Friday, October 29, 2010

Milkweed bug transformation

In response to my recent post on freshly transformed Large Milkweed Bugs - photos in that post courtesy Sandy Brown - Rick Nirschl sent along the following photo.

This milkweed bug has just completed molting from its previous instar, and is new and shiny orange-white. His older compadres form a scrum to the left. Rick snapped the photo in 2007 at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo.

Very cool - thanks, Rick!

Photo by Rick Nirschl

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Halloween" Spider

A colorful female Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus, clambers around on a Clearweed nettle. At this time of year, Marbled Orbweavers are one of our most conspicuous spiders. Big and brightly colored, they sport the colors of Halloween, and that color pattern and their conspicuousness in late October causes them to sometimes be called the "Halloween Spider".

For as big and bright as they are, these orbweavers can be quite bashful. We spotted this one on a recent excursion, and of course instantly moved in to make photos. As soon as our party started crowding her, she zipped under a twig and did her best to blend in.

Most spiders are actually pretty mellow, although nearly all do have fangs and can bite if pushed hard enough. This one was remarkably tolerant of our gentle fingertip prods, as we tried to pose her.

As big and plump as this one was, I suspect she is full of eggs. That'd also explain why she was on the prowl during daylight hours - she was probably looking for a good place to deposit her egg case.

Marbled Orbweavers normally are nocturnal, and like most of the rest of their orbweaving ilk, make neat circular webs. This is one the species that often employs a "signal line". You can see a photo of another orbweaver doing just that RIGHT HERE.

Photo by Bobbi Meldahl

Ironically, just today Bobbi Meldahl sent along a great photo of another Marbled Orbweaver that was frisking about the Hocking Hills. Her photo really shows the brightly colored bulbous beauty of these very cool spiders.

Hope one crosses your path soon!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"White" Large Milkweed Bug

Just about anyone who spends any time looking at milkweed plants is familiar with the Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus. These beautiful insects sport the colors of Halloween, and love to chow down on the leaves of milkweed.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Brown.

However, you may not be familiar with the short-lived ghostly white form that one of these bugs wears just after its final molt. I wasn't, until Sandy Brown sent along these cool photos. A typical adult can be seen amongst the younger nymphs in the top left corner of the photo; in short order, that's what the white bug will resemble.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Brown.

Thanks to Sandy for sharing her images with us!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Woolly-bears: fuzzy forecasters

A "woolly-bear", possibly the most recognized caterpillar in these parts. It's the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. Countless thousands of people can instantly recoginze the caterpillar; probably only a minute fraction of a percent could identify the moth.

This has been a boom year for moths and butterflies, and you can count in the woolly-bears. I've already seen scores of them, mostly crossing the roads, and many others are reporting lots of the little tubular fuzzies. Woolly-bears are stricken with a wanderlust in late fall, and that's why we see them roaming far and wide.

A well-known old wive's tale has it that the severity of the coming winter can be forecast by the woolly-bear's stripes. A big wide brown band and it'll be a mild one. Mostly black, and the bear is telling us we're in for a frigid winter. The bear above, being dominated by brown, is indicating an easy winter to come.

We'll see.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A whale of a cat!

I'm not in the habit of blogging about cats, but my recent blog about Norwegian Forest Cats and Maine Coons prompted a great e-mail. My friend Dan Hadley's mother, who lives in San Diego, is owned by an absolutely jaw-droppingly large Maine Coon named Sammy.

Dan was good enough to send along a photo of himself holding Sammy, and I think you'll agree, this is ONE BIG CAT!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A splash of late color

Most of the flowering plants have withered away, with a few notable exceptions. We're getting ready to enter the long months of winter, a period lacking in blooms save the odd weed pushing forth a flower in some sheltered spot. Thus, it was nice to encounter two species of Lobelia looking good the other day; sort of a botanical finale.

Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, is in the foreground, and (this wasn't posed) right behind it was Great Blue Lobelia, L. siphilitica. Darn good looking plants, both of them.

