Saturday, November 29, 2008

Leviathan of the Bonsai

Probably just about everyone who has visited Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area has noticed this tree. It may be one of Ohio's most distinctive plants, in part because it is along such a heavily birded corridor, has a very distinctive form, and it is one of few significantly vertical features in an otherwise open landscape.

While birding today at Killdeer, I could not resist the opportunity to do a photo shoot with this gorgeous Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris (all too often mispronounced as "Scotch Pine"). I've driven by this tree myriad times; it has been there as long as I've been birding at Killdeer Plains and that's a long time. If you've been here, you've probably seen it. Jutting from the meadows along the northernmost road of the wildlife area, the pine is visible from afar and draws one's eye. Twisted and gnarled even more than are most Scots Pine, probably due to unmitigated impacts of fierce prairie storms sweeping in from the west, it for all the world resembles an enormous bonsai.

The contorted trunks spire upwards in a mad arrangement, beautified by the stunning yellow-orange tint of the upper bark that is so characteristic of this species.

Scots Pine is not native. It hails from Eurasia, but is fairly common as a landscape tree. This one was likely planted long ago to grace the yard of some old farmstead. Now, it sticks conspicuously from the flatlands like a sylvan beacon; the only tree of substance in the immediate vicinity. I'm sure many an interesting bird has graced its boughs over the years, drawn to the pine's charisma just as are our eyes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lucky Leaf leads to lots of Lichens

In the world of field botany and rare plant seeking, a bit of luck always helps. It's mostly skill - one has to know the common species well in order to recognize the unusual. And the botanist has to be very much aware of habitats and especially the nuances of micro-habitats in order to place himself/herself into situations where rarities might be found.

But a bit of luck always come in handy.

Early last April, a few friends and I went botanizing in Lawrence County, about as far south in Ohio as one can get. You can read more about that mission right here. Rolling along a country lane, I saw a roadside covered with Moss Phlox, Phox subulata. Not one to miss a good photo op with one of our most beautiful native wildflowers, we screeched to a stop and leaped out to snap some photos. What then happened is not uncommon when some good plant hunters converge on a site. Dan Boone, Ray Showman, and Jim Mundy began combing the slope while I tried for the perfect phlox shot.

Soon, one of them - I think it was Dan - stumbled upon a four-leaved clover! Sharp eyes to be sure, as there was plenty of the weedy non-native Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, growing on the roadbank and it is easy to ignore such plants when better finds might be made.

Four-leaved clovers are strongly associated with good luck. Some estimates claim that only one in ten thousand clover plants will produce an extra leaf. There are a number of legends purporting to explain the good luck that comes with four-leaved clovers, and here's a good one: on a normal three-leaved clover, each leaflet has significance. The first represents faith, the second equals hope, and the third means love. Add a fourth leaflet, and you've got a charm for luck.
To be scientifically pragmatic about it, and hopelessly unromantic, the fourth leaflet is merely a genetic anomaly. If you've got enough of anything, a small percentage will express abnormal traits. I've seen Common Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, with leaves whorled in threes - it normally has two leaves. One occasionally stumbles into doubled flowers in the wild, like the rose breeders work hard to produce. And so on.
The reason four-leaved clovers turn up with some frequency is likely just a numbers game: there are millions of clovers plants around, so the odds of abnormality are greater, and so are the odds of someone finding the extra-leaved oddity.

But find one we did, and coincidence or not, the rest of the trip produced some stunning finds.
Ray Showman, Ohio's premier lichen expert, studying a lichen-encrusted tree trunk in remote Lawrence County not long after the four-leaved clover find. We went to this spot seeking a rare plant that I knew to be present, and ended up stumbling into an absolute treasure trove of lichen diversity.

Ray quickly found this state-endangered lichen, known but from only one or two Ohio locales prior to this find. It is Ramalina farinacea. Sexy name, huh? So far, the lichenologists have not managed to come up with alluring common names for many species, but I wish they would. I've seen two common names for this one. Dotted Ramalina is one. OK on the dotted part, but most people would say "what the heck is a Ramalina?" The other is far worse: Farinose Cartilage Lichen. Blech!

Whatever you call it, the lichen is a charmer, quite beautiful upon close inspection.

This was the BIG FIND, though, and the one that just maybe that odd clover led us to. It is Usnea substerilis, which is a first state record. This was very cool to stumble upon. It looks like a rotund piece of Spanish Moss springing from the side of the tree - very distinctive. I don't think anyone has even bothered to give this one a common name, although Usnea lichens in general are called beard lichens.
Who cares? I mean, what good are these mossy green tree crusts, anyway?
Ray Showman was the first, and maybe the only, biologist hired by a power company to study lichens. In Ray's case, American Electric Power gave him a job. Lichens are conspicuous and extremely sensitive air quality indicators. Their presence - or absence - reveals much about the health of the air and what contaminants are or aren't present. When Ray first began studying lichens near some coal-fired plants, no lichens could be found for huge swaths around the plants. As scrubber technology advanced and emissions became cleaner, lichens returned.
Hummingbirds and gnatcatchers also like lichens. They shingle the exteriors of their nest with lichens bound by spiderwebs. The elasticity of this construction allows the nest cup to expand as the young birds grow, and the lichens blend the nest with the bark.
Yellow-throated Warblers are bark-creepers, and often spend foraging time nosing in lichen clusters seeking the numerous insects that seek refuge there. One fascinating insect group co-evolved with lichens are some of the lacewings. Their larvae bedeck themselves with lichen bits essentially glued to their backs. Impossible to see, until a chunk of the lichen gets up and walks off.
Lichens look fantastic in winter, and that's a great time to look for them. Ray and I are heading back to this part of Lawrence County in early December, and it'll be interesting to see what turns up. Probably won't have any four-leaved clovers to give us extra luck, though.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Furry Spidermen

