Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Southern Kentucky and the Rosebud Orchid

Roasted, toasted, and fried to a crisp.  That about sums up your blogger after spending a day botanizing the steamy hot and humid southern Kentucky county of Laurel this past memorial day weekend.  With high temperatures topping out in the mid 90's and a sticky, saturated feel and look to the air, it wasn't the most pleasant of atmospheres or experiences on the body but boy did the wildflowers make up for any physical discomfort.  I'll be the first to boast about the diverse arrangement of plants my beloved home state supports but any chance to head south into its different habitats, ecosystems, and flora should be quickly taken advantage of.

I made the four hour one-way drive down to the Laurel Lake region with the high hopes of successfully searching out and photographing a species of wild orchid that had slipped through my grasp last year.  While orchid hunting for some other summer-blooming species last July I fortuned upon some specimens of the Rosebud orchid (Cleistes bifaria) in a power line cut within Daniel Boone National Forest.  Unfortunately I was greeted with maturing fruit capsules instead of their highly unique and tropical-looking flowers, so I knew a bit of patience would be needed before being rewarded with their exquisiteness the following May and June.  Fast forward to this past weekend and it was time to give it a go and see what luck nature would bestow upon me this time around.

I decided it would be wise to explore and seek out some other intriguing southern species while in the area and spent the first part of my day slowly driving along some gravel forested roads within the national forest.  The feel was quite similar to my countless experiences within Shawnee state forest or Wayne national but a distinct difference in the plant community's composition is evident; especially when my eye's caught the day's first botanical beauty.

Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense)

Hiding under the shadows of the leafed-out canopy were the burnt-orange colored flowers of the Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense).  This was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on this wondrous native shrub and it swiftly made quite an impression on me for its stunning beauty and delicate appearance.  At first glance many are probably tempted to place this under the banner of the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) for it's comparatively orange-colored blossoms but luckily several characteristics help to distinguish the two.  Cumberland azalea's flowers are smaller and darker colored than the flame azalea's, ranging from burnt orange to blood red.  The Cumberland azalea's leaves are also completely leafed out during antithesis against the flame's leaves just starting to appear.  Notice the flowering time as well to separate the two.  Flame azalea blooms in April through early May while Cumberland azalea typically doesn't flower until early June and into July.

Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense)

The Cumberland azalea gets its name from its restricted natural distribution to the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee.  It is hardly found elsewhere outside this region with some isolated populations in the northern mountains of Alabama and Georgia as well as western North Carolina and Virginia where it grows on ridges and upland mixed deciduous forest.  It was a real treat to see this uncommon and delightful species just starting to bloom and was a pleasure to add to my growing list of native azalea's I've come across.

White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Growing frequently alongside the forest roads were the showy umbels of the white milkweed (Asclepias variegata) coming into bloom.  Relatively rare and state-listed as potentially-threatened in Ohio at the northern fringe of its range; this southeastern species of the Appalachians and coastal plain becomes much more common the further south you travel.

White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

This species is easily one of the most attractive milkweeds with its diagnostic purple ring around the snow white corolla of each inflorescence.  I just wish it was as common an occurrence here in Ohio as it is to the south.  Its habitat preference of rocky, dry upland woods, roadsides and thickets sounds right at home in southern Ohio where it still hangs on in select pockets and locations.

Carolina Thistle (Cirsium caroinianum)

As I made my way to the selective spot for the rosebud orchids, I noticed some tall, aggressive-looking plants topped with purple flowers that one rarely sees back home.  The purple flower heads belonged to the Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), a threatened species in Ohio that much like the aforementioned white milkweed, becomes more common the further south you are.  The thistles can be a pain to differentiate and identify to species but the early blooming time; sticky, white-tipped phyllaries; and spineless peduncles helps set this one apart.

