Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bottled Gentian

Last Friday, prior to the Lake Erie Raptor Symposium described in the preceding post, I had a bit of time to nip into one of Ohio's most spectacular ecosystems, the Oak Openings. I never miss an opportunity to explore this region, and am never disappointed when I do. This whirlwind trip netted many interesting observations, not the least of which were some fine specimens of one of my favorite plants.

Bottled Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, are outrageous in appearance. They are an indescribably rich cobalt blue, with a flower shape totally out of sorts with nearly all other of our plants. The appearance of these gentians, and most other gentians for that matter, indicate the imminent frost of fall. They are among our latest plants to bloom, not long before short days and cool nights put an end to another season's floral display.

The prairies of the Oak Openings look particularly showy in autumn, when a riot of fall-blooming asters and other late-comers paint the landscape. One must generally get out of the car to find Bottled Gentians. They lurk in damp swales, overshadowed by more robust vegetation.

The search effort will be well worthwhile if you strike pay dirt. Nestled amongst overshadowing plants are the odd blue grocery sack-like flowers of the bottled gentian. They can be surprisingly common, but typically are rather local and always noteworthy to stumble upon.

A closer view of the flower, in order that we might better learn how it works. The flower sits in a green cup known as the calyx, and it is crested with five lobes, seen clearly in this shot. The shape of these lobes aid in identification of the species. As those of us who have made a study of this sort of thing know, identification is not as straightforward as the Peterson or Newcomb's wildflower guides sometimes make it out to be. There are three species of bottled gentian in Ohio, with two possible in the Oak Openings. One is a mega-rarity, Soapwort Gentian, Gentiana saponaria. Among other techincal differences, it has linear, or much narrower, calyx lobes than does this species, A. andrewsii.

Dissection of a gentian flower reveals some very interested features. The flower is five-parted but the parts are joined together by folds of tissue known as plaits, thus creating the saclike structure of the flower. Bumblebees - those big fuzzy ones in the genus Bombus - are primary pollinators, and they force their way in via the tip of the flower, which has an opening but is virtually sealed up. I have seen them enter gentian flowers. They fly to the flower, and begin forcefully pushing at the tip, forcing their head into the flower, and eventually, their entire body. Then you basically have a bee in a bag. It bumbles about inside, thoroughly pollinating the stigma, probably with pollen from another plant.

How does the bee know to enter, or what entices it within? Opening the flower as above may reveal an answer. Bees see color spectra not visible to us, and it is possible that to them the bright blue stripes clearly visible above - on the inside of the flower - are obvious from the outside. These stripes clearly seem to be nectar guides, which are a flower's landing lights to guide in pollinators.

Here's the business end of the gentian flower - the parts that make new gentians. the thicker bowling pin-shaped column is the carpel, or pistil - the female parts. At the base is the ovary, which contains ovules within. Each ovule will become a seed. The little two-pronged unit at the top of the carpel is the stigma, which is the part that receives pollen during pollination.

The two slender appendages to the left are stamens - the male parts. The stalks are called filaments, and are capped by mushroom-shaped units called anthers. The latter contain the pollen, which must eventually get to the stigma, and preferably the stigma of another plant to ensure cross-pollination. This is where, in the case of the bottled gentian, those large fuzzy bumblebees come into play.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Raptor Symposium

We had a whale of a good time this weekend at the OOS/BSBO-sponsored Lake Erie Raptor Symposium, held at Maumee Bay State Park. Major props are due Karen Menard, who conceived the idea for this symposium and was key to pulling it together. As always, a wonderful group of volunteers did all of the heavy lifting and made things happen. These affairs are a ton of work, and all of our paychecks are very small; basically invisible. Thanks to everyone involved, as well as our excellent slate of speakers and field trip leaders.

The lodge stuck this sign out front to welcome us. Helped draw about 140 people into the lodge, but no buteos, accipiters, or caracaras.

