Thursday, November 20, 2014

A rough day on Lake Erie

Lake Erie, as seen from the fishing access parking lot just east of the power plant in Eastlake, Ohio.

I traveled to the Cleveland area and specifically Holden Arboretum yesterday, to give a program for the Blackbrook Audubon Society. The subject, fittingly, was "Birding Ohio's North Coast", and the talk largely outlines the Lake Erie Birding Trail guidebook, which was released earlier this year.

The program was in the evening, but I went up early to meet with Brian Parsons, the Holden Arboretum's Director of Planning and Special Projects. The arboretum is engaged in some very exciting work, and Brian was good enough to give me a tour. More on that in a later post.

As fate would have it, Eastlake was only 20 minutes from the site of my talk, and I had a bit of time in between things to run up there and do some gull-watching. The weather was tough. Gale-like winds raged, and the temperature was in the teens. These conditions transformed the lake into a raging cauldron, with big rollers forming and atomizing against piers and breakwalls as seen in the photo above. Many people came and went while I was there, to stare at a formidable and angry Mother Nature from the safety and warmth of their cars. It's hard to make decent photographs from a car, so I spent my time outside behind the tripod, dodging spray from waves crashing against the seawall twenty feet away. By the time I left, my car was frosted in a thin veneer of ice.

A literal mountain of water forms, giving a bunch of Red-breasted Mergansers a thrill ride. The world's largest gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, glides by the summit of the water-mountain. The waves on this day were truly impressive, with some exceeding ten feet and forming tubes. Thousands of mergansers were offshore, and there was gulls galore.

The Cleveland region of Lake Erie offers truly world class gulling. Harbors and power plants can teem with tens of thousands of birds at peak traffic times. A staggering 20 species have been found in this area, and very few other places can boast that kind of larid diversity. Seeing such numbers of birds is rather awe-inspiring, and I relish the opportunities that I have to travel to The Lake to bask in their presence. Should you like to experience this part of Lake Erie at its wintry finest, consider attending the December 6 meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society, which will feature field trips to Cleveland hotspots, and a talk by legendary birder/photographer Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. Chuck will be focusing on, appropriately enough, gulls. All the event details are RIGHT HERE.

Watching scads of gulls doing their thing is always interesting, at least to me. They engage me on several levels. One, their resistance to incredibly hostile environmental conditions is completely impressive. Keep in mind, you or I would die in very short order were we to find ourselves in the lake at this time of year. To the gulls, it is nothing. They frolic as if on a Floridian vacation at the beach.Two, their flying abilities are utterly remarkable. Even with yesterday's hurricane blasts, the gulls glide about with impunity, seemingly paying the explosive gusts no mind, but instead capitalizing on the wind to better position themselves. If I were to come back as a bird (and I might), I would give a gull serious consideration as my next incarnation.

There is more to gulls, such as the interesting identification challenges and the hybridization issues, but the other major reason I enjoy watching gulls is their behavior. In the photo above, a fracas breaks out between two first-year Herring Gulls over a tasty gizzard shad or some such morsel. Other Herring Gulls speed to the scene, some caught with mouths agape as they loudly bugle their thoughts. A congregation of gulls is generally a lively place.

A quartet of Ring-billed Gulls works the headwind, trolling the waters. The center bird, with the sharply marked pink and black bill and dusky plumage, is a first-year gull (some use the term cycle, as in first-cycle gull. I've never warmed to that term). The others are adults. All of our gulls take multiple years to attain full adult species, and in the case of the Ring-billed Gull three years are required. For most of the year and in most places, this is the most abundant species of gull in Ohio. As winter sets in, they will generally be eclipsed by ever-increasing numbers of Herring Gulls, on Lake Erie.

Burly, bull-necked and stern in countenance, an adult Herring Gull glides by, pale yellow eye aglow. Its feathers have grown dingy around the head; that's a feature of its winter, or basic, plumage. Come the onset of spring and the approach of breeding season, Herring Gulls shed the dirty feathers and become gleaming white. Handsome beasts, indeed.

If a large gull such as a Herring Gull makes it to its fourth year and the attainment of complete adult plumage, it may well have a very long life ahead of it. Gulls can live for many decades.

