Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Buck Moth

I was down in Shawnee State Forest today, which is not a bad place for a meeting. Afterwards, we noticed a few species of Lepidoptera on the wing, as afternoon temperatures rose into the 60's. Especially nice was a beautiful Sleepy Orange and even better were two Dainty Sulphurs. Both butterflies are rather rare migrants into Ohio from the south. Dainty Sulphurs are indeed minute; about as big as your thumbnail.

Most obvious were the Buck Moths, though. These interesting and large day-flying moths are boldly patterned in black and white, and are probably often thought to be rarer than they really are. Buck Moths don't emerge until mid-October or so, and are often seen into November on even moderately warm and sunny days. They are also forest moths whose caterpillars feed primarily on oaks, and adults can easily be missed as they flutter through the understory amongst falling leaves and dappled fall sunlight. We probably saw ten or so today; the most I've seen in a day.

Buck Moth, Hemileuca maia, on the side of an ash tree. They are about the size of a Viceroy butterfly. This species typically perches on trunks of trees in this manner. They are quite flashy for a moth, and the black and white coloration creates a bit of a kaleidoscope effect in flight. Every one that we saw well enough to tell was a male, likely patrolling for females. The adults don't feed and probably don't last too long. Their only purpose is to find a partner, mate, lay eggs and reproduce themselves.

Buck Moths are apparently rather local and confined to the southernmost counties in Ohio. I've only seen them in Adams and Scioto counties. I'd be interested in hearing of other observations of this moth from anyone who has seen them in Ohio.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Last of the Dragons

Insect enthusiasts will soon have to go into hibernation, or turn their interests elsewhere for a while. Finally, the temperatures are steadily falling, as they should, and putting an end to the year's crop of bugs. I got out with John Pogacnik last Thursday, and he showed me some of the interesting wetland development projects that Lake County Metroparks are undertaking. You've got to hunt and peck, but some dragonflies could still be found.

This is what the woods look like now. Carpets of freshly fallen leaves, and the damp musty smell of decomposing vegetation.

Wandering Glider, Pantala flavescens. We found a number of these, although most were flushed from the grasses and sedges. When I took this, it was only about 60 degrees; a bit cool for aerial acrobatics. This species is highly migratory, and it would be interesting to know where it might end up.
We had several Autumn Meadowhawks, Sympetrum vicinum. This species - formerly known as Yellow-legged Meadowhawk - is one of the latest dragons on the wing. Indian Summer-like November days often produce some. Even in the cool temps, they were quite active and hard to get up on to photograph. Until this one landed on John's shirt.

Lots of Familiar Bluets, Enallagma civile, were still out and obvious.

Closeup of a - presumably - Chinese Mantis. While not native, they are about as interesting as an insect gets. If you've not seen their egg cases, they look like ping-pong ball-sized pieces of brown foam stuck to a plant. Many a young kid has taken one of these egg cases home in a jar with no lid, and had their mother awaken one day to a room full of dozens of tiny little mantis's roaming all about. I know I did...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Le Conte's as Art

Now check this out. Bob Royse went up to Funk Bottoms today, to witness the pack of Le Conte's Sparrows for himself. And he took along his camera. Bob, who plays English Horn/Oboe for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, is also an accomplished bird photographer. Visit his website to see many more images like the one below.

While most of us are grappling with the vegetation and retiring habits of the bird, just managing decent looks if we're lucky, Bob gets this shot. This is probably the most striking image of Le Conte's Sparrow that I've seen. The gorgeous, intricate details of the plumage become apparent here in a way that is quite difficult to observe in the field. The somewhat whimsical shape of the bird is obvious, too; a rotund, big-headed sparrow that almost looks spherical. Look at the size of the feet; a wonderful adaptation for hopping about in soft, mucky soils. To me, the bill looks rather small on this species, suggesting perhaps a sparrow that eats more grass seeds and the fruit of plants like Water-plantain and various arrowheads, which are soft, rather than the hard bone-like achenes of smartweeds and sedges.

