This is a satellite photo of the area in Wisconsin where I live, courtesy of Google Maps. You can see why it’s called “Land O’ Lakes” (no relation to the butter, though we sometimes call the abandoned lumber mill on the edge of town “the butter factory” to confuse people). We also have a lot of bogs. These two facts are not unrelated.
These are kettle lakes that were formed by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. Many of them have Sphagnum moss growing around their edges. Sphagnum is amazingly absorbent, holding up to twenty times its dry weight in water, and the mats it forms eventually grow thick enough that they act as a substrate for a whole community of other plants we associate with bogs – leatherleaf, wild blueberry and cranberry, orchids, carnivorous plants like pitcher plant and sundew, and many more.
Slowly the lake fills with sediment, and the sphagnum eats away more and more at its edges, growing thicker and absorbing more water as it does. As the lower layers of spagnum die, they decompose very slowly due to anaerobic (oxygen-poor), acidic conditions, so that over time you get rich, moist deposits of peat. Below is an old lake on this property that’s been almost completely bog-ified, with only a small area of open water left in the middle.
Eventually the sphagnum and peat build up to the point where they can even support trees, mostly tamarack and black spruce.
This is all just one more example of the powerful process of ecological succession – one natural community transforming into another through time.
Trivia question of the day: which state has more native orchid species, Wisconsin or Hawaii? The answer is at the end of this post.
Yesterday after work we went to explore a natural area I hadn’t been to before – Almon Park Trail, on Buck Lake. One section of the trail is a boardwalk through a really lovely bog. With the leatherleaf in bloom, its clusters of white flowers everywhere, it looked like a fairyland.
But the absolute best part was this:
I had never seen a lady’s-slipper before. Last summer I got here too late in the season to see them in bloom, and I’d been looking forward to them all winter. When one in full flower greeted us as soon as we stepped onto the boardwalk, I literally jumped up and down a couple times. Specifically, this beautiful beautiful orchid is Pink Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. There were a LOT of them along the entire length of the boardwalk.
And one more wildflower before I let you go – this is Blue Bead Lily, Clintonia borealis.
Come August I’ll have to do a then-and-now post with photos of this one and bunchberry in fruit compared to flowering. Then you’ll see why it’s called Blue Bead Lily!
Answer: Wisconsin. (You figured out that this must be a trick question, right?) Hawaii has three native orchids. Wisconsin has around forty-five!
Birding this morning didn’t yield any incredible newly-arrived migrants, just the usual suspects, but the mist on the bog before the sun rose high enough to burn it off was gorgeous.
Also: two more naturalist acquaintances of mine have started nature blogs from their patches of the world, and you should check them out.
Tales From a Wandering Albatross is written by a woman I went to college with who is now an intern at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. She double majored in zoology and English, and that English training really shows in her fantastic writing!
Maggi’s Kenyan Adventure is by someone I worked with the summer I was in Saskatchewan. She’s currently in Africa volunteering with a conservation organization, and I love that she doesn’t just accept everything the organization does at face value – her background in natural resources has given her the ability to think critically about whether what they’re doing makes sense.
Give them a try next time you’re looking for some new nature reading!
I snapped this photo on the morning of November 3. I was on my way to an environmental education conference in the central part of the state, and despite the fact it was well into mid-morning there was still a heavy cover of frost over everything, sparkling in the autumn sunlight as I drove south. Every time I passed a bog and saw the leatherleaf, spruces, and golden tamaracks frosted silver, I wished I could stop and take a photo. Finally I came to two realizations: first, I had packed my camera in my bag for the conference, and second, I was in no particular hurry and had time to stop if I wanted to. So at the next bog I passed I pulled over onto the shoulder and did my best to capture what I was seeing.
I’m entering the last three weeks of my first semester of grad school (hard to believe I’ll soon be a fourth done with my master’s degree – time flies). This means that all of my various final projects and assignments for my classes are all coming due at once, and when you add that to my assistantship duties my time available to spend wandering around outside looking for birds and taking photos dwindles to near zero. The fact that there’s a depressing lack of snow at the moment doesn’t help my motivation, either – when there’s snow on the ground this place looks like Narnia, but without it winter is just cold and dark and depressing. Still, I need to remember to take time out occasionally to ramble in the woods before I leave for nearly a month for the holiday break.
Hope everyone is taking care of themselves. I didn’t say it on Thanksgiving, but thank you to all of you who read this blog; the feedback and discussion you provides adds so much richness to my experiences as a naturalist and educator.
Interesting though they are (see the downward-facing hairs, to keep insects from crawling out and escaping?), the pitchers aren’t the only carnivorous plant in our bog. To spot the other one, though, you’ll practically have to rub your nose against the sphagnum.
This is sundew, its odd, round leaves surrounded by sticky-tipped hairs. (The fact that the sticky glands look like water droplets gives the plant its name.) The secretions are sweet and tempting, but when an insect makes the mistake of landing here, it’s trapped and the leaf curls around it and digests it.
I’ve never witnessed this plant eat. Maybe sometime I’ll catch an insect to feed to it. It would have to be a very small insect, though.
Because I promise I have a normal-sized thumb, and as you can see, this is a very, very small plant.
One of the delights of the Northwoods (that’s how they spell it sometimes, here, with no space) is the abundance of bogs. The forest will suddenly open to a flat area sparsely wooded with spruce and tamarack, with shrubs such as leatherleaf and bog rosemary beneath them.
Instead of soil and leaf litter, you’ll find a spongy, wet green carpet of sphagnum moss.
And if you’re lucky… perhaps a decidedly odd-looking flower.
Recognize it? This is the flower of a pitcher plant, which has a adapted to the nutrient-poor conditions of the bog by catching and digesting insects in its water-holding leaves. Bogs form where the water is acidic, which hinders decomposition, meaning when plants die the nutrients their bodies contain are very slow to be recycled back into the system.
The patch of pitcher plants that produced this flower was in pretty sorry shape.
If I’d ventured further into the squishy sphagnum, I could have found some nicer-looking ones, I’m sure. Perhaps another day.