Sunday, May 31, 2009


Blogger is being obstinate. Or, is it "blogstinate?" Anyway, the digital forces that be refuse to allow me to upload any photos. But, like all blogger-related problems this too will pass.

And when it does, I will share the experience of seeing my first wild Bobcat. And I've got pics - bad, find the sasquatch in the forest types of pics, but they offer proof. Seeing this cat was a very cool experience, and was shared by all my compadres at this weekend's Birding by Ear event at the Wilds.

Check by soon. Ciao.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Save a Turtle

I am an unabashed rescuer of Eastern Box Turtles. Rarely if ever have I missed the chance to potentially save one of these fascinating tortoises from being pancaked by a Chevy pick ‘em up or whatever. You see, turtles are not exactly the Mario Andrettis of the animal world, and a bit of help in times of need are possibly appreciated by the turtle gods, not to mention the turtle itself.

Eastern Box Turtle on a forest road in Shawnee State Forest last Sunday. I moved five of them off the road that day. It was warm and rainy, and the turtles had the spring friskies and were roaming about the landscape as they do in spring. They are especially fond of moving about during wet spells, and this day fit the bill. I risked grievous bodily harm by boldly diving into the road, snaring the turtle and deftly rolling away, just milliseconds before that speeding car would have shattered the turtle into mere fragments of its former self. It was just like a scene from a Jackie Chan movie. Yeah, I know, whatever. There goes our blogger being a goof again.

Note to future turtle rescuers: always place the turtle on the side of the road to which he/she was headed. We can use the above situation as a case study. The turtle is headed to the right. That means he came from the left. Which means that you, the rescuer, must place him on the right side of the road. And safely off the pavement. There. Easy.

For if you don’t, the turtle will undoubtedly just have to cross the entire roadway again, and your good intentions will more likely have bad consequences. These armored beasts seem to have a strong directional inclination and specific goals in mind, although I have no idea what those might be. Experts claim that individuals may only wander an area the size of a football field during the course of their entire life, though.

And I do believe Good Karma may come your way with each turtle that you de-road. Box Turtles don’t do anything fast, and that includes dying, unless they get mowed down by a speeding auto. There are documented cases of box turtles living for over a century! Running one over should be a crime, and if it was intentional “Old Sparky” would be a suitable punishment. Doing your part to help a possibly ancient reptile become ancienter can only be good.

Box turtles have highly inscripted carapaces, or upper shells. Many patterns can be discerned in the hieroglyphics that adorn this individual. For instance, in this shell I see: whippet dog, fish hook, seahorse, the letter C, a rushing river, a broken arm, a scary ghost, amoeba, a drumstick, a nimbo-cumulus cloud, mushroom, and the image of Jesus. And that’s just with a cursory glance. You, yourself, may possibly see other things.

Turtles in this group are sometimes referred to as “hinged turtles”. It’s easy to see why in the shot above. The lower shell, or plastron, is hinged and when the turtle decides it doesn’t like the present company, it quickly tucks its appendages in and shuts up tight as a drum. No amount of coaxing will bring the animal out of its shell; you’ll just have to patiently wait it out. Some turtles are quite the extroverts and scarcely bother to hide, eyeing their captor with haughty fury. Others clam up at the drop of a hat and stay that way for some time.

This one is a male, as is revealed by the large dimple or indentation in the plastron. This is an adaptation to, uh, well, better “hug” the mommy turtle to make little baby turtles.

Male box turtles can also be recognized by their piercing red eyes; in females the peepers are usually brown.
Eastern Box Turtles are our mostly terrestrial turtle species, and spend their lives roaming the woodlands. They often traipse through interesting habitats. I don't know if the fellow in the above photo is a botanoturtle or not, but he probably is, as they eat lots of plants. In fact, box turtles may be a major spreader of May-apple, Podophyllum peltatum, as they have a penchant for reaching up and plucking the ripe fruit. Anyway, this individual is face to face with a neat sedge: Blue-green Sedge, Carex glaucodea, and those ovate leaves at the bottom right are Pussy-toes, Antennaria plantaginifolia. The turtle probably already knew that, but perhaps you didn't.

With a five-turtle rescue day under my belt, hopefully my turtle karma has spiked for the better.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chuck-will's-widow on nest!

I recently got a tip about an active Chuck-will’s-widow nest, and simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to see it. So, following two days along Ohio’s north coast – Lake Erie – I then drove to the other end of the state to go chucking.

