Friday, September 30, 2011

Carolina mantis

A female Carolina mantis, Stagmomantis carolina, stares inquisitively at your blogger. I had the good fortune to find several of these charming native mantids in southern Ohio last weekend.

A short while back, I wrote about the non-native Chinese Mantis, HERE. One tends to see far more of those than the much more diminutive native Carolina mantids. I have heard it postulated that the larger more aggressive introduced mantids will displace their native brethren. Could be; I certainly see few of the Carolinas and scads of the Chinese.

Carolinas are much smaller than the Chinese mantids; perhaps half that size. They're also a pleasing gray color, dusted and dappled with ashy blotching.

Here's a different female Carolina mantis, found the same day as the one in the first photo. It has been my observation that this species tends to be quite arboreal and I've found most of my specimens in the low hanging foliage of trees.

I believe the one above is gravid, judging by her swollen abdomen. Hopefully her mate made it out alive. Some estimates have it that up to one-quarter of males perish shortly after consummating their relationship with the female. The smaller, weaker male is set upon, and eaten by the cannabalistic female mantis. I don't like that, personally. I find it rather rude.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cylindrical objets d' art

I'll get off the catepillar jag after this post, promise! But I've become smitten with everything about caterpillars: their appearance, behavior, interaction with plants and predators, and overall ecological importance. As a field of study, they are exquisite and provide endless intellectual stimulation.

And as a photographic subject, caterpillars are nearly without parallel in the insect world. They embody everything that I like about shooting nature. There is very much the element of the hunt involved, and that requires some fairly detailed knowledge of the quarry. How many caterpillars do you see when you are out hiking about? One must train their eye to find them. Also, objects that are long and cylindrical can be surprisingly hard to photograph well. Some thought must be given to the pose, and the photographer must make the effort to put themselves in odd positions to fire from interesting angles.

Looking straight on at a banded tussock moth caterpillar, Halysidota tessellaris. It resembles a fuzzy pipecleaner decked out with long, ornate lashes. And sporting a walrus mustache, to boot.

Here's the animal in its entirety. This one was feeding on the foliage of redbud, Cercis canadensis. Banded tussocks are very common caterpillars in the eastern U.S.

Looking like some bizarre and spooky alien from outer space, an irate white-dotted prominent caterpillar, Nadata gibbosa, lunges from the leaf of a post oak, Quercus stellata. I ticked off the animal by tapping it, and this posture is its last ditch effort to ward off the would-be predator. The caterpillar extends and bares its colorful mandibles to create the illusion of scary eyes, and thrashes and lunges. Were you a small animal such a bay-breasted warbler, you might well be inclined to leave the thing alone and search out less intimidating prey.

This is the same white-dotted prominent before I irritated it, peacefully snacking on oak leaves and not looking very dangerous.

The hidden world of caterpillars is indeed a strange and interesting place. I'll tip you now to an event that you won't want to miss. Next year's Midwest Native Plant Conference features Dr. David Wagner as the keynote speaker. Dave is author of the incredible guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North America and he's an incredible and engaging speaker. We'll also be conducting evening field trips to search out cool cats such as the ones in this post, and many more. CLICK HERE for conference details and block it off on next year's calendar.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Imperial Moth caterpillar

Last weekend, while in Adams County, a bit of Lepidopteran good fortune came my way. I walked out of the house that I was staying at, drawn by the chips of Blackpoll, Black-throated Green, and other warblers. Glancing up into a stately sugar maple, I spotted a truly spectacular caterpillar.

An enormous imperial moth caterpillar, Eacles imperialis, in its final instar! This thing was nearly the size of a small hotdog! Far too much for those warblers that I was chasing around to handle. Imperial cats are quite distinctive, as they are copiously beset with long silky white hairs, a row of white dots stitches down the sides, and the beast's head is armed with several small yellow horns.

Caterpillars are little more than eating machines, and when one is the size of a full-grown imperial moth caterpillar, they can really suck in the foliage. The mouth on this bruiser is essentially a garbage disposal for leaves. It vaccuums them in at an impressive pace, and equally impressive are the giant frass pellets that regularly emerge from the other end. In fact, so large and prolific is the frass (caterpillar poop) of a jumbo such as this, that people sometimes find the caterpillar after noticing accumulations of frass pellets on the ground. Sort of like finding an owl, after spotting the owl pellets.

