Lunatic in the Woods

Yeah, that would be me. Standing alone on a trail with a HUGE smile on my face. If you happened to come upon me just then it would be understandable if you gave me a wide berth and glanced over your shoulder after you’d passed by. But let me explain….

For the past couple of hours I’d been enjoying a much-needed leisurely walk in one of Ohio’s beautiful nature preserves. It was the tail end of fall migration, and I didn’t expect to see too much bird activity. I had planned to do some thinking about my life as I contemplated some big decisions.

And I did get some serious thinking done, but only in between distracting flurries of bird activity. (So much for expectations.)

marsh-view-at-sheldon-marsh-resized

I saw dozens of White-throated Sparrows traveling through the undergrowth in small leaf-flipping gangs. Flitting around above them were flocks of tiny kinglets, both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned. I watched a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the grass, my first sighting of that species this season. And wait–what was that? A Brown Creeper!

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Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)

Brown Creepers are tiny brown birds that climb the trunks of trees in a spiral pattern, eating insects and eggs they find in crevices of the bark. They’re beautiful and yet hard to find because they’re so well camouflaged against the tree bark. I’m very excited whenever I get to see one of them. And on this day I’d seen two of them already. (They’re hard to photograph because they move fast, but I was happy to get this photo of one a couple years ago.)

And then, just moments before you came upon me smiling in the woods by myself, I’d seen my third Brown Creeper of the day. When I realized I was standing there with that silly grin on my face I quickly tried to modify it into a not-crazy-just-friendly smile, and I waited for you to continue around the bend.

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That red vine on the tree is another kind of creeper — Virginia Creeper.

Then, alone again, I tilted my face up to the sky, savoring the moment. With the warmth of the October sun on my face, I took a deep breath, feeling days worth of stress leaving my body. I felt lighter, almost as if I could walk on air. And as I write this more than a week later, I’m smiling again at the memories of that special day.

If that doesn’t illustrate the healing power of nature, I don’t know what does.

#GetOutside

Note: If you’d like to read more about the Brown Creeper and listen to its calls, check out Audubon’s Bird Guide, here, or Cornell’s “All About Birds,” here.

 

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Something To Look Forward To

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800Have you ever been in a rut? You know what I mean, those times when you realize that all you’ve been doing is living life on autopilot, just going through the motions of everyday life. You wake up, go to work, come home tired, eat, fall into bed, and repeat that, day after day, with very little variation in the routine.

That’s where I found myself a couple months ago–deep in a rut. I’d realized that I had nothing coming up on my calendar that I could look forward to, nothing that I was excited about, nothing that represented a change from my routine. Life was so boring.

So I decided that I would make an effort to plan more activities that would put a spark back into my life, like visiting new places, meeting new people, and doing things I’ve never done before.

One evening I was standing in the kitchen and I impulsively wrote this note on my refrigerator: “Something to look forward to…”  And having that message on my fridge where I see it every day has motivated me to start making plans. The biggest and most exciting of these plans is my upcoming birding trip to Costa Rica with a friend, but while I anxiously await that one, I’ve been doing some more exploring of places closer to home.

staircase-in-woods-looking-down-594x800One of the places I discovered recently is Steyer Nature Preserve, a great park along the Sandusky River near Tiffin, Ohio. It consists of 141 acres with four miles of trails that wind around wildflower meadows and crisscross steep ravines. I’ve written before about how I enjoy places with even the slightest elevation changes, something that’s rather rare in northwest Ohio’s farm country.

This park is part of the Seneca County Park District, and they’ve done a really nice job of building bridges and staircases to facilitate access to the trails through the steep ravines. And they’ve included lots of interpretive signs as well, identifying various tree species and giving background on the history of the land.

steyer-sign-collage

I learned names of some trees that I’d never heard of before, like  hophornbeam and pignut hickory. And there are two trees on this property that are nearly 300 years old.

bur-oak-collage

I sat on the bench near this Bur Oak for quite some time, contemplating some of the events it had survived in its 292 years. How often do you get the chance to touch something that has been alive for centuries? And yes, I’ll admit that I hugged this amazing tree. And then I photographed this Eastern Comma butterfly that had paused to rest on its trunk:

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Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

I found this huge spiderweb in the woods — it was probably 18 inches across. Did you know that the design of a spiderweb can give you hints as to the type of spider that made it? This one is typical of those constructed by members of the orbweaver family.

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bridge-and-stairs-at-steyer-nature-preserve-800x594As I walked toward that old Bur Oak on my way back to the car, a Bald Eagle flew out of the top of it. He’d probably been surveying the river below for fish. I watched him fly across the cow pasture and land near another Baldie on the far side.

