October 11, 2013

Screech Owl in Suburbia

Our home is on a very typical suburban lot; perhaps its only distinguishing feature is an electric company easement along the back of the lot which hosts a variety of utility lines strung between tall poles. In the easement grow large hackberry and honey-locust trees which, until I got interested in caterpillars and their food plants, I regarded as giant weeds. Wildlife consists of lots of gray squirrels and chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, groundhogs, feral cats, the occasional skunk, and whatever birds are attracted to our feeders. Basically not real exciting stuff.

So several years ago Bill and I were pleased to hear an Eastern Screech Owl one evening while we were sitting on our back porch. Within a few days I went to our nearby Wild Birds Unlimited store and bought a nice screech owl house, which I gave to Bill for Christmas. With high hopes we put it up in a back corner of our lot, near my brush pile where I heave all my garden waste that is too coarse or woody to go into the compost. 

It didn't take long for the squirrels to find it! They were the only critters that I ever saw take any interest in it, and over the years the side panel bowed and I basically figured that we had provided many generations of squirrels with a pretty cushy home. Until yesterday!

I was doing some fall cleanup and when I tossed some brush onto the pile I heard some thumping in the box. Looking up, I expected to see a squirrel but I was astonished to see a gray screech owl looking right at me out of the hole! I think we were both equally surprised, and of course I didn't have a camera with me. I went in to get one but by the time I came back out the bird had retreated back into the box. I could kind of see it through the gap in the side of the box, but I didn't want to get too close. I took a picture and from the image in the viewfinder I could tell that the angle of the sun was not in my favor and the picture was really dark:

I called Bill at work to tell him about it, but I knew the picture was so bad that I didn't bother to upload it to the computer. Until today!

I used the camera quite a bit today on a trip to southern Ohio and when I uploaded the photos I saw the picture from the day before. What the heck--it might be worth putting it into Photoshop Elements and see if I could make anything of it. I have a really old version of that software, and have probably used less than 50% of its capabilities, but I thought I'd give the "lighten shadows" function a try. Here is what appeared, almost like magic!

These small owls will live anywhere that has sufficient tree cover. They have a wide-ranging diet of mammals, birds, insects, frogs--virtually any small animal will be food for these accomplished predators. They live in the eastern part of the United States year-round, and probably are present in just about any area that has trees and tree cavities (or a backyard nest box!).

Don't miss this link to the eerie calls of the Eastern Screech Owl!

October 8, 2013

Unusual Habitat, Unusual Plants

August and September are good times to visit Ohio's fens, rather hidden spots that host an abundance of interesting plants. In fen habitats grow plants that occur in very few other places in Ohio. Just as significant is the fact that fens usually have few or no invasive plants, because they just can't tolerate the specialized fen conditions.

So what is a fen? Basically, it is an alkaline wetland through which water flows from springs and seeps. In contrast, bogs are generally acidic, contain sphagnum moss, and the groundwater level or water table provides the wet conditions. Both types of wetlands arise from the underlying geology, with fens generally occurring over limestone bedrock. Due to the cold water in fens, peak flowering activity usually does not occur until August and September  when flowering plants begin to fade from other habitats. In Ohio, Cedar Bog is the best known fen, but there are other, smaller fens scattered around the state.

Although some fens such as Cedar Bog are easy to access, others are "you have have someone tell you where to go" kinds of places--there are no formal trails, boardwalks, or other visitor facilities, which just adds to the adventure. The following photos illustrate some highlights from a few of Ohio's fens:

In the foreground is a thick area of Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), a bright yellow, flat-topped plant that thrives in wet meadows and moist sunny sites. Here is a "glamour shot" of Ohio Goldenrod, showing its big flower cluster and small, upward pointing leaves:

In the first picture, the plants beyond the goldenrod that have a white flower stalk are called Canada Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis). This is by far the biggest population of this wetland plant that I've ever seen! Here is a closeup complete with an eager pollinator:

Getting deeper into the fen, particularly into the area dominated by the Canada Burnet, revealed some smaller plants that are absolutely stunning. Here is a tantalizing hint at what is thriving in this fen:

That purple flower is the primary reason we wanted to explore the fen that we visited most recently. It is a plant that is very rare in Ohio because of its specific habitat requirements. It is called Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata) and there were literally hundreds of them in bloom, hiding a bit in the taller vegetation. Here is this plant in all its glory:

In my previous post, I had a photo of its cousin, the Greater Fringed Gentian, which paradoxically has a smaller flower but more fringe. I'll leave it up to others to decide which is prettier, but here is a closer picture of the Lesser:

Another much sought-after plant was also in full bloom, the diminutive but lovely Nodding Ladies Tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua):

We saw many individuals and each one was more perfect than the one before. Take a look at this closeup of the tiny flowers--the petal tissue looks almost crystalline:

An interesting feature of one fen was a small "marl meadow" where water was clearly flowing from springs and seeps. 

Near the outlet of the meadow a population of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) was thriving:

It is a typical fen species and so beautiful with its circle of stamens and the lines on the petals. 

