Archives For Nature in View

Autumn Scents

Barbara Brotman —  October 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

“What’s that smell?”

It’s what I’ve been asking myself in recent weeks. Not in a bad way; it’s an entrancing scent that’s been wafting through the air, at the Garden and in gardens I walk by in my neighborhood—but one I couldn’t quite place. I’ve been walking around, nose in the air, happy but perplexed.

Every spring we marvel at the sweet smells in the air. But perfumed breezes in autumn? And what an unusual perfume. Cilantro? With a hint of honey? What could it be?

“You’re smelling something that’s reminiscent of coriander, maybe cilantro?” said Jacob Burns, the Garden’s curator of herbaceous perennial plants.  “You’re probably smelling Sporobolus heterolepis. Prairie dropseed.”

Welcome to a signature scent of late summer and early fall: the scent of prairie dropseed, a native grass.

PHOTO: A single panicle of prairie dropseed.

A single panicle of prairie dropseed

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Never mind the sweet scents of spring; this season’s plant aroma is in a class of its own. And it’s almost indescribable. I thought of cilantro partly because of the scent, but also because I couldn’t quite place it or compare it to anything else—like cilantro.

“Some people think it smells like buttered popcorn,” said Garden horticulturist Liz Rex, who cares for the Native Plant Garden.

The scent comes from the flowers, feathery panicles that bloom in late summer. I’ve smelled it walking by gardens where people have planted a few native prairie species.

Rex has been surrounded by it in places where it is planted en masse.

“The first year I was in the Native Plant Garden, it was almost overwhelming,” she said. “But now I really enjoy it and look forward to it.”

You can smell it in various spots in the Garden, Rex said—the Native Plant Garden, the restored prairie, the Kleinman Family Cove near the new Regenstein Learning Campus, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden; and the rainwater glen outside the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

You can smell it in remnant prairies, said Joan O’Shaughnessy, prairie and river ecologist at the Garden—and if you do, that means the prairie is of high quality.

But you can also smell it in ordinary gardens. Native species are increasingly popular in front and back yards, and prairie dropseed (it gets its common name because of the way its mature seeds drop to the ground in autumn) is a Chicago-area superstar.

“It’s a wonderful garden plant because its growth form is low, which people like; it has this fountain-like look to the vegetation; and you can keep it over winter for appeal,” O’Shaughnessy said.

It can grow in both wettish and dry soil. Like many native plants of this region, it can tolerate drought. It can grow in that bane of the Chicago gardener’s existence, heavy clay soil. “It’s just a great plant,” she said.

It isn’t the only source of fall fragrance in the Garden. There is also the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).

PHOTO: In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

PHOTO: The late fall foliage of the katsura tree.

The late fall foliage of the katsura tree
Photo by Amy Campion

“The leaves turn a really pretty fall yellow, and once they drop, they release a sugary aroma that smells like cotton candy,” Burns said. “Some liken it to caramel or even brown sugar.”

You can find a katsura on Evening Island by the trellis bridge, he said, and also in the Krasberg Rose Garden.

So while fall’s colors are rightfully beloved, it turns out that the season appeals to another sense, too. Go ahead and enjoy looking at the annual show of autumn colors—but don’t forget the autumn scents.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When someone first hears the name of the red-bellied woodpecker, it doesn’t make sense. The bird has a bright red crown and nape, but where’s the red belly? Actually, there is a small pinkish tinge on the bird’s stomach, but it’s difficult to see unless you look for it with binoculars (and if it’s not covered with gray feathers).

PHOTO: A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Photo by Carol Freeman.

A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Its eclectic diet consists of nuts, berries, seeds, insects, and suet from feeders. Photo © Carol Freeman

Unfortunately, the name “red-headed woodpecker” was already taken by another bird—incidentally, much rarer in northern Illinois—so ornithologists named this common, year-round bird the red-bellied woodpecker.

