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.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Edwards' Hairstreak Butterfly Census 2018

Since I don’t actually count the butterflies or produce any type of tally, my annual observations of the Edwards’ Hairstreak Butterfly can’t really be called a census.  What I do is search appropriate habitat at Blue Jay Barrens to get an idea of current size and distribution of this uncommon butterfly.

Each year, I find butterflies in new locations and in concentrations larger than the year before.

Edwards’ Hairstreak Butterflies were quite rare when I first surveyed this property 33 years ago.  It took years before I found my first specimen.  Subsequent annual searches resulted in sightings of just a few individuals or, in some years, no sightings at all.  Now I can find that many or more sharing a single flower cluster.

One of my first management projects was to make the property more suitable to Edwards’ Hairstreaks.  I cleared Eastern Red Cedar from the fields to promote prairie like habitat, and encouraged the growth of Blackjack Oak, the Edwards’ Hairstreak preferred larval food. 

As habitat improved, the number of butterflies increased.  Nectar plants also responded to the management efforts and increased in number.  Butterfly Weed, a favorite of the hairstreaks, is now common in most areas containing butterfly colonies.

A few years ago it was uncommon to see more than a single Edwards’ Hairstreak on a clump of Butterfly Weed flowers.  Now the butterflies visit the blooms in masses.  There are 10 butterflies clearly visible nectaring on Butterfly Weed in the above photo.  There are still suitable areas not yet being utilized by the butterflies, so butterfly numbers have the potential to increase for many years yet.


The above video shows some Edwards’ Hairstreak nectaring action.  A few Honeybees are also trying grab some of the nectar.  Near the end of the video, one butterfly appears to headbutt another away from his flower cluster.  This video can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Cycnia collaris Brood 2

Another batch of Cycnia collaris, formerly Cycnia inopinatus, is munching its way through the clump of Common Milkweed beside my front porch.  I’m assuming these larvae to be the offspring of the brood that showed up in May and went into pupation a few weeks ago.  That would make these larvae brood two .

More than a few of the brood one Cycnia larvae must have avoided playing host to Tachinid fly offspring and survived to adulthood.  I counted 69 larvae of this State Endangered moth species feeding on a single milkweed plant.  Additional larvae were present on many other milkweed plants close by.  As with the previous brood, it appears that the adults emerged from the leaf litter at the base of the plants and deposited a nice batch of eggs on plants readily accessible.

Larvae just recently moved onto the leaf on the left side of the photo.  They made the move after reducing the leaf on the right to a bare skeleton.

There’s not much tender young growth on the milkweed plants right now.  This doesn’t seem to slow down the Cycnia larvae at all.  The smallest larvae appear to have no trouble dining on the oldest and toughest of leaves.  The thick leaves allow the larvae to eat a lot without moving very far.  This sometimes results in a frass chain forming behind the larva.

Several severe storms have knocked down the milkweeds during the last few weeks.  Some plants have given up trying to right themselves.


The Cycnia females found the horizontal milkweeds to be just as desirable as those in a vertical position.  The larvae are quickly stripping the edible material from these leaves.  Having this action occurring right outside my front door has provided an ideal opportunity to learn something about the habits of this rare species.