December 16, 2014

A Tropical Haven

Recently Bill and I did a 2 week road trip to Florida and made it all the way down nearly to Key West. We visited lots of our favorite parks and preserves and found several new places that deserve a return visit. We were mostly looking for butterflies but as usual we couldn't resist checking out all of the birds and plants as well.

If you ever get to the Miami area, be sure to check out the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. It is a mecca for plant enthusiasts, hosting a variety of species that are native to south Florida as well as lots of strange and beautiful plants from all over the world's tropical latitudes. Admission isn't cheap, but it is free if you're a member of Newark's Dawes Arboretum or many other similar facilities all over the country. 

Plenty of sun, heat and rain supports beautiful displays such as this:

Just a few days before our recent visit, several examples of Chihuly glass were installed in the gardens. I'm kind of a plant snob and feel like the botanical treasures in this place can stand on their own without the addition of these pieces but they are rather amazing and are probably very beautiful illuminated at night. Here are a few examples:

One of my favorite plants at Fairchild is the baobab tree, an African native that is enormous:

Here is what the sign says about it:

"In the grassy plains of Africa, baobab trees swell with water during the rainy season, attracting thirsty elephants that strip the bark to get to the moist tissue. The baobab has long provided people with material for cloth, rope, soap, dye, glue, fodder and medicine. For instance, in West Africa, the young nutritious leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach.

"It is impossible to accurately determine the age of baobabs because the wood is soft and spongy, and has no age rings. One thing if for sure, baobab trunks become very large and sometimes hollow out over time, prompting people to use them as houses, prisons, bars, garage barns and even as but stops! Our giant tree was planted in 1939 and is still growing."

I always marvel at this next odd plant, the cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis)! Its fruits are the size of coconuts

and the flowers are quite unusual:

Here is a picture of the entire tree:

It is native to the Amazon rainforest and grows to 75' tall. Apparently the white flesh of the fruit smells awful so most are not eaten.

This gigantic flower, Aristolochia gigantea, is in the same genus as the dutchman's pipe that grows in the eastern US (Aristolochia macrophylla):

This Brugmansia was stunning--it overwinters well in the Miami area but not in Columbus! I had one in a big pot one summer and loved it, then kept it leafless in the garage over the winter, and then it did well a second year. That was enough for me despite its gorgeousness--it needed loads of water and fertilizer to look anywhere near this good!

Some of this tropical vegetation attracts birds and butterflies. We were excited to see this white-crowned pigeon high in a tree--this bird is usually hard to see in thick hammock forests where it is usually found. We haven't seen one in a while and were surprised to see this one in the open!

We were pleased to find a lot of caterpillars of the atala butterfly, a once-common species that recently was difficult to find in Florida. Thanks to widespread planting of its host plant, called coontie, now it can be readily found in many gardens. Here is the striking red caterpillar

and what could be more gorgeous than this fresh adult!

And this is a beautiful Julia Heliconian that we spotted in Fairchild's butterfly garden:

Behind the scenes, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is active in botanical exploration, education, native orchid propagation, and many other endeavors. It is named for David Fairchild (1869-1954), one of the most famous plant explorers in history. He visited every continent, and brought back thousands of plants including the baobab tree pictured above. 

The beauty and history of this place and its devotion to promoting biodiversity make it a worthwhile destination in south Florida.

November 22, 2014

Another Hocking Hills Adventure

This week Ohio has had unusually cold weather for mid-November, with night time lows in the low teens and daytime highs in the mid-20s. Several inches of snow fell early in the week and haven't completely melted yet. Everyone is complaining about the weather, but yesterday it worked in our favor and we saw an amazing sight in the heart of the Hocking Hills.

We parked in the parking lot for the Rock Climbing and Rappelling Area of the Hocking State Forest and headed up the Long Hollow bridle trail. Apparently it was too cold for horses, but clearly it is a heavily used trail. Fortunately the ground was frozen solid because otherwise the trail would have been a muddy quagmire due to all the horse traffic. Footing wasn't easy at all, but it would have been a lot worse on a warmer day.

