Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hitler Pond

Wow! The resiliency of seedbanks never ceases to amaze me. Not far from Circleville, in Pickaway County, is a small former prairie slough named, at least by botanists, Hitler Pond. That's the name of the family that settled the immediate area. Legendary Pickaway County farmer/botanist Floyd Bartley is the one who put this postage stamp-sized wetland on the map, when he discovered a number of rare plants there long ago. Foremost among them was Rocky Mountain Bulrush, Schoenoplectus saximontanus, a prairie sedge normally found much further west; Floyd's Pickaway County record is by far the easternmost station. I think he discovered it at Hitler Pond in the 1940's. No one has seen it at this site in three decades or more.

The former prairie around Hitler Pond has long been converted to beans, corn, and wheat, and miles of subsurface drainage tiles works to siphon water promptly. I've been dropping by Hitler Pond annually for over a decade, and until last year it was dry as a bone. A few years of above normal precipitation, and possibly some clogged tiles, have reconstituted the hydrology of this remarkable little wetland. Not much came up last year, though, although for the first time in a long time the farmer couldn't plant crops over the entire wetland.

This year, Cincinnati botanist Dan Boone was first on the scene, making a stop at Hitler Pond a week or so ago. He was greeted by a stunning spectacle.

Hitler Pond 2008. Several acres of plants that make a botanist quake in his boots and tremble with excitement. This is the sight that greeted Dan on arrival, and I'm sure he quickly rushed in to settle the score with some longlost plants. And he did make some good finds.

An acre or so of this beauty!This is an arrowhead relative, endangered in Ohio, known by the geeky name of Bur-head, or Echinodorus berteroi if you will. Thousands of plants; the biggest site for it in the state, I suspect. Bur-head is conspicuous, it surely hasn't been above ground here in a long time.

Dan also quickly rediscovered the missing Rocky Mountain Bulrush; it had been here along, just dormant in the seedbank. Sedges like this have tiny seeds known as achenes, which are hard and bony. The plant's strategy is to come up in droves when conditions are favorable, produce bumper crops of millions of these minute achenes, which then permeate the soil. In habitats such as this, drought, overgrowth by larger plants, or other factors might mean that plants like the Bur-head and bulrush have but a few good growing years before being displaced. But their banks accounts are filled, so to speak. Those achenes can lie dormant in the seedbank for decades, probably centuries in some cases. Then, something stimulates favorable conditions, and BOOM! Everything is back with a vengeance. The Rocky Mountain Bulrush, pictured above, covered a big swath of the wetland. Inestimable thousands of its achenes will be produced this summer, refilling the dirt bank account.

I dropped in to Hitler Pond last Saturday, July 26, to see the spectacle, to which Dan had kindly tipped me off about. The Bur-head was obvious from the car. Didn't take long to spot the less conspicuous Rocky Mountain Bulrush. But as I waded out, one of the first things that caught my eye was this sea of spikerush. It looks a lot like the very common Blunt Spikerush, Eleocharis obtusa, but the very elongate cylindrical brown spikelets grabbed my eye. I collected a bunch, and took it back for later inspection. As confirmed independently by ODNR botanist Rick Gardner the next day, it is a major rarity: Engelmann's Spikerush, Eleocharis engelmannii. Prior to this find, this endangered plant was known from only one modern record in Ohio, up near Lake Erie. Now, we have a sea of it covering a large swath of Hitler Pond. Someone will need to go back and look at Bartley's collections of Blunt Spikerush. I suspect they'll find an Eleocharis engelmannii amongst them, collected long ago at Hitler Pond. If so, can't really blame Floyd for not recognizing it - these spikerushes aren't easy. If I had a good enough macro lens, I'd share a photo of one of the tiny achenes, the characters of which clinch the ID.

Not coincidentally, this wetland is perhaps two miles or so from the now famous Black Rail nesting site at Charlie's Pond. This has been a good year for Ohio's former prairies and the flora and fauna that once occupied them. The Bellevue sloughs and the nesting Black-necked Stilts are another example of some prairies doing well in a wet year.

Thanks to Dan Boone for checking in on a long-lost prairie slough and bringing these amazing finds to light.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bullbats Nest in Toledo

I've always liked the nickname "bullbat" for the Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor. They do look rather batlike as they gracefully course high overhead hawking insects, in an odd stumbling stutter-flutter flight. This is a species to keep an eye on; all indications are that Common Nighthawks have been in a nosedive in terms of numbers. Part of the reason is likely due to a diminishment of suitable nesting sites. Nighthawks favor gravel-covered rooftops, where they make a small scrape and place two camouflaged eggs. It seems that rooftop technology is moving increasingly away from gravel, though.

