Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fishing spiders big, not bad

Fishing spiders sometimes enter homes/Jim McCormac


Fishing spiders big, not bad
Sunday April 29, 2012

Cover your heads and mimic an ostrich, arachnophobes: There are about 600 species of spiders in Ohio. Spiders are probably the most numerous predators in most habitats. Sites that are rich in biodiversity might contain hundreds of thousands of spiders per acre. Fortunately for those who detest the eight-legged crowd, most spiders are so small and inconspicuous that people never notice them.

There are exceptions, however.

If there were a beauty pageant for spiders, the huge and sensational fishing spiders would be perennial front-runners for the tiara. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the leggy and intricately marked fishing spiders will always garner a reaction — pro or con.

Ohio hosts five species of fishing spiders, all members of the nursery web spider family. These arachnids don’t spin conventional webs; they ambush and pounce on prey. One might think of them as spider-cheetahs. Females with young are quite protective and spin a silken “nursery” chamber in which the juvenile spiders stay. The massive missus guarding the nest intimidates most would-be predators.

These are true titans. A female’s leg span can stretch to almost 4 inches. She would cover your driver’s license from end to end. As is usually the case in the spider world, males are far smaller — less than half the size of females in the case of fishing spiders. The size discrepancy makes mating risky business. Sometimes the suitor approaches a female with an offering of an insect, in hopes that the meal sates her appetite. If not, he might be the meal after their coupling is complete.

Fishing spiders are well-named: They’re almost always found near water. A water-repelling coat of hydrophobic hair allows the spiders to plunge into the drink if need be. They can even glide across the surface like a water strider, as their specially designed legs don’t break the water’s surface tension.
A fishing spider on the hunt lurks near the water’s edge, awaiting targets. The water’s surface, in effect, becomes its web. When the vibrations of a passing aquatic insect are felt via the spider’s sensitive palps (modified forelegs), the hunter explodes into action. Like a homicidal eight-eyed Mark Spitz, the spider effortlessly skates out and seizes the victim in its claw-tipped front legs. A bite from hollow fangs injects powerful venom, and the victim’s innards are soon sucked dry.

As horrifying as fishing spiders might appear, they are utterly harmless to people and are quite shy. The most nomadic of the group is the common fishing spider, which sometimes finds its way into homes. Seeing one of these behemoths on a wall might give you a jolt, but just prod it into a box or bag and let it go outside.
Spiders are pivotal in controlling all manner of insects that would otherwise surge out of control.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.

Further afield
Colorful songbirds are migrating through central Ohio in droves. If you want to see grosbeaks, orioles, warblers and more, attend the “Birding at Its Best” program at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park at 8 a.m. May 5. Meet at the Indian Ridge bulletin board at 2705 Darby Creek Dr., Galloway. For more information, call 614-508-8111 or visit www.metro

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lakeside Daisy

Last Sunday while up at Lake Erie, I found myself on that long narrow slab of limestone known as the Marblehead Peninsula. And when traversing the Marblehead in spring, I always try to make time to stop in at the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve. This 19-acre site looks like a lunar landscape at first blush; a barren rocky substrate sparsely dotted with red cedar trees. But in May (normally), the place comes alive with its namesake plant.

I was amazed to see how advanced the daisies were on the early date of April 22. I checked my photo archives for past visits, and have plenty of shots of the daisies in peak condition between May 10 and 12. So, they're nearly three weeks ahead of schedule this spring, and if you want to see one of Ohio's most amazing botanical displays, you'd best take a trip down Alexander Pike soon.

A sea of yellow dots carpets the rocky floor of the preserve. Lakeside daisy, Tetraneuris herbacea, is one of the rarest plants in the United States, and although it grows in profusion in the preserve and some surrounding places on the Marblehead Peninsula, this may be one of only two indigenous U.S. populations that remains. It formerly occurred in a few spots in Illinois, but those populations have been destroyed. A small site was discovered in Michigan in 1996. There are also populations on the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island in Canada, and there at least some Canadians refer to this plant by the rather odd name of "stemless rubberweed". Lakeside daisy is listed as federally threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - one of only six plant species that merits that dubious distinction in Ohio.

ASIDE: This species has a rather tortured nomenclatural history. Previous synonyms include Actinea herbacea; Hymenoxys acaulis; and Hymenoxys herbacea. I wonder what it will be called next month?

