Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A snake in the grass... and some flowers along the way

A summer walk down a grassy path will quickly tell you one thing—there’s far more here than meets the eye. From beneath the tangle of green, field crickets sing, unseen in the heat of the day. Grasshoppers, startled from their hiding spots, lift suddenly with a golden flutter like small birds to a new resting spot, feet beyond my steps. With the rattle of freshly dried wings, a dragonfly frees herself from the thickness of tall stems and takes to the air. And a tiny toad, barely the size of my toenail, tucks himself silently into the safety of the uncut roadside.
I think about what I cannot see—for the most part, so as not to miss something I might find interesting. But also, for my safety, as well.
There might be venomous snakes.

Gillenia stipulata

In my county in southwestern Ohio, I walk without concern. But traveling a few counties to the north or a few counties to the east quickly puts me in different territory.
In wetlands, I wonder…Massassauga rattlesnakes?
In the unglaciated hill country, I think…timber rattlesnakes?
And, when the dirt beneath my feet turns from beige to blushing brown, I know to beware…copperheads.

I’ve never seen one in the wild.
I’ve always hoped to discover one, though—watch it carefully from a distance as it warms itself in the afternoon sun or slithers across the path a few feet ahead of my footsteps. As long as we both see each other and give each other space, I really don’t worry about encountering snakes. It’s just the thinking about what I cannot see that reminds me to be ever vigilant and keeps me safely walking on the mowed paths when I travel.

Downy Wood-Mint,
Blephilia ciliata

The prairies of Adams County have held a special allure for me this spring.
In the past weeks, I’ve walked there 5 times—on different paths, each vastly changed as the season has progressed.

Narrow-Leaf Mountain-Mint,
Pycnanthemum tenuifolium

With each trip east, as the clay gives way to sand, as the farm fields roll up and over hillsides and rain-carved furrows in the pastures reveal the rusty soil, I’ve watched summer unfold a prairie landscape so rare that it feels like I’ve walked back...into a time before Ohio saw settlement.

Silphium terebinthinaceum

Tall prairie grasses and the broad leaves of prairie-dock fill the small opening in the surrounding woods of post and blackjack oak. The ground is gritty and dry. Of prairie types, this is described as “xeric limestone” and its southern exposure and hilly terrain offer little water or shelter from the afternoon sun.

Stenaria nigricans

The plants that grow here are tough as nails.
With long taproots and leathery leaves, they grab and hang onto each precious drop of water, endure drought and fire, resist everything--except the plow.

Pale-Spike Lobelia,
Lobelia spicata

Eying a tall, slender spike of tiny, faintly blue flowers, I stepped carefully one foot off the trail and focused my camera. Caught in my peripheral vision, a flattened, coiled object the size of a dinner plate lay motionless in the grass a few feet away. I glanced quickly down and froze in my tracks, the orange scales at my feet making my heart pound, my camera drop lazily around my neck.

More aware of my intrusion than I had been of her presence, she eyed me as well and flicked her black-tipped tongue without flinching--a large garter snake warming herself in the safety of the tall prairie grass. But in my head, she had become the copperhead I knew was also hiding there.
Lesson learned: pictures from the path, snakes in the grass.

The Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is one of 3 species of garter snakes found in Ohio. Usually between 18-26 inches in length, this individual was close to 32 inches—still a bit less than the outer range of 48, but the largest garter snake I’ve ever seen!
Usually marked by 3 light-colored stripes, one dorsal and 2 laterals covering rows 2 & 3 on each side, eastern garter snakes have varying colors (blues, browns, greens) and patterns (stripes, checkerboards). Most active during the day (diurnal), they are frequently found basking among vegetation or in low shrubs. Although they tend not to climb, they are good swimmers and may be prefer sites close to water.
Because of having an adaptable diet, garter snakes are found in a variety of habitats and although always carnivorous, may eat worms, frogs and toads, mice, bird eggs and even carrion. Because they are not constrictors and do not have venom, garter snakes rely on powerful jaws to overpower prey. It is thought that a mild toxin in their saliva may subdue frogs and toads until swallowed.
Garter snakes have live birth (ovoviviparous) but give no care to their young.
Though not aggressive, if approached, they will coil and strike and are known to vigorously defend themselves by biting and musking.

