December 21, 2013

Late Fall at Buzzards Roost

Back in November we did another good winter hike in an area that was completely new to us. This was the 1300-acre Earl H. Barnhart Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve in Ross County near Chillicothe. This hike was particularly interesting to me since I went to high school in Chillicothe and had no idea that this natural area was so close. That, of course, was a very long time ago and it was private property then but I've remained unfamiliar with it until just a few weeks ago.

The Paint Creek Gorge is at the heart of this preserve, and the surrounding cliffs are quite dramatic:

Here is a view of Paint Creek in the valley below:

We hiked two trails at the preserve, starting with the South Point Lookout trail. It took us by an abandoned cabin; I loved playing in an old cabin in the woods behind our house when I was a child in Pennsylvania so I always take note of structures like this:

The area is known for its spring wildflowers, which of course were long gone by the time we visited. We saw hints of what is to come, though, including leaves of the cranefly orchid

and the puttyroot orchid.

Here is a spot where a buck scraped the ground to indicate its territory:

After lunch we went back to the preserve and did its other hike, the Hoggard Trail. We were fortunate to be accompanied by Joe Letsche, who is the naturalist at Buzzard's Roost. He is also a herpetologist and quite knowledgeable about animal tracks so it was great fun to hear what he had to say. We hiked back to a small pool that in the past has hosted marbled salamanders, one of the most attractive of Ohio's amphibians.

Readers might remember a post about several of Ohio's salamanders in early April. Those animals tend to do their courtship, mating and egg laying in the very early spring, in what are called vernal pools. These pools dry in the summer and fit the salamanders' needs because they don't support fish that would prey on their young.

Black with intricate white markings, the marbled salamander is an exception to that pattern. These animals breed in the fall, generally not in, but near vernal pools. The eggs are laid in a spot that will soon be inundated and the larvae overwinter in the pond and become adults in the spring. Meanwhile, after breeding the adults find shelter for the winter, generally in an old mouse burrow or other protected place.

So on our hike, we arrived at the woodland pool

and Joe used a net to explore the leaf litter in the pool to see if he could find any salamander larvae. It didn't take long! Clearly this was a very active marbled salamander breeding location. Here is one of the larvae, which was about an inch long:

This salamander is uncommon and its populations are widely scattered throughout the state. Most people, even those who spend a lot of time outdoors, have never seen it so it was great fun to get to see even its larval form.

Joe spent some time looking for any adults that might still be hanging around the pool, but didn't find any.

For more information about Buzzard's Roost and photos of it during the summer, check out the TrekOhio post here.

December 19, 2013

A Winter Hike at Slate Run

Bill and I just got back from a great road trip to Florida, where it was 86 degrees each day and we saw some beautiful butterflies and plants that were new to us (more about that in a future post!). Now it is back to reality here in Ohio, where December has been unusually cold and snowy. I am not a huge fan of winter weather but I do enjoy hiking when the leaves are off the trees and various topographic features are visible.

Today was the warmest day in quite a while here and we ventured out to Slate Run Metro Park, a 1700 acre property near Canal Winchester. It turns out that it really should be called Shale Run, because there is no slate, a metamorphic rock, within the park or nearby. We hiked about 7 or 8 miles and despite some icy patches it was a fun day.

Here is a view of Slate Run:

Upon closer inspection we could see delicate layers of ice on the surface of the water:

Looking even closer, the ice formations were really beautiful:

Many animal tracks were quite obvious in the snow. These were made by a deer, and it was probably a buck since they are known to drag their feet when they walk:

A raccoon had sauntered across the path at one point:

A squirrel sat down in the middle of the trail:

Here a rabbit hopped across the path:

Approaching a deck that overlooks the park's wetlands, I was stunned to see an enormous Osage Orange tree at the side of the trail, the biggest one I've ever seen. A sign stated that it is over 90 years old, and that the state record tree is 250 years old and is located in Hamilton County. I'd really like to see that but in the meantime here is the Slate Run giant:

The park has a large wetland area visible from the overlook. Sandhill cranes can sometimes be seen in the wetland, as well as a wide variety of waterfowl and other birds. We didn't see much activity there today, since the wetlands were mostly frozen.

In addition to wetlands, the park has many habitats including woods, a small lake and grasslands. The photo below shows a field with poverty grass and woods in the background. Poverty grass gets its name from its ability to grow in impoverished soil. 

The park also features a covered bridge that was built in 1885 and moved from its original location, reassembled and re-roofed here at Slate Run:

By the end of our hike, much of the snow had melted. All in all it was a delightful day and great exercise! 

December 5, 2013

Last Night in the Valley

As I've mentioned previously, we were definitely not the only people looking at birds, butterflies and other wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley in early November. We ran into some of the same people over and over at different places and enjoyed helping each other with sightings and identification. One pair of travelers mentioned that they were interested in moths, and were staying at a small inn that had security lights that attracted lots of different species. That sounded interesting so for our last night in the valley we booked a room there, which turned out to be a lovely place that suited us perfectly.

After we arrived, we walked into the courtyard and were chatting with the owner when I saw and felt a large dark shape fly by and brush against my cheek. A nearby guest said "There's a bat!" but I knew what it was--the unmistakable Black Witch (Ascalapha odorata)!

This huge moth has a wingspan of nearly 7 inches and is native to the tropics but tends to migrate north starting in late spring. It occasionally reaches Ohio, and once we were in Ontario when there was a Black Witch sighting. There is all sorts of creepy folklore about this insect, but for us it was definitely a good omen and we had a delightful evening. We had a picnic dinner in the courtyard at dusk, and were treated to quite a show as a variety of moths were attracted to this gorgeous, extremely fragrant Rangoon Creeper Vine:

First came this Pink-spotted Hawkmoth (Agrius cingulata):

Check out the proboscis on this Five-spotted Hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculatus):

Here is another, much more delicate moth, the Four-spotted Palpita (Palpita quadristigmalis), that was attracted to the vine's flowers:

The next morning we got up early and went out into the parking lot to check out the moth action at the security light, and saw two Black Witches and many other moths. The owner said that they were actually rather sparse that day, but it didn't look sparse to us!

Here is a closer look:

And here are just a few of the individuals that were attracted to the light:

From left to right they are the Pink-spotted Hawkmoth, the Salt Marsh Moth (Estigmene acrea), and the Melonworm Moth (Diaphania hyalinata). (Thanks to for the ID help!)

Soon we watched a beautiful sunrise

and then it was time to head toward Corpus Christi and then home, after a thoroughly satisfying vacation.

November 26, 2013

Lots More South Texas Critters

I initially thought I'd write one or two posts about our recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley but it looks like I'm on my third and there is at least one more to come! With 10 days to spend in this area and with so many friendly people out and about looking for wildlife in the same places that we visited, we had plenty of opportunity to photograph all sorts of insects, birds and other creatures. We also had a lot of indentification help from an excellent guide. The staff and volunteers at many of the parks and preserves that we visited were eager to help visitors and to exchange information about what was in the area. 

This summer here in Ohio we started to get interested in identifying dragonflies and damselflies, so we put some effort into it on our Texas trip, hoping to see some that were new to us. We weren't disappointed! Here is a lovely Rainpool Spreadwing damselfly

and a Desert Firetail, which really lights up lakeside vegetation:

This is a Rambur's Forktail, which was one of the more common damselflies at quiet pond edges:

Watching dragonflies can be a real challenge, since they fly so fast and some rarely stop. Patience is sometimes rewarded, though, and here is a look at two gorgeous dragonflies; the Carmine Skimmer is on top and the similar (and more common) Roseate Skimmer is the lower one.

There was no way that we could resist taking lots of photos of this outrageous Mexican Scarlet-tail that Bill spotted at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park:

Moving up the phylogenetic tree to vertebrates, a few reptiles caught our attention, including this Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake:

At Frontera Audubon Sanctuary we came across this pair of lizards which we were told are Cuban Anoles:

With the mild climate of the valley, it is not unusual for exotic critters to establish large populations. That is the case with the Marine Toad, an amphibian which has been introduced to areas around the world to control pests in agricultural fields. Unfortunately its voracious appetite has lead to declines in native species. This toad was huge--bigger than a softball:

Of course we didn't ignore the birds either, and we saw plenty of cool ones. My two Rio Grande Valley favorites are the Green Jay

and the Great Kiskadee:

The morning chorus of Kiskadees is one of my favorite things about the valley. It just evokes the tropics for me. This link has a recording of its call.

A really exciting highlight of the trip for us was seeing a young bobcat at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Its mother was in the area too but we didn't see her. What a treat it was to be able to photograph this beautiful creature:

Stay tuned for more valley highlights!

November 20, 2013

The Rio Grande Valley--Butterflies and More!

As I explained in my last post, our late October/early November trip to south Texas was mainly aimed at seeing the spectacle of thousands of butterflies of many species in the Rio Grande Valley. As an added bonus we saw lots of other wildlife and enjoyed seeing many people that we have met over the years through birding and other outdoor activities. We even managed to fit in a field trip with the Texas Butterfly Festival

All around the valley various parks and preserves have planted gardens which are expressly designed to attract butterflies. Some of these include Resaca de Palma State Park, Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Edinburgh Wetlands, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. It is no secret that these gardens are quite popular (with both people and insects) and that they help to bring valuable tourist dollars into the area, supplementing the revenue from birders who visit the valley in the fall and at other times of year. Many of these sites cooperatively market themselves, giving visitors a wide range of options during their stay in the valley. I described these places in posts here and here, earlier this year.

Some of the most popular plantings in the butterfly gardens include Mistflower or Crucita (Eupatorium odoratum and related species), Lantana (Lantana urticoides), Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri) and Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus drumondii). Here is a brilliant Blue Metalmark on Lantana:

a Cloudless Sulphur (which occurs in Ohio) on Turk's Cap:

a Southern Dogface on Mistflower (note the little poodle face on this butterfly that gives it its name!):

and American Snouts on Mexican Olive:

Even when not in bloom, the Mexican Olive attracts insects; it must exude some sort of sweet substance on the fruits. The blooms are stunning and are an excellent nectar source.

Snouts were probably the most numerous butterflies that we saw and there were literally millions of these little flyers on flowers, in the forest and in the air. People reported seeing clouds of them migrating along certain stretches of highway while we were there. Its caterpillar food plant is hackberry, and many that we saw showed lots of evidence of caterpillar use. This butterfly has a large range and is not uncommon most years in Ohio. Here is a photo of it opened up, showing its beautiful orange pattern, alongside a plant called Esperanza (Tecoma stans).

No butterfly garden is complete without lots of caterpillar food plants, and most of these gardens were planted with that fact in mind. This has allowed some fairly rare butterflies, which are more common to the south, to breed in the valley. We were fortunate to see a couple of these, along with their caterpillars. Here is the gorgeous Guava Skipper:

and the diminutive and well-named Red-bordered Pixie:

Another butterfly that was quite common, especially for the first few days of our visit, was the Queen, a relative of the Monarch:

Here is a very short video that gives some idea of the scene:

Another interesting feature of many of the butterfly gardens, and particularly those that have woodland areas, is the "bait log". These are segments of small branches, hung from a tree or other support, and slathered with a mixture of beer, brown sugar, and mashed bananas. This brew attracts butterflies that aren't particularly interested in flower nectar but that utilize rotting fruit and/or sap. Most of these are Tawny Emperors:

In addition to butterflies, other critters come to the bait logs;

The big guy on the left is a tarantula wasp and the large beetle on the right is a harlequin flower beetle. Assorted bees, wasps and flies usually also appear, and sometimes crowd, these bait logs.

The gorgeous Mexican Bluewing butterfly is a frequent guest at these logs and is a special feature of these semi-tropical wooded areas near the Rio Grande River:

It was absolutely stunning to see these beautiful insects flying in the dappled shade of the forests. The one in the photo above is a male; here is a female at a bait log--notice that it has more white spots on the forewings:

There were so many gorgeous butterflies that I'd like to show here but this is getting long! Here are just a few (well,maybe more than a few!) more butterfly highlights. This is another woodland butterfly called the Band-celled Sister:

The Common Mestra was indeed common in many places we visited:

Even though it was a bit tattered, this Crimson Patch was still gorgeous:

Wow--this Tailed Orange was such a beautiful pumpkin orange color:

On of the most sought-after butterflies in the valley is the Great Purple Hairstreak, which we were fortunate to see at Estero Llano Grande State Park:

Tiny but exquisite, this Red-crescent Scrub-hairstreak was an exciting find:

An open Tropical Leafwing was a real treat; most are seen closed on bait logs:

I almost forgot one of my favorites, the Ruddy Daggerwing:

Last but certainly not least is the exquisitely beautiful Silver-banded Hairstreak, nectaring on Scorpionweed. This was one of the smallest of the 90+ butterfly species that we saw:

Butterflies weren't the only attraction in the valley on our trip, and my next post will illustrate some non-lepidopteran critters!