Power line cut choked full of botanical goodies

I finally arrived to my premiere destination and reluctantly exited my air conditioned car to hike a shrubby and sun-drenched power line cut choked full of botanical goodies.  Late last summer I posted about the white fringeless orchid (Platanthera integrilabia) in a sphagnum seep in this very same location, so it's no surprise it would be home to another fascinating member of Orchidaceae.  

The sun beat down on me as beaded sweat dripped down my back and face; sawbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) clawed and ripped at my shins and pesky clouds of flies and gnats annoyingly buzzed overhead.  They all did their best to break my careful concentration at the vegetation around me, my eyes scanning back and forth in hopes that a blip of pink would catch my gaze.  Was I too late again?  Did the extremely hot temperatures and early start to the year already fry my bounty?  I pushed on as my camera equipment weighed heavier and heavier in the heat with no shade to be had in the open swath of grasses and shrubs.  Suddenly my peripheral vision caught something suspect and my attention narrowed to see that I had indeed lucked out and found the unrivaled splendor of my foray.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Surrounded by taller, maturing vegetation was a small scattering of the rosebud orchids (Cleistes bifaria) in varying degrees of freshness and color.  I slipped off my backpack and sank to my knees to get a closer look and appreciation for this long awaited find.  Of the over 50 taxon of native orchids I've had the pleasure of seeing, none share the same bewildered looks of the rosebud orchid.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Similar to other orchids, the rosebud seems to suggest a beast of myth or legend opening its mouth and waiting for an unassuming victim to come too close.  Looking into the 'throat' of the orchid shows off a gorgeous and delicate display of pink, cream, and yellow lines and shading with the greenish pollinia tucked away inside.  The spreading sepals curl back and vary in color from honey gold to dark brown, adding a fitting crown to this king's head.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

The plants only rise about a foot off the ground and can be quite difficult to see among the taller, competing vegetation.  The rosebud orchid prefers well-drained acidic soils in meadows, savannas, and openings in upland mixed oak or pine forests in Kentucky.  It is known to respond well to fires and prescribed burns which help to keep the open and sunny habitat it needs; such as this managed power line cut.  Another species of Cleistes, the larger spreading pogonia (C. divaricata) can be found further towards the Atlantic on the coastal plains in lowland savannas.  It differs from the featured lesser spreading pogonia by having larger flowers that also feature a light fragrance.

Closeup look at the Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Even sitting in the open under a blistering sun and suffocating humidity wasn't enough to draw my attention away from this remarkable orchid I had long dreamed of seeing in person.  There's just something about the complex beauty and design of these impossibly cool plants that just pushes my botanical buttons like nothing else.  It's just an insatiable drive and passion in searching out and seeing these plants in their natural habitat that keeps me going and I don't see it stopping anytime soon.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

After a couple hours getting to know my new friends stunning faces and capturing their portraits with my camera, I slowly sauntered back to my car and proceeded to let the air conditioning blast my face and down a couple bottles of water in an attempt to recover from the southern Kentucky heat.  It was worth the burden indeed as I marked off yet another wild orchid on my list.  I can never get enough of that feeling of accomplishment and wish myself many more in the near and distant future.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Buffalo Clover Re-discovered 100 Years Later

Let's travel back to 1910 when famed botanist and ecologist E. Lucy Braun was roaming and traversing the forested hills of Hamilton county, Ohio, collecting and observing the native flora to gain a better understanding of the fascinating and seemingly endless diversity and ecosystems of the extreme southwestern corner of our great state.  Lucy was well before her time and one of the most accomplished and talented botanists Ohio ever produced; let alone the fact she was a woman in a largely male-dominated field.  Her findings, knowledge and publications are still widely used and appreciated today by anyone with an interest in the botanical world.  

On one particular day in May of that same year she came across an intriguing and very rare species of plant with clusters of pale-pink flowers and three-parted leaves that she collected and sent to the herbarium at the University of Cincinnati.  There the voucher sat for decades on end as the only proof that buffalo clover (Triflolium reflexum) ever existed in Hamilton county and it slipped into legend and mystery.