Thanks to Bob for managing this striking image.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Le Conte's Sparrows

Today was one of those remarkable fall days in the Midwest. Indian Summerish; cool in the morning and warming into the 70's in the afternoon. Skies as blue as possible, and the smell of senescent vegetation everywhere. In places, the maples, particularly the reds and sugars, were ablaze in vivid hues of orange and red.
So, well before first light, Tom Bain, Cheryl Harner and I packed up our gear and headed north to Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area in Wayne County, famous of late due to an abundance of Le Conte's Sparrows. These furtive skulkers are one of our smallest sparrows and normally quite difficult to find around here. They are certainly more common than is suspected, and most undoubtedly go undetected. As birders learn more about the habitats they like, more seem to be turning up.

As always, Funk produced other interesting observations. While slogging through the mire sparrow-searching, we kicked up at least 30 Wilson's Snipe, for instance. Snipe are another good example of a species that is quite easy to overlook, as they are masters of camouflage and if one doesn't venture too near, they sit tight and good luck spotting the bird. These 30 were all in an area of the wetland that was quite small; we wondered how many more must have been in the entire several thousand acres of Funk, which has much good snipe habitat.

A flock of seven Sandhill Cranes - almost a guaranteed bird at Funk anymore - also passed overhead. As is typically the deal, they alerted us to their presence far before they came into sight. The dry rattling bugles of Sandhill Cranes is one of the more haunting sounds in nature, and when delivered from high in the sky, has tremendous carrying power.
Above photo, cranes as seen from afar. They may have been nearly a mile off when I took this, yet there was no problem hearing them talk.

The tiny and normally retiring Le Conte's Sparrow speaks to the quirks of birders. Today, we had sensational bugling giant cranes that 4 feet tall with 7 foot wingspans, and odd mega-billed bogsuckers (snipe) in abundance, and it was this Lilliputian ochre-colored puffball that had everyone jumping around and cameras clicking. We had seen two Le Conte's on the way out the dike, but neither was cooperative, instead behaving in the shrinking-violet manner so typical of the species. Finally, after some serious mucking, we stumbled into a group of four. This one was quite the extrovert, leaping high in the weeds and allowing us to fawn over him for a minute or two. Unfortunately the light was not great and photos, not so great either.

The Le Conte's Sparrow is quite dashing, really. I think even a person with only marginal interest in avifauna would find one nice. From the creamy crown stripe to the intricate streaking of the back, they exhibit the best of the subtly beautiful sparrow adorments. Having to work hard to see one - at least around here - adds to the thrill of seeing one.

The wetland these Le Conte's frequented was also interesting, and perhaps telling about the inclinations of the bird. The patch that we saw them in was a bit of an oasis in a sea of invasive Reed Canary Grass, Phalaris arundinacea. Canary Grass contains little in the way of biodiversity, and thus food for sparrows. On the other hand, Le Conte's wetland was loaded with copiously fruiting Water-plantain, Alisma subcordatum, as well as three or four species of smartweeds. Sparrows really go for the achenes (seeds) of the latter. Also mixed in was nice cover in the form of two native sedges, River Bulrush, Bulboschoenus fluviatilis, and Soft-stemmed Bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. The latter is one of the most cumbersome binomials in North American botany - Skee-no-plek-tus tab-ern-ee-mon-tan-eye. Ten syllables. Up until fairly recently, it was called Scirpus validus - Sker-pus val-ih-dus. A thrid-grader could pronounce the earlier name; now no one knows what to say. No matter, the name's not important to Le Conte's Sparrows and they liked hanging out in the stuff.

With the continued fairly mild weather projected for the next week, these sparrows ought to linger. If the chance arises, go have a look.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Yellow Rail

Calls from Lisa Fosco of the Ohio Wildlife Center are always exciting. This is one of the higher volume rehab places in the state, and they sometimes get in some very interesting birds. You may remember that Lisa and the center took in a Yellow Rail that had been injured in Licking County about this time last year.

Well, Lisa rang me up the other day to report they had received yet another Yellow Rail. This one apparently hit a window, and was found dazed and confused in a Columbus shopping center on October 12th. While few Ohio birders have this one on their state list, Yellow Rails are more common in migration than generally believed, no doubt, but it's a shame when one turns up like this. The bird is still quite alive and very frisky, but successfully working with high-strung animals like this is challenging and not always successful. I commend Lisa and the center for their efforts; for instance, the rail must regularly be force-fed as it won't feed itself, and other high-maintenance steps must be taken to try to rehabilitate it.

