Saturday, June 30, 2012

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck update

The Mount Vernon, Ohio Black-bellied Whistling-Duck that first came to light on June 20, 2012 and that I wrote about HERE, is still present. Many people have been to the suburban pond where the whistling-duck has been hanging out, and have had success in seeing it. And for a number of these birders, the whistling-duck has been a "state bird" or even a "life bird". If you are unfamiliar with birder-speak, the former indicates a bird that one has never seen in a particular state, and the latter phrase means a bird never seen before, anywhere.

But, a possible black mark against the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck's provenance has come to light...

Photo: Judy Semroc

Some friends of mine were recently in the Mount Vernon area, and stopped in for a gander at the whistling-duck. They also found, in the exact same locale, the interesting bird in the photo. It is a Ringed Teal, Calloneta leucophrys. Ringed Teal are native to a fairly small region of South America, as seen in the map below:


Map courtesy of Planetofbirds.com

The chances of a wild Ringed Teal making its way to Ohio are only a half-millimeter above nil; there are no North American records.

Except in captivity.

Google "Ringed Teal for sale" and you'll learn how easy it is to obtain a pair of these beautiful ducks. All you'll need is about $100.00 - $130.00, which seems to be the going price range for a pair. The Mount Vernon Ringed Teal is certainly a bird that has escaped from an aviculturist, somewhere, and I don't think that even the most avid list-expansionist birder is going to try and make a case for it being a bona fide wild vagrant.

Now google "Black-bellied Whistling-Duck for sale", and you'll see that this species is also popular among those who trade in waterfowl. A pair will set you back about the same as a pair of Ringed Teal.

Does the appearance of an obvious escape - the Ringed Teal - at the same time and exact location as the presumably wild Black-bellied Whistling-Duck mean that the latter is also an escapee? Not necessarily, but it should cause us to wonder. BBWD does, after all, have an established pattern of vagrancy with an ever-increasing number of reports well to the north of its normal range. On the other hand, I have to wonder if some local breeder forgot to pinion (wing clip) his flock.

Short of someone actually running down a waterfowl fancier who lost a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (and probably a Ringed Teal), we'll probably never know with certainty the origins of this whistling-duck. But rest assured, most birders - and the Ohio Bird Records Committee (a nine-member committee that serves to vet records of rare birds) - are likely to assume it is wild.

I served as secretary of the Ohio Bird Records Committee for seven years, and did a three year stint as a member before that. The question of waterfowl provenance was probably the thorniest issue that we regularly wrestled with, due to the frequency of many potential vagrant species in captivity. In some cases, there is just no way to be sure if the bird in question is wild or not.

A famous local example - although it wasn't reviewed by the OBRC - involved a Harlequin Duck on the Muskingum River in Zanesville ten or so years back. Harlequins occur in very small numbers along Lake Erie, but are almost unheard of at inland locales. The Zanesville bird turned up in winter, and many birders visited the site to tick it off. A few cautious skeptics - your blogger being one - put forth doubts about its wildness, but were mostly hooted down by the avid listing crowd. Come June, with the Harlequin Duck still present and routinely waddling up the river bank to accept bread crumbs from visitors, most opinions had turned and ultimately the majority consensus was that this Harlequin was indeed someone's escaped pet.

I posted a note to the ever-dwindling Ohio Birds Listserv about the appearance of the Ringed Teal at the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck site, and expressing that perhaps this bird's presence could cast a shadow over the assumed "wildness" of the whistling-duck. My post triggered the following comment (part of a longer post):

"I believe the issue is best left with the OBRC and not to individuals guessing"

So I guess we should leave it to nine people to guess, rather than just one :-)

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A trio of moths, all in black

Even plants that get a bad rap as "weeds" can be mighty beneficial. In fact, one could argue that many of these so-called weeds, as long as they're native, support greater animal populations than do most of their rarer and sexier botanical kin. The plant above doesn't have much of a fan club, and is sometimes derided as a weed. It is common dogbane, or Indian-hemp, Apocynum cannabinum, an abundant and widespread species that occurs in every Ohio county, all lower 48 states, and most Canadian provinces. The plants in the photo are bursting through asphalt, a feat I see dogbane accomplishing with regularity. It's tough as nails.

