Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A "blue" green snake

Maybe it's due to the upcoming Ohio Amphibian Conference, but I've got herps on the mind. Just in case you weren't aware: "herps" is shorthand for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. Unfortunately when truncated, herpetology sounds reminiscent of a certain STD. And even when elongated, it don't sound so hot.

Anyway, someone was asking me about rough green snakes, of all things, today. So I dipped into my photo files and was reminded of a few cool images and I don't recall sharing them here before.

An odd looking snake if there ever were one. Spot one of these strange blue-green ribbons while driving along, and you'll surely wonder what the heck it is. What it is, is a rough greensnake, Opeodrys aestivus.

So why so blue? Well, you'd be blue, too, if you had been pancaked on the roadbed by a speeding pick-em-up or whatever it was that got this poor creature.

A photo caveat: I'm not sure whose this is, and the last photo that follows. I archive my photos to nearly museum-quality levels, with good data on species, location, date, etc., so that I can quickly find things among the gigs and gigs of images that I've got. These photos say only "Clermont County", and according to the imbedded photo-data they were taken in July 2007. I don't think they are mine, and I vaguely recall someone sending them to me in an attempt to learn the snake's identity.

This is what a healthy, living rough greensnake oughta look like. It is not blue at all, as it happily twists serpentine loops through the branches of a redbud. Greensnakes may be my favorite species of snake. Everything about them is cool, cool, cool. I've only found a relative handful of them in my career, but each has been memorable. Rough greensnakes are highly arboreal, and with an exception or two all that I have found have been near eye level or lower in shrubs or small trees.

Even a snake-hater can possibly be won over by one of these scaly charmers. Greensnakes are exceedingly gentle and make no attempt to bite, even when rudely plucked from hiding. They are exceptionally slender, and of the most gorgeous shade of lime-green imaginable.

I've also seen a few roadkilled green snakes, and they too were blue. It's a truly eyecatching hue, and in a way it's a shame that they - or some other serpent species - doesn't look just like this in life.

This change in color begs the obvious question: why? Think back to basic art classes, when the instructor had you mix various paints to create different colors. For instance, blending the primary colors of blue and yellow makes.... GREEN, a secondary color. Mother Nature took her infinite palette of colors, and used blue pigments and yellow pigments to infuse the greensnake, leading, obviously, to its namesake tint. Upon death, the paler and less durable yellow pigment quickly breaks down, leaving the underlying blue pigment to shine strongly through. And thus, ever so briefly, we have a strange blue snake.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ohio Amphibian Conference, March 10

Saturday, March 10 is the date of the Ohio Amphibian Research & Conservation Conference. I'd say "annual", but it's not - this is only the second one, and it'll be a few years until the next. This intermittent schedule is all the more reason to attend, and learn about various gelatinous beasts.

The conference takes place in the Ohio Department of Transportation's stellar and easy to access conference center at 1980 West Broad Street in Columbus. The cost is only $35 ($20 for students) and includes some enviable perks. One of them is the brand spanking new Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp, which quite appropriately features the visage of a spotted salamander, taken by Ohio's own Nina Harfmann.

Read on for a few teasers...

Sporting a mug only a mother could love is this eastern hellbender, our largest salamander. It also ranks high among our most imperiled animals, and Greg Lipps will elaborate on plans to save our hellbenders.

A bullfrog, the hellbender of the frog world, at least in scale. Tough as they may be, bullfrogs are not immune to Bd infection and Chelsea Korfel and Thomas Hetherington will tell this story.

Impossibly long and sleek is this northern ravine salamander - its body is nearly as lengthy as the name of this conference! Apparently they're not always faithful to their own, and Richard Lehtinen and colleagues will discuss apparent widespread hybridization between this species and the redback salamander.

A bizarre "unisexual" salamander lunges at your blogger's camera. I saw many on that dark and rainy night, and the story of the unisexuals is worth the price of admission alone. Lisle Gibbs and Katherine Greenwald will discuss their status in Ohio.

The skin of this Cope's gray treefrog is much like the bark of his perch - crusty and dappled with lichens. Or at least it appears to be. These masters of disguise are among our most charismatic frogs, and we'll hear about these frogs and the threats posed by nonnative mosquitofish from Geoffrey Smith and Johanna Harmon.

Finally, the subject of the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp and arguably our most handsome amphibian, the spotted salamander. Rebecca Homan shares the results of a seven year study on the migratory habits of these mysterious subterranean dwellers.

