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Showing posts from June, 2011

Suburban wildlife

My parents live in the heart of suburbia, in Worthington, Ohio. My mother is a longtime gardener, and has always kept an interesting stable of plant life. When I came into being some years back and gradually became aware of birds, I began to encourage additional plantings. At that time - I was just a tot - I had not yet developed any sophistication about flora; I just knew that MORE plants and MORE cover meant MORE birds. Being that I wasn't to be mobile beyond the limits of my bicycle for a good number of years, it seemed wise to lure as many birds as possible to MY location, and plants seemed to help with that.
Well, a number of years have passed by, my parents still live in that same house, and their level of sophistication involving the garden has evolved. Many native plant species now share space with a dwindled number of day lilies, four-o-clocks and the like. I was up the other day for a visit, and was pleasantly surprised by all of the beasts great and small that had adopte…

Native plants rule!

The 3rd annual Midwest Native Plant Conference is approaching: July 8, 9, & 10 in Dayton, Ohio. If you are interested in native wildlife, this conference is for you. The focus is on native plants, but indigenous flora is the building block upon which animals flourish. Check the agenda out RIGHT HERE. There is a Saturday-only option as well, if time is tight.
One of the conference's field trip sites is the legendary Cedar Bog near Urbana. I was there last Saturday, ostensibly to teach a workshop on breeding birds, and we saw/heard plenty of those. But our group didn't ignore the entire ecosystem, either, and what an ecosystem! We saw a great many interesting plants and animals, and a few of the former follow.
Tightly clustered tiny white flowers collectively create a large and showy domelike inflorescence in elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis. This common shrub is a staple of woodland borders, fencerows, ditches and lots of other habitats. A member of the honeysuckle …

Purple Fringed Orchid

A mountainside road, scaling the heights of a high peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Lots of stuff to see on such a drive, but my eye was grabbed by a quick flash of purple in the ditch...

Excellent! Purple fringed orchid, Platanthera pyscodes, a plant I had not seen for a number of years. It's quite the rarity in Ohio, where it is considered threatened and known from but a few sites. These plants were whoppers as well, towering to about two feet in height.

To be technical, I should probably call this one small purple fringed orchid, to distinguish it from the extremely similar large purple fringed orchid, P. grandiflora. Unless you have firsthand experience with both of these closely allied species, you're going to struggle to figure out which one you've got. Some authorities have submerged the latter into the former, and just give grandiflora a varietal rank - Platanthera psycodes var. grandiflora.

The purple fringed orchids are, beyond any shadow of a doubt…

Junco nest

The view from near the summit of Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This high altitude knob straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, and rises to 6,643 feet - the highest point in the Smokies. Red spruce, Picea rubens, and Fraser Fir, Abies fraseri, form the dominant plant community but all is not well in coniferland. All of those dead snags are fir that have been attacked and killed by balsam woolly adelgid, Adelges piceae, an introduced insect pest.

Removal of the mature fir has wrought lots of changes in these mountain forests' ecology, including bird life. Nonetheless, many boreal breeders still thrive on Clingman's Dome, including Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are one of America's best known birds, due to their frequency at winterime backyard feeding stations throughout much of the country. For instance, last winter in my state of Ohio, the Dark-eyed Junco was the second most frequently reported species tallied as part of the Cornell L…

Jordan's Salamander

A trail weaves through lush spruce-fir forest near the summit of Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These high elevation Appalachian woodlands are fascinating places to explore. They are filled with a spectacular diversity of plant life, which in turn spawns a fantastic assemblage of birds and other animals. Including salamanders.

While my main mission in the Smokies  did not involve amphibians, I just can't resist turning rocks and logs to see who might be home. And with a claimed two (2!) salamanders per square meter in some areas of the park, it'd have been folly not to salamander-search a bit. There are 31 salamander species in the Smokies (only 24 in all of Ohio), and some of them are extremely localized, occurring only or primarily in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'd of course love to see them all, but that'd take a lot of effort and time not available to me on this mission. But there was one species in particular that I really wa…

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I made a whirlwind trip to America's most heavily visited national park last weekend. It was long overdue. Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and hosts some nine million (million!) visitors a year. It's a bit of circus traffic-wise at times, but the park is within an easy drive of much of the eastern U.S. and given the beauty of the place, it's no mystery why so many people would want to come here.