Lakeside daisies spring from a small basal rosette of narrow straplike leaves, and do best in very sparsely vegetated rocky limestone soils. While the areas in which this plant occurs look rather lifeless at first glance, there are actually many other interesting plants to be found. Natural rockeries such as at the Lakeside Daisy Preserve support a wealth of saxicolous (rock-loving) plants, many of them rare. From the blooming of the Lakeside daisy on through September, there will be an ever-changing parade of plants.

The Lakeside daisy's place in the massive composite family, which includes sunflowers, goldenrods, asters and the like, is obvious when the flowers are seen well. Many of Ohio's rarest plants are things that only a botanist would love, such as sedges and other obscure non-showy flora. This daisy, on the other hand, is one of the most stunning plants in our entire flora, and that covers some 1,850 native plants.

If you're up at Lake Erie birding in the next few weeks, try and stop by and see the spectacle of the daisies. They're probably hitting peak bloom just about now, but there should be blooming plants lingering into mid-May or so. There is an annual local celebration of the Marblehead Peninsula's most famous botanical resident, the Lakeside Daisy Festival. It is held the second weekend in May, which means that the plants will probably be past peak this year during festivities. Still, festival-goers will see the sunny countenance of at least some daisies, and it is a sight that should not be missed.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mink: long, low, and slinky

A young mink, Neovison vison (formerly placed in the genus Mustela), snarls at your blogger from a grassy roadside verge. I made this photo a few years ago, along the entrance road to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, the minklet looks "cute" but rest assured he/she is every bit the savage predatory tubular sausage that is the stuff of which lesser creatures' nightmares are made.

Photo: Bill Fisher

In an utterly remarkable coincidence, I was motoring down the causeway that bisects Magee Marsh Wildlife Area last Sunday, when a gorgeous adult mink shot across the road. The Magee causeway is only a few miles from where I made the first photo, of the juvenile mink. That was quite cool indeed, as I probably see only one or two of these weasels a year, at best.

But the proximity of my two Ottawa County mink sightings was not the remarkable coincidence that I speak of. At almost the exact time that I watched last Sunday's mink tear across the road, my Droid chimed to let me know of an incoming email. I checked it a bit later, to see that it was Bill Fisher sending along a stunning series of... mink photos!

Bill is Director of the Crawford County Park District and an enthusiastic outdoorsman. He was in the park system's Lowe-Volk Park on Friday, April 13th, when he encountered the beast in these photos and Bill was kind enough to allow me to share them.

ASIDE: The Crawford County Park District is relatively young, but it ranks among Ohio's top park systems in terms of creativity and activity. Thus, it was fabulous news when Crawford County voters easily passed a 0.4 mill, 10 year levy last month to support the park district. Its passage speaks to the quality of the Crawford County Park District, and the connections its employees have made with the county's citizenry.

 Photo: Bill Fisher

In Bill's first photo, the mink is entering a crevice between a few rocks. It may be hunting, but I wonder if that is its den site. Such a cranny would be perfect for a mink nest, and hopefully Bill and/or Josh Dyer and/or Warren Uxley can keep tabs on the situation. With a bit of luck and good timing, they might get to photograph some "cute" minklets such as the one in the first photo.

Mink seek out fissures between rocks, gaps between tree roots and similar sites for denning. A bit more grisly is their not uncommon appropriation of muskrat lodges for such purposes. You've seen muskrat lodges - they're those roundish heaps of cattails piled in the waters of shallow marshes. If a mink decides it wants to commandeer a 'skrat lodge, it enters and kills the rightful owner.

 Photo: Bill Fisher

Like the rest of its weasel brethren, mink are voracious predators and strict carnivores. They'll run down everything from fish to frogs to birds to rabbits. To go totally anthropomorphic, mink are like low-slung mammalian homicidal psychopaths, and nothing smaller is safe from a hungry mink on patrol. Every now and again, one manages to weasel its way into someone's chicken coop, and the aftermath isn't pleasant. Chances are good that the mink will kill every chicken in there. Can't blame the mink, though - they're just doing what minks do. And they were here long before coops stuffed with tasty chickens.

Photo: Bill Fisher

I love this shot. Major kudos to Bill and his camera work. Having some knowledge and experience with these mammals in the wild, I can attest to just how difficult it is to get one in the camera's view finder long enough to make such a photo. It's behavior in allowing such an approach makes me wonder all the more if its den isn't in those rocks. This is the time of year when they are raising young, too.

