Thursday, April 2, 2020

Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats

An eastern red bat/Jim McCormac

Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats

March 29, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

With the coronavirus causing major human disruption, many people are retreating to parks and natural areas for relaxation and recreation. Nature’s processes roll along, uninterrupted, and one can take hope from that.

I ventured southward to Highland County, birthplace of Johnny Paycheck, on March 21 to visit two interesting areas. This scenic county sits at the interface of glaciation, with gently rolling plains to the north and hill country in the south.

Signs of spring’s onset become more pronounced the farther south one goes, and I was in search of such evidence. My first stop was Fallsville Wildlife Area. This 1,400-acre site’s centerpiece is Clear Creek — one of 11 such-named Ohio streams, in at least as many counties. However, none of the rest have a spectacular waterfall.

Fallsville Falls — named for a now extinct village — tumbles over a 20-foot limestone cliff and into a narrow box canyon. Recent rains had swollen the little creek, and the torrent of water plunging over the falls was spectacular. A botanical bonus was scores of tiny snow trilliums blooming on adjacent wooded slopes.

Then it was on to Miller Nature Sanctuary, 20 miles southeast, on land owned and managed by the ODNR’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. Of their 130-plus preserves, this is one of the showiest.

My main interest was spring wildflowers, but I also had mammalian hopes. The preserve has many young beech trees in the forest understory, and these plants hold many of last year’s leaves. The senescent foliage offers camouflage for one of our most interesting bats.

Because it was only 32 degrees when I arrived, I was not optimistic about finding bats. However, spring flora was erupting everywhere: snow trillium, rosette leaves of shooting-star, Virginia bluebell in bud, flowering harbinger-of-spring, blue cohosh, spring-beauty and others.

In spite of numerous floral distractions, I kept an eye on the beech trees. Suddenly, there it was — a darker brown lump among the leaves, and I knew from experience what it was.

An eastern red bat!

It was about 30 feet away, and as I moved in the beautiful little mammal’s form took shape. It was hanging upside down, vampire-like, from its feet. Red bats are tiny, about the size of beech leaves, and it’s no mystery why they roost among withered foliage. Their camouflage in such environments is remarkable.

This species is well-named. Their pelage is bright-rusty, the only of our bats to be so-colored. Conspicuous patches of frosty fur indicated this animal was likely a female.

Red bats are highly migratory, and like birds, waves of red bats move north in spring. Some of them also winter at least as far north as southern Ohio, and my find might have been one of those.

In colder weather, red bats will bury into the leaf litter of forest floors. As my bat was hanging in a tree, I wonder if it might have arrived on warm winds of the preceding days.

The interesting little bat, the wildflowers and Highland County’s beautiful scenery made me temporarily forget about the current pandemic and all its associated issues.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The annual spring wildflower eruption commences!

As mentioned in the previous post, I journeyed to southern Ohio's Adams and Scioto counties last Thursday. It tuned out to be a fairly epic excursion, with many interesting finds. I even made some photos. While wildflowers were my primary quarry, I did find numerous notable insects and may post some of those later.

For now, here is a pictorial account of a March 26 trip to the Ohio River Valley and vicinity, and a smattering of the wildflowers that I saw. May it offer hope to those of you in northern tundra lands, like Cleveland.

One of our early-blooming native mustards, purple cress, Cardamine douglassii. The "Douglass" in the scientific epithet refers to David Douglass, who was president of Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio) from 1841-45. I love the photographic challenge of trying to portray these botanical elfins with my camera. This was one of many purple cress plants at the Ohio River Bluffs near Manchester in Adams County.

Another mustard, cut-leaved toothwort, Cardamine concatenata, In addition to beautifying our woodlands, it is a host plant for the falcate orangetip and West Virginia white butterflies.

A blue-eyed mary, Collinsia verna, just starting. The very first plants were putting forth flowers last Thursday in the Ohio River Valley of Adams County. This little annual will come on fast in the next week or so, and some populations can encompass many thousands of plants. A rich woods carpeted with this fantastic wildflower is one of spring's most magnificent botanical spectacles.

A true spring ephemeral wildflower, the yellow harlequin, Corydalis flavula. Low in stature, with tiny flowers, it can be easy to pass by. Gladys Riley Goldenstar Preserve, Scioto County.

A stunning buttercup, made all the more so by its habit of growing en masse, is dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne. While many spring pollinator insects visit the showy flowers, it is thought that large bumblebees in the genus Bombus, and ruby-throated hummingbirds, are primary pollinators.

White trout lily, Erythronium albidum, were everywhere. I made this shot along a forest road in Shawnee State Forest, but saw them everywhere I went.

