Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Northern Fence Lizard

Most of my encounters with adult Northern Fence Lizards occur in the early spring. At this time of year the lizards are fresh out of hibernation.  The cold ground and air temperatures cause the lizards to seek out sunlit basking areas where they can warm their bodies.

A fallen log, exposed to full sunlight, is an ideal place to find one of these lizards. Northern Fence Lizards spend much of their time on tree trunks, and they don’t seem to discriminate between trunks in the vertical versus the horizontal position. This log, situated on a dry, sunny bluff beside the creek, is an ideal place to watch for lizards.

As the sun warms the lizard, its face assumes an expression of contented enjoyment.  More likely, the closed eyes probably serve some physiological function that benefits the survival of this organism.

The lizard’s mottled brown coloration allows it to blend well with rough tree bark. Their existence is often unnoticed until they happen to move.

On the ground, the colors merge with those of the fallen sticks and leaves. It’s the sound of dry leaves being pushed aside that calls your attention to the presence of a startled lizard running for cover. The sound generally moves towards a nearby tree where the lizard suddenly appears on the trunk.

If you move slowly, most of these lizards will allow a close approach, although they often keep a watchful eye on your presence. Black and blue coloration on the throat and sides indicates a male Northern Fence Lizard.

By sitting quietly, you soon become just another object in the woods. The lizard then turns its attention to stalking insects that will provide a suitable meal.  Northern Fence Lizards will be active through the summer and into the fall, but they will become harder to see as growing vegetation begins to hide them away.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tree Down

The winter just past brought Blue Jay Barrens more than average rainfall and an abnormally high number of windy days.  These conditions brought down several dead trees that were no longer strong enough to support the added weight of waterlogged wood.  This tree on the high ground overlooking the creek has been dead for several years.  When I first spotted its fallen mass from the vantage point of the creek, I felt grateful that it had not fallen into the creek itself.   So many trees fall across my trails each year that I am almost convinced of some botanical consciousness willfully directing the tree’s descent.  This specimen obligingly came to rest in an out of the way location where it could quietly decompose.

When I climbed the bank to view the point of landing, I found that the tree had exhibited another type of odd behavior.  Most falling trees tend to flatten as many small trees as possible.  This tree appeared to have magically lowered itself to the ground and settled around the young trees in its path without causing any damage.  One sapling was cradled in the fork of the downed tree, while others were just fractions of an inch from the dead trunk.  After settling down, the tree broke into pieces that laid themselves flat to the ground, in a perfect position to decompose rapidly and give shelter to salamanders and other rotten log dwelling creatures.

The branches were riddled with woodpecker holes.  Many generations of young birds must have fledged from this tree.

I think the profusion of woodpecker holes aided in the tree’s deconstruction upon impact. 

Fortunately, there’s a newly dead tree just a couple of hundred feet further up the creek.  Woodpeckers looking for their old nesting site only have to move a short way to a suitable replacement.  Many of the prior owner’s land use activities caused damage to the trees from which they could not recover.  Most of the damage was inflicted to the tree’s roots by grazing cattle.  Compaction of the ground and damage to shallow feeder roots does not result in a quick death.  Trees may survive the assault for decades, but in a weakened condition that makes them susceptible to insect damage, disease and other environmental factors.  Eventually, their life force gives out and the trees die.  New trees arise to take the place of these fallen old timers.  Given another hundred years or so, the visible damage to the trees of the Blue Jay Barrens woodland should be much less pronounced and the large trees should show signs of having had an easier early life.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Some Rarities and Weedities

Blue Jay Barrens has never had an abundance of early spring wildflowers, and as the deer population increases, those that were here years ago have decreased in number. As a result, my perception of the early spring blooming season is that of a sprinkling of small white blooms. All come from tiny members of the mustard family. Some are quite rare, while others are prolific weeds. The first to show itself is generally Michaux’s Leavenworthia, Leavenworthia uniflora, a species that is listed as threatened in Ohio. I’ve been told that I feature this species, along with a couple of other similar subjects, far too often in this blog. Fortunately, the person providing that information is quite mistaken, so I will continue to discuss these plants at whatever times I deem appropriate.

The Leavenworthia is an annual plant and races along in its attempt to provide seeds for future generations. The blooms, held only a couple of inches above the soil surface, are hard enough to see. Add to that the rapidity with which the bloom withers around a quickly growing seed pod, and a person is lucky to catch a glimpse of these flowers at all.

