Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ohio Dragonfly Conference: June 23-25

Mark your calendars for the annual Ohio Odonata Society's dragonfly conference, this year dubbed ODO-CON 17. It'll take place at the picturesque Grand River Conservation Campus, owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in Ashtabula County, from June 23 thru 25. This is smack in the middle of some of Ohio's wildest wetland country, and the area is rich in dragonfly diversity. I remember seeing tiny Sedge Sprites right outside the doors of the building where the talks will take place, and some of the local streams are known for supporting significant clubtail populations.

We'll have fun, and see a great diversity of dragonfly species on field trips. Lots of other elements of natural history, too.

All of the conference details are RIGHT HERE. Everyone is welcome!

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Fierce electrical storm

While headed home last night around 8:30 pm, I noticed the makings of a wonderful electrical storm off to the north. As I neared home, the storm intensified, and I saw a potential opportunity to not only observe one of Nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles, but to also try and make some lightning images.

Fortunately, by the time I finally made it back, the storm was still cooking. So I ran in, grabbed some appropriate gear, and tore across the street to a field that offered an unobstructed view to the north. As the storm was raging some distance to the north, there was no rain and not even much wind at my position. Quite often, when good electrical storms offer themselves up, driving rain provides accompaniment. If you've got no protected shelter offering a dry view, forget about making images. Luck was with me last night.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A sunburst spiderweb of lightning bolts creates an interesting pattern against a roiling sky backlit by other more distant lightning flashes. This storm was especially sweet from a photographic viewpoint, as the flashes came frequently, and in the same locale.

To make these images, I used a tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV. The image above was shot with Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 II, and cropped somewhat. Settings were 70mm, f/3.2, 3.2 second exposure, at ISO 400. I used the camera's level to ensure a flat horizon, and a remote shutter release. Once everything is set, I lock the shutter release and let the camera fire away until I unlock the shutter.

The big trick is setting focus properly. My first series of images was made with the Canon 24mm f/1.4, and those came out nice and sharp. But, I realized that a tighter perspective would be better, so I let the camera continue to run as I ran back home and grabbed the 70-200mm. After changing lenses, I got the 70-200 dialed in pretty sharp, as can be seen in both of these images. However, after a while I zoomed to about 140mm, but neglected to fine-tune the focus. All of those images were a loss.

No matter, though. In all, I let the camera expose about 420 images, and  - at least as lightning shots go - an unusually high number were keepers.

This image is a composite of five shots, all taken (almost) back to back. The flashes came so plentifully that between 1/3rd and 1/2 of my 3.2 second exposures had captured a bolt.

Big electrical storms such as this make one feel rather insignificant, and are a great reminder of the power of Nature. Of the myriad gods that Homo sapiens has invented in an attempt to explain natural phenomena in our short 200,000 years of existence, few have been as impressive as Thor. It was he, after all, that was said to oversee skies such as these.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

A fortuitous fox encounter

I spent yesterday and this morning in Killbuck Marsh and vicinity, an area rich in wildlife. Located near the town of Shreve in Wayne County, Ohio, this region is full of wetlands and other interesting habitats, and always produces noteworthy encounters.

I was out in the marsh bright and early today, stalking birds. After finding an especially productive honey hole and spending several hours watching and photographing many species of birds, I had to head for home. But the allure of ground squirrels was strong, and I opted to make one slight detour and visit a cemetery that harbors a population of these fascinating little "prairie dogs".

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel stands near its burrow, ever watchful. One wrong move from your narrator, and he'd be underground in a shot.

I didn't have much to spend stalking squirrels, and after making a few images, I was slowly rolling out in the Jeep. As I neared the cemetery's exit, I spotted another squirrel nearby, stopped, pulled the camera up and went for more images.

Suddenly, as if from thin air, a gorgeous Red Fox materialized. As I was in the car - vehicles make great blinds - the fox utterly ignored me. He (she?) began trotting about my vicinity, at one point snuffling about a pile of fallen debris. I suspect it was after the very ground squirrels I was there to photograph.

In order to draw a bead on the animal, I had to slowly and quietly slip out of the car, then balance the big telephoto atop the door. That allowed me to get a few shots such as the one above.

