Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Waterfowl Symposium!

Walk, swim, fly, or waddle your way to the Grange Insurance Audubon Center this February. The Ohio Ornithological Society, partnering with Columbus Audubon, will present a Waterfowl Symposium, the weekend of February 26-28, 2010 at GIAC along the Whittier Peninsula in downtown Columbus. Through lectures and speakers, we’ll travel to the marshes of Iraq, visit the breeding grounds of the Arctic, fly above the stopover habitat of Lake Erie, and look inside nests to learn about the secret life of waterfowl. Just $80 for the entire weekend (Friday-Sunday) if you are a member of OOS or CA/GIAC.

The weekend swings into action Friday evening with a special performance by The Swinging Orangutangs featuring Julie Zickefoose and Bill Thompson III. The event is a special fundraiser for Nature Iraq. Question: will they play "Disco Duck"? Bring your dancing shoes, leave your hiking boots in the vehicle, and find out! We’ll serve beer, wine, and appetizers including a taste of the Middle East. Also, take a behind the scenes tour of the green-design, LEED-certified GIAC building while admiring the lights of downtown Columbus in the distance. Bring a friend or guest Friday night for just a $10 donation.

Saturday’s line-up includes a day of great speakers. We’re honored to present Dr. Azzam Alwash, the Chief Executive Officer of Nature Iraq, as our keynote speaker Saturday evening. Alwash, and NI’s efforts to restore the critical Iraqi wetlands and marshes drained by Saddam Hussein, were recently featured on CBS’s "60 Minutes". But folks in Ohio have long known about the good works of Dr. Alwash and efforts to restore Mesopotamian marshes deemed a Ramsar wetland site of international importance. As you may recall, CA’s Randy Rogers, while serving with the Ohio Army National Guard in Iraq, mobilized an armada of support for Iraqi environmentalists and ornithologists through his fundraising efforts on behalf of Nature Iraq. Randy also distinguished himself by providing crucial bird sightings from the Al Asad Air Base.

Two speakers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will join us. Jessie Barry, the Assistant Curator of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, will share "The Secret Life of Ducks" highlighting fascinating and unique waterfowl life history traits through photos, audio, and video of courtship displays. Learn more about evolutionary adaptations, intriguing natural history, and the role waterfowl play in wetland conservation. Also from Cornell, Mr. eBird himself, Chris Wood, will talk about the roles birdwatchers can play in tracking duck populations to ultimately better conserve species. Wood is the project leader for Cornell’s eBird database and a tour leader for the birdwatching tour company WINGS. GIAC also hosts a sculpture installation called "Lost Birds" by a Cornell professor of art: the display laments the extinct Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen through larger-than-life artistic versions.

Legendary birder, author, and duck stamp supporter Paul Baicich, will share the inside scoop on 75 years of Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, better known as Duck Stamps. More than $750 million dollars has been raised since 1934 in Duck Stamp sales supporting 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Other speakers include Dr. Gwen Myers, Associate Veterinarian from The Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, who will share her research on Spectacled Eiders. Keith Lott, Ohio Division of Wildlife, will reveal what’s currently being discovered about concentrations of migratory waterbirds via Lake Erie aerial surveys and how the information relates to future installation of wind turbines.

Sunday morning, we’ll travel independently to Central Ohio’s reservoirs, rivers, and ponds including Hoover Reservoir, Deer Creek Wildlife Area, Pickerington Ponds, Slate Run Metro Park, the immediate vicinity of GIAC (the Scioto-Audubon Metro Park and Green Lawn Cemetery), and more!

Details and registration are on the OOS website and on Columbus Audubon’s website. You have two options for registration: 1.) online through the Columbus Audubon website or, 2.) mail-in registration by check sent to OOS (PO Box 14051, Columbus, Ohio 43214).

Hope to see you there!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some winter oddities

It was a whirlwind weekend of Christmas Bird Counting. First, it was off to Portsmouth and the magnificent Shawnee State Forest to participate in the Portsmouth CBC along with some friends. That was Saturday; Sunday was the Cincinnati CBC were I was able to connect with a number of Cinci-area birders and help scrape up some decent stuff. Four Cackling Geese were nice finds on the latter count. These pint-sized geese are the Mini-Me's of the Canada Goose world; elfin in the extreme.

Shawnee produced some nice finds, too, not all of which had feathers. A few of those are below.

