Saturday, November 29, 2014

Black-legged Kittiwake in central Ohio!

The upper end of Deer Creek Reservoir in Fayette County, Ohio, where beautiful little Deer Creek begins to become impounded by the big dam some distance to the south. Bob Royse found a Black-legged Kittiwake here on November 26, and the wayward gull is still sticking. I was finally able to run down there this morning and ogle the animal. The light never was great - the end of the day would be a much better time to shoot images from this spot - but I did what I could to record the rarity. But mostly I just watched the highly entertaining bird, for nearly three hours.

It took all of a nanosecond to find the kittiwake, seen here stretching its wing. Bob's directions and description of the scenario were spot on. The bird is fixated on a spot where a seldom-used park road comes very near the creek, and access could not be easier. I saw the bird from my car, pulled over, and set up shop. The kittiwake cared not a whit for my presence, nor that of the other birders that stopped in during the morning.

As are nearly all Ohio records of Black-legged Kittiwake, this individual is a first-year (first-cycle for some of you) bird, born this summer somewhere in the far north. Young kittiwakes are more striking and conspicuous, and easier to identify, than are the adults.

The kittiwake takes a bath. I always marvel over the cold hardiness of birds such as this. It was below freezing upon my arrival, and that water is frigid indeed. The gulls are unfazed.

Black-legged Kittiwakes breed in the far north, from about the latitude of southern Alaska to points north. They are normally birds of the oceans, breeding along sea cliffs and wintering at sea. Small numbers, nearly all juveniles, do make "wrong turns" and end up inland, as this bird did. A smattering of the population migrates through the Great Lakes, and most of our kittiwake records come from Lake Erie. Birds well inland from our Great Lake are rare indeed, hence the exceptional nature of Bob Royse's find.

Several dozen Ring-billed Gulls, like this beautiful adult, were also in the area. Every now and then, the flock of ring-bills would barnstorm upstream to where the loner kittiwake hung out, and commence a feeding frenzy. Apparently there were occasional schools of small fish that were coming to the surface, and the gulls would begin dive-bombing the water. Their entry smacks could be heard some distance away. The activity would stir the kittiwake to action, and in short order it would capture four or five fish. I would love to know what the plentiful piscine prey is, but try as I might, I could never get a good image of one of the birds with its fish. From what I could tell, they are probably one of the larger shiners, perhaps spotfin shiner.

The kittiwake did not much care for the Ring-billed Gulls, and generally kept its distance. As kittiwakes breed far to the north of the range of the much more southerly Ring-billed Gull, these may have been the first of their kind that the young kittiwake had interacted with.

Our protagonist was somewhat more hospitable to this smaller Bonaparte's Gull (on right). The Bonaparte's seemed to want to hang with the kittiwake, but we noticed that its efforts to perch atop the same rock as the kittiwake were soundly rebuffed.

A young kittiwake is highly ornamented with black markings. Although you may throw your hands up at gull identification, as do many birders, there should be little problem in identifying one of these distinctive beasts.

In flight young kittiwakes show a bold black M, or perhaps W, pattern on the upper wings. The big smudgy-black collar and dark tail tip bookend the wing pattern, and create a showy pattern that causes a kittiwake to pop from the crowd of gulls.

I made this image back in 2010, on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea far off Alaska's coast. The clean gray and white adult Black-legged Kittiwakes construct a large fancy nest made primarily of mosses plucked from the tundra. There cannot be many other gull species whose young are raised in such luxury.

It would be very interesting to know where the Deer Creek kittiwake originated. To be sure, it was spawned in a situation similar to the photo above, quite possibly along the Arctic Ocean of eastern Canada. Our rare visitor has probably traveled at least 1,500 miles from the north to thrill birders here in central Ohio.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Northern Shrike, aka "Butcherbird"

Big fluffy cumulus clouds drift across a blue prairie sky. This is one of my favorite places in Ohio, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County. I've been coming here since I had a driver's license (before, actually) and have made scores of trips to Killdeer over the years. It's only about an hour from my house, so if time is tight and I need a short trip, this is often my destination. Rare is the trip to Killdeer Plains that doesn't produce something exceptional, no matter the time of year.

