Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wetlands, Conservation and Waterfowl

as vital to our ecosystems' health as kidneys are to a human's. You may not dwell on their importance, until they are compromised or cease to function.

The keynote speaker at OOS/Columbus Audubon's excellent Waterfowl Symposium illuminated the point with a photo presentation on the century's worst man-made ecological disaster. Quite a claim to fame, achieved by the one and only Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Dr Alwash has been involved in engineering the re-flooding of the southern Iraq marshes, the cradle of mankind and the likely location of Eden. The marsh people of Iraq have thrived here for centuries, co-existing with the land and utilizing the marsh reeds for most of their needs, from fuel to building supplies, until Saddam intentionally left them high and dry. In order to punish the marsh people for rebelling against his power, Saddam drained the marshes- destroying their lives and livelihood.
Today efforts are being made to reintroduce water to this region, once again allowing the marsh reeds to grow and thrive. For the full story, you can go to National Geographic on line and read Iraq's Eden: Reviving the Legendary Marshes.
.......... Photo from Wiki
And while Americans tend to dismiss all reed grasses as undesirable invasives, even the worst of these harbor an abundance of species, from insects, to frogs and birds. And with proper management some very desirable diversity will thrive along the edges of these areas, i.e. Cleveland Museum's Wakerobin Trail.
If you are interested in learning more about wetlands diversity be certain to follow this link to the FOWL organizations link where you will find a registration for an upcoming Managing Wetlands for Biodiversity. Greg Lipps will cover the fauna, while Dr Jim Bissell and John Mack will handily address the flora.
And while you are thinking about wetland conservation... don't forget to purchase your Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp to help purchase wetlands. They are not just for "Ducks!" And to support biodiversity in Ohio, look for this Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp. We will be selling them on the upcoming GMAS trip to Killdeer Plains. So click on our website for details, and plan to meet us there March 6th, 2010. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Return of Jaret Daniels

So who is this Jaret Daniels, and where is he returning? If you are an Ohio Butterfly enthusiast, you'll already know that name. Jaret is the author of Butterflies of Ohio, an amazing little book that covers all the colorful butterfly species found flying in the buckeye state.

The most common, the Spring Azure, a delicate blue beauty (magnified here to 4 times its actual size!) found near woodlots and dappled shade is a fast flier who rarely provides an extended look.

Equally appealing are Red-banded Hairstreaks, just one of our many, similar-looking, gossamer winged hairstreaks. They can be a challenge to sort, but how gratifying would it be to find a rare White-M Hairstreak! It would be the same thrill a birder feels when finding a Mississippi Kite or a Kirtland's Warbler, all three are rarities in Ohio.

If you don't have this book, you'll want to go here and order one.
Butterflies are interesting creatures of diverse habits and habitats. Most are highly selective, with specific host plants needed to maintain their larva. There is such an intimate tie between butterflies and their host plants, it is not surprising that Dr. Jaret Daniels is a botany guy too.
What is surprising, is the fact he would trek all the way from Florida for the third year in a row- just to see the Southern Ohio butterflies and lead a Flora-Quest trip!

So if your wildest dreams include Olive (Juniper) Hairstreaks, or...

the subtle shades of Henry's Elfins, you'll want to beat feet to the Flora-Quest website and download a registration form. You'll have to write in "BUTTERFLY TRIP" as this news is so new- we don't even have it listed yet!
Everyone attending Flora-Quest will get a species list of the butterflies found in Shawnee during the spring, and I hope you'll enjoy these little beasties as much as I do.
Maybe some year we will have to offer a "Caterpillar Quest" too!

Photos and Butterfly chart all provided by John Howard

Sunday, February 21, 2010

X-Country Nirvana

Making the most of our snowy days, I ventured out this morning to try a bit of real cross-country skiing. Surrounded by corn fields and woodlots in mid-Ohio, this is as "cross-country" as it gets. The ice-enhanced snow created the perfect platform to cross acres of plowed fields, usually damp, deep furrowed and difficult to trod .

