Sunday, September 2, 2012

Getting back into the groove (?)

As summer draws to a close, I find that I haven't taken very many pictures during this hot, humid, crazy season. I still have quite a backlog from springtime, though, so why not go with that?

This spring was heavy on the orchids for me, with many new species finding their way into my life and on the other end of my camera lens. Some were seen in Ohio, others in Michigan. And so we will turn our attention to northern Michigan where I encountered a number of "life" orchids.

I was delighted to be the person in our group who spotted this stunner blooming amid the leaf litter. It's Striped Coralroot, Corallorhiza striata. You will notice there's no green in this plant. That's because it doesn't produce chlorophyll and thus doesn't photosynthesize. I still don't understand all the mechanics behind plants that rely only on fungi in the leaf litter or the roots of other plants for their nourishment, but it's still fascinating, nonetheless.

Another stunning orchid encountered during my May trip to Michigan was this Ram's-head Lady's-slipper (also called Ram's-head Orchid), Cypripedium arietinum. This was an especially wonderful treat due to its rarity, and was surely a life plant for almost all in our group (including moi). The population of these orchids in the area where we found this specimen was small and fragile, so we had to watch our step to make sure to not damage any of the existing plants.

Perhaps more familiar, and certainly very common along our walks, was the Yellow Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum. The huge flowers on these are sure crowd-pleasers. You could probably fit about 3 flowers from the Ram's-head Orchid into one of the Yellow Lady's-slippers.

My final plant for this post has an orchid-looking flower, but actually belongs to the milkwort family. It's dainty and bright, and is easily spotted even though it grows rather low to the ground. It's known by a number of common names such as Fringed Polygala, Fringed Milkwort, or Gaywings (scientific name is Polygala paucifolia).

For my next post, I'll share some orchids I've encountered a little closer to home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Michigan landscapes

It seems like it's been a lifetime since I was up in Michigan to attend the Nettie Bay School of Birding. Much has happened since then, and it turns out that Life has taken precedence over my blog. It lingers in the back of my mind, and I often think to myself "Maybe tonight I'll get a blog post done," only to realize that before I know it, bed time is upon me with nothing to show for my mental nod toward blog-land. I admire those who can keep a steady blog regardless of the bumps and curve balls that life might throw at them.

But I digress. I'll take you back to late May, when spring migration was just falling off its peak, and I was falling in love with Michigan landscapes all over again. Dramatic sunsets, birch bark, pristine lakeside beaches... all nostalgic memories of that great state up north. Enjoy.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Porcupine encounter

I recently spent a week up in Michigan, and the primary purpose of my visit was birding. And bird I did, along with a small group of several other folks who signed up for the Birding School hosted by Nettie Bay Lodge in Presque Isle County. But as is often the case when I participate in nature expeditions like this, we often tend to veer off-topic and turn our attention to anything that might turn up and catch our fancy. The leader of our group, Jim McCormac, had been informed of the location of some porcupine dens during his time leading the birding group at Nettie Bay in 2011, and he was eager to share the dens with us this year. You can read more of what Jim had to say in 2011 about the dens and their residents HERE.

I've never seen a porcupine den other than in Jim's photos, so I was excited to make this trip. There were 2 trees within walking distance of each other, but we were satisfied to examine the tree that was closest to the road. The easiest way to find a porcupine den, I would say, is to look for a developing mound of poo at the base of a tree. This indicates a den that has been used for a good number of years. My National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals seems to indicate that the tree dens are used primarily during winter months, but if you read Jim's post about the tree den they encountered last year (in late May), there was indeed a porcupine in residence. In addition to using trees for shelter, they will also use crevices and caves.

Most scat I choose to poke at with a stick. This stuff, however, was so dry that I had no qualms holding it in my hand.

Porcupines are strict herbivores, so there's not really much that would make their poo smell bad. In fact, this scat had no real odor to it at all. I have no idea how fresh it was, though, so it's possible that any smell it may have given off had faded long ago.

