Sunday, September 20, 2015

Ornithology Lab, September 16

This is the third installment in a series of weekly posts for my ornithology class at Ohio University. We go out in the field every Wednesday (weather permitting) to do some birding and/or bird banding. One of our assignments is to write a blog post about each of these field trips, which is what this series will be about.

First Post: September 2
Second Post: September 9

~ ~ ~

Lake Hope State Park
Lake Hope State Park
Beginning late last week, Southern Ohio has been experiencing more Fall-like weather (finally!), with cool mornings in the high 40's to low 50's before climbing up into the 60's and 70's. The morning of Wednesday, Sept. 16, was no different. We left Athens at 7:00 AM, just as the sun was climbing above the horizon and the thermometer was climbing out of the high 40's. Our two vans went off down State Route 56 toward one of my favorite areas in Vinton County. About twenty minutes later we arrived at our first stop of the day, a section of Zaleski State Forest. We were on top of Irish Ridge, a long ridge that's 1000 feet above sea level. The class set off along a trail that led us along a finger of the ridge. 

Now, state forests in Ohio are subject to selective logging. The specific part of Irish Ridge we were walking along was one such area. It had been selectively logged only a few years ago; a few trees of "normal" height dotted the area, but the majority of the vegetation was dense shrubs and young sapling trees. With great cover and ample food, this place turned out to be a bird paradise. The winds had also helped, and I'll show why.

Map courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This weekend had brought one of the first big Fall migration movements to Ohio. Southerly winds, as I discussed in last week's post, had been keeping many migrants out of Ohio. Those dominant southerly winds changed to northerly winds over the weekend as a cold front moved through. As most birders know, cold fronts equal really good birding (generally). This is due to a multitude of reasons depending on what type of cold front and where it came from, but in this case the cold front brought northerly winds. Trailing behind the cold front on these northerly winds were thousands of migratory songbirds. These birds then began pouring into Ohio.

Map courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Then something really interesting happened. By late Tuesday night, the winds in Ohio changed from favorable northerly winds to unfavorable southerly winds, as the map above shows. As I mentioned last week, most songbirds migrate during the night. Most of the thousands of individuals that had been migrating into Ohio over the weekend into Monday night were suddenly confronted with winds heading in the opposite direction they were trying to go. Instead of wasting tons of energy trying to fly against a headwind, the majority of these birds just stayed put over Tuesday evening. When we arrived on Irish Ridge Wednesday morning, all these migrants were still there, and they were very actively foraging to take advantage of the unfavorable weather. The goal this morning for your average migrant was to find as much food as possible, replenish the fat reserves they had just spent coming to Vinton County the previous night, and wait until the winds changed. 

This made for one of the most spectacular displays of migration I had ever seen in Southeast Ohio. Often during a good migration day, warblers are pretty easy to find. Today, they were everywhere one looked. These migratory birds easily outnumbered the permanent birds of Ohio, and it was wonderful.

Female American Redstart
A female American Redstart. This was one of the warbler species we saw on the trip. This photo was taken at Magee Marsh during May, 2015.

Let me give you a quick snapshot of a moment from Irish Ridge this morning. A nomadic flock of Cedar Waxwings cried in their high pitch calls overhead in one of the remaining older trees. Several White-Eyed Vireos sung "Peanut butter and jelly, CHECK!" on either side of our group. Eastern Towhees "towHEE'd" from the dense vegetation. A Prairie Warbler sung his buzzy song from the side of the hill. Eastern Wood-Pewees lived up to their flycatching name. A female Scarlet Tanager foraged quietly in one tree while a male sang loudly in another. Two juvenile Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks chased each other from tree to tree. A Tennessee Warbler lazily sung as it moved throughout the canopy of a tree. A group of Magnolia Warblers flew from bush to bush looking for insects. A young American Redstart flitted about a clump of leaves. Songs were sung while call notes rang from every bush and tree. I could go on and on and on. It was a sensory overload.

And then something else happened. Someone yelled "Hawk!" It only flew through the area for a split second, not even enough time for anyone else to see it. An Accipiter the person said, probably a Cooper's Hawk, a bird-eating hawk. And with that, silence. 

The entire area went from a sensory overload to being depraved of any noise or movement. There was literally not a single bird that anyone could see or hear. We had entered what Jon Young calls the Zone of Silence. Some of you might recognize the name; Jon Young is the author of the absolutely amazing book What the Robin Knows, a very well-known book that teaches the observant naturalist how to interpret bird vocalizations and behavior in order to gain an understanding of what is currently happening in that immediate area. This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in birds; it will take your nature-knowledge and skills to a whole new level. 

