May 18, 2014

Birds + Plants + Geology + Friends = One Awesome Long Lake Erie Weekend! (Part Two!)

As I mentioned in my last post, we were in northern Ohio recently for Flora-Quest, a wonderful botany event that featured unusual habitats in the Marblehead Peninsula. These habitats are the direct result of the limestone bedrock that comprises the peninsula. The bedrock was scraped and shaped by past glaciers that removed much of the area's topsoil and upper rock layers and created the basis for formation of biological communities called alvars. 

These globally rare communities thrive on very harsh, alkaline conditions--they experience extreme cold in the winter with ice crystals forming in every crack and crevice, extreme heat in the summer, and flooding in spring. In summer the shallow soils bake and dry completely. Some alvars line the lakeshore, subject to wind- and wave-driven ice that scours the rocks.

Not many plants can survive these rough conditions, but those that do don't have much competition! One of the most distinctive alvar plants, and also one of the rarest, is the Lakeside daisy:

Daisy habitat has been preserved in the 19-acre Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve. Quarried many years ago, a very thin soil layer has developed on the remaining limestone and is adequate to support many typical alvar plants. Here is a view of the preserve:

On Monday we had the opportunity to visit a naturally occurring alvar in an area that has never been quarried. This field trip was led by some of Ohio's most outstanding naturalists and we got a great introduction to the botany and geology of the area. No, this isn't a parking lot, it is an alvar!

The glacial origins of the alvar's landforms were obvious as we hiked the site. In the photos above and below the striations known as glacial grooves are evident. 

The grooves formed when rocks that the glacier picked up scraped the underlying bedrock, leaving parallel scratches that indicate the direction of movement of the ice. Interestingly, in this area the ice moved from east to west, following the contours of the land, in this case a river valley, just like any moving water would.

In one area, we saw a place where the glacier flowed over and around particularly resistant rock, leaving this formation that locals call "the locomotive":

As the glacier reamed off the upper rock layers, it exposed fossils of marine creatures that were embedded in the limestone. When this rock formed, Ohio was located near our planet's equator and was covered with seawater. Marine organisms thrived in these tropical conditions, and some were preserved as fossils. Here is a horn coral, that was sheared off and its cross section exposed:

Here is another type of coral; the adjacent ruler is a foot long.

And one more:

Not much grows on the bedrock except in cracks and crevices that trap some windblown soil which eventually builds up enough to support plants. Here is a Lakeside daisy that has survived the alvar's tough conditions:

Some of the other plants that are typical of alvars are eastern red cedar (often stunted), rock sandwort, dense blazing star, and stiff goldenrod. 

Very little alvar habitat remains on the Marblehead Peninsula because of the many years of limestone quarrying that has taken place. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is hoping to preserve some of the area's remaining natural alvar, and this interest is aided by the efforts of the Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association (ONAPA), which welcomes new members. I encourage anyone interested in Ohio's natural heritage to join this organization!

Many thanks to Cheryl Harner, Jason Larson, Guy Denny, ONAPA, and all the other Flora-Quest organizers, sponsors and guides for an excellent event!

May 15, 2014

Birds + Plants + Geology + Friends = Awesome Long Lake Erie Weekend (Part One!)

For Ohio birders and other nature enthusiasts, the shore of Lake Erie in May is a must-see destination. Branded as the "Warbler Capital of the World", thousands of people flock to northern Ohio to see all sorts of birds as they migrate to northern breeding areas. In recent years, even bigger crowds have been attracted by the "Biggest Week in American Birding" festival. We have headed up to the focal point of all this excitement, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area just east of Toledo, every May for over 25 years and 2014 was no exception. This year, though, we added some other destinations along the lake and made it a long weekend.

Here is a shot of a small fraction of the multitudes of people that come to this area every year to enjoy the migration spectacle, as birds stop to refuel before beginning their long flight across the lake:

Judging by the fact that the huge parking lot as well as the overflow lot were completely full on Saturday, this was one of the biggest days ever at Magee Marsh. Fortunately the birds were plentiful, the weather was perfect, and the area is big enough that people can spread out pretty comfortably. And hey, to be honest this gathering is part social event anyway! We always look forward to seeing birding friends from all over the state on the boardwalk.

