Eastern Cottonwood Amazingly Huge Trunk

Even though the weather wasn’t the best I ventured out for a few hours this past weekend in my quest to learn trees.  And as with most adventures it held a few surprises. Mainly an American Cottonwood Populus deltoides with an amazingly huge trunk.

Since I started learning trees it seems I notice every tree. And especially a group of tall trees at the local park I drive by every day on the way home from work.

When I drive by on my way home from work I have often wondered the species of these taller trees.

One of my main goals in learning trees is to know their silhouette from a distance at least to the genus level.

My guess at this stage of learning, based on height, would have been a Tuliptree Liriodendron tulipifera, American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis, or Eastern Cottonwood Populus deltoides. And I would say the crown, which is all I can see from this point, is irregular and sparse. Which basically rules out the Tuliptree with its basically single, erect trunk. And the bark from here is definitely dark and not light like a Sycamore.


The park district has been clearing the undergrowth so getting to the tree was much easier than it would have been previously. Allowing for views and photos of the trunk.

And what a trunk!

It’s hard to describe how big this trunk is in relation to the surrounding trees. It measured 4 feet across!

I’ve been birding this park for three years. And to show how little attention I gave to other objects I never noticed or cared to find out about this tree. How could I miss something with a 4 foot diameter trunk?

The trunk is a combination but they have all grown together to make this massive trunk.
Not a good photo but confirming the twig of the Cottonwood.
And this photo shows the deep, furrowed bark of a mature Cottonwood. What’s that bit of green in front of the tree?
Hopefully by this time next year I’ll have a clue when it comes to identifying something like this green plant.

And the Eastern Cottonwood is one of several trees Mourning Cloak larvae feed upon. Another piece of a huge puzzle identified.

A Review of Field Guide Reviews

The following is as close to a rant as you’ll hear from me.

I’m about to embark on field guide reviews. After deciding to expand into other nature fields, I have to decide on field guides for the various topics. With the lousy weather and a nasty bug I caught in January, I’ve had time to review a few. I also checked out online reviews and had the same feeling I’ve had for years.

Why don’t reviewers use the guides before reviewing them? And show a few example pages?

I know publishers send out book samples to bloggers and other groups in hopes they’ll sell additional copies. So maybe the reviewers have to review the guide before a certain date to catch the “wave” and “excitement” of the book hitting the market.

But what good is a review of A Guide to Borneo without the reviewer using the guide in Borneo? Or ever even visited Borneo? I haven’t figured that out yet.

Of course there are good reviewers like Donna on 10,000 Birds, but why do most reviews show the cover, the index, and a page or two? Show us examples of the species covered in the guide so we can see if it fits our criteria?

And don’t even get me going on Amazon reviews. Such as “I just received the guide and it looks great, 5 stars.” The people that take the time to analyze the guide are usually lambasted for pointing out what they think of the guide. Too many people wanting pretty pictures I guess.


“I just received my copy and and from the outward appearance without opening it, I’ll give it 5 stars.”

So if you want me to buy your field guide, show the cover plus enough examples of species coverage so I can decide if it warrants my attention, let alone money.

End of rant.

A Few Florida Butterflies

Our family spent a few days in Florida over the holidays. The weather was OK one day, semi OK the next, and wasn’t very good the other two days. But the first couple of days I had the chance to look for butterflies at local parks.

The first view of the ocean. Kingston Park – Ormond Beach
The park was loaded with Green Anoles.
The only butterfly I positively ID were the Gulf Fritillaries flying in the small park.

I watched as a pair flew across the park. I’m still to new to know if this was a male chasing a female or two males harassing each other.

The only other decent day was spent at Tomoka State Park. I encountered two species of butterflies in the park.  Zebra Heliconian and Great Southern White. The low numbers were alright with me because the butterfly I really wanted to see on the trip was the Zebra Heliconian.

A little history of the park.
The morning of the second day provided a nice setting. It’s below zero back in Indiana.
A Great Southern White basking in the sun.
One of 3-4 Zebra Heliconian on the day. This guy looks like he has hindwing problem.
This photo is the only one that shows a hint of yellow in the strip. The strips are yellow but I couldn’t capture it. I’m sure it’s something in their composition that bends the light wave.
A nice pose showing the red basal spots.

Quaking Aspen. Fooled Again?

In my last post I described being fooled by a grove of White Poplar Populus alba I initially thought were Big-toothed Aspen Populus grandidentata. And on the same day I was fooled again in identifying another Big-toothed Aspen. This time by Quaking Aspen Populus tremuloides.