While out in the cool dark woods capturing Northern Saw-whet Owls a while back, we had an encounter with one of our more interesting animals. And one that is surprisingly common, although relatively few people have seen one.

If you are out in the woods at night, and very quiet, there are many animals to be heard. Quiet shuffling in the leaf litter gives away the little guys, like White-footed Mice, while louder clumsier shuffling might be a Virginia Opossum. Sometimes bloodcurdling screeches come from spatting raccoons.

But listen very quietly and you might hear a distinctive scrabbling of tiny feet on tree bark, coupled with chitters nearly inaudible to our ears. If you do hear this stuff, its likely to be foraging Southern Flying Squirrels, and that's what we encountered on our owl expedition. We heard the feet on bark, lit the tree up with the flashlight and there was the little guy, big eyes aglow. Like a circus trapeze artist, it put on quite a show for the group, racing high into the tree, darting from limb to limb with impossible speed and grace, and culminated his act with an impressive glide from the tree's summit out into the gloom beyond our pool of light.

These fuzzy little wack-jobs are something else. It's like someone took a quadripedal dwarf, covered him in fur, amped him up on Powershot and Espresso, applied superglue to the paws, then tied a bottle-rocket to his tail.

Off they go, roaring about the timber like maniacs. Hardly still for a second, and if multiple units are present short-lived battles are sure to ensue as Alphas and wanna-be Alphas duel for first place. The speed and sureness with which flying squirrels race about is nothing short of incredible, and what do they have to worry about? Falling? Not. A quick stretch of the appendages flaps open the patagial membranes, and you've got instant mammalian hang glider. They have been documented soaring for the length of a football field, and can even shift direction as they soar along.

No dummies, when a flying squirrel uses that beaverlike rudder of a tail to stall its airspeed and alight on a tree trunk, it promptly runs around to the other side. Good strategy and one no doubt learned the hard way as squirrels were sacrificed along the evolutionary trail to screech-owls who followed their flight plans.

Bob Placier, one of the owl banders, sent me a note reporting that a flying squirrel was recently caught in one of their nets. He reports that it was high-strung in the extreme, chittering and biting as they attempted extrication and only ensnaring itself even more. Eventually, they had to cut it free, thus liberating the big-eyed madman but essentially destroying the net in the process. Southern Flying Squirrel - 1. Owl Banders - 0.

If you've got decent-sized trees, even in suburbia, you've likely got flying squirrels. Wanna lure 'em in and watch the show? Slather Jiffy peanut butter up on a tree trunk, about as high as you can reach. Use the crunchy varieties; these are discerning little beasts and you don't want to make them mad.

I took the shots above at a friend's suburban feeding station, and it was a show, let me tell you that. Up to seven El Locos were in the tree at once, squeaking, chasing, combating, gliding, and grabbing Jiffy's finest until displaced by another beast, and every one of those scenarios generally took place in about three seconds per squirrel. They burn the calories, these boys.

But what a show.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Blizzard of Sawbills

Eastlake, Ohio, just east of Cleveland. Hard on the shore of Lake Erie, it is distinguished by that large power plant looming in the backdrop. As part of its operations, thousands of gallons of heated water are regularly spewed into the lake, attracting scores of Gizzard Shad. Also working in our favor here is the nearby Chagrin River, which confluences with Lake Erie just to the east. The reaction of river water hitting lake water seems to also attract lots of fish.

The upshot is, if you are a fish-eater, this place is the horn of plenty - a piscine paradise. And Red-breasted Mergansers are as into scaly swimming things as a Londoner is into fish & chips.

Of course, it does get cold here. In fact, in a good winter - a winter as winters ought to be - the lake freezes solid. But not the pool of water behind the plant. When conditions are as above, the winter birding is spectacular.

But by then, when ice has overtaken Eastlake, most of the Red-breasted Mergansers are long gone. Now into early to mid-December is the time to catch one of Ohio's most sensational avian shows. This is the time for massive swarms of migrant sawbills (a colloquialism for mergansers) to gather. On Tuesday, I saw tens of thousands between Eastlake and Mentor, which is a bit further on east. Some estimates from skilled observers have put the total sawbill count seen in one day in this area as high as 200,000.

The central basin of Lake Erie is indisputably a global hotspot for this duck.

