Friday, May 31, 2013

Pogacnik discovers long lost orchid!


The beautiful image above, made by Gary Meszaros, is of a place known as Morgan Swamp and was featured in the book that Gary and I collaborated on: Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage. That photo-filled volume covers 40 of Ohio's wildest areas, and Morgan Swamp was a no-brainer for inclusion. Located in the wildlands of Ashtabula County in northeastern Ohio, Morgan Swamp is large and difficult to access potpourri of beaver swamps, alder thickets, and various types of woodland.

Here's a quote from my text: "Morgan Swamp is for the intrepid. The vast, flat terrain pocked with soupy wetlands and tangled vegetation doesn't lend itself to easy navigation, and a compass is required. The effort pays off, though - rare plants hard to find elsewhere in Ohio grow on elevated hummocks and in boggy quagmires. At least 15 state-listed plants have so far been found, and other discoveries await".

Indeed.

Photo: John Pogacnik

The spindly stalks of an orchid not seen in Ohio since 1933 jut from the leaf litter of a hummock in Morgan Swamp. It is Heart-leaved Twayblade, Listera cordata, and it must have been a thrill to stumble into this plant - sort of like seeing a botanical ghost. Until John Pogacnik's rediscovery of last Sunday, May 26, this species had a big fat X as its status: Extirpated, or locally extinct. John is an extraordinary field biologist, and has a long string of noteworthy discoveries - plants and animals - to his credit. But he'll have a hard topping this orchid find anytime soon.

Photo: John Pogacnik 

Heart-leaved Twayblade is not our showiest orchid - that honor might fall to the Showy Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae. In fact, one author described its flowers as looking "mosquito-like". Nonetheless, it has a certain charm and charisma that only orchids can muster.

Without a splitting of hairs, we'll say that 46 species of native orchids have been found in Ohio (there is one established nonnative, believe it or not). Of that number, fully 26 species (including one variety) are listed at some level of imperilment (57% of our orchid flora), as follows: Endangered = 7; Threatened = 6; Potentially Threatened = 8; and Extirpated = 5. Of course, we can scrub one from the X list; presumably the Heart-leaved Twayblade will later be redesignated as Endangered.


This map shows most of the big picture of the Heart-leaved Twayblade's range. It occurs commonly far north into Canada, too; this map only shows U.S. records. As we can see, the Ashtabula County, Ohio record - based on the previously mentioned 1933 collection - is somewhat far afield and definitely at the periphery of this orchid's range.

Congratulations to John Pogacnik for a fabulous discovery, and putting a plant thought to be long lost from Ohio back on the map. Major thanks are also very much in order for the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which began acquiring land in Morgan Swamp long ago and now protects about 1,400 acres in the area.


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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Depth of field

I don't claim to be a professional photographer, but the photo bug has hit me pretty hard over the past half-dozen years. I've pulled the trigger enough times, with enough cameras, on enough different subjects, and in enough conditions, to learn a few things. One of which is you'll almost always shortchange yourself and under-utilize your camera if you just leave it on full auto mode.
 
At the upcoming Mothapalooza event, John Howard - an absolutely topflight photographer - and I are going to teach a photography seminar. That one will focus on moths, especially, and the use of flash, obviously. Much to the incredulity of all involved in the planning, Mothapalooza is SOLD OUT! 120 people coming to Ohio's Shawnee State Forest for a weekend of learning about and finding moths! Who'd a thunk it?
 
I'll also be conducting another photo seminar, this one more focused on plants, at this July's Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton. That event, too, is rapidly filling but space is available. There's all manner of cool stuff happening over the course of that weekend - details are RIGHT HERE.
 
One of the important variables that can be controlled by the photographer is depth of field. This relates to your camera's F-stop, which determines how wide the lens' aperture is. The smaller the F-stop number, the wider open the lens is, and the less depth of field. Ironically, the higher the F-stop number the smaller the lens aperture, but the greater the depth of field. Examples follow. Both photos were taken in full manual with a Canon 5D Mark III outfitted with Canon's excellent 100 mm macro lens. No tripod was used (I know, I really should), nor was any sort of artificial flash or light employed (I am increasingly becoming anti-flash when possible).
 