The trail passes through a young hemlock forest

and past numerous huge sandstone outcrops. In spring, a waterfall graces the top of the hollow but today we just saw small frozen falls amid the dramatic sandstone formations:

This picture gives an idea of the scale of the place:

A side trail looked interesting so we followed it up past another huge outcrop and around a corner to a large cave that was incredibly beautiful in the early afternoon light:

We came at just the right time, when the sun's angle was such that a patch of the cave's floor and part of the interior walls were brightly illuminated with an ethereal glow. The light on the walls was ever-changing and was beginning to fade as we left.

We all were in awe of this gorgeous interaction of rocks and sunlight.

Later, I found out that on the maps of the area this is called Chapel Cave. A post on the TrekOhio blog indicates that it is also known as 21 Horses Cave, since apparently it can accommodate that many horses within its walls.

In any event, we felt very fortunate to visit this place at a perfect time, when the usually muddy trail was frozen and the ideal light gave us an almost other-worldly experience.

November 7, 2014

Butterfly Time in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Last year we had such a good time in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in late October/early November (you can read about it here and here) that we decided to go again, adding a few more days on to the trip. At this time of year, butterfly abundance in the Valley is at its maximum, and there is always the chance for a rare Mexican stray. The Texas Butterfly Festival (November 1-4), headquartered at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, hosts lots of excellent programs and tours which attract outstanding guides and participants from all over the country. 

We used our time to explore a lot on our own and also enjoyed attending some of the festival events. We ended up seeing about 115 different species of butterflies, lots of birds and other interesting animals, and basically had a great time. I won't bore readers with lists of all that we saw, but some of the many highlights are worth describing!

In the weeks leading up to our trip, we read about lots of interesting butterfly sightings on the "Rio Grande Valley Butterflies" Facebook site. One was especially tantalizing, a gorgeous critter called the Two-barred Flasher. We figured that it would be gone before we got down there, but they kept turning up in various parks and gardens so we thought we had a chance. 

One of our first stops in the Valley that had reported the flasher was Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of our favorite birding and butterflying destinations. Of course, as soon as we pulled into the parking lot a handful of people told us that it had just been seen a few minutes ago, but had since disappeared. A half dozen of us looked for at least 45 minutes with no luck. Bill and I wandered around some other parts of the park, until I decided it was getting late and that we had better check into our hotel. Bill is persistent about these things, though, and suggested another look at the lush flowering shrubs around the parking lot. We rounded a corner and there it was!

This spectacular insect is even more stunning in person, with its iridescent blue back and white stripes against a dark background. While we saw several Two-barred Flashers during our trip, this was the freshest. At one point, not six inches away was another spectacular butterfly, the Guava Skipper:

Wow--what a great way to start!

Some butterflies are rare because their preferred habitat is restricted in the US. Such is the case for the Xami Hairstreak, a tiny green creature whose caterpillar requires succulent host plants that only grow in arid scrub habitats. Many are found in remote areas that require trekking through a cactus-studded landscape. We had a good tip about a promising area, so we joined up with a fellow butterflier, Steve from New Jersey, to see if we could find it. Within about 5 minutes I spotted one in a patch of its host plant, right by the dirt road! 

All three of us managed to get photos; none of us had ever seen this beautiful butterfly before. 

Buoyed by that successful stop, we headed to nearby Palo Alto National Historical Site, which preserves the location of a battle between the United States and Mexico in 1846. For years it has also been a fairly reliable location for a rare butterfly called the Definite Patch. We have tried to find it a couple of times in past visits but were never successful. This time, I spotted one near the visitor center pretty quickly but before I could really look at it off it went up and over a tall fence. Fortunately, soon after that Bill called out that he had one right in the center's garden and it was quite cooperative. 

Another popular area for both butterfliers and birders is the Frontera Audubon Center in Weslaco. It isn't one of my favorite places, probably because one area is a roosting site for lots of turkey vultures and that area can get pretty disgusting. A gorgeous butterfly called the Crimson Patch was reported to be there in good numbers, though, so it was definitely worth a visit. We spotted some before we were out of the parking lot! They basically were never still, so I had to set my camera to burst mode to get decent shots:

On Sunday we attended one of the festival programs at the National Butterfly Center, an all day session aimed at improving identification skills for some of the more confusing groups of butterflies. The leaders presented very helpful slides and then we went out into the center's extensive gardens to practice identification. Word of a sighting of an extremely rare butterfly came in from one of the festival's tour groups, from a site about 25 minutes west. When we had the chance we headed out there and joined several other people who were looking for this rare Mexican stray, the Blue-studded Skipper. We had spent about 3 hours at the same spot the day before and had about 30 different species but nothing unusual. Even with several observers, we were unable to find it.

