June 29, 2015

Thoughts on biodiversity

My last post was a celebration of the rich native biodiversity found in the forests of southern Ohio which we experienced at the third annual Mothapalooza event. Our two keynote speakers, David Wagner and Doug Tallamy, were great fun to be with but their messages were sobering. So this post won't have many pretty pictures because, quite frankly, the big picture isn't pretty at all.

We are losing native species of plants and animals at an alarming rate. In his book Bringing Nature Home, Tallamy cites studies that show that we have lost an average of 1% of our native migratory birds annually since 1966. That is nearly a 50% reduction in the population of many of our bird species in the past 50 years.

The drastic decline of monarch butterflies in recent years has gotten a lot of attention, but other insects have fared just as badly. Why do we need to care? We need to care for many reasons and here are a few.

The decline of native insects is directly related to habitat loss, which is basically the loss of the plant communities upon which they depend. Native insects have evolved along with native plants, and many can only survive on those particular species. When we lose the plants, we lose the insects.

Human lives are inextricably tied to healthy plant communities, even though we generally ignore this fact. Plants produce the oxygen that we breathe. Healthy forests filter the water that we need to survive. Insects that feed on the plants are necessary to pollinate many of the food crops that we rely on for survival. Recent studies have even shown that spending 15 minutes in a natural area lowers stress levels and improves blood pressure better than drugs or psychotherapy!

Many of you that are reading this blog enjoy feeding birds in your yard, and spend a fair amount of money on birdseed. But without insects, birds can't survive. Seeds have lots of carbohydrates and some fats, but little protein, and protein is necessary for building animal tissue. Baby birds need protein, which comes to them in mostly in the form of caterpillars that their parents forage for and bring to them. If they have to go far and wide to find those insects, the energy cost will be too great and the nest will likely fail.

Most caterpillars are specialists. In other words, they need particular plant species upon which to feed. Compatible biochemistry is necessary, and only is found in those insect and plant species that have evolved together over time. So filling your yard with gingko, Bradford pear and other alien species isn't going to do much good, from a biological standpoint.

Not only have we destroyed native habitat in order to develop our cities and suburbs, we have introduced all sorts of plant and animal species that have, in many cases, overwhelmed, eaten, and/or crowded out the native plants and insects that are so essential. Kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, and autumn olive are just a few examples, and then there are the European starlings and house sparrows whose populations have increased enormously since their introduction. The emerald ash borer, an Asian species, has destroyed billions of ash trees, which supported many native insects, and has cost homeowners and municipalities an enormous amount of money.

Recently, we were at a natural area and saw a brown marmorated stink bug (that alien brown critter that finds its way into our houses) sucking the life out of a monarch caterpillar.

I could cite many more examples, but at this point readers may be thinking I get it, so what can we do about it? Unfortunately, parks and preserves are not adequate to halt the precipitous decline of native species (and they are struggling with the influx of aliens). Here are some suggestions from Doug Tallamy and Dave Wagner:

Plant native species in your yard! You don't have to get rid of all your hostas and daffodils, but include some native trees, shrubs and perennials in your landscaping. If you have room, plant some big native trees like oaks, maples, hickories and hackberries. Include both nectar plants for insects and caterpillar food plants. Doug's book offers lots of suggestions about plants that are suitable in various regions of the country. 

We have started to convert most of our landscaping to natives, but I still have my hostas and Endless Summer Hydrangea that I got years ago from a friend. They are basically biological deserts, but I have a lot of other plants that are beginning to attract pollinators and other insects. Suburban lots can be essential for maintaining the native biodiversity that is so important. But walk into any garden center and you won't see many native bugs because all they are selling are alien plants that have no value for our native insects. Seek out and support native plant nurseries in your area.

Preserve habitat! Buy land, especially forests, if you have the means, and join and actively support organizations that preserve and rehabilitate natural areas.

Minimize or eliminate the use of lawn chemicals! Dandelions and clover never hurt anyone. Clover is a wonderful nectar source for all sorts of insects, but is killed by lawn herbicides. Excessive fertilizer runoff is a real threat to our water supplies.

Vote for people who understand and appreciate good science! This is a lot more important to our survival as a species than how they look on TV or what they did in college 30 years ago.