Dan Adamski, who works at the University Medical Center in Toledo, recently sent me some outstanding photos of a nesting nighthawk on the roof of his building, and I couldn't resist sharing them.

Straight on with a bullbat. Look closely to the adult's left; your right. A micro-bullbat!

The tiny nightjar stays close to the adult female. In spite of just having pipped its way out of the egg, the little nighthawk already shows the large, rather horizontally flattened eye and big mouth of the adult.

Here the faithful parent nearly sits on top of the youngster. It gets hot on those rooftops in July! Note how the nighthawk has made efficient use of the meager shade offered by that vent pipe. We don't know if the other egg just hasn't hatched, or if something has become of it. Dan promises regular checks and updated photos.

Common Nighthawks are without doubt one of our most interesting birds. Aerialists extraordinaire, their seemingly casual manner of adeptly snagging flying insects overhead, all the while uttering woodcocklike nasal peents, is a thing of beauty to behold. The courtship display of the male is unbelievable. From high over the admiring female, who watches from a rooftop or the ground, he engages in a curious stuttering flight, all the while emitting loud calls - look, look!! Then, he launches groundward in a dive that would spook a stunt pilot. Roaring down in nearly vertical descent, he, seemingly at the last moment, pulls out causing a loud, odd rippling boom to shout from his primary wng feathers. She, presumably, is impressed. If so, the eventual result is the orbicular little ball of fluff in Dan's photos above.

Soon, large numbers of nighthawks will (hopefully) be reported on the Ohio Birds listserv, streaming south. Sometimes flights of hundreds are tallied in an hour or less. They are headed a long way, clear to the Amazonian tropics for the winter. These flights seem to diminish almost yearly, though - this species is in trouble.

There are at least two things we can do. One, and the Ohio Ornithological Society and groups like it could take the lead, is to encourage nighthawk-friendly rooftop nest sites. Most people, if you explain the extreme coolness of this bird, may be inclined to take action if they can do so, at least easily. Placing gravel pads in out of the way rooftop locales might help. Working with building managers might bear some fruit.

The other is to report YOUR sightings to not only the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, but also to the U.S. Nightjar Survey. This organization has begun to collect data in all of the nightjars - here in Ohio, that also includes Chuck-will's-widow and Whip-poor-will.

Thanks to Dan Adamski for these fine photos, and letting us peek into the life of a bullbat.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Gulf Fritillary invasion continues

I just received a report and photos of yet another Gulf Fritillary from Gary, who lives in Pike County. On July 22, a Gulf Fritillary graced their yard, and his wife Sylvia was able to snap some nice photos. This certainly has been an unprecedented invasion of this southerner!

Gulf Fritillary, Pike County, Ohio, July 22, 2008. This is at least the fourth record for the state in the past two weeks. That's at least as many records as have EVER been reported in Ohio!

Sylvia managed some excellent photos of this vagrant long-winged fritillary. In the butterfly world, those are wings made for traveling! Lots of wing surface to body ratio, creating a strong flier that can really cover some ground. Look along the trailing edge of the wings. See how beaten up this individual is? It's probably been around for a while, and covered lots of miles.

Thanks to Gary and Sylvia for reporting this Gulf Fritillary! I'm always interested in reports of unusual flora and fauna.

The Wild Ones in Adams County

There are few better places in Ohio to be during mid-summer dog-days than the prairies of Adams County. These tiny ancient openings abound with life, and an incredible diversity of flora splashes every color of the rainbow across the barrens. Perhaps because of ample rain earlier in the season, the prairies look about as good as I've ever seen them. Prairie-dock carpeted many areas, sending luminiscent yellow beacon flowers high into the air, pulling in scads of butterflies. Blazing-stars (Liatris) of four species striped the landscape in swaths of purple, and if there is a crack cocaine for butterflies, it's this stuff.

Yesterday was hot, but nearly picture-perfect for exploring prairies, and John Howard and I met 20 members of the Greater Cincinnati Wild Ones and guests for a field trip ably put together by Kathy McDonald. The prairies certainly didn't disappoint and we saw far more plants and animals than could ever be touched on in less than a telephone book-sized blog.