As can be surmised from this mink's damp fur, these animals are highly aquatic and nearly always found in close proximity to water. The pelt is water-resistant and has wonderful insulating qualities. Its cloak of dense silky fur allow the mink to operate throughout the winter, shunning the hibernatory ways of less hardy mammals. The fur is also coveted by humans, and a mink coat is regarded as a major status symbol in some quarters. A well made full length mink coat can fetch upwards of $10,000. Wild trapped mink pelts are currently trading for about $21.00. Most mink fur today comes from so-called "mink ranches", and that's a whole other subject and not necessarily a pleasant one. I'd far rather see my mink in the wild, and mink fur harvested responsibly from wild animals.

Thanks to Bill Fisher for sharing his fabulous photos.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fish Crow update

I didn't realize that Michelle Leighty, who like Andy Jones, works at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, also was instrumental in tracking down and documenting Ohio's first nesting record of Fish Crows (the subject of the last post). Sorry about that oversight, Michelle!

Laura Gooch, who lives but a relative stone's throw from the location of these Fish Crows and their nest, made a fascinating observation at her Cleveland Heights house on May 23, 2011. Laura sets up nocturnal recording equipment to document nighttime migrant birds, and made a wonderfully serendipitous recording. She had been out for an early stroll on that May 23 morning, and heard and saw three or four Fish Crows passing over. When she got home and checked her recording equipment - it was still turned on, fortunately - there were the calls of Fish Crows. Listen for yourself RIGHT HERE. Great work, Laura!

One wonders how long Fish Crows have occupied the Shaker/University Heights east side Cleveland neighborhoods, and how many others are in the area.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fish Crow nests in Ohio!

Yesterday came the exciting news that Fish Crows, Corvus ossifragus, had been found in Ohio. This species had long been anticipated to arrive, and eventually nest, and that expectation became reality this week when Andy Jones discovered the birds described in this post. Last year saw a few reports of flyby Fish Crows along the Lake Erie shoreline, but those birds were not chaseable or otherwise independently verifiable, and I don't believe any recordings of vocalizations were made.

Well, Andy's birds are a snap to find, and are enlivening the neighborhood depicted in the shot above. Jones, who is the ornithologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, came across these Fish Crows in a quiet well treed east side Cleveland neighborhood, Shaker Heights. He broke the news yesterday, and Bernie Master and I were in the car and headed north bright and early this morning. The crows were easy to find; we saw them as soon as we turned onto the street in the photo, and they put on a show the entire time we were there.

Here's the Google Earth view of the lay of the land - about as suburban as one can possibly get! This habitat choice is not entirely unexpected with Fish Crows, though - like their close relative the American Crow, Corvus brachyrynchos, they are increasingly exploiting cityscapes as nesting habitat.

Bernie and I parked a discreet distance from the nesting tree, and stood quietly about watching the show. There were four Fish Crows, and they couldn't be missed. The birds flew about the neighborhood, perching conspicuously in the tall oaks, occasionally scrapping with one another, and while not overly vocal, gave their telltale nasal calls fairly often.

Fish Crows are primarily birds of the immediate vicinity of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, but they've been undergoing pronounced range expansions into the interior U.S. in recent decades. Until they invaded the north shore of Lake Erie 20 or so years ago in the vicinity of Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada (where they are still rare), the Fish Crow was endemic to the United States. They've been steadily spreading along larger river systems - I saw them along the Shenandoah River in Virginia two weeks ago, where they are relatively recent colonizers - and are making their way into the Great Lakes, such as along the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. CLICK HERE for a 2010 blog post that I made about Fish Crows, predicting (I was hardly unique in this) their eventual appearance in Ohio. That post also has more detailed distribution information.

I worked hard to bag a nice in-flight shot as the birds winged their way around the neighborhood, and was finally rewarded with this photo. Fish Crows greatly resemble American Crows, and voice is by far the best way to separate the species. Once we heard them, just like Andy Jones, we knew there was no doubt as to the identity. CLICK HERE to hear a recording of Fish Crow.

But there is a difference between the two species that involves the primary flight feathers, and this character can be seen in the above photo. The primaries are numbered, starting with the shortest foremost feather at the leading edge of the outer wing. It is "P10", and from there the primaries are labeled "P9", "P8" and so on as one moves along the feathers towards the rear edge of the wing. In the American Crow, P5 is noticeably longer than P9. In Fish Crow, P5 is about the same length or shorter than P9.

 Photo: Bernie Master

We saw the birds collect a number of twigs and transport them to the nest, which was obviously still under construction. Bernie managed to catch the crow above in the act of stick-harvesting.