The temperatures had crept up to the mid 30's, but the snow remained crusted over with a layer of ice, caused by several days of thaw and re-freeze. It was a skier's nirvana which fully supported my weight, spread out on 6 foot of ski surface, above a foot or so of snow. However, the snow conditions quickly became a burden for the beast.

Argus, the butterfly hound, was having a tough go of it. With each step into the snow, he sunk elbow-to-shoulder deep, bringing all progress to a whimpering stand-still.

Fortunately a snowmobile track provided just the right amount of compaction to make mobility possible. He was limited to following the track marks across the fields, but at least he was able to follow along.
This photo reminds me: if you are not the lead dog, the scenery never changes. Argus is definitely the lead dog.

.............. Photo by Dane Adams
The fresh air and sunshine was only enhanced by the calls of the Horned Larks as they scattered throughout the fields. Flocks of these yellow-faced bandit birds spend the best part of winter gathered along the road edges, seeking out cast-off seed (and perhaps salt?) Generally difficult to view in close range, the flocks lift off in a twisting flight, leaving behind only their soft "twinkling"calls.

Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Woodcock- it is always a treat to see what creatures are utilising the creek at our property's edge. Last winter, I witnessed a Bald Eagle cruising through at top speed, lifting an early evening opossum right out of his tracks! Yum-yum. 'Possum, the other white-meat.
Today is was an American Pipit that provided the surprise for our journey. Once called the Water Pipit, these birds are known to work water edges for seed and insects during their migrations. A wagging tail and self-declaration of "pi-pit" were dead giveaways to its identity as it provided the closest looks I have ever seen. Let the migration begin!

* If you haven't registered yet, follow the logo-link on the sidebar to the Waterfowl Symposium! Its all happening in Columbus next weekend and I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mega-fruit for Megafauna?

Did you ever wonder what birding has to do with a Flora-blog? Or how birding might improve one's understanding of botany?

The answers became clear to me this week. As a Weedpicker, I am always curious about the relationship between plants and animals. And while enjoying good looks at Green Lawn Cemetery's Merlin (Jim McCormac has that story), I started asking questions about trees.

In particular, the fruit of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus has always intrigued me. It is so large, and heavily armored... what could possible eat it? Certainly, no birds have bills adapted for the task.

.................Photo by Bruce Marlin credit Wiki

Or the fruit of the Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera- what utilizes this large fruit? Is its seed only distributed by rolling downhill and floating along creeks? Or by the ballistic practises of 10 year old boys?

A fascinating article addressing these questions appeared in Whit Bronaugh's article Trees that Miss the Mammoths make a compelling case for the mega-fauna being the primary seed dispersal for these two plants in particular, and others as well.

No wonder it did not add up in my brain, it has been a while since we've seen giant ground-sloths in my neighborhood, but by evolutionary standards- the 13,000 years since they became extinct is much like last Tuesday. The trees are just now starting to take notice, and may have to adapt to new seed dispersal strategies or die out. And that my friend, is the stuff of Mendel and Darwin.

To read the full article from American Forest go here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dramatic Dragonflies

Since I've been in the mood for dragonflies, John Howard sent me some of his best finds from 2009. I've been drooling over this file of incredible dragonflies, each one is better than the next... and hopefully, you'll enjoy them too!

Blue Corporal - this one was found in Adams County- is a real rarity in the rest of the state. It was big news when several of these were found a year or so ago.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg- is an impressive beast. It may only measure in at 2" but it looks mighty serious with those jagged spines on the hind legs. I have never seen this "uncommon" dragonfly, but John's photo of one perched on Ironweed, Vernonia sp. makes a picture suitable for framing.

Can these eyes be mistaken for anything but an Emerald? It is a Clamp-tipped Emerald, in fact. Again, an uncommon species in Ohio, named for the male's obvious-looking cerci (these are for some serious business with the lady clamp-tails.)