Tall prairie grasses lit golden by the sunset. Killdeer Plains is a 9,000+ acre remnant of the Sandusky Plains, which was a massive swath of prairie that blanketed parts of Crawford, Hardin, Marion, and Wyandot counties in north-central Ohio. Once John Deere devised a tool capable of busting the thick prairie sod, it didn't take people long to figure out that this was some of the richest soil to be found. In the relative blink of an eye, farmers transformed the staggering botanical diversity of the prairie into a vegetative triad: corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Probably over 99% of Ohio's original prairie, which may have once covered 1,500 square miles, has fallen to the plow or other development. That makes remnants such as Killdeer Plains all the more important. Birds, in particular, "remember" the prairies. It hasn't been that long since we pulled the habitat rug out from under their feet, and it seems that species that favor prairie habitats still are genetically encoded to use the former prairie areas as way stations, wintering grounds, and nesting areas.

A messy, scraggly pin oak stands alone in one of Killdeer's prairie meadows. It is a great perch tree, and many a raptor has probably used it as a lookout. That's not a raptor teed up atop the tree in this photo, but it might as well be. To songbirds, small rodents, and in season, large insects, that silhouette is the grim reaper incarnate. A Northern Shrike.

Killdeer Plains is a reliable spot to find shrikes in winter, and on a recent visit, I found a few. Two species of shrike occur in North America, and both turn up in Ohio. The southerly Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus, once was a fairly common and widespread breeder throughout the state. Its fortunes have waned, and Loggerheads are now quite rare here.

The shrike of the north is this species, the Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor, which is an uncommon winter visitor, mostly in the tier of counties buffering Lake Erie. Scattered individuals turn up inland, with Killdeer Plains probably being the best such place to find them.

Loggerhead and Northern shrikes look similar, and can be tough to separate, especially if one does not have much comparative experience with the two. This photo shows two characters of the Northern Shrike: the underparts are faintly but noticeably barred, and the black bandido mask is broken or diminished on the forehead, over the bill.

I was quite surprised to discover two shrikes, together, on my recent visit to Killdeer. These birds normally seem to be quite antisocial, excepting a breeding pair. I had apparently fortuitously stumbled into a border dispute. The two birds lunged, attacked, and scolded one another from the tops of tall cottonwood trees as they attempted to work out the edges of their territories.

When I returned to this area later in the day, one of the shrikes was conspicuous as it perched atop prominent trees, but the other was not to be seen. I suppose it was forced to move to a distant patch of turf. They're both probably still within the wildlife area, and likely will be until spring.

While there is an Australasian family of birds in the genus Cracticus that are officially known as butcherbirds, the shrikes are our "butcherbirds". They've earned the nickname. It is also reflected in the genus name Lanius, which means "a butcher". The shot above shows a meadow vole draped unceremoniously from a thorny tangle of autumn-olive branches. I was helping to lead a field trip at the Wilds a few years back, when we observed a Northern Shrike laboriously toting this hefty rodent into the shrubs. After it departed, we of course rushed over to see what had become of the vole. Its neck vertebrae had been snapped by the shrike's raptorlike bill, and later the shrike undoubtedly returned to tear the beast asunder as it hung from the branches as if suspended by a butcher's hook.

At least by human standards, shrikes are easily our most brutish songbirds. They are fierce indeed, and have been known to attack birds as large as a Blue Jay. It is always a treat to find a shrike, and they are interesting to observe. Killdeer Plains is obviously a good bet, and the Wilds generally has a shrike or two each winter. The Ohio Ornithological Society hosts their annual Birding at the Wilds event on January 17th. That's always fun, and might produce a shrike. Details will eventually be posted HERE.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Progress = Cinnabons!

