Thursday, July 30, 2015

Summer Green and the Little Miami River at Clifton Gorge...

With a dew point of 77 degrees and the temperature pushing 90, yesterday was decidedly tropical, so it was especially nice to slip into the cool embrace of the steep walls of Clifton Gorge, where summer green filters through the trees and settles on every available surface, and rushing waters create an ancient atmosphere of escape and respite...

The lush green trees, undergrowth and moss glow electric in the deep shadows. It is stunningly beautiful.
The Little Miami River rushes wildly through the green corridor at Clifton Gorge. As you descend the wooden steps at the beginning of the trail, you feel like you're entering another world. 

The profusion of lush foliage and moss is appealing to the senses and almost seems to glow electric in the deep shadows. You want to linger and listen as the river rushes past every plant, moss-covered rock, and watery seep trickling down the cliff.  

...special things grow here, simply put. The riparian corridor at this stretch of the river holds rare boreal relics left over from seeds deposited by the Wisconsinan glacier meltwaters over 10,000 years ago. The steep cliffs of the gorge form a cooler microclimate that allow northern plants such as Eastern Hemlock and White Cedar to survive.

Dark Silurian dolomite limestone walls add drama to an already stunningly beautiful backdrop. 

To the Little Miami River," by William H. Venable, 1836

Romantic the rocky and fern-scented regions,
          Miami, the grots where thy brambles begin,
 By cedars and hemlocks, in evergreen legions,
        With silence and twilight seclusion shut in.

There darkling recesses in miniature mountains
          Recall to my fancy the haunts of the gnome;
     There fabled Undina might rise from  the fountains,
     Or sport in the water-falls glistening foam.
           

Click here for a pdf brochure and map of Clifton Gorge by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Click here for a pdf of "The Ohio Naturalist," Vol IV, February, 1904, for the article "The Topography and Geology of Clifton Gorge," by W. E. Wells.

For information on Ohio's Silurian period, click here for "Geology of Ohio -- The Silurian," by Michael C. Hansen, or here for an article by Ohio History Central.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Northern Leopard frog drops in...

I wasn't expecting to see a frog on the rocks when I went down to look at our tiny pond, but there he was...and wow, what a green beauty! We had seen no eggs or tadpoles in the pond this spring or early summer, so he must have wandered over from the creek about 1/4 mile away for a look-see...

A Northern Leopard Frog sits on a rock beside our small pond. Just as his name suggests, he's easy to identify because of all of those leopard spots.

The spot in the middle of the frog's nose helps differentiate a Northern Leopard Frog from a Southern Leopard frog. Northern Leopards have a spot. Southerns don't.

Will he stay or will he go now? Leopard frogs can amble far and wide, up to a mile away from water, which is how he gets his nickname, Meadow Frog or Grass Frog. They are not afraid to hang out in the grass. 

If you want to learn more about the Northern Leopard Frog, click here for an article on the "Wildlife Journal, Junior" website.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A monarch on the the milkweed...

Five years ago a volunteer milkweed plant sprung up in our backyard. Initially it was just one sprout...one strange little plant that kept getting taller, and taller, and taller. At first I didn't know what it was, until suddenly it dawned on me...milkweed! I have no idea how that downy little seed made it to our backyard, but it did, and it's done well. The single plant has grown into a stand of fourteen plants that live around my little pond beside the deck—definitely not an ideal place for the gangly plants, but that's okay. There are no other milkweed plants in the area, which makes our stand all the more special. We've had milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, but until last week, the most famous milkweed-loving insect of them all, the monarch butterfly, had never visited. Our wait is over, because finally, there's a monarch on the milkweed...

Monarch on the Milkweed
(I used Sennelier oil pastels to create this painting inspired by the first monarch to visit our volunteer common milkweed patch. I hope she comes back and lays eggs so I can do a painting of a monarch caterpillar!)


Monarchs need our help...
Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed, and the caterpillars that hatch out of the eggs never leave those plants. They only eat milkweed, so without a healthy supply of their host plant, monarchs will die out. Forever. Like...extinction forever. The problem is milkweed is being eradicated in the monarch's summer breeding grounds. In the midwest, where most of the monarchs are born, genetically engineered crops resistant to Roundup (an herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate) are being planted. Previously, milkweed grew in the channels between the rows of crops, but now, GMOs allow for mass applications of the herbicide that leave the crops unaltered but the milkweed dead.