Foreboding terrain, a reverting few decade old clearcut is tangled with young saplings, down trees, and thorny greenbrier. Tough going for humanoids, but the favorite haunt for that most tasty of birds, the Ruffed Grouse. We had stopped along a forest road, and soon heard the whuf-whuf-whuf-whuf of a male grouse drumming. To me, they rather sound like a distant lawn mower firing up, but in a VERY deep pitch. One almost FEELS the grouse; the wing-induced thumps seem to resonate in the core of your being.

Our "singer" was on a distant slope, out of reach, but the gnarly tangles in the above photo looked too good to resist so I darted in to try and kick out some of the secretive partridge. Grouse, if you are unfamiliar with their wily ways, love to hide in places that would turn back a coon hound. And, speed is NOT of the essence if you wish to find them. Step lively and move in a straight line, and they're liable to just sit tight and you'll cruise right past. Walk slowly and erratically, with plenty of short stops, and they get nervous. Many times I've had birds whirl from nearby cover just as soon as I started walking again after a brief pause. Anyway, no luck finding any other than the drumming bird this day.

Not far off, sharp-eyed Jenny Richards put us on to a patch of a most unusual fern; only the second population that I've seen in Scioto County. There are three species of ferns in this picture, all still green as a fresh Christmas tree. In fact, one of them is the Cristmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, allegedly named because it is still green at yule time. Fronds may be seen in the foreground, by that log.

The emerald patch in the backdrop is Ground-pine, Lycopodium digitatum, a very primitive plant whose ancestors were trampled by dinosaurs. But it wasn't this common tripe that caught our eye...

It was this - the exotic Climbing Fern, Lygodium palmatum. A representative of a large tropical fern family, this species is the only one that makes it as far north as Ohio, and it is quite local here. As the specific epithet palmatum suggests, the leaves are hand-shaped, and they are tethered to spindly brownish stems that clamber up and over vegetation. A very handsome fern, and more people should attempt to grow it. If draped appropriately, it forms very lush, interesting cloaks of greenery. Should you have old refrigerators, abandoned jalopies, discarded toilets, or other sundry detritus laying around the yard, Climbing Fern might do well to mask it.

It goes without saying that the patch of lush greenery on the far side of that "crick" gave us pause, and we stopped for a look. It is the bamboo of the north; Cane, Arundinaria gigantea, a large colony-forming grass that is now an enigma north of the Ohio River. It is/was undoubtedly native along the Ohio River and immediate environs in southern Ohio, but no one can say with certainty that any of the known patches are there of their own accord. People plant the stuff, and it can persist for a long time.

But in and around Shawnee, there are colonies like the one above, far off the beaten path and in perfect habitat. My suspicion is that at least some of the boondock-dwelling Shawnee cane is wild, but hard and fast proof is lacking. This is the stuff that Swainson's Warblers use as nesting habitat in some areas.

Two incredibly common but highly important native plants share a common fencerow. Brown tufts of faded Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, drained of their chlorophyll, create texture by an old fence post festooned with Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans.

Many species of seed-eating birds make great use of goldenrods, and old fields thick with the stuff often have plenty of sparrows. American Tree Sparrows, down from the tundra, love to swing like little acrobats from goldenrod heads, piggishly plucking the abundant fruit.

The frugivorous set - berry-eating birds - absolutely love Poison Ivy berries. We had a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers on the Cincinnati count, and all were around berry-laden ivy vines. I watched these toughest of warblers plucking the fruit of the vine like nine year olds plopped down in an M & M bush.

What?! A quick glance at my car's thermometer showed a cool 42 degrees, and a double take confirmed that the squiggle on the country lane was indeed a Woolly-bear! A quick stop and out we jumped, to inspect this hardy larva, which was speeding to points unknown. Woolly-bears are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and they are well known for cool weather wanderings. But this was REALLY cool, and I wonder what the lowest temperature might be in which these plump setae-covered beasts can still achieve mobility.

Thanks to everyone, if you are reading, who took me along on the CBC's this weekend!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas counts

Rural Jackson County, December 19, 2009

Winter in Ohio, at least what it ought to look like. I snapped the above photo last weekend, while searching out birds on the Beaver Christmas Bird Count. Some of the narrow gravel roads were snow-covered and impassable, but all of the white stuff made for pretty scenery. Today, Christmas Day, it's all gone, having been melted away by a strong cold rain.