Back to the hawk. As I said before, we were standing in the Zone of Silence. What exactly is that? Well, it's a type of response to a hawk. Accipiters are a genus of hawks (such as the Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned) that feed primarily on birds, and as a result are very dangerous to a small songbird. Songbirds are constantly watching for these hawks, and when one is sighted a fast chain of reactions are set in motion. Let's say a Carolina Chickadee on watch duty sees a Cooper's Hawk flying into the area, but it's still a somewhat decent way off. That chickadee will sound an alarm call that specifically designates an Accipiter hawk (yes, chickadees have specific alarms for specific threats). All the birds in the immediate area will hear that alarm call, and then those birds themselves will sound their own alarm call. Imagine this Zone of Alarm is like a giant bubble around the hawk. These birds can afford to sound the alarm because even though they are within danger, they are still away from immediate danger. Now imagine there's a smaller bubble that nestled within the large Zone of Alarm. This smaller bubble is the Zone of Silence. When a songbird is within this bubble, it is in immediate danger of being killed by the hawk; as a result, any bird in the Zone of Silence will attempt to hide, be as still as possible, and make no noise. It basically wants to disappear so the hawk won't notice it. 

If you've been in nature a lot, you know that the forest isn't really "silent" like people say. It's a noisy place. When it is silent, you know that something is up. It's disruptions, like true silence, from the baseline activity (as Jon Young calls it) that should always grab your attention. And trust me, if you're paying attention when birding, you will notice if everything that was just around you goes dead silent and disappears. It is important to note that this won't happen every time; sometimes the hawk will enter too quickly or too silently giving the birds no chance to react.

Of course, not all hawks elicit this response. The hawks of Ohio can essentially be broken into two main groups. I've already mentioned one, the genus Accipiter. The other group is a genus named Buteo. The Accipiters are "birds hawks," while the Buteos are "mammal hawks." As you might guess, a bird-eating Accipiter poses a huge threat to a bird, but a Buteo will generally avoid eating birds. As a result, a Buteo will still elicit an alarm, but a different type of alarm. Jumping ahead in the trip a bit, I want to talk about an encounter we had with a Red-Tailed Hawk. The Red-Tailed Hawk is the most common Buteo in Ohio. They, like other Buteos, eat mainly mice, voles, shrews, etc., and avoid birds. Songbirds still don't like Red-Tails, but they know that one doesn't mean an immediate threat. We saw one juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk at Lake Hope. We weren't the only ones to notice him though; several chickadees, a Magnolia Warbler, and a few other birds had found him and were actively mobbing him. They wanted to let the Red-Tail know that he wasn't welcomed there, and the songbirds didn't stop attacking him until he flew away. In this case, the Red-Tailed Hawk didn't cause a Zone of Silence, but simply caused different species to come together to get rid of him.

Osprey flying
An Osprey from Old Woman Creek earlier in the Spring. I captured this photo while the Osprey flew over the beach at OWC.
After Irish Ridge, we moved down to Lake Hope State Park, which was right next door. We moved through a scruffy marsh region that transitioned into deciduous forest which bordered the lake proper. This was where we found the juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk I just mentioned, but we also had two other birds of prey. We accidentally flushed an Osprey, a raptor that specializes in eating fish. Later on we heard a Red-Shouldered Hawk calling from the forest. It was a good raptor morning!

Here's the total list (with both locations combined) of species for the morning:

1. Wood Duck
2. Turkey Vulture
3. Osprey
4. Red-Shouldered Hawk*
5. Red-Tailed Hawk
6. Mourning Dove
7. Eastern Screech-Owl*
8. Chimney Swift
9. Belted Kingfisher
10. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
11. Downy Woodpecker*
12. Pileated Woodpecker
13. Eastern Wood-Pewee
14. Eastern Phoebe
15. White-Eyed Vireo
16. Yellow-Throated Vireo*
17. Blue Jay
18. American Crow
19. Carolina Chickadee
20. Tufted Titmouse
21. White-Breasted Nuthatch*
22. Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher*
23. Gray Catbird
24. Cedar Waxwing
25. Tennessee Warbler*
26. Hooded Warbler
27. American Redstart
28. Magnolia Warbler
29. Bay-Breasted Warbler
30. Chestnut-Sided Warbler
31. Pine Warbler
32. Prairie Warbler*
33. Eastern Towhee
34. Scarlet Tanager
35. Northern Cardinal
36. Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
37. Indigo Bunting
38. American Goldfinch*

(Note, * denotes "Heard Only")

