Sunday, April 11, 2021

Northern Parula, and Red Trillium

Today was picture-perfect for blending avian and botanical photography. I headed down to a Hocking Hills hotspot, only an hour distant, and arrived early in the morning. The skies were sunny, and presented ideal conditions for bird shooting.

A Northern Parula sings from an old apple tree. He went from blossom to blossom, plucking hapless pollinating insects, singing all the while. This is our smallest warbler (in the east) and one of the first to return in spring. A pair of Louisiana Waterthrush were nearby, as was a Yellow-throated Warbler. A Pine Warbler sang from mature Virginia Pines atop the ridge, a Black-and-white Warbler sang its lipsy squeak of a song from mature hardwoods, and a distant Black-throated Green Warbler occasionally issued its wheezy song.

After about two hours, clouds rolled in from the west. It was time to head into the woods and a riot of trillium. Shady conditions - especially during light showers or better, right after a rain, are fantastic for shooting flora.

Without doubt, Red Trillium, Trillium erectum, is one of our most striking woodland wildflowers. But what do you call a white-flowered "red" trillium (see next photo)? While red forms dominated at this site, there were plenty of white-flowered forms, grading insensibly into cream, yellowish, even greenish and even pinkish-tinged flower types. This statuesque plant goes by a number of other names: Purple Trillium, Wakerobin, Bethroot, Ill-scented Trillium, Stinking Benjamin. I refuse to call such a gorgeous plant by the latter two names.

A cream-colored form, with faint purplish tinting to the petals. It has been called forma albiflorum, but these color forms intergrade somewhat. No matter what you call them, Trillium erectum and its varied flowers is a spectacular species.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Trillium, from this morning

A delectable clump of freshly emerged Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, Ohio's state wildflower. A good choice, it was.

I visited a magical sandstone canyon in the Hocking Hills this morning that was carpeted with trillium. A more impressive display of these stunning wildflowers would be hard to find.

Trillium carpet a rich wooded slope. The Large-flowered Trillium is bookended by a typical Red Trillium, T. erectum (L), and a a cream-colored form of the same. Inestimable numbers of both species occur here, including probably every flower variant of Trillium erectum: red, cream, yellow, white, and greenish.

Spring is hard to beat.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Nature: Stratford Ecological Center in southern Delaware County an eco-friendly oasis

Stratford Ecological Center, a 236-acre preserve in southern Delaware County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Stratford Ecological Center in southern Delaware County an eco-friendly oasis

Columbus Dispatch
April 4, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Just northeast of Bunty Station and Liberty roads in southern Delaware County lies Stratford Ecological Center, one of central Ohio’s natural gems. The 236-acre property is a mosaic of woodland, wetland, meadows and an eco-friendly farm.

Stratford launched in 1990, but its genesis dates to the mid-1980s. Founders Jack and Louise “Omie” Warner’s daughter, Gale, a conservationist and accomplished big-picture thinker, had planted the seed for a land lab.

When development loomed, the Warners leaped into action and ensured that the land would be protected. Stratford Ecological Center was born, and it has hosted tens of thousands of visitors since. About 16,000 people visit annually, and more than half are kids.

Gale Warner died far too young, on Dec. 28, 1991, the victim of lymphatic cancer. Her work in inspiring Stratford and helping develop its philosophy has left an enormous and lasting legacy.

Stratford’s first hire was Jeff Dickinson, who then was at work on a Ph.D. at Ohio State University. Jeff helped build the project from the ground up. He eventually became Stratford’s director and is still there, a vital influence throughout Stratford’s history.

The vision statement of Stratford clearly defines its mission:

“ … dedicated to the education of children and adults in understanding the relationships between living things and their environment, thereby fostering an appreciation of the land and all life that depends on it.”

I was one of those educable adults on March 19, when I made a nocturnal visit to witness the annual spring salamander migration to Stratford’s vernal pools. It truly was a dark and stormy night — perfect for moist-bodied amphibians on the move. We saw scores of spotted and smallmouth salamanders, and the din created by singing spring peepers and western chorus frogs was nearly deafening.

A pair of barred owls hooted and caterwauled, filling the woods with their eerie calls. Early flying Morrison’s sallow moths flickered by, spurred by temperatures in the low 50s. A coyote sang in the distance, and we were pleased to find a gorgeous peach-colored nursery web spider on the prowl.

