Monday, September 30, 2019

Pileated Woodpecker

Sometimes you don’t even have to search for an interesting photographic subject.  I was lounging beneath a large cedar tree, waiting out a light drizzle of rain, when I heard some activity in the vegetation almost directly in front of me.  About the time I got my camera set up, a Pileated Woodpecker stuck its head up and took a look at me.

This is the largest of our Ohio woodpeckers and is always a treat to encounter.  I thought my presence was going to drive it away.  I just kept still and waited.  Humans are much less threatening when their facial features are hidden behind a camera.

My presence apparently didn’t cause the bird any alarm, because it continued tearing into a rotten stump in search of insects.

I’ve been trying to shoot some video of my photo subjects when possible.  The video shows the woodpecker breaking into a nest of ants. It’s particularly interested in grabbing the white colored larvae.  It snaps up what is readily available and then uses its tongue to probe into crevices to haul out any hidden morsels.  I stopped filming when the bird shifted around to the back of the stump.  It stayed out of sight for a few minutes before flying off.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Pulling Wild Carrots

The flower head of the Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, is made up of myriad small individual flowers, each capable of yielding a single seed. Since each plant is capable of producing multiple flower heads, a single plant may produce hundreds or even thousands of viable seeds. This may be a lovely proposition for those wishing to expand their population of Wild Carrots, but it can be a headache for people trying to manage areas as native ecosystems. My management efforts aim towards creating conditions that favor the growth and spread of native species. While Wild Carrot may be attractive and a favorite of many people, it is not native to North America and can act to degrade areas into which it invades. In order to protect and improve the native integrity of Blue Jay Barrens, I remove non-native species from the property and that includes ridding the fields of Wild Carrot.

The Wild Carrot is not the only invasive species I work to eradicate during the summer months. Sweet Clover, Teasel and Oxeye Daisy are also on my list of invasive plants to be pulled during the summer months, but they mature at different times through the summer, so multiple visits must be made to each management site during the year.  The photo above shows a collection of plants pulled from a small Prairie area during the first week of June. Plants on the left are Sweet Clover, those in the middle are Oxeye Daisy, and the small pile on the right side is Wild Carrot. Wild Carrot is just becoming noticeable in June as its developing flower stalk begins to elongate.

By the time August 1st arrives, Wild Carrot plants are a few feet tall and supporting a nice collection of white flowers. All pulled plants are gathered up and placed on an existing brush pile. It wouldn’t hurt anything to leave the plants in place to rot down naturally on the prairie, but doing that makes it difficult to see all of the plants that have not yet been pulled.  I don’t want to risk leaving plants in place that are going to produce seed for future generations. Besides, I enjoy finishing work on a site and then immediately viewing the area in its improved condition.

I always carry a camera with me while I’m working and try to get a few before and after shots. Often the camera doesn’t come out of its holster because I’m racing to finish an area before I run out of time, or I’m sweating so profusely that I’m afraid I’ll ruin the camera if I try to use it. I did make a special effort to take this shot on a fine August morning when the temperature reached 90° F by 10 AM. This is a small section of a 1 acre opening that had never before received any carrot pulling treatment. My success in eliminating invasive summer forbs means that each year I have time to add new areas into my work schedule.

This is the same area with carrots removed. Within a few years the area should pretty much look this way without my having to spend hours pulling carrots.

Wide area shots of these prairie openings rarely show the diversity of plant species present. Spiranthes orchids, such as this pair of Slender Ladies’ Tresses, Spiranthes lacera, were particularly abundant this year.  They are but one of many interesting little species hidden in the tall grass.

Pulling is an effective way of eliminating Wild Carrots because of the plant’s biennial growth habit. The lifespan of the plant is two years. During the first year the plant forms a cluster of basal leaves and establishes its taproot. The abundance of first year plants such as the one shown above gives a good idea of the expanse of plants to be expected in the next year.

