Sunday, January 30, 2011

Snipe Hunt!

A few more photos from Ohio's Amish country-

While looking for a few good birds last week, we enjoyed some of the best Amish country scenes:

Nothing is more picturesque than these corn fields in winter. Not only are the corn shocks pleasing to the eye, a reminder of the "old ways" of farming, they also provide shelter for wildlife.

Small birds and mammals, such as mice and voles, find these fields more habitable than the corn stubble in my neighborhood. Modern farming practises leave very little behind for the critters.

We took our time searching along the natural stream beds running between the fields. Note this stream has not become a victim of the modern practise of channelizing. Too often in agricultural areas, streams are dug out- wider and deeper- to accommodate the torrential run-off created by drain-tiling fields. This "modern" farming practise creates erosion and reduces habitat for birds, fish and wildlife of all kinds. Not to mention, the silt and chemical pollution flowing in stream and rivers eventually finds its way into the Ohio River, the Mississippi and on down to the Gulf of Mexico.

A wide grassy bottomed flow is just the place to look for wintering Wilson's Snipe. Once called the Common Snipe, these birds are more abundant than one might imagine. Their excellent camouflage makes them difficult to locate in their preferred habitats. We counted five in this stream alone.

Brr... it must be chilly working for a living in that icy water! Foraging with heads under water- here they are- successfully waiting out winter on the edge of a stream. It can't be an easy life, but perhaps they know the Amish saying:
There is only one way to fail, that's to quit.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Barnyard Birding

What Ohio bird is more associated with Amish farms than the Barn Owl? Certainly well-tended Purple Martins are more numerous, but nothing says "Amish barn" like the presence of this unusual heart-faced sentential.

........... .......... Athena from Ohio Bird Sanctuary -photo by Hugh Rose.

Looking a bit ethereal in their white-fronted garb, they only blink at us, standing beneath their lofty perch. The under-side is the only view I have ever garnered of a free-flying, or rather, free-to-fly owl. We are careful to be quiet and not to disturb.

Perched high in the top of a silo or barn rafter, these birds pass the day napping and waiting for the cover of night. Barn Owls are denizens of the dark -silent and deadly killers at night. Meadow voles beware, for you will never hear the wing beats of an owl until it is too late.

Why is it that Barns Owls like the Amish? The farming traditions of the Amish have not changed as radically as the practices on a commercial farm. The are plenty of pastures for draft horses and livestock (and mice), corn is shocked in the field overwinter, and few pesticides or herbicides are used. Some might call it a "back to nature" attitude, but in fact, it is more of a "never left" the basic principles of nature. After all, with steady work and an unhurried pace, the Amish know: You can't make good hay with poor grass.

Some farmers are also known to help the Barn Owls a bit by offering nesting boxes. Owls are cavity nesters, and these boxes provide a safe home for their young. Not all Barn Owls remain for the winter, and those that do may find it difficult to find enough food when there is snow on the ground. The resident owl in this barn has its diet ocasionally supplimented with Morning Dove. However, it lives peacably enough with the Rock Pigeons occupying the same space.
Larry Richardson found several of the owls pellets while we visited with the property owner. Owls are unable to digest bone and fur from their prey, which are regurgitated as a pellet. These have a consistency and look not unlike a giant hairball from a cat.

It is always fascinating to tear apart the pellet to see exactly what the bird has been feeding upon. This pellet contained four mouse or vole skulls. That seemed like quite a record to me! I hope it is proof that this Barn Owl is healthy and happy and may produce a box full of owlets in the next few months.
Now THAT would be a sight to see!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Castalia's Cold Creek

Winter in Ohio. Sure, it is not sunny Florida, but if you are here- you might as well roll with it! So I managed to get out for a couple hours on Saturday and visit the Ohio waterfowl spa: Castalia's Cold Creek.

Castalia Ohio is known for its "Cold Creek" rising up from a spring, the water temperature barely changes and it never freezes. The tourist site "Blue Hole" is no longer open, but this small town's fish hatchery is famed for its trout, stocked since the mid 1800's, which adapt well to the cold water stream.