Plant milkweed...
If you have a patch of grass, turn it into a small urban or suburban prairie. I'm getting ready to do that in my backyard. This autumn I'm going to sow the seeds of native perennials, including milkweed, wildflowers, and grasses to form a small backyard prairie. I'll put a sign up that says Wildflower Garden...or Butterfly Garden...or Pollinator Garden...or maybe even Monarch Rescue Station!


The sun was sinking fast when this female Monarch butterfly decided to take nectar from one of the common milkweed flowers in our backyard. Even with a flash it was too dark for a good photo, and the monarch is blurred, but you get the picture!

Common milkweed smells wonderful with a sweet fragrance that hangs heavy in the air. 

I hope she comes back again.

The complete picture...
It's not just milkweed eradication that is harming the monarchs, though. According to "Conservation Status and Ecology of the Monarch Butterfly in the United States (March 2015)," by Sarina Jepsen, Dale Schweitzer, Bruce Young, Nicol Sears, Margaret Ormes, and Scott Hoffman Black, there are three main factors causing their rapid decline: loss of milkweed breeding habitat due to "Roundup Ready" crops and herbicide, logging at overwintering sites, and climate change and extreme weather. Other causes are disease, predators, parasites, and insecticides. If you want to learn more, click here to download their interesting 30-page pdf document where in addition to the monarch's conservation status, you can also learn about the butterfly's life cycle and diet, breeding grounds, migration routes, and overwintering locations.

For more information:

Click here for the Xerces Society press release, "Monarch Butterflies in North American Found to be Vulnerable to Extinction," March 10, 2015.

Click here for the Xerces Society press release, "Monarch Numbers up Slightly, but Butterfly Still at Risk of Extinction," January 27, 2015.

Click here and here for nice representations of the monarch's life cycle including photos of its five instars.

Native Plant Nursery in our area...and ecosourcing...
If you live in the Cincinnati area, and you're looking for a native plant nursery, try Keystone Flora. They grow their plants from seeds and cuttings generated from their own nursery. All the original sources were within 100 to 150 miles of Cincinnati. These plants originated from our region, so they are well suited to grow here without fertilizers or special water requirements. "Ecosourcing" is using native plants from local seed for local use. It's important because it preserves the genetic diversity and genotypes of local plants. Although plants may be the same species, there are often genetic differences between the same plants from different regions. To learn more about why native genotypes are important, click here for the article, "Problems Associated with the Introduction of Non-Native Genotypes on NRS Reserves."

Click here for a list of some of the native flowers Keystone Flora sells.



Sunday, July 12, 2015

Osprey family near the Little Miami River and Halls Creek Woods...

Yesterday morning I hopped on Mason-Morrow-Milgrove Road and headed to Halls Creek Woods State Nature Preserve. It's gorgeous...I loved it...and I'll be back often. Halls Creek is a tributary of the Little Miami River, and it's only 15-20 minutes from my house. How could I have not known about this preserve? I'll have more to write on it soon, but first...OSPREYS! An osprey nest is located north of the preserve on a gravel pit that hugs the Little Miami River...

Two young ospreys and one adult overlook the water. If you look closely, you can see the juveniles have reddish-orange eyes and white-tipped feathers, while the adult has yellow eyes. Juveniles retain their orange eyes for about a year.

After I checked out Halls Creek Woods, I headed north on Mason-Morrow Milgrove, pulling off the road at a small look-out point. The first thing I saw was the osprey nest, and I was glad I pulled over! Initially I thought the nest was perched on the Little Miami River, but I could hear what sounded like canoes on the other side of the trees. Maybe the trees were an island in the river? No! I quickly realized the water was a lake from an old gravel pit (Miami View Mining), and the paddlers were floating down the Little Miami River on the other side of the trees. The birds paid no attention to the noise the canoeists were making, and the cars that would occasionally rush past on the road didn't bother them either. City birds...country birds...

Papa Osprey looked my way every now and then. I love seeing those yellow eyes head on!

