December 30, 2012

Florida Escargot

Ohio birders head to Florida for many reasons, but especially to see a handful of birds that can't be seen anywhere else in the United States. Two of these, the Snail Kite and the Limpkin, are confined to very specific habitats that also support their primary food supply, the apple snail.

Here is a photo of one of the snails:

Now these snails are pretty strange creatures in that they have both a gill and an air sac that functions as a lung, basically making them amphibious. This allows them to survive in areas that alternate between drought and high rainfall, such as is found in Florida marshes and other tropical areas. If they are in water that is low in oxygen, they can climb on vegetation near to the surface and extend a siphon to get some air, while still hiding from their arch enemies, the Snail Kites and Limpkins. 

So when we go to Florida we are always on the lookout for these two birds, and we know to look for them in places that can be expected to have apple snails. Sometimes we see the kites in marshy areas near the Everglades, but not on our most recent trip to Florida a few weeks ago.
On this trip, as we headed north, the last likely spot to find these birds was a small park that we have found in the past to be quite dependable. It is called Marina Park in the town of St. Cloud, just south of Orlando. Bordering East Lake Tokopekaliga, it has a marshy edge on its eastern side that is well worth scanning for a variety of birds.

After a nice picnic lunch overlooking the lake, we decided to get serious about checking out the local birds. Soon we heard a harsh scream and located a Limpkin skulking in the grasses. (According to Wikipedia, its vocalizations have been used for jungle sound effects in Tarzan movies!)

This large bird has a wingspan of over 40 inches but can hide easily in the marsh vegetation. Males and females look pretty much alike. They will eat a variety of mollusks, insects, crustaceans and other animals but their primary food source is the apple snail, which they deftly extract from its shell with their long beak. At this park they are not too shy, so it is possible to get decent photos.

After enjoying the Limpkin we continued to scan the marsh for a Snail Kite. These birds are about the size of a medium-sized hawk and tend to fly low over the vegetation searching for snails. I don't have a good picture of a male; they are almost entirely black with a distinctive white rump spot and an red eye. This link has a good photo.

We were really fortunate and saw a far-off adult male and then an immature bird perched in a tree not far from us, within digiscoping distance:

Note the extremely hooked beak, great for extracting snails from their shells! I did manage to get a fairly decent video of the entire process, and near the end you can see the white feathers at the base of the tail:

As you can see, this bird has bands on its leg. These birds are extensively studied and because their U.S. population is so small they are listed as both State and Federal endangered species. Their extremely specialized habitat requirements tend to keep the population low. So we were very excited to get such a good view.

This small park has a lot more to offer. After looking at the kite we recalled that last year we saw Sandhill Cranes here. Turning around, we saw this individual walking toward us:

What a huge, gorgeous bird! Our day was complete when soon we heard the amazing trumpeting of a small flock of cranes overhead:

Sandhill Cranes do occur quite regularly in Ohio, particularly during migration and a few pairs usually breed in the state. The sound and sight of a flock never fails to be thrilling.

Other animals that we've seen in this park include Florida Cooter turtles, marsh hares, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Wood Storks, and a variety of butterflies.

We had such a great time on this trip to Florida, and our visit to this park was one of the highlights. Here is another view of the marsh, home to a wide variety of wildlife including apple snails and their hungry predators!

December 23, 2012

Leave Only Footprints...

I love a good picnic. I have a standard assortment of food that I bring on our trips--crackers, pretzels and crunchy peanut butter tossed in a tote bag, plus fruit, hummus, hard boiled eggs, cheese and my peanut butter-dark chocolate chip cookies in a cooler. My ideal picnic spot has to have a clean table, a slight breeze to keep the bugs away (but not actual wind that blows the food about), shade if it is hot and sun on a cool day, a good view, and not many people nearby. This combination isn't all that easy to achieve, but on our recent trip to Florida we found the perfect spot:

I will share my secret: it is the beach access at Eddy's Cove on Playa Linda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore, on Florida's Atlantic coast. A few hours here went by very quickly!