Overall it was a great morning, with 38 species I personally observed, including 8 species of warblers! This Thursday I head to South Carolina with the class for an extended 4-day field trip, so stay tuned for a post about that!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Caterpillars, Caterpillars, and More Caterpillars

This time of the year belongs to the caterpillars. Right now, hundreds and hundreds of species are eating, building up stores of energy, and preparing to overwinter either in diapause (a type of hibernation), or as a chrysalis (for butterflies), or in a cocoon (for moths). Michelle Ward, a fellow undergraduate Wildlife and Conservation Biology student at Ohio University, set up a caterpillar hunting night at her house and invited several other wildlife-based undergraduates and graduate students. Her house just happens to be in the middle of a forest in northern Athens County, which made for a really awesome night. I'm going to go over a few of the more showy "cats" in this post, but there will be other caterpillar-themed posts coming!

Blinded Sphinx caterpillar
We found several sphinx moth caterpillars throughout the course of the evening. This individual is a Blinded Sphinx caterpillar, Paonias excaecatus. Notice the "horn" at the end of the abdomen, a characteristic found in many, but not all, sphinx moth caterpillars. Many sphinx moth caterpillars, such as this one, also have cryptic coloration, with most being primarily green or brown. Also notice the diagonal streaks going across the body, another common feature. In the case of the Blinded Sphinx, these streaks are brown, but we'll see another color of streaks on the next individual.

Elm Sphinx Caterpillar
This is another sphinx, specifically the Elm Sphinx, Ceratomia amyntor. Generally speaking, moths and butterflies typically feed on specific plant species versus any random plant. Sometimes this is taken to the extreme, where a certain Lepidopteran (moths and butterflies) species will only feed on one specific species of plant and nothing else. Most other Lepidopterans have a small group of plant species they will feed on, and the Elm Sphinx falls into this category. As the name implies, it does indeed feed on elm trees, but they will also feed on cherries, basswoods, and birches. Take note of the four horn-like projections near the head, a diagnostic characteristic for this species. The Elm Sphinx cat also has a horn at the end of its abdomen, along with the diagonal streaking across the body (with a whitish-cream coloration).

Apatelodes torrefacta
One of the most abundant caterpillars of the night was the Spotted Apatelodes, Apatelodes torrefacta. This picture doesn't do it justice, but these are pretty large caterpillars, with many we saw reaching lengths of 3-3.5 inches. A fuzzy little caterpillar, these can come in two different colors. All the ones we saw were the yellow individuals, but this species can also come in white.

Snowberry Clearwing Caterpillar
The caterpillars we found ranged in sizes from monstrously large (as you'll see) to very tiny. These smaller ones are hard to find by flashlight alone while bumbling around a forest at night; this is when a UV flashlight comes in handy. A UV flashlight simply emits light in the ultraviolet wavelength. This is incredibly useful for people looking for caterpillars because many (but not all) caterpillars will actually fluoresce. Essentially, ultraviolet light will be absorbed by the exoskeleton of certain species, and the exoskeleton will re-emit that light as visible light, resulting in glowing caterpillars among the dark forest (you can only do this in the dark of night). This makes finding many caterpillars much easier, especially for the small ones such as this Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis. This is one of the hummingbird moth species, and I've previously covered his cousin, the Hummingbird Clearwing, here.  

Silver-Spotted Skipper Caterpillar
So far, all of the species I've covered have been moths. This, on the other hand, is a butterfly. It also happens to be one of the most common butterfly species in Ohio. This is the Silver-Spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus. Although the adults are small, the caterpillars are not. This one was around 2 inches long, and quite chubby. One of the stand-out features of this caterpillar are the two orange dots on the head. These are presumably mimicking eyes in an attempt to dissuade predators. The real eyes are too small to see in this photo. 

Hickory Horned Devil
The find of the night was this monstrous creature, the Hickory Horned Devil, Citheronia regalis. This species is also called the Regal Moth and Royal Walnut Moth, especially when referring to an adult. The common name Hickory Horned Devil is mostly used when talking about the caterpillar stage. This incredible caterpillar was humongous; it was easily 5-6 inches long. This magnificent creature is going to get a post all his own, so stay tuned!

From left to right: Yours truly, Olivia Brooks, Brandan Gray, Michelle Ward, Cassie Thompson, Alayna Tokash, and Jake Schoen. Not pictured is Vincent Farallo.
The night was a smashing success, and not only in regard to caterpillars. We also had a Ring-Necked Snake, a few Red-Backed Salamanders who were out and about walking around, and a surprise Marbled Salamander (who are migrating right now). Our group is pictured above (I'm on the far left).