Dogbane always bears watching. The small white flowers grow in dense clusters, and they are insect magnets. It seems like dogbane flowers are never without a complement of pollinators, and that often includes some interesting bugs. A soldier beetle, Chauliognathus marginatus, rests on a leaf of this plant; it had probably just worked over the flowers, or is about to.

Dogbanes, while in their own family, the Apocynaceae, butt right up against the milkweeds on the family tree, and one can see the similarities in leaf structure. Rupture a leaf, and you'll stimulate the flow of thick milky latex, just as in milkweeds. 

On a recent brief foray, I found myself in a small prairie remnant that was liberally peppered with dogbane plants. With my Nikon D7000 slung over my shoulder, I moved in to inspect the "weeds" and was quickly rewarded.

This strange-looking wasplike thing is actually a moth, and it probably hopes that you and everyone else thinks it really is a nasty stinging wasp. Mimicry of a six-legged bad boy that might pack a punishing sting is a good ploy if you are a moth that boldly flies during daylight hours, as this one does. It is a grapeleaf skeletonizer, Harrisina americana, a fairly common species whose caterpillars feed on various grapes, and Virginia creeper.

A dead giveaway that this grapeleaf skeletonizer is actually a moth are those pectinate (comblike) antennae. Other than that, the animal does a darn good job of acting the part of a wasp. In life, it lacks the forceful movements and loud buzzing flight of most wasps, though. Note the orangish-red neck collar - that's a useful feature to use to separate this species from a couple of similar day-flying moths.

This is another mostly black day-active moth, the yellow-collared scape moth, Cisseps fulvicollis. It's similar to the skeletonizer, but has a yellowish-orange collar. Scape moths look less flimsy and more beetlelike, too - they may be mimics of fireflies, which are distasteful and shunned by many predators.

The third species in this dark moth trio is the Virginia ctenucha, Ctenucha virginica (ten-oo-ka). It is probably another beetle mimic, and is most similar to the yellow-collared scape moth. Note the metallic blue upper body patch, though - a diagnostic field mark. This specimen is also enjoying the sweet nectar of dogbane.

All three of these interesting day-flying moths are on the wing now. Investigate some dogbane patches, and you'll probably find at least one of them sooner than later.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuliptrees, covered in scales

Tar Hollow State Forest, June 16, 2012. I was down there in the company of Kelly Williams-Sieg and Brian Zwiebel doing a bit of off-road bushwhacking in search of warblers. As a side benefit (?), I got to experience firsthand a phenomenon that I had been hearing about from Kelly, Bob Placier, and others in southeast Ohio.

In Tar Hollow, and just about every other forest in Ohio's hill country, there are plenty of tuliptrees, Liriodendron tulipifera, a large and stately member of the magnolia family.

NOTE: Not "tulip poplar" or "yellow poplar", which are oft-used misnomers for this plant, especially in forestry circles. It's a magnolia - a distant relative of the Salicaceae family, which includes real poplars such as cottonwoods, aspen, poplars and willows.

Now that the nomenclatural theatrics are over, back to the tuliptree, which is the main protagonist of this story. For weeks now, I've been hearing stories about sticky sap raining down from the forest canopy, and more than a few people have been flummoxed as to its origin. So prolific are these viscous secretions that woodland explorers would return coated in with the substance, as if sprayed by a giant mace can full of maple syrup. The gluey stuff provides a nice veneer to which dust, plant bits, and about anything else small enough to drift about can stick fast. Hikers would return from journeys looking like Pigpen.

