Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Bee" aware!

Natural catastrophes make for wondrous P.R.  

If ever a family of insects needed a public relations coup, it is our humble native bees. Not until the imported European bees which do much of the heavy-lifting, pollination wise, were dying in a "colony collapse" did native bees come to our attention.

 Bumblebees are just one of our native American pollinators.
Suddenly, the agronomists and scientists looked around and realized we would be in deep doo-doo without our pollinators!  In fact, we might only be in grass-fed animal doo-doo, since most grasses are wind pollinated.  But forget about all those fruits, vegetables and nuts we so enjoy, if there were no bees.

With the fate of European honeybees on the line, suddenly our native bees were getting a lot more respect.  Some scientists even noted we have not cataloged all the species of native bees right here in the U.S.!  We have been taking their work for granted much too long.  In fact, we now know that native bees keep honey bees more productive (with competition) and are picking up some of the slack for those manicured, cultivated, pedigreed bees.

Specific native bees have cultivated relationships with certain spring ephemerals.
This year, while we admire the spring flora, let's pay particular attention to the native fauna which pollinates it.  In past years I have noted tiny, cold-weather bees in their extra-fuzzy jackets, working the Spring Beauties and Trout Lilies.

These one-week-wonders seem to disappear after the first flush of spring.  As I recently learned at the Ohio Natural History Conference, studies show they DO disappear after a few weeks of work!  These insects must have some fascinating life cycle which permits them to be sustained with only a short-cycle of nectar gathering.

Nature has wondrous ways, if only we choose to see.

Butterflies (like this Monarch) also provide pollination services. 
If we are to discover the mysteries of collapsing colonies of honey bees and the stunning decline of  the migrating populations of Monarchs, perhaps we need to look no further than ourselves.  As we continue to "weed-and-feed" our lawn, "powder" (sounds much nicer than "poison") our roses and "dust" our vegetables, should we really be surprised that we are killing the very insects that attend to our plants needs?

It may be the greatest of human arrogance to believe we can continue to poison the species around us, without impacting our own health.

Here is an interesting follow-up story on pesticides and fauna, if you are so inclined.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mid-Ohio HOLA!

Mid-Ohio birding in February can be a bit daunting. But like the postal service, "neither snow nor rain nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep me from making" my appointed rounds. Throw in ridiculous winds, three foot snow drifts, and unplowed roads and you have described the general condition of my neighborhood.

Horned Lark (HOLA in bird bander's code)
HOLA!  What have we here?   Hola = Greetings!  Hola is not just a Spanish salutation, it is also the bird bander's code for HOrned LArk. 

HOLAs, welcome to my winter world!

Horned Lark (left) and Snow Bunting (right)
Much has been made of this winter's appearance of Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspurs.  Both species are birds of the far north, which occasionally winter in small numbers in Ohio. They are often found gleaning for grain and generally fraternize with Horned Larks in open fields.

Large flocks of birds feeding in the open field.
Horned Larks are found year round in Ohio's farm country.  However, their dull brown backs blend with the soil in the fields, making them difficult to see most of the year. Snow cover makes them highly visible. Watch along the edge of country roads during heavy snow events, and you may see flocks of birds feeding along the gravelly road edge where snow plows have cleared down to the grass. 

Horned Lark, Eremophila alpestris  
 Horned Larks are easily overlooked by the novice, and difficult to study once found.  These skittish birds of the field flock together and move in large circular patterns when disturbed. When you see road-side birds take flight at the approach of your car, watch in the rear view mirror after you pass.  Most likely they will be re-forming their ranks on the edge of the road once again.

This winter, with its exceptional periods of snow cover, drove flocks of larks and snow buntings into feeders and fields baited with small grains or cracked corn on the ground.

Horn Lark of a different race- the all-yellow face of the Northern race or E.a. alpestris 
    Much of my last two weeks have been dedicated to watching and photographing Horned Larks in the local "baited" ditches. Face-on views reveal stunning yellow or yellow-and-white faces, both with the distinctive "horns," which are not horns at all. They are feathers that stick up, generally when the bird is excited or alarmed. There are 20 subspecies of Horned Larks which occur regularly in the US and Canada, but only three of those probably occur in Ohio. I have found it interesting to try to sort them, but I have no real confidence in my ability to do so. Therefore, I will bow to the advice of expert birder and friend, Kenn Kaufman:
    "I think for starters you can say, deep yellow face = Northern, bright white face = Prairie, all those others = unidentified. I don't even try to name the intermediate ones, but the extremes are fairly straightforward."
Looks intermediate to me!
 That sounds like a plan to me.  So, Horned Larks by any other name or race considerations are still Horned Larks. They are all immensely enjoyable to watch, when and if the opportunity ever presents.  I'll try not to get too hung up on sorting them out.

Horned Larks, E.a. praticola  "Prairie" male with a very light face and a probable female (right.)

The more I learn about these local "Prairie" birds, and the migrant "Northern" larks which come south to winter, the more I admire their differences.  And note, the various races mix peacefully in the field.  

Apparently, they have that one-up on us humans!  I always knew I liked these birds.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Winter Fun

It is snowing again in Ohio, and many think, Enough is enough!  

However, I am here to tell you there is a world of fun out there. This winter has found me so preoccupied with X-C skiing and bird watching, one hardly has time to blog!

 Last weekend a group of us joined up in Burton, Ohio to participate in some fellowship and skiing.

Jim and Sandy Davidson
The organizer of the event, Sandy Davidson,  was looking quite stylish schussing about with husband, Jim.

 Lest you think north east Ohio has nothing to offer, you simply must check out Chapin Forest.

 The snow fell quiet and deep, making the ski trail a winter wonderland.

Katryn Reynard and Bruce
 Unfortunately, it had rained the night before, and the skis gathered the wet snow.  Katryn displays the dilemma, whilst husband Bruce scrapes the mess "ski-on-ski" style.  Jan Kennedy bailed us out with a scraper- a big "thanks" to Jan!

 Scenery?  It doesn't get much better than this.  Although, if you travel to Chapin Woods, I hope you will visit Penitentiary Glen as well.  It offers snowshoeing through a Hemlock forest.

 On the way back to Cleveland I happened across another hidden scenic treasure:  Pleasant Valley.  Unfortunately, it is not so pleasant as it would have been before someone drilled for oil/ gas.  These industrial distractions happened long ago, but they still spoil what was once a stunning view-scape.

 I doubled back, just to capture this photo from the bridge.

The Chagrin River from the Pleasant Valley bridge.
Ice jams in the river created pools and eddies of frigid water and snow pack. Lovely to look at, but a dangerous stretch of winter water.

Don't despair the February stretch of more cold and snow.  Nature has marvelous sights in store, every season of the year. Get out and discover your own winter wonderlands.