What is a Sedge?

Sedge Meadow in Spring

Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta).  This sedge has edges.

A sedge is a grass-like plant (graminoid) in the sedge family (Cyperaceae).  Most would look down the sedges while walking through the woods or a wetland and just think they are grasses.  While they fill much the same ecological role as the true grasses (Poaceae/Gramineae) they are botanically unique.

One thing that most people learn about sedges is the saying “sedges have edges” This refers to the triangular shaped stems of many of the sedge species.  If you roll the base of the majority of the sedge species, particularly the Carex and Cyperus, between your fingers you feel the edges plainly.  If you were to cut the stem in cross-section you would notice the triangular shape.

There are many exceptions to the rule.  Most importantly there are other plants like Common Bur reed, and Sweet Flag have triangular stems that are not in the sedge family.  Then there are those species like softstem bulrush that have perfectly round stems.  Beware the “sedges have edges saying.”

Hardstem Bulrush Beds

Hardstem bulrushes (Schoenoplectus acutus).  This member of the sedge family  (Cyperaceae) has round stems.

The flowers and seed of sedges differ from the grasses, and I would refer you to any good botany book for more information and detailed drawings.   For wetland plants of the Midwest I would recommend A Great Lakes Wetland Flora.

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What is a Graminoid Plant?

Sedge Meadow

Sedge Meadow Wetland dominated by gramioids.  In this example sedges and grasses.

A graminoid is a grass, or grass-like plant.  The leaves are typically blade-shaped, and the flowers are plain by human standards.

Graminoids include:

  • True Grasses –  Poaceae
  • Sedges, bulrushes – Cyperaceae
  • Rushes- Juncaceae
  • Cattails – Typhacea

Not botanist completely agrees on what a graminoid is for instance some exclude the cattails for instance.  Graminoids grow pretty much everywhere other plants do on land; from hot deserts, to wetlands, forests, tundra and of course grasslands.  Most graminoids are pollinated by the wind and distribute their seeds by dropping them next to the parent plant.  There are always exceptions to the rule in nature though.

Healthy Stand of wild rice

Wild Rice is another species of graminoid.

Many if not most of the most numerous emergent wetland species are graminoids: Phragmites, wild rice, burreed and tussock sedge are just a few examples.  Without graminoid wetlands and other ecosystems would be very different.

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Observing the Forest Canopy from a Tower

I don’t like heights but I do love the view from observation towers, especially those above forests.  Getting a view of the forest canopy from a bird’s perspective is a unique way to look at the world.  Down on the forest floor we can see many things and gaze up at the trees above us.  The leaves and twigs are out of reach, nearly out of sight, but an observation tower in the forest brings us slowly up through the canopy and above it.  From here we can look down on the birds.  Most birds fly low over the canopy from tree to tree, appearing and disappearing into the green leaves.

Forest Canopy and HIgh View

A view from an observation tower in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Wisconsin.

I may like the view, but it also makes me dizzy.  When even a moderate wind blows the wooden observation tower begins to sway ever so slightly.  I can’t really see the movement, but I can sense it in my feet.  My feet tell me not to climb higher on windy days.  Even when the tower is still I cling to the railing on the steps and stay as far away from the edge as I can, but still get a good view at the top.

The day the accompanying photo was taken there was not much wind.  I could feel some movement with my feet, but it may have just all have been in my head.   The view of the forest around me was great, but the farm field in the distance were hazy and hard to make out detail.  Still it was more than worth the climb, and the queasy feeling in my stomach.

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Cold Air in Low Spots – Fog, Dew and Frost

Morning fog, sun and sunrise

The sun has come up over the marsh and through a thick fog, making the trees and other plants in the landscape bathed in and orange glow.

Fog can slowly build up, or silently and slowly roll in during the night.  If may quickly burn off in the sun, or quietly drift away on the morning breeze.  Fog can come during any season, and any time of day.  Fog is a common sight in the low-lying areas of the landscape.  Cold air collects in the lowest areas, often wetlands.  The wetlands themselves retain the heat of the day and when the cold moist air and the warm ground meet, fog forms.

In the northern US and mountainous regions so much cold air can collect in certain low places it can freeze anytime of the year.  Frequent summer frosts can stunt trees and many species of plants can be killed by a mid-summer freeze.  Such areas are sometimes called frost pockets.  The small trees there may be as old as the large trees on nearby, higher ground.

Time-lapse of fog lifting in the marsh

August frost in the Rocky Mountain

An August frost in the Rocky Mountains

Most spring and summer mornings the conditions in wetlands favor dew when the temperature dips below the dew point at night.  When I conduct plant surveys in wetlands I go out as early as possible to avoid the high humidity and blazing summer sun.  I used to wear blue jeans, and they would become completely drenched with the condensed humidity that clung to the leaves of grasses, sedges and flowers.   By 10:00 the bright sun would completely dry them out.  After a time I switched to wearing rain pants for the morning and then took them off when I got hot. It is a sensible thing to do, but somehow it feels like disconnecting, if ever so slightly from nature.

Wisps of fog, crusty frost, and dew drops on spider webs are beautiful sights.  All appear so delicate.  Fog can’t be broken, but a slight brush against a plant brings a rain of dewdrops, and a little warm breath melts the icy fingers of frost.

Dead Tree Fog Pond

Dead trees in the pond, dark skies and fog give a spooky feel to this August morning.

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Happy Birthday 90th David Attenborough

David Attenborough is celebrating his 90th birthday, and I for one am glad he has spent so many years broadcasting nature programs for the BBC.   We even have a Bur Oak tree in the backyard named David Atten-bur-oak (my kids named it).

