Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Bruce Peninsula Part II: Singing Sands of Dorcas Bay

 *Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV* *Part V* *Part VI* *Part VII*

Recently, I've had the pleasure of talking to a number of people who've taken the time to compliment this blog. It always means a lot to hear someone say such positive things about the countless plants, places, and topics I've shared on here for nearly six years. But that praise is almost assuredly followed with the regret that I'm barely active on here anymore. Believe me when I say no one understands that more than your blogger. It seems just about every post I've managed to get on here the last couple years is prefaced by more or less the same message of "not enough free time and energy", which is Nature's honest truth but getting a bit old to type. I'll never post on here like I did back in the first few years but it's nice to know this blog is always waiting for new adventures to be shared.

And new adventures will be shared, indeed! Starting with my long overdue series on my botanical whirlwind tour of Ontario's Bruce peninsula back in early June 2015. Devotees may remember my intro piece from last summer that was the planned starting off point but never went any further. Until now! The Buckeye Botanist is back to take you vicariously along to one of eastern North America's most incredible displays of botanical and geological wonder. If you'd like to read the intro, which I encourage you to do, you can click this link here to do so.

Limestone cobble and alvar shorelines of the Singing Sands at Dorcas Bay

My intrepid group of botanists/naturalists and I visited so many wondrous spots on the Bruce that it's difficult to know where to begin. However, when one really thinks about it there's no wrong answer so it might as well be the picturesque shorelines of Dorcas Bay. I'll warn you ahead of time this is a lengthy post but more in pictures than anything. So read it all, peruse the photos only: just have fun and enjoy!

Sprawling shoreline fen complex near the shores of Lake Huron

This parcel of Bruce Peninsula National Park known as the Singing Sands sits near the northern tip of the peninsula on Lake Huron's western shores. It's home to a nice array of both wetland and forested habitat with the likes of alvar, shoreline fen, and mixed coniferous woodland all merging together in a tapestry of diversity.

Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) on the limestone cobble shorelines

The Singing Sands allegedly gets its moniker from the eerie howl the sand makes as its blown over the limestone cobble shorelines and alvar. It's true the wind is nigh on always whipping about at this site and it is one of the only sandy beaches on the northern end of the Bruce, so I guess we can let our imaginations do the rest. Due to the western shores of the Bruce constantly battling the unbroken fury of Lake Huron its landscape is much more flat and topographically docile than the eastern shores as you'll come to see in this series.

Odd yellow colored form of the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
Odd yellow colored form of the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)

One of the more common and delightful denizens of Dorcas Bay's wet, open shorelines is the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja conncinea). It's certainly hard to miss when aglow in its traditional red garb, but an uncommon lemon yellow color form was even more conspicuous. However, my friends and I did not come to swoon over the paintbrushes but rather a rare, elusive orchid that haunts the adjacent woodlands.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

During my initial foray on the Bruce back in 2011, I was just a bit too late to see the ram's head lady's slippers (Cypripedium arietinum) in their prime. It was a bittersweet thing to be so close and yet too late for the plant you came so far to see. So this time around I made sure to adjust our arrival to coincide with their brief peak bloom schedule.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)
Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

Perfection! I dare say Dorcas Bay could not have put on a nicer show of these miniscule orchid wonders if it tried! Literally hundreds of them peppered the ground in the best spots and brought a literal tear to this orchid nut's eye. Ram's heads are a globally rare species largely restricted to sandy upland conifer woods characterized by hemlock, cedar, and pine with an association of limestone beach cobble. That's some habitat specificity right there and the Singing Sands has it in spades. It's little wonder then the Bruce is one of the continent's last strongholds for this disappearing orchid. Climate change is not doing this northern boreal species any favors.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)
Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

The spectacular snow white labellum of this lady's slipper is marked with a rich purplish-crimson reticulate venation that jumps out at you from the surrounding emerald vegetation. Its striking color and architecture is equally matched by its diminutive size. None of the other eastern Cypripediums are this small and a large specimen can fit on your thumbnail. It really takes seeing them in person to understand how truly tiny they are!

