In my quest to have a more pleasant look back at 2011 than I was receiving from the news, I reviewed the surprise discoveries I made in the natural world this year. Since I am an ornithologist, many high points have to do with birds. But like anybody who spends a lot of time in the field, I find other taxa are often in the spotlight.
For instance, for the last decade my husband and I have been compiling a list of county dragonflies and damselflies for our urban southeastern Michigan home county. In the past year, we decided we had likely discovered all the species likely to regularly occur here, having added nearly 50 species to the list. I started writing up a paper. Yet right at summer’s start, we stumbled upon a thriving population of Racket-tailed Emeralds (Dorocordulia libera), many busy working on the next generation, like the pair in the photo. This is a species previously represented in the county only by a literature record from the 1870s. A month later, we were amazed to find a Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus), a new county record and the largest dragonfly in the U.S. – not easily overlooked. Both of these species were in places we had searched many times over the years.
A bit more prosaic was my discovery of a population of Florida Lettuce (Lactuca floridana) along the trails at work on my urban university campus. This is a state-threatened plant in Michigan. I have walked by the plants I found thousands of times before. Although similar to other Lactucas and sort of non-descript (okay, ugly) when not in bloom, woodland lettuce is tall and easy to see. Was this a very recently established population, or had I somehow missed them on my countless walks?
Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) reaches its northern range limit in southern Michigan. Over the years they’d occasionally been seen locally and seemed to be becoming more common, but my searches had been fruitless. Happily, 2011 was my year to add this species to my state butterfly list with one in a neighboring county. Shortly thereafter, I got to add it to my home county list…and hometown list…and yard list. I walked outside with my morning cup of coffee to find one right in the front garden.
My 2012 bring us all the excellent experience of new discoveries in familiar places!