April 26, 2013

A Spring Foray to Shawnee Forest

Earlier this week we drove to Kentucky for a few days of birding, butterflying, hiking and botanizing with a group of friends, old and new, at Carter Caves State Park. On the way we stopped in southern Ohio near the Ohio River for a half day in Shawnee State Forest. This area is well known to have many plant species that are at their northern limit, and thus supports many critters that are not found elsewhere in Ohio.

We focused our exploration on a road that has been closed to vehicle traffic for the past several years. As soon as we stepped out of the car we we greeted by one of the state's loveliest wildflowers, the birdfoot violet. There are at least 10 species of violets in Ohio and they are all beautiful but this is one of my favorites:

The common name refers to the finely divided leaves that some say resemble a bird's foot.

Speaking of beautiful violets, this one is also among my favorites. This is the longspur violet, lovely pale lavender in color:

As we walked up the road we looked back and marveled at the redbud display:

When in bloom these trees provide nectar for a variety of insects, and they are the caterpillar food plant of a butterfly that we were looking for on this trip, the Henry's elfin, which  we had never seen but friends had reported it earlier in the week on this road. Every time we saw a small, dark butterfly we hoped that was it, but invariably it was a Juvenal's duskywing, perhaps the most common species along this road:

Finally we spotted a butterfly much smaller than we expected. Not even the size of my thumbnail--Henry's elfin! That was great fun but getting a good photo was another story because they were so small that they were hard to find in the camera, and then they didn't stay still. Finally, we saw a cooperative one!

Many other butterflies were out and about along the road enjoying the warm sunshine:

We also got a good look at an eastern comma. Note the comma-shaped mark on the underside which gives this species its name:

Here are some more of the wonderful flowers that we saw along this road. Ohio's spring wildflowers are truly spectacular.

When we were nearly back to the car, we paused while Bill took another picture.  I happened to glance to my right and saw an absolutely perfect luna moth hanging on a tiny maple sapling:

We hadn't seen one in years so this one is the star of many photographs. The luna moth is nearly 4 inches wide from wingtip to wingtip--spectacular!

It was hard to leave this wonderful spot with all its biological treasures but we had to move on to Kentucky, where we had a wonderful time exploring a park that we had never been to and hope to visit again. Perhaps more about that in a future blog post...

April 20, 2013


You might recall that in an earlier post I mentioned that we hadn't seen a bobcat in many years, despite looking hard for them in areas that were supposed to have healthy populations. Seeing bobcat tracks last December in Florida was a thrill--just knowing that these predators were hiding in the vegetation nearby was pretty exciting.

Recently we did another fun road trip to Florida, and one day at dusk we were surprised and ecstatic to come around a bend and see an adult bobcat by the side of the road! Even more amazing to us was the fact that we were able to get some photos before it meandered back into the scrub. Here is the first picture, taken very quickly through the car's windshield:

It didn't seem afraid of the car, so I rolled down my window and got another shot:

Finally it turned and slowly walked into the scrub and turned around for a couple more photos:

What a gorgeous animal! Its short tail gives this animal its name, and the broad ruff of facial fur is also characteristic. Bobcats are crepuscular, that is, they are most active a few hours before sunset till midnight, and again from dawn till a few hours after sunrise. Their diet consists mainly of rabbits, hares and a variety of rodents, and varies according to their habitat.

Bobcats are found in a wide variety of places including deserts, swamps, forests and rugged mountain areas. Their populations have declined in certain areas from time to time due to hunting pressure and habitat loss, but by and large they seem to be doing well, despite the fact that they are not commonly seen.

In Ohio, bobcats were extirpated by about 1850, but since 1960 sightings have steadily increased so that now there are probably hundreds in the hills of southern and eastern parts of the state. For more information and some cool video, check out the bobcat posts over at Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.

This sighting certainly was one of the highlights of our trip, and it felt like a real privilege to see and photograph this beautiful and normally secretive animal.

April 10, 2013

It's finally spring!

Spring certainly is making up for lost time! All it took were a few warm nights and sunny days and now our garden is full of blooming daffodils and forsythia, some early magnolias in the neighborhood are looking magnificent, and lots is happening in the woods. Here is a sample of what mid-April looks like in a few Ohio natural areas.

