Monday, November 29, 2010

Birding hotspots to ice over

Warm water releases from Cleveland's Lakefront Power Plant prevents winter ice-up in a localized area, attracting scads of birds within a stone's throw of birders. This plant, at East 72nd Street in Cleveland, has long attracted birders from all over Ohio and even beyond.

As a byproduct of plant operations, hot water is released into Lake Erie, and in winters when Lake Erie glazes over, this open lead is an oasis for gulls and ducks. This made for an excellent opportunity to study interesting gulls such as Thayer's, Iceland, Glaucous and others at nearly arm's length.

A similar situation occurs a bit further east along Lake Erie, at the Eastlake Power Plant.

But no more, at least for this winter and probably several to come. Citing lessened demand for power and a slow economy, FirstEnergy Corps - owner of the plants - has opted to shut them down for the winter. Some birders are irked, and I suppose that's understandable, as birding these places was a highlight of the winter season for many.

The reality is that these situations are entirely unnatural, and gulls and ducks certainly don't depend on power plant warm water releases as oases in which to ride out the winter. Even when Lake Erie appears utterly frozen from shore, it isn't. There are always open leads out there, and many are packed with birds. We just can't see them from shore.

So, while these shutdowns may remove some good birding opportunities, in the bigger picture it's better to, if only temporarily, shut off a couple of sources of airborn toxins and the need for the massive amounts of coal to run these plants.

And, as far as I know, the Avon Lake Power Plant to the west of Cleveland will still be turned on and discharging warm water. So birders still have an ice-free place to bird, should the lake freeze this winter.

I wish I had known about these closures before I submitted an article on birding East 72nd Street in Cleveland in the dead of winter to Birder's World magazine. But that's an utterly inconsequential thing in comparison to the break that our environment will get as a result of these closures, and that's far better for birds in the long run.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A quick stroll through Gross Woods

While not much of a place in the size department, 49-acre Gross Woods State Nature Preserve provides a nice snapshot into the past and a time when woodlands such as this one stretched for miles. I found myself in west-central Ohio today, and stopped in to visit this Shelby County gem.

A boardwalk loops through the property, and offers easy - and dry - access. Doesn't look too wet now, I know, but come back in spring and these woods will be swampy as can be. Full of interesting amphibians, too.

I was here mainly to admire sylvan giants such as this massive White Oak, Quercus alba. When acquired as a nature preserve about 30 years ago, Gross Woods was full of monster timber. Several hurricane-force wind storms since then have dropped a number of the largest trees, but there are still plenty of sky-scraping whoppers to admire.

A massive Swamp White Oak, Quercus bicolor, soars skyward, its bark plated with thick ridges. The bicolor of the scientific name stems from the leaves, which are green above and distinctly whitened below. Swamp White Oaks thrive in waterlogged or seasonally saturated soils.

Red Oaks, Quercus rubra, typically occur on mesic soils - sites that are moderately well-drained but moister than places where White Oaks thrive, but drier than sites favored by Swamp White Oaks. The bark of Red Oak is quite distinctive, with its broad low ridges that are gray on the summit.

Like a tree in need of a good brushing, the plates of bark peel from this Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata. Such loose bark, which is termed exfoliating, offers excellent shelter for many animals. Bats, in particular, often roost under the loose bark of hickories.

One of Ohio's five species of ash, Green Ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica, prefers wet soils. Its bark is very "neat" in appearance, with uniform ridges. Three of the others occur here as well: Black Ash, F. nigra, White Ash, F. americana, and the rare Pumpkin Ash, F. profunda. The leaves intruding in the top left of the photo belong to a nearby American Beech.

And here's a fine specimen of an American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, with its smooth elephant-skinned bark. Unfortunately, beech bark proves to be an irresistable substrate for carvers, and nearly all of the readily accessible trees are defaced with people's initials and other offending graffiti. Seedlings of this species are often called "sons of beeches".

While some foresters may not think much of beech trees, as the lumber isn't highly prized, they are keystone species in the forest ecosystem. A great many species of animals use beech, as the trees form natural hollows and cavities as they age, providing niches for flying squirrels, barred owls, raccoons, and many more.

Even a host of plants depend on American Beech, or at least share their habitat. Above is the Broad-leaved Wood Sedge, Carex albursina, still bright and green. It typically occurs in beech-maple woodlands. At the base of the sedge, a beechnut can be seen - this species seemed to produce a lot of fruit this fall.