Just north of the junction of Rts 6 and 269 in Sandusky, the cold creek empties into the Sandusky Bay. This area provide excellent fishing for a wintering population of Bald Eagles.

And if you go behind the Cold Creek Trout camp to this parking area..

one can find the most amazing assemblage of winter Black-crowned Night-herons I have seen gathered in Ohio. This would make a wonderful photographic opportunity as the birds are as close as I have ever seen them. The BCNH are spectacular looking birds, and always a thrill for me.

On to Castalia! The center of town features this large pond, a regular "spa" for wintering ducks and geese. You can see the warmth (probably a balmy 47 degrees...) provided by the underground springs.

The ducks and geese like it just fine, and enjoy basking in the open water when all the surrounding streams and ponds are frozen over.

A view of picturesque downtown Castalia

Greater Mohican Audubon and The Wilderness Center teamed up for a little birding, and it was pleased to run into friends at one of Ohio's premiere waterfowl winter resorts. A scene like this reminds me just how beautiful winter can be.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why Trees Matter

Is there anything in nature that is more taken for granted, than the tree?
People forget to enjoy them for their beauty, the shade they create, increased property values... and of course lumber. But a fascinating program produced by the OSU Extension has discovered tree lined streets are safer, because more people gather in these neighborhoods.

Yes, the beauty of a Tulip Tree, Liriodendren tulipifera in bloom is undeniable.

And consider this Hickory with deep crevasses of bark to hold wintering butterflies and beetles in all forms.

Or the chestnut. A keystone species in America, once the predominate tree of our Ohio forest, wiped out in our parent's generation. Our American variety is all but gone, now only this poor imitation and disease carrying Chinese Chestnut species survives.

Or the mighty Bur Oaks, Quercus macrocarpa growing on a prairie landscape, providing nuts for wildlife and leaves for a host of those butterfly-want-to-be: caterpillars!

.................ReMoRegal Moth larva photo by John Howard
Awesome creations of every imaginable form, some with prickly sticky-out parts, and others with the soft down of a Woolly Bear. by Dane Adams

Native woodpeckers, searching for grubs and signing possession of their trees with signature hole. These Red-headed Woodpeckers - now rare enough to be cherished by any bird enthusiast- what would we do without them?

....... .....Flying squirrel photo Warren Uxley
And what of the creatures of the night? The Flying Squirrel, winter serenading woodland owls, and the nearly luminescent Luna moths plying their trade- unseen in the night air.
These are a few of the reasons why trees matter to me. If you would like to learn more about trees, I encourage you to learn more by joining our local Master Gardeners. There is a tab a the top of this web-site to click on for more details.
Or, sign up for Flora-Quest to hear about the amazing trees of Shawnee Forest, from none other than Jim McCormac- one of Ohio's best botanists. He will be the kick-off speaker for the botanical/ birding adventure you'll never forget.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bayberry in winter

The last few weeks have found me rather preoccupied, but fortunately I still get to botanize vicariously through my friends' photos. Coming to us from Salt Fork State Park is the following picture.

..................Photo Kathy Mock

My friend Kathy had been birding there and wondered about the identity of this plant with blueish berries. She was excited to see a good number of Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on the shrub.

.....................Photo Kathy Mock
The habitat shot: note the nearby cattails, a sure-fire precursor of wetlands. Although this plant is only native to the sandy or boggy areas of northeast Ohio, it all added up in my mind, as Northern Bayberry, Morella pensylvanica (formerly Myrica pensylvanica)

Bayberry is better known from the northeastern states- like Vermont- where I was first introduced to the clean "winter" scent of bayberry. The berries are heavily coated with a wax-like substance which is rendered into fragrant candles.

These attractive plants have dark glossy foliage, great for adding fragrance to arrangements and wreaths. The only reason I can possibly fathom for not owning several bayberries is the fact I've never seen them for sale! Just looking at these photos has me absolutely scheming to find some in 2011.

