Monday, March 29, 2021

The spring wildflower show commences


Yesterday morning's moonset over Adams County, Ohio. I was on the road plenty early enough to see the big ball of cheese make a spectacle of itself, then slip below the horizon.

Astrophotography was not my goal on this trip, however. Southern Ohio woodlands, and the beginnings of the vernal wildflower eruption was the target. After a long cold winter, those of us with a botanical bent can hardly wait for the resurgence of plant life.

The greening forest above is part of a very special place known as the Ohio River Bluffs. It is one of many gems owned by the Arc of Appalachia. The preserve encompasses steep south-facing slopes overlooking the broad Ohio River. Hit hard by the sun's rays, this is one of the first places in Ohio that spring wildflowers rise from their long dirt nap.

A Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava, unfurls its leaves. This species is one of the first trees to push forth its foliage. So quick do the leaves emerge, you can almost watch them grow.

Major eye candy at the Bluffs is acres and acres of Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica. Come next weekend or thereabouts, the bluebell show should be peak. That path is a good place to be, at that time.

Scattered bluebells were doing their thing, vanguards of the floral sea that will soon follow.

A Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, gets ready to reveal its showy orange-yellow flower. Many of these native poppies - one of only two Ohio natives in the Papaveraceae family - occur at this site and they'll be in full glory about the same time that the bluebells are.

Purple Cress, Cardamine douglassii, is one of the first spring wildflowers to bloom. The slopes were covered with them yesterday. The flowers are quite variable in color and arrangement. Some plants form open candelabras like this one, while others have a denser inflorescence. Color can range from nearly white to a deep violet.

At one point, I noticed what looked like a dead leaf stuck to a distant Purple Cress plant. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Nameless Pinion moth, Lithophanes innominata. The beautiful little moth could not have chosen a showier perch.

A perennial favorite among wildflower enthusiasts is Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria. Scores of them were up, and some had already issued forth their architecturally interesting flowers.

A close relative of the preceding species is Squirrel-corn, Dicentra canadensis. It is generally scarcer than Dutchman's-breeches, and is greatly outnumbered at this site. But in places, the two grow side by side allowing for comparison of the unusual blooms.

I hit a trifecta of fumeworts, which is not difficult at the Ohio River Bluffs. The Fumariaceae family has only five representatives in Ohio, and two are quite rare summer bloomers. This is Yellow Fumewort, Coryadalis flavula, which along with the preceding two species is an early spring wildflower. Yellow Fumewort is a bit earlier than Dutchman's-breeches and Squirrel-corn, and this plant has already formed a ripe fruit (lower left).

Excepting the extremely hardy and rare Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale, Toadshade, T. sessile, is our first trillium to do its thing. Many plants already sported their odd cylindric flowers. This one is nestled in a leafy bed of Dwarf Larkspur, Delphimium tricorne.

A quartet of particularly vibrant Spring-beauty, Claytonia virginica, flowers. Right on cue, this common, widespread and incredibly showy plant was out in profusion. So were many of its personal bees, the oligolectic "Spring-beauty Bee", Andrena erigeniae. My half-hearted attempts to photograph one met with failure on this day, but it did give me reason to lay on the forest floor for a bit.

Going prostrate for the bees brought me in closer proximity to numerous Red Velvet Mites in the genus Trombidium (I think). I've never seen so many on a single day. Maybe they have boom and bust years, and if so 2021 is decidedly a boom. I did not "pose" the mite - it was very busy inspecting Spring-beauty flowers which made for a particularly aesthetic backdrop.

A trio of Goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum, flowers in picture-perfect condition.

I capped the day with a stop at another Arc of Appalachia site, the Gladys Riley Goldenstar Lily Preserve in western Scioto County. One must be timely to catch the stunning Goldenstar in flower. It blooms en masse over maybe a period of a week. Arrive a day too late and nada - you're out of luck with another year to wait.

EVERY time I post a photo of this rarity, people tell me they have them on their property. No. They have the common and widespread Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, which looks superficially similar. Goldenstar has a scattered and localized distribution, with Arkansas being the epicenter. Northern Kentucky and southern Ohio sites are far removed from the core range. Famed Cincinnati botanist Lucy Braun discovered this species along Rocky Fork Creek on the edge of Shawnee State Forest in 1964. While there are probably tens of thousands of plants along a few miles of the stream valley, that's it. Only fairly recently was another much smaller Ohio population discovered not far to the west in Adams County. These are the only known Ohio sites and the only populations north of the Ohio River.