We also spotted a few plants of Purple False Foxglove (Agalinus purpurea). These lovely pink-purple tubular blooms are certainly reminscent of the cultivated foxgloves:

Note the lines of dots in the throat of each flower. Those are thought to be "guides" for the insect pollinators to get into the plant to obtain nectar and to rub onto the pollen-bearing structures. Apparently they work pretty well!

Some very interesting insects inhabit fens--here are just a few. This is the smallest dragonfly in North America, called the Elfin Skimmer. They are a little over an inch in size, and the female, on the right, almost looks like a bee when it flies.

Check out this next dragonfly--on the other end of the size scale is this Clamp-tipped Emerald. Watching this critter fly was just mesmerizing; when the sun caught the eyes just right it almost looked like a laser pointer! The picture doesn't really do its brilliance justice, but we were glad it stayed still long enough so that we could attempt a decent shot!

Our expectations were more than satisfied by our fen visits, and we saw some things that were unexpected--the hallmark of a good adventure. Since Halloween is approaching, I'll leave you with a photo of a very creepy looking insect that we saw. This is an Ambush Bug, most likely in the genus Phymata

Fortunately it is less than 1/2 inch long! Ambush bugs lie in wait on plants, usually quite well camouflaged, until another insect happens by that is hoping to grab a bit of nectar. Quick as a flash, the ambush bug uses those enlarged forelegs and scary claws to capture its prey. If all goes well for the ambush bug, it gets a good meal for its effort. Head on over to Jim McCormac's Ohio Birds and Biodiversity Blog for some more ambush bug photos. As Jim says, if you ever get reincarnated, try not to come back as an insect--it is not an easy life.

Anyway, we've had a great time exploring Ohio's fens!

October 3, 2013

Some Flora and Fauna in the Alpine Rockies

This summer I posted about our June trip to Colorado and illustrated foothill and montane habitats of the Rockies. Sadly, most, if not all, of the trails that we were on when we shot those photos were badly damaged by the recent flooding. Soils in the mountains are very thin, and with torrential rains over several days they gave way in many places, leaving trails blocked by debris and badly eroded. The trails in the foothills and on the east side of the mountains in the flood-stricken areas have been closed while their safety was evaluated and repairs made. Fortunately they are gradually re-opening. This certainly is an extreme illustration of the power of natural forces.

Now, though, it is time illustrate what goes on in the alpine areas! Fortunately, it is not necessary to hike all the way up there; a few amazing paved roads give access to the high country. Two that we drove on our most recent trip were the road up Mt. Evans, and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Plants and animals have to be pretty darn tough to thrive above 9000 feet. It goes without saying that alpine areas are typically very cold and have quite a short growing season, but adaptations are also needed for dry conditions that come about because water runs off the mountains very quickly, alpine soils often have very little ability to hold water, and the air is quite dry with nearly constant wind. This results in many plants having thick, succulent leaves; others grow quite close to the ground to keep them out of the wind. Some have pigments to withstand the high levels of ultraviolet light that occur at alpine elevations, and some conserve moisture and heat by being quite hairy.

Trees occur at lower alpine elevations, and are nearly all conifers which are able to easily shed snow. Since they retain needles all year they are able to begin photosynthesizing as soon as the temperature is above freezing. One example of this is the Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata):

Despite the harsh conditions in which they live, these trees are among the longest lived organisms on earth. Their longevity can be attributed to the fact that that their wood is extremely tough and is resistant to insects and most fungal disease. Note that the branches of the tree on the left side in the photo are all on one side. This is called "flagging" and is caused by the tree limbs only growing in the direction of the prevailing winds. 

Above tree line, conditions are especially harsh:

The rocky foreground of this picture looks nearly barren, but in fact it is full of beautiful wildflowers:

On the left is Fairy Primrose (Primula angustifolia) and on the right is the intense blue of Alpine Forget-me-not (Eritrichum aretioides). The thick, hairy silvery-green leaves of the forget-me-not are ideally suited to the harsh alpine conditions. It is one of the first tundra flowers to bloom in the summer. 

Speaking of hairy plants, check out this Alpine or Frosty Ball Thistle (Circium scopulorum):

Again, the hairs provide a great deal of protection at high elevation. Another hairy plant is the Alpine Sunflower (Rydbergia grandiflora):

This plant's flower heads always face east, away from the prevailing wind. It is also called "Old Man of the Mountain".

Here is one of the most unusual and lovely alpine flowers, the Purple Fringe or Silky Phacelia (Phacelia sericea). Many tiny purple flowers are packed along the stem, and it occurs in dry, exposed areas but needs some shelter, such as these rocks, in the tundra.

Succulent leaves are another adaptation to the dry alpine environment. Here are two that look similar and both are members of the stonecrop family; the first is called King's Crown (Rhodiola integrifolia) and the second is called Queen's Crown (Clementsia rhodantha).

One of the coolest succulent plants is the Alpine Spring Beauty (Claytonia megarhiza).

It is in the same genus as the Spring Beauty that is quite common in Ohio and the flowers are similar but the rest of the plant is quite different! In addition to the succulent leaves, this plant has a very long taproot which enables it to withstand the dry, harsh conditions at high elevations.

