Today marks the end of the annual celebration known as Blue Week here in the Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio. Blue Week is an event of the Green Ribbon Initiative, a consortium of local organizations working to protect the biological diversity of our area. I serve on the boards of two nonprofits who are members of the Green Ribbon Initiative (Toledo Naturalists’ Association and Wild Ones Oak Openings Chapter). I wrote more about Blue Week two years ago in this post, if you’d like to read about the significance of the Oak Openings ecosystem.
When I started my native garden project, I was eager to have wild lupines growing in my yard. These native flowers (Lupinus perennis) are the iconic symbols of Blue Week, and the reason for the timing of the celebration each year. I was given six tiny lupine plants in the fall of 2017 after I’d volunteered at our Metroparks Toledo native seed nursery. I planted them in the sandy soil of my garden and watched all but one of them die over the first year. The surviving plant didn’t bloom last year, but just look at what it’s doing now!
I’m overjoyed to see this plant thriving in my yard, and am encouraged to try to add more of them. Luckily for me, a local nursery is selling them now, and I was able to get a few more. I put them in the ground several days ago, right beside the existing lupine. Unfortunately, a small rabbit has made a home in my garden and he ate all four of the new lupines a couple days ago. But there are still a few tiny leaves on those new plants, so I’ve fenced them off and will see if they can make it.
That naughty bunny also found my sky blue aster to be tasty, chewing several inches off the top of the young shoots about a week ago. I think the aster will be okay too, but that bunny is lucky he’s cute enough to make me tolerate his ravaging of my plants.
This afternoon I spent some time in my backyard trying to photograph this interesting plant to help you see how beautiful it is. So I’m going to stop with the writing and just show you the pictures. Enjoy!
And finally, this is what it looks like when you find a larger number of lupines together. This was taken at one of our local metroparks.
Yes, you read that right — I said, “Dandelion Delight,” alright. Many people despise these little yellow flowers that pop up in lawns in early spring, and do everything they can to eradicate them. In fact, there may be no more-hated flower than the hapless dandelion.
You may be thinking, “Hey, aren’t you all about native plants now? What gives?” It’s true, the common dandelion (Taraxacumofficinale) isn’t native to North America, and I sure wouldn’t advise you to plant it on purpose. But it’s here and it’s widespread, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But there’s a silver lining to this dilemma, and it’s the fact that dandelions are sometimes useful to early spring pollinators.
For example, right now there are very few native flowers blooming in my part of Ohio. And yet some of the pollinators have already emerged or migrated back. Luckily for these early bird insects, dandelions are a plentiful food source to get them through until more of our native flowers are blooming. The other day I went to a local nature preserve that has a thriving population of dandelions, because I wanted to show you some of the pollinators that were feeding on them.
First was the black-shouldered drone fly shown above. Then I found one of my favorites, a hoverfly. I believe this may be the American hoverfly (and I hope to confirm that when my new field guide arrives very soon!).
Butterflies may not be as efficient at pollinating as bees and flies, but they still make a valuable contribution to this essential step in botanical reproduction. Small amounts of pollen can attach to their wings or other body parts as they feed on nectar, thus allowing them to inadvertently carry that pollen to other flowers. On this day I saw many red admirals and American ladies feeding on the pretty yellow dandelion blooms.
And check out this greater bee fly with his long rigid proboscis. Unlike a butterfly, this fly can’t retract his “tongue.” That seems like it would be cumbersome, but he apparently makes it work.
His lovely wing pattern at first tricked me into thinking he was a tiger bee fly (which I wrote about last summer), but I quickly realized he was different. In fact, I had only seen my first of this species a couple days before, when I visited Goll Woods to photograph wildflowers.
I found a nice article about greater bee flies by Eric Eaton, so if you’d like to read more about them, I suggest you go to Eric’s blog, here.
So I hope this will give you pause the next time you’re considering yanking dandelions from your lawn, or even worse, pouring toxic chemicals on them. If we can learn to see them as beneficial to the ecosystem, and even — gasp! — enjoy their beauty, perhaps we can eventually learn to live in harmony with the rest of the life on this amazing planet.
