Friday, July 31, 2015

Song Sparrow, preening

A beautiful Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia. A very successful songbird, Song Sparrows can be found in all manner of places throughout their expansive range. For many readers, this will be one of the first birds that one hears upon exiting the abode in the morning. Yet they occur in the wildest of places, and every sort of situation in between.

I've got plenty of Song Sparrows around me, and common as they may be, I seldom overlook the shy little songsters. Back on May 15, I only had a few hours to get out and so I went over to a nearby park with plenty of biodiversity. As I stood quietly along the boardwalk, the melodious little animal featured in these photos hopped to a nearby branch, and engaged in a vigorous bout of preening.

Although he was only about 25 feet away, the sparrow ignored me and set about cleaning and straightening his feathers.

Preening in songbirds, as you may have noticed, is often accompanied with ferocious spasms of shaking. The reason for the intensity of the feather ruffling may be due to the little white dashes in the air around the bird. Click the photo to enlarge, and you should be able to see them. I suspect the airborne particles are feather mites, and violent shaking amid the preening may serve to dislodge some of the parasites.

More of the presumed feather mites drift from our bird, as he comes out of the shakes.

Even while busily occupied with grooming, the sparrow cannot help himself and pauses to deliver a beautiful melody.

Careful preening entails all sorts of gymnastics, including rubbing one's head along a rough branch. Judging by the sparrow's slack-jawed gape and lolling tongue, that must feel pretty good.

 I won't even attempt an interpretation of this pose. Looks a bit like he's flashing a gang sign, though.

Back to some energetic feather ruffling.

I love to shoot birds as they preen or otherwise fidget and shake. Rather than set my shutter speed to something lightning fast, like 1/4000 which would freeze everything, I sometimes prefer a much slower speed. This image was at 1/1000 - fast, but not nearly enough to completely stop the bird's motion. But we end up with a beautiful swirl of feathers, as if the bird is moving in the photo. Note the eye and head, though - sharp. Always aim for the eye when shooting animals.

The preening session nearly concluded, our sparrow fluffs his feathers to truly rotund dimensions.

And back to singing he goes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Swallowtails key to azalea pollination

A Spicebush Swallowtail, Papilio troilus, pulls nectar from the blossom of a Pinxter-flower azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides. A rival flutters in from the left, and it displaced the other butterfly a second later.

I made this image back on May 15 in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio. The azaleas were in full bloom, and offered irresistible photo subjects. It didn't take long to see that swallowtail butterflies were drawn to the blossoms in large numbers, and soon those became the target of my lens.

Pinxter-flower is a rare plant in Ohio, with an official designation of threatened. Just to roil the botanical waters a bit, there is a very similar species, the so-called Roseshell Azalea, Rhododendron prinophyllum. The latter differs in its shorter stamens and pubescent undersurfaces of the leaves. At one time they were lumped (rightly so?) as varieties under one species, Rhododendron nudiflorum.

The blurry taxonomy of this beautiful azalea is not the point here, anyway. Its pollination is. A few weeks after I shot this photo, and observed numerous swallowtails pillaging the pinxter-flowers, an interesting paper came out from a researcher at North Carolina State University. Biologist Mary Jane Epps, along with colleagues Suzanne Allison and Lorne Wolf, published a study entitled Reproduction in flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum Ericaceae): A rare case of insect wing pollination.

In this paper, Epps et al show how the wings of swallowtail butterflies can span the large gap between the anthers (pollen structures) and stigma (female flower part) of azalea flowers. Close examination of the wings of swallowtails showed that pollen granules did indeed adhere to the butterflies' scaly wings, and if swallowtails were excluded from visiting azalea plants, pollination rates plummeted. Smaller pollinating insects just cannot bridge the distance from anther to stigma, and transfer pollen from anther to stigma. The large fluttering wings of swallowtails are perfect for the job.

