Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cranberry Glades

Today was my day to co-lead a trip up to the West Virginia high country, and Cranberry Glades. This spot within the sprawling Monongahela National Forest is one of the coolest places in the eastern United States, and is lush with diversity. It's nearly 4,000 feet up here, and these mountain crests are often dipped in cloud, as they were today. But constant moisture and cool temperatures makes the world work here, and creates the conditions for a fantastic assemblage of flora and all of the animals that go with it.
Like bonsai gone mad, twisted, gnarled Red Spruce dot the landscape. It is a birder's paradise, and boreal species that one normally would have to go much further north to see can be found here.

A territorial Dark-eyed Junco keeps watch on our group. Other northern breeders include Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Canada Warbler, and many more.

Perpetually cool, waterlogged peaty soil spawn all manner of fascinating flora. Botanists got crazy at Cranberry Glades, and even the floristically unitiated will find the plants interesting. False Hellebore, Veratrum viride, dominates this shot, and some Marsh Blue Violets, Viola cucullata, thrust forth at the bottom of the photo.

A gorgeous treelet, the Mountain Juneberry, Amelanchier bartramiana, was in full bloom in the shrubby thickets. This was a "life plant" for most of our crowd. It is known from only three West Virginia counties, and they are the furthest south populations of this plant.

Mist, a constant companion of the numerous Black Bears that roam this area, shrouds the edges of the vast cranberry meadow.

The area namesake, Large Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, still holding some berries not yet found by bears or other hungry animals. It is common, as is a similar species, Small Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos.

We were pleased to see the rare - at this latitude - Bog-rosemary, Andromeda glaucophylla, nearing full bloom. A member of the heath family (Ericaceae), it and it's fellow heaths, such as the cranberries, dominate the acidic sphagnous substrate of the open meadow.

The tiny urceolate, or urn-shaped, flowers of Bog-rosemary are suffused with pale pink and are indescribably showy upon close inspection, and we took a moment to inspect one closely.

In spite of the mistand clouds, we had a fantastic day high in the West Virginia mountains.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mountain Birding

The New River, West Virginia, as seen from the high bluffs of Hawk's Nest State Park. Paul Shaw and I led a trip in this area today, and had some absolutely fantastic birding. We had about 70 species, and were only in forested habitats.

The day started before the crack of dawn, and as I was driving up to the meeting place, I saw this gorgeous Luna moth. He - it is a male; note the large fern-like antennae - was probably only a day or two old and as fresh as you'll ever see one.

Our group, birding the Sugar Creek mountain. A picture-perfect day down here, and the birds were insane.

Worm-eating Warbler trilling his heart out. We had perhaps a dozen today.

Female Black-and-white Warbler, gathering nesting material. We found her nest, way up the slope, and were able to watch her work on it through the scope. This species nests on the ground, in a leafy cave-like structure.

Rather poor digiscope of a Yellow-throated Vireo building its nest. We had plenty of these, as well as Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos.

Male Black-throated Green Warbler. We did well on warblers today, including some mind-blowing views of Cerulean Warblers.

Some plants were looked at, too. This is a Red Trillium, Trillium erectum. We found a hillside with many, and lots of other wildflowers, too.

A great day, and I especially look forward to my trip to Cranberry Glades on Thursday.

Monday, April 27, 2009

West Virginia!

I'm down in what's probably my favorite place in eastern North America: Fayette County, West Virginia. This area is most famous for the New and Gauley Rivers, where rafters can experience some of the roughest whitewater to be found.

But the New River gorge and vicinity also supports some of the richest biodiversity in North America, and late April and early May are unbeatable here. I'm here for the New River Birding Festival, and the people in the above photo - from this morning - are ecstatic about an up close and personal experience with a Northern Parula.

We have a ton of fun at this event, and I'll stick up some more photos as the week progresses. If you've not been down here, and like birds and nature, put the New River Birding Festival on next year's calendar.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Western Meadowlark

While in billiard table flat Wood County recently, I got the opportunity to drop by and check out a cooperative territorial Western Meadowlark. Not long ago, I blogged about Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels and shared maps of that species and a few others. The squirrels and the others that I mentioned are examples of western prairie species that expanded eastward, probably during the hot, dry Xerothermic Period of approximately 5,000 years ago.