The beautiful Bird's-eye Primrose, Primula mistassinica, shot along the shores of Lake Huron on my recent NettieBay Lodge excursions. This image was made at the following settings:

f/7.1
1/100 exposure
ISO 200

Note how the flowers look nice and relatively crisp - especially the center blossom, which is what I was focused on. But the basal rosette of leaves, some six inches below and on the ground, are quite blurred and out of focus.

This shot was taken from the identical position as the former, but note how the leaves are much sharper, as are the peripheral flowers. We can even see the leaves' midveins, and denticulate serrations along the margins. Those details were certainly not detectable in the previous image.

So, what changed? A radical reconfiguring of the camera's settings, as follows:

f/32
1/100 exposure
ISO 4000

Note the shutter speed remains the same as the first photo, but shutting the aperture down to a tiny f/32 (as small as it will go) requires much more light. And therein lies the rub. You must slow the shutter speed WAY down to compensate, which will make holding the camera (sans tripod) steady enough for a clear image very difficult. Or, you can use flash, but that (in my opinion) seldom gives as pure and natural-looking a shot, OR you can bump the ISO up. And it's the latter that I did, all the way up to 4000 to achieve a decent image but one that allows the depth of field to be vastly improved. ISO is the digital equivalent of film speed (remember the olden days of Kodak in 100, 400, 800 etc. film speeds?).

Tiny F-stops and low light situations are where the Canon 5D really shines, as it'll go up to massive ISO numbers with little loss of quality. It's necessary to experiment with each camera to see how far you can push the ISO before loss of quality/graininess/digital noise become too problematic.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chickadees nest in drinking fountain

Ah! Here we have the perfect antidote to the creature in the previous post, at least for some of you. While the aforementioned hognosed snake is utterly (and inexplicably) terrifying for some, the following animals strike fear into the hearts of exactly NO ONE.
 
While making a brief stop at a state park on one of my recent NettieBay Lodge trips in northern Michigan, we noticed a pair of Black-capped Chickadees making a nest in an odd place. The wooden post that supports this drinking fountain had a nice round hole just opposite the spigot, and the chickadees were industriously laboring to perfect the hole.

Tame and confiding, as chickadees usually are, I warranted only a brief over-the-shoulder glance. The birds paid our group no mind, and many a photo was taken.

The architectural dimensions of the drinking fountain hole were not acceptable to the birds, and they busily chipped away at the wood to bring the potential home up to spec.

I don't know why the hole was there in the first place - it appears manmade - but the cavity-nesting chickadees don't miss a trick and of course viewed the crevice as a potential nest site, even though it is only a few feet off the ground. Not only that, but the fountain is sure to be a popular spot for humanoids come warmer weather and busy days for the park. Whether this nest site works out for the birds remains to be seen, but I hope that it does. If the chickadees ended up using it, they'd probably have eggs in there by now, and would likely have their brood out of the nest before people traffic picks up too much.

One of the sexes - they're virtually identical - fidgets as it waits its turn to assist in the construction project. Shortly after I made this photo, the birds switched places. Chickadees are anything but lazy, and work hard at everything that they do.

Their tameness is endearing. With a little effort, chickadees can be trained to land on one's hand if a bit of seed is offered as an enticement. One time, I was walking along a brushy shoreline of Lake Erie during a flight of Black-capped Chickadees, which had probably just crossed the lake from Canada the prior night. Toting my scope along, I glanced back to see that one of the chickadees had boldly hopped aboard one of the tripod legs and was hitching a ride!

If all goes well with the drinking fountain nest, this is what the innards will look like once the chickadees have packed it with nesting material. An emerald-green bed of moss will welcome the fledglings into the world, and for a brief time their abode will be one of the plushest of any of our songbirds.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Cool encounter with an Eastern Hognosed Snake

Yes, this post is about a snake. Time to click on through if you are an ophidiophobe. But remember, the following is just pictures and words. And the protagonist of this tale is utterly harmless, and one of our most interesting reptiles. But if even photos of snakes are too much, exit stage right.
 
A short while ago, I posted about a young Eastern Hognosed Snake, Heterodon platirhinos, from Adams County, Ohio, RIGHT HERE. While that animal was beautifully colored and a handsome beast indeed, it had already been handled and had settled down nicely. The snake that follows was much larger, and put on a heckuva act.
 
