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Showing posts from November, 2008

Leviathan of the Bonsai

Probably just about everyone who has visited Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area has noticed this tree. It may be one of Ohio's most distinctive plants, in part because it is along such a heavily birded corridor, has a very distinctive form, and it is one of few significantly vertical features in an otherwise open landscape.

While birding today at Killdeer, I could not resist the opportunity to do a photo shoot with this gorgeous Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris (all too often mispronounced as "Scotch Pine"). I've driven by this tree myriad times; it has been there as long as I've been birding at Killdeer Plains and that's a long time. If you've been here, you've probably seen it. Jutting from the meadows along the northernmost road of the wildlife area, the pine is visible from afar and draws one's eye. Twisted and gnarled even more than are most Scots Pine, probably due to unmitigated impacts of fierce prairie storms sweeping in from the west, it for all …

Lucky Leaf leads to lots of Lichens

In the world of field botany and rare plant seeking, a bit of luck always helps. It's mostly skill - one has to know the common species well in order to recognize the unusual. And the botanist has to be very much aware of habitats and especially the nuances of micro-habitats in order to place himself/herself into situations where rarities might be found.

But a bit of luck always come in handy.

Early last April, a few friends and I went botanizing in Lawrence County, about as far south in Ohio as one can get. You can read more about that mission right here. Rolling along a country lane, I saw a roadside covered with Moss Phlox, Phox subulata. Not one to miss a good photo op with one of our most beautiful native wildflowers, we screeched to a stop and leaped out to snap some photos. What then happened is not uncommon when some good plant hunters converge on a site. Dan Boone, Ray Showman, and Jim Mundy began combing the slope while I tried for the perfect phlox shot.

Soon, one of them …

Furry Spidermen

While out in the cool dark woods capturing Northern Saw-whet Owls a while back, we had an encounter with one of our more interesting animals. And one that is surprisingly common, although relatively few people have seen one.

If you are out in the woods at night, and very quiet, there are many animals to be heard. Quiet shuffling in the leaf litter gives away the little guys, like White-footed Mice, while louder clumsier shuffling might be a Virginia Opossum. Sometimes bloodcurdling screeches come from spatting raccoons.

But listen very quietly and you might hear a distinctive scrabbling of tiny feet on tree bark, coupled with chitters nearly inaudible to our ears. If you do hear this stuff, its likely to be foraging Southern Flying Squirrels, and that's what we encountered on our owl expedition. We heard the feet on bark, lit the tree up with the flashlight and there was the little guy, big eyes aglow. Like a circus trapeze artist, it put on quite a show for the group, racing high i…

A Blizzard of Sawbills

Eastlake, Ohio, just east of Cleveland. Hard on the shore of Lake Erie, it is distinguished by that large power plant looming in the backdrop. As part of its operations, thousands of gallons of heated water are regularly spewed into the lake, attracting scores of Gizzard Shad. Also working in our favor here is the nearby Chagrin River, which confluences with Lake Erie just to the east. The reaction of river water hitting lake water seems to also attract lots of fish.
The upshot is, if you are a fish-eater, this place is the horn of plenty - a piscine paradise. And Red-breasted Mergansers are as into scaly swimming things as a Londoner is into fish & chips. Of course, it does get cold here. In fact, in a good winter - a winter as winters ought to be - the lake freezes solid. But not the pool of water behind the plant. When conditions are as above, the winter birding is spectacular.

But by then, when ice has overtaken Eastlake, most of the Red-breasted Mergansers are long gone. Now int…

A long winter ahead

I love winter. Always have. That's probably a byproduct of a lifelong fasciantion with nature, coupled with growing up in the upper Midwest. One comes to appreciate the changes of seasons, and the diversity that comes with seasonal shifts.

We had our first big taste of winter Tuesday. Driving up to Lake County in extreme northeastern Ohio that day, I experienced near whiteout conditions just south of Cleveland. You know, dense flurries that made it tough to see, freeway down to a lane, and traffic slowed to 10-20 mph. Fun. Now our temps here in the great state of Ohio are hovering around or below freezing - 29 degrees right now - but it's cool (literally). I'll look forward to lots of interesting wintery excursions for Arctic gulls, hardy waterfowl, winter finches, and raptors.

But one does pine for spring, when the days grow short and the nights are frosty.