The Western Meadowlark belongs to that list of long ago prairie immigrants. This beautiful blackbird is quite rare in Ohio, with only a few reported each year. This is about as far east as they make it, too. Go west, and they become the common meadowlark once one reaches the Great Plains states.

Western Meadowlark gurgles his bubbly melody from a roadside wire amongst a sea of corn, beans, and wheat. Once, extensive prairies covered this part of Ohio, and that's the habitat this bird would have originally been associated with. Our original prairies were oceans of diversity, supporting incredibly rich plant life, scads of insects of all types, and all of the other animals that come with such ecological wonderlands.

In 1837, John Deere debuted his chisel plow, and all was quickly lost. Settlers soon discovered that once cut and furrowed, prairie turf grew some of the most robust crops in the world. Probably less than 1% of Ohio's original prairie remains, but prairie birds like this meadowlark still try and stake a claim where they can.

He sings! Although Western Meadowlarks are practically inseparable visually from our common Eastern Meadowlark for all practical purposes, their song is as different as night to day. Maybe it is because I am jaded, seeing as I hear Eastern Meadowlarks all of the time, but I find the Western's song richer and more pleasing to my ear.
It is amazing that early ornithologists ignored this one for so long. As early as 1805, Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame noted Western Meadowlarks on their journey west through the prairies, and knew they were something new. Others also recognized that this was a different beast from the Eastern Meadowlark, but it wasn't until 1844 that John James Audubon formally named it. In recognition of the bird's seemingly being snubbed by earlier explorers, Audubon named it Sturnella neglecta.

Sorry about the wind noise - this is the wide-open prairie, after all! - but in this vid the meadowlark issues some call notes. They, too, are vastly different than its eastern counterpart. Westerns often make a low Chuck call, and this curious whistled call. When heard at close range, as here, to me it sounds as if they are amplified through a cheap amplifier - the call is somewhat mechanical and surprisingly loud.
Fortunately, I think an increasing number of people are recognizing the folly of destroying so much of our former prairie. There have been some fairly large-scale restorations in recent years that have been very successful.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Golden-crowned Sparrow and Canada Plum

Golden-crowned Sparrow madness. If you are an active Ohio birder with any sort of penchant for listing, you’ve heard about our first state record Golden-crowned Sparrow. This western species was long overdue here, and our inaugural visitor has been in residence for about three weeks. The site is a very rural residence in Hancock County, and circumstances are not conducive to uncontrolled mobs descending on the place to sate their thirst for this yellow-capped beauty.

So, in a remarkable display of congeniality and cooperation, the homeowner opened the place up on Wednesday and Thursday so that all who wanted could come see the bird. And many dozens have, and nearly no one has been disappointed. I was there bright and early yesterday, and got to see the sparrow. Now, I am not much of a lister. But, insofar as my Ohio list goes, I am fairly rabid. The Golden-crowned Sparrow was #359 for me, just a tick shy of the magical 360, and I suspect only a few have eclipsed that milestone.

Got one ringer in reserve – my true Ohio nemesis bird, the Tricolored Heron. We get multiple birds annually, just have never chased one, or otherwise stumbled onto one. Got to keep something “easy” on tap, but I think I’ll go after the next tricolored that pops.

Circumstances didn’t allow for good photos, but here it is: Ohio’s first state record Golden-crowned Sparrow, which depending on your criteria and interpretation, is about the 420th species for Ohio.

A slightly better shot. Golden-crowned Sparrows normally occur in far western North America, breeding all of the way to northern Alaska. This individual is now molted into breeding plumage and looks magnificent. Thanks again to the homeowner for allowing us to descend and take in this bird.

In a remarkably fortuitous circumstance, I had had plans for many weeks to meet Pam Menchaca, who works for the Wood County Park District, on this day and only twenty minutes from the Golden-crowned Sparrow. She was going to show me some of their properties, and we were mostly looking for salamanders. But, while driving a rural Wood County road, I glanced over and noticed this treelet in full bloom.

Few plants are yet in bloom in northern Ohio, but this plant is one of them, and it was a great find and a “life plant” for me. It is Canada Plum, Prunus nigra, an endangered species in the state and only known for a few spots. Here we see the smooth bark broken up with lenticels, as is the case with many of the woody plums and cherries. This species also has blunt thorns armoring the twigs.

Without doubt, Canada Plum looks best in flower, and the blooms emerge prior to leafout. Brian Riley with the state Division of Forestry is the one who has found most if not all the other sites, all or nearly all of which are also in Wood County. I don't think this site is a population that Brian has already found, but it might be - he does get around.

