Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Marbled Godwits on the mudflats of Ding Darling...

Birding Sanibel Island and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
...standing on Wildlife Drive and looking out at the mudflats of the eastern impoundment in the Ding Darling NWR, a huge flock of Willets flew in causing quite a stir. Through the binocs, Matty and I could see a few Short-billed Dowitchers were thrown in...and a life bird for us, a Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa)...

...a Marbled Godwit towers over the Short-billed Dowitcher standing beside it in the water.

...fluffing beautiful, carmel-colored feathers.

...there is no missing that long pink bill with the black tip! It's beautiful...

Marbled Godwits are stunning birds. Large and impressive, their pinkish bills really stand out, and their warm colors separate them easily from the surrounding grey-colored birds.

...a glimpse of the "cinnamon flash" of the underlining of the Marbled Godwit's wing. I was surprised how noticeable it was.

...two Marbled Godwits stand among Willets and Short-billed Dowitchers, their slightly upturned pinkish and blackish bills stealing the show!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) walking the beach...

Birding Sanibel Island and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Shorebird ID is always tough for me because I don't get to see them that often, so when large flocks of assorted waders fly in, I really have to think. When trying to identify shorebirds, I focus on three things to start; leg color, bill shape, and height. Since I can't identify shorebirds yet by call, and I normally see them only in non-breeding plumage, sticking to the "big three" seems to be the best way for me to ID them.

A Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) walks the shore on Captiva Island in Florida.

Short-billed Dowitchers and Long-billed Dowitchers look a lot alike, but according to my "Birds of Florida" book by Pranty, Radamaker, and Kennedy, Long-billed Dowitchers are "restricted to fresh water during winter." Since it was the end of winter when I saw this bird, and he was standing where the land meets the sea, it was easy to deduce that this fellow was the short-billed version of the bird...

The Short-billed Dowitcher's field marks are pretty clear...a medium-sized shorebird with pale yellow legs and a very long, straight bill. Check!

...another determining field mark of a dowitcher is a black-and-white barred tail.

...the two yellow-legged Short-billed Dowitchers seem to be pointing at the tiny Dunlin in front of them. It's easy to see dowitchers are medium-sized birds compared to the tiny Dunlins or Sanderlings.

...for comparison, a Short-billed Dowitcher stands next to a Dunlin. (For an earlier post on Dunlins, click here.) Size, leg color, and bill shape are different between these two birds!

...not quite The Three Tenors, but these three Short-billed Dowitchers look dapper in the sun. Our little Dunlin doesn't seem to be able to keep his eyes open!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Large-flowered Valerian along the Little Miami River

...pushing up through the shadows along the Little Miami Trail, Large-flowered Valerian (Valeriana pauciflora) was putting on a spectacular show. The flower heads looked like bursts of fireworks nodding in the breeze...dotting the hillside as they slid down to the river. Upon closer inspection, I found each blossom in the "burst" was a tiny tubular-shaped flower with the corolla about 3/4" long. Three stamens extended from each corolla and added to the sparkly look of fireworks. I photographed the flower, but I didn't know what it was, and it wasn't in my two Ohio wildflower books. Andrew, from The Natural Treasures of Ohio blog, identified the delicate flower and filled me in on its role as a riparian indicator species. Just like the Acadian Flycatcher in this post, Valeriana pauciflora lets us know the riparian ecosystem along the Little Miami River is healthy and pollution free. Yeah!

...a beautiful starburst of tubular-shaped blossoms tops the long stem of this native perennial wildflower.

...an interesting arrangement of leaves, they grow in opposite pairs.

...a closeup of Large-flowered Valerian (Valeriana pauciflora) leaves. Three leaflets are showing here, but the pairs can have up to 7 leaflets on each side.

...a tiny beetle climbs among the blossoms. I couldn't find much info on what pollinates Large-flowered Valerian. The Illinois Wildflower blog reports that, "the long slender corollas suggest that the flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, butterflies, Sphinx moths, and possibly hummingbirds. The nectar of the flowers is inaccessible to most insects with short mouthparts."

...a close-up reveals the beetle is glowing yellow and white as tiny balls of pollen cling to his armor. Whether he is a pollinator or not, he seems to be doing a good job here!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Louisiana Waterthrush beside a rocky stream...

…Rick and I had just crossed over one of the many rocky streams that tumble down steep hillsides and into the Little Miami River when I caught sight of a bird bobbing up and down on a tree limb in the distance. I knew what it was without having to use my binocs—a Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla), but a quick look through the camera lens while snapping a photo confirmed its identify. What a find! We don’t get to see Louisiana Waterthrushes very often, so we were happy and surprised…

We caught sight of this Louisiana Waterthrush just after crossing the stream that leads to the heavily wooded, deep and dark lowland flats ("Middle Earth"). The sun had actually come out that day, and the whole woods had morphed into a steamy hot sauna. It felt good...

Painting 152. Louisiana Waterthrush along the Little Miami
(Oil Pastel, Sennelier Oil Pastel paper)

When we saw this bird, the heat of afternoon was building. It was the first day of sunshine in weeks, and when I got home and started to paint him, my mind was still filled with the heat of the sun. I guess that's why the painting quickly went to reds, oranges and yellows. I never know what will happen when I pick up an oil pastel and start to paint, because for some reason the results are representational and emotion-driven. Using the creamy colors is fun, and no sketching is required. I just start putting down color and let the bird emerge. The finished piece is always impressionistic with a grungy feel. Detail and accuracy are abandoned for color.

