Saturday, June 28, 2008

OYBC Visits Cedar Bog

Members of the Ohio Young Birders Club traveled to one of Ohio's premier natural areas today, the famed "Cedar Swamp" near Urbana in Champaign County. Cedar Bog State Memorial is one of Ohio's most significant - and famous - wetlands, as it harbors an incredible concentration of rare species.

Fifteen of us descended on the site this morning, and headed off along the boardwalk to see what we could see. Although the boardwalk loop is maybe a mile in length, we took three and a half hours making our way around. One can't step two paces without seeing something worthy of study at Cedar Bog.

The birds were pretty good. We had great looks at a cooperative Yellow-breasted Chat, and a pair of Alder Flycatchers allowed us nice views. The latter is quite rare in central Ohio as a breeder. At one point, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak teed up beautifully where everyone could admire it, and sang his whistled slurry song. Plenty of other stuff too, but of all things, a chickadee made the headlines. Cedar Bog is well south of the typical range of Black-capped Chickadee, yet there one was, singing away and offering up husky chik-a-dee calls. I've only had Carolina Chickadee here in the past, and that's what would be expected. This one will be worth following up on, and if time permits I may go back and see if I can learn more.

Our group in the field, smack in the middle of Ohio's only White Cedar Swamp. Many a slap was heard today - the sounds of mosquitoes being pulverized. The drawback to exploring interesting wetlands is sometimes the biting insect factor, but it's a relatively small price to pay.
The group in one of the fen meadows. These open meadows are where the richest floristic diversity and greatest concentration of rare species in Ohio occurs. And where we spent most of our time. This spot, in particular, produced lots of goodies.

This is one of the oddities being admired by the group in the last photo. Round-leaved Sundews, Drosera rotundifolia, are carnivorous plants. Their tiny leaves are beset with sticky hairs, each tipped with what looks like a tasty dew-drop. It isn't; rather, the "dew-drop" is the botanical counterpart of Elmer's Glue. Bugs are snared fast, and eventually digested by the plant. No wonder we were looking at this thing. Good they aren't the size of redwood trees. We'd all be in trouble.

We had missed the Showy Lady's-slipper spectacle by about a week or so; they had all pretty much passed out of flower. Excellent compensation was provided by these Grass-pink orchids, Calopogon tuberosus. The meadows were copiously dotted with their bright pink blooms.

Other rare plants abounded. Here are two - one showy, one not. As is often the case, the non-showy one is probably far more important in this habitat than the beauty, if such comparisons should be made. The white-flowered species on the right is False Asphodel, Triantha glutinosa, a threatened species in the lily family. It is sparingly scattered about the fen meadows, and its scientific epithet, glutinosa, bears noting. That word means "sticky", and that it is. The upper reaches of asphodel stems are quite gluey, and one can found small insects stuck dead to the plants. The beginnings of carnivory? Hmmm...

The much less showy plant on the left is Walking Spikerush, Eleocharis rostellata. It is the dominant sedge within the Cedar Bog meadows, carpeting the wetlands with lush, dense cover. Most of what is visible in the backdrop is this species. Everything from Spotted Turtles to Massasauga rattlesnakes to endangered dragonflies hides within Walking Spikerush beds. The name? Because as shoots grow and elongate, the tips eventually arc over and touch the soil. This stimulates roots to form at the point of touch down, and new shoots emerge and repeat the performance. Thus, the plant "walks" about to spread itself. So successful is this mode of reproduction that little energy has to be put into the production of flowers and fruit.

Insects were fantastic, as well. Some were obvious and in our face, like these Red Milkweed Beetles, Tetraopes tetrapthalmus. They were all over the patches of Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Quite a showy member of the longhorned beetle family, but probably not the most tasty morsels running around out there, not that you'd be inclined to pop one in your mouth. Milkweeds have toxins that no doubt permeate these beetles, and they are telling us to back off with their bright colors and bold behavior.

The dragons were dazzling. We had a few of the big boys, and BY FAR the best find was a striking Comet Darner, Anax longipes, spotted by Ethan Kistler. It gave the group a show, and everyone was stunned by this bright red giant. As near as I can tell, this is a county record and there are farily few records of Comet Darner anywhere in this region. But it was mostly the micro-dragons that ruled today - damselflies, dancers, and sprites. Above is an endangered male Seepage Dancer, Argia bipunctulata. These tiny hunters lurk low amongst the sedges, but we saw plenty, in fact, far more than I have ever seen before at Cedar Bog. We also saw Sedge Sprites, Nehalennia irene, which are even smaller. It's a good thing for close focusing binoculars. Perhaps best of all were two or three gorgeous male Elfin Skimmers, Nannothemis bella, endangered and the smallest dragonfly in North America.