I figured it would be a good day when one of the first birds that I heard upon arrival at our first destination, Adams Lake Prairie, was a Blue Grosbeak. We later found another, and most of the group got good looks at the latter bird, an immature male. Blue Grosbeaks are really on the upswing in Ohio. I remember long ago when Adams County was THE PLACE to go find them; few were known elsewhere in Ohio. The bird list for the day was pretty good, and ample evidence of breeding for many species was noted. American Goldfinches were still building nests!
Our Motley Crue amongst the botanical splendor of Adams Lake Prairie State Nature Preserve. Small but spectacular, fire management by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves has helped the prairie flourish.

The lushness of Adams Lake Prairie, 2008. Although the opening is small, it is packed with all manner of interesting and rare flora and fauna. The loop trail around the prairie is only a 1/4 mile or so in length; we spent two hours traversing it.

One couldn't help to notice all types of interesting insects in the process of admiring the flora. This odd-looking plant is Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium, a bizarre member of the Parsley Family (Apiaceae). It's white button-like flower clusters were everywhere yesterday, one of the best showings of this rarity in memory. Here, a Red-banded Hairstreak nectars along with some unidentified wasps. Note all of the other Rattlesnake-master in the background. In the olden days, it was thought that a poultice made of this plant, applied to the bite of a rattlesnake, would mitigate the effects of the snake's venom, hence the name.
After lunch, it was on to Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve, another gem amongst Adams County prairies. It was here that we saw the semi-obliging Blue Grosbeak, and an Indigo Bunting gave our crowd extraordinary views by the parking lot. Some had not seen this splashy, tropical-looking bunting before, and Indigos are always crowd-pleasers. We saw lots of great plants at Chaparral, including the threatened Pink Milkwort, Polygala incarnata. Above is Bluehearts, Buchnera americana, another threatened rarity of Adams County.

This Hoary Edge put on quite a show, guarding a patch of Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum. Here he sits on the buds of a plant, five or six feet in the air. The Edge allowed close approach, and we were able to get our lens within a foot or so. This does not seem to be a very common butterfly in Ohio, and was a "lifer" for many.

Finally, it was on the legendary Lynx Prairie, made famous by pioneering ecological studies by Ohio botanist Lucy Braun. This was the first acquisition by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in 1959, and one of the state's foremost naturalists, Paul Knoop, also owns part of Lynx. We could have spent all day here, so much is there to see. Above, Red Cedars, Juniperus virginiana, dot a typical Lynx shortgrass prairie. The butterflies were insane here, and we saw lots of rare flora, including the odd American Aloe, Manfreda virginica, the only eastern species of a large group of western aloes.

The botanical climax, at least for me, was the discovery of seven plants of this very rare orchid. Crested Coral-root, Hexalectris spicata, is only known from a handful of Adams County sites, and is very easy to miss. All of the ones we found, excepting the above, were still young and in bud. The names stems from the root structures, which are coral-like and enwrapped in mycorrhizal fungi with which the orchid has a poorly understood symbiosis. Some years, the coral-roots remain dormant under the ground, In others, especially wet years, they burst forth and produce flowering stalks. We felt very fortunate to see this magnificent specimen.
All in all, a great day afield with lots of good companions.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More Gulf Fritillaries!

This is shaking out to be a good butterfly season. One of the star vagrants are the always exciting Gulf Fritillaries, Agraulis vanillae. I blogged a little while back about one that Steve Willson found in Adams County. Then, I picked up my recently arrived Toledo Naturalists' Association newsletter and see that another was documented in the Oak Openings. Then, just today, John Howard sends along photos of one that he found today in Adams County. These records nearly double the previous Ohio records EVER of this rare stray from the south. However, "stray" may not really be the correct term for this species, as we shall see...

Gulf Fritillary, today, on John Howard's aptly named Butterfly-bush, Buddleia davidii, in Adams County. John notes he was "excited" to come home from work and see this beauty in his yard. Who could blame him! I'll be with John in this very county tomorrow, leading a field trip for the Wild Ones, and with luck we will see another Gulf Frit. You can be sure more are out there; keep your eyes peeled. And if you are interested in butterflies and would like to learn more, check out the Appalachian Butterfly Conference.

A view of the underwings, showing the flashy elongate silver spots. Fortunately, this beast was fixated on the sweet nectar of the Butterfly-bush, allowing John to get these great documentary photos. Gulf Fritillaries can make time, and if spooked can quickly be long gone.

A map depicting the distribution of Gulf Fritillary. They, for now at least, generally only reproduce in the southernmost states. But as you can see from the map, there are scores of records far to the north, although this map-maker will probably be having to add many more blue dots north soon. Gulf Fritillaries are well known for mid/late summer dispersals well north of their typical range. Why? Someone not into biology might just assume they must be escapes, or have perhaps been overlooked until now, if they didn't understand concepts of species dispersal and range expansions and speciation over long periods of time.

