Thursday, April 28, 2011

False Garlic

The verdant landscapes of spring, along a rural Adams County roadside. But wait! What's that mist of white flowers creating a drift along the verge?

This one is worth stopping for. It's False Garlic, Nothoscordum bivalve, an Ohio threatened plant. While it acts rather weedy, False Garlic occurs only in a limited area of southernmost Ohio, primarily in Adams County. Start moving south, and the plant becomes abundant. I once drove to Texas at this time of year, and False Garlic became a prolific roadside - dare I say - "weed" in many areas.

Up close and personal, we can clearly see that this species is in the lily family (Liliaceae) with its six-parted flowers. False Garlic greatly resembles some of the wild onions in the genus Allium, but with the possible exception of Nodding Wild Onion, A. cernuum, those species do not have nearly as showy flowers. Also, had I plunked down in a patch of true onions to make some photos, as I did here, the powerful, pungent aroma of onions would have risen to greet me. False Garlic is inodorous - it produces no smell.

Hopefully these plants will still be in bloom this weekend for the Flora-Quest crowd, as some of their expeditions should be going right by this very patch of plants.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Northern Dusky Salamander

A Northern Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus fuscus, peeks at your blogger from the chilled waters of a woodland rill. I had the good fortune to encounter several of these extraordinary, if rather bland-looking salamanders the other day.

The northern in this species' name is apropos. It ranges throughout the New England states, and south along the mountains and west into Ohio. While locally common here, its range includes only eastern and southern Ohio.

Quicksand-colored and unadorned, duskies won't blow your socks off with flashy coloration. The same is not true of some of their mates, such as the Mud and Red salamanders, both of which can occur as companion species with the Dusky Salamander. In fact, both of those bright red species are known from the very springhead where I photographed this animal. Just wasn't my day to find them, but I was quite pleased to find the duskies.

Finding any salamander is always a treat. It's a bit like treasure-hunting, and the quick, casual observer will not be rewarded. One must tun rocks and logs, and in many cases wallow in boot-sucking muck. And to do it right, exercise care. You shouldn't behave as a bull in a china shop, but rather turn the objects slowly and with caution, and replace all just as it was.

Here's a challenge for you photographers. The third iteration of the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp (OWLS) will feature a salamander. Submissions will be voted upon by a panel of judges, and the winner's shot will grace this beautiful stamp. Stamp proceeds go to fund habitat acquisition, research on rare species, and educational efforts about natural history. Read more about the stamp HERE.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Butterflies and native plants

Last Sunday was anything but bright and sunny, but in spite of the overcast conditions butterflies were scudding through the forests of southern Ohio in large numbers. This group of mineral-seeking males - such assemblages are sometimes termed "puddle parties" had congregated on a rural lane in Adams County. Four species are present: Eastern tiger swallowtails, zebra swallowtails, a pipevine swallowtail, and a spicebush swallowtail.

The odd fleshy flowers of a pawpaw, Asimina triloba. The flowers burst before the leaves unfurl, and it's easy to miss them. The blooms like like little galls at a quick glance.

Where I was exploring, the pawpaws were abundant and so were zebra swallowtails. No coincidence there; the pawpaw is the host plant for this gorgeous butterfly. There are two, perhaps sometimes three, annual broods of zebra swallowtails in these parts, and the batches look different. The spring form, such as the one above, are smaller than those from later broods. This is probably because their caterpillars dined on older leaves of pawpaw plants of late summer and fall, and then overwintered as chrysalises. Individuals from later broods are more robust -they fed on the young, nutrient-dense leaves of the pawpaws - a supercharged diet, essentially.

A pendant flower cluster of bladdernut, Staphylea trifolia. A beautiful native shrub, or perhaps treelet, bladdernut typically forms colonies on stream terraces and lower slopes. Why it isn't employed more frequently in the nursery trade is a mystery to me. Everything about the plant is cool, from these showy flowers to the green-striped bark to the overall aesthetically pleasing look of the plant. The fruit, which come much later, resemble miniature Chinese lanterns and hang from the plants nearly throughout winter.

I came across a sizeable bladdernut colony, and was floored by the sheer numbers of swallowtails swarming the flower clusters. At one point, there must have been 50-75 eastern tiger swallowtails swirling around and tussling over favored nectar fueling stations.

So, we can add butterfly-attractant to the pluses of bladdernut.

If you want to learn boatloads of information about native plants, participate in some great field trips, AND have the opportunity to purchase some of the most desirable native plants, sign on for the Midwest Native Plant Conference.

Monday, April 25, 2011

An odd fern

Southern adder's-tongue, Ophioglossum vulgatum. I had the good fortune to stumble into a small colony of these weird little ferns yesterday, in Adams County. The adder's-tongue ferns scarcely resemble their more pinnate, cut and dissected allies, and one could be forgiven for wondering what the heck one of these things is. In Ohio, their closest relatives are the grape ferns in the genus Botrychium, but the adder's-tongues don't look much like those, either.

We've got three species of Ophioglossum: this one, the Northern adder's-tongue, O. pusillum, and the very rare limestone adder's-tongue, O. engelmannii. Both of the other species are listed as endangered in Ohio, with the limestone adder's-tongue found elsewhere in Adams County in a few prairies.

Southern adder's-tongue likes to grow in scruffy haunts such as young woods, field margins and other semi-shaded uninteresting places that people often don't look at very closely. And it's quite easy to walk right by this plant, the eye dismissing it as the young leaf of some young plant still on the rise.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Prairie Warbler

Prime Prairie Warbler habitat - the cedar glades of Adams County, Ohio. Some of the greatest breeding densities of this warbler must occur in this region. I was down there today, and saw or heard dozens. Many other warblers, too: Blue-winged, Nashville, Northern Parula, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Yellow-throated, Pine, Cerulean, Black-and-white, American Redstart, Worm-eating, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded, and Yellow-breasted Chat.

You gotta enjoy Prairie Warblers while you can, at least up here near their northern limits. They aren't with us long. The Prairies have just arrived, and are still coming in, and their nesting season will be a frenzied blur. By mid-July many of the males will have departed, and by mid-August nearly all of the rest have left. Most Prairie Warblers probably spend but three months with us, then it's back to the southern wintering grounds: South Florida and the Caribbean.

Males are quite distinctive, with their bold black crescent framing the eye, stripes of chestnut on the back, and tigerlike striping on bright lemon underparts. Their song is a snap to learn. It is a rapid ascending buzzy scale, quite unlike anything else and very pleasing to the ear.

It's good to be back in warbler prime time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day, warts and all

Today is Earth Day. A day of celebration, to promote awareness of Mothership Earth, ED began in 1970 and has picked up steam ever since. It's now hyped pretty much worldwide, and is often used as a vehicle for various organizations to blow their horns about this or that accomplishment.

We shouldn't fool ourselves too badly, though. The human species has a LONG way to go before we achieve anything approaching true environmental awareness. Or any sense of a long term big picture when it comes to ourselves, our role on earth, and our incredible, unprecedented ability to manipulate our environment. And by extension, the environment of every other organism on the planet.

GREEN is not building a more environmentally friendly Walmart. At best, that's damage mitigation. True green is conserving our natural habitats, and trying to live in balance with Nature.

Southern West Virginia. These Appalachian mountains harbor some of the richest diversity of life on earth. Their rich forests attempt to atone for our excesses by sequestering carbon, a byproduct of the ever-increasing need to provide energy for our growing world community. By just being there, these woodlands provide habitat for thousands of species of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects of every stripe, and things that we don't yet even know about.

But fuel is required to feed our mechanized society, and this is one of the ways that we get it. The above shot shows an active mountaintop removal, in which places such as shown in the first photo are leveled to expose underlying coal seams. The depth of destruction is mind-boggling, and it's stupefying to realize that a species so collectively brilliant - us - could be so incomparably stupid. For a very short term gain, we have wrought a scorched earth change that will be with our planet for thousands of years, probably. From an indescribably lush and diverse forest to a lunar landscape, practically overnight.

The pressures to enagage in crimes such as mountaintop removal won't vanish anytime soon. In 2006, world consumption of coal was about 6.75 billion (BILLION) tons of coal. By 2030 our use is projected to rise to a staggering 10 billion tons, an increase of 48%. If we let that happen, you can expect to see many more fabulous mountains lopped off and planted to exotic grasses. There is no mitigation for this sort of thing.

A verdant southern Ohio woodland in spring, fairly bursting at the seams with life. Probably a hundred species of breeding birds can be found in this place, and they link us to the global bioeconomy like no other group of organisms. Dozens of species of Neotropical migrants nest here, and they collectively radiate to nearly every country in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Older-growth forests spawn an amazing diversity of life, all of it dependent upon towering trees.

But we need wood, and more of it all of the time. Forty-five years ago, the world's people consumed 12 billion ft3 of wood products, and now the demand has eclipsed 17 billion ft3. That's a heckuva lot of wood and it has to come from earth's forests.

This crew is reveling over warblers in a big West Virginia woodland. I know, because I was there. On that same trip, we also thrilled to red trilliums, pipevine swallowtails, sharp-shinned hawks, tulip trees, the nest of a Black-and-white Warbler, greenshield lichens, and more other stuff than you could shake a stick at. Earth Day organizers would have been proud of us.

Parts of this very mountain, with its richness of life and endless intellectual stimulations, is scheduled for a life-ending double-whammy: a scalping of its timber, then pulverization by mountaintop removal. Hasn't happened yet, but many of its sister mountains have fallen.

Remember, the people that allow this sort of thing to happen have no knowledge of, or interest in, such places. They should be made to sit in the front of the Earth Day 101 class.

The aftermath of mining on a mountain that a high soaring Golden Eagle could see from the mountain on the previous photo. Not very Earth Day, is it?

Just as all other animals on earth have a finite carrying capacity, so too do we. This chart shows the astronomical rise in the human population, with the huge spurt coming with the so-called Neolithic Revolution - the modernization of agriculture. Now, at least for a while, we have the ability to feed what many experts believe to be far more people than the planet can sustain in the longterm. And the pressures to provide for all of our wants and needs will only continue to skyrocket as well.

Every year, our population grows by 74 million people. That's the equivalent of four (4!) New York Cities, every year. That's a lot of new space to eke out.

The first U.S. census was undertaken in 1790. Four million people were tallied. The 1850 census totalled 23 million, and by 1900, our population had risen to 76 million. It now stands at 308 million, and our numbers are projected to rise to 400 million+ by 2050. Global trends are similar: 7 billion people currently, projected to hit nearly 8 billion by 2050.

That is a lot of people, and what some might reasonably conclude is a bacteria-like runaway growth curve. I may or may not be around in 2050 to see what things look like on Mother Earth, but if this meteoric rise in our population continues, I don't think things will have improved from an Earth Day perspective.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Some cute, and not so cute, flies

I must confess to being a closet fly enthusiast. Until recent years, I never gave them much thought nor paid them much mind. Probably, like so many others, I labored under numerous misconceptions: they're ugly, dirty, trash-seeking, and boring.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Fly World is filled with diversity and and fascinating behavior. They're endless fodder for intellectual stimulation, and make for beautiful macro photography subjects. On a recent trip to Shawnee State Forest, I turned my lens to a few flies...

A tiny flowerfly, its eyes endlessly deep pools of blood-red, wallows in a sea of buttercup nectar. This one was small enough to be measured in millimeters, like a robust gnat. A great number of fly species are vital pollinators of our flora, possibly THE biggest group of pollinators.

Many flowerflies mimic the bad guys. They resemble - sometimes to an eerie degree - wasps, bees, hornets, etc. But you can tell they are flies by the huge eyes, greatly reduced antennae, and the one pair of prominent wings (the others have two pairs). Check out this post by Eric Eaton, which features a few thick-headed flies. They mimic wasps to a remarkable degree.