Mucho gracias to Mark Zloba and Chris Bedel of the Cincinnati Museum for clueing me in to the chuck nest. Seeing it was a fantastic opportunity, but I must keep the exact locale a secret other than to say it was in the sprawling 14,000-acre Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County.

An Adams County barrens prairie. These habitats harbor tremendous diversity of flora and fauna, including many endangered species. The breeding birds are spectacular, too. From this spot, I could hear Blue Grosbeak, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and many others. Come here at night and you’ll hear the loud incessant onomatopoeic song of our target: chuck-will’s-widow, chuck-will’s-widow! The nest was along the margins of a barrens opening like this one, slightly back into the woods.

Find the bird. Cryptic in the extreme, an incubating Chuck-will’s-widow resembles a pile of dried oak leaves and can be nearly impossible to see, even if you know exactly where the bird is. It’s dead center in this photo, and clear as a bell.

A bit closer; you can probably see it now. Incredibly little is known about the breeding habits of this jumbo nightjar. And they are big, nearly twice the weight of a Whip-poor-will. Anyway, there are no comprehensive studies of nesting chucks, so not much can be said definitively about breeding success rate, behavior of fledglings, frequency of feedings, and other basic information. However, both the Cincinnati Museum and The Nature Conservancy, who jointly manage the Edge of Appalachia mega-preserve, encourage and facilitate all manner of research. They have been working with a professor to plumb the mysteries of the chucks, and this work will hopefully result in much better breeding biology info.

We do know that chucks generally lay two eggs, and incubate for about 20 days. The chucklets open their eyes the first day out, and can run around a bit the second day. They are capable of at least short flights by their 17th day, and sometime in late summer or fall slip away to the tropical wintering grounds, where nearly nothing is known of their habits. Interestingly, limited data suggests that adults winter primarily in the Caribbean, while first-year birds winter in Central and South America.

And here we are, cropped in close. Chuck-will's-widows resemble piles of dead leaves, and are essentially impossible to see when roosting on the leaf litter of a forest floor. They are strongly associated with dry upland woods, and oaks are typically dominant in such sites. Much of the leaf litter in this photo is from Post Oaks, Quercus stellata, and the chuck's plumage matches them perfectly. They are also linked closely to habitats that support lots of Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, and various pines, and Virginia Pine, Pinus virginiana, was present here as well as lots of cedars. These habitat factors coupled with abundant suitable insect prey are likely what makes the Ohio Brush Creek valley an ideal northern outpost for this southern bird.

Looking straight into the face of a Chuck-will’s-widow. If you are an animal smaller than this bird, you do not want to be in its sightline. Chuck-will’s-widows have interesting food preferences for a nightjar. Studies indicate that large beetles are likely their number one food source, and we’re talking noisy winged pellets like those brown june bugs that crash into your night lights. In fact, researchers at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory recently captured their first Chuck-will’s-widow in over twenty years of banding, and report that its mouth was full of june bugs.

Dietary preference #2 is moths. I’ve driven down Adams County back roads in the vicinity of this nest on warm summer nights, and there are virtual blizzards of moths. Chuck food abounds here, and this is no doubt one reason why the only dependable breeding locale in Ohio for this species is the Ohio Brush Creek Valley of Adams County. They were first found here in 1932.

After the predictable insect fare, the chuck’s chuck wagon gets a bit weirder. In times of desperation, apparently, they are known to capture small tree frogs and other amphibians. And seemingly whenever the opportunity presents itself, they will grab and swallow small birds, and even bats! Some of the documented species of songbirds that got vacuumed up by Chuck-will’s-widows include Palm, Hooded, Worm-eating, Yellow, and Cape May warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Carolina Wren, and Cuban Emerald (in the Caribbean, presumably).

This fantastic shot comes from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, of the bird that they recently captured. This is the middle toe of the chuck’s foot, which is modified into a brushlike appendage. The bird uses it to preen its rictal bristles. These are the stiff hairs that jut outward around its mouth, thus increasing the gape, helping to sweep in insects that otherwise might just be missed.

As an aside, BSBO does tremendous research and educational outreach, sharing fascinating tidbits such as the above. Consider becoming a member and supporting their work; JUST GO HERE.