This plant depends entirely on beech for its existence. Although now withered and brown, this plant doesn't look radically different even at its peak of bloom. It is Beech-drops, Epifagus virginiana, an odd parasitic plant that taps into the roots of beech trees and thus gains its sustenance. It has no need of manufacturing chlorophyll, and as a consequence has no green coloration.

There were plenty of bark-loving tree creepers about, including this inquisitive male White-breasted Nuthatch. A noisy family unit of Red-headed Woodpeckers romped through the oaks, and a Pileated Woodpecker was heard and its handiwork - like someone took a jackhammer to the tree trunks - was evident. Both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers were about, as were numerous Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and I heard a Northern Flicker.

If you want an easy hike and the opportunity to admire some large trees and plenty of the woodpeckers who love them, take a hike at Gross Woods sometime.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America: A review

The Stokes Guide to the Birds of North America
Donald & Lillian Stokes
Little, Brown & Company
791 pages
Includes CD with 600+ songs and calls

I rarely use posts on this blog as a way to promote anything other than natural history in its purest sense: plants, animals, perhaps a bit of geology, and the wonderful ecosystems that they form. It’s not that the opportunities aren’t there. I routinely get requests to plug this or that, and sometimes do, but not very often other than events that I think readers might enjoy and will help to get people outdoors.

Thus, when a publicist for Little, Brown and Company sent me an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in a copy of the brand spanking new Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, I ignored it. After all, they wanted a review, but of course didn’t say it had to be a good one. A few weeks later, I ran across someone who had an advance copy and was very impressed with the book. So much so that I e-mailed the publicist back and asked for the copy.

There has been a blizzard of bird field guides migrating onto the market in recent years; so many that I can hardly keep track. And I’ve got nearly all of them, being a voracious collector of such literature, and would have eventually purchased the Stokes Guide (hereafter SG), review or not.

You’ll not be stuffing SG into your back pocket. It’s big, at 5 ½ by 8 ½ inches, and a whopping 1 ½ inches thick. Upon first heft, the weight is certainly impressive – this guide weighs three pounds; the same as a well-fed Glaucous Gull. But it’ll certainly fit in the car, and that’s probably a better place for a field guide than on your person. Observe, take notes and photograph when afield; consult resources later.

SG has curb appeal, as the cover is adorned with a beautiful photo of a male Painted Bunting. Yes, photo – this is a photo guide. There are endless, irresolvable debates as to what’s better – illustrations or photos. Both have pros and cons, but if you are a died-in-the-wool fan of Sibleyesque illustrations, the SG might persuade you that photos have a place in field guides, too.

There are over 3,400 photos, and the list of photo credits reads like a who’s who of ace photographers. A great many were taken by Lillian Stokes, who is also a spectacular lenswoman. Most species have multiple photos, depicting nearly every plumage one might encounter. Trickier species that go through multiple plumage stages, such as the four years to adulthood Herring Gull, have as many as eight photos. I kid you not – the book is worth having just to ooh and ahh over the wonderful photography.

I think SG does an admirable job in providing aid to the new birder, as well as catering to the hardcore propellerheads. If newbies will have a gripe, it’ll probably be that the guide covers everything in North America and that’s about 854 species to leaf through if you are starting from scratch.

A few innovations that I find appealing: each photo includes the month and state in which it was taken. Information on subspecies is included, which I feel is very important for a variety of reasons. No guide has this level of detail. If you are a fanatical twitcher, you’ll be pleased. SG includes even the mega-rarities, such as Jabiru, Fork-tailed Swift, and Reed Bunting. Finally, and I think this is quite cool; all known hybrids for each species are listed. Including facts such as these makes the book useful for researchers in a way that most field guides are not. And SG is as up-to-date as they come, even including the latest changes from the American Ornithologists’ Union, such as the new genus name Oreothlypis for what were formerly some of our Vermivora warblers.

Let’s have a quick look at one of the accounts, the Solitary Sandpiper, which is a common migrant throughout Ohio. There are five photos: adults in both alternate (breeding) and basic (winter) plumage; a juvenile; and two in-flight shots that show wing and tail characters. Most of the account is devoted to describing appearance, including a nice synopsis of the differences between the two subspecies. Studies have suggested that these two subspecies differ markedly in genetic makeup, indicating the possibility that they could be split somewhere down the line, hence the importance of including such information.

There are also brief descriptions of habitat and voice, and these tend to be quite good. In the case of the Solitary Sandpiper, SG points out how it differs from the similar-sounding Spotted Sandpiper. Finally, a note about the maps. They are topnotch, as is to be expected when leading bird distribution expert Paul Lehman made them. The maps typify the thought and detail that went into the production of SG, a book that was some six years in the making.