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has creamy-to-white underparts, and a black-and-white, zebra-patterned back. The male’s forehead is red; the female’s is creamy white. (By contrast, the red-headed woodpecker’s entire head is blood red, and its back is solid black with white patches on the wings.) The red-bellied woodpecker’s preferred year-round habitat is woodlands, and the oak, pine hardwood, and maple forests of the eastern United States. Occasionally, it can be found in wooded suburban neighborhoods.

Woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues. A woodpecker’s tongue is so long that when it is not extending it to grab a meal deep within a crevice, it pulls it in, and wraps it around the inside back wall of its skull, almost to its nostril holes. Because they can get food from deep within a tree instead of relying on what is readily available, they are well-suited to spend winter in northern Illinois, when other insect-eating birds need to move south.  

PHOTO: Female red-bellied woodpecker.

Female red-bellied woodpecker by www.birdphotos.com [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If a red-bellied woodpecker visits your yard, you may be able to observe some interesting behavior: the woodpecker puts a nut into the crevice of tree bark, then hits the nut with its beak to get to the yummy morsel inside. It also may store the food there to eat later.

The woodpecker makes its presence known in woodlands and yards or at feeders by calling “querr” or “cherr-cherr” several times, or giving various chattering sounds. Its boisterous noises and colorful plumage add cheer to a cold winter’s day.

In February or March, the male red-bellied woodpecker begins seeking places to excavate cylindrical cavities—in dead trees or dead limbs of trees—and enticing a female to mate and lay eggs, which happens in late March and early April.

As with many birds, red-bellied woodpeckers will nest in the same location year after year. The male typically builds a new cavity—often in the same tree, near the old one—each season. The nest cavity is from 10 to 14 inches deep and usually built on a limb (as opposed to the trunk). The female lays four to five white eggs each season, and both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days and take care of the nestlings, which fledge in another 24 to 27 days.

Numbers of this beautiful, common bird have grown across most of its range over the past 50 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Once most common and found mostly in central and southern Illinois, it has expanded its range northward in the state in the past century, including into northern Illinois, where it had been decidedly rare in the early twentieth century.

The red-bellied woodpecker is the November bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org. Additional photos by Ken Thomas and Tom Friedel.

Black-Capped Chickadees Are Preparing for Winter

Year-round resident bird adds cheer to coming winter days

Sheryl DeVore Bailey —  September 14, 2016 — Leave a comment

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Most people recognize that familiar call of the black-capped chickadee. It’s often heard in late summer and fall as chickadees gather in family groups and small feeding flocks to prepare for the winter.

The chickadee’s song—translated as “Hey, sweetie,” (though you can’t often hear the third syllable)—is reserved for late winter, spring, and summer, when the bird is courting and nesting. Nothing brightens a mid-February day more than when a chickadee sings because to those who hear it, the song signals spring’s arrival.

PHOTO: Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Photo © Carol Freeman.

Because of its curiosity and propensity to visit feeders, the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) can often introduce youngsters and adults to bird-watching. Its telltale black cap and throat with white cheeks makes it easy to identify. Photo © Carol Freeman

The black-capped chickadee is the September bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there is a free walk at the Garden on September 17, 7:30 to 9 a.m.

The black-capped chickadee is considered a non-migratory species—it can survive the harsh winters of northern Illinois. These birds can lower their body temperature when sleeping at night, which protects them from freezing.

While some birds need to leave the region in fall because insects and other food will soon become difficult to find, chickadees know how to find insect larvae overwintering in tree bark (although flocks of chickadees do make small geographic movements, depending on food availability in colder months).

They also stash seeds to eat later, and unlike squirrels, they remember where they put them. Chickadees eat berries and animal fat in winter, and they readily come to feeders feasting on seeds and suet. Supplemental food, especially sunflower seed from feeders has been shown to help these little balls of feather and hollow bones survive when it gets really cold and wet outside. Those who feed birds can observe an interesting behavior in chickadees—they form a hierarchy, meaning the top chickadee gets to eat at the feeder first—it snatches a seed and leaves, then the second in command gets its turn.

PHOTO: A chickadee enjoys a plentiful and tasty treat in early February: berries.

A black-capped chickadee enjoys a plentiful and tasty treat in early February: berries.

In February, chickadees begin singing and looking for a cavity hole in which to nest—and there’s a wide variety of homes they’ll find suitable. They’ll choose abandoned woodpecker cavities and man-made nest boxes, or excavate their own small, natural cavities. Chickadees will nest in rotted, old wooden fence posts and abandoned mailboxes, and a pair once built a nest in an old shoe hanging from a line.

The female builds a cup-shaped nest with moss for the foundation, lining it with rabbit fur or other soft material. She has one brood each year, laying an average of seven to eight eggs. After 12 days of incubation, the young hatch, then remain in the nest for another 16 days. When they fledge, they continue to follow their parents, calling and begging for food. Come winter, they travel in small feeding groups, often with nuthatches, titmice, and other small songbirds.

West Nile, which came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, likely may not have affected black-capped chickadees as much as some thought, according to a recent study.

Though people were seeing fewer chickadees in their backyards and in woodlands when the virus came to the region, a 2015 study showed that overall black-capped chickadee numbers have not been affected by the mosquito-borne disease, especially compared with other species. Studies will continue on how the virus is affecting bird populations—but one thing is for certain—when the virus struck, it reminded humans not to take for granted the common birds they enjoy. And the black-capped chickadee is certainly a species that humans enjoy watching and hearing.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In August, when the jewelweed and cardinal flowers bloom, the ruby-throated hummingbird is migrating. It’s perfect timing, because the hummingbirds get energy for their journey southward by sipping nectar from the blossoms of these plants native to northern Illinois.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo © Carol Freeman

Ruby-throated hummingbird © Carol Freeman


The ruby-throated hummingbird is the August bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there are two free upcoming walks at the Garden.

PHOTO: A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in the Circle Garden in summer.

The ruby-throat is the only hummingbird to breed in eastern North America, and these tiny jewels are somewhat common nesters in Cook County woodlands. They become more numerous in late summer and fall, as those that nested farther north pass through on their way to their winter homes in Mexico and Central America.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) wears emerald green on its back and crown, and in good light, the male reveals an iridescent red throat. (During fall migration, you’ll see males as well as females and young, both of which lack the ruby throat.)

They return to Illinois in April and May, seeking nectar from early blooming trees and shrubs as well as insects and spiders.

It’s at this time you might get lucky enough to observe the courting male as he flies in a U-shape and also buzzes in front of a perched female. Buzzes? Yes! Hummingbirds aren’t silent—you can hear their wings buzz and vocalizations from their throats when they’re defending feeding territory or seeking a mate.

The female builds a thimble-sized cup nest on a horizontal branch, adding grasses and spider webs, lining it with plant down and then covering the outside with lichens and dead leaves. The young hatch in about 15 days, and remain in the nest for another 20 days or so as the female brings them insects.

An aerial wonder, the ruby-throated hummingbird, can beat its wings 53 times per second, and can fly backward and upside down.

You can attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your yard by planting the flowers they love—tubular and brightly colored in red hues—and by putting up feeders. Hummingbirds are fun to watch at feeders as they have spats in flight trying to hoard the food to themselves. 

To make hummingbird food, add ¼ cup white sugar to 1 cup boiled distilled water. Stir to dissolve, then cool before you put it into the feeder. It’s not necessary to put red food coloring in the water. Use a red feeder to attract the hummers. Hang out of direct sunlight, and clean and refill often.

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds are gone by the end of October in this area. You can put your feeders back up in April when they return.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

With more than 1,850 known species of moths in the state of Illinois—more than ten times the diversity of butterflies—it is a real adventure sampling the moth species inhabiting the McDonald Woods at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Using a combination of light and bait traps along with visual searches, I have been investigating the diversity of moth species found in the restored portions of our oak woodland. Moths are removed from the traps and then photographed before being released back to the woodland.