So tonight, after installing a fantastic new 22" monitor, I needed to put a new screen saver shot aboard. And so I…

Purple Sandpiper

We have a lot of shorebird diversity in Ohio, but few of their lot create the stir that Purple Sandpipers do. Partly because they are rare, partly because they are unusual in their seasonal appearances and habitat, and partly because they just look cool.

I had the good fortune of seeing not one, but two of them today at Ohio's epicenter of Purple 'Piper sightings, Mentor Headlands. The long rocky jetty that extends out into Lake Erie is probably the best bet for birders seeking this species in Ohio.

Headlands veterans Ray Hannikman and Emil Bacik spotted the birds and had them staked out when we arrived. But my day started with a propitious omen, as a Red Crossbill flew over me not long after I got out of my car in the parking lot. We went on to see a Parasitic Jaeger, Little and Franklin's Gull, and a smattering of Black and Surf Scoters. Headlands almost always produces great birding.

The Headlands crew, on sea watch from the breakwall. It was a cool day - in the low to mid…

Charming Boreal Micro-hooters

Once again, undetected by most eyes, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owls sweep down in waves from the northern forests where they make their homes. This invasion is one of cuteness and unbridled savagery. If you are a human and fortunate enough to bask in the presence of eastern North America's smallest owl, they are impossibly cute. Admirers, usually women, who fawn over them invariably use the C-word.

But if you are, say, a White-footed Mouse, cute would be the last adjective on your mind if one of these things came at you. How animals interpret things is all in their perspective and position in life.

Anyway, I have blogged several times in past years about forays down to Chillicothe, Ohio each fall and early winter to witness the efforts of some folks who run a saw-whet banding operation as part of Project Owlnet. Kelly Sieg, Bob Placier, and Bill Bosstic have been nabbing the micro-hooters since 2003 and have caught well over 300 owls to date. I was down there last Friday night with…

Rufous Hummingbird - Caught!

Those of you who follow the Ohio Birds listserv know that an unidentified Selasphorus hummingbird has been frequenting a feeder in Bexley, Ohio. For those of you unfamiliar with birder-speak, Selasphorus refers to a genus of western hummingbirds which are rare vagrants in the east. If not adult males, two of the species in this genus - Rufous Hummingbird and Allen's Hummingbird - are nearly impossible to tell apart unless in the hand. Well, the bird is now identified and here's the story.

Our goal was to safely put this hummingbird in hand, and that was ably accomplished with the help of an expert yesterday. This hardy little hummer has been frequenting this feeder since October 17th. The homeowner, JoAnn LaMuth, was totally on the ball with this one. While working in her garden, she heard the distinctive high-pitched buzzsaw sound of hummingbird wings, rushed inside and got a hummingbird feeder and slapped it up. The hummer has been there since, and JoAnn has been very gracious…

Bonaparte's Gulls

The garbageheads give gulls a bad rap. Those large, aggressive Ring-billed and Herring Gulls that frequent dumps and fast food outlet parking lots have given the average Joe the idea that all gulls are the equivalent of winged rats. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the big boys that are prone to dumpster-diving, and here in Ohio that's usually the Ring-billed Gull, are beautifully proportioned and supreme aerialists.

But they lack the graceful good manners and delicate agility of my favorite of this bunch, the Bonaparte's Gull.

On a recent Lake Erie trip, I got to spend a bit of time photographing some bonos at Ashtabula County's Conneaut Harbor. I could watch them all day, and strive for getting that perfect shot. But althought they don't look overtly fast, Bonaparte's Gulls are usually moving faster than one thinks when trying to freeze them on the wing.

Pristine adult Bonaparte's Gull, Chroicocephalus philadelphia, in crisp winter plumage. Birds i…

Return of the Cave Swallows!

Like clockwork, those wacky Cave Swallows have returned, albeit briefly, to the Great White North. We had a Kirtland Bird Club trip last Saturday, led by John Pogacnik, and we visited a number of the east of Cleveland Lake Erie hotspots with Cave Swallow foremost on our minds. And there were plenty of other birders out and about along the lake this day, hitting the tried and true spots.

Nothing.

