June 20, 2014

A Steamy Summer Day in Adams County

Mid-June is in some ways rather quiet botanically in Ohio--the rush of spring ephemeral wildflowers is over and the abundant prairie blooms have not yet begun. But there is plenty to see as some summer butterflies are starting to appear and a few stunning flowers are beginning their prime season. So Wednesday we headed south with a friend to Adams County, which I have mentioned in this blog several times. Appropriately, one of the roads we take to get to some of the nature preserves is called Steam Furnace Road, and the day was definitely steamy! 

One of our first stops was an interesting preserve that has several pocket prairie areas that support many rare plants. Along the trail we were excited to find a butterfly that was new for us, the northern metalmark:

Notice the metallic "threads" that give this tiny butterfly its name! Its upper side is beautiful, and the underside is equally stunning with its bright orange color and intricate pattern, plus cool green dashes:

Northern metalmark caterpillars feed on a plant called round-leaved ragwort, which is abundant in the area where we found three of the adults. We saw it in bloom several weeks ago.

Some of the other butterflies we saw here included the northern pearly eye:

and the tiny eastern tailed blue:

We were interested to see this unusual plant called the climbing milkvine--milkvines are in the milkweed family but are not in the same genus as the milkweeds:

After that hike we headed to Adams Lake State Park, a perfect site for a shady picnic. Refreshed and rehydrated, we did the very short hike at Adams Lake State Nature Preserve, another pocket prairie that hosts a variety of unusual flora and fauna. 

American ipecac was in bloom; supposedly Native Americans used it as an emetic but it is not the source of the ipecac that is given these days to induce vomiting in the case of accidental poisoning (that comes from the roots of a South American plant):

A main attraction at this preserve is the Edward's hairstreak butterfly, which we didn't see when we were there last week. Today was a completely different story, and we saw at least 25 individuals! Most were nectaring on orange milkweed, often called butterfly weed:

Edward's hairstreak has a really unusual life cycle. Eggs are laid in bark crevices of young oak trees, and after they hatch the caterpillars live in huge anthills built by Allegheny mound ants:

At night, the ants accompany the caterpillars to small oak trees where the cats feed, protected by the ants from predators such as small parasitic wasps. This shingle oak, growing next to one of the ant mounds, would be a likely food source:

I am not making this up! The caterpillars exude a sweet substance called honeydew that the ants consume, and thus it is a mutually beneficial relationship. The adults only last a few weeks, but right now they are abundant in this location.

We didn't see many of the ants, probably because it was so hot that they were inside their mound. But we did spot a dragonfly, a beautiful female eastern pondhawk, eating an ant--the circle of life, indeed!

In addition to the Edward's hairstreaks, great spangled fritillaries were taking advantage of the nectar offered by the orange milkweed:

We made one last stop before heading home, and that was Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve. In a few weeks this area will be full of blooming prairie plants such as rattlesnake master, crownsbeard and prairie dock, but today we enjoyed seeing lots of orange milkweed plus whorled loosestrife:

and purple milkweed:

We were even treated to a view of a fairly unusual butterfly, the hoary edge, which was perched atop a prairie dock leaf. It is named for the frosted-looking edging on its hindwing:

A brief stop at a UDF for ice cream was a welcome relief from the heat, and we all agreed that this trip had been a great way to spend a summer day!

By the way, it has been a little while since I posted on this blog, mainly because we have been busy exploring. If you'd like to read more about what we've been up to, check out botanist Andrew Gibson's excellent blog here and here to find out about one of our recent adventures!

June 4, 2014

Flying Dragons

Recently we have been putting a bit of effort into finding and identifying dragonflies. These huge insects look like relics from a prehistoric world, which, in fact, they are. When I was working as a naturalist at camp for many years I was familiar with a few of these creatures, and especially with their aquatic nymphs because I often led aquatic ecology sessions. This activity is better known as "creeking" which is, by the way, one of the most fun ways to spend some time as a child or as an adult! 

The nymphs were, for me, generally unidentifiable as to species, but the pond on the property hosted several common types of adults and I loved their names; the Halloween Pennant, Blue Dasher, Widow Skimmer, and Twelve-spotted Skimmer were just a few. I really gained an appreciation for their speed, the fierce way they defended their territories, and their ability to change direction in an instant.

Lately I've realized that the dragonfly world is much larger than I thought. Ohio has over 160 species! Many spend most of their time around ponds, but some prefer forests or flowing streams or a variety of other habitats. All have aquatic or semi-aquatic juvenile stages, that breathe with gills and are able to catch and eat small fish and insects. Adult dragonflies will not sting or bite humans, but they are fierce predators which can use their legs to catch large and small insects on the wing. 

Here are some of the Ohio dragonflies that have been new to us in the past year. Many thanks go to friends who have helped us with identification! A good place to start if you are interested in dragonflies is the Ohio Division of Wildlife's guide to dragonflies and damselflies which is online at this link; print copies can be found at many parks and nature centers.

I'll start with a real stunner--the Rusty Snaketail. These large dragonflies generally are found near clean streams; their presence is indicative of a high quality watershed. This one was found near Big Darby Creek.

A bit less flashy is this Brown Spiketail. Spiketails generally have contrasting dark brown or black and yellow patterns. Most are seen in late spring or early summer, and prefer small shallow streams and ditches. This one was found at Gallagher Fen.

Here is another member of the spiketail family, the Arrowhead Spiketail. Note the bold, arrow-like yellow markings on the abdomen. This critter breeds in woodland streams and has stunning blue eyes.

Another blue-eyed large dragonfly is this Lilypad Clubtail. It breeds in weedy ponds and at the edges of lakes, and adults are rarely found far from a pond that has a lot of emergent vegetation. 

Closely related is the Unicorn Clubtail, which looks very similar except that the very last segment of its abdomen is completely yellow. Some of these field marks are subtle and a photo is a real help in identification! Unicorn Clubtails often bask on the shoreline, allowing close photos.

Some of the smaller dragonflies are fun to watch too. Here is a Painted Skimmer--some references say that it is uncommon, but we've seen quite a few of them this spring. Skimmers are a large group, and can be found in most ponds and lakes in the summer. In general, they tend to perch in the open for easy viewing, which is a big help to us dragonfly novices!

This beautiful dragonfly is the Carolina Saddlebags, named for the broad red areas on the hindwings. It breeds in ponds and lakes and also tends to perch in the open at the tip of vegetation. Interestingly, it is highly migratory and tends to arrive in Ohio in mid-April. Other related Ohio species include Black and Red Saddlebags.

This has to be one of my favorites, the aptly named Dot-tailed Whiteface. It is very common right now in many ponds and is great fun to watch defending its territory and zipping around the shoreline. It emerges in early spring and can be seen most of the summer. 

Yesterday we spotted a really interesting dragonfly called the Gray Petaltail. It belongs to a primitive insect family dating back 250 million years. It is usually found in the woods, on tree trunks and fallen logs. The one we spotted was on a hitching rail in Hocking State Forest, along a stream where horseback riders often stop to rest along a bridle trail. 

Underneath the hitching rail are often found a variety of butterflies, including these Tiger Swallowtails, which get nutrients from the--ahem--nitrogen compounds that are deposted by the horses. 

Although not well camouflaged, the petaltail had a good perch on which to hunt for its next meal, because these dragonflies are fierce butterfly predators:

Several times we watched it go after a butterfly. It seemed to ignore them when they were on the ground, but as soon as one started to fly the petaltail went off in pursuit and then came back to its perch. We figured that this one must have just emerged as an adult, because it was pretty slow and we didn't see it catch anything in at least 15 tries. It seemed a bit more adept in the later attempts!

Last year we found a Gray Petaltail in the same area that had been successful in capturing a butterfly; that time it was a Red-spotted Purple:

I hope you've enjoyed learning about a few of Ohio's dragonflies. Keep an eye out when you are outside this summer; they are always fun to watch!

Much of the background information in this post is from Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio by Larry Roche, Judy Semroc and Linda Gilbert, available at this link.