Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Stream Cruiser: A "life" dragonfly

A stream cruiser, Didymops transversa, rests briefly, moored to a low plant. Note those lanky legs! I was exploring a prairie in Adams County yesterday, when we noticed two moderately sized dragonflies patrolling low over the plants. No bells were ringing in terms of absolute identity, but it didn't take long before one landed not too far off.

Fortunately, I had my 70-200mm lens on the camera, coupled to a 25mm extension tube. I use that setup a fair bit for plants, but it's also great for dragonflies. I was able to crawl on in, get prostrate, and shoot the cool insect at its level.

Stream cruiser! A new one for me, and in a completely unexpected bit of serendipity. While this species often patrols low over the waters of small streams - there was a creek not far off - they'll also hunt over nearby meadows, as we observed.

Stream cruiser distribution map, courtesy the Ohio Dragonfly Survey/Jim Lemon

This dragonfly has a patchy distribution in southern and eastern Ohio, with post-1990 records in 17 counties. The five counties marked with white diamonds represent new county records recorded during the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (2017-19).

Technically, it wasn't a "lifer", as I've seen a few patrolling streams, but those were relatively unsatisfying fly-bys that didn't really allow me the chance to study them. This one offered a great view, and good opportunities to observe their flight style and hunting tactics.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Heart-leaved Water Plaintain: Rare, and getting rarer

A damp gravel bar in a tiny Adams County stream is dominated by eastern North America's largest plantain, the heart-leaved water plantain, Plantago cordata. The basal leaves can reach two feet across in exceptional specimens. It's also one of this region's rarest plants, and seemingly quickly becoming rarer.

Historically documented in ten Ohio counties, this plantain is now known from only three: Adams, Hardin, and Mahoning. Fortunately, all three populations are on protected lands.

I got to revisit two of the three sites this spring, after not seeing them for over a decade. While admittedly anecdotal recollections, my immediate sense upon seeing these sites again was that the populations had shrunk significantly since I had last seen them.

A flowering spike of Plantago cordata, bristling with elongate filaments capped by brownish anthers. While no one would call this a showy wildflower, its overall robustness and ornate architecture gives the plant a certain charisma.

Two giant plantains spring from the rocky bed of this headwater stream. Fortunately, the Arc of Appalachia has acquired this site and is monitoring the plants. There is no question that their ownership - and that of the other two sites, which are also owned by conservation organizations - gives the rare plantain a better long-term outlook.

Courtesy of the USDA Plant Database, here's a county-level distribution map of heart-leaved water plantain. The plant is long gone from many if not most of those green counties, and is now listed as endangered or some other category of imperiled in most of those states.

The reasons for the demise of this species of undisturbed wooded swamps and streams is not too tough to suss out. Habitat loss, and water quality degradation certainly must be the overriding factors in the plantain's decline. Heart-leaved water plantain apparently does not rebound well from logging or other large-scale disturbance, and much of the habitat in its range has been converted to agriculture.

Even sites that survive may be adversely impacted by land abuses further upstream in the watershed. Increased siltation may be a detrimental factor, as is greatly increased "flashiness": sudden and abnormally large water surges caused by removal of protective vegetation along stream banks, and rapid run off from farm fields or other forms of development.

Plantago cordata would be a good candidate for Federal listing - the rarest of the rare.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nature: No foolin': Rare oriole really did visit Ohio

A male hooded oriole makes a dazzling display in an okame cherry tree in Tim Hutson's yard/photo courtesy Tim Hutson

Nature: No foolin': Rare oriole really did visit Ohio

April 19, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

There is a long tradition of tomfoolery on April 1. People have become accustomed to looking askance at sensational reports or stories made on this date.

In the Ohio birding community, there is a history of April Fools’ Day pranks. Some have been clever, others foolish. The upshot is that savvy birders maintain a healthy skepticism toward unbelievable April 1 reports.