Painting 153. Louisiana Waterthrush in the Deep Woods
(Watercolor and scribbled color pencil)

I painted this guy several days later. By then the rains and grey cloud cover had returned (so no reds, yellows and oranges!). Seems my watercolor paintings are always a little more realistic and detailed, but this one is still very loose. It was fun to scribble over the top of the painting with colored pencil. I just recently started picking the colored pencils up again. I haven't used them for so long.

...a pencil sketch of a Louisiana Waterthrush as a study for painting 153.

I wish I had had a video camera with me to capture the way the warbler was bobbing up and down. He really made me think of a Spotted Sandpiper bobbing and dancing to some unheard forest rhythm.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Early morning visitor

...this morning while we were waiting for Matty's bus, I looked up from my desk to find a deer standing in the front yard. If I lived in the woods, it would be expected, but I live in the suburbs. Unfortunately for the deer, it's not that unusual anymore to find them in the suburbs...

...outside my office window a White-tailed Deer studies the street...

...she moved to the back yard, so I snuck out to photograph her (...barefoot and in my PJs. The ground was wet and muddy...squish!).

...running to my neighbor's yard.


(All of these "nice" grass shots are in my neighbor's yard. Our lawn is more natural...(weeds!)...but the birds like it!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Acadian Flycatcher along the Little Miami River

…along with Angry Birds and Disappearing Cardinals, Friday’s walk along the Little Miami brought in close-up views of an Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens). He’s not the flashiest of all the spring migrants along the river, but he is fun to watch as he flies out to hawk insects…and he is noisy too. He didn’t shout out his “peet-sa” call at all while I photographed him, but he had been singing shortly before I found him sitting on a branch overhanging the trail...looking for something to eat...

I always hear these little birds before I see them.
The standard mnemonics for his call is a quick "Peet-sa" (click here for a link to the call).

...his pinkish, yellowish lower mandible is so cute...

...upper mandible is dark...

...I'm not sure, but this might be a Stink Eye.

The Acadian Flycatcher is a riparian corridor bird of Ohio (click here for details),
and one of the best indicator species of riparian quality.

...a glimpse of his broad, flat bill. For the size of his little head, he really does have a big mouth!
It must make catching insects mid-air easier...

For an earlier post with a little more info on the Acadian Flycatcher, click here.

Beak Bit
A riparian corridor is a mature woodland growing along a river or stream. With the Little Miami, this forested river corridor offers an unbroken stretch of woodland (which gets harder and harder to find) offering ideal habitat for the woodland warblers and spring migrants. Since the Acadian Flycatcher is one of the best "indicator species" of riparian quality, I'm always happy to hear his happy call. If the Acadian Flycatcher is living along its banks, the Little Miami river corridor is doing well and is free of pollution!

For more information on indicator species, click here.
For more information on riparian corridor birds of Ohio rivers, click here.
For more information on riparian corridors or a riparian zone, click here.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Angry Birds...in Middle Earth...

…there is one spot along the Little Miami River that is different from the “regular” woodlands along the trail—the lowland flats. The “flats” are thick and lush and mysterious. They sit about 20 or 30 feet below the biking trail about a mile up the path from the Powder Factory. Here the river meanders away from the bike path, forming a green, spongy stretch of land. When you walk the flats, you usually go unobserved by the people up on the trail, but you can see them, and you can hear them too as their voices sink down the slopes and echo around the huge Sycamore trees. The forest is deep and dark here, and the mind can wax fanciful easily, and that's not just me letting my imagination run wild. The last time Rick and I roamed the flats Rick mentioned the forest felt ancient, almost like we could be in a different world. He didn’t come right out and use the term “Middle Earth,” but I don’t think he would have been surprised to have seen a Lord of the Rings-style elf on a horse winding through the trees...

…so what does this have to do with anything? Friday, when the sun came out, I left work early and headed to the Little Miami. When I got to a turn-off path, I hopped off the trail and climbed down to the river where I followed a deer trail to the small creek that led to the flats. After crossing over, I walked only a few minutes before three little chickadees started sounding the alarm…screaming at me and scolding me like I’ve never been screamed at or scolded before! I took a few photos of them in their agitated state hoping they would calm down, but they didn’t. They were working in a triangle, shifting between three trees one after another, seemingly protecting the tree at the apex. That's when I saw a hole in the tree, which probably was a nesting cavity. I fired off a few more photos, but quickly left the scene. "Quiet down," I said, "You'll bring out the elves!" (I was kidding of course, but two deer on the other side of a giant felled tree did look up, which made me laugh...who knows...maybe...). I only walked 15-20 feet away before they calmed down and went about their business, but I didn’t linger and kept walking on, eventually climbing up the hillside and back to reality...

...now that's an Angry Bird!

...looking back at the tree with the nesting cavity in it.

...these Chiggies were relentless. He looks like he's singing, but he's not!! He's calling in the forces...

...look at the top-left corner of the photo. That's the nesting cavity he was protecting.

...intruder, intruder!


...get out...get out!

"Don't make me call in an elf. They have arrows..."

p.s. For you lovers of the "Angry Birds" games, there were no egg-snatching pigs around...the birds were just angry at me.

To see bird photos from around the world, visit...

Friday, May 20, 2011

...there's no way she can see me now!

A male Northern Cardinal spies me with my camera and slowly goes into hiding...

"...there's no way she can see me now!"

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.