Yessir, this is what being a naturalist is all about. Not only holding the poo in your hand, but being willing to go on record with a picture that shows that it is, in fact, YOUR hand that is holding it! No snide remarks from the peanut gallery, okay? It doesn't show up well for some reason, but please note the "No Trespassing" sign on the tree. The porcupine, if it was in there, may have been annoyed by us rooting around in its toilet, but we did have permission from the property owner to be there.

Nina got in on the poo exploration, too. Have you ever seen two ladies so happy to be surrounded by scat?

Here's Jim sticking his camera into the entrance hole of the den, in hopes of finding someone home (I haven't yet heard the verdict on that photo), while Nina examines the pile of excreta.

As I mentioned above, porcupines are herbivores, and in addition to feeding on leaves, twigs, and plants such as lupine and clover, they are also fond of tree bark, especially the inner layer of the bark (known as the cambium). Here's an interesting fact presented by the aforementioned Audubon guide to mammals:
"Fond of salt, the Common Porcupine has a great appetite for wooden tool handles that have absorbed human perspiration through use."
Better keep your wooden-handled trowels and shovels locked safely away in the shed if you live in porcupine territory, which covers most of the western United States, almost all of Canada, northern Michigan, and most of Pennsylvania, New York and New England. (Interestingly, there was no mention of how they otherwise work salt into their diet.)

After we had thoroughly exhausted our exploration of the mound of excrement, we set off to look for other things. As luck would have it, though, perhaps our greatest find of the evening was a real live porcupine located in the up-most portion of a small, spindly aspen tree. This quilled creature was nowhere near the den we had investigated, so we did not find the resident of that specific den, but this was still a great sight to behold.

I spotted this "porky" up in the tree, and as we edged closer, we fully expected to see the tree simply bend over under his weight. The tree was smaller in diameter than my arm, and the tree - along with the porcupine - swayed easily in the breeze. After reading up on them, I learned that they are adept climbers, and actually spend a lot of their time in trees, sometimes even resting there during the day (they are primarily nocturnal, or active during the night). They are slow and deliberate in their climbing, as our small group observed. This porcupine would back down the tree a few feet, and then inch back up and return to the spot where he was when we found him. He seemed a bit baffled by our presence at first, but soon forgot about us and began foraging on the leaves of a neighboring aspen tree. He would used his long claws to hook onto a nearby branch and then draw it towards him, at which point he commenced stripping the leaves from their stalks.

We watched him feed for at least 15 minutes, wondering if he would ever come down. He never showed any inclination to descend while we had our eyes on him. Dusk was coming on quickly when we found him, so he was probably just beginning his nightly routine. We were very lucky, indeed, to be able to observe him like this. It's certainly an experience I won't soon forget!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fabulous find at Flora Quest 2012

When I last left you, I penned a post showcasing a cool find from a trip to Adams County, Ohio. That was almost a month ago, and I just found myself in Adams County again this weekend. This time I was at Flora Quest, which took place in and around Shawnee State Forest. The event, which was started in 2007, draws lovers of not only flora, but also fauna, from all around the state of Ohio and beyond. We spent a full day and a half in the field, looking for all of the wonderful gifts that Shawnee and environs has to offer. Given the incredibly warm spring that we've had, many plants are at least 2 weeks ahead of schedule, and many things that would normally be in bloom right now are well past their prime. The upside of this is that there are plants blooming now that we would not normally expect to see blooming until much later in May.

Honestly, I did not get many flower photos this year, partially because a hugely overcast day in a very wooded area made for miserable photo-taking conditions (especially since the flash on my camera is on the fritz), and partially because I spent a lot of time tuning in to the b-i-r-d-s. Nevertheless, my camera was always with me, and I was able to catch quite an incredible event with it.

First, though, a little bit of back story.