A couple of other plants with similar-looking cousins in Ohio are the Alpine Dwarf Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)

and Lanceleaf Chiming Bells (Mertensia lanceolata).

One of the most iconic alpine wildflowers is Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum).

It is in the same genus as Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium reptans) which is a fairly delicate Ohio woodland wildflower.

A few birds are able to survive at these high elevations. Here is an American Pipit on a receding snowfield in a high alpine area; while they breed on the tundra we often see them in migration in Ohio:

One of the most sought-after birds in the Colorado Rockies is the White-tailed Ptarmigan. They are not all that uncommon but they are very hard to see. They become completely white in the winter, and then change to a mottled plumage as the snow melts. Unless you see them move they are almost impossible to spot:

Mammals are not too common at high elevations, but there are a variety of rodents that live here such as this Yellow-Bellied Marmot:

Mountain goats were introduced to the Colorado Rockies in the 1940s; a small herd is often visible on Mt. Evans:

Mountain goats mainly stay in the high mountains all year; they rarely go below treeline. 

Very few places on our planet are lifeless--even under harsh conditions specialized plants and animals are able to thrive. These are just a few examples of the life that flourishes at high elevation in the Colorado Rockies.

October 2, 2013


I just realized that October 1 was the one year anniversary of Around the Bend! I started the blog in order to have a use for some of the many photos that we take, to improve my computer and photography skills, and to increase people's appreciation of the natural world of Ohio and beyond. It has proven to be great fun, despite some mistakes and the inevitable learning curve. Most of the mistakes have involved my insatiable urge to fool around with the computer stuff, especially the template, in hopes of improving it but often wishing I had left it alone!

For example, I dug around in Google and found instructions on how to change the HTML code to put the little Facebook "Like" button at the top of the template. It works, but gives me no information as to who "likes" it--it just shows that a certain number of people have clicked on the button. It isn't a huge problem, but it isn't what I expected it to do, and I don't know enough about HTML to change it back.

The most problematic thing that I did was to change the URL address of the blog. From what I read it looked like people would be redirected if they used the old one, but instead they got a message that the link no longer existed. Fortunately a couple of people told me about it and I was able to do a little damage control. So...lessons learned!

I'd like for there to be a lot of consistency in the writing, but there are a few issues that I still don't feel sure about. Here are a few, and feel free to let me know how you feel about them!

  • Capitalizing plant and critter names: On the whole I think that the names of most plants and animals don't really qualify as proper nouns, which were what I was always taught to capitalize. But in a lot of birding magazines and internet articles, names are capitalized for clarity. For example, there are lots of blue jays but only one Blue Jay. I resisted capitalizing when I was the Columbus Audubon newsletter editor many years ago, because I felt like it interrupted the flow of the sentences. In the blog, I've mostly capitalized but not without hearing the reprimands of former English teachers in my head. So I'm still a bit conflicted.
  • Use of scientific names: I don't think that most readers of Around the Bend really care about scientific names, but they are especially useful for plants, where there are often several common names for the same species. So in most posts I have included them for plants and maybe dragonflies, but usually not for birds or mammals or other critters. 
  • Links for more information: A lot of times I include links within posts for the reader that would like to know more about a certain plant or animal or destination. If they are useful even for just a handful of people I think they are worth including, but feel free to express an opinion!

My original goal was to post once a week on average, and that has gone well. Going forward I have no idea how often I'll post--probably just when I have time and something to say! 

Here are just a few photos from the past year that I like but I haven't posted before, that illustrate a tiny part of Ohio's astounding biodiversity.

This is a Plebeian or Trumpet Vine Sphinx moth caterpillar, on a Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) in Ohio's Adams County. This critter was about 4" long, and will become a rather dull brown adult moth. But what a splendid design on this larval form, including the blue-green "tail"!

This beautiful plant is the rare Greater Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita). It blooms in the fall and only occurs in a few places in Ohio. This picture was taken in September in the Oak Openings area, just west of Toledo.

These little caterpillars look like something out of a fabric designer's portfolio. They are the larvae of Turbulent Phosphila moths, and they were photographed in Adams County in September. I have no idea what is turbulent about them! They feed on greenbrier and during most of their caterpillarhood they stay together, earning them the description "gregarious defoliators".

This is a rather humble plant, but one that I've always enjoyed, maybe because I just like observing the plant and animal life around a pond. It is called Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) and brigntens up many of our small bodies of water.

The arrangement of the disk flowers of a Purple Coneflower is fascinating in itself, but having a crab spider sitting on top was kind of the "icing on the cake". Crab spiders are usually much more camouflaged than this, hiding in or on flowers of the same color, waiting to grab and eat an unsuspecting pollinator.

Last but not least, here is a fairly common dragonfly, the Twelve-spotted Skimmer, that frequents many Ohio ponds. One of our largest dragonflies, it is a fierce predator and sports such a lovely black and white pattern on its wings.

I truly appreciate all the people who read the blog, and especially enjoy the comments, either on Facebook or on the blog itself. Keep those comments coming--I look forward to them!