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The Sandusky River at Steyer Nature Preserve

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This frog jumped into the water as I approached the river — he thinks I can’t see him.

I’m so glad I got myself motivated to go out for that walk. Discovering this wonderful spot definitely helped lift me out of my rut, giving me motivation to keep looking for more new places to explore close to home!

Posted in Ecotherapy, Ohio, Trees, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to a friend today and am feeling a deep sense of loss.

I spent the afternoon helping him load his moving truck, along with another close friend. For the most part, the three of us tried to focus on the task at hand so we wouldn’t dwell on the emotions we were all feeling. Of course there was optimism about his new life and hope that everything would work out, but there was also lots of sadness and uncertainty. As upset as I was though, I was determined to keep my chin up and not make this day any harder for him than it had to be.

Even though I wasn’t happy about why we were together, I was grateful that the three of us had this special time alone today. Our friendship is partly based on bonding over some experiences that we can’t really talk to anyone else about. If you’ve ever read about the psychology of bonding over shared pain you’ll understand how strong that bond can be. We have been each other’s support system through some very difficult times.

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My friends on the beach at Lake Erie a couple weeks ago, as we began saying our goodbyes

As the afternoon wore on and we made a few re-checks of the house, gathering up the remaining last-minute items, I started to feel my emotions welling up.

In the late afternoon we finally finished loading the back of the truck, then the two guys began hooking the car up to the tow dolly. As I waited for them to do that, I walked out behind the house and stood beside the wildflower meadow, watching butterflies and bees flitting and buzzing from flower to flower. Turkey Vultures soared over the house and Blue Jays squawked loudly from the trees. I almost cried then, standing in the sunlight watching the vultures and listening to my friends discussing how to secure the car on the towing rig.

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A gift I made for my departing friend

After they got that done, the cat was put into her carrier and loaded into the front of the truck. The snuffling little pug dog would go in at the last minute, after our final goodbyes.

When it came time to close the garage door for the last time, my friend stood in his garage and said softly, “Thanks house, you’ve been good to me.” And that’s when my tears started to flow.

I’m not sure why that particular thing touched me so much. I think maybe because I realized the importance of what he had just done: He stopped to acknowledge the happy times he’d had in this place before leaving it.

Because of what the three of us shared today, I’m thinking a lot tonight about gratitude and mindfulness. About how, even in the midst of sadness, we can choose to be thankful for the good in our lives. And about how important it is to stop and appreciate the best moments as they’re happening. And to look forward rather than backward. I’m thankful for the time I had with my friend and for all I learned from him. He opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world and dealing with challenging times. He made me laugh–hard. And he gave the world’s best hugs. I’m so glad that we took a group selfie today to serve as a memory of our last time together as a trio of friends.

When I was dealing with another painful loss recently, I was reminded of this line from a Tennyson poem: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  I suppose that’s the way to look at this too–being grateful that I had the experience of knowing this person who was so special that it hurts to say goodbye.

As I write this he’s driving south toward his new home and new job. I have high hopes that he’ll find what he’s searching for, and that his life will be overflowing with love and friendship.

 

Posted in Happiness and Gratitude | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

Meadow at Creek Bend Farm - early fall (800x533)

Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm

Silver-spotted Skipper on thistle (800x741)

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)

So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.

Cabbage White - Pieris rapae (800x759)

Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.

Viceroy Butterfly (800x533)

Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience!  I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:

Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:

Path at Creek Bend Farm with coneflowers (800x533)

Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird v2

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

Ruby-throated hummingbird v3

I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.

Robber fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly - see closeup (800x666)

But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly v2 - see close up (800x610)

This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal Fly - promachus genus (800x547)

My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:

Red-footed Cannibal Fly - 2 of them (800x535)

They’re a couple of inches long and very intimidating. Especially if you’re a smaller insect! And I discovered that these predators have been known to prey on…wait for it….hummingbirds! So I guess the little hummer in the next tree was very lucky this hungry killer had already found a victim.

