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The Chase

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The chase is on and soon all will pass us but not leave us behind. Spring arrives and disappears before we barely have a chance to revel in its joy and beauty. One does not need to leave the yard to capture exquisite wonder that will create a yearn for the coming of next spring when this one concludes. 

Hoary Bittercress in massive abundance has made the yard rich with tiny white flowers. Most people do not see them when walking through the yard. The tiny mustard is stepped on without thought except by those seeking to discover. This Eurasian species was first collected in southwest Michigan in 1976 and has spread across southern Michigan and has been found as far north as Mackinac Bridge. 

I am not aware of this minuscule four petaled white flowering plant disrupting the lives of native species but perhaps it does or will. Its small flowers are most enjoyed with a magnifying lens often referred to as a loop or hand lens. In my pocket the lens rests quietly until some little being I cannot see well without enlargement begs attention. Out pops the lens and the chase is on to see the delicate details before they are gone with the season. 

Soon the tiny white petals fall after having served the purpose of attracting pollinators that must be almost too small to see. I should lay by the flowers to see who visits the blooms. The flowers have six stamens with four long ones and two short ones. Using a hand lens to discover special characteristics that remain hidden from us, we can enter their tiny world. 

Once pollinated, the flower transforms from an almost invisible delicate white beauty to long slim green unnoticeable seed pods. This species has only been in the area about half of my lifetime and people will hire companies to eliminate it from the neighborhood so they will have a “perfect lawn”. 

At Ody Brook I discourage nonnative species from displacing native plants, insects, birds, and mammals but I enjoy their beauty. Flowering nearby in wetter habitat and opening at the same time as bittercress, native spring cress blooms with pale pink flowers that soon become white. Their flowers are larger than bittercress blooms. 

Patient observation in our yards will allow us to witness a pageant of life streaming through during migration. A Nashville Warbler working its way north was busy feeding at flowers on a serviceberry also known as shadbush and juneberry. I watched the gray-headed bird with white eye ring, gray back and yellow breast picking something from flowers with its narrow-pointed black beak. 

The serviceberry glows with white flowers for about a week before leaves emerge from buds. The small tree exposes its flowers well without displaying them among leaves like apples trees. 

I returned to look at flowers closely with a hand lens when the warbler was not present. Tiny dark-winged fungus gnats were abundant in the flowers. They are probably what the warbler was eating but the gnats are so small it is a wonder the bird doesn’t use more energy gathering food than it gains in nutrition. With many gnats present, the bird gathers food with little movement. It stands on a branch picking insects from the inner flower. 

Without close examination, we would never know thousands of insects were in the flowers. It is an advantage for native plants to have adaptations with native insects that feed in the flowers and serve as pollinators. Exotic plants, like the hoary bittercress tend to support fewer insect pollinators because their pollinators are mostly on a different continent. Here those insects might be ecologically disruptive. I have not laid on the ground to see if tiny fungus gnats visit the bittercress. It is always exciting to have one more thing to do outdoors.

For good reason, I discourage exotics and encourage native species at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary for our mission of “Biodiversity Enhancement.”  Larger insects seen filling their nature niche at the serviceberry flowers were metallic green sweat bees and bee flies. All are beneficial pollinators people seldom experience.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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