Thus, when Tim Hutson of Upper Arlington posted an incredible April 1 observation to a Facebook group devoted to rare bird reports, suspicions of a hoax quickly surfaced. Hutson’s sighting was of a hooded oriole, a stunning blackbird clad in the colors of Halloween.

Never had a hooded oriole been found in Ohio, and a glance at its range map would trigger disbelief. Its distribution extends from coastal California to south-central Texas, and south into Mexico. Columbus is about 1,200 miles east of where one might reasonably expect to see a hooded oriole.

However, hooded orioles have a propensity for wanderlust. There have been nearly two dozen records of vagrants east of the Mississippi River. One exceptionally ambitious nomad made it all the way to the Gaspe Peninsula of eastern Quebec.

So, the hooded oriole was not totally off Ohio birders’ radar screens. It quickly became apparent that, despite the unfortunate date of posting, Hutson’s report was totally legitimate. The beautiful photo that accompanied his post left no doubt as to the identity. Hutson, a retired research scientist at Battelle, just wanted independent confirmation of his remarkable record.

It turns out that Hutson first saw the oriole, a male, on March 30, when he spotted a glimmer of flame orange in his flowering okame cherry tree. Eventually he was able to capture diagnostic images of the gorgeous bird, and determine its identity.

For four days, the hooded oriole frequented the Hutsons’ flowering cherries. The brilliant-orange bird feeding among the pink cherry blossoms made for a dazzling clash of loud colors.

Although the oriole caught the occasional insect, including various pollinating bees, it spent much time with its face stuffed deep in flowers. Many orioles frequently eat nectar, and this hooded oriole was plumbing the blossoms for sugary sustenance.

The oriole was conspicuous all day on April 2. That evening, it flew its floriferous coop and departed to points unknown. Hopefully it headed back southwest to its home range.

For birders, the timing was unfortunate. The coronavirus pandemic and guidelines for safe distancing precluded the Hutsons from allowing a mob of birders to descend on their property. Their call to disallow visitors was absolutely correct, inasmuch as they would have loved to share the bird with all comers.

This hooded oriole becomes species number 437 (or thereabouts) for Ohio. Of the surrounding states, only Michigan has a larger list, and only by a few species. One or two species are added to Ohio’s list each year, and someday we will surpass that state up north.

Congratulations to Hutson for his incredible find, and superb documentation of an amazing record. Very few people, including longtime veteran birders, find a new state record.

Hutson’s interest in photography dates to the film days, and he has an impressive portfolio of imagery, including additional hooded oriole photos. To see his work, visit: www.flickr.com/photos/bugtrumpet.

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.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Cooper's hawk strikes, misses!

I was in my home office around noon today when I heard a loud BANG! against a window. That can only mean one thing, the local Cooper's hawk is staging a raid. Window strikes are nearly nonexistent here, thanks to deterrent stickers, but when the Cooper's hawk barrels in unexpectedly, jays and others sometimes smack a window in their haste to escape. Today, I was quick with the camera and caught the hawk sitting atop my mealworm tray feeder. He was unsuccessful this time but I don't begrudge him his livelihood. Although I would be seriously bummed if he got a bluebird, or - horrors! - Albert, the white-headed blue jay.

Note his fluffy white undertail coverts. They can flare those out to the sides during display flights. He’s been making these lately. It’s a slow flight with really deep exaggerated wing beats punctuated by glides with the wings held in a steep dihedral (V-shaped) position. Absolutely nothing like their normal flight, and if a distant observer was not familiar with it, I could see the bird being called a something other than a Cooper's hawk.

I'm sure the nest is not far off. One or the other of a pair visits more days than not. As does a pair of red-shouldered hawks. The reaction of the feeder birds to these two raptors is radically different. If a red-shouldered hawk sails in, the lesser birds might instinctively duck for cover, but their fear is short-lived. Even if the hawk sits prominently on the fence or elsewhere in the yard, they'll quickly resume business, visiting feeders and flying to and fro, often nearly right over the glaring hawk's head. Red-shouldered hawks are not very adept at catching birds, and the little fellows know it. Chipmunks, that's a different story. I have yet to see one in the yard this spring. I suspect the red-shouldereds have done a number on them.

