Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Patient Raptor

I'm a notorious lover and appreciator of Ohio's rural back country roads.  Whether it's the patchwork of woodlots and agriculture back home or the winding forested roads of the hills and hollers of the southeast, there's always something to be seen and/or discovered.   On a gorgeous late summer afternoon a few months back I took to the weathered and cracked asphalt of eastern Miami county with the camera at my side to see what I might find or rather what may find me.  I rarely go out with any specific goal or subject in mind.  I'd rather let fate and the intrinsic beauty of the country-side atmosphere envelope my body and mind and let the road take me where it may. 

As I enjoyed the warm breeze weave itself through my outstretched hand and fingers, I noticed a recognizable form further up the way.  Silently perched on the fence post of a long ignored fallow field was a handsome red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) clearly on the hunt for a rodent snack.  I slowed to a halt on the side of the road and anxiously waited for any potential response from the raptor.  He didn't seem to mind my presence so I decided to push my luck a bit further and opened the door and exited with camera and telephoto lens in hand.

After a few motionless minutes of observation it seemed pretty clear this fellow had no ill-feelings about my presence on his hunting ground so I mounted up the camera and began to shoot.  His gaze was ever steadfast on the tall weeds and grass surrounding his solitary wooden perch with only his nictitating membrane for movement.

From time to time the sun would peak out from behind the network of fluffy, marshmallow cumulus clouds and begin to gleam down on the landscape.  The patient raptor responded by slightly spreading his wings out in a small attempt to bask in the radiating warmth yet always sure his movements were slow and calculated to prevent detection from below.

The increasing glare of the sun must have garnered his attention to feathers that were in some manner of disorder as he spent several minutes preening and cleaning his breast feathers.  Many people who have voiced their dislike of our avian friends seem quick to point out how 'dirty' they think birds are.  I couldn't disagree more, especially after watching this regal raptor carefully tend to his coat of feathers.

After another ten minutes or so of tedious observation the hawk suddenly zeroed in on a spot in the tall grass and pounced!  He instantly disappeared below the vegetation and was too quick for my trigger finger to capture anything but the empty stack of wood and surrounding vegetation.  I could faintly hear some rustling coming from where the hawk pounced when just as suddenly as he left, he launched out of the weeds and landed back on his perch.  Only this time he was not alone.

In his tightly grasped talons was the fruit of his labor and patience.  A small rodent who lacked sufficient skill in stealth and detection became this powerful raptor's next meal.  I watched as the hawk tore the flesh away from its prey and tilted his head back and swallowed it piece by piece.  Incredible to have stumbled across the chance to watch such an amazing creature on his successful hunt.

In the picture above you can actually see the tail of the hapless rodent hanging from the hawk's beak before being swallowed.  After finishing his meal the hawk took to his gargoyle-like stance and resumed the hunt once more.  Always hungry and always on the lookout.  I proceeded to hang around for another hour and watched him catch an additional two meals before calling it an afternoon and packed back into the car and made the short drive back into town.  How many times do we pass by these wonderful beings at 60 mph and hardly give them a passing glance or thought?  There is such an infinitely fascinating and large world out there happening on a second by second basis us humans fail to observe.  I'm very thankful for the random chance and encounter with this magnificent bird.

If you click any of the pictures and look carefully at his right ankle you can just make out a metal tag.  Someone has previously caught and banded this raptor.  I wonder who had the task and chance to get such a close and personal encounter with this bird of prey and how long ago he was banded?

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Big Year

I love the excitement that flows through the brain after the inception of a great subject to share with the nature blogosphere.  Sometimes I find myself staring blankly into the computer screen with a bit of drool losing its battle with gravity down the side of my mouth.  I dislike those moments.  I prefer times when your fingers move almost faster than the electrodes in your brain; times like these.  I have just returned from my viewing of the movie The Big Year, which tells the tale of three very different men at very different points in their respective lives, all vying for the same prize of being the world record holder for most species seen in a year.  While I don't want to get too into the plot and what transpires I will say it's an excellent movie that deserves two hours of your day.  It doesn't matter if you are as obsessed a birder as the movie's characters, a casual birder like myself or someone who doesn't know a mourning dove from an egret, there's plenty to take away from the film.

As I sat there watching Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin crack me up and at times nearly choke me up, I got to thinking about just how in-depth and personal the story seemed to myself; someone who can really relate to the bliss, stress and sacrifice experienced by the characters in varying degrees of intensity.  While the movie is about the all-consuming task of becoming a world record breaker in the birding world, I can really relate to their struggle and drive with my passion of photographing and observing as many vascular plants as possible from year to year.  I love making lists, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and goal-setting.  Seeing what I've done and what I'd still like to do just keeps me in-line and on the tenacious path of success.  As of this date my plant list for 2011 stands at 1,319 species; including 52 species of North American orchid.  I cannot say that number is concrete as some duplicates, omissions or mis-I.D.'s could exist but nonetheless I'm pretty happy with the results.  From the dandelions in my front yard to the federally endangered Michigan Monkeyflower (Mimulus michiganensis) with just a handful of populations left on earth, if it's flowering or in fruit I count it.  Trees, ferns, grasses, sedges, orchids, rushes; the list goes on and on.  I've been lucky to have botanized all four corners of Ohio, much of southern Indiana, Kentucky, northern Michigan and Ontario, Canada this year.  That's where the movie really drove the nail home with me.  The drive, obsession and unquenchable passion for what I do really cannot be explained.  It's just something that speaks from my heart and soul and takes me to a level of happiness and purity that nothing else has yet to achieve.

