Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lark Sparrow

I spent a fine day in Indianapolis last Sunday, at the stellar Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum has on display a selection of about 75 original prints from John James Audubon's seminal work, Birds of America. It's well worth a visit to see Audubon's incredible illustrations, but the museum has much more to offer, both inside and out. On the outside is 152 acres of incredible landscapes that is treated as living art. Many native plants are incorporated - in fact, the dominant biomass is native. Thus, the grounds play host to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I gave a talk on Audubon, his art, life, and travels in one of the museum's auditoriums, but beforehand was able to tag along with the museum's chief horticulturalist, Chad Franer, as he led a walk around the museum's property. I highly recommend a visit.

Early the next morning - last Monday - on my return from Indy, I stopped by a long abandoned limestone quarry near Dayton, Ohio that has been made into a park. Barren as the site may appear, it is quite birdy, and didn't disappoint.

One of the first species I encountered was a confiding Prairie Warbler. He seemingly burst with the pleasures of spring, as he sang his rising buzzy melody from the perches that define his turf.

This bird, however, was my primary target - the Lark Sparrow. It is one of my favorites among the Emberizidae, and it's hard picking favorites in such a family of stunners. For us Ohioans, the Lark Sparrow is always a treat. While it becomes quite common to the west, this species is at the eastern periphery of its range here, and quite uncommon. This fellow and at least three others were singing their peculiar buzzy trills from prominent perches. No shrinking violet, the Lark Sparrow.

I was at the park at the crack of dawn, and thus had the place to myself. So, I operated as usual when trying to photograph songbirds. After determining the location of several oft-used perches by one of the territorial sparrows, I sidled into a good position and just waited for him to make his rounds. That's how I got the previous shot. It must be said, though, that the Lark Sparrow is rather tame and not difficult to get near. Nonetheless, I wanted - as always - candid shots of the birds acting naturally, and even with Lark Sparrows that takes a bit of time and patience.

Lark Sparrows remind me of elfin quail, and like quail they spend much time on the ground foraging for plant seeds and small insects. Before long, the singer I was photographing flew to the ground not far from me and began picking about. In short order, his mate joined him and they eventually worked so close to me that I couldn't focus on them. In the shot above, the male hops atop a rock to eye me curiously, then continued on with his activities.

The birds eventually began collecting old plant stems for a nest. This fellow is quite ambitious in his selection of material.


As can be seen by this fine map, the Lark Sparrow is largely a bird of the Great Plains. Its breeding range barely extends as far east as Ohio, which is why it is such a notable treat here. The Buckeye State stronghold has long been the open sandy habitats of the Oak Openings west of Toledo, a place that they've probably bred for thousands of years. But more and more, Lark Sparrows are utilizing - in very small numbers - large abandoned stone quarries such as the one that I visited on this trip.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

John James Audubon talk - Indianapolis Museum of Art

John James Audubon's beautiful rendering of an American Avocet, a species he found breeding near Vincennes, Indiana in 1814. That remains the state's only nesting record.

I'm giving a program this Sunday, April 23, at 3 pm at the Indianapolis Museum of Art about the one and only Audubon. The museum has about 75 of Audubon's prints from his ground-breaking work, The Birds of America, on exhibit: Audubon: Drawn to Nature. The avocet is included among them.

Audubon roamed America at a time when our habitats were largely unaltered, but lived to see sweeping changes wrought by the onslaught of European colonization. He was a woodsman through and through, and in addition to being a keen observer of nature, was arguably the greatest artist of birds to ever live. His paintings are magnificent, and broke new ground in their animation and attention to detail.

Preceding my talk is a tour of the museum's expansive grounds, which are heavily populated with native plants. Birds and other wildlife abound. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Eastern Red Bat

This wonderful little woodland trail meanders along a bluff overlooking a particularly pristine southern Ohio stream. There is lots of wildflower diversity, and as is the case with sites that harbor great floristic diversity, there is lots of animal diversity.

Mostly, on this trip of last Tuesday, I was looking for a mammal - a very special little mammal. I had been here the previous Saturday, with said mammal high on the list of hoped-for targets, but no luck. We saw lots of other great things, and many nice photos were taken, but the migratory mammal that was a main quest had apparently not yet arrived in these haunts.

As you've gathered from this post's title, it was the Eastern Red Bat, Lasiurus borealis, that I was after. These tiny "tree bats" are highly migratory, and the most likely species to be seen hunting during daylight hours. When at rest, the bats typically choose trees for roosting and, as we shall see, can be incredibly difficult to spot when ensconced among the foliage.

I've seen Red Bats on numerous occasions and even photographed them on the wing. The last one that I saw was VERY up close and personal - it was captured as part of a researcher's banding project. The one before that I found napping on the side of an Ohio State University parking garage. But what had thus far eluded me was seeing this wee bat making like a leaf in a tree.

The tan-brown leaves in the photo above are those of American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, and it seems to be the tree of choice for roosting Red Bats.

