Wednesday, October 31, 2012

River Otters, family unit

Score another one for the fantastic videography of Laura and David Hughes, who brought us the fabulous Bobcat video of the previous post. Their Monroe County, Ohio game trail is truly a magical place, and there they also captured footage of one of our most interesting animals, the River Otter, Lontra canadensis. The following video shows what appear to be two adults, and two juveniles. What I assume is the adult male makes his departure from the video first, and then we can see the two youngsters, which are slightly smaller than the adult female, apparently attempt to nurse, but they are rebuffed.

River Otters are rather hard to observe in the wild, and few of us will ever get to see a scene such as shown in this video.

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Video: Laura and David Hughes

Like the Bobcat of the previous post, River Otters did not fair well with the onset of European colonization of the Ohio country. By 1900 or so, unregulated trapping and habitat loss had extirpated them from Ohio. Beginning in 1986, the Ohio Division of Wildlife embarked on a reintroduction program, and ultimately released 123 animals over a seven year period in several widely scattered locales. The otters took, and flourished. Today, there may be as many as 7,000 of them roaming our waterways, in most of our counties.

Thanks once again to Laura and David for sharing their amazing video work.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bobcat baby, caught on video!

Now this is just too cool! Laura and David Hughes, who have an almost surreal knack for finding interesting and unusual things, have scored once again and big time. They spend a fair bit of time over in eastern Ohio's Monroe County, and during their wanderings noticed a well traveled game path. So, they set up a Wildgame Innovations trail camera, switched to video mode, and achieved some awesome results.

The following clip shows an adult Bobcat, Felis rufus, ambling down the path shadowed by a kitten. And boy-o-boy is that one cute (and fierce) kitten! To our great benefit and viewing pleasure, the baby Bobcat pauses in front of the camera and roots around a bit before trotting off to catch up with mama.

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Video: Laura and David Hughes

It's encouraging to see the comeback of Bobcats in Ohio and adjacent regions. In 2011, there were 136 verified sightings in Ohio - an increase of 30 over 2010. It's thought that these little cats - a big male might weigh 40 lbs. - had become extirpated in Ohio by 1850 - victims of persecution and habitat loss. By the 1960's, a few sightings were being reported, and the number of documented observations very slowly but steadily has grown ever since. Today, there are certainly hundreds of Bobcats - maybe even 1,000+ - roaming the hills of southern and eastern Ohio, and there are even occasional sightings outside of the hill country.

Thanks to Laura and David for allowing me to share their wonderful video work. I'll soon post another of their videos, and believe it or not, this one is even cooler than these Bobcats. It shows, in wonderful clarity, a family unit of River Otters and if you thought that baby Bobcat was cool, wait until you see a pack of otters playing right in front of the camera lens!


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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bald-faced Hornet nest

While cruising the roads at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area last Thursday, I came across many interesting things, as is nearly always the case at this vast place. The verges of this road were loaded with migrant sparrows, mostly White-crowned and White-throated sparrows. When working such bird-rich sites, I usually have the big lens clipped in place on the camera, so as not to miss a good bird shot if one presents itself.

At one point, I glanced over to see this papery football-sized contraption nearly at eye level. A Bald-faced Hornet nest! Naturally, I was pleased to make this find, as the hornets normally place their nests much higher in trees than this, and thus make good photos harder to obtain. I skidded the car onto the road's edge and hopped out, the Canon already rigged with the Sigma 150-500 lens. Such a telephoto is a good idea when dealing with potentially dangerous animals such as these hornets - the smart person can remain at a safe distance, yet still get decent images.

Here's one of the inhabitants up close: Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata. I took this shot a few years ago, with a point & shoot. I was able to get in fairly close - but still didn't get a great image - before signs of aggression by the hornet made me back off.

Bald-faced Hornets rank very high on the scale of fierce insects. After all, they hunt, kill, and eat other beasts like Eastern Yellowjackets! From my experience, they aren't overtly aggressive towards people, though - unless you invade their turf. I am about to invade their turf.