Another aspect that really rang true was the network of support and crowd of doubt in each character's lives.  While I connected with Brad (Jack Black's character) the most I can say our fathers differ greatly.  I've been very fortunate to have been born and raised by a set of parents who's only dream and wish for me is my personal happiness and success.  They have a son who loves nothing better than driving thousands and thousands of miles all around the Midwest constantly in search of the next species of plant on my radar but they love me for it and most importantly have respect for what I do.  That really helps when you have that cradle of love and support.  I feel that many of my friends don't have the first clue of understanding or comprehension why I have the lifestyle and passion I do.  While I rarely get much negative flack for my interests I did connect with Stu (Steve Martin) when his employee's just couldn't believe the decision to forgo business and money for something as silly and pointless as 'birding'.  Truthfully, deep down I think many people are jealous, even if they don't quite understand why.  I have consciously chosen my path in life.  I've shied away from the predictable life of getting a job for the sake of one, disliking what I do and dreaming of the day I can quit.  I think it's important for us to really weigh what's important in our lives and then taking that dominant aspect and really striving towards happiness.  I truly believe that while money does make life easier and run more smoothly it does not and never will bring genuine happiness and love.  No amount of money can make you love yourself.

My dad has always been quick to share this Henry David Thoreau quote with me throughout my life, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them".  Not I.  I'm singing my song loudly, belting it out for all the world to hear.  When the time comes to return my bones back to the Earth my voice will be quiet with satisfaction.  For I will have sung my song in life and have left nothing else to say.  We only get this one chance to live our lives so why not live them by your standards and not someone else's?  If you want to bird, then bird!  If you want to travel the country seeking out all the incredible flora, I know I do, then do it!  You want to know what the meaning of life is?  It's what you make of it.  That's the answer in my mind.  I was put here to enjoy the natural wonders of our world created by time and chance and do what I can to leave it in better shape than I found it.

It does all come with a price, as all things both good and bad in life.  I sometimes wonder what I could be missing out on that so many other people seem to be doing and enjoying.  I really do tend to spend almost all my free time out wandering the woods or prairies in search of that perfect intrinsic moment; which I seem to find on more occasions than not.  I'm young and still have plenty of time to decide on my future in the not so well planned out areas but I could still feel Kenny's (Owen Wilson) inner battle between doing what he was meant to and sacrificing that precious time to be a dedicated husband and potential father.  It's hard to balance those things out and I wonder where my life will lead in that area.  It's pretty evident it's a one-horse race in that category right now but anything can happen from now until later.

Whew, maybe a bit personal of a post but one I really wanted to share.  I think it's important for all of us, regardless of age, passion or lifestyle to sit back and take a look at our lives through the eyes of someone else.  I didn't expect this movie to play that role but it really got me thinking and I couldn't help but walk out of the theater with a big smile on my face and look forward to my future.  It definitely lit a fire under me to get more serious about birding and improve my paltry life-list of 200 some birds.  Definitely no Big Year ahead anytime soon for me but eclipsing 300 in 2012 would be spectacular!  I'm even more excited about next year's botanical promises and dreams.  I still have plenty of species high on my list and I plan on doing some more traveling to mark a number of those off.  I'm thinking of getting out West to get me a couple more Cypripedium, moving ever closer to my ultimate bucket list goal of seeing every North American species.  The older we get the more you need to have something to drive towards and reach for.  It keeps your heart light and soul glowing.  It just so happened that somewhere in my mitochondrial DNA I have the genetic sequence for the love of botany and everything else natural and I couldn't be happier with that.  This year truly was one, big's to an even bigger 2012!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Saving the Best for Last

Is it really October already?  It seems like just last month I was looking out my frosted windows with dreams of hepaticas and snow trillium in my botanically deprived head.  It's been an incredible year I won't soon forget but it's not over just yet.  Autumn is hands down my favorite time of the year, no matter how fleeting it seems.  This season is a refreshing change from last year's fall where a rainless summer produced little color and enthusiasm.  My forested drives to and from campus explode with the fire orange of sugar maples, deep crimsons of sourwood and the tie-dye patchwork of sweetgum to name a few.  The weather this past week has been nearly perfect for producing an extra sharp pigment performance this time around.  Bright, sunny days accompanied with clear and cool nights really bring out the most intense reds, oranges and yellows.  It's days like these that make me extremely thankful to live in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  While most people focus on the trees this time of year it would be a shame to ignore the last wildflowers of the season, proudly displaying their beauty for the careful observer.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

One of the last to unveil its delicate artistry is the Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata).  Mother nature really does save the best for last!  I was disappointed in my searches last fall for this stunning member of the Gentian family (Gentianaceae) and was forced to wait until this past Saturday to make its acquaintance and it was worth every second.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