Because of Stratford’s varied biodiversity and close proximity to a large population base, it is a perfect place for exposing people to the wonders of nature. Omie and husband Clyde Gosnell (her former husband Jack passed away in 1995) remain active in guiding Stratford and its mission. Conservation tour de forces, Omie and Clyde were recognized for their accomplishments last year with induction into the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Hall of Fame.

Development on nearly all sides continues to hem in the ecological center. We are fortunate that the Warners had the vision to protect this land more than three decades ago. It is an oasis of biodiversity readily accessible to the people of central Ohio.

I highly recommend a visit to Stratford. COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily altered visitation guidelines; see the website (stratfordecologicalcenter.org) for up-to-date information.

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.
 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Northern Michigan foray: May 20-23

Lake Nettie, a beautiful glacial lake in northern Michigan. Not a bad view first thing in the morning.

For the past decade, I've led trips in Presque Isle County, Michigan, based out of NettieBay Lodge. I made the photo above from the lodge's "back yard". The trips were canceled last year due to covid, but we're back on for this May. Everyone should be vaccinated, and with appropriate protocols we don't see any problems, especially as groups are limited to eight people.

The second trip - May 25-28 - is already full, but there are a few spots on the May 20-23 trip. If you want a fascinating foray into the flora and fauna of the North Country, you'll get it here. We'd love to have you. Details are RIGHT HERE.

One of the Lake Nettie Common Loons. A few pairs usually nest on the lake, and you'll hear them yodeling night and day. We always take a pontoon boat out one evening, and typically get up close and personal with the loons. I made this photo from the boat. Loons aren't particularly shy and are often quite curious and will make close approaches.

Mourning Warblers are locally common breeders up here, along with many other warbler species. Not only that, there often still large movements of warblers and other songbirds along the shoreline of Lake Huron, even in late May. My favorite memory of that is seeing about a dozen species of warblers in a big Red Pine - at the same time.

A male Kirtland's Warbler sings from a Jack Pine. We'll see and hear many of these boisterous birds. Much Jack Pine management occurs in the area, and we will see Jack Pine forests at every stage and learn all about the ecology of these fascinating habitats. The big sandy pine flats may be best known for the Kirtland's Warbler, but there is so much else to see. A dozen sparrow species, Upland Sandpipers, Brewer's Blackbird, breeding Common Nighthawks and scads of other stuff.

Again, we'd love to have you and all the info is HERE

Monday, March 29, 2021

The spring wildflower show commences

 

Yesterday morning's moonset over Adams County, Ohio. I was on the road plenty early enough to see the big ball of cheese make a spectacle of itself, then slip below the horizon.

Astrophotography was not my goal on this trip, however. Southern Ohio woodlands, and the beginnings of the vernal wildflower eruption was the target. After a long cold winter, those of us with a botanical bent can hardly wait for the resurgence of plant life.

The greening forest above is part of a very special place known as the Ohio River Bluffs. It is one of many gems owned by the Arc of Appalachia. The preserve encompasses steep south-facing slopes overlooking the broad Ohio River. Hit hard by the sun's rays, this is one of the first places in Ohio that spring wildflowers rise from their long dirt nap.

A Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava, unfurls its leaves. This species is one of the first trees to push forth its foliage. So quick do the leaves emerge, you can almost watch them grow.


Major eye candy at the Bluffs is acres and acres of Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica. Come next weekend or thereabouts, the bluebell show should be peak. That path is a good place to be, at that time.

Scattered bluebells were doing their thing, vanguards of the floral sea that will soon follow.

A Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, gets ready to reveal its showy orange-yellow flower. Many of these native poppies - one of only two Ohio natives in the Papaveraceae family - occur at this site and they'll be in full glory about the same time that the bluebells are.


Purple Cress, Cardamine douglassii, is one of the first spring wildflowers to bloom. The slopes were covered with them yesterday. The flowers are quite variable in color and arrangement. Some plants form open candelabras like this one, while others have a denser inflorescence. Color can range from nearly white to a deep violet.

At one point, I noticed what looked like a dead leaf stuck to a distant Purple Cress plant. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Nameless Pinion moth, Lithophanes innominata. The beautiful little moth could not have chosen a showier perch.

A perennial favorite among wildflower enthusiasts is Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria. Scores of them were up, and some had already issued forth their architecturally interesting flowers.

A close relative of the preceding species is Squirrel-corn, Dicentra canadensis. It is generally scarcer than Dutchman's-breeches, and is greatly outnumbered at this site. But in places, the two grow side by side allowing for comparison of the unusual blooms.