A beautiful Yellow Rail. It has an injured wing, and that'll be a difficult injury to heal successfully and get the bird back in the wild. We'll see how it goes with this one.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sparrow Madness

Sparrows are much in the news the past week, as the chocolate and ochre masses sneak their way south, lurking in thickets, wetlands, and grasslands. I witnessed probably the largest fallous of White-throated Sparrows I'd ever seen last Thursday along Lake Erie, and other observers elsewhere along the lake reported big numbers. This is peak time for numbers and diversity, and THE time to find rarer skulksters like Le Conte's and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. The latter two are more common than we think, and as birders learn how and where to find them, more are turning up.

Today dawned bright, beautiful, and cold - the first frost I've seen this fall. I was down around Deer Creek Wildlife Area at the crack of morning's first light, meeting up with banders Bill Bosstic, Kelly Sieg, Bob Placier and others in an effort to capture and band sparrows. Like us, birds have to warm up and get active, and things started rather slowly. By the end of the morning, though, we'd captured and banded 34 individual birds of eight species, including one particularly interesting species that I'll share at the end. Shown above is one of the nets snaking through some excellent sparrow habitat.
One of few non-sparrows that we got - a gorgeous Nashville Warbler.
One of our most common species, and one of the most beautiful both in appearance and song. The aptly named Song Sparrow is much more migratory than often believed. This one sports his freshly installed bling-bling; hopefully someone will catch him sometime in the future.

A fine-looking Swamp Sparrow. This species is a close relative of the Song Sparrow and is in the same genus, Melospiza. Swamps have rich rufous wings and tail, and can be very numerous in fields, particularly wet habitats, in fall migration.

We caught a number of Field Sparrows, including this fine specimen. By careful examination of various wing feathers, among other characters, banders can age and often sex birds.

A few Lincoln's Sparrows landed in our nets today. That's a Lincoln's in the back, close ally the Song Sparrow in the foreground. Lincoln's is in the same genus and similar, but is slightly sleeker, grayer, and finer streaking on the breast that generally lacks the central blob-like spot of the Song Sparrow. Far more Lincoln's Sparrows pass through in fall than is generally known; these birds are quite secretive and easy to miss.

The White-crowned Sparrows have arrived in a big way in the past few days, and we caught several. This was the most interesting species that I learned about today. As you may know, the closely related White-throated Sparrows come in two color morphs, like Rough-legged Hawks. This difference in color morphology is thought to be unique among North American sparrows. The bright white White-throateds with bold head stripes are white morphs; brownish striped birds are tan-striped morphs. Well, it turns out that the same interesting color morph arrangement may occur in White-crowned Sparrows. Kelly was privy to some as yet to be published information that aparently suggests this to be the case.

Today, we caught a few "tan-striped" White-crowneds, like the bird on the left. The bird on the right is a classic "white-striped". Traditionally, people would call the white bird and adult; the tan one an immature. Well, maybe not. Both of these individuals were hatch-year birds, meaning they were born this summer. Age can be determined by the degree of skull ossification, molt patterns, and feather shape. What we have here isn't proof that the tan bird won't later molt into crown stripes of white, like the bird on the right, but if word on the street bears out, it may prove to be a tan color morph and will remain like it is. I am eager to learn more about this development in our knowledge of White-crowned Sparrows. The fact that both birds above are apparent immatures is fascinating.

