Finally Fall for a Few Minutes

Our usual time for peak fall foliage here in northwest Ohio is mid-October, but the weather surprised us and delayed the much-anticipated colors this year. Feeling impatient, last week I drove a couple hours north into Michigan in search of some autumn scenes to photograph, and couldn’t find much leaf color there either. It was disorienting to see so many still-green trees in late October.

I’d almost given up on looking for it, and had cocooned myself indoors already, cozy with my furnace on and blankets laid out by my favorite chairs. But lo and behold, suddenly we’re at peak color in Toledo! I went out yesterday to document this beautiful season of transition.

This is a spot in Oak Openings Preserve where I always find a lovely fall scene. I like how I can frame the photo so the hiking trail draws your eye into it. Don’t you feel a desire to walk toward that opening in the woods? If you could enter this photo and do that, you’d find a peaceful woodland oasis with a trail thickly cushioned with pine needles, and the occasional rider on horseback passing by with a friendly hello.

Down the road a bit is Mallard Lake with its curving shoreline that frames the colorful reflections of the trees. It was a challenge to get a photo without other people in it, as this is a popular place for people to take pics for engagements, weddings, graduations, or just annual family photos.

I was accompanied on my outing by these two friends, who you’ve seen here occasionally. They always seem so relaxed and happy and I enjoy their pleasant company. They remind me to take a moment to be grateful for this globally significant place full of rare plants and animals, a place designated One of the 200 Last Great Places on Earth by The Nature Conservancy. They took a brief rest at this spot near the Girdham Sand Dunes, remnants of Lake Warren, the precursor to Lake Erie. You can read more about that here.

The dunes are a favorite spot to search for tiger beetles, robber flies, and sand wasps in the summer. I’ve lived here for five years now, and I still get a thrill at the presence of sand on hiking trails this far from the lake. It seems so incongruous, sand in the middle of the woods. But there it is.

I walked around the dunes for a bit, studying the amazing diversity of mosses, lichens and fungi. I can identify very few of them but that doesn’t stop me from admiring them. My gnome friend found this tiny puffball mushroom for me.

And then I found the British soldier lichen a few steps away.

And since I’ve mentioned gratitude, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I love fall is because it doesn’t last very long. Well, the season lasts for a while but the visual feast of leaf color is painfully brief. There’s a point each year when the rain or wind will come and ruin the show virtually overnight. Then there’s that day when I feel the burden of a long dark winter descend abruptly onto my shoulders.

Southern yellowjacket

That’s being overly dramatic, I know. Winter isn’t always awful, but it’s definitely my least favorite time of year. I much prefer to be outside watching insects feasting on my native plants. Speaking of insects, I found a few still out today despite the cold temperatures. There was a small cluster of some kind of larvae crawling around on a bed of bright green moss and then a lacewing resting on a brown oak leaf. The surprise discovery was a southern yellowjacket who crawled out from under the leaf litter as I was sitting on the ground looking at mosses. The yellowjacket was very lethargic, probably dying. I quickly took a couple documentation photos and then covered him back up with leaves.

On the way home I stopped for a bit at another of our beautiful metroparks, and spent some time gathering a collection of leaves from various trees. The predominant leaf color this year seems to be yellow, with just enough orange and red mixed in to make everything pop. As I walked on the edge of the road picking up leaves, I had a flashback to the annual rite of childhood when we pressed leaves between sheets of waxed paper. In this photo you’ll notice leaves from tulip, maple, oak, sassafras, and elm. The trio in the bottom left corner are all from sassafras trees, which can have three differently-shaped leaves on the same tree. That’s such a cool thing, isn’t it?

They’re usually called (from left to right) the “football,” the “mitten,” and the “ghost.” And I’ve just learned another interesting thing about those leaves. The distribution of those three leaf types on a tree isn’t random. “Two and three lobed leaves are more abundant than un-lobed leaves on the lower portions of the crowns of small trees and on the lower sides of the primary branches. Vertical branches tend to have all three leaf shapes equally present. It has been hypothesized that the leaves in the lower branches accumulate starches to a greater degree than upper leaves. These starches are known to inhibit cell division in leaves which can then cause a lobe to form.” (Source)

Since it was Halloween, I gathered some extras of the “ghost” leaves, and I couldn’t resist having some fun with them.