It was a full house for both daytime and evening festivities. Our Saturday morning speakers did an outstanding job covering the raptors of the western Lake Erie region. First up was Mark Shieldcastle, with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, who gave an excellent overview of Bald Eagles and their recovery. Then came Paul Cypher with a fascinating program about southeastern Michigan's hawk migration through Lake Erie Metropark, which we visited the next day. Steve Lauer followed up with a talk about all the work he has been spearheading to document nesting raptors in the Oak Openings, and we concluded with Mark Shieldcastle, this time wearing the hat of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory where he serves as director of research. Mark offered up a fine overview of the spring raptor surveys that BSBO has been orchestrating for many years. Emcee Dana Bollin was her usual stellar self.

Then it was off for some short afternoon field trips. Anyone who has been to one of the OOS shindigs knows that, logistic headaches aside, we always get attendees out in the field to experience birds firsthand. All four trips reported interesting sightings and good times.

The Man himself, Mr. Brian Wheeler, author of the famous North American raptor guides and our evening keynote speaker. Brian lives in Colorado, and has tremendous field experience with North American birds of prey. He is also an extraordinary artist and photographer. BSBO had dozens of Brian's books available, and sold 'em all! The autograph line was a lengthy one, and Brian said it was the longest line he has yet had at a signing. Brian is one of the coolest people you will ever meet, and exceptionally generous with his time and knowledge. We were honored that he accepted our invitation to come to Ohio.

The scene Sunday morning at the hawk-watch site at Michigan's Lake Erie Metropark. This is one of the country's great raptor migratory funnels, with as many as 250,000 Broad-winged Hawks passing through each fall, along with scores of other birds of prey. It was great to see some 130 birders gathered here as part of our conference.

Sunday was not a huge flight day, but there was plenty to look at. This distant speck is pretty much what you see in many cases. It was great to have some extraordinary birders dispersed throughout the crowd to help newer hawk-watchers. I remember looking around once, and there was Brian Wheeler, Paul Cypher, Kenn & Kim Kaufman, Andy Jones, Ethan Kistler, Dan Sanders, and other stellar birders that I'm forgetting right now. The two primary hawk-watchers - and I am forgetting their names - were also there and both are extraordinary talents, picking out and ID'ing at extreme range the dots such as is pictured above.

Of course, we all have optics and that helps bring those faroff specks into focus. This is the bird shown in the previous photo, magnified a bit. A Sharp-shinned Hawk, the most common raptor that we saw this day. There were also several Cooper's Hawks, and a smattering of Red-tailed, Broad-winged, and Red-shouldered hawks, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and American Kestrel.

It was a gorgeous day with sunny skies, and in addition to watching raptors pass overhead, hanging out with the crowd of birders was great.

The Ohio Ornithological Society regularly hosts events such as this one, and being a member is the best way to stay informed about upcoming happenings. We need you! To join, please go RIGHT HERE.

Thanks to all who came, and hope to see you again soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Raptor Symposium

This weekend is the Lake Erie Raptor Symposium, hosted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the Ohio Ornithological Society. We've got a full house, looks like the weather should be decent, and there'll be some outstanding speakers, led by raptor guru Brian Wheeler.

We'll also have expeditions to look for real, wild raptors. The last weekend in September is normally peak for diversity of species around the western end of Lake Erie. Judging from hawk-watching reports from Texas, though, most of the Broad-winged Hawks have already moved along. If we see the above species, it'll forever cement this event in people's minds.

Likewise, this species would be equally stupendous, but one can hope.

A closer look at the goggle-eyed beauty. That will never appear in Ohio. But one should never say never, as they say.

This one is a bit more likely - guaranteed, in fact.

But probably not this subspecies. This Red-tailed Hawk was photographed last February in San Isidro, Costa Rica. The birds down there are a gorgeous form, richly tinted with chestnut.

And I was cheating on the others. The top bird is a Common Black Hawk, and the other bird is a Roadside Hawk, also shot last February in Costa Rica. Who knows, though - with all of those eyes directed skyward, something good might be founds. I'd settle for a Swainson's Hawk, though, as would most of us I suspect.