Maybe because I grew up in the north, where things do get chill and snowy, I've always liked winter and all it brings. And Christmas Bird Counts! I probably formally participated in my first around the age of 10 or 11, and have done 'em ever since. I'll probably do six this winter.

Along the way, one learns some things about ferreting out birds in the bleak of winter, when most neither sing nor eagerly reveal themselves. The photo above is of a grove of Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, its long persistent fruit clusters burnished with white tufts of fresh snow. One of our most secretive and under-reported winterers, the Hermit Thrush, absolutely loves sumac fruit and that's the habitat to seek them out. I found one in this very thicket, and two others elsewhere in the sumac.

Star of the show on last Sunday's Columbus Christmas Bird Count was this gorgeous female Merlin. We spotted her at Green Lawn Cemetery, which has played host to wintering Merlins for several years now. Perched atop the highest dead boughs of a massive Sycamore, she allowed for a close approach by our party. I got lucky and hit the shutter just as she splayed her tail and wings.

A very nice photo, courtesy of Bernie Master, who was part of our team. We also had four newer birders along; the Merlin was a life bird for all of them. One lady was a bit frustrated that the little falcon paid us absolutely no mind - I think she felt it should look at us or something.

But the massive bipeds fawning at the base of her tree represented neither threat nor food, so she didn't consider us worthy of even a sideways glance. Like the best pugilists, ala Ali and his pioneering trash talk, falcons are quite arrogant and this Merlin felt it was above us in every way.

Doesn't bother me a bit. In fact, if I were able to capture speedy shorebirds and darting juncoes on the wing, I'd be arrogant too. I was just glad that a Merlin graced us with its presence for a bit, and that four new people were along to fall under its spell.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in U.S.!

Ohio's own Rick Nirschl, along with Rick Snider, found the most exciting bird in the U.S. right now - a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Tigrisoma mexicanum. Rick & Rick found the bird yesterday, in the legendary Bentsen State Park in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, a locale in which many a tropical rarity has been found.

Adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, photo by Rick Snider. This is the first United States record. The multisyllabically monikered, heavily hyphenated heron ranges from northern Mexico all the way south through Central America and into northern South America.
Rick Nirschl's shot of the bird flying away. Let's hope, for the sake of all the rabid listers, not for good. Last I heard, no one had relocated it.

Here's an immature Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that I took in Costa Rica earlier this year. They are very cool birds, and it's hard to imagine what a thrill stumbling into one in Texas, north of the border, must have been.

Not only are they striped in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a tiger, they make sounds that might make one think a tiger was on the prowl. They'll sit in trees, and deliver spooky-sounding low guttural roars that would certainly give pause to someone that didn't know what they were hearing.

Major congratulations are in order to Rick and Rick. Mr. Nirschl, who is past president of the Toledo Naturalists' Association and makes his home in Toledo when not in south Texas, is one of the finest field naturalists that I've met. This is the guy who found Ohio's first state record of Striped Saddlebags, Tramia calverti (dragonfly), among many other wonderful discoveries. This tiger-heron will be hard to top though, even for Rick!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dragonflies at sea

Wandering Glider, Pantala flavescens, image courtesy of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

The Wandering Glider, perhaps better dubbed the "Globe Skimmer", is a common species here in Ohio. And many other places throughout the world.

Somewhat lackluster in the looks department, at least when compared to their more colorful brethren, this species may be the most fascinating of the lot. Capable of lightning speed reproduction - egg to flying adult in a scant few months - gliders are aerialists supreme. Bolstered by proportionately enormous wings, they are capable of incredible journeys, and are highly migratory.

Up until recently, it was presumed that the Monarch butterfly engaged in the longest migration of any insect.


Check out this fascinating video of a presentation given by biologist Charles Anderson, who ferreted out the mystery of masses of Wandering Gliders appearing each year in the Maldives islands, well out in the Indian Ocean and far from any possible breeding grounds. CLICK HERE for the video link.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Return of the yellow cardinal

Last January, Tom Ruggles of Zanesville sent photos of a very interesting Northern Cardinal. A jaw-dropper, actually. I posted photos of the bird HERE, along with an explanation of why the bird would be yellow rather than its normal coat of crimson.

Well, Tom's odd bird has returned, and he just sent along these photos. This "yellowbird" would certainly catch one's eye!

While on hiatus wherever it is that yellow cardinals from Muskingum County go, the bird seems to have become even yellower. This is a very cool effect! I'm thinking we should dye more cardinals this color.