Believe it or not, these species somewhat regularly hybridize, or at least there are a number of records of the cross. Enough so that the spawn of these species has a name: Lobelia x speciosa. I've never seen this hybrid, but would like to. Seems like the two in the above photo have had their chance, but we didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the vicinity.

All manner of plants have long been used medicinally, and still are. Often, their names - especially the scientific names - indicate these uses. In the case of Great Blue Lobelia, it is purported to be a curative for siphilis, hence its formal name Lobelia siphilitica.

Lobelias contain an alkaloid called lobeline, which is sort of a watered-down nicotine. It is probably responsible for reports of improved mental clarity, happiness, and overall good feelings by those who ingest small doses. Unless you really know what you are doing, though, I wouldn't fool with consuming Lobelias or any other wild plant. Take too much, or misidentify and eat the wrong stuff, and the consequences can be dire.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Buck Moth!

About this time of year, when the foliage turns color and leaves begin to fall, and temperatures plummet, one of our most extraordinary moths begins to fly. By now, most leps - butterflies and moths - are spent, their numbers and diversity way down from summer's peak.

A recent foray into Shawnee State Forest with John Howard and Janet Creamer - meeting up with Dave Riepenhoff in the forest - had a primary objective: Buck Moth!

An unseasonably warm day did bring out plenty of late season butterflies, soon to give their last gasps. This lovely dove-gray critter is a Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus, sipping nectar from our most common aster, White Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum.

We were fortunate indeed to stumble into a Red-banded Hairstreak, Calycopis cecrops, looking remarkably fresh for this late in the game.

But this was our primary target: Buck Moth, Hemileuca maia. Once you've seen one of these pied brutes, you'll want to see another. We saw several dozen today, but in general I don't think Buck Moths are very common nor widespread in Ohio. Mostly it's the males one sees; rapidly fluttering through the forest, hot on the pheromone trail of a girl. When they do pause, it's normally on the trunk of a tree.

Buck Moths come out late. Here in Ohio, they probably just starting flying a week ago, and they'll continue to remain active until well into November and the first true freezes and plummeting temperatures. It is said that their common names stems from the fact that the adults fly when the buck White-tailed Deer begin to rut.

A female Buck Moth perches on the leaves of a Black Oak, Quercus velutina. Oaks of many species are the forage of the larvae. Adult females lay rings of eggs around the twigs of oaks, an that's how they overwinter. Larvae emerge in the spring, and the caterpillars feed their way through several instars, or growth stages. As the caterpillar grows, it becomes increasingly armed with urticating - stinging - hairs, and you'd be wise not to handle one. In parts of their range in the south, where Buck Moths are far more common than up here, people dread them because of the caterpillars. Considerable effort is put into localized spraying programs to control the caterpillars.

The business end of a male Buck Moth. They are a member of the Saturniid Family - Saturn moths - and adults in this family don't eat. Adults live only to find each each other, mate, and lay eggs. And that incredible comblike antennae is how the male does it. The boys fly madly through appropriate habitat, trying to pick up the faint scent put off by the girls.

Few moths are fuzzier than a Buck Moth. This is a male, with its orange-tipped abdomen. The sheer density of "fur" on these things is remarkable, and a fantastic adaptation for a critter that has to warm itself enough to take wing on days when the temperatures don't break out of the 50's.

It's interesting how all or nearly all of our prominently black and white moths are day-flyers. Buck Moths, Grapevine Epimenis, Eight-spotted Forester, White-striped Black Moth: all share a similar basic color pattern. Hmmm... if you know why, let me know.

Anyway, I hope a Buck Moth crosses your path this fall.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

World's longest cat!

Stewie, a Maine Coon Cat now officially annointed as "World's Longest Cat" by the Guiness Book of World Records, is going viral on the Internet. Stewie, who hails from Reno, Nevada, is indisputably a feline whopper, at 48 and one-half inches in length. Main Coons are known for their large size, and great dispositions.