While the target of Epps' research was Flame Azalea, it should be noted that that species is very similar structurally to Pinxter-flower and it would seem likely that the same pollinator requirements come into play. As a footnote to plants in the genus Rhododendron, the species with deciduous leaves are the azaleas; those with leathery evergreen leaves are generally called rhododendrons.

For those into photography, I made the image using my bird rig: Canon 7D Mark II mounted to Canon's 500mm f/4 II lens, on a tripod. Shooting the butterflies posed a topographical challenge. The best, most floriferous azaleas were on very steep slopes and it was nearly impossible to ascend to them and balance one's self on the loose soil near the plants. So I discarded the idea of using close-range macro gear and just set up the big rig on a flat stable surface by the road below. Worked like a charm, and I was able to get better images than I would have with the usual macro setup. This would only work well on the largest butterflies such as swallowtails. I'll stick with macro gear for lesser butterflies.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Midwest Native Plant Conference 2015

The crowd at last weekend's Midwest Native Plant Conference gathers for Friday night's keynote, Don Leopold. This was the 7th year for the conference; the 6th at Bergamo Center on the grounds of Mount St. John in Dayton, Ohio. It sells out every year, and this year it took only about 30 days after registration opened to fill all 175 slots.

The conference is a boatload of work, and the planning committee deserves kudos. They are: Karen Arnett, Yvonne Cecil, Yvonne Dunphe, Judy Ganance, Ann Geise, Teri Gilligan, Scott Hogsten, Ned Keller, Randy Lakes, Diana Malas, Jim McCormac, Kathy McDonald, Cathy Plum and Debi Wolterman. A special thanks to our partners, Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC) for assisting us in hosting this event: Don Geiger, Leanne Jablonski, Michele Banker and Tara Poling.

We try to bring in the best speakers possible, and this year the cast was exceptional. They were: Kenn Kaufman, Don Leopold, John Magee, Michele Banker, Cheryl Harner, Erika Galentin, Jason Larson, Bethany Majeski, Hal Mann, Carol Mundy, Judith Nastally, Lisa Rainsong, Elisabeth Rothschild, and yours truly. A big thanks to all of the field trip leaders, and everyone else who had a role in the conference.

Huge thanks to all our sponsors as well. CLICK HERE for a listing.

A big part of the conference are the vendors. We want everyone to go away with armfuls of native botanical magic to stick in the ground. This is vendor's alley, in front of the Bergamo Center. Between everyone that's there to sell, an enormous diversity of plant species can be had. I'm sure it is the greatest selection of native plant species assembled anywhere in the state, and you'd probably have to go for a fair bit beyond the state's borders to find anything comparable.

CLICK HERE for a list of this year's vendors, and get some good plants from one of 'em.

Strange and interesting things always seem to occur around the vendor's wares. Last year, a pair of mating Honey Locust Moths turned up on someone's potted Helianthus decapetalus sunflower that was for sale. This year, Jan Hunter of Naturally Native Nursery approached me with a small Cylindric Blazing-star, Liatris cylindracea, that was for sale. That was cool in its own right, as this little blazing-star is rare in the trade, and also rare in the wild on Ohio. But what was even cooler was the little strings hanging from a leaf, with tiny sacs hanging from each thread. They are the eggs of a Green Lacewing, an interesting predatory insect that likes to attack and eat aphids.

This little beauty stole the show, although she chose this moment to yawn at the photographer. Yvonne Cecil found a Ruby-throated Hummingbird's nest in a Honey Locust tree practically over the sidewalk in front of Bergamo Center. It was only about ten feet high, and easily seen. She was incubating eggs - an apparent second nesting - and as word spread, more people came to see her. The hummer cared not a whit, and despite all of the activity below, she diligently cared for her clutch. I bet well over a hundred people got to see their first hummingbird nest thanks to Yvonne's discovery.