The situation isn't hopeless, but we are getting close to that point. So at least plant some natives in your yard and encourage your city to do the same in parks and street rights of way. Neighbors--stop by any time and walk around our back yard to see how it evolves since we have planted spicebush, native viburnums, shrub dogwoods, wild hydrangea, cedars and many others. Look at what's coming up in our rain gardens, which divert runoff from our downspouts into basins where it can sink into the ground to recharge groundwater and lower stormwater runoff, a whole other topic that I haven't mentioned! Here are a few pictures of some of the native plants in our yard:

Orange Milkweed and Blue Vervain
Redbud, elderberry, purple coneflower starting to bloom, rattlesnake master, and wild hydrangea.

Closeup of wild hydrangea--these have been great and have attracted all
sorts of pollinators
Endless Summer Hydrangea--all flowers are sterile and not much seems
to eat the leaves so it really has no
biological value. It has sentimental value though, so I'm keeping it!

Purple coneflower

June 18, 2015

Great Stuff at Mothapalooza III

I've spent the past few days ruminating on the wonderful weekend we had, deep in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, at the third annual Mothapalooza event. Along with about 170 others, we shared discoveries, connected with old and new friends, and absorbed the wisdom of outstanding field trip leaders and speakers. It takes a huge amount of effort to pull off an event like this, especially one that is so well organized and friendly; Mary Ann Barnett, Elisabeth Rothchild and all the folks in charge did a fantastic job. We weren't exactly roughing it; the lodge at Shawnee State Park is a great place to host this event:

While the moths are a big part of the action, this event is really aimed at spreading the importance of biodiversity. Daytime field trips catered to every nature interest, from botany, butterflies, and birds to all sorts of reptiles and amphibians. Nights catered to the moth aficionados, with lights set up in diverse habitats, but also found many of us marveling at the deafening sound of randy tree frogs and at the sight of several bright planets and the International Space Station!

On Friday afternoon we were fortunate to accompany evolutionary biologist Dave Wagner, author of Caterpillars of Eastern North America, and Ohioan Jim McCormac, one of the country's most outstanding naturalists, on a field trip to some prime spots in Shawnee State Forest. Both are excellent leaders and get excited about everything they see. It is a real treat to hear Dave expound on the interplay between insects and plants, and their structural, chemical and behavioral adaptations that drive evolution. Here are Dave and Jim, checking for caterpillars on an oak tree:

In addition to his work with caterpillars, Dave is also a dragonfly guy, and will be off to the Amazon soon to continue work on a comprehensive odonata data base. Here he is showing us a lancet clubtail:

Extensive logging is occurring at Shawnee but sights like this swarm of spicebush swallowtails on orange milkweed can still be seen:

High up in the forest the staghorn sumac was in full bloom:

After excellent evening programs, which I will touch on in my next post, we headed outside to check the mothing set-ups:

One cool thing about this event is that it attracts academics, hobbyists, kids, young students, and all sorts of people who are drawn here by their interest in learning more about nature. Even those who are old hands at this were thrilled by the sheer numbers and variety of moths that came to the sheets, and I wish I had a better photo of some of the swarms of insects that we saw:

Here are some moth highlights:

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth

Tuliptree Silk Moth

Giant Leopard Moth

Io Moth

Polyphemus moth
A highlight for me was seeing and hearing the night time tree frog cacophony! We were able to get within a few feet of several in a shrub right after a downpour and I even got a photo: 

On Saturday our field trip was led by Jason Larson and Cheryl Harner, both extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of Shawnee. The trip was structured around seeing several species of milkweed and the insects they attract, but we looked at lots of other critters and plants as well. 

Here a poke milkweed is visited by a tiny plume moth:

A coral hairstreak checked out this orange milkweed:

The purple milkweed was gorgeous:

White milkweed was covered with insects: 

Common milkweed was just coming into bloom:

As we drove back to the lodge we were all thrilled and amazed to see this ruffed grouse standing in the middle of the road! It had been years since any of us had seen a grouse, and these are folks that are out a lot, so this was a great way to cap off an excellent trip:

So why does Shawnee have so much cool biology? In Dave's keynote talk on Saturday night he cited several factors:

