Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Female Widow Skimmer dragonfly in the high meadow...

Sunday, Rick and I decided to check out the high meadow at Voice of America (VOA) park. I wanted to see if the Bobolinks were still around (I didn't see any...) and if I could photograph a few dragonflies. We also chose VOA because it's a grass field, and grass offers a lot more cushion and therefore less impact on an ankle than cement paths or uneven terrains. I have a reconstructed ankle from an injury back in 1985, and I've developed arthritis in that foot. Every now and then, I do something stupid (like running through a very large parking lot) and severely inflame it. Yeah! Then I have to be careful for a couple of grass it was!

Dragonflies were everywhere in the meadow, especially Widow Skimmers, and I was glad when this female flew into camera range and posed right away, resting on a dead stalk. She stayed around for several minutes, flying away for a second or so and then coming right back. Sometimes when she left she nabbed an insect to eat, but mostly she was simply disturbed by the sound of the shutter clicking...

Female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) Dragonfly

Female and juvenile male Widow Skimmer dragonflies have dark brown patches at the base of their wings close to their bodies. Adult males do too, but they also have powdery white patches on their wings. Unfortunately a male didn't fly into view, so I don't had a photo of one (click here for a photo on "BugGuide").

Someone once told me Widow Skimmers were named after the wide dark brown/black patches on their wings. These patches were the color of mourning clothes and therefore were called "widow patches." Maybe that's true. I did find a similar reference on the "Living with Insects Blog," here, but I also read that "widow" refers to the fact that male Widow Skimmers leave the females after they lay their eggs (leaving them widows), while males of most other dragonfly species stay with the females (source: Loudon Wildlife Conservancy). That makes sense too, until I read in my dragonfly field guide, "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio," by Rosche, Semroc, and Gilbert (pg 153), that "males perform territorial battles and hover guard their ovipositing mates tenaciously," which is completely the opposite. So I don't know what to think. Maybe the name "widow" is derived from the Latin "luctuosa," which means "sorrowful" (Latin source: Living With Insects Blog). Whichever the case, thinking of the dark brown patches at the base of the wings as "widow patches" always made it easy for me to remember the name of this dragonfly a long time I'll stick with that!

Female Widow Skimmers have a yellow stripe running dorsally on their thorax. At the abdomen it splits into two stripes that extend the length of the abdomen. Juvenile males have the same marking.

You can tell this Widow Skimmer is a female and not a juvenile male because of her smooth abdomen. A reference on "The Butterfly Digest" blog, here, explains how to tell the difference between a female and a juvenile male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (with links to BugGuide of photos of the hamule).

...glad you dropped by Widow Skimmer. it was fun photographing you!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana)

A lover of shade and moist soils along woodland edges, this tall beauty possesses blossoms that radiate the sweetest shade of summer blue--always a welcome sight in the heat of summer...

With the name Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana), you would expect the flowers of this plant to be either tubular or bell shaped. Instead, they are regular star-shaped flowers that grow up and down long spiky stems. Reaching heights of three to six feet, the plant has an airiness to it and sways gently in any breeze. Long, lance-like leaves enhance its airy feel.

The curved style on Tall Bellflower blossoms is characteristic and is often compared to an elephant's trunk!

Tall Bellflower can be found along the Little Miami River in the shadows and edges along the bike trail. I saw this plant at the end of July on a very steamy and hot day.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Eastern Hognose Snake with all his antics...

Eastern Hognose Snakes (Heterodon platyrhinos) are the drama kings and queens of the snake world----they are blustery and filled with air (literally), put on a great act, and work very hard to convince you they’re dangerous…

Yikes! If that doesn't convince you there's danger lurking in the grass, I don't know what will, but it's all an act. Eastern Hognose snakes are harmless to humans. If you look in that gaping maw (and how can you not?) you'll see there are no fangs to deliver venom. There are teeth in the back (rear fangs), but they are mainly used to puncture inflated toads (their favorite food) and hold them in place (toads will sometimes inflate their bodies when captured to try to keep from being swallowed, but a hognose takes care of that minor problem in short order!).

When I was looking at the above photo, it dawned on me that I saw no tongue. Where on earth was it? Then I noticed the sheath on the bottom jaw...ahhh haaaa! A snake's tongue is encased in a sheath in the lower jaw when it is retracted. Since a snake's tongue is so integral to its survival, it only makes sense it would have evolved with a sheath to protect the tongue from injury.