This video gives one a taste for the number of birds here. This was shot on Tuesday, and according to locals the birds had been present in much greater numbers in the few days preceding. And the video doesn't begin to show all the mergs that were present. Scanning out on the lake with my scope, giant swirling storm clouds of Red-breasted Mergansers were visible on the horizon.

Truly a spectacular show, and an act worth catching.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A long winter ahead

I love winter. Always have. That's probably a byproduct of a lifelong fasciantion with nature, coupled with growing up in the upper Midwest. One comes to appreciate the changes of seasons, and the diversity that comes with seasonal shifts.

We had our first big taste of winter Tuesday. Driving up to Lake County in extreme northeastern Ohio that day, I experienced near whiteout conditions just south of Cleveland. You know, dense flurries that made it tough to see, freeway down to a lane, and traffic slowed to 10-20 mph. Fun. Now our temps here in the great state of Ohio are hovering around or below freezing - 29 degrees right now - but it's cool (literally). I'll look forward to lots of interesting wintery excursions for Arctic gulls, hardy waterfowl, winter finches, and raptors.

But one does pine for spring, when the days grow short and the nights are frosty.

So tonight, after installing a fantastic new 22" monitor, I needed to put a new screen saver shot aboard. And so I scrolled through my vast archive of photos. And came across the following:

A sea of Wild Leek, Allium tricoccum, tumbling out of a ravine in Shawnee State Forest. This native onion - tasty, too, particularly if you are of West Virginian extraction - is one of the first plants to burst forth in spring. This shot was taken on April 5th.

That's only about five and a half months from now. A long time, sure. So you might as well make the most of winter. Perhaps consider joining us on the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual winter raptor extravaganza at the Wilds, slated for January 17th. Last year, 120 bird enthusiasts braved the Arctic-like conditions and had a ball.

Watch for details on that excursion here and elsewhere soon. And get out your igloo and anorak.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Purple Sandpiper

We have a lot of shorebird diversity in Ohio, but few of their lot create the stir that Purple Sandpipers do. Partly because they are rare, partly because they are unusual in their seasonal appearances and habitat, and partly because they just look cool.

I had the good fortune of seeing not one, but two of them today at Ohio's epicenter of Purple 'Piper sightings, Mentor Headlands. The long rocky jetty that extends out into Lake Erie is probably the best bet for birders seeking this species in Ohio.

Headlands veterans Ray Hannikman and Emil Bacik spotted the birds and had them staked out when we arrived. But my day started with a propitious omen, as a Red Crossbill flew over me not long after I got out of my car in the parking lot. We went on to see a Parasitic Jaeger, Little and Franklin's Gull, and a smattering of Black and Surf Scoters. Headlands almost always produces great birding.

The Headlands crew, on sea watch from the breakwall. It was a cool day - in the low to mid 20's to start - but not very windy. As you might guess, this can be a rather brutal locale when the winds are whipping and the surf is up. The Purple Sandpipers were along the base of the wall, foraging on the rocks by the water. Literally at our feet.

Purple Sandpiper, Calidris maritima. They breed in the highest reaches of the Arctic, and most winter along the northern Atlantic coast of the U.S. and southern Canada. Maritima means "of the sea"; apropos as this species spends a good deal of its life cycle in salt spray. But small numbers wing through the Great Lakes. November and December are the months to catch their act here, which necessitates venturing out in weather starkly different than what most shorebirders encounter. Broiling along the margins of a big mudflat in August is nothing like this.

Birds of rocks constantly pummeled by waves, the purples forage for small animal life in the patina of moss that encrusts the stone. Cute and dumpy, when seen well they do indeed take on a purplish sheen, set off by those bright orange-yellow legs.

The video above, while brief, shows the two purples rather well before they flitted a few rocks down the jetty and out of camera range. Always a treat, and the highlight of a great day of birding filled with other sensational finds.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Charming Boreal Micro-hooters

Once again, undetected by most eyes, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owls sweep down in waves from the northern forests where they make their homes. This invasion is one of cuteness and unbridled savagery. If you are a human and fortunate enough to bask in the presence of eastern North America's smallest owl, they are impossibly cute. Admirers, usually women, who fawn over them invariably use the C-word.

But if you are, say, a White-footed Mouse, cute would be the last adjective on your mind if one of these things came at you. How animals interpret things is all in their perspective and position in life.

Anyway, I have blogged several times in past years about forays down to Chillicothe, Ohio each fall and early winter to witness the efforts of some folks who run a saw-whet banding operation as part of Project Owlnet. Kelly Sieg, Bob Placier, and Bill Bosstic have been nabbing the micro-hooters since 2003 and have caught well over 300 owls to date. I was down there last Friday night with a bunch of owl enthusiasts and we had the good fortune of netting an owl.

Kelly Sieg gets a laugh out of her subject. One never tires of seeing these birds. And, yes, they are cute. And seemingly fearless. These little owls have become quite the ambassadors for nature. I believe they told me that something on the order of 400 people visited this banding station last year! The owls have become media darlings, too, with numerous newspaper articles and other publicity. Ohio Magazine did a wonderful story on them recently; that article is right here.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are "earless" owls in the sense that they have no ear tufts, as do Eastern Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls. But the tufts on those species are not really ears - they are just tufts of feathers that probably serve in displays and in adding to the bird's camouflage. In the photo above, we see the true ear of an owl. They are massive cavernous pits located on either side of the head, and covered by feathers. If your ears and eyes took up the mass of your head in proportion to a saw-whet, you would probably be making your money with the carnival crowd as part of a sideshow act.

