City Girl Goes Wild

You may recall that I recently wrote about my desire to plant native wildflowers in the  yard at my new home. I also mentioned that I had joined my local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants.

My native flower garden is barely started, but I’m already taking full advantage of my Wild Ones membership to learn as much as I can while I continue my garden plans through the winter.

My first native plants for my garden (1024x768)
Starter plants from Wild Ones members

I’ve been blown away by the generosity of my fellow Wild Ones members: Not only do they freely share their knowledge about native plants, but they’re more than happy to give me seeds and plants from their gardens.  I came home from my first meeting with starter plants of common boneset, cardinal flower, New England aster, blue lobelia, and swamp milkweed. All of these have been transplanted into my new garden, along with some bulbs of Turk’s cap lily given to me by my friend Judy.

My chapter regularly participates in conservation stewardship events around the Toledo area, either to remove invasives or to plant natives. I haven’t yet been able to help with any of those, but a few days ago I was able to volunteer at one of our seed cleaning events. Members collect dried flower heads from their gardens, and then we extract the seeds from them and offer them to the public at the annual Toledo GROWS Seed Swap in February.

Ironweed seed heads - Wild Ones event - for blog
Ironweed seeds being processed

The species I worked with first was Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), which just happens to be one of my favorites. The yard at my new home is mostly full of non-native plants, but there’s a huge, beautiful native ironweed plant in my front yard. I enjoyed watching all sorts of insects feeding on it all summer long, and I’m eager to plant more of it along the fence in my back yard.

Here’s what it looks like in bloom. Just imagine these incredible purple flowers towering over your head. The plant in my yard was easily 7 feet tall this year!

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed blog
Silver-spotted skipper feeding on ironweed
Ironweed seeds cleaned at Wild Ones event - for blog
My little work space at the seed cleaning event

Our group of about ten people spent three hours processing seeds on this particular day. After I worked my way through a large bag of ironweed, I moved on to Riddell’s goldenrod (Oligoneuron riddellii).

Riddell's goldenrod v2 - Wild Ones event - for blog
Riddell’s goldenrod seed pile in my processing tray

As you can imagine, this kind of work creates quite a bit of dust in the air. After a couple hours my nose began to tickle, and I joked that I would probably be transporting enough seeds home in my nose that I could just sneeze in my garden and plant ironweed.  I didn’t think too much more about it just then, but later that evening I must have sneezed a hundred times!

I also brought a small quantity of ironweed seeds home with me using the more traditional method of a paper bag.  I can’t wait to see if I can actually grow these beautiful plants from seed. I’m told it’s as easy as sprinkling the seed on top of the snow right now, in December.  Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But I’m also told there’s a lot of trial and error involved in this stuff, so I’ll need to be patient and persistent. That will be the hardest part for me, I’m sure.

A couple months ago I went on a tour of the Native Seed Nursery of the Toledo Metroparks. This facility grows native plants to use in restoration projects in the various metroparks in the globally-rare habitats of the Oak Openings region. The tour was arranged for our Wild Ones members, and was led by Penny Niday, who is the nursery coordinator and who also happens to be on the board of our Wild Ones chapter.  During our 2-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, we learned about the incredible work done by the small staff and their many volunteers.

I worked a couple volunteer shifts in their greenhouse last summer, but I had no idea of the broad scope of what they do there. We saw lots of seeds in various stages of processing:

Native Seed Nursery - Little Bluestem drying - for blog
Little Bluestem seeds drying on a giant tarp
Native Seed Nursery - seeds drying on floor - for blog
More seeds drying in the loft of the big barn

And we saw some of the farm equipment they use. I was impressed with Penny’s descriptions of how they had modified some of the equipment to do exactly what they needed it to do. And I also thought it was very cool that much of this work is done by a team of mostly women. While we were there I saw women driving tractors and combines as easily as if they were Honda Civics.  And I have to admit to a bit of envy and a desire to see what it’s like to climb up in the cab of one of those monsters and rev the engine. 🙂

This particular piece of equipment is called a carousel planter. Notice the four seats across the back, each with its own little rotating tray with holes for plants.