I really enjoy the programs for two reasons. The first reason is that they are very well done overall, with great subject matter, geographic locations, and videography.  The second reason is David himself.  He adds humanity and his own enthusiasm for whatever subject: be it lions, ants or plants.  That human element is what is missing from many American produced nature programs.

Most American nature shows rely on a completely voyeuristic perspective of nature.  This separates us from nature, but almost everywhere humans have some direct influence over the plants and animals of the world.  No place on Earth is free from climate change, and industrial pollutants.  Without some form of interaction, conservation of the landscape and the flora and fauna in it becomes an abstract concept.  We can’t all visit the rainforest or Arctic tundra, and perhaps most of us would not want to, but by seeing another human in those landscapes, we can get a sense of the reality of the habitat.

David Attenborough goes to those places.  Sure the hard work is done by the videographers, assistants and produces, but his brief visits, and narration make these ecosystems into something we can appreciate and understand.  So I wish him a happy 90th birthday today.

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Quick, Get that Water to the Sea

It’s early spring, and I decided to take a trip down to one of my favorite local wetlands on this Earth Day.  Each time I go  there I stop and contemplate the drainage ditch that runs through it.

Drainage ditch through a wetland

Ditch designed to dry out local farm field and this wetland.

The ditch begins a mile up the road where it takes water from the drainage tiles runny just beneath the lowlying fields.  Without this system of water removal growing corn and soybeans would not be possible.  Early in the spring the young seedlings would be underwater, and the ground too soft for heavy machinery.  The only thing that you could grow here would probably marsh hay.

The ditch appears in a 1916 survey map the War Department did, so it is at least 100 years old.  Two years ago the farmer dug out the ditch to remove sediment and help the move the water along.  I ran into this farmer while visiting the marsh and he seemed doubtful it it was worth the effort.

It is understandable that the farmer continues this practice so he can cultivate the fields, but what about the marsh, what effect does it have there?  Whatever the effect the wetland holds on, but it would probably be a wetter place without it.

The map I spoke of was made as part of a huge plan to channelize the Upper Fox River and drain almost all the wetlands for agriculture.  The plan would be a boon for the economy and food production.  It was even said the channelization of the river would decrease flooding because it would speed the water on its way to the sea, the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the case of the Fox River.   This was a common notion in the past, but removing the flood capacity of wetlands would have been a local disaster.

Luckily the plan never got past the planning phase, and each year the wetlands can absorb the excess water, and not to mention provide habitat for resting ducks, geese and a spawning place for Northern Pike and other fish.


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Light Pollution and Migratory Birds

Tree Swallow Nest Box

Tree Swallow on Wood Duck nest box.

A new article titled  Even Porch Lights can Disorient Migratory Birds appeared in Conservation Magazines’s online “Conservation this Week” It has been known for some time that lights in tall buildings, lighthouses etc. give migrating birds many troubles, but more evidence is gathering for light sources close to the ground such as street lights, headlights, and porchlights.  Anything that adds stress or an increased chance of injury and death is bad for bird populations.

Bird migrations are incredible perilous for our feathered friends.   Whether it is a 200 mile migration, or a 20,000 mile migration there is a lot of trouble a bird can get into.  Most birds will be exhausted from long distance flights and will be more susceptible to predators particularly in areas they are not familiar with.  That is one reason many of the small neotropical migrants fly at night.

Weather is a very important element in bird migration.  A favorable tailwind will make the travel go very well, if a strong headwind develops when a small bird is flying across the Gulf of Mexico it could be a difficult flight, or its last.  Fog setting in over the ocean, or the Great Lakes can disorient birds that use the stars for navigation.  The birds can get lost, fly in circles, become exhausted and eventually drown.  Spring, or fall snowstorms can cover up the birds food source, and the cold can freeze birds that are not built to withstand cold temperatures.

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Snow on the Flowers

April came in with a snow fall of a couple of inches, but there wasn’t much cause for worry because 75% of it was gone before the end of the day.  It was a cold day, but the sun was bright between snow showers and did its job  melting the snow.  That was yesterday, and some of the snow is still around.

Coneflowers and snow

Group of snow-covered Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) stems and seed heads.

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Spring Time

This year spring is arriving early, but of course with the weather, that could all change soon and we could find ourselves with another snowstorm soon.  However, according to the 10 day forecast, both day and night will be above freezing for the next week and a half.  Therefore what little snow we have left will soon be melted and the ice on the lakes will continue to melt and decay into the foreseeable future.  We had a mild winter because of El Nino and I wonder just how mild the spring will be, and if it will be a consistent warming.

Today I saw a few signs of spring, robins, redwing blackbirds and a few other of the early spring migrants.  They were nice to see, and more will be on their way soon.  I went down to Waukau Creek and saw a few of the Northern Pike trying to make their way to Rush Lake to spawn.  The creek is high enough where they might actually be able to make the jump over the carp gate, but the current is very strong.   The landscape is still brown and will be for some time, but I welcome the signs of spring that are here so far.

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New YouTube Channel for Relaxing, Calming Nature Videos

I’ve put together a new YouTube channel, Nature Meditations of my nature videos into a format that facilitates relaxation, meditation, and even sleeping.  One thing I noticed about many of my shorter videos that I make for educational purposes and to increase the appreciation of natural phenomenon is that many were very calming to watch, perhaps too much so.

The idea occurred to me that in a longer format they could be very useful to help people unwind at the end of a busy day, to prepare the mind for sleep or to mediate.  If this seems of interest to you check out the new channel and if it to your liking please give the videos a thumbs up and subscribe!

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