It was mid-morning when I arrived at the secretive fen complex somewhere in central Ohio.  Dew still clung to the shadows as the sun carved through the remaining fog.  My footsteps fell silently on the moist, fallen leaves as I slowly made my way through the perimeter forest.  Suddenly I was greeted by a large, open expanse of wet prairie colored gold with Indian Grass and spotted with blue, yellow and purple flowers.  Willow-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum praealtum), Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense) and Nodding Ladies-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) were scattered amongst the grass but I was most interested in the splashes of brilliant blue just peaking above the vegetation.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

The clear, sapphire skies were only bested by the even more intense hues of the fringed gentians.  The plants pictured above were just starting to unfurl their four fringed petals as the sun spilled over the fen.  Under cloudy and nighttime conditions these flowers curl their petals tightly together in a vertical fashion, which honestly makes for just as pretty a capture as fully open.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

There are two Gentianopsis species native to Ohio; the lesser fringed (G. virgata), which is featured in this post, and greater fringed gentian (G. crinita).  Both are nearly identical at first glance but can be separated with relative ease.  The amount of fringing around the petals a means for distinguishing which species you have but can be very variable.  The lesser gentian's fringing tapers to nearly none at all at the rounded end of the petal (seen above), while the greater gentian's fringing runs continuously and evenly all the way around the petal.  The leaves are your best bet with the greater fringed having shorter, more wide lanceolate leaves; while the lesser fringed has long, much narrower and almost linear leaves.  Both species are listed as potentially threatened with G. virgata predominately in the southern half of the state and G. crinita found in the northern half; most frequently in the northeast near Lake Erie.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

Gentianopsis virgata is a calciphile, growing in calcareous situations such as fens, seeps, shorelines and marly sand.  These gorgeous annuals were once much more common throughout our state and the Great Lakes region until draining and habitat destruction ruined their unique and diverse wetland homes.  I would love to travel back to pre-settlement Ohio and look out across the large fens and wet meadows come October and see this remarkable plant bloom by the thousands.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

Each flower seems to have been carefully stitched and made of the finest silk and then allowed to tatter and fray in the chilled Autumn winds.  I could have spent all day in the presence of these remarkable wildflowers.  I just wanted to sit down on a patch of grass and feel the sun warm my body and soul as the migrating birds whistled their goodbyes for the year and hope that moment would last forever.  I love finding places where the stain and evidence of mankind disappears and I'm left feeling alone in the world.  A good alone, the kind only a true outdoors loving person understands.  No sounds, smells or sights other than what exists naturally and belongs.  I don't know how other naturalists and pro-nature folks feel but my best moments in nature are when I'm alone, I've never felt so at peace as in those perfectly timed moments.  They really are one of life's ineffable experiences.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

I hope this amazing fen complex exists for years to come; its seclusion and secret is safe with me.  Places like this don't increase in number but are ever losing ground to natural succession, man-made destruction and climate change.  I look forward to seeing my new found friend again next year as the leaves begin to change and winter beckons once again.  That's the beauty about botany; each of these species of plant that I find so mesmerizing is 'someone' I know who comes and goes at a specific time and place.  It's that 51 weeks of patience in-between that keeps me going.  Always something to look forward to and picture in your mind.  I apologize for the extended absence but rest-assured I'll be back soon to continue bringing you the natural treasures of Ohio.  I have plenty more to come over the winter months including finishing up my Bruce peninsula trip and Ohio prairies series!  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adams County's Prairies Revisited

I'm quite excited to move on with my series on Ohio's native prairies!  For part two I will focus on the tall grass prairies of north and west central Ohio known as the Sundusky and Darby Plains.  These once immense prairie systems were some of Ohio's most diverse and ecologically important habitats prior to European settlement until they were almost entirely erased forever.  However I can't help but first share a few examples of the amazing flora seen during my most recent time spent down in Adams county!  Just consider this a happy extension and continuation of previous post on the bluegrass prairies of Ohio.

Big Bluestem looking over the rolling hills and valleys of southern Ohio

There is nothing better than spending a few days in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian's in southern Ohio.  With the forecast predicting clear blue skies and sunny warm weather ahead, my father and I made the two hour drive down to our property in Adams county.  We'd been meaning to give the cabin and surrounding deck a fresh coat of paint for a while and decided to take advantage of nature's temporary compromise.  As promised, the sun shined brightly through the yellowing canopy of leaves that rippled in the refreshing breeze.  Painting has never been known to put a smile on my face but I couldn't complain spending all day outside in the fresh forest air with nothing but the sounds of late summer tickling my eardrums.  Despite the days filled with a cramped hand and paintbrush, I was able to slip out in the early morning or evening hours for some botanizing!  Lucky I did as I was in for a treat with an array of tantalizingly rare and gorgeous wildflowers!

Rough Rattlesnake-root - Prenanthes aspera

When it comes down to it I really am a fan of just about any plant species and/or family.  It's easy to play favorites, as I frequently do, when so many share the characteristics and qualities I look for in a plant.  Having said that, I can say without any doubt come fall one of the best genera to go looking for are the Rattlesnake-roots (Prenanthes spp.).  Rough Rattlesnake-root (P. aspera) is one of the rarest and is listed as an endangered species in Ohio.  The open and rocky situations in the county's more acidic barrens are home to the few state populations still extant.  Some point in the near or far future I'd love to do a post dedicated solely to our state's seven Prenanthes species.