The upper surface of a common greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia, glistens with sticky honeydew. Just about all the leaves in the forest looked this way, and by the time I left the woods, so did the top of my head. Running a comb through my hair was akin to dragging a cloth down a strip of velcro; a shower was the only solution for de-sapping.

Bob Placier first tipped me to the cause of the arboreal glue, and shortly after that Dennis Profant posted one of his typically informative essays about this phenomenon on his excellent blog.

The cause of the sticky rain is an odd insect known as the tuliptree scale, Toumeyella liriodendri. The branch in the photo is liberally shingled with the insects, and honeydrew droplets are beading up as if a fresh rain just passed through. When one considers that just about all of the tuliptree twigs are scaled in this manner, it's small wonder that sticky liquid is pelting everything below. As the scales feed on tuliptree sap, they excrete the lovely honeydew that coats everything in the forest. Park your car under some infested tuliptrees for a while, then motor off down some unpaved dusty roads. You'll be heading to a carwash before long.

Tuliptree scales resemble barnacles more than insects, and if one were unfamiliar with them it'd be hard to figure out what they were. Once a female scale insect finds a suitable attachment point, she inserts her piercing mouthpart into the plant tissue, and begins to uptake sap. As the scale grows and matures it secretes a waxy covering, and apparently reabsorbs its own legs and eyes. I don't believe male tuliptree scales feed in this manner; they exist primarily to mate with females. But female scales can do without males, too, it seems - they are capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, or essentially cloning themselves. If you want a more in-depth look at these interesting bugs, check Dennis Profant's blog posts, HERE and HERE.

I haven't heard a good explanation for this year's massive outbreak of tuliptree scale, although the scale of this year's scales is beyond what anyone I know can recall. Perhaps unseasonably warm winter and early spring weather helped them to survive in greater than normal numbers.

There are always exploiters, and in the case of tuliptree scales the winners are certain ants, beetle larvae, wasps, and perhaps other insects that either feed directly on the scales, sip the sweet honeydew, or prey on the aforementioned. If you are a human, and spend a lot of time in forests dense with tuliptrees, you probably will not consider yourself a beneficiary of tuliptree scales.

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Swimming for turtles

This big wetland is only about 40 minutes from my house, and it's full of interesting flora and fauna. When time is short and all-day field trips are out, I love to pop over to this place with cameras in tow. Interesting subjects abound.

I nipped into the wetland for a few hours last Saturday, and damselflies and dragonflies were my primary targets. This is a pair of western slender bluets, Enallagma traviatum westfalli, in tandem. The male, above, has a hammerlock on the female. His specialized claspers lock around her neck, and he'll hold onto her until she drops (oviposits) her eggs. Rather Cro-Magnonlike, but if he doesn't guard her, another male is liable to come along, knock his sperm out, and replace it with his own.

These western slender bluets are tiny, as are most of their damselfly ilk. A close approach is important in order to obtain good images.

So it's into the drink I go. By wading in with my subjects, I've found that I can approach them much easier than if I were fully exposed on dry land. Plus, it's simpler to get down on their level, which makes for better images. Besides, in the case of certain dragonflies, it can be tough or impossible to get near them from shore.

I've noticed that there are a few traits that make a photographer better than average (and I'm not saying that I am, but I do try and improve). One is technical mastery of the equipment, and with today's complex cameras that takes some serious work. Two, an eye for light and composition can make what might be a mediocre shot in some hands a really fabulous image in other hands. Three, really trying to learn your subjects makes a huge difference. Knowledge of what animals might be where, and how they behave, helps tremendously when stalking prey.

Finally, a willingness to become one with your subject, and sometimes that involves wading shoulder-deep into a wetland. I don't always get this wet, but I am constantly lying on my belly or otherwise contorting myself to get better angles of the plants or critters that I'm shooting.