These two parks are my favorites for fall foliage photos because of their winding roads through the trees. Most of the roads around here are as straight as an arrow, and that doesn’t often make for interesting scenery. I’ll leave you (get it?) with this image from Secor Metropark.

Happily Eating My Words

Yellow-collared scape moth sharing sneezeweed with a common eastern bumblebee, Kim’s garden, October 10, 2021

During a phone conversation a couple days ago, a friend asked me if I would take him out looking for insects sometime, as he’d noticed that I do that for other people from time to time. I’m always thrilled when someone asks me to do that, and I happily agreed to go bugging with him. But I told him we’re at the end of the insect season and we wouldn’t likely find much still out there this year. I knew I could find some insects, but since most of the flowers are finished blooming, I’ve pretty much called it a year and haven’t been out much in the past week.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After we were done talking, I decided to go out to one of my favorite nature preserves to see what I could turn up. It was a gorgeous day with temps in the mid 70s and intermittent cloud cover. As soon as I got out of the car and entered the grass path, I was reminded that it was the peak of grasshopper season. My every step caused a half dozen of them to leap away in front of me. It was as if someone had turned on a grasshopper popcorn machine — pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! I confess to not being too enthusiastic about this particular family of insects thus far, but not because they’re not interesting. I love their crazy armored body structure, for one thing, but I haven’t taken the time to study them well enough to be able to identify them with any certainty. And the fact that there were so many of them jumping around had a kind of sense-dulling effect, making me want to tune them out.

This grasshopper landed on my front window, allowing me this unusual perspective

It’s sort of the same way I feel about birding during spring migration, when I’m out looking for warblers and other cool migratory species, but the woods are full of raucous red-winged blackbirds and grackles. It’s not that those birds aren’t interesting, just that their noise is so distracting that it’s hard to focus on finding other smaller and quieter birds. Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about the grasshoppers, except instead of noise they just distract me by popping up left and right around me as I walk.

Face view of a narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus) Click to see her bigger!

So I continued on, trying to see what else was there besides the hoppers. One of the most numerous species was the narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus). These are some of our largest hover flies, and I find them to be plentiful in April and May, then again in September and October. Checking data on iNaturalist, I see that about 15% of the Ohio observations by other people were in the three months of summer, so they’re around in smaller numbers apparently. Most of our other hover flies are miniscule compared to these bee-size flies. As you can see, their colors and patterns make them bee mimics, which is believed to give them some protection from predators who might not want to risk a sting from these secretly-stingless pollinators.

Narrow-headed marsh fly posing for me!

I believe this one to be a female because of the space between the eyes, but I’m not positive. Anyway, she landed on a cottonwood sapling looking up at me (first pic above) and I snapped a couple quick shots, thinking that was all I would get. Then she flew to a bare stem and gave me a clear full-body shot. That almost never happens.

I found a few butterflies too, mostly sulphurs but also a copper and a duskywing. This mating pair of orange sulphurs were minding their own business when a second male crashed their party. His attempts to break them up were unsuccessful, and they flew to another spot to finish what they’d started.

Mating pair of orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme)
A second male uses physical force to try to get in on their party

By this point I’d decided to get back to the pond to look for late season dragon and damselflies before I got tired. This was my first day out of the house after two days in bed. I’d gotten my Covid booster shot and had extreme fatigue from that, and at the same time I got a sinus migraine from a weather system that was moving through. The double whammy knocked me down good, and I was so happy to be outside, but still sort of tired.

When I got back to the pond, I found that the marshy area around it had enlarged after the recent rain. I normally just walk around the perimeter of this pond, but this time I decided to walk out in the shallow water to see if I could have more luck away from the edges. It felt so nice and cool on my feet through the water sandals! And I did find some interesting odes — a tiny citrine forktail glowing in the sun, some familiar bluets, one of which was caught in a spider web and being eaten by the spider as I took photos.

I was thrilled to find some blue-faced meadowhawks in a mating wheel, and they allowed me to watch long enough to get a few photos of their beautiful faces.