One of my favorite works of John James Audubon. He apparently witnessed a scene such as this, including the snake, which he referred to as a “Harlequin Snake”, apparently thinking it harmless. But, he has depicted the highly poisonous Coral Snake, so it is good that JJ presumably didn’t mess with it, since he apparently wasn't big into herpetology. The plant is an interesting beauty, too: Cross-vine, Bignonia capreolata. This is a southerner, reaching its northern limits along the Ohio River, and Adams County is one of the Ohio hotspots for it, just as with the Chuck-will’s-widow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Eyed Click Beetle

The famous Magee Marsh bird trail wasn’t exactly hopping with the feathered crowd last Saturday, but many of us did get a “life beetle”. Thanks to the sharp-eyed Dan Sanders, who noticed the following bug as it lay camouflaged on the boardwalk hand rail. At one point, you’d of thought we had a Connecticut Warbler, such was the assembled throng. Indeed, at least one birder rushed over excitedly asking about what we had, only to deliver a somewhat disappointed “oh. a beetle?” They perked up when they saw this thing, though – it is a cool bug indeed!

Eyed Click Beetle, Alaus oculatus. And what eyes. You could get lost staring into those mysterious pools of loveliness. Except they are not eyes at all! The large spots exist to fool would-be predators into thinking something eminently more savage and dangerous is at hand, and this clever beetle has one more trick if all else fails, as we shall see.

This is not a small critter. In fact, we searched around feverishly for a size scale to provide a frame of reference. “Quick – get out a nickel!” Naw, too mundane – everyone uses a coin for these sorts of things. “Hey! Put the thing in your hand!” No way – none of us were THAT brave. Finally, “I got it – find a fearless kid and put it on them!” Now that sounded cool; we just had to find such a person – one who is charming, absolutely fearless, exceptionally cute, photogenic and with a strong interest in beetles.

Bingo! Enter Maddy, who is one of the state’s best young birders, has a passion for nature, and is utterly without fear of critters, even when it comes to savage-looking insects such as Eyed Click Beetles. Note the size of the beetle in relation to Maddy, as it climbs rapidly up to her shoulder. Didn’t faze her. Of course, what would you expect of a girl that has a tiger tattooed on her hand. Bet you wouldn’t have been the model. We grown men were quaking in our boots just looking at that bug.

These chitinous tiddlywinks get the “click” in their name for a reason. When harassed, they freeze, hoping that the gargantuan eyespots will frighten off Mr. Bird or whoever the stalker may be. If that fails, they employ the stiff rod that is under high tension on their underside. Seen here, it is the sticklike appendage that is fused onto the head, and tucked into a recess in the abdomen. Think of it as a sort of mouse trap, with the bar under tension, ready to be sprung.

And, with a bit of prodding, we see the clicker deployed. Let’s construct a real life hypothetical situation where the beetle might use this defense. Say two Tufted Titmice – we’ll call them Ed and Ralph - spot the beetle. ED: “Hey Ralph! Check that thing out!” RALPH: “I don’t know Ed – look at the eyes on that beast! Kinda creepy” ED: “What are ya, Ralph – a wimp?! It probably tastes like chicken!” RALPH: “OK, tough guy, go for it!”

So, Ed the titmouse makes a lunge for the beetle meal, and SNAP! The clicker clicks, sending the giant eye-spotted monster shooting six inches into the air, and in the blink of an eye. Cut to two fleeing titmice, who will never again pester anything that looks like this.

Nature is full of tricks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More hens

I've been on a roll lately, with many wonderful experiences in natural history. These experiences, they are piling up like withered leaves after an October windstorm. So many, indeed, that I must do a very rare two-blog day. Without much effort, it could be a Three Blog Night, in fact. And if you missed the charming little murderous chap in the preceding post, be sure to check the Lilliputian furry pyscho out a bit of the way down the page.

And wait until you see the click beetle and the Chuck-will's-widow on its nest!

But none of those things are why we are here, now. We are here to look at an odd chicken-like bird that skulks in the reeds and booms out very loud jungle-like sounds.

This is a Common Moorhen, and I am not alone in lamenting its name change of some time back, robbing the bird of the moniker "Common Gallinule. But whatever you call it, the bird stays the same. The one above was haunting the wetlands at Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, and proved surprisingly cooperative. Moorhens are sort of zooted up coots, tipped with an extraordinary bill of brilliant red, capped with lemon yellow. Nice.