When alarmed, an Eastern Hognose Snake will flatten out its head and neck to form a cobra-like hood. Here you can see he's just starting to produce the flaring hood, which is one of his tricks to try to convince you he's venomous and dangerous. Venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads, while non-venoums snakes have more oval-shaped heads, but if you look at his eye you can see it's all a ruse. He has oval-shaped pupils, which means he is non-venomous. Venomous snakes have elliptical-shaped pupils. you can see the fully formed cobra-like hood. It's pretty convincing!

...from behind the look is just as dramatic...

...and from straight on...ack! That is one dangerous-looking snake. His head screams triangle and his little triangular-shaped snout (the hognose namesake) only adds to his fierceness. Of course, once again, his round pupils give away the fact that he's nonvenomous and harmless...

...and if all that blustering doesn't scare you away, the hognose then does the next best thing. He plays dead, flipping over on his back and lolling out his tongue!

...yes, he actually lolls out his tongue, which is a clever touch because he really does look quite dead! If you want an encore performance, just flip him over. He will immediately flop onto his back again...and loll out that tongue as well!

Matty and I watched this grand performance on 6/29/2011 at Shawnee State Park in Ohio when we were volunteering with Jenny Richards, the park's amazing naturalist. You learn and get to see so much when you volunteer in the parks!

Note: The hognose snake has another method of defense. It will inflate its body with air by expanding its lung like a balloon (most snakes have only one functioning lung that extends most of the length of its body). It then lets the air out emitting a loud hissing sound. I couldn't capture this with the camera... This behavior accounts for many of its common names of "puff adder, blow snake, and hissing viper" (common name source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources A-Z Species Guide).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to fly in four easy moves...

I was watching this young Little Blue Heron flapping and stretching his wings, practicing for the big take-off, when I noticed he was mimicking his mama. If the adult would flap, the baby would too. If the adult reined it in, so would the baby. It was funny to watch, and the following imaginary scene of an adult instructing a child on the finer points of flight played in my mind...

"Okay, son, just do what I do, and you'll be golden..." have to stretch those wings wide to produce enough air flow to create lift...

...wing position is critical for sharp turns... attention to that wingspan!

That was fun, ma! Can we do it again? Am I ready to fly yet? I felt great. How'd I look? Can we do it again?

I saw these two on June 8, 2011 at Ibis Pond on Pinckney Island near Hilton Head, SC. In addition to strengthening and stretching its wings to gain strength for eventual flight, the baby was getting used to perching on limbs instead of just sitting in the nest. A lot of wing flapping goes on in the rookery, and it's fun to watch!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Baby Snapping Turtle--an armor-plated cutie!

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentine) are often thought of as aggressive and cantankerous biters, but this little fellow is nothing but a cutie...

...even though this little armor-plated turtle is going to grow up to be a fierce Snapping Turtle, he really is a CUTIE now. Just like the softshell turtles in this post, Snapping Turtles cannot pull back into their shells for protection, so to survive predatory attacks, they have to be fierce, quick in the water, and be able to inflict significant damage with a bite.

Snapping Turtles can smell decomposition in the water and will eat dead fish and rotting plants (like vultures of the water!). Because Snapping Turtles include carrion in their diets, they really help us out by keeping the stagnant ponds and slow moving rivers they live in clean. It's even reported that Snapping Turtles have such a strong sense of smell they have been used by the police to find drowning victims in ponds and rivers (source: Manitoba Herps Atlas). I wonder if that is really true. I should call the police and ask them because I can't picture a Snapping Turtle tethered on a leash...

...although fighters on land, in the water most Snapping Turtles are shy and will simply dive under or head the other way if they encounter a human.

...still coated in mud from where he was buried, this baby Snapping Turtle clearly shows that he cannot pull his head into his small carapace (shell). Like the softshell turtles in this post, Snapping Turtles also have a very small plastron (under shell); however, being fast swimmers with aggressive personalities more than makes up for their inability to lock themselves up in a shell for protection.

Snapping Turtles have three prominent dorsal keels (ridges) on their carapaces. The keels are more pronounced on young Snappers like this one and tend to fade or smooth out as the turtles grow--and they can really grow! Snapping turtles are the largest turtles in Ohio (source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources).

Snapping Turtles also have the longest tails of all the turtles, and their tails are scuted (meaning they have bony protective plates). You can see just how long a Snapper's tail is here...its nearly as long as the carapace. As this baby gets older and his shell grows, the tail won't look quite as long, but it will still be impressive. As Snappers get older, their scuted tails become more serrated and the three rows of spikes become more prominent. (Source: "How to Tell How Old a Snapping Turtle Is")

In the above photo, see how this Snapper's tail drags in in the mud as he walks into the water? This is a good sign to look for when trying to find turtles. They leave footprints and tail prints behind just like any other animal. If you study the sand or mud along a pond, lake or river, you probably will start to notice these little tracks. I have lots of photos of turtle tracks. They are really fun. I'm going to put a little post together on them soon...