After the encounter with the White Poplar I headed  to Johnson County Park to take notes on Honey Locusts Gleditsia triacanthos. While taking those notes I noticed another birch/aspen tree across the road.

So I started working through the winter field marks to ensure it was the expected tree for the area, Big-toothed Aspen.

The tree (trees) in question, Big-toothed Aspen or not?

The bark seems good for a Big-toothed. A slender tree around 50′ high with light, gray limbs.  The branches basically ascend in a vertical manner.

The higher branches and trunk are light gray as expected.
The lower trunk has become dark and furrowed.

And now here is where my rookie status takes over. The tree has lower limbs so I can examine the twigs and buds.

Examining the bud in the field it appears long and pointed.
Another view of the pointy buds. But notice how they curve slightly?

And here is where I’ll make a comment on Field Guides.

Looking and reading about Big-toothed and Quaking Aspens I still thought my ID was correct on Big-toothed. The field guides don’t point out the difference enough on the twigs to accurately differentiate them.

And so soon I’ll be writing a post on Tree Field Guides pros and cons.

Still thinking it’s a Big-toothed Aspen I noticed some leaves on one of the trees. And the ID is made.

Notice how the leaves aren’t necessarily opposite but originate from the same point on the branch? A trait of Quaking Aspen but not Big-toothed.
Quaking Aspen
The Smoking Gun – a Quaking Aspen leaf.
Here is a side by side comparison of the two Aspen leaves. My photo above looks good for a Quaking Aspen.

So where did I go wrong?

1. For starters I’m still a rookie and learning the nuances of tree identification. When I got home and examined the twig/bud I confirmed the ID.

2. The field guides in their attempt to cover too many trees are either lacking in words, lacking in photos, or aren’t clear to a rookie.

3. According to 101 Trees of Indiana Quaking Aspen only occur in the northern part of Indiana. So did someone plant them in Johnson County Park?

4. I could be all wrong and when spring arrives I’ll positively ID the tree.

I now can’t wait to find a Big-toothed Aspen so I can compare it to Quaking Aspen and White Poplar.

White Poplar. Won’t be Fooled Again.

Ever since we moved to the area I’ve wondered about a grove of trees at Atterbury FWA. Even my limited knowledge of trees told me they were some sort of birch or aspen tree. But I thought birch and aspen only grow in northern states or high altitude. But I was mistaken on both accounts by White Poplar. And I won’t be Fooled Again. Hopefully.

From my travels to Northern Minnesota in search of winter owls I knew birches/aspens grew in the Sax-Zim Bog area.

February 2011 – N. Minnesota – Notice the Aspen/Birch Trees in the background? The temperature is -25F.

And from running my BBS routes at 9500′ in Western Colorado that aspen trees grow at altitude.

Quaking Aspens lined Divide Road at 9500′ on the Uncompahgre Plateau.

But from driving around the Central Till Plain of Central Indiana there aren’t many birches or aspens.

Except I keep passing by this group on the north end of Atterbury FWA. Why are they here?

A grove of Birch/Aspen on the north end of Atterbury FWA.

So that was my starting point for serious study of Indiana’s Native Trees. With Native being the key word.

I arrived mid-morning and promptly set off taking notes on the grove. The trees were approximately 80′ high and the larger trees were 20″ at shoulder height.  Their overall structure are erect and narrow with branches growing vertical.  Most of the bark was white with a tint of yellow. On the base the bark was gray and furrowed, expected on mature trees.

Mid-height the bark was smooth and gray.
And the lower trunk was dark and furrowed.

At this point I was pretty certain these were Big-toothed Aspen, the expected tree for Central Indiana. There were no low limbs to check a twig, so I looked through my binoculars for confirmation. I expected a slim, straight, gray twig with single, pointed end buds.

Instead I got knobby twig with multiple white buds. What was going on here?


Here are the buds and twigs I was expecting.
White Poplar
But here is what I got. Not at all what I expected. The twigs had multiple buds on a knobby twig.

Checking the field guides it was quickly apparent what was going on here. The tree was a White Poplar Populus alba, also known as Silver Poplar.  An import from Eurasia. The tree is very similar to our Big-toothed Aspen except it turns blacker with age. And of course the difference in the before mentioned twigs and buds.

Notice how these Quaking Aspens in Colorado are almost all white compared to the blackish trunks of the White Poplars above.

Not sure why someone would have planted them at Atterbury except they are an evasive. So I can’t add to my Native Trees of Indiana list.

So as each of my field guides say, “it is by comparing all the details that identification is achieved, and the combination of determining factors is not the same in each case.” (The Tree Identification Book, pg. 100)

Sounds a lot like birding.

