Thursday, May 30, 2024

A hodgepodge of spring birds

I was out and about, to the extent possible, finding and photographing birds this spring. The last year has been my busiest ever for speaking engagements, thanks in part to my new book, Gardening for Moths. My coauthor Chelsea Gottfried and I have been very pleased with the book's reception, and we're grateful that people are interested in moths. So, if promoting one of our coolest groups of insects meant less bird shooting (with a camera) for a while, no problem.

Here, in no particular order, is some aviphotography from the past month or so.

A Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) floats across a marsh. These birds are generally far easier heard than seen. Gallinules, along with Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots, are responsible for much of the loud cackles, grunts, and yelps that emanate from an early morning marsh. The vocalists often remain hidden in vegetation but this bird, lucky me, floated across placid waters in beautiful light. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Lucas County, Ohio, May 8, 2024.

An American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) flies over a Lake Erie marsh. Note the head and bill shadow on the underwing. Before its flight to another section of the marsh, the well-camouflaged heron was regularly delivering its bizarre oonk-ah-choonk song and continued to do so after arrival to its new hunting grounds. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Lucas County, Ohio, May 8, 2024.

A Sora (Porzana carolina) swims through the fringes of a large mixed-emergent marsh. Plenty of the little chicken-like rails were present this day. Soras are much easier to hear than see, though, as they tend to remain in dense cover. There were also a number of Virginia Rails, although on this day those remained sight unseen. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ottawa County, Ohio, May 8, 2024.

A very bright Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) forages along the Bird Trail at Magee Marsh on May 8. This one caught my eye due to its bright yellow coloration, pretty much from throat to undertail coverts. The streaks on the breast also look thicker than typical "Western" palms that move through Ohio in abundance. Could this be the rarer (for the Great Lakes region) "Eastern" Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum subsp. hypochrysea)? Or just an exceptionally colorful male Western Palm? Lucas County, Ohio.

A subadult male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). Males of this warbler species do not develop their distinctive black and orange Halloween colors until their second season, although they can sing and pair off and breed as young "yellowstarts". This individual is particularly boldly spotted with black. A female redstart would lack the black dots and black around the eye. Magee Marsh, Lucas County, Ohio, May 18, 2024.

My front yard Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) was in peak fruiting condition on May 23 and does it draw the birds. To be this Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) must be akin to sitting in a bowl of botanical M & M's. A group of about eight waxwings has been visiting often to plunder the tree but they're not the only ones. In one half-hour photo shoot, I also saw Blue Jay, House Finch, Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, and Northern Cardinal partake of the fruit. If you like birds, plant a serviceberry. All this action is 20 feet from my front door. Worthington, Ohio.

A female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) prepares to swallow a fruit from my Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). She did not have far to go. Their nest (2nd pic) is on the other side of the driveway, about 20 feet away. The bluebirds made frequent visits to the berry-laden tree, even driving off catbirds, waxwings, cardinals and other fruit-seekers. Worthington, Ohio, May 22, 2024.

A Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) does the splits between two grass culms, a characteristic posture for this little wetland bird. There was a loose colony of several wrens in this spot. We could also hear several Sedge Wrens in the distance, in a drier grassy field. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ottawa County, Ohio, May 19, 2024.

A Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) surveys its foggy prairie domain from atop a Giant Sunflower (Helianthus giganteus). In the next shot, he chatters his mechanical sewing machine-like song. This species is loosely colonial, and others had staked their claims nearby. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ottawa County, Ohio, May 18, 2024.

A Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philapelphicus) strikes a pose along the bird trail at Magee Marsh. There were a number of them on this day. "Phillies" can look much like brighter-plumaged Warbling Vireos, and their song is incredibly similar to the Red-eyed Vireo, which can create identification challenges. Lucas County, Ohio, May 18, 2024.

A male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) intently watches a mayfly whir by. Probably more people ogle the extroverted nesting pairs of Prothonotary Warblers along the Magee Marsh boardwalk in May, than observe all of the other Prothonotaries in existence, combined, during the same period. The males, especially, will pose at arm's length, seemingly curiously watching the fawning bipeds, and even land on the boardwalk guardrails. I love watching the reactions of newer birders to this amazing and charismatic songbird. Lucas County, Ohio, May 18, 2024.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Mothapalooza 2024: July 19 - 21

The quirky but infinitely fun and thoroughly educational Mothapalooza rolls around in less than two months and it's time to register. And register you should. This is a great event in one of the most scenic biological hotspots in Ohio, and Mothapalooza is populated by extremely knowledgeable connoisseurs of Nature and natural lore who love to share knowledge.