There's much more. For a complete agenda, CLICK HERE. And CLICK THIS to register. Hope to see you there, among the largest swarm of amphibian enthusiasts to gather in Ohio since the first Ohio Amphibian Conference was held back in 2008.

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Hummingbird versus eagle

I received an interesting email from Tim Tolford yesterday. He saw that I would be at the Amish Bird Symposium in Adams County this coming Saturday, and that my talk subject is hummingbirds. So, Tim piped along a really cool photo of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that he caught and banded in 2010. This got me thinking about the tremendous diversity of avifauna, and just how tiny hummingbirds really are.

By the way, the Amish Bird Symposium is always a blast, and you may still be able to get in. CLICK HERE.


An adult Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, floats gracefully overhead. I took this photo in the winter of 2010, in Ohio. So, this is one of the tough northern eagles, and they grow bigger than the wimpy warm weather southern eagles, such as are found in Florida. And, we're going to assume she is a big fat female - girl eagles outweigh the boys by a good margin. I'm pegging her weight at the upper end of the spectrum - 15 pounds.

Contrast that beastly big bird with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which tapes out at 3.75 inches, has a wingspan of 4.5 inches, and weighs all of 3.2 grams. It would require nearly 8.5 hummingbirds, arranged from bill to tail, to equal the body length of the eagle. Whoop-de-do. That's not a staggering factoid. The line of hummers would have to be expanded to 18 birds to bridge the eagle's wingspan - a bit more impressive but still somewhat of a yawner comparofactoid.

But wait - what about weight? This is where comparisons between these two birds get mind-boggling. You would need a pile of 2,128 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to equalize the scales, if this Bald Eagle was the counterbalance. That is a LOT of hummingbirds! Considering that Ohio's total breeding population of hummingbirds is probably about 50,000 birds, we only have enough hummingbirds in this state to make 23.5 Bald Eagles.

So, let's say you had your hands on that pile of 2,128 eagle-equaling hummingbirds, and placed them in a line, tail to bill. Then you pulled out the tape measure and paced off the row of hummingbirds. You'd have to step off 665 feet before you reached the last bird!

That skyscraper above is the James A. Rhodes State Office Tower, the tallest building in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Our string of hummingbirds, if dangled from a helicopter, would have to be held at a height 36 feet HIGHER than the 629 foot tall Rhodes Tower before the last bird would touch the ground.

Wee though they may be, we'd all be in mortal peril if these hummingbirds were the size of eagles. The little nectar-sippers are tough as nails and absolutely fearless. I have no doubt whatsoever that if a Bald Eagle rudely impinged on a hummingbird's turf, the hummer would terrorize the comparatively elephantine and sluggish raptor. And in the world of avian aeronautics, nothing holds a candle to hummingbirds in the stunt-flying department - certainly not an eagle.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Art of Nature Interpretation

Gifted interpreters can effectively interface between the natural world, and the significant percentage of the population who know little about natural history. A skilled naturalist can effectively and joyously convey the magic of plants and animals in a way that is sure to capture the interest and imagination of all, and thus create more converts to conservation.

I, personally, have never been employed in the capacity of of a professional naturalist, but my interests and career have placed me in roles where I often lead field trips, or otherwise attempt to communicate about nature. Thus, it has been hugely helpful over the years to have the good fortunate of interacting with people who really know their stuff, and are nearly magical in their ability to share the fascinating mysteries of nature.

It was a treat to recently learn of a new natural history program that is every bit as compelling as Sir David Attenborough's BBC programs. Known as "Nature Walk", Dr. Lennie Pepperbottom takes viewers through the splendors of the Colorado mountains, and its treasure trove of flora and fauna. Following is Episode 3, which I thought might be of particular interest to readers of this blog, as Lennie spends some time working with a wild bird. CLICK HERE for the episode. Click HERE and HERE for episodes 1 and 2, which are every bit as fascinating and well crafted.

If you want firsthand field experience with guides who are every bit as accomplished and engaging as Pepperbottom, sign on for the upcoming New River Birding & Nature Festival.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spring has sprung, botanically speaking

Like some sort of alien claw reaching from the mire, the liver-spotted spathe of a skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, pops forth. This odd member of the Arum Family (Araceae) is our true harbinger-of-spring; the first of the native wildflowers to burst into bloom.

This place, Kiwanis Park, is one of my local patches. It's less than ten minutes from my dwelling, and when time is limited I sometimes go there to look for photographic subjects. I ALWAYS hit Kiwanis in late February, as the park contains a nice little spring - home to dozens and dozens of skunk-cabbage.