If you know of a young person interested in birds, or nature in general, consider enrolling them in the Ohio Young Birders Club. Interesting field trips like this one are commonplace. Also, even if you are beyond the ages of 12 to 18, as I barely am, become a supporting member. For those of us interested in perpetuating a legacy of conservation, so that future generations will be interested in nature and work to protect it, there is little more of importance that we can do than to work to encourage young people to become involved. Just go right here for more details.

All in all, an outstanding field day, and I appreciate everyone coming along, and the Ohio Young Birders Club for getting me out in the field.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Burrowing Owl update

Apparently no one was able to relocate the Burrowing Owl that came to light Tuesday in Darke County, near Greenville. It had been present for a week, according to the landowner who first brought it to the attention of Robb Clifford at the nearby Shawnee Prairie nature center. The massive weather front that moved through western and central Ohio yesterday afternoon and last night probably didn't bode well for keeping the owl around. It was probably the worst storm yet this summer, with high winds and heavy rains. The handily placed tornado alarm near my house here in Columbus blasted for an hour last night, thank you very much, and the counties in the area of the owl was were apparently hard-hit as well.

I'm sure people will be looking for the owl today, and we'll hear if it resurfaces.

There has been some backdoor buzz amongst some of the hardcore listers about the speed with which this bird was reported. The owl didn't come to light until late in the day on Tuesday. Prior to posting it to the birding community at large, it was important to find and talk with the local landowners on whose property the owl was located. This situation is a very similar one to the Black Rail near Circleville in that the bird is along a sparsely traveled country lane in a very rural area. When masses of people suddenly descend on such sites with no warning, local residents notice and sometimes aren't overly thrilled. There were a few unpleasant incidents at the rail site that likely were the result of a lack of communication. Such incidents can't always be avoided, but it's likely that with some forewarning to let local landowners know about rare birds like the rail and this owl, why people are interested in them, what to expect, and what they - the local residents or landowners - might like to see in regards to parking and that sort of thing, most issues can probably be headed off before they become issues. But it does take a bit of advance effort and time.

So, in large measure thanks to Robb Clifford, the two gentlemen who own the properties where the Burrowing Owl is/was were fully aware of these things within a few hours. They knew what the bird was, how rare it is, what to expect from birders, and were consulted about parking issues. They were totally wonderful about it. Better to work all this out beforehand with a bit of diplomacy, and eliminate or reduce the risk of potential problems later, even if it means a delay.

So, by 9 pm or so that night Robb had posted the bird out on the Internet and calls were being made to help spread the word. By early the next morning most interested parties were probably aware of it. Not sure how this could have been done much more quickly. Probably within a few hours of confirmation of the bird the word was going global.

Call me old, but I still remember the "old days" before the Ohio Birds listserv and other Internet forums when there was no way a rarity could go public in such a widespread way with such rapidity. It's good that such things can now circulate so quickly.

Many of us who have been birding a while have fielded reports of all manner of allegedly amazing birds, from well-meaning folks who often don't really know birds that well. I just got an email about a Brown Pelican - in central Ohio - that is eating all of the goldfish out of someone's ornamental pond. They wonder whether netting over the pond might discourage it :-) Haven't yet been able to get in touch, but I will. Really think it'll be a Brown Pelican? In most cases, these reports turn out to be something common. It's easy to get jaded and not follow up on these things.

I really give Robb a ton of credit for listening to the gentleman who reported this owl, and taking the time to check it out. And then helping to insure that all would be well with the locals, and there would be no issues for visitors.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Burrowing Owl!

Kudos to Robb Clifford for bringing to light a bird that even trumps the famous Black Rails down in Pickaway County. Through some odd luck, Robb - who works as a naturalist for Darke County Parks - heard about a bird that sounded like it must be a Burrowing Owl. He ran over to the site, and was able to find the bird and confirm it. I got an email just as I was leaving work late this afternoon and got Robb on the phone as quick as possible. Now that we knew the bird was good, the big issue to address ASAP was the local landowners. Luckily it isn't that far to buzz over there, so Bernie Master and I headed off to meet Robb and see the lay of the land.

To make a long story short, we all met both landowners who own the turf where the owl is, and both are the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. They are fine with any and all birders coming over, and Tom (one of them) even graciously permitted people to park in the driveway of his barn.

To get there, go to Greenville in Darke County (extreme west-central Ohio), take State Rte. 502 west out of town and go a few miles to Springhill Road and turn right (north). This is the last road before the Indiana State line. Follow Springhill to the first road, Wildcat Rd, and turn left (west). Tom's white barn is the first one you'll come to, on the left, and the owl frequents the soybean field just east of his barn. He also often sees it standing right next to the road just east of the barn, by a culvert. The only request is: DO NOT WALK OUT INTO THE BEAN FIELD!