As the Red Fox is a very handsome animal, I wanted to take this opportunity to create a portraiture shot. By making squeaking sounds in his direction, I was able to get the beast to briefly freeze and stare my way. Bingo! I'll send him this one for his Facebook profile. As (bad) luck would have it, a car pulled in just after I shot the image above, and spooked the animal. I would have loved to have spent more time with him.

It's not common to see Red Fox hunting and cavorting about during midday hours, and it was a lucky way to end the day.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New River Birding and Nature Festival!

Too many days have passed since my last post. I thought I'd be able to make more posts this year, but travels and other activities have my web writing at an all-time low for recent times. It's not that I'm wanting for material - I've been tripping the shutter and seeing interesting organisms at a prolific clip.

The last week+ was occupied with the New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayetteville, West Virginia. This region is one of the most scenic places in eastern North America, and one of the richest in biodiversity. I've been speaking at and leading trips for the festival for a dozen or so years now without missing a beat, and love each return visit. Check out the festival info RIGHT HERE, and consider adding it to your itinerary in 2018.

I take few photos during these sorts of events - I'm too preoccupied with helping everyone else find and see good stuff. In order to satisfy my photographic addiction, I usually tack on a day or two at one end or the other - or both - of the festival and go out and shoot cool stuff.

Following is a miniscule sampling of some of the things that we see and do during the New River Birding & Nature Festival.

A group descends a grassy knob high in the southern West Virginia mountains. This pasture is full of Bobolinks, and we were there to admire the aerial displays of courting males. As William Cullen Bryant penned in his poem Robert of Lincoln:

Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link, Spink, spank, spink:
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.
 
  
  
  
  
 
  
  
 
We do not want for showy scenery. Interesting field trips radiate through the regions each day - the festival runs for six days, although it isn't necessary to attend the entire thing. This mountain brook was running high from an overnight shower.

Indigo Buntings, such as this day-glo male, are very common. Much rarer fare includes Golden-winged and Swainson's warblers. In all, we probably see about 150 species collectively over the course of the week.

A White-eyed Vireo gushes his song from a thicket: Pick up the beer, Check! We work hard to not only find and identify birds, but also learn about their habitats and ecology. Such efforts are aided by a world-class group of guides (not claiming membership in that category, myself :-).

While birds are nearly always prioritized - they can quickly fly away, after all - we ignore nearly nothing. A showy little Eastern Gartersnake such as this would surely be admired, and commented upon.

Some of the best botanical backdrops in the country form the stage for our forays. This treelet is a Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum. It is nearly jarring to encounter one of these orange-flowered beauties in an otherwise still brown forest of early spring.

Pink Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium acaule, nearly never fail to elicit a reaction. While these beautiful orchids might be encountered almost anywhere we go, we've got a few honey holes on tap. The site where I made this image hosted over a hundred plants, all in a fairly small area of dry, rocky upland woods.

The plants, at least for those of us who know them, mean there is never a dull moment. If there is a rare lull in birding action, there is always things like this stunning Miterwort, Mitella diphylla, to ogle. Its tiny bloom resembles a snowflake.

This is the fruit of the Miterwort. Tiny glossy seeds sit loosely anchored in an open cup. The first rain drop to score a hit on the cup knocks the fruit to the forest floor. Splash dispersal. Once grounded, the seeds will probably be picked up and carted off by ants, and thus spread to new locales.

My favorite trips are those that venture high up the mountains and into Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. This year, one of my co-leaders was Mark Garland - orange hat, green shirt. Mark leads trips all over the globe, is a consummate naturalist, and epitomizes the quality of field trip leadership at this festival. There's a lot to point out at Cranberry Glades. This boreal relict harbors many birds that normally breed much further north, such as Canada Warbler and Winter Wren. And they don't call it a botanical area for nothing - the flora is diverse and stunning.

I hope you consider attending the New River Birding & Nature Festival next year.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Worm-eating Warbler

A gorgeous Worm-eating Warbler poses nicely in the understory of a wooded slope in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. I spent the day in this place yesterday on a glorious spring day. The sun shone all day long, the mercury rose into the 70's F, and migratory birds had returned in droves.

Of all the warblers that breed in Shawnee, it's possible that the Worm-eating Warbler is my favorite. It's a subtle animal in every respect. They breed on steep heavily wooded slopes with a well-developed understory, and do much of their foraging in fairly dense growth. That, coupled with the often dim lighting of their haunts, can make "worm-eaters" tough to spot. While the males sing frequently, it's not an overwhelming song. Their tune is a dry, rapid husky trill, reminiscent of a Chipping Sparrow. This is an easy bird to pass right by, even though in a place like Shawnee, an intrepid traveler might be in proximity to 50 or more of the birds in a morning.

