Monday, July 27, 2015

Timber Rattlesnake!

Rattlesnakes. For many Ohioans, those are something of the desert or the the deep South. Snakes of mythic-proportions that most know only from TV, a book, or tall tales from friends. Many Ohioans from the glaciated western portion of the state are surprised to learn that Ohio does indeed have rattlesnakes, and not just one species, but two. On the other hand, those from the unglaciated southern portions of the state have probably all heard of the Timber Rattlersnake, the species this post is about. Sadly, this species is highly-hated and often-victimized, although it has a mild disposition and poses no threat to the average person. The Timber Rattlesnake is a much-maligned snake, and thoughtless killings coupled with habitat destruction have decimated the population here in Ohio, making for a rocky future. With this post, I hope to educate people about the Timber Rattler, disprove some myths, and hopefully bring about more acceptance of this amazing reptile.

Timber Rattlesnake Road Cruising
The Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is one of Ohio's three venomous snake species. It is the second most common, with the Copperhead being the most common, and the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake being the rarest. Although many people think we also have Water Moccasins (also known as Cottonmouths) in Ohio, they are found nowhere in Ohio. 

The current range of the Timber Rattlesnake in Ohio. Map courtesy of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. 
The Timber Rattlesnake is listed as State-Endangered in Ohio and is incredibly rare across its entire range here in the state. Historically, they used to be found in at least 24 counties across southern Ohio and also on the Lake Erie Islands. They are currently only found in 8 counties in Ohio (Adams, Scioto, Pike, Jackson, Ross, Vinton, Hocking, Athens), although only 2 of the counties have populations large enough to be self-sustaining. If you visit one of these counties, your chances of seeing one are next to nonexistent. I was lucky enough to see not only one, but two in the past week. Both were at known locales, but due to the rarity of this species I cannot share where. One I found while hiking and wasn't able to get photos of, but I found another while road-cruising backcountry roads at night. That one allowed for photos!

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Nothing gets your blood pumping quite like driving down a lonely gravel road in the dark and seeing a big Timber Rattlesnake lying in the road. For many people, fear would be the primary emotion. For me, it was pure excitement. I had been on a quest to see a venomous snake in Ohio for the entire year, and the past week had been a whirlwind with my lifer Copperhead and 2 Timber Rattlesnakes. Many of the photos on this post are closeups, but rest assured, these photos were all taken from a safe distance with a telephoto lens.

The photo above shows the "business end" of a Timber Rattlesnake. All three venomous snakes in Ohio are pit vipers (subfamily Crotalinae). The main characteristic of the pit vipers are loreal pits, a deep depression with an infrared detecting organ. You can see this pit in the photo above; look for the light-colored circle to the lower right of the eye. This organ helps detect small animals much like heat-sensing goggles. And of course like all rattlesnakes, this is a venomous species. Timber Rattlesnake bites are a very serious event, and can be fatal. Luckily bites are rare. Timber Rattlesnakes have a very mild disposition; they will often only attempt to bite as a last resort. It takes serious provoking to get one of these to try and bite, and a person should never put themselves in a situation where they are provoking a rattlesnake. Animals in general do not like to bite or attack. Most will only do so as a last resort if they fear for their lives. Think about it: by attacking, they are exposing themselves to possible injury or death. It's much safer to simply run away. Unless you're stepping on one, poking, or something similar, a Timber Rattlesnake will often just slither away from you. Regardless, you should stay at least 5 feet away from one if you do stumble across one.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Pictured above is the famous rattle. If you want to hear one in action, click this link for a video I took of one rattling. The rattle most likely evolved to warn possible predators of the danger they would be in if they took on the rattlesnake. Regardless of how it first evolved, it definitely serves now as a warning to animals which might pose a threat. When I found my first Timber Rattlesnake, I was about five feet away before I noticed it. The Timber reared up into the air in a ready-to-strike pose and fired up the rattle. Of course, he had no intention of actually trying to bite me; he was just wanting to scare me, and it worked. I quickly backed up which gave the Timber a chance to escape under a log and out of sight. It worked like a charm. So how exactly does a rattle work? Hollow modified scales are interlocked, and a muscle connects to all of the scales as well. The muscle contracts at an incredibly fast rate (50 times per second on average), making the modified scales vibrate against each other. This creates the infamous buzzy-rattle.