But if you are interested in flora and fauna, it is easy to get off the beaten paths and find much of interest. The Smokies encompass 814 square miles and that's a lot of space. But, to bring out its fabulous biodiversity, it is instructive to compare the Smokies with my home state, Ohio, which at 41,222 square miles is nearly 51 times larger than Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There has been a well-publicized All Taxa Biological Inventory going on in the Smokies for thirteen years; an effort to catalog as many species of…

Mississippi Kites nest again

Freshly back from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with lots of interesting finds and photos. But more on those experiences later - kites are the news of the day.
Last year, Mississippi Kites were confirmed as nesting in Hide-A-Way Hills (HAWH), Hocking County. The first documented Ohio nesting dates to 2007, when adults were observed feeding a recently fledged juvenile elsewhere in Hocking County. You can read some details about the inaugural nesting HERE. But we never were able to find the actual nest of the pioneering pair. So it was with great excitement that I received a call last summer from Elizabeth vanBalen Delphia, who reported Mississippi Kites that were constantly present near her and her husband Michael's house in HAWH.
Ohio Division of Wildlife photographer Tim Daniel made the trip down a few days later, in mid-August, and not only obtained stellar images of the kites, he found the nest high in the boughs of a white ash. It wasn't long after that and both yo…

Slaty Skimmer

On a recent trip to southern Illinois, I ran across a number of slaty skimmers, Libellula incesta, foraging high on a ridge in a woodland gap. This female was especially cooperative, and it was fun to watch her engage in frequent flycatcherlike "yo-yo" flights; darting from a favored perch and returning to the same spot to consume her prey.
You do NOT want to be a lesser bug and find yourself on the radar of a dragonfly. They are quicker than winks, can easily outmaneuver the most agile of helicopters, are capable of acceleration that would shame a Ferrari, and have all of the goods to deal with a victim once it is seized. Check out the bristles on those legs. They are known as raptorial spines, and form an Iron Maiden death grip on anything unlucky enough to be caught. From there, the hapless bug's next stop is the powerful mandibles of the dragonfly, where it will be crunched like a can in a trash compactor, and swallowed.

Life is scary for the lesser bugs, with death-d…

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron chicks

Photo: Dane Adams
An adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea, stands sentinel in its big sycamore tree in a very suburban Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. Ace photog Dane Adams stopped by the site yesterday and took some outstanding documentary photos of one of Ohio's very few known nesting pairs of these interesting herons.

Photo: Dane Adams
These night-herons have been nesting in their Bexley suburbanscape for many years now, and the nests - I believe there are two, at least there were the last time I made it by - resemble overgrown Mourning Dove nests. The stick platforms have become somewhat larger and bulkier with each passing nesting season, and this one has gained considerable mass since the birds first began to breed at this site. I covered this story a few years ago in more detail, you can read it RIGHT HERE.

Flimsy abode or not, it obviously suffices to support a clutch of night-heron eggs, and later, the gangly offspring. As we can see from Dane's photo, th…

Cassin's Sparrow - first Ohio record

Exciting news broke last Sunday afternoon, when veteran birder Doug Overacker announced on the Ohio Birds listserv that he may have located a Cassin's Sparrow in Shelby County, which is in western Ohio. Doug was driving along a rural lane when he heard the bird sing, but was unable to locate the sparrow despite searching.
Well, Doug went back yesterday, and Bingo! - he relocated and photographed the Cassin's Sparrow, documenting a new state record. Before I go on with this story, I want to give major kudos to Doug Overacker. This is without doubt one of the most skilled finds around here in recent memory. While Cassin's Sparrows do have distinctive songs, this species would probably be far from one's mind while in Shelby County, Ohio, and it'd be easy to ignore or miss the song amongst the quiet cacophony of other field singers. Great find, Doug.
I couldn't stand the thought of such a cool beast not too terribly far off, so after work today, I drove on over to h…

Cylindromyia fly: an incredible mimic

On a recent excursion into Indiana's Hoosier State Forest - yes, they have trees over there - I happened to glance at this oxeye daisy and notice a weevil. I like weevils. These beetles remind me of tiny elephants with their trunklike proboscis, so I swiveled the macro lens in its direction. No sooner had I drawn a bead when another even more interesting creature alit on the weevil's flower, even having the temerity to step on my subject.

I must admit, my first thought was "wasp!" followed by "this might be good!". My initial childish hope was that the "wasp" might attack or otherwise engage the beetle, giving me some real action photos. But all of that flitted through my mind in just a second or so, as the reasoning part of my brain worked at digesting what was really going on.

But it didn't take long to realize that this was no wasp at all, but a remarkably good wasp mimic.

It is, I …