Essentially, one might think of the Gulf Fritillary population as a giant army. Amongst the rank and file are "scouts". These scouts are tasked with finding, and if possible claiming, new territory. Thus, they are sent out in numbers, especially in years when climatic conditions are most favorable, and explore well beyond the typical range of the species. Most of them may perish far from home, as it were, and certainly don't establish new populations in places like, say, Ohio. But over the long haul, if changing conditions permit, they may creep northward as these scouts slowly lead the fritilllary army north and population expansions push the population into new territory.

The same scout and creep range expansion has happened with numerous winged animals, including in recent times the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly. Many species of butterflies and dragonflies are hyper-responders, able to react extremely rapidly to slight changes that favor expansions in their populations. It has been fascinating to watch some of the southern dragonflies, like Band-winged Dragonlet, turning up and breeding in northern Ohio, WAY to the north of their normal range.

These southern bugs moving north smack of responses to global temperature warming, which is creating more suitable conditions for them to the north of where they normally occur. I think butterflies and dragonflies are proving to be very important barometers of changing environmental conditions, and are well worth keeping close tabs on. It will be interesting to see what's winging around Ohio in 2018. I would almost guarantee there will be species of butterflies and dragonflies around routinely that we certainly aren't used to now.

If you see any Gulf Fritillaries, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Return of the Raven

If one could beam themself back in time several hundred year, to the pre-settlement wilds of Ohio, the Common Raven would have no doubt been an obvious part of the landscape. The harsh, guttural croaks of this fascinating member of the crow family would have been ubiquitous, and our first settlers were certainly well acquainted with ravens.

These jumbo croakers did not fare well with the coming of white men and the resultant wholesale landscape changes. By 1900, they had essentially vanished from now-populous Ohio, and many other areas in the eastern part of their range.

But these big black birds are resilient. About a decade ago, reports starting trickling in; some indisputable, others less so, but all contributing to a growing body of evidence that ravens were continuing their recolonization of former Appalachian breeding haunts.

2008 will go down in history as a milestone for these fabulous birds in the Buckeye State. It was this spring that Common Ravens were finally verified as breeding again in Ohio, after a century lapse.

The rugged cliff-like highwall, formed by past strip mining, in Jefferson County where ravens successfully nested in 2008. The aerie is tucked in a recess of that inaccessible outcrop, and when I took this photo on April 29 there was still a young raven on the nest. Kudos to Scott Albaugh, who first found ravens in this area in 2006. Likewise to Ethan Kistler and Aaron Boone, who found the nest this spring.

One of the "juniors" from this year's nesting. There were four free-flying juveniles in addition to the one still in the nest. We may have been the first humanoids these young birds had seen, given their remote location and young age. Apparently all have done well; a group of birders saw what was probably the entire family unit nearby a few weeks ago.

Downy feathers and the fleshy gape of the bill can be made out in these photos: surefire evidence of the bird's young age. Ravens are highly intelligent and easily one of North America's most interesting birds. I would highly recommend reading Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. Heinrich has spent untold hours following ravens and observing their behavior in the North Country, and writes about his "wolf birds" with eloquence. He has dubbed them with that lupine moniker as in some regions, ravens follow wolf packs, foraging on kills. they are even thought to lead wolves to potential kills, thus benefiting both species. Heinrich also writes of raven play: these social birds often seem to engage in antics, such as tobagganing down snowy slopes on their backs, just for amusement.

Bernd Heinrich himself is a study. A prolific researcher and writer, he has penned at least fifteen books, and not just on ravens. Other subjects he has put his formidable mind to include bumblebees, owls, trees, and insect thermoregulation. Amazingly, Heinrich is also a world class runner. Just after turning 40 years of age, he completed the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:25:25 - amazing! He went on to author another book entitled Why We Run: A Natural History, which delves into a scientific explanation of human's ability to ultra-marathon and how that evolved.

But back to ravens.

On July 11th of this year, April Sterling, in the company of Bill Murphy, managed this shot of a Common Raven in Monroe County. Like the Jefferson County birds above, Monroe County is in far eastern Ohio. Yep, ravens are on the move and reclaiming former haunts. These records fit well with the gradual westward expansion of Common Raven from Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Population. I have heard of credible reports in Ohio all the way from Washington County and Marietta to Trumbull County in northeastern Ohio in the last two years.

