Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A very urban Blackpoll Warbler

Lovely landscape - we've got a Taco Bell, a dumpster for the refuse, and a McDonalds in the backdrop. After being gone for a big chunk of the last month, I found myself homebound last weekend, playing catchup. And when such is the situation, I make a habit of early morning runs to that McD's for a jot or two of their delectable (to me, anyway) java.

I was there last Sunday morning, and was pleased to hear the thin piping lisps of a male Blackpoll Warbler filtering down from the tops of those ornamental locust trees. But not that surprised - I often hear Blackpolls, Tennessee Warblers and other long distance Neotropical migrant warblers in such places. But lo and behold, when I went back for more coffee (no McMuffins, I swear!) yesterday, the Blackpoll was in the same spot, still singing away. So I ran home, grabbed my lens, and went back to try for a photo.

Well, it isn't much of a photo, but after a bit of stalking I managed to locate the neat black-and-white bird with the lemony legs high in one of the trees.

Blackpoll Warblers amaze me. This warbler winters further south than any of its ilk, and the chap above was somewhere deep in South America just a scant few weeks ago. And its got a long way to go - Blackpolls breed as far north as trees occur, and it's possible this one could make it all the way to Alaska. Probably not; it'll likely end up in spruce/fir forests somewhere north of us in Canada, but any way you slice it, this bird will have traveled one heck of a long way, no mean feat from a magical little charm of feathers that weighs not much more than a Vegas poker chip.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


While leading expeditions in Presque Isle County, Michigan recently, we encountered quite a few species of mammals. Not the least of which was the North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum. Everyone knows what a porcupine is, but not too many will get as up close and personal with the prickly beasts as we're about to.

While heading back to NettieBay Lodge in the van one evening, shortly after dusk, we spied a porcupine shuffling across the road. STOP! I shouted, and leapt from the vehicle for a better look. Porkies aren't going to win any ribbons in the 40 yard dash, and we quickly moved in on the lumbering rodent. While porcupines are quite low key and not intimidated by much, we were a little over the top for this one, and it headed for the nearest balsam fir.
The bristly charmer clambered slowly up the fir, offering us great looks. It was a good-sized porky, perhaps tipping the scales at 20 pounds or more. Its whitened quills are obvious, and it is these dangerous modified hairs that give the animal its fearsome reputation. Many a dog has learned about porcupine quills the hard way. In fact, just before our arrival, NettieBay's resident King Charles Spaniel, Rudy, took a quill through his lip.

Rudy was smart enough to quickly back off and minimize his damage. Some of the fiercer hunting dogs don't, and really get a faceful of spines. Porcupine quills are nothing to trifle with. The thick, hollow spines are retrorsely barbed, or beset with hooks that point backwards. This means the quills will slide into flesh with ease, but you'll have a painful time trying to pull them back out. A big porcupine might have 30,000 quills, so they've got a lot of armament to defend themselves with.

Porcupines are mild-mannered and have to be pushed hard before they deploy their quills. If an animal is dumb enough to invade one's space, the porky will try and lash it with its tail, and a strike will release a barrage of the easily detached spines. Amazingly, there are at least two species of predators that are adept at flipping and gutting porcupines, the fisher and wolverine.

NettieBay's owner, Mark Schuler, knew of two porcupine dens and took us to have a look. They'll use the same den site for long periods of time, and Mark thought that the animals had been using this red oak for at least a decade. You certainly can't miss them. Not only is the hole large and conspicuous, the porkies leave other evidence.

Up close and on the porcupine's door step. Yes, that enormous pile is porcupine scat, a flume of excreted pellets cascading from the residence. A real state agent would be horrified, as the giant dung pile greatly reduces the homestead's curb appeal. But apparently the porcupines give not a whit for external appearances, nor do they seem to care much about secrecy or camouflage.

I imagine porcupine pellets are high in fiber, given their penchant for browsing on tree bark and woody plants. This dung heap must have been a foot deep and a few feet wide; a veritable pyramid of scat accumulated over the years.

Well, one obvious question leaps right to mind when looking into the gaping maw of a porcupine den. "Is Mr. Porcupine inside"? We all wanted to know, but I wasn't about to stick my head in there to find out. For one, porcupines are well known for clumsiness and routinely fall from their perches. I'd hate to be looking up into the shadowy bowels of this tree and have the thing come crashing down on my face. Although that would make for a good story, and maybe I'd even be able to laugh about it years later.

