Sunday, May 3, 2015

New River Birding & Nature Festival

I'm just back from eight (8!) days of nonstop immersion into Nature. Sorry if I've not responded to emails etc. but I've mostly been off the grid or too busy to deal with the usual stuff. First up was a day and a half at the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. That was a great time, and thanks to Julie Davis, all of the speakers and guides, and everyone else who made that conference a success. Be sure to attend next year.
Then it was straight off to southern West Virginia and the New River Birding & Nature Festival. I think this was the 10th year I've helped to lead trips at this event, and it is always an excellent time. The return rate of attendees speaks for itself - 52% of this year's people had been before, and a much larger percentage of total festival attendees over the years have been back multiple times. As always, event coordinators Rachel Davis, Keith Richardson, and Geoff Heeter bent over backwards to make things flow smoothly and ensure that everyone had a good time. CLICK HERE for complete festival information.

This action took place high up on Sugar Creek Mountain, an incredibly birdy locale. The group stares slack-jawed at a stunning male Blue-winged Warbler. The bird was singing away as he foraged in small trees at close range and near eye level. At one point, it plucked and ate four caterpillars in about two minutes. We challenged co-leader Keith Richardson (back, orange cap) to find just one caterpillar. In ten minutes of searching the same type of foliage, Keith came up empty-handed, and he has extremely sharp eyes. That's one reason we're not birds, I suppose. We'd starve.

I'm not quite sure how they do it, but the NRBNF organizers lure some incredible talent as guides (present company excluded from that boast!). Here, Mark Garland of Cape May, New Jersey briefly explains bog ecology in the big meadow at Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. Mark is a walking encyclopedia of natural history knowledge. Also in just this one group as leaders is Connie Toops and Jim Rapp, both of whom excel at natural history guiding. CLICK HERE for a complete rundown of NRBNF talent.

Red eyes aglow, our largest and showiest sparrow tees up. Eastern Towhees are certainly not rare in this part of West Virginia, but we enjoy looking at them just the same. A big part of the field trip experiences is learning about common species, not just the rare.

The "& Nature" is in the event's name for a reason. The mountains of Fayette County, the slopes of the New River, and surrounding areas harbor some of the richest biodiversity in the eastern United States. We never shun an opportunity to inspect something cool, whether it be an interesting plant, snake, millipede, or this outlandish Rosy Maple Moth.

This is a rarity, and a major target bird for festival participants. It is a Swainson's Warbler, a denizen of the shady understory of rhododendron thickets buffering mountain streams. While the animal may appear rather plain, at least insofar as warblers go, it compensates with a rich whistled song reminiscent of a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Illustrating the quirks of human behavior, the aforementioned Swainson's Warbler really gets the birder's blood boiling. Yet colorful gems such as this male Black-throated Blue Warbler nearly always are a companion species. Despite this animal's rich coloration, it is the comparatively drab Swainson's Warbler that garners the lion's share of attention, because it is far scarcer.

After the festival concluded, I awoke early this morning and headed back to a particularly charming mountain cove. This site has a clear stream, the banks of which are clouded by snarls of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. The airy boughs of Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, provide canopy cover, and continuing upslope the forest grades into birch, oaks, hickories and many other species of deciduous trees.

The local Swainson's Warbler's clear forceful whistles punctuated the air as soon as I exited the vehicle. As always, I took time to orient to the sounds around me, and figure out the patterns of the singers. The short snappy warbles of this Canada Warbler came from an especially dense rhododendron tangle not far from the singing Swainson's Warbler. By largely remaining still, silent, and in one spot, in two hours time I had made passable images of the three warblers in the latter three photos. Without using recordings.

In addition to (usually) being a solo activity, bird photography requires some patience. Charging from the vehicle and immediately blasting back the calls of the singers from an I-pod is a mistake. These new and unexpected sounds throw an element of chaos into the situation. It may work briefly, but the artificial sounds upset the normal behavior of the birds that one might wish to photograph, and puts an unnecessary element of stress on them. Two hours in a gorgeous haunt was hardly an ordeal, and ultimately the photos ops are better by remaining still and silent. One learns the patterns of the singers, and it becomes easy to predict their movements. The Swainson's Warbler had a favorite sapling as a singing perch, and it was out in the open. I set up nearby, and it wasn't long before the bird dropped in and teed up beautifully. The little Canada Warbler was harder, but great fun to watch as it fluttered and fly-catched in the shady gloom of the rhododendrons. Finally, as if wondering who the large biped was, it popped out on a sunlit limb and regarded me with curiosity, and I got some shots. The Black-throated Blue Warbler did much the same.