Apparently, the owl has been present for a week, and hopefully without undue disturbance it will stay for a while and all interested parties will get to see it.

Burrowing Owl amongst the soybeans. Sorry for the poor shots, but we couldn't/wouldn't get very near the bird. It is rather skittish, but once spotted can be admired from afar quite nicely through spotting scopes.

Another view. This, amazingly, is the third Ohio record, with the others from 1944 and 1981. Do your best to get over and see this charismatic little beast, and be sure and thank the landowners for their hospitality if you should see them. Also, keep in mind that the bird is very easy to miss in the soybean field. Some persistence and scope work may be required.

Thanks again to Robb Clifford for some excellent heads-up work on bringing this one to light, and be sure and stop by their nature center at Shawnee Prairie Preserve, as you'll probably head right past it anyway. The preserve is on the south side of State Rte. 502 just west of Greenville.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Blizzard of Butterflies

Along with a number of other enthusiasts of all things Lepidopteran, I made a recent trip to Ohio's supreme Butterfly Mecca, Shawnee State Forest and nearby Adams County. This region is just crazy butterfly-wise, as you'll see from some of the pics below. In all, we found 34 species, and many of them in humongous numbers.

If you'd like to see the Mariposa Circus firsthand, join us for the Appalachian Butterfly Conference, which will be based out of the beautiful state park lodge in Shawnee, right in the thick of some of the best butterflying to be found north of the Ohio River. It'll be August 9 & 10, and believe it or not, the butterflies are even more over the top then. Sixty plus species will be possible and some of them in such numbers as to be nearly inestimable. Plus, by that date we'll be seeing plenty of the immigrants - the butterfly counterparts to vagrant birds. GO RIGHT HERE for more details and registration information. Feel you are a novice? No problem, the field trips will be led by some of the best butterfly experts in the region.

Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa, densely cloaked with many species of butterflies. We found a number of sunny openings loaded with this plant, which wasn't even in peak bloom yet. No matter, to many butterflies it is utterly irresistable. There are probably several dozen butterflies of several species in this photo.
Always a crowd-pleaser, jumbo Great Spangled Fritillaries were everywhere. A brood had apparently just emerged, and most were looking shiny and new. Butterflies become punch-drunk on the nectar of butterfly-weed, and can be approached to within inches.

Ditto on Spicebush Swallowtails in terms of abundance. They were everywhere - we must have seen thousands. Quite a show-stopper, this one, especially when newly hatched and vibrant.
We had a real neophyte amongst our ranks; someone who had really never looked at butterflies before. I asked her, at one point, what her favorite species was. And was anything but surprised when she answered "Zebra Swallowtail". I might agree. There are scads of these down there, and the summer broods are bigger and arguably showier than the early spring brood. This one has the longest tails of any of our swallowtails. This zebra is foraging on Dogbane, or Indian-hemp, Apocynum cannabinum, which is closely allied to milkweeds and a major attractant for butterflies.

Swallowtails and fritillaries are big, bold, and in your face. Just can't be missed, and down there, even people who really don't even dig this sort of thing notice them. However, there are many equally stunning butterflies that require a closer look. This Coral Hairstreak is one of them. They aren't much larger than a dime. It's row of round dots on the trailing wing edge match the color of the milkweed flowers to near perfection. It is also our only common hairstreak that has no tails - the "hair streaks".

There weren't only plenty of zebras in the forest, many a tiger roamed, too. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, that is. These whoppers were everywhere, and often are seen coursing high in the tree canopies, gliding for extended periods like insectian Turkey Vultures. These two, believe it or not, are both females. The one on the left is a normal yellow, while the left one is a dark morph. At least half the females encountered down there are dark, and can look much like other species of dark swallowtails such as spicebushes. Note how the tiger stripes bleed through, though. No butterflies were harmed in the making of this educational photo!
This is an Adams County prairie opening, just like we'll be visiting during the Appalachian Butterfly Conference. Few habitats in the Midwest harbor the botanical richness of these prairies, nor the volume of globally rare species. That goes for butterflies, too. Some of our more uncommon species are best sought in these sites, and we found one. All of those conical mounds of barren earth are nests of Allegheny Mound Ants. As many as 300,000 savage and war-like ants might occupy a large nest. Yet they have a mutualistic relationship with an interesting butterfly in which the ants protect its caterpillars when they are not up in the oaks, stuffing themselves with foliage. Like a dairy farmer tending his herd, the ants escort the little wriggly bags of protein into the mounds when they aren't feeding. Ain't no one gonna mess with them in there. When the caterpillar does go arboreal, the ants send along a phalanx of warriors to protect it from parasitic wasps, which are chief among caterpillars' worst enemies. In return for their protection, the ants milk the caterpillars to stimulate the secretion of a sugary substance, which they lap up. Apparently, this juice is every bit as alluring to the ants as Blatz beer is to a Nascar fan.