In the spring of 2017 I moved to Toledo, Ohio. I bought a house with a lovely yard where I would finally be able to experiment with native plant gardening. I’m beginning a series of posts to document what I’m doing — the plans, the failures, the successes — and to provide information about why native plants are important. This is a learn-as-I-go project, so it might be messy (and maybe even embarrassing) but I figure that will still be entertaining for you. 🙂
This series will be intermingled with my usual posts about dragonflies and birds, but you can always find the posts in this series by choosing “Native Plants” from the Category drop-down on the right side of the blog.
Here are a few earlier posts that serve as background to the upcoming series:
Ohio Has the Blues – May 22, 2017 – in which I tell you a bit about the Oak Openings region of Ohio and the rare plants and animals found here.
Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans.
City Girl Goes Wild – December 12, 2017 — in which I join Wild Ones, an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants. And I actually begin collecting the first plants for my garden project!
I’ll need to do a couple more posts to catch you up on what I’ve done so far this summer, and then I hope to keep up in real time. I hope you’ll want to read the series — to commiserate with me about my mistakes and celebrate the successes. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser pic for now.
What do birders do when it’s raining? Well, today I decided to bird indoors…at the art museum. In recent years, the Toledo Museum of Art has been featuring special bird exhibits every other spring, timed to align with the massive avian migration along the Lake Erie shore. This year’s exhibit is called “Before Audubon: Alexander Wilson’s Birds of the United States.” It showcases the work of Alexander Wilson, who produced his massive 9-volume work American Ornithology before John James Audubon published his better-known The Birds of America.
The image above shows pages from Volume 2 of the museum’s first edition of Wilson’s series, featuring the Brown Thrasher. I encourage you to enlarge the photo so you can read his text about this bird. And perhaps you’ll also be able to see that the eyes on the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Gray Catbird sparkle. As I looked through the glass case at this page, I first thought he’d placed gemstones as eyes, or maybe there’s glitter in the paint or something. I’m not sure how he did it, but those eyes seemed alive.
Wilson was born in Scotland and immigrated to America after being imprisoned briefly for writing poetry about poor conditions in the mill where he worked. He settled in Philadelphia and became a teacher. His neighbor William Bartram became his mentor as he studied birds and learned to draw them.
Woodpeckers by Alexander Wilson
Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, by Alexander Wilson
Of course some of my favorite images are of the woodpeckers. In the left image, he shows (clockwise from left) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On the top of the second image he shows a Pileated Woodpecker (left) and the presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Below their heads he shows them again, with a Red-headed Woodpecker for size comparison. With the exception of the Ivory-billed, all of these woodpeckers can be seen here in northwest Ohio.
I learned at this exhibit that it was because Wilson’s work had been so popular that Audubon was able to secure financing for his own work. I found this interesting commentary on one of the interpretive signs:
Wilson had helped to popularize ornitholology in America, and his approach had a strong impact in Europe, helping to renew the market for natural history studies. Consequently, Audubon was able to secure more funding than Wilson had ever enjoyed. The result was a luxury production, with plates printed and hand-colored on the largest paper available at the time (the double elephant folio) and each bird shown life size.
The scientific community in Philadelphia–the publishing capital of the U.S. at the time–remained loyal to Wilson, forcing the “upstart” Audubon to publish Birds of America in London.
I pulled out my copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America to compare to the images I’d just seen of Wilson’s birds, and I noticed a couple interesting things.
First, Wilson’s birds are mostly shown without much surrounding habitat, and with multiple species combined in each image. Audubon’s birds, on the other hand, are usually shown as individual species in dramatic poses with detailed backgrounds of flowers and trees. And I’d never noticed before that the captions include the names of the flowers and trees in most cases. I’m so glad I discovered that.
The museum’s exhibit explained that, due to financial concerns, Wilson put more species in each image to save paper costs. Clearly Audubon had no such constraints.
Over the seven years Wilson worked to document birds, he traveled over 12,000 miles and had to overcome many difficulties. I went to Amazon and found a used copy of Alexander Wilson’s Life and Letters, and that tome is on its way to my eager little hands right now. I can’t wait to read about how he managed this groundbreaking accomplishment in the wilds of 18th and 19th century America.