Contrarily, when a Cooper's hawk hits the yard - usually in an instantaneous blitzkrieg, using the house, fences, or trees as cover - it's like a bomb went off. This species is a specialist of songbird hunting. Birds explode in every direction in a mad dash for thick cover. In the back corner of the lot is an old, dense forsythia shrub, and that's a common shelter. I've seen the hawks run in there on foot in their lust to kill a songbird. Birds that have no time to react to the appearance of a Cooper's hawk will "sleek": pull their feathers in tight and not move a muscle. They remain utterly frozen in place, scarcely even moving their head, until the danger has passed. I have seen Carolina chickadees remain motionless for probably five minutes. Not until everyone is well convinced that the hawk has departed do the crowds return to the feeders.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Southern Ohio wildflowers

One of the rarest of Ohio's nearly 30 species of Viola, Walter's violet, Viola walteri. A tiny species of thin soil over limestone, this early bloomer is rare in Ohio, and the populations here are the northernmost in its range. The diminutive violet is named for Thomas Walter, a British botanist who came to South Carolina in the mid-1700's and ended up describing about 200 new plant species.

I made an epic botano-centric trip to Adams County last Saturday, and covered a lot of ground. Met with some people to look at a very interesting piece of land - more on that later, perhaps (and yes, we "social-distanced"), but on the way there I stopped to admire this stunning violet.

Here's a bigger picture view of the Walter's violet habitat. There's scarcely more than a dusting of soil over dolomitic rock, and a number of other rarities grow at this locale. It's at the summit of high limestone cliffs, and white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, partially shades the violets.

At our rendezvous point was a fine grove of pawpaw, Asimina triloba, just starting to flower. I find these bizarre blossoms photographically irresistible. This is the host plant for the beautiful zebra swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus. We would see several of these butterflies later in the day.

John Howard was at the meeting/hike, and after that he and I headed south into the depths of Adams County. We had a number of targets, and had a quite fruitful day. At one site, a dry oak-dominated hillside sported dozens of pink lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. Some of them were already in bud. The upcoming cool weather will probably hold them back a bit, but it won't be too long before the floriferous pink "slippers" burst forth. I'll hope to visit again around that time.

A small prairie near Lynx was starting to push forth a showy display of Indian-paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea. The brightly colored bracts - the true flowers are very inconspicuous - of this figwort family member really lit up the otherwise brown prairie.

Eventually, John and I made it down to the Ohio River. One target was this, the cross-vine, Bignonia capreolata. We figured it would be in bloom, and we were not disappointed. This limestone cliff face was draped with vines, and the flowers were coming on strong. A large bumblebee or two worked the blooms. These burly insects are a primary pollinator.

The family Bignoniaceae is huge (800 species), mostly tropical, and many species are vines. Up here, there are only two: this species, and the much more widespread and familiar trumpet-creeper, Campsis radicans. I find the cross-vine to be the more exotic of the two. But if you're an Ohioan, you'll have to travel south to see it. Cross-vine is at its northern limits on our side of the Ohio River. The hills of Kentucky loomed large at this site.

A breath-taking rural roadside, carpeted with wildflowers that have spilled out from the adjacent wooded slope. It's hard to imagine how anyone could pass by a scene like this and fail to take note, or be awed by the dazzling display. We were, and stopped for a look. Dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne, provides much of the colorful pizazz.

Here's a raceme of typically colored larkspur flowers.

And here's a more interesting (to me) bicolored form. There is also a pure white form, which has been described as forma albiflorum. I have seen that, but this variegated form is even showier and not something one sees at every larkspur patch.

