Friday, October 29, 2010

Corvid Canyon

Many folks go west to see the expansive scenery, and of all the glorious sights- nothing could be more famous than the Grand Canyon. However, in honor of this ambassador to birding, I would like to rename this section: Corvid Canyon.

Common Ravens rule much of the west, and along this wall, he is the cock-of-the-walk. While often written off by the uninformed as just crows-on-steroids, these jumbo sized Corvids are highly intelligent and long noted for their problem-solving abilities. Ravens are common throughout the south-west and greatly revered in Native American legends. As omnivores, their varied diet allow them to prosper on the bleakest habitats as well as lush woodland edges. This handsome one was not above snacking on tourist left-overs when presented with opportunity.

Just over the raven's shoulder was one of the most scenic overlooks in Arizona. We returned to this same spot several times, as it offered spectacular views and a good variety of Corvids. We found not only ravens, but several species of jays that I had hoped to locate as well.

The Western Scrub Jays were obvious, acting much in the manner we would expect from our own eastern Blue Jays.

However, the Pinion Jays were fast and flighty, determined not to be photographed. PJ's are a bit smaller and more evenly blue than the other jays present. They flocked together, hard at work gathering pinion cone seeds.

The gaudiest of the jays, the dark headed Stellar's Jay was also present at this stop. He loudly squawked at me from within the pine trees but refused any photo opportunities, as well.

So I returned to the overlook wall to spend quality time with my favorite Raven, and we both admired the view.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zion's American Dipper

What is a trip out west without big expansive scenery? The kind that barely fits on a jumbo-tron screen, much less a 4x6 postcard. Here is a view you fairly need to breath in: mountain, sky, river and shore.

The Riverside Walk is the gate way to The Narrows at Zion National Park in Utah. The trail head begins at The Temple of Sinawava, this vertical wall nearly 3,000 feet tall. Water and time carved the canyon out of the Navajo sandstone, and man has but a brief history shared with this ancient temple.

We took the earliest bus possible to the the far end of Zion's canyon. The morning mist hung clouds on the mountain tops, as we disembarked at our station. It also needs to be said, Zion has the most efficient transportation system and the world's most eco-friendly tourism. It should be a model for all National Parks.

I admit I was fairly obsessed with the possibility of seeing a water ouzel, currently known as the American Dipper. More than any other western species, this is the bird I longed to see. If ever it was to be, it would have to be here, in the portion of the North Fork of the Virgin River that best approximates a fast running stream. The Riverwalk would be our best opportunity to see this amazing aqua-phile .

And soon, we spotted the basic gray form dipping about in the rapids. Unlike any other North American passerine, the American Dipper dives underwater for aquatic insects and invertebrates. Soon my camera card was filled, how could I ever get enough photos of this bird?
The only left to do was to film it in action, and with any luck this video will work for you. Once you have seen the mesmerizing American Dipper in action, you'll know why I simply had to see this bird!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Meeting Aliens in the Desert

Just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada the terrain to the west becomes fairly daunting. Ironically, there was rain forecasted for much of our trip, but we considered it a real blessing to see storms on the desert. It made the temperatures most bearable (60-70's most of the time) and were fortunate to witness this sight...

a rainbow stretched across the arid desert sands. This was far more interesting to me than any slot-machine or casino. Desert ecosystems are varied, and as fascinating as their polar opposites- our wetlands. The flats of the Mojave were much different in plant and animal communities than the high plain's desert of the Sonora Desert regions.

So, for a real good time, head west from Vegas towards Death Valley, California.
The scenery starts to look all the same, but keep a sharp eye out- this is where we found a fast flying Prairie Falcon. He must have been eking a living off of lizards and the ground squirrels. Not far from this location, Ash Meadows Wetlands- yes, a wetlands in the desert- is a National Wildlife Refuge filled with springs bubbling out of the ground onto alkaline flats. It should not come as a surprise that great rarities live in this isolated, and bizarre, ecosystem.
And when this sign appeared just off route 95, I thought it was quite the joke. However, after Googling around a bit... I'm not laughing anymore. Yes, there are plenty of alien life form web sites promoting UFO sighting and such in the desert, which are most likely due to the testing of new top-secret air craft. But far more frightening to me is the history of radio-active bombs tested at area 51, and the proposed Yucca Mountain dump site for nuclear waste. I guess most folks don't care as long as it is not in their own backyard.
We did see some aliens along Rt 95- as there are several area state preserves designated for wild horses and wild burros. A wild population of burros has been living in these flats since the Spaniards arrived with them a few centuries ago.
Wild Burro, Equus asinus- I suspect even an ass could see that we humans don't use much sense when it come to despoiling our own planet.
A sign in one of the tourist shops promoted the Native American wisdom: A frog does not drink up the pool in which he lives.
I bet the burros agree.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Different View

A recent tour of the Southwest has my head spinning and my camera card bulging with new photos to share with you. But mostly, it is a new "sense of life" attitude I hope to share. On this trip we were rewarded over and over when we stopped to look carefully, while so many other people were in a hurry to go on by.

