Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Cornish Rex Halloween Cat
...there is nothing like a Cornish Rex kitty to give you a Halloween fright!
Bip may look scary, but he's as sweet as can be, and he's always the perfect Halloween cat. 
Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Northern Brown Snake at Fort Ancient

Rick and I took advantage of the sunny skies and crisp temperatures on Sunday and headed up to Fort Ancient for a little birding. We walked the meadow near the visitor's center and then took the Mound Trail. The birds were wonderful...lots of yellow-rumped warblers, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, downies, chickadees, and titmice, to name a few. At one point, while we were sitting down listening for brown creepers, a beautiful red-shouldered hawk swept across the gorge, landing on a branch on the other side briefly before taking off again. On our way back, as we neared the little bridge that leads back to the trailhead, Rick looked down just in time to avoid stepping on a Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi)...

Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi)
A Northern Brown Snake (Storia dekayi dekayi) suns himself in the leaf litter along the trail. He was very cold and barely moving. Kudos to Rick and his iPhone! It's a great camera in a pinch. I decided not to bring my camera on this trip because I just wanted to relax and enjoy the birds. That'll teach me to slack off. I'm glad Rick was able to pick up the slack for me and capture this wonderful image with his cell phone!

Can a snake be any more camouflaged? He looked like a stick among the leaves. Glad Rick spotted him! 

In Ohio, Northern Brown Snakes and Midland Brown Snakes share territory. According to the books, both snakes look similar and have two rows of dark spots running down their backs. Midland Brown Snakes have a line that connects the spots and creates a ladder pattern. Since I don't see any "rungs" going across from the spots, I'm deducing this is a Northern Brown Snake.

Brown snakes are not large. This guy was probably full grown. He was about 12-13 inches long. 

Brown snakes don't bite. They are gentle. This guy didn't musk either. He was very docile, probably because he was cold. I picked him up so we could see his belly. Brown snakes have plain, light-colored bellies, usually a light pinkish tan or beige. 

I did a little reading in my favorite reptile book, Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana, by Sherman A. Minton, Jr., and learned brown snakes are "most often found abroad during the mild days of Indian summer in October and early November." (Minton, pg 283) No wonder we found this fellow. He was right on schedule!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Red-shouldered Hawk in the rain...and on our deck...

I love walking into our kitchen and seeing a Red-shouldered Hawk on the other side of the backdoor...

This Saturday a Red-shouldered Hawk dropped in to use the railing on our backyard deck to survey the yard for prey. 
It was drizzling out and cold, but I still had my side kitchen window open so I could listen to the birds as I worked in the house. I thought I had heard a hawk a little earlier but had dismissed it as a Blue Jay playing tricks. I'm sort of glad I hadn't paid closer attention, because there is nothing better than walking into the kitchen and being surprised by a sharp-taloned bird of prey right on the other side of the door! It doesn't matter how many times that happens, I'm still awestruck every time a hawk decides to use our deck railing as a hunting perch. This fellow was definitely in hunting mode. He was sitting exceptionally still staring at the ground between the ash and mulberry trees. I've seen voles and chipmunks running back and forth in that area often, so I assumed he had one of those furry little creatures in his sights. His glare was intense, and his concentration and posture suggested he was about to strike, but then he relaxed. I guess he decided it was all a false alarm and nothing tasty was about. He kept looking in that direction, though, so I decided to back out of the room and grab the camera.  

A Red-shouldered Hawk hunting in the rain.
Unfortunately, camera clicks don't impress hawks, so he quickly flew away nonplussed and emty-taloned. I felt guilty for disturbing him, but, you know...he was right on the other side of the kitchen door...and he was a Red-shouldered Hawk!

Our gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk flew off in a huff to find another hunting perch. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Katydid...Katydidn't in the Great Smoky Mountains

Last week Rick, Matty and I, my parents, and my brother, sis-in-law and niece all headed down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. It was our annual fall trip, and we were looking for a little adventure. Unfortunately, the park was closed due to the government shutdown, but we still had fun and saw many beautiful sights in other locations. Our cabin was high on a mountain in the woods, and the view alone was worth the trip. One afternoon I was sitting on the deck reading, when I looked up and directly in front of me was a katydid. The sunlight was backlighting her, so I went in to grab my camera. She stuck around, and I was able to get a few photos...

