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Showing posts from March, 2011

Signs of Spring

The following is a piece that I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch, a few years back and about this time of year. The onset of spring is a favorite time of year for many, with good reason.
Signs of Spring
Like a glacier of living things, spring steamrolls north at the rate of about seventeen miles a day. While the first signs of vernal life become apparent in March, the dam bursts in April and floods Ohio’s landscape with harbingers that can’t be missed.

April is the month of spring, more than any other. The fore part of March is still brown and carries much of winter’s bite, and the latter part of May has greened into summer. The fourth month is nothing but an explosive burst of life on every front.

On an April fool’s day trip to southern Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest, I was dazzled by the blooms of redbuds and sassafras, and a plethora of spring wildflowers brightening the forest floor. A visitor to northernmost Ohio that same weekend would have encountered a land still locked in winter’s re…

Daughmer Savanna

Daughmer Savanna, southwest Crawford County, Ohio. This 39-acre place is one of the state's rarest treasures. I found myself flying over Daughmer this morning, en route to Lake Erie, and managed a few photos from 1,500 feet. Nearly 200,000 acres of gently undulating prairie once blanketed this region, covering parts of Crawford, Hardin, Marion, and Wyandot counties. Perhaps 0.000375% remains.

That's right - an almost incalculable fraction of a percent of this former prairie remains in a state that approximates the natural conditions of the prairie. The rest has been converted to agriculture, or had buildings, roads and other development plastered over top. Slightly elevated knolls of the former prairie would have had savannas such as Daughmer; the lowest-lying areas were water-logged and possessed a completely different prairie flora. You can see bits of both in Daughmer, but it's mostly "upland" oak forest. Cast your eyes beyond the savanna and westward into th…

Tree Swallows, chilled

Photo: Cheryl Harner
Your blogger (left) leans against a post in downtown Shreve. That's (from L to R) my mother, father, and brother Mike. They all made it up for the annual Shreve Migration Sensation, which dominated this small town today, and temporarily grew the local populace by 1,000 or so people. We had just stumbled from the adjacent Des Dutch Essenhaus restaurant, and my brother and I carry plunder: cookies, and some sort of insanely robust frosted rolls.

Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area along State Route 95, between the burgs of Funk and Blachleyville. Lots of water, a foot or so more and we'd not be seeing pavement.
There never seems to be enough time to go birding during this jam-packed event, but Peter King and I went up very early, and squeezed in a few hours of birding first thing in the morning.
A ragged line of American Coots steams past. Click the pic, and look really closely, and you'll see a drake Bufflehead behind the mudhens, towards the right side. Funk Bott…


A fine specimen of an Eastern gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis, basks on a sheet of limestone along the Olentangy River in central Ohio. We ran across this serpent last Sunday; a day with warm temperatures and a sun intermittently blinking through the clouds. The snakes were out to celebrate the end of winter along with the rest of us.

This gartersnake is back in hiding, I'll guarantee you that. March's notorious yo-yo weather patterns are living up to their reputation, and it's 33 degrees as I write this, with temperatures to dip to 22 tonight. With a high of 36 tomorrow, it's a safe bet this snake won't be showing his smiling face for a while.

Gartersnakes are one of our more common snakes, and one of the most frequently encountered. They survive well in suburbia, and many a gardener has overturned a rock to find one. No fears - these harmless little animals don't get very big, and normally don't even attempt to bite. Even if they did, you probably wouldn&…

Olentangy River

Humble beginnings. This is the origin of the mighty Olentangy River, a stream well known to central Ohioans. Water washing off a field in southeastern Crawford County, some 90 river miles north of its mouth, form the Olentangy. This field runoff is shunted into a culvert, and then into that ditch in the background.

