Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Beautiful flora

I've seen scores of interesting plants on this trip, a run through the upper reaches of the Great Lakes. If you are from down my way, Ohio, it is a real treat to see these northerners, many of which are very rare down that way. Following are some of the species that I've photographed over the past two days.

North shore of Lake Michigan. Buffered by impressive sand dunes, filled with impressive plants. I was excited to find the plant in the bottom center of the photo.

Lake Huron Tansy, Tanacetum bipinnatum ssp. huronense, confined to sandy dunes bordering lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

Beach Pea, Lathyrus japonicus, another beach dune specialist.

A truly elfin dogwood, Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, which can carpet large areas of cool woods.

Teaberry, Gaultheria procumbens.

Northern Blue Flag, Iris versicolor. It is abundant in wetlands around the upper Great Lakes.

I was delighted to see this patch of a truly remarkable wildflower.

Twinflower, Linnaea borealis, named for the great Swedish naturalist and father of the system of binomial nomenclature, Carolus Linnaeus. This delicate beauty was allegedly his favorite plant.

Although it stands but a few inches in height, Twinflower is actually a tiny shrublet. The flowers dangle on pendant wiry pedicels, and emit a wonderful fragrance. This species is one of the true delights of northern forest botany.

Wood Lily, Lilium philadelphicum. In this spot it was growing as a roadside weed of sorts.

Spreading Dogbane, Apocynum androsaemifolium, a very showy dogbane and quite common locally.

It was a treat to see this little figwort growing commonly in conifer-dominated forests. It is Cow-wheat, Melampyrum lineare.

Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. There were large platoons of this incredible orchid covering acidic woods, intermixed with many other interesting plants.

A mist of Narrow-leaved Cottongrass, Eriophorum angustifolium, drifts across a wet sedge meadow. At least this is what I think it is, but it's not one I''m familiar with. If anyone knows better and can correct the ID, please let me know.

This swale, part of a ribbed fen complex, was chockful of intriguing plants, and I also saw some great dragonflies. While walking in to photograph the plants, I kicked up a Wilson's Snipe.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kirtland's Warbler

This is one of North America's true warbler Meccas: the sandy jack pine country of the upper lower peninsula of Michigan. And for one reason, the federally endangered Kirtland's Warbler. At a glance, it doesn't look like great warbler country. Dwarf pine carpet dry sandy soils, and there's scarcely a broad-leaved deciduous tree to be found.

We visited a promising area near Grayling, and it didn't take long to score. The birds are quite finicky about their habitat preference, utilizing Jack Pines from 5 to about 15 feet in height. Kirtland's Warblers are not exactly shrinking violets, and have loud rollicking songs that almost sound as if they run the tune through a Marshall amp with a tinge of reverb.

A bit of poking around and perseverance and we were rewarded with good looks at a singing male. There were at least three others in earshot, too.
By the 1970's, numbers of this exceedingly rare warbler had crashed. Less than 200 singing males were present. A better understanding of the bird's habitat requirement led to better management, and last year there were over 2,500 singing males. A heavy hand with Brown-headed Cowbird control has also been vital to the restoration of Kirtland's Warbler.

This is the magical tree in the land of the Kirtland's Warbler: Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana. Those tough little cones require heat to unseal the gummy pitch that shutters the scales, so that seeds can be released. Fire management does this, and burning is the tool that has spiked the warbler population.
Jack Pine "barrens" are anything but barren. It had been a while since I've roamed these haunts, and I was struck by the diversity of flora growing throughout the pine stands. And staggered by the number of moths. They were everywhere, obvious even on a bright sunny day. Of course, all of those moths are producing boatloads of caterpillars, and that's what is fueling these warblers. By the time the pine stands get into their late teens, they have begun shading out the understory, reducing plant diversity, and consequently moth numbers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sandy, piney places

I am not in Ohio. The above sign offers a clue as to my whereabouts and as an added bonus, the place that the sign advertises is on the market.