Yellowish Gentian - Gentiana alba

Ah, Gentian season is here!  Nothing says fall like the white and blue colored, tubular blooms from the Gentians.  The first up to bat is the Yellowish Gentian (Gentiana alba), which also goes by the common names of Cream or Prairie Gentian.  Listed as threatened in Ohio, I've never seen it anywhere else than a couple separate populations along Adams county's most secluded forested roads.  Their ghostly cream flowers glowed through the morning mists as I walked up to the first patch just starting to open at the top of the corolla.  I did a more detailed post on these wonderful plants last fall that can be found HERE.

Blue Curls - Trichostema dichotomum

After a few seasons of eluding me I finally found the dainty and cute Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) blooming in one of the areas numerous prairie openings!  I'd waited a long time to capture these sophisticated little flowers with my camera lens and jumped at the chance to final mark these off the list.  There's no mistaking Blue Curls with their dark blue spotted lip and curving stamens and styles.  Each flower is only the size of a pinkie nail so the macro lens was a must!  Ohio is home to the state endangered Narrow-leaved Blue Curls (T. setaceum) which only differ in very narrow, linear leaves and slightly larger flowers.

Elephant's-foot - Elephantopus carolinianus

Easily one of my favorite wildflowers come fall in the southern Ohio counties is the easily ignored Elephant's-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus).  An inconspicuous member of the Asteraceae family, it's small white flowers actually only have four petals, each comprised of five rays; all making the flower seem to have numerous individual petals.  Elephant's-foot typically grows in openings and borders of rich, mesic woods with a rosette of large, basal leaves.

Rough Blazing Star - Liatris aspera

Generally the last of the Liatris' to bloom and my personal favorite is the Rough Blazing Star (L. aspera).  Sometimes reaching four to five feet tall and covered with over 100 flower heads, it just doesn't get much more breath-taking than seeing a prairie filled with these tall, thick wands of pink!  This particular specimen was over four feet tall and branched towards the top.  I love these plants!

Smooth Yellow False Foxglove - Aureolaria flava

A drive down almost any back road during September on the upper slopes and ridge tops of southern Ohio's oak/hickory forests should reward the careful observer with one of the late summer's most delightful wildflowers.  These large, bright yellow and trumpet-like flowers belong to the Smooth Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava).  These plants are known to be semi-parasitic on the roots of oak trees, tapping into the much larger plant's resources for its own use.

Slender False Foxglove - Agalinis tenuifolia

A common sight in prairies, woodland borders, thickets and openings is the Slender False Foxglove (Agalins tenuifolia).  Found throughout nearly the entire state, it seems to be most frequent down in the southern reaches, as I've seen it with increasing frequency the more south I travel.  The deep pink corollas have a light, polka-dotted throat lined with fuzzy, cotton-like stamens/anthers.

Stiff Goldenrod - Oligoneuron rigidum

Even the greenest of any plant appreciator is familiar with the fall blooming Goldenrods (previously all Solidago's).  Fields, meadows, roadsides and prairies are painted bright shades of gold and yellow from the numerous different species; some as common as weeds, others much more rare.  An uncommon goldenrod and arguably my favorite is the Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum).  It's unbranched stems contain alternately-attaching, entire leaves that are thick and clasp the stem.  This with the aid of large, less numerous flower heads add up to a pretty easy I.D.  All the goldenrods were once under the Solidago banner but many, such as this guy, have been separated out into new genera.

Tune back in soon to catch the continuation on Ohio's native prairies but I think one more post dedicated to a very rare and very beautiful wildflower is due before getting back on track....

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ode to Ohio's Prairies: Bluegrass Region (Part I)

Those with a thirst for Ohio's natural history are in for quite the treat!  I've had this project on the blogger shelf for quite some time and am pleased to see it finally come to fruition.  This post is the first of four dedicated to the creation, history and biological composition of Ohio's natural prairies; probably my favorite ecosystem to explore.  To begin let's take a look at how our landscape came to support this fascinating habitat and then examine the first of four regions or types of Ohio's prairies; the Bluegrass Region of Adams county.  This will be followed by the tall-grass prairies of the Darby and Sandusky Plains then Ohio's prairie fen complexes and conclude with the Oak Openings.  I hope these will spark your interest in our state's unique and exciting prairie and fen remnants as well as our natural history!

Close your eyes and picture Ohio's wild and primeval landscape circa 1400.  Most people envision a massive and continuous forest of gargantuan trees where a squirrel could hop from tree to tree across the canopy and never touch the ground for miles and miles.  That's not an inaccurate interpretation of Ohio before settlement but rather bland and homogenous is you ask me.  There was a lot more to the scene than just big trees in a sprawling forest!   Ohio's landscape has changed more times in its eons of existence than you can imagine.  From a lifeless and charred rock to a shallow warm sea to agricultural fields and metros; there's more than enough history under our feet to keep someone like me busy studying for a lifetime.  The way the landscape and current topography looks today is only the most recent chapter of its life...but what an exciting chapter it is!

Ice cover from the Wisconsinan Glaciation (courtesy ISU G.S.)