Sprinkled among the larkspur was false garlic, Nothoscordum bivalve, arguably the showiest of our wild onions (Allium cernuum is a strong contender). It's rare in Ohio, and listed as threatened, with extant populations in only two counties: Adams, and Clark. The Clark County site is tiny, the Adams County populations can be robust. However, it's only in a very limited area along or near the Ohio River, and mostly west of Ohio Brush Creek.

By the time we reached this spot, the day was rapidly aging and there wasn't a lot of time left. Someday, I want to spend more time with false garlic to search for an oligolectic bee known as Andrena nothoscordi. The small mining bee only visits the flowers of this plant species. Its fortunes are completely tied to false garlic. Such specialization is not at all rare in Nature. This is why true conservation strategies should take into account ALL species and be ecologically based, such as The Nature Conservancy does, and the group we met with earlier on this day, the Arc of Appalachia, certainly does.

Game-farming style management for selected, prioritized species, especially white-tailed deer, is a surefire way to doom an ecosystem over time.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A gallery of Bonaparte's gulls

Last Monday, I headed afield well before the crack of dawn. My destination was a wetland complex not too far to the north. I lugged my portable Doghouse blind along, with the intent of capturing some wetland bird species by utilizing it as cover. So, before the sun had pulled itself over the horizon, I was slogging the blind and a bunch of gear through a marshy quagmire. Upon arriving at a good spot, with the sun to my back and a nice marshy pond before me, I quickly set things up. Doghouse blinds are fantastic, and set up in minutes (see more about them HERE). Folding them up properly is more problematic, but that's another story.

I was buoyed by nearby calls of sora and Virginia rails, two species I had high hopes for photographing. A squadron of blue-winged teal rocketed in right as I was preparing to enter the blind, saw me, and rocketed off. Many green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and several other species of fowl were in the marsh. As the sun came up, the light became stellar and I crouched in my camouflaged blind awaiting the arrival of subjects.

And waited, and waited, and waited... Nothing, other than a few red-winged blackbirds and swamp sparrows, came into range. Such is life sometimes, but time spent in such a spot as this is never wasted. Even though birds were not frolicking in front of my lens, I could still hear plenty of the sounds of a spring marsh, and see lots of birds moving by. A Virginia rail called regularly, tantalizingly close, but would not reveal itself. Sandhill cranes issued their guttural racket from afar. Crows harassed a red-tailed hawk, and at one point a Cooper's hawk shot by and landed in a distant cottonwood, much to the consternation of local blackbirds. As the temps reached into the high 30's, a few hardy northern leopard frogs began to give their snoring calls.

But photography was my goal, and after two hours of this, I decided to shift location. All the while I was in the blind, I saw small groups of Bonaparte's gulls flying overhead, headed towards a nearby reservoir. I decided to head over there and see what was going on. Smart move.

A Bonaparte's gull, Chroicocephalus philadelphia, wings by. It is an adult, still in basic, or winter plumage.

As I neared the lake, I was greeted by a swarm of perhaps 150-200 Bonaparte's gulls - a nice inland spring concentration in Ohio. After kicking myself several times for not just coming to this spot straight away, I settled in to watch these interesting birds and their fishing activities.

Being early April, the gulls were actively molting into their breeding finery. For a few months during the breeding season, adult Bonaparte's gulls develop an inky black hood. The animal in this photo is a "tweener" - halfway between the white head of winter plumage, and the full black hood it will sport in a few days.

Here we have a gull in which molt is nearly complete. Only a very few white flecks remain on its head.

This gull is early on in the head molt; just starting to get a bit dusky. Observing and shooting these gulls was certainly way easier than the failed blind in the marsh project. The gulls could care less about me. They were mostly actively fishing for shiners and other small piscivorous fare in the shallows along the shoreline. All I had to was stand there, fully exposed, and track them with my camera as if they were feathered skeet. In the world of birds in flight photography, this is pretty easy stuff, although still fun and rewarding when you bag a good shot.