There were four Fish Crows, and although we saw an occasional seemingly hostile encounter between birds (which may have been more along the lines of play), they mostly interacted peacefully. At one point, two of them sat close together in an oak, while the other two birds sat together in a nearby tree. It may be that one set of birds are "helpers"; juvenile birds hatched last year that are not yet ready to breed and that hang around a breeding pair of sexually mature adults. The phenomenon of helper birds is well known in American Crows, but not so much with Fish Crows. However, a perusal of the Birds of North America monograph on Fish Crows makes it abundantly clear that many facets of this species' biology is not well known and much more study is needed.

This towering red oak harbors the nest, which can be seen near top center of the tree. Apparently this nest location is pretty typical for Fish Crow - near the summit of a large tree. The pickup truck belonged to a guy who was doing work on the driveway of the house where the tree sits. In spite of that, and the activity of neighbors, cars passing by and other action, the crows did not seem overly bothered and continued to work on the nest.

If you do visit, stay several houses or more away from the nest. There is no reason to venture near, as the birds are conspicuous and fly about the neighborhood. My photos were made from some distance down the street. Also, and I know this goes without saying, it's important to respect the neighbors. There will probably be lots of birders visiting this quiet neighborhood to observe the Fish Crows, and the locals certainly aren't used to an invasion of binocular-toting birders. Word is out among the locals regarding the crows, though, so at least the residents will know what is going on.

Here's a telephoto shot of the aerie, which is about 50 feet up a red oak. This is the first documented Fish Crow nest in Ohio, thanks to Andy Jones. I wonder if these birds nested locally last year, though, and if the "helpers" are local spawn. My hunch is that this won't be the last Fish Crow nest in Ohio, and I'd bet they slowly begin to increase, as Common Ravens are doing in eastern Ohio.

What does seem a bit surprising is the lack of a prominent river or water body near the nest. That red line stretches from the nest site for seven miles until it hits the Lake Erie shore. No good-sized streams are very near, either. Oh well, the crows know best.

Kudos to Andy Jones for this great discovery, which indisputably adds another species to the Ohio list (#423 by my conservative reckoning). And on a comparatively trite note and not that anyone's counting, but these Fish Crows were #368 for my Ohio list.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Red-shouldered Hawks nest in a most appropriate site

Photo: Bill Thompson

Bill Thompson, aka Bill of the Birds, has been photo-documenting a beautiful pair of Red-shouldered Hawks that are nesting in a huge sycamore right outside his office building in Marietta, Ohio. And where does Bill work? Well, he is editor of Bird Watcher's Digest! These birds couldn't have selected a more appropriate place to take up residence.

Bill's been posting about these birds in his blog, and you'll want to follow him. It'll be sort of like watching a nest cam, albeit a sluggish one that uses still pictures. It should be fun and educational to follow these birds as Bill documents the nesting process, and raising of the young. It'll be doubly cool because Red-shouldered Hawks are avian herpetologists - they are especially smitten with catching amphibians and reptiles, snakes included, so we should see some interesting prey items being carted to the aerie.

Follow Bill and the hawks RIGHT HERE.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Magee Marsh and early warblers

I spent part of today at one of Ohio's most iconic birding hotspots, the legendary "Bird Trail" at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. This mile+ boardwalk winds through a 30-some acre patch of swampy woods on Lake Erie's south shore, and the place is a beacon for migrant songbirds. Today was raw and blustery, with temperatures in the low 40's and strong winds. Birds were relatively few, but included some of my favorite species.

You'll not see many scenes like this come May - the boardwalk will be packed with birders, and in places it'll resemble the sidewalks in Times Square at lunch hour. But on a good day the birds will outnumber the birders and the diversity of warblers and other songbirds can be fabulous.

And make no mistake - warblers are the People's Choice when it comes to the favorite group of birds at Magee. I led a walk yesterday elsewhere in Ohio, and Dick And Jane Ward showed up sporting this wonderful license plate.

One of our most striking warblers is the Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, and plenty of them were around today. "Butter-butts" are early migrants and reach a crescendo in late April. They're also VERY common, and all too many people begin to ignore them; we become jaded by their numbers. But adult males such as this bird are utterly striking and few other warbler species can hold a candle to one in the looks department.

Female and subadult Yellow-rumped Warblers are more muted but have a certain charm nonetheless.

We also saw plenty of Palm Warblers, Setophaga palmarum, another early warbler migrant. Palms habitually feed low to the ground, or even on the ground, and are incessant tail-waggers. This bird is a male, and of the nominate subspecies palmarum: the "Western" Palm Warbler. Once in a long while, we get an "Eastern" Palm Warbler, S. p. hypochrysea. The males of this subspecies have a showy lemony-yellow wash throughout the underparts.