Native Seed Nursery - carousel planter - for blog

Believe it or not, this entire rig gets pulled behind a big tractor, and each person has to continually replace the plants in their little rotating tray, as the plants drop down into the field beneath them. They have a whole team of people who follow along behind them to resupply them with plants periodically. I forget the exact number, but I think she said the whole operation requires about a dozen people doing various tasks as this thing moves through the field. I found this video of a similar (but smaller) machine so you can see it in action. Very impressive stuff!

This whiteboard shows some of their stats on the day we visited:

Blue Creek Seed Nursery whiteboard with stats (1280x794)

Native Seed Nursery - view from loft down into main floor - for blog

That’s a view of the main part of the barn, looking down from the loft area.  I’ve now got a new appreciation for all the work involved in this operation, from planning which species are needed for specific locations to making sure they have them processed in the right quantities and at the appropriate times.

And this city girl sure got a thrill from being around all that farm equipment that day! Who knows, maybe one day they’ll let me take a turn at the wheel of one of those monster machines. But until then, I guess I’ll content myself with my own small-scale native plant operation in the city.

If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar.

~~ Lorrie Otto, the environmentalist who was the inspiration for the founding of Wild Ones

(In case you missed it above, here’s a nice article about the Native Seed Nursery, including photos of the awesome women who run it, and a video of some of their equipment in action.)

Reprieve from Insect Withdrawal

For many years, fall has been my favorite season. Not only does it bring the ephemeral reds, oranges, and yellows of tree leaves, but there’s something about the particular shade of blue in the sky on a crisp October day that makes me slow down and breathe more deeply.

Fall leaves in Holly Michigan

But this year I’m finding myself not enjoying the season as much as usual, and it’s not just because the tree colors have been slow to change. No, it’s because of the disappearance of most of the insects I’ve enjoyed photographing all summer long. I realize that I’m faced with months — months!– without dragonflies, crickets, butterflies, bees, and beetles.

The other day I had lunch with a friend who said he’s been having the same sort of feelings, so I imagine there must be many more of us suffering through insect withdrawal.

I was resigned to consoling myself with winter plans to watch ducks and edit my huge backlog of photos, and had already begun to dig into the photo archives.

Then, late this morning I was given an unexpected reprieve. I glanced out the window and found this monster crawling down the front sidewalk. I jumped up with a huge smile on my face, and ran for the camera. Yay, an insect!!

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (3) w sig

Now when I say “monster,” I should clarify that he wasn’t threatening to crush cars or jump over buildings, à la Godzilla. (Although he would make a great movie monster.) Of course I’m just referring to his size relative to most other insects. I’d estimate he was about an inch and a quarter long, maybe an inch and a half. But his elevated body posture and the slow gait of those segmented legs contributed to the impression that he was so much more substantial.

And I was intrigued by the way he was able to bend his body, something I’ve not seen many other insects do. Although I’m still very much a novice entomologist, so that ability could be quite common and I just haven’t seen it yet. It reminded me of the way a praying mantis swivels its head.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (2) w sig

Oh, I should say that this is a blister beetle, named for its ability to defensively secrete a substance called cantharidin, which causes blisters on skin.  If even small amounts are ingested, death will be quick and painful. In the not-too-distant past, cantharidin was the principal ingredient in the purported aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. (Here’s an interesting story about the disastrous consequences of ingesting it.)

There are more than 400 species of blister beetle in North America, so I can’t be sure of the exact species of this guy, but can put him confidently in the Meloidae family.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae w sig

And if all that isn’t interesting enough, have you noticed those antennae? The kinked sections in the middle are thought to be adapted for courtship behavior, possibly for grasping the antennae of a female. I think they give him an added cool factor.

Today’s surprise encounter has given me hope that there will still be insects around in the coming months, if I just pay attention. If nothing else, I should be able to find some spiders (arachnids, remember?) right inside my own house, as long as I get to them before the roving gangs of felines find them. 🙂

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (1) w sig

A Day at the Beach

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be misled by that title. But if you’re new around here and are expecting photos of people swimming…well, sorry about that.