I only say that Mothapalooza is "quirky" because of the primary subject matter, and the hours of some of the field trips. It goes without saying that moths are the primary quarry and stars of the show. Butterflies have mostly always gotten the Lepidopteran limelight, and the creation of Mothapalooza, with the inaugural conference in 2013, showed that moths too could attract attention. And there are FAR more moths to ogle than butterflies. Something like 140 butterfly species have been recorded in Ohio. While no one knows anything close to an exact tally for moths, it's probably 20x higher, or more. Sure, the field trip hours tilt towards the late side, but it's well worth it. There will also be excellent diurnal field trips, and topnotch speakers each night at the historic Paxton Theater in nearby Bainbridge (home of the Dental Museum).

Mothapalooza was held at Shawnee State Park lodge in the early years, capitalizing on the adjacent 70,000-acre Shawnee State Forest and the nearby Edge of Appalachia Preserve. A few years ago, it shifted to the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County (Ohio), which is among numerous gems owned and managed by the Arc of Appalachia. This'll be the third Mothapalooza at this site, and the mothing is extraordinary.

Following are a few moth photos from events past, but first, to register for Mothapalooza, CLICK HERE. Hope to see you there!

Ornate Compacta Moth (Compacta capitalis), a rarity but we usually get some notable species such as this.

Harris's Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata), another oddity but one that we usually find in small numbers.

An Io Moth (Automeris io), one of the more frequent silk moths. The silk moths are always crowd-pleasers and we got lots of them, of many species.

Smaller Parasa (Parasa chloris). This is one of the slug moths, and they are some of the more interesting moths in appearance and coloration.

Yellow-based Tussock Moth (Dasychira basiflava). One element of mothing that is great fun is the photography of these creatures. Whether you use an iPhone or Canon R5 or Nikon Z8, it's easy to make interesting imagery of creatures that are seldom seen, thus seldom photographed. I and others are always glad to offer tips on technique.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black-necked Stilts at Howard Marsh


A Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) totters about on its impossibly long bubblegum-pink legs. This is one of two stilts that I saw at Howard Marsh MetroparkHoward Marsh Metropark in Lucas County, Ohio, on May 18 (2024). They appeared to have a nest. While there is a smattering of Black-necked Stilt records from the late 1800's, there were no reports from Ohio until 1967, and the first widely seen bird was at Magee Marsh in 1981 (I got to see that one). Now, this spectacular shorebird is much more regular, and has nested many (most?) years at Howard Marsh since 2018 and has probably bred at a few other sites as well. As many as ten or so stilts have been reported at Howard Marsh this year, so other nests may be in the offing.

Black-necked Stilts were ravaged by unregulated market hunting in the late 19th century which nearly eliminated populations east of the Mississippi River. That, combined with tremendous wetland habitat loss (for example, about 90% of Ohio's wetlands have been destroyed), has made the rebound slow. I suspect they historically nested in the western marshes of Lake Erie and are reclaiming this range. Thanks to Toledo Metroparks for their very successful wetland restoration work at Howard Marsh, which has produced amazing nesting records in a remarkably short time - wetland restoration began not much more than a decade ago. I imaged this stilt on May 18, 2024.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kentucky Lady's-slipper

A trio of Kentucky Lady's-slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense) grow along a small stream in rural northern Kentucky. This site is only about five miles from Ohio - on the other side of the mighty Ohio River - a state in which this orchid has never been found.

On May 12, John Howard, Shauna Weyrauch and I headed across the Ohio River to see this fabulous lady's-slipper. Neither John nor Shauna had seen it before, and I had only clapped eyes on it once, back in 2015 at this spot. As John lives in the area of where Kentucky Lady's-slipper could/should occur if it's in Ohio, it was especially important that he see it in the field and get the search image of the habitat. 

While superficially somewhat similar to the much more common and widespread Large Yellow Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens), C. kentuckiense differs in its taller stature, larger and paler flowers, habitat, and later blooming period.

We saw 18 flowering plants at this Lewis County, Kentucky site, and about five vegetative plants. Note the brownish clumps in the trees in the backdrop of the image above. That's leafy flood debris. Kentucky Lady's-slipper typically grows in areas that are regularly subjected to "flashy" flooding - abrupt high-water events of short duration. All the plants that we saw at this site were in a remarkably defined linear zone around the normal high-water levels ("wrack zone") of the small stream that they grew along. This is the habitat in which the orchid should be sought.

A pair of Kentucky Lady's-slipper flowers. Note the large whitish-yellow flower that is larger than any other of our lady's-slippers other than the utterly different Showy Lady's-slipper (C. reginae). For as large and showy is this species is, it can be easily overlooked. One, flood zones of rather scruffy woodlands along streams is not an A-list habitat for seeking orchids, and two, the pale coloration of the flowers and the often-dense plant life around them can conspire to conceal them from view, at least from afar.

