Monday, April 28, 2014

Ohio Ornithological Sociey Invades Shawnee State Forest

Phenomenal!  That is the one word your blogger would use to describe this past weekend in Shawnee State Forest with the Ohio Ornithological Society.  Three long but incredibly fun days down in the hills and hollers of southern Ohio full of birds, botany, and camaraderie has left me mentally and physically exhausted but sore joints and a frazzled mind full of memories has never felt so good!  I may be a "weed picker" (an affectionate name birders call us botanists) but I felt right at home and as close to my adopted birding family as I do with my typical plant people. The event itself was a whirlwind of activity and action I won't soon forget.

Being a guide and wanting to dedicate my time, energy, and focus on the needs and wants of my group, I decided to leave my camera in its bag over the weekend and was so preoccupied and engaged with my binoculars and educational moments, I didn't even utilize my phone's camera much at all either.  So very few photos of mine are in this post but I'd still love to fill you in on the details as well as share photos of some choice birds we all got to "ooh" and "ahh" over.

A very special thanks to the immensely talented and well-known Ohioan avian photographer Brian Zwiebel for allowing me to use his spectacular photos to properly illustrate just how breathtaking some of the feathered finds we made were.  You can find out and view more of Brian's work at his website Sabrewing Nature Tours and I most certainly recommend that you do.

View across the rolling hills of southern Ohio from a dolomite limestone bluff on a rainy morning

I awoke early Friday morning to the soft pitter-patter of rain on the roof of my cabin and hoped it wasn't a sign of things to come for the weekend.  As luck would have it, the rain pushed out by the afternoon and there was hardly a cloud in the sky for the rest of the weekend.  With field trips taking place on Saturday and Sunday, I wanted to get out and see what flora I could find in halfway decent shape to share with my group.  Unfortunately, things have been slow to awaken this spring with wildflowers about a week and a half or so behind.  None of the typical orchids and very few wildflowers normally exhibiting their striking colors and patterns were in bloom which made for a moment of disappointment initially.  In a way this ended up being all for the best as it allowed myself to really get lost in my binoculars and focus on my avian friends for a welcome change.  And boy did that end up being worth it!

Five in the morning on Saturday came all too soon but greeted the conference with a crystal clear sky filled with a seemingly infinite parade of stars twinkling in the predawn darkness.  A thin waning crescent moon slowly sank on the western horizon as the intriguing whip-poor-wills gave off their last calls of the night.  The sun was just beginning to pierce the highest ridges as my group piled into our van for a day full of exploration and adventure in the depths of Shawnee and nearby Edge of Appalachia.  I was fortunate to have the very knowledgeable and accomplished Andy Jones from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as my co-leader and vital bird expert.  I'm not too shabby when it comes to my birds but Andy's understanding of not only identification but life history and biology as well was a crucial and much needed addition to the group.

Speaking of my group, I've had the pleasure of leading fantastic groups in the past and Andy and I's for the O.O.S. conference was no different.  Their passion for the natural world was as palpable as their hunger and drive to delve into what Shawnee had to offer.  I rarely get to be surrounded by so many people who share a like-minded approach and appreciation for nature and I wouldn't hesitate to say we all fed off one another's energy and good vibes.

The cool, misty morning took a while to warm up but once it did, it was like someone flicked a switch and the birds came out in full force.  The songs and calls of dozens of different species of returning tropical migrants saturated the air and was music to everyone's ears after suffering through such a trying and burdening winter.

Black-and-White Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Our group slowly made our way from the moist, steep-sloped valleys to the oak dominated dry ridgetops with the birds changing as much as the plants as we ascended.  The moist, cold air hung heavy and had covered the blooms of redbuds, flowering dogwoods, and wild plums in dew but that quickly burned off as the sun rose higher into the sky.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

As I previously mentioned, the lack of my camera's presence was one of the best decisions of the weekend as it left my hands free to hold my binoculars up to my eyes and take in the early morning light's beauty, especially when it framed the bright colors of a passing warbler or scarlet tanager.