.........................Photo by Dave Lewis

And what about those birds Kathy saw? They were flocks of Yellow-rumped warblers, formerly called Myrtle Warblers. Wax-myrtle, a close relative to bayberry, is another irresistible member of the Myricaceae family. Yellow-rumps are one of the very few birds, and the only warblers, able to digest the waxy substance on these berries. Long noted for feeding extensively on the berries throughout the cold winter months, this ability may provide an edge over other warbler species and allow the normally insectivorous birds a more northern winter range.

And how did that bayberry patch get in Salt Fork? It is not likely to have been planted, as most folks don't landscape their wetlands. A better guess: the Yellow-rumps planted this winter Eden from seeds passed through their digestive tracks. I wholly approve!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Vivacious Viburnums

Attractive spring flowers, large blue fruits, and fabulous fall color- all recommend two native Ohio viburnums: Nannyberry and Black-haw.

Birds and small animals rely on this family of woodland plants to supplement their diets.

But with thirteen varieties of viburnums growing in our natural areas, they can become a bit confusing. I especially find it difficult to keep these two similar species straight in my mind.

The Woody Plants of Ohio, by E. Lucy Braun is the best guide for sorting woody natives. Some of the Latin names have changed slightly, since it is older than the hills, but the line drawings are excellent and I'll risk copying a page for you. Hopefully, I won't be sent to prison for a copyright infringement.

A close look at the buds is the best way to sort these species. Black-haw or V. prunifolium on the top left- has a heavier, rounded bud and rounder leaf. Nannyberry, V. lentago (top- right) has an elongated beak-like bud, and the leaf is more elliptical.

I doubt the birds care one bit which of these two species is available, either suits them fine. Both are excellent sources of nutrition and attract wildlife; the fall color is just a bonus.

And if you are interested in learning more about plants for your landscape that will attract wildlife, I hope you will stop by at the Shreve Migration Sensation on March 26th. This event is fun for the whole family, with plenty of great speakers, vendors and live displays. Follow this link, or the logo on the side bar to a complete schedule of events. Hope to see you there!

*And yes, two points if you noted I misspelled "lentago" on the first slide/photo. I'll fix that before the program- for sure!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Setting the Table

Everybody survive the holidays? It was a busier than usual time for me, and if getting back to the blog is a precursor for getting my life back to normal, it will be a welcome change.

Now where were we? Ah yes, preparing for company and setting the table. In my best getting ready for the holidays analogy, we'll use native plants as a way to "set the table" for wildlife.

American or High-bush Cranberry, Viburnum opulus L var. americanum is useful- however- a bit confusing. This animal magnet, with its red, ripened berries is not related to our native cranberries (Vaccinium sp.) at all! Viburnums are a member of the Caprifoliaceae or honeysuckle family. These woody plants, mostly shrubs, vines or small trees are found worldwide and the attractive flowers and berries are the reason so many species are imported for landscapes.

Too often these non-native plants become nasty playmates with the local flora. Several species of honeysuckle are considered invasive species and have bullied their way into our natural areas. And just like some evil twin- there is also a non-native European Cranberry bush, Viburnum opulus var. opulus which is often sold in plant nurseries and box stores.

These photos taken from Wikipedia were listed as American High-bush Cranberry. But I am not so certain both plants shown make the grade. European Cranberry generally have more "teeth" on its leaves (like the leaf on the left), and the fruit is said to be slightly bitter.
The only sure-fire way to tell these two plants apart is by the presence of a small club-shaped gland on the underside of leaf near the petiole. And I'll bet you can't find one-in-one-thousand garden store workers who know that. This is quite possibly the most frequently mis-labeled plant in Ohio!
And what does it matter? I am not positive the European Cranberry is about to explode into an invasive species, nor do animals shy away from its slightly less yummy fruits. But if I were to plant viburnum bushes for wildlife, I would make every attempt to get the true native.
One of the most attractive and productive plants for bird-scaping (landscaping to attract birds), the American Cranberrybush can be one of the most confusing of our native plants as well!