Western North Dakota, just north of the small town (pop. about 1,750) of Watford City. All of those square or rectangular pale patches are fracking pads. The boom is on in the Roughrider State (so nicknamed to help promote tourism), and has been for the last eight years. In spite of ranking 48th among the states in overall population, North Dakota boasts the nation's best economy, and lowest unemployment rate. Want to rent a four bedroom modular home in Watford City? Be prepared to shell out up to $4,000.00 - a month! The high times are here.

This growth has come with a steep price. The New York Times has published a series of articles detailing the woes of the Bakken Shale boom; you can (and should!) read them RIGHT HERE. Thousands of wells pepper western North Dakota's landscape, and in addition to an oil and gas bonanza, they've brought lots of problems. Pollution, corruption, cronyism, catastrophic accidents, habitat destruction, and spills - lots of spills. An estimated 18 million gallons of toxic sludge has spewed into unwanted places in the last eight years.

Reporters Deborah Sontag and Robert Gebeloff seem to have done a thorough job digging the Bakken dirt, and drilling down into the seamy substrate of this shale boom. A veil of secrecy masks much of the information related to drilling, but they did unearth lots of facts, and got some tasty interviews with various officials.

One of their interviewees was Ron Ness, the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. Ness states that "...there wasn't a damn thing..." in pre-boom Watford City and vicinity. He goes on to regale the reporters with the benefits of the fracking boom: "We've got the largest-producing Cinnabon anywhere in the world".

Well. Who can argue with that for progress, and a surefire sign of economic growth. Cinnabon, that sugary fat-laden elixir of the turnpike plazas, whose staple Cinnabon Classic packs a whopping 880 calories and 36 grams of fat.

The prairie pothole region, North America's duck factory and an Eden of biological diversity. North Dakota is full of pothole wetlands and vast expanses of prairie, all cranking out birds galore. The annual North Dakota Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival bears evidence of the extreme birdiness of this state. CLICK HERE for their website and a list of the spectacular bird diversity.

But stippling the prairies with well pads is progress, apparently. And progress can be measured by Cinnabon sales.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some encounters with mammals

A herd of Bison grazes the vast grassy plains of the Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio. Their captive herd seems to be expanding, and there were a number of bisonlets among the ranks, so reproduction must be going well. The scene offers a tiny snapshot of the days of yore, when countless thousands of Bison roamed the Great Plains.

Participate in the upcoming Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count on December 20, which covers the Wilds and surrounding areas, and you can marvel over the massive Bison, too. Details about the bird count are RIGHT HERE.

I have noticed that people have an inordinate interest in mammals, and most Homo sapiens will gawk at something like this huge Bison before casting their eyes to, say, a Winter Wren or Henslow's Sparrow. I think this tendency is hard-wired, as after all other mammals are closer to us on the evolutionary tree than other groups of organisms. Also, mammals - at least large ones - can mean one of two very important things: food, or danger. It is still in our nature to keep our eyes on them.

While we were watching those Bison from a distant perch, this proud eight-point buck White-tailed Deer was watching over his harem in another field. Suddenly a lesser buck appeared on the horizon, and this stud instantly went on alert. Notice how its fur is raised, much like an angry cat, and that snowy white flagtail is at full mast.

Apparently not intimidated by the larger buck's signs of aggression, the lesser buck (foreground) charged forth. But, Jr. Buck was chasing after a frisking doe, so perhaps he wasn't thinking too clearly. By the time it reached this fence, the bigger buck had also made its way to the fence, ready for an encounter. I was hoping one or the other would leap the fence and really mix it up, but that was not to be. Still, after a bit of snorting about they did ram antlers - HARD - right through the fence. The crack was clearly audible from our observation point some distance away.

While the Cervidian standoff depicted above was taking place, this gorgeous Coyote trotted into view. I saw a furtive movement from the corner of my eye as the wily one briskly trotted through high vegetation down a hillside and towards the deer. It was rather far, and I didn't think it knew of our presence. As if to disprove that notion, it stopped and turned to gave me a baleful glare, letting me know that yes, it did indeed know that the dumb biped was watching.