20,000 years ago a large majority of Ohio was covered by a massive, mile thick sheet of ice known as the Wisconsin glacier.  This enormous extension of the North American Laurentide ice sheet moved south as the climate cooled and drastically changed the shape and appearance of the land as it inched along.  I can't even begin to think what it must have been like for the prehistoric Homo sapien who saw this unfathomable sight firsthand.  The climate then began to gradually warm around 10,000 years ago and slowly but surely the ice sheet shrunk back further to the north, leaving behind a flat and largely barren Ohio for nature to reclaim.  Pre-Wisconsinan glaciated Ohio looked nothing like it does today.  Lake Erie and the Ohio River were merely shadows of their current selves; a river by the name of Teays ruled the scene with countless forgotten tributaries.  Evidence of these primordial rivers are now buried under hundreds of feet of glacial till as ancient valleys, forever lost to the past.  When you stand on a piece of exposed bedrock in flat Miami county today, you could be standing on top of an ancient hill overlooking a valley since filled by the previous glaciers debris.  Those buried extinct river valleys now act as our aquifers as the glacial till comprised of pebbles, rocks and sand is saturated with ground water and naturally filtered.  In due time these forces will come back and re-shape our state once more.  After the glacier receded the immense amounts of melt water began to carve out the new landscape, creating today's rivers, valleys and kettle ponds.  A new Ohio was born.  Deciduous forests began to creep northward again from their refuge in the Appalachian Mountains.  Millennia of isolation allowed numerous plant and animal species to evolve and thrive in this still lush and warm environment.  This is a large reason why the forests and ecosystems of the Appalachians, especially the Smoky Mountains, are so world-renowned for their biodiversity. 

Teays River pre-glacial watershed (courtesy Emporia State University)

As this transition occurred, North America experienced a very warm and dry spell between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago which caused the great tall-grass prairies of the west to invade the mid-western states and stretch into western Ohio.  This xerothermic periond known as the Hypsithermal Interval allowed parts of our state to resist forest communities and instead be ruled by open plains of grass.  As time went by the climate converted back towards that of one supporting and favoring deciduous forest.  The trees moved back in, slowly fragmenting and closing in on Ohio's expansion of the Prairie Peninsula from the west.  By 1700, around the time of the earliest pioneer settlers, Ohio was covered by over 1,000 square miles of prairie, encompassing around 3-5% of the state's vegetation.  What was once a huge, sprawling expanse of unbroken prairie had by this time been split and partitioned into several hundred openings ranging from a few acres in size to several thousand acres by the ever-advancing forest.  Had the Europeans been a few thousand years earlier they would have found a much, much more open and prairie-dominated landscape!

Bur and Post oak grove in a rare patch of virgin Ohio prairie

The first pioneers and surveyors wrote of waving seas of tall grasses and an accompanying mosaic of colorful wildflowers; all integrated with a patchwork of groves of oaks and hickories, especially Bur oaks.  Most of the earliest settlers saw these expanses of grass and forbs as a wet, mosquito-infested wasteland where no good soil was to be found.  Their logic was the lack of trees meant a lack of rich, nutrient earth.  I mean, if a tree wouldn't grow in the soils how ever could their crops?  Too bad this mindset didn't stay the course of time as it wasn't long before the invention of the steel plow allowed them to conquer the final frontier of Ohio's wilderness.  The deep, rich black soils of indigenous Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans) quickly gave way to today's prairies of corn and soybeans.  As I sit here writing this, over 99% of Ohio's historical and indigenous prairie is gone forever.  Lost to mankind's ruthless desire to tame and rule.  Next time you are driving on I-70 between Springfield and Columbus, look out across the never ending sight of agriculture and wonder what it must have been like to see grasses taller than you, dotted with brilliant wildflowers come June and July.

Map of Ohio's pre-settlement prairies (courtesy Wild Ohio: The Best of our Natural Heritage)

Referencing the map from above, the dark gray patches represent areas of Ohio's pre-settlment landscape that were dominated by prairie.  The biggest area just west of Columbus was known as the Darby Plains, and the section just to the north as the Sandusky Plains.  Further north into the Toldeo area is the famed Oak Openings versus deep in the southern confines of Adams County you get the oldest and most different of all our native prairies.  While they share many of the same species of flora with the rest of Ohio's indigenous prairie, they have their fair share of unique and rare species that are more reminiscent of the southern Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri Ozark cedar glades and barrens.  Let's take a look at what makes this tiny area so unique.  Cue the photogenic portion of this post (finally)!

Chaparral Prairie in Adams county in late October

Adams county lies in the small but significant bluegrass region of Ohio where a flux of southern plants and ecosystems cross the river from Kentucky and just barely make it into our state.  The name of the game resulting in this sliver of diversity is in the geology.  Ordovician and Silurian-age limestones, dolomites and calcareous shales dominate the region where the soil is thin and rocky but home to a diverse number of rare and interesting plant life.

Typical prairie opening
Prairie 'island' surrounded by mixed oak

The small, but numerous prairie-like openings appear like islands in an otherwise thick sea of mature, second-growth deciduous forest.  These openings are believed to pre-date the Wisconsinan glaciation and could be tens of thousands of years old.  What exactly has caused these 'islands' to exist and persist to this very day is a bit of a mystery but most agree on one important factor, the bedrock.  The extremely shallow and poor soils of the prairie glades, mixed with exposed Peebles dolomite bedrock has preserved the open nature of the prairies while in areas where the acidic shale dominates, Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) and other large vegetation can take root and actively mark the forest-prairie boundaries.  The trees will only go as far as the soil condition allows them.