A diagnostic character of Canada Plum is these bright blood-red calyces (cup subtending the flower), with smooth lobes fringed with glandular hairs. All of the blah blah blah botanical techno-speak aside, this is just a very good-looking plant, and I was glad to finally see it.

Not a bad day – new state record bird and a doozy at that, and a life plant which is a stunner to boot!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Darters

I've been wanting to swim a few more darter shots into the blogoshere since a successful fishing mission to Big Darby Creek on April 10. And what better day to float these than Earth Day? Although relatively few people will ever get to see a darter firsthand, these colorful little perch family members speak volumes about our water quality, and how well we've cared for our streams.

Capturing darters using the "kick-seine" method. Holding the seine in the fast-flowing riffles in which most darters occur is a challenge, and the effort is increased by the need to move upstream and shuffle the rocks about with one's feet. This spooks the bottom-dwelling darters into the net.

All goes well, and you're in a good spot, and this is the result - a net full of fish.

We quickly transport our captures to streamside aquariums, and drop them in. After the paparazzi do their thing, the fish are released unharmed back into the stream. This day was challenging, as leaden skies cast little light, and spit rain. Keeping all of the glass spot-free wasn't easy.

Beautiful Greenside Darter, Etheostoma blennioides. Rather shocking, these emerald-green beasts. Who'd a thunk such things would lurk below the surface of an Ohio stream?

A multi-colored Rainbow Darter, Etheostoma caeruleum, peeks from the cobble. This is one of the most colorful animals of ANY type in the Midwest. An underwater world Painted Bunting.

Rainbow Darters are often abundant, and probably in a stream near you. It's great that such wondrous fish are common, and let's keep them that way.

A lunker of the darter family, a Variegate Darter, Etheostoma variatum. A big one might tape out at three inches or so. There are other darters in the tank with him, which his aroused his ire. Makes for better photo ops, as the male's will raise their colorful dorsal fins, which are sort of like piscine war flags.

A hard beast to photograph well, the Spotted Darter, Etheostoma maculatum. This is a male, and in good light they show a multitude of bright orangish-red speckles on the side. This species is decidedly NOT common, and is listed as endangered in Ohio. It is also a candidate for federal listing, as Spotted Darters are not common anywhere. Big Darby hosts one of Ohio's few populations.

Spotted Darters are dimorphic; the males and females look different. This is a female, showing gorgeous round speckling on the fins. It was photographed by taking a white plate, and forcing the fish to the front of the aquarium. The effect is a bit stark, but offers a field guide-like view.
It's Earth Day. Please do something good for Mother Earth today. Go outside. Learn a new bird or plant. Join a group. Get involved. Our planet needs all the help it can get.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cedar Bog Open House

The Ohio Historical Society and Cedar Bog celebrated a huge milestone last Saturday. That day, the new interpretative center was officially dedicated. Having a modern, well-equipped center onsite has been a long-term goal of many Cedar Bog supporters, and people within the OHS such as Bob Glotzhober and former site manager Terry Jaworski worked very hard for very long to make this day and the building a reality.

The center will be a wonderful jumping off point for visitors. It is filled with informative displays and exhibits that help to interpret the complex world of the bog (which is really a fen). Restrooms will be a welcome amenity for guests, and there is even a conference room that can seat up to 75 people. I can already see some potential opportunities for putting that to use!

The packed 'em in! In the several hours that I was there, several hundred people must have stopped by. There were probably over one hundred present for the official remarks offered by various dignitaries. I talked to a lot of people that morning, and heard more than a few times from folks who had lived in the Champaign County/Urbana area for a long time, but had never visited Cedar Bog. This well-publicized event got them there, and I'm sure many will be back.

Here, Ohio Historical Society Chief Executive Officer Bill Laidlaw is flanked by Melanie Pratt (L) and Anna Jaworski (R). Melanie is president of the Cedar Bog Association, and Anna is daughter of the late Terry Jaworski, longtime Cedar Bog site manager and local legend. It was great to see Ralph Ramey there, too. Ralph has been one of Cedar Bog's biggest cheerleaders, and played an important role in preventing the construction of U.S. Route 68 a mere 75 or 100 yards from where this building stands. Because of Ralph and others, 68 now arcs well to the east, out of sight and out of mind, ensuring that the delicate ecology of Cedar Bog remains intact.