Here is the aforementioned spring. It's just a tiny woodland opening, well under a quarter-acre. Strong subterranean rills burst from the limey banks on the uphill side, keeping the spring perpetually saturated. The rough-stalked bluegrass, Poa trivialis, has already greened, helping to define the wettest areas. This place is a sog-fest, and a visitor better wear Wellies.

In spite of being February 20th - one full month in advance of the vernal equinox, our offical mark of spring - the skunk-cabbage was up in profusion. This trio of chubby little skunkers shows varying stages of development. The flower at bottom left is not quite prime. The center flower is in peak bloom, and the one on the right is past and withering. The little green rocketlike spike, foreground, is a leaf that is starting to unfurl.

We take a peek into the womb of a skunk-cabbage. The thick fleshy spathe enfolds a structure known as a spadix, visible in the gap between the turbanlike wrapping of the protective spathe. The flowers dot the spadix.

A closer view of the skunk-cabbage's reproductive parts. The minute greenish-white flowers are little more than dusty specks of tiny anthers. After maturity, the spadix will be a dense roundish spike of tightly packed greenish fruit - reminiscent of the fruit of a well known ally, the jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum.

I was surprised to see some leaves in this advanced stage of development. This leaf, while still scrolled, will soon expand to an impressive swath of tissue. Normally skunk-cabbage flowers bloom well in advance of the leaves, and have largely withered to nothingness by full leafout.

By May, the cabbage patch will look like this. No strange fleshy flowers to be found, only a sea of jumbo leaves. Numerous times I have been afield with skunk-cabbage illiterati, who have quite reasonably asked about the identity of the massive leaves. I usually suggest they pluck a piece of the foliage and take a whiff. Funny, nearly everyone quickly mentions the malodorous black and white mammal. Skunk-cabbage is well named, and not an ingredient for your potpourri bowl.

Homely as it may be, the emergence of skunk-cabbage marks true spring and the rush of life that will soon follow.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's about time we get to know the gull next door

Jim McCormac/For the Dispatch

The Columbus Dispatch
NATURE

By Jim McCormac
Sunday, February 19, 2012

Almost everyone can recognize a sea gull. The neatly patterned gray and white birds are fixtures of the seashore.

Perhaps that’s why central Ohioans are surprised to see so many of the feathered scavengers in our landlocked area. Large flocks can be found roosting in mall parking lots, wheeling over rivers and reservoirs, and grabbing rubbish at the landfill.

Probably 98 percent of central Ohio gulls are ring-billed gulls, with a smattering of larger herring gulls mixed in.

Several species can seem to be present in a flock, as some birds are brown while others are clean gray and white.

These different forms represent different ages. It takes a ring-billed gull three years to reach adulthood; a herring gull, four years. They begin life cloaked in dingy brown and each year molt into progressively tidier white and gray plumage.

Dismissing this interesting group of birds as sea gulls does them a disservice. Their family — Laridae — is large and diverse, with 36 gull species known in North America. Their ranks include some of the world’s handsomest birds, and not all are prone to Dumpster-diving.

Two of the rarest species, the ivory and Ross’s gulls, winter along Arctic pack ice, trailing polar bears and mopping up their kills. Beautiful, dainty Bonaparte’s gulls, which are common Ohio migrants, are strict sushi eaters, deftly snagging small fish from the water.

Ring-billed and herring gulls and many of the other large species are omnivores; they’ll eat almost anything. Smart and opportunistic, gulls capitalize on the offal of humans. Our rubbish and castoffs are their fortune.

As human society — and our attendant trash — has expanded, so has the gulls’ population. That’s why we see so many in central Ohio.

From the mid-1800s until the 1920s, ring-billed gulls were slaughtered in great numbers for the millinery trade. Tacky as it might seem, women’s hats were adorned with the feathers of gulls and many other birds — sometimes even the whole bird. When the practice ceased, it took awhile for gulls to rebound, but there are probably more of them than ever.

From 1960 through 1965, only one ring-billed gull was tallied on each of the annual Columbus Christmas Bird Counts. In recent years, counts have reported several thousand birds.

Hard-core bird-watchers love picking through big gull flocks, seeking rarer species. The Franklin County landfill south of town has become a hot spot. Scores of gulls converge there to feed and loaf in nearby fields. Experts have discovered much rarer species among the legions of herring and ring-billed gulls, including Arctic- nesting glaucous, Iceland and Thayer’s gulls, as well as the European lesser black-backed gull.