A flower stalk develops in the second year. Following pollination, seeds begin to develop as the flower head closes in on itself. Pulling the plants eliminates seed production and reduces the number of flowering plants you will see two years later. Mature seeds that become incorporated into the soil may remain viable for five or six years. Seeds that remain on or near the surface of the soil generally parish if they do not germinate within a couple years. When you begin pulling plants on a new site it takes two years before you really begin to see the positive results of your actions.

Like many plant species that evolved in areas subject to grazing by herd animals, the Wild Carrot has a weak spot in its stem located roughly at the soil surface. If the stem is given a quick pull it breaks at this weak point instead of having its root pulled out of the ground. Just below this breakpoint is a cluster of buds ready to immediately begin producing new flower stalks if the top of the plant is lost. On most occasions, a steady pull will bring the plant up root and all. When you have a particularly tenacious plant or are working in ground that is extremely dry and hard, the carrot often breaks at its weak point. When this happens, I normally use my hand pruners to cut the plant off down into the root slightly below the ground level to avoid the rapid regrowth shown in the photo above.

Often it’s impossible to find the plant stump and regrowth is inevitable. This plant produced two flower heads within four weeks of the plant originally being pulled and broken off at its weak point. I try to make a run through my work areas at 4 to 5 week intervals to catch late developing plants or regrowth situations such as shown here.

Browsing animals, primarily Whitetail Deer, typically bite the plant off well above the soil surface. Browsed plants are particularly difficult to see when you make your first pass through an area, but quickly produce new flower stalks and often account for the majority of late-season flowers.

I found many mature plants that were lying flat on the ground instead of standing in an upright position, making them particularly hard to see. This was primarily a phenomenon of partially shaded areas near the field edges. In the above photo you can see two flower clusters almost at ground-level.  One plant stem comes from the lower right-hand corner the photo and arcs leftward to one of the flower heads and a second plant stem comes from the lower left-hand corner of the photo in a rightward arc to a second flower head. Despite their horizontal growth, both plants are still perfectly capable of producing viable seeds.

This particular area has received a lot of attention in the past few years. A mid-July photo shows no Sweet Clover, no Teasel, and no Wild Carrot. It shouldn’t be too many more years before all the areas have reached this level of control.

I always find a lot of interesting things while I am working and try to stop occasionally to take a few photos. One day I found a number of Poison Ivy Sawflies, Arge humeralis, feeding on the carrot flowers. They were impossible to miss with the sun shining off those bright red abdomens. I’m much more used to seeing the sawfly larvae, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to observe the adults.

The following day, I continued to see adult sawflies, but now I was seeing a different species. On this day it was the Sumac Sawfly, Arge coccinea, that seemed to have staked a claim to the local wild carrot flowers.

Every year I see a couple of Black Swallowtail butterfly larvae feeding on the wild carrots. I took this one and moved it onto a cluster of nearby first year basal leaves.  If they want to continue breeding at Blue Jay Barrens, they will have to select one of their few native host plants.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Salamanders in the Drain

My house in Southern Ohio sits atop a small cellar that was part of an old farm house constructed in 1875.  A drain pipe runs from the cellar to a point near a seasonal pond in front of the house.  During the wet season, a seasonal spring emerges from the brick in one corner of the cellar and flows across the floor to the drain.  For some reason, beginning just a couple of years ago, salamanders have been coming up the drain and making themselves at home in the cellar.  Here are a few species that wandered in this past winter and spring.

Jefferson Salamander – This species is the first to arrive at the pond during the breeding season.  They sometimes lay their eggs as early as December.

Streamside Salamander – This uncommon salamander is almost identical in appearance to the Smallmouth Salamander.  The main difference between the two species is in the location and method of laying eggs.  Smallmouth Salamanders breed in still pools and deposit multiple eggs in a jelly-like mass.  Streamside Salamanders breed in small headwater streams or pools and deposit their eggs singly, but in close proximity so as to form a grouping of several eggs, beneath rocks, logs, leaves or other flat bottomed debris. Streamside Salamanders begin their breeding activities very soon after the Jeffersons.