This one might make you jump, should it unexpectedly buzz into your face. It's a flowerfly that's doing a mighty respectable job of looking like a yellowjacket or some other nasty stinger. There are a number of species, and genera, that resemble this guy and I'm not sure which one it is. That holds true for all of the flies in this post. If anyone does know their specific identity please let me know. I'd love to learn more about them.

This flowerfly, happily chowing away on pussytoes, was very cool. It reminded me of a potter's wasp with its stripes of white on a black body. And to further the ruse, it constantly twitched and arched its abdomen, just as a wasp does.

Here we have, I believe, a tachinid fly. They look rather menacing, and are. A lot of tachinids - and there is something like 1,900 species in North America - resemble exceptionally ugly house flies. You can tell them by the thick, coarse hairs that bristle from the abdomen. Tachinids are parasitoids; they lay their eggs on hosts such as caterpillars, katydids, or ther insects. The fly grubs then proceed to feed on the living host, ultimately killing it. CLICK HERE for a post mortem of a rare pink katydid that fell victim to a tachinid.

A particularly ferocious tachinid (I think) awaits victims. If you tune your eye to the insect world, you'll begin to notice the staggering number of parasitoid flies and wasps that are out there. They often seem to sit patiently and vigilant, carefully watching for prey. Some of them, especially the wasps, actively patrol the vegetation, searching out victims. Given the magnitude of the army of parasitoids lurking out there, it seems a miracle that any caterpillar or cricket ever makes it to adulthood.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Purple wood sedge

There are precious few people who write about sedges. That's because there aren't many people who know anything about them. Even many an experienced botanist shuns sedges, as there are so many and sometimes it seems that they all look alike. If one looks at sheer numbers, the sedges do present a stiff learning curve. In Ohio, over 160 species in just one genus - Carex - have been found.

Despite the relative lack of interest in sedges, this group plays a very important role in ecology. They stabilize soil and streambanks, form large animal-rich colonies, provide food, and not least, offer enriched aesthetics in our various habitats.

Below is some photos and info on one of our showiest woodland sedges.

A dry sun-soaked roadbank high on a ridge in Shawnee State Forest. The roadsides, which mimic natural blow-down openings in the forest, harbor all manner of interesting plants. But exposure means everything. A south-facing exposure that is often baked and sere harbors an entirely different set of flora than does a cool, shady and much moister north-facing bank. The one above sports a profusion of birdfoot violet, Viola pedata, and also is home to sedges such as oak sedge, Carex albicans, and clustered sedge, C. umbellata.

Here's the birdfoot violet, just to ensure that this post has some botanical eye candy.

This roadbank, only a mile or so away from the other, is utterly different. It sits at midslope on the hillside, and is much cooler and shadier. The soil is richer and more mesic (moist), and the plants that grow here are very different than on the sunny birdfoot violet slope. You can see some scattered tufts of greenery - those plants are our target subject

Ah, a pleasing sight indeed. This is a luxuriant tussock of purple wood sedge, Carex purpurifera, one of my very favorite sedges. I've shown this one to many people for their first time, and folks invariably react favorably to the plant. Even from afar, it's got a good look: thick tussocks of pale blue-green foliage, with long graceful culms jutting forth. Adding further allure is the fact that purple wood sedge is rare in Ohio. It is listed as threatened, and only known from a limited area of Adams and Scioto counties, although I think someone has found it in one or two other spots in recent years.

Here's how it got its name. The basal sheaths, or lower portions of the plant, are heavily infused with anthocyanins that paint the sedge a wonderfully rich purple color. To help bring order to the enormous Carex genus, it is divided into sections comprised of like species. Purple wood sedge belongs to Section laxiflorae, a group of about 25 species that are found almost exclusively in the forests of eastern North America. Some new species have been discovered in this group in the past few decades and others probably await discovery.

Sedges are probably noticed and commented on the most early in their growth cycle, as now is when the male flower spikes are copiously beset with conspicuous stamens. As it is these staminate spikes, or male flowers, that often protrude the furthest from the sedge's tussock, they draw one's eye to the plant.