Myth time: It is often said that you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by how many segments are on the rattle. This is a completely unreliable method for a few reasons. First, rattlesnakes do indeed add segments as they age; however, they add a segment every time they shed their skin. The kicker is that they may shed their skin multiple times a year, adding multiple segments in a year. On top of that, it is relatively easy for part of the rattle to break off. Rattlesnakes take great care in trying to preserve their rattle, but segments do break off in day-to-day life. As you can see, it would be impossible to tell the age of an individual from the number of segments.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
After having a nice photo-shoot with the Timber that was on the road, I realized that I was going to have to move him. He was laying in the middle of a small gravel road, making it impossible to pass. Luckily, I had a trekking pole in my car. With the pole extended to the fullest degree, I gently picked up his tail in hopes that he would slither away. Instead, he quickly curled up into this defensive coil. Peering out at me, he simply sat there calmly. It was during this moment when a sad thought crossed my mind; had another individual come across this calm snake on their property, there's a good chance they would have simply killed it. Not only is it highly illegal to do so, but it is completely unnecessary. These snakes, as well as all snakes in Ohio, keep to themselves and really don't pose a threat to humans unless a human is provoking one. It seems really simple to me; don't mess with a wild animal, and it won't mess with you. There's no reason to kill it simply because it has the capacity to possibly harm you. It's senseless killings out of fear that have played a huge role in driving this species to near extinction in Ohio. Couple that with the rampant forest clearing of the late 1800's and early 1900's and you have a species that's struggling to get by.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Crossing a road puts Timber Rattlesnakes, as well as many other reptile and amphibian species, at risk. A car going quickly down this road would not have seen the snake in time and would have accidentally ran it over.

Forests have come back in southern Ohio, but the Timber Rattlesnake still faces many threats. For one, this is still a hated and feared species for many people, and killings still occur. Second, this species reproduces slowly. Sure, there's now more forest habitat than there was 100 years ago, but it is unsure whether the Timber Rattlesnake populations still in existence will ever recolonize these new areas. Sadly, Timbers are nearly impossible to reintroduce to new areas too. They use one den their entire life, and if moved to a new area they will try to get back to their old den, resulting in death when winter comes. As a result, captive breeding and reintroduction programs would be highly unsuccessful. Another threat the Timber Rattlesnake faces is alteration of their habitat. Roads and highways have fragmented the forest and this species, like many others, falls victim to cars. On top of that, there is threat from the state government. Most of the populations left in Ohio are restricted to State Forests. Unlike State Parks, parts of State Forests are essentially leased out to logging companies. These companies will selectively log parts of the forest, resulting in habitat destruction. A recent article in the Columbus Dispatch has highlighted another problem. The Division of Forestry does prescribed burns in the State Forests to promote oak and hickory tree growth. These trees make for good timber, and this makes the forests more attractive to potential logging companies, meaning the state can lease the land for more money. Due to the state laws surrounding endangered species, the Division of Forestry cannot burn or allow logging in areas where the Timber Rattlesnake is specifically known to live, leading to decreased profits which has angered many officials. Once again, we are faced with another "Spotted Owl vs. Timber Companies" scenario, where tensions are rising between those for wildlife conservation and those for jobs and money.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
I see you.
That was a lot of doom and gloom, so let's move to some more biological information about the Timber Rattlesnake. The Timber Rattlesnake is a snake of mature deciduous forests. Preferring the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains and foothills, this species is often found on dry ridgetops. Pregnant females prefer more open and rocky areas during the Summer, while males and non-pregnant females prefer dense closed-canopy parts of the forest. During the winter, Timber Rattlesnakes will find a deep crevice in rocky ledges to brumate (the reptile version of hibernation). In Ohio, this species is most active from May to September. They feed primarily on small mammals, although they will also take birds, frogs, and other snakes. Adults typically reach anywhere from 3 to 4.5 feet in length and come in two color morphs. The one pictured in this post is a yellow morph, while others come in a black morph (which you can see here).

This ended up being a much longer post than I anticipated, but this is a species that I'm so excited to write about. It's always a wonderful pleasure to see and write on an endangered species, especially a species as awesome as a rattlesnake! Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Crested Coralroot

This past Wednesday I made the trip out to Adams County in southern Ohio. Now, those of you who know me probably know I have a slight obsession with Adams County, but it's for good reason! This place is a biological hotspot of diversity, rarities, prairies, and more.

Lynx Prairie Ohio
My main reason for going was to see the ever-amazing Lynx Prairie, which I've previously wrote about here. Late July/Early August is prime time in the prairies of Ohio; many of the wildflower species bloom in this part of the summer, making for incredible displays of color among the green grasses. For some examples of the flowers blooming right now in the Adams Co. prairies, check out my previous post here. When it comes to Ohio prairies, Lynx is by far my favorite. It is an incredible system of pocket prairies that is definitely worth exploring!