Here's a juvenile, a bird that would have been born last summer. It's distinctive with its black banded tail, and black bars on the wings which are also trimmed in black. It takes Bonaparte's gulls two years to reach maturity. Of this flock, there were only about three juveniles.

I'm sure I've said this before, but I am much more of a bird watcher than a birder. To me, the latter term rightly or wrongly has a listing implication, and I am far more into bird behavior, ecology and identification than just racking up big lists. And few birds are more interesting to observe than Bonaparte's gulls. These are not the dietary garbageheads that many of the larger gull species are, and Bonaparte's gulls will not be caught filching french fries from McDonald's parking lots. These small gulls are consummate fishers, and rather tern-like in their habits. The bird above had just plunged in after a fish, which it missed. Their success rate is normally pretty high, though.

Here's a mottle-head bursting from the water with scaly prey, perhaps a spotfin shiner but I'm not sure. These sorts of shots are a bit tougher, as once the gull has secured its prey, it leaps from the water and is out of there like a shot. This is probably a habit evolved from millennia of dealing with kleptoparasites such as jaegers and larger gulls trying to pounce on them and steal their prey. A successful Bonaparte's gull often has gagged the fish down the hatch before it has flown 50 feet.

A Bonaparte's gull appears to walk on water as it lifts from the surface. These gulls have a long journey ahead of them. They breed in the taiga lands (stunted coniferous forests) of northern Canada and Alaska. Once there, they will make the most unusual nests among the world's gulls - stick nests in trees. That's right, these beautiful gulls are the only arboreally nesting gull species. I once saw one of these nests, in Churchill, Manitoba, while enduring the strafing attacks of an adult. It was about twelve feet up a black spruce and seeing a gull in such a nest was an odd sight indeed.

All in all, it morphed into a wonderful morning of gull observation. Maybe that wasn't my intention at the outset, but you never know what'll happen and just have to roll with the punches.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Nature: Book gives fascinating accounting of mushrooms


Nature: Book gives fascinating accounting of mushrooms

March 5, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

I suppose one benefit of the coronavirus keeping most everyone at home is the opportunity to read more. One cannot go wrong expanding the mind with good books. And a recently released toadstool treatise should stimulate even the most fungally apathetic.

“Appalachian Mushrooms: A Field Guide” was released in November by Ohio University Press. Its author, Walt Sturgeon, is a legend in mycology circles. He has been studying mushrooms for more than four decades, and is a treasure-trove of fascinating fungi information.

Sturgeon even has a namesake mushroom: cemetery amanita, Amanita sturgeonii (Page 11 of his book). Consumers of this deadly poisonous fungus could end up in the graveyard. But the name stems from the habitat: open grassy areas such as cemeteries.

Almost everyone who ventures outdoors has had their imagination fired by mushrooms. If conditions are good, they can erupt everywhere, fantastical fleshy creations springing from the soil, old logs, shelving the sides of tree trunks — even arising from dung.

This guide offers an easy way to put a name to the curious fungal oddities we meet, and enables us to learn more about them.

More than 400 species of mushrooms are treated in “Appalachian Mushrooms,” and it does an admirable job of including species that people are most likely to encounter.

Following a brief introduction that discusses what mushrooms are, how to identify them and how to use the book, it’s off to the species accounts.

Before readers even reach the meat of the book, they will be awed by the amazing mushroom photographs, most of which were taken by Sturgeon. Hundreds of images populate the pages, and their detailed richness help set this guide apart.

Each species account occupies its own page, and features one — sometimes more — photograph. Much of the account is devoted to the physical characteristics of the mushroom and how to identify it. Between the descriptive text and images, readers will often be able to pin a name to their mystery mushroom.

Once an identification has been established, users will find the last three sections of the accounts of great interest: ecology, edibility and comments.

In ecology, Sturgeon offers helpful descriptions of the mushroom’s habitat, and frequency, such as abundant, common, uncommon, etc.