Dan Boone and one of his greatest discoveries, the Buffalo Clover (T. reflexum)

Fast forward a little over a century later and another great native of the area and incredible botanical mind would erase that mystery and legend.  On an early May afternoon while wandering around the same area as Lucy over 100 years earlier the sharp, eagle-eyes of Dan Boone spotted something unique growing in small groupings under a mixed oak canopy that made his heart skip a beat.  If there was anyone in Ohio worthy and deserving enough to find something of this botanical magnitude it's Dan.  You don't get a nickname like 'the clover kid' for nothing!  Our native clovers (Trifolium spp.) have long been one of Dan's greatest and deepest passions and finding this great rarity in his home county just mere miles from his house was more than a dream come true.  I can still hear the excitement in his voice as I got the call sharing the news and an invitation to come down and photograph the gorgeous specimens.

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

While Lucy described her plants as having pale pink flowers, these plants exhibited more of a cream color with perhaps the slightest tinge of pink on newly-opened corollas.  Not to be confused with Ohio's other native species of clover, the Running Buffalo Clover (T. stoloniferum); this species lacks the running stolons.  The length of the calyx teeth can also be used to distinguish the buffalo clover from other non-native and introduced Trifoliums but once you see these remarkable plants in person it's hard to mistake them for anything else.  The flower heads are significantly larger than the European white clover (T. repens) as are the running buffalo clover's as well.

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

Buffalo clover has the interesting trait of being an incredibly variable species from population to population.  In fact, Dan has seen a number of populations throughout the Midwest and no two have ever been the 'same' in appearance.  Sometimes the leaves will exhibit chevrons, or watermarks, on the leaves while others (such as these in Hamilton Co.) will lack them completely.  The color of the inflorescence can greatly differ as well, from scarlet red to creamy white to pink and light yellow.

The two photographs above are both buffalo clover from a recently re-discovered population in Mammoth Cave National Park Dan and I saw last early June down in Kentucky.  Notice how the blooms are deep red and the smaller leaves show off the chevrons that the Hamilton county population lacks.  Some suggest there are a great number of varieties within the species but that has yet to be confirmed or denied through genetic work.

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

I was fortunate to catch the plants in peak bloom a couple weeks ago as I made the journey from Athens to Cincinnati to photograph and document this remarkable find of Dan's.  I've seen many rare and incredible species of plants in my countless wanderings and botanical forays with Dan but few could ever match the emotion and excitement of seeing this historic species on Ohio soil.  Some may shrug their shoulders and say "so what, I see 'white' clover in my yard every day", but how wrong they are to even suggest this plant is in the same category as the exotic species of Europe and Northern Africa.  This truly is one of Ohio's most rare and imperiled of plants.

Trifolium reflexum distribution map (courtesy of BONAP)

Originally found and documented in about a dozen scattered Ohio counties, it's numbers and populations have dwindled in the last century.  East of the Mississippi River the buffalo clover becomes increasingly rarer with scattered and isolated populations throughout the Midwest and southeastern states.  As you can see from the distribution map above, the only area of the country where it is rather common is in Missouri and Arkansas, where it is a frequent species of the Ozarks.

For the past few decades the only population still extant in the state lied in Pike county where the plants bloomed scarlet red and exhibited faint chevrons on the leaves; much like the previously pictured buffalo clover from Mammoth Cave.  Thanks to Dan's constant vigilance and efforts Ohio can now proudly claim back another population to its records.  The fight is far from over though, as this species is an annual and relies heavily on seed production and disturbance to fight back encroaching vegetation and over-shading.  I'm curious what effects an under story burn would produce at the new Hamilton county site as this species has historically responded very well to burns.  In fact, the plants at Mammoth Cave had sat dormant for nearly two decades in the seed bank of a rocky, dry mixed oak forest before a prescribed burn a couple spring ago sprang them forth.

