Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gone? But not forgotten

With some 1,850 native plant species in Ohio, there are plenty of mysteries. Many plants are poorly known, even some of the common ones; get into the realm of the rare and sometimes hardly anyone seems to know anything. The species that follows ranks high in the botanical mystery world.

While researching gnatcatcher and hummingbird nests at the Ohio State University's Museum of Biological Diversity today, I had occasion to pull this sheet from the herbarium. It is perhaps the last specimen collected in Ohio of an enigmatic plant called Waterplantain Spearwort, Ranunculus ambigens. Dave Spooner took it nearly 29 years ago, in Scioto County. There are a number of other Ohio records, but most are far older than this one.

Waterplantain Spearwort is NOT a shrinking violet. Large and lanky, the plant sports rather showy and conspicuous white flowers, and a robust specimen might be two feet in height. This species first got on my radar screen when my co-authors and I were researching our Floristic Quality Assessment Index of Ohio book. We eventually got to this species, and everyone produced a blank look. Between John Mack, Barb Andreas (co-authors) and myself, we had seen nearly every plant, native or not, that occurs in Ohio. Not this one. I'd share a photo of a real live growing one if I had one, but I've never come across such a photo.

This spearwort (member of the buttercup family) has a broad distribution in eastern North America. It occurs in 19 or 20 states. But I've done some checking, and it is listed as endangered, threatened, or extirpated (locally extinct) in nearly all of them.

Here's the Ohio distribution: specimen records from 19 counties. What happened?

It's much easier to pick up on NEW occurrences: plants or animals that are appearing where they haven't previously. When species gradually slip away over time, especially ones that don't loom large on people's radar screens, detecting their disappearance is harder. Had we not been immersed in looking intimately at every Ohio species of plant for our project, we certainly wouldn't have noticed the riddle of the missing spearwort.

My original theory about this loss involved two factors: habitat, and time of year. Waterplantain Spearwort grows in marshes that are densely vegetated, and might hold a foot or two of water at most seasons. Such haunts are often shunned due to the difficulty of getting around. Two, this plant blooms in the midst of summer, when heat, humidity and bugs are at their worst, further discouraging exploration.

But, especially in the last decade, botanists have done rather heavy exploration of such habitats in summer, and no one has turned up the spearwort. One might attribute its loss to the overall loss of wetlands - Ohio has lost about 90% of its presettlement wetlands - but that's too simplistic an explanation, in my view. There are still plenty of apparently suitable sites, including some of the places that this species was once found in.

My hunch is that a water quality issue is at work here. Increased turbidity - muddying of the waters - or perhaps chemical contaminants such as fertilizers may be impacting the spearwort. It grows,and presumably germinates, in water, and those factors may be inhibiting its ability to grow.

From what I know of Ranunculus ambigens, it is a worthy candidate for Federal listing, and should be the subject of a thorough study to determine its overall status. If anyone knows anything about the plant, I'd love to learn more.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Owls and Ears

I was wading through photos today, working on an upcoming talk, and came across a cool picture. I've probably shared it here sometime in the past, but maybe you haven't seen it.

Long-eared Owl, Asio otus. Or perhaps this individual ought to be called a "Lop-eared Owl". I came across this individual roosting in some white pines, and had spotted him from afar. Thus, I was able to get relatively close before he seemed to become aware of my presence.

Note how his ears are drooping like a basset hound! That's not the typical posture that we humans observe long-ears in. He seemed to become wise to me just seconds before I shot the photo; not long after he snapped to attention.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America Online.

Long-eared Owl, alert posture. Those "ears" aren't actually ears at all. They are ornaments that help disguise the bird, as when fully erect these appendages help the bird blend with its brushy surroundings and appear more stick-like. Also, when a Long-eared Owl feels a threat lurks, it'll "sleek" its body - compressing its feathers and sitting very upright and at attention. The transformation from relaxed posture to alert posture is quite remarkable. From chubby and lop-eared, to thin and stickish. At a glance, long-ears appear amazingly like a broken-off branch, and it's easy to pass them by.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bald-faced Hornet

Bald-faced Hornet nest, photo by Jim McCormac

The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Jim McCormac

Hornets OK unless you're yellow jacket

Winter is a good time to see interesting things that were concealed by summer’s dense cloak of leaves. One of the more conspicuous sights is large papery piñata-like nests that hang from branches.

Many people comment on them, believing they are looking at “honey bee” nests. Not even close. The architects that crafted the football-shaped orbs are related to bees, but otherwise the similarities are few. These engineering marvels are the handiwork of bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculata. Comparing one of these to a honey bee is akin to contrasting Clint Eastwood and Richard Simmons.

You are no doubt familiar with those nasty ill-tempered yellow jackets that swarm your pop can and wreak havoc at picnics. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of their sting knows, the black and yellow beasts pack a punch. They’re intimidating enough to send grown men running, arms flailing and screaming like pansies.

Bald-faced hornets bushwhack, kill, and eat yellow jackets. Now that’s one tough insect; terminators of the wasp world. If the adult hornet doesn’t make its own meal of the yellow jacket, it chews it into pulp and feeds it to young hornet larvae back in the nest.

Perhaps you’re thinking it’s time to eradicate all bald-faced hornets before next summer rolls around. No worries. Fortunately for us, these insects are quite mild-mannered, insofar as people go. Leave them alone and they’ll not mess with you, either. Most of their nests tend to be placed well out of reach, too.

This isn’t to say they won’t protect their nests if under siege. More than one person has discovered that dozens of angry bald-faced hornets are quite effective at protecting their property. Because their nests do resemble piñatas, more than one kid has been tempted to bust one open with a stick. These budding Einsteins quickly discover aversion therapy through the use of pain, and certainly will think twice before launching another hornet attack.

The nests are empty of wasps now; the cold of winter kills all but queens that were fertilized last fall. These survivors overwinter in ground burrows or tree cavities, and each will start a new nest in spring. Their first batch of larvae will become workers, whose main task is expanding the nest. Through successive generations, all working hard, the structure can grow to three feet in length.

Each nest is essentially a tiny paper mill. Like winged lumberjacks, the workers harvest wood, which they chew into pulp mixed with their starchy saliva. They smooth this mixture into ornate overlapping papery shrouds which serve to shelter the larval honeycombs.

If you encounter a bald-faced hornet nest next summer, have no fear. Leave them be; they’ll reciprocate. And think about all of those pesky yellow jackets they’re taking out!

Bald-faced Hornet, photo by John Pogacnik

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Waterfowl Symposium!

Late winter and early spring have become a real goldrush of interesting conferences. From time to time, I want to plug some of these events, as anyone interested in natural history should enjoy them.

First, another shout-out about the upcoming Waterfowl Symposium sponsored by the Ohio Ornithological Society and Columbus Audubon. This event features a raft of great speakers, interesting field trip sites, and a special Friday night performance by the Swinging Orangatangs, fronted by Bill Thompson and Julie Zickefoose.

All the details can be found HERE, or just click on the logo below.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wilds Winter Extravaganza: Part II

To the delight of most, and no doubt to the consternation of others, Ohio Ornithological Society forays often incorporate elements of natural history other than birds. Birds always take precedence, but we believe the feathered crowd is but part of a larger and more complex ecological web, and when the opportunity arises to share bigger pictures we like to take advantage.

In the photos below, you'll see a living, breathing, snorting much bigger picture in the flesh. WARNING: A cuteness overload advisory bulletin must be issued at this point. Should you be put off by chubby little 300 lb. infants with horns, go away now.

Your narrator flirts with death. Posing by one of the world's most dangerous beasts, a Southern White Rhinoceros. Those thick steel bars are no match for such a brute; had I made one misstep the animal would have been all over me.

Yeah, whatever.

This is the newest addition to the Wilds' family, three month old Anan, weighing in at a svelte 300 pounds. She tipped the scales at 70 lbs. when mommy dropped her. Think about that, any human child-bearers that may be reading, and be grateful you are not a rhino. Her darkened forenose is the result of rooting about in the mud, something rhinos greatly enjoy. As a boy, I was scolded for returning home caked in mud; in the rhino world such behavior is encouraged.

The mother, in the background, lending scale to the youthful Anan. Infant rhinos behave much like kittens or puppies, frisking about and investigating all. She was quite curious about all of the birders that came to visit, and would approach closely to have a look at us. The mother, who weighs more than your car, is a formidable guardian. It'll take Anan several years to reach that size, but she's working at it, munching lots of hay and packing on about 5 lbs a day.

It's interesting to watch people's reactions to the pubescent rhino. Scarcely anyone would term one of the adults as "cute"; virtually everyone calls the little one that. And it is. For a critter with skin as tough as rawhide, full of wrinkles, and the texture of tanned leather, fronted with a misshapen horn between two little piglike eyes, and capped with a pair of battered-looking dumbo ears, Anan is cute as the proverbial button.

Sliding up the scale a bit, we visited this one year old white rhino. They fill out considerably by this point; it is several times larger than Anan. Growing rhinos need their rest, and when they tire, they just sort of fall over. Note how it curls its foreleg under and splays the rear legs out to the side, just like a cat at leisure.

I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that protuberance. Mrs. Rhino horns in, checking us out. While fearsome in appearance, they seem surprisingly docile, although we all still appreciated those massive steel bars that separated us. In addition to rhinos, the Wilds works with some 30 other species of large animals, many of which are imperiled in the wild.

In breaking news, word is out that the Wilds has, for the first time ever, successfully crossed a rhino and an elephant. The big question is what to name the thing. When big game authority Dr. Baba Horn was asked what the new hybrid should be called, he replied: "HellifIknow!"

The foray ended with a Short-eared Owl vigil, from the big overlook deck built just for birders. The Ohio Division of Wildlife footed the bill for the deck - it wasn't cheap! - and we had the official ribbon-cutting back in December 2006, as part of another Ohio Ornithological Society event. Some 150 people jammed the platform for the ceremony, on a windy day with temperatures in the 20's.

It was much balmier - in the 40's - this time, but alas, those odd barking owls with the mothlike flight failed to put in an appearance. Oh well, their primary prey, meadow voles, are way down this winter and there aren't many short-eareds to be had. Next year, it'll probably be different.

Thanks once again to everyone who made this event possible: chief architect Marc Nolls, all of the fabulous trip leaders, and each and every birder who made the trip. And, of course, the staff of the Wilds, who go out of their way to work with the birding community, even to the point of showing us treats like Anan. Please visit the Wilds if you get the chance, and let them know that you appreciate their support of the birding community.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wilds Winter Extravaganza: Part I

Last Saturday marked the fifth annual Ohio Ornithological Society's "Winter Raptor Extravaganza". I'm not sure how the event evolved that name, but we'll go with it. As with all four prior WRP's, this one was a great time, and I've got enough material that I'm going to toss it up in two posts.

Early morning at the rendezvous point. Last year, it was 12 BELOW ZERO when we met. This year proved to be much balmier, with a high of 52. That's a temperature differential of 64 degrees from last year to this! That's Ohio weather for ya!

We had 150 in attendance this year; the ceiling for what we can accommodate. There were 199 requests, and we wish we could fit everyone in, but lunchtime meeting space and field trip logistics won't allow for any more. And speaking of logistics, major props to Marc Nolls, the OOS board member who spearheads this whole thing. Everything always works like a well-oiled machine, and that's because of Marc. We're also indebted to the numerous expert birders who graciously donate their time to lead the eight separate convoys, and the staff of the Wilds for hosting us and providing support.

A superficially bleak landscape, but the birding is always interesting at any season. The Wilds is sited on some 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip mine lands, and is adjoined by many thousands of additional acreage owned by American Electric Power. That's a lot of land to roam, and it's an Arctic-like setting that no doubt makes the Rough-legged Hawks feel right at home.

One of the most numerous raptors this year were Red-tailed Hawks, such as this adult. They were already getting chummy, with some pairs sitting side by side. We even saw one bird adding sticks to a nest.

Front view of the same red-tail. They stick out a mile away when their bright white breasts catch the sun. Our group and at least one other had extended views of a Golden Eagle - a major Wilds specialty - and we saw many Rough-legged Hawks. There were a few Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, a Merlin, one Bald Eagle, a few Red-shouldered Hawks, and a smattering of others. In general, raptors are way down in numbers this winter, due to a poor crop of small mammals. Next year will probably be better, as Meadow Vole populations are cyclical and hopefully will be on the rebound.

A group scans the grasslands from the Birding Station at Jeffrey Point, which offers awe-inspiring vistas. An interesting fly-by here was a Wilson's Snipe. These are tough sandpipers, and a few will overwinter in open seeps. We had other nice birds and the total list for the day was 50-some species.

This coyote put on a show as it streaked across the ice of a frozen pond. There are plenty of them around here. And more White-tailed Deer than you will ever see in one place in Ohio. Much of the Wilds is fenced in, the better to contain the 30 or species of large animals that the Wilds works with. These include everything from Takin to Bison to Bactrian Camel. The presence of the beasts sometimes makes for a surreal backdrop, and interesting directions: "There! The Short-eared Owl is over top of the Bison herd, just about to cross by the camel!"

Because wild White-tailed Deer are savvy critters, they've learned that the fenced confines of the Wilds is a safe haven, and it's not uncommon to have 30 or 40 in view at once.

Our group admires a distant Rough-legged Hawk sitting on one of those round hay bales. These big, round bales weigh 1,000 pounds, and make great raptor perches. It's a shame that, beginning next year, you won't see them anymore, as the Department of Agriculture has banned the round bales,

"Why?", I'm sure you are asking. Because, the cows can't get a square meal.

A day of driving the wet, clayey roads of the Wilds and vicinity produces a vehicle that looks like this. In this case, my normally shiny black VW Jetta, so smudged with grime that the back license plate can hardly be discerned.

We get enough people at this event that lunch must be done in two shifts, as the building can only accommodate about 75 people. We're not complaining - we're grateful that the Wilds opens the building especially for us. Not only that, their staff always provides an interesting lunchtime program about the facility. This year, Dr. Nicole Cavender presented an interesting overview of the Wilds, along with a video that showcased highlights of the operation.

Next up: photos of the cutest/ugliest little beast imaginable; a special behind-the-scenes highlight of this year's extravaganza.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A bizarre tale of twitchers and shags

The following article appeared in Wednesday's Angling Times, a publication for fishermen in the United Kingdom. It's a strange amd interesting read, and reveals a clash of cultures not seen in these parts, at least at this level. Read on...

Angling Times
Steve Partner: The dark heart of twitching
By Steve Partner

General News

13 January 2010 09:29

It's a story that I guarantee will ignite fury in every angler from Exeter to Elgin. And if it doesn't you've neither a sense of justice nor fair play. For the sake of those who missed it, let me relate the facts. No conjecture, no spin, no bias. Just the cold, clear and precise detail.

Malcolm Rigby, under instruction from St Helens Angling Association, visited Carr Mill Dam to legally shoot a single cormorant in accordance with a licence the club had obtained from the government.

Having successfully completed the task, the 63-year-old was returning to his car via the public path that surrounds the venue. It was at this point he was challenged by a man, almost certainly a birdwatcher, who had been spying on him while he undertook the shoot. Malcolm was then verbally abused before being punched in the face. Unable to defend himself because he had his hands full with gun, dead cormorant and a dog lead, he turned away, only to be subjected to the epitome of cowardice: he was repeatedly punched in the back.

The attack, which some of the better informed are suggesting may have been committed by a 'heavy' paid for by the birdwatching fraternity that also use Carr Mill Dam, left him with a broken nose and cracked ribs. All this for simply helping a fishing club safeguard its stock. Sometimes, rarely, words fail me.

While this level of abuse might be mercifully rare, the assault once again highlights the very real animosity that exists between anglers and a body of people that I have grown to thoroughly dislike in my time as a fishing journalist.

It's not that I don't get birdwatching (although the idea of travelling hundreds of miles to sit in a hide hoping to catching a fleeting glimpse of a ferruginous duck or paddyfield warbler is a somewhat alien concept) because I actually quite enjoy seeing them in a their one-piece-of-the-jigsaw-that-make-up-the-countryside way. It's more that I find those that do it so unbearably sanctimonious about the creatures they choose to spy on.

It's as if birds, above everything else in the living kingdom, deserve some kind of higher, near-biblical status, and heaven forfend anyone who dares think otherwise. And, as anglers, we are barely rated above shooters in the eyes of these people. Despite most fishermen being nature lovers, it appears we are all tarred with the same brush of contempt. We leave litter. We discard hooks and line. We use poisonous lead. We kill birds.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. But it doesn't stop birdwatchers ­ and its representative body, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ­ doing everything they can to make us out to be callous murderers. Be in no doubt, the vast majority of these people would have our sport banned tomorrow if they could.

Here's a thing. When I started putting this piece together I did some background research on the subject. And far from being the preserve of mild eccentrics like the nauseating Bill Oddie, I found a world populated by obsessives, a world full of jealousy, hate and skullduggery. I read stories of bitter rivalries, with men prepared to go to extreme lengths to out-do the other. If you thought birdwatching was largely restricted to gardens and parks, think again.

I learnt of mobile phone and pager-carrying armies, ready to mobilise at the moment a dark-eyed junco, Baird's sandpiper, desert wheatear or long-billed dowitcher is inadvertently blown off course into some remote outpost of the UK. I discovered how these fanatics think nothing of travelling upwards of 80,000 miles in a year, spending thousands of pounds chasing around the British Isles by road, air and sea in the desire to clock up as many different birds as possible.

The most fervent of what are more commonly known as twitchers ­ essentially bird watching's paramilitary wing ­ can spot more than 350 species in 12 months.

Lee Evans was a name that cropped up more than any other. In the twitching world, this man is, or was before his 'retirement', God. Not only is he in the Guinness Book of Records for seeing the most species of bird in a calendar year in Britain ­ 359 in 1990 ­ he's also a man who used to travel by private jet to beat his rivals to get a rare sighting. By his own admission, his obsession dominated his life.

How about this for a quote once attributed to him?

"It's like a drug. I can't control it. If someone rings me with news of a bird, I get jittery. I can't cope with not seeing it," he said.

Who would have guessed the Fellowship of Anorak, Binoculars and Flask could be so serious? Serious and sad.

But I digress. Everyone is, of course, entitled to pursue any hobby they wish and the point I'm making is that this often bizarre avian world has simply been the beneficiary of some extremely clever marketing.

In the RSPB (membership one million-plus), birdwatchers have a body with muscle, influence and, crucially, brains. In the Angling Trust (membership 11,000), anglers have a body bereft of all three. As such, the national and local media is routinely fed stories that first seek to portray those who watch birds as heaven-sent conservationists and second try to ensure that anyone or anything that threatens these creatures is depicted as the devil incarnate.

What especially bothers me is just what the outcome would have been if the boot had been on the other foot in this case. What if an angler had decided, for whatever reason, to physically assault a twitcher? Can you imagine the headlines? The angler would have been painted as a cruel Neanderthal bully, the birdwatcher some kind of symbolic martyr, and the sport of fishing forced to take another damaging blow to the stomach.

And if you think I'm exaggerating, there have been precedents. How many ill-informed tales have you read in local and national newspapers where fishermen have been depicted as bird killers? Plenty, I'd guess.

The best recent example was at Bewdley on the River Severn, where a woman called Jan Harrigan attempted to ban angling in the town centre. Despite lead shot having been outlawed since the 1980s, she still claimed very publicly that numerous resident swans had died directly from lead used by anglers. The local papers lapped it up without asking a single question.

Predictably, it turned out the cause of death had nothing to do with fishing at all ­ the blame lie instead with noxious sediment on the river bed. Yet had it not been for the campaigning efforts of local resident and AT
columnist, Des Taylor, the ban may well have been enforced and angling stopped for good.

This, sadly, is just one example. Birders don't like anglers. Full stop. Be under no illusion. The RSPB is a well-oiled, well-funded and totally self-interested body. Understandably in its eyes, the welfare of Britain's birds comes first. Any perceived threat, however unfounded and however spurious, is therefore swatted like a fly.

On the contrary, we ­ despite having what should be vast strength given our numbers ­ always seem to be undermined by those that represent us. Just look at cormorants.

Although the sport collated clear evidence that these birds, having seen their natural food source dwindle, were moving from the coast to unnatural feeding grounds inland and devastating coarse fish stocks, it took one hell of a battle for fishery owners to secure the right to cull them simply in order to safeguard their businesses.

Even now, as more and more of these hideous creatures continue to rape both natural and man-made venues, it takes far too long for the necessary paperwork ­ if it is ever granted ­ to be procured.

Look, I know there are many anglers who relish the chance of seeing a bird or two when they're on the bank and many would indeed see themselves as bird lovers.

But the fact remains that the dedicated watchers and their representative body are largely anti-angling.

These people may appear innocent, bedecked as they are in woolly hats, anoraks and binoculars, but be warned: they are no friends of ours. Malcolm Rigby is still bearing the proof of that on his battered face.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fish Crow - next Ohio species

Fish Crow, Corvus ossifragus, cavorting at Cape May, New Jersey. If my hand were forced, and I absolutely had to lay odds on the next new species of bird to turn up in Ohio, my money would be on this nasal-sounding beast.

In fact, it seems rather remarkable we've not yet had Fish Crow in the state. They're on a tear, and turning up all around us Buckeyes - we are nearly hemmed on by the clever shoreline-dwelling critters.

A map, as is plain to see. But not just any map - this is a map of the Fish Crow's turf, courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's a nice map, and depicts the U-shaped distribution that characterizes a huge number of coastal plain animals and plants. Atlantic seaboard, down along the Gulf, and a hard right northward up the great Mississippi Valley. There we are, the hapless and fishcrowless Buckeyes, stuck kind of right in the middle. Fish Crows are on either side of us. But not here. Not yet. 2010 could be the year that all changes, though.

Actually, our fishy corvid has recently come that much closer, and appears to be well on its way to colonizing the Great Lakes, at least the lower lakes. There have been about 16 records to date along Lake Erie's north shore, in Ontario. They come from the stretch of shore between Point Pelee and Long Point - basically all across from Ohio, and separated by a mere 50 miles or so of water.

One turned up last spring in western Pennsylvania, not too very far from Ohio. And Allen Chartier spearheaded a crow campaign in Berrien County, Michigan and adjacent Indiana - the southeastern corner of Lake Michigan. They found a number of individuals over there, and that's an easy flight to Ohio.
All of the data suggests Fish Crows are colonizing the Great Lakes, and following a distributional pattern shared by scores of other flora and fauna. It stands to reason Ohio is next on the list of territories to be conquered by the crow. In fact, it would be remarkable if they didn't turn up here soon. Conventional wisdom here has always been that Fish Crows will appear along the Ohio River, and maybe they will. But my money is on Lake Erie.

So, next March and April, keep an eye peeled for crows, and listen for THIS ODD SOUND. You aren't going to confirm this species by sight alone; they must be heard to be understood. The funny nasal caws of the Fish Crow will catch your ear, I'll guarantee it. Toledo, the vicinity of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Sandusky Bay - maybe even the fabled lakeshore Lake County "yard" of John Pogacnik - one of these places MUST produce Fish Crows!

Here's hoping it's in 2010.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Merlin makes the paper

The Columbus Dispatch has a long history of writing about nature and the environment. In fact, the newspaper runs what must be one of the longest running natural history columns of any newspaper.

Venerable naturalist Edward S. Thomas, a lawyer turned biologist, began a column in the Dispatch in March of 1922. Ed's first work appeared on March 5, 1922, and was entitled "Our Birds". This inaugural work laid down Ed's style: science made interesting, facts distilled into language that anyone could understand, all woven together in Ed's colorful, almost poetically descriptive prose. He went on to write over 3,000 more columns in a remarkable display of longevity spanning 59 years.

Ed's interests were broad indeed. Nothing in nature escaped his notice, and he became an acknowledged expert in a great many facets of the natural sciences. I was 18 when Ed wrote his last column, on rare winter birds. But I'd been reading Ed's column faithfully for many years, as even as a pre-teen I was fascinated with nature. Thomas' range of interests and expert command of so many subjects amazed me, and made a big impression.

In 1980, Ed Thomas handed the reins to legendary birder Jim Fry, who went on to pen the next 801 columns, now entitled Nature. Fry never missed a week in the entire 29 years that he wrote the column. An avid lister who traveled far and wide across the Buckeye State, Jim focused more on birds than Ed did, but his columns remained faithful to Ed's standard of interesting and educational columns.

I was flattered indeed to be approached by Jim and the newspaper about picking up the pen to keep the column going into its ninth decade of continual production. It took absolutely zero time to agree; I was floored to have the opportunity. Rare indeed is the chance to carry on such a tradition, especially when the two writers who have preceded me had such a profound influence on my own interests.

Merlin perched on a most appropriate sign; photo by Dr. Bernie Master. This is one of the coolest shots I've ever seen of one of these feathered speedsters, and Bernie was good enough to allow me to use it with my first Nature column, which appears below:

The Columbus Dispatch
January 3rd, 2010
Jim McCormac

Raptors are exciting birds. Like feathered missiles, they lock onto prey with laserlike eyes, and rocket out in pursuit. If all goes well – from the bird of prey’s perspective – the victim is seized, quickly dispatched, torn asunder and eaten. This is drama in the food chain, writ large.

Few predators weave their homicidal magic better than the merlin. These small falcons are consummate hunters, and small birds are their soup de jour. A small songbird caught in the sights of a merlin is in a heap of trouble.

Merlins are just a whisker bigger than the American kestrel – our most common Ohio falcon – but they’re one and a half times as heavy. This translates to a beefier bulk, and much more purposeful appearance. If these falcons were action heroes, the kestrel would be Bruce Willis; the merlin, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Falcons are characterized by long pointed wings and sleek tapered bodies. Everything about them is geared towards speed; these are feathered Lamborghinis operating at the outer limits of avian performance. As with the other falcons, merlins have a distinctive “mustache”; a dark splash of feathering on the side of their face. Unlike most of our birds of prey, male and female merlins look different. Females are brownish above, while males are slaty blue.

From a prominent perch, or while trolling on the wing, merlins search out lesser birds to attack. When prey is spotted, the falcon blasts off in pursuit. In an unbelievable burst of speed, the falcon is on its victim in the blink of an eye, often before the meal to be can react. Death is instantaneous; just a puff of feathers marking the spot. The merlin then retreats to a lofty perch to snack.

There are more merlins to admire these days. They, like many other species, were hard hit by rampant, unregulated pesticide use several decades ago. As DDT and other toxins have been purged from the environment, merlins have rebounded, their reproductive cycles no longer ravaged by poisons.

Merlins are ever-increasing fixtures in large urban cemeteries in winter. Big grave yards approximate their favored habitat of open country interspersed with large trees. Cemeteries are often urban oases for wildlife, including lots of songbirds, so there is food aplenty for the falcons. While merlins occur only as migrants and in winter, the day may come when they breed here, too.

For several years, Green Lawn Cemetery on Columbus’s south side has hosted one or two wintering merlins. No shrinking violets, they are prone to sitting atop dead branches jutting from the tallest trees. Fawning admirers don’t put them off, either – the merlin often won’t acknowledge its star-struck visitors with as much as a glance. People represent neither threat nor potential meal, and the little falcons arrogantly ignore us.

Regardless of your opinion of a bird that has no compunction about blasting your cardinal to bits, the increase in merlins is a wonderful thing. They are feathered success stories; proof that environmental disasters can be fixed. Urban-dwelling merlins also serve as ambassadors to nature; fascinating entrees into the world of birds. I have watched many a new birder stand transfixed by a merlin high overhead in a tree. They never fail to make an impression.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"White" Hawk

Thanks to Russ Reynolds for sharing these photos of a striking leucistic Red-tailed Hawk that has been hanging out in the Lima, Ohio area. This one is an exceptional example of an abnormally pigmented red-tail; it is almost entirely white.

I guarantee this bird attracts its fair share of attention. Leucistic raptors, especially ones that are this conspicuous, sometimes become local celebrities. Since they can live for a long time, such birds might haunt an area for years.

Thanks again to Russ for the shots! I also want to mention that Russ' photo of a Baltimore Oriole was selected for the inaugural Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp, which will debut in March. Funds from stamp sales will go to support habitat acquisition and restoration, research, rare species conservation, and more.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I miss plants

It is 19 degrees with light misting snow right now in Columbus, Ohio. Everything is blanketed in white. Nary a shade of green to be seen in the out of doors - other than some conifers - and it's about this time of year that I always start to miss the flora.

While going through scads of photos the other day researching a project, this one caught my eye. Perhaps because it is the antithesis of the season we are now snowed into. I snapped this shot of Swamp Rose, Rosa palustris, on July 1st - another universe from this time of year, botanically speaking.

We have five species of native roses in Ohio, and they all look good. But Swamp Rose may lead the pack in sheer showiness. Just don't try crashing through the stuff. The dense shrubs are heavily armed with stiff downward-curved thorns, and you'll get cut to ribbons for your transgression.

Purple Fringed Orchid, Platanthera psycodes, one of Ohio's 46 native orchids and one of the rarest. I just became aware of this find a month back, when Don Schmenk, manager of the Maumee State Forest in northwest Ohio, tipped me to it. A person who regularly explores the forest hit the jackpot when they found these.

Purple Fringed Orchid is endangered here, and in a good year, there may not be 100 plants in the state, in total.

Most of Ohio's orchids are rather nondescript, insofar as orchids go. Don't get me wrong - all of them are cool, and have very interesting floral structures. But most of 'em don't look like this creature. A Purple Fringed Orchid in its full glory is enough to drive an avid gardener mad with desire, made all the worse by the difficulty of capturing one. Many thoughtless and ignorant people do dig plants like this, with aspirations of pinkening the garden with their blooms.

It won't happen, though - wild orchids are notoriously hard to grow, and don't often last long. It's best to leave them in their wild state, and unfortunately it's also necessary to take some care to safeguard locations such as this one.
Orchids produce a bonanza of windborn dust-like seeds. These miniscule vessels lack sufficient stored food and other nutrients of their own; thus they must quickly tap into subterranean fungi for sustenance. These myccorhizal fungal relationships flourish and sustain the orchids, and are typically impossible for the average person to replicate, hence any plundered orchids don't last long.

If you like plants, consider attending this year's Ohio Botanical Symposium on March 26, right here in Columbus. The event typically attracts about 400 people, and is a fantastic opportunity to meet other botanists and learn lots about flora. All the details are RIGHT HERE.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Red-shouldered Hawk

Happy New Year's, everyone! I want to thank everyone who visits this blog. I've been at this, in one form or another, for a long time - before the term "blog" had been coined. My blog is - for me, anyway - a good place to share some of what I know or am learning about natural history. There is NEVER a shortage of material - if time permitted I could put something up here every day.

I'm also fortunate that a fair number of people stop by to read this blog. Over the past month, people have surfed in from 73 countries and every U.S. state except Wyoming. C'mon, Mr. Cheney, point that browser this way!

Anyway, whether I ever hear from you or not, I'm glad you find this corner of the blogosphere interesting enough to check out.

Now, I know a number of regular visitors hail from places that rarely if ever see snow, and temperatures seldom drop low enough to raise even a goosebump. The next few photos are for you.

Saturday, January 1st, the Wilds, Muskingum County, Ohio. Temperature about 22 degrees, along with strong winds. Heavy leaden skies blocked out any sunlight, making it seem even colder. We were there for the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, and, believe it or not, had nearly 40 species in our patch.

Today, January 2nd, on a boondock lane in the backwoods of Hocking County. Temperature: 18 degrees. Deep in this hemlock-choked hollow, blocked of any wind, things did not seem so bad, though. Plus, the Eidermobile has heated seats - a most pragmatic luxury in such conditions! I was there to participate in the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count, my sixth and final count of this CBC season.

Anyway, to the subject at hand. An absolutely gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk allows me to fawn over it at close range. This is one of the world's most beautiful raptors. Adults, like the bird pictured, possess an almost impossibly ornate suite of plumage characters: bright orange-red scalloping below, black and white checkerboarding on the wings, a diminutive bright yellow bill, and a wonderful tail barred in black and white.

Nearly anyone would find this animal of interest. Even someone who had never really looked at birds before would probably be starstruck by this sort of view of a Red-shouldered Hawk. And the viewing opportunities are far more plentiful than they were just a decade or so ago in Ohio, as this raptor has been on the upswing.

This bird sailed across North High Street in downtown Worthington yesterday, right in front of my car. He kindly sat down in a tree at the intersection of High and North Street, across from the venerable Dairy Queen, where I used to go sometimes for lunch back in high school. Many thousands of people pass by this location every day.

The nearby neighborhoods have aged to the point where the trees are now of suitable size to support breeding Red-shouldered Hawks, and the star of this blog post is one half of the local pair. Red-shouldereds have increased in many other urban areas in Ohio, too.

A short vid, showing the hawk and his busy neighborhood. The bird is seemingly well acclimated to people; he allowed me to act the paparazzi a scant 50 feet or so from his tree, scarcely bothering to reward me with a so much as a sideways glance.

The graph depicts the past 40 years of Christmas Bird Count data from Ohio. It doesn't take an ornithologist to see that the story is a positive one. There are likely two factors leading to this recovery. One, the gradual purge of DDT from the environment. This pesticide had terrible impacts on raptors, and caused great declines in many species.

Two, the overall recovery of forested habitats has allowed Red-shouldered Hawks to reclaim many former breeding areas. This is very much a raptor of woodands, and suffered when deforestation was at its worst. Now, as forests are aging they are becoming suitable habitat once again. This holds true even in older heavily treed neighborhoods in urban areas. A common companion species of Red-shouldered Hawk is the Barred Owl, which shares similar haunts. The owl is also beoming a more frequent urban dweller, and many of the wooded ravines in Columbus now sport both the owl and red-shouldereds.