As I previously mentioned, I'm planning a few other caterpillar posts in the upcoming days. I'm definitely going to have one on the Hickory Horned Devil (Update: Post on the Hickory Horned Devil), and I am trying to find enough species for a post on some of the slug caterpillars of Ohio, which are the coolest caterpillars in my opinion. If you like caterpillars, stay tuned! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ornithology Lab, September 9

This is the second installment in a series of weekly posts for my ornithology class at Ohio University. We go out in the field every Wednesday (weather permitting) to do some birding and bird banding. One of our assignments is to write a blog post about each of these field trips, which is what this series will be about.

First Post: September 2

~ ~ ~

An Eastern Wood-Pewee, one of the migrant species that was still singing at The Ridges. This photo was taken at Old Woman Creek in Erie County this past May.

It was another early morning at 6:45 AM. This week we were at The Ridges, Athens County, once more. It was yet another warm morning, with temperatures in the high 60's (which quickly climbed into the 70's) and near 100% humidity (dew points between 68 and 70 degrees). Haze filled the otherwise cloudless sky, and some patchy fog hung about in open areas. Put shortly, it was a muggy and still morning. I've been eagerly awaiting for it to feel like Fall, but it appears I'll have to wait a bit.

Sadly, it was yet another bad day for Fall migration; southerly winds for the past couple days have held down what migrants we've had in the region and prevented more waves from coming through. For you birders out there who want to know if a day has the potential to be good or not, a great tool to utilize is Cornell University's BirdCast. During Spring and Fall migrations, they give weekly outlooks, including regional outlooks, on what days seem to be good for birding, and what species will most likely be on the move. For an example, you can check out this week's outlook here.

I mentioned southerly winds holding migrants back, and I'll explain that concept a bit more, using BirdCast to help. The majority of songbirds (Warblers, Sparrows, Vireos, etc.) migrate during the night, which might surprise many of you (I know it surprised me when I learned!). Essentially, the birds take off at dusk, fly all night, and drop into a patch of good habitat in the morning. During the day they try to stuff themselves with food and rest, preparing for another full night of flying. During Fall migration, many songbirds are coming from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern US and are trying to get to Central and South America to spend their winter. As a result, it is a huge energy-saving advantage if the wind is helping push you along. For this, the birds need northerly winds (winds coming from the north and blowing toward the south). If faced with southerly winds, many songbirds will simply stay put because it isn't worth the energy expenditure to try and fly against the wind. So to have a "good" migration day, you want to look for a morning where there were northerly winds overnight in your area/state. Northerly winds overnight should mean there are hundreds of hungry, tired migrants in the forests around you. 

Map courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Now is where BirdCast comes in to help. Pictured above is a map of the wind directions predicted for Wednesday morning at 2:00 AM (last night). This is in the middle of the night, which is exactly when songbirds are migrating. If we look at Ohio, we can see that the entire state is covered by southerly winds. That means that the migrants north of us will mostly be staying in the north. These conditions make for a "bad" day for birders and bird banding.


Regardless that it was a bad migration day overall, we ended up observing and mist netting more species than last week, which was a hotter and overall more miserable day. This time we set up nets in 7 areas. I made a quick breakdown of the area, which you can see above. The short white lines represent the nets. As you can see, we set up the nets in a variety of habitats. This ensures that we get a wider range of possible species, as different species exploit different habitats. We had 2 nets set up in dense shrub habitat, 4 nets set up in young scrubby forest, and 1 net set up by a pond. Due to area and time constraints, we can't set up any nets in the deciduous forests with more open undergrowth. It's also important to note that most bird species, while having a preferred habitat, will cross through different habitats to find better food sources, especially in migration. For example, we had a foraging flock of Carolina Chickadees that came from the open deciduous forest in the top right corner of the photo, which moved down across the scrub forest directly below, and then moved over into the edges of the lawn area. By covering more ground, the chickadees have a better chance of finding a good food source. Also, since breeding season is over, the chickadees don't have to worry about territories for the time being. The chickadees formed this foraging flock in order to maximize their chance of finding food (more eyes means more ground covered in less time) and to maximize their chance of seeing any potential threats before it's too late (such as seeing a Cooper's Hawk fly in).

The first bird we netted was a young male Northern Cardinal. It was in the same area as the adult female that we netted last week. Later we caught another female in the same area (who didn't have a band, so it was different from the female last week). I've also seen a male individual in the area. Northern Cardinals will form foraging flocks in the winter, and it seems like we have the start of one forming. It will be interesting to see if we eventually get recaptures every time we go out.

