Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Merlin becomes TV star!

Ben Gelber, NBC4 meteorologist (L) and Buzz the camera man bask in the presence of a very extroverted female Merlin in Columbus, Ohio's Green Lawn Cemetery. The bird is perched in the gnarled boughs of a Kentucky coffee tree, only 30 feet above Buzz's camera.

NBC4 and Ben are great about airing short natural history segments, and I've worked with Ben on several of these episodes. After our last shoot, I suggested going after this Merlin and seeing if we could manage any footage of her. Ounce for ounce, this particular Merlin must be one of the world's most fearless birds. She's been in residence at Green Lawn all winter, and has been seen by hundreds of people. You can walk right under her perch, and she'll not even bother to give you a glance.

We managed to work some other sights into the shoot, including this massive bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa. About 90% of all of Ohio's native trees can be found in Green Lawn, which is also considered an arboretum. This oak is my favorite of all of the giant trees in the cemetery, of which there are many. It's got a gargantuan pillar of a trunk, and anastomoses into an elegant snarl of branches that form a canopy the size of a large building. Green Lawn was founded in 1848; this tree is considerably older.

Gelber provides a size scale to the monstrous bur oak.

But back to our primary quarry, the Merlin, seen here giving your blogger a haughty stare. When Ben, Buzz and I arrived at the scene, no Merlins were in evidence (as many as three - one female and two males - frequent the cemetery). They have a favored section of the cemetery, and more often than not can be found loafing on conspicuous treetop snags. Of course, when you really want 'em, they're nowhere to be found. So we launched into another story, but I was quite disappointed that we couldn't produce one of the exciting little falcons.

I was in mid-sentence, bloviating about something, when I saw the Merlin torpedoing through the trees. Yes! She shot to the top of her lofty sycamore snag, and Buzz whipped the camera around and locked her in. Beautiful, now we had our story and the subject was cooperating, albeit at a distance.

To our astonishment, Mrs. Merlin suddenly dropped from her perch and came sailing right at us. As if in slow motion, she flutter-glided a mere 20 feet over our heads, and swooped up onto a branch only 30 feet away. She was clearly checking us out; I could see her cocking her head sideways to better scope us out as she soared overhead. Once on the branch, she cast a few more disdainful looks our way, then set about grooming herself. This was just too cool - FAR better than I could have hoped for! Buzz got some great footage of her in flight, and once she was perched on the nearby branch he was frame-filling her.

Our fearless little Prima Donna poses for the camera. She was still there when we left. It may be that she is an attention-hound, saw the camera and the newsman, and knew a limelight opportunity when she saw one. More likely, she is starting to feel territorial. Merlins have overwintered in Green Lawn Cemetery for about five years now, and for the last two or three winters there has also been an adult male present. I think it's just a matter of time before they nest in the cemetery, and this girl may have been a bit feistier than normal because she is plotting out a household somewhere nearby.

John Pogacnik documented the first modern nesting of Merlin in Ohio in 2009, in Lake County. The following year, Danielle McCament found a nest in the middle of the city of Mt. Vernon, in Knox County. I think Green Lawn will soon be added to the registry of Merlin nesting sites.

If you'd like to read a bit more about these interesting little falcons, HERE is a brief general interest article I wrote about them a few years back. For today's NBC4 video of today's Merlin adventure, CLICK HERE.

Thanks to Ben Gelber and NBC4 for their efforts to bring natural history to a wide audience. And major props to this Diva of a falconiform. I hope her TV appearance nets some new nature enthusiasts.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A blizzard of gulls!

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

A seemingly impenetrable thicket of gulls fills the air over Lorain Harbor. Lorain is a Lake Erie port city not far west of Cleveland, and is a legendary site for gull-watchers. As of late, Lorain has been especially dense with gulls, and Chuck Slusarczyk was there today, camera in tow. When I saw Chuck's amazing series of photos I had to beg permission to share them. Larophile (gull fanatic) or not, I think you'll be impressed!

I made this photo of the Lorain Harbor several years ago, while helping on an aerial waterbird survey. The Black River enters Lake Erie here, and wherever large rivers confluence with the lake, large numbers of ducks and gulls often congregate. The interaction of river and lake seems to supercharge prey populations such as shiners and other small fish, and the birds are there to feast on the bounty.

