Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Today's Walk in the Woods

Before my workout today, I stopped at Tekakwitha Forest Preserve to ask the staff there about some plants I had photographed (more on that later...). Anyway, my buddy the black squirrel greeted me as he sometimes does. First spotted about a month ago he is very striking - absolutely black, which is sort of shocking after seeing all the greys and reds we have around here. This guy is very camera-shy, in fact until today he only appears when I am NOT carrying the camera. His activity was quite interesting - he was jumping up in the tree branches, at first appearance rather randomly, but then with time you could figure out he was following each branch out from the trunk, then repeating on another branch until he came storming down the tree with an acorn about half the size of his head! Obviously he was after the tree-borne fruit, not the ones that had fallen already. This shot has him as he crossed the access path to the FP visitor center, then he paused to give me a glance before disappearing into the undergrowth.

A little google search shows that the black squirrels are genetic color variants of the usual grey squirrel, and are quite common in some locations (there are even white squirrels with no pigment!). I've certainly not seen them around here except this fellow whose territory extends to (or includes) the parking lot of the Forest Preserve.

I felt like I had bagged a rare jungle beast as I headed onward to the visitor center. The reason for my trip was to identify the fruit cluster I had imaged a couple days before. Bright red, it really stands out in the still-green undergrowth. There are a few of them around, mostly with wilted yellowed leaves, but this one still had the oversized leaves with it to help identify it. The staff figured it out quickly - it is the berry cluster of Jack-in-the-Pulpit (also known as Indian Turnip), whose flower I had never seen thru this season, but I'll keep an eye out for it next summer.

This evening, and in fact, the next day or two there is a planetary conjunction in the western sky. The bright planet Venus is getting higher in the sky, and from earth's perspective, appears very close to the innermost planet Mercury, and Mars, which is about as far from the earth as it can get right now... Down here in the Fox River valley, we have trees on our western horizon that obscures perhaps the lower 5 degrees of sky, so I wasn't sure we could catch the conjunction, though we had briefly seen Venus recent evenings. Sure enough, Venus was easily spotted, but set below our treeline before the sky grew dark enough to allow seeing Mercury or Mars. The latter two planets will quickly pass from the evening sky, but Venus will be visible thru the winter and be a brilliant "Christmas Star" this holiday season. Look for it in the west!

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