While I was wading about pursuing bluets, I glanced further out into the wetland and noticed a turtle basking on some floating wood. You can see the animal on the far right of the photo. Turtles can be tough to closely approach, as most are very wary and drop into the water long before a person can get near them.

But it seems to throw these reptiles for a loop when only your head and shoulders project from the water. I decided to slowly make my way towards the turtle, and see if I could make some photos.

By slowly and furtively gliding through the water, I was able to literally get right in this midland painted turtle's face. I'm sure she had no idea what I was, and merely watched my slow approach without flinching.

My reward for neck-deep wading was the opportunity to stick my lens right in the turtle's face. I was actually using macro lens to make these shots. I was so close that the turtle stuck its foot out and pushed at my camera lens at one point, as if to say "back off, ye paparazzi!"

Painted turtles are our most common turtle, and can be found in ponds, lakes, and wetlands in every Ohio county. They normally don't get very large, but this unit was a chunk. Turtles can live a long time, and I suspect this one has been around for a while.

We're close enough to see the banded eye, and the bidentate (double-toothed) upper mandible.

Up close and personal with one of her heavily armored forelegs. The scaly plates call to mind a stegosaurus or some other dinosaur, of which turtles are distant relatives. Painted turtles eat a wide variety of plants, insects, and other small aquatic insects. Those powerful claws are useful for digging out food, and digging itself into the mud to hibernate.

In spite of my intrusion into this turtle's personal space, it never really acted as if it were alarmed; in fact, at times it would close its eyes as if napping. Here we can see its tan-colored plastron, or under shell. The upper shell is called a carapace, and it is comprised of tough bony plates called scutes. Painted turtles are so-named because of the bright crimson-red markings that adorn the edges of the carapace.

After I was done making my photos, I retreated and the turtle remained on her basking perch. In addition to being grateful that the turtle allowed me to share her space, I was thankful that no leeches attached themselves to me this time.

Thanks to Cheryl Erwin for taking the photos of me neck-deep in the wetland!

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Breaking News: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck!

I just received word late this afternoon, along with the photo above, of a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck that was found in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, which is in Knox County. The bird was found towards dusk on Wednesday evening, and hopefully is still in the area. Vagrant whistling-ducks do sometimes have a tendency to stick, and with luck so will this one.

Here are the directions, as provided to me: "The duck turned up in an apartment complex called The Arbors of Mount Vernon. They are on Yauger Rd., just off of 36 at the east end of town. I hope some folks can find it. As I said, we are close to the Kokosing River, and about 20 minutes south of Knox lake." A map is below:

Note the pond just south and west of the apartments, which are outlined in red. That might be a good starting point in a search for the whistling-duck.

Following is a note from the observer: "Last night [Wednesday, June 20] as I was sitting on my patio, a duck flew over the roof of the apartment, and then it landed on the roof. I had never seen a duck land on a roof. It stood very upright, had a black belly, a chestnut breast, and sent up a long sing-song cry. I immediately got my iPad to identify it. It turned out to be a black bellied whistling duck! The call on the website was identical. The duck flew away, but as I played the call, it returned and landed again on the roof, whistling a reply. I took a few pictures and a video, but it was so high that the quality is poor. I did get the call on the video though."

Here's a photo of a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck that I took in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas a few years back. This species is expanding its range, and extralimital northern records are becoming more commonplace. Ohio's first record dates to 2004. That bird, which was near Cincinnati, also turned up in an a suburban apartment complex. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks can be quite "tame" and often frequent highly urbanized locales. Our second record was found by Larry Richardson in August 2010 at Pipe Creek Wildlife Area on Lake Erie.

I'm sure we'll be seeing yet more of these wonderful gooselike whistling-ducks, and good luck with the chase should you try and find this Knox County bird.

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A highly unusual visitor to the hummingbird feeder!

