Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fantastic Flora

For those with a botanical bent, Costa Rica is a land of constant discovery. I'm sure there are many species of vascular plants there that have yet to be discovered. But the learning curve to get to where one might be able to find something undescribed is a steep one, and mastering all of the known flora is no small feat. I certainly don't pretend to be anywhere near that point.

But I do enjoy searching, and learning.

Not only are many of the plants interesting in appearance, some have very interesting habits. One might think of the jungle as a botanical New York City. Many want to live there, and there is little room for expansion. So, one must grow up, since there is no room to grow out. The tiers of plant communities - and consequently animals - is altitudinally oriented in the jungle. I want to share one of the more fascinating plants, when it comes to eking - or is it bulldozing? - out a niche.

But first, an orchid. Costa Rica has lots of them. Some 1,200 species, I have read. Some obscure and inconspicuous, some very much in your face. The one below falls in the latter category.

We were driving along one day, beginning to reach the higher elevations of the Caribbean slope, when I looked out the window and WOW! Like I almost always do at such moments, it was STOP! This plant jumped from the grassy slopes like a kangaroo on burning coals. I was ecstatic to see that it was an orchid, and one I'd not seen before. Noel Urena, our guide, knew its name - Spanish Flag, Epidendrum radicans. We were to see many of them in this region, but I never tired of seeing their brilliant crimson-orange blooms.
The common name stems from the colors, which approximate just that - the flag of Spain. Now, that's a fine flag and I've got no quarrel with any Spaniard, but that flag really doesn't hold a candle to the vibrant colors of this plant. It's hard for me to see how anyone could see such a thing, and not have to take at least one moment to admire it up close.

Now, to the baron of the jungle plants - the King of hostile botanical takeovers.

We are looking straight up the trunk of one of the jungle behemoths, a massive tree stretching 100 feet or more skyward. And it's doomed. Those pipe-like stems along the side that resemble water pipes are the start of a Strangler Fig, of the genus Ficus. There are several species and I'm not sure which one this is, but no matter, they behave similarly. This fig is not growing UP the tree from the ground - it is growing DOWN from the canopy. It begins life growing as an epiphyte high in the canopy, from seeds deposited, most likely, by a bird or possibly a mammal like a Kinkajou or monkey. After a while, it enters the primary hemi-epiphyte stage, when the plant sends down water-seeking roots, which eventually reach the ground and root. Depending on the height of the tree, it might take several years for the roots to touch down.

A bit closer view on those aerial roots. Note how they send out lateral roots which encircle the host tree's trunk. The strangulation has begun in this rather grisly botanical death battle. I felt and shook those aerial roots, and I can report that they feel just like steel rods. I'm told these roots are dense enough to quickly dull the teeth of a saw.

Stage Three, strangulation, is well under way and nearly complete in this specimen. By now, the strangler fig has enwrapped its host completely, and is the figs roots are melding together as one.

Finally, the fourth and last stage has been reached. The fig is a free-standing tree in its own right, the once numerous strangling roots having fused as one. The host, once enclosed inside, has largely rotted away, leaving the interior hollow. The crown of the fig is leafy, and it produces flowers and fruits. It may actually be overshading by the nearly mature fig's crown that shades out and puts the final knockout blow on the host.

No one said life in the jungle is easy, even if you are just a plant.

Several people have asked me if I was ever going to try and condense my photos from three trips worth of Costa Rica into some sort of coherent program. I am, and will have a visual journey through Costa Rica from Caribbean to Pacific ready soon. I'll be giving this PowerPoint program on April 9 at 1:00 pm in Worthington, Ohio. It'll be at the meeting of the Worthington Hills Garden Club, and they are a lively and welcoming bunch. With advance notice, anyone is welcome and they'll even serve you an excellent lunch, if you choose, for a nominal fee.

If you would like to attend, just e-mail me at and I'll see that you are included.

Be tolerant if I don't reply very fast, though. I'm leaving for the jungles of Guatemala for a spell this Saturday.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

New Species Discovered

Even in a populous, well-explored state like Ohio, new species lurk. While unearthing anything new to science is always exciting, these new discoveries usually aren't shockingly abrupt finds, like, say, a red, yellow and orange macaw found hiding in the depths of an Ohio forest. No, they are typically evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

One of the most recently described new sedges fits the mold for recent finds. And it's one we have in Ohio, although apparently quite rare here. Usually, some authority who has made a study of a group of poorly known and often difficult to identify group of organisms makes the find. As they become more familiar with the group that they are studying, the researcher begins to see differences among species that aren't well explained. Further work sometimes reveals that these different entities are in fact very different, and consistently so. After much work to document this, sometimes we end up with newly described species that were hiding under our noses.