Magee beach view - Sept 16 2017 (800x600)
Beach view at Magee Marsh, east of Toledo, Ohio

I did spend a couple hours at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie yesterday, but I was hunting for insects to photograph. Just prior to this solo outing, I had spent a day with a friend who’s an expert botanist and photographer, and he gave me lots of tips that reinvigorated my interest in learning to use my camera better. So this time I wanted to go out on my own to see what kind of results I could get.

All the photos in this post were taken in an area about 50 yards wide, less than 30 yards from the lake edge. I barely had to move at all to discover a whole world at my feet.

Sumacs at Magee for blog post Sept 2017 (640x480)

Armed with my new secret power — finding the insects by examining their food plants — I planned to start by investigating a small stand of young Staghorn Sumacs. But as I walked toward them, I almost walked right into this:

Green Darner female - Anax junius (7) (800x612)
Common Green Darner (Anax junius)

It’s a Common Green Darner resting on a dead milkweed stem. I think it’s a teneral stage, meaning that it’s in the first day of life since it emerged from its exuvia. When they first emerge, they have to give their wings time to “inflate” before they can perform the aerial maneuvers for which they’re known. This relative immobility made it easy for me to kneel very close to it and take a few shots with my 100mm macro lens. Notice that “bullseye” mark on the front of the head? I love that. Here’s a closer view of that part:

Green Darner female - Anax junius (3)
The bullseye mark is an easy way to distinguish a Green Darner from the very similar Comet Darner

After I backed up from the dragonfly, I immediately noticed a couple caterpillars feeding on the sumac. I took some photos of them and then noticed that there were at least a dozen of this same species of caterpillar feeding all around me.

Spotted Datana caterpillar curled up (800x533)

Spotted Datana caterpillar underside view (800x533)
This guy is at the end of a branch after all the leaves have been eaten. He had to turn around and find another branch.

These are the larvae of the Spotted Datana moth (Datana perspicua), and sumac is one of their primary food plants. See how this works? You find their food source and you find the insects.  See, I told you it was a secret power.

And by the way, my favorite field guide for caterpillars is Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner. It includes an index to the plants as well as the insects, so you can look up a plant and see which caterpillars use it as a food source. And even if you aren’t going to go hunting for caterpillars, you can have your mind blown just by flipping through this book to see the incredible variety of camouflage techniques and other defensive adaptations that have evolved in these critters.

Spotted Datana caterpillar burrowing underground to pupate (2)I watched the cats for a while, hoping to see one of them begin to pupate into its chrysalis form. I saw one begin to dangle from a fine filament and curl up into a ring shape, and I quickly set up to shoot some video. But I got about two seconds of video before he dropped to the ground. Disappointed, I went looking for another possible target. I saw another one drop to the ground, and this time I continued watching it. Some caterpillars burrow into the ground instead of making a hanging chrysalis on a plant. And sure enough, this guy began digging into the soil beneath the sumacs and within about 90 seconds he was gone.

It’s incredible how much more you can learn when you spend more time watching them go about their lives, rather than just shooting a few photos and going in search of something else. I must have spent a half hour watching the Datanas on those sumacs, and it was hard to pull myself away from them.

But eventually I wandered slowly along the sandy path and found quite a few more interesting specimens.

Common Buckeye butterfly - Junonia coenia (2)
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Then I saw this female Field Cricket who was missing one of her rear legs. When she didn’t hop away, I realized she was dead. But a dead insect is much easier to photograph, so there’s that, I guess. I found a few more dead crickets near her, so I’m not sure what happened there. Some sort of cricket apocalypse, I guess.

Field cricket female

As I walked on the beach next to the water, I spotted this small and fast-moving character, who turns out to be a Webworm Moth larva.

Hyphantria cunea - fall webworm caterpillar (4) (800x457)
Fall Webworm Moth caterpillar (Hyphantria cunea)

You may have seen these critters living in big groups in large webby “tents” that cover the ends of tree branches. They make the tree look messy, but from what I’ve read, they aren’t generally a severe threat to the health of the tree.