Blue-faced meadowhawks (Sympetrum ambiguum), male on top

If you enlarge this photo you can see the sperm transfer happening where the female’s abdomen connects to the male’s. And take a look at her lovely face and how her legs are grasping his red abdomen for stability. Dragonfly mating is fascinating, and I never tire of watching it.

There were four green darners hunting back and forth across the pond but I didn’t have the patience to try and shoot them on this day. I settled for the easier autumn meadowhawks and spotted spreadwings.

Autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicunum)
Spotted spreadwing (Lestes congener)

After I’d been out there for about 90 minutes, the mosquitoes suddenly discovered me and I hustled back to the car cursing them under my breath. I’d sprayed my legs against ticks, but didn’t expect the mosquitoes to still be biting and hadn’t sprayed my upper body. Big mistake!

Today’s post is a public mea culpa to my friend Barry — I was wrong, the bugs are still there! But whether we go this month or wait until next spring, I look forward to a day in nature sharing the joy of insects with a fellow naturalist. 🙂

Familiar bluet, watching me watching him (Enallagma civile)

Life is Good in Toledo

A couple months ago I mentioned that Metroparks Toledo (“Metroparks”) had recently been named the best park system in the country but I want to expand upon that little tidbit today. I just participated in a volunteer meeting on Zoom, along with about 150 other volunteers who help make our park system the gem that it is.

The volunteer coordinator staff expressed appreciation for all we do, whether it’s monitoring invasive plants or breeding raptors or dragonflies (me!), or being a trail safety monitor, or helping with the manor house at holiday time, or any of the hundreds of other things that volunteers do for Metroparks. It felt good to have our contributions acknowledged like that, and it made me proud to be part of it.

One of the many rustic trails in Oak Openings Preserve

The story of how I ended up here is long and complicated, but I’ll just say that it’s ironic that I settled down in a place that I used to scorn as I drove through it on my trips back and forth from Michigan to visit my family in southeastern Ohio. For 15 years, I drove past the city thinking it looked kind of…um…uninviting. From the highway, you see big, dirty oil refineries, and lots of other industrial stuff associated with the major shipping port activity that goes on here (cargo ships and railyards). But if you get off the freeway and look beyond that, you discover that this city has a lot to offer, even when you’re used to living in much larger cities with their ample cultural and recreational opportunities.

Grapeleaf skeletonizer moth on yarrow – Oak Openings Preserve

We’ve got a wonderful art museum with free admission, a zoo, a symphony, community theatre, the University of Toledo, the beloved Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball), lots of ethnic restaurants, and so much more. I’m not much of a sports fan these days, but I absolutely adore our art museum and community theatre. But the thing that made me decide to move here was the metropark system, hands down. And seeing the park system continuing to shine as it is, well, that helps to reinforce in my mind that I made a good decision. Recently I was reading a thread on social media in which somebody claimed that Metroparks were an important factor in convincing people to move to Toledo. Somebody else mocked the idea, and I just couldn’t let that stand…so I stepped in to set him straight by telling him that I, in fact, am a person who chose this city primarily because of the fantastic park system. So there.

Pileated Woodpecker, Oak Openings Preserve

In recent years, Metroparks has been telling us they had a goal to build a park within five miles of every resident in Lucas County. At the end of last year, with the opening of Manhattan Marsh in north Toledo, they achieved that lofty goal. It’s hard to keep track, but I believe we have about 20 metroparks now. And they’re not done yet. They’re nearly finished with the first phase of a new park on the riverfront in downtown Toledo; Glass City Metropark will eventually be part of a majorly-renovated riverfront along the mighty Maumee River that should reap big economic rewards for the city. Apparently for each dollar a city invests in riverfront improvements, it can expect a return of $7-20. And already there has been construction of nearly 400 luxury loft apartments right beside the park; the builder has said that he was only able to make this investment because of our metropark system.

And as if that’s not amazing enough, Metroparks recently opened the largest treehouse lodging in the nation, with Cannaley Treehouse Village. The various accommodations there are already being booked nearly a year in advance!