American Redstart (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

I'm always pleasantly surprised come spring when I find out I managed to retain more bird characteristics and song patterns than I thought would survive the winter.  Shaking off the rust is a must but I've long figured if I can recall and identify well over 1,000 species of vascular plants then a couple hundred birds should't be too hateful, right?  I think this speaks volumes for my ornithology professor Bob Scott Placier at Hocking College, as his tutelage and teaching methods really helped me grasp and understand the subject.

Black-throated Green Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

One of my favorite Shawnee forest denizens is the charming black-throated green warbler.  Its high-pitched, relatively short song echoes from the hemlocks and valley slopes with a unmistakable zee zee zee za-zee.  It's absolutely incredible to think this tiny little bird flew thousands upon thousands of miles all the way down to Central and South America only to fly back some months later for another chance at perpetuating its species.

Blue-headed Vireo (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

It wasn't just warblers, even though there are plenty more to come.  Some interesting and often unnoticed songsters of the spring like this blue-headed vireo were a welcome addition to our species list for the weekend that topped out at nearly 70 different birds.  The conference as a whole when pooled together saw well over 120 species!  Not too shabby for a couple days in more or less one area.

Cerulean Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Easily one of, if not the most requested bird by the conference's attendees was the increasingly more and more rare cerulean warbler.  This small, iridescent blue bird is the official mascot of the O.O.S. and one of the fastest disappearing and declining species of wood warbler in North America.  This is due in large part to both logging activites and forest fragmentation in its breeding grounds here in Eastern North America as well as its tropical over-wintering grounds being deforested and turned into sun coffee plantations.  It's of the utmost importance we protect both its breeding and over-wintering grounds if we want to slow the free fall this beautiful little bird is in.  However, walking through the upper slopes of mixed oak canopy in Shawnee, you'd never guess this bird is disappearing at such an alarming rate as this area of southern Ohio is arguably one of the best remaining regions on the entire continent to still see this charmer in good numbers.

Throughout the day my group continued to have good luck with sightings like male and female scarlet tanager, yellow-throated vireo, Louisiana water thrush, wood thrush, ovenbird, prairie warbler, and indigo bunting to name but a few, however one particular bird at the end of the day was the cherry on top.

Henslow's Sparrow (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

The Henslow's sparrow is another Ohio resident bird who's numbers are declining throughout the region due to habitat maturation/loss and human activity.  These shy, seldom seen birds need large, unfragmented tracts of grassland with just the right amount of woody vegetation present.  Early haying activities leads to nest/chick mortality and natural succession can quickly turn an unmanaged and suitable open habitat into an unusable thicket and young forest.   As luck would have it, we timed our arrival to one of their few known sites just right and managed to catch a rare and unforgettable uninhibited look at one.  It's not very often they leave the safety of the ground and its camouflaging brush.  This was a life species for many in the group and seeing their beaming faces behind their binoculars was as much as a leader could hope to see.

A rescued/rehabbed female American Kestrel

A real treat for me was the chance at an up close and personal viewing of one of my all-time favorite birds in this American kestrel.  The Shawnee state park naturalist was kind enough to display this rescued/rehabbed female for those interested and I couldn't resist taking such a gorgeous animal's photo.  Originating from western Ohio's land of agriculture, you were hard pressed to not see these aerobatic birds of prey perched on a fence row or power line out on the country roads.

Sunday dawned as clear and beautiful as Saturday and found myself and another esteemed and knowledgeable birder in Bird Watcher Digest's assistant editor, Kyle Carlsen camped out in a particular spot in Shawnee to help guide passing solo birders and vans to what exciting species we were hearing and/or seeing in our area.