A minor quibble is that species accounts only list the length of the bird, not wingspan or weight. The latter two characters can be quite useful in understanding the look of a bird, and including those points shouldn’t have created space issues. Also, the maps depict only the primary distributions and most common vagrancy patterns. The user will not find little dots showing every nuance of vagrancy, such as Ohio’s only Rock Wren record. After experiencing the absolute dot-fest of vagrants in Sibley’s guide, these cleaner, more pragmatic maps are much appreciated, at least to me.

As SG becomes more widely circulated and inspected, I am sure that more nits will be picked, and probably a few outright errors will be detected. In my skimming, I didn’t see any, though. As the Stokes involved some of the most knowledgeable birders and ornithologists in North America in the making and review of this guide, its accuracy is sure to be quite watertight, though.

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably guess that I’ll end with a strong recommendation to add the new Stokes guide to your arsenal of bird literature. It’ll help your growth as a birder, and enrich your appreciation of our birds with its unrivaled collection of outstanding photographs.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sabine's Gull visits Ohio

Sabine's Gull is one of the most beautiful and graceful of the gulls; a far cry from the french fry-seeking plunderers of McDonald's scraps that some of their larger brethren are.

Kenn Kaufman found an exceptionally cooperative first-year (first-cycle for those of you that follow the nomenclature of the hour) Sabine's Gull last Sunday, November 21st, at Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area along western Lake Erie. We see only a few Sabine's Gulls a year in Ohio, and virtually all of them are briefly glimpsed flybys out over Lake Erie on blustery fall days.

This bird is unusual in that it is sticking tight to the same spot where Kenn found it, allowing many a birder to relocate it. Matt Valencic was there yesterday, and kindly allowed me to share his amazing shots of this Sabine's Gull.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

When at rest on the water, this 1st-year Sabine's Gull stands out from the nearby Bonaparte's Gulls by its brown back.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

In flight, Sabine's Gulls are transformed, becoming works of geometrical beauty. Excepting the black band terminating the tail, the bird is all about triangles. Thus, Sabine's Gull is very distinctive and unmistakeable even from great distances.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

This is an incredible photo, and we can even see that the bird is lifting its head to look about, possibly at the mob of birders looking at it.

As good-looking as the young birds are, adult Sabine's Gulls, especially in alternate (breeding) plumage, look even better. The brownish tones change to crisp gray, and they develop a dark charcoal hood with a black collar at its base. There are hardly any records of adults in Ohio, thus the flock of eight - seven immature and one adult - that materialized at Huron on September 15, 1984 must have caused the observers to nearly faint.

Normally one would have to travel to Arctic breeding grounds to see adult Sabine's Gulls, or see the species in any numbers. And that's what Sir Edward Sabine did in 1818, as an astronomer on expedition to the high Arctic. Apparently celestial objects weren't the only thing Sabine saw when he looked aloft, as he is credited as discoverer of this beautiful little gull, and it was named in his honor by his brother Joseph.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

Away from their breeding grounds, Sabine's Gulls are highly pelagic (ocean-going), normally migrating far out at sea. And they go a long ways. Most of these little gulls winter in tropical seas far from where they bred, off South America and even Africa where they frequent the cold waters of the Humboldt and Benguela Currents, respectively. If this bird is part of the eastern Canada breeding population, and all goes well for it, it'll be off the coast of southwest Africa before long.

Thanks to Kenn for finding this Sabine's Gull and getting word out nearly instantly, and to Matt Valencic for sharing his remarkable photos with us.

UPDATE: Why you should not attack a boxelder bug if you are a green anole

Janet Creamer (you should read her blog; it's great) did a bit of sleuthing into Boxelder Bugs - my recent post on this insect RIGHT HERE - and came up with the following:

I was curious about what made them taste bad, too, since they eat stuff in the maple family. Not sure how it is made, but basically they squirt out a foul smelling substance made mainly from 84% beta-pinene (think pine-sol) and 15% limonene (think lemon juice). I guess if I was sprayed in the face with pine-sol and lemon juice, I would decide to eat something else, too. The abstract is below:

Monoterpene hydrocarbons may serve as antipredation defensive compounds in Boisea trivittata, the boxelder bug.
Palazzo MC, Setzer WN.

Department of Chemistry, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama 35899, USA.

Boxelder bugs, Boisea trivittata, are deterred from predation by green anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Hydrodistillation and GC-MS analysis reveals B. trivittata to contain the volatile monoterpene hydrocarbons beta-pinene (83.9%), limonene (14.7%), myrcene (0.8%), and (E)-beta-ocimene (0.6%). The presence of these antifeedant volatile chemicals may serve to provide some protection of boxelder bugs from predation.

So there you go. My advice to any Green Anoles who may read this blog and are thinking of confronting a Boxelder Bug? Unless you want to get blasted in the face with pine-sol strongly laced with tart lemon juice, don't do it!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Boxelder Bug

The Boxelder Bug, Boisea trivittata, a rather good-looking bug if I do say so myself. I found myself along the municipal pier at Huron, Ohio, the other day and ran into a boatload of the little critters.

I will wager that I was one of few people there that day who appreciated the beauty of these neat little bugs with their nifty orange and black pattern and beady blood-red eyes. This type of bold advertisement color patterning is known as (word of the day) APOSEMATIC. Aposematism is all about predator deterrence - warning off the bad guys with a caution sign before they attempt to eat you. Many animals employ bright colors to let the world know of their dangers: poison dart frogs, coral snakes, insects that eat toxic plants such as milkweeds, etc.

I'm not sure what nasty juices create toxicity in Boxelder Bugs, but apparently they are foul to eat.

Here is why we saw so many of the bugs along the pier. All of those trees along the left are Box-elder, Acer negundo. It is a type of maple, and Box-elders hold their clusters of brown helicopter-like fruit well into winter, and the tree in the foreground is still loaded with fruit.

Box-elder Bugs tap sap from the trees, and live most of their lives in and around them.

Scanning far down the pier, I saw a small knot of people staring intently at the sunny face of a rock wall, and knew what they must be peering at. Sure enough, they were by turns fascinated and horrified by a massive cluster of Boxelder Bugs that had congregated on the limestone.

This behavior is what gives the bugs a bad name - they gather en masse seeking sheltered hibernation spots as the weather turns cold in late fall. Sometimes, their favored spots are on people's houses and this irks the homeowner.

I guess the average Suzie Homemaker is appalled to step out for the morning newspaper and encounter a scene like this on the faux wood siding. Can't blame 'em, I suppose. If you've had this issue, I have no experience in how to purge wild masses of Box-elder Bugs from one's homestead. But, just go to THE GOOGLE and type in "box-elder bug control" and many of the world's exterminators will gladly dispense advice.

Fortunately, at least for the bugs, this swarm was far from any dwellings and those that saw them rather seemed to enjoy the spectacle.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fox Squirrel

Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger, Lorain County, Ohio.

Now this is a darn good looking squirrel. I had the good fortune to have one of these orange-colored beauties race right across my path the other day, and then offer himself up for photo ops.

Fox Squirrels are in acorn heaven this fall. With the massive mast crop, they are racing hither and yon, gorging themselves on nuts and fattening to elephantine proportions. They're big to start with. A whopper can easily tip the scales to a kilo! That's right - over two pounds!

Sometimes dubbed "stump-eared squirrels", Fox Squirrels are the largest of the tree squirrels in North America and dwarf our other, somewhat similar species, the Eastern Gray Squirrel, S. carolinensis, of which a large one might weigh a bit more than half of what a fox does.

Fox Squirrels prefer open landscapes with scattered trees and woodlots, while the Grays favor denser more contiguous woodlands. They've undoubtedly become far more common in Ohio following settlement of the state, and the subsequent clearing of the formerly unbroken and expansive eastern deciduous forest.

This particular unit was busily running about, seizing red oak acorns that had fallen. Those nuts that he didn't gobble on the spot would be likely be transported to a stache somewhere and concealed. These frenetic beasts forget where they've hidden many of the nuts, thus aiding in tree dispersal.

Perhaps the most spectacular feature of an Eastern Fox Squirrel is the tail. A magnificent appendage, it uses the proportionately massive, brushlike tail to signal its moods, much like a Norwegian Forest Cat does. In the pin-the-tail-on-the donkey shot above, the squirrel is seemingly happily pawing a nut from the grass and preparing for a luxurious treat.

I snapped this image as another, more Alpha squirrel quickly approached, and our squirrel is starting to express displeasure by rapidly flicking its tail, like a flag snapping in a hurricane. Seconds later the interloper was hot on this one's heels, resulting in a mad Keystone Kops style high speed chase throughout the park.

