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Showing posts from October, 2011

Double-crested Cormorants, writ large

The not always placid waters of Lake Erie lap at the Huron jetty, which encloses a large spoil impoundment. Back in the day, when the dredged muck was still being sprayed into this basin, the impoundment was a huge mudflat and a beacon for birds. Many a rarity was found, including Ohio's only Spotted Redshank (1979), and our first record of Arctic Tern (1980). Even though the impoundment has been swallowed up by a luxuriant cloak of giant reed, Phragmites australis, the Huron Pier and its environs remain one of the most interesting and productive locales on Lake Erie, especially in the fall.

I was here Sunday, on a whirlwind trip from Huron to Magee Marsh. My dream? Discover Ohio's first Ash-throated Flycatcher. I didn't, or this blog would be titled differently. Ash-throated Flycatcher is WAY overdue, with scores of records in eastern North America, including, I believe, every state around Ohio. I figure the inaugural specimen will be found at the tail end of October or i…

Citrine Forktail

I photographed this beautiful albeit miniscule citrine forktail, Ischnura hastata, a few weeks ago in southern Ohio. These tiny damselflies are so small that it is quite easy to overlook them. This is the smallest odonate found in North America. A big citrine forktail is barely over an inch in length, and they're prone to lurking in dense vegetation where they fade and appear like will-o'-the-wisps. This one - and a number of others - was hunting in a cedar glade prairie, where it engaged in typical damselfly hunting strategy. Unlike the incredible aerial acrobatics of their brethren, the dragonflies, damselflies patrol low amongst the vegetation, employing a rather sluggish and jerky flight style. They grab tiny bugs from the foliage in a pounce and pick hunting style.

Proportionately huge many-faceted eyes mean that the citrine forktail overlooks very little that enters its sphere. This is a successful damselfly: citrine forktails are common throughout all but the northwest q…

Blackpoll Warbler kill at wind farm

AES Corporation's Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, photo from West Virginia Highlands Conservancy website.

The massive Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, near Elkins, West Virginia was just opened officially with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, but it's already making news in a most ungreenfriendly way. Word is leaking out regarding a massive kill of migratory songbirds that took place about two weeks ago at one of the turbine farm's installations. According to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, 484 birds perished after striking a structure associated with this twelve mile string of 61 mountaintop turbines. Most of the birds were Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpolls are champions of long distance migration, breeding to the northern limits of the boreal forest in Canada, Alaska, and in the northeastern lower states, mostly in New England. Their migration is an epic journey that spans much of the Americas, with the birds ending up in South America where they overwinter.

Not all…

Goldenrod Gall Fly garners fame

A familiar sight in old fields, the golf ball-sized swelling caused by the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. Female goldenrod flies inject their egg into the goldenrod, triggering an interesting and conspicuous reaction. The afflicted goldenrod plant, sensing the foreigner, is stimulated to wall itself off from the fly larva by producing dense woody tissue. 
If you are armed with a knife, you can slice open the gall and view the delectable grub within. Or, if you are a clever and industrious bird, you can just use your bill to get at the tasty morsel.

The relationship of the Downy Woodpecker to the goldenrod gall fly is an interesting tale, and Ohio's own Warren Uxley spins it so well that his article made the COVER of BirdWatching Magazine (formerly Birder's World)!. I just got my issue, and Warren's wordsmithing is stellar, and his story is punctuated with outstanding photos. Be sure to pick up a copy at your newstand, or SUBSCRIBE HERE.

Warren Uxley works with the…

Saw-whet selling telecommunications

After seeing the last post, about Northern Saw-whet Owls, Joan Campbell dropped me a note to let me know about a saw-whet media star. It turns out that Telus Canada, a telecommunications company up there in the Great White North, uses one of the little hooters in its ad campaign. I'll bet the micro-owl charms those Canadians right out of their igloos, and sells lots of phones.

See one of the owl-ads HERE.

Northern Saw-whet Owl, captured!