Moorhens are responsible for a good deal of the bizarre noise that booms from Ohio's marshes, at least the larger, better ones. It is as if the sound track from a Tarzan flick was being pumped from the muskrat lodges, attracting one and all's attention. Get one moorhen fired up, and often all of its brethren will chime in, creating a grunting, cackling, chuckling cacophony.
Too bad they aren't nearly as frequent as at one time. Common Moorhens, like all of our marsh birds, have declined considerably since pre-settlement times, as in a short 200 or so years we humanoids have managed to destroy at least 90% of Ohio's marshes, swamps, fens, bogs, prairie potholes and other watered habitats.

A short vid of a moorhen boating about. It, or at least this video, carries a botanical message. Note the curious reedlike plant with the strange spherical flower heads at the end of the video. It's Giant Bur-reed, Sparganium eurycarpum, which used to be a major dominant in our marshes and provides invaluable habitat for marsh birds, both breeders and migrants. Invasive plants such as Purple Loosestrife and Phragmites have greatly reduced its frequency.
Metzger Marsh is in the western Lake Erie marsh region, one of the true cradles of biodiversity in the Great Lakes region. It's good to know that we still have places where wondrous swamp beasts like moorhens can still be admired.

Mink kit

The birding was a bit slow this weekend past at Magee Marsh and vicinity, at least compared to the prior two weekends. But as always will be the case when there are thousands of acres of marshes to explore, other interesting flora and fauna came to light. One of the cutest, albeit most savage, of those finds is featured below.

I was driving down the entrance road to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, when I saw a tiny tubular fur-bearer from the corner of my eye. “Weasel!” shouted I, and stopped for a look. I was hoping it was a Long-tailed Weasel, Mustela frenata, which is fairly common throughout the state but devilishly hard to see well and photograph. But, with a better look the true identity quickly became apparent: the beast was a VERY young Mink, Mustela vison, another member of the weasel family.

The little fellow (young ones are known as kits) was only the size of a large bratwurst – and about that shape – but wasn’t scared of nuthin’, man. Here, he lets me know my place. The grass that he is in is mowed short, giving an idea of its diminutive stature. If all goes well, he’ll get much bigger. Adults can reach over two feet in length and weigh in excess of two pounds.

Here, the tubular shape so characteristic of weasels can be seen. Mink are common all over Ohio, but seldom seen. In all my wanderings, I’ve seen maybe 15-20 of them ever, and most were fleeting glimpses as the animal bounded along a stream bank in that curious undulating graceful flow that marks their modus of locomotion. Mink are largely nocturnal and thus not too likely to be seen well.

Note the streamlined head shape. Mink are strongly semiaquatic, living primarily around water. They can swim well, and are capable of capturing fish. Of course, the dense pelage, or fur, is well known and has superior insulating qualities and is lusciously soft. Its use in fur coats is legendary, and scores were once trapped for the fur industry. Skins of excellent quality could fetch $20.00 in the early 1900’s – a fortune for the times! – but are not worth nearly so much today, especially when inflation is factored in. There were once years when over 10,000 animals would be harvested in Ohio, but nowhere near that number are taken today. Most mink pelts come from animals raised on commercial farms.

Lest you think he is cute, think again. In spite of the tiny size of this youngster, he displayed no fear of me as I photographed him and attempted to herd him away from the road towards the ditch where mother mink lurked. Like all weasels, Mink are voracious predators. They’ll attack, kill and eat almost anything up to their size if not larger. A favorite prey item of this species is Muskrat, which nearly equal a Mink in size. After dispatching and consuming the unfortunate ‘skrat, the Mink will sometimes appropriate the victim’s lodge for a home.

But, to wax anthropomorphic, I guess there is no denying that a baby Mink is thoroughly “cute”.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Golden Swamp Warbler

I spent a third consecutive weekend at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and vicinity, and once again saw many interesting things. The action was much dissipated from the prior two visits, but there was still plenty of birds to go around. Lots of other good non-bird stuff, too, and I managed some interesting photos of some pretty cool and seldom-seen critters. Wait till you see the baby mink!

This is a female Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea. Sometimes known as "Golden Swamp Warbler", a fitting moniker most would agree, after seeing the luminescent yellow of one of these swamp-dwellers glowing in the gloom of understory thickets. Even the females glow!

But there is no need to create fanciful alternate names - the real one is interesting enough. The scientific name tells the story. The specific epithet, citrea, means golden or yellowish-orange. Protonotaria, the source of the common name prothonotary, is a term of ancient origin referring to certain orders of clerks or notaries. It's use is often associated with the Catholic church, some of whom wore robes that included colors of bright yellow. So, for better or worse, our brilliant swamp flamer is named for a major religion.

