Friday, July 30, 2010

Lament for the prairies

A luxuriant stand of Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, shoots skyward in Marion County’s Caledonia Prairie. These massive sunflowers can reach ten feet in height, or more.

The accidental savior of this prairie remnant can be seen in the background. When railroad tracks were laid through the prairie, their rights-of way often protected the prairie vegetation. Caledonia Prairie, which is perhaps a mile long and 50-60 feet wide, is one of few surviving pieces of the great Sandusky Plains, a prairie complex that once sprawled over some 200,000 acres.

Brilliant purple wands of Spiked Blazing-star, Liatris spicata, blanket a section of Caledonia Prairie. Botanical cotton candy for butterflies and other insects, blazing-star is but one of many showy and valuable prairie forbs. On the other side of the road is the modern prairie: soybeans. The decline in biodiversity from one side of the country lane to the other is nearly incalculable, and makes for an utterly striking contrast.

A map of Ohio’s pre-European settlement prairie, from Gary Meszaros and my recent book, Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage. I believe that prairie was more extensive in the historic Ohio Country landscape than it is generally given credit for, and probably covered over 5% of the state. Our prairie biomes were incredibly rich in flora and fauna – by far the most diverse habitats to be found in Ohio.

Prairies were considered wastelands by many of the newly arrived pioneers; places to be avoided. Because trees did not grow in vast sections of the prairie, it was thought that the prairie soils were poor and probably couldn’t produce crops.

How wrong they were. With the introduction of John Deere’s chisel plow in 1837, people finally had the tool to tame the prairie. Once the thick prairie turf was laid bare, the black soil proved to be among the world’s most fertile crop-growing substrate. In little more than a century, nearly our entire prairie was converted to the Big Three: corn, soybeans, and wheat. Probably over 99% of Ohio’s original prairie is now gone.

Smith Cemetery State Nature Preserve, a one-acre pioneer cemetery in Union County. This place, and a few other historic graveyards and railroad rights-of-way, are all that is left of the original 385 square mile Darby Plains prairie, which once extended into modern-day Columbus, Ohio.

Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, one of the great prairie grasses, against a stormy Darby Plains sky. This species, along with Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans, formed oceans of grass that grew so luxuriant that a man on horseback could be hidden from view. Settlers’ wagons were dubbed “prairie schooners”, as they were like wheeled ships navigating the seas of prairie grasses.

Native prairie grasses are volatile, and were the primary incendiary agents driving prairie fires. When lit, the prairie could literally explode into enormous, intimidating conflagrations that would strike terror into those who witnessed them. Dr. Jeremiah Converse, one of the first pioneers on the Darby Plains, wrote this: “The blaze of the burning grass seemed to reach the very clouds… [flames] would leap forty or fifty feet in advance of the base of the fire. Then add to all this a line of the devouring element three miles in length, mounting upward and leaping madly forward with lapping tongue, as if it were trying to devour the very earth, and you have a faint idea of some of the scenes that were witnessed by the early settlers of this country”.

Fearsome as these prairie blazes were, they cleansed the prairie, and perhaps ironically, resulted in a tremendous surge of life. Many prairie plants, and by extension animals, are thoroughly co-evolved with fire. The oddity above is Rope Dodder, Cuscuta glomerata, and its thick seed coats apparently require heat scarification to burst them and set the strange parasitic morning-glory relative free to scramble over its host plants. Every site known in Ohio of this threatened species is in prairie that is regularly set aflame by managers. The plant above is growing on Saw-toothed Sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus, in a tiny Logan County prairie remnant.

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus tridecemlineatus, the prairie dog of the east, skulking in a Pickaway Plains prairie remnant south of Columbus. It is one of many animals and plants that reach the eastern limits of its range in the prairies of Ohio. Prairies bumped up against their eastern limits in Ohio, and consequently animals such as the ground squirrel and badger, birds such as the Bell’s Vireo, and scores of plants didn’t get any further east than the Buckeye State.

Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, star of the prairie and one of North America’s showiest wildflowers. No doubt it was common in many of Ohio’s original prairies, but today this beauty is reduced to a handful of plants in just a few sites. So named because the flower calyx is sticky enough to “catch flies”, this species is by far the largest of our seven native Silene catchflies, and a jumbo can be seven feet tall. This plant is a “prairie obligate” – it only grows in prairies in the wild, at least here.