The bluebells, Mertensia virginica, were just coming on. By the time that you read this, hillsides along the Ohio River will be blanketed with blue. This species is easily one of our best known and most popular native wildflowers.

A personal favorite is Jacob's-ladder, Polemonium reptans, one of spring's most stunning wildflowers. It even has a specialist mining bee tied to it - Andrena polemonii. I would dearly love to catch one of those bees at its mothership flower.

The earliest of our trillia - excepting snow trillium, Trillium nivale - is this, the toadshade, or sessile trillium, T. sessile. It was already nearing peak bloom in places. It's always worth watching for the rare lemon-colored flower variants of this species.

A perfoliate bellwort, Uvularia perfoliata, still unfurling. We have three species of these liliaceous oddities. Another, the sessile-leaved bellwort, U. sessilifolia, is easily distinguished by its sessile (non-clasping) leaves. The other, large-flowered bellwort, U. grandiflora, is larger overall and the inner surface of the petals ("tepals", in lily-speak) lack the orange pubescence of this species.

Field pansy, Viola bicolor (synonym = V. rafinesquii) was already going strong in dry fields near the Ohio River. I also saw common blue violet, V. sororia, and downy yellow violet, V. pubescens. Violets are very much plants of spring, and these three lead the pack. Two dozen other species will follow in their wake.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A trip to the Gladys Riley Goldenstar Preserve

I ventured down to the southernmost reaches of Ohio last Thursday, to some favored old stomping grounds, and one new locale. It's the latter I write of here.

Spring has sprung down there. I probably saw 25-30 plant species in bloom, including many classic spring wildflowers. Perhaps a dozen butterfly species, although I did not give those the attention they deserved. Mountain chorus frogs were in full mating frenzy, and my first of year Louisiana Waterthrush and blue-headed vireo. Much, much more, too.

That was all very nice, but chief on my list was the Arc of Appalachia's 186-acre Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve in Scioto County. I knew that the state-endangered goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum, was about full bloom and it's a near annual rite of spring to visit these plants. Normally I would go to another spot - nearly in sight of this preserve - but the Arc has made Gladys Riley (former landowner of the preserve) Preserve easily accessible with parking lot and trails, and I was eager to check it out.

The forest floor is strewn with flowering goldenstars! This was fantastic! The preserve harbors inestimable thousands of plants, and it's amazing to see so many in one spot. The forest in general is exceptional. Large American beech, Fagus grandifolia, rise from the slopes, and an impressive diversity of other tree species rounds out the cast of woody characters. Many other wildflowers are present, and this preserve will be spectacular for wildflowers throughout spring. Not flowering goldenstar, though - they come and go quickly. The flowers will soon be gone.

When a photographer is confronted with literally thousands of options of his/her target, it can be maddening - but in a very good way - to select subjects. However, this trio of goldenstars presented themselves right off the bat.

Every time I post about this species publicly, people will comment saying they see these all the time - everywhere! No, they don't. They're seeing the MUCH more common and widespread yellow trout lily, Erythronium americanum. It's superficially similar, but once one has been indoctrinated to the rare goldenstar, the confusion should abate.

Not to get overly wonky, but here's how goldenstar differs from the common yellow trout lily: Deeper orangish-yellow coloration, anthers more yellow than brown as in the common Erythronium americanum that everyone sees, the tepals (lily-speak for fused petals/sepals; "petals" to everyone else :-)) spread out on a flat plane rather than recurve strongly, and the fruit is prominently beaked rather than beakless.

Interestingly, the common yellow trout lily does not co-occur with the goldenstar at the Ohio sites, insofar as I know.

Goldenstar has a patchy distribution in ten states, and is quite rare and local in most of them. Probably only in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri - the heart of its distribution - is it at least somewhat frequent. In most states, populations are few and far between. The Ohio plants are almost completely confined to a the wooded slopes of a portion of one small stream drainage. Not long ago, a population was found in nearby Adams County. That population is much smaller, and not very far as the crow flies. These are the northernmost goldenstar populations.

The Arc of Appalachia has accomplished a significant conservation coup in acquiring a preserve to protect this rare wildflower. Coming along for the ride is a treasure trove of other biological diversity, of course.

The Arc is up to nearly 7,000 acres of protected land in southern Ohio, and their holdings include some of the most significant landscapes in Ohio and the Appalachian foothills. If you want to help an extremely worthwhile conservation cause, this is it. CLICK HERE for more information.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Eastern Red Bat: 32 F!

Last Saturday, March 21, I headed south into Highland County. The primary target was the subject of the last post, Fallsville Falls. See that post RIGHT HERE.