Worm-eating Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Once again the morning started off a bit slow until the air temperatures had warmed from the sun and the insects began moving which in turn caused the birds to move and feed as well.  One of the better highlights of the day was viewing two male worm-eating warblers in an intense battle over potential territory rights.  Don't let their name fool you though, they don't actually utilize worms as a food source but are rather voracious hunters of caterpillars and insects instead.

Red-breasted Nuthatch  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

A rather surprising find for the morning was a red-breasted nuthatch still hanging around southern Ohio.  These little curiosities typically over-winter at our latitude before returning to their breeding grounds further north.  I guess this one decided to stick around and get a late start on its annual journey.

Yellow-rumped Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Another over-wintering bird still hanging around Shawnee in decent numbers was the quaint yellow-rumped warbler.  Most people associate warblers as migratory birds that would be fools to spend their winters in Ohio, battling the cold, harsh conditions but these little birds do just fine and move on further north once the weather makes a turn for the better.

Kentucky Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Of the 18 or so species of warbler I personally saw and/or heard over the weekend, the Kentucky warbler was one of my favorites.  This species is more often heard than seen as it prefers to stay hidden among the thickets and brush of the forest floor where it builds its nest.  Its song is excruciatingly similar to the more common Carolina wren and is something I have yet to learn to adequately differentiate.  Getting your binoculars on one leaves no doubts!

Chestnut-sided Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Another warbler?  You betcha!  Warblers are hands down one of the most popular and anticipated of spring's returning migrants for their diversity in numbers, colors, and patterns.  This particular species was one of the most exciting finds of the weekend and a species I'd never seen before in my life!  The chestnut-sided warbler is accurately named for the rich brown markings along its side and is capped with a crown of gold.  Kyle's sharp eyes certainly paid off in spotting this bird but this last one was definitely THE find of the weekend, at least in my opinion.

Blackburnian Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Right at the same time and in the same tree as the chestnut-sided warbler was another remarkable species that makes just about any other warbler I saw this weekend look tame.  This is the gorgeous Blackburnian warbler, a species that only breeds in a select few spots in northern Ohio and was passing through this area on its way north. The fact we happened to catch one of these in their fleeting moments in southern Ohio was unreal and kept my eyes glued to the binoculars with an unwavering attention span.  If this little fellow doesn't get you excited about birds and just how spectacular they can be, I really don't know what would...

In the end my weekend spent with well over 100 birders and fellow outdoors enthusiasts in one of the most diverse and mesmerizing natural areas in the entire state was a time I won't soon forget.  It was the perfect way to welcome in spring even if it is lagging behind a bit in the plant department.  More new birds are arriving each and every day and before too long the woods will be at full strength with the next generation of our winged friends well on their way.  I can't thank the Ohio Ornithological Society enough for asking me to help out and be a contributing member to such an important and memorable event.  I could never thank everyone that deserves a shout out but special mention to Jason Larson and Bill Thompson for their support, company, and guidance over the weekend.  Additional thanks to Andy Jones and Kyle Carlsen for their expertise and sharp eyes out in the field as well.  I look forward to being a part of more O.O.S. events in the future and must say this spring and summer will find me with my binoculars around my neck much more often than I typically would.  These guys will make a serious birder out of this botanist yet!  Special thanks again to Brian Zwiebel for graciously letting me use his phenomenal bird photographs that I could never begin to imagine producing on my own.  Hope everyone had an amazing time and look forward to seeing you all again!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sweet Pinesap in the Red River Gorge

I'm quite fortunate to have witnessed and experienced as many different places as I have in my relatively short amount of time on this planet but there's always some that fall through the cracks.  The Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky has always been one of those aforementioned missed opportunities and as such was someplace I wanted to make sure to mark off my list this year.  So this past weekend, myself and friends Daniel Boone and Joe Bens rose with the sun for an early morning rendezvous and drive down to the gorge.  Having never been myself, it was a pleasure to have the knowledge of Dan and Joe at my disposal who knew the botanical hot spots and "can't misses".