When I saw the photos of Stewie, I was struck by his similarity to my cat, Oscar, above. Oscar is a Norwegian Forest Cat, and this breed is thought by some authorities to be the originator of the Maine Coon. Forests Cats have a long and interesting history. They apparently evolved from cats brought to northern Europe several thousand years ago, developing physical characteristics that would enable them to withstand long, cold, snowy winters.

Forest Cats - "skoggcats" - have incredibly luxuriant coats. The dense and woolly underfur is cloaked in long, non-tangling silken guard hairs, and the pelage is longer on the cat's lower side - the better to shield it when plodding through deep snow. Whiskers up to four inches long project from a rather large face, and the head is tipped with big lynx-like ears. These ears are also protected with tufts of fur, the better to keep them warm and free of blowing snow.

The tail of a Forest Cat - and nearly all of these descriptors apply to Maine Coons - is a marvelous appendage. Huge and brushlike, the cat uses it to keep its face warm. When lying in repose, a Forest Cat can wrap the tail over its face like a blanket. They also use the tail to express their moods and feelings, and with some experience an owner can read the cat like a book based on how it holds it tail. Their feet are nothing short of miniature snow-shoes. When fully opened and flexed, the paws of a big cat can nearly equal the palm of your hand in circumference. This is a great adaption for moving through deep snow.

Vikings used the Norwegian Forest Cat to police their ships, and rid them of rats and mice. Thus, this breed has a terrific history of high seas exploration, and it's likely it was the first domesticated cat to set paw on North American soil. Some think that the Maine Coon Cat - a completely American breed - evolved from pioneering Forest Cats brought here by Vikings.
Oscar doesn't match Stewie in length, but he isn't far behind. I grabbed him a bit ago, and tried to snap a few photos to illustrate his size. This photo shoot brings out another excellent trait of the Norwegian Forest Cat - they have outstanding temperaments. Calm, tolerant, intelligent and peaceful are all good words to apply. Oscar didn't object to being muscled around, although I'm sure he thought I was a buffoon for doing so.

One more. I'd bet my cat, if stretched taut and measured from stem to stern, or nose to tail tip, would be well over three feet. Not as big as new Guiness record-holder Stewie, but plenty big enough.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Belted Kingfisher: An Antisocial Hammerhead

Belted Kingfisher, male. He sports but one band of blue.

I was thinking about one of my favorite birds today, the Belted Kingfisher. That's because I penned an article about these raucous fish-eaters for a monthly column that I write for my employer, the Ohio Division of Wildlife. You can read the piece below.
Speaking of the Division of Wildlife, we're now on Facebook, and the odds are good that you are, too. If so, look us up and "like" us. There's lots of good stuff there.

On Ohio’s Wild Side: Belted Kingfisher: An Antisocial Hammerhead

For photos and archived articles, visit

Many a streamside stroller has had their contemplative immersion in nature shattered by a sudden eruption of loud machine gun-like rattling. There’s nothing like an irate belted kingfisher to dismember the tranquility of a peaceful riparian forest.

Kingfishers are virulently antisocial, and the pair only comes together for as long as it takes to mate, create a nest site, and raise the young. Once those tasks are complete, they go their separate ways, but still claim favored waters and defend their territory. It’s their ill-tempered disposition that causes them to rattle at interlopers, such as us, that intrude on their turf.

The kingfisher family contains 92 species, but only the belted occurs in Ohio. Kingfishers are fantastically diverse and universally interesting. The tiny American pygmy kingfisher – a tropical species – is only a nip over five inches in length, and weighs just 18 grams. That’s about the size of a junco. A jarring contrast is the massive ringed kingfisher, another southerner that ranges north into Texas. It is 16 inches long and weighs 315 grams; equivalent in mass to about 17 pygmy kingfishers.

Belted kingfishers are birds of the water, through and through. One commonality with nearly all kingfishers is that they plunge-dive for fish, as does our belted kingfisher. They carefully watch the water’s surface from a conspicuous perch, waiting for some living sushi to appear. When a suitable target is located, the kingfisher launches from its lookout and hovers, helicopter like, over the prey. When all coordinates mesh, the bird drops headfirst towards the water, like a feathered Greg Louganis with a bad attitude.