Keep your eyes peeled and your ears sharpened for giant wedge-tailed croakers. Let me know if you see any.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Glade Mallow

Hot summer days make for excellent field work, with many interesting plants and animals out and about. It's sometimes tough to drag one's self into the muggy conditions, but there are always rewarding finds to be made. In the plant world, summertime dog days are tough on the botanist. Most of the good stuff is going to be growing out in the open under the scorching sun. It isn't like spring with its cool mild days, when much of interest can be found in the forest, with its as yet to be leafed out canopy. By summer, dense shade prevails within woodlands, and most of the flowering plants jump out into the open.

I went up to Holmes County last Saturday, along with Ann Oliver, to meet the folks at Carlisle Printing and some other people involved with publications of the Ohio Ornithological Society. We took a scenic route that passed through scenic Coshocton County. Not far out of the city of Coshocton, I saw a statuesque plant with small white blossoms out of the corner of my eye as we shot by. "Whoa! Turn around!" I pleaded, and fortunately Ann is very much into nature and obliged.

The roadside ditch that caught my eye. Growing in its wet clayey soils are a number of spectacular specimens of Glade Mallow, Napaea dioica. This sensational member of the Mallow Family can reach 6 - 8 feet in height. It has a spotty distribution and overall is quite rare in Ohio. The typical habitat is low-lying open ground in alluvial soils of floodplains. It does occur in wet prairies, but doesn't seem confined to that habitat. This was the first time I'd seen the plant in a few years.

This photo reveals the robustness of the plants. The clusters of white flowers are projecting beyond head high.

Many mallows have large flowers that are extremely showy. Glade Mallow blooms are rather ordinary; small and stark white. Collectively they are conspicuous and rather attractive, though, being held as they are high aloft and in tight clusters.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Glade Mallow are the leaves, particularly the lower ones. They are deeply cleft into five segments; each segment further serrated into rough edges. The overall effect of this plant is quite stunning, and it would make an outstanding species for the more adventurous gardner who enjoys fiddling around with native plants.

Photo by Jim Vargo/Moth Photographers Group

I will never be able to see or even think of Glade Mallow without thoughts of a tiny obscure owlet moth. Along the way, I've probably collected along the lines of 9,000 voucher specimens of plants, counting duplicates. These are all housed in various institutional herberia: everywhere from OSU to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to the New York Botanical Garden.

In the process of preparing field-collected plants, it is very common to find various insects on the foliage. Many times, for better or worse, I've flicked these hitchhikers into the circular file. One day, probably 18 years back, I was in my office preparing a specimen of Glade Mallow that I had found in a remnant prairie pocket of the Pickaway Plains south of Circleville. On one of the leaves crawled a beautiful little lime-green caterpillar. I remember notching my finger back for the flick into the trash can, then hesitating. For whatever reason, I kept the caterpillar and later took it to entomologist-extraordinaore Eric Metzler.

I explained to Eric that because the "cat" was clearly feeding on the rare plant, that came from a rare habitat, I thought that it too might be unusual. Eric told me that it couldn't be identified with certainty in the larval stage, and possibly in part to humor a young man who displayed enough interest in the Lepidoptera to bring him a caterpillar, he took it home and raised it.

And lo and behold, the emerald caterpillar transformed into what you see above, an owlet moth so obscure it only goes by its scientific name, Bagisara gulnare. It is rare and scattered, and had never been found in Ohio before, nor according to Eric was its host plant known. A good case of the blind pig finding the acorn!

So, one never knows what one might find with a little effort and curiosity.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Clayfield Sparrow?

Thanks to the outstanding atlasing efforts of Ethan Kistler, a potentially outstanding record has come to light. On July 3, Ethan was working successional habitats in Lorain County when he happened upon what appeared to be a Clay-colored Sparrow at first blush. This species, which is one of the characteristic brushland sparrows further west, is a great summertime rarity in Ohio. But something seemed amiss with this one.

Our mystery bird peeks over its shoulder at photographer Aaron Boone. "What am I?" it may be saying.

So, last Wednesday Aaron Boone, coordinator for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas and Andy Jones, curator of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, set out to really get the scoop on this odd Spizella sparrow. And did they. Aaron managed a number of shots of the bird in the field, as above, and just as important, made a pretty good recording of the bird's song.

Then, they were able to net the bird and collect detailed information on plumage characteristics. They also harvested a feather which will have its DNA sampled and compared with pure parents of both Clay-colored and Field Sparrows. Their preliminary data suggests that the bird is indeed a hybrid between these two species; one of very few records if that's what it proves to be. The bird was released unharmed and quickly went back to business as usual.