Below is a quick video of the osprey family. The gravel parking area was a distance away from the nest, so even though I'm zoomed in at 400mm, the birds look small. One of the nestlings moved out of view, but you have a fairly good view of the other one preening. I was glad to see the pull-off was gated, so the nest is protected and people can't get too close.


Osprey with young at Halls Creek Nature Preserve from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cape May Warbler at Magee Marsh...

A drizzly, cool afternoon didn't deter this Cape May Warbler from singing his cheerful spring song. He and several other males piped out their high-pitched notes from the trees bordering the parking lot at Magee Marsh. With his bright, golden yellow plumage and lovely clear song, he was an easy mark, and I saw him as soon as I stepped out of my car...

A Cape May Warbler sings under a heavy gray sky along the parking lot at Magee March in the early afternoon on May 12, 2015.
Cape May Warblers are birds I don't see very often. They migrate through our state in a hurry to get north to their nesting grounds in the forests of Canada and the northern United States, but they always hang out for a bit at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie to refuel and rest up for the last leg of their journey. According to Peterjohn's "The Birds of Ohio," p 430, Cape Mays pass through Ohio between May 5 and May 22. I saw this fellow and about 10 others during the Biggest Week in American Birding on May 12.


At the end of the season, Cape Mays head south for the winter. I read on Cornell's All About Birds and The Birds of North American Online web sites that their destination is the West Indies, where they will spend the winter sipping nectar from flowers with their "unique curled, semitubular tongue." During migration and on their wintering grounds, they also will pierce fruit to drink the juice.

...wait, what? A warbler with a curled, semitubular tongue?
That deserves a few look-ups to learn more. I wondered if a Cape May's tongue worked like a hummingbird's tongue where capillary action drew the liquid up. I couldn't find anything on the physics of a Cape May Warbler's tongue, but I did find an illustration of one. It has fringe at the tip, which looks like it might help the warbler trap nectar so the bird can lap it up. Click here for "The Avian Tongue," by Nancy E. Johnston June, 2014 and go to Figure 12 on page 8 for an illustration.

Interesting: While researching the Cape May Warbler's tongue I found new research on the way a hummingbird gets nectar from a flower. In the article, "How the hummingbird's tongue really works," by Deborah Braconnier, you can read about the research of Associate professor of ecology Margaret A. Rubega and graduate student Alejandro Rico-Guevara from the University of Connecticut. Using a high-speed camera, they found hummingbirds do not use capillary action (assumed since 1833) to take in nectar. Instead, they curl their tongues to trap liquid. It's an unconscious, automatic effort that requires no energy by the bird. Click here for the entire article and a video of the hummingbird's tongue in action.

In the summer while nesting, Cape May Warblers prefer insects and spruce budworms, but during migration and in the winter, when they return south to the West Indies (Cuba, Bermuda, Caymen, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, etc.), they turn to nectar to supplement their diet. Their unique tongue allows them to make the transition.

During fall migration, Cape Mays have been seen on hummingbird feeders. I'd love to have one show up at ours!


A Cape May Warbler looks out over the parking lot at Magee Marsh. 


For more information...
Click here for "The Avian Tongue," by Nancy E. Johnston June, 2014. (Figure 12 on page 8 has a nice drawing of a Cape May Warbler's tongue.)

Click here for the report "Status of Cape May Warbler in British Columbia," by J.M. Cooper, K.A. End, and M.G. Shepard. Wildlife Working Report No. WR-82, February 1997.

Click here for the paper "Population Ecology of Some Warblers of Northeastern Coniferous Forests," by Robert H. MacArther, Ecology, Vol 39, No 4 (Oct., 1958), pp. 599-619

Click here for Gardner, L.L. "The adaptive modifications and the taxonomic value of the tongue in birds." Proceedings of the United State National Museum, 1925: 67:Article 19. 

Click here for Lucas, Frederic A. "The Tongue of the Cape May Warbler." The Auk, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Apr., 1894), pp. 141-144.

Click here for the Cape May Warbler's song.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Milkweed beetle--possibly the cutest bug ever?

In our backyard we have milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles that live on our milkweed plants. Milkweed bugs are cool (click here for photos from a previous post), but Milkweed beetles are cute...and I'm talking puppy dog cute! Look at those long, droopy antenna and the sad, half-mast eyes. If they don't melt your heart, nothing will...