If you can get to the Ohio River Bluffs next weekend or sometime the following week, you should be treated to a remarkable display of spring wildflowers.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nature: Tracing birds' lifespans is not an easy undertaking


This nearly 29-year-old ring-billed gull, photographed January 9 in Cleveland, is the oldest known of its kind in North America./Chuck Slusarczyk

Nature: Tracing Birds' lifespans is not an easy undertaking

Columbus Dispatch
March 21, 2021

Jim McCormac

The gull sees farthest who flies highest.
Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull

An aura of mystery surrounds the longevity of wild birds. We can’t just ask a chickadee its age. However, ornithologists have shown that some birds can live surprisingly long lives.

The oldest wild bird known is “Wisdom”, a Laysan albatross that returns annually to breed on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. She was banded there as a five year old bird in 1956! Wisdom turns 70 this year, and is still producing chicks.

Older birds have been documented, but only in captivity where they are sheltered from the perils of wild living. A cockatoo, Cookie, lived to 83, and a captive common raven survived to 80.

It seems the larger the species, the longer it can live. Cardinals and many other songbirds live for 2-3 years on average while comparatively massive albatrosses, gulls and others can survive far longer.

Gulls (not “seagulls”, despite Bach’s famed protagonist) can be notably long-lived. Several European and Middle Eastern species have documented to eclipse three decades, and a herring gull survived for 49 years in captivity.

In this country, gulls are probably not as well-studied as across the pond, and less is known of the life spans of American species.

Enter Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. A longtime Cleveland resident, Slusarczyk (sloo-sar-chik) lives in a gull paradise. At least 19 species have been recorded on Lake Erie.

Gull study is not for the faint of heart. There is a steep learning curve in regards to identification, compounded by different plumages at different ages. Smaller gull species take two years to develop mature plumage, while the largest species take four years. Also, good gull weather is often poor people weather: gale winds and icy temperatures.

Chuck took up gull study with a vengeance long ago, and is now one of Ohio’s premier experts. A renaissance man, he is also authoritative on aircraft, Great Lakes ships, moths, orchid raising, photography, and the history of Cleveland. Following a 28-year career in the aviation industry, Slusarczyk is now employed as a motorcoach operator.

Intellectual curiosity such as Slusarczyk’s is rare, and when Chuck aimed it at gulls he began to make notable finds. He regularly shares sightings of uncommon or rare species, often with helpful commentary on plumages or interesting life history observations.

But – in my opinion – Slusarczyk’s most significant gull find came on January 9 of this year, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. He noticed a ring-billed gull – Ohio’s most common species - with a silver band on its leg, and managed to get diagnostic photos of the band’s numbers.

A query to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory soon produced results. Chuck’s gull was banded as a chick in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 18, 1992! Nearly 29 years later, the gull is alive and kicking, enjoying a winter vacation in Cleveland.

This is the oldest known ring-billed gull, and one of the oldest documented gulls in North America.

Documentation of banded birds by keen-eyed observers like Slusarczyk offers a glimpse into the potentially long life spans of gulls and other species. And these reports represent a vanishingly small percentage of the species involved. For instance, the total ring-billed gull population is estimated at about 2.5 million birds. There could be a centenarian among their ranks.

Why do gulls live so long? If they make it past the juvenile stage, life expectancy skyrockets. They’re large and tough, powerful flyers, resourceful and intelligent, opportunistic feeders and have few effective predators. Such characteristics are fertile ground for spawning avian Methuselahs.

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

Saturday, March 20, 2021

More amphibians, including the spectacular Tiger Salamander

An American Toad sits on a damp road. Fortunately most of the roads that I cruised this evening have nearly no traffic on them at night, so amphibian mortality is low. That's certainly not the case everywhere.

Last Wednesday evening turned out to be warm - temps in the 50's F - and rain started spitting around 9 pm. One often doesn't know whether conditions will be optimal for amphibian movements - warm and wet - until late in the afternoon the day of the show. That's how it was this day. I didn't pull the trigger to make the hour drive west to some productive back roads until late in the afternoon.

It was a fairly good call. I think a lot of the salamanders have already made their vernal runs to breeding pools, and departed back into subterranean haunts where they will remain out of sight until next spring. But enough amphibians were on the prowl that it was an interesting foray. In all, eight species were tallied: American Toad, Green Frog, Northern Leopard Frog, Spring Peeper, Western Chorus Frog, Eastern Tiger Salamander, Smallmouth Salamander, and Unisexual Salamander. 

A Northern Leopard Frog crouches before the photographer. During the day, these frogs are alert and wary, and making close approaches is far more difficult. After I finished photographing it, I gently picked up the frog, took it far into the grass on the side of the road that it was headed for, and set it down. The frog never flinched. Try that during daylight hours and see how cooperative a leopard frog is. It's far easier to work with amphibians at night, when they don't act nearly so warily.