I am always interested in how caterpillars react to perceived threats, as some of them have remarkable ploys geared towards spooking off birds or other animals that might be out for a snack. When I gently prodded this imperial cat, it instantly and forcefully swung its head at my finger, as if it were going to impale me with those horns. Then, it adopted the posture in this photo - head and upper body arched down and out, as if this pose might render it invisible.

It didn't take long for the caterpillar to resume eating. My hunch is that I caught it on its last day out. Imperial moth caterpillars, after growing to maximum size and maturity, leave the tree and go to the ground. Once on terra firma, the caterpillar finds a suitable crevice, hole, or spot of soft soil and heads below ground to spend the winter as a pupa. It'll emerge as an adult sometime next summer.

Note the maple foliage in the background. As the days grow shorter, chlorophyll productions begins to shut down, and its attendant green coloration bleeds from the leaves. The underlying yellows, reds, and oranges are unmasked, and in maples, the leaves become yellowish, heavily dappled with maroon. Later they can briefly change to brilliant orange or crimson.

Here's an adult imperial moth that I photographed a few years ago. Note the remarkable similarity of the moth's coloration and patterning to that of the senescent maple foliage in the previous photo. It is as if the caterpillar, fueled by maple leaves, later becomes a leaf itself.

Ironically, for all of the eating that the caterpillar does over the weeks that it scavenges the trees, the moth eats nothing at all. Silk moths such as the imperial moth have no functional mouthparts, and live only to find a mate, copulate, and lay eggs.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trashline Orbweaver

Today dawned cool and crisp, with scattered clounds scudding across a breaking sky. Yes! No rain on the horizon, which means it's a good day to ride the bike to work. So out came the Ducati, its rich silky baritone amplified by a Termiglioni racing exhaust, no doubt delighting all who came within earshot of my commute. There is nothing quite like the deep bassano of an Italian L-twin motorcycle.

Anyway, riding the bike netted me a cool spider. It was the first time I'd had it out in nearly two weeks. When I take the car, I just hit the garage door opener as I near the dwelling and whisk into the bay, closing the door behind me. With the bike, I have to dismount in the driveway and go punch in the keypad code. This simple task put me on proximity to a wall I hadn't scanned in a while, and a very interesting little spider has taken up residence there.

Glancing over at the wall, I noticed what looks to be a linear line of debris dangling from a silken thread. One could be excused for not giving this strand of a second glance, other than to perhaps brush it off with a broom.

But I had become wise to the ways of the cryptic little trashline orbweaver spider, Cyclosa turbinata, some time ago and knew that the trash string was worth a closer look. She's in this photo, and nearly her entire life story is laid out before our eyes.

At the top is her egg case, and even it is carefully decorated with bits of debris. The core of the string is a dense tangle of various insect parts, plant bits, and who knows what else. This species is the Sanford & Son of the spider world. And there, at the bottom of the trashline, is our spider, looking all the world like part of the trash.

I gave her a gentle prod, and she stepped away from the trashline and we can now clearly see that a spider is involved with this oddest of webs. She is facing down, and if you click the photo to enlarge it, you'll see the faint outline of her major web. This is an orbweaving spider and as such, it creates a fairly sizeable circular web. The trashline is constructed vertically in the main web's center. But like the spider, the core web is a fine and delicate affair, its silken strands like gossamer and scarcely visible. It's the trashline that'll catch your eye.

A bit more poking and she scampered out into the open, allowing me photos unfettered by trash. Once again, she is facing downward, and as is the typical posture, has her legs tucked in closely to the body. Look carefully and you can see what I assume are her fangs, shiny and metallic blue-green.

Why do trashline orbweavers build mini landfills? I don't know. Perhaps to better conceal themselves, both from would be predators and prey. And perhaps the string of trash lures flies or other scavengers, who then get caught up in the nearly invisible orb web.

This is a very common spider and if you keep a watch out you're certain to see one sooner than later.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Ohio!

Photo: Brian Zwiebel

While down in the deep back country of Adams County last Saturday, I received a phone message from Brian Zwiebel, letting me know that he had found a major rarity for Ohio, a Black-throated Gray Warbler. I wasn't surprised that Brian found such a bird. He is a very sharp field man, and also one of the best bird photographers out there. Check out his work HERE. He was kind enough to share the stunning images in this post.

My problem, in regards to seeing the bird myself, was that Adams County is at the opposite end of the state from Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, where Brian made the find. About 230 miles apart, in fact. But word got out with extreme rapidity, and dozens of birders were able to make the scene and tick the bird for their state lists, and life lists in some cases. This is the 11th or 12th record of Black-throated Gray Warbler in Ohio, so seeing one is not something that one can count on.

Photo: Brian Zwiebel

After spotting the bird, I doubt if Brian yelled " Ah Kah a qual!" But had he been an indian in the Chinook Nation in the 1800's, he might have made that strange exclamation. "Ah Kah a qual" is the Chinook name for the Black-throated Gray Warbler, and it's possible that explorer John Kirk Townsend heard the bird referred to as that in 1837, the year he collected the first Black-throated Gray to be documented, in Oregon.

Townsend, a native of Philadelphia, had signed on to an expedition to the Pacific Northwest at the invitation of botanist Thomas Nuttall (of woodpecker fame). This great adventure was the second trip to the far west organized by Nathaniel Wyeth, and Townsend proved himself to be a valuable addition to the party. In addition to the Black-throated Gray Warbler, he collected Chestnut-collared Longspur, Mountain Plover, Sage Thrasher, and Vaux's Swift - all new to science.

Oh, and of course, he found his namesake species, the Townsend's Warbler. Ironically enough, Ohio's only two records of the latter, in 1973 and 1983, also come from the county where Brian made this find, Lucas County. In fact, the 1973 Townsend's Warbler was found along Magee Marsh's legendary "Bird Trail", a mere stone's throw from the beach area where this latest western warbler appeared.

Map courtesy of Birds of North America

As can be seen from the distribution map of the Black-throated Gray Warbler, the Magee Marsh bird has come a long way to be with us. And luckily for birders, it was polite enough to hang around all day yesterday as well, which greatly upped the number of people who were able to see it.

Black-throated Gray Warblers are well known for their tameness, and this bird was no exception. I would think the rare bird committee would find Brian Zwiebel's photos adequate for identification purposes.

Kudos to Brian for a fabulous find!

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Colors of autumn

I'm back, after a weekend of searching far and wide in two of my favorite southern Ohio counties. The cameras saw heavy duty, their memory chips choking on 1,700 images. I saw some cool stuff - some very cool stuff, in fact - and will be posting the best of it later. For now, some colorful images that vividly illustrate that Old Man Winter's clutches are not far off.

An Adams County field turned lemony with the pyramidal sprays of Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, with dashes of white from tall boneset, Eupatorium altissimum.

Damp woods and ditches still sport spikes of great lobelia flowers, Lobelia siphilitica.

Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, vines, their leaves turned rich red, reclaim a long fallen barn.

The beautiful rose-magenta flowers of creeping aster, Eurybia surculosa, rise from a battered habitat. Despite man's best efforts to eradicate this rarest of Ohio asters, it persists still.

Divergent racemes of whitish fruit thrust from the deep maroon leaves of sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, our only tree in the heath family (Ericaceae).

The signature aster of fall, New England aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, is starting to push forth its stunning purple flowers.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mantid whacks wasp!

Requiring a bit of a respite from various desk-bound tasks this afternoon, I wandered out to our "weedy" little patch by the office. I snatched the Panasonic from the car's trunk first, just in case. It wasn't long before I heard the rapid guttural chirps of multiple Japanese burrowing crickets, Velarifictorus micado, out back of the building. Aha! thought I - I shall finally photo-document this ever-increasing invader. I first started hearing these Asian crickets about three years ago, and now hear them everywhere. In fact, one sings nightly from a crevice under my back porch steps. Getting a photo of one is a bit like playing whac-a-mole. I prod the partially concealed little singer to coax him from his burrow. He briefly pops up, I ready the camera, the cricket goes subterranean, I prod with twig again, Up, Down, me never fast enough with the camera's trigger.

Tiring of the cricket's game, I wandered into the goldenrods seeking easier fare.

We have a nice patch of Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, and it is now at peak bloom. Goldenrods are beacons for all manner of pollinating insects, and trust me, you'll never want for macro subjects when around these plants. There were plenty of Northern paper wasps, Polistes fuscatus, working the flowers and the one above is so thoroughly drenched in pollen that its field marks are nearly obscured.

Paper wasps pack a nasty punch. We can refer to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to see just how painful the sting of this very common wasp is. If you've not heard of this rather bizarre excercise in scientific masochism, an entomologist named Justin Schmidt set out, a few decades ago, to quantify and compare the stings of various insects in the Hymenoptera. He did this by letting stinging insects sting him, of course. His magnum opus, first published in 1984, is the aforementioned Schmidt Sting Pain Index. Its scale goes from 1 to 4+, with a 1 being a very mild, only slightly painful sting. Our paper wasp weighs in at a 3, and its sting is described by Schmidt as follows:

 "Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut".

Ouch. And what a hand's-on scientist is Mr. Schmidt.

But there always seems to be a bigger, badder guy (female in this case) that comes along, and I noticed several large Chinese mantids, Tenodera sinensis, patiently stalking the flower patch. Given the number of nectar-seeking wasps that were about, I kept a watch on things.

A mantid slowly and swayingly works into good position below a heavily visited panicle of goldenrod blossoms. These insects don't miss much, those large eyes instantly locking on to the slightest movement.

I moved in a bit too closely with my lens, and she gave me the evil eye. After all, I was horning in on her hunting!

Bingo! She eventually lunged and seized a paper wasp, displaying utter disregard for the wasp's formidable 3 ranking on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. Whether the wasp stung her I don't know, but I'm sure it tried. Given that the mantid instantly immobilized the potentially dangerous stinging insect with vise-like front legs, the wasp probably couldn't get at her. When I moved in close to make some photos, I could clearly hear the rather dry crunching as the mantid's powerful mandibles made mincemeat of #3 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

And then my 20 minutes of documenting life in the goldenrod patch was up, and it was time to return to work.

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Midwest Birding Symposium recap

I spent last Thursday through Sunday in idyllic Lakeside, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie and was joined by nearly 1,000 other folks for much of that time. We were there for the Midwest Birding Symposium, which for the fourth time MBS bedded down in Lakeside (1997, 1999, 2009, 2011).

I've been to many a birding festival/symposium/conference but MBS rules the roost in sheer grandeur and attention to detail. There is really nothing quite like it, and I wanted to share some thoughts on the MBS just past.

I owe a BIG THANK YOU to Nina Harfmann of Nature Remains, who kindly lent me ALL photos used in this post. I took none. That's right - zilch. I was so busy leading field excursions, emceeing talks and ribbon-cuttings, giving a program, and catching up with dozens of people from all over the place that I never produced a camera at the event itself. But Nina takes fine photos, and she photo-documented the whole affair.

Lakeside is a tranquil gated community on the Marblehead Peninsula, and home to the MBS. Founded in 1873, Lakeside is a Chautauqua community, and as such, promotes intellectual, cultural, educational, and recreational pursuits, all under the mantle of Methodist religious values.

They let me in anyway.

For a birding venue such as the MBS, there could not be a finer place. We come just after the peak season, and as many Lakesiders are seasonal dwellers, there is an abundance of cottages available for rent. When MBS is at full whirl, it is like a town overtaken and conquered by bird watchers.

I have to give major props to Kevin Sibbring and everyone else in the Lakeside adminstration. They are the best. The Lakesiders give their all to welcome all of us, and are organizational geniuses. Not only that, but they mobilize an entire troop of Lakeside residents as volunteers. Easily identified by their green hats, the Lakeside volunteers provide golf cart shuttle services, serve food, organize venues, and help with a multitude of other tasks. As did the other major sponsors, Bird Watcher's Digest and the Ohio Ornithological Society. Hats off to everyone involved. A common sentiment that I heard over and over was that the MBS is the best run and most fun of ANY birding festival.