The Magee boardwalk birds are probably the most famous Prothonotary Warblers in the world. Quite conspicuous in their coats of gold, and with the males announcing their presence with a loud, albeit unmusical, swee-swee-swee song, probably no one who has visited went away prothonotaryless. There were a number of years where the golden swampers were mostly absent from Magee, so it is great to see birds back and apparently going to nest.

I made the above video right next to the boardwalk, of a male who is either inspecting potential nest sites - this is our only eastern cavity-nesting warbler - or hunting food. Or both.

Without doubt, the Prothonotary Warblers were one of the real hits along the trail this month. Their bold, extroverted manners, coupled with outlandish good looks, thrilled many thousands of birders and they were undoubtedly lifers for a great many.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A few rare "weeds"

I had a couple of great botanical expeditions to southern Ohio back in April, and the following are some shots for the botanically inclined readers of this blog. Of course, we should ALL be of a botanical bent; the birds and other animals that we enjoy depend upon vegetable matter.

A tip of the vasculum is in order to the one and only Daniel Boone, who put me onto these populations.

A weedy roadbank along U.S. 52 in Adams County, skirting the north bank of the Ohio River and a mere stone's toss from the old hills of Kentucky. Not a habitat to stir the soul, at least at a casual 60 mph glance from the sedan.

But the sharp-eyed plant seeker might screech to a halt after spotting these tiny gleams of snow-white jutting from the Kentucky Fescue. And this is no weed, like its roadbank fellows. It is the rarest of Ohio onions, a plant known as False Garlic, Nothoscordum bivalve. Listed as endangered in our state, it occurs in an extremely limited area of Adams County, with one curious population far removed in Clark County.

Some onions, such as the Field Garlic, Allium vineale, or Wild Onion, A. canadense, common in fields, lawns, and the latter floodplains, rarely flower. They typically reproduce via vivipary, or the production of bulblets in place of flowers. Not so with this stunner - the flowers are every bit the match of much larger, more conspicuous lilies.
While rare here, that's just because Ohio is at the extreme northern limit of the range of False Garlic. I once drove to Texas in early spring, and this plant become an increasingly abundant sight along the roadsides as I moved south.

An even weedier habitat than the above, if possible, and not far away. This rutted dirt lane bisecting fields variously planted in beans or corn harbored a most interesting buttercup, and one that very few people have seen in Ohio. Hardly a native species to be found, and the dominant blooming biomass - that huge purple splotch left of the road - was an alien mint, Purple Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum.

But this bizarrity was what we had come to see. And we were among the very few who would take two strides out of their way to see it, I suspect. From an upright position, this elfin buttercup looks all the world like some sort of grass. But it's not, and I bet a botanist stumbling upon Mousetail, Myosurus minimus, for the first time will do some serious headscratching and floundering through the botanical keys.

A closer look at the blooming inflorescence. Those whitish appendages at the base of the flower spikes are the sepals; the tiny flowers form the aggregate spike. A definite oddity, but it has a bit of a charm to it when closely admired.
And controversy embroils this herb. Is it native, or is it not? If it is, Mousetail should probably be listed as endangered or threatened, as only three or so populations are known in the state. All of them are in the rich alluvial soils of floodplains. But just because it looks weedy and acts weedy doesn't mean it is a non-native invader. My hunch is that Mousetail is an indigenous part of the Ohio flora; a riverine migrant dispersing itself along floodplains, aided by floodwaters. Such plants, historically, would have been far scarcer and confined to naturally occurring scour barrens resulting from severe flood events. Modern agricultural practices have incidentally created similar conditions, and on a much bigger scale, and this bite-sized buttercup has taken advantage.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oak Openings field trip!

Last Sunday, following the OOS conference, groups of birders radiated out to about ten different sites in the Oak Openings and the western Lake Erie marshes. Sunday dawned cool, sunny, and perfect. Above, the most birders that I have ever seen along Girdham Road in the Oak Openings Metro Park congregate. Their main target is the Lark Sparrows that breed here, but those harlequin-faced seedeaters got trumped when a group of thirteen Red Crossbills dropped into the distant pines along the left side of the road, top of the photo. Not everyone got to see these erratic X-bills, which have been confounding birders in this area for the past three days.

