I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig
Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

Eastern Least Clubtail - Hell Hollow w sig (2)
Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER reduced w sig
Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

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Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

I’m Exhausted and We’re Just Getting Started

Magnolia Warbler - Magee 2018 (2) w sig
Magnolia Warbler

Where to begin? Spring migration has been in progress for a while, but it got a slow start because we had persistent north winds that kept large numbers of birds stuck south of us. That finally changed early last week and we’ve seen an explosion of migrant songbirds in northwest Ohio.

My friends and I all agree that this is the best birding at Magee Marsh in recent memory. The birds are here in big numbers and they’re down low, giving us wonderful close views. And not only that, but we’ve had a bonanza of species that aren’t common here too, like the boldly-marked Kentucky and Hooded Warblers:

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Hooded Warbler
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Kentucky Warbler

And the Cerulean Warblers put on quite the show one day, flying back and forth along the boardwalk before the big crowds arrived, allowing us some nice quality time with them. You should have heard the comments from birders as we were all trying to get the best angle for photos or views through the binoculars. “Holy crap! You’ll never get a view of that bird like this again!” or “Are you kidding me?! What a beautiful bird!” It was so much fun to see the birds and to be surrounded by other people who got just as much joy from them as I did.

Cerulean Warbler - Magee 2018 w sig
Cerulean Warbler

At one point during this bird explosion, just after my friend Julie had found this Cerulean, three of us took a selfie to commemorate the moment. We took a couple minutes to stand quietly together and talk about the joy of it all.

The only other time I’ve seen a Cerulean Warbler was in Michigan a few years ago, and it was 40 or 50 feet above me. This is me looking at my first Cerulean Warbler:

Kim and Katie looking for Ceruleans
Getting warbler neck from trying to see Ceruleans in Michigan a few years ago.

Standing beside me in this photo is Katie Fallon, author of Cerulean Blues, a book about the plight of this declining species.

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Bay-breasted Warbler at Magee Marsh

I always get emotional when I watch warblers on their spring journey, and this year I’ve had some intensely moving experiences. One day I was birding with my friend Pattye at Magee Marsh. We’d been watching a Blue-winged Warbler foraging for insects among the freshly-emerged vegetation, when I suddenly noticed a second Blue-winged Warbler nearby. Blue-winged Warbler - Magee 2018

Seeing two of this species together was really special. And not only were they together, but I saw one of them feed the other one, probably a bit of pair-bonding activity between mates. I was trying to get a photo of them both together but only managed some blurry ones. But as we stood there watching this spectacle, we both just kept saying “Wow…just wow…!” You know the birding is really great when you run out of words to express your feelings.

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Blackburnian Warbler (not the one from this story because he was too close for a photo!)

And just a short time later we were talking quietly at the edge of the boardwalk, looking down at the ground as we chatted. I raised my head at one point to see a Blackburnian Warbler about a foot away from my head. I whispered, “Pattye, look up, right in front of your face!” She raised her head and saw exactly what I was seeing, this tiny little orange ball of life, staring right at us as if he was as curious about us as we were about him. And I started crying from the intense joy I felt welling up in my heart. I think Pattye might have shed a few tears too.

I get a lot of satisfaction from watching birds all year long, but the phenomenon of the massive spring migration is overwhelming. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe all the special moments and birds I’ve seen this week, and I’ve had to force myself to take time off from the birds twice already, just to allow my body to process the intensity of these experiences.  There’s physical exhaustion from the long days of walking in the heat, but the emotional impact of seeing so many wonderful birds in such close proximity is just as tiring. I find that instead of feeling frustrated when a rainy day prevents birding, I’m actually grateful for a reason to rest at home.

I’m so thankful that I discovered birds —  the added dimension they bring to my life is almost indescribable.  There’s something spiritual about it — I think it’s because they remind me of my place in the universe. My human problems are put into perspective when I consider the lives of these tiny beautiful creatures. So, in a way, they help heal me when I find the human world overwhelming. And that, my friends, is the definition of nature therapy. 🙂

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Red-eyed Vireo (yep, it’s not just warblers we’re watching!)

Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

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Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

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Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

Maine Realized

It’s been a long-time dream of mine to visit Maine, but for some reason it kept getting pushed aside in favor of other destinations.  I finally decided it was time to just do it. I realized that I didn’t want to look back later and regret that I’d never seen Maine.

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Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick, Maine

When you think of Maine, what comes to mind? Lobsters. Blueberries. Whales. Lighthouses. Yep, I get it. But my romanticized vision of the state was one of rocky shores with waves of icy Atlantic water crashing against them, so that’s what I wanted to see.

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A beautiful but crowded spot that felt more like a kids’ playground

I also wanted to hike in Acadia National Park, and had made notes about a few trails I thought I’d like to walk. I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the most popular (aka crowded) trails. I’d hoped to have some quiet time away from people, time to enjoy the scenery and just do some thinking.

My first two days weren’t what I’d hoped, because I’d made the mistake of booking a hotel in the tourist mecca of Bar Harbor. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted this trip to be about. Within 10 minutes of arriving in town, I made a decision to avoid Bar Harbor as much as possible. I just don’t understand why that sort of place is enjoyable to people. Or maybe everyone just tolerates the “tourist-trappiness” of it because it’s the gateway to Acadia National Park.

Typical scene along Maine coast - boats pier flowersBut it didn’t take me much longer to turn things around, thankfully. I had a really wonderful few hours on a day that I drove north of the island to search for dragonflies. A friend had given me directions to a small river where he’d seen some species that would be new ones for me. So I drove out a dead-end gravel road alongside a pretty little river near a town called Amherst, and spent some time sitting on rocks watching the babbling water and the butterflies and dragonflies. I didn’t see another human for hours, a surprisingly rare experience anywhere these days. (Seriously, can you remember the last time you didn’t see another human for hours at a time?) I found two species I’d never seen before, but my photos weren’t as good as I’d hoped. My favorite was the Dragonhunter, just because it’s got a reputation as a fierce hunter of other dragons. Lots of odonates have interesting names, but “Dragonhunter” is one of the most intimidating.

Dragonhunter - confirmed by Rick
The feared Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus) – he eats other dragonflies!
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Hordes of humans, with Bass Harbor Light in the background, sort of

The absolute best part of my visit to Maine, though, was the day I discovered Otter Point. I’d been driving along the coast in Acadia National Park, stopping periodically to climb out on the granite cliffs with hundreds of other people. I was thrilled with the landscapes I was seeing, but still in search of a place without hordes of humans.

And then I found it. I’d gotten out of the car to climb out on the rocks once again, expecting to see other people already out there. But there was no one.  I had a big expanse of rocky coastline all to myself. Well, I was sharing it with some Common Eiders and Double-crested Cormorants, but there weren’t any people. I couldn’t believe my luck. And it got even better than that.

Cormorant drying its wings
Cormorant drying its wings

As I sat on a large chunk of granite watching the sea birds, I noticed fog starting to drift over the shoreline to the north of my position. It was starting to feel cooler, so I went to the car to grab a fleece pullover. As I closed my car door, another car pulled up and a man leaned out and asked me if there was anything to see down there. I had to think fast to get rid of him, so I said, “No, just a few ducks, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Haha, he spoke to his wife and they left. Victory! I reclaimed my spot on my rocks and felt my breathing get deeper and slower as the fog eventually arrived to moisten my cheeks.

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Common Eiders on kelp-covered rocks, before the fog swallowed them up

The eiders were just below me on the kelp-covered rocks, but soon they were no more than blurry shapes. There was a buoy bell ringing in the distance. I only knew that sound from movies, and had never realized how relaxing it could be. I went googling so I could share the sound with you, and found this 10-hour long recording of buoy bells meant to lull you to sleep. That’s so great! I’m listening to that as I type this, and am smiling from ear to ear with the memories of that day.