Many of us stayed at the Hotel Lakeside, which is a stone's throw from Lake Erie and smack in the heart of Lakeside. It's a cool old place, and I do mean old - the hotel went up in 1875. It even has a friendly ghost, Susan. I didn't see or hear her, but then again, I have a habit of sleeping with the lights on, a pillow over my head, and making loud humming noises until I fall asleep when in haunted hotels.

Huge chinkapin oaks and other mature trees shade Lakeside, and one can find plenty of migrants just by strolling the streets. There's no great worry about getting mowed down by speeding cars, either - golf carts and bicycles outnumber four-wheelers.

The MBS organizing committee nearly tripled the number of vendors at MBS as compared to 2009. This necessitated the erection of several large tents, in addition to using a large building. It was great, everything related to birding that one could desire was somewhere in the mix. Tour companies, optics vendors, artisans, non-profits, bird rehabbers, book sellers - you name it.

When you've got nearly 1,000 birders together, it takes a substantial hall to get them together in one place. Hoover Auditorium fills the bill. It can seat a few thousand and that's where we'd go for keynote speakers and other events. Bill Thompson - far left with guitar - served as emcee and there is no one better. In fact, the entire Thompson clan - they own and operate Bird Watcher's Digest - were all present and they're the hub from which the spokes of MBS radiate. Without the Thompson's, there would be no MBS in Ohio. And because of the Thomspon's, MBS is the benchmark to which other like events aspire.

A lot of cool things happened on that stage in Hoover Auditorium. In the photo above, the Rain Crows perform a number for the crowd. The band is, from left: Bill Thompson, Julie Zickefoose, Craig Gibbs, and Wendy Eller. On Saturday night, we also set a Guiness Book of World Records approved world record. I'm not kidding. I, I am proud to have you know, was a part of this rather wacky thing. We - 802 officially counted and authenticated participants - simultaneously did a Barred Owl call. This effort easily smashed the previous record and that wasn't too hard as there was none. But now the bar has been set and it is high.

A long pier juts far into Lake Erie from Lakeside's backyard. From here you can easily see South Bass Island a bit to the west, and Kelleys Island to the east of that. Interesting birds are also seen here. Michael O'Brien led a nighttime trip onto the dock to teach people the various lisps, twits, zits, and peeps of nocturnal songbird migrants passing over in the dark. And the boys from Leica conducted a lake watch, with Cameron Cox spotting the best bird: a flyby Red-necked Phalarope.

Stellar birders staff nearby birding hotspots on Friday and Saturday morning. The above is a wetland at East Harbor State Park, and I was one of the leaders at this locale. Our crews had lots of birds, including a few large mixed flocks comprised of hundreds of Cedar Waxwings, and a dozen or so species of warblers with other songbirds mixed in. Of course, some non-bird organisms were inspected such as a meadow full of nodding ladies'-tresses orchids, Spiranthes cernua.

We took a little time to have a ceremony and ribbon-cutting for the brand new Ohio Lake Erie Birding Trail at East Harbor on Friday morning. Wielding the scissors is Scott Butterworth, left, who is District Wildlife Manager for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and Ina Brolis, manager of East Harbor State Park. The trail is the creation of the Ohio Division of Wildlife with the help of many partners, and features 84 sites all along Ohio's 312 miles of Lake Erie shoreline.

A smattering of egrets brighten a wetland at Ottawa National Wildlife in this gorgeous image. Ottawa was also an MBS birding locale.

There is no way I can encapsulate three jam-packed days involving myriad speakers and events, and attended by some 1,000 birders from 37 states and a half-dozen countries into one blog post and even begin to do it justice. Suffice to say, we had a lot of fun, learned a lot and met scores of great people. Oh, I should also mention that generous birders raised about $12,000 for conservation. That was augmented by $10,000 from the Ohio Ornithological Society for a total of $22,000. Not bad! These funds will go to help further conservation efforts at Meadowbrook Marsh. If you're an Ohio birder - or even if not - JOIN the Ohio Ornithological Society. Groups that go to great lengths to further birding and conservation deserve our support.