I went back to the sumacs once more and took a video of one of the Datanas eating leaves (that video is at the bottom of this post). But while there, I heard a katydid singing from inside the sumacs. I believe most katydids are nocturnal singers, but this species is a daytime singer. Meet the cutest little katydid you’ll ever see:

Black-legged Meadow Katydid singing on Sumac (8) w sig
Black-legged Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum nigripes)

He sat still for me for about five seconds, and then he quickly hid behind a thick stem. I kept trying to get as close as possible for photos, and he would peek around one side of the stem, see me, then move to the other side. We played a little game of peek-a-boo for a minute or so, and then I backed off and left him in peace.

I also like how these photos show the hairs on the young stems of the sumac that gave it the name Staghorn, because of the resemblance to a deer’s antlers when they’re covered in velvet.

Black-legged Meadow Katydid singing on Sumac (2) w sig
Playing peek-a-boo with a katydid

There were lots of interesting creatures out and about on the beach that day, and I had a fantastic time playing detective in the sand.  And I’m really happy with the results I’m getting with my photography now too. I can’t wait to get back out there!

Oh, before I go, here’s the video of the Spotted Datana eating a sumac leaf:

 

Dragonfly School – Odo-Con ’17

Kim holding Swamp Darner at Odo Con 2017 (480x640)
Me holding a Swamp Darner, such a beautiful dragonfly

I can’t imagine ever getting tired of learning new things, can you? There’s something so energizing about the beginning of a new passion, that time when you’ve discovered something that is so fascinating that you just can’t get enough of it. You buy books, you join new clubs or social media groups, and you want to talk about it with everyone you meet.

That’s where I am with odonata right now.  In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for a few years. But now I’ve got dragonflies and damselflies on my mind every day. I have insect field guides on my bedside table. I even bought t-shirts with dragonflies on them so I have an excuse to talk to people about them.

This has been a common pattern in my life when I develop a new interest…I put other interests on the back burner for a while (or maybe forever), and I become obsessed with learning as much as I can about the new object of my enthusiasm. My family are used to it, and they just laugh and say, “Here she goes again!”  It may make me seem fickle to some, but I don’t care. In my opinion, if you’re not learning, you’re not living. Learning something new is what keeps life interesting for me.

So anyway, at this point in my newfound obsession passion, when I found out that there was going to be an actual dragonfly conference….well, of course I had to go! The Ohio Odonata Society organized this special conference (in conjunction with their annual meeting) as a way to kick off their Ohio Dragonfly Survey. They did their original survey from 1991-2001, and now this new survey will run from 2017 to 2019 to update the data. And we’re all invited to participate as citizen-scientists! (If you’re interested, see the note at the end of this post for info on how to submit your Ohio dragonfly sightings to the database using iNaturalist.)

Eastern Amberwing edited saturation (640x567)
Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

This is an Eastern Amberwing, a species that looks especially beautiful in the bright sunlight. And I admit I tweaked the color saturation in this photo to make it look a little more golden, just because I like it that way.

So I spent last weekend in the far northeastern corner of Ohio, learning about odonata from the experts. The meeting portion of the event took place at a Nature Conservancy property called the Grand River Conservation Campus, located in Morgan Swamp Preserve. I know a lot of people in birding circles from my many years of birdwatching, but this was something totally out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know any of the speakers on the schedule for this event, and I wondered if the “bug people” would be friendly to me. I was a bit nervous.

But I needn’t have worried at all! I had two friends who were attending, both of whom are well-known and well-liked naturalists. They both took me under their wings, so to speak, and introduced me around. And everyone was so nice to me….I had a wonderful time talking to them and they seemed genuinely interested in talking to me too.

On Saturday afternoon we all dispersed to various locations for field trips. My trip was for beginners and photographers, and was led by well-known Ohio photographer Ian Adams. Ian took us to Holden Arboretum in Lake County, a place he knows like the back of his hand. He took us around to several ponds on the property, where we saw lots of dragonflies and damselflies. The sun was very harsh that afternoon, so even though the insects were abundant and active, I struggled to get good photos. But as you can see from the pictures in this post, I did manage to get a few keepers.

Comet Darner female ovipositing v2 (612x640)
Comet Darner (Anax longipes), ovipositing

One of the highlights of the afternoon for all of us were the Comet Darners. First we saw this female ovipositing in one of the ponds. That means she’s depositing her fertilized eggs on the vegetation just under the water’s surface. Little nymphs will hatch from the eggs, and after spending some time as underwater predators, those nymphs will eventually emerge from their exoskeletons as these awesome adult dragonflies.