Each ear is slightly offset from the other, allowing for a slight difference in arrival time of a sound. Even though this difference might only be measured in thousandth's of a second, the owl's brain processes the difference and this allows the bird to effectively triangulate on the source even in complete darkness.

The banders collect all kinds of data on the birds: weight, sex, various measurements, fat deposition, and of course a nice silver band with diagnostic numbers is placed on a leg. In this photo, our owl is placed under blacklight, which causes certain feathers to glow pink. And we go "like wow, man, really cosmic, like you know, for sure" and look for the Grateful Dead posters on the wall.

But even better than '60's retro tripping is the fact that all this pinkness aglow tells us the age of the bird. Pigments in the feathers known as porphyrins cause this pink shine, and the younger the feather the brighter the aura.

In the short video above, we see the weighing process. While perhaps somewhat undignified, it does the owl no harm and they never seem very mad at us afterwards. I failed to turn the vidcam off right away after I finished narrating, and you can hear some of the typical sugary comments and reactions that these Lilliputian beasts provoke among the admiring throng of observers.

There are always photo ops, and the best part of all this is seeing the reactions of people who have never seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl, let along held one. None of this attention appears to faze the birds in the slightest. Occasionally one will clack its bill a few times, but that's about it. Here, we can see the effect of gentle head rubs - the little owl seems to enter a blissful trance.

After all the processing is done, the owl is placed in complete darkness so its eyes reacclimate to the night, then it is taken outside and released. As further evidence of their seeming fearlessness, they are sometimes placed on someone's arm as a launch pad. This one was, and it sat there for a few minutes before deciding to wing back into the dark woods and its mysterious life. But for a while, the tiny owl enriched the lives of some people who will probably carry memories of it far longer than it will remember us.

Thanks as always to Kelly, Bob, and Bill for graciously hosting us, and for all of the fine work that they do.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rufous Hummingbird - Caught!

Those of you who follow the Ohio Birds listserv know that an unidentified Selasphorus hummingbird has been frequenting a feeder in Bexley, Ohio. For those of you unfamiliar with birder-speak, Selasphorus refers to a genus of western hummingbirds which are rare vagrants in the east. If not adult males, two of the species in this genus - Rufous Hummingbird and Allen's Hummingbird - are nearly impossible to tell apart unless in the hand. Well, the bird is now identified and here's the story.

Our goal was to safely put this hummingbird in hand, and that was ably accomplished with the help of an expert yesterday.
This hardy little hummer has been frequenting this feeder since October 17th. The homeowner, JoAnn LaMuth, was totally on the ball with this one. While working in her garden, she heard the distinctive high-pitched buzzsaw sound of hummingbird wings, rushed inside and got a hummingbird feeder and slapped it up. The hummer has been there since, and JoAnn has been very gracious in allowing birders to come visit.

A task like this calls for "hummer-busters", and it isn't hard to tell when Michigan hummingbird expert and licensed bander Allen Chartier has arrived on the scene. Allen is one of few people in this region licensed to capture and band hummingbirds, and he's nabbed thousands. Allen is especially interested in studying vagrant hummingbirds and has made many a trip down to Ohio and other states to work with them.

The trap is set. Hmmm... You'd think a contraption like this wouldn't fool a sharp-witted, quick on their wings hummingbird. It does. Or more likely, they just don't care about the wire mesh cage and are so fixated on reaching the tasty nectar within that all thoughts of suspicious traplike objects are pushed aside. After a 3+ hour wait with no sign of the bird, we were finally getting ready to throw in the towel, when zipppp! In it came. The little bird buzzed curiously about the cage for a few seconds, quickly saw the opening in the cage, and shot inside. The wily Chartier has rigged the trap with a remote-controlled trap door, and when he hit the trigger the bird was ours.

Within a minute, Allen had the bird in hand. Cute little birds. I've been around hummingbird banding operations a number of times now, and will never tire of watching the process. An added bonus is watching newbies that are present - people who have never seen one of these Lilliputian dynamos up close and personal. Quite the little charmers, they are.

In this short video, Allen Chartier explains the primary difference between non-adult or female Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds. This bird proved to be an adult female Rufous, about the 40th Ohio record. Our first wasn't until 1985. Since 2002, we've added three other species of hummingbird to the state list: Calliope Hummingbird in 2002; and both Green Violetear and Anna's Hummingbird in 2005. Every time one of these female/subadult Selasphorus hummingbird shows up, everyone gets their hopes up that it might prove to be an Allen's Hummingbird. That's possible, but MUCH more unlikely than a Rufous. Of course, our old faithful remains the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only breeding species east of the Mississippi and common throughout Ohio. Ruby-throats, however, are not particularly hardy and any hummingbird after mid-October is probably going to be something else.