The yellowish coloration apparently results from an imbalance of carotenoids, a condition known as xanthochroism. Apparently more normally dominant pigments are suppressed, allowing less dominant pigments to shine through.

As birds uptake carotenoids through food that they eat, it may be that fruit - probably from some non-native shrub - has caused the shift in this cardinal's coloration.

Prong-billed Barbet, Bosque de Paz Reserve, Costa Rica.
When Tom sent the photos this time, and I looked at that last photo posted above of the cardinal, I was instantly remined of another bird, the Prong-billed Barbet, Semnornis frantzii, which has a rather limited range in Costa Rica and western Panama. The barbet, like cardinals in the winter, also eats lots of fruit, and its greenish-yellow tints match Tom's yellow cardinal rather well.

Thanks for sharing the photos, Tom, and I'm glad your bird has returned once again!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More hummers - from far, far away!

My recent post on Allen's Hummingbird - Ohio's first record - prompted an e-mail from my cousin Paul, who lives many miles away. Four thousand and thirty two miles, to be exact. That's twenty one million, two hundred and eighty eight thousand, and nine hundred and sixty feet. A long way by any reckoning, and Paul dwells in a land of sometimes midnight sun, offset by short dark winter days high in snow. The Aurora Borealis dazzles with an unbelievable laser light show, and there are far fewer people where he lives.

They've got Sarah Palin up there, should you need a blatant hint about where it is of which we speak. And Paul, my cousin, who leads an interesting life. And likes birds, as we shall see.

Paul Rupple, standing near Seward, Alaska. He's a long way from the cornfields of Ashland County, Ohio, and has been up in the Great White North for a long time. I become envious whenver I see pictures of Paul/Alaska. My first big independent travel adventure was the summer after graduating high school, when a buddy and I drove a '66 Volkswagon Bug from Columbus, Ohio to Alaska.

Fantastic, unforgettable expedition, and I've wanted to go back ever since. Alaska is true wilderness, and full of wildlife. Our VW broke down - for good! - on the way back, in a place called Haines Junction in Canada's Yukon Territory. We peddled it to some guy from White Horse for $200. Ah, the memories...

Anyway, back to Paul. This is an interesting guy. Here he is on his sail boat, which he often navigates solo along Alaska's coast. Not only is he quite the skipper, he is a professional airline pilot who flies big jets packed with cargo all over the world, for Fed Ex. He's also a sled dog afficionado, and has had scores of the beasts.

And Paul likes birds.

Apparently, he's become a good photographer, too. Paul shares these photos of Rufous Hummingbirds visiting his feeders - in Alaska! The Rufous Hummingbird is one tough beast, and nests all the way up into our 49th state. In fact, they are common in SE Alaska.

Fantastic flight shot of an aerial immature male Rufous eyeing the sugar water. I think it's cool that our only state with polar bears also hosts hummingbirds. An adult male polar bear can weigh 1,500 pounds. An adult male Rufous Hummingbird might weigh 3 grams. Thus, it would take 227,000 of the hummers to balance the scales with one bear. Quite a discrepancy between these two Alaskan animals.

It's claimed that there are some 5 million Rufous Hummingbirds. That means that all of them together weigh as much as only 20 adult male polar bears. There. For whatever good that was.

It's probably a good thing that the hummers aren't 8-9 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds. They would then most likely be the world's most dangerous animal.

Anyway, I thank Paul for checking in with the hummingbird photos, and other great shots from Alaska. And I hope he has me up to visit some time!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Props to Ned Keller!

Ned Keller, in a rare state of repose with three furry friends. The animals appear to be looking to Ned for guidance, as so many of us bipeds do.

A Big Congratulations are in order for Ned, who is the 2009 recipient of the Stewart Welsh Conservation Award. This honor is bestowed by the Hamilton County (Ohio) Park District, and goes to individuals who have made a profound difference in environmental protection in southwest Ohio. 2009 marks only the second year that the award has been given, and it is fitting that Ned would be one of its first recipients. Stewart Welsh was a longtime advocate for the environment and was instrumental in establishing the park district's land management program, ultimately helping to make Hamilton County Parks one of the finest park systems in Ohio.

Ned, an attorney by trade, touches lots of people in Ohio, whether they know it or not. Our Ohio Birds listserv, which carries thousands of posts annually and is one of the largest in the country, is aptly managed by Ned and has been for a long time. That's why it is so problem-free, and the listserv has evolved into an indispensable tool for Ohio birders to quickly share their sightings.