Perhaps this is the world's only hotel named for a warbler? It's the only one that I can ever remember seeing. But, it is the real McCoy that interests us. And we had major scores on the rarest of warblers sometime after seeing this hotel sign. Pics coming soon!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Midwest Native Plant Conference

Hey all,

This'll be the last plug for this - promise! - but we are excited that the price could be dropped. Some very supportive sponsors have stepped forth, enabling organizers to lower the price which is a very helpful deal in this economic climate. And everyone who had already registered gets a check for the difference - also a nice surprise! More details below:

Midwest Native Plant ConferenceJuly 24, 25 & 26, 2009Hope Hotel Dayton, OH

Thanks to the generous support of our sponsors, we are able to reduce the registration fee for all 3 days for just $130.00 and You are able to attend a conference that will stimulate your passion for native plants and connect you with nature! Count the reasons to attend:

One – new price of $130 thanks to the very generous support of our sponsors!
Three – nationally recognized keynote speakers.
Four – tracks for break-out sessions on Saturday.
Five – conference meals plus snacks.
Nine – native plant vendors! In addition to many others. Vendors will be open to the public on Saturday.

We look forward to seeing you in Dayton, Ohio, on July 24th-26th. Should you be unable to attend the entire 3 days, there are daily rates available too. Registration form, conference details, speaker bios, and field trip descriptions can be found at http://cincinnatibirds.com/mwnp.

$130 includes meals; lodging separate with a special rate of $65.00 per night by registering online at http://www.hopehotel.com/ . Enter passcode "midwest' for special conference rate.

Some of our Sponsors: Ohio Prairie Nursery, Five Rivers Metroparks, Marvin’s Organic Gardens, Greater Cincinnati Wild Ones-Natural Landscapers, Flora-Quest.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A spangle of fritillaries

While surveying breeding birds last Saturday in the outback of Morgan County, I was struck by the numbers of butterflies coursing about. I saw many species, but it was the following two that really grabbed my eye, is it was the most I had ever seen of either in one day.

A Mourning Cloak, wings up and looking much like a blackened leaf. They really blend well when in this position. I saw dozens; seemed like every fifty feet I’d flush one from the back country gravel roads.

When a Mourning Cloak flashes its wings to the open position, they transform into a thing of great beauty. The dominant dorsal color is a rich velvety purple-black, trimmed with gilt and dotted with blue flecks of the richest azure. No wonder the Brits refer to Mourning Cloaks as “Camberwell Beauties”. They get around; it’s got one of the widest distributions in the butterfly world, occurring throughout North America as well as in Europe and Eurasia.

Their host plants include elms, willows, and some of the poplars, all of which are common in Ohio. They must have had a recent hatch, as all of the cloaks that I saw were stunning in their freshness. Mourning Cloaks last a while, too – they overwinter as adults and can sometimes be seen flying about and shaking off the dust in warm sunny mid-winter days.

It was the Great Spangled Fritillaries that really grabbed my eye, though. They were everywhere. The most I’ve ever seen in a single day. This is a fresh male, and nearly all that I saw were boys, as they emerge prior to the females.

This is a female Great Frit, one of relatively few I saw that day. Note how it is darker above, and when seen with the males they are noticeably larger.

The ventral, or underside, of the wings may be more striking than the upper surface. Dotted with shining silvery chevrons, it’s as if the butterflies have been draped in exotic bling. Fritillaries employ a rather bizarre reproductive strategy. Females lay eggs near, but not often on, the host plants, which are violets of many species. The larvae winter over in leaf litter without feeding, then come spring must locate violets to feed upon. Although it seems a scattershot way of doing business, it obviously has worked well with Great Spangled Fritillaries in Morgan County.