The next morning we were planning a trip to Falcon State Park, and the Blue-studded Skipper site was on the way so we decided to give it another try. Steve from New Jersey was there too. Bill and I stood at the spot where it had been reported the day before, and after about 10 minutes I noticed a dark spot on a leaf and checked it out with my binoculars. There it was! I grabbed Bill's arm, tried to explain which leaf to look at, took some pictures and texted Steve who was around the corner. We all got photos--what a cool-looking bug! 

It looked like fine iridescent blue glitter had been sprinkled on this butterfly. Two vans of people from the festival were pulling into the parking lot as we were leaving, but as far as I know the Blue-studded Skipper was not spotted again. Once again, persistence paid off for us.

On we went to Falcon State Park, which reportedly had huge quantities of butterflies in the garden there. That seemed likely to be an exaggeration, but it most definitely was not. There were literally thousands of butterflies of all shapes and sizes bouncing around the flowers, and with each strong gust of wind it looked like handfuls of confetti had been tossed into the air. My favorite was the tiny Lantana Scrub-hairstreak:

This and many others were so intent on feeding that I could get within an inch of them and use the macro setting on my camera! Among many other species there were hundreds of Queens,

probably thousands of tiny blues including this Reakirt's Blue,

a few Zilpa Longtails with their great camouflage,

an Erickson's skipper,

and nearby, thanks to tips from Florida friends, we found this lovely tiny Red-crescent Scrub-hairstreak:

Our last day in the Valley didn't look too promising, with heavy clouds and intermittent rain. We decided to try the weekly butterfly walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge despite the weather. It was raining as we got out of the car, but we noticed leader Mike Rickard and a refuge employee looking intently at something on one of the pillars of the visitor's center. As we got closer we saw that it was an incredibly huge moth, at least 5 inches across! 

This was an Owl Moth (Thysania zenobia), which we had never seen before. It stood out prominently on the white pillar but just think how well camouflaged it would be perched against a tree trunk. And I may never get over the perfect beauty of that scalloped border--what an amazing insect!

Despite the rain we had a good walk with Mike and enjoyed seeing the butterflies pop out to get a bit of nectar whenever the sun came out. We saw another Two-barred Flasher and got good looks at this green kingfisher:

From there we headed back to Estero Llano Grande State Park, delaying our departure for Corpus Christi and our Thursday morning flight as long as possible. We found a dry picnic table by the parking lot and got out our lunch. A group from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, a huge event based in Harlingen, was returning to their van after checking out the birds in the park. 

One of their leaders, Dan Jones, was a leader for our butterfly festival seminar/tour and came over to say hello. He looked aside at a flowering shrub next to our table, yelled "Tailed Aguna" and ran to the van for his camera! In mid-sentence and with no binoculars he correctly identified this extremely rare butterfly that he had never seen before--amazing!

We got pictures, I texted a couple visiting from Florida who I knew would be interested, and the birding group came over to see what all the fuss was about. The aguna flew up into a small tree and their other leader, author and birding guide Jon Dunn, got a spotting scope on it so all could see it. I don't know if we converted any of the birders into butterfliers but it was fun to see so many people enjoying this unusual insect!

Soon several other butterfliers arrived to admire the Tailed Aguna, which came back down to nectar on the flowering shrubs. It was even a new butterfly for park naturalist and former Ohioan John Yochum. 

Finally we had to head to Corpus Christi, after a fun and satisfying stay in the Rio Grande Valley. Not only were the butterflies outstanding, but so were the guides and organizers of the butterfly festival and all of the other Valley residents and visitors with whom we shared sightings and friendship! 

Scissor-tailed flycatcher looking a bit askance at the birders and butterfliers
in the Estero Llano Grande State Park parking lot

October 21, 2014

Autumn in the Hocking Hills

Often I encounter people who are surprised by the photos that I post in this blog, because images of flat corn and soybean fields come to mind when they think about Ohio. Plenty of such farm fields are found in the state, of course. Much of that flat, fertile agricultural land is the result of vast glaciers which covered much of Ohio up to about 10,000 years ago. The southeastern third of the state, however, shown in dark green on the map below, was never glaciated. As a result, this region features rushing streams, high hills and deep valleys. Erosion-resistant sandstone has weathered to produce amazing cliffs, waterfalls, and other natural features. A great place to explore this diversity is the Hocking Hills, indicated by the green arrow below. Home of Hocking Hills State Park, Clear Creek Metro Park, and a variety of nature preserves, it is well worth a visit in any season but especially in autumn.
So this fall we have made a point to visit the hills whenever we have had a chance. The fall colors have been beautiful; the striking colors are partly related to the dry and sunny weather during September and into October, which allowed the red foliage colors to develop fully. Colorful leaves are not all that the region has to offer, though. 

Exceptional hiking trails, 

dramatic rock formations,

and lots of interesting plants and critters draw us back often to the area.

This is a moth caterpillar called Hitched Arches.

One of the best and most popular trails in the county is the 2-mile Rim Trail at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve. Several flights of stairs have been constructed to safely allow visitors to climb up to the top of the cliffs. The trek is well worthwhile, resulting in fantastic views of the valley below and the sandstone cliffs that line the hollow:

The trail passes right along the edge of the cliff

and gives views deep into the rocky recesses of this hollow which is graced by hemlock trees both large and small:

We usually think of sugar maples as the source of most fall color, and indeed they add brilliant yellows and oranges to the autumn landscape. But there are others equally worthy of attention, and the sourwood is one of my favorites. They require acid soil (which is why the one in my yard is only about a foot tall after about 5 years), so in the acidic soils of the Hocking Hills their size and red fall color can be magnificent:

This member of the heath family has lovely sprays of creamy white flowers in early summer, and the sprays persist into fall and even winter, bearing seeds for the next generation of sourwoods:

Yesterday we hiked the Hemlock Trail in Clear Creek Metro Park, and even though their colors were fading the small sourwoods added a lot of beauty to the path.

I love the way the leaves of beech trees turn earthy colors of brown and yellow in the fall:

The sassafras trees have been magnificent this year, thanks to the pigment anthocyanin which take lots of sunshine to develop:

Red maples were gorgeous this year too:

The tall trees in the background above are tuliptrees; they lose their leaves early but their magnificent height makes up for the lack of fall color!

Of course I can't resist a sugar maple picture; here one is taking over an old log cabin:

Trees aren't the only sources of fall color, of course. Until this year I never realized how beautiful a common plant with the rather lowly name of dogbane can be in the fall:

And one of the brightest shrubs in the fall landscape is winged sumac, photographed at Clear Creek Metro Park:

And here is the lovely fall color of the maple-leafed viburnum:

Spicebush brightens the understory with its yellow leaves and scarlet berries:

We often think of fall as a season of dwindling life as winter approaches. But there are significant exceptions to this impression! In fall, the puttyroot orchid sends up its accordion-like leaf to take advantage of the increased sunlight available to it when the leaves are off the trees. 

At first the leaf is vertical, allowing tree leaves to fall without covering it. Later, it is nearly horizontal, all the better to capture the winter rays of the sun. In early summer the leaf will wither as the blooms emerge.

Harbingers of next year's blooms are already apparent in the flower buds of the rhododendron:

Witch hazel, a small tree or shrub, is actually in flower right now:

And one of the coolest things about fall is the appearance of the buck moth. The only time the adult flies is October and into November, withstanding frosts and even early snows. We have seen many in the Hocking Hills in the past week, particularly along ridge tops with lots of oaks which are the caterpillar food plants. The males use their feathery antennae to detect female pheromones in order to find a mate and start the next generation. Our picture doesn't show much of the brilliant orange color on this critter's legs and abdomen, but trust me--it is amazing. 

Some of the best fall scenes in the hills can be found along the hiking trails, but driving the roads is great as well. We had never driven the Thompson Ridge Road before this year, and we are glad we did:

We hardly knew which side of the road to look at!

Although I'm not thrilled at the prospect of winter approaching, I've loved being out and seeing the natural world prepare for the coming season, particularly in the Hocking Hills!