To make this image, I was prone in the leaf litter. We can see the long-lingering beech leaves of a young sapling projecting in from the left. And if you look quite closely, you may notice a darker lump among those leaves - just left of dead center.

With the help of a 300mm lens and a better lighting angle, we can better make out the "lump". Target acquired - it's a roosting Eastern Red Bat! I was pleased indeed to finally see one of these bats in such habitat, and even more pleased when shortly thereafter I found another one, near eye level.

I'd say it would be a stroke of pure luck - or the result of phenomenal observational skills - for someone to stumble upon one of these bats in a beech tree. But if one is privy to their roosting habits, the odds of locating a Red Bat go way up. I knew they were likely in this area, so I searched the beech trees carefully. However, I've scoured beech for bats many times before, with no luck. Red Bats are even smaller than a beech leaf, and they tend to huddle up next to a leaf or within a small cluster of leaves.

Seen well, the animal is a beast of extraordinary beauty. The pelage is a deep reddish-orange, frosted with a silvery sheen. Small wonder they hide among leaves - the bat is amazingly leaflike and tough to spot among the foliage.

The little fox-like face exudes a certain charm, and those proportionately enormous ears are marvelous augmentations to a remarkably keen sense of hearing.

It would be interesting to know where this bat spent the winter. Red Bats are known to be migratory, and it's possible many of those that pass through or remain to breed in Ohio spent the winter in some southern state. I'm sure FAR more of them are out there than suspected. As this photo essay illustrates, they can quite easily be overlooked. April seems to be a great month for locating Red Bats, and young beech trees with their persistent hanging dead leaves seem to be the best place to search them out. So, should you find yourself in a woodland with beech, keep an eye out for these showy little bats.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Photography Talk! April 14.

A nymph assassin bug, Zelus luridus, awaits the arrival of small pollinating insects within the hub of a large-flowered trillium blossom. The fate of such pollinators will not be good. Imaged yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Friday evening, April 14, for the Focus Group, a local photography club. Guests are welcome, and admission is free. Festivities commence around 7:00 pm, guests are welcome, and admission is free. Location is the Upper Arlington Municipal Building at 2600 Tremont Road, and more details are RIGHT HERE.

I plan on using mostly images that I've taken in recent weeks, and will cover a broad range of natural history subjects. They'll include birds, insects, plants, landscapes, and more. I also want to discuss how to find and approach subjects, composition, using images to interpret natural history, and specific photographic techniques for various subjects.

If you can make it, I'll look forward to seeing you there!

Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, taken yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, photographed last Wednesday in Scioto County, Ohio.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Trillium Festival! April 15!

Our official state wildflower, the Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, imaged by your narrator yesterday in southernmost Ohio. This gorgeous species is just starting to erupt in flowers.

By tax day, April 15, the trilliums will be putting on a spectacular show, and there is no better place to see them than the legendary Mathias Grove in Hocking County. This property has played host to the "Trillium Festival" for an incredible 35 years, and April 15 is the date this year.

All are welcome, and if you go be prepared for a botanical tsunami of trillia of several species, all native and in their natural forest habitat. Bring a camera, too. This year's fest features a photo contest - subject being trilliums, of course - with winners snaring fabulous prizes.

Below are flyers with all the pertinent info on the festival, and the photo contest. Click the pics to enlarge, and you should be able to make out all of the details. Or, visit the Appalachian Ohio Alliance website, RIGHT HERE.





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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Lesser Celandine: A botanical disaster

Acres and acres of rich floodplain forest are blanketed with dense mats of a highly invasive Eurasian plant, the Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, at Whetstone Park in Columbus, Ohio.

On a trip to Indiana last week, I found myself headed west on I-70 - the only pragmatic route for travel to Indianapolis and vicinity from here. As I passed by the Great Miami and Stillwater rivers near Dayton, I noticed great green and gold carpets cloaking the floodplain forests. The dreaded "strangler buttercup", or Lesser Celandine!

This thoroughly noxious plant has really been picking up steam in recent years. It's been a localized scourge in some areas for a long while, but now is steamrolling through floodplain forests at an epic clip. After witnessing the Dayton-area infestations from my 75 mph drive-by, I resolved to visit Whetstone Park near my home after I returned.

I hadn't been to Whetstone in early spring for a number of years, but even then large patches of celandine were already established. What I saw on my visit yesterday stunned me. It was a botanical Armageddon. Long before I even got to the lower reaches of the park and the floodplain of the Olentangy River, I began to see large patches of the stuff in the park's lawns. The floodplain was especially depressing, and the photo above sums up the situation well. The overwhelming majority of native flora and fauna have been totally displaced by the botanical scourge that is Lesser Celandine. Only the overstory trees remain native, but even they are threatened by large clinging draping masses of the invasive Winter-creeper, Euonymus fortunei. The understory is thick in many areas, but shrubs are now nearly completely comprised of another  highly invasive species, Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii.

We have the nursery industry to thank for Lesser Celandine, which, amazingly, is still readily available in the trade. Just google "lesser celandine nursery" and you will see. A popular cultivar is the aptly named "Brazen Hussy".