I know that people have different priorities in life, and everyone doesn’t care about the parks in the way that I do. But these parks are central to my life — I spend hundreds of hours in them studying dragonflies and other insects, and walking the trails for exercise or just to give my brain a rest. (Ecotherapy, ya know?)

Flag-tailed spinyleg, Wiregrass Metropark

Metroparks also runs an award-winning nursery that grows native plants for the park system and for other restoration projects in our region. I’m so thankful for their leadership in demonstrating the importance of native plants in our community. Their Blue Creek Seed Nursery supplies many of the plants for our Wild Ones/Green Ribbon Initiative Native Plant sale that takes place each May during Blue Week. Last year we had to run the plant sale as an online event, but we still had huge demand, and are gearing up for this year’s online sale with even more plants. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the website for the sale, and can’t wait to see how it goes this year.

I hope I’ve not bored you by gushing about Metroparks Toledo. I just wanted to express how important these parks are to my life, and do a little bit to improve the image of my city for anyone who might think of it the way I did before I moved here. My friend Sherry is an avid urban birder, and when people are surprised at the birds she finds in the city limits, she always reminds them that “birds are where you find them!” I’m borrowing her sentiment to express how I feel about Toledo — you can find happiness anywhere if you look hard enough. I’m so glad I kept looking. Thanks for reading!

(All of the photos in this post were taken in the Metroparks system– I have thousands more of them and I’ve only been here four years so far!)

A Familiar Place in the Off Season

This is the time of year when I start to grow impatient with the absence of the insects that occupy my interest in warmer seasons. Sometimes in winter I go to my favorite insect-hunting places and mope around dreaming of that day in the spring when I’ll see my first insect of the year and life will be exciting again.

That’s how I ended up at Wiregrass Metropark today. You may remember that this is the place where I spend a lot of time monitoring dragonflies in the summer. (You can read more about that and see pictures of this place in summer, here.) Today it was only 30 degrees, but I wanted to get some much-needed exercise, so I did three fast laps of the 0.6-mile trail that circles the lake. Well, two fast laps and one slightly slower one with a few stops to take photos. I consider that a good enough winter exercise day, don’t you?

Branches that protrude from the water are favorite perching spots for damselflies in the summer.

The lake is almost completely frozen. I stood staring down through the ice thinking about the dragonfly nymphs that will emerge from the water a few months from now to delight children and adults alike. I can’t wait.

But in the meantime, I thought it would be fun to share some winter photos of the park. And I’ll take this opportunity to share the news that Metroparks Toledo was recently given the 2020 National Gold Medal Award for excellence in parks and recreation management, the most prestigious honor in the parks and recreation industry. When I was deciding where to move during a transitional time in my life a few years ago, the metropark system in Toledo was what convinced me that I could have a great quality of life here. And as I expected, the parks have become a central part of my life. I have to stop myself right now, because I could start going on and on about the different parks and what I love about each one of them. I want to focus on Wiregrass today.

Here’s part of the trail that loops around the lake. My ode monitoring route divides the loop trail into 4 quadrants, and I count everything flying over the lake and across the trail for 12 meters from the lake edge. This portion of the trail is bordered with wildflower meadows containing native plants like boneset, black-eyed susans, cardinal flower, liatris, goldenrods, asters, and much more.

The fluffy seed heads of tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

There are five fishing platforms built along the west edge of the lake, and a kayak launch and fishing pier on the east side near the parking lot.

This is the smallest of the five fishing platforms. The water should be up to the base of the rocks.
The kayak launch/fishing pier are on the left of this photo.

Last summer’s drought lowered the water level so much that the exposed sandy bottom seemed like a 10-foot wide beach. This made it harder for me to find some of the damselflies, because they like to rest on the vegetation that emerges from the water near the shoreline, but most of that vegetation was absent last summer. I’m really hoping for a wetter spring to bring that water level back up this year. But that larger expanse of sand was prime hunting ground for tiger beetles last summer, and I had fun watching them run-stop-run as they chased their prey.