In the plant world, this has been happening routinely with sedges of the genus Carex. A huge (Ohio has over 160 species) and at least superficially intimidating group, sedges are often shunned even by botanists. Too bad, they are very interesting, often aesthetically striking plants that are extremely important ecologically.

We're lucky to have North America's - and perhaps the world's - foremost sedge authority a stone's throw to the north. Dr. Anton (Tony) Reznicek resides at the University of Michigan when he isn't searching the Americas for Carex. Tony's efforts along with those who he works with and advises has led to many of these newly described sedges, as he and others continue to expand our knowledge of these plants.

So it was only fitting that one of the newest described species is named Reznicek's Sedge, Carex reznicekii. Described by David Werier in 2006 and published in the botanical journal Sida, this obscure plant is actually fairly broad ranging, occurring from eastern Pennsylvania south to Georgia and east to Missouri and Arkansas. Ohio is at the extreme northern limits of its range, with only three records thus far known, from Adams, Jackson, and Meigs counties.

Carex reznicekii is cryptic in the extreme, and is part of a section of Carex that is tough to recognize, and that might be stating things mildly. The massive, sprawling genus Carex is divided into sections to make things more manageable, and this plant is in section Acrocystis. They are very interesting little woodland sedges, but quite easy to walk right over and never know you just passed by a perfect specimen. In fact, noted Ohio botanist Lucy Braun, in describing the sedges of Ohio in her 1967 book the Monocotyledoneae of Ohio, missed the most common Ohio member of this section altogether!

Long before Carex reznicekii was described, I collected it in Jackson County, in 1990. The specimen is housed at the Ohio State University herbarium, and some photos of it follow.

Here's my sheet, from nearly 18 years ago. Plant specimens that are properly prepared and stored can last nearly indefinitely, and provide a valuable record of our plants. As we learn more about our flora, these specimens are invaluable to researchers. Many if not most of the now many records of Reznicek's Sedge come from herbarium specimens like this one, as researchers checked back through similar appearing species.

Here is one reason this group of sedges has been so overlooked. When in full fruit, as this specimen is, the reproductive parts are hidden near the bases of the leafy tussocks. Thus, when one looks down on some of the species in this group, they appear to be little more than sterile tufts of grass. And get passed by. As we've learned more about Acrocystis sedges, we've found them to be surprisingly common, much more so than was thought even a few decades ago.

Here is a tighter view of the reproductive parts of Carex reznicekii. Sedge fruit are known as perigynia, and are the little clumps of fruit amongst the leaves. Most visible of the three inflorescences in this photo is the one at top dead center. Even though an an effort was made to arrange this specimen so that the perigynia would be visible, they still don't exactly jump out. You can imagine that in the field, they are essentially invisible thus making the plant very easy to ignore. It may be that sparrows play a role in dispersal of Carex reznicekii. The fruit are right at eye level for ground-feeders like Eastern Towhee, which are common in the habitats this plant occurs in.

Here's my label for the above depicted specimen. There's a saying that the least important bit of info on an herbarium label is the name. Because they change. Most critical is the information like locale, date, and collector. With a bit of searching this population could probably be relocated by an independent searcher. I still remember it, and the reason I collected this material is because it looked strange to me at the time. It is labeled Carex umbellata because at the time, that's the closest entity I knew to put it in. When news of Carex reznicekii emerged, ODNR botanist Rick Gardner began checking Ohio herbaria for it and found this specimen. Right above my label is Rick's annotation from this year. Above his label is that of the master himself, Tony Reznicek, confirming the identity.

So, perhaps not the most exciting way to discover new species, but this is how it often happens.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Flora-Quest 2008

Last year, several of us got together and devised an event to showcase the flora (and fauna) of Shawnee State Forest and vicinity, one of the most beautiful locales in the eastern U.S. We held it in early May, when the woodlands are carpeted with scores of beautiful spring wildflowers, and to many, Shawnee is at its finest. We had a smashing good time, and couldn't wait to repeat it.

