Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ornithology Lab, October 21

This is the sixth 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
Third Post: September 16
Fourth Post: September 30 
Fifth Post: October 7

~ ~ ~

The morning chill has set upon Southeastern Ohio. Wednesday morning's lab was a brisk 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It didn't help that we were out before sunrise either; we arrived at The Ridges in Athens, Ohio, at 7:00 AM. The sunrise was at 7:44 AM. We used this twilight time to set up the banding nets at our usual locations.

This lab was filled with birds, especially when it came to banding. We banded a total of 20 birds (the most yet) over the course of 3 and a half hours. Eleven of the 20 were species of permanent residency in Ohio. The other 9 were all Chipping Sparrows, a migratory species in Ohio. While the warblers, vireos, tanagers, and others are all but gone, a few species are still migrating through. Many of these are various sparrow species, like the Chipping Sparrow. This must have been a big movement day for the Chipping Sparrow, as we just kept netting individual after individual.

As I previously said, the other 11 birds were all non-migratory (or permanent) species for Ohio. As many of you probably already know, not all birds migrate. In Ohio, birds can essentially be split up into 4 different groups when it comes to residency status. First off, you have the permanent residents. These species, such as the Northern Cardinal, live in Ohio year-round. Second, you have the transient species. These are the species which only move through Ohio during spring and fall migrations. These species, such as the Blackpoll Warbler, normally breed farther north in Canada and overwinter down in Central or South America. As a result, they can only be found in Ohio for a few select weeks out of the year. Third, you have the summer breeders. These are species, such as the Red-Eyed Vireo, which migrate into Ohio during spring migration, breed during the summer, and then migrate back south during fall migration. These species are not found here during the winter months. The fourth group is the overwintering birds. These are species that migrate from up north (typically late in Fall migration), spend the winter here in Ohio, and then migrate back north early on in spring migration. This group includes birds such as the American Tree Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrow, and White-Crowned Sparrow.

As always, there are exceptions. For example, Dark-Eyed Juncos are considered an overwintering species in Ohio; however, there are a few individuals in extreme northern Ohio which actually stay all year round and breed in the Summer. Now, it's kind of deceiving to call the junco a permanent resident when there's only a few individuals that do this, and thousands upon thousands of other individuals which only come here to overwinter. Another species in a similar situation is the Hermit Thrush. Generally speaking, the Hermit Thrush does not breed in Ohio. They can be found mostly during Spring and Fall migrations. However, there are a few locations in Ohio, such as the Hocking Hills and Mohican State Forest, where the Hermit Thrush breeds. And often there are several dozen pairs at these locations, making them locally common. Then, in the extreme southern half of Ohio, you can often find overwintering individuals. There are many other species which don't fall neatly into one of the four residency categories, but these categories are useful as a baseline understanding. The more you learn about nature, the more often you will run into exceptions like these.

Anyway, Chipping Sparrows are a migratory species. More specifically, the Chipping Sparrow is a summer breeder. They migrate here during the spring, breed over the summer, and then migrate back south over a long period of time during fall migration. Like I said, we ended up banding 9 Chipping Sparrows over the course of the morning. These individuals probably belong to the last wave or so coming through Ohio.

The rest of the birds we banded that day included Carolina Chickadees (including 2 of our own recaptures from earlier in the semester), Tufted Titmice (including 2 of our own recaptures), Song Sparrows, and a female Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

Here's the complete checklist of birds observed during the morning:

1. Canada goose
2. Turkey Vulture
3. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
4. Downy Woodpecker
5. Pileated Woodpecker
6. Blue Jay
7. American Crow
8. Carolina Chickadee
9. Tufted Titmouse
10. White-Breasted Nuthatch
11. Carolina Wren
12. Eastern Bluebird
13. American Robin
14. Cedar Waxwing
15. Chipping Sparrow
16. White-Throated Sparrow
17. Eastern Towhee
18. Northern Cardinal
19. House Finch
20 American Goldfinch

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Important: There's a new URL for this blog!

Hello everyone!