Prairies play, or played, roles far larger than just the limits of their specialized turf. Towering sunflowers provide energy sources for migrant Monarchs that will end up in Mexico. Scads of Bobolinks will gather and fatten on prairie seeds and insects in preparation for one of the world’s greatest songbird migrations. These pied blackbirds will end up in Argentina, some 6,000 miles to the south. Large mammals such as Elk and Bison once roamed far and wide through America’s prairies, including Ohio's, their age-old pathways serving as conduits for many other animals and avenues of dispersal for plants.

Like vegetative icebergs, most of the biomass of prairie plants is hidden from view. Underneath the soil are thick tangled masses of root systems that might extend down ten feet or more. Not only are these root systems incredibly effective soil binders, virtually eliminating erosion, they are unrivaled filters, thoroughly cleansing waters that will ultimately flow into watercourses. Not surprisingly, original prairie streams were crystalline and full of fish and other aquatic life.

Many of our prairie-adapted animals have become imperiled if not eliminated altogether. Above, a Swamp Metalmark feeds on Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa, in a tiny Logan County fen. These lepidopteran gems were thought to have vanished from Ohio until Troy Shively found a small population last year. Historically, the metalmarks probably occupied most of the western Ohio fens – fens being the wettest, most specialized parts of the prairie.

A vigorous stand of corn, Zea mays, in a former prairie in Champaign County. Remember the old saying “knee high by the 4th of July” regarding corn? Advances in chemicals and cultivars have rendered that old saying completely obsolete. This shot was taken around Independence Day and the crop towered over my head. Such a “habitat” is nearly devoid of life, and many farmers take full advantage of the modern arsenal of chemicals to try and eliminate any other life forms than the crop of choice.

Homo sapiens may be the only animal on Planet Earth without a master plan. We simply don’t seem to have a collective governor to rein us in. Everyone wants more, and nearly all progress is measured by growth – growth in earnings, growth in population, growth in production, growth in jobs, growth in GDP, growth ad nauseum. And just where is that mentality going to take us, ultimately? At our current rate of population expansion, we are surely going to be the most short-lived species in earth’s history and the end of days will probably not be fun.

Such a mentality has been death on our natural resources; the very resources that sustain us. The fate of our prairies is stark testimony to our divide and conquer mentality.

Perhaps the best-looking prairie vista remaining in Ohio, at Gallagher Fen State Nature Preserve in Clark County. Had we only had the vision to set aside large chunks of prairie back when Deere inflicted his plow on society, we would be a much richer society today.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fireweed and St. John's-worts

BRIEF NOTE: I know that at least a few people who read this blog have been trying to contact me via the phone, and I am not answering. That's because the battery in my Palm Centro went kaput. I've been to four Sprint stores in the past two days, and not a one has been able to produce a battery. Plenty of pressure to get a new phone, but the battery would take a few days to get. So, I have tossed Sprint into the abyss. At best, this provider was mediocre and their customer service is generally terrible. I took the plunge, switched to AT&T, and ordered a new Droid Incredible. This is a very cool device, and I have no doubt that AT&T will be much more consumer-friendly than Sprint. Cheaper, too. But the Droid won't arrive until next Tuesday, and I am just going to be blissfully phoneless until then.

On my recent trip to West Virginia's Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, deep in the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest, I saw many interesting plants. Including the above, which was a "lifer" for me to see in bloom. It is the very showy shrub, Bushy St. John's-wort, Hypericum densiflorum.

An eye-catcher by any measure, this species is a southerner, extending northward through the Appalachians.

On another note, I was amazed at how good the birding was at Cranberry Glades for late July. I saw and/or heard, among many others, the following: Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Junco, Alder Flycatcher, and the following warblers: Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Canada, and Northern Waterthrush. And I just missed a flock of the resident breeding Red Crossbills, apparently!

Mid-summer is a really great time to visit Cranberry Glades and the surrounding mountains, and I might see about organizing a small foray here next summer.

While not as magnificently robust as the Bushy St. John's-wort, I was more excited to stumble into this one. It is, I believe, the Blue Ridge St. John's-wort, Hypericum mitchellianum. Quite limited in its range, this one is only known from four states, and is considered endangered in West Virginia.

