Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sedge Wrens at historic Huffman Prairie

This innocuous looking field is the most famous place in aviation history. It was here that two famous brothers from Dayton, Orville and Wilbur Wright, learned to fly. Sure, their first powered flights took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, but the following year the brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio, and fine-tuned their flying machines on this very field.

Adjacent to the flying field is famous Huffman Prairie, and it, like the Wright Brothers' airfield, is part of the massive Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The base houses some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. Incredible how far aviation has come in just over a century.

But I was not here to study the history of aircraft. I had not been to the 100-acre Huffman Prairie in a long time, and had been hearing all about how great it looked this year. So, a few Sundays back I headed to Dayton and met up with Grace Cochran of Five Rivers MetroParks, which serves the Dayton area. She was willing to give me a tour of the prairie, which her park district has a big hand in managing along with the air force base and the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Later, we were joined by Dave Nolin, the park district's Conservation Director and a longtime friend. It was a great trip, and we ended up spending many hours exploring the prairie.

Rich dark soil - REAL prairie soil! - is the bedrock of the prairie, and much of the general area. Indeed, the Wright Brothers' airfield was a wet fen back in Orville and Wilbur's day, and they often lamented the soggy quagmire when it was at its wettest.

The reports were true - the prairie looked spectacular. Much more diverse and forb-filled than I remembered from previous visits. Everyone involved in its management deserves major kudos.

In this shot, Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, and Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, dominate but plenty of other botanical diversity is visible in the scene.

Photo: Dave Nolin

Had I only been there three weeks prior! That's when Dave made the stunning image above. Remember that for next year - if you wish to visit Huffman Prairie, angle for the tail end of July or the first week in August.

Purple Coneflower is one of the most conspicuous prairie flowers, and it attracts legions of pollinating insects.

We were routinely sidetracked by interesting insects, such as this Delicate Cycnia moth caterpillar, Cycnia tenera. It is a dogbane specialist, and dogbane is closely related to milkweed (which are now considered part of the dogbane family, Apocynaceae). This photo tells a few stories. We can see the toxic white latex seeping from a leaf scar. Relatively few caterpillars can ingest that stuff, but the cycnia has cracked dogbane's chemical code. The fuzzy grayish-brown caterpillar looks nice and fresh. That's because it just molted into its final instar, or growth stage. The cast-off skin of its last stage is to the left. Most caterpillars go through five instars before reaching the final stage. Next stop: Cocoon.

We were pleased to find this beautiful specimen of a Fork-tailed Bush Katydid, Scudderia furcata.The larger katydids are often tame and confiding, and easy to coax onto one's finger. They are attracted to salts, and will rasp off the outer epidermal layer of your skin, as Grace is finding out in this photo. It isn't painful; just a funny nibbling sensation. Note the animal's ears - those dark oval dimples just below the knees on the forelegs.

This was a nice find, indeed, although the backdrop left something to be desired. It is an Orange-spotted Pyrausta, Pyrausta orphisalis, savoring the delights of coyote scat. These colorful day-flying moths resemble small butterflies.

Almost as soon as we entered the prairie, birds grabbed our attention. Squadrons of Bobolinks coursed over the meadow, issuing their softly melodic pink calls. We were constantly serenaded by electric blue Indigo Buntings, incessant motormouths that they are: Fire fire, where where, here here, see see, put it out put it out! The harsh tshacks! of Common Yellowthroats were hurled our way from thickets, the rotund warblers infuriated at our tresspass. I was surprised and pleased to hear a Blue Grosbeak, quite the rarity in this region, singing its rich finchlike song. We later spotted the bird perched atop a sign.

But perhaps best of all, avian-wise, were the Sedge Wrens. As we penetrated deeper into the prairie, we began to hear the males' staccato chatter, which suggests a poorly running sewing machine. These are secretive rather mousey birds prone to foraging, and even singing, in dense cover. Eventually we spotted one as it flew from perch to perch.

After a while, we were rewarded with excellent looks, and in all detected five singing males. Sedge Wrens often form loose colonies, and if one is found, more will likely be present. In Ohio, they are rare and local breeders, and always a treat to encounter. In our area, at least, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Sedge Wrens most often occur in grasslands - not sedge-filled wetlands - from my experience. The scientific name is Cistothorus platensis, and the genus name roughly translates to "shrub leaper". Where I find them every spring in northern Michigan, that name is apropos - they are often in sedge meadows laced with alder thickets.

In Ohio, Sedge Wrens often don't appear on territory until mid-July or even early August. It is thought that these are birds that already bred at more northerly latitudes, or in the prairie states and provinces to the west. Following that, the wrens move south and east, and nest again in entirely new locales, both in terms of habitat and geography.

Thanks again to Grace and Dave for the tour, and an excellent day in one of Ohio's best prairies.



Sue said...

I always appreciate your posts--love learning new things AND the double bonus is it gives me ideas for various flower beds in my yard--I'm doing my darndest to plant things with nature as the priority. The prairie is beautiful.....thanks for sharing

Gaia Gardener: said...

Was Huffman Prairie ever plowed? How much overplanting of forbs has there been, or are the plants that are currently in existence descendants of those living originally on the site? I love how full of flowers it is and am just wondering a bit about its biological history....


Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, Cynthia and Sue. Following is a link to more info about Huffman Prairie: http://www.metroparks.org/Parks/PublicationFolder/HuffmanPrairie_brochure.pdf