An utterly gorgeous photo of Slaty Skimmer, probably not as rare as most of the others shown here, but this photo was so beautiful, it simply begged to be shown. And it is a good one to be familiar with, as it is very similar to the much rarer Spangled Skimmer (which would have a speck of white along with the black dot on the wing stigma.)
Have patience and learn one or two at a time, and they are not as confusing as they first seem. Dragonflies can be sorted by habitats and behaviors as well as color. Be aware that dragons are often sexually dimorphic and the males and females can vary greatly. It only adds to the adventure!

Again, special thanks to John Howard for allowing me to share these wonderful photos. If you ever want a real challenge, try to photograph some dragonflies!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wetland Plants and Dragonfly Fever

Seasons change in due time, and I am not one to push them. Each one has something special to offer- winter: snow skiing, spring: wildflowers and warblers, summer: dragonflies!

Oh man, I miss those dragonflies and the lovely wetland plants.

Gorman Nature Center has a pond edged in Pickerel-weed, Pontederia cordata. This is one of my favorite spots to watch the wild-winged dragons in pursuit for food, mating and fighting. That pretty much sums up a dragonfly's lifestyle. It is just like an aquatic Las Vegas- without the gambling.

A river edge dragonfly, the American Rubyspot is commonly found hiding amongst Water- willow, Justicia americana. This beaut was photographed along the Batelle-Darby, which will be the location of the upcoming Great Lakes Odonata Meeting- July 9-11, 2010.

Keep an eye on the Ohio Odes website for details.

Ah, a once in a lifer: Carolina Saddlebags (on a sedge, possibly Carex lacustris?), this is one worth longing to see. Maybe 2010 will be my lucky year again.

Least Clubtail is a bit of a rarity, found along the edge of the Black Fork in the Ashland park of the same name. This will be one of the field trip locations for the Managing Wetlands for Biodiversity Workshop- Ashland April 10, 2010, hosted by GMAS and FOWL.

And the coolest ever, Mr. Dragonfly himself (don't tell him I said that... ;) Dr. Dennis Paulson (shown here with Mary Jo White) who was infinitely patient with beginners at the Ohio Dragonfly Conference in 2007.

So if you like dragonflies and wetland plants... high-tail it over to the Friends of Wetlands (FOWL) website and sign up for the workshop on Saturday April 10. John Mack and Jim Bissell will be on hand to teach us the ins and outs of wetland plants (can't have dragonflies without them.) And the added kicker: Greg Lipps, the salamander king!
Hope to see you there!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oh, Blackwater...

As Bill Thompson III occasionally says, "The song in my head is ..."

Catfish are jumpin'

That paddle wheel pumping

Black water keep rollin' on past just the same...

The Doobie Brother's anthem to the Mississippi is just as appropriate to the black waters of the St. Johns river cypress swamp in Florida. Dark and dank hardly begins to describe it. Even with the fresh emerald carpet of spring, a offering to January's sun, the swamp projected haunting chill. It felt as there was nothing for miles but 'gator teeth and snakes for company.

The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum bore witness to previous black waters, the tannins permanently etch the high water lines onto the trunks.

As we exit the swamp, an island of cabbage palms sported the highly recognizable Red-faced Mullet Bird, sometimes known as the Crested Caracara. This species is endangered in Florida and generally known only to small portion of central Florida, Texas and Mexico.

............................Crested Caracara photo by Greg Cornett

A member of the Falcon family, these nearly two foot high birds with a 4 ft. wingspan are easily recognized at any speed or distance. Often found feeding on carrion in open savanna or grassland habitat, you'll not mistake this guy for a vulture.
Which brings to mind another tune: Oh, carrion my wayward son...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Florida's Gentle Giants

Florida's living legacy is a gentle giant of a fresh-water leviathan. The manatee, locally called "sea cows" are struggling for survival due to habitat destruction, boat-impeller injuries, and dredging. And if life wasn't tough enough for these already endangered animals, the extended cold snap in Florida has contributed to over 70 deaths in the last month alone.

