Monday, April 21, 2008

Sharpie = 1 - Cowbird = 0

Sorry for the paucity of posts of late, but Blogger has been acting bonkers lately, at least insofar as my setup goes. I've been on lots of wonderful safaris lately, with many interesting photos of some fascinating flora and fauna, so now that cyber-land once again seems accessible, off we'll go.
Last Saturday, fellow botanists Daniel Boone, Jim Mundy, and Ray Showman set out on a misty day to seek rarities in Jackson, Lawrence, and Vinton counties. And we found plenty. One of the major objectives was locating the two known sites of one of Ohio's rarest plants, the gorgeous yet diminutive Blue Scorpionweed, Phacelia ranunculacea. This species is a southerner at its northern limits on this side of the Ohio River. Showing the vast disparity in the progression of the vernal season, the population in northern Lawrence County was not yet in bloom - not a single flower! - although the plants had emerged and the foliage looked good.

At the other site, the scorpionweed was in full bloom, down in a rich ravine within the sphere of influence of Ohio River microclimate. I'll share some photos in a moment. Phacelia is in the waterleaf family, Hydrophyllaceae, and nearly everything that we've got in this group looks good. And nearly everything in the genus Phacelia is rare here. There are four species in Ohio, and three are state-listed rarities. Back in 1997, Rosemarie Boyle, then botanist for the Wayne National Forest, showed me the recently discovered and only known Ohio site for this species. The next year, I found another population at the other end of Lawrence County, the one photographed below. Interestingly, the only historical records of this species were by legendary field botanist ad farmer Floyd Bartley. He found it in "dry woods along U.S. 52, 1 mile east of Ironton" in 1952. Although not very detailed, Bartley's directions are just about where I found this plant, and may be a rediscovery of his site nearly five decades earlier.

A lush patch of Blue Scorpionweed. I was thrilled to find this species, and is sometimes the case, the discovery was totally unexpected and quite serendipitous. I was slowly driving a backwater county lane, when I spotted a vigorous colony of Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum. Admiring that jumbo wildflower much, I clambered up the steep wooded slope for a better view. And wow, right at my feet were hundreds of this very rare wildflower. It must have been some sort of reward for taking the time to slog up the hill to admire the poppies.

A closer view, and a closer view is really essential to getting a true appreciation of this tiny plant. The flowers are about the circumference of a pencil eraser and are quite inconspicuous. So is the foliage, as it blends with the rich growth of mesic woods erupting in a riot of other ephemeral spring wildflowers. It was good to stop back here ten years later and see that the population was still present and doing fine. That isn't always the case. I've been to more than one place on a revisit only to find that some force of man had obliterated the plant and habitat I was seeking. Indeed, the adacent hillside of this valley had been completely clearcut since my last visit. Had that been done where this scorpionweed was, it would have been curtains for it, at least for decades until the forest regenerated sufficiently.

As we puttered slowly down another rural Lawrence County lane, I looked up to see a bold male Sharp-shinned Hawk aggressivley standing in the middle of the roadway, seemingly ready to hold his ground. A closer look revealed that he had prey in his talons, and we had interrupted his meal. We watched, he glared and plucked, allowing me some nice photo ops of this sensational little accipiter of rather violent disposition.

Of course, we were very interested in the culinary tastes of this bird, and were delighted to see that it was a male Brown-headed Cowbird that he had snared! Of all our native birds, this is one of the most vilified. I rather like cowbirds, personally. They have a fascinating evolutionary history, some species have interesting courtship displays, and the males of nearly all species are quite striking. Nonetheless, most will applaud this sharpie for his work, and I would too, only if by making a kill at this time and place, he allowed us the chance to admire him

A quick thought on the cowbird, and something I often think of when someone erupts over the culling of Double-crested Cormorants along the Great Lakes in an effort to reduce damage to native island flora and other colonial nesting birds. Why don't these people get inflamed about cowbird control? From their perspective, it should be equally heinous and the reasons for both species' rampant population explosions are similarly man-induced. Yet Kirtland's Warbler habitat managers have been trapping and killing Brown-headed Cowbirds for decades, in large numbers. It's funny how some activists get worked up over charismatic megafauna, but never seem to notice the less obvious microfauna. Personally, as much as I admire cowbirds, I still want lots of Kirtland's Warblers and say to the jack pine cowbirds - off with their heads!

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