When I visited Adams County back in early April, I saw an Eastern Fence Lizard for the first time ever. Actually, we saw two of them that day: first a female, and then a male. One has to move quickly to catch these lizards, as they will immediately run for a tree the moment something starts coming its way. But we had some fast folks on hand that day who were able to carefully grab a specimen for observation (not to mention some very sharp-eyed folks to be able to spot them in the first place). The males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the sexes can be told apart based on appearance. Below you will see first a female, and then a male. The females are more boldly patterned along the back.

If you turn them over, the difference between the sexes becomes more apparent. The female is plain-colored on the underside, whereas the male has a blue band across the throat, outlined in black, with blue also on either side of the belly.

Female fence lizard, with her plain belly showing

Male fence lizard, with blue throat band and blue on the belly

These lizards hibernate during the winter months, and once they come out of hibernation, territories are set up and mating begins. According to the ODNR species account for Eastern Fence Lizards, incubation lasts from 6-8 weeks, and then a clutch of anywhere from 5 to 12 eggs will be laid. Fast forward from April to May, when our Flora Quest group on Saturday was extremely fortunate, in that we came across a female who was laying eggs.

I've been able to make out 11 eggs in this photo, 6 directly behind the female (who is well-camouflaged among the leaves), and 5 more off to her right, near the right edge of the photo. The eggs are small, about the size of an M&M candy, but more oblong in shape. I'm not sure who in our group made this discovery, but we were all just blown away by it. Obviously she wasn't going to scurry away anywhere, since she was in the middle of some very important business. Given the incubation period of 6-8 weeks, that means that the female I photographed in early April could have very well already been pregnant when we caught her. Who knows, she could have been laying eggs on this very same day. (Saturday's lizard was in a location that is quite a distance from the early-April lizard, though, so it's definitely NOT the same lizard.)

Female Eastern Fence Lizard, laying eggs

Of course I felt very fortunate to have witnessed this in person, as I'm sure it's something I'm not likely to come across again. But I could not help but feel that we violated this process for her, and made it very stressful for her. She was right alongside the trail, and luckily she was off to the side enough that we weren't in danger of stepping on her. It was obvious that we had disturbed her, and I saw her draw in at least one very deep breath while I was taking photos of her. Whether that was part of her labor process, or if it was a stress response, I don't know, but I couldn't help feeling like we needed to leave her be as soon as possible. Luckily our group was small, so there weren't too many of us to cycle through, each taking photos. I just hope our presence and the attention that we paid to her didn't draw too much (or any attention) to her while she was in this very vulnerable state.

As we left her, we all wished her well, and thanked her for the story she enabled us to tell. Hopefully later this summer the eggs will hatch successfully, and the cycle will begin again.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

More to see than just flowers

Today was a great day spent with great folks among great nature. I traveled over to Adams County to meet up with some like-minded folk for what has become an annual early spring gathering to check out the fantastic flora in that part of the state. As is often the case on outings like this, what was originally billed as a foray to look at spring wildflowers turned out to be much more than that. We enjoyed plenty of flora, to be sure, but all manner of fauna was appreciated as well.

This unseasonably warm spring that we've had has brought lots of butterflies out already. We saw many species today, many of which were in constant motion and impossible to track down with a camera. But there were a few very cooperative specimens, which I will share here.

An Eastern-tailed Blue, Cupido comyntas. Since this one was under the shade of a leaf the colors didn't come out as brilliantly as they might have if it were in the light, but you can still see that it's a charming little butterfly.

We came across another equally charming, but much more brilliant-colored butterfly right after lunch, and this one was a first for me.

This is a Juniper Hairstreak (or Olive Hairstreak, depending on who you ask), Callophrys gryneus. It stayed in this mud puddle for a very long time while we all ooohed and ahhhed over it and shot plenty of photos. Isn't it beautiful? The colors are so saturated that the photographs of it almost look fake.

Here, intrepid blogger and stunt butterfly handler extraordinaire, Jim McCormac, holds the hairstreak on his finger to give a sense of the scale of this tiny creature. I am happy to report that Jim's finger came out of this unscathed. No naturalists (or butterflies) were harmed in the making of this photo.

More fantastic finds coming up!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Who's looking at you?