Delicate and ternlike, an intricately marked adult Bonaparte's Gull wheels by, ever vigilant for emerald shiners and other small piscine fare. This one is my favorite, and I spent the better part of my two frigid hours watching them. As always, I was hopeful that a rare associate, such as a Little Gull or Black-legged Kittiwake, might be accompanying the "Bonies", but even without that added spice the Bonaparte's Gulls are fine entertainment.

This is a small gull - dwarfed by the preceding species. It takes a Bonaparte's Gull only two years to achieve its adult plumage. Adults are easily identified by the bold black, gray, and white wing pattern. The only species close to it is the very rare (here) Black-headed Gull, which has sooty black underwings, among other differences.

A Bonaparte's Gull stutter-steps in midair, showing its flashy orange feet and legs. The bird has spotted fishy prey, and has made instant aerial corrections to prepare for a feeding plunge. At this point, it has two immediate issues: catching the fish, and then wolfing its meal down before larger gulls have a chance to try and steal it away.

The offshore waters of Cleveland and vicinity support an enormous concentration of Bonaparte's Gulls in November and December. One-day estimates in excess of 100,000 birds have been made along Cleveland's lakefront. This part of the lake is a vital staging area for the small gulls, and seeing them at their peak numbers is one of the great spectacles of Nature in this part of the world.

My time was up all too soon, and it was time to go to the talk. Just before departure, the sun popped out and lit the crashing surf beautifully. All in all, a fabulous if brief trip to our Great Lake.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Odd looks of jumping spiders belie fearless predators

A mustached jumping spider will stalk its meal

COLUMBUS DISPATCH
November 16, 2014

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Jumping spiders are the extroverts of the arachnid world.

Most spiders prefer to stay out of sight and out of mind. Many remain well-concealed or emerge under cover of darkness.

That is a good thing for the legions of arachnophobes. Such people would rather not know that more than 600 species of spiders occur in Ohio and that they are the most abundant predatory animals in the state.

Many species are outrageous in appearance. The mustached jumping spider (Phidippus mystaceus) resembles a cross between Justin Bieber and Sid Vicious, endowed with three extra sets of eyes and legs and imbued with a homicidal bent.

Most jumping spiders are active during the day and behave like eight-eyed leopards, stalking and pouncing on victims. They shun web building but do make intelligent use of silk.

Before leaping at a victim, the jumping spider attaches a silken belay line. Thus, if the jump were to fail or the prey were to knock the spider away, it can quickly clamber to safety.

Jumpers also craft dense silken bivouacs, which are used for shelter and nurseries for spiderlings.

Experts think jumping spiders possess among the greatest visual acuity of any group of invertebrate animals. A little jumping spider will cock its head curiously at a human and seem to track your every movement. It might even advance on you, to better gauge your intentions.

Have no fear: The spiders are too small to inflict damage, and bites to humans are essentially unknown.

However, potential food had best beware. These formidable foes possess cognitive memory abilities far beyond most other small creatures. The spider can spot prey, move out of sight and into a better ambush locale, and leap unerringly onto the victim, sight unseen. Much larger animals are quickly overcome by the spider’s powerful venom.

About 13 percent of Ohio’s spiders are jumping spiders, and they represent the world’s largest family of spiders.

Such success has spawned fantastic evolutionary radiation. Some jumping spiders have evolved to appear remarkably similar to ants. The disguise is so good that even naturalists can be fooled, as can the spider’s potential predators. Ants are largely unpalatable and can be highly aggressive, so resembling one can be a good deterrent to predators.

Jumping spiders hit their pinnacle of outlandishness when mating season rolls around. Males must approach the larger females with caution, lest they be mistaken for a meal.

To up their odds, male jumpers engage in ornate displays that involve waving their legs like a sailor signaling with semaphores and flashing iridescent body coloration.

Some spiders even create drumrolls or vibrations to add audio effects. Spiderish vaudevillian acts identify them to the aggressive females.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife offers the free publication Common Spiders of Ohio. To get a copy, call 1-800-WILDLIFE or send email to wildinfo@dnr.state.oh. us.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a biweekly column for The Dispatch. He also writes about nature at www.jim mccormac.blogspot.com

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

A gaggle of birders packs the viewing platform at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana. I made a whirlwind trip here last weekend, connecting with a friend from Chicago, Joyce Pontius. We were there, primarily, to observe the noisy and conspicuous spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes on temporary hiatus from their southbound journeys.