Right now is a great time to make a study of forest breeding birds. Many, such as the worm-eaters, have just returned and the males are quite busy trying to establish territories. This means much singing, and conspicuous battles with neighbors as turfs are set up. The bird in this photo was engaged in a serious sing-off with a nearby neighbor, and constantly visited a regular series of singing perches. All I had to do was sidle into a good spot, and watch the action.

A note on the name: the specific epithet vermivorum of the scientific name means "a worm". Hence the common name. It's naming harks back to a time when scientific descriptions were less than exacting, and caterpillars were often called worms. No self-respecting Worm-eating Warbler would probably actually eat a true worm - one of the "night-crawlers" - but they avidly consume the larvae of Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths (caterpillars). Worm-eaters are somewhat specialized foragers, spending much time gleaning through hanging clusters of dead leaves. Such sites are rich in invertebrate prey.

I continue to be disgusted by the treatment of Shawnee State Forest by its "managers", the Ohio Division of Forestry. This woodland belongs to all Ohioans, harbors some of the richest biodiversity in North America, and is being logged to smithereens. Enough is enough - this is not what most Ohioans want to see, nor is it good for the health of this magnificent woodland.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lark Sparrow

I spent a fine day in Indianapolis last Sunday, at the stellar Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum has on display a selection of about 75 original prints from John James Audubon's seminal work, Birds of America. It's well worth a visit to see Audubon's incredible illustrations, but the museum has much more to offer, both inside and out. On the outside is 152 acres of incredible landscapes that is treated as living art. Many native plants are incorporated - in fact, the dominant biomass is native. Thus, the grounds play host to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I gave a talk on Audubon, his art, life, and travels in one of the museum's auditoriums, but beforehand was able to tag along with the museum's chief horticulturalist, Chad Franer, as he led a walk around the museum's property. I highly recommend a visit.

Early the next morning - last Monday - on my return from Indy, I stopped by a long abandoned limestone quarry near Dayton, Ohio that has been made into a park. Barren as the site may appear, it is quite birdy, and didn't disappoint.

One of the first species I encountered was a confiding Prairie Warbler. He seemingly burst with the pleasures of spring, as he sang his rising buzzy melody from the perches that define his turf.

This bird, however, was my primary target - the Lark Sparrow. It is one of my favorites among the Emberizidae, and it's hard picking favorites in such a family of stunners. For us Ohioans, the Lark Sparrow is always a treat. While it becomes quite common to the west, this species is at the eastern periphery of its range here, and quite uncommon. This fellow and at least three others were singing their peculiar buzzy trills from prominent perches. No shrinking violet, the Lark Sparrow.

I was at the park at the crack of dawn, and thus had the place to myself. So, I operated as usual when trying to photograph songbirds. After determining the location of several oft-used perches by one of the territorial sparrows, I sidled into a good position and just waited for him to make his rounds. That's how I got the previous shot. It must be said, though, that the Lark Sparrow is rather tame and not difficult to get near. Nonetheless, I wanted - as always - candid shots of the birds acting naturally, and even with Lark Sparrows that takes a bit of time and patience.

Lark Sparrows remind me of elfin quail, and like quail they spend much time on the ground foraging for plant seeds and small insects. Before long, the singer I was photographing flew to the ground not far from me and began picking about. In short order, his mate joined him and they eventually worked so close to me that I couldn't focus on them. In the shot above, the male hops atop a rock to eye me curiously, then continued on with his activities.

The birds eventually began collecting old plant stems for a nest. This fellow is quite ambitious in his selection of material.


As can be seen by this fine map, the Lark Sparrow is largely a bird of the Great Plains. Its breeding range barely extends as far east as Ohio, which is why it is such a notable treat here. The Buckeye State stronghold has long been the open sandy habitats of the Oak Openings west of Toledo, a place that they've probably bred for thousands of years. But more and more, Lark Sparrows are utilizing - in very small numbers - large abandoned stone quarries such as the one that I visited on this trip.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

John James Audubon talk - Indianapolis Museum of Art

John James Audubon's beautiful rendering of an American Avocet, a species he found breeding near Vincennes, Indiana in 1814. That remains the state's only nesting record.