The smallest of the early bloomers barely reaches an inch in height from the ground up to the top of the flower stalk. This is Carolina Whitlow-grass, Draba reptans, another state threatened species. Carolina Whitlow-grass is not a species that you will casually observe while out walking on an early spring day. You have to get down close to the ground and actively seek out these plants.  One identifying characteristic of this plant is the relatively smooth stalk supporting the cluster of flowers.

Prior to flowering, it’s best to have some type of magnification when trying to view the plant. At this stage, the plant always reminds me of a tiny cactus, but there’s no fear of being stuck by spines here.

Wedge-leaved Whitlow-grass, Draba cuneifolia, is the third early spring rarity that I regularly see. The leaves of this species have shallow pointed lobes along the margins, but this leaf feature may not be noticeable in very small plants.  The surest way to separate Wedge-leaved Whitlow-grass from the preceding the species is by comparing the flower stalks. The flower stock here is densely hairy.

Wedge-leaved Whitlow-grass has the typical four petaled flower of the mustard family. Each petal has a shallow indentation at the tip.

Several non-native species add their bits of whiteness to the spring blooming season. These are weedy species that are commonly found in most lawns and gardens. Whitlow Grass, Draba verna, although related to our native rarities, is an extremely common non-native weedy plant. One reason that these plants are so successful in human disturbed habitats is the fact that they flower and distribute their seed before most people become active with their gardening and weeding activities. The seed from these plants sits quietly in the soil through the summer and fall months, and is ready to spring forth the following winter.

The four petals of the Whitlow Grass are so deeply split down the center that they are often mistaken as having eight petals. This feature quickly distinguishes these alien plants from our native species.

Becoming ever more common in the urban landscape is the Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta.  Blooms of this plant quickly disappear in favor of elongated pods that rapidly fill with ripe seed.  Once the seed is mature, the pods will violently open at the slightest touch and scatter seeds in a wide area around the plant.  The seeds are easily carried away on people’s shoes and gardening tools, to colonize fresh areas.

Field Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense, is a non-native quick to invade into bare or disturbed ground. In most situations it forms thick patches of plants.

The Field Pennycress seedpods seem to develop as quickly as the flowers can form. In just a few days a tall spike of developing seedpods replaces the initial flower cluster. These non-native species are interesting, but my goal is to manage for native populations and that generally means that the non-natives are considered weeds and must go.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Draba cuneifolia

For several years now, I have maintained a population of the uncommon winter annual, Draba cuneifolia, in a container filled with a substrate that superficially mimics that found in its natural habitat on the barrens. This artificially maintain colony has been thriving.

These interesting little plants have just begun to bloom. Previous year’s seed crops have allowed me to return a great quantity of seed to the barrens. Seed is always scattered in areas from which the original seed came.  The bounty of seeds from the container grown plants has far exceeded that which could have been expected from plants produced on the barrens. 

As with many captive plant populations, this one has refused to respect its defined boundaries and has dispatched its seed to produce new colonies.  I am now finding Draba cuneifolia growing along the concrete foundation of my barn…

from cracks in the decomposing concrete of the apron outside the barn door…

and even out of the drain holes of other containers.

In October 2014, I found some Draba cuneifolia seeds stuck in the folds at the bottom of my seed collecting sack. I scattered the seed in a garden bed that I am using for the production of Spider Milkweed, Asclepias viridis. Draba seeds need to go through a period of high temperature before they will break dormancy, something that apparently didn’t happen at the bottom of my seed sack. It wasn’t until November of the following year that I began to see Draba cuneifolia seedlings. The orange ribbons mark locations of the milkweed plants which will do most of their growing after the Draba has already set seed.

The Draba cuneifolia grow extremely well in the deep, fertile soil of the garden bed. Were I to discontinue removing competing plant growth from these beds, the Draba would not survive.

All of these plants are loaded with flower buds and will soon be in bloom.

We had three days in a row of extremely cold temperatures during a time when there was no snow cover on the ground. Several of the exposed Draba cuneifolia showed signs of freeze damage.

Those damaged plants survived, but as they grew, they abandoned their single rosette form. Growth from multiple points caused plants to take on the appearance of small shrubs with numerous branches growing in all directions.

Draba cuneifolia growing on the barrens also showed signs of cold weather damage. Both of these plants display dead leaves, but they are still growing. Unfortunately, life on the barrens is more stressful for the species and the plants do not produce the vigorous growth of those growing in the garden.

