Monday, October 31, 2011

Double-crested Cormorants, writ large

The not always placid waters of Lake Erie lap at the Huron jetty, which encloses a large spoil impoundment. Back in the day, when the dredged muck was still being sprayed into this basin, the impoundment was a huge mudflat and a beacon for birds. Many a rarity was found, including Ohio's only Spotted Redshank (1979), and our first record of Arctic Tern (1980). Even though the impoundment has been swallowed up by a luxuriant cloak of giant reed, Phragmites australis, the Huron Pier and its environs remain one of the most interesting and productive locales on Lake Erie, especially in the fall.

I was here Sunday, on a whirlwind trip from Huron to Magee Marsh. My dream? Discover Ohio's first Ash-throated Flycatcher. I didn't, or this blog would be titled differently. Ash-throated Flycatcher is WAY overdue, with scores of records in eastern North America, including, I believe, every state around Ohio. I figure the inaugural specimen will be found at the tail end of October or in November, and likely at a place such as Huron.

In spite of the Ash-throated choke, I saw lots of interesting birds at Huron. First of season Snow Buntings. Flyover Pine Siskins. Three flyby Surf Scoters. Hundreds of delicate little Bonaparte's Gulls. Six species of sparrows lurking in the Phragmites. And much more.

But the dominant bird, bar none, was Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus. Great platoons of the fish-eaters constantly streamed by, nearly all of them on a west to east trajectory. In my 2.5 hours at the Huron Pier and nearby Nickel Plate Beach, I estimated that 4-5,000 birds winged by, assuming they were all different and that the flocks weren't circling around.

Of the cormorants that were close enough to see well, nearly all were juveniles with their dusty brown throats and breasts. Less than 10% and probably well under that percentage were adults.

There is no question that Double-crested Cormorants are being cranked out in record numbers on the Great Lakes; perhaps unprecedented numbers. Like some other fish-eating predatorial birds such as Bald Eagle and Osprey, Double-crested Cormorant populations plummeted from the 1950's through the 1970's, as the effects of unregulated use of DDT wreaked havoc on the food chain. Spurred by Rachel Carson's landmark book Silent Spring, environmentalists began railing against DDT and demanding it be banned. President Richard Nixon's newly created Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the issue in 1971 and rejected a ban, declaring that the chemical was not harmful to wildlife or people.

Confronted by overwhelming scientific evidence as to the dangers of DDT, the EPA's hand was forced and in 1972 the agency disallowed nearly all uses of the chemical. Not surprisingly, chemical companies sued over this decision, but a U.S. Appellate Court upheld the ban.

And birds began to recover.

Part of a cormorant concentration that numbered into the thousands skitters across Sandusky Bay, Ottawa County, Ohio yesterday.

I recall from my early days of venturing to Lake Erie, in the mid to late 1970's, that spotting a Double-crested Cormorant was a momentous occasion. There just weren't that many around. According to Bruce Peterjohn's book Birds of Ohio (2001), by the mid-60's observers noted fewer than ten sightings of cormorants annually, and nearly all reports were of fewer than ten birds.

By the 1980's Great Lakes Double-crested Cormorants were booming, and Canadian biologist Chip Weseloh documented increases of nearly 30% annually in breeding populations. While this nearly exponential growth has slowed, cormorants are still thriving.

While crossing the State Route 2 bridge over Sandusky Bay, I glanced over at a rocky islet on the north side of the bridge and saw it was carpeted with probably 1,000+ cormorants. What's more, hundreds and hundreds of others were swimming and flying about, even more birds than I usually see here. I made a detour to a good vantage point and made the video above. It shows but a snippet of the birds that were present. Based on my observations, I would say that as many as 5,000 cormorants were around the mouth of Sandusky Bay yesterday, maybe even far more than that.

Not everyone accepts the presence of all of these fish-eating birds. Fishermen, especially, get their dander up over cormorants. The rod and reel crowd, perhaps understandably, tends to think that the cormorants compete for prized yellow perch and walleye. But the scientific evidence suggests that they don't. A 1997 study, HERE, analyzed the stomach contents of 302 cormorants and found that the primary prey were gizzard shad, freshwater drum, and emerald shiners - fish species of little interest to Lake Erie fishermen.

In recent years, the health of Lake Erie has nose-dived, and that's a topic I hope to find time to write about soon. I wonder if the Double-crested Cormorant population will also begin to fade, as the big birds once again serve as a barometer of Man's ravages to our ecosystems.

Incredible video: Green Heron snags dragonfly!