I'm giving a program this Sunday, April 23, at 3 pm at the Indianapolis Museum of Art about the one and only Audubon. The museum has about 75 of Audubon's prints from his ground-breaking work, The Birds of America, on exhibit: Audubon: Drawn to Nature. The avocet is included among them.

Audubon roamed America at a time when our habitats were largely unaltered, but lived to see sweeping changes wrought by the onslaught of European colonization. He was a woodsman through and through, and in addition to being a keen observer of nature, was arguably the greatest artist of birds to ever live. His paintings are magnificent, and broke new ground in their animation and attention to detail.

Preceding my talk is a tour of the museum's expansive grounds, which are heavily populated with native plants. Birds and other wildlife abound. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Eastern Red Bat

This wonderful little woodland trail meanders along a bluff overlooking a particularly pristine southern Ohio stream. There is lots of wildflower diversity, and as is the case with sites that harbor great floristic diversity, there is lots of animal diversity.

Mostly, on this trip of last Tuesday, I was looking for a mammal - a very special little mammal. I had been here the previous Saturday, with said mammal high on the list of hoped-for targets, but no luck. We saw lots of other great things, and many nice photos were taken, but the migratory mammal that was a main quest had apparently not yet arrived in these haunts.

As you've gathered from this post's title, it was the Eastern Red Bat, Lasiurus borealis, that I was after. These tiny "tree bats" are highly migratory, and the most likely species to be seen hunting during daylight hours. When at rest, the bats typically choose trees for roosting and, as we shall see, can be incredibly difficult to spot when ensconced among the foliage.

I've seen Red Bats on numerous occasions and even photographed them on the wing. The last one that I saw was VERY up close and personal - it was captured as part of a researcher's banding project. The one before that I found napping on the side of an Ohio State University parking garage. But what had thus far eluded me was seeing this wee bat making like a leaf in a tree.

The tan-brown leaves in the photo above are those of American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, and it seems to be the tree of choice for roosting Red Bats.

To make this image, I was prone in the leaf litter. We can see the long-lingering beech leaves of a young sapling projecting in from the left. And if you look quite closely, you may notice a darker lump among those leaves - just left of dead center.

With the help of a 300mm lens and a better lighting angle, we can better make out the "lump". Target acquired - it's a roosting Eastern Red Bat! I was pleased indeed to finally see one of these bats in such habitat, and even more pleased when shortly thereafter I found another one, near eye level.

I'd say it would be a stroke of pure luck - or the result of phenomenal observational skills - for someone to stumble upon one of these bats in a beech tree. But if one is privy to their roosting habits, the odds of locating a Red Bat go way up. I knew they were likely in this area, so I searched the beech trees carefully. However, I've scoured beech for bats many times before, with no luck. Red Bats are even smaller than a beech leaf, and they tend to huddle up next to a leaf or within a small cluster of leaves.

Seen well, the animal is a beast of extraordinary beauty. The pelage is a deep reddish-orange, frosted with a silvery sheen. Small wonder they hide among leaves - the bat is amazingly leaflike and tough to spot among the foliage.

The little fox-like face exudes a certain charm, and those proportionately enormous ears are marvelous augmentations to a remarkably keen sense of hearing.

It would be interesting to know where this bat spent the winter. Red Bats are known to be migratory, and it's possible many of those that pass through or remain to breed in Ohio spent the winter in some southern state. I'm sure FAR more of them are out there than suspected. As this photo essay illustrates, they can quite easily be overlooked. April seems to be a great month for locating Red Bats, and young beech trees with their persistent hanging dead leaves seem to be the best place to search them out. So, should you find yourself in a woodland with beech, keep an eye out for these showy little bats.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Photography Talk! April 14.

A nymph assassin bug, Zelus luridus, awaits the arrival of small pollinating insects within the hub of a large-flowered trillium blossom. The fate of such pollinators will not be good. Imaged yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Friday evening, April 14, for the Focus Group, a local photography club. Guests are welcome, and admission is free. Festivities commence around 7:00 pm, guests are welcome, and admission is free. Location is the Upper Arlington Municipal Building at 2600 Tremont Road, and more details are RIGHT HERE.

