Monday, July 27, 2015

Monarda Returns

It’s been a few years since Monarda fistulosa has bloomed so prolifically in this opening at Blue Jay Barrens.  Something about the environmental conditions during the winter or spring of 2011 caused a massive die-off of Monarda plants in this patch. 

During the past few years, Monarda has returned and is now approaching its earlier abundance.  With the return of the plants comes a return of the butterflies.   Monarda attracts a variety of pollinator species, with large butterflies being the most notable.

At the small end of the size scale is the Silver-spotted Skipper.  Smaller butterflies, which includes the other skippers and many butterfly species, seem to find the Monarda flower head difficult to handle.  As if in celebration of the return of the Monarda, Silver-spotted Skippers are around in record numbers this year.

The showiest of the butterfly visitors are the Swallowtail species.  This is the Spicebush Swallowtail.  Its habit of constantly fluttering its wings while feeding makes it difficult to photograph.

Blooming of Monarda seems to coincide with the emergence of the summer brood of Tiger Swallowtails.  Summer brood individuals are typically larger than those found earlier in the year and they are quite showy as they glide between Monarda blooms.  There are those that exhibit the typical yellow coloration and …

… others that are colored a silky black.  Despite their black coloration, the tiger stripes still show through.
I found it interesting that the swallowtails all seemed to feed while hanging from the side of the flower head.

Great Spangled Fritillaries, however, tended to do their feeding while perched atop the flowers. 

The Monardas have even attracted a few Giant Swallowtails.  The Giant Swallowtails quickly move from flower to flower, spending so little time nectaring that I sometimes wonder if the act is even beneficial.  Finding them at flowers is about the only way to get a decent look at these fast fliers.

The Monarda is most famous as an attractor of Clearwing Sphinx Moths.  Using their front legs as anchors, Hummingbird Clearwings hover next to the flower as they draw nectar.  This species is currently outnumbering butterflies in the Monarda patch.

A few Snowberry Clearwings are also present this year.  Slightly smaller than the Hummingbird Clearwings, the Snowberries feed in a similar manner.  This is a species that I don’t often see here.

The Monarda’s attractiveness is not diminished by darkness.  A variety of moth species visit the flowers through the night.  The lack of multiple examples of nocturnal visitors more accurately reflects the photographer’s skills than it does the true number of night-time pollinators.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Signs of Success

I use several indicators to assess my progress in enhancing conditions for the survival of rare and unusual plant or animal species found at Blue Jay Barrens.  One that is easy to see at this time of year is the presence of uncommon plant species growing in locations from which they had previously been absent.  Getting a plant species to increase its numbers in an established population is easy compared to the task of having a species successfully compete for space in a new location.  Bluehearts, Buchnera americana, a species listed as Threatened in Ohio, has managed to establish growing colonies in a couple of new places.

This is the site of about 20 Bluehearts plants growing in the center of what I call the Far Field.  This site differs from the other Bluehearts sites by being low pH soil formed over shale, rather than high pH soil formed over limestone.

The other incursion of Bluehearts has occurred in the largest of the old cropland fields.  This population is currently contained within an area of about ¼ acre, but it is on the move and has the potential to eventually cover most of the field.

I am particularly impressed by the plant density in this area.  It is normally difficult to see individual plants in broad field shots like this.  In this case, there are so many plants crowded together that they are easily seen.

Closer shots bring a veritable bouquet into frame.

Pollinators, like this Hummingbird Clearwing moth, that are typically attracted to large concentrations of flowering plants, have even found the patch worth their attention.

Scaly Blazing Star, Liatris squarrosa, listed as Potentially Threatened in Ohio, has also managed to expand its range. 

Scaly Blazing Star was originally confined to a small collection of plants within about 25 feet of the cedar stump.  During the past 30 years, additional plants have about doubled the size of the patch.