We don't have the camera fire-power (or the patience) to take stellar photos of tiny warblers and other birds that are in constant motion looking for insects to fuel their northerly flights, but we did get a few decent shots. Here is a brilliant yellow prothonotary warbler:

And a real crowd-pleaser, this scarlet tanager:

Not all the interesting birds are colorful; here is a gray-cheeked thrush, one of the most sought-after birds along the boardwalk:

And I'm always glad to see an elegant white-crowned sparrow:

Most of the birds that create excitement at Magee Marsh are songbirds, but an eastern screech owl is always a crowd-pleaser. This one was out in the open, rather than tucked away in a tree cavity, and easily photographed:

And how about this bald eagle parent and chick, nesting very near the parking lot:

Not to be forgotten are the butterflies. On Saturday afternoon lots of red admirals appeared, looking quite fresh:

Sunday evening we were due at Flora-Quest, a wonderful botany event featuring the unique flora and geology of the Marblehead Peninsula near Sandusky, but first we stopped at a nearby wildlife area to see one of the rarest flowers in Ohio, the small white lady's slipper orchid. This beautiful flower grows in wet prairies and fens in alkaline soils, habitats that are increasingly rare everywhere due to draining for agriculture and development.

Our next stop was the lovely lighthouse on the Marblehead Peninsula, which was built in 1821 and is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes:  

Across the bay from the lighthouse is the Cedar Point amusement park--quiet now but it will be busy in a few weeks! 

From there we headed to Lakeside, a major feature of the Marblehead Peninsula which we have heard about for years but had never visited. It is one of only about 15 remaining Chautauqua communities, noted for their educational, artistic and recreational programs. Here are a few photos that we took on a delightful walk along the lakeshore on Sunday evening:

The Marblehead Peninsula is underlain by vast limestone deposits, and in many areas the valuable rock is very close to the surface which has made quarrying economically attractive for well over a century. The entire peninsula was glaciated way back in pre-history, and the glaciers scraped much of the topsoil off the bedrock, giving rise to unusual conditions that led to development of a globally rare biological community. More about that in my next post!

May 7, 2014

Spring in Shawnee State Forest

In my last post I illustrated several of the spring sights at Adams County preserves. Hiking the many trails is the best way to explore those areas, but in adjacent Scioto County we usually drive and walk the mostly unpaved roads in Shawnee State Forest. As long as they haven't been mowed, the roadsides host a variety of interesting wildflowers. Birds and butterflies are also present in this rich area of southern Ohio.

One of our favorite things to do in the forest is to walk one of the unpaved roads that is closed to car traffic. This spring it was lined with colorful redbud trees that were breathtaking:

Here is a closer view of the beautiful blossoms:

The redbud is the caterpillar food plant for a tiny butterfly called the Henry's elfin; we saw a lot of these lovely insects this year:

Another road that we walked has a few stands of mountain laurel, which isn't very common in Ohio but it does occur in certain areas. It won't bloom till early summer, but it and blueberries are the caterpillar hosts for another tiny butterfly, the brown elfin, which was new for us this year:

Birdfoot violet is another uncommon plant in Ohio and it is one of our loveliest wildflowers. It likes dry slopes and is quite at home in this area of Shawnee:

Ohio has at least 20 species of violets, and another of my favorites is the lovely longspur violet:

Violets are caterpillar food plants for the fritillary butterflies, so don't try to eradicate them from your yard!

Another stunning wildflower is the vernal iris, a threatened species in Ohio. It spreads via rhizomes so can form large colonies:

On our last visit we enjoyed looking at the puffy blooms of the sassafras tree:

Sassafras is a beautiful tree that has gorgeous fall color. It and spicebush are caterpillar food plants for the beautiful spicebush swallowtail:

Four spicebush swallowtails and one zebra swallowtail.
A few dragonflies are out now; more will be flying as summer approaches. Here is one of the early ones, a female blue corporal:

Driving the roads in Shawnee State Forest is a great way to hear a lot of spring warblers and to see even more flowers and butterflies. Along one road, thanks to a tip from a friend, we found a lot of a small plant called Carolina vetch so we looked carefully for the butterfly that feeds on it, the silvery blue. We had never seen it before so we parked in a pullout beside the plant and searched the roadside for about a half hour. When we got back to our car, there was the butterfly, nectaring in the Carolina vetch:

Like many of the blues, the underside is pale but the upper side is a lovely blue:

We always enjoy driving up to Picnic Point for the view of the Ohio River

and for the butterflies that frequent the the flowers in the grassy areas. Here is a falcate orangetip nectaring on bluets:

The females lack the males' orange wing tips:

Female falcate orange-tip perched on the left and male hovering in flight on the right.
Shawnee State Forest is well worth a visit, especially in the spring. Extensive logging that is going on now may change things in the future; the longterm impact of the logging remains to be seen.