After lunch I had to explore the beach, which was nearly deserted. The first thing I happened upon was a Portuguese Man-o-War, tossed up with some seaweed but still inflated. 

This jellyfish-like creature is actually a colonial organism, made up of many individuals, each of which is highly specialized and incapable of living on its own. Its tentacles, the bright blue stringy object in the photo, can deliver a major sting, even after the creature is beached. They can't really swim, like jellyfish do; instead, they move with the currents, winds and tides. 

After poking around the Man-o-War, I noticed that nearly every clump of seaweed contained pieces of discarded plastic, which was very disturbing. Old sandals, bottle caps, jelly jars, and many other pieces of trash appeared wherever I looked. Discarded plastic basically never decomposes; it persists and often pieces are eaten, much to the detriment of the sea creatures that ingest them.

After this depressing observation I decided to check out the upper beach at the base of the dune. 

Dunes are essential to maintaining a beach, and the dunes along this beach were large and well-vegetated with sea grape, a grass called sea oats, and other plants. A sign near the picnic shelter explained more about the dune ecosystem. The vegetation not only stablizes the sand that makes up the dune, it shelters and nourishes a wide variety of wildlife including gray fox, raccoon, bobcat, spotted skunk, various snakes, and many others.

Mid-day is not the time to see any of these animals, but I sure would love to see a bobcat. I haven't seen one in years, since I lived in California, so we drove the roads in the area at dawn and dusk hoping to see one but having no luck. As I walked up the beach though, it became obvious that the sign was correct and bobcats definitely were hiding in the dunes, maybe even watching us!

How cool is that--bobcat tracks! Raccoons had also been prowling the beach:

Here is a fun picture: bird and bobcat side by side? 

Doubtful--the trouble with tracks is that unless you are a real expert it isn't possible to tell, without more evidence than this, who was there first, or if animals were anywhere near each other at any point in time.

Meanwhile, Bill was gazing out at the ocean, looking with good success for sea birds. 

We have been to this beach several times over the years and nearly always have successfully found spectacular Northern Gannets flying high and crash-diving into the water. 

Unfortunately even at high tide these birds are way beyond the ability of our photography equipment to get a good picture but they are readily identifiable in binoculars. It is amazing to watch them fold their wings back and plummet into the water to find fish, and then pop back up to go at it again. I did manage to take a digiscoped video that isn't great but might give some idea of how cool they are. You'll see an initial splash of a diving bird, and then another adult gannet comes into view and flies off.

Here is a shot of a patrolling group of Brown Pelicans:


We think these might be Ruddy Ducks:

All in all this is a wonderful place to have a picnic, explore and lose track of time!

December 20, 2012

Not Exactly a Movie Review

I just got home from seeing the movie Lincoln. What a powerful film! It is amazing how much has changed since the 1860's (transportation, communication) and how much has not changed at all (contentious politics, the pain of loss). A friend of mine was inspired by the film to delve a bit deeper into Lincoln's life, and suggested that I write a blog post about a link between Lincoln and botany: the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Nancy Hanks was born in Campbell County, Virginia, and was orphaned at a young age. She moved to Kentucky with an uncle and his family, where she met Thomas Lincoln. They were married in 1806 and had three children  After losing 3 farms in Kentucky due to boundary and title disputes, the Lincoln family moved to southern Indiana in 1816 where they literally carved out a life in the wilderness.

Thomas Lincoln and his son Abraham cleared the land, planted crops and built a log home using wood from the surrounding forest. Life was manageable, but in the fall of 1818, neighbors in the area became terribly ill from what was called milk sickness. 

Although they didn't know it at the time, this illness, characterized by severe intestinal pain and vomiting, was caused by ingesting milk or other dairy products or meat from a cow that has eaten a plant called White Snakeroot (Ageritina altissima). This plant is extremely common in Ohio and much of the midwest and we saw a lot of it this past summer:

White Snakeroot is a shade-loving plant found throughout Indiana, Ohio, parts of Kentucky, and the wooded parts of Illinois. It is common along roadsides, in damp open areas and on shaded north sides of ridges. Its range does not extend much farther east than Ohio, thus settlers were unfamiliar with it and its toxic properties so allowed their livestock to graze at will in the pastures and forests. 