The video above shows a small patch of Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense, that is being swarmed by a feeding frenzy of frits. In general, Canada Thistle is a despicable non-native invader, but these butterflies are obviously intoxicated by its nectar. There were dozens of butterflies on this thistle patch, and all were males with the exception of one early to emerge female.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Creatures of the Night

I was out late into the night last Friday night, in the hinterlands of Morgan County. A team of us were surveying breeding birds for the Breeding Bird Atlas II project, and this very rural hill country region still needs a bit of work.

So off I went, to see what nocturnal goodies could be produced. The best sighting was non-bird; I saw my second Bobcat and at much closer range than my first, which was just a few weeks ago. This was more of fleeting glimpse, as the cat popped out on the road perhaps 30-50 feet in front of my car as I idled along, took a look at me, and sprang across the road and into the undergrowth.

I have several videos in this post, and be sure to carefully check out the second, of Cope's Gray Treefrog calling in the dark. Something very strange enters the video right at the end. If anyone has any idea what that might be or what causes such effects, please let me know.

One of my primary targets was Whip-poor-will, and if you click the video above you'll see that I was successful. I heard a few in my wanderings, but this guy was only thirty feet away and calling up a storm. I was so close I could hear the muted wooden tock note that they preface each phrase with. He also made a note that was very similar to the call note of a Swainson's Thrush; a soft liquid sound. I hadn't heard that before.

It was far too dark to show anything on the video, but I got to see the bird very well. To test its reaction, I played the whip's song every so briefly on my I-pod. The bird instantly darted from cover and nearly thwacked me in the head!

Conspicuous that evening were calling Cope's Gray Treefrogs, Hyla chrysoscelis. If you aren't familiar with this species, you'd undoubtedly wonder what it is making the racket, as their calls carry considerable distances and are very obvious in the still of night. The more wide-ranging Ohio tree frog is Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor, which is found commonly throughout nearly all of the state. These two are essentially identical in appearance, but Cope's has double the number of chromosomes. No great field mark there, but fortunately their voices differ noticably.

I was able to track one down as it sang from under a tuft of grass bordering a damp ditch. In this photo, his throat sac is still inflated.

I made this video from the pitch black of the nighttime forest, before I got my flashlight from the car's trunk. There were about four frogs calling from a wet roadside swale, and I was very close as you can tell. Cope's Gray Tree Frog has a distinctly harsher, raspy and more nasally abrupt song than does Gray Tree Frog.

But something very weird happened with this video. Watch very closely at the end and you will see some bright flame-like object seemingly shoot into the field of view from the right. It's even stranger in appearance if you hold the video backward/forward control and watch this light come in and go back out in very slow motion.

Keep in mind that I was not using any flash from the camera, nor did I have any other light sources at this point. There was also no other source of lighting nearby. If anyone has an explanation for what causes this sort of thing I'd like to hear it. I certainly didn't notice any light or other phenomena when I was making the video.

I finally did go find my flashlight so I could find one of the frogs and light him up for video purposes. Amphibians engaged in nighttime singing are remarkably cooperative and can often be carefully approached to within a few feet. I've seen and photographed this species before, but it was cool to be able to grab some decent video.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


If you have been spending any time outdoors lately, you'll probably have noticed the above. It's a can't miss shrub of early summer, Elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis. The white flower panicles are conspicuous, and glow brightly from fencerows, ditches, and woodland borders.

I have fond memories of this plant, as my parents would take me out to pick elderberries with my grandmother in the countryside. Even as a wee lad, I was interested in nearly everything to do with the outdoors, and enjoyed those berry-picking forays as it allowed me chance to explore.

Elderberry is in the Honeysuckle Family (Caprifoliaceae), a group renowned for their aromatic, showy flowers. Each Elderberry blossom is so small it'll likely go unadmired as an individual, but their collective masses are stunning and noticed by all.
Here's a trick you may not know. Take one of the larger branches, which tend to be very straight, cut it to length and remove the soft inner pith. Bingo - you've got an effective pea-shooter! Teach that to your kids first chance you get!

