Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pollinator Workshop: August 13, Caesar Creek

An Obedient-plant, Physostegia virginiana, fairly bristles with native pollinating bees. An air traffic controller is practically required to keep the bees from colliding. I made this image this morning at Wahkeena Nature Preserve in Fairfield County. There is a sizable colony of this plant there, and they were swarming with pollinators.

I have been remiss in remembering to plug what will be a fantastic event. On August 13, the Midwest Native Plant Society is sponsoring a pollinator workshop, featuring a start-studded cast of speakers. Following the talks, we head afield to nearby native plant-filled habitats that should be bristling with pollinators. The venue is the roomy visitor's center at Caesar Creek in Wayne County. It's sure to be a fun and informative day. For all of the details, and registration info, CLICK HERE.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

A trip through Boch Hollow

A stunning piece of scenery, even by Hocking Hills standards. I'd had a visit to Boch Hollow State Nature Preserve on the to-do list for a long time, and finally, last Saturday, the trip materialized. Boch is at the extreme northern edge of the Hocking Hills, in northern Hocking County, and it's a relatively recent acquisition by the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, or at least parts of it are.

Boch Hollow encompasses about 570 acres, and all of it is interesting, but the scenic crown jewel is the gorge above. PLEASE NOTE: This section of the preserve is permit only. A permit is available through the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. I'd long known of the magical falls in these first two photos, and this was my main photographic quarry on this mission. I was there soon after sunrise, and made a series of images before moving into the larger, publicly accessible part of the preserve.

A tighter view of the mini box canyon, which is now known as Robinson Falls. Looks can be deceiving. While the narrowness of the chasm gives the illusion of depth, it's probably only 10-12 feet from the water to that log in the upper right corner of the photo. No matter, the rock and water still create a stunning palette of shapes and colors. I was fortunate in that there had been a good shower within a day of my visit, and a decent volume of water was flowing over the falls. Nonetheless, I hope to return in April at a time when the water volume is greater.

After the falls shoot, I hopped in the car and drove around to the main parking lot. After some deliberation, I decided to travel light and hunt mostly SMALL THINGS. So on went the 100mm macro lens, and off I went. Hairy Wood Mint, Blephilia hirsuta, was frequent along the main trail, sometimes forming sizable patches.

Scarcer but as conspicuous as any flower out there was the Rose-pink Gentian, Sabatia angularis. The caterpillars of a beautiful moth, the Short-lined Chocolate, are known to feed on the gentian's foliage.

While you might not know it from this photo, Field Milkwort, Polygala sanguinea, is rather easy to miss. It is often elfin in stature, and grows intermixed with more overpowering plants. The rose-colored "shingles" are actually bracts (modified leaves); the true flowers are the tiny yellow structures at the summit.

Where there is a good diversity of native flora, there will usually be a fascinating array of insects. This is a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe. It was avidly working the nectaries of White Bergamot (Monarda clinopodia if you are a splitter; M. fistulosa var. clinopodia if you are a lumper).

Hummingbird moths are sphinx moths, and active during the day. Photographing them is a bit tricky, but generally not nearly as tough as shooting real hummingbirds. The moths are pretty consistent in their foraging patterns, and the photographer can usually predict their movements and be ready. Then it is just a matter of knowing how to use your camera effectively.

A quartet of Elm Argid Sawflies, Arge scapularis, dangle rather artistically from a leaf. When threatened, they and other sawfly larvae adopt this curious S-shaped posture, for reasons unknown to me. While they resemble caterpillars, sawflies are actually the larvae of a type of wasp - quite unrelated to moths and butterflies, which produce true caterpillars.

Speaking of wasps, here is a bizarre wasp mimic. It is a moth - MOTH, I say! - but does an astonishing job of looking like something that packs a punch. In fact, when I saw it from afar flitting through some grasses, my first thought was it was some type of wood wasp and I'm usually savvy to this mimicry business. But it is the Eupatorium Borer, Carmenta bassiformis (I think - there are a number of look-alike species in this group). There was plenty of Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, nearby.