Not yet quite mature, this slender spike holds the sedge's fruit, which are known as perigynia. The perigynia are slender and ellipsoid, and spaced rather widely. Each holds a small bony seed called an achene, which will later drop to the soil. Many fruits of sedges are probably carted off by ants; these insects are probably important dispersers of woodland sedges.

If you are at Flora-Quest and on one of my trips, you'll probably get to see the beautiful purple wood sedge firsthand.

Absolutely incredible jumping spider video!

This video of displaying peacock jumping spiders in Australia is stunning; almost beyond belief! Watch it - you'll be amazed! CLICK HERE

Monday, April 18, 2011

A most handsome blister beetle

I spent all of yesterday plumbing the depths of southern Ohio's Shawnee State Forest, unfettered by schedules, people, or things. Well, one thing - my new Nikon D-7000. This was the first day that I've had to really fool around with this camera and its 105 mm macro lens. I am but an inexperienced piker with this setup, but the camera with that lens is amazing! I hope to progressively get better with it, and start to learn more about using flash and other tricks.

Anyway, Shawnee was great as always and I saw scads of interesting stuff. I did spend a lot of time looking at and photographing insect pollinators, mostly the often colorful flower flies that so ably mimic bad guys such as wasps and bees. More on those in a later post, if I get to them, but for now it's a beetle. And what a beetle! Early-blooming wildflowers, such as this pussy-toes, Antennaria plantaginifolia, which sometimes goes by the odd name of "woman's tobacco", are very important nectar sources for vernal insects. Pussy-toes, which in this species typically form sizeable colonies, are good for finding lots of interesting bugs. Those are bluets, Houstonia caerulea, in the backdrop - another good nectar source.
I was after some fly shots when I noticed this little beauty wing in and plunk down on some pussy-toes flowers. It's small - perhaps one-half inch in length and I don't think I would have noticed what an exquisite animal it was had I not been turning my macro lens to small bugs.

Anyway, it is the so-called "bronze blister beetle, Lytta aenea. Having the word "blister" in your title does not sound flattering and indeed the beetle does have some caustic chemicals within its hard-shelled exoskeleton. But who cares - look at this thing! It would be hard for a metal-working artisan to create such a thing. Everything about this beetle is cool, from those ornately braided antennea to the head and thorax which look as if they've been plated in high quality bronze. The iridescent purplish wings contrast nicely with the yellow legs.

A major piece of work on a minor scale, this one.

Blister beetles, which can often be found visiting flowers for nectar, get their name from the presence of cantharadin, a nasty chemical they carry. Accidentally ingest one of these things and you'll regret it. There's a whole raft of bad effects, including greatly elevated temperature, rapid heart rate, diarrhea and dehydration. Depression is another cited effect, perhaps because all of those other bad things are happening to you.

Even getting cantharadin on your skin can cause nasty blisters and inflammation, so it's better to admire blister beetles from afar.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel

On my way back from southern Ohio today, I stopped in at a remnant of the former Pickaway Plains prairie. Being that it was a reasonably warm and sunny day, I knew that I would encounter Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, Spermophilus tridecemlineatus. Wow! For such little beasts, they've been saddled with an incredible, multi-syllabic moniker. Between the common and scientific names, that's -count 'em - sixteen syllables!

Anyway, 13-lines are really cool and I stop to reacqaint myself with them each year. As you can see from the habitat shot above, they like open landscapes. The mowed verges of this country road is a favored locale. Sharp little cookies that they are, and with nothing to block their views, sneaking up on the squirrels is essentially impossible, but I know of two strategies that allow one to get in reasonably close proximity. 13LGS's are voracious tunnelers, and that's one of the reasons they're so tough to approach. The animals seldom stray far from one of their burrow entrances, and if spooked they go subterranean in a flash. This animal is the easternmost prairie dog, and like its western counterparts, 13-lines excavate massive warrens of tunnels and chambers. When not above ground foraging on succulent vegetable matter, they're down under, partying and doing whatever it is that 13LGS's do.