Red-Spotted Newt – Adults of this species are typically found in permanent bodies of water, but they are also able to survive in seasonal pools that are dry during the summer and early fall.

Southern Two-Lined Salamander – I don’t normally find this species far from rocky creeks.  The instinct to disperse is present to some degree in all animals.  When conditions are right, the animal just takes off and travels.  Some die and some colonize new areas.  This individual may have been in dispersal mode.

Marbled Salamander – This species lays its eggs in the fall in locations that will contain water when the end of year rains begin.  Once inundated, the eggs hatch.  Adults commonly wander during late winter and spring rains.  I’ve lived here for 34 years, but it was just two years ago that I saw my first Marbled Salamander.  That individual was found in my cellar.  Even though I’ve seen this species each year since, all individuals have been found in my cellar.  I’ve yet to encounter one outdoors.

On warm days, I gather up the visitors and release them outdoors.  There is an old brush pile just upstream of the pond that seems to me to be an ideal release point.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

American Bittersweet

This is American Bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, a native plant that is becoming increasingly rare in this area.  Thirty years ago, I used to find many fruit covered vines like this one.  It’s been over 15 years since I’ve seen a fruiting bittersweet vine at Blue Jay Barrens. I’ve seen young vines that have persisted for a couple of years before disappearing and now it seems that one of those has matured to the point of producing fruit.  Maybe the American Bittersweet is coming back.

I don’t know why this once common plant suddenly vanished from the landscape.  In just a couple of years, dozens of thriving vines suddenly dried up and died.  Some blame an exotic invasive relative of outcompeting the native species, but I’ve yet to see the invasive vine anywhere near here.  This newly discovered individual has penetrated nearly 18 feet into a White Pine.  I hope it can manage to stay healthy.

The vine is about one inch in diameter at the base, so it has to have been growing here for a few years.

In early November I harvested some of the fruit, hoping I might be able to produce a few new vines.

When I checked the vine today, all of the fruit had been consumed by birds.

All that was left were the sections of the orange colored capsules that had once protected the fruit as it developed.

I found several seeds and fruit skins that had made the quick journey through a bird’s gut.  Flesh of the fruit is digested, but seeds and skins pass through with little visible effect.  In most cases the bird’s digestive juices will soften the seed coat and allow for rapid germination in the spring.  I collected a handful of this processed seed and will see if germination is noticeably greater than seed taken straight from the vine.  Maybe I can help American Bittersweet make a comeback here.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pipe Organ Mud Dauber Wasp and Parasitic Fly

About two weeks ago, while sitting on the front porch cleaning my boots, I heard the unmistakable buzz of a female Pipe Organ Mud Dauber, Trypoxylon politum, sealing up a brood chamber inside her nest. This species of wasp uses mud to construct a long tube which it divides into individual compartments, each of which will be loaded with a collection of venom paralyzed spiders to be used as a food source for a developing wasp larva. I looked over and saw that the female wasp was in the process of sealing off the bottom chamber of a long tube nest.

I was not the only one interested in this activity. A female Tachinid fly was stalking around the entrance to the nest, waiting for an opportunity to sneak in and leave one or two of its eggs inside the brood chamber. Gaining access was not an easy process. While the female wasp was away gathering more mud, the male wasp moved in to guard the nest entrance.

Eventually, as the female wasp put the finishing touches on the bottom seal of the brood chamber, the male wasp moved away and allowed the fly to slip in.

The video above shows the female wasp bringing in mud to seal the last brood chamber, the male wasp performing its guard duty and attending to the female, and the fly skirting around the entrance to the nest and finally seizing its opportunity to enter. A longer version of this video can be seen on YouTube by clicking HERE.