I have noticed that some of the more wild-eyed, hysteria-prone among us are using social media as a bully pulpit from which to berate others for going outside. INSIDE! STAY INSIDE! they scream through their keyboards. Fortunately, at least for now, more level-headed leaders recognize the therapeutic value of being outdoors, and the vast majority of people pay heed to the medical professionals' warnings about social distancing and other safety precautions. Many parks and natural areas are plenty big enough to stay out of each other's 6-foot sphere - and way beyond that - and most people do just that. I would say one's odds of encountering viral trouble are far greater at the grocery store than in the great out-of-doors. Just use common sense, and follow guidelines.

Anyway, social distancing was no problem on this foray. I saw zero other people when I was out on foot at the falls, or the other Highland County natural area that I visited. That's actually how I like things when out in Nature, being a longtime practitioner of social distancing - long before it became a "thing".

A stunning pair of snow trillium, Trillium nivale, spring from a thin veneer of soil over dolomitic limestone.

My second stop was a magical little place along Rocky Fork, a beautiful tributary of Paint Creek. The snow trillium were going great guns here, although most other spring wildflowers were just barely getting started. The duo of trillia above caught my eye, and I spent some time admiring them and attempting to make images.

PHOTO NOTE: Anymore, when heading out on foot with plants as a primary target, I generally carry three lenses: Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8 II; the workhouse 100mm f/2.8 macro; and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. In the backpack are Canon's 12mm and 25mm extension tubes. One can cover a lot of bases with this easily transported bag of gear. The trillium shot above was made with the Canon 5D IV and 70-200mm lens, with 12mm extension tube, at 200mm. It is completely uncropped, and settings were f/13, 1/20, ISO 200, no flash.

Shortly after the trillium photoshoot, I glanced around to see a suspicious looking lump amongst last year's brown leaves of an American beech sapling. I had to blink twice, as given the 32 F temperature, I did not expect to see what I thought I saw. 

A reddish-brown lump in a beech. Always remain on point for reddish-brown lumps among old beech leaves.

Sure enough, it morphed into a beautiful eastern red bat, Lasiurus borealis, and probably a female judging by the extensive patches of frosty hair.

Ever since I learned about red bats roosting in old foliage of trees, especially beech, I cannot look at such situations and not think about bats. And I had, earlier this day, but discounted the possibility given the cold temperatures. Red bats often roost in leaf litter, and I figured that if any were around, they'd be buried in the leaves.

One good reason to tote the 70-200 around is for opportunities like this. At 200mm, I could stay well clear of the bat's comfort zone, although I think it was nearly shut down in a deep torpor, anyway. Fortunately, red bats often roost low to the ground, and this one was about six feet off the ground - perfect for observation and photos.

She covers her face with her wings - a behavior I'd not seen before. But I've never found one when it's been this cold. This may be a heat conservation tactic.

Red bats are highly migratory. But some also overwinter this far north. It's be interesting to know if this one is an early migrant, or a local overwinterer. Anyway, keep an eye on those beech trees for funny lumps, and you might be rewarded with a sighting of one of North America's most elegant bats.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fallsville Falls

A series of small shelves provides aquatic punctuation to Clear Creek in Highland County. This small stream (not to be confused with the much better known Clear Creek in Hocking County - or any of the other Clear Creeks in Ohio) flows through the 1,400 acre Fallsville Wildlife Area. Just downstream from where I made this photo is the namesake of the (former) local town, and wildlife area.

I basically turned 180 degrees to make this shot. Clear Creek cascades off a 15-20 cliff, and into a small limestone box canyon. For waterfall photographers, this is a place that you want to visit hard on the heels of lots of rain. The stream fairly quickly recedes to a comparative trickle, and seeing these falls with lots of water gushing over the precipice is the way to go.

We had just had a few days of intermittent heavy rains, but that had ceased by the time I visited on Saturday morning. The creek was still high and the effect was spectacular. I've seen most of the notable falls in Ohio, but this one had eluded me until now. It was well worth the visit, and I look forward to a later visit when its green and leafy. Or, better yet, with lots of autumn color AND high water.

The falls is quite easy to access from a small parking lot on Careytown Road not far south of the area headquarters. They even have a sign, "Falls", marking the lot. From there, it's an easy one-half mile hike.

Here's a view looking upstream from below the falls. Architecturally ornate limestone shelves line the banks in places.

The slope on the right side of this image was awash in scores of snow trillium, Trillium nivale, in peak bloom. A botanical perk, to be sure!