Fittingly, there are five bird species named after Mr. Wilson today: warbler, snipe, storm-petrel, phalarope, and plover. I’ve seen some Wilson’s Snipe recently here in Ohio, and am expecting to find some Wilson’s Warblers in the next few weeks as migration ramps up. And when I do, I’ll take a moment to remember the passion of Alexander Wilson and be grateful for his contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of birds.
The Toledo Museum of Art is a real jewel in this city. Admission is free for everyone, all the time. And it’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, so I can go often. Sometimes I just drop in for a brief visit to stand in front of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Reaper,” because…well, because I just feel a need to do that. I’m grateful for such easy access to beautiful works of art and for the exhibits that teach me something new on every visit. Even though admission is free, I pay for membership each year to show my support for this organization that does so much for the quality of life here.
Oh, my personal connection to this legend? Alexander Wilson and I were both born on July 6. I like knowing that.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since I moved to my new hometown. I just looked back at what I wrote as I was in the process of moving and settling into the new house. I was so eager to put some color on the white walls, but I haven’t done a bit of painting yet. I do have a paint swatch hanging on a wall of the living room though, so I’m getting closer.
Here’s something I wrote last year:
As I walk around the empty rooms of the house with my footsteps echoing around me, my thoughts and emotions fluctuate from excitement and anticipation back to fretting about how much work and money it will take to maintain a home by myself. I think I’ve made great progress in the past year in learning how to control my fears, and I know that no matter what happens, I can figure out how to deal with it. I am braver than I ever imagined. I am resourceful and creative, and I’m willing to ask for help when I need it.
Well, I’ve definitely had my fill of home repair stress and expense already and some days I do miss the ease of condo living, but I still love my house despite the never-ending list of things that need to be fixed.
And I absolutely love living in Toledo. In fact, the past 12 months definitely rank in the top five happiest years of my life. I went through a brief period of loneliness right after moving, but I quickly got involved in lots of activities and now I have an extremely busy social life. My determination to build a new life here helped motivate me to step out of my comfort zone, and I was surprised how great I felt every time I forced myself to go to a meeting where I didn’t know anyone, or join a hiking group of strangers. I feel like I’ve become a more open and relaxed person, and that’s huge for someone who has always had a tendency to isolate myself from much of the general chaos in the world.
And the people of Toledo welcomed me with open arms. I’d read an article that said Toledo is a very friendly city, and it was absolutely right. I’ve been accepted and made to feel like I’ve been here for years. Today my life is full of friends and my calendar is loaded with all sorts of fun things — volunteering, art classes, group hikes, nature conferences, and so much more. There are times I think I need to schedule a few days with nothing to do, but that’s a good problem to have and I’m not complaining.
Just as I was preparing to make the move late last winter, I came across a book called This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. I believe Melanie Warnick changed my life by writing this book. Her suggestions for getting involved in your community can work not only for someone moving to a new city, but even for improving your outlook on a place you’ve lived for a long time. Some of the chapters are:
Lace Up Your Sneakers
Say Hi to Your Neighbors
Do Something Fun
Commune With Nature
I followed much of her advice — I got out in the neighborhood and talked with people (instead of always avoiding running into neighbors as I’d done before); I signed up for classes and hiking groups; I volunteered for my local metroparks. Each of these things contributed immensely to helping me spread my roots deeper into my new community.
I’ve come to see that Melanie is right when she says that there’s “true psychic power in a clean slate,” and “a new city presses the reset button, forcing you to at least temporarily abandon old patterns of thought and environmental triggers.”
I shared this sign last year but I want to do it again because it resonates so strongly with me:
I drive past one of these signs often and it seems to work as a sort of positive affirmation for me. I know that everything isn’t perfect here, and I will have more struggles and pain in my life. But I also know that I’m surrounded by people who care for me and whatever happens, I will do better in Toledo. I’m connected to this place and its people. Life is good and I’m grateful.