Just before the kingfisher strikes the water, it closes its eyes, and a millisecond later snaps up the fish in its pincer-like bill. Thrusting itself clear of the water, the fisher-bird returns to its favored perch and pounds its catch headfirst into the branch. Once the fish is stunned into stillness, it’s swallowed, always headfirst.

Another of the quirks of belted kingfishers is that the girls are flashier than the boys. That’s certainly not the norm in the bird world. The male sports a blue belt that spans its breast, but not only is the female adorned with the blue stripe, she’s got a lovely contrasting cinnamon ring across her front. Belted kingfishers are unmistakable among our birds, and not just because of their colored bands and peculiar behavior. A stubby tail juts from the plump body, and their legs are so short as to be nearly invisible. But it’s the noggin that really stands out. The kingfisher’s bull-like head appears to be nearly half the mass of the bird, and it’s topped with a shaggy crest – sort of like a bad Mohawk haircut. The whole assemblage is tipped with a large, ferocious chisel of a bill.

Even their choice of abodes is unusual. Kingfishers excavate a tunnel into a steep earthen bank, preferably along a waterway. Their subterranean lair may extend for nearly 15 feet, and terminates in a chamber where the eggs are laid.

Next time you find yourself along a lake or stream, watch for kingfishers. You probably won’t have to look hard – they’ll give a shout out.

Jim McCormac
Ohio Division of Wildlife
Belted Kingfisher, female. She one-ups the males in the looks department, but has every bit as bad a disposition.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hawk Mountain: 1954

A few weeks back, I made a series of posts about Hawk Mountain, the iconic raptor-watching sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania. This prompted a wonderful note from Dr. Bernie Master of Worthington, Ohio, and I've copied his message in its entirety below. His note got me to thinking about the impact that the Mountain has certainly had on several generations of budding conservationists since its founding in 1934. Bernie was only 13 when he visited in 1954, the year that the photos that follow were made. He was already well on the path to a life-long fascination with natural history, but I suspect the visit to Hawk Mountain only reinforced his interests.

Countless kids have visited Hawk Mountain, and a great many of them must have been infused with curiosity about the natural world on its summit. It's hard not to be, when a Peregrine Falcon strafes by a stone's throw away, or a testosterone-filled Sharp-shinned Hawk swipes at a comparatively sluggish Red-tailed Hawk right overhead.

In Bernie's case, he has gone on to see more of the world's birds than all but a handful of people, has served on the boards of numerous conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, American Birding Association, and American Bird Conservancy, and supported an array of research and education iniatives.

Places like Hawk Mountain are worth their weight in gold, not just because of the habitat that they protect, but because of the minds, young and old, that they help to stimulate.


Your blog on your visit to Hawk Mt. stirred some old memories of my first visit in 1954. I dug out some photos of this visit.I am shown with my father, Dr. Gilbert Master and our friends, Dr. Bob and Mrs.Nora Katrins at the entrance, the knob and at the base feeding Mute Swans.You can see there were many birders back then. I was 13 at the time. The experienced birders would call out the ID of the raptors as they came toward the crowd over 1 of 3 mountain tops, calling out the bird and 1,2,or,3 so you knew where to look. I vividly remember seeing a Red-tail and a Goshawk come by that day. The best part of the trip though were the meat loaf sandwiches my mother made for us.I am using my Uncle Vince's German binoculars he brought home from WWII, pretty good optics for back then. My dad knew Maurice Broun, the first director of Hawk Mt. and I remember spending birding time with him.Thanks for awakening so many good memories.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Leopard Slug

A Leopard Slug, Limax maximus, cavorts in the musky soils found under a long dormant board. These things are huge, and it was a thrill of sorts to uncover one during a field trip to Cleveland's Dike 14 the weekend before last. I must caution, this beast is a jarring contrast to the Chimney Swifts that I just wrote about in the previous post, which were zipping and chittering high overhead when this brutish slug was uncovered. The swift represents aerial supremacy and unbounded freedom; the slug is sluggish and earthbound as an earthworm.