Both Clay-colored and Field sparrows are in the genus Spizella, which are small handsome sparrows that in Ohio, also include the Chipping Sparrow, and in winter, Tree Sparrow. Note that our mystery bird has the dull brown crown and patterned face of a Clay-colored, albeit duller than a "pure" bird would be.

In this view, the pinkish bill and a semblance of an eye ring - both good for Field Sparrow - can be discerned. Other of their photos show these marks better.

Aaron assembled a series of photos RIGHT HERE, and included is a recording of the song, which is really interesting. Just click on the last photo of the field, and the track should play. It is very buzzy, a la Clay-colored Sparrow, but given in a cascading series of descending notes like a Field Sparrow.

I look forward to the results of Andy's DNA work with this sparrow. As near as I can tell, hybrids between these two species have only been documented two or three times prior, including one in Vermont in 1998.

Hybrids, subspecies, and variation within birds - all organisms for that matter - is very important to study and document, but that's the subject of a blog of its own. Thanks to Ethan, Aaron, and Andy for their great work in documenting this one. We will likely be able to read more about this case in a future volume of The Ohio Cardinal, which is now owned by the Ohio Ornithological Society with Andy at the helm as Editor.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vagrant Butterfly!

Just like birds, butterflies sometimes turn up well beyond their normal ranges. Some species, especially larger ones, are powerful fliers and quite capable of traveling far distances in short periods of time. Because of their high degree of mobility and apparent fast response to warming average temperatures, butterflies are important to monitor in terms of population movements.

Steve Willson, of Adams County down on the Ohio River, must have been excited when he recently found a Gulf Fritillary. This is the species that graces the cover of Jeffrey Glassberg's excellent field guide, Butterflies through Binoculars: The East. As you might guess from the name, this species is a real southerner, and there are very few Ohio records. Steve's find would be comparable to, say, finding a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher if you are a birder.

Steve's photo, which by his own admission will not be found anytime soon on the cover of National Geographic. Still, there's no doubt what it is, and Steve was on his A-game to get any photo at all. Gulf Fritillaries can be wary and easy to spook, and if they flush you may never see it again. I've seen plenty of them in south Texas and haven't always found them overly friendly.

Here's a more revealing photo, courtesy of everyone's new Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wikipedia. This species will be an interesting one to watch in future years. Some other southern butterflies, like the magnificent Cloudless Sulphur, were at one time also considered rare vagrants to Ohio. Now, the large lemon-colored beauty is almost mundane in southern Ohio and turns up regularly to northern Ohio and even reproduces here, or attempts to. It will be interesting to see if Gulf Fritillaries follow suit.

Steve also found this rarity right in the heart of where field trips will be deploying for the upcoming Appalachian Butterfly Conference. With a number of trips heading afield and many sets of eyes, it will be interesting to see what odd species might turn up that weekend. If you want to join up and have some fun butterfly-seeking during the summer doldrums for birds - but when butterflies are awesome - just GO HERE.

Thanks to Steve for sharing his find, and photo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Artful Dragons

The Oak Openings is always a fascinating place to visit, and last Sunday didn't disappoint. I visited some of the best areas along with Rick Nirschl and Cheryl Harner, seeking birds mostly, but also other flying objects. We scored lots of the former, including a cooperative singing Clay-colored Sparrow, and what surely must have been his mate, although she was quite hard to pinpoint amongst all of the shrubs and dewberry. A Blue Grosbeak was still warbling his rushed Purple Finch-like song, and counter-singing Summer Tanagers serenaded us. Maniacal family units of Red-headed Woodpeckers chortled and kweeaad everywhere.

But one of our targets was something very rare and non-avian, big and golden. And we saw it.

But first, a few of the lesser lights that crossed or paths that hot, sunny day.
Starting with the Lilliputian and proceeding up the scale to the gargantuan, this is an Azure Bluet, Enallagma aspersum. Nearly all bluets are showy and worth a look; this one especially so. It's rich royal blue thorax contrasts nicely with the light blue terminal end of the abdomen.