The second bird we netted was a female Common Yellowthroat, a species of warbler. This was our second warbler species we've banded so far in the Fall, and hopefully there are many more to come.

The third bird that flew into the mist nets was another Northern Cardinal. This individual was a juvenile, as the black beak told. Cardinals will have orange beaks when they reach adulthood.

An adult male (left) and adult female (right) Northern Cardinal. Notice the orange beak on the female; although immature males have plumage like a female, their beaks are black/brown. Both photos were taken in Pickaway County this past Winter.
In keeping with the cardinal theme, the fourth bird was an adult female Northern Cardinal. This was the individual I mentioned along with the first cardinal from today.

The last 3 birds we had were all caught in one net, and all during the same period. We had set up a net on a pathway between two areas of vine-covered shrubs with a a few trees scattered about. This is perfect White-Eyed Vireo habitat, and we were lucky enough to catch not only one, but three individuals in one go.

An adult White-Eyed Vireo. This was taken along the Nature Walk trail at The Ridges during Spring Migration.
One of the White-Eyed Vireos was noteworthy - he had already been banded, and not by us. All 3 individuals were "Hatch Year" individuals. This simply means they were all born this past Summer. So the one that was banded had not only been born within 4 months or so ago, but had also been netted and banded during that time. We then recaptured it while it was migrating south. One of the cool things about bird banding is learning about recaptures; if you can read the code on its ankle band (by either photo or having the bird in hand), then you can look that code up in the bird banding database to learn where that individual had been previously caught, who banded it, and other assorted information. Sadly we haven't been able to look up the code for that one yet, so I can't say where it had been previously banded.

Here is my personal list for the day, which includes all the birds I saw/heard from 7:00 AM to 11:30 AM:

1. Turkey Vulture
2. Rock Pigeon
3. Mourning Dove
4. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
5. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
6. Hairy Woodpecker
7. Pileated Woodpecker*
8. Eastern Wood-Pewee*
9. White-Eyed Vireo
10. Yellow-Throated Vireo*
11. Red-Eyed Vireo
12. Blue Jay
13. American Crow
14. Carolina Chickadee
15. Tufted Titmouse*
16. White-Breasted Nuthatch
17. Carolina Wren*
18. American Robin
19. Cedar Waxwing
20. Common Yellowthroat
21. Magnolia Warbler
22. Wilson's Warbler (New for my Athens County list)
23. Eastern Towhee
24. Northern Cardinal
25. American Goldfinch

Note: * means "Heard Only"

A Tufted Titmouse, one of the species we heard today. This adorable individual is from Pickaway County.
Overall, this was a pretty good day. We had a decent number of birds banded, and I got to see my first Athens County Wilson's Warbler. There have been a few peculiarities so far though. We haven't heard or seen a Gray Catbird yet, and there's plenty of perfect habitat for them where we band. eBird doesn't have sightings dropping off in Ohio until late October, so I'm surprised we haven't seen any in such a good habitat. We have also been missing Eastern Bluebirds, a relatively easy-to-find bird at The Ridges. Song Sparrows have also been missing so far. Of course, it is only our second week out at the same location, so we might have just missed any in the area, but I'm still surprised we've went 9 hours of birding total without seeing any of those species in an area where I've seen them previously. I'll just have to keep my eye out even more.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ornithology Lab, September 2

Hey everyone! This is the first installment in a series of weekly posts for my Ornithology Class at Ohio University. We go out in the field every Wednesday (weather permitting) to do some birding and bird banding. One of our assignments is to write a blog post about each of these field trips, which is what this series will be about. A note to my regular readers: these posts will most likely be very different from my usual posts. I try to have a photo for every individual thing I talk about, but I won't be able to bring my camera on these field trips. As a result, these posts will be more like a journal than anything. I'll try to post any relevant photos I have from my library, but no guarantees! I'm hoping to intersperse "normal" posts with these posts as well. This series will run until early December. Alright, back information aside, let's get started!

~ ~ ~

The morning started early. I would say bright and early, but it's quite dark outside at 5:30 AM. I got ready, grabbed my field guide, binoculars, field notebook, and a pen, and left my dorm room at 6:30 AM. We packed up the banding equipment and drove up to The Ridges, arriving at about 7:10 AM. The Ridges lies on the edge of the city of Athens in Athens County. It's an interesting place, and I honestly spend way more time there than I probably should. Most people know it as the site of the old Athens Lunatic Asylum, but it's much more than that. The land is now owned by Ohio University, and behind the old asylum building is dozens and dozens of acres of land with a smorgasbord of different habitats. Miles of trails, utilized by the students of Ohio University and the "townies" of Athens, crisscross the landscape, cutting through mature deciduous forest, grassland, abandoned orchards, shrubby overgrowth, young forest, and more. I've previously given a quick of The Ridges, which you can read here

The view of Radar Hill, one of the main attractions at The Ridges. Field Sparrows nest all throughout the grassy areas you see, while more "deep forest" birds like Pileated Woodpeckers call the forests you can partially see on the sides of the photo home.