Ferocious, but fortunately on a wee scale. This is a robberfly known as Laphria canis (one of the species within this complex. Thanks Benjamin Coulter for the ID expertise). Note the withered husk of a tiny fly dangling from the robberfly's proboscis. Tip to the reincarnation crowd: Don't come back as an insect. You're liable to meet your end at the hand of something like this.

A ways up the main trail from the parking lot is a small pond. Even though it isn't large, the pond was loaded with life and I spent some time there attempting to create images of the creatures around it. One of the most common dragonflies was the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, which is always a favorite photo subject.

I spotted this mammoth Six-spotted Fishing Spider, Dolomedes triton, hunting along the edges of some cattails. Small Eastern Amberwing dragonflies, which usually skim low over the water's surface, came dangerously close to the spider on occasion. When they did, the spider would come to life with a lightning-fast leap in their direction. Alas for the spider, it never got one. I was hoping it would, as what a shot that would make and I was ready for it.

Here is a far less terrifying spider, at least to most people. It is a showy little cobweb weaver known as Theridion frondeum (no common name). I discovered her within a leaf that she had rolled into a shelter and silked into place. A protective mother, she remained atop her egg sac.

A huge bonus was this Gray Petaltail, Tachopteryx thoreyi. These giant dragonflies are never common, and occur around damp marshy seeps in wooded habitats. Typical perching posture is as seen - head up on the side of a tree trunk. But they are noted for their propensity to land on people, and sure enough, at one point it did dart out and land on my arm. They mean no harm, and aren't threatening - we just make good perches.

All too soon, it was noon and the temperatures on this incredibly steamy, muggy day had already reached the 90's and it was time to pack it in for the day. Not a bad assemblage of biodiversity for a morning's ramble, though.

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A trip through Boch Hollow

A stunning piece of scenery, even by Hocking Hills standards. I'd had a visit to Boch Hollow State Nature Preserve on the to-do list for a long time, and finally, last Saturday, the trip materialized. Boch is at the extreme northern edge of the Hocking Hills, in northern Hocking County, and it's a relatively recent acquisition by the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, or at least parts of it are.

Boch Hollow encompasses about 570 acres, and all of it is interesting, but the scenic crown jewel is the gorge above. PLEASE NOTE: This section of the preserve is permit only. A permit is available through the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. I'd long known of the magical falls in these first two photos, and this was my main photographic quarry on this mission. I was there soon after sunrise, and made a series of images before moving into the larger, publicly accessible part of the preserve.

A tighter view of the mini box canyon, which is now known as Robinson Falls. Looks can be deceiving. While the narrowness of the chasm gives the illusion of depth, it's probably only 10-12 feet from the water to that log in the upper right corner of the photo. No matter, the rock and water still create a stunning palette of shapes and colors. I was fortunate in that there had been a good shower within a day of my visit, and a decent volume of water was flowing over the falls. Nonetheless, I hope to return in April at time when the water volume is greater.

After the falls shoot, I hopped in the car and drove around to the main parking lot. After some deliberation, I decided to travel light and hunt mostly SMALL THINGS. So on went the 100mm macro lens, and off I went. Hairy Wood Mint, Blephilia hirsuta, was frequent along the main trail, sometimes forming sizable patches.

Scarcer but as conspicuous as any flower out there was the Rose-pink Gentian, Sabatia angularis. The caterpillars of a beautiful moth, the Short-lined Chocolate, are known to feed on the gentian's foliage.

While you might not know it from this photo, Field Milkwort, Polygala sanguinea, is rather easy to miss. It is often elfin in stature, and grows intermixed with more overpowering plants. The rose-colored "shingles" are actually bracts (modified leaves); the true flowers are the tiny yellow structures at the summit.

Where there is a good diversity of native flora, there will usually be a fascinating array of insects. This is a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe. It was avidly working the nectaries of White Bergamot (Monarda clinopodia if you are a splitter; M. fistulosa var. clinopodia if you are a lumper).