The other problem with looking inside the den is that jumbo pile of scat. You'd essentially have to be laying in it on your back, and while I'll go to great lengths for you, the reader, I won't go that far. So, I turned my camera's flash on, and stuck the trusty old Panasonic right into the tree, pointed upward, and pulled the trigger. The result, as seen above, is a like a virtual colonoscopy of the den tree. As you can see, the hollowed out trunk extends up for some distance, but in reviewing the photos on my camera's view finder in the field, we could see no evidence of the porcupine.

But wait! After downloading the photos and manipulating the brightness and contrast, it turns out that the porcupine was indeed in the house! In the somewhat creepy photo above, you can see the animal looking down the tree at my camera and hand. That's his nose on the right, and what looks like a foreleg just below the nose. Click on the photo to enlarge it and you'll better make out the details.

This was the other porcupine den tree that we saw. The resident of this tree, quite wisely, had posted a No Trespassing sign. I imagine his neighbor will be tacking one up soon.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Birds of Presque Isle County, Michigan

A group of birders explores one of the many wetlands that dot Presque Isle County, Michigan. This county is in the extreme northeastern corner of the lower peninsula, and is without doubt one of the most scenic locales in eastern North America. The county is full of biodiversity, lying at the interface of northern boreal forests, southern deciduous woodlands, and massive Lake Huron defining its eastern border. CLICK HERE and scroll down to episode #5 to hear a story that I penned about Presque Isle for Bird Watcher's Digest.

I first visited this area last year, to lead a birding trip for NettieBay Lodge. Not fully knowing what to expect, I was utterly blown away by the incredible bird diversity, not to mention all kinds of amazing flora. Apparently word got around, as this year we had enough interest to fill two back to back trips of ten people each, with a good number already signed on for next year's forays, which will also be limited to ten people each. The dates of next year's trips are May 17th thru 24th, and if you would like to attend please contact Jackie at NettieBay, RIGHT HERE.

A Black-billed Cuckoo poses in a tamarack. Often furtive and retiring, this cuckoo allowed our first group extended views through the scope. We returned to this very spot with the second group, but no cuckoo. But, and dig this, following is a list of birds that we DID see or hear at that very locale in a short period: Ruffed Grouse, Sandhill Crane, Upland Sandpiper, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Nashville Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Canada Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Clay-colored Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Finch, and more.

That's just one quick stop, and not an atypical one. Most of the above-cited birds are breeders, as were the vast majority of the 153 species that we tallied in a week.

A Broad-winged Hawk sits quietly in the dim light of early morning. This species may be the most common breeding raptor in this area, and we had great looks at a number of them. Those were only the local yokels. Our trips to the Lake Huron shoreline netted far more, including an excellent movement of migrant raptors on May 25. That day, we counted about 130 Broad-wings, 30 Bald Eagles, a Merlin, an American Kestrel, a few Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, and a smattering of Turkey Vultures. Apparently the Presque Isle County shoreline of Lake Huron is a major raptor corridor, and I can only imagine what it must be like during migratory peaks.

A gorgeous male Chestnut-sided Warbler tees up for the group. This species is one of the most numerous breeding warblers, and is joined by at least 19 other nesting warbler species. Of prime interest among this group is Golden-winged Warbler, Kirtland's Warbler, and Mourning Warbler. We had them all, with great looks, although the golden-wings didn't arrive on territory until Day 2 of the second group.

A pair of Common Loons plies the waters of one of the many glacial lakes in Presque Isle County. The bird in the foreground is preparing to "snorkel", or swim with its face under the water looking though the glassy depths for fish. The wild, haunting yodels of loons is a common sound in these parts.

Looking a bit like he's been shot in the chest, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak peers curiously at your narrator. This species is without doubt one of the most numerous breeding songbirds in this area. We record them at every stop, and their slurry robinlike song becomes a familiar melody.

Normally a skulker, this Swainson's Thrush was uncharacteristically confiding. These buffy-faced forest wraiths nest locally, but are greatly outnumbered by Hermit Thrush and Veery. Wood Thrushes are rather rare.