Lake Erie is world class when it comes to gulls. An incredible twenty species have been found in Ohio's Lake Erie waters thus far, and there'll be more. We'll eventually get an indisputable Slaty-backed Gull, and there are other potential first state record candidates. The most recent addition to our slate of gulls is the famous Black-tailed Gull, which is still present.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

When you arrive at Lorain Harbor and it looks like this, you know the gulling will be good. Back in the day, we called this area the "hot waters", as a nearby now decommisioned power plant piped warm water into the lake. No matter how cold and ice-choked Lake Erie got, the harbor always remained open.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

An obvious challenge when tens of thousands of gulls are milling around in one harbor is picking out the goodies. This is the sort of challenge that Larophiles live for. The vast majority of gulls currently at Lorain are Ring-billed Gulls, which under most circumstances is the most frequent gull in Ohio. Herring Gulls are a distant second right now, although in tough, frigid winters they can dominate (the lake is completely ice-free this winter). Between these two species, we've got 99% of the gull biomass at this season. So you'll have to have a trained eye to pick out the rarities.

Lorain certainly does attract the uncommon gulls, and mega-rarities. This is the site that hosted our only Ohio record of Heermann's Gull, back in the winters of 1980, and 1981. Same bird, almost certainly, that liked Lorain so much it had to come back.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

An ideal situation for picking through this many gulls is to have them all peacefully loafing on placid waters, where one can scope through the flocks looking for non-Herring/Ring-billed birds. A collective groan often goes up from observers when something spooks the horde, and all of the birds reshuffle themselves. If you had something good, say an Iceland Gull, and were pointing it out to people, you'll have your work cut out refinding it.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

Forgetting about needle-in-the-haystack rarity-seeking for a second, to me one of the great pleasures of birding gull-choked harbors is the sheer ambience created by this many birds. The collective din of so many large gulls bugling their yelping wails, fighting, stealing fish, and gracefully performing all manner of aeronautics is a sight to behold.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

But of course it is the rare and uncommon that keep birders eye-balling the gray and white masses, and here Chuck has lensed one of the uncommon species. It's an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, easily standing out from the Ring-billeds and Herrings by its much darker charcoal-colored mantle. Lesser Black-backeds used to be a big deal when I first began making trips to The Lake. The first Ohio record dates to 1977, and that bird was a huge deal. This European species has increased tremendously in North America in the intervening years, and now small numbers are to be expected at gull hotspots along Lake Erie.

Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

Cool photo showing the beautiful sooty mantle of the Lesser Black-backed Gull as it plunges for a gizzard shad or some such tasty morsel.

In recent days Lorain has hosted Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Thayer's Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, and at least two California Gulls, in addition to the aforementioned species. I wouldn't be surprised if someone turns up a Mew Gull or some other really rare larid.

Should you get the chance, visit the gullapalooza at Lorain while the getting is good. Thanks a million to Chck Slusarczyk for sharing his amazing photos!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cecropia cocoon

On a recent foray in search of winter birds, I found myself crashing through a dense thicket of gray dogwood, various well-thorned Rubus blackberries, and sundry other saplings and shrubs. I didn't produce any exciting avifauna during my brush wading, but the effort was time well spent. At one point I paused to look and listen, and there, nearly in front of my face, was the cocoon of a cecropia moth!

The cecropia, Hyalophora cecropia, is one of our silkmoths and every aspect of their life cycle is of great interest. Excepting the eggs, their cocoons are the least conspicuous phase of this moth's four-part life cycle. It's a hefty cocoon, but looks just like a leaf that has fallen and draped itself over a twig.

I was sorely tempted to carefully open it to photo-document the pupa within, but decided against it. Better to leave well enough alone and not hinder the stunning transformation that will take place this spring. Although the cocoon looks like nothing more than a dead leaf, its contents are very much alive albeit in a state of suspension for the winter. However, Nina of Nature Remains did successfully reveal the contents of a cecropia cocoon, photo-document the whole thing, and put it back together and eventually hatched the moth. See that spread HERE.

Photo: Shawn Hanrahan, Wiki Commons 

Few people notice the eggs of the cecropia, which are laid on one of the myriad woody plants that serve as host plants. The eggs aren't there long - in short order tiny first instar caterpillars will hatch.