We always have hikes on Mount St. John's 160 acres of grounds, which sports a great array of native plants thanks to almost three decades of effort by Don Geiger. It is the season for second broods, and we found a nest of Mourning Doves on one of the walks. She was tending to two squabs, one of which is practically underneath the adult and not visible in this photo. Of course, I don't know what brood this might be for the dove this year - they are prolific nesters and have been documented breeding in every month of the year in Ohio.

Scott Hogsten brought his mothing gear, as in year's past, and set up near the building. He lured in lots of cool stuff on both Friday and Saturday nights, including this Orange Wing, Mellilla xanthometata.

The night hikes are always popular. All we have to do is walk out the front doors of the Bergamo Center and we're soon finding lots of interesting things. Dozens of people scouring the landscape with flashlights usually turns up some noteworthy animals, such as this showy Feather-legged Fly, Trichopoda pennipes.

Lisa Rainsong and Wendy Partridge help with the night hikes, which is fantastic as they are experts on the Orthoptera, or singing insects. Perennial crowd-pleasers are the coneheads, and they didn't disappoint this year. Above is a Sword-bearing Conehead, Neoconocephala ensiger. I think some people think we're pulling their leg when we tell them about these big bullet-shaped katydids with the funny names. But they're quite real, and after one of these nocturnal forays everyone has a much greater appreciation for coneheads.

Sunday concludes with field trips to one of the nearby prairies, wetlands, or woodlands. Experts who know the sites well lead these, and it's a great immersion in natural history. I lead the trip to Cedar Bog, and we always find lots to look at, which is not hard at this place. Cedar Bog has perhaps the richest botanical diversity of any similar-sized site in Ohio, and that spawns lots of animal diversity, such as this Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor.

To date, the Midwest Native Plant Conference has raised over $50,000, which has been awarded to worthy conservation organizations in Ohio. This year's recipients were Cedar Bog, the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (for their Sunshine Ridge Corridor project), Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, and the Marianist Environmental Education Center.

Next year's Midwest Native Plant Conference will be held, once again, at Bergamo Center and the dates will be July 8, 9, & 10. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

PSA: Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

I interrupt the irregularly unscheduled programming of this blog to offer up a Public Service Announcement about a caterpillar that has been generating lots of questions and comments of late.

The fuzzy bag of goo in question is, as shown above, the caterpillar of the Hickory Tussock Moth (HTM), Lophocampa caryae. I've received more than a few queries about these hirsute white cats, and so have many others. Perhaps you've seen one or many yourself this summer.

While the HTM caterpillars are often seen alone and on the march, they are sometimes found twisting in the breeze, suspended by a silken belay line suspended from the overarching foliage. This probably happens when some leaf-going threat startles the cat and it drops from the leaves, catching itself in midair with its strand of silk. Or perhaps it is just (literally) hanging out. Some caterpillars avoid potential predators amongst the leaves by whiling away the time dangling aloft.

When seen marching across the ground, seemingly with a purpose, the caterpillar is probably near ready to enter the pupa stage and is looking for a good spot to build and secrete its cocoon. HTMC's overwinter in their cocoon phase, hidden in leaf litter.

In their early instars (growth stages), HTM cats are conspicuously gregarious. As they mature, because they're feeding in close-knit quarters, the caterpillars can cause noticeable leaf damage. Even so, the defoliation is usually limited to a small section of whatever plant it is that they're feeding upon. I found the animals above last Sunday snacking on an oak, and even though the cats were plentiful, their damage was quite localized.

HTM cats are highly polyphagous - they can and will eat nearly any type of woody plant. Oaks and hickories seem to be preferred, though. It's common to find a resting group tightly packed together and nearly covering the entire lower surface of a leaf. The cats above, which I also found last Sunday, were on Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida.

This species has distinct boom and bust years, and at least in central Ohio this is decidedly a boom year. Rare would be the trip afield, right about now, where a sharp-eyed observer would not see some HTM caterpillars. Nothing to be alarmed at, though, as they'll not do any lasting damage to the trees, at least insofar as I'm aware. But do be aware, sensitive people can receive a rather nettlelike rash from handling the caterpillars. The effects are normally mild and fade fairly quickly. A good rule of thumb with caterpillars is to NOT HANDLE them, especially hairy or spiny species. Many species, such as this one, are armed with stinging hairs as a predator deterrent.

