January 17, 2016

A Winter Hike in the Hocking Hills

Friday was cloudy but practically balmy, at least for January. With 35 degree temperatures we decided to meet some friends in the Hocking Hills south of Columbus for day of hiking. We hoped that the trails would not be icy, and indeed the footing was fine on most of the trails. We selected a segment of the Buckeye Trail, part of which we had been on before. The trail makes a 1400+ mile loop, winding into every corner of Ohio, giving access to many historic and scenic places.

Towering sandstone cliffs and dense stands of hemlocks are the main attractions on this stretch of the trail so the gloomy weather was not a problem. The area attracts lots of rock climbers and horseback riders as well as hikers.

Ice lingered in some of the hollows that we passed:

After climbing up the trail we reached a sort of plateau. Walking a bit off the trail we spotted a popular landmark that we had heard of but had never seen, known as Balanced Rock. This erosion-derived pillar is at least 40 feet high:

We encountered narrow passages

and even narrower passages:

I wondered how those hemlocks managed to get enough sun when they were small to grow into such big trees!

I'm glad I wasn't hiking when this big slump block crashed down. Look at the tree that has survived in a narrow crevice.

After lunch we did the short trail into Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve. It was a bit icier and we had to watch our step but it was worth it to see some beautiful ice formations. 

What do you see in this picture? A cross, a sword, a witch, an ice fairy? Or maybe the Ghost of Conkle's Hollow...

The end of the hollow was nearly inaccessible due to a huge hemlock that recently fell across the trail, leaving its large trunk and a great deal of debris. It appeared to have come from high on the cliff, and in falling it smashed some of the trees on the opposite side of the narrow hollow. Our friend Greg tried to find a way across it:

All in all it was a fun day and we were glad we made the effort to go exploring!

January 7, 2016

Looking back at 2015's Ohio Butterflies

For the past few years, Bill and I have become more and more interested in butterflies and the plants upon which they depend. In 2015, we saw our first Ohio butterflies on April 5 near the Ohio River: cabbage white, spring azure, Henry's elfin and mourning cloak. This seemed like a great start, and made me think of a couple of friends who were documenting their butterfly sightings for the year.

One friend, who lives in south Texas, was creating an album on Facebook in which he posted the first photo he took of each butterfly he saw during the year in the lower Rio Grande Valley. By the time we saw our first, I think he had seen more than we would see all year!

Another friend that we met in Texas was doing a big year in 2015, travelling all over the US to see how many butterflies he could see. He ended up with about 530 species.

So I decided to come up with a project inspired by those ideas, and created a Facebook album containing the first decent picture I took of each butterfly species seen in Ohio during 2015. Several considerations led me to do this:
  • We were curious about how many species we could see
  • It was good motivation for me to get out often and without complaining
  • It might make us explore some new places and learn new butterflies
  • It would show friends and Facebook acquaintances what we were up to 
  • And I hoped that non-butterflying friends would realize that we truly have amazing numbers of beautiful and interesting butterflies here in Ohio, because I was sure they had no idea!
We didn't see this as any sort of competition, or even as a "big year". I just wanted to document whatever species we happened to see. We had a great time doing this and ended up seeing and photographing 102 species, an excellent total for Ohio. I won't bore readers with photos of all of them, but here are some that were particularly special for us.

The falcate orange tip is one of the first butterflies to appear in Ohio--always a welcome sign of spring!

Zebra swallowtails are always fun to see; this one is nectaring on Carolina vetch in Shawnee State Forest.

Here is a lovely spicebush swallowtail. These were quite common all summer and we even had some of their caterpillars on spicebushes in our backyard:

I liked this picture of the cobweb skipper, taken in Adams County. The butterfly seems oblivious to the jumping spider that is creeping up the twig.

The Baltimore checkerspot appears in spring and is one of Ohio's most striking butterflies:

We only saw one harvester this year which is unusual. It is the only North American butterfly whose caterpillars are carnivorous; they eat aphids rather than plant material.

We saw our first monarch of the season on July 1. They were much more common during the rest of the summer than they were in 2014.

Bronze coppers are always fun to see. They aren't very common and are generally confined to wetland habitats, which are declining throughout their range.

Here is Edward's hairstreak, sitting on a prairie dock leaf. This butterfly has a fascinating life cycle; it has a mutually beneficial relationship with mound-building ants during its caterpillar stage as it feeds on small oak trees.

There isn't much more striking than a fresh coral hairstreak on orange milkweed:

Identifying hairstreaks can be a challenge sometimes, but I knew the moment I saw this hickory hairstreak that it was something different that I hadn't seen before. Lifer!

We saw variegated fritillaries in far northern Ohio as well as the southernmost counties. I especially liked this photo of it on coralroot in the Oak Openings area near Toledo.

Green butterflies are among my favorites and the juniper hairstreak is the only one typically seen in Ohio.

The little yellow is one of several butterflies that cannot overwinter in Ohio. It has to spread from the south in successive generations, so we don't typically see it here until mid to late summer.

A lot of people give up on butterflies because they find the skippers to be too confusing. Here is a fresh Leonard's skipper, which isn't confusing at all!

For a couple of years, the tiny Hayhurst's scallopwing has kind of been our nemesis butterfly. We visited a very reliable location for it many times and didn't see it until one lucky day this year:

One day in September we were wandering around Caesar Creek State Park and saw a dark butterfly with a white hindwing fringe in a patch of ironweed and knew it was not a typical Ohio species. As soon as we got a photo we recognized the funereal duskywing, which quickly flew off and we never relocated it. We know of only one other sighting of this species in Ohio in 2015.

Another species that only appears in Ohio in late summer is the checkered white. We spotted this one along the Ohio River, nectaring on old field aster.

Our final new Ohio butterfly for 2015 was a complete surprise. We were visiting a butterfly garden in Bremen when Bill called me over to a large passionflower vine to see a fritillary he had spotted. We were amazed to see a fresh gulf fritillary, which appeared to be laying eggs on the passionflower, its caterpillar host plant. Just a few individuals of this southern species have ever been seen in Ohio; the last ones that I'm aware of were in 2008.

I've had a hard time deciding which species to feature in this blog post because we saw so many beautiful butterflies in 2015, learned so much, and had so much fun in the process.

An interesting statistic is that of the 102 species seen and photographed during the year, only 10 were not seen by us in Adams, Scioto, or Lucas Counties at some point in the year. Adams and Scioto border the Ohio River in the south, and Lucas County is in the far northeastern part of the state. These are well known as Ohio's most botanically diverse areas, and it makes sense that the butterflies that they support reflect that diversity.

We definitely missed some species that typically are seen in the state, thanks to some family obligations and other factors. These include white M hairstreak, eastern pine elfin, dusted skipper, Aphrodite fritillary, European Skipper, dainty sulphur, and southern dogface. The last two have to migrate from the south to Ohio, and didn't seem to get this far north last year.

So that sums up our 2015 butterfly year. The Facebook project was a success and I did have several people comment that they had no idea that Ohio had so many beautiful butterflies!