Even though the purpose of this trip was birds, I'll always take pause to admire this most handsome of squirrels, and chuckle at their wacky antics.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tundra Swans

East Sandusky Bay Metropark, Erie County, Ohio. This vast expanse of deepwater marsh lies in the shadow of the giant coasters at nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park. Nonetheless, this sheltered Lake Erie coastal wetland serves as an important refuge for migrant birds.

I was there late this afternoon, to enjoy the spectacle of approximately 1,500 Tundra Swans. The above photo shows but a small smattering of the birds that were present. Even though they were probably one-half mile off, their loud war-whoops could easily be heard. Few sights are as soul-stirring and emblematic of North America's wilds as is a huge flock of these spectacular, highly migratory swans.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sullivant's Milkweed

Sullivant's Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii, photographed last July at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in north-central Ohio. Killdeer Plains is legendary among birders for its raptors and other interesting birds, but the 9,000+ acre area also supports some of the best surviving prairie vegetation of the formerly vast Sandusky Plains prairie. This prairie heritage is one of the reasons the place is so good for birds.

Of the 13 species of Asclepias milkweed found in Ohio, Sullivant's Milkweed is my favorite. It really is showy, with luxuriant domes of rose-pink flowers that are considerably brighter than the somewhat similar and far more widespread Common Milkweed, A. syriaca. This plant speaks to our prairie past, too - it is essentially an obligate prairie plant, and is not found outside former prairie regions. Thus, it serves as a relict of our past; a botanical epitaph of the vast, incredibly diverse prairies that once blanketed some 5% of Ohio. This milkweed was originally discovered in prairies west of Columbus by William Starling Sullivant.

Sullivant's Milkweed tends to be shorter in stature than Common Milkweed, and has a promiment pinkish midrib on the leaves - a feature that stands out from afar. Killdeer Plains supports many sizeable colonies, but overall the plant's populations have plummeted in tandem with prairie destruction. It is listed as threatened or endangered in several states, and I wonder if it shouldn't be added to the Ohio list.
This Broad-winged Bush Katydid, Scudderia pistillata, was happily snacking away on Sullivant's Milkweed flowers, demonstrating its bulletproof constitution. Milkweeds are loaded with toxic cardiac glycosides, but apparently orthopterans such as this katydid are immune.

Of course, the most famous of milkweed snackers dotes on Sullivant's Milkweed, and our ancestral prairies must have been rich in Monarch butterfly production because of this milkweed. Here, a tiny gemlike egg is in the foreground, lower left, while the caterpillar lurks behind.

The black-yellow-white bandings of Monarch caterpillars warn off potential predators. The ornately marked bags of goo are poisonous, just as is their host plant.

Monarchs congregating en masse, staging for their spectacular journey to high elevation fir forests in Mexico where they will overwinter. Countless millions of these most recognized of butterflies must have once been reared on Sullivant's Milkweed in our former prairies. Not anymore; nearly all of the original prairie - Ohio and elsewhere - has been lost to the plow or other development. Good thing the Monarchs are adaptable and can use other milkweeds.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A REALLY big grass!

A seemingly innocuous roadside within Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio's Scioto County. However, a very special and extremely rare plant occurs on this dry bank; the only known station for it in the state. I was here a few weeks back, and we made a point of stopping to investigate this plant and see how it was doing.

The slender bamboo-like canes in the foreground are our rarity, an enormous native grass known as Silver Plume Grass, Saccharum alopecuroides.

Your blogger provides some scale to the plants, which tower over my head. John Howard, who was with me and took this photo, counted about 32 flowering culms (stalks), I believe. That's it; all of the majestic Silver Plume Grass that we know of in the entire state. This species is at its extreme northern limits at this very site, and the Shawnee population is one few of that occurs north of the Ohio River.

One would be excused for blowing this one off as some sort of ornamental garden grass that jumped the garden fence and went feral. The flowering spikes - plumes! - are quite robust and showy. In fact, many a botanist had often driven by this very site and not picked up on the grass until the legendary Daniel Boone spotted it back in the 1990's and put it on the map.

Silver Plume Grass is but one in a long list of major rarities that make Shawnee State Forest such a botanical paradise.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Southern Two-lined Salamander

Slender as a whip, a seemingly delicate Southern Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera, stares into the maw of my Panasonic. Not long ago, I was with some friends in a large southern Ohio forest, and we found ourselves turning rocks and logs in a quest for salamanders. Every time I engage in such activities, a thought often flashes through my mind: "I am acting like a little kid". So what. I hope I never tire of log-flipping for amphibians.