You gotta check out this amazing video of a young Green Heron successfully bagging a blue dasher dragonfly. Major props to Clay Taylor for skillful camera work! CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Citrine Forktail

I photographed this beautiful albeit miniscule citrine forktail, Ischnura hastata, a few weeks ago in southern Ohio. These tiny damselflies are so small that it is quite easy to overlook them. This is the smallest odonate found in North America. A big citrine forktail is barely over an inch in length, and they're prone to lurking in dense vegetation where they fade and appear like will-o'-the-wisps. This one - and a number of others - was hunting in a cedar glade prairie, where it engaged in typical damselfly hunting strategy. Unlike the incredible aerial acrobatics of their brethren, the dragonflies, damselflies patrol low amongst the vegetation, employing a rather sluggish and jerky flight style. They grab tiny bugs from the foliage in a pounce and pick hunting style.

Proportionately huge many-faceted eyes mean that the citrine forktail overlooks very little that enters its sphere. This is a successful damselfly: citrine forktails are common throughout all but the northwest quarter of the United States, and range throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and even dip into South America.

There is a bizarre and noteworthy blip in the citrine forktail's distribution and life history. This map (courtesy Wikipedia) shows the Azores archipelago outlined in red. The Azores are a chain of nine volcanic islands positioned near the middle of the North Atlantic, nearly 2,500 miles east of North America's Atlantic coast. Colonized by sea-going Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, the Azores are home to some 240,000 people.

And, oddly enough, citrine forktails. Some authorities think that these forktails arrived recently, perhaps at the tail end of the 19th century. How did such a seemingly fragile, weak flyer manage to cross over two thousand miles of rough North Atlantic waters? Probably impossible to say with certainty, but several other species of tiny odonates - including other Ischnura forktails - are well known island colonizers. It seems likely that these insects are capable of getting swept up in storm cells and can survive lengthy if unintended aerial journeys to new lands.

But the tale of the Azores' citrine forktails gets much stranger. Researchers began intensive studies of this disjunct forktail population about twenty years ago, and quickly realized that all of the animals were female! It turns out that Azorean citrine forktails reproduce entirely by parthenogenesis, which is a type of asexual reproduction. Many species of animals are known to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and the various mechanisms by which this works are complicated. Thelytokous parthenogenesis is the term for the forktail's reproductive strategy. Suffice to say that embryonic growth and development is possible without direct contribution of sperm from males.

I hope that thelytokous parthenogenesis does not find its way into Homo sapiens.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blackpoll Warbler kill at wind farm

AES Corporation's Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, photo from West Virginia Highlands Conservancy website.

The massive Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, near Elkins, West Virginia was just opened officially with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, but it's already making news in a most ungreenfriendly way. Word is leaking out regarding a massive kill of migratory songbirds that took place about two weeks ago at one of the turbine farm's installations. According to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, 484 birds perished after striking a structure associated with this twelve mile string of 61 mountaintop turbines. Most of the birds were Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpolls are champions of long distance migration, breeding to the northern limits of the boreal forest in Canada, Alaska, and in the northeastern lower states, mostly in New England. Their migration is an epic journey that spans much of the Americas, with the birds ending up in South America where they overwinter.

Not all the facts seem to be out yet - and I'm not sure why it took two weeks for this tragedy to come to light - but it appears that the birds were NOT killed by being pureed after flying into a spinning turbine. As the farm was just officially dedicated TODAY, I'm not sure that the turbines were even fired up and spinning two weeks ago.

Apparently a bank of bright lights that are used to provide illumination at a substation were left on overnight during cloudy, low-visibility conditions. The birds became disoriented by the lights - a common occurrence with brightly lit structures - and perished after flying into the building. Even though it apparently was not the turbines themselves that caused this disaster, it should serve as a red flag. Large numbers of songbirds migrate along Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ridges, and clearly lots of birds pass through the Laurel Mountain turbine gauntlet. Future occurrences of this type should be avoidable by merely turning the lights off, at least during peak migratory periods. But it is a huge open question as to whether birds will still strike the spinning turbines at night. I hope that someone conducts diligent monitoring at this farm to determine whether this kill will prove to be an isolated incident, or if indeed we have another Altamont Pass on our hands.

Industry, environmental groups, and politicians alike are rushing pell-mell into the supposedly "green" wind industry. Ohio is one of the front lines, as many a plan is afoot to site turbines along, and in, Lake Erie. And Lake Erie is one of THE major migratory corridors for birds in the Great Lakes region. I think that sites do exist where wind turbines probably will not cause much, if any, bird or bat mortality. But it is becoming increasingly demonstrable that some of the best locations for harvesting wind are also major migratory pathways for birds, and wind farms and birds mix about as well as oil and water.

