Sunday, April 29, 2012

Willet fall-out!

Yesterday was partly cloudy, with a scattering of Willets.
Willets alight, photo by Kim Graham
Large numbers of Willets were reported from two separate locations in Ohio, leading one to believe their migration was disrupted by weather conditions. Their colorful wings gave flashes of light to the otherwise gray on gray, birds on weathered board.

The well-known boardwalk at Galena, Ohio juts out into Hoover Reservoir.  We have seen many remarkable birds from this location, but nothing to compete with this phenomenal sighting!  Gulls lined the far end, while 115 Willets gathered on the midsection of the hand-rail.  Once settled in, their plain tones falsely suggest this is an everyday occurrence.  Non-birders were hard pressed to understand our excitement.

E- bird's map of Willet sightings in Ohio is most useful.  Not only does it show the location of previous sightings, more frequently on the shores of lake Erie, it also marks this boardwalk at  Hoover Reservoir.  It is the red flag near the center of the state, slightly north-east of the city of Columbus.

 Several times the birds spooked from the rails, circled overhead and returned again to the rail.

Willet  flock, photo by Kim Graham
After a resting period, the birds would fly out toward the edge of the reservoir, as if searching for mudflats or shore to provide forage. Unfortunately for them, the high water at Hoover has reduced the littoral edge to nil.

Willets in flight, Photo by Kim Graham
 Their misfortune provide an opportunity for a handful of people. We witnessed their return to the rail over and over again: resting, seeking shore, resting.  The birds spent the afternoon and early evening at Hoover- finally flying away for good as the sun was setting.

Willet at St. Mary's Fish Hatchery, Sept. '09, photo Cheryl Harner
 Willets, Tringa semipalmata have ranged from being uncommon in the late 1880's - to very rare.  They were hunted to near extinction, as one of the few sandpipers who bred in the lower forty-eight states.  Other shorebird species which migrate to the arctic were able to breed without human "pressures," while the Willets took the brunt of the abuse.

Their presence in Ohio has been generally noted with sporadic sightings of singles or pairs.  Until now, the largest gathering ever noted in Peterjohn's The Birds of Ohio, was 50 in Cleveland in August of 1976.

 The 115 Willets that toured Hoover in April 2012 will have birders talking for years.

Single Willet in flight, Kim Graham
Several photos in this blog have been graciously provided by Kim Graham of (Click on the link to see all of her lovely work.)  He beautifully captured the event for all of prosperity.  Hopefully he will forgive me for cropping out a single image from his work to show you the color of a Willet in flight.

In the past, I have erroneously regarded willets as rather dull birds of gray color. All I have seen heretofore have been foraging on mudflats, and looked rather unspectacular.  To experience 115 Willets on a fly-by was both breath-taking, and eye-opening.  These birds are as stunning as they are vociferous in flight; the dull gray bird becomes a brilliant striped banner of black and white as it takes to the sky.

Willets are considered a conservation success and their population numbers are climbing. Certainly that is good news we can all relish, but even if their numbers sky-rocket on the breeding grounds, chances are, we'll not see another sighting like this in Ohio, ever again.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is a platitude often used at burial services to denote the finality of life as we know it.  In most of Ohio, we could be talking about the end of the trees in the  genus Fraxinus.  Lots of them have been getting cut and burned, since we first learned of a wood boring pest which denotes certain death.   Emerald Ash Borer shows no mercy, even in the most holiest of Birding Sanctuaries:  Magee Marsh.  

The boardwalk at Magee will soon be filled with birders, craning necks and tenaciously pursuing some rarity, like Golden-wing Warbler.  May presents two magical weeks of migration in Ohio, when the neo-tropical migrants drop into woodlots like glittering jewels. It simply must be experienced in its full glory; birders live large from May 1 to May 15 and count each day most precious.

But these invaders give no pause, Emerald Ash Borer damage is obvious.  The ash at Magee have been under attack for several years; some trees still cling to life, but it is a futile effort.