I am pleased to report that the Midwest Birding Symposium will once again return to Lakeside in September 2013. Be there!

Thanks again to Nina Harfmann for the use of her great photos.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Singing Bird Pistols

Following a feverish bidding war between two high-end collectors, the above pair of singing bird pistols recently sold at a Christie's auction for the mind-numbing price of $5.8 million. This is apparently the only matched set of these odd antiquities still known to exist, and very few were ever made to begin with.

The craftmanship of these 200+ year old works of art is incredible. Rather than firing bullets, the guns "shoot" a miniature singing bird. I can almost see why someone might be inspired to pay the price of a large mansion with a garage full of Ferraris for these "singing bird pistols". CLICK HERE for an amazing video about these curiosities, their history and operation.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Black-horned Tree Cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis

Just back from the Midwest Birding Symposium and what a time that was! Everyone involved pulled out all the stops and created the best MBS ever. I was so busy with leading trips, giving a talk, introducing speakers, and visiting with dozens of friends that I never even cracked a camera case. Thus, I am relying on the generosity of other photogs that were there, and am hopeful that people such as Nina and Ernie can provide me with a few of their stellar images. I'll offer an MBS recap here, later.

On my way back from Lakeside, it was impossible not to stop at the fabulous Castalia Prairie for a few hours. There, on a picture-perfect September day, I found many interesting things and made lots of photos. I was fortunate in being able to track down one of our most charismatic little singers, and would like to share this tiny beast with you.

As soon as I exited my vehicle, I heard the sonorous droning trills of one of our showiest orthopterans, the black-horned tree cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis. I resolved to track some of these crickets down, as they are exceptionally good-looking and endowed with more than their fair share of charisma.

Click the above photo to enlarge, and look closely. Crickets are no fools, and when they detect a large, lumbering biped crashing closer, they'll dart to the other side of the leaf. But those LONG antennae jutting from the leaf's cover are a dead give away, as is the tip of the animal's abdomen sticking over the top of the leaf.

A gentle tap of the leaf, and PRESTO - the stunning insect ran around to my side. Black-horned tree crickets are extraordinarily flashy, what with their glossy black heads and legs. The ebony creates a pleasing contrast with the greenish-white wings, and the overall effect charms nearly all who come into contact with these bugs.

A bit goofy looking when seen up close and personal, to be sure, but in a friendly Donald Duck sort of way.

Black-horned tree crickets are at their peak right now, and it should be a fairly simple matter to find them should you be so inclined. They sing during the day, unlike many of their brethren. Also, this species generally shuns trees and favors old fields filled with goldenrods, asters, grasses and other herbaceous vegetation. At best, they'll clamber into the low branches of shrubs within the meadow, but that's about as close to a tree as a black-horned tree cricket will get.

CLICK HERE to hear the song of a black-horned tree cricket.

I found a few of these tree crickets, and was able to coax one onto my finger. By slowly easing your finger in front of the animal - and this works with many of our crickets and katydids - they'll often step right aboard after carefully vetting you with their long antennae. Note that this individual is somewhat battle-scarred. He is missing most of his right antenna, and his left rear leg was gone. Life in the meadow is not always easy.

I think the animals are attracted to salts, hence their fascination with our skin. As soon as Senor Cricket stepped aboard, he began rasping my flesh with his surprisingly powerful mandibles. Their nibbling little pinches file away the outer layer of cells and the various minerals within. I'm glad I could provide some sustenance to this old veteran of the meadow, and he in turn offered up some excellent photo ops.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Franklinia

First off, I know that many people who regularly scan this blog will be up at Midwest Birding Symposium this weekend. I look forward to seeing everyone. My talk is Saturday at 2 pm in Hoover Auditorium, and is entitled Birders Going Beyond Birds. I've had a lot of fun putting that together, and weaving together a tale of things great and small, birds, people, conservation, and how the pieces interconnect. It'll have a lot of the elements that you see in this blog.

Gary Meszaros kindly sent along this gorgeous photo of one of the oddest and most storied plants in the eastern United States. Read on...