Using the big Sigma lens allowed me to remain 30 or more feet away from the nest, and still zoom to frame fill the shot. But, that wasn't good enough. I kept creeping closer, and progressively unzooming the lens until I was shooting at 150 mm and still mostly filling the image with the nest. By now, I was 15 feet or so away, and on high alert.

All of a sudden - WHAM! A bright white electric pain shot through my right hand. One of the hornets had hit me! It was essentially a drive by stinging. The occasional hornet was coming and going from the nest, and I think one just happened to head off in my direction. Confronted with a strange interloper, it whacked me on its way out. Their sting is quite amazing, actually. The animal never even landed on me - it apparently just hit me in a fraction of a second as it whizzed by. The effect is sudden and extraordinary, though. It's as if you've been stuck with a hypodermic needle heated to 1,000 degrees. Every one of your body's senses immediately fixates on the sting, and the synapses instantly fire off brilliantly intense warning messages to the brain. Within a nanosecond every fiber of your being is telling you to FLEE!

Which I did. Knowing that problems could arise, I had the car as close as possible, door open and windows shut. If need be I could dive in there and seal myself off from the hornets.

CAVEAT: I'd never recommend trying for close-ups of a Bald-faced Hornet nest. You're almost certain to get stung, and that can be a real problem for some people. I viewed this opportunity as a calculated risk and felt that a few factors were in my favor. One, I didn't plan on getting TOO close. Two, the situation was thus that I had a hornet shelter - the car - very close at hand. And perhaps most importantly, based on experience, I have no allergy issues to stinging Hymenoptera. Some people react very badly to stings and go into anaphylactic shock. Stings can be life-threatening in such cases and sensitive people would never, ever want to go anywhere near a Bald-faced Hornet nest.

After trotting back to the car, I - kind of, sort of - reveled in the pain of the sting. While the initial blast is jolting in the extreme, its effects wear off rapidly and within five minutes or so it's as if nothing ever happened. Being that this was my first Bald-faced Hornet sting, I was interested in its impact.

Upon review of my images in the camera's viewing screen, I felt I could do better and should make the most of this opportunity. So, on went the 100 mm macro. This lens, unfortunately, would necessitate a closer approach - probably within 12 feet. It turns out that I was able to, quite stealthily and very quietly, creep to about ten feet away. That enabled close shots of the nest's entrance. Note the hornets swarming about, with many more lurking just inside the doorway. They remained seemingly unconcerned by me although I'm sure they were well aware of my presence.

After making a series of images, BAM! Another one got me on the right hand, in nearly the same place as the other. I took the hint and exited stage right with good speed. No sense pushing my luck, and one thing you do not want to do is bring down the wrath of the entire colony and have the whole gang hot on your heels.

In addition to having a nice opportunity to make images of these interesting insects, it was also informative to experience their stings. One often hears inaccurate or much exaggerated claims about animal bites and stings, and probably the only way to know the truth for certain is to experience it. Not that I'd ever recommend that anyone go all Justin Schmidt and try to get stung, but at least now I can speak with firsthand familiarity should the need to describe the sting of a Bald-faced Hornet ever arise.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Red-headed Woodpecker granary tree

"I would not recommend to any one to trust their fruit to the Red-heads..." [John James Audubon]

An immature Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus, regards your narrator from his lofty perch in the crown of a massive White Oak. Note the beginnings of his namesake scarlet head-feathering coming in. By next spring, his noggin will be aflame with satiny ruby-red feathers.

While wandering about Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area last Thursday, I heard the raucous kwerrs of a Red-headed Woodpecker coming from a patch of oaks. The calls continued from the same general area for some time, while I focused on sorting through a passel of sparrows along a nearby field's edge.

After a bit, I abandoned the sparrows and wandered over to the vicinity of the woodpecker, with an idea as to what might be afoot. Mr. Red-head was fixated on these two large trees - a sprawling White Oak in the back, and a tall Pin Oak up front.