 Ohio State Extension has been following the progression of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB).  As of now, we are officially licked.  The red counties are done in, and it is probably time to call it quits.  Fact is: you aren't going to manage it.  You are only going to manage how soon the tree will come down after it is dead.

At Magee we are witnessing the after math of a major die-off.  Certainly many of these trees will eventually present a hazard in some places and should be removed if they are endangering the lives of people on the boardwalk. However, as a management practice, this Weedpicker thinks we should slow down a bit and say, "What would J. J. (Audubon) do?" 

I think he would leave some mighty tall stumps for the woodpeckers and wrens.  In places where a tree would fall clear of a walk- it could remain standing.  There is a whole lot of activity going on in a dead tree, and our best understanding of nature comes when we observe it. 

So let's intervene only when absolutely necessary.  And maybe we can ask our friends at the Division of Wildlife to manage... for wildlife. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Preserving Farm Life

A much loved local attraction is the home of the late author and agronomist, Louis Bromfield.  His legacy to Ohio includes this working farm: Malabar Farm (State Park).

 His era was a passing time, ephemeral as the clouds that roll by.  Yet it is preserved, a place for children to see the way a farm is meant to nourish life.

One can be smitten with the newly born calves, a breed unknown to me. The black youngster sported white markings which resembled a bridle.  It was downright adorable.

 Turkey Vultures were recycling after-birth.  
They were fighting for clean-up detail; perhaps this one already had his fill.

 Beyond the fields a woodlot lies, where Blue Phlox,
Phlox divaricata  attain a hue nearly as intense as the violets.

 Swampy edges are betrayed by the Swamp Buttercup,
Ranuculus hispidus denizen of the damp.

Skunk Cabbage unfurled in full glory, 
appearing as woodland hosta, bowed before a phlox-carpeted copse of trees.  

 The stream runs deep and fresh.  
This water is worth protecting and the cattle are wisely excluded from these spring fed streams.

A cheery reminder of the farmer's need to plant; Spring jonquil to be picked for a writer's desk-top vase. 

 Visit the farm and the spirit of Bromfield may beckon to you too.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Biggest Week in American Butterflying!

With Sunday's warm winds blowing out of the south-west, everybody was awash in Red Admiral butterflies. 

It was all the talk of the list-serves.  From the Ohio Lepidopterists in Toledo to the birders all across the state, everyone took note of the influx of butterflies. It would have been hard to miss them with the numbers being reported:

 Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta     Butterfly du jour.

Jackie from Kitty Todd (Toledo) reports:
 "Several things going on today.  Red Admirals are numbering in the hundreds, everywhere, for one thing. (My count for the day is approx 340). There is a forum on  Lepidoptera, of several people have huge numbers today.  Strong south winds and 80 degrees."

Dallas DiLeo reported from Presque Isle-  Erie, Pennsylvania:
"Probably the most remarkable observation was the mass movement of Red  Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) flying SW to NE.  A conservative estimate of the butterflies moving past the watch was 25 individuals per minute making the total estimate of the count around 5500 butterflies!"

Red Admirals- now appearing in droves.

And our very own Dave Horn , President of Ohio Leps said...
"Because of all the posts regarding red admirals I thought I'd comment.  The red admiral has periodically appeared in large numbers since the early 19th century.  While there is no universally accepted explanation for these increases it seems most likely that they are related to high overwintering survivorship in the southern USA followed by favorable conditions for northward movement.  This year we have had both a very mild winter (in Ohio and southward) and an early spring and I suspect the large numbers we are seeing reflect those weather conditions."

"What is that butterfly?"

This means more excitement than ever for our boardwalk at Magee Marsh!  I will be looking forward to the Biggest Week in American Butterflying and hope you will join us for the Red "Admiral"-ation, and some pretty nifty warblers as well.   I am counting down the days!

Keep your eyes peeled for the anglewings as well.  We also noticed a large number of active Commas and possibly Question Marks.  It would be interesting to know more about these "migratory" or rather emigrant butterflies from the south and south-west.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Apple Blossoms at Secrest

Cherry blossoms in Washington were early this year, but don't despair if you missed the show.  We have the next best thing in Wooster, Ohio at Secrest Arboretum.