It should be noted that Allen is not catching this bird or the others to determine which species it is, in order to satisfy the birders. Of course, we'll learn that during the process, but just as importantly data on the bird will be collected, and it will be banded so that if caught again, we can indisputably identify the individual. Banding has led to many fascinating returns and shed light on vagrant hummers' wanderings, longevity, and site fidelity.

Hummingbird band. Impossibly tiny, they don't faze these strong-flying albeit miniscule birds. Takes some dexterity to wrangle one onto a leg not much bigger around than a toothpick, though.

This little girl may be the most famous Rufous Hummingbird there is, as of right now. The Columbus Dispatch was on hand for this banding in the form of a reporter and photographer. I'm glad they stuck out the three hour wait, because they got a great story and some fantastic photos. The story will probably run in the November 25 edition, in the science pages.

In the shot above, she is laying in JoAnn's hand, having just been placed there by Allen. Normally they instantly dart off, but not this one. She probably was wondering who the giant aliens are that abducted her.

A tiny puff of air from behind, and off she shot, no doubt calling us every name in the book, none of them flattering. I got this shot at the moment of takeoff. The bird was soon back at the feeder, and is there as of today. They apparently forget these experiences quickly.

Thanks to JoAnn for working with us and taking such an interest in this tiny wanderer, and to Allen Chartier for once again lending his expertise.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bonaparte's Gulls

The garbageheads give gulls a bad rap. Those large, aggressive Ring-billed and Herring Gulls that frequent dumps and fast food outlet parking lots have given the average Joe the idea that all gulls are the equivalent of winged rats. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the big boys that are prone to dumpster-diving, and here in Ohio that's usually the Ring-billed Gull, are beautifully proportioned and supreme aerialists.

But they lack the graceful good manners and delicate agility of my favorite of this bunch, the Bonaparte's Gull.

On a recent Lake Erie trip, I got to spend a bit of time photographing some bonos at Ashtabula County's Conneaut Harbor. I could watch them all day, and strive for getting that perfect shot. But althought they don't look overtly fast, Bonaparte's Gulls are usually moving faster than one thinks when trying to freeze them on the wing.

Pristine adult Bonaparte's Gull, Chroicocephalus philadelphia, in crisp winter plumage. Birds in breeding finery have solid black heads, as if some jokester thrust them beak first into a vat of ink. The white wing flashes are quite distinctive in any plumage. The common name honors a distant relative of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, while the scientific specific epithet recognizes the area where the first specimen was secured, Philadelphia.

Here's a youngster, a first-year bird. Note the black terminal band on the tail and the dark bars on the wing. Bonaparte's are two-year gulls: it takes them two seasons to attain full adult plumage. For big gulls like Herring and Great Black-backed, it requires four years to reach adulthood.

This bird was raised in a tree! That's right, Bonaparte's Gulls nests are arboreal, usually from 5 to 15 feet up in a spruce tree! They breed in the northern boreal forest, and place their flimsy stick platforms in stunted spruce near water. I have looked into one of their abodes, once. On a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, I spotted a Bonaparte's Gull nest about ten feet up in the boughs, and clambered up for a look. The parents were rather displeased, and expressed themselves by attempting to whack me in the head like tiny feathered Stukas on a dive-bombing mission.

November is THE month for Bonaparte's Gull-watching along Lake Erie. Sometimes thousands of them congregate around favored harbors, and one can revel in the odd squeaky buzzes produced by the pack. They are highly piscivorous at this time of year, deftly dropping to the water to nab small fish. One potential prey is spotted, the gull will drop airspeed and almost stall, lifting its head somewhat and developing a hunch-necked look. That's what this one is doing.

Bingo - sushi time! The bird has adeptly snared a small minnow, likely an Emerald Shiner.

We are indeed fortunate to have Lake Erie is our northern border. This, the second smallest of the Great Lakes, is the richest biologically and supports a tremendous fauna, including these small, graceful gulls.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Return of the Cave Swallows!

Like clockwork, those wacky Cave Swallows have returned, albeit briefly, to the Great White North. We had a Kirtland Bird Club trip last Saturday, led by John Pogacnik, and we visited a number of the east of Cleveland Lake Erie hotspots with Cave Swallow foremost on our minds. And there were plenty of other birders out and about along the lake this day, hitting the tried and true spots.


Then, Sunday - wham! There they are. Larry Richardson and Jan Auburn found seven of these long-haul swallows of the southwest at Bradstreet's Landing in Rocky River just west of Cleveland. Not only that, but they hung around all day and many people got to view them. This is not the norm. Most of the Ohio Cave Swallow records have been flybys - if you weren't on the spot at the moment they strafed by heading to who knows where, you missed them. Virtually unchaseable.

I was tied up with stuff on Sunday and didn't become privy to the reports until the afternoon and by then it was too late to make the Rocky River run. But I was intrigued by reports of a few of the swallows entering a crevice in the metal wall of the Bradstreet pier not long before dusk, apparently seeking shelter from worsening weather.

I saw my opportunity. Figuring that the Cave Swallow or swallows would attempt to overnight it in that pore in the pier, I thought that my best chance would be to arrive on the scene this morning, well before daylight, and see if they were indeed still holed up. Swallows are diurnal - daytime - migrants, so this seemed a reasonable plan.