May 1, 2014

Spring in Ohio's Adams County

Spring has always been a quite a whirlwind for us in Ohio, thanks to our desire to see all the returning warblers and other birds as migration progresses. Now that we have become just as enthusiastic about discovering wildflowers and butterflies that appear as winter finally recedes, things have become even more hectic, but in a very good way!

Last week we set out to the south to check out spring in southern Ohio, and then headed for Great Smoky Mountain National Park. What a great place! And it deserves a blog post of its own so stay tuned. From there we spent some time with friends at Cumberland Falls State Park in Kentucky and had a great time birding, hiking and botanizing. Friday found us back in Ohio to attend the Ohio Ornithological Society's (OOS) 10th anniversary conference. The meeting itself was at Shawnee State Park in Scioto County, but we spent much of our time in adjacent Adams County, which is one of the most biologically diverse counties anywhere.

Adams County is quite interesting botanically because it has both forested slopes and bluffs and open cedar barrens over limestone bedrock. Many of these areas are now nature preserves and have trails that give access to hikers.

Early in our trip we stopped at a preserve right north of the Ohio River called The Ohio River Bluffs. Owned by the Arc of Appalachia, an excellent land conservation organization, it features amazing displays of woodland wildflowers throughout the spring. Our hike around the preserve featured slopes absolutely covered by dwarf larkspur and Virginia bluebells:

Pictures can't really do this place justice--it was fantastic.

On our way to the conference we also stopped by Whipple State Nature Preserve, which is also just north of the Ohio River in Adams County. Among many other wildflowers it had incredible displays of celandine poppy

and lots of red drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes):

We had never been to Whipple before and it was amazing. All sorts of interesting rock formations added lots of interest, including this slump rock that was covered by a delicate wildflower called miterwort:

One of our field trip destinations with our OOS group was a cedar barren in Adams County. These are fascinating and rare habitats that occur on very thin soils underlain by limestone. We visited another one of these glades after the conference and I want to share some of what we saw at these unusual destinations.

Often called "pocket prairies", the Adams County cedar barrens support some of the rarest plants in Ohio and few if any non-native invasive species. In late summer they will support colorful blooming plants such as prairie dock, blazing star, purple coneflower, orange milkweed and many others, as well as native grasses such as Indian grass and big bluestem. We have visited these areas often at that time of year, but we were curious to see what they looked like in the spring. 

Here is an overview of one of the prairies that we visited:

Grasses dominate the open area, which is surrounded by forest supporting woody species such as red cedar, redbud, dogwood and tuliptree. Red cedar is one of the first trees to gain a foothold in these prairie areas and it hosts some interesting animals including this prairie warbler which spent most of the day belting out its ascending call:

That is a sound that we wouldn't hear during a late summer visit! Now these warblers have just returned from the south, are proclaiming their territories and attracting mates. They are also found in small pines but seem to do quite well in the woody, partially open areas with red cedar in Adams County.

Red cedar is a host plant for one of Ohio's most beautiful butterflies, the tiny juniper hairstreak:

As I've mentioned before, hairstreaks have antennae-like projections on their hindwings that fool potential preditors into attacking the butterfly on its wings. As can be seen in the inset photo, even when part of a wing is missing the hairstreak can still survive.

Spring also brings some colorful wildflowers to the cedar barrens, such as this hoary puccoon

and this paintbrush.

We saw lots of butterflies taking advantage of the sunny day, including the lovely gemmed satyr that was in the forest edges

and several black swallowtails.

I nearly fell over when I looked at this picture and realized that it was decent, because this zebra swallowtail was constantly in motion laying her eggs on the very tender new leaves of the pawpaw trees in the forest near the cedar glade. She seemed to be laying them singly, and barely stopped during the process. It fascinates me that butterflies know to lay their eggs in the perfect spot for the young caterpillars to feed. 

Several of these cedar barrens have been preserved by a collaboration between the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. This amazing partnership has preserved 16,000 acres in Adams County as the Richard and Lucile Durrell Edge of Appalachia Preserve SystemChaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve and Adams Lake State Park are other places at which visitors can see the pocket prairie habitat.

One of the last stops on our OOS field trip was a cliff along the Ohio River that is the northern limit of a plant called cross vine. This is the only place it occurs in Ohio and its blooms are truly stunning:

It climbs up sheer cliffs with tendrils that take advantage of any slight crack or depression in the rock:

Visiting Adams County's nature preserves was a wonderful part of our fun weekend at the OOS conference at Shawnee State Park. Many thanks to the organizers and field trip leaders for a job well done!