A Red Milkweed Beetle hides in common milkweed buds in our backyard.
Milkweed beetles are in the longhorn beetle family, which accounts for those long droopy "puppy-dog ears." And the half-mast eyes? They are an adaptation where the socket of the antenna actually bisects the compound eye, creating an upper and lower eye. The bug is often called a four-eyed beetle, and both the genus and species of its scientific name (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) means four eyes.

Old four-eyes! If you look above the antenna, you'll see a black spot that is actually the top half of the eye.
...and if all of that doesn't get you, they sing, literally, but it's more like a soft squeak. The first time I heard it was in June of 2011 at Shawnee State Park. Jenny Richards, who is the naturalist there, picked one up for Matty and me and let us listen. Amazing! The little beetle definitely made soft squeaky sounds. I didn't hear the fellow in my backyard singing. He was tucked in the flower and hiding out, so I didn't bother him.

This is the milkweed beetle Jenny picked up and got singing for Matty and me. I took this photo back in June 2011 at Shawnee State Park in the butterfly garden just outside the nature center.
...but just so we don't think this fellow is a little ball of fluff, look at those mouth parts. Milkweed beetles chew through leaves at the tip, cutting the veins "upstream" so not as much of the gluey, white latex gets on them. If the beetle does get latex on its mouthparts, it rubs its face against the leaf right away to remove the gooey mess, otherwise, the latex will glue its mouth shut. Yikes!

Although cute, the milkweed beetle has a nice set of chompers!
In early summer, females lay eggs at the base of the plant's stem, sometimes inserting them in the stem, or even on nearby grass. When the larvae (grubs) hatch out, they crawl down to find the roots, either by burrowing through the soil or through the outer layer of the stem. They live in the soil and feed on the roots through fall and then overwinter in the roots. They pupate in spring in little chambers they dig in the soil. It takes about a month for them to emerge as adults.

The milkweed beetles you see on your plant in early summer lived in the roots of the plant as grubs during the winter.
Milkweed plants are toxic, and since the beetles eat the leaves, buds and flowers, they are toxic as well, which makes them taste bad, so predators leave the very bright and noticeable insects alone (just like the monarch butterfly who also eats the leaves as a caterpillar). No need for camouflage for these critters. The bright orange and red color is a warning to predators to shy away.

...see you later, "Fido!"


References
For more information on the Red Milkweed Beetle, click here for an article by the Bug Lady at the University of Wisconsin.

For a quick look at insects that live on milkweeds, click here for a post by Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants.

Friday, June 19, 2015

There's magic in the swamp...

This Northern Parula charmed a group of adoring fans along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh during the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding. I was there with two of my birdy friends Kim Smith (Nature is my Therapy) and Janet Kissick Hug (Nature's Feather Music). We were actually looking for an elusive Blackpoll Warbler singing low in a swampy tangle when this spunky little fella flew in and perched right next to us...

A Northern Parula along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh
I think we were all dumb-founded for a moment as the brave little bird studied us. I've never been so close to a Northern Parula. They usually laugh at me from the treetops where they're safely out of camera range, but this birdy bird was different. He seemed to be curious and sat watching us photograph him...

A Northern Parula studies a flock of adoring fans...

...this Northern Parula took his time looking back and forth at a steadily growing group of people marveling at his beautiful colors and proximity.  What can you say? It's the Biggest Week and there's magic in the swamp.




...eventually he tired of us, turned the other way, and flew off to nab an insect.

The Biggest Week = A Giant Love-fest of Birdy Birds and Birdy People
...which is why I love going to the Biggest Week. I see incredible close-up views of birds I don't see very often, and I get to do it surrounded by people who love birds as much as I do. There is something special about waking up and heading out to the boardwalk where you are among hundreds of people who all love birds. It's great. Wherever you turn, you meet a person willing to help you ID a bird, or point one out...or a person just as excited as you to talk about their finds and what they saw further up or down the boardwalk (in other words, you get no blank looks or glassy-eyed stares when you start talking about birds, their nests, migration, ________, etc.). If you're going, let me know. I'll find you on the boardwalk!

Mark your calendars...the dates for the 2016 Biggest Week are set: 


http://www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com