The more experienced dragon hunters have told me that some people go years without ever seeing a Comet Darner, so this was a very special sighting for all of us. And a short time later we found several more of them, including a beautiful male with his brick red abdomen, who flew repeated tight circles around our group, delighting us all.

After dinner that evening we were treated to a photography talk by Ian, as well as a very interesting talk about the types of dragonfly habitats in Ohio by Jim McCormac. I could have listened to these guys talk for days. Just fascinating people.

Golden-winged Skimmer (640x477)
Golden-winged Skimmer (Libellula auripennis), a rarity in Ohio

Oh, I forgot another highlight: Before dinner that night, someone had found a rare Golden-winged Skimmer on one of the trails behind the conference building at GRCC.  So despite being famished after our field trips, we all went traipsing out through the woods to see this special find. I believe they said this was only the 4th sighting of this species in Ohio, so that’s why people were so excited. It reminded me of the way birders all go running off to see a Kirtland’s Warbler, only on a smaller and more relaxed scale.

I’ll finish with some more pictures from this weekend’s adventures, but don’t forget to see the information below about how to participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey if you’re interested.

Orange Bluet v2 (640x285)
Orange Bluet (Enallagma signatum), a damselfly
Slaty Skimmer dorsal view (640x555)

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), dragonfly
Spreadwings to ID v2 (640x608)
Two spreadwing damselflies, unidentified so far
Pickerelweed - Pontederia cordata - native to Ohio (1) (640x427)
Pickerelweed at Holden Arboretum
Damsels in mating wheel - to ID (640x539)
Azure Bluets (Enallagma aspersum) in mating wheel

These two damselflies are in the mating wheel, a position in which the male (above) clasps the female behind her head, while she curls her abdomen under him to retrieve a sperm packet to fertilize her eggs. Later she’ll deposit the eggs on aquatic vegetation, often with the male still holding her behind the head to make sure no other male can get to her before she finishes. Their mating behavior is so interesting to see.

Eastern Amberwing with Pickerelweed in background (640x554)
Eastern Amberwing with pickerelweed in the backgrund
Carolina Saddlebags (640x547)
Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)
Familiar Bluet v2 to confirm (640x392)
Familiar Bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile)
Bullfrog on lily pad with bluets nearby (640x427)
Bullfrog surrounded by damselflies

 

This bullfrog just sat there while dozens of bluets flew all around him. I missed the great shot someone else got when one of them landed on the frog’s back. I was surprised he didn’t make a meal out of any of them, but maybe he was full already.

Remember, if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

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How you can participate in the Ohio Dragonfly Survey:  You’ll need an account at iNaturalist.org to submit your sightings. (But it’s free.) Just go to this page for all the details of the project.

Wildflower Wanderings

This spring I’ve spent more time than ever before searching for wildflowers around northwest Ohio. I’m a novice at identifying them, but I’m having a blast and am learning new things every day.

Large Flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) (1024x682)
Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) — it’s so delicate-looking! (Goll Woods)

One rainy day in April I took a road trip west to visit Goll Woods in Butler County. I’d read that it’s the place to go for spring wildflowers in this corner of the state, so I grabbed my rain jacket and headed into the woods. One thing I always tell people when they look at me like I’m nuts for walking in the rain: “Hey, if you want to have a place almost to yourself, then walk in the rain.” And it was true on this day too, as I only saw two other people there for the two hours I walked.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle two cameras, binoculars, and an umbrella, but I made it work. Luckily it wasn’t a heavy rain, so occasionally I could put the umbrella on the ground in order to take some flower photos. I could have left the binoculars in the car, though, because birds were few and far between on this day. I guess I have such a habit of always carrying the binoculars that I didn’t even consider leaving them behind.

White Trillium - Goll Woods (1024x768)
White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

There were hundreds and hundreds of White Trillium in bloom, and a few pinkish ones, which I believe are still White Trillium but they turn pink as the flowers age. I’m still investigating this.