Ohio’s current most famous avian visitor is also a gull. Since November, a black-tailed gull has frequented Ashtabula harbor on Lake Erie. The Asian species is rare in North America and had never been found before in Ohio. A thousand or more bird-watchers have stopped by to see it, and the gull has been in newspapers and on television.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Further afield

Richard Crossley, author of the newly released The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. Crossley hitchhiked about 100,000 miles while chasing birds around the globe, and he’ll have stories galore. For more information, visit: http://www.columbusaudubon.org/

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Monday, February 20, 2012

White-winged Crossbills

A young White-winged Crossbill, Loxia leucoptera, poses at arm's length in an Eastern hemlock that is festooned with cones. The bird still shows the heavy blurry streaking of a juvenile.

I was up in the Toledo area last Saturday, to meet with photographer Brian Zwiebel about a project that we are collaborating on. Brian lives but 25 minutes from Woodlawn Cemetery on Central Avenue in Toledo. Woodlawn is legendary for attracting winter finches, and this year there has been a pack of up to 100 White-winged Crossbills present. We really wanted to observe and photograph the x-bills, so after our work was done, off we went.

Woodlawn's 160 acres is heavily populated with magnificent trees, including many stately cone-bearing conifers and fruit-laden alders and sweetgum. Thus, its attraction for seed-eating winter finches. By the way, this photo was taken with my Droid smart phone. The cameras in these latest generation phones are becoming insanely good, especially for landscape scenes.

We had barely stepped from the car when a couple of friendly birders wheeled up and reported the crossbills in a nearby sweetgum. A short few minute walk and we were there, and so were the crossbills. About 15 birds were plundering the spiny balls that copiously adorned a large sweetgum, which has one of the most mellifluous of botanical names: Liquidambar styraciflua.

I don't really think of sweetgum as the fruit of choice for crossbills, but there they were, digging in with gusto. A pink adult male is bottom center, and look closely and you'll see three females, or parts thereof. Two other of the spectacular adult males were present, and one young male who was beginning to develop a pinkish bloom on his breast. The remainder of the flock were adult females and juveniles.

It wasn't long before the flock erupted into flight, filling the air with harsh electric jips. Crossbills are real talkers when not busy stuffing their faces, especially when aloft. We had no problem tracking them to this large Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis. White-winged Crossbills depend heavily upon the cones of spruce, especially white spruce, Picea glauca, when in the boreal forest. When they irrupt to more southerly latitudes, south of the range of spruce, they really go for hemlocks and their small cones. Fortunately, cemeteries are fond of planting hemlock which is one of the reasons that graveyards make good places to seek winter finches.

A female White-winged Crossbill makes mincemeat of a hemlock cone. Note how she grips it with her powerful foot, and then inserts her oddly shaped asymetrical mandibles between the cone's scales. Using the crossed upper and lower mandibles like tongs, the crossbill quickly forces open the protective scales, allowing access to the tasty seed within.

The crossbill doesn't pluck the seed with its bill - it uses its long barbed tongue for seed extrication. In this photo, the tip of the tongue can just be seen, caught in the act as the bird flicked it into the cone's interior. White-winged crossbills are incredibly adept at accessing conifer seeds, and work through cones with astonishing speed. I took hundreds of photos on this foray, and only a few images show the tongue in action.

Although the clarity of this photo would have benefited from a faster shutter speed, you can clearly see the crossbill's long pink tongue plumbing the depths of the cone's scales. This whole process - forcing the scales apart, and tongue-flicking the seed out - happens so fast that the bird's actual technique is not really visible, apart from the scale spreading.

Once crossbills are immersed in seed-eating, the flock usually falls silent and it would be quite easy to pass by a tree full of feeding birds. One give-away is the soft cracking and crunching of cone scales being fractured, and the gentle rain of cone fragments drifting to the ground.

Here's what the crossbills lust for - conifer seeds. These are the scales of a hemlock cone, and a shiny oblong-shaped seed remains at the base of the scale on the right. Conifers are part of a plant group known as Gymnosperms, which translated literally means "naked seed". Naked these fruit may be, but that doesn't mean that the conifer doesn't do a good job of protecting them within the tight woody scales of cones.

