Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Invasive honeysuckles and birds


A western Ohio woodland, its understory utterly dominated by Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). While there are other species of Asiatic honeysuckles running amok in the Midwest, this one is by far the worst culprit in most areas I visit. It is firmly entrenched in our flora, much to the detriment of the indigenous plants.

As always, click the image to enlarge

It wasn't always so. The nonnative bush honeysuckles like Amur Honeysuckle weren't a major problem until fairly recently. In Lucy Braun's The Woody Plants of Ohio (1961), she devotes a scant two sentences to it. Braun knew it only in the wild from the far southwestern corner of Ohio (Hamilton County) but did note that it was "becoming abundant".

This map is from Tom Cooperrider's decidedly unsexily titled The Dicotyledoneae of Ohio: Part 2: Linaceae through Campanulaceae. The book was published in 1995 and gives a snapshot of the progress of Amur Honeysuckle in Ohio. Twenty counties have been added since Braun's publication 34 years prior. It should be noted that botanical works such as these rely on vouchered specimens as evidence, and there are relatively few botanists that collect and archive material in herbaria. By 1995, Amur Honeysuckle was undoubtedly in counties beyond those depicted on this map but was definitely not the scourge it is now.

Cut to today, and documentation of the horror show that Amur Honeysuckle has become. The orange squares representing reports congeal into blobs, so frequent are the observations. This is part of the iNaturalist map, which relies on peer-reviewed photos submitted by observers. Ohio is smack in the middle of this snippet of the map, and honeysuckle pretty well blankets the state. Good old Lonicera maackii is certainly in all 88 counties, and at least locally abundant in many or most of them.

How did it get here? Apparently, the original escapes came from the New York Botanical Garden, which began promoting Amur Honeysuckle as an ornamental in 1898. By the 1930's and '40's, wildlife agencies greatly exacerbated the problem-to-be by widely promoting honeysuckle as a ground cover, soil stabilizer, and wildlife food plant. As often seems to happen with invasives, there was a few decades long gestation period where the plant did not run amok, but probably largely stayed where it was put. In Ohio and this region of the Midwest, the spread probably began in earnest in the 1980's and the trajectory was obvious by the time of Cooperider's 1995 book. One need only glance at the iNaturalist map to see what has happened since.

Small wonder people were smitten with Amur Honeysuckle. It is pleasing in form, and sports abundant showy white flowers.

Alas, those flowers later become equally showy fruit, also abundant. Brightly colored berries probably evolved to lure agents of dispersal, especially birds. Birds are drawn to bright fruit, and it is to the honeysuckle's advantage to have its berries eaten by highly mobile winged creatures. A frugivorous (fruit-eating) bird might expel the seeds a long distance away, effectively playing the unwitting role of avian Johnny Appleseeds. Birds are surely the primary reason for the remarkably rapid invasion across a broad swath of eastern North America.

An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) sits among a sea of Amur Honeysuckle fruit. It is akin to a kid in a bowl of M & M's. The 50-acre preserve where I made this shot is in Columbus, and I visited last Sunday. The site was thoroughly infested with honeysuckle, and dozens if not hundreds of robins gorged themselves on the fruit.

A first-year White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) caught in the act, berry in beak. This species is probably our most abundant migratory sparrow, and many were present here - same site as the robin above.

With abundant frugivores such as the American Robin and White-throated Sparrow (not a major frugivore but nonetheless they have a taste for honeysuckle berries) eating this stuff, it's small wonder that honeysuckle has spread so rapidly and continues to do so. Many other bird species eat it as well including a hyper-abundant nonnative, the European Starling (Sturnis vulgaris). What is curious to me is the apparent lag time from when Amur Honeysuckle began to be planted commonly (1930's-40's), to when it became an obvious and worsening invasive plant (1980's). I wonder if birds, confronted rather abruptly with a completely foreign plant, basically ignore it for a while, not recognizing a potential food source. Maybe it takes a few decades for the feathered crowd to develop a taste for the stuff and begin ravishing it in earnest. But once they do, the game is over.