Thus, on the weekend of May 2 - 4, we'll once again hold Flora-Quest. Just as before, many of the state's best botanists have come together to help lead trips through this wilderness, and help attendees see and learn about the interesting plants of the region, both common and rare. We've also added trips to the nearby, sprawling Edge of Appalachia preserve - truly one of the gems of Ohio's natural areas.

Each night features stellar presentations by expert presenters, and there will be a special program on orchids on Saturday. For more details and registration information, go right here.

This year, our conference plant is the very rare and spectacularly showy Wherry's Catchfly, Silene caroliniana. The Shawnee area harbors some of Ohio's very few populations, and it will be looking just like the above photo during Flora-Quest. I took this picture last year during the F-Q weekend. There'll be much more, though - we can expect hundreds of plant species, not to mention all of the birds and other animals. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Three-fifths of Aythya

We have three regularly occurring "Bay Ducks"; divers in the genus Aythya. All are common, at least locally and seasonally, and are Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, and Lesser Scaup. Within the next few weeks, they'll be flooding through Ohio as ice-out takes place and they hurry northward.
Excepting the two scaup, males in this group are a snap to ID. Even the male scaup aren't ordinarily too bad, if decent looks can be had. Females can be a bit tougher, though. And again, the two scaup can cause some consternation. Thus, the following photo, which I've sliced and diced a few ways, is very instructive.
Nonda Surrat, who lives near Buckeye Lake and birds often near that reservoir, sent me this amazing photo.

Nonda took this shot recently at Hebron Fish Hatchery. It is, from left to right, a drake Ring-necked Duck, a hen Greater Scaup, and a hen Lesser Scaup. Arranged perfectly in a row; quite remarkable! We'll go in for a closer look.
Cropped in tight on the two scaup. Several features become apparent that are useful for separating the two species. Some field marks are really good; others are variable but can serve to draw ones attention to a possible Greater - or Lesser - from afar. Notice the larger amount of white around the base of the bill of the Greater on the left. And its darker mantle (back) color, which creates a better defined demarcation between the back and sides than is present in the Lesser. Neither of these characters is absolute, though, and can vary amongst individuals and probably because of age as well. Quite helpfully, the birds are in almost exactly the same position in regards to the camera. The greater bulk of the Greater is evident, especially in the head and neck. It apppears bull-necked by comparison. Greaters average about 10-15 percent larger than Lessers. According to Sibley, average weight for a Greater Scaup is 2.3 pounds; Lesser is 1.8 pounds.

Here's a tight crop on the Greater Scaup. Now we can see some of the structural traits which are reliable separators of the two species and not, at least normally, subject to much variability. Of course, the wing stripe is useful in telling the two apart but since we can't see that field mark here, we won't worry about it. Note how this bird has a nicely rounded head with little in the way of an obvious peak. If anything, the most obvious angle in the shape of the head is in front of the eye, after the forehead slopes rather steeply up from the bill.

Also note the comparatively massive bill. Big and broad, and appearing thick from top to bottom. It also has a more prominent nail, or hooked tip to the bill. This nail is also blackish, and the dark pigment bleeds onto the adjacent bill, making the entire tip of the bill look dark.

Here's a closeup of the comparatively wimpy looking Lesser Scaup. The bulbous head is perched on a rather spindly looking neck, and the shape of the head is distinctly crowned or peaked towards the rear. This essentially gives the look of a tall, domed head while the Greater is low and rounded. The bill is smaller and weaker by comparison, lacking the large, spatulate proportions of the Greater. Note especially the basal portion of the bill on each species - the area where the bill meets the head. It also has a smaller nail at the tip with little in the way of dark pigment, so in this photo it is hard to discern any coloration at the bill tip, while in the above Greater shot it can easily be seen.

That's enough of scaup, I think. If only we could see them this well every time in the field! Thanks to Nonda for sharing this great photograph.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Killdeer Plains

A group of about 40 toured the 8,600+ acre Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area today, courtesy of organizers Cheryl Harner and Marc Nolls, respectively representing Greater Mohican Audubon and Greater Akron Audubon. The Ohio Ornithological Society also lent a hand.