I enjoy seeing the genetic potential expressed by the plants growing in the garden, but it’s these tiny wild grown specimens that I admire most. They are poor competitors and can survive only where other plants fail. Life on the barrens is rough, but these little plants are tough enough to survive there.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Leavenworthia Compared to Hairy Bittercress

I’ve recently received emails from two different people, describing their exciting discoveries of populations of the state threatened Leavenworthia uniflora in their lawns and flowerbeds. It’s always exciting to find a population of rare plants, especially when they’re growing as thick as weeds, which is how one correspondent described his find. They had both read some of my earlier posts on the species and wanted me to share in their joy of their newfound flora neighbors.

Unfortunately, the photo documentation they sent along with their emails showed the plants to be something other than Leavenworthia.  Their plants did bear a superficial resemblance to the Leavenworthia, but they were actually a non-native weedy species known as Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta. No wonder they were thick as weeds.  I thought it appropriate to make a comparison between the two plants using easy to see features. I certainly don’t want people to be protecting weeds because of a mistaken identification, nor would I want a rare plant to be destroyed because of the same mistake.

Leavenworthia will grow in most locations that provide competition free conditions. In natural situations these are generally dry, rocky, shallow soils. These are annual plants that begin growth in early winter and by early spring, begin to flower. Leavenworthia produces leaves from a basal whorl. The leaves fan out horizontally, almost hugging the ground and presenting an appearance of level flatness across the top of the plant.

Hairy Bittercress has a growth habit similar to that of Leavenworthia, but is more typically found in areas of urban disturbance such as is found in people’s yards. It also begins growth in early winter, but it tends to flower one or two weeks earlier than Leavenworthia. The plant begins by producing several rings of basal leaves, but as it grows, the center portion of the whorl heaves upward, making the plant appear slightly mounded.

Leavenworthia flowers emerge from ground level at the center of the leaf whorl.  Flower stalks produce no leaves and bear only a single bloom at the top of the stalk.

Hairy Bittercress produces a branched stalk from the center of the whorl that produces both leaves and clusters of flowers.

Hairy Bittercress, shown on the left, produces compound leaves with leaflets that produce rounded lobes. The Leavenworthia develops sharply pointed lobes.

Here we have Leavenworthia on the left and Hairy Bittercress on the right. Hairy Bittercress most resembles Leavenworthia in its younger stages. I have yet to see both of these species actually growing together in a single location. To get this photo, I plucked a Hairy Bittercress rosette from another location and posed it beside the Leavenworthia. It’s easy enough now when making plant identifications to go online and find authoritative information about the plant in question. When doing that type of search, just make sure you go beyond the photo and read what the text has to say about the plant.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Streamside Salamanders in the Pond

Water depth, glare, and wind ripples have made it impossible for me to see whether or not the sunken tiles, rocks and boards, intended to receive the eggs of the Streamside Salamander, have actually been used this season. Streamside Salamanders typically lay their eggs on the undersides of flat rocks in small flowing streams. Absence of flowing water and large flat rocks will not necessarily make these salamanders abandon their breeding efforts. I added a breeding structure to the pond at Blue Jay Barrens in an attempt to provide a population of pond breeding Streamside Salamanders with a suitable structure to receive their eggs. In the past, this breeding aid has been readily used, but even in its absence Streamside Salamanders find a way to anchor their eggs and ensure breeding success.

When the water level drops in early summer, I use this board as a way to cross the mud between the dry bank and open water. During the winter and early spring months, I allow the board to float freely in the pond.

I used to remove the board during the winter and put it in a dry location for storage. One year the pond filled quickly from a late autumn rainstorm followed by a quick freeze that trapped the board in the ice in the center the pond. The board stayed out of reach until early spring. When I finally went to pull it in, I found the bottom surface covered with Streamside Salamander eggs. Now I just let the board stay in the pond as an alternate breeding site for the Streamside Salamanders.

The Streamside Salamanders also utilize as an egg laying site, pads of terrestrial moss that grow on the bottom of pond during the dry season. The activity of the egg laying salamanders causes the moss to lose contact with the muddy pond bottom and begin to float free.

Some of the moss pads containing egg clusters are held in place by surrounding vegetation. Others break loose and float about the pond. The eggs seem to develop properly and hatch in either condition.

The Jefferson Salamander eggs have picked up a covering of silt washed in from the nearby Township road. This covering may actually provide a beneficial screen against excessive UV radiation.

The embryos in the cluster are well-developed and probably within a week of hatching.

Many empty jellies are also floating around the pond, a sign that a successful hatching has been completed.

Wood Frogs have been calling from the pond for the past week. New egg clusters appear every night.

Most of the Wood Frog tadpoles will end up as salamander food. All of the tadpoles, both frog and salamander, will be racing to complete their metamorphosis before the water of the temporary pond disappears later this summer.