Thousands of lives reportedly were lost to milk sickness along the Ohio River Valley and its tributaries where the plant is common. Although a connection between the illness and snakeroot was suspected by 1830, the cause of milk sickness was not officially discovered until 1928 when biochemists were able to analyze the plant's chemical makeup. Snakeroot contains the compound tremetol which is described as a "potent toxin" and its effects are usually fatal. It is an unsaturated alcohol with the consistency and odor of turpentine.

The disease was particularly prevalent in drought years, when cows would wander from dry pastures into woods to forage. As the land was cleared and pastures were fenced, the incidence of the disease decreased.

Plants contain some pretty amazing chemicals, certainly capable of curing diseases as well as causing them. The roots of the snakeroot plant were used topically to treat snakebites, hence the plant's name. 

Here is a closer picture of the snakeroot flowers:

When neighbors of the Lincolns in the Little Pigeon Creek settlement where they lived in southern Indiana became ill, Nancy helped care for the sick. Apparently she also drank the contaminated milk, fell ill, and died on October 5, 1818, when her son was 9 years old.

At least that is what many sources report! In fact, medical diagnosis and care in the early 19th century on the frontier was pretty minimal, and certainly lacked detailed record keeping that anyone would have access to now for review. Descriptions of many aspects of life on the frontier and specifically about Lincoln's family are a complicated combination of verifiable facts and speculation.

There is some conjecture that Nancy Hanks Lincoln died not from milk sickness but from a "wasting disease" such as tuberculosis or some form of cancer. We'll never know for sure, but certainly, many deaths have been attributed to milk sickness and it was a much-feared consequence of living on the midwestern frontier.

In any event, be sure to see the movie! The entire cast is excellent, and Daniel Day-Lewis gives an amazing portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.

December 16, 2012


Bill and I recently did a road trip to Florida, exploring sites on the Gulf coast, the Everglades and the Atlantic coast. What a fantastic trip! It was mainly a birding trip but we really enjoyed the botany too, and of course we took way too many pictures. I could write lots of blog posts about it, but will try to limit myself to 4 or 5. Or maybe not. The area is a photographer's dream, since so many of the birds are large and stay relatively still!

One of our favorite areas that we visited was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore and the Kennedy Space Center. Its Black Point Wildlife Drive was beyond amazing. This was the scene at the entrance to the drive:

Here is a quick guide to the cast of characters in that photo, and remember that you can click on any photo to see a higher resolution image. First, of course, are the Roseate Spoonbills, perhaps the most glamorous of the birds that can be seen in Florida. 

The biggest bird in the first picture is a White Pelican. These birds are found most often in fresh or brackish water, while their cousin, the Brown Pelican, tends to stay near the ocean.

Next is the Great Egret, which is actually pretty common in Ohio in the summer. 

Its cousin, the Snowy Egret, is just as elegant, and perhaps more so with its bright yellow feet:

Next is the White Ibis, with its brilliant red bill and pink legs:

And of course the Wood Storks, looking like gossipy old men:

Put all these birds together in a small pond, and you have quite a mix of sight and sound! Early in the morning the birds fly in, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups. All seem to be very hungry, and it was hard to believe there was enough food in this pool to satisfy all of them. But each species feeds just a little differently, partially in terms of their behavior and partially because of their bill shape. In this video, watch the spoonbills swish their bills back and forth through the water and sediment, while the wood storks use their beaks almost like chopsticks, the ibises poke in the sediment, and the Great Egrets seem to visually locate food and capture it:

Most of the time when I've seen Snowy Egrets feed they stand still and wait till they spot something and then they lunge to catch it. Here, the snowies were behaving quite differently, flying over the pool, dragging their feet in the water, and occasionally catching a minnow. A guide who was there at the same time we were even said that he had never before seen this behavior.