PHOTO: Ctenucha virginica (Virginia Ctenucha) moth.

The metallic scales of Ctenucha virginica (Virginia Ctenucha moth) are striking—even its wings have a metallic sheen.

My interest in moths stems from the fact that many of the species are dependent on one or just a few native plant species for their survival, and as a result, may serve as valuable indicators of the health of our recovering, once-degraded oak woodland. The larval stages—the caterpillars—primarily feed on the roots, stems, and leaves of the plants. Adult moth species are very important pollinators. White-flowered and night-fragrant plant species are often what they seek. There are day-flying moths also, like some of the hawk moths (which are often mistaken for hummingbirds) that are seen visiting a variety of flowers in full daylight. Moths are also a tremendously important part of the food chain. Entomologist Doug Tallamy tabulated the number of caterpillars that were utilized to support one nest of black-capped chickadees and found that they consumed between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars, most of which were moth species. Adding even a few native plant species to your yard can benefit a multitude of these valuable invertebrates.

PHOTO: Smerinthus jamaicensis (Twin-spotted sphinx moth).

Smerinthus jamaicensis (Twin-spotted sphinx moth)

PHOTO: Plusia contexta (Connected looper moth).

Plusia contexta (Connected looper moth)

PHOTO: Ponometia erastrioides (Small bird-dropping moth).

Ponometia erastrioides (Small bird-dropping moth)

PHOTO: Plagodis phlogosaria (Straight-lined Plagodis moth).

Plagodis phlogosaria (Straight-lined Plagodis moth)

It is a never-ending surprise to see what new species will show up each time traps are placed.

Some species are so small (usually referred to by lepidopterists as micromoths) that most people would pass them off as gnats or pesky flies. Some micromoths are only 3-4 millimeters long. One in particular I like to refer to as the “Nemo” moth, as in Finding Nemo. I gave this species that name because its colorful pattern reminds me of a clown fish.

PHOTO: A cryptically-colored Noctua pronuba (Large yellow underwing moth).

A cryptically colored Noctua pronuba (Large yellow underwing moth)

At the other end of the spectrum are the moth species that are quite large. The giant silkworm moths, like the luna and Cecropia moths, have a wingspan of more than 140 millimeters. Starting in mid-July and going through September, a group of medium to large moths known as underwing moths starts appearing in the woods. These delta-shaped species are usually very cryptically colored on their forewing and brightly and starkly colored on their hind wing. The cryptic forewing allows them to blend in with the tree trunks they are resting on; the hindwing only becomes visible when they spread their wings to fly. It is thought to be a distraction or scare tactic to foil predators.

Although there is a subtle nuance of shapes, colors, and textures that distinguish many species, there are also those that are in-your-face with shockingly bright colors, metallic ornamentation, stark patterns, and jagged ridges of scales—much like a mountain range on six legs—that never fail to impress me. The looper moths are one good example. Many have stigmas (distinctive white patches and scrolling) on the surface of the wing and spectacular assortments of peaks, crowns, and ridges of scales on the thorax and inner edges of the wings. The scale patterns most likely evolved to break up the silhouette of the moth to make it less visible. One of the hooded owlet moths has a tall patch of scales on its thorax that looks like a witches hat when erect, but it can also be laid down over the moths head to make it look like a broken-off stick.

PHOTO: Leucania pseudargyria (False wainscot moth).

Leucania pseudargyria (False wainscot moth)

In general, there is a new group of species that emerges about every two weeks during the year, with midsummer being the peak for species and abundance. Many moth species have relatively short flight periods and can only be seen at certain times of the year, but some have multiple broods that show up several times during the year. When I show some of these moths to colleagues, they almost always say, “I never knew these things existed.”

Under the cover of darkness, there is a world of beauty and fascination fluttering silently among the trees. It makes me wonder if the full moon doesn’t show up once a month just to shed a little light on the show, just so we don’t miss it completely.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org