A California Sister butterfly- a bit worn and tattered and yet so beautifully colored from the underside. At first I didn't recognize this southwestern beauty, alighted just above my eye level. It was waiting out a misting rain in a portion of the Mojave desert associated with Red Rocks Canyon. Normally, these fast fliers are but a streak of black and white as they dart high over head in the heat of the day. I was never able to train my camera on the fleet-winged wonders!

A most common butterfly for the southwest, but a wondrous sight for someone seeking new adventures and new butterflies. This tattered old specimen offered the close inspection I had been craving- and a very different point of view.

From his desert perch, a White-tail Antelope Squirrel, enjoys a bit of late fall sun. To my untrained eyes it would pass for a chipmunk, but these specialty rodents are adapted to life in the desert. While they generally avoid the heat of mid-day, our visit coincided with cooler weather, when antelope squirrels bask to help maintain higher body temperatures.
As other people raced on by, I felt sorry they were missing all the wonders of nature! And I realised nature is for those of us who chose to see it, and hopefully nature will help us ponder our other choices in life as well.

For instance, our return flight was delayed several hours by President Obama's visit to Utah. And while the airport was shut down as Air Force One prepared to leave the tarmac, people's responses to the inconvenience amused me.

For some of us, it was just another moment of experience in a lifetime of moments. For those of us who have learned infinite patience waiting out moment in hospitals, this was barely an inconvenience. In fact, it provided quite a side show, really. And yet for others, they could barely contain their anger and impatience. Did it get them off the ground a moment sooner? No.
So it is all a matter of perspective. Whether you are butterfly or bird watching, enjoying the rain on a desert or seeing Wild Burros on free range. Life is an amazing adventure, and I can't wait to share a few more of our adventures in the Southwest with you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wetland Research

Take it from those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time in wetlands: wetlands are a beautiful thing. Not only filled with lovely flora and extremely high in biodiversity, we know they are "good for you" too. Wetlands are the "kidneys" of our land, filtering water, draining off nitrates and sequestering carbon as well.

And whether they are a native wetland, or a created wetland, studies show both are effective in providing many of the benefits and habitat requirements for many species. And while man-made wetlands are not quite on a par with native wetlands in amphibian (especially salamanders) diversity, they can provide effective water overflow management, and are well worth the investment for developers and homeowners alike.


Here is a recent study from Ohio State featured in Science Daily that show some of a man-made wetlands merits. That is great, as long as we first protect natural wetlands, and do not promote the idea that destroying wetlands is OK - if you just replace it.

Man made wetlands certainly work well for many plant species and insects that can colonize "new" wetlands- like this Slaty Skimmer.
However, the delicate balance of a Cedar Bog or the Sheldon Marshes didn't happen in a decade or two. While we have many benefits from creating "new" wetlands, remember some of the rarest species in Ohio - both flora and fauna - are only found in the ancient gatherings of water.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Down -but not out- at Hoover

The shorebird migration has dwindled to a trickle of the late comers to Ohio: the last ones to past through, and some who may possibly be injured or weak.

Photo by Greg Cornett-
The water at Hoover Reservoir is way down too, in fact it may well be the lowest the water has been in years. Hoover may be under more "pressure" to produce, as several other public water systems are besieged with toxic algae.
One must look close to see the Least Sandpiper and a Pectoral making their way across the stone rip-rap along the edge, far from the view of the well loved birding pier at Galena. The water is way down from normal levels and access is limited.

Leslie and Cheryl navigating Hoover- photo by Greg Cornett
Friends Greg and Leslie Cornett recently invited me to kayak across Hoover Reservoir in search of shorebirds. It enabled us to get to where the shorebirds had congregated- far from the sight of the landlubbers. We gently glided along the water, and while the number of shorebirds had long since peaked....

American Golden-Plover photo by Greg Cornett
... "rock"bar was hiding plovers. Watching them a bit produced this interesting find: a lovely American Golden-Plover. Sorting Golden's from black-bellied plovers is more complicated now their breed plumage is past. Look for clues in their body shape and general mass. Goldens are a bit smaller, and their head is far more elegant and dove-like.
These are long-distant migrants who often fly right over or around Ohio with no stop-off. The adults leave their arctic breeding grounds in the summer, and these were likely the juveniles- which leave in late summer or fall. We are wishing them the best for their first trip to South America where they will winter.

Kayaking may well be your blogger's favorite way to see shorebirds. It is incredible how little attention shorebirds give to humans in a kayak, which allowed us to see the birds up close and personal. Apparently, we don't register as a "fear" for the long and short legged waders, or they're too busy thinking, "So what's up with that hat?"