And this is it - the butterfly that lives amongst the ants. Edward's Hairstreak, this one being freshly transformed from the aforementioned caterpillar. The adults still stay in close proximity to the prairie openings and the ant mounds, though, and savvy butterfliers know that the presence of ant mounds means a chance at finding this awesome little butterfly.

If you would like to partake of some of this yourself, along with scores of other interesting animals and plants, come on down for the ABC. We'd be glad to have you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rare Dragons in the Oak Openings

Rick Nirschl is at it again. Rick, who is one of the most accomplished naturalists plying the interesting habitats of northwest Ohio, has made many great finds. The birders amongst our ranks may remember the strange hybrid warbler dubbed "Nirschl's Warbler" that he found several years back in Toledo. This quasi-mystery bird is generally thought to be a hybrid between a Northern Parula and Cerulean Warbler, and it is still returning to the place where Rick first found it.

He's also a top dog in the world of dragonflies. A few years ago, Rick found Striped Saddlebags, Tramea calverti, at Magee Marsh. This was a first state record, and such things get the bug boys going just like the discovery of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher would have the birding crowd hopping madly about in a feverish twitch.

At this early stage in the 2008 game, Rick has produced two major finds from the Oak Openings. He also takes outstanding photos, and was willing to share his handiwork with us.

Chalk-fronted Corporal, Libellula julia. A real northerner, this one - Ohio is at its southern limits - and currently listed as endangered in Ohio. Lucas County is a new record, and Rick found a breeding colony producing youngsters.

A real jaw-dropper, this one. It's a Golden-winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis, and is the opposite of the corporal in that it is at its northern limits here. There were only two prior records from Ohio.

Great finds, Rick, and thanks for sharing the photos.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Here's a Rarity!

I went down to beautiful Fairfield County last Sunday, hard on the edge of Hocking County and its renowned sandstone gorges. Our destination was a normally off-limits place, a preserve dominated by a massive escarpment of sandstone. This giant rock is fractured into "fat man's" squeezes; narrow fissures with narrow walls but very high ceilings, and the slopes below are littered with slump blocks the size of cars, if not buses.

Quite beautiful, and a geologist's fantasy land. But we were there for a bird.

The cool, north-facing slopes of this massif are choked with impenetrable tangles of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. This, in not very distant West Virginia, is the habitat of one of the most coveted if not least showy of the eastern Wood Warblers. Mr. Swainson's bird. The Swainson's Warbler. Showy of song if not plumage, this skulker whistles from the rhododendron tangles in the highlands of Appalachia, and has excited many a birder thrilled more by its uncommoness than its plumage.

There have a been a few Swainson's that have summered here in Ohio, but I'd bet all were unmated males and none have been in great - or at least typical habitat for this warbler. I don't think we have any that breed in Ohio, and would consider it unlikely that they would turn up. But, if some promising habitat is known, it'd be foolish not to look.

We failed. But only on the Swainson's Warbler. The rhododendron was in near full bloom, and that spectacle was worth the climbing, as were the flowering Mountain Laurel and all of the other interesting critters and plants. And one of our participants let on about another really rare warbler that had been hanging out for a while in a not too distant part of Hocking County.

Excuse my less than National Geographic quality photos with this bird. It just wasn't possible to get up in his grill. Looks a bit like a chickadee, eh?

For those of you guessing Vermivora chrysoptera, Golden-winged Warbler, how right thou are. This is a good one. There are hardly if any left as breeders in Ohio. My hunch in this case, based on watching it and hearing the descriptions of those who have been observing it since it appeared a few weeks back, is that it is unmated. Probably just no females to be found in the area, as far removed as it is from the core centers of Golden-winged Warbler populations.

Golden-wingeds are real beauts. They sing a neat song, too: Bee-buzz-buzz-buzz, at least typically. This one was singing a classic Golden-winged song and the bird showed no signs of hybridization. They often cross with Blue-winged Warblers, and the pairing of pure parents of each species produces an interesting hybrid known as Brewster's Warbler. The pairing of a pure adult and a hybrid produces the even more exotic-looking Lawrence's Warbler. Generally speaking, at least.

Golden-winged Warbler habitat, a shrubby old field choked with Winged Sumac and other shrubs, and dotted with the occasional taller sapling. A great bird, and a nice substitute for Swainson's Warbler.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Deb Marsh sends along some absolutely stunning photos of a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that she observed for a period late last July. It was working the more or less pristine waters of Big Darby Creek here in Central Ohio. It would be interesting to know where this bird came from. A home-grown boy, would be my guess. There are plenty of tough to access places along the Big and Little Darby's some 100+ miles that could harbor nesting night-herons, and no one would be the wiser.