Amur Honeysuckle is so thoroughly entrenched now that there is no way to eliminate the overwhelming majority of it. Localized control in targeted parks and natural areas can be successful but constant vigilance is necessary as new seed sources will be introduced annually.

We can hope that Amur Honeysuckle eventually runs its course, and fades out, as some invasive species seem to do. But there's no sign of that happening yet.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Nature: Investigating the northern saw-whet owl in Ohio

A northern saw-whet owl rests in the hand of Blake Mathys, just prior to its release/Jim McCormac

Nature: Investigating the northern saw-whet owl in Ohio

November 19th, 2023

Jim McCormac

Lots of interesting and little-known creatures emerge under cover of darkness. Some of them are human, but most are not. Perhaps foremost in piquing human interest about animals that ply their trade after nightfall are the owls.

Owls have long been a source of fascination to us. Athena, the mythical Greek Goddess of Wisdom, was smitten with owls and held them in high regard. A genus of owls, Athene, is named for her. It includes the North American burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia. In 1994, ancient art was discovered adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France. Some of this work depicts owls, and was created over 30,000 years ago. Effigy pipes depicting barred owls – a common Ohio species – created by Hopewell Indians date to around 100 B.C. and have been found in Tremper Mound in southern Ohio.

A local owl aficionado is Blake Mathys, a biology professor at Ohio Dominican University. He established the Central Ohio Owl Project (COOP) in the fall of 2020. I wrote about COOP and its goals in a February 7, 2021 column. One of his major study targets is one of our most charismatic little hooters, the northern saw-whet owl.

Mathys, who lives in Union County, bands saw-whet owls on his property each fall. A string of mist nets is placed in a wooded opening, and saw-whet calls are broadcast from a nearby speaker. Owls investigating the calls fly into the nets and become entangled. The soft mesh causes no harm, and captured birds are quickly extracted.

Netted owls are taken to the “lab,” a nearby table where each bird is measured, weighed and feather details are studied to determine age. The latter process involves shining ultraviolet light on the owl’s underwings. Newer feathers are infused with a compound known as porphyrin, which glows fluorescent pink under UV light. With experience, the bander can accurately assess the bird’s age by its pinkness or lack thereof.

Perhaps most importantly, a lightweight aluminum band is placed on a leg. The band sports a unique number and allows positive identification if the bird is recaptured. An enormous amount of information regarding bird migration, seasonal movements and longevity has been amassed by banding. In the case of northern saw-whet owls, most of what we know is the result of efforts by banders such as Mathys.

I was fortunate to be part of an assemblage that visited Mathys’ banding operation on the night of November 11. A nip was in the air as darkness fell, and it was downright chilly when we made the first net check. Nothing. Brief disappointment ensued but that was offset by optimism for upcoming net runs. Sure enough, we were elated to see two saw-whet owls in the nets on the second check.

Both birds turned out to be hatch-year females. They would have been born in spring or early summer, and probably WAY north of where they were caught. The vast majority of saw-whet owls breed in northern forests across Canada and the northern states, from Alaska to New England. There are only two recent Ohio nesting records, from Erie and Huron counties along Lake Erie. At one time, the owl was a more frequent nester in northern Ohio.

Most of the people present this night had never seen one of the wee owls and were thoroughly enchanted. A big one – females are larger – weighs around 100 grams, or the same as 15 quarters. They measure but 8 inches in length, with a wingspan of a foot and half. In contrast, our largest owl is the great horned owl, and it tapes out at nearly 2 feet in length with a 4-foot wingspan and body weight of 3 pounds.

Northern saw-whet owls are incredible nocturnal hunting machines. Their eyes constitute nearly 5% of the body mass and have many more cones than human eyes. This allows them to see in darkness with amazing accuracy. Large offset ears permit fine-tuned sound triangulation. Woe to the scurrying rodent, even if it’s under vegetation. Flight feathers edged with comb-like extensions allow for silent flight, and once a pounce is made, the owl seizes its victim with powerful talons from which escape is impossible. I would note that the first thing someone usually says upon clapping eyes on a saw-whet owl is “cute”. Many mice and voles would strongly disagree.