Photo: Gary Meszaros

During a recent trip to a botanical garden, Gary snapped this beautiful image of Franklinia alatamaha, or just Franklinia, for short. It is a captivating plant, with showy, pleasantly aromatic flowers that bloom in fall. The foliage turns to a bright crimson about now, often forming a striking backdrop to the snowy blossoms. Franklinia belongs to the small (in North America)  tea family (Theaceae). The genus name honors one of America's greats, Benjamin Franklin.

Today, Franklinia only exists in cultivation. It was first discovered in 1765 in Georgia, along the banks of the Alatamaha River in Georgia by the legendary Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram. They must have had fits upon first seeing this beautiful treelet in its full glory. The Bartrams had traveled far and wide in the east, and made numerous collections. They knew instantly that the plant which came to be known as Franklinia was new.

In spite of intensive searching, neither the Bartrams nor anyone else was able to find Franklinia beyond the tiny area in which it was first discovered. On later trips, William Bartram harvested seed, and by the early 1780's had managed to grow plants to maturity. The last indisputable observation of Franklinia in its wild haunts was in 1803. For reasons unknown, this stunning species slipped over the brink and vanished from the wild just a scant 38 years after its initial discovery. At the time of his initial discovery, Bartram recorded this about the plant: "at this place there are two or 3 acres of ground where it grows plentifully."

The demise of wild Franklinia may always remain a mystery, but fortunately it lives on in cultivation, thanks to Bartram's collection and propagation of seeds. When we see a Franklinia tree, such as in Gary's photo, it is a direct descendent of the material brought to Philadelphia from the banks of the Alatamaha by William Bartram well over 200 years ago.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Devil's Dipstick

While on a recent excursion through some Hocking County forests, our crew stumbled onto one of the stranger fungi to be found: a stinkhorn. This particular beauty is sometimes known as the Devil's dipstick. More formally it is Mutinus elegans, a member of the family Phallaceae. A rather suggestive name, the latter, but even in this fading specimen it isn't hard to see how the family got its name.

Mutinus elegans has the distinction of being - probably - the first species of fungi named in the New World. A Brit, John Banister, described it in 1679 and the missionary Banister may have been suitably horrified at what this oddity seems to suggest. However, history does not record his reaction to the bizarre fungus.

As we approached the stinkhorn, I noticed a scurrying movement in the shadows below. A bit of rustling around and we spooked out an American carrion beetle, Necrophila americana. The gelatinous spores of stinkhorns smell foul, like overripe meat, and the malodorous scent attracts insects that make their livelihood by exploiting dead animals. I'm sure if one were to prostrate themselves near some stinkhorns and quietly watch, there would be all manner of ghoulish visitors stopping by.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

A blue buckeye

No, I'm not talking about a disgruntled Ohio State Buckeye fan. Or an abnormally pigmented nut from a tree. The subject is the common buckeye, Junonia coenia, one of our showier butterflies. Buckeyes wander northward in late summer and fall, and we get variable numbers of them in Ohio from year to year. Last year was a boom year; this season has brought another bumper crop. If you watch butterflies at all, you're no doubt familiar with this ornately marked species.

But you may not be familiar with blue ones. I wasn't. Brad Deering kindly shared the following photo of a luxuriantly colored specimen that he found yesterday in central Ohio.

Photo: Brad Deering

Our colorful buckeye in repose and upstaging a normally colored buckeye. Quite the showstopper, eh? Buckeyes often have a bluish wash on the forewing, near those two orange bars, but nothing to the extent of this specimen. I imagine this individual is merely an exceptional example of blue pigment gone a bit wild.

In a quick bit of research, I didn't find much about this phenomenon, but it does surface from time to time. CLICK HERE and you'll see a photo from Flickr that is quite similar to the individual that Brad found.

And then there are THESE PEOPLE. Employing the same mentality that causes the nursery trade to ruin perfectly good native plants, they are forcing the selection of blue in buckeyes. By isolating individuals that were naturally showing blue pigment on the forewings and crossing them with each other, they have apparently created a super race of wild looking buckeyes. Hopefully they are not releasing these genetically engineered specimens to the wild. If not, kudos to them for conducting a fascinating experiment that shows how rapidly morphological changes can occur in an animal population.

If you know more about "blue" common buckeyes or have seen one, please do share.

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