Sparrowing should remain good for the next week or few, so go hit some good fields if you can.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Micro-rarities of the Sand

I found myself in the Oak Openings the other day, right in the epicenter of Ohio's rare plant Utopia. Lucas County - county seat, Toledo - contains nearly all of what's left of this amazing ecosystem, which is defined by sand. The origins of this giant sandbox stem to the days of pre-glacial Lake Warren, which was Lake Erie in a much larger tub. The old beach ridges and dunes still remain, far from today's lake, and form an odd habitat that is home to an awesome number of rarities.
Lucas County has had more rare plants documented within its relatively small boundaries than any other Ohio county. If you know plants, in some places you can literally toss a stick, and then go find a half-dozen state-listed plants within 20 feet of it.
I visited a recent acquisition by Toledo Metroparks, which owns the lion's share of outstanding Oak Openings remnants. And there, I was excited to find a few interesting plants - not things that you'll see just anywhere.
No pansy, this one. It's Spathulate-leaved Sundew, Drosera intermedia, which is threatened in Ohio and almost completely confined to the Oak Openings. Gotta look close for it; a single rosette could be covered by a quarter. The plants can be quite easy to pass by, but a keen eye will key in on their habitat. This sundew requires open, moist sand with little to no other competing vegetation. They typically grow in moist swales.
A closer look at the leaves. They appear to be tipped in drops of dew, which would no doubt be a tempting sight to the gnat with a big thirst on a hot summer's day. Big mistake, Mr. Bug. Those "dew drops" are the botanical equivalent of Elmer's Glue, and the insect that seeks them out will be snared and held fast. Slowly, the leaf will enwrap the victim, thus bringing more of the viscous setae in contact with the meal. And that's what our bug has become - a snack. Fairly quickly the soft parts of the bug will be broken down and digested into the plant tissue, thus giving the sundew a shot of protein and nitrogen.

I actually discovered these sundews here last year. In a fit of Drosera rapture, it took me a few minutes to notice what was growing with them - the odd-looking lime-green fern trailing about the upper part of the photo. It turned out to be Northern Appressed Clubmoss, Lycopodiella subappressa. This was only the second or third site so far recorded for this endangered species, which has an extremely limited range.

Range of Northern Appressed Clubmoss. Not much to it. At the time this map was constructed, we hadn't yet found it in Ohio. I don't think they've found it in Indiana; the only other state where it is known is Michigan and there isn't much there.

This day, I was on my hands and knees photographing these micro-rarities, and noticed this sedge. This thing is truly tiny; one plant could sit comfortably on a nickel. It's the aptly named Dwarf Bulrush, Lipocarpha micrantha. Threatened in Ohio, it is a notorious seed banker. That is, the plants will sit dormant as seeds in the soil for long periods, awaiting the proper conditions to appear and induce germination. I didn't see it here last year.
About as close as I can get without unearthing the plant. Those little chestnut-colored glomerules are the fruit, which look somewhat like tiny pineapples. Each fruit, which contains a number of seeds, is about the size of a match head. Probably not a plant that most would be overwhelmed with, but like so many things, upon close inspection they are quite interesting and showy in their own way.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Goldenrod Gall Fly

You've seen 'em, if you've spent anytime at all walking through old fields. I'm talking about those round growths that form on the stems of goldenrod; kind of looks like the plant tried to swallow an apple and it lodged halfway down the stem. This growth, called a gall, is formed by a highly specialized insect called the Goldenrod Gall Fly, Eurosta solidaginis. Solidago is the genus of goldenrods, as recognized in the specific epithet of the fly's scientific name.

But it's just not any of the 25 species of goldenrods recorded from Ohio that will do; the fly is quite specific in its demands. The host plant must be Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, a very abundant and widespread plant, and along with Canada Goldenrod, S. canadensis, the goldenrod of old fields. These two species of goldenrods have variously been lumped and split, so similar are they, and I've always leaned towards lumping them. But, recently recognized evidence suggests that they truly are good species, and this obscure fly factors into this. The fly only chooses Tall Goldenrod, apparently, shunning the very similar Canada Goldenrod even when both species occur together. This suggests a chemical difference between the two goldenrods that is significant.

Good ole Eurosta solidaginis, female. A tiny critter and nowhere near as obvious in the fields as are the galls that they create.

Here's the male. Rather studly, these boys. They lurk on goldenrod buds, watching for prospective mates. When a lovely lady is spied, the male launches into a performance designed to win her over, by rocking rapidly to and fro. If his magic casts a spell over her, mating commences. This coupling can last from 15 minutes to an hour+, with an average time of 40 minutes. People actually are out there that watch this sort of thing, you know. In the case of this fly, I will bet that it was some long-suffering grad student who was made to observe the amorous antics of these flies so that we could all learn about the copulatory habits of Eurosta solidaginis. Whatever the case, these insectivorous studs have tremendous staying power.