The "leopard" modifer is apropos; the creature is certainly spotted and dashed, but otherwise is about as far removed from the jumbo cats as is possible in the animal world. And I'm not sure the "leopard" word alone adequately atones for the "slug", as most people have a poor reaction to the latter word. I propose renaming Limax maximus the Pleasing Leopard Slug.

I am a keen observer of how people react to things in nature. Show them an angry Ruby-crowned Kinglet with scarlet crest puffed to its fullness and they'll smile and be smitten. Even a good look at a White-footed Mouse, with its big doe eyes and dumbo ears, and people will generally like it. A puffin of any species? Forget about it. The observers will roll about in rapturous fits of ecstacy.

A Leopard Slug? Well, let us say that it did not really fire the group's imagination, and most quickly wandered off in search of showier things.

Someone - Dana Bollin, I believe - was bold enough to pick up the slug so I could get an in-the-hand photo to illustrate its enormous size. Leopard Slugs are not native here - they were introduced from Europe. It was first discovered in North America in 1867, and since has managed to get itself all over the place, by some means. Maybe they migrate on the backs of robins or something - I can't imagine how anything this, well, sluggish gets anywhere fast.

What Leopard Slugs lack in visual pizazz is compensated for by their sexual habitats. When boy meets girl, they engage in a low-speed waltz of sorts, then seize each other in a slimey embrace. After attaching a viscous ropelike strand of a snotty mucous to a branch, the slugs fall into space, and remain suspended in a rather grotesque coital twirl. Once they've consummated their relationship and fallen back to earth, it's egg time. And being the good hermaphrodites that they are, either sex can pop out the little gelatinous globs.

Once hatched, the little sluglet starts to pack on the mass, and can eventually reach over four inches in length.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chimey Swifts

A squadron of Chimney Swifts rockets overhead. These interesting birds are far more at home on the wing than they are grounded. In fact, a Chimney Swift cannot perch, at least in a conventional manner. Their genus name is Chaetura, and that means "bristle tail". Stiff spiky feather shafts project from their tail feathers, and the birds use them to prop themselves upright against the roughened inner wall of a chimney, or hollow tree.

During last weekend's excursions into Dike 14 (see this post), our groups were dumbstruck by the sheer numbers of swifts coursing overhead. I attempted many photos, and had I been alone I would have spent far more time tying to make photographs of the little feathered rockets. It isn't easy - these scimitar-shaped missiles move FAST, even when they appear to be loafing.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, that human aeronautical engineering has yet devised comes close to matching the aerial prowess of a swift. Note the wing to body ratio of the birds in the above photo. That is the profile of a beast made for flight. Each square inch of wing surface equates to less than a gram of body weight. For a Boeing 727 airplane to attain that ratio, it'd have to have wings nearly eight miles long, and not gain any extra weight.

A swift is a true sky-surfer; possibly more at home in the blue ether than any other type of animal. They drink on the wing; eat on the wing. Court on the wing, showing off in rapid glides with wings held stiffly upwards in a V-shape. Swifts even consummate their relationship while airborne and that's a feat, I'm sure.

It's been shown that at least one species, the Common Swift, Apus apus, of Europe, even sleeps on the wing! Common Swifts don't reach sexual maturity until their second year, and once one bails from the nest, it might not alight again for two years. With the onset of dusk, the swifts circle higher into the sky, and essentially enter a circular holding pattern, dropping back towards earth with morning's light to commence feeding on flying insects.

Aerial roosting has not been documented with our species, the Chimney Swift, insofar as I am aware. They are well-known for forming sometimes massive roosts in favored chimneys, and the spectacle of the birds dropping into the maw of the chimney at dusk often lures crowds at famous roost sites. However, my observations over several years at Dike 14 make me wonder if they do sometimes sleep on the wing, like Common Swifts. There is no question that Dike 14 is an important stopover site for migrant swifts. Early to mid-October sees flocks of hundreds concentrated directly over the Dike's lush greenery; this habitat no doubt sends lots of insects aloft to be snagged, and perhaps creates thermals that aid the birds' flight.

