Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shinleaf and Vireo

Circumstances found me in the immediate vicinity of Mohican State Forest last Saturday, and I had a few hours to explore the woodlands. Mohican, for those of you who don't know it, is one of Ohio's richest forests, characterized mainly by the steep hemlock-cloaked Clear Fork Gorge that bisects the area. Providing the sound track on my foray were the likes of Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green, Kentucky, Hooded warblers, and many more.

But the flora is incredible, too, and I saw many interesting plants. Chief among them was the above; a diminutive little beauty that almost defies description. It is Shinleaf, Pyrola elliptica. While widespread and scattered throughout eastern Ohio, this species is not usually numerous and always a treat to stumble across. Such are its looks that many a gardener would probably kill and maim to have it growing in captivity, but I suspect that this is not a plant that lends itself well to being corraled.

Note the thick bed of pine needles that the Shinleaf springs from. It really goes for poor, dry, acid soils, and in this instance a small colony was growing under an old plantation of Red and White pines. Exquisite in form and color, the tiny candelabra of flowers stands perhaps six inches high, and the waxy-white blooms set off nicely against the semi-lustrous rosette of papery green leaves.

In times past, Pyrolas were placed in the Heath Family (Ericaceae), but now are considered to constitute their own family, the Shinleaf Family (Pyrolaceae). There are only 50 or so species in a few genera, and only seven occur in Ohio and most are rare. The members of this family are primarily northerners, occupying cool boreal and upland woods. The species at hand, Pyrola elliptica, is the most common of the four members of this genus found in Ohio. The name Pyrola is a diminutive of Pyrus, the genus of pears, due to the alleged similarity in the appearance of the leaves.

The flowers nod on short pedicels so that the blossoms can watch the ground, apparently; this makes for tough going in regards to taking decent photos of the flowers. But even from the rear they are quite showy, and we can see the trangular green sepals that help differentiate this species from the similar Round-leaved Pyrola, P. rotundifolia, which would have oblong-shaped sepals.

Later, as I was strolling along a small bird rocketed from an overhanging young American Beech tree, Fagus grandifolia. That would be the tree on the left side of the photo, with its foliage in front of the large trunk in the dead center. I glanced up and was surprised to see a Red-eyed Vireo nest only six feet off the ground, and directly over this path, along which pass dozens of people daily.

Vireo nests are obvious enough, once you know they're there. But from afar or with just a careless glance, they look a lot like a clump of dead leaves and plant detritus caught up in the foliage.

Seen well, we can admire the vireo nest for the architectural marvel that it is. It'll never cease to amaze me how songbirds can construct such well-engineered affairs, especially without benefit of hands and fingers. As is this nest, the forest-dwelling vireos almost always site the nest in the fork of a slender branchlet far out from any primary trunks. But they usually pick a spot a bit higher off the ground than this.

So low was this Red-eyed Vireo nest that I was able to hold my camera over my head and photograph the contents. Upon reviewing my work on the camera's viewfinder immediately thereafter, I saw that a moral dilemma had been thrust upon me. Two of those eggs are from a Brown-headed Cowbird. They're the larger ones towards the bottom of the nest, heavily ornamented with chocolate blotches.

What to do. Red-eyed Vireos are a valuable part of the forest community and these little birds make an arduous trek all the way from the tropics to summer with us, feast on caterpillars, and contribute their cheery phrases to the symphony of the forest. And red-eyes are heavily hit by cowbirds.
The cowbirds are native too, but man's wholesale changes to the environment have greatly increased their numbers and brought these nest parasites into much more prolific contact with hosts and habitats that they historically would not have infested.

I left them.

I made note of the nest's exact locale, so that I might sneak up and not spook the incubator on my return. Carefully side-stepping soundlessly, she let me come in close, to about 15 feet, and never did flush. With an eye bright as only little birds can be, she curiously watched my every movement but allowed me to take some photos. A bit blurry, I know, but I wasn't about to blind her with the flash and the gloom of the understory didn't allow for fast shutters.

Here's a short video.


Anonymous said...

Great post, sir. I do wish you would have removed the cow bird eggs however. Everything that we humans do that exasperates the problem, this would have been but a small finger on the balance.

Long time reader, first time commenter. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. One of my favorites and I check in almost daily.


Dave Lewis said...

You are truly a master birder! To be able to spot something that is walked under daily and never noticed.
I would have left the eggs, too. We messed up enough, time for us to leave things alone.

Heather said...

Love the Shinleaf. It's amazing how some of the most beautiful flowers are so small and thus easily missed because of their size! I notice some white residue along the stems of the plant. Do you think that is some kind of fungal growth, or the work of bugs (i.e. laying eggs)?

Also, your encounter with the vireo nest was a bit heart-breaking. It is a shame that there were Cowbird eggs in there, and I've often wondered what I would do if I encountered a similar scene. Ultimately, though, I think I would leave the eggs too. I have a growing fascination w/Cowbirds which adds to the slight amount of empathy I might have for them. I was very happy, though, to not see any Cowbirds in either of the Phoebe broods that have grown up on the side of our house!

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the comments, all, and I really appreciate your remarks, Bill! Heather, that white stuff on the Shinleaf is some type of fungus.

To remove the eggs or not, that was the dilemma. But I just didn't feel right about intruding - we humans do far too much of that.


dAwN said...

Great post, Jim.
What a dilema...I think I would have done the same thing...but I wouldnt have felt badly if you removed them...