The Olentangy River at Highbanks Metropark, not far north of Columbus. By this point, the stream has become much larger, and far wilder. Many interesting creatures live in and along the river over its 97-mile course, and its corridors provide some of the most noteworthy scenery in central Ohio.
I am giving a program on the Olentangy on Tuesday evening, March 29th at 7 pm at the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) meeting. Location: Worthington Library, Northwest Branch, 2280 Hard Road. It's free and all are welcome. FLOW is a good group to become involved with if you are interested in the Olentangy River.

Wonders of Olentangy run deep, especially for ki…

Common Mergansers

Your blogger pilots a canoe down wild Little Beaver Creek in Columbiana County. I was there last Friday seeking one of Ohio's rarest breeding birds, the Common Merganser. Our party of sawbill-hunters was successful.

This is Jim Dolan, an accomplished birder who lives nearby and has long surveyed the birdlife of Little Beaver Creek. Using some sort of floatable vessel, such as his kayak, is the way to go. This stream is not readily accessible any other way, and a silent canoe or kayak is without doubt the best way to find mergansers. A big thanks to Jim and Dan Justice for organizing this float, and providing the boats.

We navigated about five miles of river, and it wasn't long before we happened along the first pod of mergansers. Those gleaming white submarinelike objects down there at the river's bend are the male mergansers, which were actively feeding. Four males, accompanied by three females. Mergansers are sometimes called "sawbills", as they have sharply se…

Western Chorus Frog

This Saturday past, I attended a wonderful workshop on vernal pools. It was held at the Stratford Ecological Center, a jewel of a place not far north of Columbus in Delaware County.

The workshop was organized and sponsored by the Ohio Environmental Council, and featured a cast of fine speakers on a variety of topics.

I arrived well in advance of starting time and the arrival of the other attendees. I wanted to wander in solitude through some of Stratford's 236 acres, and drink in the ambience of the large vernal pools. Just in case you're not up on wetland types, a vernal pool is a depressional wetland that floods only for a relatively brief period. Many vernal pools are small, and in this part of the world they are typically found in forested habitats. Winter snow melt and spring rains fuel them, and vernal pools are brimming with water in March. Come summer's end, they'll start to lose water as rainfall lessens and evaporation takes its toll, along with the increased…

Wood Frog

A beautiful vernal pool on the floodplain of Little Beaver Creek in Columbiana County. I made a five mile float down the river today wth some colleagues, in search of one of Ohio's rarest breeding birds. We found the goosanders, and more on that in a later post.

At one of our stops, we heard the distinctive quacking clucks of Wood Frogs, Lithobates sylvatica, and entered the forest to investigate.

Two small woodland pools were filled with riotous Wood Frogs in full courtship mode. Their collective clucks, at a distance, always remind me of a far off pack of crows whooping it up.

Wood Frogs may be tiny, but they're loud, and very, very tough. No frog ranges further north than does this species, and they can survive being frozen solid. For a very brief period in early spring, wood frogs enter vernal breeding pools to meet, mate, and deposit eggs. Their noisy courtship antics are about as good a harbinger of spring as anything, and we spent quite some time admiring the frogs.


Fairy Shrimp

Photo by Gary Meszaros
A tiny fairy shrimp, genus Eubranchipus, drifts in the water column. This is an amazing shot of one of our strangest creatures, and I thank Gary Meszaros for sending it along. It takes specials skills and equipment to make photographs such as this one.

Fairy shrimp are fairly common in our vernal pools, but it's easy to miss them. An adult might tape out at one-half inch in length or so, and they're nearly translucent. They are indeed distant relatives of the shrimp that grace your dinner plate; both are in the Class Crustacea.

Now is the time to look for these tiny swimmers. When vernal pools are in their flooded springtime glory, the fairy shrimp almost magically come to life and occasionally good numbers of them can be observed wafting through the water. They definitely prefer cool water. Once the vernal pool warms to 60 degrees or so they begin to vanish. There are apparently a few different species in Ohio; I'm not sure which one this is.