Then, Sunday - wham! There they are. Larry Richardson and Jan Auburn found seven of these long-haul swallows of the southwest at Bradstreet's Landing in Rocky River just west of Cleveland. Not only that, but they hung around all day and many people got to view them. This is not the norm. Most of the Ohio Cave Swallow records have been flybys - if you weren't on the spot at the moment they strafed by heading to who knows where, you missed them. Virtually unchaseable.

I was tied up with stuff on Sunday and didn't become privy to the reports until the afternoon and by then it was too …

Snow Buntings and seed dispersal

I've been spending a fair bit of time up at The Lake of late, and have been fortunate to have good opportunities to study Snow Buntings on each excursion. "The lake" is Lake Erie, of course, Ohio's north coast, where some of the best birding in the Midwest can be found.


Flock of Snow Buntings foraging in a weedy gravel parking lot, Conneaut Harbor, yesterday. In spite of bold white plumage markings, they quickly blend well with their surroundings upon alighting in a habitat like this. It'd be quite easy to pass by and not notice them. The buntings are foraging on various weed seeds here, rapidly stripping fruit from the plants and bolting it down. Right little gluttons, they are.

Closer view. Winter-plumaged Snow Buntings are quite handsome in an understated way. Rusty-brown mixes with creamy-white to create an effect unique among our birds.John Pogacnik went me this photo, which he took in Lake County a few days back. This Snow Bunting is standing smack in the mid…

Fall Field Cricket video

Big and glossy black, Fall Field Crickets, Gryllus pennsylvanicus, emit the classic chirp, chirp, chirp, that many people associate with crickets. In general, this may be the most recognized North American insect sound.

But how do they do it? I shot the video below last weekend, and you can clearly see the male cricket doing his thing. He tents his wings up over his back, and rapidly rubs them together in a process known as stridulation. The result is the pleasing chirps that we all are familiar with.

Spark Bird

Bird Watcher's Digest recently asked me to write a short story about my "spark bird". For those unfamiliar with this odd-sounding term, it refers to a species that sparked a person's passion for birds and birding. For many of us, the spark bird was profound and a true event. Perhaps a flashy male American Redstart, garbed in the colors of Halloween, bursting out at eye level at an unsuspecting and unaware non-birder. Roger Tory Peterson's sparker was a Northern Flicker - good choice, Rog. If you are a birder, you probably have your own tale.

My story, and a few others with more to come, can be found on these pages. But just scroll down and you can read about my spark bird right here.

Great Blue Heron, image courtesy Marty Sedluk.
MODERN DAY PTERODACTYL
I don't know that I had an epiphany that suddenly ignited an interest in birds. Something in me is hardwired to be smitten with nature, and birds were my first source of fascination. This passion for all things fea…

Brewer's Blackbird

This stunning image of a rather rare blackbird, for us Ohioans, comes courtesy of Aaron Boone, who snapped this photo on November 1 in Champaign County. When seen like this, the iridiscent silky tones of the plumage are apparent and one can see why Brewer's Blackbird has sometimes been dubbed the "Satin Bird" or "Glossy Blackbird". Thanks to Aaron for sharing this photo with us.


The range of Brewer's Blackbird, map courtesy Birds of North America online. Look how close it comes to Ohio as a breeder in Michigan. There as yet is no Ohio breeding record, but I think that this species could well be found nesting here. Extreme northwest Ohio is the place to look, and Williams County would probably be the numero uno hotspot. I think next year it is time to organize a "block-busting" weekend in Williams County and finally pin this species down. We'd find lots of other interesting species as well.

Below is a piece I wrote about possible new additions t…

Paulding County

Last night, Doug & Micki Dunakin, elite Paulding County birders, posted a note to the Ohio Birds listserv about a Barnacle Goose that they had found on their home turf yesterday. I was up there bright and early today to look. Last spring, I began some correspondence with some folks who have been taking a hard look at North American Barnacle Goose records. They have subjected some feather samples of vagrants/escapees to stable isotope analysis, and the results indicated that the birds came from the far north - well beyond where one would reasonably expect escapees to originate from.

But more on this later. It is a blog in itself. And no such luck today, the Barnacle Goose was not to be found. Hopefully it will reappear.

Paulding County and some of its neighbors, such as Van Wert County, are often trivialized if not dismissed outright when it comes to good birding locations. These counties are generally flat as a pancake and seemingly 99% agriculture.

But there are oases amongst the be…