Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New River Birding and Nature Festival

Our crew scours a reverting clearcut high on a West Virginia mountainside this morning. Beautiful looks at Chestnut-sided and Hooded warblers at this very spot. Scores of other birds on this trip, starting with a field full of Bobolinks. We saw lots of interesting plants, salamanders, and other stuff as well.

I'm down here for (I think) the eighth straight year, coming directly to West Virginia from Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, where we celebrated the Ohio Ornithological Society's 10th anniversary last weekend. The New River Birding and Nature Festival is a fabulous, week-long event that draws people from near and far. It's a blend of field trips and speakers, fueled by good food and fun people.

We're seeing lots of good stuff, with lots more to come. If and when time permits, I'll try and slap some photos up. If you've sent me an email or some other form of a message lately, sorry for the lack of response as I'm mostly off grid until next Sunday.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The "Fly-whal"

Photo: John Howard

Perhaps you've seen what appear to be tiny, excessively fuzzy hummingbirds tapping flower nectar this spring. These hummer wannabes hover in front of dandelions, spring-beautys and other flowers, extracting the goods via a disproportionately long proboscis. These are the bee flies, in the genus Bombylius. I believe John Howard's fine photo above, and mine that follow, depict Bombylius major, a common species in these parts. Don't stick a fork in me if I'm wrong, though - it's a huge family, and I'm no Bombyliidophile.

Photo: Wiki Commons

This is the nearly mythical whale of northern seas known as the Narwhal. One of its teeth is modified into a greatly elongated tusk, making it a unicorn of the sea. Skip back to the first photo, then revisit this Narwhal photo. The bee fly might be called a "fly-whal", and indeed it has been.

Photo: Wiki Commons

The Narwhals (females rarely have tusks) apparently have these protuberances as an outward sexual characteristic. The bigger the tusk, the bigger the stud, and the higher its status in Narwhalian social hierarchy.

The bee fly, on the other hand, uses its "tusk" to suck nectar from flowers.

On a recent excursion, I attempted to make nice photos of bee flies in action, but was thwarted by unusually uncooperative bee flies. I did manage this image, which shows one of the flies hovering before a gill-over-the-ground, Glechoma hederacea, and slurping up its sugary wares. That's what their tusk is for.

After much effort, I caught this bee fly in mid-hover last year. Territorial bee flies often hover for extended periods in sunny spots, chasing off other bee flies and other small winged critters. Most people who see one of these insects would consider them rather attractive, if not downright cute.

Bee flies, at least the aforementioned Bombylius major, are often found in the proximity of solitary bees.The animal above is a solitary bee in the genus Andrena, and they swarm about dry sandy areas in spring. Solitary bees dig tunnel-like burrows in the soil, which they provision with masses of pollen. Once an adequate stash has been stocked, the bee lays an egg or eggs in the burrow, and seals it off. When the bee larva emerges from the egg, it is as if it has been born into a giant ball of cotton candy. The grub eats its way through the pollen, and grows to maturity fueled by by tasty plant dust. This is about as Disneyesque as it gets in nature. Cute little bees that don't sting, digging charming little earthen bungalows, and feeding their offspring pollen.

A solitary bee digging a burrow. This bee had best hope a bee fly doesn't come along to shatter its dreams, and hopes of leaving a legacy. You see, the fuzzy little bee flies are parasitoids of solitary bees.

A female bee fly on the hunt lurks around the proximity of nesting solitary bees, awaiting the perfect moment. As the bee finishes its work in the burrow, and backs out to prepare to seal the entrance, the bee fly springs to action. She moves near, and flicks her eggs down into the chamber. If successful, the bee fly eggs get sealed in as well. You can guess the rest. The bee fly egg spawns a grub which eventually eats the host solitary bee's grub. And, apparently, the pollen, too.

Bee fly = 1. Solitary bee = 0.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Barred owlets

Last Monday, I got an email from my editor at the Columbus Dispatch, Cindy Decker, telling me of some special residents of her neighborhood. As she lives along a well-wooded ravine only fifteen minutes from my place, I buzzed over that evening, camera in hand.

It took no time at all to locate the hootiferous beasts - Barred Owls! Here, the male gazes inscrutably at your narrator. These owls, as we shall better see, are quite used to people and pay us little mind.

The female, who was perched nearby, curiously watches some people walk below her lofty perch.

As Columbus' neighborhoods, especially in the Clintonville area, have aged, so have their trees. In the last decade or so, forest species such as Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks have become commonplace, especially in the heavily wooded ravines. Even Broad-winged Hawks are now nesting in some areas.