Hummingbird moths are sphinx moths, and active during the day. Photographing them is a bit tricky, but generally not nearly as tough as shooting real hummingbirds. The moths are pretty consistent in their foraging patterns, and the photographer can pretty well predict their movements and be ready. Then it is just a matter of knowing how to use your camera effectively.

A quartet of Elm Argid Sawflies, Arge scapularis, dangle rather artistically from a leaf. When threatened, they and other sawflies adopt this curious S-shaped posture, for reasons unknown to me. While they resemble caterpillars, sawflies are actually the larvae of a type of wasp - quite unrelated to moths and butterflies, which produce true caterpillars.

Ferocious, but fortunately on a wee scale. This is a robberfly known as Laphria canis (one of the species within this complex. Thanks Benjamin Coulter for the ID expertise). Note the withered husk of a tiny fly dangling from the robberfly's proboscis. Tip to the reincarnation crowd: Don't come back as an insect. You're liable to meet your end at the hand of something like this.

A ways up the main trail from the parking lot is a small pond. Even though it isn't large, the pond was loaded with life and I spent some time there attempting to create images of the creatures around it. One of the most common dragonflies was the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, which is always a favorite photo subject.

I spotted this mammoth Six-spotted Fishing Spider, Dolomedes triton, hunting along the edges of some cattails. Small Eastern Amberwing dragonflies, which usually skim low over the water's surface, came dangerously close to the spider on occasion. When they did, the spider would come to life with a lightning fast leap in their direction. Alas for the spider, it never got one. I was hoping it would, as what a shot that would make and I was ready for it.

A huge bonus was this Gray Petaltail, Tachopteryx thoreyi. These huge dragonflies are never common, and occur around damp marshy seeps in wooded habitats. Typically perching posture is as seen - head up on the side of a tree trunk. But they are noted for their propensity to land on people, and sure enough, at one point it did dart out and land on my arm. They mean no harm, and aren't threatening - we just make good perches.

All too soon, it was noon and the temperatures on this incredibly steamy, muggy day had already reached the 90's and it was time to pack it in for the day. Not a bad assemblage of biodiversity for a morning's ramble, though.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Exploding seeds, or the magic of ballistochory

The beautiful lemony flower of a Pale Jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, dangles beneath the succulent foliage. We have one other native species in this genus (in Ohio), the Spotted Jewelweed, I. capensis, which has orange flowers. Both are very common in moist woods, often in semi-deep shade. Bumblebees are major pollinators, and hummingbirds are also smitten with the flowers.

Once successfully pollinated and seeds have developed, the trick is to find a way to disperse those seeds reasonably far from the parent. That's how plants maintain and/or expand their populations, and they've got a big bag of tricks to abet their migrations. Some plants have sticky fruit, and mammals unwittingly move them about. Other fruits float, and are readily dispersed by water. Yet others are windborn. Ants and other insects cart away seeds. There are many other mechanisms of seed dispersal, but we're going to talk about ballistochory.

It's not hard to see where the common name "jewelweed" comes from. The water-resistant leaves are waxy, and cause liquid to bead up into beautiful gemlike drops.

But it is the fruit of Impatiens that we're here to discuss. That would be the cylindrical misshapen package hovering over the leaf on a slender pedicel. This fruit is ripe, or close enough, and within are three or four seeds. The outer shell of the fruit is comprised of five elastic evanescent strips called valves. Thin bands of weaker tissue bind the valves together. Inside the fruit, the seeds are held in place by a specialized piece of tissue called the replum.

I stimulated dehiscence, or "popping" of the fruit seen in the previous image. Impatiens capsules are like little grenades ready to explode when ripe, and the slightest touch pops them open. In order to keep all the parts upon explosion, one must cup the fruit within a closed fist.

The lumps on the left are two of the seeds. On the right is the tangled mass of spent valves. During the growth process, the inside and outside of the valves are subjected to different tensions, so that the outer and inner walls have decidedly different stresses placed on them. When the fruit is ripe and finally dehisces, the thin veins of tissue holding the valves together abruptly rip. This causes a nearly instantaneous release of pressure in the valves, causing them to instantly revert to an unstressed state. In the process, the seeds are hurled forcefully outward, sometimes flying a few feet. The effect is similar to popping a fully expanded balloon, and the subsequent instant shriveling of the rubber shell.