Okay, this has been long already, but I don’t want to leave you with visions of gut-sucking cannibals, so here are some pretty dogwood berries. I hope that makes up for it.🙂

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood

Dogwood berries

Posted in Insects, Ohio, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap

You know how great it feels when your day off coincides with a fantastic weather forecast? Well that’s what happened for me on Monday this week, and I took full advantage of it to get outdoors and poke around to see what I could find. I was particularly grateful for this day because I’d spent the previous day in bed with a migraine that lasted for 19 hours. Yep, that’s right, 19 hours.  After losing an entire day, it’s no surprise that I was eager to reclaim my life the next morning. I usually feel like I’ve been reborn on the day after a migraine, and am reminded to be thankful for every pain-free day I have.Lotus flowers in bloom at Meadowbrook v2

So on this glorious day I decided to visit one of the locations on the Lake Erie Birding Trail (LEBT). The Ohio LEBT Guidebook, published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife just a couple years ago, is a compilation of 88 birding locations along the Lake Erie shore of Ohio. It’s a really handy book that I often keep in my car in case I feel like exploring someplace new. So far I’ve visited 21 of the sites on the “trail” — and I also happen to work at one of them (#73, Black Swamp Bird Observatory).  Today my  destination was Meadowbrook Marsh, a property of 190 acres that includes a large marsh and meadows surrounded by tall trees. As you can see in the photo above, the gorgeous lotus flowers are in full bloom now.

Pearl Crescent butterfly -Phycoides tharos v2

There were hundreds of these Pearl Crescents fluttering in the grass (Phyciodes tharos)

As I started walking the grass path alongside the big meadow, I noticed that the ground was dancing beneath my feet. There were hundreds of little Pearl Crescent butterflies feeding on clover and other flowers — it was really something to see. I tried to get a video that would convey the magic of it all, but wasn’t able to get anything I felt was worth sharing here. So just close your eyes and imagine walking slowly in the grass,  watching dozens of butterflies taking flight in front of you with each step. It was so pretty — they’d flutter a few feet away and alight on their next food source. I felt like I was in some sort of fairy land! And so it was that my walk started off with a big smile.

Common Checkered Skipper best shot (800x663)

Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Mixed in with all those Pearl Crescents, I found a little butterfly that I’d never seen before. It was about the same size, maybe an inch and a half across, but the wings were black with whitish spots, and the body had a bluish tint to it. It turned out to be a Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis). I love discovering something I’ve never seen before because each discovery makes me appreciate the diversity of life that’s around me every day. So much of the natural world goes unnoticed in our busy lives, doesn’t it?

House Wren

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)

A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable chattering of a House Wren and was able to quickly find him moving through the trees beside me. There were several of them in a mixed group that included Common Yellowthroats (a type of warbler) and Indigo Buntings. All three species were agitated by my presence, and I saw quite a few curious juveniles who were apparently being scolded by their parents to get away from the human!

Common Yellowthroat - fall immature male

Common Yellowthroat, a type of warbler. This is a young inquisitive male.

I continued walking and came upon another pocket of bird activity. This one had young Brown Thrashers and several Great Crested Flycatchers, and a single tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher buzzing around the treetops and flicking his long tail.

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A young Brown Thrasher

One of my favorite birds was this pretty female Cape May Warbler, who posed nicely for me:

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Female Cape May Warbler

Grasshoppers are always hard to photograph because they leap so fast and far at the slightest movement. But I managed to get a couple shots of this one, at least. I think it’s a Red-legged Grasshopper.

Red-legged Grasshopper - I think (712x800)

Red-legged Grasshopper (at least I think that’s the right species)

And take a look at this close crop of his leg joints on the hind legs. It’s clear that they’re very specialized to allow him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Oh wait, that’s Superman, isn’t it?)

Grasshopper showing back leg specialized joints (717x635)

Close-up of semi-lunar processes on grasshopper’s hind legs

Those joints are called the semi-lunar processes. I found a website that explains how they function, and it even includes slow-motion video to show the mechanics of the spring motion. If you’re curious, it’s here.

There weren’t too many dragonflies around on this day, but I did manage to get a photo of an Eastern Amberwing, one of our smaller dragonflies:

Eastern Amberwing - close crop

Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

Before I realized it, I’d spent two hours at Meadowbrook and the sun was starting to get a bit too intense. So I reluctantly ended my walk after having seen 27 species of birds, about a half dozen types of butterflies (including a couple Monarchs), and lots of other insects that I haven’t identified yet.

I just find these quiet walks in natural places to be so life-affirming and renewing. So today I’m grateful for those “Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap,” for all the ways they enrich my experience of life on this beautiful planet.

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Insects, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rain! Green! Ahhhh….

Here in northwest Ohio we’ve been suffering through a drought for many weeks, so it was such a relief when we got a good soaking rain yesterday. And since my weekend plans changed at the last minute, I spent most of yesterday indoors, enjoying a lazy Saturday listening to the thunder and rain. But because of that, I really wanted to do some kind of outdoor activity today.  So even though the rain showers continued off and on today, I decided to go explore a new-to-me nature preserve about a half hour drive south of here. And I’m so glad I did — I had a wonderful hike in the rain!