Poorly sited wind farms are akin to fracking the air. The collateral damage to migratory animals can be unacceptable in terms of outright kills. But another factor that is seldom written about involves the terrestrial fragmentation that comes with the installation of these facilities (this includes fracking, too). Access roads must be carved into forests or Great Plains prairie, large footprints must be stamped out for the physical facilities, and towers and wires strung or buried to transmit the electricity. Individually, it is hard - maybe impossible - to prove ecological damage caused by a single turbine installation. But add them all up and we start to instigate death by a thousand cuts, at least for some species.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Goldenrod Gall Fly garners fame

A familiar sight in old fields, the golf ball-sized swelling caused by the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. Female goldenrod flies inject their egg into the goldenrod, triggering an interesting and conspicuous reaction. The afflicted goldenrod plant, sensing the foreigner, is stimulated to wall itself off from the fly larva by producing dense woody tissue. 
If you are armed with a knife, you can slice open the gall and view the delectable grub within. Or, if you are a clever and industrious bird, you can just use your bill to get at the tasty morsel.

The relationship of the Downy Woodpecker to the goldenrod gall fly is an interesting tale, and Ohio's own Warren Uxley spins it so well that his article made the COVER of BirdWatching Magazine (formerly Birder's World)!. I just got my issue, and Warren's wordsmithing is stellar, and his story is punctuated with outstanding photos. Be sure to pick up a copy at your newstand, or SUBSCRIBE HERE.

Warren Uxley works with the Crawford County Park District, an up and coming star amongst Ohio's many productive and creative park districts. Their recent role in protecting Daughmer Savanna deserves major kudos. If you live in the Bucyrus area, or even if you don't, be sure to support Crawford County Parks! Congratulations, Warren!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Saw-whet selling telecommunications

After seeing the last post, about Northern Saw-whet Owls, Joan Campbell dropped me a note to let me know about a saw-whet media star. It turns out that Telus Canada, a telecommunications company up there in the Great White North, uses one of the little hooters in its ad campaign. I'll bet the micro-owl charms those Canadians right out of their igloos, and sells lots of phones.

See one of the owl-ads HERE.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Northern Saw-whet Owl, captured!

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius acadicus, captured last night near Chillicothe, Ohio. Word is that these little micro-hooters are moving south out of their northern boreal forest haunts in good numbers. So, I headed down to Ross County and the site of a long-term banding operation on their second night of opening the nets this season, full of good owl vibes. It paid off; we snared an owl on the second net run of the night.

This operation was started about eight years ago by Kelly Williams-Sieg, in collaboration with Bill Bosstic and Bob Placier. That's Bob on the right, assisted by Randy Lakes. Once an owl is captured, it is transported to a nearby house which serves as the base of operations. Once there, the saw-whet is thoroughly inspected, data is collected, and the animal is ringed with a metallic band.

What is especially eye-opening to me about this particular banding site is the seemingly commonplace habitat. Two lengthy net runs are strung through young deciduous woods and brushy successional habitat, no different than can be found in scores of other sites in this region. Yet Kelly and crew have caught something on the order of 300 owls here. Northern Saw-whet Owls are, perhaps, the most common avian predator in the boreal forest, but until this work began no one had any idea that so many migrant owls passed through Ohio.

Last night's sole capture was, I believe, an after hatch year bird, sex indeterminate. There are a significant number of owls in which sex cannot be told for certain, as there is overlap in some of the characters that are used to sex the birds. He/she had to suffer the indignity of being stuffed in a cup for weighing. This individual tipped the scales at a whopping 87 grams. That's about three ounces - the same weight as a Blue Jay. The little bands used to ring the birds can be seen on top of the tool box.

Saw-whet Owls are incredibly mellow, and rarely protest the indignities foisted upon them in the name of science. Occasionally one will make its displeasure known by clacking its billl loudly, but ordinarily the owl will just stare curiously at the offending parties.

Perhaps the strangest data-gathering involves the black light treatment. Pigments known as porphyrins glow purple under the black light, and a skilled owl-reader can use the owl's glowback to help determine age. Apparently the presence of porphyrin in feathers is unique to owls, and its concentration reduces with age.

One trick that is always sure to elicit aahs from the crowd is the head rub. Just like cats, saw-whets seem to greatly enjoy a good rub behind the ears. If you take your finger and gently rub the animal, it'll invariably hood its eyes and push back against your finger as if asking for more.

Hundreds and hundreds of people have made the pilgrimage to this banding outpost and seen saw-whet owls firsthand. In the process of working an owl, people get the rare opportunity to see up close and personal the specialized morphology that allows owls to weave their deadly magic. We're looking at an ear in this photo, and it is proportionately massive in comparison to the owl's head. The ears are concealed beneath dense feathering on the sides of the head; we've pulled back the feathers to reveal one. Not only are the ears enormous but they are bilaterally asymmetrical - one does not occur at the same point on the head as the other. Offset ears allow for greater ability to triangulate on sounds, as the rustle of a mouse will reach one ear slightly before the other. The owl's brain is an exceptionally quick microprocessor and instantly tells the bird where the sound is coming from.