Can you identify these eyes?

Here's a hint:
These "eyes" are a defense mechanism meant to scare away predators. Did they scare YOU?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mother Nature airs her dirty laundry

I've never been one for pulling pranks on April Fool's Day, and I'm not about to start now. However, after looking at some wildflower photos I took today, I couldn't resist sharing a few images that are joke-worthy all on their own.

One flower that is prolifically in bloom right now is Dutchman's Breeches. Unfortunately, these pendulous pairs of pantaloons can be tricky to photograph. Being white flowers, any imperfections show up very easily, so getting a nice "clean" set of of breeches is somewhat of a challenge. Some fun can be had with the bad shots, though. Due to the way the flowers dangle on the stalk, it's easy to infer the notion of laundry hanging out on the line.

For example, the dingy pair hanging off to the right looks like it was soaked in tea or coffee for a while, and just wouldn't quite come clean. Those stubborn stains!

I call this the "poopy diaper" shot. Shouldn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out why.

I didn't come away with too many shots of this flower that I particularly liked, but here's one shot where someone got the bleach right and all the pants are clean:

Happy April! Get out there and smell the dirty diapers wildflowers!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Springtime beauty

Spring has sprung in my little corner of the world, and how! Reports from around the state confirm that most flowers and trees are at least 2 weeks ahead of schedule (in terms of bloom time) due to the ridiculously mild winter we've had and also the early warming trend we've seen so far this spring. Tonight we are under a freeze warning, though, so I'm not sure what our heavily flowered landscape will look like upon awakening in the morning.

Luckily I was able to get out on our property and some neighboring property over the weekend to get photos of just a few of the things that are in bloom. Enjoy!

Bluebells in my garden. This is the first year they have bloomed, even though I planted them 2 years ago.

Newly emerged Bluebell flower buds, kissed by a dew drop.

Bluets, a dainty but cheery flower.

How could you not be cheered by a flower that has a sunshine burst in the middle?

Bloodroot, which is normally just starting to bloom, is already starting to fade, with many plants already gone to fruit. This one is tattered and worn, but still beautiful.

When out looking at nature, you never know what you'll come across. Here, a pair of snail shells, the larger being about the size of a dime (if that), the tiny one being barely larger than a pin head. Always keep your eyes peeled for magical treasures!

Monday, March 12, 2012

When the Grackles descended

A few weekends ago I started to see Common Grackles in large numbers in a few spots in this corner of southeast Ohio. Around this time I also started to see Red-winged Blackbirds reliably. American Woodcocks have been doing their display flights since the beginning of February. With each passing day, the bird song becomes more melodic and beautiful, ushering in spring in such a magnificent way. And every few days, I come across a new sighting for the season - Eastern Phoebes and Wood Ducks are now seemingly everywhere, and I saw my first Field Sparrow of the season yesterday. Spring is on the wing!

Following is an account of one of my grackle encounters, which I posted to the Ohio-Birds listserv (one of several "virtual" online birding communities for Ohio birders). Enjoy!
Greetings, Ohio birders! This weekend has been a bit of a Grackle-fest for
me here in Athens County! It started when I was leaving work on Friday,
when a flock of approximately 50 birds landed in a couple of trees in a
residential neighborhood in Athens. I heard at least one Red-winged
Blackbird singing among the group, so I assume it was a mixed flock. That
was the first large gathering of Grackles that I had seen so far this year.

Turns out that was nothing compared to what I would experience yesterday and
today. A group of several hundred birds caught my attention yesterday
afternoon (Saturday) when I was out filling bird feeders at my home in rural
Athens County (Albany). I could hear a rustling noise off in the distance,
quite a ways across the road actually, and even though it was windy, I knew
there was no way it was leaves blowing in the breeze. After a few squeaky
gate sounds reached my ears, it dawned on me that there was a large pack of
Grackles in the neighborhood. They were too far away for me to get any good
views even with my binoculars, but I could make out movement well enough to
estimate that there were probably 100-200 birds in the flock.

