March 29, 2013

Easter Eye Candy

Despite the fact that I have complained a bit (!) about our cold winter the past few months, I have to admit that it has been a great year for crocuses in my garden. A few hardy ones started blooming in mid-February and some are still going and are in fact in their prime. Some have been blooming each spring for most all of the 26 years we have lived in this house (except when the rabbits have eaten them to the ground) while others are much newer. I have no idea what variety all of them are but each one gladdens my heart when I see them. Here is a sample:

They give so much beauty and require so little care. Usually I even forget about where some of them are planted and it is a fun surprise when I walk out and see them in bloom. I think that the cool weather this year has really extended the season and kept each variety blooming for over a week. Usually we have some much warmer days that accelerate the plants' blooming cycle. It also helps that we have them in scattered clumps around our lot so that some get more light and warmth than others, leading to varying bloom times.

It is interesting to watch how they open and close in response to sunlight. On cloudy days they hardly open at all, and in full sun they are wide open, only to close again in late afternoon. I wonder if this is an adaptation designed to attract appropriate pollinators and/or to prevent damage from winter and spring storms. 

Crocuses of various types (there are at least 90 species) are native to parts of Asia, Europe and Africa--basically everywhere but the new world and Antarctica. They have been cultivated for centuries, and have been manipulated quite a bit by the horticultural trade which has introduced many new varieties (although some original species are available too). Most of the crocuses that we see in gardens are varieties of Crocus vernis. Here are a few more that grow in my garden:

How do they manage to bloom in winter? Apparently the flowers and leaves have a waxy covering or cuticle that keeps them from freezing and drying. Some crocus species actually bloom in the fall, including Crocus sativus, from which comes the spice saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

Interestingly, Crocus sativus is unknown in the wild, and is thought to be a Bronze Age cultivar or mutant of Crocus cartwrightianus from Crete. There are several reasons why saffron is so expensive. First, it is sterile so has to be propagated vegetatively rather than by seeds. Second, the saffron comes from the flowers' dried stigmas (the structure at the end of the pistil that receives the pollen) and there are only a few per flower. Also, the stigmas have to be harvested by hand, and most saffron production occurs in Iran. One pound of saffron comes from 50,000 to 75,000 flowers! It is used in a variety of cuisines, lending its yellow color and mild flavor perhaps most famously in Spanish paella.

Any blooms in the garden are quite welcome at this time of year and we certainly have enjoyed the crocuses. I also have a few snowdrops, the early daffodils look like they will bloom soon, and I brought some forsythia branches inside a few days ago hoping that they will flower by Easter dinner. Here is a picture from my small patch of winter aconite:

March 25, 2013

In search of snow trillium

Despite what the groundhog predicted back in early February, winter is hanging on with a vengeance here in central Ohio. So, with a winter storm warning in effect, what did we do? We went out looking for snow trillium! It wasn't supposed to start snowing till mid-afternoon, so we headed to Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve near Yellow Springs, where we first saw this very early wildflower many years ago.

Clifton Gorge has a very scenic trail system that links with paths at John Bryan State Park, offering great hiking opportunities. We parked at the SR343 lot and took the Gorge Trail down to the Little Miami River, passing dramatic limestone cliffs and a lovely waterfall.

Here is a view of the river:

Because of the cold weather, wildflowers are a week or two behind their average bloom dates this year. Only the very hardiest species have started to bloom. We saw a fair amount of harbinger-of-spring; in a previous post I wrote about how tiny the flowers are and this time I took a ruler to illustrate their size:

The hepatica was just starting to bloom, but even in bud it is lovely. This plant's flowers can be white, pink or tinged with blue. I loved these beautiful blue ones, even though they were nearly closed on this cold, overcast day:

I was surprised to see this insect on one of the hepatica blooms! Brave little guy to be out on a day like this!

Soon we spotted our goal: snow trillium! The "tri" in its name is quite descriptive, since these diminutive plants have 3 leaf-like bracts, three sepals and three petals. They are quite uncommon throughout their range, and mostly occur in limestone-derived soils along rivers and streams. These are very small plants, not more than about 2-4 inches high and the blooms are barely an inch and a half wide. This is quite a contrast to the much larger trilliums that will be so beautiful in the Ohio woodlands in a month or so. Most weren't open very wide, but here is one really nice specimen:

And here is a cluster which will be really stunning when the flowers are in full bloom:

Soon the snow began to fall, illustrating how the plant got its name. Very often it blooms before the last snowfall of the season, and if we had been an hour later we might not have been able to see them!

Our walk back to the car looked very different from our walk into the gorge:

All in all it was a very successful half-day adventure, combining the realization that the woods is starting to awaken with spring wildflowers with the knowledge that winter is not quite finished with us yet!