A definite target bird for many is the Upland Sandpiper. We found a few reliable spots this year, the best being in a large cut-over jack pine plain. By using our van as a blind, we were able to watch this bird and its mate from 25 feet away. The Upland Sandpiper gets the longest distance traveled award for Presque Isle County residents. They winter in the pampas of Argentina and that region, some 6,000 miles to the south.

A Virginia Rail that's come out of its shell, this little fellow scuttled through the cattails and clambered up a grassy embankment to view your blogger from two feet away. We also found Least Bittern in this marsh, which is listed as a threatened species in Michigan.

Following is the comprehensive list of bird species that we found, from May 19-26, should you be interested.

1. Common Loon

2. Pied-billed Grebe

3. Double-crested Cormorant

4. American Bittern

5. Least Bittern

6. Great Blue Heron

7. Great Egret

8. Green Heron

9. Mute Swan

10. Canada Goose

11. Wood Duck

12. Mallard

13. Hooded Merganser

14. Common Merganser

15. Red-breasted Merganser

16. Turkey Vulture

17. Osprey

18. Bald Eagle

19. Northern Harrier

20. Sharp-shinned Hawk

21. Cooper’s Hawk

22. Red-shouldered Hawk

23. Broad-winged Hawk

24. Red-tailed Hawk

25. Rough-legged Hawk

26. American Kestrel

27. Merlin

28. Ring-necked Pheasant

29. Ruffed Grouse

30. Wild Turkey

31. Virginia Rail

32. Sora

33. American Coot

34. Sandhill Crane

35. American Golden-Plover

36. Killdeer

37. Spotted Sandpiper

38. Upland Sandpiper

39. Ruddy Turnstone

40. Wilson’s Snipe

41. American Woodcock

42. Ring-billed Gull

43. Herring Gull

44. Common Tern

45. Black Tern

46. Rock Pigeon

47. Mourning Dove

48. Black-billed Cuckoo

49. Yellow-billed Cuckoo

50. Barred Owl

51. Northern Saw-whet Owl

52. Common Nighthawk

53. Whip-poor-will

54. Chimney Swift

55. Ruby-throated Hummingbird

56. Belted Kingfisher

57. Red-headed Woodpecker

58. Red-bellied Woodpecker

59. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

60. Downy Woodpecker

61. Hairy Woodpecker

62. Northern Flicker

63. Pileated Woodpecker

64. Olive-sided Flycatcher

65. Eastern Wood-Pewee

66. Alder Flycatcher

67. Least Flycatcher

68. Eastern Phoebe

69. Great Crested Flycatcher

70. Eastern Kingbird

71. Horned Lark

72. Purple Martin

73. Tree Swallow

74. Northern Rough-winged Swallow

75. Bank Swallow

76. Cliff Swallow

77. Barn Swallow

78. Blue Jay

79. American Crow

80. Common Raven

81. Black-capped Chickadee

82. Red-breasted Nuthatch

83. White-breasted Nuthatch

84. Brown Creeper

85. House Wren

86. Winter Wren

87. Sedge Wren

88. Marsh Wren

89. Golden-crowned Kinglet

90. Ruby-crowned Kinglet

91. Eastern Bluebird

92. Veery

93. Swainson’s Thrush

94. Hermit Thrush

95. Wood Thrush

96. American Robin

97. Gray Catbird

98. Brown Thrasher

99. European Starling

100. Blue-headed Vireo

101. Yellow-throated Vireo

102. Warbling Vireo

103. Philadelphia Vireo

104. Red-eyed Vireo

105. Golden-winged Warbler

106. Tennessee Warbler

107. Nashville Warbler

108. Northern Parula

109. Yellow Warbler

110. Chestnut-sided Warbler

111. Magnolia Warbler

112. Cape May Warbler

113. Black-throated Blue Warbler

114. Yellow-rumped Warbler

115. Black-throated Green Warbler

116. Blackburnian Warbler

117. Pine Warbler

118. Kirtland’s Warbler

119. Palm Warbler

120. Black-and-white Warbler

121. American Redstart

122. Ovenbird

123. Northern Waterthrush

124. Mourning Warbler

125. Common Yellowthroat

126. Wilson’s Warbler

127. Canada Warbler

128. Scarlet Tanager

129. Northern Cardinal

130. Rose-breasted Grosbeak

131. Indigo Bunting

132. Eastern Towhee

133. Chipping Sparrow

134. Clay-colored Sparrow

135. Field Sparrow

136. Vesper Sparrow

137. Savannah Sparrow

138. Song Sparrow

139. Lincoln’s Sparrow

140. Swamp Sparrow

141. White-throated Sparrow

142. White-crowned Sparrow

143. Dark-eyed Junco

144. Bobolink

145. Red-winged Blackbird

146. Eastern Meadowlark

147. Common Grackle

148. Brown-headed Cowbird

149. Baltimore Oriole

150. Purple Finch

151. House Finch

152. American Goldfinch

153. House Sparrow