Several times now, I've been at Dike 14 before the sun slips above the eastern horizon, and watched and heard clouds of Chimney Swifts high above, descending as the day lightens. Where would they be coming from? It doesn't seem likely that all of them had already escaped the confines of roosting chimneys somewhere in Cleveland, and made their way out over Dike 14. I wonder if they, like their European counterpart, spend their evenings over this migratory waypoint high in the air, circling like tiny aircraft placed in limbo by the control tower. I'd think they would certainly be capable of aerial roosting, and wonder if that isn't a more efficient way to spend the evening in certain situations.

Surprisingly little is known of Chimney Swifts, even though they are a common bird in these parts. It's hard to study them. They're creatures of the sky and we're largely land-locked. It won't be long and our swifts will be long gone, skating their way well to the south, to disappear into the tropics of the Amazonian basin and South America. There, nearly nothing is known of their activities. Dike 14 is certainly more accessible and I'd love to know whether the migrant swifts that frequent this place truly do sleep on the wing. If they do, it'd be just another bit of a fascinating puzzle unraveled.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mud Salamander

Midland Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus diastictus. Photo by John Howard.

This special treat comes to us courtesy my friend John Howard of Adams County, a naturalist extraordinaire. Probably no one knows more about the natural history of Adams and Scioto counties - Ohio's most biodiverse region - than does John. He routinely makes great finds, and is always a hoot to get out in the field with.

John recently found a new site for the rare Mud Salamander in southern Ohio's sprawling, 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest. As you can see from the photo, these viscous little beasts are quite the charmers. Too bad they mostly remain out of sight, buried in gelatinous mire under rocks in springy outflows.

Mud Salamanders resemble the more common Red Salamander, Pseudotriton ruber, but notice the dark iris and relative lack of black spotting in John's photo. Reds are more heavily speckled and have a yellowish iris.

This species is known from only a few counties in southernmost Ohio, and is considered threatened in the state. It isn't a species that one normally just stumbles across, and kudos to John for working the habitat and finding these secretive little wrigglers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dike 14: a regional treasure

Like a giant vegetated boot, 88-acres of habitat known as Dike 14 juts into the waters of Lake Erie off the Cleveland shoreline. While utterly artificial - the place was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accommodate dredge spoil - Dike 14 has become an Important Bird Area in a very real sense.

My history with the place goes back to its beginnings in the early 1980's. Then, Dike 14 was known as Gordon Park, and was new and raw. Dredge spoil spewed from the pipes, a thick soupy-brown milk shake-like goop, and consolidated in the open bowl of the impoundment. And created outstanding shorebird habitat. I saw my first Ohio Piping Plover here, and along with many others was ecstatic to see a beautiful Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in the Dike in 1984 - Ohio's first.

Common but nonetheless a show-stopper, the purple blooms of New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, create a nice frontispiece for the scrublands of Dike 14. Beyond lies the marina where Ohio's first and only Black Guillemot was found, in November 1990. I was fortunate to see that bird, too. So can you. It expired after three days, and is now a specimen in the bird collection of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which is only about ten minutes down the road.

The view looking west, with Cleveland's skyline looming in the distance. The stacks belong to the power plant at East 72nd Street, and its warm water outflow creates conditions that support some of the best wintertime gull-watching in North America. A staggering 19 species of gulls have been found in this area.

Last weekend, I had the great experience of once again leading excursions into Dike 14, along with Craig Caldwell. We were there as part of the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual meeting, and these events always include field trips. Craig and I took groups into the Dike on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and collectively spent about eight hours there. As always, I was struck by the importance of this habitat, and how heavily it is used by migrant birds.

White-crowned Sparrow, immature.