March 14, 2013

If it is a big orange butterfly, it isn't necessarily a Monarch!

We seem to have an urge to put a name on whatever we see, and over the years we've gotten interested in identifying butterflies. This seems to happen to many birders, since butterflies are most active during mid-day when the birding action typically slows. 

From time to time, someone passing us on a trail asks us what we are looking at, and invariably if we are looking at a large orange butterfly they ask "Is that a Monarch?" no matter where we are or what season it is. That's a pretty good guess in central Ohio in the summer, but there are a few other possibilities. Further south, you have to be pretty careful because there are several other things it can be. In any event, it is fun and challenging to get a good look at these beautiful creatures and to figure out what they are.

I've selected eight big orange butterflies for this post that can be readily seen in eastern North America. There are some others but I figure that this is enough for now!

Butterfly Royalty

Queen, Monarch, Soldier and Viceroy--these are the four that present the biggest challenge. I wish I knew how they all happened to be named for public figures of sorts; that occurred a long time ago and in fact some go by more than one common name. Here they are, in all their orange glory:

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are the most familiar to us in Ohio.  Their wings show heavy black veining on both the upper and lower sides. Note that the Monarch is the only one of the four that has some yellow on the forewing. The individual pictured is a male; if you look on the hindwing near the abdomen you can see a wide black spot along one of the black veins. This is a gland which produces scents, presumably to attract females. The females detect scents with their antennae, and identify suitable plants upon which to lay their eggs with their feet. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweeds, which contain a chemical that makes them unpalatable to potential predators. I could write a whole post on Monarchs, and maybe I will someday!

The Queen (Danaus gilippus) is mostly a southern butterfly, and can be abundant at times. Again, the black spots on the hindwing identify this individual as a male. Milkweeds are the caterpillar food source for Queens, as they are for Monarchs. In order to identify the butterfly as a Queen, it has to have the three strongly white spots on the forewing that are marked with arrows in the photo.

The Soldier (Danaus eresimus) is another southern butterfly that looks quite similar to the closely related Monarch and Queen. It is also dependent on milkweeds. Like the Queen, the veins on the wings are not as black as they are in the Monarch. The Soldier is probably the milkweed butterfly least likely to be seen in North America, but there is always a chance in the south. 

The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), unrelated to the milkweed butterflies, mimics their coloration quite well in order to avoid predators. The black band across the hindwing is diagnostic, though, and is unmistakable if you get a good look at it. Viceroys are also a bit smaller than Monarchs, and their flight isn't quite as graceful. Willows are its preferred caterpillar food plant. They are fairly common here in Ohio; one nearby place that is quite reliable for them in summer is Glacier Ridge Metro Park. 


Fritillaries are another group of big orange butterflies. There are lots of them; many are western. Here are two that are pretty common in the eastern U.S. 

First is the Great Spangled Fritillary, which comes to gardens and meadows throughout much of North America. 

The upper side of this butterfly is light orange with black or brown spots. Many of the fritillaries look quite similar but if you look carefully each species has its own distinct pattern. On the underside of the hindwing, the silvery spots which give this insect its name are spectacular and are worth a close look. Eggs are laid on dry vegetation and then upon hatching the caterpillars find violets to feed on.

Here is another fritillary, and this one is most common in the south although it has been recorded in Ohio and its range may be extending northward. It is called the Gulf Fritillary, and it is truly spectacular:

The underside has irregularly shaped silver spots and the upperside is an intense orange. Its body has crazy stripes:

Passion flower is its preferred caterpillar food plant, but the adults can be found nectaring on many different species of flowers.

A couple more

Here are two more big orange butterflies. The first is the unmistakable Julia Heliconian (Dryas iulia); you probably won't see these in the U.S. outside of south Florida and south Texas although there is some northward movement in the summer:

Similar to the Gulf Fritillary, passion vines are its preferred caterpillar food plant and it can be seen nectaring on a variety of flowers including lantana. 

Last but not least is one of my favorites, the Ruddy Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus). In the U.S. it is primarily found in south Florida, but there are records of it in several states farther north. 

This gorgeous insect is mostly found in woodlands and its caterpillars feed on fig plants.

So hopefully these 8 big butterflies have brightened up your day and maybe they have inspired you to look more carefully at the insects that you encounter in your garden and your travels!

March 12, 2013

Finally, a Warm Weekend!

After a (literally) heavy snowfall last week, the weekend was sunny and warm. What a welcome change! A couple of lovely flowers and even a butterfly greeted us as we checked out some Ohio nature preserves.

Miller Nature Sanctuary was our first stop, which is located west of Bainbridge adjacent to the Highlands Nature Sanctuary property, which in turn is part of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. The Arc is an amazing collection of natural areas which includes the old Seven Caves property, now part of Highlands Nature Sanctuary. 

