    A good sign of live bee activity. Snow melt around the hive.

    The good news so far is that when we looked into our hives we found 10 out of 12 with activity. Some look stronger than others and there is still a long way to go until we can say they’re going to make it into the full growing season, but this is far more then we dared hope for.  

    Working with bees
    Working quick to minimize cold exposure

    We keep hoping for better years for the honey bees and their relatives the native bees. These species are important in helping to provide the pollination that gives us many of our favorite summer flowers and fruits. It’s hard to over estimate the importance of these services in both the natural world and in the cultivated crops we rely on for much of our diet. For now we’ll take this small victory.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • Vernal Musings

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    Tags: spring, crocus

    Created: 4/21/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Sow the radishes and pop in the pansies!  It’s spring! 

    I don’t mind telling you folks; when your job is all plants all the time, spring is a pretty big deal.  No more waiting, no more desperately ogling seed catalogs in a darkened office or checking the potted palms for watering again. Time to get moving.

    I should say time to stay moving. We’ve already got the beds raked out and the veggie garden sown and the Butterfly Haven replanted and the pansies in and so on and so forth.  Next week, plants arrive for the expansion of the Wickham Butterfly Garden, and before you know it we’ll be firing up the lawn tractor.  Spring doesn’t slow down; it only accelerates, until the heat of July finally forces it to sit down in the shade with a glass of lemonade. April is the time when a gardener must shake himself free from the grey slumber of winter, grab a rake, and start rebuilding the atrophied muscles and calluses he will need to keep pace.

    It might sound to you like I’m complaining, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am so ready to be surrounded by green, growing things, even if half of them are weeds I need to pull. It’s not that I hate winter. Every season has its charms. But there’s something about spring. Something beyond the warmth and beauty. Something about the resilience of life, the renewing power of change, the hopefulness of a world made young...Sorry, I seem to be waxing spiritual. Hard to avoid at this time of year.

    I feel fortunate to live in Chicago, where spring is a full season long, unlike father east or south, where it often seems like little more than a two-week argument between Old Man Winter and the May Queen.  Back east, everything would be brown one day and green the next, leaving precious little time to savor the yearly miracles of bursting buds and stretching stalks. But here, day after day brings new developments that can be watched, reported on, and discussed with fellow springtime aficionados. Elms are blooming.  Tulips are up early this year. Saw my first violet today. To a gardener, this is a rewarding conversation.

    Crocus


    My favorite moment every spring comes early on, often in March. It’s the moment when I spot my first crocus flower of the season. Be it yellow or purple, that speck of color is nothing less than shocking to an eye lulled to complacency by winter’s stark palette. For a moment, that shock seems to resonate, excite, and compel like the very spark of life itself. It’s as if that little crocus has a message for me: Change has come. Wake up. Get moving. Be a part of it all.

    Thanks little guy.  I’m on it.

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

     

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  • Out the Door, Let's Explore!

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    Tags: public programs, Biology, outdoor exhibits, summer, spring, nature on tap

    Created: 3/14/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    In the Public Programs Department we are eagerly awaiting the warmer spring weather to make use of our biggest exhibit- the outdoors! After a frosty winter, it's a relief to hear Red Winged Blackbirds and see sunning Painted Turtles. Program ideas start flowing!

    While winter presents its own unique programming opportunities, it's hard not to get excited about the signs of spring and summer. Instead of; “The turtles are hibernating”, or “The monarch butterflies are in Mexico,” we can say, “See all of those turtles on that log,” or “How many monarchs can you find in the prairie?” or “Out the door, let’s explore!”.

    • Kids observing North Pond
    • Blanding's hatchling emerging from egg
    • A flower in the prairie

    This spring and summer there will be so much for visitors to discover in our outdoor exhibits. Outdoor nature walks will touch on themes such as "Nature Noises", "Cloud Gazing" and "Ordinary or Extraordinary?". Other programs like Numbers Through Nature, Spanish Through Nature and Polish through Nature will be taking children outside as well. You can even join us this summer for an outdoor film screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to celebrate our new exhibit The Birth of Chocolate, or have a drink outside during our program for adults, Nature on Tap.

    So take off that winter parka and join me outside this spring and summer to discover bugs, listen to birds and to smell the flowers. Doesn’t that sound delightful?

    Laura Saletta
    Public Programs Educator

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  • Spring is in the Air

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    Tags: spring, robin, mourning dove, birds, cardinals, Biology, nature, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 3/6/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Though there is still snow on the ground, spring is in the air. Males of many species are setting up territories so that they can be sure to have resources ready to sow off to the females as they return to their Chicagoland breeding grounds. Birds are particularly obvious because of their loud calls. Listen for the territorial calls of Cardinals in the morning and throughout the day. I think they sound kind of like space phazers when they quickly chirp “cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” Sometimes they will vary this call and say “birdie-birdie-birdie.”

    Robins, too, are beginning to sing and they may gather in large numbers to feed on left over fruit still hanging on bushes and trees (I saw 16 in one tree earlier this month.) They are working to build strength for the territorial sing-off that will peak over the next few months. Robins will begin singing before we can even see the light of dawn; in our area, that may be as early as 3am. They are calling to the females who have been flying all night and now need a place to rest, feed, and maybe stay to breed.

    Male Robin singing on a tree branch



    Male Mourning Doves aren’t cooing much yet but they are on the lookout for nest sites worth wooing over. Though males and females look about the same, as they begin to pair up, you’ll be able to distinguish the male easily. He’s the one doing all the bowing, cooing, and chest puffing as he tries to show the female that he will be a worthy mate.

    Canada geese have already begun pairing up. Although Canada geese are not sexually dimorphic, that is the males and female look the same, it is possible to distinguish both pairs and rivals in the flock. It's very interesting to watch individuals interact with other members of the flock on North Pond this time of year. There is a lot of aggressive beahvior like hissing, head bowing, and mouth open chasing but there is also a lot of pre-breeding activity. You might see a pair of geese taking a walk in the park, away from the flock, or they might just stand around and look at each other near a potential nest site. 

    As territorial behaviors increase, you may find a birds attacking your car’s mirrors or a window on your house. Birds don’t understand what reflections are so, when they see themselves in your window or mirror, they think it’s an intruder that hasn’t been scared off by their loud singing. So, a battle ensues and the resident bird is unlikely to give up. Just make it so the bird can’t see his reflection--put a piece of paper on the outside of the window, position a lamp so the light overpowers the reflection, put some soap or whitewash over the reflecting area.

    Although birds are easy to spot this time of year, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to find salamanders and fish making nests and wooing mates, too. This kind of activity will increase substantially as the weather warms, the days lengthen, and plants begin to actively grow again.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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