Look forward to seeing everyone this weekend.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Beetles Fan?

Then you'll like the following bruisers. Nope, we're not talking Ringo, Paul, George, and John - these are the hard-shelled, pincered, scary looking beetles. The antithesis of the Fab Four in the cuteness department. We found them under some logs last Saturday. It wasn't Norwegian Wood, but still offered a hiding spot from Rocky Raccoon.

Handsome little fellows, aren't they? These are known as Horned Passalus, Odontotaenius disjunctus. Another name is Patent Leather Beetle; kind of a good one, that. These were in the midst of rotting wood, where they spend their lives. Supposedly, adults can make up to fourteen distinct sounds by rubbing various body parts together, and will "vocalize" when disturbed. We weren't overly abrasive with these, apparently not enough to stimulate them to call. The brown beetle is a youngster; it will eventually grow into a suit of gloss black like the full adult behind it.

Horned Passalus larvae are big white grubs, nestled deep in galleries made by the adults. The youngsters cannot feed, so the adults handle the chore of feeding them. The formula for baby? Partially chewed and digested wood chips and feces. Great stuff. But they'll do just fine on that, if a Pileated Woodpecker doesn't key in on their log and blast it to smithereens. Nothing one of those jumbo woodpeckers would like better than a giant beetle grub.

A closer view of the adult. They have rather intimidating pincers, but seem to be quite docile and made no effort to do any of us in. Upon close inspection, most large beetles are quite showy, even all black ones like this. Notice the tan fringe of hairs at the rim of its pronotum, which is that helmetlike covering just in front of the groovy wings.

We found this one nearby, and it is a real showstopper. Unfortunately, I could not manage a free-ranging photo. This beast, which we believe to be a Blue-margined Ground Beetle, Pasimachus depressus, was astonishingly fast. No joke. If released, it would scoot like it had been shot from a cannon, leaving no chance of decent photos. This style befits its lifestyle as a hunting beetle that runs down and eats other critters. It is aided in this by large pincers, although it made no effort to give us a bite like some other big, pincered beetles will. Maybe it felt that the foul-smelling secretions that it blasted from its anal glands would be sufficient to deter us.

Unfortunately, some large beetles have become scarce, at least locally, because collectors covet them. There is a thriving and probably mostly unregulated trade in beetles, with some of the largest and most beautiful species fetching hundreds of dollars. Many if not most are harvested from the wild, too. This probably isn't an issue, at least yet, in Ohio, but species like the Hercules Beetle of the tropics have been decimated locally by collectors.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Beautiful Saxifrage

On Saturday's visit to the Strait Creek Prairie preserve in southwestern Pike County, we found ourselves traversing the base of some vertical limestone cliffs. Cloaked in shade and wet with the outflow of seepages, these outcrops proved to be perfect habitat for one of our most interesting saxicoles, or rock-dwelling plants.

Moist limestone cliff face liberally festooned with Sullivantia, Sullivantia sullivantii, a diminutive and showy member of the Saxifrage family. Overall, it is a rather rare and local plant known from only ten states in the midwest. Sullivantia is habitat-restricted, growing only where suitable cliff faces occur. Definitely not a plant you'll find growing along the roadsides and in ditches.

A closer view of the leaves. Shiny green and ornately sculpted with crenate margins, I have noticed that Sullivantia leaves invariably draw the eye of people unfamiliar with the plant, and they quickly ask what it is.

By the time we arrived on the scene, the Sullivantia was past flower and in fruit. You can see the tiny cuplike calyces in this photo; the little modified leaves tha hold the flower, then later the fruit. It sends out delicate open racemes of small white flowers that bloom over much of the summer.