The south end of the lake is marked with signs that prohibit shoreline access, in an attempt to preserve habitat for the wildlife and rare plants that live here. Most people respect those rules, but one day I had to chase out some teenagers who took their horses in the lake in the protected area. It was all I could do to keep my cool while I tried to educate them about the damage those hooves were doing to the lake edges. They exited the lake but I heard them mocking me as they rode away, and I found out later that these particular kids have been an ongoing problem at Wiregrass. I’m just a volunteer, but I’m very protective of this particular property and don’t hesitate to call the park rangers when I see flagrant rule violations that are damaging the trails or habitats.

This end of the lake is where I find most of the dragonflies and damselflies each summer, probably because it’s the most open part of the shoreline. The north and west sides of the lake have dense tree and shrub growth between the trail and the lake edge, so I’m limited to finding odes resting on the woody vegetation. I’ve enjoyed seeing which species tend to spend time in the different habitats and microclimates around the lake.

Virginia mountain mint seed heads in winter — they still smell great!

For such a small park, Wiregrass Metropark seems to successfully cater to a variety of user groups. In addition to the walking trail, kayak launch, and fishing platforms, there are three primitive campgrounds tucked in the woods surrounding the lake. The paths to the campgrounds are lined with beautiful trillium flowers in early spring.

A primitive campground near the lake
Interesting patterns on the lake ice

The drupes of staghorn sumac feed the birds all winter long.

It was nice to spend some time exploring this familiar place in the off season. I definitely prefer it when there are more visible signs of plant and insect life, but it was nice to not have to share the park with other humans for a change. I saw a couple other people in the distance but didn’t cross paths with anyone, so it was peaceful and quite relaxing.

I find it interesting that we sometimes feel sad that we can’t be with other people, and other times we’re glad nobody else is around. I guess it often comes down to whether or not we have a choice in the matter, right? As with many things in life, if you have control over your situation, it’s easier to accept than if it’s forced upon you. Ah, we’re quite complicated creatures, aren’t we?

Have a great week, and I hope you get out in nature for some fresh air!

At Home…Still

Carolina wren with dandelion w sig
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my yard

Have you seen the articles about how the pandemic stay-at-home orders have had unexpected benefits for some people? I was just reading about families who have begun eating dinners together and spending more time playing games at home, enjoying each other’s company.  Freed from the need to commute to work or school, many people have more time to slow their lives down.

I’m retired and not part of a household, but there are parallel changes happening in my own life. Over the past six months or so, I’d started to feel that I had too many obligations; I wanted to figure out how to slow my life down without missing out on fun events with friends.  I was trying to get better at saying “no” to new obligations. Suddenly the Coronavirus poked its head up and fixed that problem for me. My life came to a screeching halt. Everything was cancelled. Every day was scary and confusing.

But now that I’ve adapted (somewhat) to this new pandemic-restricted life, I’m rediscovering the pleasures of staying at home. The other day someone asked me how I was doing, and I said, “You know…I’m still at home.” As the words came out of my mouth, I thought of another meaning of “still” — being quiet, peaceful, serene, not moving. And I realized that I’m really enjoying this time when my calendar has nothing on it. Most days there’s no place I have to be at any given time. Such freedom! That was disorienting at first, but I’m getting used to it now. So yes, I’m still at home, and I like it.

Carolina wren hunting for insects in grass - blog
Carolina Wren hunting March flies in my yard

In no way am I suggesting that the pandemic is a good thing, but I wonder if this period of forced slowing down might have some long-term benefits to our lives. Will we take any positive life lessons from our experience, or will we go back to our normal busy-busy ways after this is over? Will I be better at saying “no”? Will we remember what it’s been like to have more time to just sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window, or sit on the garden swing and watch a wren plucking March flies from the grass?

Speaking of sitting with a cup of coffee…the other morning I was on the sofa with my morning java, when this young Cooper’s hawk dropped dramatically out of the sky to land on a mole in the front yard. He was less than 20 feet away from me, separated only by two panes of glass.