Yes, I know - he/she's cute! This is one of three owlets that the parents were supervising. I probably would have gone over just to see the adult owls, but when Cindy said that the owlets were newly fledged and clambering about the trees, I was there in a shot. Yesterday was Earth Day, and I was honored to be asked to give a program that night for Columbus Audubon. And thrilled when about 270 people showed up! I started the talk off by sharing this owl family, and as soon as I put up the above photo, the predictable "oohs", "aahs" and "cute!" comments commenced. I'm thinking, "you wouldn't be saying those things if you were a white-footed mouse!" To a small rodent, snake, or amphibian this owlet is a fuzzy Freddy Krueger in training.

As noted, the owls were hardly bothered by our presence. As I snapped this owlet's photo, it dozed off. When it snapped back to attention, it began issuing rather shrill keening begging calls, as were its siblings.

Word has passed through the neighborhood grapevine, and there must have been several dozen people that came by to see the owls in the hour that I was there. Everyone is quite excited to have them as neighbors. Lots of kids were in tow, and gawking at the owls, too.

I'm sure that while I was giving my Earth Day talk yesterday, many more people were ogling these Barred Owls as the sun dropped.

Barred Owls are great ambassadors for Nature - far better than most of us could hope to be. I hope that these owlets were the "spark birds" for some of those kids that got to see them.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A fine kettle of fish, Pt. II

This rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum, is aptly named and would look right at home in a tropical fish tank.

Not long ago, I wrote an account of a recent excursion to Little Darby Creek, which can be seen HERE.I was indeed fortunate to accompany Mac Albin of Franklin County Metroparks, Anthony Sasson of the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and John Tetzloff of the Darby Creek Association. No one knows the fishes of Big and Little Darby creeks like these guys do.

We caught lots of fish, all of which were released back into the waters. We were "fish-watching"; temporarily detaining some of the stream's more colorful denizens so we could study them, and take photos. A pair of brilliant rainbow darters pose in the photo above.

Rainbow darters are common, and occur in streams nearly statewide. Nonetheless, few people have seen one and most might be surprised to know that such a riotously colored animal lurks on our stream bottoms. Although there are a number of rarer darter species in Ohio and in the Darby Creeks, the common rainbow darter is still my favorite. Although most of the other species are finned works of art, too, none of them can top the rainbow in the looks department.

At the very peak of breeding season, when the waters become just the right temperature, male darters shift their colors into overdrive. As many songbirds molt into bright alternate, or breeding, plumage, so do the darters in their own way. Seine up a rainbow darter in the heat of late summer, and it'll be a much muted version of the fish above. At the apex of the breeding season, some rainbow darters become heavily infused with blue, as is the animal in this photo.

It's not only darters that enter a "breeding plumage". A great many other stream fish do the same. This is our largest minnow species, the stoneroller, Campostoma anomalum. It is a very common stream fish throughout the state, and is rather tolerant of pollution and other forms of stream degradation.The curious name stems from their habit of grazing algae from rock cobble in the riffles in which they occur.

This male stoneroller is entering breeding condition, as evidenced by the appearance of warty tubercles on the dorsal surface of its head and back. Before long, it will also develop spectacular black and orange pigments in its dorsal and caudal fins, and the black etchings on its body will become richer and more pronounced. Many plain jane minnows briefly become quite festive in their coloration during breeding season.

Like many stream fish, stonerollers make a nest. The male hollows out a spawning pit near a riffle, and vigorously defends it from other males. An interested female will slink in and deposit her eggs within the spawning pit. In the case of the stoneroller, the male will abandon the nest prior to the eggs hatching, but some species of fish guard their nests right up to the point that the fry emerge.

A healthy stream bottom is its own little world, but one that is out of sight and largely out of mind.

While photographing and closely observing this stoneroller in the holding tank, I noticed something that was news to me. Scroll to the preceding photo, then back to the above image. Note how the fish can roll its eye in its socket. I always assumed fish, or most fish anyway, had their eyes fixed in the sockets. Maybe it was ignorant of me to think that, but then again, how often does one get to closely observe fish?

In the case of the stoneroller, it would make sense that it would evolve an ability to shift its eyes downward, the better to see potential foodstuff on the rocks below.

This is one of my all-time favorite fish, the mottled sculpin, Cottus bairdii. It is a bit more habitat-specific than the preceding two species, preferring smaller streams with cooler water temperatures than are found in larger rivers.