(We found this little fellow in a small pond near the Great Miami River on July 10, 2011.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Belted Kingfishers on the Great Miami River

Belted Kingfishers are river birds, so it's no surprise I'd see a few while canoeing, but on the Great Miami River last Saturday I saw a lot--many more than I usually see along the Little Miami River, but even though they were always near us, flying around and vocalizing, I'm convinced their maniacal laughter was nothing more than taunting, and they were laughing at me in the most devious way, knowing I'd never get a crisp photo of them as they whizzed past and stayed just out of range...

...a male Belted Kingfisher surveys the water from a dead snag along the Great Miami River.

...a female Belted Kingfisher flies past us as we canoe down the river. Belted Kingfishers are one of the few birds where the female is more colorful than the male. She has an extra "belt" of rufous or rusty orange around her middle. The males just have one dark belt around their chests.

...sometimes Belted Kingfishers are described as being a drab slate blue, but when they spread their tail feathers, those white bars and spots are anything but drab...

I can still hear that bird laughing as he whipped past us...taunting, I tell you...taunting!

...a male and female Belted Kingfisher sit together along the Great Miami River in a dead and downed tree. Belted Kingfishers form pair bonds and are monogamous. Males defend their territory with vigor. Shortly after I snapped this photo, the male chased off an interloper vocalizing and battling on the wing.

Belted Kingfishers are such interesting birds, and I see or hear one every time I walk my patch along the Little Miami River, but after all this time I've never seen a nesting site. Maybe it's because Belted Kingfishers make tunnel nests in the riverbank, which are a little hard to see from a trail. They burrow into the vertical walls of dirt that edge the river, forming tunnels from two to ten feet. While canoeing the Great Miami River, I saw lots of Bank Swallow holes in the vertical dirt walls along the river and wondered if the Belted Kingfisher's nesting hole looked similar. I didn't see any of the kingfishers flying into any of the holes, but it's probably too late in the season anyway. Next spring I'd like to get out on the Great Miami and see if I can find a kingfisher's nesting tunnel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Northern Map Turtles on the Little Miami River

Rick and I saw a lot of Northern Map Turtles along the Little Miami River while canoeing last week. They were a little more wary than the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles from this post, but they still did a fair amount of posing for the camera...

...a female Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) lounges on a log in the Little Miami River. A cloud had just passed in front of the sun, and she seemed a bit miffed, wondering "Where's the sun?"

...look at the size and shape of that noggin! Female Northern Map Turtles have much wider heads than males. As a result, females have a slightly different diet. The larger crushing surface of their jaws allows them to eat larger molluscs. They also eat crayfish and insects. Males eat smaller molluscs and insects. Another difference between males and females--females have smaller tails. In this photo we can see a small tail and a broad head...must be a female!

...a green-haired sea monster!
...or maybe just a male Northern Map turtle who has been busy accumulating moss.

Notice the yellow triangle behind his eye? That is a distinguishing mark for the Northern Map Turtle. It can be triangular, oval or even heart-shaped. Another Map Turtle, the Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis), has a more rectangular or crescent-shaped yellow mark, and the False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) has a much thinner mark.

...a young Northern Map Turtle still shows a clearly defined dorsal keel. This little guy allowed us to come in pretty close before plopping into the water.

...and talking about plopping, Northern Map Turtles are wary little beasts. This is the usual view of them...the big plop into the water. I was lucky to capture her mid-splash here. Usually I just capture the splash...

For more information on Northern Map Turtles, click here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Juvenile Wood eye level...

Canoeing the Little Miami River
...another benefit of canoeing on the river is how close you can get to juvenile Wood Ducks. Rick and I were floating toward a cluster of downed trees to photograph an Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle sunning on one of the branches. We could see a brood of juvenile Wood Ducks milling around the tree, but I assumed they would swim away in terror as we got closer to them (similar to the way adults burst from the water whistling in reproach when disturbed), but the juvenile didn't. They went about their business as we floated past, eyeing us suspiciously, but showing no real alarm. Before this encounter I had never been close enough to a Wood Duck to see the thin yellow line around their eyes. I've always loved Wood Ducks, but now I'm really smitten. I've seen this little brood three times now--twice while canoeing with Rick and once while kayaking by myself. Hopefully we can get back to see them a few more times before they head south for the winter. Time is running out, though...