Sullivantia sullivantii is one of about 98 species of vascular plants that were first discovered in Ohio. This one was located for the first time in Highland County by its namesake, William Starling Sullivant. Sullivant was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1803, the son of Lucas Sullivant, an early surveyor who platted what was to become our capitol city. Although William was to spend much of his life employed as a surveyor and engineer, he quickly became enamored with botany and spent much of his spare time studying plants and bryophytes (mosses). Although Sullivant contributed much more to our knowledge of mosses than he did vascular plants, he scored some major hits with the latter group.

The showy prairie-inhabiting Sullivant's Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii, is named in his honor. He also discovered what is rapidly becoming one of North America's rarest mustards, the diminutive Spreading Rock Cress, Arabis patens. The distinctive Flat-stemmed Spikerush, Eleocharis compressa, was also first found and described by the hard-working Sullivant.

But is the plant in the photos above that is probably most connected with him. Partly because of its rarity, partly because of its beauty, perhaps in large part because of the triple Sullivant moniker - Sullivantia, Sullivantia sullivantii. Kind of hard to forget who the discover of this one is!

After a long and distinguished career filled with new discoveries and major contributions to the science of botany, William Starling Sullivant passed away on April 30, 1873. He is buried at Green Lawn Cemetery on the south side of Columbus along with his father and a number of others of the Sullivant clan. At his side is his wife Eliza, the second of his three wives. Her formidable marker is ornately detailed with a carving of his namesake saxifrage, Sullivantia.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Camphorweed and salamanders

This may be the world's only blog entry combining the above, but with some 5.3 billion blogs out there anymore, who knows?

No matter, today was a stupendous whirlwind of a field trip. My main target was the plant Camphorweed, Pluchea camphorata. In this quest I was aided by John Howard and Tricia West, without whom finding the plant wouldn't have been possible. John and Tricia work at the sprawling 7,000-acre GE engine testing facility in Adams County, and were able to get me access to the innards of this site. John had discovered the Camphorweed here a few years back. So, along with Janet Creamer, in we went.

I have seen nearly every native plant - and most non-natives - in Ohio, and it gnaws at me if one has evaded my list. Thus, it was a treat to finally see this rather robust member of the Asteraceae. It grows in a rather plain-looking site - certainly not a place that would visually grab your eye. The handful of plants that sprang up this year grow along the edge of a seasonally damp pin oak woods in dappled shade. John tallied 75 plants one wet year, the best showing that he has seen.

A rather odd-looking plant, and not one that the gardening set is likely to be clamoring for anytime soon. From afar, it might remind one of a giant Sedum with pinkish flowers. This species is a real southerner; this locale is about as far north as it gets. A major Ohio rarity and endangered here, Camphorweed was known from a 1923 Brown County collection, and I believe a small population was discovered in Clermont County or nearby a decade or so ago.

A closeup of the flowers in all of their glory, or lack thereof. The inflorescence is entirely comprised of tubular disk flowers, lacking the showy ray flowers of many species in this family, such as daisies, sunflowers, and most asters. If you have any doubt as to its ID, rub a leaf and check the smell. Yuck. Smells just like camphor; a strong medicinally pungent, antiseptic odor.

Much to our interest, John mentioned that he regularly finds that most interesting of amphibians, the Marbled Salamander, in a nearby woodland vernal pool. I was very keen on seeing this one, which would be a "lifer" for me. Truly a nice bonus, so off we set.

Marbled Salamander, Ambystoma opacum. An astonishing animal, both in appearance and habits. Upon entering the core of the now dry vernal pool, we began carefully checking under logs and rocks, and it wasn't too long before John uncovered this fine specimen. Bit of a lunker, this boy, taping out at perhaps 4 or 5 inches. Their marbled black and white coat is a bit hard to believe, at first - it looks like something that should be adorning a tropical jungle beast.

We speculated that this male was among the first to arrive at this breeding pool. All other of our mole salamanders, genus Ambystoma, breed in a frenzied rush with the first warm rains of early spring. Marbleds buck the trend, and do it their way. They make their way to the wooded breeding pools in fall, pair off and the females lay eggs under logs, which they guard until hatching. A bit of rain is required to soak the eggs and stimulate development and hatching. Because of this strange life cycle, this beautiful salamander is probably overlooked to a large degree, as now is not the time when most people are looking for mole salamanders.