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

Upon closer inspection it becomes evident just how attractive and gorgeous a flower head this species can produce.  The individual inflorescences bloom for a short time before reflexing and all hang down below the long pedicle that supports the head.  This picture also shows the long calyx teeth (the thin, green 'threads' at the base of each individual flower) which helps distinguish this species.

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

This particular population was growing in a relatively open area in the under story of a mixed oak woodland with white, red and chinkapin oaks and a scattering of sugar maple along with an herbacious association of yellow pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima), great yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis grandis), and Bosc's Panicgrass (Dichanthelium boscii).  Further up the slope the under story becomes much more thick with vegetation but luckily the immediate area seems to be relatively free of the intensely invasive Asian Amur bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).  Buffalo clover occurs in rocky, open woods and prairies with a strong preference for acidic soils.  Perhaps the acidity of the soil is a distinguishing factor in the color of the resulting flowers?

Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum)

After photographing and admiring the remarkable buffalo clover for quite some time we decided to do something that I dare say very, very few have ever (and I do mean ever) had the chance of becoming a part of.  Hamilton county, Ohio has the very rare honor of being one of the only counties in the world where one can see both the native buffalo clover (T. reflexum) and the federally endangered running buffalo clover (T. stoloniferum). I can't say without any real assurance but it just may be the only county currently known to have both species with extant populations.  These are Ohio's only two indigenous clovers and both are listed as endangered in our state.

Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum)

Not long after leaving the buffalo clover my eyes rested upon our other native taxa and equally gorgeous running buffalo clover (T. stoloniferum).  I felt a sense of honor and accomplishment to have been in the presence of two of Ohio's most rare species.  I really would like to find out just how many other counties in the country can lay claim to both these native clovers within their borders.  Perhaps Hamilton is unique in that fact but time will tell and while I am proud of that fact I do hope others can and will eventually share in the joy; the more of these beautiful plants there are, the better off our natural diversity is!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flora-Quest 2012: Part II

Better late than never but I am back to share the second half of Flora-Quest 2012!  Clearly I wanted to get this post out and published right after the first one but sometimes life has a way of keeping you busy elsewhere and preventing some things from happening on time.  Rest assured I haven't forgotten and am still plenty excited to share the fascinating flora that Sunday bestowed upon my group's hungry eyes.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny with the promise of a great day back on the forest roads of Shawnee state forest to search out some of the gorgeous and intriguing plants blooming throughout.  As mentioned before the early spring caused some interesting changes in the usual look of the flora at this stage in the year but I was still able to secure some wildflowers and spots that were sure to wow everyone.  I'm hard pressed to have such an attentive audience this fired up about plants in my normal day to day life.  It's beer, sports and women with the guys and not that there is anything wrong with those subjects but I can't always keep my love for the botanical world bottled up and unsung.

For Sunday's excursions out into Shawnee you were welcome to join any of the leader's vans and did not necessarily have to stick with your original group from the day before.  I was very happy to see more or less my entire group climb into my van, plus a couple extras who were, like me, pretty hot for the promise of the wild orchids we were likely to see.  I think the following photographs will be quick to show just how awesome a day out in the field we had.

Albino Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule forma albiflora)

Probably my favorite stop and wildflower seen during our outing was the long-awaited and sought after albino pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule forma albiflora).  I have had the pleasure of seeing thousands of pink ladies in my botanical wanderings but the rare and elusive all-white albino form had always eluded me; well until this weekend!  If this particular plant could have known any better it would have felt like a rock star having so many people flock around it with camera shutters clicking and flashes going off left and right.  It was well deserved if you ask me!

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Scattered throughout the same area as the lone albino pink lady were dozens of others in their traditionally pink garb.  These Cypripediums are also called moccasin flowers by some for their bilateral labellums (pouch) appearing much like that of a moccasin or slipper (hence the other common name for this genus).