Many limbed and quite gnarly, the big White Oak was full of the nooks, crannies, and punky-tissued dead limbs that make for an ideal granary tree. A granary, as applied to woodpeckers, is a storage area for nuts that the birds harvest. The king of granaries is the Acorn Woodpecker of the western U.S. and Central America. Acorn Woodpeckers create elaborately engineered and architecturally striking granaries: neat rows of holes bored into trunks with each excavation nearly fitted with an acorn.

Red-headed Woodpecker granaries are more haphazard in design but serve the same purpose. Acorns collected by the birds are stuffed into tree crevices and fissures, into small cavities, and under bark. The purpose? Stocking in supplies for winter, the food to be withdrawn from the larder when times get tough.

Sure enough, my bird was busily provisioning his granary. He (could be a she, I'm not sure) made frequent flights into the crown of the Pin Oak - right next door to the White Oak granary tree - to pluck acorns from the limbs. Twisting about in the manner of a chickadee, the Red-head deftly detached the shiny round marblelike fruit.

From my experience, Red-headed Woodpeckers covet Pin Oak acorns if they're available. Killdeer Plains' thick wet clayey soils support scads of Pin Oaks, and it's no coincidence that Red-headed Woodpeckers also abound at this site. As can be seen from the model's thumbnail (me, thank you very much!), Pin Oak acorns are tiny little affairs - perfect for Red-headed Woodpeckers to snatch, carry, and stash.

Immediately after wrestling an acorn free, our woodpecker would fly back into the crown of his granary tree, and select an appropriate cupboard for his plunder. He had several distinct hiding spots scattered throughout the tree, and I could discern no rhyme or reason for why he would sometimes take an acorn here, then over there the next round. But I, obviously, am not a Red-headed Woodpecker and thus not privy to the inner workings of their keen minds.

Ah! Our boy has found a suitable hiding spot! He prepares to stuff the oak fruit in.

After pushing the acorn into the crevice - this one is probably 25-30 feet up in the tree - he carefully tamps it into position with soft blows from his chisel-like bill.

At this time of year, when the acorn crop is ripe and the winter's cold winds are right around the corner, Red-headed Woodpeckers work double-time at provisioning their granaries. This woodpecker probably made one round trip about every five minutes or so, and likely spent a good chunk of his day at this task. By the time he's done, that old oak tree will probably have hundreds of acorns stuffed throughout its limbs. Its bank vault of acorns will serve the bird well when food becomes lean in the dead of winter.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

A beautiful Indian Summer day

This Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, was one of many enjoying the beautiful Ohio weather today. Skies were sunny and temperatures climbed to the high 70's - possibly our last such day of the year. I did something that, believe it or not, I rarely do - take the day off! Camera gear in tow, I headed up to Killdeer Plains and vicinity to see what I might find.

I wasn't disappointed. Lots of interesting things surfaced, and I made photos of nearly all of it. Got whacked - twice! - by Bald-faced Hornets as I photo-documented a low-hanging nest; shot images of a Great Blue Heron hunting grasshoppers in a field; and watched a Red-headed Woodpecker building his granary.

Too tired to put up anything more right now, but more will follow.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Explosion of Crane Flies

Charles Alexander was a Crane Fly connoisseur without parallel. Over the course of his career as an entomologist, Alexander did his darndest to delineate the members of the Order Diptera - flies - with an especially tight focus on Crane Flies. By the time he died in 1981, at the grand old age of 92, Alexander had described over 11,000 species of flies, including some 3,000 Crane Flies. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment, and the good Doctor must have been a whirlwind of productivity.

Here's a Crane Fly. I took this photo this evening, by the front door of my house. I'm sure you've seen these insects; they are quite conspicuous, looking somewhat like mosquitoes on steroids. A female of one of the larger species, such as this specimen, can have a leg span of three inches. Many a Crane Fly illiterati has panicked and then pancaked these interesting bugs, thinking them to be super mosquitoes when in reality Crane Flies are utterly harmless and don't bite or sting.

I wish I could tell you exactly which species this one is, but I don't know. Maybe an expert will see this and be able to tell us. Whether one or more species is involved, this has been an absolute boom year for Crane Flies. I've seen scores of them - far more than I recall in other years - and others have made mention of the same thing. Most adult Crane Flies apparently don't feed; they live only to mate and reproduce. Their larvae, which resemble grubs, DO eat and turf grass roots are a target of some species.

Up close and personal. This specimen still has all of its six legs. It's not uncommon to see Crane Flies with missing legs, as these spindly appendages are easily shed. Note the haltere that is visible just below and behind the far wing. Click the photo to expand and you'll see it much better. It's the short filament with a knobbed tip. A haltere is a highly modified wing, and a trademark of flies. Over time, their second set of wings has evolved into these little gyroscope-like appendages that serve to stabilize the animal as it flies.

If anyone knows why there seems to be such an explosion of Crane Flies this fall, please do tell.



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Monday, October 22, 2012

Eastern Yellowjacket, quite close

Eastern Yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons. These insects are much despised for the nasty punch they pack, but when seen well without fear of a sting, they're rather showy.

I haven't had much chance to get intimate with my new Canon 5D with the L-series 100 mm macro lens bolted on, but so far I love this combo. This yellowjacket was one of several that landed on my warm car on a recent outing, and I just clicked off a few photos before moving on to bigger and better things. I was pleased with the outcome, and see potential for this camera.

As always, click the photo to enlarge for better detail.

Bet you never noticed all of the "fur" that ornaments a yellowjacket - most of us are too busy running away to take in such details. This shot was made at f/10; 1/100 shutter speed, and ISO 400 with fill flash from a hot shoe mounted speedlite, with the camera's lens less than two feet from the subject. No tweaks other than cropping, either.

Can't wait to get into some more action with this new Canon.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Scorpionfly in a beautiful landscape

I found myself in one of my favorites places yesterday, Shawnee State Forest in southernmost Ohio. Some of us were down there for a meeting in the morning, but we managed an afternoon of exploration. The scenery is stunning right now, with colorful fall foliage painting the landscape in vivid primary colors.

A fall trip to Shawnee would not be complete without a climb to the top of the Copperhead Lookout fire tower. You can't access the cabin at the top, but it is possible to scale the steps to the next level down, and that's high enough to get one's head above the leaves.

Shawnee's picturesque landscape goes on and on - hard to believe that this is Ohio.

Many woody players contribute to autumn's palette of colors, including Black Maples, which turn a nice lemony-yellow splashed with a tinge of burnt-orange.

We were after some rare plants, and whatever else we could find, and our crew did indeed stumble into some interesting flora and fauna. One of the coolest creatures was this bizarre insect, which is a Scorpionfly in the genus Panorpa. I don't know the species - there are over 50 taxa in this genus, and I've yet to see a Field Guide to the Scorpionflies of the Eastern United States.

While identifying one of these oddities to species may present challenges, they're easily enough recognized as a scorpionfly. Most of the insect is colored a light amber hue, and the wings are rather boldly marked with black dashes. A closer look reveals a disproportionately long snout, or proboscis. It's as if an anteater's head was welded to a wasp.

It's the tail that is especially noteworthy, though, and is responsible for the insect's strange name. The tip of the abdomen and the terminal claspers are jointed, and held curled up over the back, exactly like a scorpion. The overall effect is quite cool, but as these animals are not especially large - about yellowjacket-sized - you have to get in close to appreciate the strange architecture.

Scorpionflies are not true flies, but belong to their own Order along with hangingflies and some others - the Mecoptera. They're the six-legged equivalent of vultures, making a living by scavenging on the remains of small animal life. As grotesque as this lifestyle may seem, the male scorpionfly is actually quite the charmer. He uses tasty bits of dead animal matter as an offering to prospective mates, thus wooing his partner with carrion. Watch for these fascinating insects perched atop leaves in the shrub layer of woodlands, or at rest on ground level leaf litter.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

The world of cameras and photography can be a vortex that can suck a victim in deep. Their wallet, too. My addiction has been a steady progression, but with this latest acquisition, my disease will hopefully be arrested. For some time, anyway.

I suppose my experience isn't that atypical for someone who really gets into photography. It all started with point and shoots - many of which are amazingly competent these days. I've still got two really nice ones. But there's only so far a P & S can take one. So then come the DSLR cameras and their multitude of interchangeable lens and considerably greater processing power and adjustment capabilities. I began with a couple of really nice DSLR's, but towards the lower to middle end of the range. And all was good for a while.

Then I ran into someone with something better. A Canon EOS 5D Mark III, to be exact.

After handling their 5D Mark III and seeing its capabilities firsthand, I was totally impressed. So much so that I immediately began plotting to get one. And I did, just a few days ago. This is an amazing camera with a 22 MP full frame sensor and all manner of other high tech goodies. One of the things that wowed me was the laser beam focusing. No hunting and pecking with this thing - aim the focal point through a bunch of leaves and it'll lock right in on a partially obscured warbler or other target. Another capability that pushed me to get the new 5D is its incredible ISO functioning. It'll shoot up to a level of 25,600 standard ISO and still produce photos with amazingly minimal noise. This means that the photographer can manage very fast shutter speeds, and/or smaller apertures even in poor light. Such functionality is especially good for shooting bird images.

I've barely had a chance to try the new Canon out; just a short 30 minutes or so wandering the grounds outside my office. When I got the camera, I also picked up Canon's L-series 17-40 wide angle lens, which is a topnotch piece of glass that can produce professional grade landscapes and all manner of other images. I turned it on this giant specimen of a Shale-barren Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, but can't wait to get this lens into a largescale landscape setting full of interesting features.

After a few snaps with the 17-40 lens, I unclipped it and snapped on the Canon 100 mm macro lens, which I already had in the arsenal. I'd used this lens a lot, with my Canon Rebel T3i, and was already thoroughly impressed with it. I figured it would function even better when bolted to the 5D and it looks like it will. The individual pollen grains that dust this hardworking Honeybee can be easily discerned, in spite of a bit of operator error - I forgot to turn on the lens' image stabilizer. That little switch makes a big difference when shooting little things while hand-holding the camera.

Same deal with this Chinese Mantid - forgot to activate the image stabilizer, but it still came out pretty well.

A trip to Shawnee State Forest is in store later today, and I'll finally get the chance to really work with the 5D. Hopefully I'll return with some decent captures, and hopefully this camera will lead to a steady improvement in the quality of images posted to this blog.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like a bird dropping...

You, I trust, would not want to look like a bird dropping. But plenty of organisms do. Well, they don't really "want" to look like goop that was just expelled from the aft end of a Blue Jay, but they do anyway. Evolution has wrought all manner of fantastic camouflage over the eons, and the suite of bird dropping mimics are but one small facet of the myriad masters of disguise in the animal kingdom. If you're small and edible, it can pay big dividends to look like something so nasty and unpalatable that even a cockroach might pass you by.

A recent experience with this spring-legged little critter steered me into blogging about the admittedly weird subject of bird dropping mimicry. I exited my house the other night, and as always, cast an appraising eye over the walls in the vicinity of the porch light. Lots of moths and sometimes other interesting insects are lured to the light's sphere, and I never know what I'll see. On this night, it was this thing. At first blush it appeared to be a small moth, but as I moved in I saw that it was a leafhopper. As I would later learn, a leafhopper with no formal name other than Norvellina seminuda. And it seems apparent to me that N. seminuda is out to look like a bird dropping. It's certainly got the coloration and pattern down; morphology it shares with other quite unrelated species, as we shall see.

 Photo: Julie Zickefoose

If this creature, which is straight out of bizarro-land, isn't a bird dropping mimic, nothing is. No one in their right mind would attempt to eat it. If you can't even tell what it is - forgiven. I wouldn't have known either, not so long ago. We're looking at a female Bolas Spider,Mastophora hutchinsoni. During the day, she'll rest motionless and out in plain sight on the upper surface of a leaf, relying on her unsavory appearance to discourage would-be predators.

At night, the spider stirs to action and employs one of the wildest hunting strategies of any animal, spider or otherwise. Read about the Bolas Spider's amazing predatory tactics on Julie Zickefoose's blog, HERE.

John Howard pointed this little beast out to me on a field trip last August. He had learned about the curious caterpillars of the Rose Hooktip moth, Oreta rosea, some time ago and knew to carefully scan the foliage of viburnums, such as this Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum. Instead of hiding somewhere during the day, as most caterpillars do, the Rose Hooktip larva just curls up in plain view, looking all the world like a freshly deposited bit of nastiness. It'd be quite easy to pass right by this animal without it even registering.

We move in closer, and can now easily see that the "bird dropping" is clearly a caterpillar. The Rose Hooktip follows about every rule in the bird dropping mimic playbook. It's in plain view, curls its body into a J-shape, and has dull irregularly patchy mottling.

This is an adult Rose Hooktip moth - a beauty that doesn't even remotely resemble the ugly duckling from which it was spawned.

David Wagner pointed this one out to me on another field trip this summer, and it stumped me. This is an early instar of the fabled Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar, and I had no clue that these cats were bird dropping mimics in their early stages. Yet here it is, and it's doing everything that a good bird dropping mimic does.

This is the last instar, or growth stage, of the Hickory Horned Devil. After molting out of its shy and retiring bird dropping mimic younger stages, the by now hotdog-sized caterpillar of the Regal Moth, Citheronia regalis, adopts a shock and awe predator deterrence strategy.

Perhaps the most accomplished of the butterfly caterpillar bird dropping mimics are the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus, and this crazy looking critter - the larva of the Red-spotted Purple, Limenitis arthemis. It looks astonishingly similar to the expulsions of a grackle oozing down the twig. Distinctly untasty in appearance. Ironically, it will eventually morph into one of the most stunning butterflies in North America.

It isn't just caterpillars that adopt the look of bird poo - plenty of adult moths also take on this look. This is a Beautiful Wood-Nymph, Eudryas grata, a common moth in these parts. They rest on leaf surfaces during the day, and can fool even the sharpest eye from afar. The icing on the bird dropping mimicry cake is the wet shiny sheen to the moth, as if it had just been voided from the bowels of a songbird.

Seen from another angle, the Beautiful Wood-Nymph is indeed beautiful - cute, almost.

Even the best bird dropping mimics don't fool everyone. This moth - I'm unsure of the species - had fluttered to the blossoms of a teasel, seeking nectar. Unfortunately for it, an assassin bug lurked within the flowers, and instantly seized the moth, apparently not at all put off by its unsavory appearance.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Last call for fen flora

About a week ago, a post complete with a photo of one of our most beautiful wildflowers came across the Facebook airwaves, courtesy of Andrew Gibson. He had just visited an interesting and off the beaten path little fen, and made some of his characteristically stunning images of its rare flora. Check Andrew's blog, The Natural Treasures of Ohio - it's loaded with great stuff.

Andrew's photo reminded me of the 90-acre Betsch Fen; a place that I had not visited in well over a decade, and only once ever. I would think about it a lot, as the fen lies near U.S. 23, which is a major north-south conduit that I often travel when headed to points south. When I saw Andrew's beautiful photo of fringed gentian in full bloom, I knew it was time to finally carve out another trek into Betsch Fen. Last Saturday was the day, and a pictorial essay of the trip follows.

Betsch Fen, which is owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, is near Blackwater Road. This small stream is the road's namesake: Blackwater Creek. Getting to the fen is a slight bit of an ordeal, and involves traversing some scruffy woods that are largely free of beaten paths, and crossing this creek.

We emerge into the fen proper, easily identified by the lack of woody plants, the dominance of sedges, and were you there, the spongy wet soil underneath your feet. Fens are fed by artesian springs percolating from the limestone bedrock, and remain in a constant state of saturation. Ones like this are really prairie fens, and have an abundance of plants that are typically associated with prairies. Betsch Fen sits in the midst of the former Pickaway Plains, a long linear prairie that once stretched from Circleville south into Ross County along the Scioto River. Virtually the whole thing has fallen to plow and other development; Betsch Fen is one of the best intact remnants.

Immediately upon entering the fen, I spotted the brilliant magenta blossoms of Purple Foxglove, Agalinis purpurea. This member of the massive Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) is one of our showiest plants, and not an especially common one either. It is largely confined to high quality sites such as fens and prairies.

The tall ragged spikes of Canada Burnet, Sanguisorba canadensis, quickly catch the eye as one slogs into the fen meadow. This is another rare plant (for Ohio), as is nearly everything we shall see on this foray. Burnet is in the Rose Family (Rosaceae), although it bears slight resemblance to your rose bushes. A hale and hearty specimen growing in rich soil, as these were, can tower to head high.

The luminescent purple flowers of Purple Swamp Aster, Symphyotrichum puniceum (Sim-fee-oh-tri-kum / pew-nee-see-um), provide a shocking bolt of color against the browning sedges and grasses of the fen. It is one of several asters that like their feet wet, and thrive in the harsh growing conditions of a fen.

The stems of Purple Swamp Aster are rough stalks indeed. covered as they are in stiff whitish hairs. In the varied terminology of Botanospeak, these hairs are termed hispid - one of many words to describe some type of hairiness. There are over 30 species of asters in Ohio, and they come with some identification challenges. Keeping up with the nomenclature can be equally challenging. This species was not long ago known as Aster puniceus, until it and most of its allies were placed in the tongue-twisting genus Symphyotrichum. Purple Swamp Aster has also been cleaved into two species, the other being Symphotrichum firmum, although not all authorities accept that split. I do.

Ah, but who cares what the propellerheads are calling this thing! The real beauty of any decent aster is in the flower, and what a flower bedecks the Purple Swamp Aster! These plants can grow taller than a large man, and their inflorescences are filled with these showy little blooms. The lavender rays burst from the yellow star that forms the hub of the flower, and the colorful complexity is striking.

Peering out over the meadow, I couldn't help but to notice the numerous flat-topped clusters of one of our namesake plants, the Ohio Goldenrod, Oligoneuron ohioense. This plant was first collected and described to science from what must have been a very similar prairie fen about 40 miles to the north, near Columbus. When John Leonard Riddell first stumbled into this plant, in the 1830's, such habitats would have been commonplace in Ohio's prairie regions. Not anymore - 98% of our peatlands have been destroyed, according to THIS PAPER. Consequently, Ohio Goldenrod and many of its fen or bog vegetative allies have become quite scarce, too.

Ohio Goldenrod is large and robust, and distinctive in its flat-topped flower arrangement. When fresh, as this specimen is, the mass of tiny blooms forms a stunning lemon-yellow congregation. There are several identifiable plants in the backdrop, and they're all rare too.

I was pleased to find numerous specimens of our latest orchid to hold flower, the Nodding Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes cernua. Its little spires are often hidden among overtopping plants, but the pure whiteness of the blooms will eventually catch one's eye.

The flowers are botanical confections that appear to have been molded from sugar grains upon close inspection. Although tiny, the flowers are architecturally complex and worthy of close examination.

Finally, here grows my primary target - the King of Fen Flora! It's necessary to bide one's time to go hunting for this one, as it waits until most plants have crumbled back to the soil before exploding into cobalt glory. We could just call them gentians, and be done with it, but of course that's not good enough. They are Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis procera, and I cringe slightly when placing the "Lesser" as an antecedent to the common name. There is absolutely nothing lesser about this plant, but to be fair, there is a closely related species that is even greater.

Fringed Gentians don't poke their stems above ground until late in the growing season, and don't build sufficient momentum to flower until October. There were hundreds of the plants in this fen, and it would not be unlikely to find a few stragglers still holding flowers into November.

Few things are as good-looking as a fringed gentian flower. The ragged petals appear to have been cut from fine blue silk by dull scissors, but the tattered margins add considerably to the overall look. They are a photographers dream. Camera in hand, and battery charged, I found myself taking dozens of images, constantly searching for the best composition.

You or I are not the only ones to succumb to the lure of the gentian:

TO THE FRINGED GENTIAN
William Cullen Bryant


Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

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