Post Oak leaves
Blackjack Oak leaves

Within these large and small prairie pockets are several globally rare ecosystems, most notably Post (Quercus stellata) and Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica) savannah.  These hardy, drought and fire-resistant trees slowly grow in the xeric soils as if it wasn't a problem at all.  Surviving periods of drought and the frequent early spring or fall prairie fires of old, these two trees evolved to handle the harsh environment and brunt of nature's forces.  Chaparral Prairie nature preserve is one of the largest and best remaining places in Ohio to see this rare ecosystem in its original state.  What excites me the most about these cedar glades or barrens is the plethora of rare and unique plants to be found at almost any time of the year.  The following are a number of species that I think best illustrate and portray the floristic flavor of the time-tested bluegrass prairies of Adams county.

Michaux's Gladecress - Leavenworthia uniflora

First to bloom in the barren soils are the tiny and rare mustards from the Brassicaceae family.  These minute little wonders are annuals that rely solely on each year's seed production to make sure their dainty but charming little white flowers make it to the next season.  I did a blog post a ways back digging deeper into the number of rare mustards to be found in the cedar glades that can be found HERE.

Small White Lady's slipper - Cypripedium candidum

One of Ohio's rarest plants and easily one of the most charming as well is the Small White Lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  Only recently discovered in the area, if you look in the right spots come early May you might just get a glimpse of these intricate beauties.  A few calcareous, wet hillside prairies on the Edge of Appalchia preserve system house small populations of these immensely fascinating orchid wonders.  If you'd like to learn more and see additional pictures please click HERE to read my personal experience with these little ladies!

Spider Milkweed - Asclepias viridis

My personal favorite of Ohio's 13 indigenous Milkweed species, the Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) is rather rare in Ohio and can be most commonly seen blooming in late May through June in some of Adam county's more pristine prairie openings.  It's large and conspicuous umbels of gorgeous yellow-green flowers are perfectly accented with the purple colored stamens.

Scaly Blazing Star - Liatris squarrosa

One of the first true fireworks of the prairies and glades is the potentially threatened Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa).  Each individual inflorescence seems to be a pink serpent 'tasting' the air with its tongue-like stamens.  The Blazing Stars are one of my most highly anticipated summer bloomers and decorate the area with their stunning pink-purple blossoms.  A year or so ago I did a more detailed post about a few of Ohio's native species found HERE.

Rattlesnake Master - Eryngium yuccifolium

This native member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) is arguably one of Ohio's most unique and unforgettable wildflowers.  The Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a potentially threatened species in Ohio and exists in its highest numbers in the bluegrass region.  The dried heads were once used as rattles by the Native Americans while the roots were believed to be an effective antidote to rattlesnake venom.  Obviously this turned out to be untrue.

American Bluehearts - Buchnera americana

If any of the bluegrass rarities steal my heart it's the American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana).  A true indigenous species to this region of Ohio, these delicate little flowers are listed as threatened in the state.  Each plant begins to flower in June and continues unfurling its five-petaled perfections through July.  I caught these just after a summer shower with the corolla's filled with raindrops.

Spiked Blazing Star - Liatris spicata

Not necessarily a representative solely of the region, the Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is just too stunning a wildflower to omit from this slideshow.  The tall wands spend the first half of summer maturing and biding their time in bud stage before revealing their feathered beauty to the world.  Something different about the Liatris' is the fact they bloom from the top down, rather than from bottom up like most wildflowers.  For the best show in the state head to Chaparral Prairie in mid to late July for an unforgettable sea of purple!

American Aloe - Manfreda virginica

Perhaps the strangest of all the plants to call the dolomite barrens home is the American Aloe (Manfreda virginica).  Each spring a rosette of fleshy, succulent leaves sprout from the ground and by mid-July a tall stalk of buds is ready to burst.  Like the American Bluehearts above, this is a true bluegrass endemic within Ohio.  It just barely sneaks across the river and has more than likely always been an Ohio rarity.  Each flower only lasts a day or so before its anthers drop and the ovary quickly sets to seed.  If you are lucky to see one of these in bloom be sure to treat your olfactories to its insatiable aroma.  Smells like jasmine to me!

Crested Coralroot - Hexalectris spicata

It just wouldn't be a normal post if I didn't include more orchids!  This is probably my favorite Ohio orchid, the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).  A careful and lucky walk around the Ohio bluegrass region's open mixed Oak and cedar barrens come late July and early August just might reward you with one of these gorgeous plants.  The fleshy, large flowers almost seem as if someone molded them from clay and painted each lip with the most royal shade of purple to be found in the natural world.  This is a very fickle plant that only send its flowers up in optimal years, otherwise remaining underground in hibernation.  For a fun in detail post on this plant click HERE!

Western Sunflower - Helianthus occidentalis

My favorite of Ohio's many sunflowers is the Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis).  Perhaps it should go by its other common name of the Few-leaf Sunflower, as there is really nothing too western about this species, predominately growing in the great lake states.  It's mostly basal leaves and relatively naked, short stem easily separate it from the tricky Helianthus spp..  Come August and September it's not too hard to find this species keeping the late summer prairies fresh with color.