After GE, we went off to the nearby Strait Creek Prairie preserve in nearby Pike County, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. There we saw much of interest - both flora and fauna - and also stumbled into a few more salamanders. This one is a Southern Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera. We also have the Northern Two-lined Salamander, E. bislineata, in Ohio, with U.S. Route 70 often being cited as the approximate dividing line between the two species. Visually they are nearly identical and technical characters must be closely examined to differentiate the two. Whatever, they are both beautiful and rather easily found. Just start turning rocks in and along small streams and you'll eventually find one. Long, slender, and sleek.

Soon after, in the same stream, Janet discovered this whopper of a Northern Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus fuscus. Armed with a laterally compressed tail like a muskrat, this one must have been pushing six inches.

Rather a nice looking little beast, as salamanders go. It would have been fun to have explored this little stream further for amphibians, but by this point we were completely out of time. Creeks like this, which are largely unpolluted and free of disturbance, are vital for maintaining large healthy amphibian populations. It's a good thing that TNC acquired this site, which is one of southern Ohio's premier natural areas.

This creek has lots of good memories for me. In 1997, I was botanizing along its banks when I found Warty Panic Grass, Panicum verrucosum. At that time, it was considered extirpated in Ohio, having not been seen in the state in nearly 50 years. On another trip, I found a beautiful Northern Copperhead basking on a rock by the stream. More good memories were added here today.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Black-horned Tree Cricket

I have become smitten with "singing" insects. Much of this interest was stimulated by the fabulous book The Singing Life of Insects, by Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger. This is one of the finest volumes on natural history, bar none. I highly recommend it and if you get a chance to pick one up, please do.

Learning about singing insects is interesting and useful on several fronts. One, the collective symphonies produced by various insects, especially at night, are among nature's most pleasing sounds. Two, it is always nice to know what organism makes what sound when one is outdoors. Three, most of these insects are visually beautiful, and knowing their sounds allows one to better track them down for a look. Four, and something that all birders should take note of, is that they provide outstanding practice for our ears. The insect chorus comes on and starts to hit its colective stride after the birds have largely ceased singing. Moving one's ear over to learning insects will prove to be great practice for honing one's audio birding skills.
I found myself out in the woods recently, and was attracted to the musical if not somewhat monotone song of this insect, a Black-horned Tree Cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis. Most tree crickets sing at night; this one apparently will sing during the day, too. Even though their trill is rather loud and forceful, at least once your ears are dialed in, they are devilishly hard to locate. Like many singing insects, their senses are well developed and when a large clumsy humanoid moves in too close, they cease singing. With a bit of perseverance and a lot of luck, I eventually located it.Black-horned Tree Cricket may be the showiest of its ilk, with gorgeous wing venation in tones of greenish-white, set off by bold black legs, antennae, and head. The almond-shaped eyes are especially interesting and lend the critter an alienlike appearance.

Once I discovered him - it is a male; he was singing - it was very cooperative. The adults are predatorial, feeding primarily on aphids and even caterpillars. Speaking of the latter, don't ever be one. Caterpillars are largely defenseless tubular bags of goo that are preyed on by all manner of animals. Your chances, as a caterpillar, of making it to the winged moth/butterfly stage, are not good.

Next time you are out and about, especially at night, pay heed to the rich insect symphony.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It Won't Kill You - Promise!

A coworker brought recently brought in a real horrorshow of an insect, a bug that is sure to turn the stomach of an entomophobe. This is the sort of flying terror that has sane people running around in a crouch, screaming and waving their hands wildly about in blind efforts to ward the beast off.

Every once and again, one of these wasps with the prodigious "stinger" enters a garage or house, and to many inhabitants, it's presence is worse than if a Grizzly Bear knocked its way in. All becomes chaos, until some superhero plucks up the courage to swat it into oblivion.