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius acadicus, captured last night near Chillicothe, Ohio. Word is that these little micro-hooters are moving south out of their northern boreal forest haunts in good numbers. So, I headed down to Ross County and the site of a long-term banding operation on their second night of opening the nets this season, full of good owl vibes. It paid off; we snared an owl on the second net run of the night.

This operation was started about eight years ago by Kelly Williams-Sieg, in collaboration with Bill Bosstic and Bob Placier. That's Bob on the right, assisted by Randy Lakes. Once an owl is captured, it is transported to a nearby house which serves as the base of operations. Once there, the saw-whet is thoroughly inspected, data is collected, and the animal is ringed with a metallic band.

What is especially eye-opening to me about this particular banding site is the seemingly commonplace habitat. Two lengthy net runs are strung through young deciduous woods and b…

Long-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus

Photo: Dr. Bernard Master
Thanks to Bernie Master for sharing his amazing shot of a Long-billed Dowitcher, captured on October 9 at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Bernie's Canon is rigged with an 800 mm lens, which is a cannon in its own right.

Dowitchers are sandpipers that typically forage in deep water, often up to their belly. Like feathered sewing machines, feeding dowitchers rapidly plumb the mucky substrate with extra-long bills in pursuit of macroinvertebrate animal life. The tip of a dowitcher bill is rigged with nerves that permit tactile sensitivity; when food is encountered deep in the mud, the bird detects it via the sensory capabilities of the bill.

Then, as we can see in this photo, the dowitcher is capable of flexing open its upper mandible and firmly clamping down on the food morsel to be. Obviously, dowitchers are not above grabbing non-traditional prey if the opportunity presents itself. This LBD was making a failed but laudable attempt to snare a much faster …

Flower Fly

The drive in to work this morning. A cold and blustery 50 degrees, with plenty of rain. This weather spells the end of a huge chunk of our insects, and field entomology will have to largely go on hiatus till we see winter through.

Yesterday was warmer, sunnier, and buggier. Once again, I had my Nikon handy and took a brief stroll around the grounds outside my office.

Plenty of pollinators were still working over the shale-barren asters, including this little lovely. Should you not be into the finer nuances of insects, you could be forgiven for thinking this wee beast a bee or other stinging hymemopteran. It's just - just - a fly, but one that does a remarkable job of mimicry, even to the point of twitching and flexing its abdomen in the manner of some stinging insects.

There are scores of "flower flies", and I believe this one is Syrphus ribesii, but if you know better please do tell. I have long been charmed by the magic of flies. The group sometimes wrongly gets tarred …

Shale-barren Aster

From my office window, I can see these sprawling bush-like shale-barren asters, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. These specimens are so luxuriant that I thought they might be something else, but apparently some nurseryman has worked cultivar magic and amped them up somehow. A few colleagues planted them last year in what we term our "butterfly garden".

So copious are the blossoms that, up close, it's like looking at a big violet-blue cloud. Unlike many cultivars, these asters apparently produce tons of nectar, as the plants were swarming with pollinators. I spent perhaps ten minutes stalking around the asters with my lens, and saw an incredible number of honey bees, in addition to the following buterflies: cabbage white, checkered skipper, common buckeye, monarch, pearl crescent, and Peck's skipper. Also a praying mantis, numerous syrphid flower flies, and a Virginia ctenucha moth.

Several monarchs dropped in and were working the flowers. Sustenance for their long flight …

The Big Year review

Along with probably half of North America's birding populace, I went to see The Big Year last night. Finding a seat was no issue - the 10:30 showing had only six other people in addition to myself and a friend. Possibly not a great omen that this flick is going to achieve blockbuster status.

On the outside chance that you are not familiar with this "birding" movie, here is the description courtesy the Rotten Tomatoes website: "Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson are at a crossroads -- one is experiencing a mid-life crisis, another a late-life crisis, and the third, a far from ordinary no-life crisis. From David Frankel, the director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, comes a sophisticated comedy about three friendly rivals who, tired of being ruled by obligations and responsibilities, dedicate a year of their lives to following their dreams. Their big year takes them on a cross-country journey of wild and life-changing adventures."