I highly recommend this trip. From my town of Columbus, Ohio, it is only about a four hour drive, and the Chicagoans need only travel half that distance. Jasper-Pulaski is in easy driving range from much of the Midwest, and you'll meet people from all over the place who have traveled to see the cranes.

This is what the crowd on the deck is ogling - thousands of noisy Sandhill Cranes. The birds hit their peak numbers in November. Yesterday (November 12), about 8,000 cranes were present, and nearly that many were there last weekend when I made these images. There are probably more to come, although the frigid Arctic blast moving through may move some along, too.

The huge meadow overlooked by the main viewing platform is known as Goose Pasture. It serves as a social rendezvous point for the cranes, which spend the evenings in nearby marshes elsewhere on the 8,000+ acre wildlife area. Around sunrise, the cranes fly en masse to Goose Pasture and seemingly chat it up with each other. Shortly after sunrise, the birds begin streaming out to surrounding fields to spend the day foraging.

At rush hours, scores and scores of cranes are constantly overhead, and their loud primeval rattles fill the air. The overall effect is quite unforgettable.

A quartet of cranes glows golden in the sunset. One soon learns that light is everything when making certain types of photographs, and one also learns just as quickly that the sun and clouds cannot be manipulated at will. This shot was made in the sole 10-15 minute period in which the ever-present gray cloud cover moved aside and let the rays shine through.


Dusk and dawn are the times to be at the viewing platform for the cranes' social hours. In between, trolling the local roads will produce scads of cranes feeding and resting in agricultural fields. Oftentimes the birds are quite near the road, and often will not flush or be unduly disturbed if the observers remain in their vehicle.

A Sandhill Crane is one big bird. It stands about four feet in height, has a wingspan of around seven feet, and can weigh eleven pounds. Over 1,500 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would be required to match the mass of a crane. People that I suspect would never notice the lesser components of our fauna, such as pleasing fungus beetles or various sparrows, DO notice Sandhill Cranes. And many of them travel far distances to J-P to witness the crane spectacle and admire the feathered giants for hours on end.

It is high entertainment to watch the highly social but selectively finicky cranes as they forage in groups. In this shot, an altercation appears to have broken out. Separating an agonistic encounter from courtship is sometimes tough, though. There are at least seven distinct displays which cranes use to express various degrees of displeasure, and some at least are at a casual glance not that different than the courtship displays.


Now this is courtship! That blotch in the upper lefthand corner of the image, in front of the bird's bill, is not a smudge on my lens. The "dancing" bird, which has leapt high into the air, has tossed a piece of corn stubble skyward. This display is known as the "vertical toss", and it is usually performed by a male. Apparently it serves to get the attention of a female. Hang around and watch groups of cranes for any length of time, and you're bound to witness all manner of interesting social interactions such as this.

Cranes rule in this neck of the Hoosier state. They even get the right-of-way when crossing roads.

A platoon of cranes punctuates a picture-perfect Indiana sunset. They joined thousands of other cranes in Goose Pasture for the evening ritual. At flocking times, Sandhill Cranes absolutely dominate the environment. Cranes are everywhere, and their guttural rolling calls fill the air. Impressive hardly describes it. If you go, don't leave the platform when the sun finally dips behind the horizon. About a half-hour or so after nightfall, the flocks' collective calls will begin to rise in pitch, and their restlessness becomes palpable. Suddenly, with a mighty wall of sound, the birds take wing and journey back to the icy waters of the marshes where they'll spend the night.

This wasn't my first time at the Jasper-Pulaski crane dance, and as before the trip came to a close all too soon, and it was time to get back to my world.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Robins, waxwings, and honeysuckle

Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii, cloaks the understory of an Ohio woodland. This plant, and a few other closely related species, would get my vote as worst invasive species of upland habitats. This post is meant only as a (mostly) pictorial offering of evidence as to how the honeysuckle gets scattered far and wide. If you would like to read in more detail about the evils of these shrubs, CLICK HERE.