But, as is so often the case, all is not as it seems.

Let's take a look at this thing.

An Ichneumon wasp, Megarhyssa macrura. Swatted into oblivion, but at least the body was preserved so that we can learn about it. You can readily see why someone with no knowledge of these things would get riled up at the sight of that "stinger". In this case, it tapes out to nearly 3 1/2 inches long! Except, it isn't a stinger. True, this is a wasp, and many wasps do pack gnarly stinging punches, but I'm not sure that this one can even sting at all. Of course, if you felt the tickling sensation of a bug crawling on you, and looked down to see this beast 6 inches away crawling up your arm, an extreme reaction might be excusable. But that long wirelike extension is actually an ovipositor, an incredible piece of the female Ichneumon's anatomy that allows her to do amazing things with her eggs, as we shall see.

Thanks to Tom Smith for sharing this stunning photo via Flickr. He took it in New York, but we have this species of Ichneumon here in Ohio also. This one is the aptly named Giant Ichneumon, Megarhyssa atrata, and females have ovipositors that put even the species above to shame. Some individuals can allegedly have ovipositors up to six inches in length! I've seen them a few times in the wild, and can believe that.

Tom's beautiful photo shows this interesting wasp at work. Ichneumons are parasitic; they lay their eggs in the larvae of woodboring horntail wasps. No one fully understands how they work this out, but somehow the Ichneumon detects the presence of the horntail larva deep within the wood of a tree or log. Once a suitable victim is devined in the woody depths, the wasp starts augering in with that incredible stiff wiry ovipositor, just like a derrick drilling for oil.

Three, four, five inches down it goes, until contact with the soft grub is made. The Ichneumon then injects an egg into the soon to be suffering horntail larva, and when it hatches Junior Ichneumon will begin consuming its host. Amazing, albeit somewhat horrifying.

Ichneumon females often oviposit in pairs, as shown in Tom's photos. Again, it doesn't seem that anyone knows exactly why, but it could be that horntail larvae often occur in small concentrations, thus, so do the parasitizers. It is not that uncommon to see the stiff ovipositors sticking out of wood, but no wasp. Victimizer becomes the victim. The process of spearing an egg deep into buried horntail wasps can be a lengthy one, and the Ichneumons become quite vulnerable during their raids. All it takes is for a sharp-eyed wasp-loving Summer Tanager to spot the wasp, and it's easy pickings and another step added in the food chain.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Stork leads to Find

Wow! The gales roared through this area Sunday, the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. The power is still off around here, and AEP is saying it might be five days or so before it's restored. I've never seen so much downed Silver Maple and Bradford Pears in my life. Some one million customers are in the dark in the Columbus area. I'm one of 'em; occasional wireless interludes allow Internet access. I'm going to get behind on e-mails, that's for sure :-)

Anyway, before the crazy winds set in Sunday afternoon, Sherri Velliquette and I made a return trip to Coshocton County and Tyson Road, site of the now-famous Wood Storks. They weren't there, having long since flown the coop, but all of those great wetlands along this seldom-traveled gravel country lane still looked great.

When I first traveled over there on a whirlwind visit to see those spectacular birds, I was struck by all of the outstanding habitat along Wills Creek. There are numerous seeps emanating from the bases of north-facing hills, feeding the wetlands that buffer Wills Creek. Even the little U-shaped swamp that was so enticing to the Wood Storks was fed by springs and has some unusual flora.

The wetland above really caught my eye. It is a mile or so on west of stork swamp, and is dominated by Softstem Bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. The first chance I got, back I went. And found a great plant, but the day was not optimal for photography or exploring, and time constraints had me raring for a repeat visit. Which was yesterday. This wetland is a rather soupy quagmire, the ground soft and spongy and in places it is like stepping into oatmeal that threatens to suck you in. But it is well worth it.