It looks a lot like a much more common and widespread St. John's-wort species, but it caught my eye right away. The flowers were larger and a clearer yellow than the other, and it was growing in a very odd habitat. I certainly wasn't going to collect any material, because of where I found it, but the photos aren't bad and if anyone can correct my identification, please do.

This is the common look-alike - Dotted St. John's-wort, H. punctatum. It has smaller flowers, and the petals are dotted with black spots.

Not far down the road from Cranberry Glades, I noticed these stately purple spires jutting from the roadbank.

Needless to say, I shut the car down and got out to inspect the Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium. This plant becomes very abundant in the far north - it is without doubt one of the most photographed plants in Alaska - but becomes much more spotty and local in its southern reaches.

I've never seen Fireweed in my home state. It is listed as endangered in Ohio, and rarely turns up.

As expected, Cranberry Glades didn't disappoint, and I look forward to a repeat visit next year.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An amazing transformation

While down in West Virginia this weekend, I had occasion to visit the above outhouse on Saturday night. Now, that sounds really weird, I know. But, my purposes were noble - this structure, which is on the upper rim of the New River gorge in a small park called Burnwood, is famous for the moths that it attracts. That light remains on all night, and there is almost always something cool that has flown in and landed on the wall.

The field trips for the New River Birding and Nature Festival gather at Burnwood, and we always check the outhouse first thing in the morning. Lunas and many other cool moths are often found, and this may be the most heavily scrutinized john in the Mountaineer State.

While the outhouse was not as dense with moths as it is in spring, I wasn't disappointed. This is a Hog Sphinx, Darapsa myron, the larvae of which feed on Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and other members of the grape family.

This one is even cooler. It is a Small-eyed Sphinx, Paonias myops, which uses cherry and birch trees as hosts, among others.

Small-eyed Sphinx has a distinctive posture when at rest, with the abdomen strongly curled upwards.

Anyway, I heard Nebraska Coneheads, Neoconocephalus nebrascensis, singing from nearby scruffy woodland borders, so off I went to investigate. In the course of searching for the coneheads, I lucked into this - a newly emerging annual cicada, attached to the culm of a Deer's-tongue Grass, Panicum clandestinum. The above shot was taken at 10 pm, and the cicada had probably begun splitting its way out of its larval case within an hour of my arrival.

There are about a half-dozen species of annual cicadas in these parts, and they live most of their lives subterraneously as nymphs, tapping into tree roots for nutrients. When some internal alarm clock rings, they emerge from the ground, climb up a plant, and begin the process of transformation into the winged adult. At this point, the wing buds are quite apparent and the insect is in the process of pulling itself upright. Cicadas normally emerge under cover of darkness to avoid predators. If they tried this transformation during the day, a bird or some other predator would have an easy feast.

By 10:30 pm, it looked like this. I could practically see the wings pumping up as the creature's hemolymph coursed through its veins. It was like watching air being slowly pumped into an inflatable raft.

Ten-fifteen minutes later and the wings had filled out, becoming a gorgeous translucent shade of blue-green. The patterning on the thorax is developing nicely, and the abdomen is rapidy enlarging. The animal can now be identified with some certainty as a Lyric Cicada, Tibicen lyricen, a common species in the area and one that I heard singing during the day.

Only five minutes or so later, and the wings had become clearer and more expanded.

By 11:15, the cicada was pretty much developed, sans some coloration and final hardening of its body parts. I had to leave at this point, but shortly after sunup the following morning, the cicada probably took its inaugural flight, high into the boughs of nearby trees. There, it would join numerous others and add to the mid-summer cacophony of piercing drawn-out buzzes that these strange insects produce.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Two summer jewels

I spent a long weekend in southern West Virginia, visiting some of my favorite places. This is the region where the New River Birding and Nature Festival takes place every year. I made a series of posts about this spring's festival, starting HERE. I understand people are already signing on for next spring's event, so get in early. That festival takes place at the peak of spring, but they could just as easily put one on in mid-summer. I was able to find many birds still singing, and the plants - and various bugs - are outrageous.

A robust Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, grows in a damp roadside swale near Babcock State Park. There were many plants, and the swallowtails - Pipevines and Eastern Tigers - were swarming the plants.