I plan on using mostly images that I've taken in recent weeks, and will cover a broad range of natural history subjects. They'll include birds, insects, plants, landscapes, and more. I also want to discuss how to find and approach subjects, composition, using images to interpret natural history, and specific photographic techniques for various subjects.

If you can make it, I'll look forward to seeing you there!

Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, taken yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, photographed last Wednesday in Scioto County, Ohio.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Trillium Festival! April 15!

Our official state wildflower, the Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, imaged by your narrator yesterday in southernmost Ohio. This gorgeous species is just starting to erupt in flowers.

By tax day, April 15, the trilliums will be putting on a spectacular show, and there is no better place to see them than the legendary Mathias Grove in Hocking County. This property has played host to the "Trillium Festival" for an incredible 35 years, and April 15 is the date this year.

All are welcome, and if you go be prepared for a botanical tsunami of trillia of several species, all native and in their natural forest habitat. Bring a camera, too. This year's fest features a photo contest - subject being trilliums, of course - with winners snaring fabulous prizes.

Below are flyers with all the pertinent info on the festival, and the photo contest. Click the pics to enlarge, and you should be able to make out all of the details. Or, visit the Appalachian Ohio Alliance website, RIGHT HERE.





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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Lesser Celandine: A botanical disaster

Acres and acres of rich floodplain forest are blanketed with dense mats of a highly invasive Eurasian plant, the Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, at Whetstone Park in Columbus, Ohio.

On a trip to Indiana last week, I found myself headed west on I-70 - the only pragmatic route for travel to Indianapolis and vicinity from here. As I passed by the Great Miami and Stillwater rivers near Dayton, I noticed great green and gold carpets cloaking the floodplain forests. The dreaded "strangler buttercup", or Lesser Celandine!

This thoroughly noxious plant has really been picking up steam in recent years. It's been a localized scourge in some areas for a long while, but now is steamrolling through floodplain forests at an epic clip. After witnessing the Dayton-area infestations from my 75 mph drive-by, I resolved to visit Whetstone Park near my home after I returned.

I hadn't been to Whetstone in early spring for a number of years, but even then large patches of celandine were already established. What I saw on my visit yesterday stunned me. It was a botanical Armageddon. Long before I even got to the lower reaches of the park and the floodplain of the Olentangy River, I began to see large patches of the stuff in the park's lawns. The floodplain was especially depressing, and the photo above sums up the situation well. The overwhelming majority of native flora and fauna have been totally displaced by the botanical scourge that is Lesser Celandine. Only the overstory trees remain native, but even they are threatened by large clinging draping masses of the invasive Winter-creeper, Euonymus fortunei. The understory is thick in many areas, but shrubs are now nearly completely comprised of another  highly invasive species, Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii.

We have the nursery industry to thank for Lesser Celandine, which, amazingly, is still readily available in the trade. Just google "lesser celandine nursery" and you will see. A popular cultivar is the aptly named "Brazen Hussy".

It's not hard to see why this plant would be a hit. It is showy, and a highly successful groundcover. Probably, when this thing first made its way to our shores and into the nursery trade, no one really knew it would eventually vault over the garden fence and create ecological chaos with native habitats.

But by now, we should be learning some lessons about the likelihood of invasiveness among introduced plants. If it is an extremely rapid to spread groundcover that grows readily from detached vegetative  parts such as tubers and bulblets (such as celandine), we're probably in for trouble. If it is a woody plant - tree or shrub - that has colorful berries and co-evolution with birds as vectors to distribute those fruit, we're probably in for trouble. Further, if the introduced plants hail from Eurasian habitats and climates similar to ours, we're probably in for trouble.

A sad pair of native Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, attempt to punch through the dense mat of celandine. The loss of native wildflowers and other native species due to this horrific infestation is stunning. Where once thick stands of bluebells, trout lilies, various native buttercups, sedges and much more flourished, now there is little to nothing other than the overwhelming Eurasian botanical armies. Attendant with the loss of the native flora is a crash in native pollinating insect populations, and many other forms of animal life.

When a celandine infestation reaches the epic proportions of the invasion depicted here, I'm not sure what can be done. Abetting this plant's rapid spread is that it best grows on regularly flooded river terraces, and the floodwaters quickly sweep plant parts into new terrain. I suspect that eradication of a given population, such as at Whetstone Park, is a long labor-intensive task, and one that would require many years of follow-up. Not to mention long-term diligence, as plants will constantly be reintroduced to the site.