Photo: Michael Hodge, Wiki Commons

By the time the caterpillars have molted into their fifth and final instar, they have become behemoths adorned with spiky clubs. A mature cecropia cat is an eating machine, and stuffs itself with foliage to prepare for the long winter's siesta in its cocoon.

 Photo: Tom Peterson, Wiki Commons

Finally, if all goes well and none of the moth's numerous predators takes it out at some early stage, a gorgeous moth will emerge. The cecropia is the largest moth species that commonly occurs in North America and an adult is an unforgettable sight. Last year seemed to be a good year for cecropias in Ohio, and I fielded several queries about them from people who had never seen one. In every case, these cecropia newbies were floored by the size of the moth, and typically described them as the size of a bird or bat. Big females can have a wing spread that spans over 6 inches!

Silkmoths have no functional mouthparts, and live only to mate and produce eggs. Thus, the ultimate phase of this complex life cycle, the moth, lives for only a week or so.

Friday, January 27, 2012

American Alligator

An American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, cruises slowly down a blackwater canal in southern Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

This post is a bit of a blast from the post - from my November 2011 trip to the Okefenokee. I had intended to share some gator photos shortly after the trip, but a crush of other subjects nearly relegated the giant reptiles to the scrap bin.

There are several thousand alligators in the Okefenokee's 438,000 acres, and if you visit, you're almost sure to see some. This stegosaurus-tailed bruiser was hauled out on a muddy embankment, and gave us his best repilian grin as we slowly cruised by in our swamp boat.

This old boy was in repose along a road, and apparently some fool tossed a pebble on its head. A "sleeping" gator looks dead and still as stone, but only an idiot would closely approach one. While attacks on people are very rare, only Darwin Award candidates test their luck.

An exceptionally massive old male can reach 14 feet in length and weigh half a ton. In spite of their bulk, big gators can move with astonishing speed, and become scaly Esther Williams' when in the water. They'll occasionally attempt to snap perched birds from limbs overhanging the water, and can nearly lunge free of the water. There is a great story of an Okefenokee swampman who was cruising a canal in his motorized johnboat when he rounded a bend only to meet a big gator that was hotfooting it right at his boat. The spooked reptile leapt free of the water and right into the guy's boat! After a wild tussle the boatman managed to lever it over the side with a pole, nearly capsizing in the process. He got a cool story out of that encounter!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ohio Rules the Roost!

A young Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis, peers from its abode. Someone kindly made and placed this nest box, to the benefit of these Vinton County bluebirds.

One of the many valuable projects spearheaded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is Project NestWatch. Participants in this program register nests with the Lab, thus helping to create a database of North America's nesting avifauna. The NestWatch e-newsletter just arrived today, and Ohioans can be proud.

This is the top 20 list - the species for which the most nests were reported. The Eastern Bluebird is Numero Uno and no surprise there. People love these gentle little thrushes, and have placed thousands and thousands of next boxes for them. And monitor the boxes diligently. I see the dastardly House Sparrow (one of my favorite birds, Shhh, don't tell anyone) checks in at #6. I suspect a good chunk of those sparrow nests were in boxes built for bluebirds and other far more desirable native species.

This chart lists the top 20 states in regards to nest submissions, and looky there! Ohio is smack on top of the pyramid! The Buckeye State probably doesn't get its due in terms of landscape diversity, and the sheer number of natural history enthusiasts that are doing wonderful things within our borders. Thus, it's immensely pleasing to see a stat like this.

Here we have the nuts and bolts of who is doing what and where. Ohio takes five of the twenty slots, including #1. I suspect that most of those 721 nests that were submitted by the Ohio Bluebird Society - Delaware Chapter were built and placed by Dick Tuttle, a local legend and major frind of the bluebird, Tree Swallow, and other cavity-nesting songbirds.

Holden Arboretum, a national and local treasure, is also high on the list. If you haven't visited Holden, be sure and get there soon. The place is utterly spectacular. Darlene Sillick, who is involved with the aforementioned Tuttle and the Delaware Bird Club has contributed an impressive number of nests.

And Charlie Bombaci, setting all kinds of records in the world of Prothonotary Warbler nest box trails. Where would the Golden Swamp Warblers be without Charlie, at least in central Ohio? He slots in at #10 and is cited for 160 nests, and I bet most of them are of our only eastern cavity-nesting warbler. Most of these nests are probably in boxes that Charlie placed for the birds at Hoover Reservoir, just north of Columbus.