Sculpins lurk in the rocky cobble of riffles, and elsewhere on the stream bottom. They blend with their surroundings quite well, specially when among stones.

If you were a darter, or any other smaller animal, you would not want to glance up and find this face staring at you. Sculpins are predators, and snap up small fish and a variety of other stream animal life. The victims probably have little warning, as the cryptic sculpin would be hard to detect. For the prey, it is probably as if one of the riffle's rocks suddenly exploded to life, and sucked you in with a giant swallow of that proportionately enormous mouth.

Thanks again to Mac, Anthony, and John for an excellent field trip. I hope to do more of these aquatic forays in the future. Kudos too to their respective organizations for all of the work that they do to protect Big and Little Darby Creek. These streams are among the highest quality waterways in the Midwest, and it is imperative that they remain so. Most Ohio streams have not fared nearly as well, and as a result, even common fishes such as those that I've shared in these posts are not nearly as common as they once were.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Magee Marsh's legendary boardwalk

This mile long elevated wooden boardwalk is one of the most famous trails in North America. Winding through a 30-acre patch of swamp forest and wetland at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, it is a destination for tens of thousands of birders, especially in May. In May 2012, traffic counter surveys conservatively estimated over 66,000 visitors made the pilgrimage to the "Bird Trail". The number may have been even higher, like around 75,000 or more people. And nearly all of them are birders, of every stripe and level of expertise. They come to witness the magic of Neotropical birds - flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, and others. And, of course, WARBLERS! Nothing gets the blood flowing like warblers, and they are the standout stars in a cast of exceptional players.

It is possible to see over 100 species along the boardwalk and elsewhere in Magee Marsh on a good day. Most of the songbirds have come from the tropics: Central America, South America, the Caribbean. Many will have flown 1,500 miles or more northward to reach Magee, and the Bird Trail woods is but a way station as they journey to more northerly locales. Upon reaching Lake Erie, which at a glance through a songbird's eyes appears an endless ocean, the birds stop to rest and refuel. It's only 28 miles across the lake to Canada, if one takes the longest route, but most of the birds hedge their bets and stay to fatten up for a bit before making the crossing. And in the process, thrill thousands of birders who can observe the feathered transients at close range.

This scene is not atypical along the Bird Trail during the second weekend in May, which is the best timeframe for maximum bird numbers and diversity. Epic crowds to be sure, but a scene that everyone should experience. It's amazing to see so many birders gathered together, and one major plus is that virtually no Connecticut or Kirtland's warblers or any other rarity will go undetected.

The 25th anniversary of the Magee Marsh Bird Trail boardwalk is this year. A quarter-century of ever-growing foot traffic, coupled with the humid conditions of the swamp forest, has taken its toll on the wooden planking. The vaunted trail is in need of refurbishing.

Enter the Friends of Magee Marsh. This group exists to support the wildlife area and does so in many ways. Their latest and greatest project involves an ambitious fundraising effort with the aim of completely redoing the boardwalk. The Friends have already raised $25,000, and begun to transform dollars into boards. When you visit this spring, you'll see that sections of the boardwalk, at either end, have been replaced. In the photo above, old wood in the foreground meets brand spanking new lumber. The new wood should last for a long time to come.

A view down the steps from the tower near the boardwalk's west end. The punky old wood of the tower's spur trail is now fresh and new.

Ambitious efforts such as this don't come cheap. An estimated $300,000 is needed to complete renovations to the boardwalk. When you're at Magee this spring, you'll see this sign near the boardwalk. Please help support the project. If every birder who visited Magee in May dropped a fiver towards the boardwalk, it'd easily be a done deal.

Five bucks is a small price to pay to support the legendary Bird Trail boardwalk that has played such a huge role in North American birding. There is no entrance fee to gain access to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, so perhaps this year you can donate a five dollar bill to the Friends of Magee Marsh, and consider it a one-time voluntary user fee that goes for an absolutely fantastic cause.

Major thanks go to the Friends of Magee Marsh for spearheading this project; be sure to give them your regards (and donation) when you're at Magee this spring. Or CLICK HERE to help.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A fine kettle of fish!

Little Darby Creek, in southwestern Franklin County, Ohio. The Little Darby, and its sibling stream the Big Darby, are among the most aquatically diverse streams in the Midwest. The riffle pictured above is especially noteworthy, particularly for its diversity of small colorful fish known as darters.

I was in the stream last Sunday morning, with some of the best aquatic ecologists around.