Crested Coralroot Ohio
I arrived at Lynx Prairie at a perfect time. In the second prairie opening I saw two people looking down at a plant. We had our greetings and I asked them if they had seen anything interesting while there. They pointed me to the plant they were looking at: a beautiful specimen of Crested Coralroot, a species of orchid. (Imagine that, more orchids!) This is an orchid that I've been wanting to see for a long time, and I was beyond ecstatic to finally get the chance to see one. The couple told me that there were more scattered about the preserve and to keep an eye out for them. As I later found out, it turns out the people that showed me the orchid were none other than Deb Marsh and her husband. You might know Deb Marsh as the blogger at Around the Bend, another nature-based Ohio blog, which I've been following for the past couple of years. It's always great to meet another blogger out in the field!

Crested Coralroot Flowers
Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris spicata, is a unique plant. It lacks chlorophyll, giving it a haunting pale color that stands out against the vibrant greens of the prairie and forest edge. As you might know, chlorophyll is necessary for a plant to produce food. If it lacks chlorophyll, then how does it get food? The answer lies in the roots. Crested Coralroots (as well as all orchids at some point during their life cycle) are myco-heterotrophs. Myco-heterotrophy is a symbiotic relationship between a plant and fungus. It's a complex system of energy exchange, with the Crested Coralroot ultimately being a parasite. I'll explain the process below!

Crested Coralroot Flower
Many plants form a relationship with fungus. For the vast majority, this relationship is mutualistic, meaning both the plant and fungus benefit. What happens is that a fungus will colonize the roots of a plant. The plant will then give the fungus carbohydrates for the fungus to live and prosper. This causes the fungus to grow in size, creating more surface area. The plant benefits from this increase in surface area, as its fungus-colonized root system can now absorb more water and nutrients. This creates what is called a mycorrhizal network. Now, in comes the Crested Coralroot. This orchid "cheats" the system. The orchid will essentially send its roots to tap into the mycorrhizal network. From there, it actually steals the carbohydrates from the fungus. Essentially, the Crested Coralroot steals food from another plant, while using the mycorrhizal fungus as a middle-man. It's pretty amazing to think about all of the complex craziness that occurs down in the soil. We're taught from a young age a very simplistic way of how plants grow, get nutrients, and make food. The reality is much, much more complex than how most of us view it.

Crested Coralroot
The foot-tall Crested Coralroot stands out against the greenery, creating a striking scene.
Crested Coralroot is a rare plant in Ohio. In fact, it is state-listed as Potentially Threatened. There's only three counties that it can currently be found in here in Ohio (Adams, Scioto, and Lawrence). Crested Coralroot only comes above ground to flower and produce seeds; however, an individual does not do this every year. They will only send up a flowering stalk every few years. As a result, during some years a location might not have any flowering individuals, while other years might have dozens. Crested Coralroot tends to bloom in large numbers during wet summers. The extremely wet summer we're currently in has made for an amazing year when it comes to fungi and many plant species, and Crested Coralroot is no exception. In fact, we counted 10 individuals easily at the site, and we probably missed many more. If you want to see one, I highly suggest going this year. From what I've read, Lynx Prairie and parts of Shawnee State Forest are the two easiest places to find this orchid.

I'm also proud to announce that my blog recently surpassed 50,000 views! I just want to thank everyone for their support, and for reading!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Purple Fringeless Orchid

Earlier this week I received a message from Andrew Gibson asking if I was interested in going to see an orchid species that was in bloom in Vinton County. You might recognize that name; Andrew Gibson is a field botanist for ODNR and the blogger of the exceptional Buckeye Botanist blog (which I strongly suggest you check out if you haven't already). Of course, when anyone ever asks you a question like that, the only rational answer is yes.

Purple Fringeless Orchid, Platanthera peramoena
The target species was the Purple Fringeless Orchid, Platanthera peramoena. This species was a lifer for me, making it the 9th Ohio orchid species I've seen (out of 46 native species). I'm a relatively late-comer to the world of plants and can only say I've really been "into" them for about a year and a half now. Of the 9 orchid species I've seen so far, 8 of them have been during this summer. Orchids, of the family Orchidaceae, are a very diverse and well-known group of plants. Most people I've met are surprised to learn that Ohio does indeed have native orchids, and I can't overly blame them; the majority of the ~26,000 orchid species are found in the tropics, but a few are found in more temperate regions. 