Now there are new plants occurring out in the open field.  These are about 150 feet from the original site.  This increase in plant populations is not the result of seedling transplants or distribution of collected seed.  The plants have expanded their range because nearby sites have been made suitable for the growth of these species.  I take that as an indication that some of my management techniques are providing positive results.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Prairie Garden Anniversary

Twenty years ago, I decided that I needed a place where I could grow some of the interesting plants found at Blue Jay Barrens that would allow me to view them daily and learn something about their growth patterns.  I gathered seed from various places around the property and in the summer of 1995, planted that seed in a front yard location with such poor soil that typical lawn grass had trouble growing.  I thought this would best simulate the stressful conditions found in the barrens from which the seed originated.  The Prairie Garden took off and is now about twice its original size.

In addition to planting seed directly onto the Prairie Garden site, I attempted to grow some of the uncommon species in pots for later transplant.  I had limited success, but managed to get a few plants.  Seed had been collected and stored, and then stratified or scarified as suggested by several texts I consulted.  I soon learned that most seed, such as that from this False Gromwell, Onosmodium molle var. hispidissimum, does best when planted in pots at the time it falls from the plant and then allowed to experience natural weather conditions until its natural germination time.

My original idea was to have each plant species growing in a certain location so it would be easy to find and observe.  This was the case for the first few years, but the plants soon began behaving as they do in the wild.  I had three of these American Aloes, Agave virginica, that survived transplanting and grew to flowering size.  Two are still persisting, but their offspring are scattered around the garden.   With many species, the initial planting has died, but younger plants have taken their place.

Even though my goal was to showcase uncommon species, I included several common species in the mix.  Gray-headed Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, is a very common prairie species in this area. 

Gray-headed Coneflower was the first prairie species I found on this property after its purchase 30 years ago.  About a month after moving in, I was on my way home from work and passed a small plant growing out of the loose stone on the edge of the road just in front of the house.  At that time, I had not had an opportunity to explore any of my newly acquired property, so I didn’t know that in just a few weeks this species would be blooming everywhere.  Fearing that the plant was in danger of being destroyed by passing traffic, I grabbed a shovel and transplanted the coneflower to a spot near the edge of the yard.  It prospered in its new location and produced many new blooms through the summer.

I planted a single grass species, Side-oats Gramma, in the Prairie Garden.  Besides being a lovely plant, it only grows a few feet tall.  I thought the short stature of the grass would make it easier to keep track of the other plants.

The Side-oats Gramma can still be found in the garden, but it is no longer the only grass.  Indian Grass soon found its way here and now dominates about a third of the garden area.

Some of the wildflowers bloom early in the season while the Indian Grass is still short.  Others, like the Western Sunflower, Helianthus occidentalis, grow along with the grass and later produce tall flower stalks.  In August, these Western Sunflower plants will top out at over six feet.  Their flowers will be held up above the thick mass of grass leaves where they will attract a variety of pollinators.

Allegheny Mound Ants maintain a single residence in the center of the Prairie Garden.  Their appearance was the result of a colony migration, with a three foot diameter mound being created in just a few weeks.  Once the mound was established, the ants proceeded to eliminate selected nearby plant species that apparently posed a threat to the colony.  Spider Milkweed, Asclepias viridis, an uncommon species that I had planted here, was eliminated soon after the ants arrived.  Other species, such as this Round-podded St. Johnswort, Hypericum sphaerocarpum, are allowed to grow right up to the edge of the mound.

An extension to the garden was added a few years ago.  Since I know that grass will eventually colonize this area, no grass was planted in the addition.

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, was represented by only a few plants when I first discovered it on the property 30 years ago.  Their numbers were so few when I first created the Prairie Garden that I didn’t take any of their seed for that initial planting.  Clearing away cedars and other woody growth allowed to plants to flourish, so there was an abundance of seed available for this recent planting.  The addition of colorful plants makes it more likely that passersby will consider this an intentional creation and not just a random patch of weeds.

Purple Coneflower is also eagerly sought by many pollinator species.  In most years, butterflies are the dominant visitors of these plants.  So far, Bumblebees are outnumbering butterflies by several to one at all of the nectar sources.  Conditions this past winter must have been perfect for Bumblebee queen survival.

The Prairie Garden spawned this patch of prairie vegetation growing along the driveway.  I refer to this as the Prairie Garden Annex.  I am thinking of expanding the garden to tie in with this area.