Panorama of woods at Collier State Nature Preserve

The place is called Collier State Nature Preserve. It’s a beautiful wooded 115 acres bordering the Sandusky River near Tiffin, Ohio. There are lots of pretty nature preserves and metroparks around here, but what made me want to see this place was when I heard that it had HILLS. That’s right, actual changes in elevation, as opposed to almost everywhere else within a couple hours drive here in the flatlands of Ohio. I grew up in southeastern Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Hilly terrain is where I feel most at home, and it’s where I find the most aesthetic appeal too.  I haven’t been able to adjust to the endlessly flat scenery that I see in my daily life here — hundreds and hundreds of acres of corn and soybean fields in every direction. It’s not that I haven’t tried to find beauty in the flatness–I really do appreciate how the sunsets are so amazing here where there’s nothing to block the view. But I guess I just have a strong psychological bond to the hills.

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Look, a HILL! (Oh, and two Turkey Vultures)

So imagine my pleasure as I made the drive down there in the rain today, noticing that the roads were suddenly more hilly and scenic as I approached the preserve. I felt my breath slow and my body relax as I drove the narrow road with tall trees towering overhead on both sides. Because of the rain, everything was so fresh and green too. I just love the deep green of leaves when they’re wet, don’t you?

White Baneberry - native to Eastern N.A. - poisonous

White Baneberry (poisonous)

Also because of the rain, and maybe because of the remote location of this preserve, I was the only person there today. Yep, had the whole place all to myself.

It was pretty dark in the thick woods, so I didn’t manage to get many good pictures of the birds, but I took a few plant and insect pics and came home to identify them. One of the most interesting plants I saw was this one with the white berries. It’s called White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)–also known as Doll’s Eyes for obvious reasons–and it’s highly poisonous to humans. But birds can (and do) safely eat the berries.

I should say here that I’m doing my best to gather information about these plants from reliable sources (and provide links for you), but please do not eat anything based on my identification alone. I’m not an expert!

False Solomon's Seal  - safe to eat (533x800)

False Solomon’s Seal (edible)

And then there was this other interesting cluster of berries, which I found out is called False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa). These berries, however, are safe for humans to eat. These unripe berries are beige speckled with red, but they’ll be solid red when ripe. While researching this plant I discovered the blog of Tara Rose, an urban foraging expert based in Oregon. She’s written a very interesting  post about False Solomon’s Seal if you care to pop over there and read it.

I have to admit to being a bit uncomfortable about going to this remote and unknown place alone. I’m always conscious of the potential dangers to a lone woman hiker, and in the past I’ve let that fear keep me from enjoying the outdoors as much as I wanted to. I’m trying to find a balance between responsible caution and confident fearlessness, if that makes sense. Maybe I’m finally at the point where I’m more afraid of missing out on a good experience than I am of the potential for danger.

When I pulled into the isolated parking lot today, this is the trail entrance I saw:

Trail entrance

Trail entrance – a little bit scary, right?

I hesitated for a few seconds and then decided to just go on in. And this is what I saw after I got around the first bend:

Trail through woods at Collier State Nature Preserve (594x800)

Winding trail through the woods

And shortly afterwards I came to the wooden stairs that would take me down the steep hill to the river:

Boardwalk at Collier State Nature Preserve

Stairway to the river

It was so liberating to stand there among those giant trees, listening to the gentle sound of rain pattering on the leaves, knowing that I was completely alone. I felt so proud of myself that I took a selfie right then and there:

Dorky pic to prove how brave I was, LOL

Dorky pic to prove how brave I was, LOL

And here’s a 30-second video so you can hear the rain and birds in the woods:

American Pelecinid wasp

American Pelecinid wasp

Oh, I almost forgot a few more of the cool creatures I saw today. I don’t remember ever noticing this wasp before. In fact, when I first started noticing them today, I thought they were a dragonfly or damselfly. But as soon as I got a close look at one, I knew it was a wasp. And after I got home and consulted a field guide, I knew I had an American Pelecinid wasp. This female has such a long abdomen so she can probe in the soil for May beetle grubs and lay her eggs on them. When her larvae hatch, they feed on the beetle grubs as parasites.

You know, the more attention I pay to insects, the more I see how interesting they are. Each species plays a role in the ecosystem, using its unique adaptations to feed and reproduce using the available food sources. I can easily understand why some people decide to become entomologists — what an endlessly fascinating subject to study! It’s a shame so many of us think of insects as “creepy crawlies” or “things to be squashed.”