October means sparrows at Dike 14, and we were nearly struck dumb with their overall numbers. Saturday morning saw massive numbers of White-throated Sparrows - probably several hundred. The next morning, hardly any of the melodious little whistlers were left, illustrating the dramatic shifts in migrant birds along the lakefront. There were lots of White-crowned Sparrows Saturday, but their numbers went over the top on Sunday - we must have seen 400-500! Just after dawn, the White-crowns could be seen dropping from the skies, coming in off the open lake waters and seizing on the green oasis of Dike 14 like parched nomads stumbling into a desert spring. As we traipsed over but a small portion of Dike 14, I spent time speculating how many White-crowned Sparrows might be present over its 88 acres. 800? 1,000? Even more? Probably.

A real plumpster, a stunning adult White-crowned Sparrow peeks from cover.

It wasn't just White-crowns, though. We also had scads of Chipping Sparrows, and Sunday brought big numbers of Savannah Sparrows. While waiting on the group in the post-dawn dimness, I was astonished to watch a group of about 45 Savannahs come in off the lake and drop into cover. They were joined by blizzards of Dark-eyed Juncos, Canadian birds all. We also saw Field Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and had one flyover Lapland Longspur.

In total, our groups probably tallied 1,200 or more individuals in the sparrow tribe, and there were many more that we didn't see.
Dike 14 represents an enormous potential natural resource for the City of Cleveland. Over one-half million people live within a 30 minute or so drive. Because of its location directly on Lake Erie, the dike lures wildlife - birds, especially - that won't be seen in the inland Emerald Necklace parks. There is plenty of other wildlife on the dike, too. Above, a buck White-tailed Deer scopes us from cover. We saw him sparring with another buck, close enough to hear the thud of the antlers. Other mammals calling Dike 14 home include Mink, Coyote, Raccoon, Groundhog, Long-tailed Weasel, Eastern Cottontail, White-footed Mouse and more.

The butterfly list is impressive as well, and sometimes migrant Monarch butterflies mass here; a stopping point on their incredible journey to Mexico.
An Orange-crowned Warbler tees up for our Sunday group. Mid-October is getting a bit late in the game for most warblers, but tardy orange-crowns peak about now. They aren't common in Ohio, and we were thrilled to see it, even if this species is a bit on the dull side.

September can bring major numbers of warblers of many species to Dike 14, along with many other migrant songbirds. Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls are regular, and other raptors frequenty drop in.

The potential for creating truly exceptional habitats at Dike 14 is nearly limitless. Now, it is largely overrun by non-native flora, but while the vegetation is ho-hum to a botanist, it still provides good habitat for birds. But with some work, the 88 acres could be a fantastic mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, and shrubs and trees, and Dike 14's value to the Great Lakes ecosystem would spike astronomically.
Our group of birders celebrates the Orange-crowned Warbler, which is in the White Mulberry tree behind them. It was a life bird for several in the crowd, and this thrill of discovery is one that has been repeated MANY times over the years at Dike 14.

I hope that the powers-that-be in Cleveland do the right thing with this sensational resource.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain

In my last post, we left off partway up the trail to the summit of Hawk Mountain, high in the Kittatinny Ridges of Pennsylvania. Well, we're almost there, our goal being the fabled North Lookout, the best place to watch for raptors drifting south along the crests of the mountain.

Your blogger in repose, staring up at hawks passing overhead. The trick here is to find the softest available rocks, fluff them up a bit, and settle in. The view from North Lookout is stunning, and one can see for seventeen miles on a clear day.

You'll have plenty of company atop Hawk Mountain. Drawn by the allure of birds of prey, hundreds of spectators descend on the place on fall days. There are people of every stripe and ability, from hotshot birders that can ID distant specks, to those that didn't know of the existence of a Sharp-shinned Hawk prior to their visit.

Note the pole thrusting skyward in the upper right corner of the photo.

That mast supports Bubo plasticus, a fake Great Horned Owl spackled in real feathers. The thing looks real, and I heard one newbie shout out "Owl!" upon emerging onto the rocks and spotting the dummy.