The Annex grew up around this patch of Northern Fogfruit, Phyla lanceolata.  I found the Fogfruit growing at the edge of the driveway several years ago.  I was curious about its origin, whether it was already on the property or if the seed had been carried in on some visiting vehicle.  I decided to let it grow to see what developed, but people kept running over it.  When the Indian Grass began to grow here, people must have gotten the idea that I wanted those plants to stay, because they stopped driving there.  I allowed the Indian Grass to spread as a further deterrent to vehicular traffic.

My original intent for this project has been realized.  Developing the Prairie Garden has allowed me to observe the growth of plants in a way that was not possible in their natural sites far from the house.  I hope to continue increasing the size of the garden and to establish additional uncommon species to the mix.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Red-headed Woodpecker Family

I saw my first Blue Jay Barrens Red-headed Woodpecker about ten years ago.  It was a juvenile that frequented the feeder for about three months in late summer.  Two years ago a single adult began visiting the feeder.  It was joined by another the next spring and the two became regular visitors to the feeder.  A few weeks ago, I noticed both birds making frequent feeder visits and leaving the area with a bill full of feed.  This was a distinct change from their previous habit of taking small amounts of feed to be consumed on the dead apple snag just beside the feeder.  I suspected they were collecting food for some youngsters.  Sometimes they left with a bill full of cracked corn.

Other times they loaded up with sunflower seeds.

A few days ago, some juveniles showed up with the parents.  I can hear them calling from the trees, but I haven’t been able to get an accurate count.

I know there are at least two, because I spotted two on the ground helping themselves to cracked corn.  The young woodpeckers are the birds in the photo that are not the Blue Jay.

The adults are now collecting feed and flying into the nearby trees.  Unfortunately, that hides them from my view.

This adult sometimes uses the top of an old utility pole as a feeding platform.

The utility pole is the only place I’ve been able to get a glimpse of the young birds being fed.  The parent lays its sunflower seeds on top of the pole and then opens them one at a time for the youngster.

I’ve included a short video of the young woodpecker being fed by its parent.  The start of the film is a bit shaky because I was shooting through a partially opened window and go tangled up in a potted plant on the windowsill.  I was trying to keep the pot from falling to the floor while I centered on my subject.  About seven seconds in to the video, a caterpillar on its silk thread drops into the right side of the frame and quickly swings out of the picture.  The video can also be seen on YouTube by clicking HERE.  A second, slightly longer, video of the same subject may be seen by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Young Toads

Somewhere in the vicinity of Blue Jay Barrens, American Toads managed a breeding effort successful enough to cover the area with a new generation of toads.  I’ve been seeing little toads everywhere from the yard to the hilltop a half mile away.  Their numbers are akin to an invasion.

It doesn’t take long for newly transformed toads to become miniature replicas of their adult kin.  Just a few weeks ago, this toad was just a small black tadpole.  Now it has the appearance and behavior of a mature toad.  The one behavioral exception might be the tendency for very young toads to travel by way of a series of short, rapid hops.  A startled youngster appears almost frantic in its efforts to flee a perceived danger.

It’s been at least 20 years since I’ve seen this many young toads at Blue Jay Barrens.  I would really like to identify the breeding site.  My garden is full of tiny toads, but I know that the pools I developed nearby did not see any toad activity this year.  It’s possible that the heavy rains we had this spring created a temporary pool somewhere that was just perfect for toads.  Young toads may travel a long distance as they disperse from their nursery pool, so it’s hard to guess the distance or direction to their place of origin.

It’s fun to see the toads in the garden, but it means I have to be careful of where I put my feet.  This youngster was closely watching some small beetles walking on the strawberry leaves.

I found this fellow on one of the barrens.  It was nestled down in a dewy spider web and didn’t seem inclined to move.  Toads often spend much of their lives away from open water.  Dew can be an important source of moisture for hydration.

I managed to persuade this little guy to perch on my finger long enough to get a shot for size comparison.  The hand is normal sized.  The toad is tiny.