As you might expect from a place with a variety of habitats, it's a good place for birds. I mean, it's a really good place for birds. I would definitely say it's one of the best places in Athens County to go birding. To give you an idea, 224 species have been recorded in Athens County on eBird. Of those 224 species, 155 of them have been seen one time or another at The Ridges. That's about 70%. I personally have a list of around 90 species here at The Ridges, including 21 species of warblers. 

The first bird we heard this morning was a White-Eyed Vireo. This is a common species along the beginning of the Nature Trail by the Challenge Course. The White-Eyed Vireo pictured here is from April 2015 along the Nature Trail.
Now that you have some background information on the area, let's get into today. As I mentioned, we arrived at around 7:10 AM, so all of the sightings I'll mention here happened between then and when we left at 11:40 AM. The morning started off relatively warm at around 65 degrees. It was incredibly humid and only got worse throughout the morning. Light fog hung in some of the low lying areas, while a hazy sky with some cirrus clouds soared overhead. The fog and haze left between 9:30 and 10:00 AM. We were hoping for a lot of good Fall migrants, but this week was a bad week for migration. Southerly winds prevented large movements of many of the northern-breeding songbirds. 

One of the main goals of our class is to get better acquainted with bird banding, specifically with the use of mist nets. Essentially, a mist net is a thin, hard to see net that birds will fly into before getting stuck in a tiny pocket. Once caught, a bird can be removed from the net, inspected for various things such as age, sex, and weight, and then banded. When banded, a bird is given a unique number code that is printed on a tiny aluminum ring. This ring is attached to the leg of the bird. If recaptured at any other banding station, or by any other bander, the code can be looked up and they will have access to all of the previous information gathered on that specific bird. This helps ornithologists gain a better idea of the basic morphology of a species, migration routes used and timing of those routes, what species utilize certain habitats, and much more.

We set up mist nets at 5 different locations. These locations were in a power-line right-of-way with a deciduous forest on each side, by a small pond, by a shrubby area next to an area of semi-developed land, and in a young deciduous forest. Upon setting up these nets, you wait for 10-30 minutes (depends on the conditions of that day) away from the nets, and then make a round checking all the nets. You hope there's at least one bird at one of the nets, but sometimes you come up empty. On a good day and at a good location, some banding stations can get hundreds and hundreds of birds. This day was not a good day. We ended up banding 5 birds total. However, 2 of these birds were really "good" birds.

The first was a surprise. By the tiny pond we caught a waterthrush, a species of warbler. Now, the first thought by me and most others was "Oh, it's a Louisiana Waterthrush." This is by far the most commonly seen waterthrush around Athens, and the only one that breeds here. However, the yellowish wash on its flanks, streaks on the throat, and yellow supercillium (eyebrow stripe) actually meant this was the Northern Waterthrush. This was a lifer for me and a few of the other birders in the class (although I don't really "count" birds that have been caught with a net). A great start to the semester. 

The second bird that was netted was a female Northern Cardinal. This individual was caught along a slight slope in a scruffy secondary growth woods next some lawn, a normal type of habitat that you would expect a cardinal in. Right now in the year, nesting is essentially over. As a result, we have an influx of juvenile birds going through their awkward teenage years. A young male Northern Cardinal superficially looks like an adult female; however, there are a few differences. The most obvious is the bill color; adult females will have a bright orange bill, while young males will have a dull gray bill. Another feature, which you won't see unless you have the bird in hand, is a brood patch, which this female had. Essentially, a brood patch is an area of featherless skin on the stomach of a female. A female's skin is much more efficient at directly transmitting heat to her eggs than adding the feathers as a "middle man." 

The third bird we banded was a Chipping Sparrow that had hatched this past season. As a result, he had juvenile plumage and was missing that species' characteristic rufus crown.

The fourth bird was the second "good" bird of the day. In a young and scrubby deciduous forest patch by an ephemeral creek we caught a Swainson's Thrush, another migrant species. Looking similar to a Wood Thrush or a Hermit Thrush, the Swainson's Thrush is a bird of Canada. They only pass through Ohio during Spring and Fall migrations, typically in April/May and September/October, respectively. A reserved skulker of a bird, this is a species most people don't see unless they're looking for one. It was great to see one so upclose!