Purple Fringeless Orchid Ohio
Purple Fringeless Orchid is a large species, with most of the individuals we saw being over 2 feet tall. Their bright, bubblegum-purple flowers were enough to capture anyone's attention. This species is mainly home to Southern Ohio. It likes moist areas, such as open areas in swamps, roadside ditches (which is where we found the ones pictured), open areas in floodplain forests, and so on. 

Small Purple Fringed Orchid (left) and Purple Fringeless Orchid (right).
There's three very similarly-looking "purple something orchids" species in this region of the US. First, there's the Small Purple Fringed Orchid and the Large Purple Fringed Orchid. In Ohio we only have the Small Purple Fringed Orchid, as the Large is extirpated (extirpation is "regional" extinction). As you might guess from the names, there's an easy way to tell the difference between the Small Purple Fringed Orchid and the Purple Fringeless Orchid. The edges of the Small Purple Fringed Orchid flowers are, you guessed it, fringed. The edges of the Purple Fringeless Orchid flowers are not fringed, although there is still a somewhat "rough" looking edge.

Purple Fringeless Orchid Pollinator
While investigating one stand of the orchid, a Hummingbird Clearwing paid us a visit. Zipping from flower to flower, and orchid to orchid, the moth buried its head in the flowers in order to reach the nectar hidden deep inside. To learn more about the Hummingbird Clearwing, check out my previous blog post on this species.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Hummingbird Clearwings!

I was recently shown a very interesting road in Wayne National Forest. Big Bailey Run Road is a gravel road that winds through the Athens County section of Wayne National Forest. Just outside of Chauncey, this road has wetlands, forests, young scrubby bushland, and much more. It's easy to get 60 bird species here during the summer, see Box Turtles, and find tons of colorful wildflowers. It is in a stretch of roadside wildflowers along Big Bailey Run Road that this post takes place.

Wild Bergamot Ohio
This roadside was what I could only describe as a Lepidopteran paradise. The Lepidopterans are the moths and butterflies. This roadside, as you can see, has a huge population of wildflowers. By far the majority was Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Tall Bellflower, Campanula americana, was also present in smaller numbers. Silver-Spotted Skippers, Spicebush Swallowtails, Pearl Crescents, and other Lepidopterans abounded. This finally brings us to the main subject.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe
Meet the Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe. The moths in the genus Hemaris are also known as the Hummingbird Moths, and if you ever see one you will know why. Zipping erratically from flower to flower, this good-sized moth is often mistake for the similarly-sized and similarly-acting Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. They even hum like a hummingbird! It isn't surprising to learn that this species is actually a hummingbird mimic. Why mimic a hummingbird though? It's all in avoiding predation! Birds prey heavily on moths, and a day-flying moth is a big target for lunch. However, insectivorous birds aren't going to feed on another bird species. By mimicking a hummingbird, the Hemaris sp. hummingbird moths can avoid predation by the birds seeking to eat moths.

Take notice of the pale-creamy legs that are characteristic of this species. You can also see that the wings are blurred in this photo. This photo was taken at 1/400 of a second, which means that those wings are moving very quickly.

Hummingbird Clearwing Ohio
This patch of flowers had dozens of Hummingbird Clearwings present. I had only seen this species once before (it is by no means rare though), and I was thoroughly excited, to put it mildly. These moths are just so wonderful. The Hummingbird Clearwing is in the family Sphingidae, better known as the Sphinx Moths. Unlike most moths, which are nocturnal, this species is diurnal, meaning it is out and about during the day. It likes clear, sunny days and can be found in open areas such as meadows, forest clearings, gardens, and the likes. 

Hummingbird Clearwing
Hummingbird Clearwings have a long proboscis (the black tube mouthpart pictured above) that they use to reach into long-necked flowers. Long-necked flowers make it hard for normal pollinators to reach the nectar, but pollinators with a proboscis can easily reach the nectar. The individual pictured above is in the middle of accessing the nectar in a Bergamot flower. Hummingbirds can also reach deep flowers due to their long beaks and even longer tongues. (You can see a photo of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird's long tongue here.)

As I mentioned before, it was very hard to get a somewhat decent photo of these guys as they quickly flew around flowers which were already blowing in the wind. Most of the photos turned out like the one above. When I and other bloggers put photos up online, you're only seeing a small percentage of the ones we actually took out in the field. In this case, I took 45 photos of the Hummingbird Clearwings, but only 3 turned out okay. That's about a 7% success rate. For every "good" photo you see from people, there's at least 10 bad ones that just don't cut it and that the public will never see.