 Row upon row of crab apple trees were in peak bloom today- a spectacle to behold.  I arrived in the early morning to lead the Greater Mohican Audubon Society's  bird walk, and witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful location in all of Ohio.

 Red Barron- The names were all new to me, but this was easily a favorite.

 Snow Magic-  A gentle rain created a soft drift of petals beneath this tree.

 Pink Satin- A heavenly scent wafted across the lawn making the scene a scent-ual experience as well.

The rain became a steady mist, as I stood beneath a shelter of blossoms.  The perfume of flowers carried my mind back to my childhood and afternoons spent beneath our crab trees. 

Passing time, I watched the busiest bumble bee in the world.  He seem to have this entire flora-feast to himself.  He kept to his business and hid among the flowers, paying no mind to the gentle rain.

Drink this beauty in; savor every sip like a warming brandy.  
You'll want to park you car and walk the fields for the full effect.

Oh, and birds.  Yes, there were birds there as well.  This Northern Mockingbird ignited my enthusiasm with his white wing-flashes and boisterous song. Other birds pale in comparison as he paralleled our route through the main gardens. Who can think of other birds when this handsome fellow is vying for attention?

Secrest- worth the trip Wooster to see for yourself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea is the Flora-Quest flower for 2012.  It was an excellent choice for this super-heated spring, as it is likely to continue to bloom well into May.  But there is more to this plant than meets the eye. Those attractive "flowers" aren't flowers at all.  The video below features one of Ohio's best-known naturalists, Jim McCormac, as he tells the whole story.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Charmed, I'm sure

No matter how many times I venture into Adams County, we always see something new.  This weekend the Eastern Fence Lizards were real crowd pleasers.

Eastern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus

Don't worry, we didn't hurt this little gal.  She is just resting comfortably in John Howard's hand. He used the old "alligator belly-rubbing"  trick to hypnotize it.  

Ned Keller had caught the critter and John volunteered to show us his "magic" with the little lady.  We didn't believe it until we saw it, but fact is- John has a way with the lizards.  
The males have a trick of their own in the springtime: a spectacular blue-belly.  All the better to impress the lady's with, I am sure.  No lizards or handlers were harmed in the photo sessions, oh, except  Nina.  This male did put a chomp down on her finger.  Unfortunately, I missed that shot. Not to worry, she was relatively unharmed as well.

Now who is Jim McCormac trying to charm?   
That's too small to be a lizard. My goodness, it is no biggger than a dime, whatever it is. 

It is Ohio's only green butterfly- a rarity for sure!  The Juniper Hairstreak butterfly was "puddling" for minerals and gave us an incredible show.  After an intense half-hour photo session, Jim decided we best move the little guy out of the road before we left. Occasionally butterflies will sit on your dampened finger; they are probably after body salt. Note his tiny proboscis in the photo, it is uncurled and taking up minerals.  Slurp.

No matter how many times we hit the trails in Adams and Scioto Counties, we always find something new.  People love to come to Flora-Quest year after year, because we always find something we have never seen before.  

This year the botany will be different than most, due to the unseasonably warm weather. Who knows what we will find!  Call or e-mail today to get one of the few places remaining in Flora-Quest 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Butterflies at Picnic Point

The earliest of butterflies in southern Ohio includes the charismatic Falcate Orangetip,  
wicked fast and no bigger than a nickle. One has to exercise patience to get a good photo of this wee beastie.  Its larval host plants are the early season mustards.

The view from Picnic Point in Shawnee State Park is stellar, and you might want to rest a bit after chasing all those tiny butterflies. From this vista we can see all the way to the Ohio River.