Believe it or not, this sandy lane serves as a "major" east-west artery in western Presque Isle County, Michigan. I was traversing it on my first day up in Michigan en route to my birds (and nearly everything else) workshop at NettieBay Lodge. I've had many interesting birds along this route before, such as the hybrid Brewster's Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler and many others. Thus, I was slowly cruising along, listening as I went, when a three foot long ribbon in the road caught my eye.

An Eastern Hognosed Snake! Luck was with me - and the snake! While traffic on this road is light, vehicles come by with enough frequency that, were the snake to linger, chances are good it'd have been pancaked by an F-150. So of course, goal #1 was to ensure the animal's safety by speeding his passage, but as my reward for the good deed, some photos were in order.

As soon as I jumped out of the car and made my approach, the hognose went into its ferocious bluff. This was a good-sized snake insofar as hognoses go - about three feet in length. As I neared, the snake held its ground, began to hiss, curled its tail tip into a faux rattle, and flattened its neck to cobraesque dimensions. If one was not hip to the charade, this behavior would probably be rather intimidating and likely result in one of two outcomes: the person would quickly leave, or kill the snake.

With a bit of goading, the hognose really put on a show. Mouth agape, it made fake lunges in the direction of your narrator. As always, however, these strikes fell short. I've never heard of an Eastern Hognosed Snake attempting to bite a person, and given their lack of teeth, they couldn't inflict harm even if the snake wanted to.

That's an impressive mouth, and it's easy to see how a hognose can swallow a toad. The warty amphibians are favored prey. Had I pushed the snake a bit more, it undoubtedly would have entered Act II, which is to roll over and play dead.

After a brief bit of play with the snake, I moved him into the vegetation off the side of the road to which he was headed. Just in time, too - not far after commencing travel, I passed a couple of speeding pickup trucks headed the snake's way.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Canada Fly Honeysuckle

I'm back from ten days in northern Michigan's Presque Isle County, and wading through scores of photos. I was up there for the fourth year in a row, leading excursions in partnership with the NettieBay Lodge. Between the two groups (I get a day of rest between), a total of 17 people were along and we saw lots of stuff. Birds are a priority, and we did well, mustering a total of 160 species. Notably, one-quarter of that total was sparrows (13 species) and warblers (27 species).
 
But there is plenty of nonbird stuff to see: Porcupine, Eastern Hognosed Snake, Blanding's Turtle, Snowshoe Hare, and more. And I would not want to forget the plants. Presque Isle County is insanely diverse in habitats, and a botanical wonderland. Following is a cool plant of the North Woods, and a species that an Ohio botanist would be quite pleased to see in the Buckeye State.
 
The low shrubs in the foreground are Canada Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis, a plant of cool northern woods. It barely extends south into Ohio, and can be found in only a handful of counties in the northeastern corner of the state. In northern Michigan it is common, and easy to find in suitable habitat.

Canada Fly Honeysuckle is rather nondescript when out of flower, but when in bloom it is quite showy. The dangling bell-shaped flowers turn pinkish with age. Later, bright red berries will adorn its peduncles.

Note the cilia fringing the base of the leaf, a character that helps to separate this species from another somewhat similar species of native bush honeysuckle.

Where I live, in Columbus, the nonnative bush honeysuckles has proliferated to the point of noxiousness. Up in Presque Isle County, the invasive honeysuckles are not nearly as problematic and do not overtake the woodlands, at least in the places that I have been. Here's hoping it stays that way, and the native honeysuckles continue to flourish.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bearberry, Iris, and Sedge

Presque Isle County, Michigan, where I've been for the past eight days, is full of botanical eye candy. It is a botanist's Eden. I've got a lot of photos of interesting plants, and will try to put a few of them on here in the coming days. Below is a trio of my favorites, for starters.
 
Gorgeously blue and impossibly tiny, a pair of Dwarf Lake Iris, Iris lacustris, nestles in a bed of Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, foliage. The iris is locally abundant along the Lake Huron shoreline, and the Bearberry is nearly everywhere up here. A few clusters of the urnlike Bearberry flowers lurk in the backdrop.

