Monday, February 27, 2012

Ice-out on Red Rock Lake

Blue water stretches from shoreline to shoreline in all directions on Red Rock Lake.  We are elated to find the lake open on February 26, two weeks ahead of its normal ice-out date, yet another expression of the mild, nearly winter-less winter of 2011-12.  It is too windy at the kayak launch, so we carry our boats to the deserted motorboat ramp just around the corner and set out from its lee aspect.  Roiled by a strong southwest wind, whitecaps churn in the center of the lake, but we encounter merely choppy water as we paddle along the wind-blocking south shoreline.

Sunlit bluffs beckon to us across the bay, so we cruise with wind-pushed ease around the first headland and slip into a calm cove.  Tucked into its narrowing neck, we find a wedge of rotten ice, a retreating remnant of the winter ice sheet that covered the whole lake only a week ago. Beaten into brash by waves and warmth, its undulates in slow rolls like a bedsheet billowing in a breeze.

Photo by Brian Lange

We paddle out of the protected cove and approach the exposed headland of Elk Rock Bluff.  Extending beyond the wind-blocked shore, its sheer cliffs rise directly above a riot of clapotis, incoming waves colliding crazily with waves reflecting from the cliffs.  Advancing slowly, we creep through the confusion with steady paddling and expectations of bracing.  Conjoining waves lift our kayaks high above base level, letting us surf into troughs.  A long minute of rock-and-roll paddling gets us past the pinch point and into calm water on the far side of the bluff.  I look around for my partners and count all three of them: everything is OK.  

An avenue of calm water now stretches out of sight along a gently curving shoreline of low, north-facing cliffs.  Patches of snow linger on their shaded slopes.  Waves rounding the corner from the Elk Rock headland slap against the cliffs and splash noisily onto their faces.  Icy water dripping from cold bedrock in the cool air has frozen into legions of blue-white icicles, generating a landscape of daggers and dragon teeth that scrolls gently past my kayak as I drift along the snow-splotched shoreline.

Beyond the bluffs, we discover a sandy beach piled high with brash ice, so stop to explore.  Brian clambers atop the ice pile and strikes a summit pose with his paddle as I snap his photo while crouching in the frigid water (comfortably dry and warm in my drysuit); from this angle, he appears to be in an Antarctic wilderness.  For an instant, we are both transported to that cold, wild, faraway land, our imagination empowered by today's special, icy scene at Ranger Point, Lake Red Rock, Iowa.

Regrouping, our foursome heads home.  We glide easily along the icy cliffs, enjoying them for a second time.  Rounding the point at Elk Rock, the wind that had been held at bay by the bluffs strikes us from directly ahead, slowing our pace to a slow-motion crawl.  It rushes over the lake, pounds the cliffs, and roars through the trees, noisily mixing disparate sounds like the cacophonous buzzing of a gigantic food blender - a stentorian voice of wild nature.  Pushing through the wind, I hear it gradually diminish from a bellow at the exposed, rocky point to a mere whisper when we finally succeed in reaching the lee shore. Stepping out of my kayak onto the concrete ramp, I look back at the bluffs and look forward to a new season of visiting them.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Insect Spring

Brown-colored Green Lacewing

The first spring wildflowers grab our attention, a welcome break from the flowerlessness of winter, reassuring us that life does rebound following a seemingly lifeless season of cold and snow.  Alas, that botanical reassurance does not appear to us here in the Midwest until April when hepaticas, bloodroots, and spring beauties suddenly appear on the forest floor with unmissable abundance. However, insects begin re-emerging much sooner, reassuring insect-seeking naturalists of spring's return several weeks earlier than their plant-seeking colleagues (except for insightful folks who know of Skunk Cabbage)

I saw my first insects earlier this week as I sifted through windrows of brown, fallen leaves blown against a fence in my backyard, looking for galls and finding weathered specimens of Gall Midge (Polystepha pilulae) galls on pin oak leaves and Jewel Oak Leaf Galls (Acraspis macrocarpae) on bur oak leaves.  