View across the wide chasm of the Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky

A large portion of the gorge is located within Daniel Boone National Forest and a designed National Natural Landmark as well as listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It's famed geologic formations have developed over millions of years from erosion and wear from the forces of wind, water, and ice.  This long exposure to the elements has left remarkable sandstone cliffs, natural bridges, waterfalls, and rock shelters scattered throughout the region, which in turn has seen it become one of the world's premiere rock climbing destinations. Due to the uniqueness of the region's rugged and wild landscape, a wide variety of habitats and environments occur and are filled with a diverse amount of flora and fauna.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) blooming along a sandstone cliff

Upon our arrival we decided to make for a specific part of the gorge that was known to harbor a globally rare plant that was a highly anticipated part of the day's itinerary and a species I had long wanted to make acquaintances with.  Unfortunately, we found the trailhead surrounded by half a dozen or so U.S. forestry service vehicles and would come to find out a nearby wildfire had closed the trail indefinitely.  The fire was a fair ways off and hardly a threat to our current location but the folks in charge weren't about to let us take a step down that path.  With our hopes dashed a bit, Dan, Joe, and I headed off for another nearby trail to see if our luck would change.

The plant we had our eye's set on finding was the rare sweet pinesap or pygmy pipes (Monotropsis odorata), a myco-heterotrophic species that depends entirely on a symbiotic relationship with subterranean mycorrhiza fungi it parasitizes for nourishment.  Making the task even harder than not knowing where to look was the fact sweet pinesap is more or less neutrally colored and blends in seamlessly with the detritus on the ground.  Going on Dan's previous experience with the plant that Virginia pines in particular seem to coincide with occurrence of the plant, we combed the understory of the scrubby oak/pine forest situated atop a sandstone ridge with some spectacular accompanying views.

Large clump of sweet pinesap (Monotropsis ordorata) under some Virginia pines

After a while of fruitless searching and the creep of doubt beginning to set in, I noticed what appeared to a be a weird clump of pine cones peaking out of the browned, fallen leaves and pine needles.  No sooner had I made eye contact with the suspicious clump of something when my nose detected a strong, spicy odor on the air.  Definitely not pine cones!  I gave a hearty holler to Dan and Joe that I had found precisely what we were looking for.

Sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) close up

Sweet pinesap is accurately named, as this wildflower has quite possibly, nay definitely the most intoxicating and enchanting aroma my olfactories have ever had the gratification of smelling.  It was quite reminiscent of cloves with a slightly sweeter twist that just made your nose swoon.  All three of us took turns lying on our stomachs, noses hovering only millimeters from the mauve petals, savoring every inhalation.  I think it's safe to assume that if you could get a high off huffing this plant, we would know!

Clump of sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

Pygmy pipes (as they are also known to go by) hail from the subfamily Monotropoideae within the expansive heath family (Ericaceae).  At first glance it doesn't look like something that would be related to blueberries and rhododendrons but upon inspecting their flower's inner workings and arrangment the evidence becomes more clear. The plant seems to want to hide its elegance and good looks behind the papery brown sepals and bracts that sheathe the majestic purple petals and stems.  Try as it might, its allure isn't lost on my eyes.

Dan getting a better look and smell of the sweet pinesap

The Red River Gorge is close to the northern edge of the sweet pinesap's range and is just one of a handful of localities known for it in the state of Kentucky, where it's listed as a threatened species.  The amount of relief to have not traveled multiple hours only to leave empty handed was palpable among the three of us and allowed for the rest of the day's discoveries to be the cherries on top of our botanical sundae.

Joe and Dan walking through a hemlock and rhododendron filled sandstone gorge

After getting our fill of the aromatic pygmy pipes, we made our way down into the gorge itself to explore some of the sandstone hollows and what surprises awaited within.  Eastern hemlock, beech, red/white oaks, black birch, tuliptree, cucumber magnolia, and white pine rose far above our heads as tangles and thickets of rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) intertwined underneath.  Apart from the rhododendron, it had a comparable feel to Ohio's Hocking Hills region.

Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata)
Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata)

Scattered among the bevy of other wildflowers in the dappled sunlight was halberd-leaved violet (Viola hastata), a taxon I'd never seen before and had only admired from the computer screen.  It's not too often you come across a plant where one might argue its foliage is more attractive than its flower but I found the leaves especially charming.

Small grouping of red trillium (Trillium erectum)

The cool, sandy, acidic-soiled slopes were ensconced with hundreds upon hundreds of red trillium (Trillium erectum) in full bloom among the Carolina spring beauties (Claytonia caroliniana), mitrewort (Mitella diphylla), large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum), and plantain-leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea).

Long-stalked Sedge (Carex pedunculata)
Plagiomnium ciliare moss with capsules

It can't always be all about the showier stuff while out on a hike.  Sometimes it's best to slow down and admire the more obscure and overlooked that never seem to get enough attention, like sedges and mosses for example.  In seepy areas on the hollow's steep slopes grew clumps of the handsome long-stalked sedge (Carex pedunculata) with its dark pistillate scales contrasted against lime green perigynia.  The fresh capsules of Plagiomnium ciliare from the Mniaceae family almost seem like something not of this world.

Deeper in a sandstone hollow with rhododendron covered cliff faces

Deeper into the hollow the steep slopes turned into precipitous sandstone rock walls and cliffs rimmed with rhododendron and clumps of unfurling wood ferns.  The returning migrants were in full song as the melodies of black-and-white warbler, pine warbler, black-throated green warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, ovenbird, and blue-headed vireo filled our ears.  We held out hope we might catch the tune of the rare Swainson's warbler but were perhaps a bit too early.

Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia)
Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia)

Another yellow-colored violet I'd yet to see before was the round-leaved violet (Viola rotundifolia).  What initially started as clumps past flowering and already in fruit turned into plants still in full flower further back in the hollow. Both this and halberd-leaved violet occur in Ohio but are restricted to the northeastern quarter of the state.

Intricate exposed white pine roots
Native white pines growing along a cliff bluff

An interesting aspect and association to the forest canopy's makeup was the scattered presence of old, large native white pines.  They took a page from the hemlocks and grew from the bluffs and rock faces throughout the gorge and measured two-three feet in diameter with untold heights.  The pair photographed above right are showing off the intricate design of their exposed roots spread out across the face of a sandstone boulder.

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)

Later that the day found us exploring some stretches of forest near the gorge's floor along the Red River where ancient and impressively proportioned hemlocks, beech, and red oak abounded.  Dan's sharp eyes managed to turn up a nice population of delicate dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) in perfect flower.  Dwarf ginseng's blooms are much more conspicuous and aesthetic compared to their American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) kin's and lack the medicinal value of its larger brethren as well.

Along the Rock Garden trail in the gorge

Our last hike of the day was the famed Rock Garden trail near Natural Bridge.  Massive blocks of sandstone long broken from the sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above were strewn out across a lush landscape ensconced in spring ephemerals.  

Large-flowered trillium mixed with red trillium

Closer to the gorge's wall and its steeper slopes was one of the most impressive displays of large-flowered trillium and red trillium I've ever seen.  Literally thousands of plants were densely packed in the shade of the looming cliff, a perfect mixture of snow white and vibrant maroon.

The video attached above can only give the viewer a small glimpse into the true magnitude of the mixture of trillium but it's certainly better than nothing.  Like a video I uploaded in a previous post, the quality plummets upon expanding the window's size so for the best quality keep it small.  

Reznicek's Sedge (Carex reznicekii)
Black-edge Sedge (Carex nigromarginata)

Despite the thousands of trillium blooming en masse, I managed to find myself looking at sedges again upon the discovery of one of my favorite species and another of its close relatives.  The black-edged sedge (C. nigromarginata) and recently split and described Reznicek's sedge (C. reznicekii) were both growing in the immediate vicinity of one another and allowed for a fun side-by-side comparison.