An unlucky rodent will probably never know what hit it, and this is why. We're looking at the leading edge of the primary, or flight feather. It is fimbriate, or fringed with small barblike extensions. This fringing muffles the air flow over the wing and permits the owl to aviate in near silence.

Once the mouse has been whacked, its chances of escape are nil. Northern Saw-whet Owls may indeed appear "cute" (nearly everyone describes them with the C word), but they are quite lethal. Their talons are llike little hypodermic needles, and they're bolted to powerful feet equipped with strong tendons that give the owl a viselike grip. Many a bander has slipped up in handling an owl, and had their flesh pierced by these talons. From my observations of the persons' reactions, it doesn't tickle. To a mouse or vole, the tickle of these talons would be far more deadly.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Long-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus

Photo: Dr. Bernard Master

Thanks to Bernie Master for sharing his amazing shot of a Long-billed Dowitcher, captured on October 9 at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Bernie's Canon is rigged with an 800 mm lens, which is a cannon in its own right.

Dowitchers are sandpipers that typically forage in deep water, often up to their belly. Like feathered sewing machines, feeding dowitchers rapidly plumb the mucky substrate with extra-long bills in pursuit of macroinvertebrate animal life. The tip of a dowitcher bill is rigged with nerves that permit tactile sensitivity; when food is encountered deep in the mud, the bird detects it via the sensory capabilities of the bill.

Then, as we can see in this photo, the dowitcher is capable of flexing open its upper mandible and firmly clamping down on the food morsel to be. Obviously, dowitchers are not above grabbing non-traditional prey if the opportunity presents itself. This LBD was making a failed but laudable attempt to snare a much faster animal that it usually snags, a dragonfly.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flower Fly

The drive in to work this morning. A cold and blustery 50 degrees, with plenty of rain. This weather spells the end of a huge chunk of our insects, and field entomology will have to largely go on hiatus till we see winter through.

Yesterday was warmer, sunnier, and buggier. Once again, I had my Nikon handy and took a brief stroll around the grounds outside my office.

Plenty of pollinators were still working over the shale-barren asters, including this little lovely. Should you not be into the finer nuances of insects, you could be forgiven for thinking this wee beast a bee or other stinging hymemopteran. It's just - just - a fly, but one that does a remarkable job of mimicry, even to the point of twitching and flexing its abdomen in the manner of some stinging insects.

There are scores of "flower flies", and I believe this one is Syrphus ribesii, but if you know better please do tell. I have long been charmed by the magic of flies. The group sometimes wrongly gets tarred because of house flies and other somewhat pestiferous species, but most flies are striking upon inspection and perform valuable services to our ecosystem.

Flies, collectively, are an enormous group of pollinators and I suspect much of our natural world would collapse were they not out there weaving their magic. Besides, they look cool, act cool, and if you are armed with a decent macro lens, you'll find flies an endless source of photographic fascination.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shale-barren Aster

From my office window, I can see these sprawling bush-like shale-barren asters, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. These specimens are so luxuriant that I thought they might be something else, but apparently some nurseryman has worked cultivar magic and amped them up somehow. A few colleagues planted them last year in what we term our "butterfly garden".

So copious are the blossoms that, up close, it's like looking at a big violet-blue cloud. Unlike many cultivars, these asters apparently produce tons of nectar, as the plants were swarming with pollinators. I spent perhaps ten minutes stalking around the asters with my lens, and saw an incredible number of honey bees, in addition to the following buterflies: cabbage white, checkered skipper, common buckeye, monarch, pearl crescent, and Peck's skipper. Also a praying mantis, numerous syrphid flower flies, and a Virginia ctenucha moth.

Several monarchs dropped in and were working the flowers. Sustenance for their long flight to the high-elevation fir forests of Mexico.

I was pleased to see this checkered skipper busily nectaring. It's the first of this species I've seen on the property.

Feisty as always, three or four common buckeyes duked it out wth each other between turns at the flower bar.

Of course, wherever such abundance of tasty pollinators occur, there'll be predators such as this jumbo female Chinese mantis.

What's not to like? Asters are one of Nature's greatest expressions of fall. They enliven landscapes well after most other plants have gone to wither, and the little starlike flowers are nonpareil. There are several dozen native species and all look good, although shale-barren aster is hard to top in the looks department. Obviously they aren't just eye candy - animals galore flock to the flowers, and by having some asters in the corral, you'll be truly green.