I hit a trifecta of fumeworts, which is not difficult at the Ohio River Bluffs. The Fumariaceae family has only five representatives in Ohio, and two are quite rare summer bloomers. This is Yellow Fumewort, Coryadalis flavula, which along with the preceding two species is an early spring wildflower. Yellow Fumewort is a bit earlier than Dutchman's-breeches and Squirrel-corn, and this plant has already formed a ripe fruit (lower left).

Excepting the extremely hardy and rare Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale, Toadshade, T. sessile, is our first trillium to do its thing. Many plants already sported their odd cylindric flowers. This one is nestled in a leafy bed of Dwarf Larkspur, Delphimium tricorne.

A quartet of particularly vibrant Spring-beauty, Claytonia virginica, flowers. Right on cue, this common, widespread and incredibly showy plant was out in profusion. So were many of its personal bees, the oligolectic "Spring-beauty Bee", Andrena erigeniae. My half-hearted attempts to photograph one met with failure on this day, but it did give me reason to lay on the forest floor for a bit.

Going prostrate for the bees brought me in closer proximity to numerous Red Velvet Mites in the genus Trombidium (I think). I've never seen so many on a single day. Maybe they have boom and bust years, and if so 2021 is decidedly a boom. I did not "pose" the mite - it was very busy inspecting Spring-beauty flowers which made for a particularly aesthetic backdrop.

A trio of Goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum, flowers in picture-perfect condition.

I capped the day with a stop at another Arc of Appalachia site, the Gladys Riley Goldenstar Lily Preserve in western Scioto County. One must be timely to catch the stunning Goldenstar in flower. It blooms en masse over maybe a period of a week. Arrive a day too late and nada - you're out of luck with another year to wait.

EVERY time I post a photo of this rarity, people tell me they have them on their property. No. They have the common and widespread Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, which looks superficially similar. Goldenstar has a scattered and localized distribution, with Arkansas being the epicenter. Northern Kentucky and southern Ohio sites are far removed from the core range. Famed Cincinnati botanist Lucy Braun discovered this species along Rocky Fork Creek on the edge of Shawnee State Forest in 1964. While there are probably tens of thousands of plants along a few miles of the stream valley, that's it. Only fairly recently was another much smaller Ohio population discovered not far to the west in Adams County. These are the only known Ohio sites and the only populations north of the Ohio River.

If you can get to the Ohio River Bluffs next weekend or sometime the following week, you should be treated to a remarkable display of spring wildflowers.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nature: Tracing birds' lifespans is not an easy undertaking

 

This nearly 29-year-old ring-billed gull, photographed January 9 in Cleveland, is the oldest known of its kind in North America./Chuck Slusarczyk

Nature: Tracing Birds' lifespans is not an easy undertaking

Columbus Dispatch
March 21, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The gull sees farthest who flies highest.
Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull

An aura of mystery surrounds the longevity of wild birds. We can’t just ask a chickadee its age. However, ornithologists have shown that some birds can live surprisingly long lives.

The oldest wild bird known is “Wisdom”, a Laysan albatross that returns annually to breed on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. She was banded there as a five year old bird in 1956! Wisdom turns 70 this year, and is still producing chicks.

Older birds have been documented, but only in captivity where they are sheltered from the perils of wild living. A cockatoo, Cookie, lived to 83, and a captive common raven survived to 80.

It seems the larger the species, the longer it can live. Cardinals and many other songbirds live for 2-3 years on average while comparatively massive albatrosses, gulls and others can survive far longer.

Gulls (not “seagulls”, despite Bach’s famed protagonist) can be notably long-lived. Several European and Middle Eastern species have documented to eclipse three decades, and a herring gull survived for 49 years in captivity.

In this country, gulls are probably not as well-studied as across the pond, and less is known of the life spans of American species.

Enter Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. A longtime Cleveland resident, Slusarczyk (sloo-sar-chik) lives in a gull paradise. At least 19 species have been recorded on Lake Erie.

Gull study is not for the faint of heart. There is a steep learning curve in regards to identification, compounded by different plumages at different ages. Smaller gull species take two years to develop mature plumage, while the largest species take four years. Also, good gull weather is often poor people weather: gale winds and icy temperatures.

Chuck took up gull study with a vengeance long ago, and is now one of Ohio’s premier experts. A renaissance man, he is also authoritative on aircraft, Great Lakes ships, moths, orchid raising, photography, and the history of Cleveland. Following a 28-year career in the aviation industry, Slusarczyk is now employed as a motorcoach operator.