The degradation of our habitats by the onslaught of nonnative invasive plants is depressing indeed.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

Eastern Spadefoot Toad - finally!

An Eastern Spadefoot, Scaphiopus holbrookii, floats among the weeds in a recently flooded agricultural field in Athens County, last Friday evening. This small, largely smooth-skinned toad is one of Ohio's most enigmatic amphibians.

I've wanted to observe spadefoots for years, but finding them isn't easy. Populations display an explosive emergence and reproductive cycle - the toads emerge en masse when weather and moisture conditions are just right, and their singing, mating, and egg-laying may all take place in a night or two. Further compounding the difficulties of locating spadefoots is their unpredictability. Emergences might take place anywhere from late March through July.

video
Laura Hughes knew of a good spadefoot locale in Athens County - one of nine southeastern counties in which they have been found in Ohio. We went there on a very wet night in early March, but nothing - it was probably just too early in the season. But, hot on the heels of a massive thunderstorm that dumped some two inches of rain in the area, we returned last Friday, March 31. Bingo! The secretive toads had emerged in large numbers, and as is almost always the case, we first detected them by the curious call of the males. They sound a bit like sheep bleating, and the call carries for quite some way. Click the video above to hear a recording from Friday evening.

The site is not a natural wetland, but a low-lying agricultural field along the Hocking River. It was planted in corn last year. Heavy rains, and overflow from swollen river waters, inundate the field for short periods. Thus, the site is not high in amphibian diversity - only the most adaptive species seem to occur there. There were many Spring Peepers, such as above.

Many American Toads were also in the waters, with some males singing. This is a pair in amplexus, or the mating "hug" (male on top). I also heard a Green Frog or two, and a few Western Chorus Frogs, but that was about it.

This is what we had come to find, though - the fascinating Eastern Spadefoot. I met Laura on the southeast side of Columbus around 8 pm, and initially we had reservations about the evening's prospects. The temperature seemed to be dropping, and was hovering around 46 F. We felt that if the mercury plunged much lower, it would keep the toads under ground. However, as we moved south, the temperature gradually rose to about 50-51 F and remained there until nearly midnight, when we left. Plenty warm for amphibians.

A spadefoot, showing its wide spread big goggle eyes, and relatively smooth skin, at least for a toad. There are seven or nine species in its family, the Scaphiopodidae, depending on how the taxonomy is interpreted, and all but the species at hand occur in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

Eastern Spadefoots apparently spend most of their life underground, thus a thorough understanding of their life history is tough to ferret out. Limited observations suggest that toads probably come above ground more often than is though, at least on wet or very humid nights, but detection is by far easiest during mass mating emergences, when males are vocalizing.

A closeup of the paddlelike hind foot, showing the animal's namesake spade. The elongate hardened dark ridge helps the toad dig efficiently in the sandy soft soils in which they inhabit.

A male, in full bleat. We estimated seeing or hearing at least 75 toads, but given the size of the site and that we covered only a small portion, I'm sure many others were present.

Finally catching up with this amphibian, and bearing witness to the spectacle of a breeding frenzy, was quite a treat. However, the experience raised numerous questions. Where exactly did the toads come from? How far do they wander? What's the primary diet? How many other populations of this highly secretive animal are out there (listed as state-endangered)? And more.

I can think of a number of other seemingly suitable sites for spadefoots in southeastern and southern Ohio. Hopefully, and now with a much better search image, I will be able to check some of them out during this spring and summer's heavy downpours.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Loon's eerie call brings visions of wilderness