NOTE: Thanks to Brian Parsons of the Holden Arboretum for setting me straight on aster ID. I never bothered to look at the details of these plants, being overly smitten with their pollinators, and foolishly assumed them to be New England asters, possibly the robust "purple dome" cultivar. Brian suggested checking the plants carefully, and a quick examination confirmed his suspicions. Thank you Brian!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year review

Along with probably half of North America's birding populace, I went to see The Big Year last night. Finding a seat was no issue - the 10:30 showing had only six other people in addition to myself and a friend. Possibly not a great omen that this flick is going to achieve blockbuster status.

On the outside chance that you are not familiar with this "birding" movie, here is the description courtesy the Rotten Tomatoes website: "Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson are at a crossroads -- one is experiencing a mid-life crisis, another a late-life crisis, and the third, a far from ordinary no-life crisis. From David Frankel, the director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, comes a sophisticated comedy about three friendly rivals who, tired of being ruled by obligations and responsibilities, dedicate a year of their lives to following their dreams. Their big year takes them on a cross-country journey of wild and life-changing adventures."

I knew I'd like the movie after a Cape May Warbler popped onto the screen early on. It was followed by a who's who cast of fabulous North American birds; easily the most sophisticated showing of avifauna in a big screen production. It'll be a long time coming before another movie sports the likes of Xantus' Hummingbird, Long-toed Stint, Smew, Hoary Redpoll, Spectacled Eider and many other mega-rarities. I noticed that one of the credits listed "Bird Consultant - Greg Miller". Greg was one of the three protagonists in Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year, which was the inspiration for this movie. His character is played by Jack Black. And Greg is undoubtedly the reason that the movie accurately interjects so many interesting birds.

Of course, there are scores of inaccuracies regarding birds, but it would be daft of me to try and list them all. I went in to the movie knowing that ornithological errors would probably be frequent, but didn't really care - the movie is intended to be a comedy, and the movie industry has never shown much interest in getting their birds straight. I'm sure there'll be a cadre of propellerheads surfacing before long with detailed nitpicks over every mistake in the movie.

The movie is lush with wonderful shoots of fabulous landscapes, including the Rockies (where we see a midwinter scene featuring the highly migratory Swainson's Hawk, which would be in South America at that time); Attu in the Aleutian Islands chain; Floridian swamps and numerous other places. Some of the bird footage is stellar, and if you are a birder, you'll enjoy picking out and trying to identify the dozens of species that make appearances. In particular, sensational and dramatic footage of a Bald Eagle pair in talon-locked free fall courtship drew gasps of admiration from my (few) fellow movie-goers.

There were three bird-related scenes that I thought especially cool. In one, Owen Wilson's character (playing the real life Sandy Komito) crashes his car on a mountainous Oregon road in his frenzy to reach the next locale. Stumbling from the vehicle, he hears a woodpecker making an odd tap-tapping. Hunting it down, he discovers a Great Spotted Woodpecker. This would be a mega-tick of the highest magnitude; the thing of which hardcore birders dream. If you have spent much time in these circles, you've heard the wishful thinking/idle speculation about finding such a bird. What is also admirable about this scene is its sophistication regarding the woodpecker. Finding a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the Pacific Northwest is probably not completely out of the realm of possibilities, although nearly so. It has turned up in the Aleutians.

In another noteworthy scene, Jack Black's character Brad Harris is showing his skeptical father - played by Brian Dennehy - photos from a recent trip. When he comes to an American Golden-Plover in basic plumage, Dennehy disparages it as a plain jane gray bird. That prompts Brad to launch into an impassioned speech about the plover's enormous migration and global wanderings that pulls a bit of the magic of birds into the scene.

Brad's unrelenting enthusiasm for birds starts to rub off on his father, who decides to join him on a search for the Great Gray Owl. The pair work their way into a dense and snowy forest, and Brad splits off from his father to seek the bird. But lo and behold, it is Dennehy who calls Brad back, who returns to find his bird-struck father gaping at one of the world's most spectacular owls. That scene captured the awe one can feel when in the presence of an animal such as the Great Gray Owl.

From what I know of the three real life characters that spawned the book and this movie, director David Frankel and the actors pretty much pegged them. It's kind of interesting to watch the interplay between the three, the progression of the year, and the competition. But it kind of falls flat. There are few comedic highs, and a lot of plodding mediocrity. If a viewer was not smitten with birds, I don't think they'd find this movie very engaging.

In a way, I found that the competetive listing emphasis cheapened a movie that is dense with beautiful scenes of nature and birds. Non-birders, after seeing this flick, will probably think that's what birding is all about - avian stamp collecting. Indeed, in several places, the Owen Wilson character is whispered about in reverential tones as the "world's best birder", presumably because he has spent bucketfuls of money traveling about to set the Big Year record.