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens)

Just a stone's throw away from the pink ladies flowering under the oaks and pines were a few straggling large yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) along the gravel road.  Getting to see two of Ohio's lady's slippers almost side by side is one of the many reasons Shawnee is an incredible place during the growing season.  Some sad news does go along with these wondrous plants I'm afraid to say.  What now only numbers a few scattered plants, this specific spot once supported upwards of 40-50 flowering plants of the yellow ladies before meeting their fates not long ago at the hands of a careless road grater.  I understand and appreciate the maintenance needed to keep the roads in drivable conditions in Shawnee but practicing some foresight and carefulness is crucial in keeping some of the state forest's key residents intact.  Decades of careful growth and existence snuffed out in an instant under a ton of welded metal and steel.  With any luck these magnificent plant's underground rhizomes survived and will bounce back in the years to come.

American Columbo (Frasera caroliniensis)

For many this next plant amazes and astonishes at first sight by its height and overall size.  Some may even deem it to be an introduced species from the tropics, hardly believing that something so large and unique could even be native to Ohio's soils.  Rest assured the American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis) belongs here and is a proud member of our flora.  While I wanted the photograph above to focus on the enchanting flowers it doesn't go very far in showing the true nature of this beast.  American columbo is a monocarpic species, which means it matures until it flowers once, sets to seed and dies.  This plant can spend up to 30 years (although typically much, much less) maturing as a large rosette of basal leaves on the forest floor before suddenly shooting for the heavens as an elongated stem with up to 100 flowers branched in whorls up the main stem.  This skyscraper of a plant can reach heights over seven feet tall, which you can imagine is quite the sight when in full bloom with its greenish-white perfect flowers.

Fairy Wand ♂ (Chamaelirium luteum)

One of those interesting species not normally seen during Flora-Quest was this unparalleled member of the lily family (Liliaceae), fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum).  Also known as devil's bit, this species is diecious, meaning it has both separate male and female plants.  The one's pictured above are both male staminate flowers and almost always greatly outnumber the females in any given population.  You aren't likely to find any other Chamaelirium species elsewhere as this is the sole member of its monotypic genus.

Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

As luck would sometimes have it, we stumbled onto a small population of the stunningly scarlet red flowers of the native trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) vine along a select stretch of Shawnee.  While the invasive and exotic honeysuckle species of Asian decent get all the attention for all the wrong reasons it's nice and rewarding to see our native species still clinging to existence and showing off their beauty.

Early Stoneroot (Collinsonia verticillata)

Of all the flowering plants unusually ahead of schedule during this year's event, this one above was hands down my favorite of all.  The early stoneroot (Collinsonia verticillata) or otherwise known as whorled horsebalm is an endangered species in Ohio with only a few scattered locations in Shawnee state forest and that's it.  If you take the time to take a gander at a distribution map for this curious species it becomes instantly clear it has a strange and scattered range throughout the southern Appalachians, where it's not common or frequent anywhere.  Due to its strange distribution coupled with scattered and rare occurrences it was once under consideration for federal listing as a rare species.

Early Stoneroot (Collinsonia verticillata)

Taking a closer look at the unusual inflorescence of the early stoneroot it's not too hard to tell it is closely related to the much more common Yellow Horsebalm (C. canadensis).  Despite being quite similar they are easy to tell apart in several key ways.  The whorled horsebalm blooms in the late spring, has light pink to purple colored flowers that bloom along an unbranched stem while the common horsebalm blooms later in the summer and fall, has lemon-yellow flowers and can have a multi-branched inflorescence. 

Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata)

Where these is victory there can also be defeat, which unfortunately is the category one would have to place this crowd-favorite orchid species in.  Normally just coming into bloom and rewarding Flora-Quest attendees with it's unique and charming dragon-mouthed flowers, the whorled pogonias (Isotria verticillata) instead greeted their seekers with maturing seed pods.

Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata)

This is what these very same plants looked like just a few short weeks earlier in full, glorious bloom.  Their long, dark-colored sepals spreading out from the 'mouth', which appears ready to devour any pollinator that dares enter its space.  You can't always see it all, even at special events like Flora-Quest.  Sometimes you have to leave people wanting more and ready to come back the next year to catch what they missed this time around.

Small White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

I will leave you with this last photograph of the incredibly rare and endangered small white lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  Only a lucky few got the chance to see this striking orchid but those that did walked away seeing what in my eyes is one of Ohio's most incredible plants.  The small white slipper is hardly bigger than the end of your pinkie finger and produces an intoxicating aroma on warm days that is an instant reward to anyone willing to take a whiff.

It was hard to tell the group to board the van and head back to the lodge to conclude another exciting Flora-Quest weekend but all good things must come to an end.  I think I can speak for my entire group that a great time was had by all and I was honored to have shared my experiences, excitement and Shawnee's secrets with each and every one of them.  I'm already looking forward to next year's installment in 2013!  When the dates are set be sure to check it out and sign up for an unforgettable weekend in extreme southern Ohio!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Flora-Quest 2012: Part I

What a weekend!  I knew going in from previous experience that Flora-Quest would be an exceptionally fun and educational time but even I had no idea just how engaging and memorable this event would be this time around.  It's always great when people of common passions and interests can all get together in one place and 'geek' out.  Even better was getting to see so many good friends and colleagues I hadn't seen in quite some time.  They truly are like extended family to me and make my love and passion for the natural world even more fun and worthwhile.

I was honored to have been asked by co-organizer and good friend Cheryl Harner to be a trip leader and van driver this year.  I don't think many participants expected to see a college guy in his mid-twenties as one of their co-leaders but Flora-Quest is known to be full of surprises and this year was hardly short on those.  What was even more exciting and humbling was being paired with one of North America's best and most accomplished birders, Greg Miller!  His story of traveling all over the continent seeing every bird species he possibly could during his 'Big Year' was recently chronicled in film form with personal favorite and long admired actor Jack Black portraying Greg.  I can proudly say that I have now shaken Jack's hand with only one degree of separation; probably the closest I'll ever get to that man's greatness.  I wrote a review and personal narrative for the Big Year movie last fall and for those interested it can be read right here.

I arrived early Friday afternoon at the Shawnee lodge to meet and catch up with other trip leaders and share ideas and locations for various plants in bloom before jumping in the car to spend the remaining hours of daylight out on the dirt roads of Shawnee to do some last minute scouting and investigating.  The incredibly early start to spring in March has yet to let up, causing for some interesting flowering times for many of our native plants.  Many of the typical flowers and crowd-favorites normally a guaranteed see were all but finished and done for the year but luckily that was smoothed over with an array of brand new plants never before seen during this incredible weekend in Shawnee state forest. 

Saturday dawned grey and rainy as a series of overnight storms were slow to move out of the area.  This ended up being more of a blessing than a curse as the skies dried by the time our vans headed out and the overcast conditions kept the temperature cool for most of the day.  Once my coffee was mug full, camera equipment packed and the van full of excited and anxious adventurers our excursion out into Shawnee and nearby Edge of Appalachia began!

eyes and binoculars focused on several Cerulean warblers

With Greg at our disposal and one of the most species-diverse areas for breeding birds in Ohio laid out before us it wasn't long before we found a suitable spot to stop and explore.  Shawnee's tens of thousands of acres of contiguous forest provides the well over 100 species of birds plenty of localities and niches to fill.  For someone who's attention is almost always pointed at the ground and the photosynthesizing beings that inhabit it, it was a very refreshing change to look up with my binoculars and admire those who own the sky.  Above you can see the group's attention high above their heads in the oaks above.  Several cerulean warblers put on quite the show both with their songs and colors.  One of the best moments of the day occurred moments later when a male Kentucky warbler came into view at eye level and belted out some choice tunes.  I'd never seen one before and was marveled by its black-masked face against a lemony-yellow body.