Impatiens fruit are ripening nicely about now, and you can test explosive ballistochory seed dispersal for yourself. Nest time you see a big fat fruit, just tap it and watch the botanical bomb go off. Better yet, cup the fruit tightly in your hand to capture the seeds. Then eat them. They taste just like fresh walnuts.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Huffman Prairie, catchflys, and hummingbirds

Sunrise over Huffman Prairie, as seen last Friday. This 100(ish) acre prairie patch is located at the south end of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

Dave Nolin, recently retired Director of Conservation for Five Rivers Metroparks, sent me a few photos of the prairie last week. It looked so spectacular, just nearing peak bloom, that I couldn't wait to go see it in person. So, I took Friday off and was there before daybreak. So amazing was the place that I went back for an encore on Sunday morning. Some photos from these excursions follow.

Major kudos go to the management of the giant air force base for their support of Huffman Prairie, which sits on their property. Double kudos to Dave Nolin, who spent the better part of three decades working with the base to provide the best possible management for the prairie. All that long hard work is bearing major fruit today, as we shall see. Even though Dave has left the helm at Five Rivers Metroparks, the staff there continues with the fine work.

On the prairie's south edge sits this replica of the Wright Brother's original hangar - yes, those Wrights, Orville and Wilbur! This is the site where they researched and improved their aircraft, and where many early test flights took place. By 1910, a mere seven years after their inaugural flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they had founded the Wright Flying School at Huffman Field. Today, flying machines representing the current pinnacle of aviation routinely fly the skies over the huge air force base just north of this hangar.

In a delicious irony, Barn Swallows fill the Wright Brothers hangar with their nests instead of artificial flying machines. These feathered speedsters are incredible aeronauts, and one might argue that no manmade flying machine can rival their flight skills.

Now, I'm sure, you'll understand why I was in a hurry to get there! A sea of coneflowers, catchfly, blazing-stars and scores of other prairie plants create a fantastic palette of color.

Standing out like crimson beacons is the Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, this one embedded in a cushion of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The catchfly is a pure prairie plant, and never have I seen so much of it in one locale.

To Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Royal Catchfly is irresistible. If there are any hummers about, you can be sure that sooner than later the catchfly's brilliant blossoms will draw them over. On Friday, I guesstimated (an accurate estimate is probably impossible) that at least 100 hummingbirds were present, and likely far more than that. At times, I would see 6 or 8 birds from one spot, and that's a big prairie with scads of catchfly.

A female hummingbird dips deep into the flower's corolla, seeking nectar rewards. The catchfly has coevolved with long-billed hummingbirds. The flowers do not have stiff petals (landing pads) and thus the core of the flower is inaccessible to many insects, other than swallowtail butterflies. Furthermore, the sticky gluelike calyx (the green and white striped tube below the flower) prevents access to climbing insects. But these little feathered helicopters have no difficulty at all in dealing with catchfly flowers, and work them speedily and efficiently. The birds are probably their most important pollinators.

A camera's eye view of the prairie. I picked a prime spot with many catchfly plants in fairly close proximity, including several "signal tower" plants - catchflys that were much taller than most of the surrounding vegetation and thus great lures to feeding hummers. The flash rig atop the camera allowed me to send soft fill flash out to about 50-60 feet, giving me a good radius to work in.

Once I had my spot picked, I just stayed there. Five hours on Friday, and about four hours on Sunday. Obtaining crisp photos of feeding hummingbirds is no easy task. I find it is best to stay quietly in one spot, and let them come to me. Which they did, on a regular basis. About a dozen times, a nearby hummingbird would suddenly take notice of me and the camera, shoot about ten feet straight up in the air and move closer, and hover for a few seconds obviously checking me out. About half the time, they'd decide they didn't like the large invader and shoot off to some more distant flowers. The other times, they'd seemingly decide I was OK and drop right back down and commence feeding.