My experience with mono-focused hard core listers is that a great many are anything but good birders. Too many of them just want to be ushered to a spot, shown the birds that they seek, retreat, and calculate their next tick. Once, while I was walking a road in Churchill, Manitoba, the legendary polar bear capital of the world and one of the most accessible areas for Arctic-breeding birds, a tour bus approached. It was full of birders, mostly from California, many of whom were rabid listers there in large part to tick the Ross's Gulls that then could easily be found. Their leader asked me what I was looking at, to which I replied "Northern Shrike". The "butcher bird" was teed up and ripping apart some unfortunate mammalian victim. When the guide reported this to the bus's contents, a collective "Oh, we've already seen that" went up and no one budged. If I wasn't already, that experience turned me off from the all too common listing mentality. A truly great birder is someone such as Ted Parker, Alexander Skutch, or Margaret Morse Nice - people who not only loved birds and their identification subtleties, but plumbed the depths of the species that they studied to figure out how they interacted in a much bigger picture than a mere check on someone's list.

The Big Year is not going to set any box office records, and beyond the birding set, my hunch is it will rather quickly fade from view. The average non-birding Joe or Jane won't really get this movie, and the rather tepid humor and plot probably won't engage them. Birders, on the other hand, will thoroughly enjoy The Big Year, and the more hardcore the birder, the more they'll probably like it.

Oh, who "won"? Well, to find out which birder saw the most species, you'll have to see the movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Big Year preview reviews

As probably every avid birder not dwelling under a rock is aware, tomorrow, October 14th, is the official release of the movie The Big Year. Based on Mark Obmascik's book of the same name, the story follows the tales of three men who independently attempted to set the North American big year record (most species seen) in 1998.

Well, the professional critics have gotten their usual first crack previews, and their verdicts are emerging. The opinions are very much a mixed bag. The Rotten Tomatoes website currently has 28 reviews posted, and about half of the reviewers liked the flick enough that they didn't award it a smashed tomato. Read them yourself RIGHT HERE.

See the movie over the weekend, and judge it for yourself. I will. And then perhaps I'll opine on the movie from firsthand experience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An interesting bluff

Not so long ago, I received a call from old friend Bob Harter, one of this region's premier prairie experts. The conversation hooked its way around to an interesting site that Bob had brought to light about a decade ago; a set of massive shale bluffs overlooking the upper end of Alum Creek reservoir. Among other things, Bob had found one of Ohio's very few stations for the endangered Gattinger's foxglove, Agalinis gattingeri, along the summit of these bluffs.

I hadn't been to this spot for a number of years, so we made plans to meet up and have a look at the place, and on a very rainy day we did just that.

Towering embankments of shale occur along the upper end of Alum Creek. Along the reservoir, the lower reaches of the bluffs are flooded but further upstream one can find some largely intact examples. The summits of these bluffs are quite dry and rather acid and support black oak, Quercus velutina, and other semi-xerophytes (plants of dry places). The rare Gattinger's foxglove grows at this very site, and a careless photographer taking a stumble could find himself tumbling roughly into the cold waters far below.

The foxglove was nearly past flowering, and given that and the rain, none of my photos came out well enough to publish without causing myself undue embarrassment. Perhaps I can make my way back here next season and do better.

But there are other plants of great interest to be had at the Alum Bluffs, including this jaw-dropper of a goldenrod which is arguably the flashiest of its lot. It is showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, and even the most jaded of botanical literati would be forced to turn an eye in its direction. Showy goldenrod is one of the wandlike group of goldenrods, so labeled because their inflorescences (flower spikes) are cylindrical and resemble candles or wands.

No shrinking violet, the showy goldenrod - a robust plant can tower four feet skyward and the stem launches from a pad of large leaves that form a conspicuous rosette.

The thick sprays of lemony flowers are, well, showy, and the overall effect of this plant is spectacular. Prairie nurseries, recognizing the showy goldenrod's charms, have long tamed the plant and it is readily available in the trade.

Showy goldenrod is by no means common in Ohio, having only been collected in 14 of our 88 counties. It no longer occurs in many former haunts, and has a strong affinity for prairies and more or less unmolested dry open woods.

Growing with the goldenrod is a plant that I could cast a vote for in the category of "best dressed aster". It is the sensational smooth aster, Symphyotrichum laeve, and together with the brilliant yellow spires of the goldenrod, this was a very colorful bluff that Bob and I traversed.

The flowers of smooth aster are colored in perhaps the most remarkable shade of purplish-blue to be found in the plant world. If you are a photographer, it is hard to tear one's self away. I wanted to probe every angle and nuance with my lens, but the rain eventually drove me back to the car. Even the foliage is of interest, as the plant sports rather thick rubbery leaves that are smooth and quite pleasing to the touch.