No trees have completely leafed out yet, but buds are swelling, leaves are starting to unfurl, and a few woody plants are blooming:

On Tuesday we heard and saw some of our earliest migrant songbirds: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, northern parula, and yellow-rumped warbler. A handsome fox sparrow stopped on its way north to turn over some leaves, checking for food:

Some birds are already nesting. Here is an eastern phoebe, pausing before taking this wispy material to its nest under a bridge along a lovely stream:

The wildflower show is spectacular. Sharp-lobed hepatica, one of our earliest bloomers, is still the most abundant wildflower and it has to be one of the most beautiful. This delicate violet is my favorite of its many colors:

The large-flowered trillium is just starting to open:

What could be prettier than a trout lily, in either its yellow form or the more unusual white?

The odd flowers of the blue cohosh are in full bloom:

Delicate twinleaf has pushed through the leaf litter and is just starting to bloom:

The Virginia bluebells are showing great color and will be spectacular in a few days:

Bloodroot, one of my favorite flowers, is in full bloom while its leaf is still curled around the stem:

Umbrella-like mayapple leaves are beginning to unfurl:

The toadshade or sessile trillium is still in bud, but the mottled leaves are so distinctive:

Here's a fun flower--Dutchman's breeches!

A few early butterflies are flying, including mourning cloak, eastern comma and spring azure. And this box turtle is out and about, having finished its winter underground hibernation:

This has to be my favorite time of year as we greet the return of all these plants and animals!

April 9, 2013

Cold Morning, Cool Salamanders

Last Saturday we woke up to temperatures in the low 30's but the forecasters said that it would warm up quite a bit. We had to be home by noon, so we  headed to a vernal pool at one of the local metro parks, where we were hoping to maybe see a salamander or two.

Vernal pools are small ponds that are usually dry by mid-summer. On warm, rainy nights in March and early April, certain species of salamanders  head to them en masse to find mates and lay their eggs. (Spotted salamanders are probably the best known species in Ohio that does this.) What do these ponds have that is so attractive to these animals? Well, it is mainly what they don't have that is attractive: fish! Salamander eggs (and probably some of the adults) would promptly be eaten if fish were present.

Salamanders are secretive animals that mostly spend their days hiding under rocks or logs or buried in moist earth. Breeding season is the only time many of them do much moving around, and that activity lasts for just a brief time. For some really interesting information about salamander reproduction, much of which I was not familiar with, go on over to TrekOhio at this link

Here is something else I have learned about salamanders: The awesome photos in magazines and field guides are just possibly a little bit staged. I'm not necessarily sayin' that they have been cleaned up and stuck into aquariums decorated with perfectly contrasting leaves and moss, but these critters aren't all that photogenic where they are normally hanging out, like under rocks and logs! 

Anyway, on with the adventure! Here is a picture of the vernal pool that we visited--perfect for salamander sex. It is fairly shallow and tucked into a densely wooded ravine. We were too late for the nocturnal mating show, which usually occurs in March, but we thought that there might still be a couple of the critters in the area that hadn't dispersed underground or off in the moist leaf litter. 

So we started to carefully turn over fallen logs, making sure that we replaced them exactly as we found them. We were totally amazed at the number and variety of salamanders that we found! Since it was so cold, most of them were very sluggish and didn't move. I was very reticent to stress them other than turning over their logs, so I didn't try to pose them which is why some look kind of squished. They were just fine, though, alive but not lively!

Under the first log we checked was a nice spotted salamander, about 6" long. It is a mole salamander; these animals spend most of their lives underground and have well-developed lungs. They don't breed until they are 4 or 5 years old and they may live for 20 years! This very cool looking animal is probably abundant in many parts of Ohio, but is seldom seen except in breeding season when they head for vernal pools. 

We found several Jefferson salamanders, which, like the spotted, are mole salamanders. Courtship, breeding and egg laying all occur underwater, mainly in vernal pools. This one could use a rinse for a better picture, but this will have to do!