For such wee sprites, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sure can suck down the sugar water. Anyone who has catered to their needs knows this. Once the birds get into the drill of visiting backyard feeders, they'll soon be regularly dipping their strawlike bills and wicking up the sweet elixir like a kid downing milkshakes on a hot August day.

Sometimes it's shocking how rapidly the sugar water levels drop. Fill the feeder in the morning, like a good hummingbird steward, leave for work, and return at the end of the day to an empty feeder. How in the world do a few tiny birds that weigh the same as a nickel so rapidly deplete a huge urn of sweet stuff?

Well, sometimes other animals with a sweet tooth have figured out the system... Scroll down...












Hmmm... This is Tim Fairweather's hummingbird feeder, and he had been experiencing a case of Mysteriously Vanishing Sugar Water. That's his dog Skittles, a clever Husky mix. DNA testing was inconclusive in revealing her exact lineages, but she looks to be one smart cookie.

This photo casts Skittles in a suspicious light. She is in the exact vicinity of the feeder where the apparent sugar water thefts have occurred. The dog can stretch to the height of the feeder, obviously. And she, rather guiltily, is licking her lips as a dog who just lapped up sweet sugar water might do.

Nonetheless, all of this is just circumstantial evidence - inadequate to convict Skittles of pillaging the hummingbird feeder. Besides, the snout on that Husky is far bigger than a hummingbird's bill - certainly too robust to insert into the feeder!

Busted! The feeder's funnel-shaped portals are just big enough for Skittles the Husky to insert her proboscis and suck out the sweet water! Mystery of the missing sugar water solved!

I can only imagine that Skittles regularly incurs the wrath of the feeder's rightful visitors - hummingbirds are not shy about making their feelings known and I'm sure they didn't appreciate this Husky cutting into their supply. I'd also bet that Skittles, who must be highly observant, learned this trick by watching the hummingbirds feed. She must have figured, hey, if they can stick their beak in there so can I. And now the hummingbirds have to compete with a massive furred beast that outweighs them by a factor of thousands.

Maybe some sort of modified squirrel baffle might work...

Thanks to Tim Fairweather, who is the naturalist for Lorain County Metroparks at Sandy Ridge Reservation for sharing his photos. And thanks to Skittles, the Mensa-qualified Husky mix, for the laughs.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Midwest Native Plant Conference!

A gorgeous painting of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird visiting royal catchfly, Silene regia, is the official artwork of the 4th annual Midwest Native Plant Conference. The piece was created by Ann Geise, who also produced the previous three conference artworks (see below). Royal catchfly is this year's conference plant.

The Midwest Native Plant Conference will be held July 27th thru 29th at the Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio. Conference facilities are fabulous, and sited in the center of a diverse 200-acre landscape of forests, prairies, shrubland and other habitats.


Queen-of-the-prairie, Filipendula rubra (bottom) was last year's conference plant, and the year before it was rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium (top). Not only can you see any and all of the above plants in living chlorophyll at the conference, you can BUY them, too! A diverse panoply of native plant nurseries will have lots of stock on hand, including species you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. And native plants are great for the yardscape - they attract infinitely more interesting animals than nonnative fare. It's no coincidence that Ann has included animals in each of her conference paintings, because those are the sort of things that you can expect to see if you work these plants in the garden.


This was Ann's artwork for the inaugural conference, WAY back in 2009. The primary purposes of the Midwest Native Plant Conference is to offer educational opportunities about native flora, the opportunity to purchase plants, field trips to see interesting habitats up close and personal, meet and network with like-minded people, AND have a good time doing all of the above.

A staple of MWNPC are interesting speakers and their talks. This year, there are a total of eight speakers talking about lots of stuff: coniferous trees; pollinating insects; planting native prairie and other habitats; edible plants, and more. Get the complete speaker lowdown RIGHT HERE.

We are especially pleased to have three topnotch keynote presenters. Marielle Anzelone comes all the way from the Big Apple, New York City, where she has become a legend for her efforts to diversify the concrete jungle with native plants.