Fallsville Falls rendered in black and white. While March is usually a great month for shooting waterfalls with good flow rates, the surrounding woodlands usually look somewhat blah and orangish. Not in monochrome! I hope to return here in about a month, when plants are leafing out, and hopefully some flowering redbud trees provide colorful punctuation!


Friday, March 20, 2020

Horned Larks commence nesting!

A calf, just dropped, gazes about its new world while mother eyes me. I visited an urban farm in the midst of Columbus last Tuesday, to see what I could see. The operation deals with cattle, and lots of them, which creates good habitat for our earliest nesting native songbird.

A male horned lark, Eremophila alpestris subsp. praticola. This is the "prairie" horned lark, the group of larks that nest in Ohio. There are 20 other described subspecies of this wide-ranging bird of wide open spaces. Their taxonomy is under review, and someday we may end up with additional species of horned larks.

This lark was using a cow patty is a perch from which to sing. The cattle create short grass meadows punctuated with patches of barren ground - just the sort of habitat that horned larks thrive in. I imagine they run the risk of having their ground nests trampled on occasion, though.

I spent much quality time watching the larks. The males frequently alit atop posts to sing their wonderful song, a musical cascade of jumbled tinkling notes. Occasionally, in exuberant bursts, they would flutter high into the air and let their song rain down to those of us stuck far below. The females are likely already on eggs. Horned larks are very hardy, and will ride out the potential perils of nesting in very early spring, when weather is wildly unpredictable. It's 66 F as I write this, but tonight the mercury plummets to 28 F. The female larks will have to really hunker down on those eggs.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Nature: Outing on Big Darby Creek nets fine fish find

Kelly Capuzzi holds a river redhorse in Big Darby Creek/Jim McCormac

Nature: Outing on Big Darby Creek nets fine fish find

March 15, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Early in my natural resources career, I was fortunate to serve as labor for ichthyologic experts Dan Rice and Ted Cavender. Rice was then the zoologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. Cavender was the modern-day dean of Ohio fish.

Two better mentors for learning about fish could not be found. Rice went on to write “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Fishes of Ohio” (Ohio Biological Survey 2019). Cavender, now a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, oversaw decades of research into our fisheries.

I sometimes pine for the days of seining streams, and I still try to get out at least a few times a year — and Feb. 22 was one of those days. It was a beautifully crisp, blue-sky winter day, perfect for some catch-and-release aquatic surveys.

This time, my doyen was Kelly Capuzzi, an aquatic ecologist with the Ohio EPA. Her knowledge of underwater life is encyclopedic. Joining us was Amy Mackey, coordinator of the Raccoon Creek Watershed Program. Phil Melillo and I served as labor.

Our principal destination was a beautiful stretch of Big Darby Creek, near its confluence with the Scioto River. This Pickaway County site teems with interesting fish, and we caught a doozy right off the bat.

Loafing in the shallows was a good-sized redhorse, a species of sucker. Capuzzi identified it while the fish was still under the water, then deftly netted it. A river redhorse!

There are seven species of redhorses in the genus Moxostoma in Ohio, and this one was new to me. Back when I did my stream work with Cavender and Rice, the river redhorse was far scarcer and we never encountered one while I was along.

The fish was a thing of beauty, with bronzy scales, a salmon-pink tail and lips that look like they received an overdose of Botox.

Although the family Catostomidae — the suckers — sometimes have a reputation as “garbage” fish, anyone who thinks that doesn’t know much about fish. All 21 Ohio species are native, and a number are highly dependent on excellent water quality. One species is listed as state-endangered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, three species are threatened and one is listed as special concern.

Tragically, the harelip sucker, which occurred in the Blanchard and Scioto rivers, went extinct in the early 20th century.

When I first began learning fish, the river redhorse was considered endangered. At its low ebb in the mid-20th century, it had almost vanished. Only five were caught in surveys of the Scioto River between 1955 and 1980.

The rebound of the river redhorse has been encouraging. In the past few decades, it has recolonized many streams and now occurs commonly in many of our largest river drainages. It was eventually delisted.

River redhorse are sensitive to chemical pollution, and especially excessive siltation and water turbidity. Heavy silt loads clog their gills and smother stream bottoms substrates, preventing the fish access to macroinvertebrate animals — their primary food.

Much of the recovery of fish can be traced to policies put in place in the early days of the EPA, which was founded by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

The rebound of aquatic communities took decades, but we are seeing the benefits big-time today. Unfortunately, damage to streams can occur far faster than their recovery. It’s critical that we maintain the strategies that led to water-quality improvements.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats

An eastern red bat/Jim McCormac Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats Columbus Dispatch March 29, 202...