The first photo in this post was made in early spring, when the honeysuckle was just leafing out. Later would come (admittedly) very showy flowers. Pretty flowers and beautiful fruit are the main reasons that these shrubs were imported to the New World. What a mistake that was. Honeysuckle now runs rampant, and chokes out all manner of native species.

An American Robin perches jauntily in a sea of tasty berries. It, and many others, were plundering a small patch of Amur honeysuckle shrubs in Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area last Saturday. I was in Indiana to see and photograph the spectacular congregation of migrating Sandhill Cranes, and will soon post about that experience (once I get my myriad photos sorted).

A robin, caught in the act. At least a dozen robins were raiding this shrub, and consuming several to a dozen berries with each foray. They and the other fruit-eating honeysuckle birds can strip a sizable shrub in a day or two.

Down the hatch goes a honeysuckle berry. Shrubs that produce brightly colored berries are generally doing so to attract birds. The showy fruit is irresistible to robins and other frugivorous birds. While the soft pulp is quickly digested, the hard seeds within are much tougher to digest, and some of them will pass through the bird's digestive tract intact. They will be expelled later, quite likely some distance from the source shrub. This is one of many ways in which plants "migrate".
  
Were these the fruit of some native shrub, I would be much prouder of this photo. After all, it is a reasonably crisp shot of one of our most elegant birds, the Cedar Waxwing. But alas, the debonair chap sits among more of the nasty Amur honeysuckle.

Like robins, waxings are huge fans of berries and a flock can intake great quantities in short order.

I would think that eating one of these berries, were you the size of a waxwing, would be akin to you or I eating a large melon. There were at least as many waxwings working over the honeysuckle as there were robins. In the relatively short period that I monitored their activities, the birds probably ate hundreds of berries.

When one considers the overall numbers of robins, waxwings, and other species of fruit-eating birds, it's small wonder that invasive berry bushes such as honeysuckles spread so prolifically.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

River Otters squeaking like squeeze toys

Now here's something one doesn't hear everyday. Laura Hughes recently sent along another fabulous trail cam video that she and her husband made in the backwoods of Monroe County in eastern Ohio. This one features a trio of frolicking River Otters, Lontra canadensis. As you'll see, they approach the camera quite closely; in fact, one of them brushes it with its whiskers. Turn the volume up, though - the otters are delivering their amusing little squeaky calls, and those are sounds that most people have never heard, I dare say.

video

Video by David and Laura Hughes

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hike to Buzzardroost Rock

Last Sunday, October 25, dawned crisp and clear. I know, because I watched the sun came up as I drove to one of my favorite places in Ohio. This day was to be the last of the great fall days, weatherwise, and I wanted to be atop a certain conspicuous promontory soon after sunrise.

The sign above points the way to one of the best - and most significant - hikes in the state. The Buzzardroost Rock trail is about a 4.5 mile round trip, and worth every footfall. It is part of the vast Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County. I toted my backpack full of camera gear along, and managed to make a few passable photos during the trek.

The scenery, from a fall leaf color perspective, was still stunning if slightly past peak. One of many great things about living in the vast eastern deciduous forest region is the conspicuous change of seasons. Nothing signals the changing of the guard like late autumn's brilliant burst of foliage. Of course, the color is but a short-lived harbinger of the coming of Old Man Winter, but the next few months of snow and cold will bring their own charms, and make the arrival of spring that much sweeter.

Not a bad canopy to have over one's head! I found myself constantly ogling the trees, searching for the perfect shot. Myriad options presented themselves, and scads of photos were taken, but I like this image as well as anything I clicked off on this pristine day. For those of a photographic bent, it was shot with the Canon 5D Mark III rigged with Canon's 17-40L wide-angle lens, using a focal length of 17 mm. ISO was set to 100, shutter speed was 1/200, and the lens was stopped down to f/8. I was lying on my back in the leaf litter to better get this perspective.


After a fairly speedy hike, I reached the trail's terminus and the namesake Buzzardroost Rock while the sun still hung low in the east. Limestone cliffs tower 70 feet above the forest floor, and the view from the rock is extraordinary. You MUST make this trip at some point.