Possibly a plant that only a botanist would love, or at least admire, is this Chestnut Sedge, Carex castanea. Seen well, it is a handsome little plant, and is surrounded by eye-catching flora in the rocky ground in which it grows. The male, or staminate, flowers are at the plant's summit; the female flowers dangle on threadlike pedicels below. The entire affair is only six inches or so in height.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Warbler mania along Lake Huron

A beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler works its way through a white cedar on the shore of Lake Huron in Presque Isle County, Michigan. Our group headed afield bright and early this morning to explore the shores of this beautiful Great Lake. In spite of fog and drizzle, coupled with temps in the low 50's, we found scores of birds. Things got hot and heavy at Thompson Harbor State Park, with two major movements of warblers. Lots of diversity and numbers, and after the second encounter with a large mixed flock, we didn't think things could get any better. They did.

Our group shelters under the eaves of a building at 40 Mile Point, north of Rogers City. We stopped here to eat lunch. Soon after spreading the food out on a picnic table and digging into the goodies, Deb Marsh exclaimed "Canada Warbler!". Glancing over at a lakeside shrub revealed the bird, and we abandoned our lunches to wander over for a better view. Upon rounding the corner of a building, we quickly saw that there were a lot more birds present than that Canada Warbler. A huge mixed feeding flock was working its way up the lakeshore to our location, and soon the trees were alive with flitting warblers and other songbirds.

For the next two hours, in spite of misty fog and light rain, we stood and watched scads of warblers move through the trees and shrubs. It was probably the biggest congregation of warblers that I've seen in the last twenty years. It was hard to focus on single birds, as others would flit through in the backdrop and it was tempting to follow each new bird. Multiple species were often in close proximity in the same tree. As one big wave would dissipate, another group would come along after a brief lull. At peak times, dozens of birds would be in view, flitting maniacally through all levels of the forest picking off midges and other insects. It was impressive, to say the least.

In all, we saw 21 species, and many of them in large numbers. Getting exact estimates was tough, because it was impossible to glass all of the birds as they moved through in the misty dim conditions. For many species, probably dozens of birds passed by. For those interested, here's what we saw:

Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler

Such occurrences are probably not that uncommon along this part of the Lake Huron shoreline. You've just got to be in the right place at the right time.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Photographing loons

A post or so back, I shared some photos of Common Loons nesting in a beautiful lake in northern Michigan. That prompted some notes from persons interested in loons and their conservation, wondering about how the photos were obtained.

I don't blame them. One of the threats that loons face is encroachment by photographers trying to get as close as possible to frame-fill their point & shoot cameras, or whatever it is they're using. Here's how mine were obtained. The above photo was made with my 17 x 40 wide angle lens, mounted to my Canon 5D Mark III full frame SLR. In the photo the loon and her nest are visible as a white speck on the front of the island. We're using a silent electric trolling motor on the pontoon boat so as not to create disruptive noise.

Time for the Sigma 150 x 500 telephoto lens. Zoomed fully, the lens transforms that speck into an obvious loon. The late day sun, from behind, creates excellent light on the subject and nice crisp images. Later, upon processing in Photoshop, Voila! The photos can be cropped to frame-filling size and the loon remains undisturbed and blissfully ignorant of its distant admirers.

Loons in the water are apt to approach you. On this nautical excursion, we weren't after the loons specifically, but were birding by boat as the marshy margins often have Sedge Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, American Bitterns, Common Yellowthroats, Alder Flycatchers, Belted Kingfisher etc, As we cruised slowly along, one of the loons approached and fished the nearby waters, snorkeling for fish and diving for meals. Easy photography on their terms.

The Michigan Loon Preservation Association has some neat photos that are better than mine, showing tight shots of adult loons with chicks at close range. You can see those HERE.

As these lakes become increasingly developed, more people mean more boats. Powerboats and jet skis, especially, are really tough on the loons. Some jerks chase them around, and heavy wave action from speeding boats swamps the shoreline nests and can destroy eggs. And the loons eventually abandon the lakes and their cool quavering wails are no more. Such has been the fate on many a lake in Michigan's lower peninsula.

Probably the best conservation to protect a lake's loons is to buy and protect the lands that buffer the water. And thus keep out development. A major reason that the Lake Nettie loons have flourished for decades is due to all of the protected house and cabin free land along much of its shoreline.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Snowshoe Hare!