John Tetzloff (L) and Mac Albin work a seine in the creek's swift waters, while Anthony Sasson inspects a captured fish in the holding tank.

John is the longtime president of the Darby Creek Association, and a tireless advocate for the protection of the Darby Creeks. Mac is Franklin County Metroparks' aquatic ecologist, and no one knows the fishes of these streams better than he does. Anthony is freshwater conservation manager for the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and has spent many years working to ensure the conservation of these streams. You can see why I was excited to get afield with these guys, and I greatly appreciate Anthony's orchestration of this expedition.

A typical haul of the seine - lots of interesting little fishes.

My primary purpose was to make photos of seldom-seen fish, and seining them out of their riffle, ever so temporarily, is the best way to go about this.

Only once before, several years ago, had I endeavored to shoot photos of live fish, and the results were so-so. You can see them HERE. This time, I put a bit more thought into it, and definitely had better camera gear than before.

I lugged the small aquarium, shown above, out to the stream, and had the bottom of the tank pre-prepped with clean rocks. I even brought along a gallon of fresh distilled water. If you take water from the creek, even if it looks relatively clear, you'll find that all of the suspended sediments drift in the tank's water column and create a somewhat murky look.

So basically you capture fish with the seine, place them in small holding tanks, and place the subjects to be photographed into the modeling tank. After capturing images, the fish is released back into the stream with no harm done.

A Greenside Darter, Etheostoma blennioides, gazes at the camera. This darter and many of its ilk are astonishingly colorful. I suspect most people have no idea such tropical looking fish live in local streams.

When the creek water reaches certain temperature parameters in early spring, it stimulates physiological changes in the male darters. They become intensely colored - their breeding plumage, if you will. Darters in spring transform into the warblers of the underwater world, and it was this colorful group of fish that I really wanted to photograph.

In addition to keeping the fishy photography subject's best interest in mind, there is another compelling reason for shooting photos as quickly as possible once the animal has been removed from the stream. Once exposed to warmer water, such as in a tank, the brilliant breeding colors can soon fade, and of course we want to see them at their brightest.

I am reasonably pleased with how these photos came out, but upon review see room for improvement. While it may seem like "shooting fish in a barrel", photographing fish in this way isn't as easy it may look. It's hard to keep small bubbles from gathering inside the tank in places where they impinge on the photo. Sometimes reflections from objects outside the tank appear in the photo, although they aren't obvious at the time. Of course, much of this can be corrected with PhotoShop but I am a PS minimalist. Finally, the fish themselves are often less than cooperative, and extended herding and prodding with a long stick is usually necessary to get them into the best position for photos.

I believe this is a female Greenside Darter, but please feel free to correct me if I'm in error. I think someone may have called it a Fantail Darter, Etheostoma flabellare, but I may have gotten my fish mixed up. In any event, female darters are usually much duller than the colorful males, just as is often the case in the bird world.

Note how she sits on the bottom, propped up on her pectoral fins. Darters are members of the perch family, and most of them largely lack swim bladders. Thus, they sink rather than float. This is an advantage if you feed on the bottom, and wish to stay among the rock cobble of swiftly flowing riffles. If you wade into such a habitat and carefully watch the bottom, you'll probably see darters rapidly darting out of your way. Seen in this way, they just look like tiny black flecks rocketing off. It isn't until one does what we did that their true beauty can be fully appreciated.

A male Banded Darter, Etheostoma zonale. This species is common in Ohio's waterways in the Ohio River drainage. Interestingly, it has never found its way into the Lake Erie drainage.
An old warrior by the looks of him, is this Variegate Darter, Etheostoma variegatum. Note the rather tattered condition of his adipose fin (top, just before tail) and tail. As darters go, this is a large species with jumbos taping out at 4 1/2 inches. Accordingly, they typically occur in the fastest chutes and riffles of moderate to larger streams. One gets a real appreciation of the adaptations these fish have that allows them to operate in such waters when trying to stand in their fast riffles. If you are inexperienced in working streams, it can be hard to hold your balance against the current. Add a big seine that catches the water like a porous balloon to the equation, and falling in the drink is a real possibility.

I'll post Part II before long, as I've got even flashier photos to share. I am grateful for Anthony, Mac, and John for making this aquatic foray possible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Earth Day program!

The spectacular vista from Buzzard's Roost Rock in the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, Adams County, Ohio.