A beautiful and relatively easily grown native plant. Not only is Cardinal-flower electric red, it has the added appeal of being a butterfly magnet.

I've found Cardinal-flower to be a surprisingly hard plant to take a great photo of. Not just good, I mean great. Something about the brilliant shade of red causes the flowers to completely wash out in bright sunlight, which were the conditions that I found it in today. If not in full sun, it'll be in shade or worse yet, dappled shade. Anyway, the shots above were taken with manual exposure and were intentionally underexposed to keep the color from looking washed out.

Directly across the road were a number of Turk's-cap Lilies, Lilium superbum, easily at or near the top of the list of North America's most striking lilies. I was excited to see them, as I didn't know there were Turk's-caps in this area. The above plant was so tall that it was groaning under its weight and listing hard to the side. The luxuriant stand of Cinnamon Ferns, Osmunda cinnamomea, make a nice backdrop.

A robust Turk's-cap Lily can tower to eight feet or more in height, and be crowned with a half-dozen plus flowers.

The rich orange flowers are a work of art, and reminded the namer of a Turkish turban. The scientific epithet, superbum, means just that - SUPERB.

The only species that resembles Turk's-cap Lily in these parts is Michigan Lily, L. michiganense, which is easily ruled out where I was as it doesn't occur in West Virginia. A bit tougher to separate is the southern Michaux's Lily, L. michauxii, which is in southernmost WV. It has differently shaped leaves, though.

Turk's-cap Lily is a total showstopper, and it was great to see it. But I saw much more, and I'll try and slap some other West Virginia goodies up here soon.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber

Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, hunting the leaves of Prairie Cord Grass, Spartina pectinata.

I had the great fortune to cross paths with one of our most spectacular wasps the other day. Black-and yellow Mud Daubers are big, charismatic, and incredibly showy. And total bad**ses to boot!

Many people know the mud daubers by their distinctive adobe nests plastered under eaves and elsewhere on buildings, bridges and other structures. Far fewer probably get to - or want to! - observe them hunting. But hunt they do, at least the females, and that's what the one above is doing. I apologize for the somewhat fuzzy photos, but when in pursuit of prey, mud daubers are in constant motion and it is work to hang with them and get a perfect shot.

This is a striking insect, with its gloss-black abdomen and thorax set off by bright yellow legs and hash marks on the thorax. The bulbous abdomen is connected to the rest of the insect by an impossibly slender petiolate extension; this bug is truly wasp-waisted!

So, what do Black-and-yellow Mud Daubers hunt? Spiders! I told you, these wasps are true tough guys; the terminators of the insect world. Chances are, you scream and shout if you find a spider in your house. Mud daubers look for them. Wasps in spider-hunting mode are a marvel to watch, as they methodically scurry through the vegetation, often walking upside down under the leaves as that's where spiders sometimes hide.

Some spider-hunting wasps seem to work the ground primarily, looking for wolf spiders. Others, such as this one, seem to go after the more arboreal spider species and are more often found hunting in foliage.

It seems somewhat extraordinary that a wasp would confront and attack a spider, and often species that are quite large. In reality, I suspect the spider doesn't even have a chance. I once saw a ground-burrowing spider wasp, Entypus unifasciatus, take out a big wolf spider right in front of my eyes. I don't think the spider even knew what hit it, so rapidly did the wasp move.
Nursery Web Spider, Pisaurina mira, probably a common prey item for Black-and-yellow Mud Daubers, as this spider frequents low-growing plants and is common.

So, what does the wasp do with the spider? Eat it? Well, yes and no. To be a spider and successfully be bagged by a mud dauber is truly a fate worse than death. When the dauber encounters a suitable spider, it is on it fast as a wink, and jabs the victim with a formidable stinger. Like a hypodermic explosion, it pumps a strong neurotoxin into the spider, which almost instantly disables it. Within seconds, if that, our spider is rendered immobile.

The wasp - quite a powerful brute! - then airlifts its prey back to the nest.
Photo: Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Pipe Organ Mud Dauber nest. Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber nests are somewhat similar but more globular, and used for the same purpose. In the above photo, part of the nest has been rasped open, exposing the crypt chambers within. Each chamber is provisioned with spiders - paralyzed spiders. Once Mrs. Dauber has filled a crypt, she lays an egg inside and seals it. When Junior hatches, the wasp grub is assured of fresh meat to feast upon.