It was a great trip with lots of good birds, and a number of unmistakable avian signs of spring. Killdeer were winging overhead, and small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds were about. Lots of Northern Pintail, the most aggressive of the dabblers when it comes to northward migration. A few dozen Tundra Swan were about, and tons of Mallards and American Black Ducks. A smattering of several other species of waterfowl, but the ponds and wetlands up that way are still mostly locked in solid with ice. As that starts to thaw, the floodgates of waterfowl migration will be released.

Amongst the thousands of Canada Geese, we came up with nine Greater White-fronted Geese - always a treat to see "speckle-bellies" in Ohio.

A rule to live by: PT Cruisers do not float, nor do they ice skate well. Thus, it is not advisable to drive them onto sheets of frozen water underlain by unfrozen water. Even if the license plates on the vehicle say "SHOVLR". I'll say no more; to save her more embarassment I'll keep Cheryl's identity a secret.
Scanning the tundra-like frozen sheets of ice at Pond 27. Scads of Canada Geese were resting on the ice, and among their rank we located nine Greater White-fronted Geese - new state birds for a number of people.

How's this for cryptic plumage? A male Lapland Longspur lurks among the corn stubble. These sparrows of wide open spaces can be amazingly hard to spot as they forage in fields, and we detected these birds by their distinctive dry rattling calls. In spite of huge winds and rain showers, our entire group were able to get looks at the birds, and most through the scopes. Longspurs always remind me of mice, the way they thread through the plant debris, running and picking at seeds, then freezing at perceived threats and magically becoming nearly invisible.

Beautiful Tundra Swans take flight against a late winter leaden sky. We hit the trifecta of Ohio swans today; in addition to a few dozen Tundras thee were a few Mute Swans present, as well as some of the resident Trumpeter Swans.

Long-eared Owl. Just like the longspur, this is an excellent example of cryptic plumage, just in a very different way. The owl is hard against the trunk of this conifer, playing the "I'm a broken-off branch you can't see me" game. And they can be devilishly difficult to spot. Fortunately, sharp-eyed Marty Dermody spotted an owl from afar, and we all could admire them with causing undue angst or flushing them. And as is often the case, as we scanned the tree and the owl, one, then two, and finally three other birds were revealed.

Much more conspicuous among the raptors were Rough-legged Hawks, in this case an impeccably tailored dark morph bird. It was one of maybe six rough-leggeds that we saw. Northern Harriers were the most obvious birds of prey; we must have seen twenty-five.

Killdeer Plains is nearly always interesting, and today was no exception.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Prong-billed Barbet

One of the more interesting birds that I encountered on my recent Costa Rica trip were Prong-billed Barbets, Semnornis frantzii. They rather resemble some sort of grosbeak, but are actually quite closely related to toucans.

Prong-billed Barbets occur somewhat sparingly and sporadically on both slopes of Costa Rica; the Caribbean and Pacific. They are found at middle elevation forests, and the birds in the following photos were found on the Caribbean side. Other than Costa Rica, this species occurs only in western Panama.

Tame and confiding, the barbets were very approachable and at times seemed rather curious about us humanoids. Outside of the breeding season, they are gregarious and we saw as many as six or eight together. I was occasionally able to get within 15 feet or so, and watch them as they went about their business of gorging on various tropical fruits, and no doubt eventually dispersing the seeds.

Beautiful Prong-billed Barbet watches me watching him, at Bosque de Paz, Costa Rica. Chunky and grosbeak-like, barbets share the rather tame, deliberate behavior of their close allies the toucans.

Aptly named, the mandible tips of a Prong-billed Barbet's bill terminate in small hooks. The lower has two little prong-like extensions that close neatly around the hook at the tip of the upper mandible. One might think of birds' bills - any bird - as tools that enable the species to better procure food. In the case of this barbet, evolution has shaped an interesting arrangement that allows the barbet to better slice and dice the fruits of various shrubs and trees. While somewhat muted in hue, the soft orangish-brown plumage of these barbets is quite beautiful in an understated way.

A gluttonous Prong-billed Barbet pillages soft fruits from a tree. Note how it has used its bill to efficiently remove the top half of the fruit, thus easily accessing the succulent, juicy pulp within.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

One of Ohio's most beautiful herons is also one of our rarest. The number of breeding pairs of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in the state could probably be counted with the fingers of both hands, with change to spare. This southern wader is at its extreme northern limits here, and while we're probably not finding all of the nesters, it is without doubt quite the rarity.