I've extracted a few hemlock seeds - much more clumsily than a crossbill, I might add - so you can see how small they are. What conifer seeds lack in size, they more than compensate for in nutritional value. They are the cashews of the boreal forest, loaded with rich fatty oils, and it makes complete sense that a group of animals would have evolved the ability to efficiently harvest conifer seeds.

And boy, can crossbills harvest seed. It is claimed that a hard-working White-winged Crossbill can pluck 3,000 seeds a day! CLICK HERE for an incredible video of crossbills feeding.

Distribution of White-winged Crossbills in North America, courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their range mirrors that of the vast belt of conifer-dominated boreal forest that sweeps across the northern part of the continent.

Crossbills play an integral role in the ecology of the boreal forest. Their North American population is estimated to be about 20 million birds. While a single bird is claimed to be able to harvest 3,000 seeds a day, let's be more conservative and knock that back to 1,000 seeds daily. If I did my math correctly, that equates to the entire North American White-winged Crossbill population consuming something on the order of 20 BILLION seeds daily! That's hard to fathom, and even if one were to quibble about the numbers, the fact remains that crossbills consume an enormous number of conifer seeds.

Not all of those bony little fruit get digested. Some of them are sure to pass through the crossbill intact, and possibly even scarified and ready for germination after exposure to digestive compounds. Thus, the crossbills serve as a giant army of feathered Johnny Appleseeds, spreading fir, hemlock, spruce and other conifers about the Great White North. When one considers the youthfulness of the boreal forest - this region was under a mile of ice only ten thousand +- years ago - it stands to reason that crossbills played an enormous role in reforestation of the boreal following the withdrawal of the ice sheets.

Crossbills are a blast to watch. Brian and I spent several hours watching the Woodlawn flock, and ended up overstaying our welcome. We arrived at the gates to find they had already been locked, and we had to phone the very nice security officer to release us.

As few if any people inhabitat much of the remote boreal forests where crossbills breed, the birds do not seem to acknowledge humans as a threat. It is easy to quietly sidle up to within a few feet of a feeding bird. As long as you don't do anything suddenly or loudly, the crossbill will utterly ignore you and continue about its business. To me, they suggest little parrots. Just like many of the Psittacids, crossbills use their feet to hold food, and of course their crossed bills are like Swiss army knives and vital to the extraction of food, just as with parrots. Another endearing parrotlike habit of crossbills is their tendency to pull themselves about with their bill.

A White-winged Crossbill makes for a heck of a "spark bird", and perhaps that's the case here. A number of other birders were in the cemetery admiring the crossbills, including this young man, Nathan. He is pointing at a crossbill that is only about three feet from his outstretched finger, and it looks like the bird made an impression.

These White-winged Crossbills have been present in Woodlawn Cemetery for a month or so, and may persist for a few more weeks. The cone crop is quite luxuriant in the cemetery so there is still plenty of food. Also, it appeared as if much of the remaining untouched cones are near the ground - low-hanging fruit, if you will - and that means your chances of seeing the birds up close and personal is good.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wildlife Diversity Conference - March 7!

Wednesday, March 7th marks the date of the 28th annual Wildlife Diversity Conference, and you won't want to miss it. This conference started in a small way, with 40 enthusiasts coming together to learn more about Ohio's wild critters. Last year, there were nearly 1,000 attendees. Sponsored by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Wildlife Diversity Conference brings together not only a diversity of natural history topics that are presented by leading experts, but the event attracts a great blend of people who share an interest in the natural world. The array of vendors and displays is staggering, and worth the price of admission alone. You'll depart with a bagful of cool free swag.

The conference always has a theme, and this year it is "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" (with apologies to Senor Eastwood). Subjects this year include freshwater mussels, earthworms, the results of a landmark two-year Lake Erie aerial waterbird survey, crayfish, wetland restoration, and three of my favorite mammals: fisher, beaver and porcupine.

As an added bonus, the brand spanking new 2012 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp (OWLS) will be on sale. It features an image of one of our coolest amphibians, the spotted salamander. Some of you who read this blog will be familiar with the photographer whose stunning photo is depicted on the stamp: Nina Harfmann. I happen to know that Nina will be in the house that day, and you should stop by her table and meet her. Read more about the OWLS stamp HERE.

The conference venue is the capacious and easily accessed Aladdin Shrine Center on Columbus' northeast side. For complete conference information and registration, CLICK HERE. Hope to see you there!