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing, victim of a window strike, Franklin County, Ohio, May 27, 2011. My brother Mike tipped me to this waxwing, which had struck the building in which he works, and I took the opportunity to make some photos of the unfortunate waxwing. Scores of birds are killed in building collisions each year.

We always experience a late pulse of migrant Cedar Waxwings towards May's end, and flocks frequent the ornamental trees around the buildings where I work, picking over remnant fruits from the previous season. This birds lacks the telltale "wax wings"; the shiny reddish feather tips on the wings which gives the species its name. This means it is a first-year bird - it takes Cedar Waxwings two years to develop their namesake field mark.

The trademark dipped in yellow ink tail, up close. Waxwings are without doubt among our most suave and dapper animals. They give the appearance of impeccable grooming and classy dress, and possess a manners and a civility far beyond most other birds.

The lemony-yellow belly grades into soft brownish and gray tones - a most pleasing overall effect.

A waxwing's fawn-colored head is accented with a crisp black mask and throat, and capped with a neat sleeked back crest.Note the bill, which is an effective tool for gutting fruits and berries. For much of the year, waxwings are frugivorous - fruit-eaters.

While it's a shame that this Cedar Waxwing had to perish because of a shiny window, it did offer an opportunity for us to closely examine its intricate details. It'll eventually become a museum specimen and thus should be of use to researchers in the future.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dwarf lake iris

Dwarf lake iris, Iris lacustris, photographed yesterday along gravelly shorelines of Lake Huron in Presque Isle County, Michigan. This elfin beauty is but one of many species of interesting plants that we are encountering on our forays as part of the NettieBay Lodge birding & botany expeditions.

More to follow...

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Bear Den Lake, Presque Isle County, Michigan. On a nice day such as this, the glacial kettle looks like a bowl of clouds, rimmed by pine, spruce, tamarack, and birch.

Mark Schuler and Nina Harfmann watch a pair of Common Loons, who in turn are watching them. Every decent-sized lake up here - and there are many - has its pair of nesting loons. And loons are quite diligent about monitoring the activities of interlopers. We merely strolled to the lakeshore, and this pair of loons, who were floating along the distant shore, immediately began paddling our way. They came within 20-30 feet of us, peering intently at the two-legged curiosities, before resuming fishing activities.

I'm up here leading birding/natural history outings for NettieBay Lodge, and we've had two awesome back to back days. We've probably found about 125 species of birds so far, many of them nesting. Highlight today: Least Bittern, which is listed as threatened in Michigan.

Much more to follow, as time permits...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Northern Michigan

Kirtland's Warbler, male, northern Michigan, today.

I'm up in Presque Isle County, in the northeastern corner of Michigan's lower peninsula. This is a truly magical place, and in two days we've seen 110 species of birds, and many other cool animals. In a nocturnal foray this evening, we surprised a big porcupine, and I've got some great photos of that prickly beast.

We've also got out own private stash of Kirtland's Warblers, and these big sluggish warblers are ridicuously tame.

Much more to come, including lots of interesting photos. Not much time to blog, though, but I'll try to toss some tidbits out there over the next week...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ballooning spiders

Fear not, ye arachnophobes. The subject of this entry is indeed about spiders, but the star of the show is about as cute as a spider can get. And you'll want to know what we're about to learn...

On my recent West Virginia foray, we were strolling down a seldom-used lane, when a bright yellow object caught our eye. It was a goldenrod crab spider, Misumena vatia, on top of a post! Not only that, she - it is a girl - was acting extraordinarily goofy. The spider would stilt up as high as she could go on her legs, weave back and forth, jig side to side, and otherwise engage in what appeared to be spider break-dancing.