Speaking of things that some people find “creepy,” here’s a close up of one of those Turkey Vultures from the road after he flew into a tree right beside my car.

Turkey Vulture in a tree

I find these birds so interesting, and it’s not often I get such a close view of one. Although a few years ago we had a program at my local Audubon meeting where we got to see a live Turkey Vulture brought in from a wildlife rehab place. This bird sat on the outstretched arm of its handler and spread those giant wings and I was shocked at how incredibly big it was. It’s one thing to read in your field guide that a bird has a 6-foot wingspan, but it’s another thing when you get to see that wingspan from a few yards away and feel the rush of air as it flaps those wings. I’ll never forget that day. In fact, any day that I get to see a bird up close is a privilege.  Just as I mentioned about the insects, bird species have unique adaptations for their habitats and food sources too, and learning about them adds dimension to your experience of the world. At least I think it does…but you may still cringe at the sight of a Turkey Vulture….

And finally, no summer nature walk is complete without a butterfly picture, so here’s the beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail I found feeding alongside the road as I left the park.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (5) (640x539)Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (42)

So, have YOU been outside today?

Posted in Birds, Insects, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | 14 Comments

There’s This Place I Like to Go…

Boardwalk at Blue Heron Reserve (800x600)This week marked the one-year anniversary of my move to northwest Ohio. And although I don’t have as much time as I used to for exploring and being in nature, I have managed to find one spot that has become my nearest “go to” place when I need to get away. It’s called Blue Heron Reserve, and it’s a 160-acre park with meadows, fens, and woods. The best part is that it’s only 18 minutes away from my home and I’ve been able to find all sorts of interesting plants and creatures there over the past 12 months.

Cabbage White butterfly on clover flower at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x644)

Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae)

A recent visit turned up this Cabbage White butterfly feeding on a clover flower. This highly-cropped version shows the pretty green eyes and the long proboscis that he uses to sip nectar from the flower.

Wasps to ID (800x516)I also found quite a few of these wasps crawling on the ground. I haven’t been able to identify them yet, but I think they’re really pretty, don’t you? I like the combination of that rich brown with the gold rings on the body. Hopefully I’ll be able to find them in one of my insect field guides soon so I can read more about them. (Update: I think they’re Northern Paper Wasps, a very common native wasp in Ohio.)

Tiger Bee Fly (1) (800x645)

Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I also found a fly that I don’t remember ever seeing before — this is a Tiger Bee Fly. I think the wing markings are really pretty. This fly was large, probably an inch long. I found one of these hanging around on our mailbox at the office the next day, and was excited that I knew what it was right away.  I learned that this fly is a parasitoid of carpenter bees. That means that it lays its eggs at the entrance to carpenter bee nests, and the larvae eat the carpenter bee larvae. A parasitoid is different than a parasite because a parasite doesn’t necessarily kill its host, whereas a parasitoid does actually kill the host (prey?) animal. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Mink at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x592)Oh, and look who ran across the path in front of me! This little mink was too fast for me to get a good photo, as he hesitated for only about a second before disappearing into the meadow. I’ve only seen a few mink in my life, so it’s always a thrill to catch a glimpse of these elusive mammals.

Summer Azure butterfly - Celastrina neglecta (1) (800x727)

Summer Azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta)

Another butterfly, a Summer Azure. I stood there with the camera focused on this one for several minutes, hoping to get a shot of the pretty lavender wings opened. Alas, I didn’t get that shot, but I’m pleased just to get any shot at all because these little purple creatures don’t often sit still for me.

Blue Heron Reserve meadow v2 7-31-2016 (800x594)

More of the one-mile long recycled plastic boardwalk around the meadow. It looks like the park maintenance crew might have been overzealous in killing vegetation along the edges…not sure that’s really necessary in an area like this, but I can’t be sure of what their reasons might be for this.

Bullfrog in water (2) (800x597)

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

On this day I found several bullfrogs in the small spring-fed pond inside the meadow loop. I’ve always been unsure of my ability to differentiate between Green Frogs and Bullfrogs–until now. This is a Bullfrog because the glandular fold wraps around the tympanum (that’s the round spot on the side of its head that functions as a sort of external eardrum). On a Green Frog the glandular fold would continue in a straight line down the back. That makes it really easy for me to tell them apart now. Cool. Here’s another larger Bullfrog:

Bullfrog in water v2

Blue Heron Reserve signI took lots of photos of wildflowers too, hoping to identify some of them later. Maybe I’ll share some of them in another post. The bird activity was slow on my recent visit (because the temperature was in the 90s), but I still saw a couple beautiful male Indigo Buntings singing, and lots of Tree Swallows lined up on the power lines. The swallows are beginning to “stage” for migration now, which means that it’s common to see larger numbers of them gathered together, waiting for some signal that it’s time to head south. It’s