Black-and-White Warbler

Just to throw it out there, none of these photographs of birds were actually taken on the day of our field trip.  I spent most of my time sharing botanical ID's, bird sightings and conversation with my group instead of focusing on my camera.  These images are originals shot by me but at previous times and were species seen on our quest; I just wanted to add some feathered flair and bling to this post so to speak.  The black-and-white warblers were out in force with their 'squeaky wheel' songs resonating through the trees.

Hooded Warbler hanging out in the underbrush

Another black and yellow warbler commonly heard throughout the trip was the striking hooded warbler.  I wish I had better photo's of this salient little being.  The warblers truly are the orchids of the sky with their bright colors and the "ooh's" and "ahh's" they instantly produce on sight.  By the end of the weekend I had 17 species of warblers seen or heard.  Now that's a good warbler weekend if you ask me!

Eulett Center of the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams Co.

After several awesome and fulfilling hours of birding in the rolling, forested hills of Shawnee our group headed west to Adams county and the open spaces and prairies on the Edge of Appalachia.  You wouldn't think the spot we chose to have lunch would end up as my (and I think a lot of group's) favorite spot of the day but the Edge's offices and base of operations at the Eulett Center was just that.

Blue-winged Warbler

The air was filled with different male species singing their songs with high hopes a lady friend would hear and find their looks and voice worthy of copulation.  The occasional bee-buzz of a blue-winged warbler was joined by several zee zee zee zee zee's of the prairie warbler as we ate lunch and enjoyed the view across the Ohio Brush Creek river valley and the rolling hills stretched along its sides.

Grassy meadows and fields in the Ohio Brush Creek valley

A few people had reported that blue grosbeaks had been seen hanging out around the Eulett Center and our group had high hopes of seeing one.  We weren't disappointed as both a male and female made quick appearances before disappearing into the brush and weeds below.  I had only seen a blue grosbeak once before when riding down the bike path back near Troy, Ohio a few summers ago so it was quite the pleasure to see one again.

Avid birders give their attention to a yellow-breasted chat

Finished with our meals it was back to the spotting scopes and binoculars as we added black vulture, field sparrow, song sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, great blue heron and indigo bunting to our lists before adding the absolute best bird of the weekend, hands down.  Almost like it heard us talking about it not even five minutes earlier, someone suddenly called out "red-headed woodpecker!".  Out in the open meadow in a dead snag was one of the most amazing and attractive of Ohio's birds scaling the decaying tree looking for an insect meal or perhaps checking out a potential home site.  You know you've seen something exciting when no one makes a peep as their every ounce of attention and concentration was spent on that magnificent woodpecker.

Prairie Warbler perched in a dead limb

Piling back into the van once again it was on to one of our last stops for the day to find a bird I'd long wanted to check off my life list, the Henslow's sparrow.  This largely inconspicuous and uncommon bird resides in Ohio's open grasslands and meadows where it makes out a living staying low to the ground perched in small shrubs in the large expanse of grass.  The Henslow's sparrow has become increasingly rare throughout its range and especially in Ohio due to extensive habitat loss and natural succession.  An interesting fact about these shy birds is their preference to flee from threats by running on the ground through the grass rather than take to the air.  Unfortunately we were never able to see one, despite Greg even attempting to coax one out with a recorded call.  They did give us assurances they were there amongst the weeds and grass with their short and sweet see-lick calls.  You can listen to one here from the Cornell lab of ornthithology.