White Trillium - Goll Woods v2 (1024x768)

Pinkish Trillium - Goll Woods (800x533)
White Trillium turning pink as it ages (I think)

After I got accustomed to all the trillium, I was able to begin to look at things that were not trillium. And that’s when I found one of my most-sought-after wildflowers of the day. This is Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d never seen in person before.

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

They really do look like pairs of pants hung out to dry, don’t they? Apparently there was some controversy in Victorian times about calling them “breeches,” as it was considered rude to refer to clothing that covered the–ahem–lower portion of the body. (A little tidbit I learned from one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders.)

And then I found another surprise, a white variety of Bleeding Hearts:

Bleeding hearts v2 (1024x955)
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) – closely related to Bleeding Hearts

I later learned from my friend Kelly that these are commonly known as Squirrel Corn. I couldn’t understand where that name came from until she told me that if you dig just below the soil surface, you’ll find little bulblets that look like kernels of corn. I wish I’d known that while I was there so I could have seen them for myself. But here’s a link to Kelly’s blog where she shows you a photo of the “corn” kernels.

Ent from Lord of the Rings - Goll Woods (682x1024)Goll Woods has some of the oldest trees in Ohio, with some as much as 400 years old. And trees that live that long tend to get pretty darn big. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter. This one made me think of Ents from Lord of the Rings. (Ents are a race of tree-like creatures…read more here if you like.) My imagination instantly saw that tree as a sleeping Ent who might, at any moment, rise up and tower over me. Fun stuff.

A couple weeks ago I was on my way home from Cleveland and decided to take a slight detour south near Sandusky to visit Castalia Prairie. I wanted to see White Lady’s-slippers for the first time and I was not disappointed. I saw hundreds of them all over the place. I had my macro lens and tripod but wasn’t sure about what the rules were there for going off the trail. To be honest, there was barely a “trail” at all, just a path where I could tell someone else had walked and flattened the grass down.  I did my best to get some photos without stepping on anything endangered, and had a great time discovering new things. (And the next morning I made a less-welcome discovery, as a tick had hitched a ride on me…shudder. Reminder to do a tick check immediately, not the next morning. Duh.)

White Lady's-slipper orchid, Cypripedium candidum (1280x853)
White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

I also found a bunch of these one-inch snail shells scattered around. I didn’t find any evidence of the former inhabitants of the shells though.
Snail shell from Castalia Prairie v2 (1024x749)

It’s funny, I just realized that I’m traveling around to see flowers in much the same way I would normally search for birds. Except the flowers are easier to find and to photograph because they can’t fly away. It’s a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically, and it’s great to be learning about an entirely different part of the ecosystem.

I’m excited to be heading down to Urbana this week to meet a friend and see the Showy Lady’s-slipper orchids at Cedar Bog. And I may also be going up to Ann Arbor to see the magnificent peony garden at Nichols Arboretum. If I could only have one type of flower in my garden for the rest of eternity, it would be peonies. I can almost smell them now….sigh. So stay tuned for more botanical beauties!

Ohio Has the Blues

Looking up at tall trees - (800x594)
Looking skyward in a grove of evergreen trees at Oak Openings Preserve

Living in the Oak Openings book cover (785x1024)The region of northwest Ohio where I live is called the Oak Openings. It’s one of the world’s rarest habitats, a band of sandy soil about five miles wide and 80 miles long, stretching across Ohio and southeastern Michigan.  When the last glacier receded from this area 15,000 years ago, it left in its wake a large lake that eventually became present-day Lake Erie. That ancient lake deposited large amounts of sand on top of the clay soil, and this unique combination is what has allowed the formation of a variety of ecosystems, ranging from open oak savannas to wet prairies to sand dunes. The Oak Openings region is home to dozens of rare species of plants and animals. And since I live here now, I want to learn all about it.

Girdham Road Sand Dunes sign with fairy (1024x683)
The sand dunes are one of my favorite places at Oak Openings Preserve

What better place to begin my exploration than Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the Toledo Metroparks. We’re in the midst of  “Blue Week” here, an annual celebration of the special flora and fauna of the Oak Openings area, particularly those that are blue. The iconic plant associated with Blue Week is the Wild Lupine, which is found in large swaths throughout the metropark right now.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)
Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis)

I had seen lupines before, but never in such abundance. I love the gorgeous blue spikes rising above the bright green blanket of leaves. And the circular arrangement of the leaves is really pleasing to my geometry-loving brain.