Mud daubers have their own worries, though. A number of other species of insects, including a cuckoo wasp, attempt to slip into the nest undetected and lay their eggs within. If successful, the parasite's eggs will hatch first and it will feast on the crypt's contents, including apparently the egg or grub of the dauber.

But if all goes well, a gorgeous, big black and yellow wasp will emerge, the end product of what is certainly one of the oddest, most ghoulish life cycles in nature.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two weird moths and an even weirder looper

I spent today conducting breeding bird atlas work in the hinterlands of west-central Ohio; probably the last day of the season for atlassing. At first light, there's lots of singing and I found many things, but activity tapers off rapidly as morning progresses.

Luckily for me, the area I am working on harbors several of the best remaining remnants of the formerly vast Darby Plains prairie. So as the heat of the day set in, I visited two of these sites and found numerous interesting things and made quite a few photos.

Milford Center Prairie is an old railroad right-of-way, now used by Dayton Power & Light to support transmission lines. Railroads often protect the best surviving prairie, as the rights-of-way were never plowed, and they are kept free of woody plants that would eventually overshadow the sun-loving prairie plants.

To me, visiting these prairie scraps brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, I revel in the explosion of biodiversity that erupts in these botanical hotspots; a complete counterpoint to the desolation of the surrounding corn and bean fields. On the other hand, I always am forced to reflect upon the near complete destruction of Ohio's - and much of the Midwest's - prairies. I'd say 99% + of Ohio's original prairie has been scrubbed off the map - lost to development and agriculture.

But we will focus on the positive.
Mid-July is prime time to be in the prairies. It's a botanical bonanza, and the lemony blossoms of Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, are a sure eye-catcher. Even though I have plenty, I couldn't resist making more photos. This is a fabulous species to grow in the garden, too. Like most native prairie plants, it is tough and takes little care, and even the brownest of thumbs should do well with it. I'm sure some of the vendors at the Midwest Native Plant Conference will have Prairie Coneflower on hand.

A compelling reason to plant natives is because of the bugs that they attract. This is ecological ground zero, and native plants and bugs support the other life forms such as birds. And Prairie Coneflower attracts scores of insects.

While photographing a particularly showy patch, I noticed an odd protruberance on the disc, or center, of the flower in the upper left. Perhaps you see it too, on the right side of the column of brownish disc flowers.

I moved in for a closer look, and was rewarded by the sight of one our most bizarre caterpillars. It is a Camouflaged Looper, Synchlora aerata. This is a VERY cool cat! They attempt to mask themselves by taking plant fragments and attaching them to their body, and it works pretty well. This one has taken scraps of the central disc flowers of this Prairie Coneflower and used them quite effectively. Even so covered, when it moves the caterpillar proceeds in the classic inchworm or looper gait, as seen here.

Camouflaged Loopers like to reside on species in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and here's one on Wingstem, Verbesina alternifolia. I found several of these interesting loopers with little effort, and if you start checking appropriate flowers, I'll bet you do too.

The adult moth is a pretty thing; sort of faint emerald-green in color and the wings are striped with pale white lines. But like most moths, that of the Camouflaged Looper is nocturnal and hard to see.

Not so this little beast, and I'd like a dollar for every person who has waded through their butterfly books trying to figure out what it is. This is another moth, the Eight-spotted Forester, Alypia octomaculata. It's a day flyer, and like many of the other diurnal moths it is rather bright and showy, unlike its often drab brown night time relatives.

Eight-spotted Foresters often rest with their wings stretched outward, revealing all eight spots. This one was feeling some pressure from me, I suspect, as I stalked it and tended to keep its wings folded. Note the bright orange leg bases. This species is common, as are its host plants: various wild grapes (Vitis), and Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia.

Another puzzler is this moth, the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea (formerly A. punctella). They look like beetles at a glance. These day-flyers aren't native here, but have capitalized on the widespread establishment of Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, which they use as a host.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths are native in the tropical Americas, where they feed on plants in the Simaroubaceae family. When the nasty, invasive Tree-of-heaven was imported here from China, they apparently jumped to it and greatly expanded their range. Bully for them! I hope they eat every Tree-of-heaven they can find!