Looking up at the sandstone walls of the Red River Gorge

In the end I could have made this post twice as long with the amount of fun and interesting discoveries Dan, Joe, and I made last weekend but I think this will suffice it to say a great time was had by all.  I look forward to additional returns to the Red River Gorge's diversity and beauty at different times of the year.  It may have taken me a long time to finally experience its wonders within but it was unquestionably worth the wait.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Befriending an Eastern Fence Lizard

The other day found your blogger and a few botanical cohorts out and about in Adams county to see what spring bloomers we could muster up as spring continues to unfurl.  In short, there was no disappointment in what we found as the forest and barrens had once again come alive with wildflowers and budding trees and the air aloft with the songs of migrants returned.  The morning dawned clear and warm with temperatures approaching 80 by early afternoon, which led to some active cold-blooded critters in the plentiful sunshine.  None were more memorable than a particular eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) I was fortunate enough to get an up close and personal experience with.

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

Our group was walking down from some remote dolomite limestone barrens along a ridge of exposed bedrock when out of the corner of my eye I detected quick flashes of movement.  Being in such a sun-drenched, rocky environment, I knew the culprit before I could even land eyes on it.  I've seen fence lizards in other southern and southeastern counties before but hands down the best place to get a glimpse of one is in Adams county.

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

I took a few steps towards the motion and with lightning speed the lizard responded by climbing up a fallen limb to perhaps get a better glance at what may potentially be in pursuit.  Coincidentally, the little lizard had positioned itself perfectly for some photogenic shots and I quickly snapped what I could before it decided to bolt off again. Fortunately, the fellow cooperated stupendously and didn't seem to mind my presence after all and with some speed of my own and admittedly a lot of luck, I managed to pluck it off its perch with it softly but securely in my grip.

Your blogger and a cute fence lizard

it squirmed and resisted for a bit and included some painless bites in a vain attempt to scare its "predator" off for good measure.  Eventually it calmed and I was able to carefully stroke my finger down its head and back in hopes of relaying the message I meant it no harm or ill will.  For some humor, I released the micro-dinosaur on my shoulder to see what response it would have.  I'm certainly not the type to take a selfie, I find photographs are much better without my mug in it but I couldn't resist the chance this time around.

Closer view of an eastern fence lizard on your blogger's arm (photo credit: Daniel Boone)

Once again, it didn't seem to mind me and decided to scurry across my shoulders and up and down my back and arms even as I began to continue my walk through the woods.  The group was equally pleased to get a close and hands on look at such a fleeting critter.  My friend Dan Boone (even semi-regular readers should know him by now) even snapped a photo of myself with my new friend.  The plump fence lizard eventually must have tired of hitching a ride as not soon after the photo above, it scampered down my leg and into the leaf litter to continue on with its day.  I fully doubt if fence lizards have the mental faculties and/or ability to make "friends" but I wouldn't hesitate to give my scaled companion the same label.

Smaller, younger fence lizard
Smaller, younger fence lizard

That wasn't the first time I've handled these cute herps and I hesitate to think it will be my last.  I managed to catch this smaller fence lizard last autumn while hiking through a similar habitat in Adams county.  Their delicate details and docile demeanor make them one of my favorite animals to have in the hand.  Most people think of the desert or someplace more dry and foreign than Ohio to see lizards but we do have a handful of native species. Alongside the eastern fence lizard, Ohio is also home to the broad-headed skink (Plestiodon laticeps), five-lined skink (P. fasciatus), and little brown skink (Scincella lateralis).  A fifth species in the common wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) occurs as well but as an introduced, non-native species from Europe.