It was hard to drag ourselves and our cameras away from this spot, but on we went. The drive has several parking areas with trail access, and convenient viewing platforms:

Various ponds and impoundments are surrounded by vigorous stands of mangroves, which looked ethereal in the light, early morning fog:

Did you ever wonder where ducks go in winter? Well, just like people, a lot of them go to Florida!

This is probably my favorite duck, the Hooded Merganser, many of which breed in Ohio in summer:

We spotted a large group with a couple of males and lots of females and juveniles. They feed by diving for fish, and are remarkably successful. I love how the males in this video "deflate" their crest before taking a dive!

Probably the most unusual bird at the refuge this winter is the duck with the reddish head in this picture, the Eurasian Wigeon.  As its name implies, it is not a native North American bird, although a few appear each year, even sometimes in Ohio. The birds next to it are American Wigeons, which are quite common in Ohio in summer.

Although this is not the prime wildflower time in Florida, there were a few in bloom that added color and interest to the drive. Because of its preference for wet areas and its starchy root, this plant is called Duck Potato (Sagittaria lancifolia).

Another species of wet areas, this plant is known as Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata)

In addition to the mangroves, Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine) lined some of the lagoons and added bright color to the landscape:

No trip through these impoundments and marshes would be complete without spotting an alligator or two!

Needless to say, a winter visit to Merritt Island is well worth the time, for birders and non-birders alike. And here is one final image of that gorgeous wader, the Roseate Spoonbill, coming in for a landing:

More from Florida in future posts!

December 9, 2012

Nature's Christmas Tree??

Not long ago while walking through Ohio's Springville Marsh State Nature Preserve I noticed this small tree:

My first thought was that it looked like fun Christmas ornaments were hanging from the tree, moving lightly in the breeze.

Immediately after that thought, however, my brain registered "Poison Sumac" and the notion of hanging the fat golden clusters of berries on a tree inside a house was quickly rejected. You see, I have a long history of being allergic to urushiol, the oily allergen that is characteristic of Poison Sumac, Poison Ivy, and Poison Oak. What a family! 

This family (Anacardiaceae) is commonly called the cashew family, and it includes mangos and pistachios as well as cashews. All of these contain urushiol or very similar compounds, but in smaller quantities than the related species that occur in North America. Some people are quite allergic to pistachios and the skin of mangoes for this reason, and cashews have to be peeled and roasted to destroy the irritant.

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) fortunately is not very common. It only grows in wet areas, and other places I've seen it in Ohio include Cedar Bog, Cranberry Bog in Buckeye Lake, and Brown's Lake Bog. It has a compound leaf with 7-13 leaflets, so the poison ivy/poison oak adage "leaflets three, let them be" doesn't work. I don't have a great picture of its reddish pink fall color, but this gives the general idea:

It really is a bad idea to touch any part of this plant. The urushiol is found in all parts of it, and Poison Sumac causes an even worse contact dermatitis than the other two North American members of its genus. In fact, some botanists have called it the most toxic plant in the United States.

So what is urushiol, and why does it cause the itchy, blistery, seeping rashes? It is an organic compound that can have several chemical formulas depending on the composition of its side chains. Once it has been absorbed by the skin it is recognized by cells that are part of the immune system. These cells then migrate to lymph nodes where they present the urushiol to T-lymphocytes and send them to the skin. Once in the skin, the T-lymphocytes produce the compounds which cause the rash.

Lots of factual information, old wives' tales, and home remedies can be found in A Field Guide to Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac by Susan Carol Hauser. As for most of the home remedies, the book basically says that if you use them the rash will clear in about two weeks; without them it will last 14 days! Surprisingly, the book says that if you rinse with copious amounts of water soon after exposure the urushiol will be washed away, and adding soap has no additional effect. I'm not sure I believe that; I always use soap if I know I've been exposed, and I think I'll continue to do so!