Given its distinctiveness, Kentucky Lady's-slipper went undetected for a surprisingly long time, then endured a period of botanical confusion in regard to what exactly it was or should be called. Merritt Fernald, in his epic Gray's Manual of Botany (1950), makes no mention of this plant even at the varietal level.

However, there were enigmatic reports of a large, peculiar lady's-slipper from Kentucky and probably other southern locales dating to at least the late 1930's. Nothing was published or described though, so the orchid awaited formal "discovery" and description.

In April of 1951, Jim Daulton, who lived in Scioto County, Ohio, was on a fishing trip in Kentucky. A good amateur botanist, Daulton noticed some lady's-slippers that he recognized as decidedly different than the Large Yellow Lady's-slippers that he knew well. Daulton dug two clumps, took them home, and planted them in his garden.

NOTE: I met Jim Daulton early in my botanical career, probably in the early 1990's, at his house. He lived on US Rte. 52 in Scioto County, near the village of Friendship - only about ten miles as the crow flies from the orchid colony in my photos above. I wish that I could recall who I was with that day, but they knew Jim and thought that I might like to meet him, which I very much did. We heard lots about Cypripedium kentuckiense from the man who put it on the map, and those transplanted orchids of his were still thriving.

The transplanted orchids flourished, and Daulton tried to get every botanist that he could find to come look at them. Most ignored him, but botanist Victor Soukup of the University of Cincinnati became interested in Daulton's orchid and made a trip to Kentucky in 1977 to see some wild populations that Daulton pointed him to.

Thoroughly sold on the validity of the as-yet unnamed orchid as a distinct entity, Soukup published a description and diagnosis of it soon after his trip in a publication of the Mid-American Orchid Conference. He named it Cypripedium daultonii after Jim Daulton. However, Soukup omitted a latinized description in his publication, therefore invalidating the name.

In 1981, botanist Clyde F. Reed of Morehead State College published a correct description of the "new" orchid, branding it as Cypripedium kentuckiense - the name we use today. It seems remarkable that such a large, showy, and distinctive orchid could go undetected and unnamed for so long - its naming is more or less modern, having happened only 43 years ago. But the backwoods of Kentucky and much of mountainous Appalachia can be hard to explore, and there are certainly other discoveries awaiting.

Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

As indicated by the map, Kentucky Lady's-slipper has a localized and patchy distribution. Even within the larger gray areas, the plant would be quite local and very scarce overall. It is currently known from - or at least has been known - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. It is considered rare in many or most - all? - of those states.

Finding a new orchid species for Ohio, especially one as large and spectacular as Kentucky Lady's-slipper, would be quite the feat. But it's only five miles from our southern border, although there is a very large river in between. Still, Adams and Scioto counties, Ohio, is a hotbed region for southern disjuncts, many of them at their northern limits and for some, the only populations known from the north side of the Ohio River. I think it's likely that Cypripedium kentuckiense lurks undiscovered somewhere in Adams County or Scioto County.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Green Salamander


A Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus) descends a vertical cliff face, making for an interesting photo perspective.

I returned yesterday from the New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayetteville, West Virginia. From April 29 through May 4, I was leading trips afield, and while so engaged, cannot photograph (at least very little). To atone for that, I got out a few nights to seek amphibians and Green Salamanders were high on my list. Green Salamanders are obligate cliff-dwellers, hiding in fissures during the day and emerging at night to hunt lesser creatures on the rocks and in adjacent trees.

This photo better shows the yellowish-green lichen-like markings. On another, drier night, I saw several Green Salamanders, but they were not out hunting on the cliff faces - they were just peeking from small fissures. The night I took these photos was perfect for amphibian activity. It had rained into the evening; the temperatures were in the mid-60's F and humidity was high. Lots of action, including the first Wehrle's Salamanders (Plethodon wehrlei) I have seen. I'll try to post up some photos of that, and other species, later.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Barred Owl, with a dash of milkwort


A Barred Owl looks at the photographer from atop a broken-off tree. I spotted the owl as it flew through the forest with a squirrel, then plunged into this snag. After a few minutes it popped up, sans squirrel. I'm sure there are a few hungry chicks in there that just got a meaty treat. Shortly thereafter, I saw two young Black Bears high in a tree, but alas, no images. Once they saw that I made them, they scrambled down with surprising speed. Thanks to Paul Speyser for a brief tour of this amazing park. Watoga State Park, Pocahontas County, West Virginia, today.

The remarkable flowers of Fringed Milkwort (Polygala paucifolia) resemble elfin orchids. Dry roadbanks in the forests of Watoga State Park were peppered with the magenta beauties. Companions included Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), and Dwarf Iris (Iris verna).