I can't remember next year's dates for the NRBNF, but I'm sure it'll be posted on their website before long, RIGHT HERE.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Migration erupts

Cerulean Warbler, one of many in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, last Saturday. The Ohio Ornithological Society held their annual conference at Shawnee over the weekend, and we found lots of Neotropical birds back for the breeding season. Numbers and diversity of migrant songbirds will steadily increase, reaching a crescendo in the second week of May.

Grab those binoculars and get afield!

Friday, April 24, 2015

No Finish Line - a fascinating new book on birding ( and more)

Hot off the presses is this excellent book that all birders will enjoy devouring. It is the biography of Dr. Bernard Master, renowned world birder, conservationist, physician, and businessman. In the interest of full disclosure, Bernie is a good friend, but that relationship would not, I believe, cloud my opinion of his first foray into the literary world.

I've just received my copy of No Finish Line (subtitled Discovering the World's Secrets One Bird at a Time), and have only had a chance to skim through, look at the some 140 photographs, and read select passages. Trust me, if you are a birder on any level, you'll enjoy reading this book. Few people have had the lengthy and well traveled birding career that Dr. Master has, and he pulls no punches when it comes to calling things as he sees them. Peppered throughout are accounts of his business endeavors, experiences in Vietnam, opinions on tour guides, and more. I'll write more about No Finish Line once I've had a chance to thoroughly peruse it.

You can get a copy RIGHT HERE.

Also, Bernie will be giving a talk next Tuesday evening, April 28, at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio. The title of his presentation is World Birding: Finding the Rarest Birds in the World. Having seen some 8,000 of the world's 10,400 species, Bernie has lots of fodder from which to draw, and his talk will undoubtedly touch on his new book. Speaking of which, there will be copies available at the talk, and this would be a great opportunity to hear a wonderful presentation AND get a copy of Bernie's book. Details about the talk can be found RIGHT HERE.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Return of the butterflies

The warming of spring brings out a new crop of butterflies, and their appearance is much welcomed by many, including your narrator. These stunning male Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Papilio glaucus, are fresh and unblemished. I photographed them on a recent sunny day in southern Ohio, the duo was among dozens that I saw.

Try as I might, this female American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, would not fully cooperate with my camera. It's a semi-wary species to begin with, but this girl was busy. She was scrambling about the pussy-toes, which is this species' host plant, depositing eggs, and I didn't want to horn in and disrupt activities more important than my picture-taking. So I just did the best that I could, and largely left her to the business of making more of her kind.

Here is a more formal portrait of pussy-toes, Antennaria plantaginifolia. It's a very common plant of dry banks and exposed soil, typically growing in the semi-shade of woodland borders. Pussy-toes is not what most people would term a showy plant, and few gardeners would be tempted to seek it out and plant pussy-toes inside the garden fence. However, aesthetic issues aside, this species is a goldmine for early spring pollinators, and we shall take a glimpse into its nectariferous attractions.

A small fly with a huge proboscis laps nectar from tiny pussy-toe flowers. I have no idea which species of fly this is, but its value as a pollinator is manifested in the minute orangish pollen grains stuck all over its hairs. Flies, which generally get an utterly underserved bad rap due to the ills caused by a relative handful of species, are a major and incalculably valuable group of pollinators.

A solitary bee of some sort ravages pussy-toes flowers. I saw many, many like it on these flowers during this foray into Shawnee State Forest. It should go without saying that the Hymenoptera - bees and wasps - are of major importance regarding the pollination of our native plants. And the pussy-toes, discreet and as ignored as they are, provide major fodder for the earliest pollinators of spring. If you want to see lots of cool bugs, and find subjects galore for the macro lens, park yourself by a colony of pussy-toes and keep a sharp eye out.

Spring Azures, Celastrina ladon, were everywhere on this fine spring day. These little flecks of silvery blue are a ubiquitous part of the vernal butterfly fauna, and groups of them are often seen gathered at mud puddles or other moist spots. They are not immune to the virtues of pussy-toes, as we can see.

Needless to say, I was quite pleased to find several Henry's Elfins, Callophrys henrici, nectaring at pussy-toes flowers. These tiny butterflies tend to be localized, and are always in close proximity to their host trees, which is redbud, Cercis canadensis. Elfins often perch on the ground, a situation which does not lend itself well to making showy photos. To boot, they can be rather flighty. But when ensconced upon tasty flowers, they become quite approachable and it was easy to get as close as I wished.

This is a Brown Elfin, Callophrys augustinus, which is one of Ohio's rarer butterflies. It is only known from about five counties in southern Ohio, and populations tend to be widely scattered and small. Shawnee State Forest harbors several reliable sites, and that's where I made this image. The butterfly is resting upon the leaf of a mountain-laurel, Kalmia latifolia, its host plant. Elsewhere it uses other plants in the heath family such as blueberries and huckleberries. Some of the brown elfins were also nectaring on pussy-toes, but I was not able to get a documentary shot.