So, it was up at 3:15 this morning and off by 4 am, arriving at Bradstreet Landing around 6:30. Upon arrival, it was plenty dark, somewhat windy, 28 degrees, and snow flurries. Not what one would typically think of as swallow-chasing weather.

The scene of Petrochelidon Fest '08, Bradstreet Landing, Rocky River. The swallow - just one as it turns out - was holed up in the wall of that pier not far from where the tall light pole is. When I got there, I walked out as far as I could on that sand spit and from there had a great view of the hole where the swallow had secreted itself. Only problem was, it was too dark to tell if anything was in there. It was kind of a surreal morning. As the break of day loomed and things became lighter, it seemed more certain that there indeed WAS a birdlike shape huddled in the orifice of the rusted bulwark. Lighter and lighter, and finally, with the hole and shape filling my scope field, it moved! Yes!

The swallow lived! By now the viewing wasn't bad and the lone Cave Swallow is starting to shake and shiver, probably in an effort to get the blood flowing. Another birder arrived and we both were treated to wonderful views of the swallow as it stretched and gazed out on the world, probably wondering if it was in the midst of a bad dream. This ain't Texas! Finally, at 7:25 am it darted from the hole, promptly shot over the pier and disappeared out over Lake Erie headed west. This was truly a case of the early bird getting the worm, and I am very glad that I got up there as early as I did, or I never wold have seen this one. For what it's worth, #357 in Ohio.
The Cave Swallow in its abode. Thanks to John Pogacnik for letting me use his photo, taken yesterday afternoon. It was too dim this morning for me to get any photos. I suspect this is the same bird, though, and that's the niche he/she was in this morning.
Ohio's first Cave Swallow record dates to November 5, 2005, when the aforementioned Pogacnik confirmed at least one individual but saw 13 other swallows too far to ID but they too were almost certainly Cave Swallows. Several dozen others turned up in the next week and a half, and on November 20 one was found dead in Lakewood, providing the first Ohio specimen and confirming that it was Petrochelidon fulva subspecies pelodoma, the subspecies that occurs in the southwestern U.S. All of the vagrant eastern Cave Swallows that have been found dead or photographed well enough to tell have proven to be this subspecies.
We've had at least a few Cave Swallows along Lake Erie in November every year since. Is this a new pattern of dispersal, or did birders just start to notice them? I vote strongly for the former. The region of Lake Erie where our records come from is one of the most heavily covered areas of the state by birders, and has been for a long time. Unlikely that people just started to notice Cave Swallows in 2005.
Our observations mirror the overall explosion of recent records in the east, too. The first eastern Cave Swallow record in the U.S. north of Florida dates to 1990 at Cape May, NJ. There have since been about three dozen occurrences of swallows there, and it is now regular and to be expected at Cape May in November. Since then, increased numbers have been reported throught the eastern Great Lakes. This November, I know of the following records:
November 8 - Quebec, 2; Wisconsin, 2; Delaware, 3; Pt. Pelee, Ontario, 8; Connecticut, 10
November 9 - Ohio, 7; New Jersey, 5; Ontario, 6; New York, 1; New Hampshire, 1; Wisconsin, 1
November 10 - Ohio, 1; Ontario, 1; Connecticut, 2; Indiana, 3
The overall Cave Swallow population in the southwest is booming, so there are far more birds to wander. This species first turned up as a nester in Texas in 1914, and was found breeding in New Mexico in 1930. For some time, they only were known to breed in a handful of caves, such as at Carlsbad Caverns. In about the last twenty years, they have learned to use culverts and bridges as nesting sites, and thus greatly expanded their sitable breeding locales. It will be interesting to watch the spread of Cave Swallows over future years, and see how far north and east the breeding range creeps.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Snow Buntings and seed dispersal

I've been spending a fair bit of time up at The Lake of late, and have been fortunate to have good opportunities to study Snow Buntings on each excursion. "The lake" is Lake Erie, of course, Ohio's north coast, where some of the best birding in the Midwest can be found.

Flock of Snow Buntings foraging in a weedy gravel parking lot, Conneaut Harbor, yesterday. In spite of bold white plumage markings, they quickly blend well with their surroundings upon alighting in a habitat like this. It'd be quite easy to pass by and not notice them. The buntings are foraging on various weed seeds here, rapidly stripping fruit from the plants and bolting it down. Right little gluttons, they are.

Closer view. Winter-plumaged Snow Buntings are quite handsome in an understated way. Rusty-brown mixes with creamy-white to create an effect unique among our birds.

John Pogacnik went me this photo, which he took in Lake County a few days back. This Snow Bunting is standing smack in the midst of one of Ohio's rarest plants, Least Spikerush, Eleocharis parvula. Not only that, but it is wolfing the plants down - stem, roots, seeds, and all! Very cool observation and photo by John, and documents something I've long been interested in, which is the role of birds in seed dispersal.