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)

Speaking of lady's slippers, I'd be remiss if I didn't throw a shout out to the Bruce's 'weed' of an orchid in the large yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium pubescens). Yes, I did in fact say weed and you'll see and read what I mean in posts to come. As pretty as the pair is in the photo above, I'm much more interested in the colony of familiar looking leaves at their feet...

Federally threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris)
Federally threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris)

At first glance any Ohioan might see this majestic little iris and scribble the name dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) into their notes but remember we're not in Ohio anymore. This iris is much, much more special and another of the Bruce's most rare specialists. The dwarf lake iris (I. lacustris) is so rare that it's listed as federally threatened in both the United States and Canada. It's endemic to the limestone shorelines of northern Lake Huron and Lake Michigan along the Niagara Escarpment and found nowhere else on the planet. Although, in certain spots such as Singing Sands you'd never know it was so globally scarce. The Bruce is one Canada's best strongholds for the dwarf lake iris and easy to spot, especially when in bloom. The photos do nothing for scale but the word dwarf is very accurate in this plant's case as the flowers are only the size of a silver dollar!

Shoreline flora awakening as summer appears on the horizon

Not to be outdone by its aforementioned brethren, the blue flag iris (I. brevicaulis) was beginning to unfurl its purple tepals in the marshy areas between the lake and wooded dunes. Notice the pink flower buds of the tuberous Indian-plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum) among the iris, too. It's a rarity back in Ohio and even more rare further north in Canada where it's restricted to high-quality fen complexes as well.

That gang exploring the cobble shorelines of Dorcas Bay

When I say that Dorcas Bay may be one of the most magnificent beaches I've yet experienced it's truly through the eyes of a botanist and ecologist. I'm not sure many beach goers would agree after looking out across a landscape of bare rock, muck, and vegetation. They prefer their sand and palm trees with towering concrete behind and I say they can keep it!

Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris

Perhaps the neatest plant to call the rocky shorelines of Dorcas Bay home was the peculiar and always exciting northern butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris). This oddball of an insectivorous plant thrived in a seemingly sterile environment in specialized areas where water seeped out from the bedrock and formed mucky pools along the forest's edge. The butterworts are much more diverse along the coastal plains of the Atlantic and Gulf states with this lone species making due in the north.

Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)
Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)

There's certainly no mistaking this plant for anything else with its insidious highlighter yellow leaves. While greasy and slick to our touch, these conspicuous leaves are the things of insect nightmares. Each leaf produces two types of glands: one that secretes a sticky substance for nabbing its prey; and another that secretes a digestive enzyme that helps break down the helpless insects into a more usable form. The butterworts were in full bloom during our visit and are adorned with blue-purple flowers quite reminiscent of a violet in my opinion.

Great Lakes Bulrush Sedge (Carex scirpoidea subsp. convoluta)

If you've been a follower of this blog and my botanical adventures for a while you know without a doubt I'm head-over-heals for sedges. A self-diagnosed sedgehead and I'd have it no other way. The Bruce is well known for its diversity of photogenic plants like ferns and orchids but it's a sedgehead's dream, too! Honestly, I could do a whole post on sedges but I'll let you off the hook with a handful of photos of my favorite species. The one featured above, the Great Lakes bulrush sedge (Carex scirpoidea subsp. convoluta) gets special mention as a globally rare endemic of the Great Lakes limestone shorelines and alvars; it's other more common subspecies spread throughout the western states.

Buxbaum's Sedge (Carex buxbaumii)
Mud Sedge (Carex limosa)

Hair-like Sedge (Carex capillaris)
Pale Sedge (Carex livida)

Sedges come in so many different shapes, colors, sizes, patterns etc. that it makes them hard to not love and appreciate when you realize just how wonderful they are. The Bruce is home to over 150 different species from the sedge family (Cyperaceae) and during my group's week we saw nigh on 30 different taxa.