We scoured the regular locations in the coastal regions but the manatees were no longer there due to the water temperatures. Manatee historically ride out cold weather snaps in warmer- fresh water fed springs. Fellow birder and RRI Energy rep, Bill Baker had generously opened tours for Space Coast birders to witness manatees gathered at the warm-water out-flows of their power plants (just like the winter gulls in Cleveland!)

Unfortunately, that did not fit within our schedule, so we were forced to travel an hour north of Orlando to witness the gathering at Blue Springs.

The trip to Blue Springs did not disappoint! The crystal clear water and evergreen vegetation was a a stark contrast to the murky black waters oft the St. James cypress swamp. Manatees were lined up along the banks by the hundreds! Note the big gray masses in the water, it's our 1000 pound manatees at the winter spa! It must take a lot of leafy-greens to keep a herd this size fed. For more general West Indian Manatee info -click here-.

Occasionally, one would swim past the viewing deck where the manatee fans had gathered. This youngster, probably a mere 400-500 lbs, bore large white gashes on his tail- scars remaining from massive injuries this calf must have suffered. Power-boats and manatees do not mix... and the slow moving manatees are the big losers. "No wake" zones and speed reduction laws have been passed in an effort to protect this declining species, and all manatees seen in zoos and aquaria are on a rehab from some injury or other. When they heal and are deemed worthy of release- they are shipped back to Florida for release in the wild. Cincinnati Zoo has a manatee scheduled for release later this month (Lindsey, the zoo keeper, is a close family friend.)

Playful, gentle, sweet- the most apt words to describe these giants. Pictured rolling in the waters, it was fascinating to watch the interaction between the manatees and the plecostomus (algae eating fish) who seemed to enjoy catching a ride, and a snack, on the manatee's backs.

How about a big kiss? Easy to love, and yet in heart-breaking danger. Manatee studies have indicated they are headed towards extinction if any more than 17 manatee deaths occur in a given year. Last count I read, over 100 deaths had already occurred this year, and the cold-water pneumonia is likely to take its worst tolls in the coming week.
Daughter JJ has several rescue manatees at Seaquarium in Miami and I'll try to follow their progress. Let's hope they are able to be released to the wilds again.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Florida Wetlands by Air-boat

The Space Coast Birding event was a great excuse to visit Titusville, Florida and some relatives we have stashed down there- in case of inclement weather. It is always fun to be led about by the locals, and one never knows what you'll see or do.

Captain Mike adjusts the protective head-sets and speaker system before our take off.

With the wind in our faces, the air-boat screamed across the flood plains of the St. Johns river, which is more like a vast, slow-flowing artisan fed wetlands. This drainage basin of over 8,800 square miles flows north and is the only river in Florida to do so.

Seen from the bow of our boat, miles of channels flowing lazily through islands of wetlands and swamp. The predominate trees are Red Maple- Acer rubrum, Bald Cypress- Taxodium distichum and islands of Cabbage Palms- Sable palmetto. The grasses... I'll never know.

.......................................................(C(click to enlarge)
As we cruised to a halt at the base of a tree, we noticed the inhabitants of an old Blue Heron's nest. These masked bandits had burgled the joint and settled in for a snooze. It is not a good idea for these guys to sleep at ground level, and you soon see why.

Our guide claims this particular 16 mile stretch of the St Johns is known to have an estimated 14,000 alligators living within its waters- and the cooler weather Florida experienced in January had them all in basking mode. Every hummock and flat spot seemed to be sporting a sunbathing beauty, and the bigger one on the right was a good 8 to 9 foot long.

Hello big guy! He was just a little more up close and personal than the Weedpicker needed! Of all the habitats and locations I have ever ventured, this may be the first time where I DID NOT get out to take a closer look at some plant or tree.
I sure liked the air-boat. Just keeping in the air-boat, thanks!