Very artistic, this look. Young night-herons are a bit tougher to separate than are the adults. Note that this yellow-crowned has quite the Jimmy Durante-style schnozz, though - a big, thick, all-dark bill. Yellow-crowneds also have smaller and finer speckling on the back, and overall are a longer, thinner, lankier bird.

This shot's great. Deb caught the bird in the act of wolfing down a large crayfish, probably the rather invasive Rusty Crayfish, Orconectes rusticus. Wonder what one of those feels like sliding down the ole gullet...

Thank you for the great photos, Deb!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

New Yellow-crowned Night-Heron discovery!

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are odd, rather enigmatic birds up this way. Ohio is at the northern limits of their range, and they are a bona fide rarity here. In any given year, only a few tiny breeding colonies are evident, and generally these are ones that have been known for a while, such as the Bexley birds. Discovery of any Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, especially during the breeding season, is always noteworthy.

There are undoubtedly more of these mostly nocturnal herons than we know, but probably not very many more. They aren't particularly shy, but as they are most active in the evening, and quiet and retiring in general, they can be tough to spot.

Therefore, it was exciting news when Alicia Elmer found an adult forgaging along the shoreline of Norwalk Reservoir in Huron County, hard on the eastern edge of Norwalk, back on May 24. She has been keeping tabs on it, and is still seeing the bird in pretty much the same place up to the present. Seeing only one bird doesn't mean there aren't others, or at least another adult. With luck, Alicia's bird is one half of a team, and they have a nest somewhere nearby. She is looking and watching, hoping to find evidence of breeding, which would be one of the highlights of the season for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II.

One of Alicia's photos of the night-heron, taken the evening of June 10. A bit dim, but that's hard to avoid when shooting photos in the dark. Not bad at all, though, and certainly provides excellent documentation of one of our rarest breeding birds, and we do hope this one is nesting. Alicia watched it foraging for, and catching, one of the trademark prey items of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons - jumbo crayfish. Yep, just like the Cajuns - and these birds are way more common down in Bayou country - they love big-pinchered craw-daddies.

Alicia asked me to share the locale, in case others might be interested in looking. I hope I am at least close to placing the pin where she has been seeing the bird, although I don't think it could be too far off. A road traverses much of the southern side of the reservoir, and access is easy.

If you do make your way to Norwalk Reservoir and spot the bird, or any others, please share your observations.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Caterpillar Hunter

I feel fortunate not to be a caterpillar. Oh, I have nothing against the little crawling tubes of gooey protein; in fact, many transform into stunning albeit short-lived moths and butterflies. The trick is staying alive long enough to grow wings.

Lots of things like to eat caterpillars, you see. Much the way a young baseball fan relishes hot dogs at the ball field, many songbirds and all manner of other predators covet tasty caterpillars. Consequently, most caterillars are active primarily at night, bcecause that strategy at least shakes off most of the birds, or at least greatly reduces one's chances of being a snack for a Yellow-throated Vireo.

But other nasties come out at night, too. Some of these monsters can really put a crimp on a peaceful evening of leaf-munching.

Caterpillar Hunter beetle, Calosoma scrutator, a caterpillar's worst nightmare. I encountered this fine specimen the other night, and managed some shots of what has to be one of the speediest beetles around. It's big - over an inch long - and boy do they scuttle. Constantly on the move, Caterpillar Hunters avidly search out the prey for which they are named, and with good vision and other powers of detection at their disposal, woe to the worm that finds itself in the path of one of these things.

Caterpillar Hunters are no fools - they come out only at night, too, just like their prey. Highly arboreal, they often race around the trees, seeking out all of the nighttime caterpillars. This lifestyle must work OK - these beetles can live for as long as three years!

Astonishingly beautiful bugs, upon close inspection. The carapace gleams an iridescent dark green, and is prominently furrowed with many shallow grooves. Like some sort of battle helmet of ancient times, the thorax is plated with bluish armor that looks as if some blacksmith beat it into shape from a chunk of copper. The edges are gilded in coppery brown, and those big eyes don't seem to miss a thing. Big beetles like this are almost eery in how they seem to size us up when we move in too close.

Grab it, and you're likely to get a good pinch from those massive mandibles, and I understand it can be a bit on the painful side. Worse though, probably, is the vile-smelling musk that the beetle blasts onto predators foolish enough to snatch them. I didn't try.

It's a war zone out there at night, with creatures on the prowl that are far worse than your most unpleasant childhood nightmares. Good thing for us some of them, like the Caterpillar Hunter, aren't the size of cows.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


While out in the hinterlands of Columbiana County surveying birds last Saturday, we came across two whopping big Snapping Turtles, Chelydra serpentina. They were big, old, and ill-tempered. Snappers can live for fifty years, grow to 18 inches in length, and supposedly reach fifty pounds in weight.