One thing that they do well is hibernate. These furry Rip Van Winkles hit the hay in September/October, and don't surface again until early April. As mammalian indicators of spring go, they'd probably be far better barometers than that fat Pennsylvanian woodchuck. Okay, as I said, I know of two ways to approach these wary little animals in their wide open stomping grounds. One, watch which burrow the animal disappears into, and go lay prostrate in the grass ten or fifteen feet away. That's what I'm doing here, and the squirrel has just poked his head from the hole and is eyeing me with great suspicion.
But I made no movements and his confidence picked up. He is now nearly out of the hole, but no doubt wondering what the giant biped is doing lying facedown in the grass and holding a large tubular click-maker.

Finally, the little fellow popped out and quickly scampered to a safe distance. As 13LGS's do when they're curious, it stood up on its haunches. All the better to scan the surroundings and warn its compadres with low trilling whistles should danger lurk.

Here we can see the telltale stripes which give the animal its name. Quite an attractive little rodent, and sometimes people who see them think they are some sort of robust chipmunk. Oh, I took this photo using method #2: using the car as a blind. I've found that upon discovery of an active squirrel foraging site, I can drive up - all the 13-lines quickly vanish - and position the car in such a way so that I can shoot photos from the window. After a few minutes, the squirrels emerge and soon go about their business, allowing for wonderful viewing opportunities.

One last tidbit about Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. This is the "gopher" that makes Minnesota the Gopher State, and ditto for the University of Minnesota's sports teams, the Golden Gophers. What kind of goofiness is that? Come on, what a great animal to pick to incite fearfulness and intimidation in your opponents. I'm sure Minnesota's rivals quake in their boots knowing that they are going up against a bunch of ground squirrels who jump in a hole at the first sign of trouble. And make cute birdlike trills. And sleep communally, stacked upon each other like fuzzy cordwood.

At least Ohio State picked an inedible nut as their mascot.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some more plants of spring

I found a bit of time to stop in at a Jackson County woodland the other day, and take a few photos of early spring wildflowers. The vernal season is, without doubt, the most ephemeral. Many spring wildflowers last but a day or so, and in general the flowering periods for spring species is greatly compressed and flies by with great rapidity. Get out there now. A fiddlehead of a Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, unfurls. When young ferns are at this stage, it's no mystery why they are called fiddleheads. By today, it's probably mostly expanded into the broad green blade that is such a familiar sight in Ohio woodlands.
This plant is living proof that one should take time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. It's a spring-beauty, Claytonia virginica, one of our most abundant and widespread wildflowers of spring. It's easy to get jaded by such common tripe, and fail to pay them the heed that they deserve.

Tiny, impossibly delicate falcate orangetip butterflies certainly don't ignore spring-beauties. This plant is an important source of nectar for early spring insects.

It's easy to see the relationship to Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, in this plant, which is yellow harlequin, Corydalis flavula. Both are among the five native species in the fumitory family (Fumariaceae) found in Ohio.

Another super-abundant spring wildflower is rue-anemone, Anemonella thalictroides. It is a member of the large, diverse buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).

We've got about 30 species of violets in Ohio, and a Viola simpletonian might just lump them into three types: purple, yellow, and white. That'd be doing a disservice to these little charmers of spring, which for the most part aren't difficult to sort out. This one is a personal favorite and one of the easiest to ID - long-spurred violet, Viola rostrata. Its distinctive hue of pale lavender allows roadside identification at freeway speeds.

Tiny clusters of white flowers arise from a thick tuft of basal rosette leaves, held aloft on naked stalks in early saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis. Look for this one on barren rocky ledges or steep banks of open rocky soil in partial sun.

An avalanche of our official state wildflower, the large-flowered trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, cascades down a steep wooded slope. Deer candy, trillium often occurs in the greatest densities on sites that are not readily accessible to browsing ungulates.

A trip is in the offing for tomorrow, and I hope to see many unusual things. And hopefully capture some of them with my camera.