Indiana Native Trees Winter Identification

Previously I discussed Indiana’s Central Till Region and the odds I might see 60-70 native tree species in the Johnson-Marion county area. So before I start learning them I need a starting point. How many Indiana Native Trees Winter Identification can I currently make? And why?

To begin with I’ve done a lot of reading over the last month on trees. Some of which I’m sure I’ll eventually share with you. But let me say I have never seen so many different names for the same species. I swear each tree has 3 or more common names. For now I’m going to stick with the common names from 101 Trees Indiana Field Guide but include the scientific name to erase any doubt.

Here are the trees I can currently identify in winter without the use of any field guides and how I can ID them:

Eastern White Pine – Pinus strobus  Because I took the time last year to learn it.

Eastern Red Cedar – Juniperus virginiana  Growing up we had one in our yard. Plus the shape and the reddish color of the tree.

Eastern Red Cedar

American Sycamore – Platanus occidentalis  The green-white bark and the large size make them distinctive.

Sweet Gum – Liquidambar styraciflua  The spiny fruit that hangs on the tree in winter is a giveaway.

Northern Hackberry – Celtis occidentalis  The year-round warty, light gray bark is distinctive.

Shagbark Hickory – Carya ovata  The peeling, long curly strips of bark are unique.

Shagbark Hickory

Pin Oak – Quercus palustris The lower branches start right above the ground and droop. Plus it still usually still has leaves.

Indiana Native Trees Winter Identification
Pin Oak

American Beech – Fagus grandifolia  Distinctive by lover’s initials carved in the smooth, gray  bark.

River Birch – Betula nigra  The orange, cream, and near-white peeling bark on the smaller tree make it the easiest Birch to ID.

Honey Locust – Gleditsia triacanthos  Thorns up to 12″. Enough said.

As you can see it’s basically the bark I use for easy winter ID. Eventually I’ll make and share a reference chart for more Indiana Native Trees Winter Identification but for now I’ll just keep it at a simple line for each.

Indiana Central Till Plain Species

Since there isn’t anything to report from the weekend I’ll pick up where I left off on my last post.  The post ended by stating even though there aren’t any unique Indiana Central Till Plain Species, it’s still home to a majority of Indiana’s species.  Which means I don’t have to go far to learn them. And remember to find a rare species you need to know your local species. In fact I can probably see 2/3 of the state’s butterfly and tree species by checking my backyard or local parks.

How did I arrive at the 2/3 figure? For birding I had previously posted my analysis. I concluded that with consistent birding I could locally see 180 – 200 species of the state’s 250 species. Approximately 75%. Of course I would expect a higher percent for birds since my birding skills are higher than my rookie status with other flora and fauna.

Also in the last post I referenced both the Butterflies of Indiana and 101 Trees of Indiana field guides. Both field guides come with maps showing which counties have had species recorded. Of course an argument can be made this isn’t the best way to demonstrate county sightings. The problem is maybe only one sighting might have been recorded in a county. But by studying the maps you can get a sense of whether or not you have a good chance of seeing a species.

Central Till Plain Species
As demonstrated in these maps the odds are good I might see the species on the left in my local Johnson and Marion Counties. But it would be a long shot for the species shown on the right.

After analyzing both books I estimate I might see around 2/3 of the states 101 Native Trees by checking the Johnson-Marion Counties area. And a similar number for the state’s 100 or so reoccurring butterflies.

Which once again shows you don’t have to go far to see and learn the majority of your state’s different species.

Indiana’s Natural Regions – The Starting Point

So where to begin my 2018 Natural History adventure? Well, seeing as the three Field Guides I currently own from the Indiana Natural Science Series begin with an introduction to Indiana’s Natural Regions, I’ll start there.

First the three books:

  1.  Jeffrey E. Belth – Butterflies of Indiana
  2. Marion T. Jackson – 101 Trees of Indiana
  3. Michael A. Homoya – Wildflowers and Ferns of Indiana Forests

All are published by Indiana University Press.

Indiana Natural Regions

Did you know Indiana is composed of 12 Natural Regions? But first, what is a Natural Region? From Homoya, et. al. 1985 “A natural region is a major, generalized unit of the landscape where a distinctive assemblage of natural features is present.”

Natural Regions, 1984 – Shows the natural regions and their subsections (Indiana Natural Heritage Data Center, IDNR) – (Lake Michigan and Large Rivers Regions not on key) Marion and Johnson Counties outlined in blue.