Blue lupines v3 (1) (1280x853)

Blue lupines with bee (2) (1132x1280)

There’s a tiny endangered butterfly that can only breed in places that have Wild Lupines, and so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them as well. They’re a subspecies of Blue butterfly called the “Karner Blue.” I’d read that they were the size of a nickel, so I had a feeling it would be hard to find them. I was standing out in a sandy path listening to birds when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw fluttering movement. I glanced down to see a tiny blue butterfly flitting among the grasses at the edge of the path.

I wasn’t able to get very good pictures of this guy, and I first thought it was a Karner Blue. But I think it’s actually an Eastern Tailed Blue instead. Another very pretty butterfly, but a disappointment on this particular day.

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (1)

Karner blue butterfly - rare endangered (2)
Nope, not a Karner Blue. This is an Eastern Tailed Blue.

I wish I’d been able to see a Karner Blue, and maybe I will one day.  If you want to read more about why this species is endangered, the US Fish & Wildlife website has some good information.  Before I realized this wasn’t a Karner Blue, I had a “connect the dots” moment out there in that windswept sandy prairie, seeing the endangered plant and (I thought at the time) the endangered butterfly that depends on it for survival.

Ferns - weird two shades of green (1280x960)
Not blue, but an interesting fern with two shades of green —  I need to investigate this one.

Boardwalk and bridge at Oak Openings (1280x960)

And, as luck would have it, just as I was finishing this article for the blog, I got to do this:

Lupines I transplanted for Toledo Metroparks

Yes, I got to help the metroparks by transplanting some Wild Lupines from cell packs to 4″ pots. I had volunteered for a day of potting tree seedlings, but when I arrived for my shift they had already finished the trees. I was very disappointed, thinking I’d made the 30-minute drive for nothing. So I asked if there was anything else I could do, and that’s how I ended up spending almost three hours with the lupines.

I found this to be such a satisfying job now that I know how important those plants are to the ecosystem. Each time I popped a tiny plant out of the cell pack, I envisioned it standing tall and blooming on the sand dunes at Oak Openings, providing nourishment for the Karner Blue butterflies that can’t survive without it.

And as if that wasn’t enough for a gratifying experience, they gave me six tiny lupines for my yard! I had mentioned to the greenhouse supervisor that I was considering trying to grow them in my garden, and as I was preparing to wrap up my shift, she made the sweet gesture of offering me a six-pack of baby plants. I was overwhelmed, and cannot wait to find the perfect (sandy) spot in my garden for them.

Speaking of my garden, perhaps in an upcoming post I’ll show you some of the plants that have been blooming here lately. My new yard has been full of surprises!

P.S. I found an interesting bird-related trivia tidbit about the phrase “to have the blues.” It goes back at least as far as 1827, when John Audubon used the phrase in a letter to his wife Lucy.

Something To Look Forward To

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

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

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

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

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

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

steyer-sign-collage

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

bur-oak-collage

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

eastern-comma-butterfly-on-bur-oak-tree-800x533
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.

spiderweb-big-one-in-sunlight-1-800x533

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
frog-hiding-in-rocks-and-mud-under-water-800x533
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!

Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

Meadow at Creek Bend Farm - early fall (800x533)
Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm
Silver-spotted Skipper on thistle (800x741)
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

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

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

Cabbage White - Pieris rapae (800x759)
Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

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

Viceroy Butterfly (800x533)
Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

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

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

Path at Creek Bend Farm with coneflowers (800x533)

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbird v2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

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

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

Ruby-throated hummingbird v3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood
Dogwood berries

Opening My Mind

Don’t you agree that being open-minded is a worthy goal in life? Have you ever had a sudden realization that you aren’t as open-minded as you’d always thought you were? It’s easy to look at other people and judge them for their prejudices, but it’s very disorienting when you’re confronted with the realization that you have your own biases and prejudices that have been nestled snugly in your brain for years. Most of the time those biases seem harmless, but I’ve learned that they can actually prevent you from experiencing some amazing things.