There is an understandable urge to possess botanical stars such as these two species, and as long as they are not harvested from the wild, having native plants in the yardscape is extremely positive for the environment. The word "green" is now one of the most abused, tortured, twisted and misapplied words in the "environmental" lexicon, but planting native plants really is green in every sense of the word.

I'll use this as an opportunity to ask you to mark your calendars for July 27-29, 2012, which are the dates for the Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton, Ohio. There, you shall be able to find and purchase smooth aster and scores of other natives from reputable vendors.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blanchard's Cricket Frog

A tiny Blanchard's cricket frog, Acris crepitans blanchardi, in a rare state of repose. Last Saturday, I was down in Warren County in southwestern Ohio to speak at the 101 Alternatives to the Chalkboard Educator's Conference. This long-running event has been held at the YMCA's Camp Kern for nearly 30 years, and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

Camp Kern sprawls over 485 acres, and the habitats are varied and rich in flora and fauna. In between talks, we found time for a bit of exploring, and our course took us by a large pond. Ambling along the pond's margins, I noticed several miniature frogs leaping from our path with the agility of leopard frogs. Cricket frogs! I alerted my fellow explorers and we launched into the hunt, determined to net one for closer viewing.

When flushed, Blanchard's cricket frogs usually make for the water, pronto. Once there, though, they often quickly surface and stare back at the offender as this one is doing. With a little quick net work, it wasn't long before we had bagged one for inspection.

Possibly a face only a mother, or herpetologist, could love but I find that these wee amphibians have their charms. One might be forgiven for thinking them to be "baby" toads, as warty as they are. Small they are, too: an adult cricket frog might only measure an inch, and an inch-and-a-halfer is a true behemoth in the cricket frog world.

Blanchard's cricket frogs are said to be declining in many areas, but I still find them common in much of western Ohio. The pond where I made these photographs had scads of them. Cricket frogs are the last of our frogs to begin vocalizing, often not firing up the vocal chords until well into May. They make a sound similar to two pebbles being tapped rapidly together, and if there are lots of frogs, the collective clicking creates a symphonic cacophony of clacks. Sorry about that last sentence.

Anyway, should you find yourself along the sparsely vegetated verges of ponds, lakes, or streams, keep an eye peeled for these tiny jumpers.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Sit, 2011

Yesterday marked the annual "Big Sit" at the Indigo Hill home of Bill Thompson, Julie Zickefoose, and their children Liam and Phoebe in the rural back country of Whipple, Ohio. I've been going down there for this 24-hour marathon of birding for the better part of a decade, and really enjoy it. For the uninitiated: A Big Sit is a 24-hour effort to tally as many bird species as possible from within the confines of a 15-foot diameter circle. Once a participant leaves the designated circle, he/she can no longer count. All birds seen or heard can be tallied.

As is the norm, I aimed to reach the Big Sit site at 5 am or shortly thereafter, which necessitated a 3 am departure from Columbus. That was rough, after staying up to watch the OSU Buckeyes incredible implosion and loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After a none too brief safari through the 24-hour McDonald's drive thru for a bolt of coffee and exposure to various and sundry drunks, strippers just off work, and other pre-dawn characters that collect at such places at 3 am, it was off on my 2.5 hour drive.

The night was calm and clear, and as I traveled further from the halo of light pollution that enshrouds the city, the stars became ever brighter and more plentiful. I like to reach the Big Sit locale while there is still plenty of darkness before the dawn, as we will hear lots of nocturnal migrants, songbirds mostly, flying overhead. As always, Bill was running solo in the tower (more on the tower in a sec), with me being the second to arrive. I climbed up to an incredible celestial spectacle. Billions of stars twinkled overhead, and constellations shone brightly. Just as they have for eons, Neotropical songbirds winged southward through the night, using the stars to navigate back to their southerly wintering grounds. We heard Veery, Hermit Thrush, and scads of Swainson's Thrushes, all delivering distinctive notes. Less easy to distnguish were the calls of sparrows: Chipping, Field, and Savannah. An Indigo Bunting passed over, as did many warblers.

By dawn's first light, others had joined us in the tower and the birds began coming hot and heavy. Being intensely competitive, with ourselves at least, we were out to smash our previous Big Sit record of 69 species.

A distant view of the Thompson residence, looking north from the south meadow. We perch atop that large chimney-like structure for our Big Sit.

Big Sitters spotting birds at the tower's summit. Bill and Julie decided to tack this appendage to their house about 12 years ago. Their contractor did a marvelous job in building this "birding tower" which juts some 40 feet into the sky. Once a climber has reached the summit, a trap door is popped open and allows access to the roof and a commanding view of miles of hill country landscape.