The most famous of the Ohio Nyctanassa violacea are the Bexley nesters. These birds have their nests in the large boughs of mammoth sycamores shading a side street in upscale Bexley, a posh neighborhood on the east side of Columbus. Hundreds of birders have been to visit.

I was going to post some pictures of the fascinating Prong-billed Barbets that I encountered in Costa Rica, but then my friend Marty Sedluk sent along some of the results of his photographic work with the Bexley herons from last summer. Thus, the barbets have been temporarily preempted. Marty is taking some amazing natural history photos, and when I saw the following photos, I just had to share them. Thanks for allowing me to use, them, Marty.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Pura Vida!

Just back from an action-filled ten day romp through Costa Rica. There, it was sunny and warm and filled with flora and fauna of nearly every size, shape, and hue. Here, I'm listening to the winter Ohio winds howl and try to push 20 degree air into cracks and crevices in the house. It's good to be back?
In between dealing with all of the stuff that piles up after nearly two weeks away, I'm sorting through and labeling hundreds of "keeper" photos. That's out of perhaps 3,000 pics snapped. My retention rate isn't good, but that's the great thing about digital - bad photographers like me can just keep snapping until one works out.
This trip was awesome in the extreme, and that's in no small part because of our Costa Rican guide, Noel Urena. He is easily one of the best birders in the country, and likely all of Central America. I like to think I have somewhat sharp eyes conditioned over a few decades of bird-seeking, but the jungle search-image is vastly different. The way Noel spots small birds like woodcreepers, manakins, and warblers in deep, dark, dense foliage lush enough to mask a jaguar is nothing short of amazing.

My traveling partners Barb Fate and David Hughes, along with Noel, tallied 344 species of birds, 15 species of mammals, and countless species of butterflies, dragonflies, other insects, not too mention plants. Among the birds were 34 species of Neotropical migrants - species that nest in Ohio or elsewhere in North America. One hundred and forty-two Wilson's Warblers. Ninety-nine Black-throated Green Warblers. Twenty-three Summer Tanagers. Forty-eight Chestnut-sided Warblers. Etc... Very interesting to see "our" species in the jungle, and it always gives me a broader apreciation and perspective on these global wanderers.
For now, here's a few photos from Costa Rica before I return to digging out from e-mails and whatever...

An eighty-five foot waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Gardens; truly a tropical paradise. This area receives about 145 FEET of rainfall annually.

Mantled Howler Monkeys. A youngster on the left, with an adult female. That's her hand-like foot dangling down. Howlers travel in troupes, and the males sound off every morning around 5:15 am just like clockwork. Their bellows can carry for a mile, and sound like a dozen coon hounds locked in a one-car garage played through a stack of Marshall amps. Rather terrifying, if you don't know the origin.
Black Guan, Chamaepetes unicolor. These large, pheasant-sized birds are related to chachalacas and quail, and normally are quite arboreal. Here, at a little known placed called Bosque de Paz (Forest of Peace) deep in the middle elevation cloud forest of the Caribbean slope, the guans have become accustomed to visiting feeding platforms. It was here that I had one of the most exciting raptor encounters ever. Standing nearby the feeders one evening at dusk, things were eerily quiet with few birds about. Suddenly, a guan burst from the wall of dense jungle vegetation at top speed, then jigged hard to the left. Hot on its heels, nearly on top of it, was an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, one of the most spectacular of avian jungle predators. Hunter and hunted shot by perhaps 15-20 feet from me, and I suspect my unexpected presence surprised the eagle and threw its timing off enough to allow the guan an escape, barely. The unsuccessful predator landed on a low branch maybe 200 feet away, and treated us to wonderful looks of this amazing bird.

We were thrilled to find this bird at Bosque de Paz. It is a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Geotrygon costaricensis. While not all that rare, they are often very difficult to observe, as these tiny doves forage quietly on the jungle floor in dense, nearly impenetrable vegetation. To boot, they don't vocalize often, so even becoming aware of their presence is difficult. Noel's sharp eyes found the bird after we saw it run into the jungle from afar. Once located, it was very tame and allowed us to approach within 15 feet before finally bustling off into the growth.

Sunset over the Pacific, near Dominical, Costa Rica. I look forward to my next trip to this place. While only half the size of Ohio, Costa Rica boasts a bird list of 977 species, twelve Life Zones, over 1,200 species of orchids, and no doubt countless yet to be discovered flora and fauna.