This morning, a similar event happened on the hillside right next to our
property, and I was able to observe the birds much better. Again, it was
several hundred Grackles, probably about 300 of them, with at least a few
Red-winged Blackbirds mixed in, but I was never able to spot one of them - I
could only hear them. I'm guessing they were on the outer edges of the
group? I felt very lucky to have them so close and to be able observe them
so well. They spent a large amount of their time rooting through the leaf
litter, stirring up whatever insects they could find. The noise was quite
amazing: we all know what it sounds like when one person walks through the
woods in fall or spring, kicking up dried leaves as they go - well, imagine
that you and 50 friends are doing that all at the same time, and that's what
these Grackles sounded like. Every once in a while they would all take off
from the ground together, making a fantastic whooshing sound with their
collective wings, and then land mere feet away from where they had just
been, only to begin the whole rooting in the leaf litter process again.

They were, of course, calling and vocalizing to each other during all of
this, but it wasn't until they ascended into the trees that they became
really loud. They were on our property by this time, and as I looked
through the trees with my binoculars, I could see that many of them were
preening. So it seems they had a quick breakfast, and then were off to hit
the showers, so to speak, and making plans for the day. At least I imagine
that was what all the raucous conversation was about.

I uploaded a short video to YouTube that tries to communicate the din
surrounding me. Even though you can't see the birds (my iPod Touch doesn't
take great video), you can at least hear them pretty well.

Good birding!
Heather Aubke
Albany, OH

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Today I saw: American Kestrel

For a while I've been kicking around in my mind the idea of doing some serial-style posts that detail bird sightings and observations that I think you, my dear readers, might find interesting. Think of it as a "birders notebook" type of entry. I have shied away from the idea partly because there will invariably be birds that I do not have photos of from my own personal collection, meaning I will have to rely on online sources where I can get free images that are allowed to be used for public/educational distribution. Why? Because no one wants to read a post where there are NO pictures, but I will not just "lift" photos willy-nilly from web pages just to get images for a blog post. So we'll see how this goes. This will be my first installment of "Today I saw..."

Kestrel image provided by Clipart ETC, originally published in 1869 in Louis Figuier's Reptiles and Birds.

Today I saw an American Kestrel. It was perched on a phone wire along a mildly traveled county road, looking out into a corn field, prime habitat for this falcon. At first glance I wasn't sure that it was a kestrel because it was not doing its characteristic tail bobbing, a behavior that is a "gimme" for quick field identification. Luckily, there was a spot just up the road where I could safely pull off, and I was able to hop out with my binoculars and work my way toward the bird. Not having had a ton of experience with kestrels, I wanted to get a better look at it, just to be sure about the ID. My curiosity was well-rewarded.

As I approached I noticed another bird on the wire, which was a Rock Pigeon, and the still-in-question kestrel was quite a bit smaller than the pigeon. American Kestrels (also known as "Sparrow Hawks") are the smallest falcon in North America, so it was good to see this size comparison in person. For reference, Rock Pigeons are about 12"-14" long, whereas American Kestrels are about 9"-12" long. As far as field marks go, the lighting was not great, so it was a bit difficult to see any field marks well, but I was able to pick up barring in the wings and some vertical striping on the head, so I was pretty confident by this time that I was looking at a kestrel, even though it never bobbed its tail once while I saw it on that wire.