Great Plains Ladies' Tresses - Spiranthes magnicamporum

If the Michaux's Gladecress is the first to bloom in the bluegrass prairie openings of Adams county it's only fitting and appropriate I end this photo shoot with the last species to bloom, the Great Plains Ladies' Tresses  (Spiranthes magnicamporum) orchid.  A rarity within Ohio, this species loves the calcareous and xeric soils of the cedar glades.  By mid-October almost everything, even the asters and goldenrods are beginning to call it a year but not these guys, they are just getting going!  It's not uncommon to see these in bloom even into November!  This is another plant that deserves your noses attention as the perfume these emit is intoxicating.  I posted on these wonders last fall which can be found HERE.

If you've made it this far and are still reading this I sincerely thank you and hope you enjoyed it!  I know it was a marathon of a post but it has already launched itself into my top ten I've ever done.  There is just something about the prairies of the Adams county region that calls me back time and time again.  In fact, I should probably get to bed as I'm headed down for a day trip in the morning!  Keep checking back in for the soon to follow part two, three and four to complete this series on Ohio's fantastic prairie ecosystems!  I'll leave you with a gorgeous shot of an Adams county sunset looking across a plowed field of planted crops.  Perhaps this was once one of the many prairie openings, full of incredible plants...such is life.

Adams county summer sunset across the rolling hills

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena)

As summer winds to its inevitable close I find myself already looking forward to next year's edition.  I've seen a remarkable amount this past season, more than I could ever hope or even try to share with you on here, but a few species still eluded me.  How anyone could ever truly see everything they want in one year is beyond me and I think it's important to miss some just for the sake of something to look forward to as the depths of winter take hold.  Despite the few that remained on the life list plenty more have a very satisfying check mark next to their name.  One wildflower that received an extra bold mark for it's ability to evade my detection the past few years was was the delightful Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena). 

Purple Fringeless Orchids - Platanthera peramoena

It's becoming more and more evident that perhaps I should change the name of this blog to Ohio's Native Orchids, as my infatuation and deep-rooted love for these wondrous monocots only grows stronger by the day.  I do my best to keep things balanced on the seemingly infinite number of subjects within the vascular plant world but I can't help but keep coming back to orchids.  Ohio has 46 native members of the Orchidaceae family and the purple fringeless is no doubt one of the most remarkable of its kin.

Close up of the individual inflorescences beginning to unfurl

While walking through a wet meadow in Indian Creek Wildlife Area I came across this lone and rather robust plant who's buds were just beginning to break their silence and show off their perfect blooms.  Each flower was easily the size of a quarter and the most rich and brilliant shade of pink I've ever seen.  Part of me was a bit disappointed to have not found the plant in full bloom, however the chance to see a few fully-opened flowers along with buds in varying degrees of unfurling was rather unique.  Each delicately designed and constructed flower beckons its large butterfly and moth pollinating friends to pay a visit and leave with a package of pollen, or pollinia, to share with the next inflorescence it visits.  Hard to imagine any passing Lepidoptera would choose to ignore this beckon of pink in a sea of green.

Purple Fringeless Orchid - Platanthera peramoena
Taking a closer look at an individual inflorescence of this orchid reveals the true beauty and design behind the flower itself.  The scientific epithet even plays tribute to this plants beauty.  The latin word 'peramoena' translates to 'very loving' in regards to the flowers stunning and 'lovely' appearance.  It hails from the same genera of its closely related cousins; the Greater and Lesser Purple Fringed orchids (Platanthera grandiflora, P. psycodes).  The purple fringed orchids exhibit an obvious fringe to the central lobe of their lower lips while the purple fringeless only shows a slight 'toothing' around the margin of the lip (hence the name 'fringeless'). 

Purple Fringeless Orchid - Platanthera peramoena

P. peramoena is largely southern in range and can be found predominately in the south-western quarter of Ohio.  This orchid is relatively dependent on moisture and is most commonly found in the wet, mucky soils of meadows, prairies, swamps, lake/stream banks as well as openings in floodplain/wet woods.  It's also known to tolerate moderate disturbance that removes taller, competing vegetation such as trees and shrubs.  It can withstand some amounts of shade however the more sunlight it receives the healthier and more robust the plant appears.  Like many other orchids this species can be very fickle on when it decides to bloom or remain dormant in the ground.  One can never guarantee seeing this plant from one year to the next even if you know exactly where to look.  Here's to hoping next year is a boom year for this species as just this one only added to the drive and thirst to see more!

You can trust to see future posts exhibiting Ohio's native orchids.  As of the day of this publication I have seen 35 of the 46 indigenous species this year alone with the promise of a few more still to go!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Old Faces in New Places

I love botany.  I don't think you need to know me on a personal level to arrive at that conclusion.  There's just something about it that really gets the heart pumping and adrenaline flowing.  One never knows what lies just around the bend no matter how many times you've walked that trail before.  That's what keeps the passion so fresh; the humility of the search is only bested by the excitement of discovery.  Earlier this week while botanizing west-central Ohio's remnant tall-grass prairies and fen complexes I was lucky enough to recharge my botanical chi with a few thrilling discoveries of my own...

The day started by picking up good friend and fellow blogger Michael Whittemore of Flora and Fauna of Appalchia fame for a fun-filled day of hiking and exploring the aforementioned ecosystems my home area of Ohio is known for.  Mike had yet to experience the fascinating and unique plant communities fens have to offer so I was certainly excited to introduce him to arguably my favorite Ohio ecosystem.  First up, though was a quick swim through the sea of tall, warm-season grasses at Pearl King oak savannah, one of Ohio's largest and most intact prairie remnants of the once formidable Darby Plains.

*Remember to click on the photographs to see them in a larger, more detailed resolution!*

Ancient Oaks of Pearl King
An open area with a surprise!

I apologize for the first few pictures being rather washed out but not much you can do when trying to photograph in bright, sunny conditions.  Just have to deal with what Mother Nature gives you!  While Pearl King is only 14 acres in size it more than makes up for its small proportions with a rich and deep look into Ohio's natural history.  Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Prairie Cordgrass (Spartinia pectinata) and the rare, state-threatened Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) abound in the fertile, unplowed virgin terra firma along with gargantuan and ancient Bur, White and Post oaks.  Look for a more detailed and intimate post going into the history and flora of this preserve in the near future.  Today I want to focus on one little plant hiding amongst the prairie grasses.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis

As we made our way through the grasses at Pearl King I came across a small, open patch of ground with a curious little stalk of white, spiraled flowers growing near a stunted oak sapling.  Kneeling down for a closer look I immediately recognized it as Slender Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) by the green coloration on the lip and mouth of the inflorescence.  I quickly called Mike over to take a look, as I knew he was a big fan of the Spiranthes orchids.  I was excited at the chance to show him the Nodding Lady's Tresses (S. cernua) at Gallagher fen but had little hope of finding any other Spiranthes during our hikes.  I've seen slender lady's tresses plenty of times and have always thought of it as one of Ohio's most common species of Spiranthes and didn't really think much of the sighting at the time but more on that later...

Gallagher Fen in Clark County
A tiny curiosity caught my eye...

After leaving Pearl King behind we set our sights on one of the most interesting and down right awesome natural areas in the state, Gallagher Fen.  This particular fen is unique among others by combining not only the normal features of a fen environment but the added pleasure of a naturally-occurring perched hill prairie above the fen.  This upland habitat adds another floristic component to the equation with native prairie species blooming and watching guard over the delicate aquatic calcifiles below.  After spending a couple hours exploring the fen and surrounding prairie, Mike and I started to make our way back through the mature Oak/Hickory woods bordering the preserve when a tiny little plant caught my attention.

Spiranthes ovalis
Spiranthes ovalis

As luck would have it I happened to be face to face with yet another unexpected Spiranthes, the Lesser Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata).  Easily the smallest and least attractive of the lady's tresses, I was a bit taken aback to have found this plant in Gallagher fen, let alone to have noticed it as we walked down the path.  I had previously seen this dainty little orchid in several spots in Adams county last fall but never outside the confines of southern Ohio.  I quickly pulled my trusty iPhone out to check the current known distribution of the species as I wasn't aware of S. ovalis being known from Clark county.  After a quick check of the out-dated USDA distribution maps as well as the more trusted and current BONAP ranges I quickly noticed neither had any records of this for Clark county.  Hmm?  I'm pretty hesitant to ever get my hopes up when the maps don't confirm my findings but it did leave me a bit more curious about the situation.

Size comparison against camera lens
Lesser Lady's Tresses in full bloom

Since I had all the ranges of the North American Spiranthes at my finger tips I decided to take the few seconds needed to check on the Ohio distribution of the previously found S. lacera var. gracilis just to be thorough.  My brow furrowed as I noticed no record for the species being collected in Madison county before.  Could I possibly have stumbled across new county records for these two miniscule orchids?  I needed a better source than USDA and BONAP to soothe my wandering mind so I quickly shot an email to Rick Gardner, one of Ohio's premiere botanists.  If anyone could point me in the right direction I figured he could.  The following morning Rick responded by saying he would check the records later in the week but suggested I get in touch with director of the herbarium at the Ohio State University, Dr. John Freudenstein.  Rick said Dr. Freudenstein had been working on the orchids of Ohio and had the most up-to-date county distribution maps for our state.

A few hours later my iPhone chimed the tone signaling a new email.  I quickly became excited to see a new message from Dr. Freudenstein and anxiously read his response.  After taking a look at the maps and the collection records from not only Ohio State's herbarium but Miami University and Ohio University as well he concluded it was safe to say both the Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis from Pearl King in Madison county and Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata from Gallagher fen in Clark county were both new county records!  Pretty cool stuff if you ask me!  It's not every day you find a species of plant never previously known from the county before, but to find two on the same day and to both be from my beloved Orchidaceae family really puts a smile on my face.  Just goes to show you there is still plenty of things to discover out there in the botanical world and nothing is completely known.  Like I said before there is just something about the thrill of discovery that just can't be beat!

If you want a more in-depth look at these two species of orchid you can take a look at a post I did last fall on several species of Spiranthes to be found HERE.  I hope you vicariously enjoyed these discoveries and look forward to more detailed posts about the days finds and experiences at Pearl King and Gallagher Fen.  Thanks for tuning it!