He is also secretary of the Ohio Bird Records Committee, a challenging task if there ever were one. Ned was also on board from Day One with the still relatively new Ohio Ornithological Society, serving on its board and helping in many ways. His guidance was, and is, vital to the organization.

Ned is also active in lots of ways in the Cincinnati area, helping to spearhead the massive Cinci Christmas Bird Count, oversee the wonderful Birding in Cincinnati website, help with the local Ohio Young Birders Club, and undoubtedly far more other things of which I've got no idea.

You get the point. This is a guy who volunteers a LOT of his time to help others. And in top of everything, he is just a great guy who is enthusiastic about birds and nature in general. Too bad he can't be cloned.

Congratulations, Ned!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Allen's Hummingbird - Ohio's first!

The Ohio birding news is now dominated by a tiny 3 gram feathered dynamo known as an Allen's Hummingbird. And with good reason: this is the first documented record of this westerner for the state.

Coincidentally, Pennsylvania's first Allen's Hummingbird record came almost simultaneously, when in a remarkably similar situation to the one described here, Scott Wiedensaul banded and documented one at a Keystone State feeder.

Pastoral Holmes County countryside makes for scenic drives. That's a horse and buggy way down the road - a common conveyance in these parts.

State firsts really get the listers apoplectic with twitcher's disease, and I must confess to suffering from the affliction. When I hear about a bird in Ohio that I've not seen in the state, a restless discontent settles in that is only cured by the chase. For me, it's only this way with my home state list. I generally have no yen to chase New Jersey Ivory Gulls or East Coast Pink-footed Geese - most of these birds I've seen somewhere, or will someday, and it isn't that important where I see them. In fact, to me it's generally more rewarding to see and watch a species on its home turf, where it ought to be.

But, perhaps because I've birding the Buckeye State for so long, my resident list is a big one and the urge to add to it is irresistable. Yesterday's expedition was successful, and the Allen's Hummingbird provided me with my 361st notch on my Ohio list.

A major bonus of this chase was the bird's location - Holmes County. Located in the rolling hills of northeast Ohio, this county has produced an inordinate number of spectacular birds: Green Violet-ear, Violet-green Swallow, Long-billed Curlew, Swallow-tailed Kite, and many more. This plethora of exceptional records is in large part due to the exceptional concentration of stellar birders, many of which are Amish.

The region is also much more bird-friendly than the agriculture-intensive flatlands of the glaciated till plains, where mega-farms have nearly eliminated most habitat in many areas. The photo above shows neat rows of shocked corn, baled Amish style.

Ground zero for our target, the home of Mae Miller, who has graciously welcomed the birding community. A great many visitors have come to view the feathered wonder, and now that it's identification has been confirmed, there'll be a great many more. Look closely and you'll see a throng of admirers in that treeline beyond the silver Toyota Prius.

In a remarkable spot of good luck, Ms. Miller's house and the hummingbird fall within the bounds of a Christmas Bird Count. Should the bird linger for another week or so, they'll be able to tick off a humdinger of a count bird.

One of the more heavily scrutinized backyards in the state. The feeder hangs near that projecting back porch. Our subject has apparently been frequenting this site since late September, and up until a few days ago, was presumed to be a Rufous Hummingbird.

Hummingbirds can be astonishingly hardy, and here's some evidence. There's the feeder in the upper right hand corner, and a thermometer below. When I took the photo, around 9:30 am, it was reading in the low 20's. My car's thermometer read 14 degrees in the lower valleys nearby as I traveled to the spot. As long as these tiny birds can find adequate food, they can survive such temperatures, at least for a while.

Finally - here it is, the state record Allen's Hummingbird on his feeder. You'd not be able to prove that's what it is from this photo, though. We could see the bird far better through our optics, but even then it is difficult if not impossible to be certain of its identity.

Allen's Hummingbird is in the genus Selasphorus, along with the very similar Rufous Hummingbird, of which Ohio gets several a year on average. While adult males are fairly straightforward, females and immature birds are far trickier to tell apart.

Here's a short video of the bird sipping sugar water, then darting off through the frigid air. I didn't have to wait long to see it - I actually spotted the bird flying to the feeder as I walked up to the site. It makes regular and fairly frequent visits, and I don't think anyone who has come has missed seeing it.

