July 22, 2015

Dawn to Dusk - Summer at Great Meadows NWR

Walking through Great Meadows NWR in Concord, on either end of a summer day, reveals the bustle and beauty of life in this warmest stretch of the year.  On July 15, I took a dawn stroll through curtains of early fog, past festoons of spidery gossamer on nearly every surface.

Many spiders begin weaving their webs at dusk, to take advantage of calm winds and increased insect activity through the night.  On early summer mornings, delicate webs can be seen nearly everywhere, highlighted by dewdrops and the slanted rays of the rising sun.  Here, a meshweb spider wraps plant leaves and stems in a tangle of threads, waiting in its tunnel for the vibration of insect visitors that signals breakfast has arrived.

Joe-pye weed, with its magenta buds and stems highlighted by whorls of vein-textured leaves, is a pretty native that brightens wet meadows, wetland shorelines, and the many agricultural drainage ditches throughout Concord.  It joins the pink/magenta/green summer palette along with showy tick-trefoil, swamp milkweed, and the invasive purple loosestrife.

Though perfectly designed through several hours of effort, these ephemeral webs last but a few hours into each day...a gift to behold during an early morning walk.

Blue vervain grows annually along the cross-dike trail at Great Meadows.  This year it has been especially abundant.

 A very humid summer's dawn, after a cool night, and excess moisture hangs in the air.

Young geese and their parents forage for breakfast along the trail.

One of my most memorable encounters of the morning is this mesh web spider's (Dictynidae) silken wrapping over the pink-budding head of a Queen Anne's lace inflorescence about to bloom.  This spider was uncertain about the close range of my camera lens and quickly retreated into its hiding tunnel on the left side of the flowerhead.

In mid-July, this swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata) was still opening its flowers.  Blooming about 2-3 weeks after its common milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca) cousin, both are primary food plants for monarch butterflies and entertain a wide variety of pollinators.

Milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre) grows abundantly at Great Meadows in Concord, but is known to grow only in three other locations in North America, all in eastern Massachusetts.  Milk parsley grows throughout Europe and central Asia and has been broadly used as a medicinal and food plant.  It's also a very attractive member of the parsley family (Apiaceae), so we can imagine it might have been brought here initially for any of these reasons. 

Showy tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) forms a beautiful shrubby border along the cross Dike Trail.  After blooming for about three weeks in mid-summer, it becomes a glowing tangle of hairy pods (photo later in this post) that stick to every animal and walker that passes by.

Blue dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) outnumber all other dragonfly species at Great Meadows.  The males - with their big turquoise eyes, powdery blue abdomens, and amber blush in their wings - look entirely different from the females.  They're easy to spot, perched horizontally on flower, leaves, or small branch tips.

A beauty in the shadows along the marsh's edge...the twining, glowing green hearts of climbing false buckwheat (Fallopia scandens).

When the weather is humid and soil moisture is high, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) has the ability to release excess water in its tissues by pumping it out through tiny openings (called hydathodes) at the edges of its leaves.  On damp sunny mornings, we find jewelweed festooned with glittering droplets that sparkle like diamonds...giving the plant one of its names.  It's other name, touch-me-not, refers to its hair-trigger seed pods that explode with the lightest touch.  Jewelweed often grows abundantly near poison ivy and a mash made of the plant has proven effective in stopping the spread of poison ivy rash.

White-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), female or young male, sitting on exuding jewelweed leaves in early morning.

This vigorous wildflower takes center stage in all four seasons.  Fresh evening primrose flowers open on mid-summer evenings after sundown to attract battalions of large sphinx moths.  These newly opened blossoms give a refreshing splash of clear yellow to the morning landscape and will continue to attract an array of daytime pollinators before fading at the next sundown.  Flowers also attract primrose moths (Schinia florida) who arrive in late summer to lay their eggs inside the plants' developing fruit capsules.  Many hundreds of evening primrose fruit capsules survive the grazing of caterpillars to form hundreds of highly nutritious, tiny black seeds that provide essential nourishment to late breeding goldfinches and winter migrating songbirds.  The dried and emptied seed capsules sit atop stout stalks and weather a golden brown, to persist like ornaments in the winter landscape.

A small colony of American germander (Teucreum canadense) caught my eye this month, the first I've seen at Great Meadows.  I know of two other locations for this plant in Concord, though there may be more.
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), above, and American elm, are common understory trees in the floodplain forest

Some lingering morning fog on the Concord River, bordering the refuge, as the rising sun spreads reflections across its glassy surface.

On July 21, I took an evening stroll through the refuge, shortly before sunset when the light is most dramatic and the air is humming with insect songs.

The backlit glow of the evening sun brings a magical perspective to this familiar landscape, making even the most familiar plants and creatures seem like beings from another dimension.  Here, the common sallow sedge (Carex lurida) grabs my attention amidst a tangle of cattails.

Blue dasher dragonflies, especially lively in the waning light of warm evenings, create fanciful acrobatic silhouettes in backlight.

The last blossoms of a few stalwart fleabane plants (Erigeron sp.) still light up the trail with their starry flowers.  Soon calico asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) will fill in with their tiny white autumn blossoms.

A Pennsylvania ambush bug (Phymata pennsylvanica) lies in wait on an evening primrose leaf.

One of my favorite summer flowers, blue vervain (Verbena hastata), glows with a blue-purple light in the evening...very hard to catch in a photograph without backlight.  Whether wild or cultivated, all verbenas are particularly attractive to pollinators.

Perhaps, showy tick-trefoil's delicate pink blossoms and forming velcroed seedpods steal the show along the cross-dike trail and the waning sun sets them all aglow from mainland to the river.  

On this summer's night, the sunset echoes the palette of the flowers along the trail wrapping us within and without in a pink glow.

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