Surly looking old boy, isn't he? He's got some battle scars, too - look at that tear in the front of his carapace. Nonetheless, he was being a faithful husband, and remaining near the female who was in the process of excavating a burrow for her eggs nearby. Snapping Turtles are rather clumsy and awkward on land, and the terrestrial life is definitely not their bag. Look at the mitts on this thing - those are paws made for swimming! In the water, snappers are as fluid and graceful as an eel, although they spend much of their time semi-buried in the mire at the bottom of ponds, waiting for some hapless victim to wander by.

Closeup of the lovely Missus. You wouldn't want to put your finger too near that snapper. I teased the big boy a bit with a stick, so everyone could see how they came by their name. WHAP! Quick as lightning, he lunged that long neck out and hit that stick, far quicker than any person could hope to react. While tales of them snapping broom sticks in two are greatly exaggerated, a bite on the finger would not feel very good. I've never been comfortable handling these things, but supposedly the best way to do so is to put your foot on their back, holding them down, and pick them up by the tail. Taking pains to hold the turtle well away from any part of your body that you wish to keep free of snaps.

The business end of the female, at least when it comes to laying eggs. She was in the process of digging a hole for the eggs. Snapping Turtles rarely leave the water, and when one is spotted far from the water on land, it is probably looking for a place to dig an egg chamber in the soil and lay eggs. They use their powerful rear legs to excavate the pit, and will deposit up to 80 round white eggs, each about an inch long. Many of these nests are later discovered by Raccoons and dug up for food. Very few snapper eggs ever make it to the magnificent beast stage of this adult female; mortality is very high.

While Snapping Turtles are certainly not our most beautiful animals, and definitely not the most pleasant of temperament, they are still fascinating reptiles. When I get to see them up close and personal, as with these two, the word prehistoric always pops instantly to mind. They are like living relicts of the Dinosaur age.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Columbiana County Blockbusting

Along with over 20 other birders, I spent Friday and Saturday in far-flung Columbiana County, which borders Pennsylvania in eastern Ohio. This is one of the most beautiful counties in the state, and probably ranks high among the least known. Rich in natural resources, Columbiana County is also filled with gorgeous scenery that is quite unlike much of the rest of Ohio.

A big thanks to Jim Dolan, Jim Kerr, and everyone else who had a hand in organizing this event and making everyone feel welcome. And they arranged a successful mission. At last tally, 113 species of birds had been detected, including some really good stuff like Alder Flycatcher, Least Bittern, and various rare boreal warblers. Bittersweet indeed was Aaron Boone and Jim Dolan's discovery of Black-throated Blue Warblers, apparently territorial breeders. This species is on the decline as a nester in the Appalachians, and would qualify as a mega-rarity as a breeding Ohio bird. There are but two 1930's-era nesting records. Aaron and Jim's discovery, upon checking the GPS, turned out to be 100 yards or so into Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, tantalizing close and a great discovery. Who knows, more field work might yet turn them up on the right side of the border.

A scenic vista into the centerpiece of Columbiana County, the valley of Little Beaver Creek. Perhaps Ohio's most pristine stream, the watershed is mostly carpeted in rich forest. Streamside habitats are filled with diverse habitats and an abundance of interesting breeding birds.

The swiftly flowing waters of Little Beaver are a favorite of fly fisherman, and birds that eat fish and are even better fishermen.

Common Merganser family on Little Beaver Creek, last Saturday. This excellent photo was taken by Jim Dolan, and reveals six nearly grown youngsters with the adult female. That's mom nearest the camera. Jim and other area birders discovered Common Mergansers along the stream about five years ago, and have since documented nesting on a number of occasions. At least four family units were found this weekend, and that's with only checking maybe half of the suitable habitat. Interested parties have put up suitable nest boxes - yes, these jumbo ducks actually nest in cavities - with the hopes of bolstering the population. Little Beaver is the only river in Ohio that supports a breeding population of "sawbills"; a true testimony to the wild nature of the area.

We split into several parties on Saturday to cover more ground. Here's my group, and they were an excellent crowd to spend time afield with. From L to R: Bob Lane, Jeff Hendrickson, Trish Guenther, Gary Meiter, Denise Lane, and Cheryl Mattevi. Photo by your blogger.

One of the large, interesting wetlands that we surveyed. This one had a territorial Alder Flycatcher. Other similar area wetlands had Virginia Rails, Common Moorhens, Marsh Wrens, and other nice birds.

Needless to say, we were routinely distracted by other critters. Our group found a colony of Baltimore Checkerspots, Euphydryas phaeton, in the wetland shown above. This species is not particularly common, and discovery of new populations is always noteworthy. Added to the luster of discovery is the butterfly's appearance. It is a real showstopper, one of the best looking species in North America. But, Ohio has scores of other interesting and beautiful butterflies. If you would like to see plenty of them, and participate in field trips with some of the most knowledgeable butterfly experts around, be sure to check out the APPALACHIAN BUTTERFLY CONFERENCE. It takes place in another beautiful Appalachian Ohio county, Scioto, which harbors the massive Shawnee State Forest.