Blake Mathys has captured nine saw-whets this fall, and more will undoubtedly follow. Last fall he caught a remarkable 34 birds. Kelly Williams, a bander working with Tom Bartlett on Kelleys Island, caught 16 owls on the same night we were out. Bartlett has captured over one thousand in his decades of banding on the Lake Erie Island, demonstrating that the owls migrate across the great lake.

The work of Mathys, Bartlett, Williams, Bob Placier (who bands saw-whets in Vinton County) and others have illuminated the frequency of this owl. During migratory periods, and probably in winter, the little owl is probably the most common owl of the seven (eight, if snowy owls are present) species in Ohio.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Eastern Screech-Owl in dark woods


A gray morph (not "phase" as color forms are incorrectly often referred to as) Eastern Screech-Owl stares from its perch in an inky woods. Owl eyes, in comparison to human eyes, are proportionately enormous and in some species - including the next owl species that I'll post about - can make up 5% of the total mass of the owl. Owl eyes also have many more rods per cone, thus their eyes are far more efficient at detecting movement in dark conditions. The net result is eyes that are dozens of times better at harvesting light than human eyes.

Shauna Weyrauch, I and about 25 others had a great evening owling last Saturday night with Blake Mathys, an owl expert and bander in west-central Ohio. We observed or heard three owl species, including the one above, and another species which is quite special, and I'll write more on that one later.

PHOTO NOTE: With highly nocturnal creatures such as owls and bats, it's better NOT to pop a bright flash in their faces. But light is certainly required, as even at the highest ISO setting and widest aperture it won't be possible to harvest adequate light for an exposure in extremely dark conditions. Blake spotted this owl - one of a pair that he knows well - with infrared glasses, and then we used a flashlight beam to illuminate the bird so that all could admire it. My experience with lighting screech-owls in this way is that it seems to bother the low-key birds little, and certainly doesn't have the blinding effect that the brilliant and sudden pop of light from a flash would have.

I have a cool device known as a Neewer CN-160 dimmable light panel. It mounts on the hotshoe of my camera and provides an adjustable and constant light source. I can put just enough light towards the subject to find focus and illuminate it enough for photos. To avoid turning the Neewer up to blinding light levels, I use a higher ISO (much as I dislike having to use high ISO settings, but there is a time and place for them). The settings for this image were ISO 6400, f/8, and 1/200 shutter speed. As we weren't especially close to the owl - maybe 20-25 feet - and I used a 100mm macro lens (on the camera for the primary subject of that evening), I also had to crop a fair bit. So, the graininess associated with a higher ISO is manifesting a bit, but it is still a usable image. And the owl was still there when we departed, no worse for the wear.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Nature: Ohio's Metzger Preserve harbors strange yet impressive rock formations

Metzger Preserve harbors one of the state's greatest concentrations of the bizarre, round rock formations known as concretions/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ohio's Metzger Preserve harbors strange yet impressive rock formations

Columbus Dispatch
November 5, 2023

Jim McCormac

The Pekowi were a band of the Shawnee tribe, one of five divisions of the once-great confederacy. The county just south of Franklin County derives its name from the Pekowi: Pickaway. Until nearly 1800, the Shawnee and other Native Americans reigned over the wildlands of the Ohio country. An especially famous Shawnee was Tecumseh, who was born circa 1768 near Chillicothe.

At the time of Tecumseh’s birth, what would become Pickaway County was densely forested, the woodlands broken by a roughly 5-by-7-mile tract of prairie that bordered the Scioto River between present day Circleville and Chillicothe. It is known as the Pickaway Plains, but the prairie’s destruction is almost absolute. Less than a fraction of a percent remains.

In the early 1770’s, a Christian missionary named David Jones ambled into the Pickaway Plains region, seeking converts. Such missionaries were often harbingers of doom for the indigenous peoples, and soon an avalanche of settlers followed. The bounty of timber was irresistible to the immigrants, and the first lumber mill, near present-day Williamsport, began service in 1812. More soon followed. Before long, the forest primeval had been largely cleared.