Click the pic for expansion, and you can see two columns of silk issuing from her spinnerets. This is an important point, as we set about determining what this non-web-making spider is doing.

So fixated was our spider on her task that she even rejected what would seem to me to be a perfectly scrumptious meal. This little caterpillar climbed rapidly up the post and directly towards the spider on what seemed to be a certain suicide mission. "Ah, this should be interesting" thought I. The caterpillar threaded right between the spider's legs, paused, apparently came to its senses, and shot back down the post as if it had been ejected from a cannon.

This is why this group of flower spiders gets the badge "crab" spider. When poised for action, they resemble little long-legged crustaceans, and nothing - on their scale at least - will escape that embrace. That's why I figured she was fixated on some mission when she allowed the tasty hotdog-like caterpillar to go free.

Most spiders have eight eyes, as does the goldenrod crab spider. You can see 'em all, right there, like tiny pepper grains outlining that raised area on the spider's "forehead". This is the business end of the spider, and she was presenting it to your blogger when I moved in a bit too close for her comfort. She couldn't have done much to me, but you gotta admire her pluck for not backing down from a 250 pound humanoid.

Back to the mystery. All I could figure was that her strange gymnastics were part of some courtship ritual; an attempt to woo an unseen male suitor. But that didn't seem right, as in the spiders that I know something of, it is the male who does the wooing.

So, I e-mailed my friend Dr. Richard Bradley, who resides right here in Ohio and is the state's foremost expert on arachnids. Perhaps the country's top expert for that matter, and Rich's field guide to spiders of North America will appear within the year, I believe. You'll hear more about that here, when the book is released.

Anyway, I described to Rich what I saw, and shared some photos. Rich's explanation surprised me: the spider was preparing to "balloon". Ballooning is a common tactic among many spiders for dispersing themselves. A spider that wishes to travel scales to the top of some breezy summit, whether it be a fence post, tree branch, automobile roof, and starts to unfurl strands of silk. At some point, the silken chutes will catch the breeze to the point that the spider will be carried aloft.

I knew that tiny spiderlings balloon very commonly as way of dispersing from their natal homesite, but spiderlings are elfin in the extreme. This goldenrod crab spider was a chunk in comparison, and I didn't know that larger adults would also employ ballooning to shift locations. Apparently, all of its abdomen wriggling and funny movements helped to release the soon to be solken parachute strands in just the right way.

Photo: Richard Bradley

Rich sent me this photo of an adult wolf spider in the genus Pardosa, doing just what my spider was doing. It is also on top of a postlike object, and one that is apparently a favored launching pad for ballooning spiders. Note the shimmer of silk at the spider's feet, from previous jumpers.

I suppose, if one is arachnophobic, that the information we have just learned is rather horrifying. What could be worse than spiders drifting through the air, ready to land in your hair? And drift they do, to the tune of millions if you take into account all of the tiny spiderlings that are ballooning about.

As Rich Bradley says, for much of the warmer months, there is a "gentle rain of spiders" floating through the air.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Efts on the march

A red eft flares like a torch from an emerald carpet of moss. I was in the mountains of southern West Virginia the other day, and off and on showers moistened everything. The dampness was much to the efts' liking, and we saw many.

Red efts are the juvenile stage of the red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. They are our most conspicuous salamander, at least in wooded areas, thanks to their penchant for boldly strolling the woodlands during broad daylight.

An eft has little to fear from predators. Their brilliant coloration is classic aposematic warning - the day-glo orange shouts I AM POISONOUS! And that they are. Apparently the nasty chemical that efts are infused with is tetrodotoxin, and you'll want to avoid it. Ingestion results in severe nerve damage and possible death. This is the same stuff that is in highly poisonous pufferfish, and it is claimed that tetrodotoxin is ten times more toxic than potassium cyanide.

So, the little eft thus boldly strolls the forest floor, unconcerned with larger beasts.

Gimlet-eyed and inscrutable, an eft observes your blogger. For up to three years, an eft will live a terrestrial life, shunning water in favor of upland habitats. They'll hole up in moist places during dry spells, and go hiking during wet times. After a few years, something triggers the eft to return to a more or less permanent water body - possibly the one in which it was spawned - and begin an amazing transformation. It'll lose the brilliant coloration, and become seaweed green. The tail will become flattened and laterally compressed, similar to a muskrat's. Thus transformed, the newt will live for as long as a few decades in the water, like a fish. The newt doesn't lose the toxicity of the eft stage, and is our only salamander that can live with fish, as scaly aquatic predators know to steer clear.