These dark-purple fruit are the most coveted part of Elderberry, and what my grandmother was after. The berries are no good without being cooked; in fact they are somewhat toxic when raw. Eat some and you'll likely hurl. But prepared properly they make good jams, pies, and even wine. Elderberry foliage and bark contains cyanide so you'll not want to chew on those parts, although a number of animals such as deer and rabbit do without ill effect.

Inspect enough Elderberry plants, and sooner or later you might encounter this striking beetle: the Elderberry Borer, Desmocerus palliatus. The larvae mature within the plant, eating inner tissues, and mature into this gorgeous adult form.

Here's an elderberry you may not be familiar with - the only other Ohio species. I photographed this plant two weekends ago in Mohican State Forest. It is Red-berried Elder, Sambucus racemosa, a species of more northerly distribution than our common Elderberry. With us, it tends to be spotty in distribution, and typically only scattered plants are found. It favors cool rocky woods, often on steep slopes, always in well-drained soils.

Red-berried Elder flowers and fruits a few weeks earlier than the other species. When full of berries it is a stunner and would make an excellent ornamental plant, although I don't know how easy it would be to domesticate. If you can, the birds will thank you. The fruit of this elderberry are said to be coveted by Cedar Waxwings, Swainson's Thrushes, American Robins, and many other birds.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Juvenile Common Nighthawks

Last year, Dan Adamski sent along a wonderful series of photos documenting the successful nesting of Common Nighthawks on a rooftop of one of the University of Toledo buildings. They're back, Dan's back, and once again he's a gent for allowing me to share his photos. CLICK HERE and you can revisit one of those posts;use the blog's search engine and you can find them all.

Mrs. Bullbat sits tight on gravel rooftop of the University of Toledo Medical Center. This, now, is the preferred nesting substrate of nighthawks over much of their range. They will also use large river gravel bars, extensive burned over forested areas, and sparsely vegetated gravelly soil areas. "Bullbat" is one of their unusual nicknames.

Front on view, showing the bold horizontal striping characteristic of Common Nighthawk. I think she's got something to hide...

This great shot by Dan shows the conspicuous white wing flash.

OK, here they are - two tiny nighthawks! Yes, they are cute. These youngsters can't be but a few days old, and are still heavily downy. The mother is very attentive, and nightjars such as this can be surprisingly aggressive in defending their nests.

In a bit tighter on the juveniles. Nighthawks feed by catching insects on the wing; not an easy thing to learn so these guys have a steep learning curve ahead of them. Sometime in August or September, they'll leave Ohio and head south - way south. Nighthawks winter in South America.
Thanks again to Dan for sharing these great photos!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Painted Mudbug

A most remarkable beast follows; something one certainly doesn’t see everyday. For most – maybe all! readers, I bet this would be a “life crustacean”.

Many thanks to Mark Dilley for not only finding these critters, but letting me share his stunning photographs.

I’ll bet you’ve seen these in your wanderings. Small chimney-like structures of mud, surrounding the entrance to a subterranean cavity. They are the work of crayfish, and there are a number of species that create these dwellings. Crayfish burrows typically are found in more less permanently muddy areas; oft-flooded fields and meadows, wetland margins, springy areas, floodplains and the like. The inhabitants spend the day in the cool, moist confines of the den, emerging at night to lurk at or near the entrance, grabbing any small animal unlucky enough to happen by.

Once in a while, one gets very lucky, as Mark did, and finds one of the armored troglodytes out and about. Bet you’ve never seen a blue crayfish! This is the Painted Mudbug, Cambarus polychromatus, and for something plated and primitive, it is quite the stunner. This one was only described in 2005 and is known in only a handful of states; a great find by Mark.

Studying nocturnal, subterranean crayfish is not easy. One of the methods employed by researchers is the use of a strong pump. Running a tube down into the burrow, they utilize suction to vacuum out the contents and see who is home. This can be done without harming the inhabitants, and has revealed all kinds of interesting information about crayfish and the other critters that share the burrows.