An inventor named John Deere, who had fled his home state of Vermont to Illinois to dodge bankruptcy charges, wasted no time in his adopted state. In 1837, one year after his arrival, Deere launched his self-scouring steel plow which would forever alter the former forests and prairies of the Midwest and its nearly incalculable biodiversity.

By the dawn of the 20th century, most of Pickaway County had been converted from forests, prairies, pothole wetlands and fens harboring a thousand native plants to monocultures of corn, soybeans and wheat. Only scattered shards of former habitats remain.

In 2002, the Pickaway County Park District was created. For its first 15 years, the district operated on a shoestring budget, but in 2017 a levy to provide permanent funding for the park district was put before Pickaway County voters. They passed it with 55% of the vote. The district has not let the grass grow under its feet since, and is hard at work protecting Pickaway County natural gems.

Pickaway County Parks purchased the 52-acre Metzger Preserve along Deer Creek in 2019. Deer Creek is one of central Ohio’s finest streams, and this acquisition helps protect its water quality and rare fishes. But the preserve also offers the public a window into a geological history that is far older than the region’s human history.

On Oct. 28, I visited Metzger with Shauna Weyrauch, an Ohio State University professor and bobcat researcher. We weren’t looking for wildcats — they would have been common in Tecumseh’s time — but for a more easily found subject: rocks.

Metzger Preserve harbors one of the state’s greatest concentrations of concretions: bizarre round rock formations that look like oversized bowling balls. Concretions were formed by a buildup of minerals congealing around a nucleus such as a fossil, bone fragment or crystal. Metzger’s concretions are composed of siderite, an iron carbonate. The stony oddities date to the Devonian, a period of the Paleozoic Era that began 419 million years ago and lasted for 60 million years. So strange is their appearance that concretions were once thought by some to be dinosaur eggs, or flotsam left by extraterrestrials.

The concretions at Metzger Preserve are embedded in a deposit of Ohio Shale. Deer Creek has cut into this shale bank over the ages, eroding away the softer shale and liberating numerous concretions. The result is a fantastic, almost surreal streambed littered with what looks like castoff cannonballs. From afar, the rounded tops of the concretions resemble scores of turtle shells jutting from the water. Big specimens can be 8 feet in diameter.

If you visit Metzger, be sure to go when Deer Creek’s water levels are low and the concretions are easily visible. Another recommended stop nearby is Calamus Swamp, one of very few glacial kettle lakes remaining in the region. It is owned by Columbus Audubon and features a boardwalk that traverses the 19-acre wetland.

For more information on Metzger Preserve and Calamus Swamp, visit: columbusaudubon.org and pickawaycountyparks.org

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

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Cardinal-flower, and the coming floral hiatus

A brilliantly hued Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), shot back on August 25, 2023. A floral hiatus now ensues, until the blooming of Skunk-cabbage at winter's end, at least in my part of the world. It got down to 29F last night, here in Worthington, Ohio. This Cardinal-flower was photographed in Scioto County, Ohio.

Photographic Note: Reds in flowers can be tricky to expose properly (as can yellow). It's easy to overexpose them, and thus wash out the gorgeous hues that make red flowers so fetching. Depending on the conditions, I often underexpose a bit, maybe 1/3rd stop, sometimes more. Wind is also not the flower photographer's friend, and as I recall this was a mostly windless day. Thus, I shot from a tripod with a 2-second timer delay (so I am not touching and possible moving the camera at the time of exposure). I also have the camera (Canon R5) set to touch screen focus. I just touch the spot that I want to have as the focus point on the camera's back screen, and Voila! Two seconds later the camera fires, focused on the exact spot that I touched. I'm also partial to very open apertures when I feel that I can get away with them, as f/4 (in this case) creates such a beautifully blurred background (bokeh). f/4 to f/7.1 are favored flower apertures although I will frequently venture off that reservation. ISO, of course, is set very low - 200 in this case. For floral photography, shutter speed is largely irrelevant to me, especially if there is not movement on the subject's part. This image was shot at 1/25 but I have often shot flowers at speeds as low as several seconds.