This is a MUCH better photo, courtesy of Allen Chartier. Allen is one of the area's few licensed hummingbird banders, and he has made numerous trips to Ohio from his home state of Michigan to band Ohio hummers. Allen's work has been invaluable in verifying the identity of our vagrant hummingbirds, including this one.

Unfortunately, a bit of misinformation about this bird made its way onto our Ohio Birds listserv, and hopefully it hasn't deterred interested birders from seeing this hummingbird if they were so inclined. Anyway, Allen took the time to post accurate info about our specimen, and I quote him below:

"Ohio Birders,

Please let me clarify things before the wild speculation gets even wilder.
Interpreting the use of the word "probable" in the email announcing the presence of this bird is erroneous (my preference would have been "highly likely"). In-hand, Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds can be identified more than 99% of the time using a combination of plumage characters, feather shapes, and measurements.

I have banded nearly 60 Rufous Hummingbirds in three states, but have never banded an Allen's though I have worked with them in Louisiana with another bander. This individual has only 8 tail feathers instead of the usual 10. And although it is an immature bird, 7 of the 10 tail feathers are adult-type. The measured widths of both outer tail feathers (one is adult, one is immature) are both diagnosticly narrow (up to 1/2 mm narrower than a Rufous should be) for Allen's Hummingbird. This is probably sufficient for the bird to be accepted by the state records committee, though I don't want to pre-judge that.

My caution in being "only" 99% certain of the ID when I left the home was based on this being a first state record, and the fact that I wasn't positive which two feathers were missing. I was simply being cautious until I made the 200+ mile drive home to be able to check more references and look at my photos of the bird more closely to verify some of my suspicions about these missing tail feathers. I like to be thorough before claiming a first state record. All the tail feathers of this bird are very pointed, and the outer three are very narrow.

With good views of the spread tail, it is reasonable to say that it could be identified in the field with perhaps 80-90% confidence (depending on how experienced you are with these birds).

So, the bottom line is that it would be nearly impossible to make a case that this is a Rufous Hummingbird, based on the measurements. Please do not put off going to see this bird based simply on the use of the word "probable" and subsequent misinterpretations of it. The homeowner is very gracious and willing, and the bird should be cooperative, but who knows for how long."

A view of the tail of the Holmes County Allen's Hummingbird, showing the characteristic very narrow outer tail feathers, or rectrices. For this kind of view, one must have the bird in hand. Capturing and banding hummers normally does not faze them in the slightest. The whole operation can be done in ten minutes or so, allowing the bander to collect weight, measurements, and other diagnostic information, and place a truly tiny silver band on one of its legs. The hummingbird will often be back at the feeder minutes later.

For comparison, here is the tail of a Rufous Hummingbird, courtesy of Bill Hilton's excellent blog, This Week at Hilton Pond. This species has, on a comparative scale, much broader outer tail feathers.

Ohio now has several dozen records of Rufous Hummingbird. It's a western species with a broad distribution - our only hummingbird that breeds in Alaska.

The Allen's Hummingbird has a much smaller range, and consequently there are a lot less of them. This is undoubtedly one factor as to why there are FAR fewer records in the east than there are of Rufous Hummingbird.

The increasing numbers of vagrant hummingbirds in the eastern U.S. is a fascinating phenomenon, and there are probably some good reasons for it. But that's another post.

Thanks to Mae Miller for her hospitality and good stewardship of the bird, and to Allen Chartier for his tireless efforts to learn more about hummingbirds, and in particular for his work on this bird.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Word of the day: Seiche

Waves batter the Lake Erie shoreline. Ohio's north coast is an inland sea - Erie is the 4th largest of the Great Lakes in surface area. And it is the shallowest, with an average depth of just 62 feet.

Because of its shallowness, Lake Erie is prone to vicious wave action generated by storms pushed along by high winds. Conditions on the lake can go from placid to savage in the blink of an eye, making it one of the world's most dangerous water bodies. Many a ship has been unwillingly moored in Davey Jones' locker, on the floor of the lake. Indeed, one of the highest densities of shipwrecks anywhere on the globe rest on Erie's bottom.

Stretching 241 miles from stem to stern, Lake Erie is bookended by the port cities of Toledo, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York.

As anyone residing in these parts knows, we've had some roof-shaking, limb-cracking, umbrella-obliterating high winds the past few days. This front roared out of the west, and barreled down the center of Erie.

And this created an exceptional example of a fascinating hydrological phenomenon known as a seiche. Inhabitants of the lake are fully aware of seiches, whether or not they know them by name, but many non-lake people are surprised to learn about seiches.