A cold, biting breeze was blowing, so it was time to head back to the car. Just a few feet from my car I took another look out into the field, and saw a dove-like figure flying over the field, except it wasn't behaving in a dove-like fashion. This bird was obviously hunting, so I knew I was seeing the kestrel. I quickly forgot about the chilly breeze and enjoyed the show this small raptor was putting on. It was hovering with shallow but fluid wing beats, and at times it was able to catch the breeze just right and simply hang in the air for 5 seconds at a time. When not hovering, it would fly in a roughly circular pattern over the area it was hunting, and I was finally able to pick up the rusty coloring of its back and tail. Such a slim, graceful bird it was. It dove to the ground twice, but both times it come up empty-taloned. Here's an interesting factoid that I gleaned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site:
Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light. This enables kestrels to make out the trails of urine that voles, a common prey mammal, leave as they run along the ground. Like neon diner signs, these bright paths may highlight the way to a meal—as has been observed in the Eurasian Kestrel, a close relative.
It then took off to another portion of the field, and maybe eventually made its way back to the perch on the phone wire where I had originally spotted it. I was glad I took the time to stop and watch this bird. The observations gave me a good field experience that adds to my growing mental library of bird behavior, and gave me a good opportunity to share this bird with you.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A certain stillness

Last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, which normally has me planning to go to different locations to count birds. That was indeed my original plan, but life had other ideas. Last Saturday morning I awoke to a sick dog, and unfortunately he did not get better as the day progressed. A time that we had been anticipating and dreading had finally come. It's hard to believe that it's been a week since we had our poor, sweet Emmett put to sleep.

Our house is now feeling a bit empty. Emmett was the last of a host of pets that Dave and I have had the pleasure of knowing over the last 11 years. At 15-1/2, he was the oldest of them all. His sister, Jupiter, passed away a little over 2 years ago, just shy of her 13th birthday.

Amid all the bird songs that I hear daily now that are a sure promise of spring, a certain stillness hangs in the air. It's hard to adjust to not having a wagging tail and happy puppy to greet us when we get home from work. But instead of focusing on the things that are difficult, let me share some happier memories with you, memories of both Emmett and Jupiter.

I didn't know them as puppies, unfortunately - they were already full-grown by the time Dave and I started dating. I met them both the first time I came to Dave's place, and they were both very accepting of me, which was something that I felt was important if Dave and I were going to be a couple. I was especially grateful that Jupiter, the "other" girl in his life, took a liking to me.

They were both very cute adults, but as puppies... well, it was just ridiculous.

Emmett was quite a little ball of fluff. It took him a little while to grow into his face and his ears, though.

Emmett in his "adolescence."

And Jupiter in hers.

They loved to chase each other and play. I can't tell who's chasing who here, but I can hear them going "nyyeeeaaawwwwwrrr," round and round in circles!

They also liked to bite on each other, especially Jupiter on Emmett. This is when they were wee pups...

... and as adults. It's a move Jupiter would repeat over...

... and over. Eventually, many years into adulthood, Emmett finally developed a strategy to shake her off when she chomped on him like this, and it was a move that I called the "butt block." Actually, it was more of a hip block, where he'd ram his hip into her to get her off of him, but "butt block" sounds way more fun.

This isn't to say that he didn't get his own chomps in on her, though!

Their exact lineage is unknown, but "husky mix" was the breed reference we always gave. Having husky blood meant they liked to roam, often quite far from home. They always came back, but Dave and Jupiter one day learned the hard way that some folks don't take kindly to having strange dogs on their property. Jupiter got shot in her rear left leg, and fragments of the bullet stayed with her until the end. Living on 8 acres in the country made containing the dogs a challenge, to say the least. A radio fence was employed after the shooting incident, but both Emmett and Jupiter were masters at finding ways to get through the field of the fence, and they were always testing it, waiting for those times when a rodent chew or a deer run-through caused a break in the line, leaving the whole system down.

The day Dave asked me to marry him, the dogs "broke out" and came over into the field where we were (across the road from the house) to congratulate us. They didn't want to be left out! This was one time that we didn't mind that they were naughty dogs who disobeyed the rules.

Overall, they were good dogs. For as long as I knew them, they were outside dogs 90% of the time (with plenty of shelter available when they needed it, of course), and they seemed very content being that way.
They both loved the snow...

... and they both loved a good leaf pile.

And we loved them both very, very much. Two weeks before Emmett reached his end, I was able to get some nice photos of him. When I look at this photo now, it still tugs at my heart strings, but it also makes me smile. It captures his essence very well.

We miss you, dear friend. Rest in peace.