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Turtles and Duckweed

As the last warm days of fall are winding down, I find myself amused by the gathering of turtles along the Alta Rd. wetlands of the Richland County B & O Bike Trail. These Midland Painted Turtles must sense winter is on its way, as they assemble in numbers, grabbing the last opportunity for a sun bath before the winter winds blow.

And maybe not a cute as the shell-backed sunners, but equally interesting...

is the Duckweed floating on the water and gathered upon the shells of many of the aquatic creatures.

As a plant enthusiast, I must admit I never gave this small aquatic plant a second thought until Steve McKee of Gorman Nature Center gave a program on them. These versatile plants are a primary foods for many ducks (well, duh!) and fish. In Vietnam it is being commercially grown as poultry and livestock food. But the most incredible reading comes from research on the use of duckweed to "clean" hog lots and the resulting discovery that duckweed can produce 5 to 6 times more starch than corn, and would be far more efficient for the production of ethanol!

Classic! With so many good things to recommend this magical, miniature plant, most of the web links you'll find are linked to prevention or controls to eradicate it!
Duckweed: so minuscule... so misunderstood.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Search of the "Common"

Morning dew dances, micro-beads of moisture on viper-tongued flora.

Peeking out of the rarest of the bluestem grass, these coastal little blues found on Headlands' shore.

As birders search for fall migration, an alien catches my wandering eye.

Viper's Bugloss, Echium vulgare an uncommon, "common" weed I haven't seen in a decade. Not since I noted its pink blossoms turning blue along the Marblehead Quarry. Roadside or lakeside, weed with out-streched stamens, this brillant blue has captured my mind for years.

This outcast - an alien- lover of impossible sands and soils, finds an open space, tenatively sends down root and makes herself at home. "Bloom where you are planted," they say.
Hello old friend, so you have moved to Headlands. Who knew I would find you here?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Headlands at Dawn

One of greater Cleveland's most noted hot-spots for birds, Headlands Beach ( Mentor, Ohio) was just one of the locations for OOS field trips last weekend.

Northern Saw-whet Owl- photo by Judy Semroc

Near the main entrance to the beach front trail, a Northern Saw-whet Owl was found resting in a tree. These micro-owls, not much larger than a man's fist, are known for daytime napping in grapevine tangles. They can be extremely difficult to locate- even when you know where to look! But once they are found, they seem tolerate the annoying human presence with aplomb.

After sufficient gawking at the owl, our group proceeded to the grass covered sand dunes just beyond the beach. We were in search of warblers and rare sparrows, but we were not above looking at any common species either. While the rest of the group focused on the Eastern Bluebirds, Swamp Sparrows, and a couple of Nashville Warblers, I became more interested in what they were feeding on.

The predominate grass, with arching, fuzzy seed heads, is the state listed Coastal Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium littorale. Any disturbance of the stems sent up a puff of airborne midges- the perfect migrating warbler fuel. As swirling insects were rising with the sunlight and warming temperatures, birds began feeding mid-air.

Want birds? Find their food source. And while botany does not drive midge production, it was certainly providing habitat for them.

Often called "Muffleheads" due to the feathery antennae on the males, these nearly invisible fliers are fascinating if you take a closer look!

Most species of Chironomid midges should be considered beneficials- and do no harm- other than the annoyance they create for some homeowners. They are often listed as bio-indicators, and a measure of a healthy ecosystem, but most of the interesting reading on the fuzzy headed bird-food is produced by agencies promoting means for killing them. I would think you might use ecological controls, like promoting Eastern Bluebirds as a means to control them. However, most publications promote electrocution (bug zappers), poisoning the aquatic nymphs or spraying the adults without impunity.

Kind of makes it hard for a warbler to eek out a living, doesn't it?

Two of the most amazing field trip leaders, Judy Semroc and Larry Rosche clearly understand the connection between nature's gift of insects and our beloved birds. It is not a matter of taking the good with the bad, but rather understanding nature is many things... and beauty can be found even in the life-cycle of a fuzzy-headed midge.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

OOS Rocks Cleveland

It is my good fortune to be on the board of one of Ohio's largest and most active birding organizations. Each year we gather to hold our annual meeting and conference, and this year we rocked Cleveland, at the beautiful Radisson in Eastlake .

This morning was filled with field trips and a Lake Erie pelagic. Our group met up at Dike 14 - the only undeveloped land within eye-shot of downtown Cleveland. It is the remains of a dredging operation's spoil pile, and now offers some of the best sparrow watching in Cleveland.

Our stellar group of leaders, including Craig Caldwell, Dan Sanders and Jim McCormac helped us sort out the host of fall migrants. We even determined that every birder in Ohio has been on at least one Jim McCormac-led field trip, somewhere, sometime.