The Coyote kept a direct course towards the younger buck, which was on its side of the fence. The deer quickly became aware of the interloper, and began moving off. I was hoping for some sort of strange encounter, and stood ready to photo-document it, but nothing doing. I suspect the 'yote was just passing through - can't imagine it would have taken on a deer that size, but the scene made for great wildlife watching.

A Mink carries a giant half-eaten bullfrog. This one was a stroke of great luck. I was standing along a marsh at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County, photographing two Northern Shrikes mixing it up in a tall cottonwood tree. I had my camera mounted on a tripod, with the 500mm lens with 1.4 extender, making it a 700mm. Just as with that Coyote, a movement in the grasses caught my eye, and I looked over to see the Mink tearing across the dike.

Shrikes temporarily forgotten, I whirled the camera onto the Mink and began clicking away. It still apparently hadn't seen me and was loping right to my spot. Unfortunately, I was somewhat over-lensed given its close proximity, and only managed this one keeper shot. The mild haze in the foreground is due to some grass blades between me and it. The photo was shot at just about the same time that it saw me, and clicked into high gear. Like a supercharged furry slinky, it bounded into dense cattails never to be seen again.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A rough day on Lake Erie

Lake Erie, as seen from the fishing access parking lot just east of the power plant in Eastlake, Ohio.

I traveled to the Cleveland area and specifically Holden Arboretum yesterday, to give a program for the Blackbrook Audubon Society. The subject, fittingly, was "Birding Ohio's North Coast", and the talk largely outlines the Lake Erie Birding Trail guidebook, which was released earlier this year.

The program was in the evening, but I went up early to meet with Brian Parsons, the Holden Arboretum's Director of Planning and Special Projects. The arboretum is engaged in some very exciting work, and Brian was good enough to give me a tour. More on that in a later post.

As fate would have it, Eastlake was only 20 minutes from the site of my talk, and I had a bit of time in between things to run up there and do some gull-watching. The weather was tough. Gale-like winds raged, and the temperature was in the teens. These conditions transformed the lake into a raging cauldron, with big rollers forming and atomizing against piers and breakwalls as seen in the photo above. Many people came and went while I was there, to stare at a formidable and angry Mother Nature from the safety and warmth of their cars. It's hard to make decent photographs from a car, so I spent my time outside behind the tripod, dodging spray from waves crashing against the seawall twenty feet away. By the time I left, my car was frosted in a thin veneer of ice.

A literal mountain of water forms, giving a bunch of Red-breasted Mergansers a thrill ride. The world's largest gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, glides by the summit of the water-mountain. The waves on this day were truly impressive, with some exceeding ten feet and forming tubes. Thousands of mergansers were offshore, and there was gulls galore.

The Cleveland region of Lake Erie offers truly world class gulling. Harbors and power plants can teem with tens of thousands of birds at peak traffic times. A staggering 20 species have been found in this area, and very few other places can boast that kind of larid diversity. Seeing such numbers of birds is rather awe-inspiring, and I relish the opportunities that I have to travel to The Lake to bask in their presence. Should you like to experience this part of Lake Erie at its wintry finest, consider attending the December 6 meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society, which will feature field trips to Cleveland hotspots, and a talk by legendary birder/photographer Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. Chuck will be focusing on, appropriately enough, gulls. All the event details are RIGHT HERE.

Watching scads of gulls doing their thing is always interesting, at least to me. They engage me on several levels. One, their resistance to incredibly hostile environmental conditions is completely impressive. Keep in mind, you or I would die in very short order were we to find ourselves in the lake at this time of year. To the gulls, it is nothing. They frolic as if on a Floridian vacation at the beach.Two, their flying abilities are utterly remarkable. Even with yesterday's hurricane blasts, the gulls glide about with impunity, seemingly paying the explosive gusts no mind, but instead capitalizing on the wind to better position themselves. If I were to come back as a bird (and I might), I would give a gull serious consideration as my next incarnation.