The butterfly parade will only grow more robust as spring progresses, and take heart - we have a good 5-6 months of butterflying season ahead.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Life along (and in) a creek

Yesterday was a great spring day to be afield, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to help lead an outing organized by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Our destination was a new TNC preserve along the banks of Little Darby Creek in Madison County. As there is no ready access as of yet, the preserve is not open to the public at this time which precludes me from identifying the site. Interest was high in this foray - organizers cut it off at 38 participants. We divided into two camps, and went our separate ways, exploring the preserve's hidden nooks and crannies. My thanks to Anthony Sasson of TNC for making me a part of the outing.

The banks and bluffs of Little Darby Creek were awash in wildflowers on this picture-perfect spring day. White trout lily, Erythronium albidum, as above, formed extensive carpets. In all, we probably saw 30 species of spring wildflowers, most of them growing in profusion.

In close on the flower of a common blue violet, Viola sororia. The purple lines at the whitened bases of the petals are nectar guides; they serve as roadmaps to entice insect pollinators deep into the reproductive zone of the flower.

Our trip was ostensibly a wildflower foray, but as often happens our interests were routinely diverted from botany. That's not to say we didn't admire and study many a plant species - we did! - but what good is knowing the names of every plant (or bird) if one has no idea how they fit into the bigger picture?

This stunning six-spotted tiger beetle, Cicindela sexguttata, succeeded in attracting out attention for some time. It was quite confiding as it hunted along a log, allowing close approach. Tiger beetles are the cheetahs of the Coleopteran (beetle) world. They hunt visually, and when the timing is right run down their prey with astonishing bursts of speed. When the unfortunate victim is seized, it is sliced and diced by those massive white mandibles.

The ornate suturing atop the skull of a white-tailed deer was worth admiring. Odocoilean hieroglyphics.

After all was said and done with the formal field trip, Anthony Sasson and I headed to another, somewhat more accessible part of Little Darby Creek. We lugged in our waders, a seine, and aquaria. After all, what would a springtime visit to the Darby be without taking the opportunity to admire some darters in their spring finery?

Stream levels were still a bit high, which made capturing fish harder than it would have been with a foot or so less water, but we mustered along. A true prize was this whopping big variegate darter, Etheostoma variatum. Insofar as these small perch family members go, this specimen was gargantuan, probably taping out at four to five inches.

Darters are the warblers of the underwater world. The males enter breeding condition in spring, and many species develop stunning coloration. Some of the various species' names speak to their showiness: rainbow darter, orangethroat darter, greenside darter, etc.

This little fish may not be clad in brilliant colors, but it is one of Ohio's rarer species and a totem speaking to the need to protect Big and Little Darby creeks. It is the endangered spotted darter, Etheostoma maculatum. Most species of darters, and this one in particular, are quite vulnerable to pollution issues and attendant water quality degradation. Its presence in the Darby Creeks speaks to the exceptional aquatic health of this stream system.

Shooting fish photos requires a lot of work. We lug small aquaria streamside, labor to catch the animals in swiftly flowing riffles, then immediately place our catches in the tanks. After shooting images - the fish do not pose very well, usually and some patience is required - the animals are immediately released back into the riffle from which they came.

I was quite excited when we trawled up this beast on one of the net runs. A monstrous looking thing indeed, it is the larva of our largest dragonfly, the dragonhunter, Hagenius brevistylus. The adult dragonfly is a remarkable animal that would impress anyone who clapped eyes on one. Large and brutish, dragonhunters often take down other large insects such as swallowtail butterflies and other dragonflies, some of which can be nearly as big as they are. Hence the name, Dragonhunter.

If I were some aquatic critter such as a stonefly larva or even a small fish, I would not want to see this face peering at me from the leafy detritus. The quarter-sized dragonhunter larvae lay in wait among debris on the stream bottom, and when prey bumbles along the hunter shoots out ejectable mandibles and seizes its victim. The experience must be akin to having a gargoyle come to life in an instant, shooting its jaws out like a jack-in-the-box, seizing you and jerking you back to be eaten.

A great day afield, and my appreciation goes to The Nature Conservancy for all that they do to conserve Ohio's biodiversity, whether it be ferocious dragonhunters or passive trout lilies.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dennis Profant, 1956-2015

I learned today of the death of one of Ohio's premier naturalist/biologists, Dennis Profant. The news was a shock to all, and his passing yesterday was terrible news.

