Thursday, May 19, 2011

Northern Parulas, Usnea lichens, and the Little Miami River

Every spring Rick and I listen for the return of the Northern Parulas. In 2007 we were lucky because a male took up temporary residence in our backyard for two weeks singing loudly from dawn to dusk, but usually we find them singing in the tall Sycamore trees all along the Little Miami River.

Painting 150. Northern Parula in Spring
(Watercolor, Arches Cold Pressed 140 lb paper)

Pencil sketch of a Northern Parula
(study for painting 151)

We’re fortunate to have nesting Parulas in our area at all, because not much of Ohio is in their breeding range. In the deep south, Northern Parulas nest in trees dripping with Spanish moss, using the moss for nest construction, and in the north, they choose boreal woodlands with trees covered in Usnea lichen (which, with the nickname of Old Man’s Beard or beard lichen looks a lot like Spanish moss...), but Ohio seems to be a no-man’s land caught between the two…except for a few locations in southern and central Ohio, including our Little Miami River corridor! Since I see and hear Northern Parulas every spring and summer near the Powder Factory along the Little Miami River and a little further up the river at Fort Ancient, I didn’t know they were rare nesters in Ohio. They were common to me, but earlier this spring I started reading about them in “Birds of Ohio,” by Jim McCormac, “The Birds of Ohio,” by Bruce Peterjohn, and “Peterson Field Guides, Warblers,” by Jon Dunn/Kimball Garret, and they all said the same thing--nesting Northern Parulas in Ohio "prefer" boreal woodlands with white cedars and hemlocks:
“Breeders are largely confined to southern Ohio and are usually found in riparian woods with peak numbers occurring in hemlock gorges.” (McCormac, 251)
“As summer residents, Northern Parulas were formerly restricted to hemlock forests along the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau.” (Peterjohn, 422)
“In the northern portion of the breeding range it is generally associated with rather moist boreal forests including spruce, hemlock, balsam fir, white cedar, tamarack, an various hardwoods; Usnea lichen abounds in these habitats.” (Dunn/Garret, 197)

These descriptions definitely cover the areas in Hocking Hills where boreal relics live in the microclimates of the deep gorges, and therefore the largest concentrations of nesting Northern Parulas occur (click here for a past post describing Hocking Hills region and parts of the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau)…but in the Cincinnati area we don’t have a lot of white cedar and hemlock forests--unless you look at certain spots along the Little Miami River. In these areas relic boreal species still exist along its banks, hillsides, and gorges—all left behind from the mile-high Wisconsinan continental glacier 10,000 years ago (click here for a previous post on how Clifton Gorge was formed and the white cedars and hemlocks that live there). These gorges, carved out by a glacial meltwater river, contain cooler microclimates that mimic the boreal north and allow the northern species to thrive. When you travel to the headwaters of the Little Miami near Clifton Gorge, you find stands of white cedars and hemlocks, but further down the river by me, huge Sycamore trees are king, so why are the Northern Parulas nesting here? The same books held the answer:
“Breeders are largely confined to southern Ohio and are usually found in riparian woods...” (McCormac, 251) ("Riparian" woods are woodlands along the banks of a stream or river, which would include the mature Sycamore trees along the Little Miami River.)
“Since the late 1950s, summering Parulas have expanded into mature sycamore-oak riparian woodlands in southwestern Ohio. The first Cincinnati area nest was discovered in 1958. In subsequent years, they spread throughout southwestern Ohio north to Preble, Montgomery, Clinton, and western Ross Counties. They have become uncommon to rare in most of these counties, with most reports of four or fewer daily, although as many as 11 males were counted along the Little Miami River in Warren County.” (Peterjohn, 423)
“…in the upper Ohio River Valley, they may occur locally in sycamore and oak woodlands.” (Dunn/Garret, 197)

…so…yeah! for the Little Miami River, Usnea lichens and our little population of “common” Northern Parulas! The connection between Usnea lichens and Northern Parulas is important. I even found it mentioned in my huge book on lichens, “Lichens of North American,” by Irwin Brodo, Sylvia Sharnoff, and Steven Sharnoff, where they report the Usnea species is important as nesting material for Northern Parulas. The Little Miami River is a healthy river free of pollution, so lichen populations are healthy and large. I guess our little Northern Parulas have found what they need in the mature trees along its corridor.

