Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A trip to Slate Run Metro Park: Botanical highs and lows

Part of a large wetland complex at Slate Run Metro Park in Pickaway County, Ohio. A section of the westernmost part of this 1,705 acre park is a mosaic of meadows, ponds, and wetlands.

It's sometimes easy to overlook the jewels in one's own backyard. Even though Slate Run is only a bit over a half-hour's drive, and it's been there for a while, I had never been to the place. That situation got remedied with two visits in the past few days, and I was impressed with what I found.

Immediately upon arrival, it was birds galore, and since finding and imaging the feathered crowd was the foremost priority of these expeditions, I was pleased indeed. Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks (wish they'd shorten that name! "Franklin County Metroparks") has long been a leader in ecological restoration and it shows at this park. Lots of native plant diversity in the wetlands and fields, and a logical blend of uplands and lowlands.

The Kokomo Wetland Trail winds for about 1.5 miles through meadow and along wetlands. At one point, a boardwalk crosses a pond/wetland. I found lots of birds along this trail, including many Swamp Sparrows. This is a hardy species, and many try to overwinter here, especially in sites with thick cattail stands.

Slate Run was rich in sparrows during my visit, and their ranks included American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Eastern Towhee.

One honey hole was a photographer's dream. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw and heard numerous American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. It didn't take long to figure out that many of the birds were venturing to a small pond buffered by woods, and drinking and bathing.

I crept into a good situation, and after a while the birds acclimated to my presence and carried on with their activities. This robin is perched on a perfectly sited log, which many of the birds used as a stop before or after a visit to the nearby water. While I like robins - one of the handsomest birds in North America, we're just jaded because they are so common - I've got scores of photos of them, and really hoped that a waxwing would tee up in this same spot.

Voila! Before long, a Cedar Waxwing did just that. Few of the world's birds can rival this elegant species for suave sophistication.

After a while, waxwings began coming so close that I couldn't even focus - they were inside my minimum focus range. Such problems!

The birds' close proximity allowed me to create portraiture shots such as this. This adult waxwing is impeccably groomed, as is typical.

In a minute, I'll discuss the abundant food source that had so many birds concentrated in this area. But with the waxwings, what I really wanted was to make some photos of them eating their botanical namesake: the fruit (cones) of eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. This native conifer provides an important winter food source. There were a few cedar very close at hand, and eventually several of the birds flew in and began plundering the fruit. One cedar was so close that I would have needed my 70-200mm lens to capture the birds in its boughs - the 500mm plus 1.4x teleconverter was overkill.

A waxwing poses, briefly, with berry in bill. A second later it was down the hatch.

The new norm for many Ohio woodlands is this nasty plant, Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii. A native of Eurasia, it was intentionally introduced in eastern North America long ago, partly for its ornamental value, and partly for its "wildlife value".

Even this late in the year, the leaves of this understory plant remain green, and its branches drip with bright red berries. And the birds love 'em.

Amazingly, the various bush honeysuckles (there are a few invasive species) were still formally recommended as a wildlife planting by wildlife agencies into the 1990's - long after botanists and ecologists could have told them that this was a bad idea. The nursery trade must be implicated in this infestation, too, although I think by now virtually everyone has wised up and stopped selling the stuff.

But honeysuckle is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Even in a managed park such as Slate Run, there is far too much of it to eradicate.

A Northern Cardinal plows through a honeysuckle berry, one of many that I watched it eat. And he, and all of the other birds feeding on the stuff, will spread the plants about. Some of the seeds survive the rough ride through the digestive tract and emerge from the other end scarified and ready to grow.

I was pleased to hear the loud smacking CHAK! calls of a Fox Sparrow, and eventually saw 5 or 6 of the large handsome sparrows. I was not so pleased to see them succumbing to the honeysuckle addiction shared by many of their feathered companions. Note the evidence on the tip of this bird's bill.

Dozens of American Robins were in the area, and all of them were feeding heavily on the honeysuckle. These thrushes are one of the major consumers of honeysuckle fruit, and the plant is a primary reason why we in the north see so many robins around in winter. The Cedar Wawings were also consuming honeysuckle fruit en masse, but I preferred to use my shots of them eating the native cedar fruit.

Even the White-throated Sparrows were in on the act. This handsome white-striped morph ate many of the berries while I watched, as did many of his companions.

So, if honeysuckle is such an abundant and rich source of bird food, what's the problem?

For one, the berries themselves. They are high in sugar and low in fat and protein - exactly the opposite of what birds need in winter. Native berry-producing shrubs produce far less fruit, but it provides much better nutritional needs for birds that might be subjected to severe cold snaps and ice storms which might largely lock the birds out of many food sources for days on end.

Too, the absolutely enormous berry crops lure many species to overwinter in much greater numbers far to the north of where they normally would. Like all those robins. This creates the potential for large winter die-off's, as has happened conspicuously with American Robins, should extended severe weather strike.

Honeysuckle also forms extensive tangles that choke out many/most native shrubs and other plants. It has been shown to be allelopathic as well - the roots exude enzymes which inhibit the growth of competing plant species. Botanical chemical warfare, if you will.

Perhaps most insidiously, the nonnative honeysuckles are unsuitable hosts for nearly all of our (in Ohio) 2,500+ moth and butterfly species. Their caterpillars cannot eat the stuff, because they share no evolutionary history. This means vast swaths of honeysuckle infestations that do not produce the caterpillars that are so essential to fueling our nesting and migrant songbirds.

On its face, the honeysuckle might seem a great thing for birds. But there is a much darker side to this story.


Lori said...

These pictures are just beautiful! I think WE are all going to enjoy YOUR retirement!

C said...

I had one of those honeysuckles in my small yard- planted by a bird no doubt, as they plant all the invasives. When you cut that plant, it redoubles its growth efforts and branches out more- so you cut more and it grows more. It makes itself into an almost immediate thicket.

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