If you are a plant, you want to migrate just like a bird. By getting themselves to new sites and establishing new populations, plants help to ensure their survival and success. But they have no wings to get places, so all manner of strategies are used. Some seeds float and boat themselves to new sites. Others are windborn and drift to farfung locales. Sometimes roots and seeds stick to mammals and thus are spread.

Or they are eaten by birds, make the perilous journey through a digestive tract - not all survive - and are expelled in new sites. Over the long haul, which is how we should think about conservation, nature, and ecology, birds undoubtedly play a huge role in determining how many plants got to where they are.

In the case of the Least Spikerush, its seeds are hard bony achenes. They are probably able to weather the ride through a Snow Bunting's digestive tract well, and it is possible that the bunting that John saw will transport some plants to a new site, resulting in establishment of a new colony of this rare and local sedge.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fall Field Cricket video

Big and glossy black, Fall Field Crickets, Gryllus pennsylvanicus, emit the classic chirp, chirp, chirp, that many people associate with crickets. In general, this may be the most recognized North American insect sound.

But how do they do it? I shot the video below last weekend, and you can clearly see the male cricket doing his thing. He tents his wings up over his back, and rapidly rubs them together in a process known as stridulation. The result is the pleasing chirps that we all are familiar with.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Spark Bird

Bird Watcher's Digest recently asked me to write a short story about my "spark bird". For those unfamiliar with this odd-sounding term, it refers to a species that sparked a person's passion for birds and birding. For many of us, the spark bird was profound and a true event. Perhaps a flashy male American Redstart, garbed in the colors of Halloween, bursting out at eye level at an unsuspecting and unaware non-birder. Roger Tory Peterson's sparker was a Northern Flicker - good choice, Rog. If you are a birder, you probably have your own tale.

My story, and a few others with more to come, can be found on these pages. But just scroll down and you can read about my spark bird right here.

Great Blue Heron, image courtesy Marty Sedluk.

I don't know that I had an epiphany that suddenly ignited an interest in birds. Something in me is hardwired to be smitten with nature, and birds were my first source of fascination. This passion for all things feathered was already imbedded in my psyche by the time I was in early elementary school, maybe 7 or 8 years old.

The closest recollection I have to a "spark bird" involves nothing outrageous, and everyone reading this has seen scads of the first species that probably truly inflamed my imagination as a youth.

In those fantastic boyhood days, when everything was an enormous mystery and adventures lurked around every corner, my favorite place was the Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio. We lived a block away from this strange world of jungle-like forests buffering a winding ribbon of clear water filled with fishes, turtles, and snakes. Many other interesting animals dwelt along the Olentangy, but it was the birds that really caught my curious pre-adolescent eye, and drew me back to the river time and again.

A kindred spirit and best buddy, Jeff Held, and I lived for our Olentangy River safaris. We'd dart off to the river at every opportunity, like callow Indiana Joneses. Our moms would have gone into conniptions if they had known our modus operandi for river exploration. Jeff and I would find the most buoyant, seaworthy log we could, toss it into the current, hop on and head downstream: modern-day Jim and Huck Finn. Oops-my mother will probably read this. Hopefully the statute of limitations on inappropriate pre-teen behavior has expired.

And our favorite bird-the one that always drew our oohs and aahs and was first on our list of big game trophies? The great blue heron. To us, coming upon one of these impressive beasts was like discovering a living, breathing pterodactyl. We'd round a bend on our trustworthy log, in a place as wild as the Amazonian jungle in our minds, and suddenly: GRAAAAK! Flushed from the riverbank, one of these gargantuan fish-spearers would launch itself into the air with cumbersome rows of those massive wings, uttering god-awful, frightening croaks.

We were impressed. And back for more we'd go. Jeff and I never tired of looking for those herons. To us, they epitomized the majesty and mysteriousness of a natural world we were only discovering, and to me, helped permanently cement a deep love for birds and an unquenchable thirst for learning more about them.

In the years since those early days of adventure, I've seen countless thousands of great blue herons. I still look at each one, probably a little more closely than I do other species, even those of considerably more glamour. The herons' gangly long legs, sword-like bill, inscrutable reptilian stare and overall dinosaur aura, and horrifying sound effects made an unshakable impression in my formative mind. Plus, those great blues stood nearly as tall as this cow-licked, freckle-faced fourth-grader! How could I not have been amazed?

Jeff's gone now, lost at a tragically young age. His memory, and thoughts of our Huck Finn days, nearly always flits through my mind when I cross the path of a great blue heron. In a way that only I'll understand, this magnificent heron piqued not only my interest in birds, but always will be a living tribute to the memory of one of my best friends.

Thanks in part to the great blue heron, I began a lifelong love affair with nature. Initially, I wanted to know all of the names of the birds I saw. Then came an insatiable desire to seek out those I hadn't yet seen. After that, I wanted to learn more about each species, just as friends want to get to know each other. After a while, I began to wonder what kind of plants my birds were perching in. Eventually, I became a botanist and just as smitten with flora as birds. Now, there is nothing in the natural world that won't captivate me, at least briefly, and I only wish I had a bigger brain so I could learn more about it all.

Thank you, oh great squawking fish-spearers.