Indigo Bunting male singing (6)

Indigo Bunting singing

always bittersweet when the birds start to show signs of leaving us for the winter. It was just a few short months ago that we so eagerly anticipated their return for the breeding season, and now they’re finished with that important business and getting ready to go again. But fall migration is a long process, so there are months of excitement ahead as various groups of birds come back through here on their way down from Canada….the shorebirds are showing up here already, the warblers are coming, and it won’t be long before it’s November and we have ducks galore.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live in a more moderate climate, someplace where it’s always 70 degrees and sunny, you know? The extremes of hot and cold in this part of the country are a challenge to deal with sometimes. But then again, without our four distinct seasons we wouldn’t have the constantly changing plant and animal life that makes the natural world so interesting. So I suppose it’s a fair trade.🙂

Swallows staging for migration (800x281)

Tree Swallows staging for fall migration

Posted in Bird Migration, Ecotherapy, Insects, Ohio | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Macro Nature Therapy

If you’ve ever worked with a macro Yellow flower macro - one-tenth of an inch acrosslens on your camera, you know how addictive it can be. It can even change the way you see the world.  Just look at this little  yellow flower, for instance. I found this Black Medic while pulling lawn weeds a couple years ago, and it was something I had often just yanked without a second glance. The whole thing was only about an eighth of an inch across, so you’d normally never even see all these beautiful details. Isn’t it stunning?

So yesterday, after a difficult week that left me wanting to hide from the world, I took my macro lens to the backyard and found the perfect way to distract myself from dwelling on my problems — by focusing on the tiniest details of the natural world.

First up are Locust exoskeleton - head on view (800x533)these cicada exoskeletons I found in my crabapple tree. Here in northwest Ohio we didn’t have any of the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in the eastern half of the state earlier this summer, but the annual cicadas are coming out now. These insects have a fascinating life cycle, part of which is spent as nymphs living underground feeding on tree roots. At some point, whether it’s after only a couple of years or 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground and climb the nearest vertical structure to begin molting.

Locust exoskeleton back view (800x710)They shed their exoskeletons, or exuviae, and begin the adult phase of their lives. In this photo you can see the split in the back where the adult exited the exuvia.

As winged adults, they live a few weeks, during which time they mate, lay eggs, and die. When their eggs hatch from the tree branches where they were laid, the tiny nymphs drop to the earth and burrow underground, where the whole process is repeated. Isn’t that cool?

Next up, lotus flowers. My friends and I came upon this huge “field” of lotus flowers while kayaking along the Toussaint River the other evening after work. It reminded me of the giant fields of tulips in Holland, stretching as far as you can see.Lotus flowers on Toussaint River (800x446)

Lotus flower seed pod (1) (800x533)Most of the flowers hadn’t opened up yet, but I found some that had already dropped their petals, exposing the pretty seed pods inside. So I took some macro shots of the pod, which I found out is actually called the “carpellary receptacle.” After the flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, exposing the carpellary receptacle full of seeds. It eventually turns brown and the seeds spill out into the water.

Lotus flower seed pod (2) (800x533)
Closer view of the not-yet-ripe lotus seeds.

Cicada exoskeleton on lotus seed head (771x800)And while I was playing with these things, I couldn’t resist the totally unnatural “exoskeleton on the carpellary receptacle” shot. Pretty cool stuff, isn’t it? Yeah, I thought you’d like that.

Speaking of which, I’ve yet to find one of the newly-emerged adult cicadas to photograph, but I’m still looking….

 

 

 

This afternoon I was checking my milkweed plants for Monarch butterfly eggs (none found yet), and decided to take a macro of the dainty pink flowers. First the wider view —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (2) (800x533)

And then a closer look —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (800x711)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

I absolutely adore the structure of these dainty little flowers. I took these shots hand-holding the camera, so they’re not as sharp as I’d like. Next time I’m going to use the tripod and hope to get some much better photos of these beauties. And who knows, maybe I’ll still find some caterpillars feeding on the leaves. I had such fun raising Monarch butterflies last year — it would be great to do that again.

Well, that’s all for today. I hope you learned something from this macro nature therapy session. I sure did.