Another wee bit, the Gemmed Satyr.  Hardly the size of a quarter, but encrusted with "jewels".  The dusky colored flier is worth that second look, especially if you use your binoculars or macro camera lens.  Another early season favorite; larval host is Bermuda grass.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Highlights from Lorain

The Black River Audubon Society in Lorain was a gracious host for my "Butterflies as Bioindicators" program last night.  We had a great crowd of fifty or so folks willing to consider butterflies in a new light:  many butterflies have affiliations with habitats and can be used as markers for those habitats.  

When we booked this program last fall, we never  dreamed that we would be able to see butterflies in Lorain in early April.

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta

 This morning we took a walk around the pond at the Peak Preserve and saw over 30 Red Admirals!  The were a couple of Cabbage White butterflies looking for nectar, but they were far out-numbered by the flashy "leps" with the red-orange racing stripe. Many were very fresh looking, which makes me suspect they were able to survive the mild winter and are recently emerged from a chrysalis.  The theory has always been that Red Admirals fly in from the southwest in the spring. Most of these bugs did not show any of the wear and tear one would suspect if that were the case.

The next stop: Lorain Lighthouse.

This is a favorite haunt to visit and well worth the trip, even if we had no other sightings. 

The Bonaparte's Gull were putting on a plumage show today.  The stars of the pageant were the breeding males with their fully blackened "hoods."  The off season plumage is more common in Ohio and we are used to seeing "Bonies" with a small black dot on the side of their head.

Laughing or Franklin's Gull, Lorain channel

Another slightly larger "hooded" gull was being stand-offish from the other gulls, and spent its time on shore. A closer look determined it had black legs and a bright red bill.  It was too large for a Bonaparte's and the leg and bill colors were our first clues to the identity of this Laughing  or Franklin's Gull.   Fact is, it is time to eat crow on this one.  We called it Laughing Gull and it was probably a Franklin's.  I think I better stick to butterflies!  They don't have different plumages.

It is migration time and one never knows what might turn up!  So take a second look at anything that seems odd or out of place.  You may be surprised by what can be found in Ohio.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Life Place, Life Plants

Spring is in full swing in Central Ohio and playing host to the full suite of spring ephemeral flowers.  Here today and gone tomorrow, the botanists are all trying to see as many species as we can manage.  Better yet, the rare or unusual species are what we dream about seeing.

 Narrow-leaved Toothwort, Cardamine dissecta

A close relative of the commonly seen Cut-leaved Toothwort, the Narrow-leaved variety is an Ohio rarity.  It favors limestone and more southern climes.  We were able to see it on a recent trip to a preserve owned by Ohio Wesleyan University. 
 Take a close look at those leaves. They are not serrated on the edges like the common cut-leaf variety. The flowers look the same and one must wonder if it can play host to the West Virginia White butterfly. (You knew we would get back to butterflies, right?)

Our guide, David Johnson seems to be saying, "Look everywhere.  Rarities abound on both sides of this trail."  We were touring the Bohannan Nature Preserve, found just north of Delaware Ohio.  It is a property owned and protected by the Ohio Wesleyan University.  It is one of the very few places in Ohio that has the rare toothwort.

 Carey's Sedge, Carex careyana    Sure... all sedges "look the same."  But this one was different. 

It had long, stately culms.  A life-sedge for me!  One shudders to admit to a "life sedge list."  It is akin to the passport to total plant geek-dom.

 The reproductive bits all on one culm.  How handy!   The female parts are to the left and the male pollination parts are finishing up, on the right.  It must be bliss to be wind pollinated; certainly keeps things simple.

Look at the base of the sedge: red.  One of the keys to identifying Carey's sedge. That easy enough, right?

Special thanks to Steve McKee and especially to Ray Cranfill.  Ray openly admitted that Carey's Sedge was one of his favorites.  However,  I suspect he has many "favorites" among sedges (and ferns) as a widely acclaimed botanist who wrote the Ferns and fern allies of Kentucky

It was a pleasure to tag along after these two knowledgeable guys.  And if you happen to be a fern fan, you'll want to get in Steve's group at Flora-Quest.  There are plenty of  varieties to see in Adams County.