Friday, April 14, 2017

Draba Pollinators

The Draba cuneifolia have been in bloom for over six weeks now.  They went unscathed through a week long bout of cold weather that included single digit low temperatures, heavy frost and a covering of snow.  They baked through several sunny afternoons of temperatures above 80°F, stood beneath the pounding of two inch downpours, and some even spent a few hours submerged during an uncommon upland flooding event.  Despite all this, the plants have continued to produce blooms and in turn, seed pods have been forming.

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Draba cuneifolia is an annual species that depends on its seed crop to produce the next generation of plants.  The flowers are capable of self-fertilization, so seeds will be produced even without pollen being moved between flowers.  However, sharing pollen is essential for the maintenance of a genetically diverse plant population, and the number one mover of pollen for these little Drabas is insects.  I recently spent some time sitting in the Draba patch, photographing the many pollinators visiting the flowers.  The rapidity at which the insects moved from flower to flower, along with it being a typical windy March afternoon, made it difficult to get many clear photos. The video above shows what conditions were like, but even though I only captured a few good images, the variety of pollinator species that I saw was amazing.

Draba flowers are tiny, but they must be good nectar producers.  Most flower visitors behaved just like this small native bee, only stop moving when you are drinking.

Another small native bee.  Small bees were the most common insect found on the flowers.

A Paper Wasp.  

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Paper Wasps were the only insects large enough to move from plant to plant without flying.

Several species of flies were present.

Flower Flies were the most common of the fly species.

Plant Bugs were the only insects that spent any length of time at a single flower.  This one fed here for several minutes.  When it finally moved on, it went no further than the next open bloom.

I saw two of these day flying moths.

Not a pollinator, but this Carolina Wolf Spider is definitely interested in all of the activity only inches above its burrow.  Some of the flower visiting insects came by low to the ground, but none ever came within reach of the spider.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Toad Pool Success

Keeping the toad pools full of water has not been a problem this year.  Two or three rainfalls per week has kept them filled to the brim. 

This is the fourth spring for Toad Pool 1.  Vegetation was quick to fill in here, but amphibians were slow to arrive.

This is the second spring that water has been present in Toad Pool 2.  Last year the pool was still under construction and only had a depth of a few inches.  This year’s pool has a center portion with a depth of about one foot, and the soil was compacted during construction to minimize leakage. 

The pools were constructed with the primary goal of creating Toad breeding habitat.  This is the first year that toads have actually visited the pools.  During warmer nights, males move into the pools to call for mates.  I counted nine males ringing the shoreline of Toad Pool 2 on March 25.

It took a few nights before a female made it to the pool.  This couple, with female in front, is ready to begin the process of depositing and fertilizing eggs.

On the morning of March 29, I finally found strings of toad eggs in the pool.  The depressions in the bottom of the pool were made by deer hooves.  Whitetail Deer treat these pools as their private playgrounds.  I’m hoping that doesn’t cause a problem for developing tadpoles.

Eggs began to hatch on April 2.  By the next day, hatching was proceeding at a rapid pace.

This collection of egg strands is in deeper water and wasn’t noticeable until hatching began.  Everything seems to be going well.  Hopefully, the end result will be a mass of small toads leaving the pool.

There was one thing different about the toad pools this spring that may have contributed to the toad visitations.  Both pools were surrounded by a mass of Spring Peepers creating a loud chorus.  I’m wondering if the Peeper song alerted the toads to the fact that a suitable breeding pool was available.  The newly hatched Peeper tadpoles shown above are just two of dozens hanging in the algae around the edge of the pools.  This toad pool venture may just turn out to be a success.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Nesting Woodcock

I was doing some work around my barn this afternoon and scared up this American Woodcock from a small clump of grass and Japanese Honeysuckle vines.

The Woodcock only flew a distance of about 8 feet and then came down in the grass. It froze in place, and I did the same. It had jumped into the air what seem like mere inches from my feet. That, along with the fact that it seemed reluctant to leave the area, suggested that there was a Woodcock nest very close to where I was standing.

I didn’t dare to move my feet for fear of stepping on a nest. While pulling my camera from its belt pouch, I carefully scanned the ground in front of me. The nest was just 18 inches away. Not wishing to disturb the Woodcock anymore than I already had, I took a couple quick pictures of nest and bird, and then slowly backed away. I returned about an hour later and got close enough to see that the female had returned to her nest.

I don’t know if this is the full clutch or if the Woodcock will still add another egg or two. A clutch of four eggs is typical for the species. I’ll have plenty of opportunity to keep an eye on this nest. It’s located only 12 feet from my barn door and only 4 feet from the path I travel every day around the backside of the barn. For the next few weeks, I’ll limit my activities in that area, so the bird can tend to the job of incubating her eggs in relative peace.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Spotted Salamanders

I’ve had exceptional luck finding salamanders at Blue Jay Barrens so far this year. The most recent species to enter the breeding pond is the Spotted Salamander.

This is the first time in many years that I’ve found the Spotted Salamander en route to the pond. I most commonly see this species after it has already made it into the water.

The past month has produced several warm nights with long duration gentle rains. This, combined with the fact that soils are both unfrozen and saturated with water, has produced ideal conditions for amphibian migrations. The conditions are also ideal for humans anxious to witness these migrations.

This is the first year that I have managed to find multiple individuals of the species. Males are generally the first to arrive at the breeding pond, and each salamander I found was a male. The question now is when the weather will be suitable for the females to make their migration. The forecast for the next week or so is for cold, dry conditions. The males may just have to wait for a while before they get company.

The temperature was around 50° F the night I found these salamanders. All were making rapid progress towards the pond. This one paused just long enough for one quick shot before it slid into the pond and headed for deeper water. Now, any fresh egg masses I find of the pond should be those of the Spotted Salamander.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Blooming Leavenworthia uniflora

Leavenworthia uniflora is also setting a new early bloom record this year.  First bloom appeared on March 3, about ten days earlier than the previous record.

Leavenworthia has a basal cluster of leaves that develop horizontally outward from a central point. The collection of leaves generally does a pretty good job of shading out competitive vegetation, at least near the center of the whorl.

The plants all have a fine collection of developing flower buds. Each flower will be held aloft individually atop a thin, branchless stalk.

This individual grew to resemble a tightly woven beverage coaster. Despite its slightly unusual growth pattern, there are still plenty of buds developing.

None of the other Leavenworthia plants have yet reached this stage of development. I expect it will be a couple of weeks before the next plant in line begins to display blooms. By the end of March though, I expect all the plants will be flowering profusely.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Blooming Draba cuneifolia

The Blue Jay Barrens Draba cuneifolia have set a new record for early blooming.  First full blooms appeared on February 26, more than two weeks ahead of the prior record.

In some places the Draba almost completely carpet the ground.  Not a bad showing for a plant considered to be Threatened in Ohio.  Lack of snow cover and above average temperatures allowed these plants to put on some impressive growth over the winter.  A couple of really cold nights resulted in a discoloration in some of the leaves, but that hasn’t slowed them down any.

This looks like an aerial shot of a forest landscape, but the photo was taken with the bottom of the camera sitting on the ground.  All of the plants are Draba cuneifolia.  With nothing in the shot for scale, it’s hard to realize that the largest plant in the bunch stands less than an inch tall.

Only a few plants currently have open flowers, but there will soon be more.  The majority of the plants have at least one bud opened far enough to show the white petals inside.

There are also plants that are at a stage typical for this time of year.  These buds will most likely open around the middle of March, a more normal time to expect the first flowers to appear.  A little frost or snow won’t slow these plants down now.  I’m expecting an impressive seed crop this year.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Marbled Salamander

Yesterday, I added a new species to the Blue Jay Barrens salamander list.  Marbled Salamander, Ambystoma opacum, is a species that I read about and was fascinated by while I was in the fifth grade.  After decades of waiting, this is my first ever wild encounter with this species.

Like other Ambystomas, Marbled Salamanders utilize temporary pools as egg laying sites.  The thing that sets this species apart though, is the fact that it breeds in the fall and places eggs in the pool while the site is still dry.  Eggs hatch when winter rains fill the pools.  This gives the Marbled Salamander larvae a head start and slight advantage over those species that place their eggs in the pool later in the season.  Marbled Salamander larvae can sometimes be serious predators of smaller salamander larvae and frog tadpoles.

The black and white coloring of this animal is quite striking. Thick rain clouds cast a decidedly gloomy pall over the forest floor, but this bright little salamander glowed as if carrying an inner light. If the coloration is intended as a type of camouflage, it was certainly falling short of the mark on this day.

It’s certainly exciting to have this species is a local resident. I hope to encounter many more of its kind in the years to come.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Advantage: Invasives

Invasive shrubs manage to overwhelm many ecosystems by more effectively exploiting the resources available in their environment.  They are currently busy demonstrating one of the characteristics that allows them to claim such a dominant role in any ecosystem they occupy.  Plants use sunlight captured by green leaf area to fuel the photosynthetic process that supplies the energy needed for plant growth and reproduction.  Invasive shrubs, like the Bush Honeysuckle shown above, produce leaves quite early in the year and hold those leaves into late fall.

Our native plant species have evolved a sequence growth that allows each species to capture the sunlight necessary to its survival.  Spring wildflowers generally complete their growth early in the year and by the time the trees have developed their leaves, the early plants have stored the energy they need to produce seed and carry on to the next year.  At Blue Jay Barrens, the leaves of invasive shrubs develop in advance of most of the early wildflowers and deprive the native species of their needed sunlight.  Eventually, the invasives form a solid thicket and the natives disappear.