Excellent shot here, showing the mudbug’s formidable pincers. The world of subterranean crayfish is a very poorly known realm, but a fascinating one. For instance, the burrows excavated by the crayfish are inhabited by a great many other animals – everything from tiny invertebrates to large dragonfly larvae. It’s thought that the federally endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonfly’s larvae may make extensive use of crayfish burrows; hence the difficulty of finding them in the larval stage.

We are fortunate to have one of the world’s leading experts on crayfish living in Ohio, Roger Thoma. He helped Mark pin down the ID of the Painted Mudbug, as well as the drab critter above. It is the Little Brown Mudbug, Cambarus thomai, Roger’s namesake! Discovered by Roger, this obscure animal was only described in 1993 and thus far is known only in five Midwestern states.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Jumping Spider Jumps!

After a meeting in Dayton last Sunday, several of us paid a visit to the legendary Cedar Bog, near Urbana. There, we saw many interesting and rare things, both plant and animal. And if you've not been to Cedar Bog lately, or at all, GO! The brand spanking new visitor's center is incredible, and you'll be assured of having a good time.

The boardwalk, which winds through an entrance meadow and on into Ohio's only fen - not a bog! - dominated by White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis. At the time the first settlers colonized Champaign County, the cedar fen sprawled over some 7,000 acres. The preserve encompasses about 435 acres - that's all that's left of this fabulous ecosystem.

The marquee plant this time of year is North America's largest orchid, the Showy Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae. Some enormous clumps dot the meadows, such as the old plant above.

Another beautiful albeit much more diminutive orchid was just beginning to flower, the Grass-pink, Calopogon tuberosus. In a week or so they'll dot the fen meadows pink.

Beautiful flora aside, this little spider was among the stars of the show. It is a Woodland Jumping Spider, Thiodina sylvana, and it put on quite a show for us. Jumping spiders are fantastic little creatures, and next time you see one, try and take a few minutes to watch it operate.
Jumpers don't make webs to catch prey; they stalk their subjects and nab them in a spectacular deadly leap. Such is their jumping ability that a six-foot tall person would have to be able to jump over the equivalent of a large building to match the leaps of a jumping spider. They also have the ability to process and temporarily store locational data. Thus, a spider can spot a potential victim, move out of sight and stalk while hidden behind obstructions, then spring with deadly accuracy from a new position without having eyeballed the soon to be dead prey since the initial visual contact.

Jumping spiders are charismatic, and many people who are died in the wool arachnophobes even find them "cute". It's as if the spiders watch you - they do!- and react to your movements. They often wave their forelegs about as if flashing semaphore signals. The spiders will cock their heads and seem to gaze curiously at you, and do not display much fear.
In the above video, the spider makes a wild leap for my camera lens, misses, and self-rescues via the safety line that he had attached to the leaf prior to the launch. Watch closely at the end and you'll see him rapidly climbing the line back to the leaf.

My cohorts thought the spider disliked me, and was attacking. And it's a darn good thing these jumping spiders aren't the size of Woodchucks! Otherwise, the video above would have looked very different. You'd have seen a large furry blob fly forward and block the camera view like an eclipse, hear me screaming crazily and rapid blurred images of spider legs and foliage whirring around as we tussled, the wild roars of my companions as they raced away in horror, followed by a grim stillness.
But they are not big and we have nothing to fear. This was cool, though. I think that the spider, with its incredible vision, probably saw its own reflection in the lens of my camera. Thinking its image to be that of possible prey, it stalked my camera and when the time was right, leapt. You can see it walk across the lens at the end.
Pretty cool stuff.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shinleaf and Vireo

Circumstances found me in the immediate vicinity of Mohican State Forest last Saturday, and I had a few hours to explore the woodlands. Mohican, for those of you who don't know it, is one of Ohio's richest forests, characterized mainly by the steep hemlock-cloaked Clear Fork Gorge that bisects the area. Providing the sound track on my foray were the likes of Veery, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green, Kentucky, Hooded warblers, and many more.