I was slated to lead a trip through the bog at 9 am, and when I showed up at the appointed hour, I was greeted by about 60-70 bog enthusiasts. Here is some of the group, out on the boardwalk in one of the fen meadows. Such a large group is a bit unwieldy as people are confined to the narrow boardwalk, but we managed just fine. Even saw some nice birds, in addition to lots of plants and other wildlife.

One of Cedar Bog's open meadows, ringed with the namesake of the place, White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis. These openings contain some of the richest floristic diversity of any Ohio habitat, and are chockful of rare plants. Animals, too, including Massasauga Rattlesnake, Spotted Turtle, Seepage Dancer (damselfly), and Elfin Skimmer (dragonfly). I've blogged about the natural history of this place a number of times in the past, such as HERE.

We were treated to an incredible display; the mass blooming of Marsh-marigold, Caltha palustris. This is certainly one of the finest stands of this early-blooming buttercup in the state, and it turns the wet woods of Cedar Bog gold. Mixed liberally throughout are the large, still unfurling leaves of Skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, such as can be seen in the bottom righthand corner of the photo. Skunk-cabbage is our first native wildflower to bloom, and it's odd blossoms are pretty much withered to nothingness by now.

Tight shot of the Marsh-marigold flowers. Buttercups are a dominant component of the earliest flowers of spring, and many of them look pretty good. Understandably this stunner is commonly grown for the landscape trade, and has been polluted - er, I mean propagated into many different cultivars. People in many places have the opportunity to appreciate this golden beauty, as it occurs throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, not just in North America. I know that our group appreciated them, and from the looks of it, everyone else strolling the boardwalk did too.
Congrats to everyone that made this day possible, and we'll look forward to many more visits to Cedar Bog.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Wildflowers

We are nearing peak bloom for woodland wildflowers, and I visited a fantastic place to see them today. This show doesn't last long - vernal woodland herbs flourish before the overaching canopy leafs out and shades them out.

The photos below are a sampling of what I saw today, and I downloaded them at a higher resolution than I typically do. If you click on an image, they should enlarge to fill the screen.

Daniel Boone on a steep mesic slope covered with an amazing diversity of flora. This site is in Hamilton County, west of Cincinnati and almost to Indiana. The day was cool and drizzly, which makes for some great conditions for photography but is tougher on the photographer. Dan - that really is his name - is one of Ohio's premier field botanists, and he showed me some very interesting sites and some great plants.

One of the first plants we stumbled into was Fern-leaved Scorpionweed, Phacelia bipinnatifida. A rarity in Ohio, this species just nips into the southwestern corner of the state.

Dry bluffs were festooned with Early Saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis.

One of our most beautiful wildflower spectacles is colonies of False Rue-anemone, Isopyrum biternatum.

The hillside that Dan is standing on in the first photo was covered with this native poppy, Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum.

Generally scarcer than the similar Dutchmen's-breeches is this Squirrel-corn, Dicentra canadensis.

Blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia verna. Sometimes this short-lived herb will blanket vast swaths of floodplain forest.

Miami-mist, Phacelia purshii. Note the odd fringed petals of this member of the waterleaf family.

Core's Chickweed, Stellaria corei. Another similar, common species is Star Chickweed, Stellaria pubera.

Creamy White Violet, Viola striata. Violet identification can be tricky, but this is an easy one. If you choose, be lumper and reduce the violets to three species: white, blue, and yellow.

Our state tree was in full bloom, the Ohio Buckeye, Aesculus glabra. This is about the only time in its life cycle that the thing looks good. They even smell bad.

The main target of the expedition, and we hit it just right. This is perhaps our rarest trillium, Prairie Wakerobin, Trillium recurvatum. This westerner barely reaches Ohio. It was a life plant for me.

The odd maroon flower resembles the common, widespread Toadshade, Trillium sessile, but the leaves have a petiolate base, as do the flower petals. Prairie Wakerobin is much more robust overall, too.

Dan showed me the only colony of Shooting-star, Dodecatheon meadia, in Hamilton County and it was at peak bloom. This stunner is uncommon and local in Ohio.

A real treat were these rose-colored forms mixed in with the typical white-flowered plants.

Get out and enjoy spring as it will slip by in the blink of an eye!