Next Tuesday, April 22nd, is Earth Day. This annual celebration to promote our environment and its protection began in 1970, and millions of people worldwide participate in various Mother Nature-friendly activities on this day. I was delighted to be asked to give a program for Columbus Audubon on Earth Day, and enthusiastically accepted. The program begins at 7 pm, and will take place at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center at 505 W. Whittier Street in Columbus. It's free, and all are welcome. More details RIGHT HERE.

One of the strangest, and rarest, of Ohio's 46 native orchid species, the Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris spicata.

I've had great fun thinking about this talk, and assembling it. The history of the modern environmental movement in the United States is a fascinating tale, and one that I will touch on. It involves pollution unimaginable to most of us today, and a stepping stone series of great environmentalists who paved the way for eventual environmental reform. We must also thank one of our most infamous presidents, an accused spy, and a colorful warbler for the founding of the EPA and greatly strengthened environmental laws. It makes for an interesting tale.

Nearly indescribable in its beautiful intricacy is this tiny Juniper Hairstreak - one of over 130 species of butterflies recorded in Ohio.

I also plan to talk about the incredible wealth of natural history in Ohio, including the greatest land acquisition project in the state of Ohio.

A bizarre Mottled Sculpin, photographed in Little Darby Creek. The sculpin is like a living rock with a big mouth to snap up lesser beasts.

These Columbus Audubon meetings are always lots of fun, and I hope you can make it next Tuesday. Again, the details are HERE.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!

Golf courses are not normal hangouts for me, and they're seldom birding destinations. That wasn't the case yesterday. After a busy morning capturing and photographing fish with some ace ichthyologists in Little Darby Creek in central Ohio, I pointed the Volkswagen north. As in two hours north, all the way to Huron on the shores of Lake Erie.

Last Thursday, April 10, Dan Gesualdo found a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at the Sawmill Creek Resort golf course, pictured above. The course's western boundary abuts Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve, a birding hotspot that attracts many birders. Dan got the word out pronto, and several hundred birders have made the pilgrimage thus far. By the way, if you ever need a topnotch place to stay in the heart of some of Lake Erie's best birding areas, Sawmill Creek Resort is your place, and I say that from experience.

I arrived around 3 pm yesterday, parked in the nature preserve parking lot, and quickly strolled the 30 feet or so to the golf course. I saw a group of birders looking into a tree, checked it with my binoculars, and there was the bird! A few seconds later, it flew down to a fairway, enabling great views and allowing me to get the above photo.

As I've said here before, I am really not a hardcore lister, and never have been. Except when it comes to Ohio. If a bird shows up here that I've not seen in the state, it gnaws at me if I can't go for it right away. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers only show up here every few years - this one is only about the 20th record, ever. Those that have come to Ohio never stick around very long, and my schedule would not permit a chase until Sunday. So I was especially grateful that this flycatcher is so smitten with the golf course. This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was #370 for me in Ohio, and I don't get the opportunity to add a new Ohio species very often anymore.

Soon after arriving, I ran into Shane and Laura Roberts. One great thing about mega-rarities is the crowds that they draw. I always run into friends at these scenes. Laura didn't rent the golf cart - the owner of the resort, Greg Hill, loaned it to her at his insistence! Before I got there, Shane and Laura struck up a rapport with Greg, and Shane took him over to see the bird up close. He was quite interested in the gorgeous flycatcher, and has been especially tolerant of visiting birders. Considering that the primary order of business here is golf and golfers, accommodating masses of optics-toting birders should earn Greg a medal from the ornithological society.

Part of the group ogles the flycatcher, which is teed up atop the small maple - furthest tree to the right. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are not shrinking violets, and this one is no exception. He flew in and landed within 50 or so feet of the group on this occasion, allowing magnificent views by all.

The flycatcher returns from an aerial sally with an insect, one of many that it caught in the two hours that I was there.

It returns to the summit of a favored maple after making a successful yo-yo flight for a bug. This bird is either a first-year bird, or a female, and I presume it is the former. Adult males usually have even longer tail streamers, believe it or not.

I got lucky in capturing the bird as it flew in front of a distant cart driven by golfers. I believe they were watching the bird, too. The local paper ran on a story about the wayward Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and it has become something of a local celebrity. I stopped into the clubhouse, and the bartender knew all about it, and so do many of the links regulars, apparently. We showed the bird to several golfers and other interested locals. Showing someone new to looking at birds a spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher probably has more impact than, say, a Henslow's Sparrow would.

Major props to Dan Gesualdo for finding this bird, and getting word out. The Sawmill Creek Resort Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been seen by hundreds, and for many it was a state bird, and even a life bird for more than a few folks.