I have little problem remaining immobile for long periods when the surrounding environment is as interesting as this prairie. A Blue Grosbeak made the rounds, serenading me with its forceful finchy warble. Two local Common Yellowthroat males routinely delivered their fabulous aerial flight songs at close range. Bobolinks occasionally darted overhead, issuing their pleasing musical pink! pink! call notes. Young Eastern Cottontails nibbled on succulents just down the path. Giant Swallowtails coursed by, and one female paused nearby to deposit eggs on a wafer-ash. And on went the wildlife parade, nonstop. Plus, it was a great opportunity to observe the habits of the hummingbirds. They are easily among our most feisty animals, and if a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was the size of a swan, we'd be in serious trouble. Were they that big, I'm sure I would have been impaled and tossed aside for my transgressions into their turf. As often as not, a hummer would just have set up perfectly for a photo, when another would whir by and the fight would be on! The birds would chase one other at top speed across the prairie, sometimes shooting high into the sky. At one point, an American Robin had the temerity to attempt to wing over the prairie, and a hummingbird (outmassed by 25 times by the comparatively huge thrush) immediately launched skyward and sent it packing.

From a photography perspective, trying to capture hummingbird photos is fun and challenging. The birds are often rather unpredictable, and usually don't remain at any given flower for more than a few seconds. One must learn to be fast on the trigger and smooth and accurate in tracking the fast-moving quarry. When all goes reasonably well, photos such as this one can result. I FAR prefer shooting the birds on native wildflowers than feeders, too.

Interspersed with the typical catchfly plants were a number of specimens of this variant, a salmon-colored form. This is a decidedly rare type, and I've only seen it in a handful of spots, and always in very low numbers. One of the reasons that I picked the stakeout spot that I did was because an exceptionally large and striking salmon plant was within close distance (the plant in the photo). To capture a hummingbird nectaring at one of these flowers would be exceptional, probably the best trophy photo one could get in this place. So, I kept an exceptionally close watch for hummers moving in on the salmon catchfly.

Yes! After several hummer visits to the salmon catchfly and an equal number of missed photo opportunities, I finally managed this one image. While not technically my best effort, the photo is OK and can (and will) be improved upon later. The image above is a quick edit of the jpeg. I shot this with my Canon 5DS-R, and the RAW file of this shot is about 70 megabytes and that allows for some wonderful tweaking of imperfections.

If you get the opportunity to visit Huffman Prairie in the next week or two, do it. The prairie will still be looking magnificent, and you're sure to see plenty of hummingbirds and other critters.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mostly small things, in limited areas

bi·o·di·ver·si·ty: the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem

I spent much of last weekend with friends and fellow explorers of the natural world John Howard, and Laura and Dave Hughes. Elisabeth and Nate Rothschild were able to join us for a while on Saturday.

We visited only a handful of sites in Adams County, Ohio, and within each of those sites we probably never traveled more than a hundred yards or so. It's not that we couldn't have covered much more ground - all of us easily could. The biodiversity kept stopping us in our tracks.

A primary reason why I spend so much time in this region is because of the amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Homo sapiens has managed to eliminate or greatly reduce animal and plant diversity in most parts of Ohio, and now I suspect the overwhelming majority of people have no idea what they/we are missing. Shades of Louv's NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER coupled with E.O. Wilson's warnings of a vanishing planet coming to fruition.

But there are places where the original inhabitants still thrive, even in Ohio, and Adams County is one of those places. Those of us that believe that big chunks of the natural world should be saved for us, now, and future generations can thank The Nature Conservancy and the Cincinnati Museum Center for contributing greatly to that cause. Their magnificent 18,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve contains an enormous chunk of Midwestern biodiversity.

The following is a word-sparse slideshow of a little piece of what we saw last Saturday, and Sunday morning. There was far more than this. I was in macro-mode most of the time, and focused mostly on small things.

An Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus. Large specimens can reach nearly three inches in length, and males, like the one shown, use their spectacular "antlers" to joust with one another during mating season.