Jewel Oak Leaf Gall
(Acraspis macrocarpae)
on bur oak leaf
Gall Midge
(Polystepha pilulae) galls
on pin oak leaf

I suddenly noticed a Green Lacewing walking across my gloved hand, its tan coloration flagging it as an overwintering adult, its slow gait suggesting that it had just awoken from torpor.  A short time later, a leggy brown speck on a leaf attracted my eye, resolving upon closer inspection into a Ground Crab Spider (not an insect, but a closely related arthropod).  Its 7-mm body length did not deter it from "threatening" me with outstretched anterior legs (a defensive posture). Like the lacewing, it moved slowly.  

Ground Crab Spider

My discovery of the lacewing and spider reminded me to check on the population of overwintering Spotted Lady Beetles that I knew inhabited the leaf litter surrounding the base of a nearby maple tree; sure enough, when I parted the hostas and peered into the void, I saw several dozen ladybugs milling about.

Spotted Lady Beetles

It did not escape my notice that all three of my early-appearing species were predators (with lacewings and lady beetles especially fond of aphids).  However, speculating about the significance of that ended when I read the blog of colleague Harlan Ratcliff, learning that his first insect (observed on the same day a few counties away) - a decidedly non-predatory species -  broke the pattern. Later that night, I also spotted a brown moth fluttering against our window, whipping its pristine wings against unyielding glass in a vain effort to reach the lightbulb over our kitchen table. 

A few days later, an overnight snowstorm recarpeted the landscape into a winter wonderland, imposing a pause on the progression of spring. However, I'm not discouraged. Plant spring is still several weeks away, but I've already glimpsed insect spring and feel reassured that life will return again this year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Looking for Lungwort, Unluckily

I recently visited the Mines of Spain, a 1400-acre bluffland conservation area along the Mississippi River by Dubuque.  The official purpose of my visit was to assist with restoration planning for a newly acquired parcel, but I also reserved time to search for Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), Iowa's "lost lichen", last seen 111 years ago in Dubuque and Clayton counties.  Knowing that it thrives in mature forests in other parts of its range, I wanted to explore the oldest timber in the park.  Located in a remote part of the park, the best way to access this area is to hike along a railroad track tightly squeezed onto a narrow strip of land between steep bluffs and the Mississippi River.  Accordingly, park ranger Wayne Buchholtz and I dropped off our vehicles at both ends of the run and hiked the miles separating them, looking for lungwort.

To our right, the mighty Mississippi was frozen from bank to bank, Iowa to Illinois.  I recognized islands around which I had kayaked in previous summers, appearing now merely as high spots in a white landscape of ice and snow, highlighted by dark, leafless stands of silver maple and cottonwood.  To our left, steep bluffs broken by limestone cliffs rose from the riverbank, cloaked with sugar maple, basswood and red oak. 

Despite their closeness, most of the trees occupied a steep, rocky slope on the far side of a ditch between the tracks and the bluffs, so I scanned the forest with binoculars, slowly moving my vision from bole to bole, watching for telltale signs of lungwort.  If present, its long, leafy, lettuce-like thallus should be conspicuous.  But although I repeatedly spied patches of bright green mosses, dark green liverworts, and minty green splotches of dust lichen, I failed to spot a single sprig of lungwort. 

At one point, I found a rock outcrop festooned with walking ferns, their long fronds extending across the moss-matted face and taking root at their tips, collectively creating a crowded colony. 

Finding ferns, mosses, liverworts, and bark-dwelling lichens is rewarding in its own way, but our lack of success with lungworts is admittedly disappointing.  Does its absense mean it was once here but has vanished?  Or is the explanation more mundane: was it never here?  Many more trees, forests, bluffs and places will need to be searched before we gain perspective on this problem.  The prospect of exploring more natural places has intrinsic appeal for ecologists, so looking forward to future forays, I let the question dangle for now.