Yesterday I spotted this fly resting on the outside of the tube nest. It was obviously freshly emerged and its appearance was marred only by a few crumbs of dry soil matching the color of the nest.

Not far away from the fly was the hole through which it had escaped the wasp brood chamber.

I scraped a bit of soil away from the site of the exit hole and discovered the empty pupal case left behind by the fly.

Further excavation revealed what was left of several spider carcasses and what looked to be additional fly pupae.

Here’s what was inside the chamber. There was evidence of three Tachinid fly pupae.  The larvae had feasted on the spiders, leaving only empty husks behind.

Two pupae were intact, containing flies that would probably soon be emerging. A single empty case was left by the fly I had observed earlier.

Pipe Organ Mud Daubers frequently construct their nests on my porch. Some of the holes in this nest from last season were probably made by emerging wasps, but I know that several were made by foraging woodpeckers.

Closer examination of the old nest reveals smaller holes that are just the right size for an emerging fly. I imagine this fly and wasp a game is a common occurrence on my front porch.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

2018 Teasel Pulling Results

My Teasel removal activities took so little time this year that I can’t even describe the activity as an event.  I spent about four hours walking fields with a history of Teasel infestation and pulled all of the Teasel plants I found.  A total of about 12 acres was searched.

This is my second year of pulling Teasel plants.  Prior to that I collected ripe seed heads on an annual basis.  Last year’s effort occurred about a week prior to expected seed ripening.  This year I began pulling when most plants were just beginning to bloom.  Teasel plants stood above most other plants in the field and were easy to see.  The Teasels were widely distributed across the field as individual plants.  No clusters of plants were found.

This is last year’s harvest of Teasel plants.

This is what I collected this year from the same area, a significant reduction.  There are always a few plants that show up late in the season because they were slow to begin growth or are recovering from injury.  I’ll walk the fields again in the next week or two to search for those late developing plants, but I doubt if I’ll find many.

Pulling is now my preferred method of dealing with Teasel plants.  I can begin pulling when field vegetation is relatively short, so it’s easier to move around and find the plants.  Pulling the plant takes much less time than removing all of the seed heads.  Pulling before seeds are ripe eliminates the chance of spreading seed to other parts of the field.  I think I’ve reached the point where annual Teasel control is going to take very little of my time.  It’s nice to see the fields devoid of invasive Teasel plants.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Eastern Hognose Snake

I recently had an interesting encounter with an Eastern Hognose Snake. The snake had gotten itself caught in the mesh of a rat trap that had been set in my barn. My primary concern was releasing the snake from the grip of the wire before it injured itself, so I only took it couple of quick photos before beginning the rescue operation. By snipping and bending a single wire, I was able to quickly release the snake from the trap.

Hognose snakes have a wide repertoire of harmless defensive actions that they employ when they feel threatened. This individual went through the entire routine. It began by flattening of its head and neck in an attempt to look more threatening. As I snipped the cage wire, the snake hissed loudly and produced a guttural noise that sounded almost like a growl. It struck repeatedly at my hands and arms, but its mouth was not open, so all I felt were taps from its nose. As I slid the snake’s body out of the trap, it imitated a death spasm and released a highly pungent poop that splattered on everything nearby. It was an unfortunate circumstance that, due to an ongoing severe thunderstorm, I was performing the rescue operation on the covered front porch of the house.

The next stage in the snake’s act was to play dead. It hung limply from my hand as I took it out for release next to the barn.

Upon being set down, the snake rolled onto its back with mouth agape. 

The above video shows the snake repeatedly rolling over onto its back after being placed belly down.

I left the snake draped around a piece of wood, upright but still looking very much dead. When the thunderstorm abated a few minutes later, I went out to check and found that the snake had moved on. Hognose snakes feed on toads. It’s for this reason that I have been constructing breeding pools in hopes of increasing the toad population. More toads mean more Hognose Snakes, and that’s what I would like to see.