If you are among the many thousands of birders who will visit Magee Marsh and its fantastic bird trail, consider supporting the Friends of Magee Marsh. The hard work of this all-volunteer non-profit organization helps maintain the boardwalk, and other vital functions of the wildlife area. Among their myriad accomplishments is an ongoing all out war against garlic mustard and other invasive weeds, which of course ultimately makes for better more bird-friendly habitat. Membership is inexpensive; GO HERE for details.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ugly caterpillar = beautiful butterfly

One of the earliest woody plants to bloom in the east is the downy serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea. The  still bare treelets are festooned with spindly white blossoms in March, providing jots of color to woods that have yet to green. By now, the leaves are expanding, as above, and the leaves are blanketed in soft whitish pubescence. The hairs of the petioles are long and silky - sericeous, in botanicospeak.

I recently was able to spend some time afield with photographer Marcia Rubin, who works amazing magic with a Panasonic, and found that she also has sharp eyes. She drew my attention to a strange linear lump on a serviceberry in a woodland understory, and I was delighted to see what she had found.

It was a caterpillar, and not a rare one judging by all of the adult butterflies one sees flying about, all of which went through this stage. Nonetheless, it was a "life" caterpillar for me, and I was excited to finally turn my lens to one.

This is the larva of the red-spotted purple, Limenitis arthemis, and it is a masterful mimic of a bird dropping. I noticed that this one, when it apparently sensed that it had been noticed, froze tight. If one wasn't hip to the ways of bird-dropping mimic caterpillars, it'd be hard to recognize it for what it was. And by nearly any reckoning, a red-spotted purple caterpillar in repose is a very unpalatable looking lump.

Looking like a bird dropping is not such a bad thing. For most of the legions of caterpillars that are munching their way through our woodlands, birds are Public Enemy #1. But what bird wants to eat its own feces? Apparently, not many. So, by the always miraculous fits and spurts of Darwinian evolution, the red-spotted purple caterpillar and a few others in these parts have become like tubular bags of gooey feces. Another great example of a feces-pillar is the closely related viceroy, Limenitis archippus. Although the adults of this species little resemble those of the red-spotted purple, their caterpillars are remarkably similar. I blogged about a viceroy caterpillar, HERE.

Gross as this caterpillar may appear, I found it quite pleasing and took many photos. Caterpillars are an endless source of fascination on multiple fronts, and wonderful photographic subjects. Red-spotted purple caterpillars are reported to consume members of the rose family, apparently especially cherry (Prunus species). Like their close relative the viceroy, they'll also eat members of the poplar family (Salicaceae). But I did not know the cats ate serviceberry (which is in the rose family), so this knowledge may help me to find more of these interesting caterpillars in the future.

In a seeming paradox, that "ugly" caterpillar eventually morphs into one of our showiest butterflies. I photographed this mating pair of red-spotted purples in Washington County, Ohio, in 2010. The female hopefully went on to lay eggs, which would have eventually hatched into the bizarre caterpillar that we viewed in the previous photos.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Waiting for Godwits: A Birder Murder/Mystery book!

Not long ago, I received an email from an outfit known as Bantry Books, a small bookseller based in the United Kingdom. As a birder, I apparently made their distribution list as they peddle some products that purport to cater to the binocular-toting set. This specific missive trumpeted the above book, by Digby Maclaughlin, who apparently has made a bit of a habit of scrawling mysteries that are supposed to appeal to birders.

Here's the brief teaser for Waiting For Godwits:

Foul Murder on the marshes

"Retired American detective Patrick McCluskey is a contented man. He aims to live happily ever after in a 300-year-old cottage on England’s wild and windy North Norfolk coast, sharing life with his new partner, Judith, a beautiful and talented illustrator of birds. Then Rev. Richard Rocastle, the vicar for Chesley-Next-The-Sea, arrives with the news that his church roof restoration fund is missing . . . and McCluskey is instantly plunged into a tangled investigation of abduction, incest, dope-dealing, nudity and cold-blooded murder."