Basically, a seiche is a wind-driven massive shift of water - high prolonged winds push Erie's water from one end to the other, causing water to pile up at a higher depth on the downwind side. It's as if you took a bowl of water, and blasted your hair dryer into the bowl from the side. As long as you kept the air flowing, water would stay higher on the far side of the bowl.

Yesterday's gales produced one humdinger of a seiche on Lake Erie. The chart above, from yesterday, shows the sudden drop in water level at Toledo.

Well, all of the water - Lake Erie holds some 116 cubic miles of the stuff! - has to go somewhere. And that would be Buffalo, at the eastern end. Soon after Toledo lost ELEVEN feet of water, Buffalo's water level spiked by 11 feet. That's a Seiche Royale!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Things that lurk in the basement

Spiderlings hatch from eggs.

Each one has eight tiny legs.

A spider has more eyes than you. Most have eight, and you have two.

A spider has two body parts. Across its web it quickly darts.

From a spider's spinnerets, sticky spider silk jets.

Spiders feel the frantic tugs, Of their favorite food; it's bugs!

Janet Bruno

Ah, the shady recesses of a corner of my basement. And a very cool spider web. To the average Joe or Joette, this would be an undesirable cobweb to be swept away.

Not me. I like spiders. And, within reason will keep them around. Why not? Look at it like this: most of these house spiders are going to stay in their webs, and their webs are pretty obvious. So, you know where the spider is.

But not so with all the little critters they are capturing and purging from the house on your behalf. All manner of tiny invertebrates hole up in nooks and crannies during the day, and emerge at night to explore your home. But they'll explore no more, once they bumble into the spider's lair.

I bet you've got one of the above webs, or at least have had one. It is the handiwork of the House Funnel Weaver, Tegenaria domestica, a frequently encountered species. The webs are typically hammocked in a corner like the one above, and they can last a long time. The spider will add to it daily, until the sheet web becomes a thick, silky blanket. The red arrow points to its funnel - the den in which the spider hides and awaits victims.

Closer view of the funnel, which is built into the corner of the web. She is in there, just out of sight. Drop a small cricket onto the web, if you've got one, and you'll see her pretty quick, though. House Funnel Spiders use the surface tension of the web to feel prey. When something jostles the silk, out rushes the spider and quickly dispatches the prey and makes a meal of it. Chances are, whatever it captures is something that you don't want in your house, either.

Terrible choice, eh? You keep the spider - hard to knowingly do, especially for an arachnophobe - and reap the benefits of a cost-free predator ridding your abode of undesirable little beasts that scuttle in the night. The tradeoff? You've got to have a pet spider.

Photo courtesy Dr. Richard Bradley
Mrs. Tegenaria emerges from her funnel. Fortunately for us, they are only a 1/4 inch or so long. Should the fits and spurts of evolution ever produce spiders that are the size of Canada Lynx, whatever humanoids scrabble about the globe at that time shall be in serious peril.

Before you brush that next "cobweb" into oblivion, first pause to think about the engineering marvel that you are laying waste to. Spider webs may represent the pinnacle in small animal engineering. Ornate and incredible in design, webs are designed to effectively snare prey in many ways, depending on the species. Some spiders can produce over a half dozen types of silk - some strands thicker, some thinner, some very glutinous, other silks non-sticky, etc.

Some webs catch flying critters. Others specialize in grabbing ground and wall-crawlers, like our blog subject. Some species use specialized silken strands to knock bugs from the air and into a primary web. One species actually swings a silk rope like a lasso and snatches moths from the air!
Photo courtesy Dr. Richard Bradley
The last thing an earwig will see on this planet - the visage of a pouncing House Funnel Spider!

For some reason, certain animals spook us to an inordinate degree. Spiders most definitely do. But as is the case with most things, familiarity breeds appreciation. Spiders are interesting, and worthy of a closer look.

To learn more about Ohio's spiders, and even help contribute to our knowledge of them, visit the home of the Ohio Spider Survey.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wonder what the kids'll look like?

The following photos are the work of German photographer Tanja Askani, and as might be expected, they're rapidly migrating around the globe courtesy the World Wide Web.

Wild animals sometimes form odd pair bonds, and this one ranks high among strange couplings. But a deer and a rabbit?! What would the offspring be? A "deerbit"?

You can read a bit more about this odd couple here; one of the comments explains the situation more fully, including how deer and rabbit met.