Cooper's hawk with prey v2
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) standing on his prey

Realizing time was of the essence, I moved as quickly as I could toward my camera, trying not to spook him. I had an advantage because raptors seem less likely to spook easily when they’re young, and especially when they’re attempting to subdue their next meal. So while he stood there squeezing that mole to death, I managed to grab the camera and get a few shots off before my cat Sam ran at the window and caused the hawk to fly off, mole dangling below him. This was one of only a few times in my life when I’ve been able to take a bird photo from my sofa. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cooper's hawk with prey v3
I think he knows I’m watching, but he doesn’t feel threatened enough to fly

Last summer was full of meetings, field trips, and conferences for dragonflies, moths, and native plants — I was constantly going somewhere. This summer isn’t likely to have any of those events, so I can easily imagine myself redirecting my attention to some intense nesting behaviors at home. My native garden project has been a wonderful anchor for me, leading me to spend lots of time watching the insects that come to live out their lives here. I foresee even more time spent in my own garden this year, documenting and learning about the wildlife I share this property with.

Speaking about documenting insects, don’t forget to click the big beetle icon on the sidebar to check in on Kim’s Big Bug Year. I’ve found some interesting things so far, including this beautiful tiger beetle, a subspecies of the Festive Tiger Beetle called the LeConte’s Tiger Beetle.

Festive tiger beetle - blog
LeConte’s Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei)

Having said all that about enjoying my time at home and wanting to slow down, I do miss my friends quite a lot. I don’t want to turn inward so much that I don’t see my friends at all. But maybe I’ll start inviting them to visit me and sit in my garden, one person at a time (six feet away from each other, of course). I always get more satisfaction from interacting with people one-on-one than in groups anyway, so maybe this can work out for me after all.

Do you think you’ll make any permanent changes in your behavior as a result of the pandemic? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Sora w sig
I was lucky to find this secretive Sora yesterday while on a rare birding walk with a friend, six feet apart.

Holy Lupines, Batman! (aka Blue Week)

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!

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (2)

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!

Wild lupine in my yard on 5-19-19

Wild lupine in my yard
Note my 2nd year native garden along the fence in the back of this photo — looking great!

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (1)
I find both the flowers and the foliage beautiful on this plant

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (4)
The flower stalks bloom from the bottom to the top

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (3)
Looking down from above one of the flower spikes — isn’t that gorgeous?!

Lupine with rain droplets w sig
The leaves are magical after a rain!

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.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)

Dandelion Delight

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.

Dandelions and violets at Salamander Flats w sig

You may be thinking, “Hey, aren’t you all about native plants now? What gives?”  It’s true, the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) 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.

Black-shouldered drone fly on dandelion - blog w sig
Black-shouldered drone fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

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!).

American Hoverfly maybe (Eupeodes americanus) on dandelion w sig
Possibly an American hoverfly (Eupeodes americanus)

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.

Red Admiral butterfly on dandelion cropped w sig
Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

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.

Greater bee fly on dandelion with long proboscis w sig
Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

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.

Greater bee fly on dandelion w sig
Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

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.

White-crowned Sparrows amongst the dandelions - blog
White-crowned sparrows amongst the dandelions

Going Native in Toledo — Series Intro

Backyard preview through redbud blooms - blog teaser
Peeking into the backyard through the redbud blooms

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.

Garden teaser for blog July 2018

My Personal Connection to an Ornithology Legend

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.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit - Brown Thrasher Volume 2

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.

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.

Before Audubon - Alexander Wilson exhibit at TMA - about Wilson

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.

Audubon's Birds of America - from my copy - pileated woodpeckers
Pileated Woodpeckers by John James Audubon

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.

Wilson's Warbler by Kevin Vance via Flickr Creative Commons license
Wilson’s Warbler courtesy of Kevin Vance, via Flickr Creative Commons license

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.

Alexander Wilson's tombstone in PhiladelphiaThe 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.

Oh, How Time Flies

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:

Glass Paperweights by Kim
Paperweights I made at the Toledo Museum of Art. This is Glass City, after all.

  • Lace Up Your Sneakers
  • Say Hi to Your Neighbors
  • Do Something Fun
  • Commune With Nature
  • Volunteer
  • Create Something

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:

You will do better in Toledo sign 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. 🙂

Blue-faced Meadowhawk on knotted rush - Juncus nodosus - w sig
Blue-faced Meadowhawk, one of my favorite dragonflies