The mortality rate of HTM caterpillars is extreme, and only a tiny percentage of the crop will make it all the way through to the adult stage. Those that don't become food for legions of predators, thus playing a pivotal role in the vast and complex food web. The ones that do make it through the entire life cycle will become the beautiful animal above: a Hickory Tussock Moth.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Brutal thunderstorm, and hummingbird photobomb

A palette of color, courtesy of some Grade A prairie plants, stretches as far as the eye can see at Prairie Oaks Metro Park in Madison County, Ohio. Franklin County Metro Parks has long been on a mission to restore big chunks of the former Darby Plains prairie, and their successes are there for all to see. We're fortunate indeed to have such a fine parks system in Central Ohio; a park system that thinks as much of native flora and fauna and natural ecosystems as it does ball fields, playgrounds, etc.

I was on a photographic mission in the prairies and fens west of Columbus today, and managed many keeper images of a wide-ranging cast of subjects. The scene above was a no-brainer; anyone armed with a camera would have stopped for photos. However, as I took the image above, to my back was a great prairie thunderstorm rolling in from the west. Shortly after making the image, I was forced into the car and beat a retreat to the building that's visible in the backdrop of this photo.

As always, click the pic to expand

Always one to make lemonade from lemons (or sometimes, at least), I saw the roofed, east-facing porch of my sheltering building as an excellent spot to try for some lightning images. Thor only knows enough of it was zapping down from the turbulent rain-filled skies, each strike followed by the loud booms of thunder.

So I grabbed my tripod, Canon 5D Mark III, the Canon 16-35 f/4 lens, and a remote shutter release and beat feet to the shelter of the porch. I had never tried shooting lightning, but sort of knew the principles behind it. I took a lot of images, but managed only this one keeper. Part of the problem was there was still too much light, despite the blackish skies. That meant it was hard to get a decently underexposed image with a super-slow shutter speed. After realizing this I rushed to the car to grab a polarizing filter, as that would kill a few stops of light. But by then, it was such a monsoon my filter got wet and I forgot to grab a soft cloth to dry it with.

Ah well - live and learn. Anyway, for those of you into photography, here's the parameters for this shot: Canon 5D Mark III with 16-35 f/4 lens set to 35mm, tripod-mounted and shutter tripped with remote release. F/22; ISO 50; shutter speed 1.3 seconds. The crazy settings were an effort to slow down the shutter speed as much as possible, with some intentional underexposure. I think lightning shooting would be much easier at night, and I look forward to trying.

Before I was forced to the building, I had a remarkably fortuitous experience with a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I was shooting this Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, with a 180mm macro, and experimenting with various exposures and angles. Shooting bright red flowers, and not blowing out the color, is harder than one might think. Anyway, as I was shooting I noticed this hummingbird rocket into the image just as I pulled the trigger. Voila! Not bad for some dumb luck. The bird took a quick pull of nectar and shot off, probably seeking shelter from the storm, too.

Royal Catchfly is one of the coolest native plants that can grace a garden. I will GUARANTEE that if ANY hummingbirds are in the neighborhood, they WILL be frequent visitors to your catchfly. This weekend's Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton will be awash in a diversity of excellent natives courtesy of our various vendors, and I'm sure someone(s) will be selling Royal Catchfly. If you can swing it next Saturday, stop by the conference and pick up some catchfly and other highly valuable native plants. Your yard, and the world, will be better for it. Conference details are RIGHT HERE. While the conference itself is long sold out, all are welcome on Saturday for the plant sale.

A truly Regal Fritillary

Ominous skies boil over the prairies of western Indiana. It didn't take a meteorologist to predict an imminent monsoon, and sure enough, the skies soon let loose.

I finally made a long overdue trip to Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana, to see one of the Midwest's most notable prairie restoration projects. This site is only about an hour south of Chicago, and my friend and Chicagoan Joyce Pontius bopped down to join me, and we were to meet up with Mike Homoya and Roger Hedge of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Mike and Roger wisely decided to cancel, as they had a long drive and the day looked like a complete washout.

But as fate would have it, the weather soon cleared and conditions became fine for exploration. Warm weather and mostly clear skies were essential ingredients for finding my primary target. More on that in a minute.

This region once was covered by a marsh so vast it was known as the "Everglades of the North". Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands interspersed with prairie and oak savanna that attracted clouds of migratory birds and hosted scores of breeding animal species among a dizzying array of plant species. It didn't take long for people to begin plundering the bounty of Beaver Pond, as the area was also known. Eventually the agriculturists set about attempting to drain the vast wetland, and by 1930 they had largely succeeded.

In the late 1990's, The Nature Conservancy got a rare opportunity to purchase a big chunk of this area, and dubbed it Kankakee Sands. They and many partners now own and manage nearly 8,000 acres, with the long-term goal of interconnecting and restoring 20,000 acres of former prairie.

Massive prairie meadows await the visitor, and they are rich in biodiversity. Birders go crazy here. Henslow's Sparrows are everywhere, as are Dickcissels. Blue Grosbeaks are easily found, as are several dozen other breeding birds. Plant diversity is huge, and includes several prairie species that don't quite make it as far east as Ohio. Many are rare in Indiana; all told, about 130 state-listed plant and animal species occur at the Kankakee Sands. We were fortunate indeed to stumble into one of the harder to find rarities: the Western Slender Glass Lizard, Ophisaurus attenuatus. This bizarre reptile lacks legs and is incredibly snakelike. I got some nice photos, and if time permits I'll write about the glass lizard later.

The primary objective was a gorgeous butterfly; everything else was gravy. As befits a huge prairie with lots of flowering plant diversity, there were butterflies everywhere. This is a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, nectaring at the flowers of Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis. As you may have noticed, it's a boom year for them.

Summer Azures, Celastrina neglecta, were also everywhere. This one is also sipping from Buttonbush. This plant is a great native for the yardscape, especially if you like to draw in butterflies.

I don't recall ever seeing such a high density of Viceroys, Limenitis archippus. Wetlands and roadside ditches were full of various willows, which are primary host plants for this species.

A bit scarcer and much harder to find than the aforementioned buttonbush-loving butterflies is this, the Bronzed Copper, Lycaena hyllus. While large for a copper, it is still a tiny butterfly and they tend to stay low in the vegetation of wet meadows. Finding a few was nice, but out target butterfly is far rarer than this.

Yes! It didn't take long to find Kankakee Sands' most celebrated lepidopteran resident, the Regal Fritillary, Speyeria idalia. This is a big butterfly, near the size of the more familiar Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele. Like the latter frit, Regals are extroverts and easily spotted.

We didn't see many Regal Fritillaries, perhaps 4-5, but I'm sure a higher tally could have been achieved by ignoring all of the other cool fauna and flora, and focusing on butterflies. This one is tapping nectar from Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, a favored food plant.

The Regal Fritillary has become a poster child for butterfly conservation, due to the species' alarming collapse. They used to occur in Ohio - many counties - but it has not seen for at least two decades, and is now considered extirpated. It's disappeared from perhaps 14 other states in its range, too. The Kankakee Sands population is the only one left in Indiana, I believe.

While no one knows exactly why the fritillary is disappearing, it's - like so many other declining rarities - probably a combination of factors. Death by a thousand cuts, sort of. Their host plants are various species of violets in the genus Viola, and those of course must be present. Viral infections have been implicated in diminishing isolated populations. In some areas, excessive use of pesticides may cause collateral damage to the fritillaries. Increased fragmentation of suitable prairie and meadow habitats has undoubtedly taken a toll - this is a species that seems to need large tracts of appropriate habitat. But the undeniable HUGE factor is outright loss of habitat. Over 99% of original Midwestern prairie has been lost, mainly to agriculture, but other types of development have also  eliminated prairie.