Wait! Incest! Cold-blooded murder! Nudity! Dope-dealing! Now this is a completely out-of-the-box birding book! I don't remember any of those themes surfacing in Kingbird Highway, nor was such subject matter presented in any of Scott Weidensaul's books. Roger Tory Peterson's Wild America never got this wild!
I don't often hear birders clamoring for a dollop of homicide with their fav nature reads, or totally taboo topics such as incest. Abduction and dope-dealing seem a bit at odds with the genteel pursuit of birding, but somehow Digby Maclaughlin has (masterfully?) woven them into a birding storyline.
It might be a while before I get around to picking up Waiting For Godwits and reading it, so if you do, please issue a report to us! And in the interim, someone please book this guy as a speaker at an upcoming birding conference!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Giant fishing spider!

After spending all day last Saturday within the confines of a conference hall, I was more than ready to explore the great outdoors the following day. Don't get me wrong - the conference was fabulous and provided a goldmine of information - but I was near the iconic Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and was eager to explore the place.

So, after spending Saturday night near the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was in the car and up the mountain on Sunday morning. This shot was taken along the beautiful Skyline Parkway, which traverses the length of this 105 mile long, 200,000 acre park. Spring is slower to arrive at the mountain's summits, but there were still interesting flora and fauna, and breathtaking scenery at every turn.

What goes up must come down, and eventually it was time to drop down off the mountain. On the way down, I spied a beautiful rushing brook, and decided to explore its banks. A Louisiana Waterthrush, full of vim and vinegar, had staked out this stretch of stream and was loudly proclaiming his land rights by singing his way up and down the creek. Few bugs or buglike creatures are safe around these big warblers, but I suspect even the waterthrush would have given broad berth to the upcoming arachnid.

BRACE YOURSELVES, arachnophobes!

I found myself perched on a large streamside boulder, quietly gazing about, when a sudden movement near my feet caught my eye. You can only imagine my elation at glancing down to see this huge fishing spider sidling around the rock's edge! It isn't every day one of these eight-legged jumbos presents itself so readily for photos!

My Nikon had its 105mm macro lens bolted in place, and I began snapping away. There are a half-dozen or so fishing spiders in the genus Dolomedes in the eastern U.S., and I knew it was one of them. At first, I thought it was the six-spotted fishing spider, Dolomedes triton, as it too has that prominent white border around the upper body. But the animal lacked the spotting of that species, and after a bit of investigation I believe this spider is Dolomedes scriptus, which is one that I was not familiar with. As I can't find a common name for the beast, I suggest dubbing it the giant fishing spider.

I found her - it is certainly is a female given its massive size - to be quite showy, and I carefully watched her with my two eyes, and she in turn peered at me with her eight eyes. Either I was in her way, or she was curious about the stranger and emerged from her lair for a look. Could be a curiosity thing, as fishing spiders hunt primarily at night. It may be that I just settled too close to her den and she felt the need to investigate.

From leg tip to opposing leg tip, this spider was probably in excess of three inches. Despite the menacing appearance, she was rather tame and confiding, and like virtually all spiders is utterly harmless to people. By gently prodding her with a small twig, I was able to pose her in different ways for this photo shoot, and she offered no substantial objections.

Note the giant palps; the club-tipped "feelers" that resemble a fifth set of stubby legs and extend forward from the jaw area of the spider. She uses these as sensory organs, and you DO NOT want to be the sensed organism, if you are possible prey.

Fishing spiders are aptly named, as they are nearly always found around water bodies. The dense layer of hair which cloaks their body is hydrophobic, or water-shedding. These animals can deftly run across th water's surface without breaking the surface tension, like gargantuan murderous water striders. Fishing spiders can even dive under the surface, becoming encased in a silvery bubble of air when below.

Apparently a common hunting ploy has the spider anchoring itself to the bank with its rear legs, and gently floating its palps on the water's surface. The hypersensitive palps can detect motion on the water, and when a bug falls in the drink or perhaps swims by, the spider detects the movement and rushes out to grab the victim. Larger individuals, such as the one in these photos, can even take small fish and tadpoles.

I felt rather lucky, as it isn't every day one happens across such an extraordinary animal as this spider.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Red Admiral Invasion

I'm freshly back from an interesting trip to the great state of Virginia and the beautiful city of Winchester - renowned for its Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. This event will celebrate its 85th year in a few weeks; unfortunately given the early spring, their apple trees will have shed their blossoms by then. I was there to speak at a new and interesting conference called Tomorrow's Landscapes, held at Shenandoah University. It was fun and infomative; among the better run of these sorts of things and it was great to see acquaintances such as Jeff Lowenfels all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, and Doug Tallamy from Delaware.

The relatively short drive over to Winchester took me through five states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. Before leaving Ohio last Friday, I was seeing LOTS of red admiral butterflies, Vanessa atalanta. I saw some more along the drive to Virginia but not as many as were fluttering around my home state.