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Northern Gannet

 Photo: Dane Adams

One of the birds that I saw on my recent trip to New Jersey's Barnegat Light was the Northern Gannet, Morus bassanus. These giant boobies were regularly flying by and hunting some distance offshore, but none came close enough for my somewhat meager 300 mm lens.

Dane Adams, whose beautiful photos have graced this blog on numerous occasions, happened to be at a coastal Florida locale about the same time that I was in NJ. He too was intrigued by these massive seabirds and as you can see, managed some fabulous shots.

 Photo: Dane Adams

An adult gannet is a thing of beauty; a massive white beast with wings dipped in black ink and a head of peachy-brown. While they appear lumbering and ungainly when perched, once airborn the gannet transforms to an aeronautical marvel. The birds in Dane's photos are at least five years old. Youngsters are completely clad in dark chocolate-brown spangled with flecks of white; it takes them from four to five years to complete cast off their dingy juvenile plumage and transform to the clean blanco-negro colors of an adult.

One thing that doesn't change respective to age is the huge size of the Northern Gannet. Massive is a fitting adjective. Try a body length of over three feet, and a wingspan that would stretch from your blogger's toes to the crown of his head - just over six feet! These extraordinary dimensions make the gannet's hunting technique all the more remarkable, as we shall see.

Gannets are colonial breeders, and raise their single chicks on ledges of precipitous sea cliffs along the North Atlantic. There are only about six colonies in North American waters - the most famous is on Bonaventure Island in North America's greatest estuary, the expansive Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec, Canada. Some 120,000 gannets nest on Bonaventure, and a trip to this place is high on my bucket list. Many more colonies can be found on the other side of the pond, along coastal Great Britain and Ireland.

Every few years, a young Northern Gannet bumbles its way into Lake Erie and Ohio, and creates quite  stir. I've seen several Ohio gannets, and the presence of one of these massive seabirds off the coast of Cleveland or in the harbor of a port city such as Lorain is truly incredible to witness.

Photo: Dane Adams

The boobies - family Sulidae - are plunge-divers, and the Northern Gannet is no exception. A hunting gannet patrols the sea, scanning for fish schools from heights of up to 130 feet, maybe even higher. When suitable piscine prey are spotted, the fun starts. The gannet tucks its wings into an aerodynamic boomerang, and transforms into a streamlined air to sea missile. Rocketing towards the water's surface at incredible speeds, the gannet tweaks its trajectory with slight adjustments of its bladelike primary flight feathers. Just before striking the surface, the diving gannet pulls its wings completely back and assumes the shape of a sleek torpedo. The margin of error when engaging in such high-velocity power dives is slight, and it is not unheard of for gannets to miscalculate and injure themselves. CLICK HERE for incredible video of Northern Gannets plunge-diving.

Sometimes large numbers of gannets feed in small areas when sizeable schools of herring or other prey fish are found. The resultant barrage of mammoth birds rocketing seaward and striking the water, sending up explosive plumes of spray, reminds me of some sort of wartime carpet-bombing attack. If fish were capable of emotions, horror and confusion would reign as their quiet underwater world is suddenly blown to smithereens by this avian bombardment, the hapless scaly prey snatched from the depths by giant tonglike bills.

Thanks as always to Dane Adams for sharing his wonderful photographic skills.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Edward G. Voss, 1929 - 2012

Ed Voss, left, receives a much-deserved honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Denison University, in 2003.

The botany world lost one of its brightest minds today with the passing of Edward G. Voss. Ed was known far and wide, throughout North America and beyond, due to his prolific accomplishments and long history of activity in the botany world.

Voss was born in Delaware, Ohio and went on to earn his bachelor's degree in biology from Denison in 1950, then he was off to the University of Michigan where he obtained his masters one year later, and then his Ph.D in botany in 1954. Ed never left the U of M, formally joining its staff in 1956, and remaining until his retirement in 1996. Even after that, he maintained an office in the University's herbarium and remained active and engaged.

Like all great botanists, Ed was a consummate field man and spent 35 summers teaching students about plants at the University of Michigan's Pellston Field Station in northern Michigan. Scores of students were influenced by Voss, and many went on to have great careers in biology.

Ed didn't just study and collect plants in the field, he put his knowledge to work in numerous publications, perhaps most notably the landmark Michigan Flora series. Published in three volumes - 1972, 1985, and 1996 - these books set a high standard for regional floras, and each volume sported color plates of Ed's photographs - yet another talent that he excelled at. We Ohio botanists often would refer to Ed's books more than any of the Ohio floras! They were better than our references, and even though the Michigan Floras were scientifically written and accurate to the nth degree, Voss still slipped in examples of his wry humor, which led the reader to occasionally discover little unexpected gems. For example, when mentioning oregano, Origanum vulgare, he mentions that this Eurasian plant is unlikely to be found persisting in the wild in Michigan - except on the surface of pizzas!

An undisputed expert in botanical nomenclature, Voss was involved with the editorial committee of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature for nearly 20 years, either as its secretary or chairman. If one of us bungled a plant name in Ed's presence, we would surely hear about it! Ed also served as editor of The Michigan Botanist, and was long active in the Michigan Botanical Club. A dedicated conservationist - as ALL good scientists should be! - Voss was a longtime member of the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society.

I remember how surprised and impressed I was when I learned that Ed was a very keen entomologist, and knew butterflies well. Not only that, he was a moth man and published several scholarly papers on moths!

There are enough Ed Voss accomplishments to fill a book. But all of that aside, what Ed did throughout his career that was at least of equal importance to his academic work was his encouragement of others. For years, I and other budding young botanists would make annual pilgrimages to Ann Arbor to visit Ed and his colleague Tony Reznicek. We would come bearing sheets and sheets of "mystery" plants - specimens that try as we might, we could not satisfactorily attach a name to. Ed would always, with great patience and never a trace of condescension, work us through our mysteries until a name was arrived at. I, and the others of us that made these journeys to The Man, learned not only a great deal about identifying plants, but also how to encourage students.

Many years ago, we started the Ohio Rare Plant Committee, a group of botanists that meet biennially to discuss and assign statuses to Ohio's rare flora. Ed, along with Tony Reznicek, always made the long drive from Ann Arbor to Columbus to participate in these meetings. Later, when we founded the Ohio Botanical Symposium, Ed always came down for that as well. Particpation in these events was classic Ed Voss - he'd do whatever he could to encourage interest in botany and conservation, even if it meant departing from his busy agenda to drive down to Ohio and spend time with the Buckeye State botanists.

Next Tuesday, February 21st, is the date of our next Ohio Rare Plant Committee meeting. Ed will be dearly missed. The botanical and conservation communities have lost a great champion in Ed Voss.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Barnegat Light, New Jersey

The legendary lighthouse that gives Barnegat Light, New Jersey its name. This special place on the Mid-Atlantic coast is an outstanding birding hotspot. Barnegat is especially well known for its wintering population of Harlequin Ducks, featured in the previous post.

Last Saturday, February 4th, 2012, I met up with fellow blogger Amy Gaberlein of Cape May, New Jersey - a fairly well known spot two hours downcoast - and spent a few hours walking the breakwall at Barnegat. Following is a briefly captioned pictorial stroll featuring some of the fascinating birds that one can expect to see.

One must watch their footing when walking the breakwall. A misstep could leave a careless birder wedged tightly in a fissure. It has happened before. The lighthouse, way off yonder, is the starting point of this trek. At this point I am near the small signal tower at the end of the wall. I spent a long time perched at the very end of this rocky wall, taking in the sights and sounds of the sea. I could have stayed there all day. The constant flow of birds moving by means there is never a dull moment.

One of the first species you are apt to see is this small sea goose, the Brant, Branta bernicla. The specific epithet of the scientific name, bernicla, means "barnacle". So closely wedded to the sea are these fowl that it an old legend had it that they hatched from barnacles.

A fitting mascot for Barnegat Light is this species, the world's largest gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinusMarinus means "marine", obviously, and these giant birds - 3.5 pounds and a wingspan over 5 feet! - are very much birds of the coast.

By far the most common gull is the ubiquitous Herring Gull, Larus argentatus. These dirty-brown first-cycle youngsters seemingly have it made. They are standing on a rock exposed by the ebbing tide, which is cloaked in blue mussels. This situation is the equivalent of the human couch potato laying on a divan made of potato chips.

A block-headed, dagger-billed Common Loon, Gavia immer, steams by. Common Loons are everywhere here, demonstrating their schizophrenic taste in waters. They breed on cold northern freshwater lakes, but most retreat to the sea and salt water in winter.

Red-throated Loons, Gavia stellata, rival the Common Loon in abundance and side by side comparisons can often be made. Stellata roughly means "starlike", and refers to the white spangling on non-breeding plumaged birds' backs. A Red-throat is but 1/3rd the weight of a Common Loon, and they appear much wispier and paler. The thin upturned bill is quite distinctive, even from afar.