A Snowshoe Hare, Lepus americanus, regards your narrator, possibly with a mix of curiosity and distrust. I encountered this bunny yesterday while exploring a remote area of the Lake Huron shoreline, in Michigan's Presque Isle County. I was by myself, and my primary goal was to photograph various boreal plants, and elfin butterflies. Thus, and perhaps foolishly, I had only the 100 mm macro lens bolted to the Canon - traveling light. So, when I rounded a corner and saw the hare far ahead, I thought my chances of photographing the animal were slim to none. One has to be within 20 feet or so to manage a workable image with that lens.

So, I did my best to commune with the rabbit. Telegraphing pleasant thoughts in its direction, I began indian-stepping his way: back corner of the heel down, then slowly lower the rest of the foot. Little to no footfall noise. I had about 100 feet to get within range. Remarkably, the bunny sat tight and allowed me to get within 20 feet.

Note its large ears, a trademark of the hares. He has molted from a winter coat of white into the brown summer pelage, although the animal retains white feet and flanks. Because of the seasonal change of color, some people call Snowshoe Hares the "Varying Hare".

Finally, the hare had enough of me, and in the blink of an eye bolted for the cover of dense White Cedar. Fortunately, I had my camera at the ready and set to burst mode, and held down the trigger as the animal hotfooted it for cover. When a hare takes off, it's as if it has been shot from a cannon. Within a second or two he had made it to cover and vanished. Such speed and agility serves them well when trying to avoid Coyotes, which are a common predator.

Check the size of those feet! Snowshoe Hares are named for their enormous hoppers, which allow them to move about easily on the surface of snow.

Hares have an amazing, thoroughly impressive bounding gait, and when at full tilt can reach nearly 30 mph. It was a treat to have such an encounter, and that the animal would be so cooperative with me.

Snowshoes have a huge distribution, ranging across northern North America from Newfoundland to Alaska. They are shrinking back from the southern edges of their range, and the northern lower peninsula of Michigan - where I made these images - is about at their southern limits these days. The locals report that they were once more common and widespread in this part of Michigan, but are becoming harder to find.

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Nettie Lake's loons

This is part of the viewscape from the cabin where I'm staying, at NettieBay Lodge. That tiny island in Lake Nettie - the house hasn't been used for some time - is smack in the midst of a large, beautiful glacial kettle lake. Most of our forays take us much further afield, but when in residence at the lodge there is plenty to see. Wilson's Snipe nest along the north end, and can be heard delivering their aerial coutship winnowing. Kingfishers, Spotted Sandpipers, Osprey, Bald Eagle and plenty of others are regular fixtures.

The undisputed avian rulers of Lake Nettie are the Common Loons. Look closely under the conifer on the left side of the island, and you'll see a loon on its nest. A pair has nested in that spot for decades, probably - as long as anyone can remember. It must be a great location, as each year's offspring (loons normally have two) make it to the flighted stage, and eventually migrate from the lake.

The Schulers, masters of NettieBay Lodge, take good care of their loons. If only every lake up here had such admirers. These loons know them by sight, and often approach their boat and swim alongside, fishing in the clear water below. Once the young fledge, the downy chicks will occasionally ride on the back of one of the parents, and it'd be hard to find a safer place to be. No pike or giant Snapping Turtle will get at them then. Sometimes, in a remarkable bird-human example of trust, the adult loons will leave the loonlets alongside the boat and head off to fish, returning to pick up the chicks when dome foraging. The longevity and success rate of this nesting site speaks volumes for the ideal situation that the loons find on Lake Nettie.

This loon followed our boat around like a puppy dog, as we birded the farflung regions of the lake. Once, when the loon pair that lives at the other end of Lake Nettie flew by, the trio got into a yodeling war. If you've not heard loons war-whooping it up, you've been missing out on one of the great sounds of Nature.

Our loon "snorkels". Oftentimes, when actively fishing, a loon will stick its face under the surface to check on the piscine prey below. When a tasty fish is spotted, down goes the loon, and you wouldn't want to be that fish.