Hey, I actually have a picture for this species! This is a Carolina Chickadee from Pickaway County, Ohio.
Last, but not least, was a Carolina Chickadee. A very common species at The Ridges, we heard several this day but only netted one, a young juvenile. The Carolina Chickadees should be, if they haven't already, starting to form mixed foraging flocks for the winter months. These typically consist of species like the Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, and others. If you hear a chickadee starting from September on through the winter, it's best to look around and see what other birds are in the area!

There were plenty of other birds that we saw and heard during our time this morning. Here's my personal list of birds that I saw or heard (also including the species banded) during the field time, in taxonomic order. Note, species with an * means "heard only."

1. Turkey Vulture
2. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
3. Pileated Woodpecker*
4. Eastern Wood-Pewee*
5. Yellow-Throated Vireo*
6. White-Eyed Vireo*
7. Red-Eyed Vireo
8. Blue Jay
9. American Crow
10. Carolina Chickadee
11. Tufted Titmouse
12. White-Breasted Nuthatch
13. Carolina Wren*
14. American Robin
15. Swainson's Thrush
16. Cedar Waxwing
17. Northern Waterthrush
18. Chipping Sparrow
19. Eastern Towhee
20. Northern Cardinal
21. American Goldfinch

Some of the other species that I did not personally see, but others in the class did include:

1.Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
2. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
3. Northern Mockingbird 

A flock of Cedar Waxwings came through at one point over the pond along the Nature Trail. The Cedar Waxwing pictured was an individual from earlier in the year taken along the Radar Hill Trail at The Ridges.
Overall, it was a really good first week out. I'm hoping that next week will bring northerly winds, and more migrants with it. I'm eagerly awaiting the return of Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, and White-Throated Sparrows as well, which should be around mid to late September.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Spiranthes Orchids at Blue Jay Barrens

Nearly a month ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Blue Jay Barrens. Some of you surely recognize that name. Blue Jay Barrens is a large tract of land in Adams County that's owned and managed by Steve Willson. If you've heard of this place, chances are you've read about it on Steve's wonderful blog entitled Blue Jay Barrens. If you haven't checked out his blog, I highly suggest you do. I've been meaning to make a post on some of the amazing things I saw there, but the past few weeks have been crazy for me. I've had to finish up my summer lab work, as well as move back in to Ohio University and deal with the insanity that is the start of a new semester. Anyway, I now have a little bit of time to write, so better late than never!

Blue Jay Barrens
As I said before, Blue Jay Barrens is a privately owned tract of land that resides in the northern part of Adams County. I've been an avid reader of Steve's blog for a few years now, and he recently reached out to me and asked if I wanted a tour. The answer to a question like that is always yes. I came down on August 13th and Steve gave me a wonderful tour that lasted about 6 hours. He has just over 100 acres, and we saw only about half of it that day. The number of interesting plants and other goodies that I saw that day was simply astounding. Blue Jay Barrens lies in the incredible and unique Adams County, my personal favorite county in Ohio. Adams County is perhaps best known for its globally rare cedar glades (also called cedar barrens) that contain many dozens of rare plant species for Ohio. An example of an Adams County cedar barren is Lynx Prairie. Blue Jay Barrens is a little different though; before Steve bought it in 1985, it was actually farmland. Decades of farming and bad land use practices had eroded essentially all of the topsoil, leaving the land desolate. Slowly but surely, native plants began to come back and soil is slowly being replaced. Adams County, luckily, has many native plant species that can thrive on thin, rocky, and dry soils, most of which are prairie species. Seeds of these hardy species naturally made their way from neighboring areas and began to recolonize the area. Fast forward to the present and you have a beautiful prairie environment with Red Cedars (which are managed by Steve) that dot the landscape.

Spiranthes Orchids Ohio
I was able to visit at a great time in the year. Several Spiranthes orchid species were in bloom, and Spiranthes also happens to be my absolute favorite genus of orchids. Lucky me! Spiranthes is a genus (the classification category right before species) of orchids that mainly calls open areas such as prairies home. There are 9 species that can be found in Ohio, with 3 of those species being state-listed as either Potentially Threatened or Threatened. They're generally small plants, with their white inflorescence (the flowering part of the plant) often being overlooked among the tall grasses they tend to grow in. To give you an idea, look at the photo above. There's a single Spiranthes individual growing on the right side. The good news is, once you intitially find one, your eyes get a "search image" and you start seeing them pretty often. Steve and I saw a few dozen blooming individuals that day, and each one was a treat. 