I decided to bite the bullet and change the URL of my blog. From this point on, the URL for Ohio Nature will no longer be, but will be

Why the change though? Well, there's a good chance that I won't be in Ohio after I graduate college. I want a more general URL that allows me to be flexible with my blog, instead of having a very specific URL with less flexibility. It would make no sense for my URL to be "ohionature" when I might be in say Arizona writing about Arizona nature in a few years.

As for now, only the URL has changed. The blog is still named Ohio Nature, at least for the time being. Nothing else has changed.

I want to thank all of my readers, and I hope this change hasn't made getting to my blog too difficult for those of you who directly type in my URL. Most of my page views come from either Google searches or direct links, so all of those people won't really be affected. Only a small percentage of my readers will notice the difference.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Franklin's Gull Visits Ohio!

This past Friday I left Athens, Ohio, and drove up to the town of Huron along Lake Erie to help with some salamander research. I had Sunday free, so I decided to do some birding at Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve. I received a notification a few hours in from the Facebook group Ohio Rare Bird Alert that Ohio birder Steve Landes had found 4 Franklin's Gulls on the beach at Alum Creek Reservoir. Now, Alum Creek was 2 hours away from me, but it was also along the way back home to Athens. I decided to seize the opportunity and go chase the gulls.

Franklin's Gull Ohio
Two hours later, I arrived at the Alum Creek Reservoir beach. A large group of gulls sat on the beach, and I hoped that at least one of them was the Franklin's Gull. Why all the fuss over a gull? Well, the Franklin's Gull is a rare visitor to Ohio. It breeds in the northern region of the Great Plains before migrating south through the rest of the Great Plains, down through Central America, and then to the Pacific Coast of South America where it overwinters. Ohio is outside of their migration flyway, which means that this species can't normally be found in Ohio; however, normally a handful of individuals are found here every year. I noticed that there were two other birders on the beach, and one of them was taking photos of the gull group. A good sign, but I was still apprehensive approaching the group. The most nerve-racking part of "chasing" rare birds is arriving at your location and not knowing if it is still there. Luckily, one of the Franklin's Gulls was still present. Can you spot him among the Ring-Billed and Herring Gulls above?

Franklin's Gull Ohio
Here's a closeup of the Franklin's Gull. Like the more familiar Bonaparte's Gull, this species is one of the "hooded gulls," but he is currently missing his hood. This is because he's currently in his winter plumage. This is an adult Franklin's Gull in nonbreeding plumage. This stage typically lasts from August to March. At the end of March they will molt into their breeding plumage, which has the characteristic black hood. You can see a photo of a breeding individual at this link (photo by Terry Sohl).

Franklin's Gull Ohio
When confronted with a bird you're unsure of, especially if you think it might be a rare species, you should always have a run down of characteristics to ensure a correct identification. So why is this a Franklin's Gull? The first question you should ask yourself is "What is the more reasonable bird choice?" In this case it is a small gull, smaller than a Ring-Billed Gull (see the previous photo for a comparison). The more realistic species for Ohio is the Bonaparte's Gull, another small, hooded gull. This is when you start comparing the field marks of this individual to each choice. The Bonaparte's Gull in nonbreeding plumage also has a black bill, dark eyes, and black wingtips. However, the Franklin's Gull has more extensive black on its head than a Bonaparte's Gull, which only has an "ear spot" and some black near the eye. The Franklin's Gull also has a darker back than the light gray back of the Bonaparte's. Also notice the dark-colored legs of the individual above; a Bonaparte's Gull would have orangish-pink legs. Overall, the dark legs, dark back, diminutive size, and extensive black on the head confirms it is indeed a Franklin's Gull. To see a photo of a Bonaparte's Gull for comparison, see this link to Terry Sohl's photo. 

Franklin's Gull Ohio
The Franklin's Gull is one of the several species of inland gulls which nest on the marshes of the northern Great Plains. They nest in large colonies, with some colonies reaching 10,000 individuals. They feed mainly on arthropods, often spending time in freshly plowed agricultural fields. The nests they build are quite interesting, as they are actually floating nests. These nests are constantly maintained by the adults as they continually sink as the materials decay in the water. Eventually the chicks even begin maintaining their nests once they get older.