Thanks to the Schulers for providing safe haven for these loons. Although when they wake me at 3 am with their raucous yodeling, I might temporarily feel a bit differently :-)

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Northern Michigan

A massive fen buffers a wild portion of the Lake Huron shoreline in Michigan's Presque Isle County. Once again, I am up in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula, in one of the state's most diverse counties and enjoying myself immensely. This is my fourth year up here, leading trips in collaboration with NettieBay Lodge.

Like everywhere else, spring is late to arrive, but that means that we've caught the peak of some early bloomers, such as this stunning Bird's-eye Primrose, Primula mistassinica. This diminutive wildflower grows in cold calcareous gravels of the Lake Huron shoreline, in association with other interesting flora.

The birds have been beyond fabulous, and I've seen nearly 140 species since my arrival last Wednesday. There'll be plenty more to come, too. Today, our group caught a fabulous group of migrant warblers; at one point six species shared the crown of a Red Pine, creating a scene right out of a plate from a field guide.

Above, one of Lake Nettie's resident loons rotates its eggs. She, as you can see, is not immune to the various midges and other insects that are part of the North Woods package. These loons are worth the price of admission alone. They know us - or at least Mark and Jackie, the lodge's owners - and we can boat out to their nesting island without causing any disturbance. Their tameness towards us permits fabulous photo ops, and I'll hope to share more loon pics later.

More pics and stories to follow, as time allows.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New River Birding & Nature Festival

Although it's now a few weeks past, I want to make one more pictorial post about the New River Birding & Nature Festival. I've been traveling down to lead trips and otherwise help out with this event for seven or eight years now, and it is an annual highlight. The festival is centered on the mighty New River, near the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia. This area is one of the most scenic places in North America. It is also a treasure trove of biodiversity, including "special" birds such as Cerulean Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Swainson's Warbler, and a bit to the south and high in the mountains, breeding Red Crossbills.
 
The boys - and girl - haven't yet posted the dates of next year's festival, but it'll be at the tail end of April, into early May. Check their website HERE. You'll get a flavor for the event, along with some photos. We'd love to see you there in 2014!
 
The mill at Babcock State Park is picturesque indeed. Not only that, but there's good birding, butterflying, and overall naturalizing in this very spot. Black-throated Blue Warblers breed in the dense tangles of Great Rhododendron on the adjacent slopes, and Swainson's Warblers nest downstream. One of your narrator's very favorite spiders, the outrageous Lampshade Weaver, builds its webs on sandstone outcrops along the stream.

Moths abound, and participants are dazzled by what comes into the nightlights at what may now be West Virginia's most photographed and studied outhouse. Luckily for us, this outhouse is at our morning rendezvous spot for field trips. I think there was a Luna there almost every morning this year.

We were excited to find this jumbo Promethea Moth on the walls of the outhouse one morning. It is a gravid female, and with luck she'll dump all of those eggs and a few will make it through the perilous caterpillar stage and complete the life cycle.

This is the Promethea's cocoon, a curious pendant bag that is reminiscent of a Baltimore Oriole nest. We found this one at Cranberry Glades, and admired it while being serenaded by Winter Wren, Canada and Magnolia warblers, Blue-headed Vireo, and more.

I was co-leading this trip to Cotton Hill on a fine sunny morning. We stopped here because there were all manner of birds in this spot. Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler sang from towering Sycamore trees. Baltimore Orioles issued their flutelike whistles, and another whistler, the Eastern Meadowlark was teed up close at hand. But this action was just a warmup act for the mountain ahead, which abounds with Cerulean Warblers.

One of the festival's founders and a Chief Cook and Bottlewasher is this stylishly risque fashionplate, Geoffrey Heeter. Geoff allowed us to relish the birds of the locale in the previous photo a bit longer than we had planned. To his credit, he conjured this locksmith in no time flat to extract the keys from the innards of Geoff's vehicle. The dog certainly appreciated the business.

Of course, the plants are not to be snubbed, at least on my trips, and we see some doozies. This is one of them, the Little Brown Jugs, Hexastylis virginica. That's its strange flower, in full bloom, flat on the ground in the center of the leaves.

The progression of spring varies a bit from year to year. Last year, it came early and this year spring was tardy. This trio of Pink Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium acaule, was in bud and just about ready to burst. We see several other species of cool orchids, but probably none of them tops this one for sheer wow factor. If you come next year, the pinks will likely be in bloom, and the rocky ledges where I took this photo harbor dozens of plants.

