Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Weekend of Birds & Botany in Shawnee State Forest

Whew.  It's been a hectic last few weeks and months for your blogger.  The necessary combination of precious free time and energy to put into new posts just hasn't materialized and is reason for the lack of activity.  I hope to rectify this going forward but for now let's catch up on a few items I'd like to make mention of.

First off, I'd like to take time to honor the life and legacy of an educator, mentor and good friend of mine whom the Ohio naturalist community recently lost.  Dennis Profant, author and publisher of the famed Field Biology of Southeastern Ohio blog and my former professor at Hocking College, unexpectedly passed away on April 15th.  He was one of the most influential professors I ever had and is a large contributor to who, what and where I am as a botanist, naturalist and human being today.  From birds and bugs, to wildflowers and trees, Dennis made learning fun with his unique wit and way of teaching things.  His mind was a walking encyclopedia on our natural world and his passion infectious.  I will always fondly remember our times in the field together or just kicking it in his office discussing everything from jazz to moths.  I'm beyond thankful to have gotten close to him in the years following my time at Hocking College and am greatly saddened to know our time together is done.  What I wouldn't do for one more foray into the woods with him...

On a more positive note, I'd like to personally thank all the kind people who took the time to say hello at the recent Ohio Botanical Symposium back in late March.  Meeting and talking to readers/fans of this website and the gracious words you have to say mean the world to me.  This blog would have slid into oblivion long ago if it wasn't for the compliments, encouragement and confirmation of interest from you all over the years.  I hope you'll continue to read and share my love for everything botanical and beyond.  And Ron G., I promise you'll have your Helianthus themed post to read and use in the next few months!

It's spring!  Taking a glance at my most recent post has this site locked in the depths of winter's chill but rest assured the wildflowers and trees have progressed anyways and thankfully so.  The last two weekends have had your blogger fulfill speaking gigs and lead field trips for the Arc of Appalachia's annual wildflower pilgrimage and Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference, respectively. Both events were packed full of excited, eager naturalists ready to fully embrace spring's blossoming and an amazing time was had by all.  I would like to recap both events in blog form, starting with this past weekend and the OOS' invasion of Shawnee state forest.

Sunrise over Turkey Creek Lake in Shawnee State Forest

You might recall my post detailing last year's OOS event in Shawnee.  We had exquisite weather and phenomenal birding despite the botany being a bit behind.  This time around the tables were turned with excellent botany and mediocre birding.  Unseasonably cool temperatures and a steady all day rain on Saturday into Sunday kept the birds and their food sources from moving much.  A number of the usual migratory suspects seemed to be late and/or absent from this weekend but that doesn't mean it was a total washout.  The rare chance to see and catch up with old friends is one of the biggest draws for these kinds of events and in that this weekend did not disappoint in the slightest.

Winding dirt road leading through the beauty of Shawnee state forest

The cooler temperatures and rain might have quieted the birds but they did wonders for my floral friends.  Flowering dogwood, redbud, wild plums and serviceberry painted Shawnee's roadsides with their respective shades of cream, white and pink.  There's just something about the isolated, remote feeling of the forest's winding dirt roads as they take you along the ridge tops and down into the hollers.

Scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) blooming in an Adams Co. cedar barrens

I arrived to the region early in the afternoon on Friday to do a bit of personal botanizing and birding before I was needed at the lodge.  I couldn't resist the temptation of hitting a few choice spots in Adams County for their rare and unusual inhabitants.  The globally rare dolomite cedar barrens were ablaze with scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) in all their seasonal glory.

Flowering dogwood back dropped by the rolling hills of Shawnee

Don't let me fool you into thinking the birds were a complete and total bust.  Both my Saturday and Sunday field trips were rewarded with some great species and moments.  The best had to be a woman on Saturday wishing with all her might she'd get to see even a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Kentucky warbler; a long-awaited life bird for her.  Not more than five minutes later a male that had been singing from deep in the brush and tangle of the woods came out and perched himself in clear view for the entire group. Needless to say, the aforementioned woman was breathless in wonderment afterwards.  That's a sight any guide loves to see!

The rare vernal iris (Iris verna) blooming profusely along the forest's roadsides

One of the area's quintessential spring wildflowers was just starting to come online during the conference in the rare vernal iris (Iris verna).  Many folks think of summer and wetlands when irises are mentioned but this particular species loves the rocky, dry soil of Shawnee's sun-drenched ridge tops and roadsides.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on the ephemeral blooms of wild plum (Prunus spp.)