Lance-Leaf Bedstraw,
Galium lanceolatum

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Solace for the Night Owl

Summer solstice is behind us.
And with it, have gone the lengthening days that offer me, each evening, a reprise—several hours more to explore the outdoors. The very trails I walked this morning, with fading light, become wholly unknown. Though the path is familiar, the journey never the same.

I treasure the long days for their evening hours—
their time to watch fireflies light the hedgerows,
their time to capture katydids from within tall stands of grass,
their time to walk the edges of my pond and find the largest bullfrog, neck-deep in moonlit water, watching me,
their time to bring sounds from the nighttime woods and weave them into each night’s dream.

Bullfrog, male in pond

I’m beginning to recognize that, even in this year in which spring seemed to be moving more slowly than usual, we have arrived at this turning point of daylight exactly as we should. The certainty of summer’s onset reminds me that, more than merely being very late, this year, spring was very short.
Can it be that it is already time to give day-lit hours back to the night?

I would wish for yet another encore—
more sweet-scented walks to visit milkweed cloaked in moths,
whose eyes glow golden in my light as I pass by.
Take care, for there is a curtain falling slowly.
The actors in this summer play soon take their final bow.

Moths on Milkweed


Need something to look forward to in the coming months?
Looking for a way to celebrate summer’s end?
How about the Midwest Birding Symposium, taking place mid-September in the lovely lakeside community of…Lakeside, Ohio.
This cozy, gated community on the shore of Lake Erie will come alive for 4 fun-filled days of everything bird-related. The Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS) rotates through each of the Midwestern states, remaining for 2 consecutive hostings in its biennial occurrence, before moving on to an adjacent hosting state.
I attended Ohio’s last Symposium in September of 2009. What I can only inadequately describe as a top-notch performance and gathering of avian experts, enthusiasts and environmentally-minded individuals (It’s not just birds. Last year David Sibley introduced his new Guide to Trees) is coming to town again! And having had a wonderful experience last time, I’d be a fool not to get on board while I still can.
There’s a cute little ice cream shop on the corner, an historic hotel with skinny rooms and tall ceilings, rolling lawns and unending sidewalks, a cruise on the lake, programs and performances…and birds.
Sound too good to be true? It pretty much is.
Would you like to meet some of your friends from around the country? Or listen to some helpful hints from birders we all have grown to admire? They’re all here—milling around on the sidewalks, sipping coffee, signing books…finding birds.
You should be, too.
Registration is open! Drop me a line and I’ll look for you!
I can’t wait for September!
It’s solace for this night owl.

Official 2011 Midwest Birding Symposium Blogger

Barred Owl

Great Horned Owl

Long-Eared Owl

Owls presented by "Back to the Wild"
MBS 2009

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Hope... and things with wings...from a naturalist's notebook

January 18th was a day for winter walking.
Light rain mid-morning had given way to blue skies, which, in a season best described as a string of predictably gray flannel afternoons that stretches from November to March, was in itself reason to make note. But in the woods where I stood looking up, admiring the unusual brilliance from beneath a tangle of bare limbs, I discovered something even better--a small package tethered to a branch. Just above my head, encased in the barest brown wrapper and tied to the very tip of a twig at the furthest reach of slender arm off the large maple, was the cocoon of a Cecropia moth.
Gently, I broke the twig free and its small brown package, tucked into my pocket.
Beneath the date in my notebook, I wrote, “Cecropia cocoon!”

The Cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia, is the largest member of the Saturniidae family native to North America. Giant silkworm moths, whose members also include the Luna and Promethea, emerge in the spring from cocoons left to overwinter by last summer’s 5-inch long, ravenous caterpillars. Constructed inside a covering of leaves which falls away in the winter weather, this strong silken pouch, within which the transformation takes place, is seldom seen against the backdrop of winter’s brown and gray.

On my back porch, I carefully propped the prized cocoon against one side of a small, glass tank and secured the lid. From there, while winter’s temperatures moved the cocoon slowly toward an eagerly awaited spring, I could easily keep an eye on any change.
But could I really?


April 1st brought with it a series of doubts.
Had I been correct in my hasty assumption months ago that this was really a cecropia cocoon?
And if so, was it even still alive? There was no way to see beyond the leathery brown wrapper. Perhaps the silken sac was years past holding anything viable.
Had my high hopes steered my perception to the point that I was now guarding an imagined treasure that would turn out to be nothing at all?
Had I fallen to nature’s trickery on this day of jokes and pranks?

The Cecropia spins a 2-layered cocoon--
a leathery outer layer which fits loosely
and a dense inner chamber inside which he pupates.
Added all up...4000 to 5000 feet of silk!

In the sunshine of the front stoop, I slowly opened the small package. A fine pair of scissors and steady hand made only the least slit necessary through which to steal a glimpse of what treasure might lie inside. Beyond the silken pouch was another—a fuzzier encasement more obviously oval, more shaped like the fat, squat body that I had hoped to find. Gingerly, I peeled back just the very end of it, taking care not to squeeze or bruise the precious contents in any way.

I tipped it out onto my hand, and there he was…revealed in sunlight, the dark-clad form, perfect face, plumose antennae, forelegs folded, his still, unfurled wings…patiently waiting.

Abdominal segments to the left, folded forewings to the right,
and antennae wrapping his face!
It's a boy!

In the warmth of my hand he turned, spinning circles with his abdomen as one would spin to keep a hula-hoop aloft.
Yes, there was life in this plain brown wrapper—life yet somewhere between caterpillar and moth.

Exactly as he had been, I put him back.
With a needle and thread, I drew closed the opening in the fuzzy, oval case, then set it back inside the silken pouch. A papier-mâché patch sealed it snuggly shut.


June 8th began as a day like any other.
By now, at 142 days of waiting, each pass I made across the back porch, whether coming or going, had evolved into an elaborate sort of curtsy at the back door. With one hand on the doorknob, I bowed and peeked below the lid of the glass tank to be sure the moth hadn’t yet emerged to rest unseen on the underside of the lid.
It had been a long and slowly passing spring.

By noon, I left to run errands. The day warmed vigorously, the air becoming heavy and heated beneath strong sunshine as the afternoon hours unfurled. With a load of groceries, I returned home, strode up the walk and paused to curtsy beside the back door.

Broad, fresh wings fanned slowly inside the tank. Already spread to their full 6-inch span, they pumped strongly and steadily, back and forth, their water-colored rims just barely dimpled.

Furry forelegs held fast to the tip of his makeshift branch. Released from their dark wrapper, his antennae stood proudly like plumes above his perfect face.

And for the first time, I saw a tiny eye--all that is needed by one who will be guided by scent, and who patiently waits for nightfall…to fly.

Scales covering the forewing are actually modified hairs

Cecropia moths emerge from their cocoons through loose valves at the end. Once free, they hang to inflate their folded wings, using a pumping action to press lymphatic fluid into them from an oversized abdomen. Living only a brief 7-10 days, cecropia moths have no mouthparts and are unable to feed. Their sole purpose in this time is to complete the reproductive cycle. Sometimes flying more than 7 miles, males locate females using their more developed antennae to pick up her scent (pheromones) in the warm night air. Cecropia moths are univoltine—in the course of a year, only one breeding cycle takes place. Eggs left by the female will hatch this summer, feed as caterpillars and pupate to overwinter within a cocoon and emerge next spring.
Squirrels sometimes eat overwintering pupae.
Tree trimming may be detrimental as well, as cocoons are fastened to the outermost ends of branches.

Hair-like receptors for detecting odors line his antennae...look closely!

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer’s really hoppin’ at the ol’ swimmin’ hole!

This year’s extraordinarily wet spring may have put a crimp in the plans for your garden, but the repeated soaking rains and slow progression of warming temperatures have provided that perfect world about which frogs usually can only dream.
While deep, dark ruts still mark the depths to which the tractor labored against mud and tall grass in the first mowing of spring, the amphibians in my yard couldn’t be happier. This year, those dual-lived dwellers of puddles, pools and ponds can casually complete their life changes without the race against water drying out, as happens so many other times.

Cope's Gray Tree Frog, adult
Hyla chrysoscelis

While my property with its pond, vernal pools and countless puddles offers no shortage of real estate for those in the market for a watery abode, the Cope’s gray tree frogs consistently move in to the shallow basin that develops on top of the above-ground pool. Draped in its dark plastic liner, the 15-foot circle collects melting snow and spring rain in yet another vernal pool of sorts, catching leaves as well, from the cherry tree and sugar maple towering above.

Even before dusk, as the days of spring warm and the air thickens and becomes sweet with honeysuckle and black locust, a frog calls from a nearby tree. Before nightfall, he will climb down from his lichen-covered post nearby, make his way across the few feet of lawn and scale the cool, white side of the swimming pool. In the darkness, others will join him until 15-20 perch at the surface, poised in just several inches of clear water. Their raspy calls fill the damp night air.
By morning, small gelatinous clusters of 10-40 cloudy, white eggs stand out easily against the dark pool liner. The frogs, clinging by their sticky toe pads to the branches all around, seem to have become invisible in their lichen-colored skins…until the day fades and the frogsong brings them out once more.

Cope's Gray Tree Frog eggs

For a lover of nature and, especially, a watcher of the same, this arrangement couldn’t be any better. Just feet from my backdoor and without even squatting down, I can stand eye-to-eye with this cauldron of amphibian activity. Of course, if you’d like to take a swim, the people pool must wait for its upstairs tenants to move along. Slower springs have found us carrying tadpoles by the 5-gallon bucketful to new homes across the field. Little Pond always welcomes them readily, though it’s far easier on the human transports if the frogs vacate the premises under their own leg-power.

I measure the progression of spring,
as 2 legs become 4,
as plump, dark, tailed bodies slim to frog shape,
as hundreds climb from the water to cross the cool, white side of the pool.

Summer is near when tiny gems of jade and gold escape to the safety of green.

Cope's Gray Tree Frog, froglet on pool

Cope's Gray Tree Frog froglet
Look at those sticky toe pads!

With a pointed posterior where the tail has disappeared,
these tiny froglets are under 1/2 inch long!

Seeking green, he climbs onto a blade of grass.

Toes are so small they're almost transparent!

Little Froglet in the Clover

Although gray tree frogs call throughout the summer, especially on nights when the air is warm (60F+ degrees) and moist, their breeding season is late spring. Ponds, vernal pools and, often, swimming pools are used by tree frogs for breeding. The gray tree frog (tetraploid gray tree frog), Hyla versicolor, and Cope's gray tree frog (diploid gray tree frog), Hyla chrysoscelis, are visually indistinguishable from one another. In parts of their southern geographic range where the 2 species have overlapping distribution, the difference in their calls must be used to tell them apart, with Copes' being shorter and faster.
Tree frogs, in comparison with other frogs, are rather slow-moving and often climb, rather than hop, moving effortlessly along tree branches, well camouflaged by a quickly-changeable skin color. Adults eat crickets, moths and flies.
Can you see the spider, a bold jumper, waiting to tackle a tiny froglet?

Adult Cope's gray tree frogs

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