#DistractingMyselfFromHeartache #NatureTherapyReallyWorks

Posted in Insects, Kayaking, Photography | 9 Comments

Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies

Brown Thrasher at dripper at BSBO (800x484)

Brown Thrasher in dripper pond

Ok, first things first: No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. Although I do feel like I’m sort of in the twilight zone lately, what with all the craziness in the world. Violence, hatred, and sadness seem to permeate everything these days, and I’ve been struggling with mustering up the motivation to write anything. My personal life has been challenging in the past several months as well, so I’ve basically just been trying to get through it one day at a time. But after a couple friends mentioned that they’ve missed my blogging, I decided to try to find something positive to write about and get myself back into a more cheerful state of mind.

Brown Thrasher after bathing at BSBO pond (800x589)

Brown Thrasher after bathing in our pond at the office

Blue Dasher female (800x534)

Blue Dasher, female

So…welcome to “Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies,” my attempt to use nature to heal the parts of my heart that have been hurting.  I’ve been regaining some of my enthusiasm for photography too, thanks to a hot summer loaded with dragonflies. Just when the birding gets really slow in the breeding season, the dragonflies come out in force, giving me plenty of opportunities to try for better photos of these fast-moving and skittish insects.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male close crop (800x533)

Eastern Pondhawk, immature male only partially blue at this point

All of these photos were taken at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio. During springtime, this area is a world-renowned hotspot for songbird migration, but in summer it’s virtually deserted. Or, I should say, there are very few people here, but there’s still an enormous amount of life happening here if you’re willing to look for it.

One recent day I spent some time on the Magee Marsh boardwalk with a couple of friends, just taking pictures of dragonflies — and mayflies (but more about them in a moment).

I’m fascinated by dragonflies — Odonata for the scientifically-minded — but I’m certainly no expert at identifying the various species. I have a couple of field guides and make my best guesses, but that’s about it. For example, the picture above I’ve labeled an immature Eastern Pondhawk. The females and immature males are a bright green, but at about a week of age, the males begin to turn blue, first on the abdomen and then on the thorax. The color change takes a couple of weeks, so this guy is perhaps two or three weeks old. Here’s a closer crop of this photo, just because I love looking at their intricate body structures.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male - close crop of thorax detail and back of head (800x622)

Closer crop of the immature Eastern Pondhawk male

And this next picture shows the difference between the completely green female (or immature male) and the immature male that is in transformation to blue. I don’t know how to determine if the one on the left is a female or young male, but it really doesn’t matter to me. All I know is that he/she is gorgeous!

Eastern Pondhawk - female on left and immature male on right (800x363)

And another one, taken just outside my office on an unbearably hot day:

Eastern Pondhawk female at BSBO (800x534)

Eastern Pondhawk, female or immature male

Oh, let’s not forget the mayflies. Being new to this area, I’d never witnessed a mayfly hatch before. I started hearing people mentioning how there are so many of them that they cover houses and pile up in rotting mounds of carcasses everywhere. I thought they were exaggerating until I saw it for myself. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of them covering buildings, but if you want to see some examples, check out this Google image search. Ick, ick, ick.  Can you imagine having to walk through those piles, or having to clean them off your house?

There were days last month when I’d walk outside the office to my car, and come back inside with a dozen mayflies hanging on my shirt. That might sound creepy to some, but they’re harmless (they don’t even have any mouths in their adult form, so they can’t bite), and they’re pretty darn cool. They begin life as aquatic insects, and once they emerge as adults with wings, they only live about a day, just long enough to mate.

Mayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which apparently comes from the Greek words ephemera meaning “short-lived” and ptera meaning “wing.” And I read on the Freshwater Blog that Mayflies are an important food source in parts of Africa, where they make protein patties out of them. Interesting, isn’t it?

Mayfly on tent at BSBO

Mayfly

This next picture was taken on the Magee Marsh boardwalk after most of the mayflies had died. If you look closely you can see all the dead mayflies piled on the boardwalk and hanging from the railings. It was really something to see.

Amy and Ryan on boardwalk with dead mayflies everywhere (800x533)

My friends Amy and Ryan on the mayfly-carcass-covered boardwalk

Mayfly in spiderweb (800x533)

Mayfly carcass in spiderweb

Although there is one insect that I met recently that left a much different memory than the mayflies. I had my first encounter with chiggers a few weeks ago, when I naively walked around in the long grass outside the office and woke up the next morning with dozens of swollen bites all over my body. I’ve been bitten by fleas and mosquitoes many times in my life, and I thought I knew what misery was. But those chiggers ravaged the most tender spots on my body, and I thought I was going to lose my mind for about two weeks until they finally stopped itching. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!