Apparently the word urushiol comes from Japanese, where it is represented by this character:

The Japanese have long used the toxic sap from the Chinese Lacquer Tree (T. vernicifluum) in art work, musical instruments and furnishings. After heat treatment, the urushiol-laden sap hardens and forms a durable, glossy finish which is way less toxic than the untreated material but some people still may be sensitive to it. If you search for "Urushi Lacquer" on Ebay you can see all sorts of possibly toxic products that you can buy!

What I'd like to know is why humans (and possibly some other primates) have immune systems that react in such an extreme way to this compound, while birds and other animals eat berries and other parts of the Toxicodendron genus without any problem. And what, if any, purpose does urushiol serve for the plants that produce it? 

At any rate, I definitely won't be getting out the gold spray paint any time soon, a la Martha Stewart, to turn these toxic berries into decorations for my house!

December 2, 2012

A Botanical Feast

Not long ago Bill and I attended a fun program at Dawe's Arboretum in Newark, Ohio that featured food plants from around the world. Organized and led by the arboretum's botanist, Dr. David Brandenburg, the program grouped the plants by their botanical family, which produced some surprises for all of the participants. The program started with a review of some basic plant biology and the differences, to a botanist, between fruits and vegetables.

Then we went into a room that featured many, many tables of foods from every continent except Antarctica--this picture shows about half the tables:

The first two families that Dr. Brandenburg showed us, the grasses and the legumes, are the most important food families and they basically "feed the world". The grasses include sugar cane and all the true grains like wheat, oats and barley. Interestingly, buckwheat and quinoa are in other families and are not true grains. No plants contain all the amino acids that are necessary as the building blocks of proteins for animals, but grains + legumes give a complete diet. I was surprised to learn that jicama is a legume, and licorice is from the bark of a root of a legume native to Asia! 

Most of the foods that we consume originated outside of North America. In fact, if we were to only eat plants native to North America just about all we would have would be pecans, cranberries, Concord grapes, sunflower seeds and a few other nuts and berries.

For centuries humans have selectively bred plants from around the world to create the food that we eat today. For example, we learned that cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli and cauliflower not only are all in the same family (mustard), they are all the same species of plant! Thanks to human intervention, they are all descended from a kale, Brassica oleracae, that originally grew wild in Europe.

The Composite or Aster family is one of the largest plant families, but is not as important as grasses and legumes to our diet. Here is a plant in that family that is familiar to most of us:

This roadside weed is chicory, one of our loveliest wildflowers. Native to Europe, it became naturalized in North America long ago and its roots were used to brew a drink, often by people who couldn't afford or who didn't have access to coffee. I never would have guessed that this humble plant is the same species as two popular "yuppie" vegetables, radicchio and Belgian endive!

So after learning about these and many other plant families, we were served a lunch prepared by high school students from C-TEC (Career and Technical Education Centers) of Licking County, Ohio. The main dish, a quiche, featured Japanese Goba Root which comes from the burdock plant. Readers might remember burdock as one of the plants that I discussed in a previous post, found here. This is a picture of the long taproot that is used in many Asian cuisines:

It had kind of a bland flavor and I don't think I'd go out of my way to have it again, but I'm glad I tried it once!

Here is the entire menu that we enjoyed at Dawes, and a photo of the dessert:

Chickpea and Tamarind Hummus with Caraway and Cumin Lavash

Brie in a crust with Green Apples and Ancho-Guava Jam

Wild Arugula, Fennel and Pomegranate Salad with Buddha’s Hand Vinaigrette

Japanese Gobo and Horseradish Quiche 
with Bacon and Swiss cheese

Blueberry Cherry Crisp with Coconut Milk, Vanilla Bean 
and Grains of Paradise Ice Cream

Iced Green Tea

Punch (ginger syrup, pineapple juice, and sparkling water)

A botanical feast indeed! And many thanks to Dr. David Brandenburg and Dawes Arboretum for such an excellent and unique program.