An apparent "unisexual" salamander rears up like a dragon. They are so-named as virtually all the individuals in these populations are female. As you might expect, the dynamics behind this get complicated. Basically, the unisexuals pick up spermatophores from any of several species of "pure" related mole salamander species. Thus, they are able to fertilize their eggs but as a result are hybrid mixes. The animal in the photo might have the DNA of Blue-spotted, Jefferson, Smallmouth, and Tiger salamanders - maybe even Streamside salamanders. Probably still much to sort out with this phenomenon.

Finally, the Holy Grail of this evening's search, an Eastern Tiger Salamander. On a wet warm early to mid-March night such as this, I usually come across some crossing roads. Not this evening, and I suspect they were mostly done for the year and out of the pools. So, I went to a pool that I knew they used for breeding, and Voila! A few were still in the water, swimming and floating about like fish. 

The individual in the photo was actually in the act of leaving the pool, as I suspect most had already done. It was not particularly cooperative, hence the lack of stellar photos. The amphibian had places to go and was in a hurry to get there. I don't like messing around with salamanders too much, or touching them if at all possible. Usually a good tactic is to just cover a salamander with your hand, like a tent, for a bit. Often when you pull away, it'll remain frozen for a while, allowing for some shots. If you do see and decide to handle an amphibian, always make sure your hands are wet.

Eastern Tiger Salamanders are impressive beasts, with big ones reaching nine inches or so. They often breed in more open habitats than other Ambystoma mole salamanders. This particular pond is wide open, with no woods nearby. It's in an area where mass migrations of tigers have been observed, although I have not yet managed to catch one of those in progress. I'll keep trying, though.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Ohio Botanical Symposium: March 26

The 16th Ohio Botanical Symposium takes place on Friday, March 26, and all are welcome. It's via Zoom - as so many events are over the past year. The best part about this is it's free, and WAY more people can attend. The normal in-person venue in Columbus only holds about 400 people, and the symposium always sells out and fills quickly. But a virtual meeting can be far larger, so all are welcome to tune in.

Talks are varied and interesting. Subjects include rare plant conservation, famed Cincinnati botanist Lucy Braun, shifts in blooming periods related to climate change, and the ever-popular best rare plant finds of the past two years. I am giving a talk about the role of flora in growing caterpillars, and ultimately birds.

Please register if any of this strikes your fancy - we'd love to have you. All details are RIGHT HERE.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

A nice salamander run


A Spotted Salamander stares, seemingly curiously, at the photographer. The annual spring runs of salamanders is a phenomenon that is one of nature's great spectacles, and eagerly awaited by many people of a herpetological bent, yours truly included.

Last Thursday's weather proved perfect to stimulate a big run here in Central Ohio. It warmed to about 60 F, and rain kicked in in the afternoon and continued into the evening. Such conditions spur the "mole" salamanders to emerge en masse from subterranean lairs and march overland to vernal pools. Once there, a breeding frenzy ensues, as we shall see.

Big salamander migrations are nocturnal, and in addition to the amphibians, many other interesting nighttime creatures are likely to be found. This is an exceptionally showy Nurseryweb Spider, Pisaurina mira. This species can vary in overall coloration, and this one was a particularly pleasing shade of cinnamon. Many photos were made.
Mudbug on the move! Small numbers of crayfish often move along with the amphibians on warm rainy nights. I'm not sure exactly why; perhaps they are individuals seeking new turf. This is a Little Brown Mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, one of the burrowing species. I wrote about these, and this species in particular and its namesake, Roger Thoma, RIGHT HERE.

Crayfish make wonderful photo subjects, and I enjoy working with them. Watch those pincers, though. They aren't all bark and no bite. This mudbug was not too big, and I foolishly didn't take much caution in moving him to a better spot. He got a hold of my finger tip, and wouldn't let go for a minute or two. It's amazing the pinching power that even small crayfish have!

This young Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans, joined the parade. Frogs are always part of salamander nights. Most common, by far, on this evening were Spring Peepers. The Western Chorus Frog is usually numerous as well, but that species was not well represented on this excursion.

A handsome little Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus, poses nicely. This is one of the lungless salamanders and it does not breed in the vernal pools like the mole salamanders in the genus Ambystoma do. Nonetheless, Red-backs are usually wandering the forest floor on wet early spring evenings and we saw a dozen or so.

A Smallmouth Salamander, Ambystoma texanum, crosses a lichen-dappled log. While not as flashy as the Spotted Salamanders, under close inspection an intricate pattern of bluish-gray flecking is eye-catching and quite showy. I normally do not see too many Smallmouths at this site, but a few dozen made themselves known on this evening.

At this particular vernal pool complex, Spotted Salamanders are the undisputed stars of the show. There is a huge population here, and we saw hundreds. I'm sure thousands are present in this approximately 80-acre woodland. On a mass migration night, great care must be taken where one steps. It is like an amphibious army marching on the vernal pools.

Spotted Salamanders - all salamanders, actually - are wonderful photo subjects. They occasionally pause and rear up like this one. The better to get a sense of their surroundings, I suppose.

When we reached the main vernal pool, we knew we had timed it right. Hundreds - probably thousands, over the pool's entirety - of salamanders cavorted before us in a breeding frenzy sometimes termed "congressing". Beats the politicians any day of the week. A deafening chorus of Spring Peepers provides the soundtrack.

The male salamanders typically arrive a bit before the females and drop small whitish spermatophores into the water. Gravid females, fat with unfertilized eggs, then pick those up and use them to fertilize their eggs. In short order, big globular egg masses are deposited in the pool, and the salamanders vanish back into the woodland. It is a short-lived frenzy and one must drop everything and go afield on suitable nights or miss it. Most of the year, mole salamanders such as the Spotted Salamander live subterraneous lifestyles, out of sight and mind. I'm glad I was able to catch a performance this year, having missed the shows in 2020.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Red-winged Blackbirds speak of spring

I was out in the marshes of Battelle Darby Metro Park (Franklin County, Ohio) at dawn yesterday. My main targets were waterfowl in flight - one of my favorite photographic subjects. Fowl were scarce, and I found myself watching the antics of recently arrived male Red-winged Blackbirds. They were busily proclaiming the borders of their territories, and occasionally squabbling with one another. As usual, I was tucked into some cattails to try and break up my profile. It worked with this blackbird, as at one point he alit quite close - this photo is scarcely cropped. I turned my lens to the showy fellow, and any waterfowl were temporarily forgotten.

A male Red-winged Blackbird rages at a neighbor. We're in the narrow window where males have arrived and are setting up territories, but the females have not yet returned (at least at this site). Strong alpha males have been documented to have up to 15 females nesting in their turf, and they presumably sire most of the attendant offspring. But not all. Molecular work has shown that some females "sneak" into other males' territories, and mate with them. A regular soap opera in the marsh.

I posted this image on Facebook, and received a fascinating bit of information about Red-winged Blackbirds from biologist Fiona Reid, as follows:

"I worked on red-winged blackbirds for my masters thesis. Our lab showed that it is song that
matters - if the males have their red shoulders painted black they keep their territory, but if they can't sing, they lose it. The cool thing is that you can temporarily mute them by popping the vocal sac, and in a couple of weeks it heals. The male loses his territory for those two weeks, then returns full throttle and drives off the new male once his singing ability is restored. Females only care about real estate and don't relocate during this process."

Finally, for your viewing AND listening pleasure, following is a short video of the stud above countersinging with several neighboring birds.


Sunday, March 7, 2021

Canvasback addendum

I caught this trio of drake Canvasbacks in flight, at the same place and date as in the previous post. The shot came out okay, and as shooting flying fowl is more challenging than floating fowl, I thought I'd post it here as well. The pale winter sky coupled with intentional overexposure with the camera often lends a painterly look to such photos, and it did here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Canvasback, a fine botanical duck

A handsome drake Canvasback loafs in frigid Lake Erie waters, off Miller Road Park in the city of Avon Lake, Ohio. I was there bright on and early on the morning of February 20. I recall the temperature upon arrival was about 9 F, and brisk winds off the lake made it seem much colder.

The "Cans" didn't care. Hundreds were present, and these hardy diving ducks thought nothing of the icy cold and near-freezing water. Ice had formed on some of the ducks in the drowsing rafts.

The botanical proclivities of this animal is noted in its scientific name: Aythya valisineria. The specific epithet stands for the genus of eel-grass, or wild-celery, Vallisneria americana, a favored aquatic plant food source of Canvasbacks. Famed early ornithologist Alexander Wilson named this animal, but misspelled vallisneria.

Inaccurate nomenclature aside, the big ski slope-nosed Canvasback is one of my favorite birds. Some people find the Canvasback to be excellent eating, although there are differing opinions on its tastiness. In the markets around New Orleans in the mid-1830's, Canvasback meat was a coveted delicacy and a pair of birds sold for $2.00. That'd be about $55.00 in today's dollars - a whopping price even by current standards! Personally, I think the Canvasbacks are worth far more alive, in the wild, and on the water than on someone's dinner plate.