The vining Japanese Honeysuckle does the bush type one better.  In some years, the previous year’s leaves remain green through the winter.  The leaves to the upper left are from last growing season and the rest are new to this month.  As long as the leaves are green, photosynthesis can occur.  While native plants are in their winter dormancy, Japanese Honeysuckle grows continually stronger and more able to compete for a place in the landscape.

Autumn Olive is quick to take advantage on the slightest winter thaw.  The long leaf season of these invasives allows them to put on some tremendous growth.  This four foot tall specimen represents only two years of growth.  In that short time it went from a seedling, barely reaching above the leaf litter, to a major producer of shade.

These leaves are the result of about two weeks growth.  The growth will soon begin to elongate into the production of new stems.  The shrub could easily double its height and quadruple its width before the end of this growing season.  That is, it could have if I had not cut it down and sprayed the stump with herbicide.

Seedlings may take a couple of years to develop a root system capable of sustaining rapid top growth.  This seedling managed to hold onto one of its leaves for the entire winter.  The benefits from this one leaf have probably greatly increased its competitive edge.  If I hadn’t cut and sprayed this little guy, it could have reached over two feet tall by the end of summer.

Multiflora Rose is another that is quick to put its leaves into play.  Frosts and freezes may cause some leaf damage to these shrubs, but the damage is generally restricted to shrubs growing in the open.  Shrubs growing beneath the canopy of taller plants are often protected from frost damage.  If some leaves are killed, they are quickly replaced.  All of these species are highly susceptible to a cut stump application of glyphosate during this early growth season.  I usually carry my pruners and spray bottle with me everywhere I go during this time of year.  Fortunately, I am now only dealing with newly arrived invasives, so a pair of hand pruners is all I need for the job.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Random Mowing

It has been a couple of years since I’ve done any large-scale field mowing with the brush mowers. For about 12 years I followed a planned three year rotation that had me mowing five to seven acres each year. The sole reason for the mowing was to locate and eliminate trees and shrubs invading the field. I purchased my first DR field and brush mower in 1992. That mower, which I refer to as the DR or The Doctor, followed the old Bachtold Brothers design. The DR was lightweight and would mow practically anywhere, but only had one speed, moderately slow, and with age its performance began to decline. In 2009 I purchased the newer model shown above, which I generally referred to as JR or Junior. JR took over the duties of field mowing while the DR retired to more lightweight duties.

When I first began mowing fields, I would mow over the invasive plant and mark the location of the stump using a 4”x5” red plastic flag mounted atop a 3 foot wire shaft. In the early years I was averaging about 750 flags per acre. Mowing was done in November and December, and I would return to the fields in April or May to apply glyphosate herbicide to the developing stump sprouts. This strategy worked extremely well in fields that were experiencing a heavy infestation of invasive woody plants. In recent years, most areas of the fields are experiencing invasion rates low enough to allow me to individually treat the invaders without a wholesale mowing of the field. Most of my current mowing is done in small isolated areas that still require a more heavy-handed management approach.

Here is a good example of a small area requiring some special attention. This long triangular area wedged between an old fence row and an intermittent Creek has some special needs that are best met by mowing. This end of the field is crowded with Dwarf Sumac. If left unchallenged, it would eventually create an impenetrable thicket. The far end of the field was once a multiflora rose jungle. I use blue flags to call attention to special features such as holes, rocks, old fence wire, or plants that should be left untouched. In this case the blue flag identifies a small oak that is to remain in this field.

The finished product. The mowing does not kill the sumacs. After two or three mowing seasons they will once again reach the point where they will need to be knocked back. Managed in this way the sumacs pose no threat to the tallgrass or other prairie vegetation, but they are still able to produce food for the various leaf and seed eaters that seem to prefer this species.

A photo taken from this angle 10 years ago would have shown nothing but a solid wall of multiflora rose inches from your face. I have many photos of that type, but they are virtually useless as helpful before photos for documentation purposes. The massive roses went up to the point where the light-colored grass begins. Since old seeds continue to sprout to produce new plants in this location, I mow it at least every other year to help locate the new multiflora rose plants. The red flags identify young multiflora rose plants that need to be treated with herbicide. Only eight rose plants were found in this one third acre field this year. The blue ribbon marks one of several native rose plants that I am trying to encourage.

The area around the main trailhead is mowed each year. This is one of only two areas that get such attention on an annual basis.

A mixed bag of invasive shrubs once grew here, but now I only have to deal with the occasional new recruit. My primary reason for continuing to mow this small patch is to get rid of the scattered tallgrass and plant stalks that interfere with enjoying the wildflower displays occurring here during spring and early summer. The Monarda bloom is especially attractive. The floral display along with its attendant butterflies should not be sullied by a mass of year-old stalks and stems.

It’s nice to have reached a point where large-scale mowing is no longer necessary to achieve my management objectives, but I kind of miss the activity. It was good exercise and I found it relaxing to spend the day just walking round and round and round the field. Fortunately, I have plenty of other work to fill up those hours no longer needed for mowing activities.