Fence lizards can easily blend in in their rocky habitats

Fence lizards can be sexed by the amount/intensity of metallic blue scales on their stomachs and throats. Males have brightly colored blue ventral badges, especially during courtship and tend to be more reddish brown with darker sides and broken cross bands on their backs.  Females on the other hand have little to no metallic blue coloring on their ventral side and are light grayish brown with more distinct cross-banding on their backs.  The more brightly colored a male is, the more attractive he is likely to be to a mate; the same can be said for females and their blandness.  All that being said, I believe all the fence lizards posted so far have been females for their lack of any real blue coloration.  The lizard from the beginning is definitely colored and banded in a more male fashion but it completely lacked any blue coloration.  For any readers more knowledgeable in the matter feel free to correct my gender assignments.

Male fence lizard showing off darkened throat

This particular fence lizard nicely exhibits the dark blue coloration on his throat and stomach (out-of-view).  I wish the lighting was better in this photograph to show off just how vibrant and spectacular their metallic blue badges really are.

Had botany never really fully sank its teeth into me and infected me to my core with its endless fascination and interest, I would have put my money on going down the path of a herpetologist.  Reptiles and amphibians have always fascinated me and to this day hold a special place in my heart.  The time of the lizard may have ended well over 60 million years ago but it's wonderful to see their micro-sized relations exist today and add a well-needed and deserved part in the diversity of our endlessly enchanting planet.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Early Spring on Daughmer Savanna

Of all the natural landscapes and ecosystems Ohio had to offer around the time of European settlement, none have seen the same systematic destruction and removal quite like our prairies.  Over 99% of Ohio's indigenous tall grass prairie has succumbed to the activities of man or the inevitable march of natural succession.  You thought over 90% of our state's wetlands being lost was bad, the prairies have statistically had it worse.  Originally representing nearly 5% of Ohio's vegetation at the time of settlement, these open, grass-dominated ecosystems are relatively new to Ohio from a geologic viewpoint and came into existence around 4000-8000 years ago during a shift to a warmer, drier climate.  This change disrupted and discouraged reforestation's northward advancement post-Wisconsin glaciation and allowed the western tall grass prairie to migrate east through Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio.  Gradually the climate returned to a more cool and wet cycle and forestation picked back up as the prairies were invaded and recolonized by the trees.

Considering how fast open grassland can revert to shrubs-saplings and on into young forest, we have to thank in large part the Native American tribes that lived in western/northern Ohio for keeping our prairies around.  They played a huge role in maintaining these grassland habitats with their frequent use of fire.  They realized wild game was more attracted to the lush new-growth of burned areas and the open environment made hunting them easier and more successful.  This led to a consistent fire regime that kept the woody invaders at bay and a key aspect to their livelihoods healthy and intact.  Naturally-occurring fires from the likes of lightning strikes did occur historically but hardly at the same interval and efficiency as the native people's.  Without their influence, I highly doubt any substantial tracts of prairie would have persisted up until the time of settlement.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to gaze out at an almost never-ending expanse of grasses and the occasional tree with herds of grazers like bison and elk spread out across its vastness, let alone seeing a hot and intense prairie fire speed across the ground with flames licking 15-20 feet into the sky.  Sigh...too many invaluable things have been lost to the sands of time.

The first pioneers found these open tracts of tall warm season grasses, occasional oaks and hickories, and colorful summer wildflowers to be quite formidable and were initially ignored for their lack of trees.  The early thought was any land that didn't support forest was infertile and not worth the time or effort to farm.  If only that assumption had never been questioned.  Once that mindset was reversed and the prairie's deep, rich black soil was bitten into by the steel plow and drained with tile, it wasn't long before it had all but disappeared and turned into modern prairie monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Botanists Rick Gardner and Dan Boone walking through Daughmer Prairie in early spring

However, that less than 1% of indigenous prairie hanging around is still out there and few, if any place(s) are better and more representative than Daughmer Prairie Savanna state nature preserve in Crawford county. Daughmer occurs in the former grandeur of the Sandusky Plains that once sprawled out over 200,000 acres in north-central Ohio. Only 70 or so acres of the Sandusky Plains remain and nearly half of its vestiges reside in Daughmer Prairie.

The photos that accompany this post were taken in late March of 2012 during a visit by your blogger and good friends in Ohio's Division of Natural Areas and Preserves' chief botanist Rick Gardner and the oft-mentioned and brilliant Daniel Boone.  Spring came fast and early that year and I recall this day, despite the chilled and gloomy look of the landscape, being in the 80s and a sweat-inducer, which is something I was certainly not used to so early in the season.  The darkened skies may be still and silent in the photos but lightning and thunder was discharged out of the swirling and churning blackness during our foray into the savanna and it made for a very memorable and electric experience.

Early spring on Daughmer Prairie Savanna as a line of thunderstorms move in.

Daughmer isn't what you would label as a true-blue tall grass prairie ecosystem but rather a prairie savanna due to its host of numerous bur oak trees.  Savannas existed at the tension zones between the prairie and recolonizing forest as well as in areas where fire did enough to drive off most woody/shrubby invaders but left some of the more fire-resistant trees behind to grow and mature.  The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the classic and quintessential tree of Ohio's prairies and savannas with white oak (Q. alba), post oak (Q. stellata) and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) the other common denizens.  In wet-saturated areas you might see more swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) while in the sandier, more xeric and acidic savanna (e.g. the Oak Openings) black oak (Q. velutina) dominate.

Dan standing with a mighty bur oak

Some of Daughmer Savanna's bur oaks approach and exceed three and four feet in diameter and have been aged to over 250 years old.  A few more than likely experienced a trial by fire as saplings during the last waning rounds of burns set by the Native Americans before their removal and/or demise at the hands of European settlement. Bur oak's thick, rigid bark can stand up to the fast but intensely hot grassland fires and often times boast scars as proof of their tenacity and brawn.  Without any significant competition from neighboring trees, oaks on the savannas grew stout and sprawled their limbs outward in a wide sweeping fashion, their leaves' photosynthesis factories humming along at peak.  Standing under these behemoths with the summer sun streaming through the emerald canopies and the robust scent of earth on the air is as refreshing a moment as exists in the natural world.

Seasonal wetlands and prairie potholes occur in parts of Daughmer and only add to the diversity of the site.

Despite looking and more-or-less being flat and unchanging as can be, Daughmer has a surprising variance in its hydrology.  On the more dry and well-drained soils you find a typical mixture of warm-season grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) mixed with forbs and sedges such as the rare Eleocharis compressa and Carex bicknellii.  Moving into more moist-wet prairie finds an association of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) or bluejoint (Calamogrostis canadensis) and muhly-grass (Muhlenbergia mexicana) pocketed with seasonal wetland sedge meadows and small prairie pothole marshes.  Looking out across its landscape and you wouldn't think a place with "only grass" could be home to such a diversity of plant and animal life.

Rick standing in the shadows of the approaching storm

Prairie savanna is not only incredibly rare in the state of Ohio but is considered a globally rare community as well, which makes protecting these places all the more important.  Thankfully, the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves recently purchased this plot of land to give it a much more secure and bright future.  Daughmer's soils have never been plowed and remain a virgin of its steel to this day, but was used extensively for grazing cattle and sheep in the past.  This led to an extirpation of many summer wildflower species and opened the door for non-native invasives like teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) to establish but was a small price to pay for keeping this gem around and impressively intact otherwise.

Daughmer was recently dedicated as a state nature preserve and is open to the public year-round.  I encourage anyone with an interest in our natural history and a desire for a small glimpse back into the past to pay it a visit regardless of the time of year.  You can find directions to the preserve HERE.

A point worth mentioning here is that when the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves bought this land, the money used was solely from DNAP's donated income tax check-off funds.  In other words, you, the citizens and nature-caring/conscious/loving/appreciating/etc. people of Ohio all came together to make this possible.  Since its inception in 1983, over $16 million dollars have been donated and used to protect our state's natural treasures!