But the flora is incredible, too, and I saw many interesting plants. Chief among them was the above; a diminutive little beauty that almost defies description. It is Shinleaf, Pyrola elliptica. While widespread and scattered throughout eastern Ohio, this species is not usually numerous and always a treat to stumble across. Such are its looks that many a gardener would probably kill and maim to have it growing in captivity, but I suspect that this is not a plant that lends itself well to being corraled.

Note the thick bed of pine needles that the Shinleaf springs from. It really goes for poor, dry, acid soils, and in this instance a small colony was growing under an old plantation of Red and White pines. Exquisite in form and color, the tiny candelabra of flowers stands perhaps six inches high, and the waxy-white blooms set off nicely against the semi-lustrous rosette of papery green leaves.

In times past, Pyrolas were placed in the Heath Family (Ericaceae), but now are considered to constitute their own family, the Shinleaf Family (Pyrolaceae). There are only 50 or so species in a few genera, and only seven occur in Ohio and most are rare. The members of this family are primarily northerners, occupying cool boreal and upland woods. The species at hand, Pyrola elliptica, is the most common of the four members of this genus found in Ohio. The name Pyrola is a diminutive of Pyrus, the genus of pears, due to the alleged similarity in the appearance of the leaves.

The flowers nod on short pedicels so that the blossoms can watch the ground, apparently; this makes for tough going in regards to taking decent photos of the flowers. But even from the rear they are quite showy, and we can see the trangular green sepals that help differentiate this species from the similar Round-leaved Pyrola, P. rotundifolia, which would have oblong-shaped sepals.

Later, as I was strolling along a small bird rocketed from an overhanging young American Beech tree, Fagus grandifolia. That would be the tree on the left side of the photo, with its foliage in front of the large trunk in the dead center. I glanced up and was surprised to see a Red-eyed Vireo nest only six feet off the ground, and directly over this path, along which pass dozens of people daily.

Vireo nests are obvious enough, once you know they're there. But from afar or with just a careless glance, they look a lot like a clump of dead leaves and plant detritus caught up in the foliage.

Seen well, we can admire the vireo nest for the architectural marvel that it is. It'll never cease to amaze me how songbirds can construct such well-engineered affairs, especially without benefit of hands and fingers. As is this nest, the forest-dwelling vireos almost always site the nest in the fork of a slender branchlet far out from any primary trunks. But they usually pick a spot a bit higher off the ground than this.

So low was this Red-eyed Vireo nest that I was able to hold my camera over my head and photograph the contents. Upon reviewing my work on the camera's viewfinder immediately thereafter, I saw that a moral dilemma had been thrust upon me. Two of those eggs are from a Brown-headed Cowbird. They're the larger ones towards the bottom of the nest, heavily ornamented with chocolate blotches.

What to do. Red-eyed Vireos are a valuable part of the forest community and these little birds make an arduous trek all the way from the tropics to summer with us, feast on caterpillars, and contribute their cheery phrases to the symphony of the forest. And red-eyes are heavily hit by cowbirds.
The cowbirds are native too, but man's wholesale changes to the environment have greatly increased their numbers and brought these nest parasites into much more prolific contact with hosts and habitats that they historically would not have infested.

I left them.

I made note of the nest's exact locale, so that I might sneak up and not spook the incubator on my return. Carefully side-stepping soundlessly, she let me come in close, to about 15 feet, and never did flush. With an eye bright as only little birds can be, she curiously watched my every movement but allowed me to take some photos. A bit blurry, I know, but I wasn't about to blind her with the flash and the gloom of the understory didn't allow for fast shutters.

Here's a short video.