In about two weeks I’ll mark the one year anniversary of my move to the flatlands of northwest Ohio. Time has really flown by this year. I’m learning a lot about the natural world as I experience the seasons in this new landscape. But I’m still learning things about myself as well. I’ve discovered that I’m braver and stronger than I ever thought I could be. I’ve discovered that I can still allow myself to love and be loved, to have my heart broken and be able to get up and put a smile on my face and try again. And I’m so proud of me.🙂

 

 

Posted in Birds, Insects, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | 11 Comments

April in NW Ohio

Life has been pretty busy for me lately, as evidenced by my lack of posts here on the blog. I’m sort of frustrated that I’m losing touch with some of my regular readers because I just don’t have time to keep up with anything outside of work anymore. But I’m really hoping to get back to writing more after the Biggest Week in American Birding isn’t absorbing all of my time. At BSBO we’re burning the candle at both ends these days, attending to all the details that make this festival so successful. It’s a lot of exhausting work, but the carrot at the end of the stick is the joyful ten days next month when our birding friends from across the country will gather here on the shores of Lake Erie to celebrate the spring migration. This is very satisfying work, and even when I’m drop-dead exhausted, I’m so thankful to be where I am, doing what I’m doing.🙂

But what I wanted to write about now is the wonderful afternoon I just had. We had a very mild winter here in northwest Ohio, with only a couple snowfalls of about two inches at a time. But last night we got whopped with more than seven inches of heavy, wet April snow. I wasn’t liking it very much when I got caught driving home in the worst of it last night, but this morning everything was so beautiful. Here are a couple pictures from my backyard:

Seven inches of snow on patio April 9 2016 (800x533)

Snow in backyard April 9 2016 (800x533)

After my driveway was plowed at lunchtime, I decided to go run a couple errands. My intention was to be back home in less than an hour, so I didn’t take my camera (…cue dramatic music that tells you that was a BIG mistake…).

As I ran my errands I noticed how pretty the tree-lined streets were around this little town, and I took a few cell phone pictures. Then I impulsively decided to drive over to Spiegel Grove, the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to take a quick walk around their lovely grounds. It’s a pretty place very close to my home, and I’d like to visit there more often. And I knew my cell phone camera would be fine for taking some pictures of the huge snow-covered trees.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v1.jpg

As soon as I stepped out of my car I heard a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the evergreens beside the parking lot. I quickly counted at least a dozen of them, and stood there watching them for a few minutes. There were also a couple Eastern Phoebes in that spot. I was already kicking myself for leaving home with out my camera. But it seems that I get the best views of birds when I don’t have my camera, so I decided to just enjoy the birds and make mental images. (I’m sharing a couple bird pics from previous years, just so you can see which species I’m talking about.)

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Golden-crowned Kinglet - best crop (800x541)

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I loved this tunnel of trees, even though it was a bit treacherous when huge clumps of heavy snow came crashing down near me several times.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v5.jpg

And halfway down this tunnel of trees, I looked off to my left and saw a female Cooper’s Hawk just sitting calmly in a tree, surveying the area below her. There were a couple phoebes flitting around here too, and I wondered if one of them would become her next meal. Later, when I returned along this same path, a male Cooper’s had joined her on the branch. I was happy that I was able to share those birds with a woman who happened along just about then with her dog. I pointed out the hawks and let her use my binoculars to get a good view of them. And then we had a nice chat about a variety of things, including small town living and the process of adjusting to life after divorce. She gave me some tips on places to go and things to do, which I appreciated. It was really nice to meet someone who could relate to some of the things I’ve gone through in the past couple of years.

I continued walking…

Hayes Memorial - April snow v3

…and just around a bend I saw a woodpecker fly into a tree beside me. I stopped and lifted my binoculars, expecting to see a Downy Woodpecker. But what I saw was even better because it’s a bird I’ve only found once before: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s not that uncommon really, but I think it’s a really cool bird. It’s easy to mistake for a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker if you don’t look closely enough, but it’s got that bright red throat patch that gives it away, and the yellowish tint to the belly area too (thus the name). I stood there smiling from ear to ear, wishing there’d been someone with me to share this bird with. But it’ll just have to remain “my” bird for now. And that’s okay. (Sorry I don’t have any good pictures of sapsuckers, but you can find lots of them on the Google-machine.)

Hayes Memorial - April snow v6

Looking skyward….

I took a short video as I walked through that tunnel of trees earlier. It’s a little jiggly while I’m walking at the beginning, but I wanted you to hear the crunching of the snow under my feet.

Isn’t that pretty? I wish all of you could have been there to experience this quiet moment in time.

Posted in Biggest Week in American Birding, Birds, Ecotherapy, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments