Thursday, April 29, 2010

Muddlety stuff

Yesterday, our particular little expedition - part of the New River Birding & Nature Festival - went to a boondock place we call Muddlety. Lots of neat stuff was seen, both big and small.

Lest I forget, I really want to offer up a thousand thanks to the organizers of this fine event. It's a personal highlight of the year and this corner of West Virginia ranks high among the world's coolest places. Major kudos to Dave and Lynne Pollard, Geoff Heeter, Keith Richardson, and everyone who pulls the NRBNF together. Maybe YOU can make it next year.

Looming large above the lesser members of the forest canopy is one of Muddlety's most famous residents. It is a gargantuan Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, the largest in all of West Virginia.

We of course stopped by to pay homage. This is a big tree.

Your narrator and five friends ring the tree, sort of hug it if you will. I guess this makes us tree-huggers, but we do show the girth of this giant. It's hard to imagine a time, not all that long ago, when such sylvan behemoths dominated our forests, and would have been mundane. We've cut nearly all of the monster timber down and made it into houses, boxes, paper, and a myriad other things. This Tulip Tree was around when you were a kid, your mother was a kid, her mother was a kid, her mother was a kid...

At the other end of the size scale and dancing nearly in the shadows of that tulip were these - Pipevine Swallowtails puddling at a patch of nutrient-rich mud. Orange, blue, and black, when the sunlight glints off one you'll stop in your tracks. Scads of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails were coursing about as well. As Tulip Tree is a host plant for the latter, it's likely that our state champ in the preceding photos has fostered countless thousands of tigers over the centuries.

Another piece of magical mud was jampacked with dozens of Pearl Crescents. Crescents are truly Lilliputian. I'd be it would take at least 4.3 billion of them to equal the mass of that Tulip Tree.

An obliging chap, this Comma. It boldly dashed out and lit on one of our people's arm. Made for great photo ops, and you can see the silvery comma-shaped arc on the underwing that gives this species its name. When perched on tree bark or on a branch, they blend with their surroundings extraordinarily well. When they fan those wings, the upper surface is a tawny-golden palette of dots and dashes.

We were delighted to spot this thumbnail-sized bit of loveliness lurking in the shadows. It is a Red-banded Hairstreak, one of the showiest of its ilk. This tiny butterfly demonstrates the value of looking closely at things.

Impossibly ornamented in a nearly unfathomable fashion, the hairstreak's antennae and legs are striped in zebraesque barber pole. Why on earth would such a scarcely noticable creature be so elaborately marked? Who knows, but I'm sure the girl hairstreaks are mightily impressed by this stud. But at a glance, this gem would be no more than a fleeting dark shadow that would scarcely register on the senses. It's only when one takes the time to investigate that all of the fantastic details come into focus.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An imcomparable orchid

While pursuing Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Hooded Warblers in a beautiful patch of West Virginia woodland this morning, one of our party glanced into the shadows and spotted a majestic wildflower. We were very pleased by this distraction, and many photos were made of a truly fine specimen of one of our most interesting orchids.

Showy Orchis, Galearis spectabilis, fairly glows from the dim shadows cast by towering hemlocks. Once seen, the plant grabs the eye, but it is quite easy to pass right by these little orchids. A big one - and this specimen was a whopper - might tower six inches skyward.

The leaves are large and greasy-looking, and have a look to them that makes you want to rub them between your fingers. I have, and they feel pretty neat. Like so many of its orchidaceous brethren, Showy Orchis most always occur in areas that are subject to occasional disturbance. This plant was growing in a small ditch along a gravel drive.

The genus name Galearis is derived from the Greek word Galea, which means "helmet". It refers to the hood of the flower; the pinkish part. This "hood" is actually formed by fused or connivent petals and sepals, and it does resemble some sort of Roman battle helmet. The pink hood contrasts nicely with the snowy-white lower lip, and the overall effect is quite pleasing and nearly always elicits a favorable reaction from those who are fortunate enough to stumble into one. The specific epithet spectabilis is especially apropos; it means "showy".

Galearis spectabilis = "Showy Helmet".

This botanical gem is yet another reason to sing the praises of those large fuzzy bumblebees - they are primary pollinators of this stunning orchid.

Yet another jewel found during this year's New River Birding and Nature Festival. Tomorrow, it's off to Muddlety.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sugar Creek Mountain

Today, our group wound our way up to the summit of Sugar Creek Mountain via a twisty, steep-sided narrow road. Spending a leisurely several hours working our way back down, we saw lots of great birds, and other interesting flora and fauna.

All the participants at the New River Birding Festival rendezvous at 6 am for a wonderful breakfast, prepared and eaten out of doors. Not far from our meeting spot is a latrine - probably one of the more heavily scrutinized outhouses in the eastern U.S. Lights illuminate the little building all night, and by morning moths aplenty have gathered on its walls. The Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, is always a crowd-pleaser.

We did well with the birds this morning. Great looks were had of Worm-eating, Cerulean, Black-throated Green, Hooded, Yellow-throated, and Black-and-white warblers, Northern Parula, American Redstart, and many other songbirds. Here, the group takes turns admiring a cooperative Great Crested Flycatcher through my scope.

Great Crested Flycatchers typically occupy the upper subcanopy, where they can be hard to see. This one teed up on the tip of an oak, allowing us to admire his dashing cinnamon, yellow, and gray plumage, and listen to his loud war-whoop calls.

My co-leader was the fabulous Keith Richardson, who among his many other talents, is a magnificent plant gofer. Here, he wrestles a Dutchman's-pipe, Aristolochia macrophylla, to the ground so that we can admire it. This high-climbing vine is a host plant for the gorgeous Pipevine Swallowtail, and on warm sunny days Sugar Creek Mountain is awash with the butterflies.

This is why Keith pulled the plant down to our level - we wanted to admire the odd brownish flowers that give this species its common name.

We were delighted to encounter this animal, which was a life moth for all. It is an Orange-patched Smoky Moth, Pyromorpha dimidiata. The caterpillars apparently feed on leaf detritus on the forest floor. As you can see, the adults are stunning creatures, and many photos were made of the elfin beast.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More West Virginia

Some of the New River Birding Festival crowd, scoping out the goodies right outside the main cabin at Opossum Creek Resort. This is not only one of the most biologically rich places in the eastern U.S., the viewscapes are fabulous at every turn. Today was misty and wet but never oppressive, and we saw lots of birds. The weather is to take a turn for the brighter, and we expect dry and bright for the remainder of the week.

Festival staple and hummingbird guru supreme Bill Hilton. Bill sets up his banding operation, captures interesting birds, and thrills the onlookers with up close and personal experiences of species such as Brown Thrasher, White-throated Sparrow, Indigo Bunting and many others.

Bill is one of only 152 licensed hummingbird banders in the U.S., and he successfully plied his trade today. We had just watched this male Ruby-throated Hummingbird through a scope for ten minutes as it loafed on a high branch. Then, off it buzzed, and BINGO - right into Bill's cleverly designed trap. We took a moment to ogle the iridescent ruby gorget feathers of this tiny dynamo, then Bill set to work weighing, measuring, and ringing the sprite with an impossibly tiny leg band.

Nearly over top of the cabin, in a low branch of an oak, is one of the most magnificent architectural works in the bird world, the nest of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Looking all the world like a lichen-encrusted bump, the nest is an ornate assemblage of plant down shingled with lichens, glued together with spider webbing. YOU try and make something like that!

Looking forward to ascending Sugar Creek Mountain tomorrow.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

West Virginia

Dusk sets on the New River Gorge, Fayetteville, West Virginia. This is one of my favorite places, anywhere, and I'm here all week to lead field trips for the New River Birding Festival. I'll be tossing highlights out into the blogosphere throughout the week, and there'll be plenty of interesting stuff to report. If you haven't made this event, consider putting it on next year's agenda.

The famous Route 19 bridge over the New River, the 2nd longest steel arch bridge in the world. This area is full of scenic wonders, although most of them are natural. More to come...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

American Goldfinch

I led a bird walk today, and some of the participants were very new to birds and birding. We saw many interesting species: Pileated Woodpecker, Cooper's Hawks displaying, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers constructing a nest, Ruby-crowned Kinglets flashing their topknots, etc.

Winner of the ooh and aah factor award?

It may have been this species, the American Goldfinch.

Few of our breeding birds in Ohio are as magnificent as a male goldfinch wearing his springtime finery. Coupled with their uplifting, undeniably cheery song, this is certainly a bird worthy of oohs and aahs.

It's easy to get jaded by repetition, and I've probably seen countless thousands of goldfinches. I hope they never lose their lustre, for me.

These photos were taken this afternoon in Worthington, Ohio.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Brutish clam-cracker

On a recent foray into the depths of southernmost Ohio's Adams County, Randy Lakes took me to see a wooded hillside carpeted with a fantastic array of spring flora. While I was busily photographing trillium, cohosh, and other botanical gems, Randy called out "turtle!" And lo and behold, basking on a limestone slab far below the country lane that we were strolling along, was an armor-plated whopper.

We had stumbled across a Map Turtle, Graptemys geographica, lolling about in the sunshine on a rock along Ohio Brush Creek. Even though Randy and I were a good 100+ feet away and high above the river, the turtle was fully aware of us and watching warily. Knowing something about these turtles and their behavior, I advised a slow, stealthy advance in order to procure photos, the wildflowers now forgotten.

Map Turtles love to sun themselves, but usually do so right at the edge of a rock; thus they can quickly drop into the water and vanish should a threat appear. Believe it or not, I once had a job that required investigating riparian (streamside) corridors by canoe, or foot if necessary. Because of that position, I've either floated or walked a huge number of miles of Ohio's streams, and in the course of doing so caught scads of turtles of every expected species. Maps and the soft-shelled turtles are the wariest, and for the most part you won't get anywhere near them.

Map Turtle prepares to slip into the drink. These are the only photos I managed, and they were taken at full 12x zoom, and then cropped. Even so, the bold yellow blotch behind the eye is evident; a good long-distance field mark. We can also see the characteristic shape of the carapace, or upper shell, which is rather low and flat with an obvious keel down the center.

Both the common name, map, and the scientific epithet, geographica, refer to the beautifully ornamented carapace. On younger specimens or especially bright turtles, the shell is decorated with ornate lines and squiggles, resembling the elevational lines on a topographic map.

Map Turtles inhabit larger streams and rivers with a permanent flow, and sometimes lakes. They are amongst our largest turtles - a big female might exceed 10 inches in length and weigh several pounds. Although I never found them to be particularily aggressive when caught, you do want to mind the mandibles. Their jaws are VERY powerful, and the turtles are fond of snacking on clams and crayfish, which are cracked open much as you would crack a walnut.

Turtles are a fascinating part of stream life, but rather hard to observe. A tip for turtlers: employ birding tactics. Use your binoculars to scan open muddy banks, logs, and rocks way down the stream. By spotting turtles before you invade their comfort zone, a much closer approach can sometimes be made.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Artful camouflage

Find the moth! It's right there, in the exact center of the photo. In a recent foray in southern Ohio, we flushed a decent-sized brownish moth, and I tracked its course. When it lit on the bark of a nearby tree, it was rendered nearly invisible.

This is major camo. The moth in question is one of the myriad Geometrid moths; this particular one is called the Tulip Tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. They are bark mimics, and obviously blend well with woody substrates.

A closer look. The photo is sharp; clear as a bell and frame-filling. Nevertheless, the moth is still hard to differentiate from the bark.

Ohio has an estimated 2,500 species of moths, and that's enough to provide a real challenge for those wanting to learn a new group. Most are nocturnal and obscure, but often beautiful and interesting upon inspection.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Carpenter Bees

A conspicuous insect of spring is the Eastern Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa virginica. People often comment on the behavior of the seemingly aggressive males as they guard nests. Carpenter bees are bumblebee look-alikes, and they're big and create a loud ominous buzz. Have no fear - males have no stinger and can't stick you.

I took this photo last year in Columbus. Note the nearly entirely black, shiny abdomen. Bumblebees (Bombus ssp.) have lots of yellow on the abdomen, which is mostly hairy. This individual was attempting to short-circuit normal pollination procedure, and eat through the base of this mint. Flowers with long corolla tubes can be difficult or impossible for the bee to access the pollen, so they eat their way in.

This shot is from last weekend, in Adams County. Note the male's whitish face, another field mark that distinguishes it from bumblebees, which have black faces. Look at the shape of this thing - it's like a tiny beer barrel with wings! No wonder the aeronautical engineers don't think large bees should be able to fly, at least on paper.

He was fiercely guarding a female, and it was a treat to watch. The bee would hover noisily on point, abruptly turning 90 degrees every few seconds. If any other winged insect happened by, it would be on the interloper instantly, and essentially fly right into it like some clumsy big-time wrestler. It'd even rush towards me if I got too close.

Apparently male carpenter bees are real studs, and once one has paired with a female, it has to constantly guard her lest one of the other boys make a play for her.

Eastern Carpenter Bees are a double-edged sword. They are very valuable as pollinators in the ecological web, and we need all of the pollinators we can get. On the downside, they can cause structural damage to the wooden features of buildings, as females drill sizeable holes and chambers in wood. Get enough of them drilling in the cabin for a long enough time, and some serious issues can arise.

At least we don't have to worry about the fiercely protective males stinging us.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Painted Hickory Borer

It's not often that one gets a "life bug" while in their office, but it happened to me today. Colleagues at work know that I'm interested in a wide sphere of things in natural history, and routinely deliver specimens of flora and fauna, curious as to their identity. I appreciate their curiosity, because I always learn a lot from identifying mysteries, too.

I had stepped away from the office briefly, and upon returning noticed a thick glass jar sitting on my desk. "Ah, a bug of some sort!" thought I, seeing a small moving shape through the opaque glass. Unscrewing the lid brought clarity to the situation, and I quickly realized there were two gorgeous Painted Hickory Borers, Megacyllene caryae, within the jar! I'm no Eric Eaton, and the reason that I knew its identity so quickly is because this was a bug high on my most wanted list.

A type of long-horned beetle, the Painted Hickory Borer is a stunner. And a bit of a mystery. In all of my poking about I had never seen one, and the person that brought them to me had never seen them before, in ten years of living on their Knox county property. Painted Hickory Borers look nearly identical to another, apparently much more common species, which I'll get to. It seems that in most texts and references, this one is hardly mentioned and often just as a brief footnote in accounts of its more common relative.

This borer and some others of its ilk are thought to be wasp mimics, and they do look the part. When they do emerge from their woody haunts, Megacyllene borers spend time nectaring at flowers, and looking like a stinging nasty is probably a good ploy. As you have no doubt inferred from the common name, this beetle utilizes hickory trees (genus Carya) in the subadult stages.

I wonder if this is an irruptive species. In other words, many years can pass with populations remaining at very low levels, and then, for whatever reasons, the population explodes and we get a conspicuous outbreak. The finders of this specimen report that dozens were around their yard. And coincidentally, I was told of yet another large concentration of Painted Hickory borers today, near Chillicothe in Ross County.

This is the apparently much more common look-alike, the Locust Borer, Megacyllene robiniae. Note that all of the dorsal stripes are bold yellow; on the hickory borer the M-shaped stripe is whitish as are two dots on the carapace towards the rear. These don't emerge until early fall, and are quite fond of nectaring on goldenrod. I shot this one last September on Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. The host tree is Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia. I see scads of these every year, and once I learned about the existence of the apparently far less frequent Painted Hickory Borer, I've wanted to see one.

Finally, our third? Megacyllene borer in Ohio, and perhaps the showiest, the Amorpha Borer, Megacyllene decora. This one may actually be the rarest, but I think I know how to find them now. Some of us will be mounting an expedition this August to look specifically for this beauty; should be quite the adventure.

Keep your eyes peeled for Painted Hickory Borers, and let me know if you find any. Or, if you know any interesting info about them, I'd appreciate hearing it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More spring flora

I hope you don't mind a few more plants. Spring wildflowers, to me, are one of Nature's greatest artistic expressions. They come in a dazzling variety of form and color, and are all the more enchanting due to their ephemeral lives. As a photographer - an admittedly amateur one - I find them irresistable subjects for my lens.

Pussy-toes, Antennaria plantaginifolia. This odd member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) forms colonies on dry banks and other sunny well-drained sites.

While not wildflowers, ferns reappear with them, unrolling from the rhizomes like one of those paper party whistles. For a few days, they are "fiddleheads", and many species are edible at this stage. This is a young Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina.

Barb Stigler acts as a size scale for last year's stalk of an American Columbo, Frasera caroliniensis. This jumbo gentian can reach eight feet in height; the stalk held by Barb extends to the top of the photo.

This year's crop of American Columbo peppers an especially favorable dry oak woodland. Columbos flower but every few years; it takes some time to build up the energy to shoot forth the massive inflorescences. Last year there was an excellent flowering crop at this site; this year there will be few in bloom.

One of the herbalist's more coveted wildflowers, Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis. A member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), its strange flowers seem to have petals made of thread. The root is used for a variety of medicines, and the value keeps rising. Goldenseal - sometimes called "yellowroot" - has disappeared in some areas due to overharvesting. We found thousands of plants on this day, and I'm not saying where.

Two-flowered Cynthia, Krigia biflora. Another in the massive sunflower family, this species has especially showy orange blooms.

A small colony of Round-leaved Ragwort, Packera obovata, brightens an otherwise drab embankment. This is the primary host plant for the beautiful Northern Metalmark butterfly.

Many plants in the phlox family (Polemoniaceae) are stunning, and Greek Valerian, Polemonium reptans, is no exception. This particular specimen is variety villosum, which is far scarcer then the typical variety. It is known only from southern Ohio and adjacent Kentucky. Legendary Ohio botanist Lucy Braun discovered and named it.

A low-growing member of the rose family, the aptly named Dwarf Cinquefoil, Potentilla canadensis.

A common and oft-commented on wildflower, Rue Anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides. The showy "petals" are not petals at all - they are the sepals. True petals are wanting in this diminutive member of the buttercup family. The earliest of their lot to bloom sometimes have a subtle pinkish tinge.

Ohio's official state wildflower, the Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum. We encountered a rich wooded slope covered with them, intermixed with luxuriant beds of Wild Leek, Allium tricoccum.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Some spring flora

Last Saturday, a group of us got together to explore Adams County, one of Ohio's most floristically rich areas. This early spring pilgrimage is becoming a tradition; John Howard and I have led these small forays for two years now, and a mid-summer outing the year prior to those.

Most of the participants are active in a group called The Wild Ones, whose mission is to promote the conservation and use of native plants. A noble mission to be sure, and you can learn more about them here and here.

Like people have for many thousands of years, we were out to bask in the riches of early spring, and take note of the myriad proofs that winter's icy hand has finally thawed.

The group photo above was taken in an Adams County cedar glade prairie, one of our rarest habitats. And the little gem above is one of our rarer plants, the Wedge-leaved Whitlow-grass, Draba cuneifolia. It is largely confined to these postage stamp-sized prairies, and one might walk right by and never notice the tiny mustard. A big one might push three inches skyward.

From rare to abundant: an avalanche of Bluets, Houstonia caerulea, cascades down a sunny embankment.

Common though the Bluet may be, its charms are many and this plant is well worth a close look. The luminescent yellow corolla tube glows like a beacon, luring scores of early season insects to sip the nectar. Many small bees, flower flies, hover flies, and Falcate Orangetip butterflies were busily feeding from the flowers.

We made a planned short visit to Whipple State Nature Preserve, which stretched into a very lengthy visit. With good cause - Whipple is nearly unrivaled in its bonanza of spring wildflowers. A massive dolomite slump block, calved from the overhanging cliffs long ago, was covered with Miterwort, Mitella diphylla.

It isn't so much what one looks at, but how they look at it. It's be easy to glide right by Miterwort and see little else but spindly white spikes. A close look at this diminutive saxifrage reveals minute flowers that look all the world like snowflakes. It would probably take a few dozen of the tiny blooms to cover a quarter.

Rounding a bend, we were astonished to see an entire hillside painted yellow with Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum.

Truly a standout in woods filled with beautiful flowers, Wood Poppies are robust in every way. The lemony-orange petals are wispy and ephemeral; as if crafted from tissue.

The rush of spring is over in a second - get out while the getting is good.