Caterpillar enthusiasts, such as your blogger, need no introduction to Dr. David Wagner of the University of Connecticut. Dave is "Dr. Caterpillar" and he has brought the joy and magic of Lepidopteran larvae to the masses via his two books, HERE and HERE. Dave's presentation's our fabulous, and he'll also lead us on a nocturnal foray to find some real live caterpillars. We found the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar on the conference grounds two years ago, and always find interesting cats on our nighttime outings.

The one and only Ian Adams, photographer extraordinaire, will also be in the house to deliver a program entitled "Gossamer Wings: Ohio's Butterflies and Dragonflies". You can be assured Ian's talk will be liberally peppered with stunning imagery. Your blogger recently managed the photo above, of a blue dasher - Ian's stuff is several notches higher on the photographic scale. You'll be dazzled.

Why all of the animals in some of our programs? Because they all require native plants, and by growing native plants you are also growing native animals.

Conference organizers endeavor to create interesting opportunities for attendees to get outside, and one of the advantages of holding the conference in the midst of a 200-acre nature preserve is that one need only step out the door to find cool things. This is a slightly musical conehead, one of many singing insects that grace the grounds. This katydid and many other animals romp among a sea of native flora, as great efforts have been made to plant native species and create native habitats on the property.

Another advantage of hosting the conference in Dayton is the close proximity to some of Ohio's best remaining fens and prairies. Sunday concludes with expert-led field trips to some truly magnificent landscapes, including Bigelow Cemetery Prairie, where this shot of royal catchfly was taken.

Register NOW for the Midwest Native Plant Conference, RIGHT HERE. We'd love to see you there, and can promise you a wonderfully informative great time!

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Hooded Warbler on nest

 A well-concealed female Hooded Warbler, Setophaga citrina, tends to nest duties. Her abode was constructed a few feet off the ground in a young red maple sapling, and was astonishingly difficult to see.

Along with Brian Zwiebel, I was able to spend some time with Kelly Williams-Sieg last Saturday in southern Ohio's Tar Hollow State Forest. Kelly, for several years now, has been studying the nesting and foraging behavior of several species of wood-warblers, including the Hooded Warbler. It is eye-opening to spend time in the field with her, as she - and her crew members - have become very proficient at finding nests, and that's not an easy task.

We were close enough that Senora Hooded stayed hunkered down on her eggs, but not so close that she would flush. Note all of the leaf detritus used to construct the nest - from afar, it looks just like a clump of dead foliage. Nonetheless, black rat snakes, chipmunks, Brown-headed Cowbirds and other predators are adept at finding such nests and mortality is high.

Thanks to Kelly for the fun and informative field trip; more to follow.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Bobolinks at Byers Woods

Bobolinks are perhaps our coolest, most interesting blackbird. Everything about them is fascinating, from the bubbly R2-D2 songs of courting males to the incredibly long migrations that this black, gold, and white songbird undertakes twice annually. I wrote a brief essay about Robert of Lincoln a while back; you can see it HERE.

Now's your chance to go see some of these songsters in the flesh, in the company of other enthusiasts, and with many other entertainments available should you become sated with Bobolinks. This Saturday is the annual "Bobolinks at Byers Woods" event, hosted by the Greater Mohican Audubon Society. Bobolinks shun woods, of course, but much of Byers Woods is grassland, which the Bobos share with other grassland birds such as Grasshopper and Savannah sparrows. You'll probably rack up a pretty good list at this site, actually, and experts will be on hand to help you find things.

So, plan on visiting scenic Ashland County this Saturday, June 23rd, and basking in the aura of extroverted Bobolinks doing their thing. The spectacle just can't be beat! All of the details about Bobolinks at Byers Woods are RIGHT HERE!

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Some cool bugs

Well, what bugs AREN'T cool, when you get right down to it? A number of us met this morning at Cedar Bog, a magical place that I have written about many times before. Our purpose was to have a bit of fun, and perhaps make some photos, before meeting about an upcoming conference.

I managed to click off the shutter at some interesting insects on a few occasions, and a smattering of pictorial highlights follow...

The grass-pink orchids, Calopogon tuberosus, were plentiful and at peak bloom. This orange sulphur, Colias eurytheme, was busy flitting from flower to flower in an attempt to extract nectar.

Looking right down the barrel of an American snout, Libytheana carinenta. The small butterflies seem to be cyclical in numbers from year to year, but are being widely reported in large numbers this year.

Snouts often perch with wings folded, and they look every bit the dead leaf. Occasionally one will flex its wings and pose, though, as this one did.

I'm always watching the foliage for caterpillars, and such vigilance pays off from time to time. As our group passed through a thicket along the boardwalk, I was pleased to glance up and spot this fawn sphinx, Sphinx kalmiae. It had been putting the serious hurt on some green ash foliage, but apparently froze in position when it detected our crowd passing by. Note its little blackish doglike tail - a characteristic of many sphinx moth caterpillars.

This is the working end of the caterpillar. It has stripped one side of this ash leaflet bare, and had largely defoliated many of the leaves higher in the tree. If all goes well for this caterpillar, it will morph into a large and gorgeous sphinx moth, and will repay the plant-denuding transgressions of the larva by pollinating other plants.

A seepage dancer, Argia bipunctulata, stares bullets at your blogger. Lucky for me that I'm not gnat-sized. These tiny damselflies are ferocious predators, just on a wee scale. They're so small that it is really easy to miss them as they patrol low in the sedges.

Seepage dancers are one of the rarer Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) found in Ohio, and are listed as threatened. This species is quite the specialist, requiring open fens with cold, clean groundwater-fed rills flowing through the meadows..

It behooves the miniature seepage dancers to keep a low profile. Their much larger brethren, such as this widow skimmer, Libella luctuosa, have no qualms about capturing and eating others in their family. This stunning male widow skimmer looks fresh as can be, wings shimmering and untattered, and colors vibrant. But it looks as if it has already mated. Much of the pruinosity (chalky-white coating) that covers its abdomen has already been worn away. Oftentimes the loss of the pruinose coating is due to the female's legs rubbing the male's abdomen as she clutches him during mating.

Always lots of interesting observations to be made at Cedar Bog.


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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cranberry Island, a "floating" bog

A while back, I was asked to create a field trip, which would then be raffled off with the proceeds supporting Operation Feed. Stephen, who works in another agency of my department, placed the winning bid, and he and seven of his friends joined me yesterday to visit a truly unique site.

We met at the docks at Buckeye Lake State Park, and boarded this vessel. The Queen of the Lake II is owned by the Greater Buckeye Lake Historical Society. Their director, J-me Braig, very graciously arranged to deliver us to our destination, which requires the use of a boat. Several excellent GBLHS volunteers accompanied our expedition, and they were a wealth of information about Buckeye Lake, and the special place that was our targeted destination.

Here it is - the place that requires water travel across one of central Ohio's inland seas to visit. Cranberry Island State Nature Preserve, which lies just off the north shore of Buckeye Lake, in Licking County. Cranberry Island is often referred to as a "floating island", although it isn't free-floating. Back in the 1820's, canal systems were hailed as the future of transportation systems, and construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal was in full swing.

A low but vast valley occupied the region between Columbus and Zanesville, just south of Heath. Canal engineers thought that by damming and flooding "The Great Swamp", they'd create an ideal canal feeder lake, and thus blocked and diverted flow from the South Fork Licking River and inundated the "swampy" valley, which in reality was anything but a swamp.

By today's standards, the inundation of this low valley would be considered an environmental tragedy by most, as there were hundreds if not a thousand+ acres of open sphagnum bog blanketing the area. Such a boreal habitat would have been commonplace in Ohio for several thousand years after the departure of the Wisconsinan glacier, our last ice sheet, but by the 1800's boggy environs had become quite rare.

The well-used and weatherbeaten planking that traverses Cranberry Island. If you were in a hurry, it wouldn't take long to stroll the boardwalk - the island is only 11 acres or so in size, and the pathway covers but part of that. But most visitors aren't in a hurry, and there are a lot of interesting things to see. Cranberry Island is a living museum, offering a glimpse into Ohio's glacial past. Most such habitats have long since passed into woodland, the victims of natural vegetative succession. One must venture much further north, into northern Michigan, before similar boggy habitats become commonplace.

See Cranberry Island while you can. It's rapidly shrinking, due to multiple factors. When the island first arose when the lake was created in 1830, the youngest and most buoyant part of the bog slowly rose with the lake waters. Cranberry Island was born, and it was thought to have been as large as 65 acres when first spawned. The island is attached to the core of peat below the lake, the waters of which are only 5 or 6 feet deep. A hole drilled down through the island revealed the peat depth to be about 37 feet.

This island is indeed unique, as it's thought to be the only acidic sphagnum bog surrounded by a lake. The usual state of affairs is that bogs form around the margins of glacial lakes, and then slowly take over the lake and fill it in with vegetation. Here, the opposite is true. A chemical clash between alkaline lake waters and the acidic bog substrate means that Cranberry Island is slowly "melting"; being dissolved by the lake. As alkalinity increases along the shoreline, trees gain a foothold and grow. When trees get large enough, they tend to topple and take big chunks of the bog with them. Some experts think that the island may only last for a few more decades.

Much of the original bog flora remains, and flourishes. Mid-June is a good time to visit, as two species of showy orchids are in bloom. This is rose pogonia, Pogonia ophioglossoides, which is a threatened species in Ohio. It was beginning to fade a bit, losing some of its pinkish luster. The small-leaved stems all around the orchid is large cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, the island's namesake. This is the cranberry of commercial cultivation, and it is the dominant plant of Cranberry Island's meadows.

This is grass-pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosus, which was just coming into peak bloom. I wrote about the bizarre and deceptive pollination strategy of this plant IN THIS POST.

The pitcher-plants, Sarracenia purpurea, are always crowd-pleasers. Although pitchers certainly occur in sphagnum bogs, the species apparently was not present on Cranberry Island. Legend has it that a woman brought a few plants out some time around 1900, and planted them. The pitcher-plants flourished and there are now scores of them. I've written about the interesting habits of this carnivorous plant HERE.

This is Cranberry Island's other carnivorous plant, the round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. Its tiny leaves are covered with hairs that glisten with dewlike drops. This liquid looks mighty scrumptious to small insects, which fly in to investigate. Big mistake. Once a bug lands on a sundew leaf, it is snared by the dewdrops, which have the consistency of Elmer's Glue. The plant then slowly enfolds its leaf around the victim, and drains it of valuable nitrogen and proteins.

The Greater Buckeye Lake Historical Society recently took over management of Cranberry Island, and they are doing a fabulous job of handling the stewardship of this state treasure. I'd highly recommend setting up a tour through GBLHS and making a visit to the island. Access is by permit only, and besides, you need a boat to get there, so GBLHS is your gateway to the wonders of the world's only "floating" bog island.

The Society also has a fabulous museum located at 4729 Walnut Road right in the heart of the community of Buckeye Lake and only minutes from the boat ramp from which Cranberry Island tours depart. Stop in and visit when you're out at the lake.

Today was the annual Cranberry Island Open House, and the hard-working staff of the Greater Buckeye Lake Historical Society probably shuttled several hundred bog enthusiasts out to Cranberry Island. Or, if they weren't bog enthusiasts before their trip, they probably were by its conclusion. I hope this big day went well, and thanks again to the Society for taking such excellent care of Cranberry Island!

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