On this damp day, a great many efts were crossing the roads. While their tetrodotoxin defenses work well against conventional predators, the poison does nothing to fend off Fords and Chevrolets. I rescued this one and a few others.

Helping an eft cross the road may bring one good karma. The little fellow in the photo above might still be around in the year 2040. I'd rather see a young eft become an ancient newt, over being transformed into salamander paste by some speeding vehicle. And in return, perhaps the Eft Gods will smile upon me in some small way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An unusual "quadrillium"

A standout in a family of stunning plants, a gorgeous painted trillium, Trillium undulatum, glistens from a shady copse. A recent expedition into some high Appalachian mountains in southern West Virginia netted many interesting finds, including this species of trillium. If you live in Ohio, good luck finding painted trillium. It barely nips into the extreme northeastern corner of the state, and its endangered status in Ohio is warranted. Venture into the mountains of the Mountaineer State and painted trillium can be frequent in some areas.

The genus name Trillium stems from the latin tres, which means three. An apropos name indeed, as most trilliums come completely assembled in groups of threes: leaves, sepals, petals.

But few rules are hard and fast, and trilliums are known for breaking their normal mathematical code of tres. I was delighted to stumble into a small number of these four-petaled painted trilliums, growing amidst a colony of normal plants. While such "quadrilliums" are certainly not unknown, it was the first time I had seen such an aberration in this species. Finding a four-petaled trillium might be considered equivalent to finding a four-leaved clover.

A typical trillium has three leaves, three petals, and three sepals (pointed leaflike parts subtending the flower and projecting between the petals). There are also three styles - the little filaments projecting from the summit of the ovary in the center of the flower. The small oblong projections surrounding the ovary are the stamens, and there are six ( a doubling of the normal rule of three). This is a typical painted trillium flower, and this scheme holds true for most of the other trilliums.

Here's a closeup of our oddball painted trillium. An anomaly of chromosomes (probably) has shifted this plant from an odd to even formula. There are four petals and four sepals. The sexual parts have been doubled: six styles, and eight stamens. Curiously, the number of leaves remained at three, unless there was a fourth tiny rudimentary leaf that I didn't see.

Such a trillium, while a treat to encounter, is hardly unknown. In fact, this form even has a name: Trillium undulatum forma polymerum. Polymerum means with many members, and refers to the excess parts. Some individuals of this form can have everything in allotments of eight, and I suspect such plants are even more bizarre in appearance than this one is.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A fine showing of orioles

I love John Pogacnik's bird reports from his "yard". Those of you who follow the Ohio Birds Listserv will certainly know of the man via his regular reporting. And those of you who have been longtime active birders in these parts probably know the man himself.

Anyway, John lives in a house that offers sweeping vistas of Lake Erie, east of Cleveland. He's done much to enhance his terrestrial patch, too, by installing numerous feeders, boxes, likeable plant material, etc. All of this diversity of habitat, much of it visible from his sunroom, has allowed John to accumulate what must easily be the wildest - and probably largest - yard list in the state of Ohio. Bet you don't have Black-legged Kittiwake, King Eider, or Purple Sandpiper on your "yard list"!

So, I open one of John's missives last Tuesday to see a yard report that was massive even by Pogacnikian standards. Try this on: 240 Pine Siskins; 200 Baltimore Orioles, including 21 on the feeders simultaneously; up to 11 Orchard Orioles feeding at once; huge Rose-breasted Grosbeaks numbers; and half a dozen Evening Gosbeaks and "Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows. The latter grosbeak has slipped into the category of Ohio megararity and the pretty white-lored sparrow subspecies is very rare here.

Wow! And he gets photos of all of this stuff, too! I asked John for a few pics to share with you, and he was good enough to oblige.

Photo: John Pogacnik

Imagine a few dozen of these Halloween-colored whistlers cavorting around your feeders, at one time!

Photo: John Pogacnik

Orchard Oriole, first-year male, sometimes called "bearded males" It takes them two years to gain their reddish-brick coloration, but these youngsters sing just fine. Always make a point to run singing Orchard Orioles down to see if it's an apprentice or Master.