Buzzardroost Rock is part of the sprawling Edge of Appalachia Preserve, which is co-managed by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The preserve now encompasses about 16,000 acres, and TNC regularly adds new parcels. Their Sunshine Ridge corridor project is an effort to link "The Edge" to the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest, which lies not far to the east.

The Shawnee/Edge region is the wildest landscape remaining in Ohio, and one of the most significant biological hotspots east of the Mississippi River in North America. Rare habitats and unusual flora and fauna abound, and I have featured scores of them on this blog over the years. The primary reason that so many natural history events - at least ones that I have had a hand in - take place down here is because of the natural diversity. Mothapalooza, Flora-Quest, numerous Ohio Ornithological Society conferences, and the Appalachian Butterfly Conference, are but a few. People attending Mothapalooza III next year will once again be wowed by this area, and one of the trips will journey to the very rock that you are now virtually visiting.

Ohio Brush Creek carves a whopping dimple through heavily forested terrain. This stream is one of Ohio's healthiest, in large part because so much of the buffering landscape has not been badly abused and is largely protected.

The straw-brown tufts of grass at cliff's edge may not look like much, but looks can be deceiving. This plant is Plains Muhlenbergia, Muhlenbergia cuspidata, an Ohio endangered species. It is one of numerous threatened and endangered species found on Edge of Appalachia properties.

On the return trip, I adopted a much more leisurely pace and explored habitats such as this prairie opening. Signs of former pasturing were present, but managers are working to return this spot, and many others, to barrens prairies. The botanical diversity in places such as this is fabulous, and botanists can lose themselves for hours searching about barrens prairies. It was a habitat similar to this that I made the photos of Stiff Gentians featured in the previous post.

While their collective voices have largely been muted, a number of singing insects still held on. This is a Treetop Bush Katydid, Scudderia fasciata. Many of the katydids seem to color up somewhat as fall fades, their increased reddish pigments serving to better allow the insects to blend with senescent fall foliage. This animal is a male, and note his ear, just below the knee on its foreleg. While that may seem to be an odd place to have one's ear, it serves these insects well. By having its ears as far apart as possible, the insect can better triangulate on sounds and pinpoint their source.

Asters are without doubt the botanical markers of fall's conclusion, and many species hold on past first frosts. This one is a rarity, the Shale-barren Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (Sim-fee-oh-tri-kum oh-blon-gih-fol-ee-um). Horticulturists have worked wonders with this species, and a cultivar is now widespread and available at many nurseries. Get one if you can. Shale-barren Aster is a pollinator magnet extraordinaire.

If you get the chance to visit the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, by all means do so. More information is available RIGHT HERE, and HERE.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Stiff Gentian, Gentianella quinquefolia

A particularly luxuriant Stiff Gentian, Gentianella quinquefolia, is apparently content in an Adams County, Ohio cedar glade. It shared space with dozens of others, and I made these images last Sunday, October 26 - a date by which most flowers have tossed in the towel. This showy gentian is a true harbinger of Autumn's end.

The flowers of Stiff Gentian are photo-sensitive, opening fully when spurred by the sun's rays. The nectar within is alluring to a host of late season pollinating insects, especially members of the order Hymenoptera (bees and wasps). I parked myself near some especially robust gentians, camera in hand and rigged with the macro setup.

I didn't have to wait long before interesting subjects appeared. This was my favorite, and an animal that I had not previously photographed (at least well). If I'm correct, it is a so-called sweat bee, and possibly one in the genus Augochloropsis. I hedge on the identification because this is a large group of insects, with many look-alikes. For a piker like me, a species-specific ID is more than difficult. But whatever you call it, the animal is quite showy and well worth our close inspection.

The little bee struggles mightily to pull itself from the confines of a mostly closed flower. I'm sure it was worth the investment of energy. The gentians were probably grateful for its trespasses, too. Bees - native bees, not European honeybees - are essential to the gentians' life cycle.

The entire trip into the flower didn't last but ten seconds or so. After plumbing the depths of the flower, the bee was off to the next.

Most of our roughly 1,800 native plant species (in Ohio) would quickly fade away were it not for the army of native pollinators that service them.

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