Katydids have very long and thin antenna. It's one way to tell the difference between a grasshopper (which has a much shorter antenna) and a katydid. The katydid's long antenna size is why it's called a "long-horned grasshopper." Click here to see the shorter antennas of a grasshopper.
Before writing this post, I didn't know much about katydids. A green bug that looked like a leaf and had a song that sounded like its name was all that would come to mind. So after looking at my photos, I had to get out my favorite insect books to learn a little more. "The Songs of Insects" by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger has fantastic photos that are great for ID. I've learned a lot from it, and it focuses on crickets, katydids and grasshoppers, so I took it out. The next book I grabbed is called "The Grasshopper Book" by Wilfrid S. Bronson. Published in 1943, Bronson wrote the book for children and did all of the illustrations himself. I love the older language, the detailed drawings, and the humor he inserted throughout the text. I also got out my favorite all-around insect book, the "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America," by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman. After going through these books, I quickly learned there's more to katydids than just their green leaf-like wings!

Katydids are chewers and have powerful mouth parts to eat leaves. They can even bite into little berries. Chewing insects use maxilla (located on each side of the face) to help manipulate food. When an insect lowers them and starts moving them around, they look like tiny robot arms gathering up food. It's very cool to watch. Additionally, because katydids have powerful mandibles and mouthparts, they can bite (Bronson, pg 79)! 

Katydid "chewing" on wood post from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo. You can see her moving her maxilla around searching for food.

Female katydids have an ovipositor (or egg placer). The size and shape of the ovipositor is a good way to identify different species. Due to the curved shape and darker color of this female's ovipositor, I think this is a Fork-tailed Bush Katydid. This species is very common and found throughout the United States (Elliot and Hershberger, pg 159).
Ovipositors are specialized for each species of katydid, and different species use them in different ways. While reading "The Grasshopper Book," I learned female Fork-tailed Bush Katydids chew off a small part of the edge of a leaf, and then use their mouthparts to guide the ovipositor to the chewed-off edge to slice through the two layers of epidermis and deposit super-thin, flat eggs (Bronson, pg 85). What? How is that possible...leaves are so thin! I wondered if there was a photo of that on the web, so I did a quick search.  Sure enough, I found a photo...and even a video. Click here to go to "The Smaller Majority" blog and see how a female bush katydid deposits her eggs (ovipositing) between the two layers of epidermis in a leaf.

The little hole on each of the katydid's front legs is the katydid's ear (tympanum).
Where do you find a katydid's ears? Don't look on their heads, try their forelegs instead!  When I was looking at a few of the close-up photos I took of the katydid, I noticed a small hole or slit on each front leg. It looked like a tiny scar, and I wondered what it was. Once again, Bronson came to the rescue by mentioning that the "slit in each front shin" contains the katydid's hearing apparatus (Bronson, pg 79). If you want to learn more about the katydid's ear structure, which is very similar to mammals, click here.   

One more thing...katydids got their name because their song often sounds like "katydid...katydidn't," but not all species of katydids get to sing out their name. The Fork-tailed Bush Katydid in this post has a "tsip" song or a high-pitched tick (Elliot and Hershberger, 158). There is always something new to learn about nature. It seems every time I lift my camera and focus, Mother Nature sends me another surprise!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Little Red Fox, what are you doing here?

For the first time ever, we had a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in our yard. A big thank you goes to my neighbor, Chet (13 years old and a fellow snake lover), who spotted the young fox in the bushes near our kitchen window. Knowing I'd love to photograph the new visitor, Chet crept over to our front door to let me know. As soon as he told me, I grabbed the camera and headed for the back door. By then Little Red Fox had moved to the backyard, but I was still able to photograph him through our fence...

A Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in a suburban setting.
Little Red Fox dropped by this weekend and charmed us with his foxy wiles.
I don't know a lot about foxes, so I had to get out my books and do a little online research to figure out exactly what kind of fox Little Red was and what he was doing in our side yard. I learned there are two species of foxes in Ohio, Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and Gray Foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Red Foxes have reddish fur on their bodies with black on their legs. They have white muzzles, throats, and chests, and also a white tip on their tail. Basically, Red Foxes are the stereotypical fox we all know. Gray Foxes are much darker with gray fur on their bodies and reddish fur on their legs and faces. Their tails are tipped in black with a noticeable black stripe down the middle.