This is the main attraction, at least for the botanist. Walter's St. John's-wort, Triadenum walteri, a beautiful and robust member of the pink-flowered marsh St. John's-wort complex. Sherri and I counted a lot - maybe 300 to 400 plants reside in the wetland. They have passed out of flower and into fruit, but are still good-looking plants, and their presence is all the more noteworthy because of their rarity. There are two or three extant populations in Ohio of this endangered species.

A closeup of the mature fruit. The tiny modified leaves that cup the fruit are called sepals, and are one of the differentiating characters among the Triadenum St. John's-worts. In this case, they are oblong with a nice rounded summit. The leaves are dotted below with tiny translucent dots, and are held on distinct petioles, or short stalks. All of these features serve to separate from other more common members of its ilk.

Incredibly, we found another, almost as rare St. John's-wort in the same wetland. This one, shown above in a photo from the voucher specimen that I took, is Triadenum tubulosum, the Large Marsh St. John's-wort. This one is threatened in Ohio, which means it is known from five or fewer sites. A close look at the sepals around the fruit reveals that they are sharp and pointed, very different than those of T. walteri and its short rounded sepals. This one also has leaves that closely clasp the stem, which can be seen in this photo, and an important feature for its identification is a character that is not present. Unlike the others, this one has no translucent or punctate dotting on the underside of the leaves.

There is an old, unwritten rule for finding rare plants. Take the Path of Greatest Resistance. Seek the hardest ways to explore habitats. We found this one by entering a boring looking young woodland dominated by Silver Maple, and choked with floodborn detritus. And Bingo - there was Large Marsh St. John's-wort. Plants like these two species probably are genuinely rare in Ohio, as both are at the extreme northern limits of their range in Ohio. Still, they are likely overlooked to some degree, as people are often apprehensive about entering their soupy haunts.

In this particular case of discovery, I thank the Wood Storks for bringing me over to this area in the first place.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Seems to be have been a good season for Green Herons. Reports have abounded, and I've seen many this year in my wanderings. That's good. Nice to know this interesting little heron is seemingly holding its own.

Green Herons are one of my favorite birds. Discovering one is always a treat. Sometimes it is of a distant high-flyer, straight-lining it to some farflung destination. In flight, they suggest crows but have a different look due the thick scrunched up neck and a somewhat different wingbeat cadence. You can tell 'em a mile off and dazzle your friends with one of these extreme calls from afar.

Or you might be lurking about some shrubby wetland or wooded stream corridor, when suddenly KYOW! A Green Heron bursts forth from hiding, delivering its telltale piercingly metallic call.

Young Green Heron, showing the extensive neck streaking characteristic of juveniles. Photo taken at Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve.

As often as not, Green Herons will give you a visual interpretation of what they think of you, if you have the gall to shake them from their routine. Next time you flush one, watch. It's liable to expel a prolific stream of liquid chalky-white feces. Could be a ploy to quickly lose weight for the quick escape. Or it could be an avian salute; the equivalent of a raspberry. This interesting if not somewhat disgusting habitat led to the nickname "chalkline" for the bird. It is laying down a nasty white line of fecal chalk.

That isn't this species only nickname, though. Another, which I will leave you to decide the interpretation of, is "shitepoke". Still another is "fly-up-the-creek".

At one time, they were known as Green-backed Herons. This dates to when taxonomists considered our North American birds conspecific with birds of the New and Old World tropics. Now they are deemed separate. Ours is Butorides virescens; the tropical species is Butorides striatus, the Striated Heron. There is some debate about the legitimacy of this split, but what would ornithology or another other branch of natural sciences be if we knew everything absolutely.