There is more to gulls, such as the interesting identification challenges and the hybridization issues, but the other major reason I enjoy watching gulls is their behavior. In the photo above, a fracas breaks out between two first-year Herring Gulls over a tasty gizzard shad or some such morsel. Other Herring Gulls speed to the scene, some caught with mouths agape as they loudly bugle their thoughts. A congregation of gulls is generally a lively place.

A quartet of Ring-billed Gulls works the headwind, trolling the waters. The center bird, with the sharply marked pink and black bill and dusky plumage, is a first-year gull (some use the term cycle, as in first-cycle gull. I've never warmed to that term). The others are adults. All of our gulls take multiple years to attain full adult species, and in the case of the Ring-billed Gull three years are required. For most of the year and in most places, this is the most abundant species of gull in Ohio. As winter sets in, they will generally be eclipsed by ever-increasing numbers of Herring Gulls, on Lake Erie.

Burly, bull-necked and stern in countenance, an adult Herring Gull glides by, pale yellow eye aglow. Its feathers have grown dingy around the head; that's a feature of its winter, or basic, plumage. Come the onset of spring and the approach of breeding season, Herring Gulls shed the dirty feathers and become gleaming white. Handsome beasts, indeed.

If a large gull such as a Herring Gull makes it to its fourth year and the attainment of complete adult plumage, it may well have a very long life ahead of it. Gulls can live for many decades.

Delicate and ternlike, an intricately marked adult Bonaparte's Gull wheels by, ever vigilant for emerald shiners and other small piscine fare. This one is my favorite, and I spent the better part of my two frigid hours watching them. As always, I was hopeful that a rare associate, such as a Little Gull or Black-legged Kittiwake, might be accompanying the "Bonies", but even without that added spice the Bonaparte's Gulls are fine entertainment.

This is a small gull - dwarfed by the preceding species. It takes a Bonaparte's Gull only two years to achieve its adult plumage. Adults are easily identified by the bold black, gray, and white wing pattern. The only species close to it is the very rare (here) Black-headed Gull, which has sooty black underwings, among other differences.

A Bonaparte's Gull stutter-steps in midair, showing its flashy orange feet and legs. The bird has spotted fishy prey, and has made instant aerial corrections to prepare for a feeding plunge. At this point, it has two immediate issues: catching the fish, and then wolfing its meal down before larger gulls have a chance to try and steal it away.

The offshore waters of Cleveland and vicinity support an enormous concentration of Bonaparte's Gulls in November and December. One-day estimates in excess of 100,000 birds have been made along Cleveland's lakefront. This part of the lake is a vital staging area for the small gulls, and seeing them at their peak numbers is one of the great spectacles of Nature in this part of the world.

My time was up all too soon, and it was time to go to the talk. Just before departure, the sun popped out and lit the crashing surf beautifully. All in all, a fabulous if brief trip to our Great Lake.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Odd looks of jumping spiders belie fearless predators

A mustached jumping spider will stalk its meal

November 16, 2014

Jim McCormac

Jumping spiders are the extroverts of the arachnid world.

Most spiders prefer to stay out of sight and out of mind. Many remain well-concealed or emerge under cover of darkness.

That is a good thing for the legions of arachnophobes. Such people would rather not know that more than 600 species of spiders occur in Ohio and that they are the most abundant predatory animals in the state.

Many species are outrageous in appearance. The mustached jumping spider (Phidippus mystaceus) resembles a cross between Justin Bieber and Sid Vicious, endowed with three extra sets of eyes and legs and imbued with a homicidal bent.

Most jumping spiders are active during the day and behave like eight-eyed leopards, stalking and pouncing on victims. They shun web building but do make intelligent use of silk.

Before leaping at a victim, the jumping spider attaches a silken belay line. Thus, if the jump were to fail or the prey were to knock the spider away, it can quickly clamber to safety.