Red Foxes are often seen in urban and suburban environments, while Gray Foxes avoid human habitation and prefer deep woods. Because Red Foxes like the open fields and forest edges created by humans, they benefited when the European settlers cleared the Ohio forests for farmland in the 1700s. Until then, there were only Gray Foxes in Ohio. Red Foxes moved down from the north as their preferred habitat was created, while Gray Foxes retreated away from the settlements, and today they are found primarily in the deep woods of southeastern Ohio.

A young Red Fox out in the daylight.
Before he ran off, Little Red stopped and looked back at Chet and me. We were standing on the deck, and he was definitely curious. We didn't move to come after him. We just watched him watching us. 
Red Foxes are not new to the suburbs of Cincinnati. For years, Rick, Matty and I have seen foxes making their nightly runs along nearby golf courses and forest edges, but we've never had one hide in the bushes outside our kitchen window. Turns out, Red Foxes have been moving steadily closer to humans as the coyote population expands. An article in The Columbus Dispatch by Jim Weiker titled, "Foxes seek refuge from coyotes in suburbs," explained a lot. For the past 20 years, the coyote population in Ohio has been on the rise. Coyotes hunt the same prey foxes do (e.g., mice, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits). When prey is scarce, however, coyotes also hunt foxes and their kits. In the article, Suzanne Prange, a wildlife research biologist, hypothesizes that foxes seem to have figured out coyotes don't like humans, and therefore, their kits are safer near human developments.

Red Fox running in a suburban backyard.
Even though he was curious, after a few seconds "Stranger Danger " showed up in his expression, and Little Red headed off.  
In an article in the New York Times titled "Red Foxes Thriving in Suburban Woods," by William K. Stevens, I learned the Red Fox has become the most widely distributed wild carnivore on earth because it is able to adapt to the presence of humans and thrive in our man-made, chopped-up environments. Biologists believe foxes are here to stay because of their "super-adapter" status.

Red Foxes have catlike characteristics
Run Little Red, like the wind!
When I was watching Little Red, I was surprised at how cat-like he was. Foxes are in the same biological family as dogs, Canidae, but Little Red had so many feline characteristics it made me do a double-take. His whiskers on his face were really long, and watching him slink through the grass as he left our yard brought the image of a cat to mind...not a dog. In the New York Times article, Stevens mentions a book written by a Canadian ecologist named Dr. J. David Henry called "Red Fox: The Catlike Canine." I was happy to see that. I need to get that book to read more about their feline ways! Henry confirmed several catlike adaptations, including the fact that foxes, which are primarily nocturnal, have pupils that close to vertical slits in bright light like cats' pupils do to help prevent blinding.

Red Foxes can sprint up to 45 mph for a short distance, and they run in a straight line. They have small stomachs, which keep them light on their feet. Because of that, they can't gorge like coyotes. Instead, they eat their fill and hide the rest until they are hungry again.

I hope you come back, Little Red!

So it seems we all have been sharing our suburban yards with Red Foxes for a quite a while, but they go unnoticed mainly because they are secretive and nocturnal. Red Foxes, however, will hunt during the day, and if they are disturbed in their hiding places, they will run too. So if you see a Red Fox during the day, don't assume he is sick. He probably isn't. Autumn is when young foxes leave their parents, setting off to find their own territory, so our Little Red was probably doing just that. Young foxes are even more likely to run during the day. Our yard had an overabundance of rabbits this year. I left a large part of the backyard go wild this summer, hoping to attract more birds by creating a tiny prairie with lots of grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps this helped create an ideal nursery for bunnies, and maybe the foxy Little Red was drawn to the ready supply of food, running water, and large bushes for shelter. Who knows...but from what I read, I bet we will see him again.


The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Division of Wildlife:
   - for Red Fox information, click here. and click here. 
   - for Gray Fox information, click here.

Click here for the New York Times article written by William K. Stevens titled "Red Foxes Thriving in Suburban Woods."

Click here for the Columbus Dispatch article written by Jim Weiker titled "Foxes seek refuge from coyotes in suburbs." (There is a cute video with this article showing a Red Fox family playing in a suburban backyard.)

Click here for another article titled "Red Foxes are on the Rise in Suburban and Urban Areas" by the Brandywine Conservancy's Environmental Management Center.