Oh, what …

The running of the salamanders

A cold American Toad creeps across the asphalt of a rural western Ohio road. Finally, last night I escaped to the great rainy outdoors to have a go at salamandering. We've already had some good nights - reasonably warm and rainy - and I'm sure that many of our amphibians have already made their way to the vernal pools to mate and release their spawn.

As I'm sure most of the sophisticated readers of this blog know, come the first warm wet nights of very early spring, amphibians move en masse overland to breeding pools. To me, catching these slimy creep-crawlies in the act is a pleasurable rite of spring. And we scored last night, but not in a very major way. It was wet enough, with thoroughly saturated ground and intermittent drizzle all evening. A bit on the cool side at 45 degrees, but well within the operating conditions of our salamanders and other amphibians.

But there wasn't much to see in tried and true amphibian hotspots, and the relatively few animals that I did…

Turkey Vultures

Today is "Buzzard Day" in Hinckley, Ohio. This now legendary rite of spring features the Turkey Vulture, and its return to northeastern Ohio. Their return is symbolic of winter's demise and warmer days to come for the snow-encrusted igloo-dwellers who live up there.

Ringmaster Bob Hinkle, chief organizer of the affair, mounts his perch in the pre-dawn hours, often surrounded by dozens of buzzard enthusiasts. They eagerly await the first vulture, and its identity must be confirmed with an official confirmation from Mr. Hinkle. They never fail to spot one of these macabre masters of the air.

Of course, various ignorami have the temerity to report vultures in the vicinity of Hinckley prior to March 15 and Buzzard Day. These bat-blind fools must be looking through fogged up binoculars and using hopelessly smudged and water-stained Sibleys as a reference. Bob Hinkle's research has clearly shown that pre-Buzzard Day "vultures" are Creagles - hybrids between crows a…

First butterflies of spring

A worn and tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly, Nymphalis antiopa, rests on oak leaf litter in southern Ohio. This species overwinters as an adult, riding out the winter in sheltered nooks and crannies. Come a decently warm spell, and out they come.

I made a wide-ranging jaunt through southern Ohio last Saturday, when temperatures peaked in the high 60's. One noteworthy ridgetop carpeted with chestnut oak had a small flurry of Mourning Cloaks; perhaps 4 or 5 flitting about. I also saw a first-of-year Comma, another species that winters in its adult form. Interestingly, like the Mourning Cloak, these two species also range broadly across Europe and Eurasia.

The appearance of butterflies is a surefire sign of spring and warmer days.

Another owl goes postal!

A red morph Eastern Screech-owl peers from a Toledo mailbox. As noted on the box, this owl has been approved by the Postmaster General. I am beginning to wonder if these owls are traveling to and fro from Hogwarts, carrying mail for Harry Potter and crew.

Since posting the last postal owl, I've heard from a few other people regarding screech-owls that have taken a shine to mailboxes. The great photo above comes courtesy of Mary Kay Solt, who snapped the little fellow in her Toledo neighborhood about a month ago.

Thanks to Mary Kay for sharing her work, and to Cathy Wilson for making me aware of this mail owl. Now, if anyone finds a Snowy Owl crammed in one of these boxes, PLEASE let me know!

Spring wildflowers

I made a long rambling cruise through southern Ohio yesterday, ostensibly to check for waterfowl on the extensive flooded fields along the lower Scioto River. There were plenty of ducks - and lots of flooding - and I'll post something on that later.

With temperatures pushing 70 degrees, it was the first truly warm and springlike day, and I knew that some of our earliest flowers would be in bloom. So, some special side trips were made to secret little Ohio River Valley hotspots. In these rocky glens, the stones and southern exposure create little pockets that heat up earlier than their surroundings and stimulate the local plants to get a jumpstart on the rest.

This one wasn't hard to find in sunny sandy and gravelly spots. It's Whitlow-grass, Draba verna, a non-native member of the mustard family. A ubiquitous denizen of open waste areas, the plant is a tiny annual. This one might have towered an inch or so skyward. Small as it may be, these little mustards have a cetain cha…