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Sailboat in the fog at Otter Point

You won’t be surprised to know that I visited Otter Point multiple times during my remaining time in Maine. I felt something there that I’ve never felt anywhere else in the 13 countries I’ve visited so far. I’m still not sure why I felt such a connection with that spot, and why it brought me so much peace.  I loved the solitude, and the enormity of the landscape, and the smell of the ocean, and the feel of the air….  But I guess I don’t need to completely understand it, as long as I recognize and appreciate it. That first day I spent alone on the rocks with the fog cooling my skin was an experience I’ll not soon forget. I think I could do that every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it.Yellow flowers and rocks at Otter Point

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My spot on Otter Point, with tiny people in the distance for scale

Oh, I almost forgot. This is Spoon, a humpback whale I saw in the Gulf of Maine. Maybe I can tell you more about her next time. 🙂
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Hanging Out With Naturalists

Bee on Chicory flower - close up w sigThis morning I participated in a Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trip to Wiregrass Lake Metropark.  I joined this organization months before I moved to Toledo, but this was my first opportunity to join them on a field trip. The purpose of today’s outing was to find dragonflies, but we also looked at birds, butterflies, flowers, and moths.

And I found that I really enjoyed being with a group of people with such varied interests. When we found a wildflower, there was someone who knew exactly what it was and whether it was native or invasive. When we found a moth, someone else knew that one. And quite a few of us knew the birds as well.  What a fun and educational morning!

Even without paying much attention to the birds, I recorded 26 species during our walk, including Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-breasted Chat, all singing their beautiful songs.

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This is an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas). This adorable little critter was less than an inch across. The identification key to this species are the orange spots on the hindwing, and the little tail spikes.

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This is my first photo of a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), and isn’t he a beauty? I call this photo “Green on Green” because of how the greens of the insect contrast nicely with the green foliage in the background. I find it very visually interesting. Can you see the green exclamation mark on his back?Variable Dancer damselfly drinking from raindrop w sig

And then we have one of my favorite damselflies, the Violet (Variable) Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacia). First of all, he’s purple! I mean, c’mon, how cool is that? And look at this guy — it looks like he’s taking a drink from a raindrop on the leaf.  Seriously, this just makes me smile. (I don’t think they actually drink water like this, but still….)

Variable Dancer damselfly on Horsetail - close crop w sigI photographed another Variable Dancer perched on horsetail (above), an ancient plant that, to me at least, looks like a cross between bamboo and asparagus. It’s a very cool-looking plant, but you do not want it in your garden because it will spread everywhere, and it’s apparently a nightmare to eradicate.

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Horsetail (I think this is Equisetum arvense)

This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.

Calico Pennant on horsetail w rudbeckia w sig

This last one is a photo I took of Wiregrass Lake a couple days ago when the water surface was calm enough to see the reflection of the clouds above. One of these days I’m going to get a kayak out on that lake and spend hours sneaking up on dragonflies….

Clouds reflected on Wiregrass Lake w sig

I wish I could go on a hike like this every week, with a variety of subject-matter experts like we had today. Not only did my brain get what it needed, but my body got sunlight and fresh air, and my soul absorbed the sights and sounds of nature — a Gray Catbird chattering from the edge of the woods, a Green Heron flying high over the lake, a Comet Darner zipping back and forth along the shore as he patrolled his territory, and butterflies feeding on fragrant milkweed flowers. You know you’re getting some serious ecotherapy when you can feel your breathing slow as you turn your face to the sun and feel the gentle breeze across your cheeks. Yep, today reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: Nature Is (definitely) My Therapy.

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.)

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?)

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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:

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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.

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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. 🙂

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Tree Swallows staging for fall migration

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.

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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
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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.

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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.)

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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.