March 29, 2014

Checking out Florida's Carnivorous Plants

Earlier this month Bill and I took a 10-day road trip to Florida. We have favorite places that we visit, but we always try to add some new destinations. This time I was really looking forward to visiting the state's western panhandle, because I had heard that it was rich in unusual plants and featured several types of carnivorous species. These weird plants have always fascinated me with the unusual adaptations that their leaves have made to enable them to live in moist, acidic, nitrogen-deficient habitats that they overcome by getting essential amino acids from insects and other organisms.

Like most people the first carnivorous plant I ever heard of was the Venus flytrap. We've probably all seen (doomed) individuals in little plastic terraria for sale in various stores--most probably don't live very long at home, at least mine didn't! Venus flytraps are native to just a few places in the Carolinas.

Mechanisms for trapping the insects vary among carnivorous plants from the active traps of the Venus flytrap and the bladderworts, to the pitfall traps of the pitcher plants and the "flypaper" sticky traps of the sundews and the butterworts. I get excited when I see any of them and we saw 7 different ones during the morning we spent exploring along Rt. 65 through the Apalachicola National Forest, and several others later in the trip near the Orlando area.

Here is a look at a typical scene of the wet, pine woods and savannah along Rt. 65:

As we drove we soon noticed the magnificent modified leaves of the yellow pitcher-plant, Sarracenia flava and had to stop:

The odd flowers were just coming into bloom when we were there. The dangling petals, which move in the wind presumably to attract insects, fall off in a few days and the rest of the flower, whose unusual structure prevents self-pollination, lasts much longer:

As we walked around a shallow bog, we came across several more carnivores. First we noticed the lovely pale purple flowers of a plant whose leaves were completely immersed in the water:

This is a rare plant called Pinguicula planifolia or flatleaf butterwort. Like all butterworts, it captures insects that stick to the leaves, the edges of which then curl over the prey, allowing specialized glands to produce secretions that digest the insect. I'm not sure how that happens underwater but maybe its habitat isn't always submerged.

By this time my feet were completely wet and my legs pretty scratched up but we kept seeing good stuff! Fortunately it wasn't too hot and the mosquitoes weren't bad. Here is another kind of pitcher plant, similar to the one that grows in Ohio but probably S. rosea rather than our S. purpurea--the taxonomy is apparently debatable! Insects fall into the water in the modified leaf and tiny hairs keep them from climbing back out:

The sundews were awesome! Here is the one that was the most common:

There are many species of sundews, all in the genus Drosera. The most common one we have in Ohio is D. rotundifolia and it doesn't occur in Florida. This one might be D. capillaris. 

Until I looked closely I didn't think this was a sundew, but the dewy droplets gave it away. This cool plant is D. filiformis, or dewthreads and was completely new to us: 

Then we noticed that the bog was full of yellow-flowered bladderworts, of which there are many species, including a few in Ohio. Closer inspection revealed that this was a really unusual one--it is floating bladderwort or Utriculara inflata. Like all bladderworts, it has teeny bladders on its modified leaves that have trap doors that open and suck in tiny aquatic organisms. 

Here is a mass of them:

On our way out we saw our 7th carnivorous plant of the day, the lovely yellow butterwort or P. lutea. In this photo you can see the basal leaves that can trap and digest insects that stick on their surfaces:

Whew! That was a lot to take in and I'm sure that we missed a lot too. What a great morning! Later in the trip we added to our carnivorous plant list with more bladderworts and sundews, and this lovely butterwort, P. cerulea, which is almost always a lovely blue but we also spotted its very rare white form:

I was really excited to see the alien-looking hooded pitcher plant (S. minor). These pitchers are probably from last year:

but here is one that is just coming up with its flower bud nearby:

The translucent "windows" at the top of the pitcher probably help to lure insects into the trap.

It was interesting to see this yellow butterwort, P. lutea, from near Orlando. Its flower is slightly different from those in the Apalachicola area but they are the same species:

Here is another bladderwort that we saw on this trip; there are at least 12 species of them in Florida so I won't hazard a guess as to which this is!

The carnivorous plants, with their weird and varied morphology, were a big highlight of this trip. It is amazing to think of the incredible variety in the plant world, and sobering to think of how threatened many of these unusual plants are by destruction of their unique habitats. 

March 10, 2014

Visiting More Winter Visitors, Both Urban and Rural

Many people wouldn't think of downtown Cleveland as an exceptional birding destination, but lately it has been absolutely phenomenal. With the extreme cold temperatures this winter, Lake Erie is almost completely frozen and the wintering birds are concentrated wherever there is open water, including the Cuyahoga River through downtown Cleveland. Many associate the river and the city with water and air pollution, but thanks to mid-'70s environmental legislation, the river is far healthier and the air is much cleaner than it used to be. At the same time, the city still supports a busy port and steel production. This progress has been truly remarkable.

For the past few days we had been reading very enticing reports about large numbers of ducks and gulls in the city, including some rare ones, so this weekend we headed north to see what all the excitement was about.

Here is what we saw as we approached the river--at this point things didn't look all that promising:

But soon we started to see lots of gulls and ducks, with Quicken Loans Arena (LeBron James' former workplace) in the background:

And then the full impact of the huge flock was quite evident:

One of the main attractions was a bird called the pomarine jaeger which had been seen in this area for the past few days. True to its name, which means "hunter" in German, this bird is a fierce predator. It will eat just about any animal, which it obtains by hunting, scavenging, and stealing from other birds. We were extremely fortunate--as we got out of our car people were pointing at the bird. We got great looks at it as it circled close by and even landed not far away. Then off it flew north along the river and as far as we know it wasn't seen the rest of the morning. (For a photo of the jaeger taken at the same time we were there head over to Weedpicker's Journal.) Then our attention turned to the hundreds of other birds present along the river.

As we were wondering how on earth we would distinguish some of the rarer gulls we were relieved to see some other birding friends and acquaintances, who were very helpful with gull ID. This area along the river (known as Scranton Flats) is in the process of being developed into a small park, and we really appreciated the new and conveniently located observation platform:

We were excited to see this Iceland gull which was a new bird for us:

There are usually a few of these in the winter along the lake, but this year there have been more than usual. These birds breed far to the north.

Most gulls that we see in Ohio are either ring-billed or herring gulls, so just about anything else is exciting to see. Here is a great black-backed gull:

In addition to large numbers of unusual gulls, the past few days have brought an unprecedented number of red-necked grebes to the state. Here is one that we saw on the Cuyahoga River:

From this spot we headed east to another lakeside area that has a bit of open water, thanks to an adjacent power plant. Here at Eastlake we saw several white-winged scoters, which are typically sea ducks (the upper one in the photo; the lower one is a female common merganser):

Eastlake had another special bird, a glaucous gull. This is another gull that breeds far to the north. In the photo below it is the one in back with completely white tail feathers and wing tips:

Here it is expressing its opinion to the other gulls:

At both these locations large numbers of a wide variety of ducks were present. Here are photos of several of them:

This is probably the most unusual of the ducks that we saw on this trip--the long-tailed duck:

After enjoying great views of the birds at these urban locations we switched gears completely and drove south and east through lovely Amish farmland to look for the long-eared owl that has been spotted near Mosquito Lake State Park. At one farm we noted a grove of maples being tapped for syrup using buckets instead of the plastic tubing that is often used:

We found the long-eared owl (with help from expert birders) and were able to photograph it with a telephoto lens but unfortunately the view wasn't great. It is interesting to note, though, that this bird was employing some good camouflage techniques, finding a place that is its same color and staying perfectly still.

This year has been quite notable for the presence of snowy owls all over the state and, in fact, all over the eastern U.S. At least one has turned up in Florida this winter! Despite being out a lot, we hadn't seen one this year so we made an effort to check for one that had been reported from a farm in Geauga County. These incredible owls come from way north on the tundra, so they are usually seen on the ground or on a low fencepost, or on a higher perch overlooking an open area where they can hunt for rodents. At first we couldn't find the bird at the location that had been reported, but then we went around the corner to get a view from another angle and we weren't disappointed! We got a good clear view, albeit from a distance:

What an exciting day of winter birding! It was great to see these visitors from the far north, and it was especially nice to see several very helpful Ohio birders. We were also impressed by the efforts underway in Cleveland to improve the waterfront with parks and pedestrian access. To top it all off, we were treated to a spectacular sunset on the drive back to Columbus:

March 5, 2014

More Winter Walks in the Hocking Hills

On a cold overcast day in late February, we traveled to the Hocking Hills with our friend Jim, who introduced us to two winter walks that were new to us.

On the first hike we had a distant view of an active bald eagle’s nest in a high sycamore tree located adjacent to a swamp and a large creek.  Below is a long telephoto view showing the head of one parent eagle in the nest and the other parent to the right.

From the same site as the previous photo, we cranked the telephoto lens to maximum to obtain a photograph of this huge eagle nest, constructed of large twigs and branches. Think of how heavy it must be!

A few hundred yards from the eagle’s nest was a great blue heron rookery (photo below).  The herons apparently used to nest at the bald eagle site, but were pushed out by the eagles several years ago. In a couple of months these nests will be active with noisy pairs of herons!

Later on the walk, Jim showed us a hillside seep with some emerging skunk cabbage, generally the first wildflower of the year in Ohio.  Skunk cabbages generate heat, which allows them to bloom earlier than other wildflowers. Even skunk cabbage is delayed this year due to the cold weather.

While looking for the skunk cabbage we chanced upon another distant view of a bald eagle, presumably one of the parents away from the nest.

As we returned to the car we heard the cheerful sounds of eastern bluebirds and were able to observe a pair perching on low branches, dropping to ground, and returning to low branches.

In the afternoon, we went on a hike down into a deep hollow.  The going was a bit dicey due to snow, ice and the primitive nature of the trail; in some areas we were only able to find the trail by following footprints in the snow.  We eventually found a frozen waterfall and a lovely stream lined with hemlock trees:

There is always something interesting to see in the Hocking Hills!