A Blue-fronted Dancer, Argia apicalis. They nearly always perch on the ground, or rock, or something on or close to the substrate. The pale whitish-blue thorax looks as if it is armored in small plates that were welded together. Note how dancers hold their wings pressed together but elevated well above the abdomen; bluets hold them lower, with the abdomen between the wings.
One of my favorites and one of our most common dragonflies, the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis. They often sit at the tips of exposed perches like tiny insectivorous Rough-legged Hawks, surveying their domain and dashing out to grab small insects or drive off other dragonflies. This one looks a bit like an old biplane in this pose, and he is obelisking; tilting his abdomen directly at the sun to minimize heat absorption.

Calico Pennants, Celithemis elisa, were especially obvious this day, the cherry-red males striking eye-catchers. Sometimes when shooting dragonfly photos, I use a large shutter aperture - low F-stop number - which blurs out the background, allowing the insect to stand out in sharper relief.

This is a female Calico Pennant. They are strongly sexually dimorphic - sexes look quite different - just like many species of birds.
One of our largest and most striking dragonflies is the male Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella. They are common and easily found nearly anywhere there is water. Males, like the one above, are especially beautiful in flight, their wings catching the sun and sparkling in a kaleidoscope-like display.
This magnificent insect is what we were specifically seeking, and we were not disappointed. It is a Golden-winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis. Rick had found a small colony here a few weeks prior, and two were still left. Giant and golden, they stood out from extreme distances, especially when in flight over the water. Their wings are infused with burnished golden tones that positively glow in the sunlight; I should think that even an insect-hater would be impressed with this one.

I apologize for the rather shoddy photos of the golden-wings, but we couldn't get near them. They remained out by the water's edge and beyond where we could go, at least without some heavy wading. This and the shot above were taken with 12x zoom. Golden-winged Skimmer had only been documented in Ohio twice before, and both prior records were decades old. Hence, our excitement. This find is on a par with something like a Burrowing Owl appearing. Evidence is suggesting that dragonflies may be on a northward march as temperatures steadily warm, so perhaps finds of southerners like this species are going to become more commonplace.

Any day that is great for dragonflies will also produce lots of butterflies, and we had many species of skippers and butterflies, too. The above is a rather stunning species, Aphrodite Fritillary, Speyeria aphrodite. Which reminds me to put in a plug for the upcoming Appalachian Butterfly Conference. If you enjoy insects, you will have a great time at this event. Butterflies will be the primary focus, but we'll see plenty of dragonflies, and other goodies. Just visit THIS LINK for all the details.

Friday, July 4, 2008

A Very Rare Butterfly

I had the good fortune to go along on an excursion into a Michigan fen the other day, to help tally numbers of one of North America's scarcest butterflies. Thanks to Mike Penskar and Daria Hyde of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory for allowing me to come along.

Your blogger in a habitat that not all would find overly alluring. I'm smack in the middle of a boggy tamarack fen, loaded with Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, and nasty deer flies. Of course, for a lot people I know, they'd love the place. The soil is waterlogged and can be very much the quagmire, and dense tussocks created by clump-forming sedges further hinder one's ability to navigate. A misstep can easily put you to your waist in muck, if not deeper. That happened to several people this day. Twice I went in nearly to the top of my hip waders, and the only way to get them out was to remove my foot and pull - hard! - with both hands. Slowly and with a giant sucking sound I could eventually extract them from the mire. Nonetheless, this fen was absolutely fascinating from the perspective of a biologist - loaded with all kinds of interesting and rare flora and fauna.

A view of the habitat within this fen, located somewhere in Michigan. The specific location must remain anonymous, partly because it is private property, partly because of the extremely rare insect that lives here. The above shot depicts an open tamarack savanna. The overstory is sparse, and created by our only deciduous conifer, Tamarack, Larix laricina. The understory is primarily sedges of many species, but their rank is dominated by Tussock Sedge, Carex stricta. This species does just what its name implies - creates foot tall mound-like humps as a byproduct of its growth. Great habitat for many things, but it makes for challenging walking.

Here's a plant that anyone who explores bog and fens will want to learn: Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. It is a treelet, growing to perhaps 20 feet when fully mature. Although capable of causing a blistering dermatitis, Poison Sumac is quite showy with its handsome pinnate leaves, leaflets held on bright pinkish-red petioles, and later, bright china-white berries. Make a wonderful native plant for landscaping if it weren't for the obvious ill side effects. Probably not too many nurseries would be interested in stocking this one.

We had a good crew of people in on this action. The idea was to locate and record as many of the rare butterflies as possible, and assisting in that effort was one of the sharpest crews of biologists I've been around for some time. Above is Daria Hyde on the right, who spearheads this survey, and Troy Shively, who came along with me from Ohio. Several folks from the Indiana Nature Preserves Commission were also along.