Hopefully, restoration of prairies such as at Kankakee Sands can stave off the demise of iconic species such as the Regal Fritillary, and many other prairie-dependent animals and plants.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A potpourri of recent observations

Precious little time to post, so here's some varied eye candy from two recent trips, with little commentary.

Juvenile Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus  savannarum. Tri-Valley Wildlife Area, Muskingum County, Ohio. Canon 5D Mark III with 500mm f/4 II + 1.4 teleconverter (700 mm focal length); f/7.1; 1/800 sec; ISO 250; no flash.

White form of Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca forma leucantha, Tri-Valley Wildlife Area, Muskingum County, Ohio. Canon 5D Mark III with 100 mm macro; f/4.5; 1/640 sec.; ISO 50; no flash.

Henslow's Sparrow, Ammodramus henslowii, Tri-Valley Wildlife Area, Muskingum County, Ohio. Canon 5D Mark III with 500mm f/4 II + 1.4 teleconverter (700 mm focal length); f/8; 1/1000 sec; ISO 200; no flash.

Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County, Ohio. Canon 5D Mark III with 180mm macro f/3.5 lens; f/11; 1/200 sec.; ISO 100; flash.

Bronze Copper, Lycaena hyllus, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County, Ohio. Canon 5D Mark III with 180mm macro f/3.5 lens; f/11; 1/200 sec.; ISO 100; flash.

Sullivant's Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County, Ohio.  Canon 5D Mark III with 180mm macro f/3.5 lens; f/11; 1/200 sec.; ISO 100; flash.

Winged Loosestrife, Lythrum alatum, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County, Ohio. Canon 7D Mark II with 180mm macro f/3.5 lens; f/11; 1/200 sec.; ISO 100; flash.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Photography Workshop: September 23-25

Everyone likes to make nice photos, and nearly everyone has a camera these days. Even the simplest point & shoots are complex enough that many owners don't take advantage of nearly all of the tools embedded in the camera. Learning what makes the camera tick, and how to best exploit its assets, will allow the user to create much better images.

I'm pleased to be joining two truly outstanding photographers, David FitzSimmons and Art Weber, in conducting a photography workshop this fall: September 23-25 at Lakeside Chautauqua on Ohio's Marblehead Peninsula. Lakeside is well-named - it sits on the picturesque shoreline of Lake Erie. Those of you who attended one of the last four Midwest Birding Symposiums will no doubt have fond memories of Lakeside.

We'll cover lots of different subject material: landscapes, all manner of wildlife photography, macro work, flash photography, composition and more. Part of the time will be spent indoors going over techniques, equipment, composition, etc. via liberally illustrated lectures, and a good chunk of our time will be spent out-of-doors practicing. Subject matter abounds in that part of the world, and the field excursions will be a blast.

Photographers of all levels and camera types are welcome! Registration Information is RIGHT HERE. Read on for more information, and a few photos:
As always, click on the image to enlarge
As always, click on the image to enlarge

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Birds always represent a photographic challenge, and we'll learn techniques for freezing the action. Of course, becoming a better nature photographer means learning more about natural history, and we'll do our best to find and learn about lots of flora and fauna. Plenty of migrant birds will be around during the workshop.

White-blotched Heterocampa caterpillar, Heterocampa umbrata

I take scads of shots under cover of darkness, as that's when an entirely different assemblage of animals emerges. Nocturnal work obviously requires expertise with flash, and we'll work with those techniques.

Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda

Looking at subjects in alternative ways can yield some positively startling photos. Getting past "mug shot" basic documentary shots will really ramp up the quality of one's photos.

Spicebush Swallowtails, Papilio troilus

Composition is always important, whether it be a stunning landscape, a bird, a caterpillar, or butterflies sparring over favored nectar sources.

Again, for workshop details, GO HERE.