Photo: John Pogacnik

At one point, John heard a hubbub from some of the small songsters and glanced over to see these Eastern Screech-Owls glaring from their Wood Duck box. I mean, how good can it get!!!

With a yard like this, I'm surprised John ever leaves.

Thanks to John for regularly making photos, reports, and information available to the birding community. He is, without doubt, one of our greatest assets.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The cherry millipede

While down in West Virginia, I had the good fortune to stumble into these Sigmoria millipedes, caught in flagrante delicto. We are always assured of seeing a few of these large, colorful millipedes during the New River Birding & Nature Festival, as they thrive in the rich woodlands where we spend much time.

They are often referred to as almond, or cherry, millipedes. The reason? Pick one up and give it a shake inside your balled up fist. The millipede will exude a very pleasant aroma, quite reminiscent of one of the aforementioned fruits. People always react favorably to this fragrance. It apparently is the result of the animal releasing benzaldehyde when under duress, possibly as a form of predator deterrence.

Sigmoria millipedes are rather tanklike in that they are heavily armored with thick scutes, or plates. When bothered, the millipede typically curls into a fetal ball, thus presenting a formidable wall to predators and protecting its more vulnerable undercarriage.

Millipedes and centipedes are often confused, but the two groups are quite different. Both are in the massive phylum Arthropoda, which by some accounts make up 80% of ALL animals on earth
As can be seen in this macro photo, a millipede has two pairs of legs per body segment, and like most millipedes the body is long and cylindrical. Millipedes move in a slow, graceful gliding motion, and are easily captured. They're herbivores, feeding primarily on decaying plant matter.

Centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment, and in general possess far fewer legs than do centipedes. For the most part, they appear leggier and move far faster than than their sluggish millipede brethren. They tend to look much more "creepy" than do millipedes. Also, centipedes are predatory carnivores, armed with venom-producing glands to help disable victims. Some species can deliver a painful bite

But no worries with mild-mannered plant-eating millipedes. In fact, at least the Sigmorias smell delicious.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Promethea moth

Ouch. Fun as the New River Birding & Nature Festival was, I apparently picked up some bug, and went down like a ton of bricks today. Some sort of cold/flu. After a pleasant foray this morning helping Bernie Master lead around docents and trustees of the Columbus Zoo, I stopped home for meds and food, and literally collapsed. May it pass quickly...

Anyway, maybe a bit of blogging therapy will help, and I am hopeful that this subject will atone for the last bit of scatness.

A somewhat weatherbeaten but still beautiful Promethea moth, Callosamia promethea, rests on the side of the main house at Opossum Creek Resort. Prometheas are silkmoths, and nearly all of their tribe are showy eyecatchers. This one is a female; the gals are larger and more ornate in color and pattern.

From the looks of that swollen abdomen, I'd say that this moth is gravid - full of eggs. Prometheas and their silkmoth kin are stunning but incredibly short-lived. They lack mouthparts, and thus don't feed. Remnant lipids carried over from the caterpillar sustain the adults, and enable them to survive for perhaps a week.

Their sole purpose is to reproduce; it's the caterpillar that is the most enduring part of the Promethean life cycle. Female moths exude minute traces of an incredibly powerful pheromone, which the male can detect from a mile or more. Using incredibly acute receptors on its large fernlike antennae, the boys navigate unerringly to the girls, possibly covering several miles in an evening in their quest.

Up close and personal, the beautiful architecture of an impossibly ephemeral forest wraith is revealed. How such an elaborate animal could have evolved to fulfill such a short-lived function is one of myriad mysteries when one delves into Nature.

Like a number of large, splashy moths, the Promethea's name is rooted in Greek mythology. Prometheus was one of the Titans, and he managed to steal fire from Heaven. In an inexcusable breach, he freely gave fire to the common man, and for his transgression Prometheus was severely punished by Zeus. Chained securely to a rock, Prometheus was condemned to be set upon by giant eagles which tore into his body and ate his liver. At night, when the eagles rested, Prometheus's liver would regenerate and by the next day a new liver was ready for the eagles to plunder. And so it went for Prometheus, for a great many years.

Presumably, attaching the name of Prometheus to this moth is an allusion to the fiery coloration of the female.