Edibility is always of interest to mushroom connoisseurs. When someone asks me “Is it edible?” I usually answer, “Yes. Everything is edible, at least once.” But no one should joke around with the edibility of unknown mushrooms (see the cemetery mushroom, above).

Sturgeon often merely states “not edible.” Heed his advice. In other cases, he notes “unknown.” Don’t eat these, either. For tasty species, he often goes into detail about preparation or the quality of flavor.

Most interesting, to me, is the comments section. Sturgeon’s wealth of knowledge shines in interesting ways. One example: “Reportedly containing psilocybin (hallucinogenic) ... so it is considered an illegal drug in the United States” (yellow gymnopilus, Page 209). Don’t eat that one, either. For flavorful species, such as Sulphur shelf (Page 308), Sturgeon goes into great detail regarding edibility.

“Appalachian Mushrooms” is a must-have book for any outdoors enthusiast or mushroom aficionado. This is one of the most interesting natural history books that I have seen in a long time.

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.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats

An eastern red bat/Jim McCormac

Nature: Spring trip to southern Ohio brings finds of blooms, bats

March 29, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

With the coronavirus causing major human disruption, many people are retreating to parks and natural areas for relaxation and recreation. Nature’s processes roll along, uninterrupted, and one can take hope from that.

I ventured southward to Highland County, birthplace of Johnny Paycheck, on March 21 to visit two interesting areas. This scenic county sits at the interface of glaciation, with gently rolling plains to the north and hill country in the south.

Signs of spring’s onset become more pronounced the farther south one goes, and I was in search of such evidence. My first stop was Fallsville Wildlife Area. This 1,400-acre site’s centerpiece is Clear Creek — one of 11 such-named Ohio streams, in at least as many counties. However, none of the rest have a spectacular waterfall.

Fallsville Falls — named for a now extinct village — tumbles over a 20-foot limestone cliff and into a narrow box canyon. Recent rains had swollen the little creek, and the torrent of water plunging over the falls was spectacular. A botanical bonus was scores of tiny snow trilliums blooming on adjacent wooded slopes.

Then it was on to Miller Nature Sanctuary, 20 miles southeast, on land owned and managed by the ODNR’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. Of their 130-plus preserves, this is one of the showiest.

My main interest was spring wildflowers, but I also had mammalian hopes. The preserve has many young beech trees in the forest understory, and these plants hold many of last year’s leaves. The senescent foliage offers camouflage for one of our most interesting bats.

Because it was only 32 degrees when I arrived, I was not optimistic about finding bats. However, spring flora was erupting everywhere: snow trillium, rosette leaves of shooting-star, Virginia bluebell in bud, flowering harbinger-of-spring, blue cohosh, spring-beauty and others.

In spite of numerous floral distractions, I kept an eye on the beech trees. Suddenly, there it was — a darker brown lump among the leaves, and I knew from experience what it was.

An eastern red bat!

It was about 30 feet away, and as I moved in the beautiful little mammal’s form took shape. It was hanging upside down, vampire-like, from its feet. Red bats are tiny, about the size of beech leaves, and it’s no mystery why they roost among withered foliage. Their camouflage in such environments is remarkable.

This species is well-named. Their pelage is bright-rusty, the only of our bats to be so-colored. Conspicuous patches of frosty fur indicated this animal was likely a female.

Red bats are highly migratory, and like birds, waves of red bats move north in spring. Some of them also winter at least as far north as southern Ohio, and my find might have been one of those.

In colder weather, red bats will bury into the leaf litter of forest floors. As my bat was hanging in a tree, I wonder if it might have arrived on warm winds of the preceding days.

The interesting little bat, the wildflowers and Highland County’s beautiful scenery made me temporarily forget about the current pandemic and all its associated issues.

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.

Waterscorpion!

As always, click the image to enlarge At the onset of last Monday's aquatic expedition (perhaps more on that later) to Rocky Fork ...