Jumpers also craft dense silken bivouacs, which are used for shelter and nurseries for spiderlings.

Experts think jumping spiders possess among the greatest visual acuity of any group of invertebrate animals. A little jumping spider will cock its head curiously at a human and seem to track your every movement. It might even advance on you, to better gauge your intentions.

Have no fear: The spiders are too small to inflict damage, and bites to humans are essentially unknown.

However, potential food had best beware. These formidable foes possess cognitive memory abilities far beyond most other small creatures. The spider can spot prey, move out of sight and into a better ambush locale, and leap unerringly onto the victim, sight unseen. Much larger animals are quickly overcome by the spider’s powerful venom.

About 13 percent of Ohio’s spiders are jumping spiders, and they represent the world’s largest family of spiders.

Such success has spawned fantastic evolutionary radiation. Some jumping spiders have evolved to appear remarkably similar to ants. The disguise is so good that even naturalists can be fooled, as can the spider’s potential predators. Ants are largely unpalatable and can be highly aggressive, so resembling one can be a good deterrent to predators.

Jumping spiders hit their pinnacle of outlandishness when mating season rolls around. Males must approach the larger females with caution, lest they be mistaken for a meal.

To up their odds, male jumpers engage in ornate displays that involve waving their legs like a sailor signaling with semaphores and flashing iridescent body coloration.

Some spiders even create drumrolls or vibrations to add audio effects. Spiderish vaudevillian acts identify them to the aggressive females.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife offers the free publication Common Spiders of Ohio. To get a copy, call 1-800-WILDLIFE or send email to wildinfo@dnr.state.oh. us.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a biweekly column for The Dispatch. He also writes about nature at www.jim

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

A gaggle of birders packs the viewing platform at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana. I made a whirlwind trip here last weekend, connecting with a friend from Chicago, Joyce Pontius. We were there, primarily, to observe the noisy and conspicuous spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes on temporary hiatus from their southbound journeys.

I highly recommend this trip. From my town of Columbus, Ohio, it is only about a four hour drive, and the Chicagoans need only travel half that distance. Jasper-Pulaski is in easy driving range from much of the Midwest, and you'll meet people from all over the place who have traveled to see the cranes.

This is what the crowd on the deck is ogling - thousands of noisy Sandhill Cranes. The birds hit their peak numbers in November. Yesterday (November 12), about 8,000 cranes were present, and nearly that many were there last weekend when I made these images. There are probably more to come, although the frigid Arctic blast moving through may move some along, too.

The huge meadow overlooked by the main viewing platform is known as Goose Pasture. It serves as a social rendezvous point for the cranes, which spend the evenings in nearby marshes elsewhere on the 8,000+ acre wildlife area. Around sunrise, the cranes fly en masse to Goose Pasture and seemingly chat it up with each other. Shortly after sunrise, the birds begin streaming out to surrounding fields to spend the day foraging.

At rush hours, scores and scores of cranes are constantly overhead, and their loud primeval rattles fill the air. The overall effect is quite unforgettable.

A quartet of cranes glows golden in the sunset. One soon learns that light is everything when making certain types of photographs, and one also learns just as quickly that the sun and clouds cannot be manipulated at will. This shot was made in the sole 10-15 minute period in which the ever-present gray cloud cover moved aside and let the rays shine through.

Dusk and dawn are the times to be at the viewing platform for the cranes' social hours. In between, trolling the local roads will produce scads of cranes feeding and resting in agricultural fields. Oftentimes the birds are quite near the road, and often will not flush or be unduly disturbed if the observers remain in their vehicle.

A Sandhill Crane is one big bird. It stands about four feet in height, has a wingspan of around seven feet, and can weigh eleven pounds. Over 1,500 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would be required to match the mass of a crane. People that I suspect would never notice the lesser components of our fauna, such as pleasing fungus beetles or various sparrows, DO notice Sandhill Cranes. And many of them travel far distances to J-P to witness the crane spectacle and admire the feathered giants for hours on end.