Bold and pugnacious, a showy red admiral alights on your blogger. These brush-footed butterflies stage periodic large, conspicuous northward migrations, such as happened over the last week in Ohio and elsewhere in this part of the country.

One day last week, I glanced out my office window - I work in a very urban area - and six or more of the butterflies were swirling around the blossoms of a flowering crabapple tree. I was even seeing red admirals flying through traffic on very busy Morse Road. Our Ohio Birds listserv was awash in comments about the proliferation of these butterflies, so much so that I was awaiting the appearance of one of the self-appointed listserv police, to make one of their bah humbug "those aren't birds!" comments.

A red admiral at rest with its wings held up is not nearly so conspicuous as they are when the wings are spread and flattened, revealing the showy orange-red bands. In fact, in this position, the butterfly becomes an outstanding leaf mimic.

Dave Horn, an entomologist and current president of the Ohio Lepidopterists, made the following statement on our Ohio Birds listserv in response to all of the red admiral reports: " The red admiral has periodically appeared in large numbers since the early 19th century. While there is no universally accepted explanation for these increases it seems most likely that they are related to high overwintering survivorship in the southern USA followed by favorable conditions for northward movement. This year we have had both a very mild winter (in Ohio and southward) and an early spring and I suspect the large numbers we are seeing reflect those weather conditions".

Sums it up nicely, I think.

Red admirals, in all their beauty, are spawned from plants in one of our most maligned botanical tribes, the nettles. I made this photo a few years ago, of a communal "nest" of red admiral caterpillars that had formed a tent shelter from the leaf of a tall nettle, Urtica procera. At least during their early instars, the caterpillars congregate within the rolled-up leaf, emerging under cover of darkness to ravage the nettle foliage.

Here's a red admiral chrysalis, which I also found on a nettle plant. I've found red admiral caterpillars several times, always on nettles. And always the stinging species. Not everything in the Urticaceae (nettle) family has stinging hairs, and apparently red admirals utilize non-stinging species, but I've only found them on the plants that you'll quickly regret brushing up against.

Not a bad strategy, if you can evolve yourself into it. Most critters probably shun nettles, same as we do, and that includes potential caterpillar predators.

Knowing that such a stunning butterfly as the red admiral requires the lowly nettle as an essential part of its life cycle might stimulate one to view these stinging plants with a fresh perspective. The plant in this photo is a tall nettle, Urtica procera - same species that I've found red admiral larvae on - and it isn't so ugly after all.

Plant some nettles in your yard and who knows, you might raise a crop of admirals. Or better yet, as I believe it is the Weedpicker who says, sneak into your neighbor's yard and plant them there - that's close enough to still enjoy the butterflies!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Eastern Screech-Owl

The Eastern screech owl is a master of camouflage. Its ear tufts aren’t really ears; they just help the bird blend into backgrounds.

Eastern screech owl common but rarely spotted
The Columbus Dispatch
April 15, 2012

Somewhere not far from you sits Ohio’s most common avian predator. But chances are that most readers have never seen one.

You might have heard its calls: eerie descending whistles, perhaps reminiscent of a baby banshee wailing through a muffler; or its other song, a strange, quavering monotone trill. Either call will draw one’s ear, but good luck seeing the singer.

Eastern screech owls are masters of camouflage. The small owls — less than 9 inches long and weighing little more than a smartphone — are strictly nocturnal. During the day, a roosting screech owl typically holes up in a tree cavity or nest box. Sometimes they’ll sit tight against a tree trunk, and their plumage matches the tree’s bark to a remarkable degree. The owl’s prominent ear tufts further the illusion that the bird is a broken-off snag.

Come nightfall, the owls go on the hunt. Specialized adaptations allow screech owls to efficiently track down and dispatch prey. Supersized ears — not those tufts, which are only for camouflage — detect the faintest sounds. The ears, which are hidden under the feathers on the sides of the head, are slightly offset, which allow the owl’s brain to better triangulate on the sound’s location.

Proportionately enormous eyes contain many more rods and cones than yours do, and these uber-peepers allow the owl to see through the night’s gloom.

The prey will never know what hit it. Ruffled leading edges on the flight feathers make for a silent, deadly flight. Once seized, the victim has no chance of escape, as the owl’s talons lock into place like a vise. A strong bite to the vertebrae finishes off the meal to be. After the owl wolfs down its kill, the indigestible parts will be unceremoniously cast out later as a pellet of fur and bones.