Spiranthes vernalis
One of the main reasons I adore these orchids is their shape. Spiranthes orchids flower in either a single or double spiral. This individual shows a single spiral really well. This is a Spring Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes vernalis. First, a note about the common name of the Spiranthes. I will be using "Ladies'-Tresses" which is what the Ohio Department of Natural Resources uses. You will also see some places using "Lady's Tresses," "Ladies-Tresses," or some other similar name. A tress is a long lock of a woman's hair, and these flowers take on the name Ladies'-Tresses as they resemble a braided lock of hair. As common names are wont to do, the Spring Ladies'-Tresses does not bloom in the Spring, except when they do. The issue here is that in the southern states (where the common name stems from), this species actually does bloom in the Spring. However, the farther north you travel, the later this species blooms. So although the common name is due to its blooming habits in southern states, this species actually blooms in late Summer or early Fall here in Ohio. It blooms as late as October once you get into New England! 

Spiranthes vernalis
A closeup of the flowers on the Spring Ladies'-Tresses, with a beetle guest.
The identification of ladies'-tresses can be difficult. In Ohio, you can often narrow it down to 2 or 3 species depending on your location and time of year, and then you have to start getting into the tiny details to separate them. I am relatively new to plants, so I always like to double check my ID's with the more knowledgeable members of the Facebook group Ohio's Wildflowers and Flora, which is a really wonderful group. Often the flowers, and specifically the labellum (or lip), have some characteristic feature to help nail the identification. In the Spring Ladies'-Tresses, the labellum often has a yellowish-tinge, as you can see in the photo above. An uncommon plant here in Ohio, the Spring Ladies'-Tresses is confined to only 8 counties in the southern tip of Ohio.

Spiranthes tuberosa
Next we have a much smaller species. This is the Little Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes tuberosa. This dainty species is also an inhabitant of dry prairies and meadows like the previous Spring Ladies'-Tresses (although they can be found in other habitats as well), but this species is generally much smaller in height. This individual was probably less than a foot high, while the Spring Ladies'-Tresses we saw were about 2 feet or so tall.

Spiranthes tuberosa
As I previously mentioned, the labellum of many Spiranthes orchids holds a clue as to what species it is. In this case, the labellum is pure white, while the previous Spring Ladies'-Tresses had a labellum with a yellow tinge. This pure white labellum is an easy way to quickly identify Spiranthes tuberosa. The Little Ladies'-Tresses has a decently wide range in Ohio. In fact, it pretty much has a straight distribution line from Adams County in Southern Ohio up to Ashtabula County in extreme Northeastern Ohio that's about two or three counties wide. You can see a range map here.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
This is the Slender Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis, which was last Spiranthes species we saw that day. I should note that ladies'-tresses are often a hard genus of flowers to photograph. They're generally short and very thin. This gives your camera's autofocus quite a challenge many times. The main issue is that they are often set among similarly-sized grasses and assorted other flowers. As a result, a camera's autofocus has a hard time deciding what exactly you're trying to focus on. If you add a breeze, good luck. Luckily this day was quite still, for the most part at least. There was one instance where I was trying to focus on an individual while there was an intermittent breeze. As soon as my camera would focus on the Spiranthes, a breeze would come and move the flower out of focus, and my camera would then decide to focus on a random piece of grass. Cue the process of trying to refocus on the flower, only to have the process repeat again a few seconds later.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
The defining characteristic of the Slender Ladies'-Tresses is the green spot on the labellum, which you can see above. If you noticed in the previous paragraph, I said this was Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis. You might notice that this isn't the "normal" type of scientific name with only a genus and species part; there's also a "var. gracilis." This means that it is the gracilis variety of Spiranthes lacera. A variety is essentially a distinct type within a species. S. lacera var. gracilis is also known as the Southern Slender Ladies'-Tresses. The other variety is S. lacera var. lacera, also called the Northern Slender Ladies'-Tresses. Andrew Gibson, the blogger at The Buckeye Botanist, helped me on the variety part. He said "The best way to differentiate the two [varieties] is by the presence of basal leaves at anthesis. Variety gracilis' basal leaves are gone while var. lacera's are still there during flowering. Additionally, var. gracilis is a single rank of flowers in a tight spiral around the stem; var. lacera's flowers are more or less secund and all to one side of the stem and hardly spiraled." He also pointed out that var. lacera hasn't been found in Ohio so far, although he believes it is probably somewhere in extreme northern Ohio.

My trip to Blue Jay Barrens was jam-packed with exciting species, and hopefully I'll have some more time to make at least another post on it. These three orchids, which were all lifers for me, bring me up to 14 orchid species for my life list out of the 47 species in Ohio.