Each of the books goes into detail how each natural region pertains to their particular topic. Be it butterflies, trees, or wildflowers.

But to start my adventure I’ll concentrate on the section where Marion and most of Johnson County are located. Section 5B – the Central Till Plain section. According to the authors “This is the largest natural region in Indiana… and is topographically homogeneous. The section is a mostly undissected plain formerly covered by an extensive beech-maple-oak forest.” The better drained southern section where Marion and Johnson County are located supported American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tulip Popular. One other point to note from the field guides is because of the section’s location and the scarcity of specialized natural communities, there are no restricted species.

In other words, since there are no unique land formations present as there are in the southern and northern sections of the state, there are no unique butterflies or trees.

But the Central Till Plain contains a large majority of the state’s “common” (I hate that term) flora and fauna. This will give me a great opportunity to learn those species before setting off to search for unique ones in other parts of the state.

And remember the only way to know a unique or rare species is to really know the “common” species.

Increasing Hours in the Field

In 2018 I’ll have goals for birds, butterflies, trees, wildflowers, etc. Even maybe a dragonfly or two. But the number of species of any of those will pale compared to the goal of Increasing Hours in the field to learn Natural History. And really “Getting to know” what I see during those hours. And that is the one main goal for 2018.

Have 5, Need 10+

2017 was a low year for time in the field. I didn’t even average 5 hours per week. For comparison in previous years I have spent up to 12-13 hours a week while working full-time. And these are actual hours in the field which doesn’t include driving time to and from birding.

The majority of those hours will probably be spent in the local Johnson-Marion Counties area. As previously stated I’m embarrassed I don’t know the local fauna and flora. Let alone the rest of Indiana’s. So the goal is learn the local area and hopefully take several trips to start learning the more distant Natural Areas of Indiana.

Increasing Hours
In 2018 I plan to take several small trips to explore the Natural Areas of Indiana.


And by concentrating on butterflies and their associated natural areas I should be able to spend time a day or two a week after work learning a few things. This is possible with birding but there isn’t a very good birding spot on the drive home. However there are a couple of small parks that look good for butterflies.

Work and Free Time

So hopefully changing positions at work last fall has set things up for more time in the field. The current position doesn’t have the travel like the old one. Just the daily 30 minute one-way drive to and from work. Which isn’t bad if I use the time wisely to learn things.

Big Push towards Natural History

As I posted lasted April I was going to move towards learning more things Natural History. And I did to a small degree by learning several butterfly and tree species. But I also found out, again, I need to be “all in” to learn something. I tried to combine “full-time” birding with learning other things. And it  didn’t work. With my “limited” free time I can’t do both birding and learn new things. So 2018 will see the Big Push towards Natural History.

By next fall I’ll hopefully be able to ID a large percentage of these trees at Brown County State Park. 10/21/17

I don’t plan to stop birding. But I do plan to devote the majority of time in 2018 to learning other Natural History items. How much time? I always thought Seth Godin’s blog post 10,000 Hours was a good start on the subject. 10,000 Hours, or whatever the time, is what distinguishes an advanced hobbyist from an expert in the field.

For example over the years I’ve noticed if I work at a hobby, which I have with birding, after 3-4 years I’ve learned about 80-90%. The remaining 10-20% would take several additional years to learn, if ever. I won’t become the expert on the topic but should be in the “advanced” hobbyist category.

For me this relates to 8-10 hours a week in the field plus an equivalent amount per week studying the topic. So approximately 1000 hours a year. In 3-4 years I’ll have put in 3000-4000 hours. Enough time to be good but not an expert.

I think I can reduce the time because of my birding experience. The mistakes I made not knowing a bird’s status and distribution or the taxonomy relationships of species, I can hopefully avoid with other flora and fauna.

And maybe I’ll learn the common wildflowers. Brown County State Park 10/21/17

So this coming year I’m going to put birding on the back burner. The hope is if I hit other Natural History items hard I’ll get a good footing on Indiana’s flora and fauna. Then over the following years tie it all together.

To accomplish this I’m going to use Butterflying as the vehicle for my next learning adventure.

As previously stated I see butterflying demands you know butterflies, larval hosts such as plants, shrubs, and trees, and the natural areas where they occur.

Big Push towards Natural History
Since I’ve learned a few butterflies I know this is a Red Admiral. But I can only guess at the plant it’s on… Brown County State Park 10/21/17

This learning adventure will be a zigzag path. I’ll continue birding, especially the BBS routes. But the emphasis for the next year will be on learning butterflies and their associated nature groups.

And I’ll share those travels as I travel along.