While cruising Shawnee's back roads during Friday's warm, sunny conditions, I came across numerous wild plums (Prunus spp.) in perfect flowering shape.  The air was heavy with their sweet scent and could be detected from hundreds of feet away with the nose alone.  I wasn't their only admirer as the plums were abuzz with dozens of bees and butterflies all looking for a taste of nectar.

Spotted Mandarin (Prosartes maculata)
Spotted Mandarin (Prosartes maculata)

Another of Shawnee's threatened floral denizens in full bloom was the delicate spotted mandarin (Prosartes maculata).  Their creamy white flowers hang like little lanterns under an emerald green umbrella.  A close look at the inside surface of their petals reveals a gorgeous smattering of magenta polka dots unlike anything else in Ohio's flora.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

As if the spotted mandarins and vernal irises weren't enough to wow my groups during breaks from our binoculars, Mother Nature had one more wildflower surprise up her sleeve in some pink lady's slippers (Cypripedium acaule).  I didn't expect to find any in this good of shape just yet, especially considering the last week's cooler weather but there this trio was in all their orchid splendor.  The program I gave this weekend was about Ohio's native orchids (fathom that one), so it was rewarding to be able to share these in the flesh with my group.

Sunday's group with their binoculars peeled along the forested ridge top roads of Shawnee

Sunday eventually cleared and warmed into a fine specimen of a spring day.  I had the added pleasure of close friends and phenomenal naturalists, Bob Scott Placier and Daniel Boone join me in leading this troop through Shawnee.  The birds responded accordingly to the improved conditions with better movements and vocalizations as the day waned.  Feathered highlights from the weekend included: scarlet tanager, wood thrush, purple finch, yellow-throated vireo, blue-headed vireo, sharp-shinned hawk and warblers (yellow-throated, yellow-rumped, black-throated green, cerulean, Kentucky, worm-eating, black-and-white, ovenbird, hooded, prairie, blue-winged, pine and redstart).

Birds Foot Violet (Viola pedata)

The theme of my hikes for the weekend was "Birds & Botany", so what could be better than getting the proverbial two birds with one stone in the birds foot violet (Viola pedata).  This state threatened species is arguably the most aesthetically exciting of Ohio's nearly 30 species of violet and they could not have looked better during our romp through Shawnee.

Shawnee enveloped in a steady rain

Fortunately, the rain didn't really hit and stick with us until towards the end of our time in the field on Saturday.  Regardless, I don't think I can really ever curse the rain this time of the year.  Without its life-giving powers there wouldn't be any wildflowers or birds to admire and spend the weekend chasing.  Rain is just fine by me and even gives the landscape a beauty all its own.

Female (L) and male (R) cones of the eastern hemlock

Even the minutiae of spring returning is something to behold.  Shawnee's eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) were doing their thing during our visit with their ephemeral yellow male pollen cones and adorable little female cones.  The male cones will quickly waste away after releasing their pollen, while the female cones will hang around for several years post maturity.  An interesting fact on gymnosperms is the very long temporal separation of pollination and fertilization.  It can take months for the sperm cells from the deposited pollen to reach the female cone's ovules and months more to mature into a seed.  Nature truly is all a matter of patience.

Oddly patterned common blue violets (Viola sororia) in Shawnee

Another floral oddity I enjoyed sharing with my group was a particular patch of common blue violets (V. sororia) that always display an interesting color pattern on their flowers.  I've witnessed these exact plants for several years running now and they always exhibit this strange, almost leucistic-like phenotype.  Definitely a fun twist on an otherwise common and forgettable plant.

Your blogger and the current/former* state champion yellow buckeye

I'll end this post in the same way I ended my memorable weekend down in Shawnee with one impressive specimen of a tree.  This particular yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) has seen many winters melt into spring; so many in fact it was once (and perhaps still is?) the largest known tree for its species in the entire state.  Whether or not its title is intact is a bit moot for me.  It's a fabulous example of nature's work when given the time and opportunity to grow, grow, grow.

I can't begin to thank my hike's participants enough for their enthusiasm and thirst for the treasures of the outdoors.  Everyone's attitudes remained positive and cheerful during the entire weekend despite the weather.  I think it's safe to speak for everyone when I say we all had a great time and I'm already looking forward to future events with the OOS.

- ALG -