I made the above video a few springs back, of a Prothonotary Warbler investigating a natural cavity along the bird trail at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. It offers a taste of the spring that will be on us before we know it, and a nice look at the species that Bombaci has done so much to help. Who wouldn't want more Golden Swamp Warblers?

The Undertaker in action

Photo: Hallie Mason

Hallie Mason, who lives in the northeastern portion of Ohio, saw my last post on the American burying beetle and sent along this photo. She walked out of her house to see this epic struggle taking place in her driveway. We should all be so lucky!

It's another species of burying beetle, and it looks like a roundneck sexton beetle, Nicrophorus orbicollis. I wrote about those last fall, HERE. The beetle has found an expired eastern mole and is grappling with the corpse in an effort to transport it to a suitable burial ground. Hallie reports: "I watched him valiantly move the carcass toward an area of dirt.  I finally went to bed and when I arose the next day, there was no sign of either rodent or insect."

Keep in mind the mole probably weighed 50 grams or so - dozens of times more than the beetle! In the strength department, one of these bugs makes Arnold Schwarzenegger at his prime look like an anemic Richard Simmons. Proportionately, a burying beetle is far stronger than that, actually. For one of us to match the mole-toting feat, we'd probably have to do something like toss a full-sized telephone pole over each shoulder and run a hundred yard dash.

Thanks to Hallie for sharing her photo and story!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

American Burying Beetle

What a bug! Clad in the colors of Halloween and sporting a huge pair of intimidating mandibles, an American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus, poses for my camera. These giant beetles have a lifestyle that those prone to anthropomorphism might regard as ghoulish. But Nature seemingly evolves an animal to fill every role, and burying beetles play an important part as Mother Earth's undertakers. Just about anyone who clapped eyes on one of these goggle-eyed chaps would prclaim it a handsome insect, although they might revise their opinion once they learn of the beetles' habits.

While at the Wilds back in December - see previous post - I begged conservation science director Jenise Bauman to give me the nickel tour of their burying beetle restoration project. She obliged, and into that unassuming little building we went.

The Wilds does not confine their research and conservation efforts only to the charismatic mega-fauna featured in the previous post. American burying beetles are about as obscure and far from the average citizens' mind as it is possible to get in the animal world. To my mind, the Wilds deserves major kudos for working with an insect that is certainly not going to draw the accolades and attention that, say, their cheetah program does.

Why American burying beetles? Because they've become incredibly rare over their entire range, and at least until this project was initiated, had disappeared from the wild in Ohio. Historically, these inch-and-a-half bugs ranged throughout the eastern half of North America, living primarily in the imprint of our vast temperate deciduous forest. Today, small populations exist only in Rhode Island and a very limited area of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas.

Prior to European settlement, as many as five billion Passenger Pigeons dwelt in the primeval eastern forests. Wild Turkey abounded, and interwoven prairie regions contained an abundance of Greater Prairie-Chickens. These species all produced chicks that are/were of the perfect dimensions for burying beetle food. Mortality among the pigeon squabs, in particular, was probably high and dead chicks on the forest floor were probably a frequent occurrence. If the beetles' fortunes were tightly linked to that of the Passenger Pigeon, it may well be tough to successfully aid in a rebound of the beetle. A ray of hope lies with Wild Turkeys, which abetted by wildlife managers have increased dramatically. Perhaps doomed turkey poults will provide adequate sustenance to maintain American burying beetle populations.

Upon entering the beetle house, we saw these spartan beetle condos. Each container holds an adult.

This aquarium is full of another species of beetle: the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor. The larvae of these darkling beetles are commonly used to feed all manner of grub-noshing pets such as lizards and birds. In this case, they provide a source of nourishment to overwintering burying beetles in the Wilds' beetle house.

An adult beetle would quickly make mincemeat of a mealworm with those powerful mandibles. They'll eat 'em in a pinch, but it isn't grubs that they thirst for - freshly dead birds and mammals is what floats the beetle boat. Those impressive whisk broom appendages that cap the antennae no doubt function as corpse radars, helping carrion-seeking beetles to home in on their meal.