Indigo Bunting

A clear and forest stream; prime habitat for Louisiana waterthrush

With the sun starting to shift to the west and the clock ever nearing our closing time of four, we stopped at one last spot before returning to the lodge to get one of my all-time favorite birds.  In the cool, shaded hollows and valleys of Shawnee run many clear and forested streams that play home to the melodious Louisiana Waterthrush.  Despite looking more along the lines of a thrush or sparrow, they actually belong to the warblers.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Having Greg at our side all day was an incredible experience as his knowledge and mental library of bird songs, calls and facts was astounding.  You don't get to be one of the best birders in the world by not knowing your stuff and boy did he ever.  His talents and abilities were only topped by his warm and exceedingly friendly personality and demeanor.  You couldn't help but smile and laugh at the stories he told of his encounters and travels all over the country chasing birds.  As someone who does and will continue to do the same in the botanical realm I could really see the drive and passion in his eyes.  Even after doing this for years and years his spark and flame was still going strong and the love for it unblemished.  I think I speak for myself and the entire group that having Greg along for the ride was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had.

With a few sighs and pleas to stay out and continue the field trip, we all drove back to the lodge to meet up with everyone else to share our discoveries and stories of the day's undertakings.  It was one of the most fun days of birding I'm likely to ever experience and I can't wait to experience some field time with Greg again the future! 

While Saturday was dedicated to our avian feathered friends in the sky, Sunday belonged to the flora and my chance to really get excited and share some orchids, rare plants and other fascinating flora with my group.  Look for a post on Sunday's botanical outing tomorrow.  It's a can't miss!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kentucky Lady's Slippers Redux

What a weekend!  Flora-Quest 2012 was a complete success and thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended.  I have a couple blog posts forth coming to share the flora, birds and experiences had by myself and those lucky enough to be along for the ride.  The incredibly early start to spring has yet to slow down and caused for some interesting changes for this year's event.  Most of the traditional regulars and favorites were largely passed or done completely but one low was equaled by the high of having numerous plants never before seen at Flora-Quest in bloom.  I will get into all that here shortly.

I had a hunch Sunday as I packed up to head back to Athens that perhaps I should check on the progression and condition of one of North America's most recently described and most gorgeous native orchids.  Of course it's an orchid; what else could it be if I love it that much right?  I'm thankful I did as I found them in picture-perfect full bloom and begging for my camera's attention.  For my devotees you may remember I did a post on the Kentucky Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) last spring.  That being said I'm not going to rehash and repeat what can easily be read by clicking right here.  What I would like to do is share a series of photographs I took of these regal and impressive orchids.  If I can't take you there physically then some pictures are the next best thing.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

First up is an aesthetically pleasing group shot of the sensational Kentucky lady's slippers.  This population along a sandy stream in Lewis county, Kentucky is the northern-most known station for these rare plants in the world.  Six plants total broke the soil this year with one bearing two flowers; something new for this year as no plants were double-bloomed last year.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

A shot of the double-flowering stem.  I'd imagine that this is a good sign this particular plant is in good health to use the extra energy in putting forth a second flower.  I couldn't be happier and more thankful that it did.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

Zoomed out shot of four of the plants.  These have the largest flowers of any other North American Cypripedium and can grow up to three feet tall.  They were long thought to be another variety to the C. parviflorum complex by many botanists but size, slight morphological differences and especially habitat choice sets this apart.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

Close up side profile of the inflorescence.  It's not hard to see how this genus of plants got its common name of lady's slippers.  A quick whiff inside the labellum presents your olfactories with a light and pleasing fragrance reminiscent of something sweet.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

Also called the southern lady's slippers for their largely southeastern and gulf states distribution.  The scientific epithet of kentuckiense hails from the first plants being discovered and described from a Kentucky population.  Those first specimens were actually found along the same stream as these pictured here.

Kentucky Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense)

One last look at the soft lemony-yellow flowers of the Kentucky lady's slippers.  I anxiously awaited another chance to sit down and spend some time with these natural beauties since my last visit with them.  That's the beauty of plants in many ways.  They are like an old friend you see but once a year and have to make the most of it when the time is right.  In the short few years we've known each other our bond has become strong and I look forward to coming back to these plants year after year and catching up with them