We also found one of the caterpillars, a large mature specimen. Young checkerspot caterpillars occupy a bagworm-like nest of woven silk placed in their primary host plant, Turtlehead, Chelone glabra. As they grow through successive instars, becoming increasingly larger, they eventually leave the nest and strike out on their own. This caterpillar was feeding voraciously on the leaves of Tatarian Honeysuckle, Lonicera tatarica, a non-native invasive nasty. I've not seen that plant mentioned anywhere as a larval food plant, but I hope the checkerspots eat them all.

We did manage to see many excellent native plant species, too, including these stunning Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia, in full bloom. This small, gnarled shrub is a member of the heath family, along with rhododendrons. Like the latter, the flowers are stunning.

Not only are Mountain Laurel flowers exceptionally showy, they also reveal one of the plant world's neater tactics for ensuring cross pollination. Upon expansion, each of the flower's ten stamens is tucked into a little divot in the flower corolla. You can see this in the photo above. The stamen tips are anchored where the little dark dots are, their anthers firmly held in place and the stamen under tension. The best analogy for this is a mousetrap. When a bee or other pollinator comes along and lands on the flower, it trips the stamens which snap loose and violently blast the pollen all over the hapless bug. The next flower that it visits will receive a fresh dose of pollen, ideally from another plant, which the insect will inadvertently deposit on the stigma as it seeks nectar. And likely get blasted once again by the tripwire-like stamens. In the above photo, none of the stamens have yet been released and you can see how they are bowed and under pressure.

Thanks again to everyone up in Columbiana County and vicinity for your gracious hospitality, and for showing us some of the more interesting locales. Best of all, we added a heap of data for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II. Remember, each and every observation that you make will be useful for the Atlas, and please get involved. This is the most important project involving Ohio's bird life that has been undertaken since the last survey over 20 yeara ago, and we need your help. Go to the OBBA II website for more details.

Stay on the Roads!

The Black Rail has at Charlie's Pond has certainly been attracting interest; not unexpected given that it is one of North America's most iconic symbols of secretive, hard to see birds. There are places to go in North America where one has good shots at hearing, if not seeing them, but Ohio is most definitely not on that list.

Therefore it isn't surprising that so many people would make the pilgrimage down to Pickaway County when word of the Circleville-area rails got out. And nearly everyone has done the right thing and stayed on the roads and off private property.

But apparently not everyone, and on the outside chance that anyone reading this blog might know of someone who might feel the need to try more aggressive tactics to pursue the rails, such as wading into the marshes, I am posting this. It's important to note that in this situation, all of the land on both sides of Radcliff Road, and the other area roads for that matter, are private property and no one should enter any of these lands. The birds can be seen/heard well enough from the roads. Also, there is an old adage for wilderness travelers: "Leave no Trace". We should try that here as well, by parking in areas where ruts won't be made by car tires, and also where birders won't block or otherwise interfere with other drivers.

The landowner on the south side of Radcliff, who has put a big chunk of his property into the Conservation Reserve Program, deserves an award in my opinion. His actions have been entirely voluntary and have made a big positive difference in regards to wildlife conservation. The last thing we as birders would want to do is risk alienating someone who has made such a positive impact.

Thanks to everyone for playing by the rules and enjoying the rails from the roadways.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Black Rail!

Like many other birders, I was thrilled by the news of the discovery of one, maybe more, Black Rails near Circleville. Kudos to the team of Big Day'ers who found it last Sunday, June 1. Since then, scores of birders have made the trek down to the Pickaway Plains to tick this one off, even though most have only heard it.

I went Monday, and spent over two hours in the area and heard at least one rail numerous times, but Ken Beers, who was also present, heard another at the same time as I was listening to a bird on the opposite side of the road and at close range. Others have reported hearing different individuals as well. Even more curiously, we heard soft cuckoo-like calls which would seem to fit the description of a female Black Rail's calls, although I have no personal experience with that call to draw upon. This will be an interesting situation to watch unfold.

I am not much of a lister, and never have been. But, the one list I am somewhat rabid about, and that's because I have been birding in this state for so long, is my Ohio list. Black Rail was #354. But when I heard about the rail initially, it wasn't the prospect of adding another notch in my lister's belt that excited me nearly as much as the news of where this/these birds were.

Charlie's Pond.