Why a fake owl? To give the raptors passing by a target to strafe, and provide an incredible show for the assembled throng. Sharp-shinned Hawks in particular will drop from the sky and roar in at top speed, and give the owl a smack. When you're perched on the rocks 20 feet away, this is quite the dramatic show. I think that mounting a cam on the owl would be cool, as enough birds of prey take a swipe at this thing that awesome footage would be guaranteed.

Skies of azure; not a cloud to be seen. This is the sort of weather people fawn over, and it brings the masses out to relish a spectacular autumn day. But, clear skies are not optimal for raptor-watching. The birds tend to soar high aloft - probably too high for our eyes to see in some cases - and they don't show up as readily even when in sight. Best is an overcast sky; the birds pop out much better against a gray backdrop.

Plenty of Turkey Vultures roamed the area, and I spent many a pixel trying to capture them with my camera. Since I was a little kid, I've admired these carrion-scrapers. Wouldn't want to be one, but only because of the dietary regime. But it's hard to top the flying abilities of vultures, and I still like to watch them as they gently rock through the sky on dihedral wings, taking nary a flap for miles. On top of Hawk Mountain, ones gets the unusual perspective of often looking DOWN on the vultures.

Far less common are Black Vultures, but a few are going to wing by. They're quite different beasts from the Turkeys, in appearance and temperament. They look like a large flying wing, due to the short tail, and the base of the primaries sport conspicuous white flashes. Black Vultures also have a curious habit of dangling their feet while they fly.

No bird, and I mean NO BIRD elicited the reaction that this one did. Hardened veteran birders may inwardly ho-hum, but it's important to remember that most visitors to Hawk Mountain and many famed birding locales are NOT experts. Thus, when this gorgeous adult Bald Eagle soared over, at great height, the collective reaction was tremendous. As if sensing its earthbound admirers, the eagle coasted majestically right over our heads, and many an ooh and ahh was heard. A record number of Bald Eagles has been seen this fall at Hawk Mountain, and the final total should be well into the 300's.

My favorite, the pint-sized Sharp-shinned Hawk. What they lack in size, they more than compensate for with sheer attitude and chutzpah. These accipiters are feathered balls of testosterone, and so aggressive that I'm afraid it wouldn't be safe for us people to sit conspicuously atop Hawk Mountain were they the size of Whooping Cranes.

Like avian thugs, the sharpies routinely strafe their larger brethren, and this habit helps to identify them at great range. Basically, anything that comes within shouting distance of a sharp-shinned is liable to be attacked, and that long-suffering owl that I showed previously gets bombarded all of the time.

Why do they act this way? Some have speculated that Sharp-shinned Hawks suffer from a Napoleon complex, but I don't think so. These birds are natural born killers, and if you ever get up close and personal with one you'll see an untamable, savage ferocity gleaming from their eyes. Every fiber of their being strains to capture and kill other birds, and the hormones that make them this way constantly flow. I think they're so full of aggression that it's simply impossible for them to resist any opportunity to try and kick some butt, even if the target is a Red-tailed Hawk that doubles them in dimensions and weighs eight times as much.
Speaking of Red-tailed Hawks, we had plenty of fine specimens float over, including this smashing adult. It seems as if the occasional bird's curiosity is piqued by all of the people sitting on the rocks, and in they'll come for a close flyover. This red-tail appeared to be looking right at my camera as I photographed it.

It's not just raptors that fly by Hawk Mountain. We had tremendous numbers of Canada Geese winging past high overhead. The honking of the flocks could often be heard for well over a mile, alerting us to their impending appearance. Think what you may of Canada Geese, but there are few spectacles in the natural world as soul-stirring as a large skein of wild geese passing high overhead, winging south from Arctic breeding grounds. The age-old peregrinations of geese have drawn people's eyes aloft since the times of the ancients, firing our imaginations over the generations. This is probably one of the first birds that really got people pondering the mysteries of migration.

The Hawk Mountain daily toteboard. Click the photo and you should be able to read the results. The staff is good about promptly posting results, and the top gun hawk-watchers on the mountain's summit call observations in to the base camp every hour.

GO HERE for Hawk Mountain's website and up-to-date info. If you've not been, put it on your 2011 destination list.