Painting 151. Field sketches of a Northern Parula
...painted near the Powder Factory along the Little Miami River, I put the paint down quickly using a limited palette and a water brush. I was going for an impression or "feel" of the bird, so I didn't bother with pencil sketches, detail, or accuracy.

These photos are from April 29, 2011 along the Little Miami river along the Fort Ancient hillside entrance. Rick and I were looking at Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) growing along the path, and he was singing like crazy overhead. The photos are poor, but they show a few of the Northern Parula's characteristics.

Northern Parulas are very small warblers and can crawl to the tips of branches to glean insects like a chickadee or kinglet. (Dunn/Garret, 196)

...a peak at that beautiful bright yellow chest.

...even in the dark shadows the white arches above and below the eyes are visible.

...and the two white wing bars are just as visible.

For a link to the U.S. Geological Survey map of the breeding range of the Northern Parula, click here and here.

For a link to a page on Usnea lichens, click here.

20 comments:

Roy said...

The Field Sketches in 151, these are the sign of a true Artist Kelly.

texwisgirl said...

you are so talented!

jyothisethu said...

beautiful pictures of the birds with interesting information...

congratulations...

Carol Mattingly said...

Fantastic post and I love the field sketches. Gorgeous. Carol

Mama Zen said...

You do absolutely beautiful work!

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi Kelly, To tell you the truth, I have never heard of these little birds.. It was so interesting seeing your photos and paintings of the Northern Parulas.... How special to have them in your area.
Hugs,
Betsy

Shelley said...

Thanks for teaching me about a new bird - never knew about the Parulas! Such sweet things! Of course your pictures make them sweeter.

grammie g said...

Hi Kelly...a real cutie I never heard of and probably will never see..
so your photos and lovely talent in paint and sketch and given me a nice view of the little fellow!!
Great!!

Michael Bartneck said...

jeeze! first you almost make me wanna start birding..now painting..cut me some slack..I can't even take a picture that good much less draw and paint.But you make me want to give it a go!At least I can feel your passion! Adds another whole dimension of satisfaction to the pursuit doesn't it?Really amazing!I think I'll start calling you Kelly Audubon.;)

Elaine said...

What a sweet little bird! I had never heard of them before, but not surprising as they are an eastern bird and I've only lived on the west coast. I love your painting! You are already halfway done with your challenge and it's not even June yet! Somehow I think it has become a part of your life now and you don't need the challenge to keep you going, but I kind of think that's what the challenge was intended to do.

Carole Meisenhelter said...

fabulous art; great photographs.

Janice K said...

Such a pretty little bird. That first painting is awesome. I checked the map for it's breeding range, and apparently he doesn't do any stop-overs in Fort Wayne.

Have a great day!

Laure Ferlita said...

Thank you for the introduction of the Northern Parulas—since we have a whole lot of Spanish moss in our area, I'm going to have to do some research!

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how the sketch came out! I'm also in love with the sketch page! Amazing how accurate you were given that wasn't part of your concern as you sketched. And yes, you are SO talented!!!

Out on the prairie said...

What a lovely painting and interesting bird, I have never seen one.

Phil said...

A truly gorgeous little warbler Kelly and you are so talented in being able to capture the colours in your field sketches.

Montanagirl said...

What a sweet little bird, and your field sketches are just amazing, as are your paintings, of course!

Hilke Breder said...

Awesome post, Kelly, as usual with marvelous art work and photos! I have seen a Northern Parula only a couple of times, would love to get a good photo of one. Thanks by the way for you nice comment on my Everglades post!

Chris said...

Wow wow wow. I wonder if you have ever thought about doing a book with all these sketches and selling it. I'm sure it will have a lot of success Kelly:... Wonderful post! I really enjoyed it!

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! You're always so nice. One of these days I'd like to put a little nature book together. I'll just keep plugging away at it!

Toni said...

Love your watercolor sketch of the Parula. Don't you just wish we could keep the Wood Warblers around all summer.