Intellectual curiosity such as Slusarczyk’s is rare, and when Chuck aimed it at gulls he began to make notable finds. He regularly shares sightings of uncommon or rare species, often with helpful commentary on plumages or interesting life history observations.

But – in my opinion – Slusarczyk’s most significant gull find came on January 9 of this year, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. He noticed a ring-billed gull – Ohio’s most common species - with a silver band on its leg, and managed to get diagnostic photos of the band’s numbers.

A query to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory soon produced results. Chuck’s gull was banded as a chick in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 18, 1992! Nearly 29 years later, the gull is alive and kicking, enjoying a winter vacation in Cleveland.

This is the oldest known ring-billed gull, and one of the oldest documented gulls in North America.

Documentation of banded birds by keen-eyed observers like Slusarczyk offers a glimpse into the potentially long life spans of gulls and other species. And these reports represent a vanishingly small percentage of the species involved. For instance, the total ring-billed gull population is estimated at about 2.5 million birds. There could be a centenarian among their ranks.

Why do gulls live so long? If they make it past the juvenile stage, life expectancy skyrockets. They’re large and tough, powerful flyers, resourceful and intelligent, opportunistic feeders and have few effective predators. Such characteristics are fertile ground for spawning avian Methuselahs.

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.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

More amphibians, including the spectacular Tiger Salamander

An American Toad sits on a damp road. Fortunately most of the roads that I cruised this evening have nearly no traffic on them at night, so amphibian mortality is low. That's certainly not the case everywhere.

Last Wednesday evening turned out to be warm - temps in the 50's F - and rain started spitting around 9 pm. One often doesn't know whether conditions will be optimal for amphibian movements - warm and wet - until late in the afternoon the day of the show. That's how it was this day. I didn't pull the trigger to make the hour drive west to some productive back roads until late in the afternoon.

It was a fairly good call. I think a lot of the salamanders have already made their vernal runs to breeding pools, and departed back into subterranean haunts where they will remain out of sight until next spring. But enough amphibians were on the prowl that it was an interesting foray. In all, eight species were tallied: American Toad, Green Frog, Northern Leopard Frog, Spring Peeper, Western Chorus Frog, Eastern Tiger Salamander, Smallmouth Salamander, and Unisexual Salamander. 

A Northern Leopard Frog crouches before the photographer. During the day, these frogs are alert and wary, and making close approaches is far more difficult. After I finished photographing it, I gently picked up the frog, took it far into the grass on the side of the road that it was headed for, and set it down. The frog never flinched. Try that during daylight hours and see how cooperative a leopard frog is. It's far easier to work with amphibians at night, when they don't act nearly so warily.

An apparent "unisexual" salamander rears up like a dragon. They are so-named as virtually all the individuals in these populations are female. As you might expect, the dynamics behind this get complicated. Basically, the unisexuals pick up spermatophores from any of several species of "pure" related mole salamander species. Thus, they are able to fertilize their eggs but as a result are hybrid mixes. The animal in the photo might have the DNA of Blue-spotted, Jefferson, Smallmouth, and Tiger salamanders - maybe even Streamside salamanders. Probably still much to sort out with this phenomenon.

Finally, the Holy Grail of this evening's search, an Eastern Tiger Salamander. On a wet warm early to mid-March night such as this, I usually come across some crossing roads. Not this evening, and I suspect they were mostly done for the year and out of the pools. So, I went to a pool that I knew they used for breeding, and Voila! A few were still in the water, swimming and floating about like fish. 

The individual in the photo was actually in the act of leaving the pool, as I suspect most had already done. It was not particularly cooperative, hence the lack of stellar photos. The amphibian had places to go and was in a hurry to get there. I don't like messing around with salamanders too much, or touching them if at all possible. Usually a good tactic is to just cover a salamander with your hand, like a tent, for a bit. Often when you pull away, it'll remain frozen for a while, allowing for some shots. If you do see and decide to handle an amphibian, always make sure your hands are wet.

Eastern Tiger Salamanders are impressive beasts, with big ones reaching nine inches or so. They often breed in more open habitats than other Ambystoma mole salamanders. This particular pond is wide open, with no woods nearby. It's in an area where mass migrations of tigers have been observed, although I have not yet managed to catch one of those in progress. I'll keep trying, though.

Northern Parula, and Red Trillium

Today was picture-perfect for blending avian and botanical photography. I headed down to a Hocking Hills hotspot, only an hour distant, and ...