Seven Caves was a commercial operation featuring beautiful trails through hardwood forest along Rocky Fork Creek and a series of dolomite caves that were lit up with signs calling various formations names like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". The caves are now unwired and closed to the public (see the Seven Caves link above), but the botanical treasures and scenic beauty here are just amazing.

I can remember visiting this beautiful property with my dad and sister when I was in high school soon after moving to Ohio and it has been quite gratifying to see it preserved and incorporated in to the Arc.

Anyway, we had a delightful hike and it was punctuated by the appearance of a Mourning Cloak butterfly, a welcome sight for early March! I mentioned in a previous post that we saw a tattered specimen on a warm day in January, but this one was gorgeous:

While it is not a surprise to see this butterfly this early since they overwinter as adults and tend to fly whenever there is a warm winter day, it is always a welcome sight!

Another interesting critter that we saw was this Red Velvet Mite:

Mites are arachnids, as are spiders, but they are usually much smaller than this. Apparently, though, in Asia there are much larger Red Velvet Mites and people extract an oil from them which has been called "Indian Viagra". It pretty much cracks me up to think that it would occur to anyone to use mite oil as an aphrodisiac! Stranger things have been ingested  I suppose (at least I assume that it is ingested--no details were given in this link!).

Our main objective for this weekend was to see one of the very earliest spring wildflowers, Harbinger of Spring, and we were not disappointed. We spotted a few of them at Miller Sanctuary, and we were surprised at how tiny they are--each flower cluster is smaller than a dime!

Another name for this plant is Pepper and Salt. From a distance the anthers look like black specks, but a close look reveals their beautiful purple color.

Miller Sanctuary has a very nice arch in the dolomite rock along the trail

and some pretty waterfalls in tributaries along the Rocky Fork Gorge:

From Miller Sanctuary we drove a few miles to Fort Hill, another part of the Arc of Appalachia, which has a total of 11 miles of trails. This archaeological site is well known for its fabulous spring wildflowers which can best be seen on a fairly challenging four mile hike along the Gorge Trail which follows Baker Fork:

Nothing was in bloom but we were excited to see the leaves of a really cool native plant called the Crane Fly Orchid, which blooms in the summer:

The single leaf, green on top and purple on the underside, persists all winter, enabling the plant to store enough energy to bloom.

We didn't have time to do the entire trail so we turned around here:

This weekend we also visited a few other places, mainly looking for Snow Trillium but we were probably a week or two early for that, and just saw one in bud. Last year flowers bloomed quite a bit earlier than is typical; this appears to be a more normal year.

Caesar Creek State Park and Caesar Creek Gorge State Nature Preserve near Dayton are well worth a visit. One of the coolest things here is that with a free permit, easily obtained at the park's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitor's Center, you can collect awesome 400 million year old Ordovician fossils in the emergency spillway below the dam. For more information and great photos head over to TrekOhio at this link. We skipped the opportunity to fossil hunt (having several stashes of the fossils in our basement already!) and hiked the trail through the nature preserve along Caesar Creek, which was flowing rapidly thanks to the melting snow:

Again, nothing much was in bloom, but this small tree had me scratching my head trying to identify it:

Looking at the leaf scars I could see that they were directly opposite each other on the twigs, which in Ohio narrows things down to maple, ash, dogwood and buckeye ("MAD Buck" is how you can remember that!). The flowers weren't right for maple, and the twigs and buds weren't right for ash and buckeye, but it sure didn't look like any dogwood with which I'm familiar. 

I sent the picture to my ultimate tree authority (thanks, Steve!) who identified it as Corneliancherry Dogwood, which is native to Europe, but which is a really nice ornamental tree thanks to its flowers, bright red fruit and fall color. Legend has it that its dense, hard wood was used to build the Trojan Horse! I don't know how it got to this nature preserve but it certainly was a lovely sight on a late winter day.

Glen Helen, in Yellow Springs, is another preserve with fine hiking trails and wonderful scenery. The rocks here weather into brick-like blocks, producing interesting formations along the edges of the gorge.

After Glen Helen we stopped by John Bryan State Park for a hike along the Little Miami River. 

This will be another prime wildflower spot in few weeks. We did see some tantalizing leaves of the Putty-root Orchid, so we'll be back! 

The limestone rock formations were awesome and I loved the abundance of Walking Fern:

As these ferns grow, the individual fronds become more and more pointy till they may extend 6 inches or more. When they touch another spot on the rock they root and form a new plant, which is one of the more interesting examples of vegetative reproduction in the plant world.

All day we saw a lot of evidence of recent beaver activity:

When we got home, thanks to Daylight Savings Time the sun was still shining and we were greeted by these lovely crocuses, which had burst into bloom while we were gone:

From the end of March through perhaps October, Ohio will be awash in gorgeous wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other critters in one habitat or another. We'll keep you informed so stay tuned to Around the Bend!