OK, after the baby-making is over, the female injects an egg into the stem of a suitable Tall Goldenrod. Interestingly, there are different groups of this fly known as "host races", and another uses Giant Goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, as its host. This goldenrod is not weedy and far more habitat-specific than Tall Goldenrod.

On into the wacky world of bugs we go. The female is quite adept at detecting appropriate host plants, using chemical sensors located in its antennae and feet. If things look OK, in goes the egg. In a fascinating experiment, researchers attempted to trick a fly into ovipositing in a non-host plant. They did this by enwrapping the imposter plant with a leaf from Tall Goldenrod. Sure enough, the fly starting to drill in, but when its ovipositor connected with the alien plant, it quickly pulled out and split the scene, showing that sensors are also present in the ovipositor.

Once the egg is in the plant, this foreign body stimulates the goldenrod to produce specialized gall tissue, probably directed by secretions from the larva once it hatches. If you've ever felt one of these galls, they are hard as rock and good protection. The photo above shows a gall that has been split open with a knife; you can see the larva in the small chamber that it excavates by eating away some plant tissue. Adult Goldenrod Gall Flies don't eat, only the larvae do.

As the worm matures and the gall becomes fully formed, it drills a small escape hole to the outside. Look closely at one of these galls in late fall/winter and you'll see it. Come spring, the larva uses this to escape to the outside world, mature, and start the process all over.

So, what good is this bug? Well, I'm sure they have functions that we don't even know about, but if you are a Downy Woodpecker they're mighty tasty. Downys know what they are and often work the galls in old fields, drilling in and pulling out the larva. If you see our smallest woodpecker out in goldenrod fields, that's probably what they are up to. Look closely at enough of these galls in the winter, and you'll sooner or later see the larger ragged holes that the Downy Woodpeckers excavate in their pursuit of these morsels.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Birds of a Feather

I just finished reading a great book; one I'd highly recommend. It is Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, by Scott Weidensaul. No laboring your way through this one, it is one of the most readable books I've picked up for some time. Scott is an outstanding writer by any measure, and in the natural history department, there may be no one better at putting pen to paper right now.

Scott is an extraordinary researcher and naturalist, and this book is absolutely full of the fine detail that lets the reader know he didn't just whip the book out on a whim; serious study went into all of the varied elements that are incorporated within. In an eggshell, Wiedensaul traces the history of ornithology on this continent, beginning with the rough and tumble frontier days of Wilson and Audubon. If you think nasty politics is a modern invention, read about the Wilsonians and their vitriole directed towards good ole John James Audubon.

He takes us on a journey that nearly all birders should relate to, right up to the modern era of hardcore listing and some of the characters involved. Along the way is a who's who roster of significant figures in American ornitho-birding, many of whom you'll recognize. I especially enjoyed Scott's way of discussing and addressing the relationship of birders to science, and to conservation.

It's the latter - birders and conservation - that caused us to invite him here to Ohio to be the keynote address to the Ohio Ornithological Society and The Nature Conservancy's Bird Conservation Conference on December 1st. In the book's last chapter, Beyond the List, Scott offers a deep perspective on this subject, and one that I was personally delighted to read. While many of us would really like to see birders become a more organized and involved part of conservation, that hasn't really happened yet. Anyone, from the person chasing a Green-breasted Mango in Wisconsin to someone studying molt in Semipalmated Sandpipers along Lake Erie to the homeowner admiring the Carolina Chickadees visiting their feeder, should become involved in looking at how to protect birds and their habitat.

Scott's talk at the conference is sure to be thought-provoking, and if you read this book and especially the final chapter, I think that you'll agree. I hope that you can make it on December 1st, and support birding in Ohio and beyond.
Scott in the field, here holding a Violet-crowned Hummingbird in Arizona. A longtime bander, Scott specializes in hummingbirds and Northern Saw-whet Owls.