As I go through the process of adjusting to life in the farm country of northwestern Ohio, I’ve discovered some things about myself that I’m not too proud of. But thankfully I’ve also discovered that I’m not too old to change nor too proud to admit that I’ve been wrong.

Gull taking off from water
Gull taking off from water

During the first couple of weeks here, I found myself complaining about a lot of things. The frequent nighttime train whistles. The lack of shopping choices. The fact that I have to actually use a human teller to deposit a check at my credit union instead of being able to use the ATM. And on and on. I was focused on my prejudgment that everything and everyone in these small towns was “backward” and “behind the times.” And with those thoughts in my head, I was unhappy. Of course I was. Because your thoughts determine your emotions.

I was getting disgusted with my negative attitudes and worried that I was offending my new friends with my complaints, and so I did some soul searching to remember why I came here. And slowly, as I began to go about my daily life, I noticed a shift in my thinking. At first I’d sat up at night timing the trains so I could complain about how often they woke me up. Then one day I caught myself listening to the faint sound of one of those whistles and smiling. I realized that that sound had become part of the soundtrack of my daily life, and that I actually liked it.

Whereas at first I’d whined about having to drive 40 minutes to a larger town for more shopping choices, it only took two trips there to make me realize that it really wasn’t that big of a deal to make that trip a couple times a month. In fact, now it’s become almost a special occasion to go to the “big city” (Sandusky, Ohio) for a shopping excursion. Things that were taken for granted as everyday conveniences before have become something to look forward to and appreciate.

Geese in v formation
Canada Geese in V formation

And my opinions about the starkness of the flat landscape have changed too. The wide open land might not be as interesting as the rolling hills I’m used to, but it sure provides lots of opportunities to enjoy and photograph stunning sunsets. And even though I was well aware of the abundance of wildlife habitat here, I was surprised to find myself weeping the other day as I drove past a marsh and watched egrets and a Bald Eagle flying across the road in front of me. There’s incredible beauty here every day. Lots of it.

Sunset at the reservoir
Sunset at the local reservoir

As someone who has always been a city person, I’m stunned at how fast my attitudes have turned around. I’m a bit ashamed about my assumptions that life here would be “not as good as” my life in the city. Every day I find something new to learn about — “Why haven’t they harvested those soybeans yet? They look like they’re dying…” or, “I heard someone mention putting tiles in a field…what does that mean?” — and so on. I’m beginning to see the world differently. I’m surrounded by co-workers and friends who are happy to answer my questions. My life is enriched when I’m able to learn something new, so this completely new environment is fascinating to me.

And speaking of friends…you know, I’m getting choked up now just thinking about this. I had a dozen or so budding friendships with local people before I moved down here, and those friendships have now solidified through birding walks and various other get-togethers. In the past couple of months I’ve experienced so much sincere kindness that it sort of blows my mind. There’s something special about the people here.  And they make me feel special too. I don’t feel alone anymore. It’s like an entire community has wrapped its arms around me and absorbed me into its big warm heart.

Sunset at the reservoir with fisherman
A fisherman at the reservoir as the day ends

I had a small housewarming party last weekend for a few of my local friends and co-workers who wanted to see my new house. I had been putting it off because I hadn’t done all the painting I wanted to do, and I didn’t have all the rooms furnished yet. And I worried that I would be judged. (Ironic, isn’t it?) But my gosh, when I looked around my house filled with friends that afternoon, my heart swelled with happiness. Just seeing that they would all take the time to drive down here and spend time in my home with me…I know that might not be such a big deal to many people, but it was very big for me. It made me feel accepted on a whole new level. It made me feel more confident that I was going to be alright in my new life here. My house became a home that day. A real home filled with love and friendship–and even a couple of caterpillars!

Great Blue Heron and nuclear power plant - smaller file
What do you focus on, the nuclear power plant or the lovely heron?

This whole idea that your thoughts determine how you experience life is a powerful thing. By consciously letting go of your preconceptions and biases you can open your mind and heart to a whole new world. And I’m living proof that it works.