Franklin's Gull Ohio
As with many other bird species, the Franklin's Gull population has been declining over the past several decades. Accurate population data is difficult to acquire with this species, as they depend on wet marshes which naturally fluctuate in quality depending on the weather of that year. Some years a marsh might hold enough water, while it might be too dry in others. This forces the colonies to shift nesting locations from year to year, which makes it hard for ornithologists to get an accurate idea of the population dynamics. Some areas have recorded sharp declines, while others have been stable. There have been some instances of the Franklin's Gull expanding into new breeding regions as well. Overall, the North American Breeding Bird Survey claims that the total population has declined by 4.7% every year from 1966 to 2010. This means there has been a cumulative decline of 88%. In the early 1900's, this species suffered greatly due to large scale destruction of breeding habitat, but more recent management and creation of appropriate wetlands have helped the population from completely crashing. It will be interesting to see how this species does in the future, especially with the effects of climate change on the Great Plains.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ornithology Lab, October 7

This is the fifth 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
Third Post: September 16
Fourth Post: September 30 

~ ~ ~

As the goldenrod and asters fade, and the leaves begin to change to more colorful hues, so comes Autumn; and with Autumn comes a whole new array of birds to Ohio. Most of the summer neotropical breeders have left, and now many Canadian birds are moving southward for the Winter months. Dark-Eyed Juncos, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, and all of those typical Winter birds are making appearances all around Ohio, and now the birders know it is indeed Autumn.

For this week's lab trip, we went once more to Lake Hope State Park in Vinton County, Ohio. Overall it was a pretty quiet day, so this post won't be that lengthy. Here are the highlights:

Arriving at 7:30 AM, we first stopped at the dam overlooking the lake. Two Belted Kingfishers patrolled the waters, a Great Blue Heron stood like a sentinel on the beach, and a few Canada Geese swam around. It was a normal day on the lake. The previous night must have been a huge movement day for Eastern Phoebes, as they were literally everywhere. It seemed like every other tree had at least one Eastern Phoebe in it, and they were by far the most numerous migrant of the day.

Next, we moved on to a small wetland that had been created when some beavers dammed up a small creek. Upon stepping out of the vans, over 20 startled Wood Ducks took flight and escaped the group of birders. Once again, there were more Belted Kingfishers and more Eastern Phoebes. We decided to walk a short distance along a trail that led us through some thick shrubs and young trees. As it is in the midst of sparrow migration, we were hoping for some interesting sparrows, but we only had a Song Sparrow. Elsewhere in the area were Indigo Buntings, a very cooperative Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, and the usual Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Towhees. 

Moving on to a very large marsh/lake down the road from the park, we hoped to find some more ducks. Once again, there were only Wood Ducks. Another Belted Kingfisher sat atop a snag. That was about it for birds at the marshy lake complex. By far the highlight of that specific area were some tiny yellow flowers in the water near the bank. Upon closer inspection I was surprised to find out it was a bladderwort species of some sort! Bladderworts are a species of carnivorous plant which trap small aquatic creatures, like protozoans and rotifers, in tiny traps that dot their free-floating root systems. After some research later on, I discovered that the bladderworts we saw were Humped Bladderworts, Utricularia gibba. This is a species which I've seen before at Calamus Swamp in Pickaway County. You can read about it, and other plant species, on my Calamus Swamp plant post.

Piling back into the vans, we turned around and headed back to the park. We ventured up a ridge to the Nature Center and campground section. This is a wonderful area to see Red-Headed Woodpeckers, which was why we checked the area out. It was quiet at first, but soon the forest came alive with dozens of Eastern Bluebirds, like the one pictured above. We noticed one area where two or three bluebirds were foraging on the ground. Soon, Pine Warblers joined them. Then Chipping Sparrows joined in. Walking onward, we scared up a group of Dark-Eyed Juncos, my FOS (first of season) for the year. Only a little bit later we found my FOS Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Then, to much excitement, a Red-Headed Woodpecker flew in. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is an absolutely stunning woodpecker, but sadly it is becoming harder and harder to find. It's always a treat to see it when I do.

It was then that I noticed we had seen every single species of normally-occurring woodpecker in Ohio. Throughout the morning we had a Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Red-Bellied Woodpecker. We also had a Northern Flicker and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker in addition to the Red-Headed Woodpecker. These seven species make up the regularly-occurring group of woodpeckers in Ohio, and I've never had a "complete" woodpecker day before! It was a wonderful way to end the morning.

Here's the complete list of birds I observed that day:

1. Canada Goose
2. Wood Duck
3. Great Blue Heron
4. Turkey Vulture
5. Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
6. Belted Kingfisher
7. Red-Headed Woodpecker
8. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
9. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
10. Downy Woodpecker
11. Hairy Woodpecker
12. Northern Flicker
13. Pileated Woodpecker
14. Eastern Phoebe
15. Blue Jay 
16. American Crow
17. Carolina Chickadee
18. White-Breasted Nuthatch
19. Carolina Wren
20. Golden-Crowned Kinglet
21. Eastern Bluebird
22. American Robin
23. Pine Warbler
24. Black-Throated Green Warbler
25. Chipping Sparrow
26. Dark-Eyed Junco
27. Song Sparrow
28. Eastern Towhee
29. Indigo Bunting
30. American Goldfinch

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

South Carolina, Pt. 2

Part 1 can be found here: South Carolina, Pt. 1

This is the second post, covering the second day, of my trip down to South Carolina two weeks ago. I am currently taking Ornithology (the study of birds) at Ohio University. This class is one of the required classes for my Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, and also one of my most-anticipated classes of my college career. We go on weekly field labs (You can read about each one at this link), but we also get to go on two big trips. One of these trips is to Lake Erie, which is coming up in November, while the other trip is coastal South Carolina. The point of this trip was to expose us to birds we would normally never see in Ohio.

Hunting Island State Park
We awoke before sunrise to get a start on the day. While everyone got dressed and ate breakfast, I had some time to sneak off to watch the sunrise on the beach and snap a photo or two. Daylight wasting, we quickly loaded the vans and left Hunting Island State Park. Our goal for the day was to head a tiny bit farther south and closer to the South Carolina-Georgia border. The first stop of the day was at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located near the tourist town of Hilton Head, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a collection of islands and tiny hammocks. The main (Pinckney) and surrounding islands have a very extensive history. Archaeological sites have shown Native American activity going back all the way to 7000 BCE, with intensive use from 1000-1500 AD. Temporary settlements built by the French and Spanish dot the 1500's and 1600's. The first permanent settlement was in 1708, and this began a period of intensive change. In 1804, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had been an officer in the Revolutionary War and a founding father, moved to the islands and began a cotton plantation there. The land was cleared, drained, and worked by 200-300+ slaves, leaving a natural, and humanitarian, scar on the islands. After the Civil War, the islands changed hands multiple times and experienced periods of continued agriculture and management as a game preserve. 1975 saw the land and surrounding waters become a dedicated national wildlife refuge. Nowadays, several miles of gravel pathways are used extensively by the residents of Hilton Head, tourists, and nature-watchers.

White Ibis South Carolina
A variety of habitats can be found throughout the preserve, making for great birding. Salt marshes held birds like the White Ibis pictured above. Willets, Greater Yellowlegs, Tricolored Herons, and others made appearances too. The island also features several small freshwater ponds which held the likes of more White Ibises, Common Gallinules, Black-Crowned Night-Herons, Anhingas, Green Herons, Pied-Billed Grebes, and more. Pine forests and scruffy secondary growth held songbirds like the Boat-Tailed Grackle, various warblers, Brown-Headed Nuthatches, Fish Crows, and more.

Gulf Fritillary
Of course, birds weren't the only creatures out and about. One of the many eye-catching insects of the day was the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. We saw dozens and dozens of these incredible butterflies; I have never seen such a vibrant butterfly in person. The Gulf Fritillary has a wide range that extends from southern South America, through Central America, and into the southern portions of the United States. Although this species is found primarily in the south-central and southeastern portions of the US, the Gulf Fritillary is a species that will often "wander" northward. Ohio pretty much has a one-state buffer zone around it from this species' normal range, but these can be occasionally found in Ohio. Most recently, 2008 proved to be a very large invasion year of Gulf Fritillaries in Ohio, as Jim McCormac covered in his blog. As he points out, global warming, coupled with the fact we are seeing more and more individuals farther north, suggests that the Gulf Fritillary might possibly be a new Ohio resident in the future.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
Six or so miles of walking and several hours later, we left Pinckney Island NWR and headed inland to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Savannah NWR lies several miles away from the Atlantic Coast, which is just enough for a whole new set of habitats and animals to come into play. The refuge straddles the Georgia/South Carolina border, with half the park being in one state and the other half being in the other. We stayed in the South Carolina section the entire time, choosing to drive the length of the 4 mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a one-way gravel road which winds through portions of the park. This road passes mostly through freshwater wetlands, but also passes through hardwood hammocks like the one pictured above. A hardwood hammock is essentially an "island" of trees which can persist in a marsh due to the ground being only a few inches higher than the surrounding marshland. Notice in the case pictured above (click to enlarge), the hammock consists primarily of Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana. Also notice the distinctive and characteristic Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, hanging from the Live Oaks. Spanish Moss is a species of flowering plant that is actually an epiphyte, meaning it grows harmlessly on trees and absorbs water and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that collects around it. As a result, Spanish Moss only uses the tree for support instead of parasitizing it.

Solitary Sandpiper

One of the main features in the freshwater marshes at Savannah NWR were dikes. Dikes are man-made levees that help control water levels and flow in marshes. Back in the 1700's, much of the land in the refuge was managed rice fields. These altered marshes remained and natural vegetation came back. Now there's a whole range of birds that make this refuge home at some point of the year. A few shorebirds were present when we went, including this Solitary Sandpiper pictured above.

Common Gallinule
Other birds present included 3 species of rails. Rails are a cryptic and elusive bunch, with most species preferring dense marsh grasses and reeds. The species Ohioans are most familiar with is the American Coot. We saw several of the coot's cousin, the Common Gallinule (pictured above). The Common Gallinule can be found in Ohio, especially along Lake Erie, but it is definitely a more uncommon species there. The Common Gallinule is much more common down along the southern coasts. The most exciting bird of the day was a Purple Gallinule that I spotted along the banks of a ditch. Like the Common Gallinule, the Purple Gallinule is also a rail, but an incredibly colorful one. This truly tropical-looking rail can be found extensively throughout the tropics, but is restricted to the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast here in the US. In fact, Savannah NWR is even approaching its northern limits. Another species of rail we observed here was the Sora. Sadly we only heard them instead of seeing them.

Another strange southern specialty in the US is the Anhinga. Although it superficially resembles cormorants, the exact relationship between the Darters (which includes the Anhinga) and the Cormorants is uncertain. They are certainly related, but how closely is still up in the air. The Anhinga is a freshwater-loving species, and prefers the marshes and swamps of the southern US. They can often be seen drying their wings on the banks of waterways, like the one above.

Other interesting birds we observed at Savannah NWR included Cattle Egrets, Northern Harrier, Great-Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcons, and various migrating warblers.

American Alligator
Of course, it wouldn't be a trip down to the South without one of these guys. This is the American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. Savannah NWR is known for its Alligator population, and we saw over 12 individuals during our time there. A large crocodilian reptile that reaches lengths of 9-15 feet on average, the American Alligator can be found throughout freshwater marshes, lakes, and swamps in the southeastern US. The American Alligator was once very endangered, but has staged an incredible comeback in the past few decades.

Birding in South Carolina
Part of the class on the beach at Hunting Island. I am the one in the green hat and shirt looking through the spotting scope. Photo credit: Michelle Ward
We left Savannah NWR at sunset and made the hour and a half van ride back to Hunting Island where we camped for a final night. It was an incredible trip, and I added 19 bird lifers in the end. I personally finished with 75 species of birds over the two days in South Carolina, but I know I missed a few species that others on the trip saw or heard.

Here's my complete eBird lists for the two locations of the day for those interested:
1. Pinckney Island NWR
2. Savannah NWR

I have to admit I fell in love with the southern maritime forests and the salt marshes over the course of the trip. I am planning on going back to this region on a birding trip over Christmas Break, and if that happens then I'll have many more in depth posts on this amazing region. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

South Carolina, Pt. 1

As you might know, I am currently taking Ornithology (the study of birds) at Ohio University. This is one of the required classes for my Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, and also one of my most-anticipated classes of my college career. We go on weekly field labs (You can read about each one at this link), but we also get to go on two big trips. One of these trips is to Lake Erie, which is coming up in November, but the other trip was last week. As you might guess by the title, it was a trip down to South Carolina. The point of this trip was to expose us to birds we would normally never see in Ohio, and so we were doing some relatively intense birding to find all those special species. If you've ever went birding to that degree, you probably know that taking photos is pretty difficult, as you simply don't have the time for it. So sadly I don't have a bunch of photos, but I'll try to make do with the ones I did take.

Hunting Island State Park
We left Athens, Ohio, at 8 AM on Thursday, September 24th. Eleven hours and a slight detour later, we arrived at our destination, Hunting Island State Park. Hunting Island State Park is located in extreme southern South Carolina. The entire park is located on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. This island is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands located within the so-named Sea Islands, which is a chain of tidal and barrier islands ranging from mid-South Carolina to extreme northern Florida. Hunting Island has a subtropical climate and consists of several different ecosystems. On the Eastern side of the island is the Atlantic Ocean, shown above. The Western side consists of extensive salt marsh habitat. The island itself consists mainly of maritime forest. In this part of the world, maritime forests are dominated by evergreen trees, with the majority of those trees being pine trees. In this case Loblolly Pine was the dominant tree, with Slash Pine, Southern Live Oak, and other trees mixed in. The iconic Cabbage Palm occupied the mid-story, which you can see in the photo above. Those tall pines pictured are the Loblolly Pine. The understory was occupied primarily by Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens. An interesting and well-recognized species of fern-like palm, Saw Palmetto is restricted to the Southern Atlantic Coast and Eastern Gulf Coast. It can be found in only one county in South Carolina (Beaufort), which is where Hunting Island is located. There are other similar-looking palm species found in the understory here though as well, such as Needle Palm.

We arrived near sunset, ate in the city of Beaufort, and then headed toward the park in the dark. It had began to rain by the time we arrived, which added a whole new dimension of fun as we frantically tried setting up our tents before they got too wet inside. That rain turned into a storm with incredible lightning, Earth-shaking thunder, and torrential rain. It turns out that storm system also spawned an EF-2 tornado in Johns Island, which was only a mere 35 miles away from us. Thankfully we just received heavy downpours; a tornado might have put a slight damper on the trip, to say the least.

Hunting Island State Park
When morning came, the rain had stopped but the skies were still pretty overcast. We ventured out to the beach to look for shorebirds and other related birds. Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and various terns quickly greeted us. A few shorebirds were out and about, including a Ruddy Turnstone, multiple Willets, and some peeps we couldn't identify. A lagoon on the other side of the dunes held a Bald Eagle, Osprey, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets. Many warbler species flitted about the trees, and Brown-Headed Nuthatches squeaked like a dog toy from the canopy.

Hunting Island Salt Marsh

After a few hours, we moved to the Western side of the island. This side of the island has an extensive salt marsh. A salt marsh is essentially the area between open salt water and dry land. This area gets routinely flooded with salt water every day due to the tides, which in turn creates a soggy and salty salt marsh. I took this photo during low tide, and you can see how the salt water is restricted to a shallow river (named Johnson Creek). Once the high tide comes in, the water level will rise (in the case of the day this was taken, it rose 7 feet), and most of the Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, that you see will be nearly covered.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin South Carolina
The saltmarsh produced more herons, including our first Tricolored Heron of the day. Four Wood Storks, a federally-listed Endangered Species, flew over us, drawing ooh's from the class. Several Willets, a species of sandpiper, foraged along the exposed mud bank of Johnson Creek. For several minutes, a Clapper Rail ventured out into the open along the bank to forage next to a sleeping Laughing Gull. To our surprise, a dolphin also made an appearance. Due to the location, I'm nearly certain that it was a Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. There are other species of dolphin near South Carolina, but most of these are more open-ocean species. The Common Bottlenose Dolphin is the only species which commonly swims to the shore, into lagoons and marshes, and up estuaries. It was amazing to see one so close!

Black Skimmers in South Carolina
We then went to Paradise Pier, a 1,120 foot pier that juts out into Fripp Inlet. Here we had 30+ Brown Pelicans, dozens of Laughing Gulls, 2 Herring Gulls, another Bald Eagle, more heron species, and the birds on the sandbar in the photo above. This sandbar, which was just off the pier, was a very productive piece of land. About 20 Sanderlings (a species of sandpiper) and 3 Willets foraged by the water's edge. A group of terns flew in a few minutes later. There were Caspian, Royal, and Sandwich Terns in the group. Then the most exciting species of the pier flew in: 3 Black Skimmers (the black birds on the center-left). We also got to see two cool fish species. One fisherman pulled up a large Red Drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, which was probably around 2 and a half feet long. Another caught one of the Dasyatis stingray species, which was incredible to see in the wild! I'm not sure of the exact species, but it was either the Atlantic, Bluntnose, or Roughtail Stingray.

Nephila clavipes
One of the best parts of this trip was seeing so many new things that I've wanted to see for years. I haven't been near the ocean since I was 4, and so I was looking at everything around me with new eyes. Every other bird I looked at was essentially a lifer. Every plant I looked at was a species I had never seen before. Plants I had learned about in class, like the Loblolly Pine, finally came to life in front of my eyes. I'm a bird guy first and foremost, so the birds were obviously the stars of the trip, but this spider was definitely one of the stand-out highlights. This is the Golden Silk Orbweaver (more commonly known as the Banana Spider), Nephila clavipes, a species of spider I have wanted to see for years and years. When you're into biology, you'll often find yourself doing things that the average person would not do. For example, I was walking to the bathrooms the first morning when I ran face first into a huge, very strong orbweaver web. The web was larger and stronger than any I had seen before. Now, the average person would have freaked out and tried to get away as fast as possible. The first thing that jumped to my mind though was "OH MY GOSH, CAN IT BE A BANANA SPIDER?!?" I looked up to my left to see the massive palm-sized spider frantically running away from me. It was! My lifer Banana Spider! I was ecstatic and quickly went to get an even closer look. This is an absolutely beautiful species. Although big and "frightening" looking to some, these are really harmless spiders that won't do anything unless you handle them roughly.

Fiddler Crabs
Fiddler crabs, Uca sp.
We ended the day a little before sundown. Our awesome TA Brandan Gray made everyone jambalaya, and we had a wonderful (and much-needed) dinner as the sun set through the pines at our campsite. A little bit later, the class decided to head off to the beach. Due to Loggerhead Turtles nesting on the beach, lights of any sort are banned for the Summer until the end of October, but there was a nearly full moon out which lit up the beach. It was nearing low tide, so a large portion of the beach was exposed. As we walked along the beach, Brandan yelled out "Dolphin!" and pointed to a blob swimming about 30 feet from shore. We looked out and I noticed the creature had a heterocercal tail. That meant one thing. I yelled out "THAT'S A SHARK!" and sure enough it was. It was the first time I ever saw a shark out in the wild, and I was beyond ecstatic. I have no idea what species it was, but it was about a 5 foot long individual who was slowly swimming parallel to the shore about 30 feet out. We followed it down the shore until it disappeared back into the ocean, marking the end of an amazing day.

Since it would be too long to list out all the species here, you can see my bird checklists for the day at the following links:

1. Hunting Island SP Forest, Lagoon, and Beach
2. Hunting Island Salt Marsh
3. Paradise Pier (Hunting Island SP)

I should have Part 2 up by tomorrow, so stay tuned! Part 2 can be found right here!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ornithology Lab, September 30

This is the fourth 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
Third Post: September 16

~ ~ ~

Fall has arrived, both in date and finally weather. Cool temperatures in the upper 50's met us as we traveled once again to The Ridges on the outskirt of Athens, Ohio. It truly felt, and looked, like Fall; leaves were changing, leaves were falling all around us, it was cool with a breeze, and the sky was overcast. The birds were also pretty active, as I'll get into in a second.

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The entire Midwest had some pretty impressive migration flights this week. The photo above is a snapshot of a weather radar at midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Weather radars, when calibrated with certain parameters, actually show bird migration movements. This phenomenon has been used for years to help gauge and study migration patterns. When looking at the photo above, notice the multiple blue circles (some of which have green centers). These circles are masses of migrating birds. The darker the circles, the more numerous the birds. Let's look at Ohio specifically. Notice there's a cold front that's moving out of the state early in the night. There's not much movement before the front, but there's many large movements behind the front. As the front moved through Ohio, it brought northerly winds originating in Canada. On these northerly winds were thousands of migrating songbirds, and you can see the multiple dark blue/light green circles that represent them. As the front moved out of Ohio before sunrise, these songbirds settled out into the southeastern portions of Ohio, right where we were.

A Magnolia Warbler among the branches from Magee Marsh in May.
This time around, we did some bird banding on top of the normal birding. We set up nets in three areas (instead of the normal 6). We had one set of nets in a powerline cut with scruffy bushes and tall grasses that had deciduous forest on either side. We had another set of nets along a path that bordered deciduous forest on one side and thick grape-vine covered shrubbery on the other. The final net was set up in some young forest next to an open area. 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kelly Williams.
Bird banding the past two times weren't that productive; however, this day was very productive. The most commonly caught species was the Carolina Chickadee, with 5 individuals banded for the day. The second most commonly banded species of the day was a relative of the Carolina Chickadee, the Tufted Titmouse, of which we banded 4. Going along with the more common, permanent residents theme, we also banded a Northern Cardinal and the Swamp Sparrow pictured above.

Now we'll get into the migratory species!

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kelly Williams.
We caught several warbler species over the course of the morning. The first was this Northern Parula pictured above. I've previously covered this species, and you can read all about it at this link! We then went on to net 3 Magnolia Warblers, all of which were hatch-year birds. The last warbler species we caught and banded was a beautiful hatch-year Black-Throated Green Warbler, my all time favorite warbler species. I was lucky enough to be able to release him!

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kelly Williams.
The star of the day, in my opinion, was this Blue-Headed Vireo, a bird I had never seen before. The Blue-Headed Vireo is a bird of mixed coniferous-and-deciduous forests which are found throughout Eastern Canada down through the Appalachian Mountains. The Blue-Headed Vireo is a common migrant species in Ohio, but is a very rare breeder. They require cooler locales with plenty of Eastern Hemlock trees. A few individuals can be found nesting here in Ohio in places such as Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve, Clear Creek Metropark, and Mohican State Forest. And finally, the last species that we banded was a hatch-year Indigo Bunting.

Here's the complete list of birds for the day:

1. Black Vulture
2. Turkey Vulture
3. Rock Pigeon
4. Chimney Swift
5. Downy Woodpecker
6. Pileated Woodpecker
7. Eastern Wood-Pewee
8. Blue-Headed Vireo
9. American Crow
10. Carolina Chickadee
11. Tufted Titmouse
12. White-Breasted Nuthatch
13. Carolina Wren
14. American Robin
15. Gray Catbird
16. Cedar Waxwing
17. Common Yellowthroat
18. American Redstart
19. Northern Parula
20. Magnolia Warbler
21. Black-Throated Green Warbler
22. Swamp Sparrow
23. Eastern Towhee
24. Northern Cardinal
25. Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
26. Indigo Bunting
27. American Goldfinch

Last weekend my class went down to South Carolina to do some birding. I'll be having a post on that coming up extremely soon, so stay tuned!