A common loon in the process of molting into its breeding plumage

April 2, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

A common loon in the water looks like a surfaced submarine. With a quick flick of its feet, the bird slips below the surface; it might reappear a far distance from where it submerged.
The loon is a large diving bird, far more at home in water than on land. A chunky specimen can weigh 10 pounds, stretch nearly 3 feet from bill to tail tip, and have a wingspan of almost 4 feet.
Large, paddlelike feet are located at the bird’s extreme posterior, the better to propel it into the depths. Loons are extreme divers, capable of submerging to 200 feet. Their quarry are small fish and other aquatic prey, which are seized with the large daggerlike bill.
An adult loon in its breeding finery is quite showy. Bright, ruby eyes are embedded in the coal-black feathering of the head and neck. If the sun glints off the bird, a subtle purplish-green gloss reflects back. The black upper parts are stippled with white checkerboarding and artistic bands of creamy slashes create necklaces around the throat.
Loons in nonbreeding condition are far more muted, mostly dingy brown with a whitish throat, breast and underparts. The bird pictured with this column was photographed in mid-March and is molting into its breeding plumage.
The physical appearance of the loon is trumped by its calls. On breeding lakes, and sometimes in migration, loons issue what might be the most spectacular calls of any North American bird. Howard Eaton, writing in 1910, captures the essence: “The scream of the loon, uttered at evening, or on the approach of a storm, has to my ear, an unearthly and mournful tone resembling somewhat the distant howl of a wolf. It is a penetrating note, loud and weird.”
To many, the common loon is a symbol of wilderness: the north country, sparsely populated, clad in vast expanses of boreal forest and dotted with pristine cold-water lakes. Places like northern Michigan and Minnesota and the wilds of Canada.
Charismatic loons are much beloved by people and numerous organizations have been formed to protect them. While much of the population breeds far enough north that human disturbance isn’t an issue, southern populations are threatened. Glacial lakes in populated areas are subject to shoreline development, increased boat traffic and water pollution, none of which favors loons.
While loons nest well to the north of Ohio, large numbers occur here in migration. The past few days have brought numerous reports from lakes all over the state as the loons push north.
Far more loons pass through in late fall, transiting Lake Erie on their way to winter on open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Peak passage is in November and a prime day might result in a tally of 1,000 birds.
Although loons don’t breed in Ohio, our water management, especially of Lake Erie, is important to their well-being. The big lake is a major migratory thoroughfare and recent algae issues and the likelihood of in-lake giant wind turbines might not bode well for loons and many other waterbirds.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Autumn Coralroot, a most curious little orchid


As always, I have far more material than time to post it here. While curating photos today, and making sure everything is properly catalogued and safely stored, I ran across photos from a fabulous field trip from last fall. On October 8, 2016, I met John Howard in an obscure part of Pike State Forest, Pike County, Ohio, to look at some interesting habitats. There were low-lying seep-fed fenlike wetlands, and drier prairie-ish openings. As always, we found much biodiversity. At one point, John mentioned having seen a population of an odd little orchid nearby years ago, and we thought it would be worthwhile to try and relocate them. Some images follow...

John led us to a dry, undistinguished woods on a ridgetop - the sort of place that would be easy to pass by. For the most part, the timber was young second-growth, and much of the forest floor was carpeted with Ground-cedar, Diphasiastrum digitatum, a colonial fern that does well in woodlands that have a history of heavy disturbance. Yet it didn't take much searching to locate our target: Autumn Coralroot, Corallhoriza odontorhiza. A plant can be seen growing amongst the Ground-cedar in this shot.

Even on this late date, the orchids were at or near peak bloom. Even so, it's ridiculously easy to overlook them. Coralroots are myco-heterotrophic; they derive their nutrients by intertwining rootlets with subterranean mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi are the middlemen, funneling nutrients to the orchids. This is a common but imperfectly understood relationship in the orchid world (and many other plants).

A hale and hearty Autumn Coralroot is only six inches or so in height, so I spent much time prostrate on the ground for a bird's-eye view. In many cases, prostrating one's self before the subject is necessary in plant photography. We were quite careful to note the location of all orchids around us before going to the ground, not wanting to crush any of them.

Oftentimes, when framing a subject, we would look a bit beyond and there would be another orchid. And another. And more. In all, we located several dozen Autumn Coralroots and it may not even have been a great year for this population. Many orchid species have boom and bust years, and the change in above-ground numbers from year to year can be profound. In a site where relatively few orchids surface one year, a return trip the next year might produce hundreds.

In tight on a fresh flower, in its full glory. There are two varieties: Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. odontorhiza, which is these plants and the most widespread form, and variety pringlei, which apparently has a much more limited distribution. The latter has showier flowers as they actually expand fully (chasmogamous). The flowers shown here are cleistogamous - they don't open fully and are probably self-pollinating.

I had not seen this species for many years, well before I got heavily into photography. It was a treat to see this odd little orchids again, and have the opportunity to make images of them.

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