Dennis was a professor at Hocking College, where he taught ornithology, dendrology, and entomology. He really was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to natural history knowledge, but he was probably best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of moths. Dennis published extensively on the Lepidoptera, especially his beloved slug caterpillar moths (Limacodidae). He was lead author of the definitive work on these gorgeous little animals: The Slug Caterpillar Moths (Lepidoptera: Limacodidae) and other Zygaenoidea of Ohio. Don't let the academic title fool you. The book, which appeared in 2010, is a richly illustrated, easily understood and highly useful guide to these moths.

I have known Dennis for at least 20 years, and spent many hours afield with him. Never, ever, did one of these forays conclude without myself and anyone else who was along being greatly enriched in our knowledge of the natural world. He was a born teacher and it was fitting indeed that Dennis's career path took him into sharing the wonders of the natural world with young people, which he did for 25 years at Hocking College. In spite of a busy schedule, Dennis often made himself available to assist with events and workshops. Attendees at the last two Mothapaloozas benefited from his expertise, and we will sorely miss him at this year's Mothapalooza. Dennis also exposed people worldwide to the wonders of Ohio's hill country via his blog, Field Biology in Southeastern Ohio.

Students, especially when given the opportunity to do so anonymously, can be harsh critics of their teachers. It doesn't surprise me that Dennis scored an A+ on the site Rate My Professors, on which many an instructor has been savaged. Here's a telling comment from that site: "Dennis is by far the best natural resources instructor at Hocking College. He is very knowledgeable and his enthusiasm is contagious. I only wish he taught all the classes in my curriculum."

Last July was the last time that I had an extended field trip with Dennis, in this case to Wahkeena Nature Preserve in Fairfield County. We all stayed well into the night, capturing moths, seeking caterpillars, and whatever other critters we could find. As always, it was an excellent adventure, made all the better by Dennis and his stores of information.

I'll dearly miss him, as will many others.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

If I could be a bird...

There are many avian harbingers of spring, but my favorite is the plucky Tree Swallow. Their return to northern marshes is a sure sign that winter's grip is weakening. In Ohio, the first scout swallows might appear by late-February. They are sure to be greeted by by crusts of ice, and the certain prospect of enduring several more freezes and nasty bouts of weather courtesy of an Old Man Winter who doesn't want to let go.

As the days lengthen and temperatures become decidedly milder, more swallows sweep north in their great seasonal occupation of marshes in the northern U.S. and Canada. Tree Swallows, like the rest of their kin, are primarily insectivores. Wetlands produce great crops of flying insects, and the swallows rush in to capitalize on this bounty, and perform their role in the food web.

A flock of Tree Swallows finds the old culms of hardstem bulrush, Schoenoplectus acutus, to be suitable perches. This group was a tiny fraction of huge numbers of Tree Swallows that were present in the prairie marshes at Battelle Darby Metro Park in southwest Franklin County last Friday. Mixed among their ranks were a few Barn Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, but it was the early bird Tree Swallows that totally dominated.

I had an all day retreat for a board that I serve on at a nearby lodge within the park. So, I packed all my camera gear and when that was over, waded out into the marsh to see what I could see. Lots of birds were present - blackbirds galore, many species of ducks, a lone American Bittern flew over - but the feisty swallows ended up occupying much of my attention and shutter clicks.

Shooting flying swallows is not easy - give it a try sometime. Most of my efforts went into the digital trash can, but a few were keepers. This image was made at a shutter speed of 1/3200, which is what it takes to freeze the speedy aerialists. While the golden light of late day was coming over my shoulder, which is good, it was near dusk. That meant an ISO of 500 had to be used, which even with the new cameras such as my Canon 7D Mark II is not ideal, as the higher the ISO the more the "grain", or digital noise. The birds really did align themselves this way, though.

Anyway, to the post's title. The Tree Swallow has long been one of my favorite birds. They seem rich in personality, their flying skills are nearly unrivaled, and they're meat eaters mostly (crunchy insects, but eh? - it's still meat).

Most of us into birds have asked ourselves at some point: If I could be a bird, what would I choose?

Were such an opportunity to come my way, it might well be the Tree Swallow. For me, everything about them conjures good memories. They symbolize winter's end. Tree Swallows make wonderful liquid gurgling sounds, far eclipsing the noises made by many people that I've heard. Their aerial antics are endlessly amusing. The swallows have opted to become our companions of sorts, by utilizing scores of nest boxes that people erect for them (even if the erectors think the boxes are for bluebirds). They are also seemingly without fear, and intelligently opportunistic. I remember standing with a group of birders in a marshside grassy area on a cool day, and we must have been flushing mayflies from the grass. Bold Tree Swallows rocketed through our group at knee height and within inches, as if we were pylons for their flying circus.

When I am gone, I would consider it a great honor if some of my carbon is recycled into a Tree Swallow.