Well, technically no, but very near Charlie's Pond. The prairie slough where the Black Rail is is part of the former vast Pickaway Plains wet prairie, and one of the few surving bits. Historically, this region just south of Circleville would have been magnificent in appearance and grand with biodiversity. The prairie was somewhere around a mile or two wide and maybe seven miles long, and was a rich tapestry of wet prairie swales and marshes, interspersed with better drained grassland and oak savannas. Nearly all is gone, converted to development and agriculture. Farm fields are heavily tiled and ditched to rid the rich black prairie soil of water. All this change, in only the last 150 years or so.

Aerial view of Charlie's Pond and vicinity. The area outlined in red is a massive, low-lying bottomland of the Scioto River. This area is right in the heart of the former Pickaway Plains, and must have been sensational prairie prior to its conversion to agriculture. The pin on the right indicates the wet swale where the rail is. The pin to its left is the true Charlie's Pond, which is an even neater habitat relict than where the rail is, and where I figured the bird was when I first heard the reports. The area outlined in blue roughly delineates a 600 acre or so area that was put into the Conservation Reserve Program about two years ago. It is now an ocean of Indian Grass, along with some other grasses and forbs. Henslow's Sparrows, Dickcissels, and other grassland species are breeding there, and noteworthy numbers of Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls wintered there. In essence, this CRP project increased the size of the Black Rail's prairie a hundred fold. Yes, I know Black Rails don't likely use tallgrass prairies like that, but they may be area-sensitive and require larger buffers around their sloughs. It is interesting that just two years after establishment of this huge CRP project, the rail(s) have occupied this wetland right on the margin of the "new" prairie grassland.

Here's a pic I took back in 2005 of the true Charlie's Pond. We are looking due west, and Charlie's Pond is the circular depression just on the other side of the road. The ditch, which was likely a low-lying sedge-dominated wetland swale back in the prairie days, is flowing into Charlie's Pond. It hooks around to the east where it crosses Radcliff Road where the rail is being seen. That's Radcliff Rd. heading east-west on the left side of the photo, and the Scioto River is in the treeline at the top of the photo.

Ground zero for the Black Raili, the wet swale bisected by Radcliff Rd., about a mile west of U.S. 23 and not far from Roundtown, or Circleville, famous for its massive Pumpkin Festival. This slough, like Charlie's Pond, contains ample evidence of the area's prairie past. Most of the truly hydric, or wet, soil is sedge-dominated. It was right here, in a fit of stupendous luck, that Ken Beers and I saw the tiny rail fly across the road right before our eyes - the first I have ever laid eyes on. At times, the rail was singing within ten feet of the road, and I made some decent recordings of the male's kik-er-doo songs last night.

This is the opposite side of Radcliff Rd., and we had the rail singing over here, too, as have others. Follow this "ditch" and you'd eventually come to Charlie's Pond. The dominant plant filling the ditch is Giant Bur-reed, Sparganium eurycarpum. Rather cattail-like in appearance, it is a very important component of wetland plant communities, and would have been far more abundant in the prairie days. Closer in, on both sides of the road, are stands of River Bulrush, Bulboschoenus fluviatilis, another important part of intact wetland plant communities. Interspersed are good populations of a number of sedges in the genus Carex. All making the rail quite happy, apparently.

Here's the watercourse shown in the other photos, father west and near to where it dumps into Charlie's Pond. All kinds of great plants still persist along the ditch, and in Charlie's Pond. King of them is the endangered Burhead, Echinodorus berteroi, one of few stations left in Ohio.

A ground-level view of Charlie's Pond, looking south. Lots of shorebirds stop over in these fields when they are at their wettest, in spring, including flocks of American Golden-Plovers. This is also the exact spot where earlier ornithologists like Milton Trautman used to find migrant flocks of Smith's Longspurs year after year. The plovers and the longspurs' migratory corridors are tied in with prairies, as that's where they would have found suitable stopover habitat in pre-settlement days. Ancestral migratory routes that evolved over thousands of years die hard, even after we've pulled the rug out from under them in regards to destroying the prairie. That's probably why, when former prairie regions have had big wetland restoration projects done within their bounds, such as at Big Island Wildlife Area and the Longbrake Wetlands in Hardin County, the birds have responded so quickly. If only Charlie's Pond could be expanded to triple or more its current size. We'd likely have Wilson's Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and who knows, maybe Black and/or Yellow rails breeding there as well.

A ground view of the big CRP project, looking across a sea of prairie grass towards the Black Rail swale, which is by those distant trees. Dickcissels were singing in the background when I took this picture. It's hard to say how much time we have, in terms of being able to successfully restore former prairies. Most were converted to agricultural fields a century or more ago. Yet, when projects like this one are implemented, the prairie birds still return and fast. Seedbanks still exist, and native prairie plants still spring forth if given the chance. It's nice to know that hope still exists for our prairies. As for that/those Black Rails, I wouldn't necessarily write them off as mixed-up vagrants. They may actually be the distant relatives of former occupants of a prairie mostly lost long ago.