You know the butterflying is going to be good when you start seeing these. This beautiful caterpillar grows up into a winged creature that is among the most stunning butterflies in North America - but not the primary subject of this expedition. This caterpillar is chowing down on its host plant, Turtlehead, Chelone glabra.

Here's the final stage of that caterpillar - the Baltimore Checkerspot, Euphydryas phaeton, named after Lord Baltimore's exquisite taste in colors, which also provided the moniker for the outrageously colored Baltimore Oriole. This fen was filled with them. We saw dozens; in places it was the most common butterfly.

The underside of the Baltimore Checkerspot's wings are the most striking part of the insect, in my opinion. This one was very fresh, and was still in the process of hardening up after emerging from its chrysalis. Needless to say, I returned home with scads of gorgeous checkerspot images; they are irresistable subjects for the lens.

In addition to a dozen or so butterfly species, we saw scores of moths. There were a lot of showy ones in the genus Haploa, and this interesting one, which looks a bit like a firefly. It is a Virginia Ctenucha moth, Ctenucha virginica. They are day-fliers and would be easy to dismiss as a non-moth at first blush. Notice its long, feathery antenna - a dead give away as to its real taxonomic affinity.

Dragonflies were also a major diversion in this fen. Even though the day was not ideal for seeing them - or butterflies for that matter - as it was cool and overcast, we saw lots. There were plenty of bluets, dancers, some clubtails, tons of spreadwings, and several magnificently massive Swamp Darners, Epiaeschna heros. The above is a striking female Green Darner, Anax junius, that I was able to sneak up on quite closely. That might be overstating my abilities. They have up to 30,000 individual facets per eye, and she no doubt saw me WAY before I saw her. The cool conditions probably slowed her down, allowing for an eventual approach to within inches.

Of course, the botany wasn't to be ignored in such a floristically diverse site, and we made note of many interesting and highly specialized plants. And it certainly is not everyday that one can add a "life" hybrid birch to their list, but we all did today. Lee Casebere, one of our team, spotted an odd-looking birch growing in the depths of the fen - sort of half tree, half shrub. We moved in, and were ecstatic to discover that it was Betula x purpusii, a cross between Swamp Birch, Betula pumila, and Yellow Birch, B. allegheniensis. The former was quite common throughout the fen, and small numbers of the latter were on wooded slopes adjacent to the fen. It was quite a striking plant, in some respects better looking than either parent, which is sometimes the case with hybrids. I don't know of any Ohio records for this hybrid, but will certainly be better prepared to find it after seeing the real McCoy in the wild.

Finally, after much buildup :-), here we are: one of the rarest of the rare. This is a Mitchell's Satyr, Neonympha mitchellii, one of the scarcest butterflies in the country. This was the main focus of our expedition, and we weren't disappointed. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory keeps careful tabs on the satyrs, and we found over 130 butterflies on this trip. Micthell's Satyr is listed as Federally Endangered, and it is only found in Indiana and Michigan. The latter state has the best populations, and the most colonies - about 13 currently known.

Doesn't look like much from afar, and these satyrs flow with a peculiar slow bouncy flight, staying low in the sedges. They often perch hanging upside down in the vegetation.

Seen well, the Mitchell's Satyr is a stunning exhibit in hues of brown. Fresh specimens display bright orange-rust terminal bands along their wings, and vivid ocelli, or eyespots. Overall, they range from a tan-brown to an almost vibrantly rich chocolate brown. It was very exciting to see this fabled butterfly in the flesh, and help count them. We carefully recorded each individual's location with GPS units, and the populations are monitored by the Michigan folks each year.

I was particularly interested to get a firsthand immersion into their habitat. This mega-rarity was once known from Ohio, in a fen in the northeastern part of the state, where it was last recorded in 1950. The fen still exists, albeit not as much of it as back then, but the satyr flies there no more. A factor that likely played a role in the decline if not outright extirpation of this butterfly, and other rare ones, is irresponsible collecting. Over the top lepidopterists, both amateur and professional, have been known to make repeated visits, year after year, to known colonies of rare butterflies and collect many specimens. That's one reason locations like this have to be guarded secrets. For an interesting read about this subject, have a look at Butterflies through Binoculars, by Jeffrey Glassberg, where he talks of the extirpation of Mitchell's Satyr in New Jersey due to overcollecting.

I look forward to looking at some spots in Ohio for this butterfly, now that I have a "search image". There are some places, probably never before checked for Mitchell's Satyr, that look pretty good based on what I saw in the state up north.