Peter “The Desert Fox” King scans the sand barrens. We could hardly see him, and only when a sharp-eyed birder shouted “Hey! That pile of sand just moved!” did we realize what we had. We then wondered how many other Peter Kings might be concealed amongst the dunes.

As is often the case when I am put in charge of a field trip, it degenerates into a natural history free-for-all. This is an American Copper, and probably the most admired and photographed copper in the world at that particular time.

We were antagonized by Lark Sparrows. Our group had spent a lot of time searching for good views, and was rewarded only with distant scope views of singing males teed up, often partially obscured and in less than stellar lighting.

Then, as we were leaving the dunes after two and a half hours, the sharp-eyed and aforementioned Desert Fox whisper-shouts “Lark Sparrow”! We stopped in our tracks, and two of these beauties came waltzing out into plain view, about 30 feet out on the open sand. Those people with the mega-lenses, such as Dave Lewis, probably got awesome photos. This was a life bird for a number of our crowd, and a state bird for others.

Lest you live in the Great Plains or elsewhere westward and not understand the enthusiasm, Lark Sparrows are very rare in Ohio. We list them as endangered, and the Oak Openings is the only reliable spot one can find them. These birds represent the easternmost breeding population.

A great thing about birding Oak Openings Metro Park is all of the Red-headed Woodpeckers. Family groups are all over, chortling, scolding, and kirring, flashing huge white wing patches and satin scarlet heads. Sometimes, one will sit tight and appear to watch the birders, as this one is. We had wonderful extended scope views of red-heads on a number of occasions.

Right as the trip was nearing conclusion, Andy Jones spotted a Summer Tanager. We had been hearing them all morning, and getting fleeting glimpses, but no great prolonged views. This bird cooperated, and we had him in several scopes and all got superb looks at this bright brick-red bee-eating machine. The group signals their satisfaction, above.

Finally, as if on cue, as everyone was saying their farewells and plotting the next stop, the eagle-eyed Kathy Mock spotted these six Sandhill Cranes high up and far off. They circled closer and closer, putting on quite a show, as they thermaled their way up into the ether. Certainly not expected, and a real treat.

It was another fantastic morning in the Oak Openings, and thanks to all who came out and everyone that made the OOS conference.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Birds, Birders, and the Bird Trail

Holiday Inn – French Quarter, Perrysburg. The hub of last weekend’s Ohio ORNITHOLOGICAL Society conference. Many attendees drove right by after seeing this marquee, thinking “Oh wow, looky there. The OTHER bird society must be meeting in Perrysburg too”. In all fairness, I can’t spell our name right half the time, either.

A great number of us who went up for the conference hit the famous Bird Trail at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on Saturday morning, prior to the conference. We weren’t disappointed, nor were the rest of the binocular-clad throngs. Birds called and sang everywhere; at times it was tough to know where to focus attention. And this, I know from experience, was not even a “great” day at the boardwalk.

I like to keep an eye peeled for birdological license plates, and have a massive digital pile of them. But, several “lifers” were added Saturday. With thousands of birdermobiles cruising the area, finding new plates wasn’t hard.

In addition to good birding, meeting lots of people along the trail is a guaranteed thing. I always run into scads of folks that I know, including some I rarely encounter elsewhere – sort of like humanoid migrants passing through in spring, just like the warblers.

Here, Bill Thompson (right), editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, yuks it up with Jim Berry, Director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Bill is vice-president of the Ohio Ornithological Society and emcee of the weekend’s indoor events. Jim was one of our speakers and did a bang-up job.

Behind Jim are veteran birders Larry Richardson and Jan Auburn.

Later, when we came off the boardwalk some four hours after starting – slowest circuit of a mile and a half ever – there was Jon Dunn (in hat). Jon is one of North America’s true birding celebs, having authored or co-authored, among other works, A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. Warblers are easily the #1 attraction along the trail, and if everyone there knew that Jon was THE MAN regarding warblers, they’d probably mob him like he was an avian Britney Spears.

Jon is also a tour leader for WINGS, and had a large group in tow, many from California. If you ever pine for the warmth and surf of the far left coast, keep in mind they do not have anything approaching the spring warbler parade that Ohio does. So they come here.

That’s Bill again to Jon’s left, Michael Packer next to him, and OOS board member Craig Caldwell in green. With this sort of talent all over the place, few birds go missing.

It’s not always Connecticut and Kirtland’s Warblers that garner all of the glory. This Killdeer was sitting tight on eggs near the parking lot, and admired by scores. Many years, a Woodcock nests right by the lot, too.