Probably the most common salamander in Ohio is the redback. We found several of these, and they are in the group of lungless salamanders. This means that oxygen intake occurs only through the lining of the mouth and moist skin. They have to stay moist or they will suffocate, but some will drown if submerged in water for very long. They are small and are entirely land dwelling, even during breeding. They lay their eggs in summer underneath a moist rock or log. They have gills while they are developing in the egg, but the gills shrivel up within 24 to 48 hours of when they hatch.

Redback salamanders have a color phase called leadback, in which the animal is entirely dark gray or black. These two color phases can occur together, and that is probably what is shown in this picture:

We tried to convince ourselves that the dark one was a small-mouthed salamander but since it was with the redback we figured it probably is a leadback. The shapes of their heads look a little bit different, but this picture isn't the best angle. If any herpetologists are reading this and have an opinion, let us know!

The last species that we found was the southern two-lined salamander, which is also in the lungless group. This animal lives and breeds in small rocky woodland streams, springs or seeps. When we hiked past just such a stream, we paused to turn over a few flat rocks and with little effort found one! They are typically easy to find but difficult to catch and hold. I think the cold temperatures once again worked in our favor because this individual was pretty cooperative.

To sum up this adventure, I was totally amazed by the abundance of salamanders in this small wooded ravine. In about 15 minutes of turning over logs and rocks we found probably a dozen individuals of 4 species, which is 11 more individuals than I've found previously in Ohio, mainly because I've never looked for them before!

Ohio has 25 species of salamanders and there are more salamanders in North America than in all the rest of the world. According to the Amphibians of Ohio Field Guide, a small booklet published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, "the total biomass--overall weight--of Ohio's salamanders exceeds that of all our other amphibians combined, in spite of the fact that most people never even see one."

Another quote from the DoW amphibians booklet: "As with all Ohio wildlife, the only real threat to their continued existence is habitat degradation and destruction. Only by conserving suitable habitat today will we enable future generations to study and enjoy Ohio's amphibians."

Here is a good link for more information about Ohio's salamanders: http://ohioamphibians.com/salamanders/Salamanders.html

April 4, 2013

Some thoughts on invasive species

A few days ago we took a walk at nearby Kiwanis Park. I bet Bill that nothing but skunk cabbage would be in bloom, but unfortunately I was wrong. Soon after we arrived we spotted the pretty yellow blooms of lesser celandine or fig buttercup (Ficaria verna), which can form extensive mats of dense leaves and is extremely invasive. Native to Europe, it was brought here as an ornamental plant.

We saw just a small clump of it, but I have seen mats of it covering the ground near the Olentangy River. These solid mats prevent growth of native spring bloomers like bloodroot, squirrel corn, harbinger-of-spring, and many others, which provide pollen and nectar for native pollinators and fruits and seeds for native wildlife. It is very hard to eradicate because if you try to dig it up, it leaves behind lots of bulblets and tubers which all can sprout into new plants.

Invasive species can have wide-ranging negative effects on natural habitats. Many arise from well-intentioned introductions of ornamental plants such as lesser celandine, and some are accidental introductions such as the emerald ash borer, which is killing millions of ash trees in the midwest. 

This week the internet has been abuzz about a very controversial invasive species, feral house cats. These animals kill billions of birds every year, and carry many diseases. Just about everyone agrees that they are a problem, but emotions run high when solutions are discussed. While there are basically no good and practical answers to the feral cat problem, here is a thoughtful article on the subject at this link.

What can individuals do to deal with invasive species? Here are just a few thoughts:
  • Remove invasive plants, such as non-native honeysuckle and garlic mustard, from your property
  • Join community efforts to eradicate invasives on public land. In my city an energetic young woman has started a group of "weed warriors" which is having work days to remove honeysuckle and garlic mustard from our parks.
  • Thoroughly research plants that you buy to be sure that they are not likely to become invasive in your area.
  • Thoroughly research any pets that you are tempted to buy to be sure that their care and feeding is something that you really want to take on. I've seen or heard of way too many dogs, cats, turtles, snakes and rabbits that have been dumped in natural areas by irresponsible owners. The animals suffer and the habitat suffers.
  • Learn as much as you can about invasives. Weeds Gone Wild is a good place to start. 
That's enough preaching for the moment! Now back to the fun stuff!