Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black-necked Stilts at Howard Marsh


A Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) totters about on its impossibly long bubblegum-pink legs. This is one of two stilts that I saw at Howard Marsh MetroparkHoward Marsh Metropark in Lucas County, Ohio, on May 18 (2024). They appeared to have a nest. While there is a smattering of Black-necked Stilt records from the late 1800's, there were no reports from Ohio until 1967, and the first widely seen bird was at Magee Marsh in 1981 (I got to see that one). Now, this spectacular shorebird is much more regular, and has nested many (most?) years at Howard Marsh since 2018 and has probably bred at a few other sites as well. As many as ten or so stilts have been reported at Howard Marsh this year, so other nests may be in the offing.

Black-necked Stilts were ravaged by unregulated market hunting in the late 19th century which nearly eliminated populations east of the Mississippi River. That, combined with tremendous wetland habitat loss (for example, about 90% of Ohio's wetlands have been destroyed), has made the rebound slow. I suspect they historically nested in the western marshes of Lake Erie and are reclaiming this range. Thanks to Toledo Metroparks for their very successful wetland restoration work at Howard Marsh, which has produced amazing nesting records in a remarkably short time - wetland restoration began not much more than a decade ago. I imaged this stilt on May 18, 2024.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kentucky Lady's-slipper

A trio of Kentucky Lady's-slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense) grow along a small stream in rural northern Kentucky. This site is only about five miles from Ohio - on the other side of the mighty Ohio River - a state in which this orchid has never been found.

On May 12, John Howard, Shauna Weyrauch and I headed across the Ohio River to see this fabulous lady's-slipper. Neither John nor Shauna had seen it before, and I had only clapped eyes on it once, back in 2015 at this spot. As John lives in the area of where Kentucky Lady's-slipper could/should occur if it's in Ohio, it was especially important that he see it in the field and get the search image of the habitat. 

While superficially somewhat similar to the much more common and widespread Large Yellow Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens), C. kentuckiense differs in its taller stature, larger and paler flowers, habitat, and later blooming period.

We saw 18 flowering plants at this Lewis County, Kentucky site, and about five vegetative plants. Note the brownish clumps in the trees in the backdrop of the image above. That's leafy flood debris. Kentucky Lady's-slipper typically grows in areas that are regularly subjected to "flashy" flooding - abrupt high-water events of short duration. All the plants that we saw at this site were in a remarkably defined linear zone around the normal high-water levels ("wrack zone") of the small stream that they grew along. This is the habitat in which the orchid should be sought.

A pair of Kentucky Lady's-slipper flowers. Note the large whitish-yellow flower that is larger than any other of our lady's-slippers other than the utterly different Showy Lady's-slipper (C. reginae). For as large and showy is this species is, it can be easily overlooked. One, flood zones of rather scruffy woodlands along streams is not an A-list habitat for seeking orchids, and two, the pale coloration of the flowers and the often-dense plant life around them can conspire to conceal them from view, at least from afar.

Given its distinctiveness, Kentucky Lady's-slipper went undetected for a surprisingly long time, then endured a period of botanical confusion in regard to what exactly it was or should be called. Merritt Fernald, in his epic Gray's Manual of Botany (1950), makes no mention of this plant even at the varietal level.

However, there were enigmatic reports of a large, peculiar lady's-slipper from Kentucky and probably other southern locales dating to at least the late 1930's. Nothing was published or described though, so the orchid awaited formal "discovery" and description.

In April of 1951, Jim Daulton, who lived in Scioto County, Ohio, was on a fishing trip in Kentucky. A good amateur botanist, Daulton noticed some lady's-slippers that he recognized as decidedly different than the Large Yellow Lady's-slippers that he knew well. Daulton dug two clumps, took them home, and planted them in his garden.

NOTE: I met Jim Daulton early in my botanical career, probably in the early 1990's, at his house. He lived on US Rte. 52 in Scioto County, near the village of Friendship - only about ten miles as the crow flies from the orchid colony in my photos above. I wish that I could recall who I was with that day, but they knew Jim and thought that I might like to meet him, which I very much did. We heard lots about Cypripedium kentuckiense from the man who put it on the map, and those transplanted orchids of his were still thriving.

The transplanted orchids flourished, and Daulton tried to get every botanist that he could find to come look at them. Most ignored him, but botanist Victor Soukup of the University of Cincinnati became interested in Daulton's orchid and made a trip to Kentucky in 1977 to see some wild populations that Daulton pointed him to.

Thoroughly sold on the validity of the as-yet unnamed orchid as a distinct entity, Soukup published a description and diagnosis of it soon after his trip in a publication of the Mid-American Orchid Conference. He named it Cypripedium daultonii after Jim Daulton. However, Soukup omitted a latinized description in his publication, therefore invalidating the name.

In 1981, botanist Clyde F. Reed of Morehead State College published a correct description of the "new" orchid, branding it as Cypripedium kentuckiense - the name we use today. It seems remarkable that such a large, showy, and distinctive orchid could go undetected and unnamed for so long - its naming is more or less modern, having happened only 43 years ago. But the backwoods of Kentucky and much of mountainous Appalachia can be hard to explore, and there are certainly other discoveries awaiting.

Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

As indicated by the map, Kentucky Lady's-slipper has a localized and patchy distribution. Even within the larger gray areas, the plant would be quite local and very scarce overall. It is currently known from - or at least has been known - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. It is considered rare in many or most - all? - of those states.

Finding a new orchid species for Ohio, especially one as large and spectacular as Kentucky Lady's-slipper, would be quite the feat. But it's only five miles from our southern border, although there is a very large river in between. Still, Adams and Scioto counties, Ohio, is a hotbed region for southern disjuncts, many of them at their northern limits and for some, the only populations known from the north side of the Ohio River. I think it's likely that Cypripedium kentuckiense lurks undiscovered somewhere in Adams County or Scioto County.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Green Salamander


A Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus) descends a vertical cliff face, making for an interesting photo perspective.

I returned yesterday from the New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayetteville, West Virginia. From April 29 through May 4, I was leading trips afield, and while so engaged, cannot photograph (at least very little). To atone for that, I got out a few nights to seek amphibians and Green Salamanders were high on my list. Green Salamanders are obligate cliff-dwellers, hiding in fissures during the day and emerging at night to hunt lesser creatures on the rocks and in adjacent trees.

This photo better shows the yellowish-green lichen-like markings. On another, drier night, I saw several Green Salamanders, but they were not out hunting on the cliff faces - they were just peeking from small fissures. The night I took these photos was perfect for amphibian activity. It had rained into the evening; the temperatures were in the mid-60's F and humidity was high. Lots of action, including the first Wehrle's Salamanders (Plethodon wehrlei) I have seen. I'll try to post up some photos of that, and other species, later.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Barred Owl, with a dash of milkwort


A Barred Owl looks at the photographer from atop a broken-off tree. I spotted the owl as it flew through the forest with a squirrel, then plunged into this snag. After a few minutes it popped up, sans squirrel. I'm sure there are a few hungry chicks in there that just got a meaty treat. Shortly thereafter, I saw two young Black Bears high in a tree, but alas, no images. Once they saw that I made them, they scrambled down with surprising speed. Thanks to Paul Speyser for a brief tour of this amazing park. Watoga State Park, Pocahontas County, West Virginia, today.

The remarkable flowers of Fringed Milkwort (Polygala paucifolia) resemble elfin orchids. Dry roadbanks in the forests of Watoga State Park were peppered with the magenta beauties. Companions included Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), and Dwarf Iris (Iris verna).

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Blue-eyed Mary, en masse, with pink-flowered variant

As always, click the image to enlarge

The weekend past, Shauna and I visited Washington and Monroe counties (Ohio), primarily to engage in fish work. I'll hope to post some of our piscine captures later. Our hosts were David and Laura Hughes, indefatigable explores who have lived in rural Washington County for years now and know the natural history of the area like no others.

Sunday morning, we decided to take a backroads path to the meeting spot where we'd be doing fish work. That decision proved fortuitous. A rural lane took us into a richly wooded narrow valley that was carpeted with Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna). The image above was taken in the heart of the largest "patch", which blanketed the woods on both sides of the road, for probably the better part of a half mile.

Blue-eyed Mary is a winter annual, and as such, is one of our few annual spring wildflowers. Where it occurs, it is often present in large numbers but still, I don't think I've ever seen the numbers that we saw here.

On the wooded banks of a small stream where we were sampling fish, there were more Blue-eyed Marys. Sprinkled among their ranks were a very few pink-flowered variants. They were quite striking, and the plant above aided our comparison by growing adjacent to a "normal" color form.

While I've seen thousands of Blue-eyed Mary flowers over the years, I'd never clapped eyes on pink ones. An admittedly less than thorough internet search would indicate that it is a rare variant. I did drum up one or two references to it, but if such a thing were widespread, I'd imagine there would be far more information out there. The flowers also rarely can be completely white.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Northern Flicker, violets, and ants

This male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) spent much time foraging in my lawn yesterday afternoon, April 10. Ground-bound flickers are often hunting ants. It may have been no coincidence that he was particularly interested in the patches of Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) which, of course, I let run rampant (no chemicals here). Ants are a big food source for flickers, and ants are also major dispersers of violet seeds. I suspect that my feral native violet colonies have abetted the formation of ant colonies, thus helping to feed this flicker. A "wild" lawnscape attracts much more in the way of wildlife than neatly manicured lawns dowsed with chemicals. A beautiful Fox Sparrow recently graced my backyard for the better part of two weeks, and I was treated to his lovely, whistled song daily, and scores of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows overwintered. The Eastern Cottontails are in full courting mode, the local Red Squirrel, as always, tries to exert his dominance over the much larger Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds are busily investigating my nest boxes. Not bad for a suburban lot!

Monday, April 8, 2024

A white Eastern Gray Squirrel

One of the white (leucistic) Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that can be locally common in parts of SW North Carolina. While the town of Brevard is famous for their white squirrels, they're elsewhere and this one was imaged near Tryon, about an hour to the east. I wanted to photograph one of these beasts on my recent trip to North Carolina to speak at the amazing Gardening for Life Festival. Thanks to Vivian and Bill for allowing to visit their property, which has melanistic (black), normal gray, and white squirrels! March 30, 2024.