And, to make things even better, it’s almost spring! Migrating birds have started to trickle northward and very soon I’ll be photographing dragonflies and butterflies and watching my new native plant garden grow. I can’t wait to have new nature stories to tell you! Thanks for being here. 🙂
The other day I went out into my yard to look for any interesting insects I could find so I could practice my macro photography techniques. I was focused primarily on my big American Elm tree and the lawn beneath it, and was reminded of the time several years ago when I wrote about my experiment with “one-tree birding.” This time I wasn’t birding, but wanted to see how many critters I could find living on or near my elm tree.
It didn’t take long for the fun to begin. First there were a couple of dead leaves with empty insect egg cases on them. I wish I knew which type of insects hatched from these, because there were a lot of them.
Most of the branches of the elm tree are too high for me to inspect, but at one point I saw a ladybug crawling on a leaf several feet above my head. I couldn’t photograph that one, but a few minutes later I found this larval form of a ladybug and decided that he looked like a minuscule black and orange alligator.
I was paying close attention to every little spot on each leaf, hoping that some of them might turn out to be insects — and some of them did. To my naked eye, this one looked like a gray dot no bigger than the fine point on a pencil. But when I enlarged the photo, I could see that it was the larva of some kind of insect. I can see eyes and wings, but not enough to even guess the type of creature it will become. And by the way, how often do you get a view of the cells in a leaf? That illustrates just how much this photo is cropped.
As I was taking pics of that teeny tiny critter, something dropped onto the back of my neck from above. It turned out to be this beautiful harvestman, also known as a daddy longlegs. Many people consider these to be spiders, but they aren’t. They’re arachnids, to be sure, but not spiders.
And I learned something very interesting as I read about this species. Their second pair of legs is extra long, and is specialized for smelling and touching things as they search for food. A daddy longlegs can survive the loss of one (or more) of its regular legs, but if it loses those two specialized legs, it’s doomed because it can’t feed.
All the while I was creeping around in the grass, dozens of these teeny tiny leafhoppers were leaping all around me. They move fast and are about the size of a small splinter you might pull from your finger, so I’m amazed I even got a halfway decent photo of this one.
And…drum roll please…I’ve saved the best discovery for last. Until about a week ago I had never heard of a Handsome Trig, aka Red-headed Bush Cricket (Phyllopalpus pulchellus). When one was pointed out to me on a recent outing at a nature preserve, I was able to get the photo you see below.
But when I got home I regretted that I hadn’t tried to take video of the little female, because she has the most adorable little black “paddles” on the front of her face, which she waves up and down as she walks along in her search for a meal.
Well, much to my surprise, I found another one in my own yard! And I took video this time so I could share the action of the magic dancing paddles with you. I didn’t have time to get my tripod, so it’s a little bit shaky, but I think it’s still worth watching. The first ten seconds are the best part, and then she runs under the leaves and disappears back into her little world. Enjoy!
It’s amazing how much life you can find in a small area when you pay attention, isn’t it? And each new discovery is an opportunity to understand one more piece of the intricate web of life — I just love that!
This 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.
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.
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?
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….)
I 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.
This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemiselisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.
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….
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.
Lately there have been quite a few slow birding days around here. Spring migration is happening, but the birds are still just trickling through in dribs and drabs rather than pouring in. But what is pouring, today at least, is the rain. So I thought I’d give you a taste of what a birder does when the weather and the birds don’t cooperate.
It’s called armchair birding. This can refer to actually watching birds from inside the house or, as I’m using it today, to reading bird books. Well, I guess I did watch the birds from inside too, but just for a few minutes. (Birds seen in my backyard: House Finch, American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, and American Robin.)
And I hit the jackpot at my local used bookstore this morning. They had posted on their Facebook page about having Birds of the Toledo Area by Lou Campbell, and I’d asked them to hold it for me. While I was there I innocently asked if they might have any other bird books. I walked out of there with almost $50 less in my pocket, but boy was it worth it!
One of their customers said that her grandmother was Patricia Eckhart, who did the illustrations for this book. I’m tickled pink to get a copy of this out-of-print book with such a strong local connection to my new hometown. It’s signed by the author too. And, inside one of the other books I bought was this:
It’s a full-page (and more) article about Lou Campbell. The article is dated 1993, when Mr. Campbell was 94 years old. It refers to him as a local institution–the “Dean of Birding” and “Dean of Nature,” among many other accolades. He was a founding member of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association, wrote a nature column in the local paper for more than 30 years, and was the acknowledged authority on birds in this region for 60 years. I wish I’d been around to know this man!