It's not hard to see why this plant would be a hit. It is showy, and a highly successful groundcover. Probably, when this thing first made its way to our shores and into the nursery trade, no one really knew it would eventually vault over the garden fence and create ecological chaos with native habitats.

But by now, we should be learning some lessons about the likelihood of invasiveness among introduced plants. If it is an extremely rapid to spread groundcover that grows readily from detached vegetative  parts such as tubers and bulblets (such as celandine), we're probably in for trouble. If it is a woody plant - tree or shrub - that has colorful berries and co-evolution with birds as vectors to distribute those fruit, we're probably in for trouble. Further, if the introduced plants hail from Eurasian habitats and climates similar to ours, we're probably in for trouble.

A sad pair of native Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, attempt to punch through the dense mat of celandine. The loss of native wildflowers and other native species due to this horrific infestation is stunning. Where once thick stands of bluebells, trout lilies, various native buttercups, sedges and much more flourished, now there is little to nothing other than the overwhelming Eurasian botanical armies. Attendant with the loss of the native flora is a crash in native pollinating insect populations, and many other forms of animal life.

When a celandine infestation reaches the epic proportions of the invasion depicted here, I'm not sure what can be done. Abetting this plant's rapid spread is that it best grows on regularly flooded river terraces, and the floodwaters quickly sweep plant parts into new terrain. I suspect that eradication of a given population, such as at Whetstone Park, is a long labor-intensive task, and one that would require many years of follow-up. Not to mention long-term diligence, as plants will constantly be reintroduced to the site.

The degradation of our habitats by the onslaught of nonnative invasive plants is depressing indeed.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

Eastern Spadefoot Toad - finally!

An Eastern Spadefoot, Scaphiopus holbrookii, floats among the weeds in a recently flooded agricultural field in Athens County, last Friday evening. This small, largely smooth-skinned toad is one of Ohio's most enigmatic amphibians.

I've wanted to observe spadefoots for years, but finding them isn't easy. Populations display an explosive emergence and reproductive cycle - the toads emerge en masse when weather and moisture conditions are just right, and their singing, mating, and egg-laying may all take place in a night or two. Further compounding the difficulties of locating spadefoots is their unpredictability. Emergences might take place anywhere from late March through July.

video
Laura Hughes knew of a good spadefoot locale in Athens County - one of nine southeastern counties in which they have been found in Ohio. We went there on a very wet night in early March, but nothing - it was probably just too early in the season. But, hot on the heels of a massive thunderstorm that dumped some two inches of rain in the area, we returned last Friday, March 31. Bingo! The secretive toads had emerged in large numbers, and as is almost always the case, we first detected them by the curious call of the males. They sound a bit like sheep bleating, and the call carries for quite some way. Click the video above to hear a recording from Friday evening.

The site is not a natural wetland, but a low-lying agricultural field along the Hocking River. It was planted in corn last year. Heavy rains, and overflow from swollen river waters, inundate the field for short periods. Thus, the site is not high in amphibian diversity - only the most adaptive species seem to occur there. There were many Spring Peepers, such as above.

Many American Toads were also in the waters, with some males singing. This is a pair in amplexus, or the mating "hug" (male on top). I also heard a Green Frog or two, and a few Western Chorus Frogs, but that was about it.

This is what we had come to find, though - the fascinating Eastern Spadefoot. I met Laura on the southeast side of Columbus around 8 pm, and initially we had reservations about the evening's prospects. The temperature seemed to be dropping, and was hovering around 46 F. We felt that if the mercury plunged much lower, it would keep the toads under ground. However, as we moved south, the temperature gradually rose to about 50-51 F and remained there until nearly midnight, when we left. Plenty warm for amphibians.

A spadefoot, showing its wide spread big goggle eyes, and relatively smooth skin, at least for a toad. There are seven or nine species in its family, the Scaphiopodidae, depending on how the taxonomy is interpreted, and all but the species at hand occur in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

Eastern Spadefoots apparently spend most of their life underground, thus a thorough understanding of their life history is tough to ferret out. Limited observations suggest that toads probably come above ground more often than is though, at least on wet or very humid nights, but detection is by far easiest during mass mating emergences, when males are vocalizing.

A closeup of the paddlelike hind foot, showing the animal's namesake spade. The elongate hardened dark ridge helps the toad dig efficiently in the sandy soft soils in which they inhabit.

A male, in full bleat. We estimated seeing or hearing at least 75 toads, but given the size of the site and that we covered only a small portion, I'm sure many others were present.

Finally catching up with this amphibian, and bearing witness to the spectacle of a breeding frenzy, was quite a treat. However, the experience raised numerous questions. Where exactly did the toads come from? How far do they wander? What's the primary diet? How many other populations of this highly secretive animal are out there (listed as state-endangered)? And more.

I can think of a number of other seemingly suitable sites for spadefoots in southeastern and southern Ohio. Hopefully, and now with a much better search image, I will be able to check some of them out during this spring and summer's heavy downpours.

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