I was sixteen in 1978 when the inaugural issue of Bird Watcher's Digest came out, with artwork of eastern screech-owls adorning the cover. I still have that issue, and BWD was and is a big part of my enjoyment of birds. As a youth I devoured the words within, as I still do. It almost seems surreal that now my own words appear here, and I couldn't be more honored.
Happy 30th, BWD!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Brewer's Blackbird

This stunning image of a rather rare blackbird, for us Ohioans, comes courtesy of Aaron Boone, who snapped this photo on November 1 in Champaign County. When seen like this, the iridiscent silky tones of the plumage are apparent and one can see why Brewer's Blackbird has sometimes been dubbed the "Satin Bird" or "Glossy Blackbird". Thanks to Aaron for sharing this photo with us.

The range of Brewer's Blackbird, map courtesy Birds of North America online. Look how close it comes to Ohio as a breeder in Michigan. There as yet is no Ohio breeding record, but I think that this species could well be found nesting here. Extreme northwest Ohio is the place to look, and Williams County would probably be the numero uno hotspot. I think next year it is time to organize a "block-busting" weekend in Williams County and finally pin this species down. We'd find lots of other interesting species as well.

Below is a piece I wrote about possible new additions to the Ohio breeding bird roster, published in the inaugural edition of the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II newsletter. I hope that the prediction comes true!

Brewer’s Blackbird. It is almost surprising that this species has not been documented nesting in Ohio yet. Brewer’s Blackbird would be easy to overlook, as possible nestings would be in a region that isn’t heavily birded, and it would certainly be possible to dismiss them as other more common blackbirds like Common Grackle without a careful look. They would also likely occur in towns, parks, farms or other well-settled and relatively uninteresting areas that could easily be ignored by birders.
Brewer’s Blackbirds began an eastward expansion around the 1920’s, and have colonized as far east as southern Michigan and eastern Ontario, Canada. This species has an interesting relationship with Common Grackles where the two come into contact. There is competition between the two species, and in some areas grackles dominate and apparently exclude Brewer’s Blackbirds in suburban sites. In less populous open field and brushland habitats, Brewer’s have dominated. Brewer’s has bred within fifty miles of Ohio in Michigan, and Fulton and Williams counties would be key areas in which to search. Look for them at places like Lake La Su An Wildlife Area in Williams County, the Maumee State Forest in Fulton, Henry, and Lucas counties, and in or around small towns in this region.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Paulding County

Last night, Doug & Micki Dunakin, elite Paulding County birders, posted a note to the Ohio Birds listserv about a Barnacle Goose that they had found on their home turf yesterday. I was up there bright and early today to look. Last spring, I began some correspondence with some folks who have been taking a hard look at North American Barnacle Goose records. They have subjected some feather samples of vagrants/escapees to stable isotope analysis, and the results indicated that the birds came from the far north - well beyond where one would reasonably expect escapees to originate from.

But more on this later. It is a blog in itself. And no such luck today, the Barnacle Goose was not to be found. Hopefully it will reappear.

Paulding County and some of its neighbors, such as Van Wert County, are often trivialized if not dismissed outright when it comes to good birding locations. These counties are generally flat as a pancake and seemingly 99% agriculture.

But there are oases amongst the beans, corn, and wheat. I actually had a really good day of birding, and you can read a brief synopsis here.

Following are a few photos from today, showing that Winter's wrath is not yet upon us. And believe me, when it is, Paulding County is a tough place to be.

Here's one of those hidden corners, filled with beauty, and by looking at this photo, you might not guess where it was taken. This is a bend in Flat Rock Creek, still shimmering with the colorful hues of ash and maple. A true oasis in a landscape of monotones.

This is more typical of the Paulding County countryside. Acres and acres, miles and miles of agricultural sameness. And to think, this all used to be the Great Black Swamp - the last uncivilized Ohio landscape to be broken and tamed. Tame it they did.

It's been mild enough to allow some hardy flora to persist. This is Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, a common hay crop. It escapes to weedy places prolifically, and is much favored by Clouded and Orange Sulphur butterflies.

Speedy little devil, this one. I only managed this one shot, carefully sneaking up on the little striped beast, but off he sped, so quickly I couldn't even tell where he went. Looks like a yellowjacket, eh? That's the general idea, as most predators won't mess with those nasty stingers. Except, this is a fly known as Helophilus fasciatus, one of the wasp mimic flies. They're good - most people would likely be fooled, an more to the point, presumably so would potential meal-makers.

Fall Field Cricket, Gryllus pennsylvanicus, in full fiddle. I think they are getting desperate, what with shortening days and falling temperatures. I was able to get right up in their grills today, and photo them as they rubbed out their chirping melodies. This one is facing away, and is in the process of rubbing its wings together in a process called stridulation. When they do this, the wings are held aloft, over the body. Raspers and scrapers on each wing grate together, and in the case of this species, create a classic series of cricketlike chirps. I got some killer video; jusy have to figure out how to upload it to You Tube.

The day ended on a beautiful note, with one of the showiest sunsets that I've seen for a while. Note the band of Canada Geese flowing along through the sun. I stopped here to check their ranks, and found myself taking shot after shot of the closing of the day.