And a few more little treasures, including two Golden Guides to birds:
I can’t find a publication date in the smaller Golden Guide, but Wikipedia says it was published in 1949. It’s falling apart as I turn the pages, but I just love reading the species accounts and tips on birding, like this:
“Hunting with a gun is giving way to hunting with a camera. Only a few species of game birds may be shot, but you may photograph any bird. Bird photography offers thrills and hard work. Don’t begin until you really understand photography…..”
Times have sure changed, haven’t they? Today anyone can take great bird photos, sometimes even with a cell phone camera.
I have to confess, my intention in buying old field guides was to take them apart and use the pages for some art projects. But I don’t know if I can bear to do that now that I’ve got them in my hands. Well, maybe the one that’s already falling apart….after all, I only paid $3 for it. Maybe I’ll try to find another one in better condition to keep in my library.
So as I hunker down indoors today to wait out the rain, I’m having a great time investigating my new treasures. I wouldn’t mind if it rained all day tomorrow too. I’m also doing this:
Ahh, now this is a good day. I hope you’ve enjoyed your introduction to armchair birding.
April and May are so exciting here in Ohio! Every walk brings the possibility of finding new flowers and trees blooming, and new birds arriving. And now that I have so many new places to explore after my move, it’s even more exciting than usual.
I’ve been spending a lot of time walking in the beautiful Toledo Metroparks, getting to know the various trails and learning the bird habitats so I’ll be prepared when the birds start arriving en masse. We’ve seen some of the early species starting to show up, but the frenzy of “so many birds I don’t know where to look first” hasn’t begun yet.
Every spring, the various species come through in waves, with the timing of their arrivals somewhat impacted by wind and precipitation systems. What we hope for are winds from the south, because that gives the birds a bit of help on their journey up here. Northerly winds can delay them in getting here, or keep them here longer while they wait for more favorable conditions to continue northward. To know when to expect the birds, I rely on the weekly BirdCast migration forecasts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Those forecasts help me plan my birding schedule and locations to try to maximize the new species I can find each time I go out. (Yes, despite saying that I’d lost all motivation for the sporting aspect of birding, somehow I got myself into a competition with a friend to see who can get the most species in our county this year. He knows I can’t beat him, but it’ll be fun anyway.)
I’m feeling so happy with my decision to move to Toledo. After enduring such struggles for the past couple of years, I’ve finally turned a corner. My attitude is more one of openness to new people and experiences. I absolutely love my house, my yard, and this wonderful city. It’s small enough that I can get across town in 20 minutes, but big enough to have great restaurants, the Toledo Museum of Art, the gorgeous Toledo Botanical Garden, and of course, those metroparks I can’t stop raving about. (And the museum, the botanical garden and all of the metroparks have free admission…can you believe that?) The population of the city is racially and ethnically diverse, much like the metro Detroit area I’ve been accustomed to. You can find almost any kind of food you want here — Lebanese, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Hungarian (Tony Packo’s, anyone?), just to name a few.
And my efforts to meet new friends are starting to pay off too. I’ve been pushing myself out of my comfort zone constantly, joining everything from book groups to hiking groups. Sometimes it’s scary to walk into a group of people where you don’t know a single person, but I’ve been doing it. I admit to chickening out a couple of times, but most of the time I’m able to do it. That’s the hardest part, because once I get myself to an event, I always have a great time and everyone is friendly and fun.
I try to be grateful every day that I was strong enough to make yet another huge change in my life. I’m emotionally stronger and happier than I’ve been in a long time. I guess if there’s any benefit to going through hard times, it’s that they make you more appreciative of the good times. They have a motto here that’s posted on signs around town, and I’ve adopted it as my own:
Why yes, I do believe I will. 🙂
Okay, enough of that sappy stuff. Let’s show you some more birds:
Okay, stay tuned for some beautiful warblers coming very soon!