That day, we didn't find very many salamanders - the rare Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus, was our primary target - but as always, it was nice to run across several fine specimens of the above. Two-lined Salamanders occur most commonly along small streams and rivulets in wooded habitats, and can often be quite abundant.

We have both Southern Two-lined Salamanders and Northern Two-lined Salamanders, Eurycea bislineata, in Ohio. They are essentially identical, differing only in subtle markings and a difference in the number of costal grooves (tiny indents along the lower sides of the animal). Roughly speaking, Northerns occur in the northern half of Ohio, while Southerns occur in the southern half.

While gently prodding the salamander into a new position, I accidentally tugged a bit too hard, and stimulated something that is both horrific and amazing. Two-lined Salamanders are mostly tail, and thus it is this appendage that is most likely to be grabbed by a predator. When I gave it a soft pull, the tail tip broke clean away! The detached tip can be seen in the lower right, while the rest of the animal and the remainder of its tail slinks off in the upper left. As always, you can click on the image to expand it and see more detail.

For several minutes after detaching, the tip of the tail wriggled in rapid, abrupt waves - quite conspicuous. This is a very effective ruse for fooling enemies and allowing the animal a chance to escape. A predator would likely become entranced with dealing with the moving tail tip, permitting the salamander to quickly wriggle out of harm's way and live to reproduce itself.

Within half a day or so of my snapping this fellow's tail off, it would have been well on its way to regenerating a new one. Within a month or so, the tail would have mostly grown back.

Regeneration of body parts is not that rare with simple structures in the animal world, such as this salamander's tail. It doesn't work well with complex organs, such as most mammal appendages. So, should you be threatened by a bear, I'd advise against ripping your arm off and flinging it at the beast, as you won't regrow another.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Poisonous plants

Cedar Bog State Memorial in Champaign County, one of Ohio's most iconic natural areas and a must-see place. I was there briefly on Sunday. It's well past the growing season, but I love to visit all manner of habitats at all seasons. That's how one gets a real feel for plants in all of the various stages of development, and post-mortem stages.

Besides, latest fall and early winter paints places heavy in ochre and sepia; quite attractive and an important reminder of the cycles of life and death. One of the aspects of living in the midst of the great eastern deciduous forest is the prominent change of seasons; something I'd dearly miss if I lived somewhere else.

In spite of the lateness of season, there was still greenery to be found. This stuff looked fresh, and if you ate everything in this photo, you'd possibly be killed, dead. The plant is Poison-hemlock, Conium maculatum, and it is the juices of this highly toxic parsley that Socrates was forced to drink as punishment for his impiety. Poison-hemlock is chockful of nasty alkaloids, and even small doses can be fatal.

If you make a habitat of walking roadsides or frequent other open waste areas, you've probably seen this plant. It is quite common throughout Ohio and much of the U.S., yet another example of success of an imported Eurasian weed.

By late spring of next year, the biennial parsley will rocket skyward and develop umbels of flowers that are typical of the parsley family. A good-sized specimen can reach five feet or more in height.

This beautiful treelet is a native, and far scarcer and much more habitat-specific than the previous weed. It is Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. I have to confess that it is one of my favorite woody plants. One is not too likely to stumble into P-sumac in these parts, as it is quite finicky about habitat choices and for the most part frequents only fens and bogs. As we've managed to thoroughly annihilate about 95% of those wetland types since European settlement, there aren't too many places left to find the sumac.

At this stage, the leaves have fallen, but the showy clusters of porcelain berries remain tightly affixed to their pedicels. That's smart of the plant to hold these fruit firmly until after leaf fall, as it's wintering feathered fruit-eaters such as robins and Hermit Thrushes that snack on them and thus spread the plants.

Don't you try eating Poison Sumac fruit, though! The plants are loaded with urushiol, the same allergen that makes its better known brethren, Poison Ivy, T. radicans, so despised. Brushing up against the plants, even at this season, can cause a nasty rash.

Poison Sumac looks good nearly year-round, and if it didn't have the toxicity issues, I believe it could be plugged to the nursery trade as a landscape plant. Maybe it should anyway; the more daring among native plant landscapers might take a crack at placing it. And, P-sumac would make an outstanding living fence, if your goal is chemically dissuading interlopers from entering the yard.

Mid-summer and the plant looks like this: giant, fireworks bursts of greenish-yellow flowers backdropped by big, showy pinnate leaves.

Take a trip to Cedar Bog next year, and see it for yourself.