It is high entertainment to watch the highly social but selectively finicky cranes as they forage in groups. In this shot, an altercation appears to have broken out. Separating an agonistic encounter from courtship is sometimes tough, though. There are at least seven distinct displays which cranes use to express various degrees of displeasure, and some at least are at a casual glance not that different than the courtship displays.

Now this is courtship! That blotch in the upper lefthand corner of the image, in front of the bird's bill, is not a smudge on my lens. The "dancing" bird, which has leapt high into the air, has tossed a piece of corn stubble skyward. This display is known as the "vertical toss", and it is usually performed by a male. Apparently it serves to get the attention of a female. Hang around and watch groups of cranes for any length of time, and you're bound to witness all manner of interesting social interactions such as this.

Cranes rule in this neck of the Hoosier state. They even get the right-of-way when crossing roads.

A platoon of cranes punctuates a picture-perfect Indiana sunset. They joined thousands of other cranes in Goose Pasture for the evening ritual. At flocking times, Sandhill Cranes absolutely dominate the environment. Cranes are everywhere, and their guttural rolling calls fill the air. Impressive hardly describes it. If you go, don't leave the platform when the sun finally dips behind the horizon. About a half-hour or so after nightfall, the flocks' collective calls will begin to rise in pitch, and their restlessness becomes palpable. Suddenly, with a mighty wall of sound, the birds take wing and journey back to the icy waters of the marshes where they'll spend the night.

This wasn't my first time at the Jasper-Pulaski crane dance, and as before the trip came to a close all too soon, and it was time to get back to my world.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Robins, waxwings, and honeysuckle

Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii, cloaks the understory of an Ohio woodland. This plant, and a few other closely related species, would get my vote as worst invasive species of upland habitats. This post is meant only as a (mostly) pictorial offering of evidence as to how the honeysuckle gets scattered far and wide. If you would like to read in more detail about the evils of these shrubs, CLICK HERE.

The first photo in this post was made in early spring, when the honeysuckle was just leafing out. Later would come (admittedly) very showy flowers. Pretty flowers and beautiful fruit are the main reasons that these shrubs were imported to the New World. What a mistake that was. Honeysuckle now runs rampant, and chokes out all manner of native species.

An American Robin perches jauntily in a sea of tasty berries. It, and many others, were plundering a small patch of Amur honeysuckle shrubs in Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area last Saturday. I was in Indiana to see and photograph the spectacular congregation of migrating Sandhill Cranes, and will soon post about that experience (once I get my myriad photos sorted).

A robin, caught in the act. At least a dozen robins were raiding this shrub, and consuming several to a dozen berries with each foray. They and the other fruit-eating honeysuckle birds can strip a sizable shrub in a day or two.

Down the hatch goes a honeysuckle berry. Shrubs that produce brightly colored berries are generally doing so to attract birds. The showy fruit is irresistible to robins and other frugivorous birds. While the soft pulp is quickly digested, the hard seeds within are much tougher to digest, and some of them will pass through the bird's digestive tract intact. They will be expelled later, quite likely some distance from the source shrub. This is one of many ways in which plants "migrate".
Were these the fruit of some native shrub, I would be much prouder of this photo. After all, it is a reasonably crisp shot of one of our most elegant birds, the Cedar Waxwing. But alas, the debonair chap sits among more of the nasty Amur honeysuckle.

Like robins, waxings are huge fans of berries and a flock can intake great quantities in short order.

I would think that eating one of these berries, were you the size of a waxwing, would be akin to you or I eating a large melon. There were at least as many waxwings working over the honeysuckle as there were robins. In the relatively short period that I monitored their activities, the birds probably ate hundreds of berries.

When one considers the overall numbers of robins, waxwings, and other species of fruit-eating birds, it's small wonder that invasive berry bushes such as honeysuckles spread so prolifically.