A Red-throated Loon plunges. The water is clear enough, and this bird was close enough, that we could actually watch it hunting under the surface. If you've not seen a loon submarining, you would be struck dumb by the speed at which they move. They can outswim the fish, as many a poor piscine prey has learned the hard way.

Not all was waterbirds. We were delighted to encounter a confiding pair of Savannah Sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis, capering about the rocks. These were not any old Savannahs, though - they are "Ipswich Sparrows", a localized subspecies - P. sandwichensis princeps. Big (for a Savannah) and frosty, Ipswich Sparrows breed almost entirely on Sable Island off the coast of Novia Scotia. It was once considered a distinct species, and only about 6,000 of these sparrows exist.

A fearless particolored Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres, bumbles within feet of your blogger. These feathered piglets are hardy, and thrive on Barnegat's wave-washed rocks. Their peculiar bill is a combination hypodermic syringe and spade, and the turnstones expertly employ them to root about and dismantle possible food items. I have no doubt that, were one to lay still and prostrate on these rocks, the turnstones would soon be clambering over them.

Of great shorebirdian interest to landlubbers of the interior regions, such as myself, is the Purple Sandpiper, Calidris maritima. These chunky little toughs stick out the winter farther north than any other shorebird species, and seem impervious to all that the frigid wintertime North Atlantic can throw at them. Like the turnstones, with which they readily fraternize, the purples are tame and will often roam within feet of a still and patient observer.

A prominent manmade fixture is this signal tower marking the bay's confluence with the sea. I wish I could have gotten closer, in order to bring you better images of the interesting bird perched on the top left corner of the tower. It is an immature Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo. Click the photo to enlarge and look closely - you'll see a Double-crested Cormorant, P. auritus, perched to the right. The Great Comorant dwarfs it.

A line of Long-tailed Ducks, Clangula hyemalis, blurs by my camera. A pair of females bookends two of the gaudy males. It'll be no time at all before you're casting your eyes on these beautiful sea ducks - they are everywhere at Barnegat.

Tail streamers flying, a drake Long-tailed Duck in repose on the sea. While the "long-tailed" moniker is apropos insofar as the males go, I vastly prefer and greatly miss this species' old name, Oldsquaw. The males are interesting in that they have completely different breeding (alternate) and winter (basic) plumages. In summer, the head and neck become mostly black, and the feathers of the back molt to a rich rufous-brown.

A platoon of scoters rides the surf. Two orange-billed Black Scoters, Melanitta americana, share space with three immature male Surf Scoters, M. perspicillata. Scoters are quite common, and mixed flocks such as this are a regular sight. Of all the birds at Barnegat, it may be the scoters that I enjoy the most. As a young lad in Columbus, Ohio, I would stare at the plates of scoters in the few bird books available to me. To me, they were every bit as exotic as giraffes or lions, and I couldn't wait for the day that I would actually get to see some of these sea ducks in the flesh. I've seen many by this point in my life, but will never tire of scoter-watching.

Its bill protruberance glowing phosphorescent like some strange mushroom, a drake Black Scoter precedes a young Surf Scoter. Adult male scoters are adorned with remarkable bills which are their defining features. Scoter bills are beautiful art works clipped to the front of the bird.

Scoter bills are also utilitarian, as demonstrated by this Surf Scoter. He has surfaced with what appears to be some sort of crustaceon, and is in the process of crunching it. Scoter bills are clam-crackers, and the birds are capable of vise-gripping and crushing the sturdy protective shells of their armored prey.

While it may not appear overly sexy, this little alcid was easily the bird of the day. It is a Razorbill, Alca torda, a highly pelagic relative of the puffins that is not often seen close to shore. This Razorbill put on quite a show, coming within 75 feet or so of the rocks at the end of the breakwall.

Not all was birds. Harbor Seals, Phoca vitulina, are a common sight in and around the mouth of Barnegat Bay. This fellow was lolling about the waters just off the tip of the breakwall. My communications with him were mildly successful and I was able to coax the beast a bit closer for photos. Seals, by nature, are rather curious and if you wave your arms at them they'll sometimes investigate, popping to the surface a bit closer with each surfacing.

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray out the Barnegat breakwall. We saw much more, of course, that I couldn't photograph. A raft of Common Eiders loafed off the beach, and Northern Gannets constantly passed by offshore. But many of Barnegat's birds can be seen at arm's length, making for great study and wonderful photography.

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