March 6, 2013

Looking for Signs of Spring

Well, the days are getting longer and that gives me hope that soon the winter will be behind us. (That is a bit hard to believe since I just spent a lot of time shoveling a very heavy 6 inches of snow off my driveway!) This past weekend we were out and about looking for signs of spring. We didn't find too many, but we had a fun time, and even visited a nature preserve that was new to us.

Our first destination for the weekend was Charleston Falls Preserve, located north of Dayton along Charleston Creek. We had never been here before and we enjoyed the excellent trail and the 37-foot waterfall where the creek flows over a limestone ledge into a pool below:

Here is another view:

Tiny icicles formed where water seeps through the rocks:

Impressive rock outcrops surround the falls, hosting some interesting plants, remnants of which remain from last year. I loved this delicate Wild Hydrangea, which looks like a miniature version of the huge pompom style hydrangeas found in many gardens:

Another interesting plant which grows on the limestone ledges is Purple Cliff-Brake, an unusual fern that only occurs on alkaline rocks. Its native range is actually quite large, ranging from Guatemala to New England, but it only occurs in a handful of Ohio counties. Here is what it looks like now:

and here is a picture of it in summer in southern Ohio:

Continuing past the falls we hiked along the creek

and then gained a bit of elevation as we hiked through an area that used to have a lot of hawthorn trees:

Not a name that you would expect in Ohio! A wooden observation tower stands at the trail's high point offering a nice view of the surrounding land. My favorite thing about it was an eye-level view of the remains of last year's seed structures on this Tuliptree, one of my favorite trees because of its tulip-shaped leaves, beautiful orange and green flowers, and its tall, straight structure.

We spotted a lot of ash trees that have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. Woodpeckers have stripped the bark as they try to get at the larvae that feed beneath the surface. I've heard that the woodpeckers can actually hear the larvae feeding in the tree and stick their long tongues into holes to feed on them.

Near the end of the trail we passed a quiet pond

and enjoyed the sign which can be read in its reflection:

Signs of spring were quite elusive here, as were colors other than brown! We'll just have to visit Charleston Falls Preserve in a warmer season. On the way back we stopped at Prairie Oaks Metro Park and got some welcome dashes of bright blue as several Eastern Bluebirds searched for food around the Darby Bend Lakes:

We started out Sunday just a few miles from our house, at Kiwanis Park in Dublin. This is a somewhat hidden patch of land along the Scioto River that, although it is small, hosts a very nice variety of native plants and breeding birds. The main attraction was one of the few plants that blooms this early in the year:

This is skunk cabbage, named for the fetid odor of the flowers that attracts pollinators. The reddish structure that you see is called the spathe; the actual flower is inside:

This plant is thermogenic--that means that it can generate its own heat, enabling the plant to push through snow to bloom. For more skunk cabbage info, head over to Ohio Birds and Biodiversity at this link and also here. When you see skunk cabbage in bloom, you know that spring can't be too far away!

This year has been great for finding wintering finches here in Ohio, birds which usually stay far to the north. So far this year we've seen White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll, plus a Bohemian Waxwing, all of which are uncommon in Ohio. Saturday we saw a report of a Red Crossbill at a feeder in Dublin, and that just happened to be on the way to Sunday's next planned destination so we had to give it a try!

Thanks to a very helpful homeowner who kept a variety of feeders well-stocked, the crossbills appeared soon after we arrived, along with some goldfinches. I didn't get a really good picture, but you can see the oddly shaped bill that gave the bird its name:

It looks like that bill would make eating very difficult, but in fact it facilitates cracking open the cones of conifers to get to the seeds, which are its favored food.

From there we headed to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area which is near Harpster, Ohio. Wherever ponds were free of ice, flocks of ducks and Tundra Swans congregated:

Winter still had the place firmly in its grip and many of the ponds were completely frozen. We spotted a wintering Northern Saw-Whet Owl, a diminutive bird that is always a thrill to see. This bird generally spends its days perched in an evergreen tree, hunting rodent prey at night.

Despite the cold, we saw many raptors hunting in the fields, including at least a dozen Northern Harriers, numerous Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Bald Eagles, and lots of American Kestrels. We stayed until sunset when the Short-eared Owl show began--these large owls come out at dusk to hunt and I always love to see their acrobatic soaring, usually fairly low to the ground. At one point, one of the owls flew right toward us at eye level up a drainage ditch, turning just as it came upon us. What a thrill!

Signs of spring? Well, it did our hearts good to hear the distinctive "Conk-a-ree" of the male Red-winged Blackbirds. There were only a few of them but just knowing that they are back at their wetland breeding grounds is a very good sign!

And, late in the day, another welcome spot of color: