Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher

About a week ago I made the journey from Ohio to southeastern Arizona for a field technician job. Along the way I visited Mohawk Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mohawk Park is a giant of a city park, and it is filled with a wide variety of habitats including deciduous forest, prairie, swamp, lake, and more. I had a few hours to kill there, so I decided to go birding (of course!). Now eastern Oklahoma isn't too different from Ohio when it comes to bird diversity in early May, but there are a few birds you can find there that you can't find in Ohio...

One of these birds is the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher, a phenomenal and hard-to-ignore species. I've wanted to see a Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher for years now, but their range in the United States is limited to mainly Oklahoma and Texas, with the range also extending into parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. Very rarely one will turn up in Ohio (as one famously did in 2014), but for an Ohioan to realistically see one, they must travel west. To my surprise (and delight), the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher was a dime a dozen in Oklahoma. Also to my delight was their apparent tameness, as one could easily get close for photos!

The Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher gets its name from its incredibly long tail feathers, which take on a forked "V" shape when in flight (and slightly so when sitting). Although the individual above has some pretty old (and pretty rough-looking) tail feathers, you can see the long size. Females will have a tad bit shorter tails (about 30% shorter), but are still long. As with most exaggerated traits, one would think that the long tail is a sexually-selected trait, such as the giant tail of the Peacock; however, since the females also have a long tail, it does not actually appear to be a sexually-selected trait. If it was sexually-selected, only one of the sexes would (in theory) have the exaggerated tail. Why the long tail then? Although there are hypotheses for why, it is still a debated subject. 

The Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher is a bird of open country with scattered trees. Oftentimes they can be seen perched on electrical wires when driving through Oklahoma. As their name implies, they forage primarily by a method called flycatching, where an individual will sit upon a perch (like in the photo above), look for an insect flying by, and upon seeing one will quickly fly out, catch it, and then return to the perch. Birds which flycatch are fun to watch, and even more so when they're such an awesome species like the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher!

My internet at the field station I am staying at is very limited, so blog posts will be sadly be sporadic. However, keep on the lookout for more western-themed posts! Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


The past two weeks have been the peak of rail migration here in Ohio. I saw report after report, photo after photo, of Virginia Rails and Soras from around the state posted on various Facebook groups such as Birding Ohio. I absolutely adore rails; an infamous Black Rail which showed up outside of my hometown in 2008 was responsible for converting me from a birdwatcher to a birder. And of course, with all the reports I was seeing this year, I just had to go out and try to find a few rails myself. I traveled to a few good locations, but came up empty each time. And then I stopped by a local city park in Circleville, Ohio...

Sora birding
The typical view of a Sora in dense reeds.
The Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park (what a name) lies on the edge of Circleville in Pickaway County. It's half forest and half prairie. In the middle of the prairie section is a small pond surrounded by reeds and cattails. I stopped by to do some birding in the forest, and I checked the pond first to see if there were any ducks hanging out. All of the sudden I heard the distinctive whinny call of a Sora! After searching the known haunts of Soras and Virginia Rails in Pickaway County, and coming up empty handed each time, there was a Sora hanging out right in a heavily-traveled park! And then I heard another whinny; there was more than one! I didn't have my camera on me, so I decided to head back out the next day to try and get some photos. After arriving, I carefully walked the edge of the pond, searching for any movement among the reeds. After a few moments, I caught a glimpse of something moving. A Sora was walking through the reeds, heading away from me.

Sora in cattails
I positioned myself in a location that was a bit more open. I took out my phone and played a call of a Sora in an attempt to draw one a bit closer. To my surprise one came running at me! He looked at me, apparently decided I wasn't a threat, and then began foraging only a few feet away from me. My camera shutter flying, and my hands shaking from excitement, I took photo after photo.

Sora in Ohio
He moved into the open a few times and allowed me to take photos I never thought I would get to take. The Sora is a common species of rail. Rails are birds in the family Rallidae. Members of Rallidae are duck-size-and-smaller birds which are mostly tied to wetlands, especially here in the US. The Sora is actually not as closely related to the Virginia and King Rails as one might expect, but is instead more closely related to the Moorhens (Gallinules) and Coots. The most common rail in Ohio is by far the familiar American Coot, but the Sora takes second place. The issue with most rails (American Coot aside) is that they are incredibly secretive and shy birds, which means they often escape notice even though they move through Ohio in pretty good numbers. Soras are a bit more outgoing and can often be seen by the patient observer. Virginia Rails are a bit more secretive and harder to see, but by far the hardest rails to lay eyes on are the Black and Yellow Rails. Black Rails and Yellow Rails are scarcely the size of a sparrow, and trying to see one of those moving through 5 foot tall reeds is a bit of a challenge. Those two species are incredibly rare here in Ohio, but they are found every several years. No doubt many more migrate through each year than are found. But back to the Sora!

Sora feet
The Sora breeds across much of the northern half of the US, including most of Ohio aside from the southern portion of the state. They breed in freshwater marshes, including places here in Ohio such as Calamus Swamp, Battelle-Darby Creek, and the marshes of Lake Erie. They overwinter in the marshes of the southern coastal US, Central America, and the extreme northern parts of South America. Like all rails, the Sora has extremely large feet that are adapted to walking over bits of broken reeds as you can see in the photo above. The larger surface area of their feet makes it easier to stay above the water without sinking in, but if it comes to it they are pretty good swimmers as well. Soras prefer shallow water that is less than 20 inches deep, so their large feet really compliment their habitat preference.

The Sora spends most of its time moving stealthily among dense cattails and other reedy wetland plants, foraging on a range of food types including snails, spiders, insects, and assorted plant material (mostly seeds). The Sora is a migratory species, and they migrate through Ohio from April to May and again from August to mid October. Those which nest in Ohio start as early as late April/early May. I really hope that the individuals I saw and heard are trying to nest in the park. The pond and edge wetland are 2.5 acres (1 hectare) in size, and this seems to be the lower limit in area that they will nest in. Soras face the threat of habitat destruction (and what species doesn't anymore?) as acre after acre of wetland habitat is destroyed in the US. The pond these Soras were hanging out in was actually recently constructed as part of a habitat restoration project (it had been an agricultural field for decades). Hopefully these, or future, Soras take advantage of this new wetland. 

Ohio Sora
I have to admit, I was shaking from adrenaline as I was taking these photos. As I mentioned before, I LOVE rails, and I never thought I would have one foraging essentially at my feet, let alone getting a chance to photograph one like this. The Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park is a special place. Not only are there Soras and Wilson's Snipes hanging out in the wetland during some parts of the year, but the seriously declining Henslow's Sparrow, along with the more common Savannah Sparrow, breeds in the surrounding restored prairie. The other half of the park, a wet forest, offers a stopover location for warblers and other migrant songbirds within the sea of corn and soybean fields which surround it. And apparently (as I just saw my first one at this location after years of birding the patch), a Red-Headed Woodpecker, a species in decline here in Ohio, is setting up shop in the park! It's a lovely park to bird at, and I can't wait to see what other interesting species show up!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Six Orchids from Southern Ohio

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being one of the trip leaders for the Ohio Ornithological Society's "Warblers and Wildflowers" event. This is an annual weekend foray that takes places in the rolling hills of Shawnee State Forest and nearby areas. My group spent Saturday morning in Shawnee SF, and the rest of the day birding around next door Adams County. I ended up observing 66 species of birds on Saturday, a new daily high! Sunday was a free-for-all, and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along with two amazing botanists, Andrew Gibson (blogger at The Buckeye Botanist) and Tanner Morris (you can view Tanner's photography page right here), as they ventured through some select sites in Scioto and Adams Counties. We saw a lot of amazing plants, but this post is over the orchids we saw in bloom.

First, some background on orchids. Although the word "orchid" conjures up images of tropical forests, Ohio does indeed have an array of native orchids. There are 46 species of native orchid (family Orchidaceae) which have been recorded in Ohio. Of these 46, 4 are sadly extirpated (locally extinct in Ohio). Of the remaining 42, 22 are state listed as either potentially threatened, threatened, or endangered (and 2 of those 22 are also federally listed). The vast majority of these orchids require a narrow set of ecological characteristics to live, with some being much more picky than others. This makes orchids generally uncommon and oftentimes hard to find in Ohio, depending on the species. (For a complete checklist of Ohio orchid species and hybrids, check out this link)

The orchid blitz was mainly Sunday, but it began Saturday night. We took a short drive to one of the many gravel roads that criss-cross the massive expanse that is Shawnee State Forest. Just off the side of the road were these two unassuming flowers. This is Large Whorled Pogonia, Isotria verticillata. Large Whorled Pogonia is an orchid of the forest. More specifically, this species prefers acidic soils of upland forests and the likes. It's relatively widespread across the Allegheny Plateau region of eastern Ohio, but it's an easily missed flower. 

Large Whorled Pogonia in bloom.
Many of the orchids in Ohio are not overly showy, and the Large Whorled Pogonia falls into that category. It would be an incredibly easy flower to miss if you weren't looking. Although the Large Whorled Pogonia is relatively common (albeit hard to see) in eastern Ohio, it's close cousin the Small Whorled Pogonia, Isotria medeoloides, is a whole other story. The Small Whorled Pogonia is a federally listed plant, and it is incredibly rare in Ohio. In fact, it's only been recorded in 2 counties, and both of those have been in single locations. The first individual was recorded in Shawnee State Forest back in 1985, only a few miles from where the photo above was taken. It has since not been relocated. The second record was from a location in Hocking County in 1998, where a single fruiting individual and several vegetative stems were discovered. Sadly those individuals haven't been seen in several years, but this species is known to lie dormant. There is a chance that it will once again sprout forth. There is also a chance the Small Whorled Pogonia is out there somewhere else in Ohio, hiding among other plants, either overlooked or in places where no botantically-minded person has ventured...

On Sunday we once again ventured down a lonely road in Shawnee State Forest. Ovenbirds, Worm-Eating Warblers, and Wood Thrushes greeted us with song as we arrived at the first location. However, so did rain. Cue me awkwardly trying to protect my not-weather-sealed camera from the rain while still trying to take photos. Luckily these Pink Lady's Slippers, Cypripedium acaule, did not pay a lick of attention to the rain. Pink Lady's Slipper is a species of orchid in the Cypripedium genus, whose members are called the "lady's slippers" due to the distinctive shape of their flower.

The Pink Lady's Slipper is one of the more common of the lady slipper's here in Ohio. The Yellow Lady's Slipper, which we will get to in a bit, has been recorded in more counties than the Pink, but the populations are much more scattered and tend to be not as abundant in individuals. The Pink Lady's Slipper can be found in the northeastern part of Ohio (the glaciated Allegheny Plateau) and a few scattered counties in the southeastern half of the state. They prefer dryer, acidic oak and pine forests, such as the ridgetops of Shawnee SF with a sandstone bedrock.

Just a few dozen feet away was a very interesting Pink Lady's Slipper that wasn't so pink. This is a white variation individual of the Pink Lady's Slipper. It's a pretty rare phenotype for this species, and it was a pleasure to see. This isn't the first white-variant flower I've seen before; a few years ago I found a white-variant individual of Scaly Blazingstar. You can see a photo of that individual at this link.

Cypripedium parviflorum Ohio
Close by to the Pink Lady's Slippers were a few individuals of the Large Yellow Lady's Slippers. The taxonomic naming seems to be a bit unsure. There are three thoughts. First, most would call this Cypripedium parviflorum, specifically Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. Others would call this Cypripedium pubescens. A few would call this Cypripedium calceolus var. pubescens. This confusion all boils down to the never-ending conflict of what defines a species. In Europe there is Cypripedium calceolus, the Yellow Lady's Slipper. Originally many considered the yellow lady's slippers in North America to be a subspecies of the European C. calceolus. As genetic work was done, they found this probably wasn't the case, and the American ones were diverged enough to be considered their own species.

This led to the next issue; within North America there are 4 varieties (in essence the botanical version of a subspecies) recognized. Many botanists then decided to call the overall species Cypripedium parviflorum, and then designate the varieties as var. exiliens (found in Alaska), var. makasin (found in the northern part of the range), var. parviflorum (found in the southern part of the range), and var. pubescens (found throughout the range). These varieties all have different ranges, different habitat preferences, and different morphologies, and one could argue that these are different species, depending on what your idea of a species is (as there are a few dozen concepts). In fact, this resulted in some deciding to elevate Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens to its own species, Cypripedium pubescens. Yet at the same time, all of the American "varieties" are extremely closely related when it comes to their genetics. This leads to a big question: How much does genetics play a role in designating what a species is, and how much does the ecology of the various populations play a role?

Yellow Lady's Slipper Ohio
Regardless how they are classified, they are an extremely awesome plant. The delicate yellow flower stands in stark contrast among the greens and browns of the understory. They are found across Ohio in about half the counties, but they aren't really "common" here, although they can be locally abundant in good areas. They prefer wetter areas than the Pink Lady's Slippers, and often can be found on forested hillsides.

Showy Orchis
Stepping away from the lady's slippers for a bit, let's go to this tiny plant. This is Showy Orchis, Galearis spectabilis. And yes, I spelled the common name correctly. It's not Showy Orchid, but Showy Orchis, as strange as that might seem. The name "Orchis" comes from the old genus this species was placed in, which was Orchis. However, they have since been removed and placed in the new genus Galearis, but the common name of Showy Orchis remains. Showy Orchis can essentially be found throughout the state. It prefers moderately moist (AKA mesic) forested habitats. Such habitats include the bottoms of ravines in southern Ohio. They are only a few inches tall and could be easily missed by the unobservant hiker, but a careful observer might catch the tiny white and purple flowers.

Corallorhiza wisteriana Ohio
After awhile we left Scioto County and headed to next-door Adams County, which happens to be my favorite county in Ohio. I also absolutely love parasitic plants, and I was delighted when we stopped by an unassuming roadside with a population of Spring Coralroot, Corallorhiza wisteriana, in bloom. I've covered the related Crested Coralroot (you can read the post here), and it was great to see another species. Spring Coralroot is listed as a Potentially Threatened Species here in Ohio. They are a parasitic species which feeds off nutrients acquired by underground mycorrhizal fungi that is present throughout the soil. In fact, these plants spend most of their life underground, and they only send up a flower every so often when conditions are right. This lifestyle is also leading to their decline. Disturbances to the soil will often result in the destruction of mycorrhizal fungi in the affected area. Of course, if the food source for the Spring Coralroot is destroyed, the Spring Coralroot won't be able to feed and will subsequently starve.

White Lady's Slipper Ohio
The star of the day was the rare, state-endangered White Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium candidum. This is not just rare in Ohio; this species is rare across its entire range in the US. It's a species of calcareous soils, such as the dolomite-based soils of the Adams County cedar glades. It's only been recorded in 10 counties in Ohio, but only 4 of those counties have records after 1980. This vast reduction is due to the destruction of our calcareous (alkaline) prairies and fens. Sadly those habitats aren't exactly coming back, and even if they did, orchids are notoriously difficult (and sometimes impossible) to reintroduce into an area. I'll be making a longer post about this species in a few days, so stay tuned for more!

These orchids were only a sliver of the awesome plants I was able to see over the course of the weekend. Southern Ohio is a treasure-trove for botany lovers, and for nature-lovers in general. Thanks for reading!