A cool, foggy mist blowing off Lake Huron

Singing Sands attempted to somewhat live up to its name during our time there when Lake Huron blew in a bank of cool fog. It was awesome to watch it race across the waters, up onto the beach and envelope us all in a very refreshing wave of mist. It went as quickly as it came and I have no idea what caused it to develop but it certainly made for a unique experience that I won't forget anytime soon.

Great Lakes Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. pumila)

Scattered about Dorcas Bay's rocky shorelines was scads of the regional endemic Great Lakes sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. pumila) in picture-perfect bloom. This straggly shrub never attains much size and is happy to grow in tangles about its prime beachfront property. Its confined to the beaches and dunes of the northern Great Lakes with its narrow leaves and glabrous twigs excellent ID characters. Unfortunately, this species has long been extirpated from Ohio's extremely limited lake shore habitats, so I always take immense pleasure in seeing it while up north.

Immense expanse of shoreline fen at Dorcas Bay's Singing Sands

I'll wrap up this marathon of a post with another of Singing Sands signature rare habitats it protects in the immense expanses of shoreline fen meadow. Unlike the small, isolated fens that pocket west-central and northeast Ohio, the Bruce's can stretch for as far as the eye can see and contain hundreds upon hundreds of acres of graminoid-dominated goodness. Their species assemblages and associations are quite similar but their hydrology differs in adjacent Lake Huron's water levels playing a key role.

Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea)
Slender-leaved Sundew (Drosera linearis)

One of the first things you'll notice when exploring these shoreline fen complexes is the overwhelming abundance of insectivorous plants. This habitat is naturally low in nutrients and plants have evolved to combat that by attaining these much-needed items by outside means. Literally thousands upon thousands of northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea) dot the fens, which happened to be just a week or so away from flowering during our visit. At their bases in the saturated muck is thousands more of the alien-like slender-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis) waiting for a passing insect to meet its sticky demise.

Green-keeled Cotton Sedge (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)

I can't help but go back to the world of sedges in order to share one of the fen's most iconic and beautiful of scenes. Hundreds of green-keeled cotton sedge (Eriophorum viridicarinatum) plants waving their namesake cotton-like perianth bristles in the cool breeze never fails to put me at peace and in a mood of tranquility. A sapphire blue sky above can only make it better, eh?

Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)
Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)

Of all the things I love about the northern woods its plethora of woody wetland shrubs may take the cake. Dozens of species occur throughout the region's diversity of habitat and the two featured above are arguably the best, at least in my opinion. Both the bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) and labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) are extirpated from Ohio and more commonly found in acidic boggy habitats, but select areas of fen meadow can have peat accumulations that turn the pH low enough for these gorgeous Ericaceous shrubs to occur and persist. Bliss!

With that I do believe I'll give my keyboard a rest and continue my series on the ever-fascinating Bruce peninsula at a later time. I certainly have the desire to get to it much sooner than later but I've learned it's best to not make any hard promises. I hope you've enjoyed this look at the Singing Sands and its incredible wealth of plant life and look forward to more. Please leave your thoughts and comments below and I thank you for your time!

- ALG -


  1. Thanks! I wasn't sure if you would be able to come back to this ever again or not. That looks like an amazing place, and reinforces my desire to visit the Bruce someday.

    1. Glad to be back and welcomed back, Jared! Even better to hear you're enjoying the series and I hope you'll check out the rest. It's a MUST visit for anyone who has a passion in the natural world.

  2. Wonderful to see another of your excellent posts here. Hope you can keep it up occasionally. I'm one of those lucky Ontarians who has been visiting the Bruce for over 50 years - first in 1962. For a few years before it became part of the park, I was involved in helping manage Dorcas, and I've taken students there many times. Recognized all your species except those pesky sedges. I have to admit they leave me confused. Hope you can make another visit sometime. I'm not sure many Ontario naturalists realize what a special place it is.

  3. Excellent photos. What a treat it must have been to see such an abundance of Ram's Heads.