Here's the view to the north, colored by changing fall foliage. We are able to see for miles, and have named all of the prominent landmarks so that people can quickly locate a bird that has been spotted. It's incredible what one can see and hear from up here. I would imagine that the cumulative Big Sit list from the tower eclipses 100 species.

By mid-morning, we were on a real roll and had surpassed 60 species before 10 am. The record of 69 was in mortal peril, as we still had 14 hours to bird. Problematic species were readily presenting themselves, and we quickly had all of the woodpeckers, thrushes, and seven species of warblers.

A gorgeous big-toothed aspen, Populus grandidentata, shines against a beautiful blue October sky.

This year, Bill and Julie erected a plastic Great Horned Owl, on top of the tower. As this fake hooter stuck up another ten feet from the tower's four story summit, and their house and tower sit atop one of the higher ridges in Washington County, this owl is probably a rival for the highest point in the area. It probably ought to be rigged with warning lights for low-flying aircraft.

The idea was that the owl would lure in such feathery bundles of testosterone such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, who would then put on an awesome show by blitzing the fake owl only feet over our heads. It didn't work, but we did see plenty of raptors passing by, including Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks, American Kestrel, and an easily missed raptorial bonus which turned out to be the record-breaking species (read on...).

Lugging provisions up the narrow staircases of the enormous birding tower grows wearisome, so B & J have installed a high tech trasnport system. A sturdy clothesline is connected to a small human-powered crane at the tower's summit, and the operator can hand crank goods to the needy people at the top. Here, Julie Z. attaches food and drink to the crane's basket, and it was quickly hoisted to the hungry mouths at the top. We can also lower dogs and small children by this method.

Birding from the tower usually hits a doldrums period in early afternoon. We've tallied the majority of birds that we'll find, bird activity lessens, and people are tiring. So, some of us set out to explore some of the 80-acre property. This is the view from the end of the south meadow, with the house-tower in the distance. The scarlet leaves of winged sumac, Rhus copallina, brighten the scene and are framed by a Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana. We found plenty of cool bugs, plants, more birds and other stuff, of which I made no images. Sometimes its nice to just cast around without worrying about photography.

Some others came and went during th day, but here's the majority of the core Big Sit crew atop the tower. Left to right, we have: Jason Larson, Julie Zickefoose, Chet Baker (he's a Boston Terrier not a person), your blogger, crack young birder Evan, Steve McCarthy, Shila Wilson, Nina Harfmann, Wendy Eller, and Dan and Kelly Hendrix.

Oh, and how I could I forget - Mr. Bill Thompson III himself! Bill is somewhat camera shy but I managed to capture his gaping maw in a photo that we can now all use for promo purposes. Where we would be without Bill? Certainly birding as we know it would be a lot quieter and duller.

The day ended in a glorious burst of colors, courtesy of a remarkable sunset. We were quite pleased by this point. The record had been beaten; a stellar seventy-two (72!) species had been recorded, eclipsing the old record by three. A rather homely species checked in for #72, a Rock Pigeon, but we'll take it. However, the record-breaker (#70) was much more sophisticated, a Northern Harrier flyby spotted by Bill.

A great day, lots of good birding, friends, and food. The bar has been set high for the Indigo Hill Big Sit though, and I wonder if we can best seventy-two.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I was pleased to look out my office window the other day, and see a Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa, flitting about the boughs of the crabapple tree. Later, I grabbed the camera and wandered out, finding several of the tiny birds had invaded our urban patch. The female above was quite inquisitive and fearless, as kinglets often are, and made close approach.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are bantams; the smallest of our songbirds. One weighs the same as two cents and is a mere four inches in length. Even Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a distinct size advantage. Wee they may be, but don't be fooled - Golden-crowned Kinglets are tough as nails. They breed primarily in the vast boreal forest that cloaks much of Canada and the northernmost U.S., and ride out the winter in the far north. Despite being nearly or completely insectivorous, kinglets are adept at finding small overwintering caterpillars that press themselves into tree bark. To survive cold winter nights in which temperatures might plummet to well below 0 F, multiple kinglets will huddle tightly under snow-capped conifer needles, in effect creating a tent that is warmed by their collective bodies.

The lot of the Golden-crowned Kinglet is a tough one, and mortality is high. To compensate, kinglets typically have two broods in spite of the shortness of the summer season at the northern latitudes where many of them nest. These broods can be enormous - up to ten or eleven eggs! As soon as one batch has fledged and is free-flying, the male takes over feeding duties for the short period that parental care is offered. The female jumps immediately back into egg-laying mode. Time is of the essence.

Kinglets - both species - can be recognized a long ways off by their rapid nervous wing-flicking and constant motion. They are busy, hard-working little animals. I always have had immense respect for these Lilliputian songbirds, and enjoy their return to our "southern" climes each fall.