It was my honor to present Jim with a gift from the whole society, in honor of his 6 years dedicated to the OOS as the Inaugural President. From its humble beginnings - a letter of interest from Ed Pierce which started a series of small group meeting in Wooster, Ohio- the OOS was "fledged" in 2004. Combined with with Jim's first book release- Birds of Ohio- it was a perfect storm.

Jim relentlessly toured the state giving programs and book signings, all the while promoting OOS. His enthusiasm for birding and conservation was the eye of the OOS hurricane, and in a few short years membership sky-rocketed to nearly 800.

A photo of Jim's award- a Black Scoter.
OOS has given a number of awards in the past-lovely duck decoys- created by Tim and Laura Dornan. Usually we give a Wood Duck, but we knew Jim's heart has been set on adding a Black Scoter to his personal collection of "Dornan Decoys." Special thanks to Tim and Laura for helping us pull this off!

The Keynote Speaker was Drew Wheelan of the ABA, on the Deepwater Disaster.

OOS is donating half of our proceeds to a Gulf Relief effort, and half to the Safe Flight program headed up by Harvey Webster at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

There were two awesome days of field trips, and many of us got two see Nelson's and LeConte's Sparrows at Wake Robin Trail. We counted ourselves very lucky. It was a wonderful conference, and the field trips were full of fall migration birds.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Looking forward to Headlands

OOS' 6th annual Conference is this weekend and I am so looking forward to returning to Mentor Headlands Beach. This is one of Ohio's most scenic birding locations and too good of an opportunity to pass up!

When the beach is this beautiful...

and you are birding beside one of Ohio's historic lighthouses, it is worth the trip. Life is good when you are sharing the day with friends, enjoying some botany and last year- we even saw a "life" mammal!
Harry- the Hairy-tailed mole was skittering around in the beach sand. His fuzzy white tail made for a quick ID. Maybe he just wanted to take in the scenic view as well.

And just a couple miles down the road from the beach you find Wake Robin Trail.
It provides perfect sparrow habitat and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows were seen in numbers here. We got our binoculars trained for several good looks at the skulkers found here last year. That is when we formulated a little Sparrow logic: if is was perched up- it was a Song Sparrow, if it dove down and tucked into the weeds- that was the likely Nelson's.

And what does a sparrow to eat while migrating? Smartweed seeds. Several species of smartweed, including Pennsylvania Polygonum pensylvanicum, Water-pepper Polygonum hydropiper and Arrow-leaved Tearthumb Polygonum sagittatum grow along the boardwalk, providing seeds for the little skulkers.

Another smartweed aficionado, a Smeared Dagger Moth caterpillar makes good use of the leaves of these same plants.

So whether we get any rare birds this year, or not, it is never a wasted day when we are able to enjoy some of nature's ample offerings. Good birding, and more, to you. Hope to see you at Headlands!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

6th Annual OOS Conference

The OOS is proud to bring ABA's Drew Wheelan to our conference on October 9th. We hope you will join us for the full conference, but if you are unable to attend the entire weekend's festivities, you can now sign up forDrew's Saturday night presentation.

Drew will present a first-hand account of the effects of the disaster in theGulf on birds and bird habitat, and subsequent efforts to clean it up. He will also examine wildlife response efforts and behind-the-scenes politics, including rehabilitation and recovery efforts. You can read Drew's blog at:

Please visit the OOS website for further details, or click on the link under the announcement of our 6th Annual Conference in the side bar of this blog.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October Asters

Nothing says "Fall" like the bloom of asters. With a vast array of species represented in Ohio, one can only hope to learn a few new species each year and go for the long term achievement.

Steve McKee (Richland Co. Parks) and Jim Bissell ( Cleveland Museum Nat. History) both give excellent programs which offered keys to Ohio's asters, if you are serious about learning them. Either key is an welcomed resource for sorting this confusing species.

Shale Barren Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium is a major rarity only found in three of Ohio's counties. This one was found on the edge of Lynx Prairie in Adams County. Of all the asters, the Shale Barren could be recognized by site affiliation and the enlarged buds- which have a swollen appearance.

Also known as aromatic aster, this creeping flower is right at home in stone barrens, and would make a likely candidate for a rock garden. There are a surprising number of "on-line" plant nurseries offering this gem.

And when is an "Aster" not an aster? When it is Golden Aster (aka Maryland Goldenaster), Chrysopsis mariana. True, this southern species and warm weather friend is in the Asteraceae family, but it is not found in the genus we know as "asters." Not that it would matter to anyone but a botanist. Everyone else seems to enjoy this little yellow aster at face value. What's not to love?

And one parting shot of the Stiff Aster, Ionactis linariifolius - seen in yesterday's post. Its stiff needle-like leaves make it a stand-out among the asters. This, too, could make a smashing rock garden plant if sited properly.

Enjoy your fall weekend, and pay particular attention to the many species of asters out there!~