A fine young specimen. Perhaps the most interesting behavior of Green Herons is their ability to use tools. That's right, they are are nearly as adept as a fisherman with tackle box when it comes to tricking fish into their reach. They take likely looking lures and drop them in the water to pull in small fish. Feathers are a commonly used lure, but they've been known to use everything from mayflies to bread crusts to berries. Woe to the foolish minnow that investigates this bit of shitepoke trickery. Green Herons can snap that coiled slinkylike neck out quicker than you can say sushi.This is breeding distribution of Green Heron in Ohio as delineated by the first Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, 1982-85. You can see they are nearly everywhere, the most broadly distributed breeding heron in the state. Green Herons will breed on much smaller water bodies than will other herons, including little farm ponds and tiny creeks. Their nests won't win any architectural awards. A flimsy platform of sticks, that even a Mourning Dove might scoff at. Well, maybe not that bad but these aren't the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the bird world.

Here's data to date generated by the current Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II. Not looking quite as robust as the first go-around, but not bad, and many more records will be added in the next two years of this atlas.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jasper's critters

During last weekend's botanical blitz of Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana, we saw lots of critters: birds, bugs, spiders, etc. I bet there are a lot of interesting finds to be made yet over there. Below are two - one common, one, well, I don't know...

Very freshly emerged Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata. These big dragonflies were a dime a dozen in the Jasper wetlands, and I saw many freshly emerged ones like the one above. In this state, they are referred to as tenerals, which means they are not fully developed. You can see the exsuvia, or old husk of the larval stage just above the saddlebag's eyes. It amazes me that such a big, differently shaped creature emerges from that alienlike pod. It can take a while for a dragonfly to free itself from the larval case, and this one has probably only been out a few hours, at best. It is still in the process of pumping fluid to its extremities to harden them up. Teneral dragonflies are quite vulnerable to predators at this stage.

Straight down the gullet of a Black Saddlebags. Their eyes are striking. Dragonfly eyes are works of art, and among the most effective peepers of any organism. This species has very broad rear wings, and is an outstanding aerialist. Highly migratory, it is possible this one might end up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are some other farflung southern place.

These tiny spiders were very cool, and I am very curious as to their specific identity. I think they are one of the jumping spiders, but that covers a lot of ground I know. Perhaps a quarter inch in length, they only seemed to build webs on two species of plants within the very unusual J-P wetlands. One of these plants is a major rarity in this region: Horned Beaksedge, Rhynchospora macrostachya. The other, pictured above, is Twigrush, Cladium mariscoides, which is also pretty rare down this way. Both plants are indicators of outstanding wetland habitat. Funny the spider would be so smitten with them. Note how the spider blends extraordinarily well with the brownish spikelets of the Twigrush.

These jumping spiders are interesting little creatures, moving about as if powered by turbocharged pogosticks. They are almost eerie in how they size up us humanoids, cocking their heads and making rapid adjustments to keep us in their eight-eyed line of sight(s). If one were unfortunate enough to be suitable prey, and cross paths with one of these jumpers, your odds would not be good. All the ones that I saw had built these tiny webs, possibly for protection rather than food-catching.

If anyone knows what species this spider is, please let me know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Look closely...

Black Oaks are beautiful trees. And this shot, if I do say so myself, is a rather crisp image of the dark, deeply fissured and rugged bark of Quercus velutina. This is a tree that withstands the ages. Black Oaks favor rough, nutrient-deficient soils, and often occur in habitats where scorched earth policies rule, at least in the olden days. Prairie wildfires were essential in maintaining midwestern savanna habitats that this this thick-barked oak thrives in. Its outer husk is tough enough to ward off the conflagrations that would kill lesser timber, thus perpetuating oak dominance. A Black Oak of this size has been around a long time, and seen a lot. Who knows how many species of birds have graced its boughs. How many pounds of lichens have lived and died on the robust trunk. Kilos and kilos of acorns have fed dozens and dozens of squirrels, deer, and other critters. Yep, untold scores of other plants and animals have consorted with this giant over the decades; it has played a vital role in the ecological web of the sand prairie where we found it growing.

But look at the bark closely. Another animal is right before our eyes.

Coming into focus a bit better now that we've moved in? Gotta look close - we are viewing one of the masters of camouflage, a critter far easier heard than seen.

There. I'm sure you see the Gray Treefrog now. Oaks. They aren't just for squirrels.