A juvenile Wood Duck swims near a downed tree on the Little Miami River.

...maybe this little brood is so tolerant of humans and canoes because so many have drifted past them this summer. I guess as a little Wood Duck it would be easy to become habituated to humans if you lived on Morgan's canoe run!'s a special feeling to be so close to the water...and almost eye level with the Wood Ducks!

...a sweet little family of Wood Ducks.

A young Eastern Spiny Softshell turtle shares his log with two Wood Ducks.

...cute, cute, cute!

Since Wood Ducks nest exclusively in cavities, the next time we float past, I'm going to look up in the trees to see if I can spot the tree they used. I know, however, I probably won't find it because their nesting cavity could be in a tree 150 feet or more away from the water. In "The Birds of Ohio," by Bruce Peterjohn, he writes Wood Ducks can nest up to a half mile away, although they prefer to be close to the water. I remember when I was a kid I watched an animal show that documented baby Wood Ducks taking their first plunge into the water from their nesting cavity, which was 50 or 60 feet over the water. When they splashed into the water and immediately bobbed up and started swimming I couldn't believe it. They then showed another brood of baby Wood Ducks climbing out of a nesting cavity located in the woods no where near water. The little babies jumped from the hole, free falling to the forest floor only to bounce a few times when they hit the ground. I was so shocked to see it, but all their fluffy feathers and the fact that their bodies were still mostly composed of cartilage instead of bone protected them from injury. I was amazed back then...and I still am... What an introduction to the world these little cuties have!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Now that's a spiny softshell...

Rick and I ducked out of work a little early yesterday to go canoeing...and turtle hunting! The Wednesday before we canoed the Little Miami River and saw dozens of turtles, but I didn't have my camera with me. This time, I brought my camera...

Look at the spikes on that leathery-soft shell...they really put the "spine" in spiny!
It's easy to identify this Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera) because her spines are incredibly obvious. Her smarmy little "smile" made me laugh, and I could see a word bubble over her head with "you like those, babe?" printed in it.

We rented our canoe from Morgan's Canoe Rentals and set off from Fort Ancient. We did the 6-mile run, going as far as Morrow. It's the fourth time I've been on the Little Miami this summer--two other times with Rick and once kayaking by myself. Birdwatching and turtle watching from the water is incredible. I know I'll be in the market for a canoe or kayak one of these days. Yesterday we saw a Spotted Sandpiper fly right past us and land on the rocks bankside. I was amazed. It was the first time I had seen a Spotted Sandpiper go bob-bob-bobbing along on my favorite river, and it made me happy! I doubt I would have seen the bird from the trail. Being able to drift down the river silently and at the low angle offers a new perspective on birding...and is the only way to turtle watch.

...this spiny softshell is easy to identify too. You can see the little spines sticking up from the front of the carapace...and the feet are heavily marked with yellow and black spots and streaking.

...sacked out in the mud (and still sporting a clump of sand on her back from being buried earlier), Mrs. Spiny watches us slowly drift by. I love the posture she's in because it reminds me of a crocodile with her head and eye nearly hidden in the mud. (Her little friend resting on her back seems to like the posture too!)

...I see your little spines, Spiny! ...and your distinctive ridged nose...not to mention the yellow and black spots on your legs and feet...and the two lines behind your eye...

Rick and I were hoping to find a Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica) yesterday. They are documented on the Great Miami River, and they've been spotted on the Little Miami too, but from a distance it's hard for me to tell them apart. When I first saw this big softshell I didn't see any spines, and the coloring looked different. I was hoping, hoping, hoping we had a Midland Smooth, but on closer inspection, I could see the heavily spotted feet characteristic of the spiny softshells (smooth softshell turtles' feet are not heavily spotted or streaked). Even the ocelli (dark spots) of a spiny softshell are visible if you look carefully. I really want to find a Midland Smooth Softshell so I can compare it with an Eastern Spiny Softshell.

...definitely an Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle. you can see the distinctive soft white plastron (bottom shell) of a softshell turtle. You can also see just how pliable and leathery a softshell turtle's carapace is by the way it drapes over the log.

...this one made me chuckle...looks like she's testing the temp of the water!

I can't wait until the next time we get to go out on the river! For an earlier post on spiny soft shells from the Great Miami River, click here.

Since this post, I was able to photograph Midland Smooth Softshell turtles, click here for photos.