An integral part of the Wilds' beetle operation involves breeding the beetles. In order to stimulate reproduction, a male and female are placed within a dirt-filled bucket, along with a quail carcass. The dead bird spurs the beetles to action. In this shot, one of the pair was busily tunneling under the quail's head - you can see its posterior protruding from the bird's lower left side.

Once the reproductive cycle is set in motion, things get interesting. American burying beetles possess Herculean strength, and it was amazing to see how the insects easily jostled the much larger corpse around. Eventually, the pair will at least partially bury their grisly fodder, and prepare it by stripping much of the feathers away from the carcass. The beetles then slather the body with bacteria and fungus retarding chemicals. By this point or soon after, Mrs. Beetle will deposit her eggs in a nearby brood chamber. Once the first instar grublets hatch, the doting parents gently transport them to the carrion. As the grubs are as yet unable to feed themselves, they stroke one of the parent's mandibles when hungry. Excellent providers that they are, the Mr. or Mrs. promptly regurgitates a snack of masticated dead meat.

The grubs grow through three instar stages, and then enter a month-long pupation after which they emerge as colorful adults ready to start this beetle magic all over again.

I hope the Wilds is successful in reestablishing American burying beetles in Ohio. Even though I'll probably never see one in the wild, I take great satisfaction in knowing that such creatures are on the landscape, and equal pleasure in the fact that people care enough to go to these lengths to try and ensure their survival.

Thanks to Jenise Bauman for touring me through the beetle house, and kudos to the Wilds and its affiliate the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and partners the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Ohio State University for supporting this program.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big mammals make for interesting birding

If you want a novel Ohio birding experience, visit the 10,000+ acre former strip mine lands known as the Wilds. Located in Muskingum County, this site is buffered by thousands of additional acres of strip mine reclamation grasslands, and the overall ambience suggests the plains of Africa.

I was there in late December to participate in the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count - one of umpteen trips that I've made to this area over the years.

Wintertime on the Wilds. It does look rather bleak and inhospitable, and cold temperatures and unrelenting winds mean one had better bundle up. But the birding can be stellar, and raptors are the star of the wintertime show. Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawks, Short-eared Owls and more. Golden Eagles have wintered here for many years now, and one of Ohio's few Prairie Falcons returned to winter for two consecutive years (2004-05).

In regards to our bird count, I drew a plum assignment. Nina Harfmann and I were paired with Jenise Bauman, who is the Wilds' director of conservation science training, and that meant we had access to the fenced off grasslands. Vast tracts are surrounded by fences for a good reason, as we shall see. There's lots of great birds to be found within the Wilds' inner core and we found some goodies, but many an interesting mammal also lurks within the fenced confines.

Birders have long made the pilgrimage to the Wilds in winter, seeking owls and eagles and other feathered quarry. For seven years now, the Ohio Ornithological Society has hosted a winter raptor day in January, which has drawn upwards of 150 enthusiasts some years. Here, some birders take advantage of the massive birding platform which overlooks an enormous expanse of grassland dappled by ponds. The Ohio Division of Wildlife funded the platform to the tune of $55,000, and it is known as the Birding Station at Jeffrey Point. Oh, that's Bill of the Birds scoping things in the foreground.

Birding the core of the Wilds can be a surreal experience. Yes, those are camels on the crest of that distant ridge, Bactrian Camels to be specific. The Wilds' primary mission is as a wildlife conservation and research center, and they maintain about 30 species of large mammals, many of which are imperiled in their native ranges. As birders, we use landmarks to get our fellows on birds, and that makes for some interesting dialogue in this place: "Rough-legged Hawk, one o'clock and flying left - just shot by the camels!"

One of the most numerous mammals is one of our natives, the White-tailed Deer. They're everywhere, and their ranks include some impressively racked big bucks.

Here's a much smaller ungulate, the Sika Deer, which was once found throughout much of Eurasia. It has declined or disappeared from most of its original range. These are adults, which unlike our white-tailed deer retain their speckling into adulthood.

These lumbering brutes are my personal favorites at the Wilds: the Sichuan Takin. The musk-ox-looking mammals are indigenous to the slopes of the Himalayas, and are utterly impervious to cold. Even the most brutal winter day at the Wilds is nothing to them.

A Takin is rather charming in its own special way. Big bulls can weigh over 700 lbs, and they're not possessed of a very friendly temperament.