Up close and personal with a female Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus. They resemble something out of a Japanese sci-fi movie. The winged adults are short-lived, but the strictly aquatic larvae last for much longer and are well known to many fishermen as hellgrammites.

Whimsical and alien, as if it jumped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, is this nymph planthopper in the genus Acanalonia. As it matures and molts into an adult, it will lose that fungus-like appendage.

Katydids are masters of camouflage, and this nymph Greater Anglewing, Microcentrum rhombifolium, is no exception. It's a male, and following one more molt it'll be completely grown and able to "sing". By rubbing its wings together, it produces a loud metallic tapping. This is a very common song of late summer and fall.

A White-dotted Prominent moth, Nadata gibbosa. It is one of well over 1,000 species of moths in this region. White-dotted Prominent caterpillars eat oak. When threatened, they curl into a coil, bare their yellow mandibles, and look quite snakelike. Small songbirds are presumably intimidated.

One of our craziest and most interesting spiders is the Trashline Orbweaver, Cyclosa turbinata.  They build perfectly symmetrical intricately woven webs, then create a line of trash - composed of indigestible parts of victims - through the center of the web. The spider hides within the trash, blending to perfection. It's there, in the exact center bulls-eye of the web, facing head down.

A Red Paper Wasp, Polistes annularis, guards its nest. Freshly laid eggs can be seen within some of the chambers. She also secretes a chemical around the base of the pedicel that attaches the nest which repels ants. While seemingly a formidable defender, these wasps are rather passive and will go through a series of threat displays before attempting to sting. Heed their warnings, as the sting hurts.

The Wheelbug, Arilus cristatus, is a ferocious hemipteran predator. They stalk insect prey, and when the time is right the beast lunges forward and seizes its victim while simultaneously stabbing it with that syringelike proboscis fronting its face. Chemicals are injected which quickly immobilize the prey and liquefy its innards. When all is suitably mushy, the Wheelbug sucks out the contents.

A smaller cousin of the Wheelbug is the Spined Soldier Bug, Podisus maculiventris.  This one has just speared a caterpillar of the Silvery Checkerspot butterfly. For details about what will ensue, read the Wheelbug description above. Much of Nature is not very Disneyesque.

A stunning purple spike of Tall Larkspur, Delphinium exaltatum, flowers brightens the gloom of a shady woodland verge. These big buttercup family members are amongst the showiest of the midsummer wildflowers, but are rare in Ohio. Not at this spot, though - dozens grew here. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was busily plumbing nectar from the colony's flowers.

Juniper Hairstreaks, Callophrys gryneus, always cause excitement out of all proportion to their thumbnail-sized dimensions. This one was smitten with the nectar of Purple Coneflower. Some years these tiny butterflies are scarce, but this year seems to be a boom year for them.

The Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, is probably an arachnophobe's worst nightmare, but we were pleased as punch to come across this female. She is a protective parent, and carries her egg sac attached to her spinnerets. Given that the animal would pretty much fill your palm if you had the nerve to hold her, probably not much is going to mess with this eight-legged momma. This is the species that hadn't been seen for 50 years in Ohio, until 2014 when John, Dave, Laura and I rediscovered it in Adams County.

Life beetle! Ever since I learned of the existence of the Delta Flower Scarab, Trigonopeltastes delta, I've wanted to see one. We found at least two, both of whom were smitten with the flowers of Rattlesnake-master. Note the pattern formed by the elytra (brown wings) and the rear of the abdomen. It looks like a big scary wasp face - each brown wing is an eye, and the white tip are the mandibles. Weirdly similar to the mug of a hornet.

A suave Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus, was another visitor to the Rattlesnake-master flowers. If you want to see and/or photograph lots of cool insects, stake out a patch of this plant. You'll see a constant parade of six-legged characters.

Dangling acrobatically from a branch is this Cope's Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis. Visually it is indistinguishable from the look-alike Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor, but their songs give them away. The Cope's blasts out a much harsher raspier trill - especially apparent when one is singing a foot or two from your head, as this guy did.

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