I knew I'…

The Big Year preview reviews

As probably every avid birder not dwelling under a rock is aware, tomorrow, October 14th, is the official release of the movie The Big Year. Based on Mark Obmascik's book of the same name, the story follows the tales of three men who independently attempted to set the North American big year record (most species seen) in 1998.

Well, the professional critics have gotten their usual first crack previews, and their verdicts are emerging. The opinions are very much a mixed bag. The Rotten Tomatoes website currently has 28 reviews posted, and about half of the reviewers liked the flick enough that they didn't award it a smashed tomato. Read them yourself RIGHT HERE.

See the movie over the weekend, and judge it for yourself. I will. And then perhaps I'll opine on the movie from firsthand experience.

An interesting bluff

Not so long ago, I received a call from old friend Bob Harter, one of this region's premier prairie experts. The conversation hooked its way around to an interesting site that Bob had brought to light about a decade ago; a set of massive shale bluffs overlooking the upper end of Alum Creek reservoir. Among other things, Bob had found one of Ohio's very few stations for the endangered Gattinger's foxglove, Agalinis gattingeri, along the summit of these bluffs.
I hadn't been to this spot for a number of years, so we made plans to meet up and have a look at the place, and on a very rainy day we did just that.
Towering embankments of shale occur along the upper end of Alum Creek. Along the reservoir, the lower reaches of the bluffs are flooded but further upstream one can find some largely intact examples. The summits of these bluffs are quite dry and rather acid and support black oak, Quercus velutina, and other semi-xerophytes (plants of dry places). The rare Gattinger'…

Blanchard's Cricket Frog

A tiny Blanchard's cricket frog, Acris crepitans blanchardi, in a rare state of repose. Last Saturday, I was down in Warren County in southwestern Ohio to speak at the 101 Alternatives to the Chalkboard Educator's Conference. This long-running event has been held at the YMCA's Camp Kern for nearly 30 years, and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

Camp Kern sprawls over 485 acres, and the habitats are varied and rich in flora and fauna. In between talks, we found time for a bit of exploring, and our course took us by a large pond. Ambling along the pond's margins, I noticed several miniature frogs leaping from our path with the agility of leopard frogs. Cricket frogs! I alerted my fellow explorers and we launched into the hunt, determined to net one for closer viewing.

When flushed, Blanchard's cricket frogs usually make for the water, pronto. Once there, though, they often quickly surface and stare back at the offender as this one is doing. With a little quick ne…

The Big Sit, 2011

Yesterday marked the annual "Big Sit" at the Indigo Hill home of Bill Thompson, Julie Zickefoose, and their children Liam and Phoebe in the rural back country of Whipple, Ohio. I've been going down there for this 24-hour marathon of birding for the better part of a decade, and really enjoy it. For the uninitiated: A Big Sit is a 24-hour effort to tally as many bird species as possible from within the confines of a 15-foot diameter circle. Once a participant leaves the designated circle, he/she can no longer count. All birds seen or heard can be tallied.
As is the norm, I aimed to reach the Big Sit site at 5 am or shortly thereafter, which necessitated a 3 am departure from Columbus. That was rough, after staying up to watch the OSU Buckeyes incredible implosion and loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After a none too brief safari through the 24-hour McDonald's drive thru for a bolt of coffee and exposure to various and sundry drunks, strippers just off work, and other p…

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I was pleased to look out my office window the other day, and see a Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa, flitting about the boughs of the crabapple tree. Later, I grabbed the camera and wandered out, finding several of the tiny birds had invaded our urban patch. The female above was quite inquisitive and fearless, as kinglets often are, and made close approach.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are bantams; the smallest of our songbirds. One weighs the same as two cents and is a mere four inches in length. Even Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a distinct size advantage. Wee they may be, but don't be fooled - Golden-crowned Kinglets are tough as nails. They breed primarily in the vast boreal forest that cloaks much of Canada and the northernmost U.S., and ride out the winter in the far north. Despite being nearly or completely insectivorous, kinglets are adept at finding small overwintering caterpillars that press themselves into tree bark. To survive cold winter nights in which temperatures m…