Few birds are as adaptive as screech owls, and they can be surprisingly common in urban landscapes. A 1981 survey of a 15-mile-diameter circle in Toledo found 112 owls, and I’m sure it missed some. Their frequency in Columbus is probably similar.

Screech owls tolerate a wide variety of habitats and have an incredibly varied diet. I have found them in heavily developed neighborhoods, remote forests and patchy woodlots in farm country. They’ll also eat almost anything: mice, songbirds, snakes, insects. If it’s small and tasty, it’s fair game. Screech owls snag fish and crayfish, too.

Even a crude whistled imitation of a screech owl call can bring in a bird to investigate. Try it if you think one is around. The tufted night stalkers are inquisitive and will usually fly right in if within earshot. If your mimicking finds its mark, the owl will call back, often from close range.

If you get the chance to view a screech owl, note its color. The species is unique among Ohio’s owls in that it comes in two color forms: red and gray. The gray morphs seem to predominate throughout Ohio; reds are more common in the south than the north.

Screech owls will use nest boxes to roost and to nest. If you have owls in the neighborhood, placing a box might lure some tufted tenants. Plans for building a box and other screech owl info, including recordings, can be found at the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s website,

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot. com.

Further afield

You won’t want to miss this: Dawes Arboretum botanist David Brandenburg will present a talk titled “Should I Have Eaten That? Allergies, Blisters, Convulsions, Delusions and Other Adventures With Poisonous Plants” at 7:30 p.m. April 24 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The talk is sponsored by Columbus Audubon.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Midwest Native Plant Conference!

Logo: Ann Geise

Registration is now open for the 4th annual Midwest Native Plant Conference. Dates are July 27, 28 & 29, and the venue is the spectacular Bergamo Center on the grounds of Mount St. John in Dayton, Ohio. While the common thread of the conference is native plants, the event is multifaceted with great speakers covering a range of topics, plenty of native flora FOR SALE, field trips, and more.

Two of the standout features of the Bergamo Center is that it has plenty of excellent inexpensive rooms, so conference activities are just steps away from your quarters. And even better are the grounds of this 150-acre nature preserve. Our evening field trips are always a hit. As soon as we step out the doors of the Bergamo Center, we're surrounded by a symphony of nighttime singing insects and lots of other creatures of the night. It was here, at the 2010 conference, where guided by orthopteran guru Wil Hershberger, we think we set the world record for a nighttime singing insect walk - 85 people!

Topnotch speakers are a conference staple, and this year we're fortunate to have Marielle Anzelone, all the way from the Big Apple, New York City. Marielle is a highly regarded and widely known urban ecologist, and she'll talk about her efforts to green NYC.

Ian Adams is a legend in the world of natural history photography, and has had scores of his images reproduced in books, magazines, newspapers and about every other format you could think of. Ian will be giving a program entitled "Gossamer Wings: The World of Dragonflies and Damselflies". Ian's talk will be like watching a National Geographic production full of dazzling imagery.

Finally, our third keynote speaker is the incomparable Dr. David Wagner, of the University of Connecticut. Dave is "Mr. Caterpillar", and no one knows more about the fascinating world of butterfly and moth larvae than Dave. No group of insects is more intimately tied to our native flora than caterpillars, and Wagner weaves a fabulous tale of interaction between plants, caterpillars, and people. This is a must-hear program!

Wagner's first caterpillar book, published in 2005, quickly became a benchmark of natural history books. There was nothing like it.

Dave trumped himself with the release of his second caterpillar book, late last year. It's worth owning just for the pictures, but this book and the other are full of fascinating information.

There are a number of other superb presenters as well, and to read about all of the speakers, CLICK HERE.

This year's conference plant is the royal catchfly, Silene regia, a fitting mascot indeed. These stunning prairie plants can tower to six feet or more, and are capped by dense spikes of brilliant scarlet flowers. Those flowers are a favorite of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, too! Our vendors will have it for sale, along with MANY other outstanding native species.

The Bergamo Center is built in the shape of a big rectangle, with an open courtyard in the center. Vendors pack this space with all manner of plants - it's probably the greatest selection of native flora you could find for sale in one spot in this region.

And, of course, the conference provides ample opportunity for attendees to get out in the field and see lots of plants in their natural haunts. Field trip sites include such iconic natural areas as Cedar Bog, above. Late July is THE time to see the fabulous prairies and fens that occur in the Dayton area, and all of the trips are guided by expert botanists and naturalists.

So, get in on the action now, as space is limited. Registration material is RIGHT HERE!