Check out the New River Birding & Nature Festival, and see if you can make it in 2014.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

A pictorial trip along the "Bird Trail"

A snippet of the parking lot at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, on the shores of western Lake Erie. This site is world famous among birders, and with good cause. It is a premier stopover area for scores of neotropical songbirds in migration. In the peak month of spring migration, something like 100,000 people will visit. I was there yesterday, and managed a few photos, which follow...

You can find nearly every state's license plate in the parking lots at some time or another. Including some good ones. "Twitcher" is a British term for one who chases birds.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife owns and manages Magee Marsh, and the mile long boardwalk and the 37-acre swamp woods through which it passes. This boardwalk has long been known as the "Bird Trail", even before there was a boardwalk.

The Division of Wildlife also owns the 2,200 surrounding acres, which holds one of the finest marshes on Lake Erie. The parking lots and beach were once a state park, called Crane Creek. The Division of Parks and Recreation transferred that property to the Division of Wildlife several years ago, hence "Crane Creek State Park" is no more, although people still erroneously refer to the area by that name.

If you're a birder, and you visit Magee Marsh, thank the Division of Wildlife, perhaps by purchasing an Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp. It's expensive to host the throngs of birders that visit. All of those port-a-johns, for instance, cost about $15,000 to rent for peak spring migration. As this year's visitors saw, the Division makes special efforts to accommodate birders, many of whom may not know that Magee was purchased entirely through revenue generated by hunting license revenue, and Pittman-Robertson funds.

One doesn't have to go far to see cool birds. Someone stuck oranges along the parking lot, and brilliantly colored Baltimore Orioles found them appealing.

An adult male American Redstart sports the colors of Halloween. These little warblers seldom pause; they are frantic bundles of energy, raging through the foliage and spooking bugs from the leaves.

Magnolia Warblers sport just about every field mark that you'd want to see on a songbird: eyestripe, wingbars, tail spots, breast streaks, and gaudy coloration.

A personal favorite is the elegant White-crowned Sparrow. They were conspicuous, and the males were constantly singing their mournful buzzy wheezes.

Some sharp-eyed birder spotted this American Woodcock rooting for invertebrates. It is forehead deep in the muck, its long bill several inches into the soil.

As I made my images, through all manner of obstacles, the woodcock fanned its wings. It is a male. The outermost primary feathers - at the bottom of the wing in this photo - are much narrower than the others. They're narrow in the female, too, but not this narrow. When the male does its fabulous aerial courtship display flights, the wind rushing through these skinny bladelike outer primaries creates the twittering sound that we hear.

Throat aflame, a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler skips to another branch. This animal has come a LONG way to be with us. They winter in highlands of the Andes Mountains in South America, and it is bound for the boreal forest of Canada.

An avian zebra, the male Black-and-white Warbler is resplendent in its coat of inky stripes. This warbler was once known as the "Pied Creeper", and its elongated hind claw allows the warbler to scamper along bark as adeptly as a nuthatch.

A surefire crowd-pleaser is the Prothonotary Warbler, which appears to be crafted from molten gold. This is the only cavity-nesting wood-warbler in the east, and a pair or two usually nest along the Bird Trail.

It's easy to see why the Northern Parula was once called the "Olive-backed Warbler". Parulas are truly dinky; our smallest eastern warbler, weighing the same as three pennies.

Wearing a cap of chestnut, the Palm Warbler spends much time on the ground, and often out in the open - an unusual behavior for a warbler. While the "palm" descriptor conjures images of tropical beaches, this species breeds as far north as trees grow, all the way to the shores of Hudson Bay. Wisely, they do winter in the Caribbean and coastal Mexico and Central America, where palm trees are common.

A Nashville Warbler contorts itself to reach insects within the flowers of a Peach-leaved Willow, Salix amygdaloides. Alexander Wilson shot the first specimen in Tennessee, in migration, but the bird doesn't breed anywhere near the Volunteer State.

The most common breeding warbler at Magee Marsh is the Yellow Warbler, and a beautiful bird it is. This male was also feeding among the willow flowers, but simply could not help bursting into song from time to time. After delivering his loud Sweet-Sweet-I'm-So-Sweet!, he'd dive back into the flowers for more goodies.

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