I was here the preceding Saturday, too, and was struck by the shift over to females among the warblers. A week earlier, males dominated. This is a female Bay-breasted Warbler, one of many along the boardwalk. The third weekend in May is an excellent place to practice learning songs of wispy high-pitched conifer specialist warblers, such as this one, Cape May, Blackburnian, and Blackpoll. More than a few pitch-challenged birders have watched one of these species open its bill to deliver a tune, but hear nothing.

Male Magnolia Warbler, and this is often a typical view. Bit of patience, though, and you’ll be rewarded with much better looks. One of the great things about the Magee bird trail is that the birds are often oblivious to people. Warblers will be at arm’s length, foraging, fighting, and singing. The chatter of the crowd and click click click of cameras doesn’t faze them.

There were Eastern Kingbirds everywhere – in the treetops, out in the marsh, and flying overhead. I saw dozens in a half-day, and who knows how many hundreds or thousands were in the area.

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory is located right at the entrance to Magee Marsh, and they accommodate droves of birders in May with their varied and frequent activities. The Observatory and its people are great ambassadors for birds, and make the most of their strategic location. Here, BSBO director Kim Kaufman holds a “Traill’s” Flycatcher. It is either an Alder or Willow Flycatcher – separating the two is very difficult and not always possible, even in the hand. Voice is the way to go, but they’ll seldom do much other than deliver occasional angry squawks while biting your finger when in the hand.

Next time you are at Magee, be sure and stop by BSBO’s center and say hi.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mega-rare Vegetable Matter

After spending an enjoyable Sunday morning in the Oak Openings with lots of attendees from the Ohio Ornithological Society conference, I had the opportunity to mine a botanical treasure trove. Eric Durbin, naturalist and Oak Openings authority, agreed to take me to see two of the rarest plants in the state. I was sworn to secrecy and threatened with severe flogging if I revealed any locational data, so I won’t. But I did my best to document the plants with photos, and I hope you enjoy them. And I very much appreciate Eric taking me to see them, and for sharing some of his wealth of knowledge about the Oak Openings.

Tiny – really tiny – but incomparable. This is Fringed Milkwort, Polygala paucifolia, an endangered species known from but a few Ohio locales. It forms small colonies, and this patch covered only a few square inches. The plants grow low and flat, basically hugging the ground, and it’d be easy to pass by.

Upon close inspection, this milkwort is a thing of beauty. Too bad it is so rare in our state. Travel further north, and it abounds. Mean average soil temperature may be one of the factors limiting its southward extent, with extreme northern Ohio barely cool enough for it to tolerate. The large pink dumbo ear-like projections are actually colored bracts, or modified leaves – not the flowers.

This minute tube is the petaliferous part of the plant. The flower is waning, but a Fringed Milkwort in peak bloom somewhat suggests the appearance of an airplane, with the petals being the rotor and the trailing bracts as the wings. It was once believed that consumption of milkworts would stimulate milk production in both cows and human mothers, hence the odd name.

A major find, and a life plant for me. This one is Long-bracted Orchid, Coeloglossum viride, another state-endangered species. Having now seen this site, I can attest that Durbin really found a proverbial needle in a haystack here. There is but one plant, and it is in the dense gloom of thick understory and not easy to see.

We have forty-six native orchids in Ohio, and most are not overtly showy as are many of the tropical, cultivated species. Still, our plain janes have their charms – to some of us, these more obscure northern orchids are more charismatic than some of their gaudy brethren.

Coeloglossum (See-lo-gloss-um) is sometimes known as the “frog orchid”. This colloquialism apparently stems from the fanciful resemblance of the flowers to certain amphibious hoppers. The origin of Long-bracted Orchid isn’t hard to determine: those long leaflike structures subtending the flowers are bracts, and they are long.

All orchids have interesting flower structures, and this one is no exception. Note the small beetle going, presumably, after pollen on the middle left flower. I always get very curious about pollinating insects on these rarities. Very little work has been done on the relationship of plants and insects and the intimate role that the latter play in pollination.

Long-bracted Orchid has an expansive range throughout northern North America and Eurasia. It is not rare in the core of its range. Like the milkwort, Ohio is at the southern limits of its distribution. Northern species such as this bear watching. Warming climate and subsequent increases in mean average soil temperatures would, theoretically, cause these species to retreat northward.

Thanks again to Eric for sharing these jewels.