Cute as buttons, a pair of Persian Onagers buddy up. These asiatic wild asses are nearly gone from the wild, with only a few hundred left in two regions of Iran. Onagers are incredibly tolerant of temperature extremes, and can endure temperatures of well over 100 degrees - not an uncommon occurrence in their native range. In winter, they grow a thick coat of insulating fur and have no troubles dealing with frigid temperatures.

Completing the surrealistic Wilds landscape is the stunning Grevy's Zebra, which occurs in Ethiopia and Kenya. Less than 6,000 of these gorgeous mammals are thought to remain in the wild. This is the largest of the three zebra species, and a mature male can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds.

This is but a sampling of the mammals that the Wilds works with. Birders who recently attended the Ohio Ornithological Society's raptor day were delighted by a special visit to see a baby rhinoceros. The Wilds has successfully bred rhinos on a number of occasions, as they have several other species of imperiled animals. There are also Fringe-eared Oryx, Cheetah, African Wild Dog, and many more. While we visitors delight at seeing such beasts in a huge landscape where the animals can free-range over vast areas, the major mission of the Wilds is research and conservation. Understanding the basic biology of animals is key to successfully protecting these animals in the wild, and the Wilds is working with the rarest of the rare.

If you've not been to the Wilds, plan a visit. Consider becoming a member, too - their work is some of the most important and innovative animal conservation and research in the world. Not only that, but they're protecting outstanding habitat for wild birds, and the staff of the Wilds strongly supports bird conservation and the birding community.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter flowers

This was the scene when I departed the office today. Winter has roared back into town, complete with icy temperatures and snow. But up until now, it's been unseasonably balmy in central Ohio and we've been completely lacking in snow cover.

So, yesterday I got a call from Ben Gelber (be sure and click his name!), legendary weatherman for NBC 4 tv. Ben is a total natural history buff and a great proponent of the environment. He regularly does little snippets about nature and once in a while he'll connect with me to do something. Because of the relatively Floridian weather around here, we did a thing about the response of plants to the balminess. I was able to find a few species in bloom right outside my office building, and brought my camera in today to photograph them, right before the snow hit.

In a funny coincidence, at the very time that Ben and I were outside filming our spot, Dave Horn emailed me the above photo of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, ready to burst into bloom in his Clintonville garden. Just about everything that you'll find flowering in the dead of winter around here is, like snowdrops, of Eurasian origin. The native plants seem much more tied to photoperiod - the length of daylight - for their trigger to erupt from the soil and start to flower. The hardy Eurasian invaders quickly respond to favorable weather conditions.

Looking every bit as bright as your lovely salad greens is this prostrate mat of common chickweed, Stellaria media. This chickweed is a very short-lived perennial and colors up quickly with the advent of mild weather. A few more warm days and it may well have started pushing out flowers.

You've probably got this one in your yard. It's hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta, a tiny winter-annual mustard. Like all of the other plants in this post, it is naturalized from Eurasia. I couldn't find any blooms yet, but like the chickweed, had the weather remained warm and snowfree it wouldn't have been long before its little white flowers popped.

Another soon to bloom weed and - excepting the snowdrops, which tends to remain pent up in the garden - the showiest of this lot is this hen's-bit, Lamium amplexicaule. These beautiful little mints can always be found in bloom in February in southernmost Ohio in any year, and I saw a few today that had the beginnings of buds.

Mark my words, this homely little weed is one of our toughest plants - a real botanical cockroach. It's common groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, and this specimen is in full bloom. Common groundsel inherited few of the charms of many of its brethren in the ragwort group (Asteraceae). What it lacks in looks, it makes up for in sheer tenacity. This species can grow nearly anywhere and flower at any time. It'll long outlast humans, easily surviving the worst of our ravages: nuclear holocausts, Walmart parking lots, possibly even fracking.

We move in close so that you can appreciate the true glory of common groundsel flowers. That's it. There are no showy petals, only tubular discoid flowers tightly enwrapped by a cup of leafy phyllaries. One wants to wait around and see if the flowers might do something a little more spectacular, but they don't.

Finally, that bane of every well-groomed yard, the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Like the groundsel, dandelions are ultra-tough members of the aster family and prone to blooming all winter long if given even a slight chance.

I've got to confess to liking these ugly little weeds, if for no other reason than they offer hope of the impending spring. And right now, with blowing snow and temps in the 20's, spring seems quite distant.