  • It has a mixture of acid and alkaline (limestone/dolomite) soils
  • The area is located at the edge of the Appalachian foothills, with hilly terrain, giving many north and south facing slopes that differ in sunlight and moisture, thus supporting different plant communities
  • It is at the edge of the glaciated part of Ohio, so that northern species were pushed southward during glaciation and some have remained here at higher elevations
  • It has a mix of low mountains, forest, riparian areas, and prairies, resulting in a lot of edge habitats. These transition zones support the greatest plant and animal diversity.
  • The Shawnee State Forest and the nearby Edge of Appalachia Preserve comprise over 80,000 acres. Even though the state has authorized a great deal of logging in Shawnee, a lot of forest remains.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the country the native biological communities have been decimated, with steep declines being documented in many species of birds, insects and other organisms. In my next post I'll go into that in more detail, describing the trends and going over the very compelling message of our other keynote speaker, Doug Tallamy. The author of Bringing Nature Home, he emphasizes the significance of these declines to all life on our planet. Stay tuned!

June 8, 2015

The Joy of June

Quite a bit of time has passed since my last blog post! My excuses involve lots of time spent exploring spring in Ohio and a reluctance to spend much time at the computer. Add in a daughter's May wedding and the blog has simply not been a top priority. I'll try to get back here when possible, though!

Bill and I did a day trip this past weekend that reminded us how special June can be here in the midwest. Many of the summer flowers are starting to bloom and few have begun to fade. For years we concentrated on the ephemeral spring bloomers, and more recently on the profusion of mid to late summer prairie plants, but June has its own special charm. 

I almost called this post "Roadside Botany" because basically this trip involved driving south along back roads in Jackson, Scioto and Adams Counties, looking for whatever happened to be in bloom. (As you'll see, "Summer Spangles" also could have been the title!) We planned this trip around trying to see several of Ohio's milkweeds in bloom (thanks to help from Andrew Gibson), and in the process saw lots of other interesting plants, butterflies and even one gigantic spider (arachnophobes beware!).

The weather was glorious and I just wish I could share the fresh summer smells and the sounds of the wood thrushes and the prairie, Kentucky, cerulean and blue-winged warblers, among many others. I'll keep the narration to a minimum and let the photos speak for themselves!

Early morning in Jackson County

Blunt-leaved milkweed, with its unusual curly-edged leaves, grew
in just a few spots by the side of the road.

I loved the morning light on this Great Spangled Fritillary as it rested on a berry bush.

Although they are not native to North America, I never get tired of Oxeye Daisies.

Yarrow is another humble plant that is often overlooked but that grows in a
range of habitats, brightening many landscapes.

Purple Milkweed was one of our target species and
it was spectacular.

Yellow Crownbeard was just starting to bloom.

From Jackson County we headed to Shawnee State Forest. The habitat here was quite different, featuring many more woodland, shade-tolerant plants.

The male flowers of Goatsbeard brightened the shady roadsides.

American Ipecac is a lovely and unusual June bloomer.

Quite unusual in Ohio, Fairywand can be found in a few spots
in Shawnee State Forest. This is a female plant.

A Northern Cloudywing butterfly on red clover, an excellent nectar source.

Bill spotted this huge female wolf spider, carrying about a zillion
babies on her back. Check YouTube for bizarre videos of people
finding them in their homes, poking them with a broom, and freaking out when
all those babies bail out.

The exquisite White Milkweed grows in the shade in a few southern Ohio counties.
Here it is being investigated by yet another Great Spangled Fritillary.

Wild Hydrangea brightens many shady roadsides in Shawnee and can do
well in the home garden, attracting beneficial pollinators.

I love the combination of the Blanketflower and the Pale-spiked Lobelia. 

We also spent some time in Adams County, where we spotted another milkweed just starting to bloom:

Orange Milkweed, hosting still another Great Spangled Fritillary! 
And here is one more:

A Southern Cloudywing sitting on top of Antelope-Horn or Spider Milkweed

Our last stop of the day was at Adams Lake State Park, where we spotted one of Ohio's most stunning dragonflies, the Spangled Skimmer.

Here are a couple more photos, based on a corollary to the fact that any food is better with bacon--any photo is better with Great Spangled Fritillaries!! Needless to say, these butterflies are abundant right now, and there is no such thing as too many!

Great Spangled Fritillary on Wild Hydrangea. 

Great Spangled Fritillaries on Purple Milkweed

For a beautiful and informative photo essay on Ohio's 13 species of native milkweeds by Andrew Gibson, check this link.