Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mothing at Clear Creek: The Subtle

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a moth night at Clear Creek Metro Park. The attendees saw a lot of moths over the course of the night, and I wanted to highlight a few species in particular. I'll be doing so in two posts; this post will focus on some of the more drab and subtle moth species of the night, while the next post will focus on the more showy and colorful moth species of the night!

Mothing in Ohio

Moth nights are fun. The activity of mothing—a hobby involving the pursuit of moth diversity—centers primarily around moth sheets, like the ones pictured above. Moth sheets in themselves are nothing special; they're just plain white bed sheets. The magic lies in the lighting. Although normal household lights will attract moths here and there, you really need to use one of two types of special lights to really attract the moths. UV lights and mercury vapor lights are the weapon of choice here, with mercury vapor lights being the best of the best. This moth night at Clear Creek consisted of 4 mothing sheets set up throughout one section of the park. Several dozens of various moth species visited each sheet over the night, so let's jump right into some of the more drab and subtle species of the night!

Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria)
First up is the Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria). The Common Lytrosis is a rather large moth, coming in with around a 3 inch wingspan. I think this is a perfect species to start out with. If it were to fly by you, you might simply dismiss it as a big brown moth. But upon closer inspection, you would see all the minute and intricate details present in the wings. We humans tend to like the showy, eye-grabbing things in life, and we often skip over things that don't instantly grab our attention. But if you start taking a closer look at those "boring" things, you will soon find that they aren't so boring after all.

Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria)
Mothing is like looking at abstract art. With abstract art, the appeal lies not within some straightforward meaning that the elements of the artwork create, but instead lies within the elements of the artwork themselvesthe colors and the contrast, the changing patterns across the canvas, the lines that take you on a journey through the artwork. The appeal of mothing, at least in my opinion, is the same. It's just fun to look closely at each species and see how all the colors, patterns, and lines interact with each other, and how that changes from species to species. This moth is called the Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria), and its dark patches set among a pale gray background is a great example of contrasting elements.

Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata)
One of the most enjoyable parts of mothing lies in the process of identification. This is the Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata). At first glance, it looks almost identical to the previous Barred Granite, but closer inspection reveals differences in patterning. When I go mothing, I take photos of everything I see. I then spend the next week or so trying to identify each species from the comfort of my home. I use the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America for this part. Identifying moths can be super frustrating, but in a fun way. Identifying these drab moths involves a lot of flipping from page to page through the Peterson Guide. Over and over. Again and again. Eventually you find the species you're looking for (but not always). As the name of this species implies, the larvae feed on Eastern Hemlock and occasionally Basalm Fir. Clear Creek Metro Park has a big population of Eastern Hemlocks, so it's no surprise that the Hemlock Angle is there!

Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria)
When I first saw this moth, I thought it was some species of emerald (subfamily Geometrinae), but it's actually the Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria) in the subfamily Ennomina. The caterpillar of the Pale Metanema uses various poplar species, and occasionally willows, as a host.

Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis)
This is a Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis). When it comes to most moths, we really don't know much information about their natural history. With most species, we at least know what types of plants the caterpillars feed on. With the Bog Lygropia, we don't even know that. In fact, from what I can tell we don't even know what the caterpillar looks like! There's so much fundamental information we're missing when it comes to the dark side of Lepidoptera.

The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica)
This is The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica), a rather common sight at mothing sheets. The common names of moths are strange. For decades, there were no common names. When people began "getting into" moths, those who made guides decided that they needed common names in addition to the scientific names. To solve this problem, they simply began making names up! Some common names were based off the scientific names. For example, the Bog Lygropia is called such because its scientific name is Lygropia rivulalis and it prefers wet and boggy areas. Other names are not as straightforward, and The Beggar is one such example. No one is exactly sure why it's call that, but the speculation is that whoever named it thought the dark patches on the wings looked like the holes in a stereotypical beggar's clothes.

Adult Woolly Bear
Next up is the Isabella Tiger Moth, which you probably better know as the Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella). A single individual visited the mothing sheet that night, and it happened to be a very worn individual that had lost a lot of its patterning. Luckily, there isn't much else that looks like an adult Isabella Tiger Moth. If you've ever wondered what the Woolly Bear turns into after metamorphosis, now you know! Side note: If you want to learn about some more "fuzzy" caterpillars, check out my previous post "Caterpillars of the Fuzzy Variety."

Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata)
I'll end this post with the Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata). The adults are your typical moth; the caterpillars, however, are unique. During the Arched Hooktip's caterpillar stage, the caterpillars like to be with other caterpillars of the same species. How do they find other caterpillars? They drum! One caterpillar will roll a leaf up, tighten it down with silk, and then crawl inside this new home. Once inside, the caterpillar will begin making vibrations by dragging parts of its anal segments against the leaf, drumming with its mouthparts, and performing a series of other actions. The resulting vibrations are a signal to any nearby Arched Hooktip caterpillars to come over and hang out in the new leaf shelter and eat together. This communicative behavior is super interesting, and very unique among the moths (at least from what we currently know). If you want to read more, here is a link to the original study: Invitation by vibration: recruitment to feeding shelters in social caterpillars

That's it for this post! I'll have the next post covering some of the showy moths up in a few days. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

American Burying Beetle

The Wilds Ohio
This past Friday I ventured up to The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, with the wildlife biologist for the Wayne National Forest and another wildlife intern for the National Forest. The Wilds is a fantastic wildlife conservation center that is known for offering open air bus tours through pastures containing rhinos, giraffes, Sichuan Takins, and a whole host of other exotic and endangered species. Our trip wasn't for these large and well-known species, though. Our trip was for a beetle... 

American Burying Beetle in Ohio
Meet the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). This 1.5 inch long orange and black insect is a very special species. It once ranged all across the eastern United States, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast. However, over the course of the 20th Century the American Burying Beetle all but disappeared from the world. Population after population began dying out, prompting the government to list this species as Federally Endangered in 1989. The reason for the decline and near-extinction of the American Burying Beetle has been a mystery for decades, as no one has been able to unequivocally pin down the exact cause. Regardless of the reason why, the American Burying Beetle was in dire trouble. Zoos and other conservation centers around the United States began collecting what little natural populations remained in the northern Great Plains and other scattered regions in order to create captive breeding populations.

This brings us to The Wilds, which began captive breeding its own population of American Burying Beetles in 2007. Every year the conservationists at The Wilds take a portion of their captive population and reintroduces those beetles back into the wild at a location on their property. I was able to participate in the 2017 "Planting of the Beetles" and document the process.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction
The American Burying Beetle has a rather interesting and unusual reproductive method. A pair will search for a fresh animal carcass—typically something between the size of a mouse and a pigeon. Upon finding a suitable carcass, the pair will begin to bury it to a typical depth of 4-10 inches. Once buried, the beetles will alter the shape of the carcass and add chemical secretions to it which will slow down the rate of decomposition. After this, the female will lay eggs in a separate chamber above the carcass. After the eggs hatch, both the male and female will use the carcass to feed the larvae. Once the larvae are ready to pupate, the parents will leave the nest.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction Efforts
The whole point of this reintroduction day is for us humans to do all the hard work for the beetles about to be reintroduced. About two dozen volunteers from various agencies and organizations ventured into the forest and began digging lots of holes—110 to be exact. Once the holes were dug, each was then "seeded" with a dead rat.

Dan Beetem Director of Animal Management for The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, examines a pair of American Burying Beetles.
After each hole was dug and seeded with a rat, the fun part began. Two coolers were stocked with dozens and dozens of tiny plastic containers, each containing a male and female beetle, with a few containing some "single" females.

American Burying Beetle Conservation
The volunteers would grab a container, pick an available hole, and then carefully add the pair of beetles into the hole. By completing the first half of the beetles' work, the conservationists aim to give this new population a leg up. The hope is that the beetle pair will realize that there is an appropriate food source that's already buried, and will then decide to mate with each other and give rise to the next generation.

American Burying Beetle Nicrophorus americanus
I first learned about the American Burying Beetle several years ago, and I've wanted to see one since then. I honestly thought I would never get to see one, but then I found myself getting to hold one. Moments like these—interacting with such a special creature on such a personal level—are what captivate and inspire me. These are the moments I hoped to experience when I chose to venture down the wildlife biology path.

American Burying Beetle Reproduction
When it comes to Ohio, there are several other organizations that have either previously reintroduced, or are continuing to reintroduce, populations of American Burying Beetles across the state. Whether these efforts have been successful in establishing a self-sustaining population is yet to be seen, however. An American Burying Beetle only lives for a year. For a self-sustaining population to be created, enough of the reintroduced individuals have to mate and lay eggs. Enough of these eggs must hatch and enough of the larvae must be adequately cared for. Enough of these larvae must then successfully pupate and overwinter. Enough of these overwintering individuals must then emerge, find a mate, find a carcass, and successfully reproduce. There are many steps in which something can go wrong, and most times all traces of a given reintroduced population vanish by the next summer. Take for example the efforts by the Cincinnati Zoo. Between 2013 and 2016, the Cincinnati Zoo released a total 748 adults into a park. These 748 adults were estimated to have produced a total of 2349 larvae. Each year, zoo workers would attempt to find any new adults in the area which were from last year's efforts. They only ever found 2 adults. It's possible that many new adults survived and then simply dispersed to other areas and were consequently never captured. It's also possible that most of the reproductive efforts failed at some point.

Reintroduction of the American Burying Beetle at The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, looks on the American Burying Beetles' new homes with optimism.
You might be thinking that it seems like we're fighting a losing battle when it comes to reestablishing the American Burying Beetle. Maybe that's true; there have been more losses in the world of wildlife conservation than there have been successes. But when it comes down to it, the species is still extant. There is still a chance. Conservationists will continue their struggle to help this species survive. I hope to see a day where self-sustaining populations of the American Burying Beetle dot the landscape they once inhabited. It's too early to say whether this dream is realistic or not, but I will remain hopeful.

Monday, May 29, 2017

To Take a Photo: A Frog's Photoshoot

Today I'm going to do something a bit different from my usual posts. My friend and fellow lab-mate Cassie Thompson is working on a research project involving Wood Frogs and American Toads. This project involved raising hundreds of tadpoles of both the Wood Frog and American Toad. Those tadpoles recently metamorphosed into tiny adults. Cassie wanted some photos of these tiny adults, so she asked me if I was interested in having a little photo shoot with them. I was thrilled to do so, and I went about capturing some high-quality photos that she could use in presentations and outreach. A few of my other friends were interested in how the final product came to be, so I decided to create this blog post to outline my post-processing workflow. This post will follow a single photo from its capture, through its editing, and to its finalized version.

Wood Frog Photo
Let's start with the final product. This is a recently-metamorphosed Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) sitting on a penny. When taking this photo, I knew I wanted a completely clean, white background, and I knew I wanted something in the photo for size reference.

Frog Macro Photography
To achieve that look, I created this super simple setup. I used a white piece of computer paper for the backdrop, and I propped this paper up so it would curl upward. For my camera setup, I used a Nikon D5100 DSLR, an 85mm Nikon macro lens, and a Nikon SB-700 external flash. I then mounted my camera and flash on a tripod to allow for easier control. I shoot all of my photos in manual mode, meaning I select what settings the camera will use to expose a photo. I also shoot all of my photos in the RAW format, which I will talk about later. For this photo, I set my aperture to f/20, my shutter speed to 1/200th of a second, my ISO to 125, and my external flash to 1/8th power. In addition, I had Cassie hold up a small reflector on the right side of the backdrop. This reflector allowed some of the flash's light to be reflected back toward the frog from the side, ensuring that the frog's stomach was not underexposed. Finally, and most importantly, I placed the frog on the penny and shot the photo.

Editing RAW Photos
This was the RAW photo straight out of the camera. At this point in time, no post-processing had been done. As you can see, the overall temperature is rather cool (meaning there is a blue tint), and the subject is rather small and dull. This is to be expected. As I mentioned earlier, I shoot using the RAW format. Generally speaking, RAW photos tend to be dull and flat.

So why shoot in RAW? The benefit of shooting RAW lies in the flexibility of this file type. The RAW format records a lot of detailed color data, which is what you want. The downside is that the straight-RAW photo is almost always dull and flat; the data is there, but it is "compressed." This means that a RAW photo must be edited to bring out the colors and details that are already present in the file's coding, but just subdued.

Using Lightroom to edit RAW photos
We now have the RAW photo, so next we have to begin editing it. For this part, I use Adobe Lightroom. First I remove the chromatic aberration in the photo. Then I crop the photo to get rid of any excess space. Finally, I begin to do whole-photo edits to the exposure. For this part, I first changed the temperature of the photo by making it warmer, as it was initially too cool (i.e. too "blue"). Then I decreased the highlights, brought the shadows up a bit, and then increased the saturation and vibrancy a tad. For my final edit at this stage, I increased the whites a great deal. By increasing the whites, the white paper backdrop began to lose detail. I didn't want the viewer to look at the background and be able to tell it is a piece of paper. I want the focus to be on the frog and the penny, not the background.

Spot Editing Photos
Next began the spot editing portion. When shooting amphibians with a flash, their moist skin tends to result in blown out areas. In an attempt to remedy this, I used Lightroom's brush feature to go in and highlight the overexposed or blown out areas of the face, which you can see in the photo above. I then decreased the highlights, shadows, and overall exposure of this highlighted area to recover some of the details that would otherwise be lost.

DFine Google Nik Collection
After this was done, I began using another post-processing program called the Google Nik Collection. Nik is a powerful program that used to cost nearly $200, but Google recently bought it and made it free to use! If you are interested in downloading it, check out this link: Nik Collection. I use it as a plugin for Lightroom. The first Nik plugin I use in my workflow is called Dfine. Dfine is a very useful plugin which "intelligently" smooths out unwanted grain and noise in the photo by automatically analyzing and spot-editing the noise. It's a super useful plugin.

Using Control Points in Viveza
Next I use another Nik plugin called Viveza. This program allows you to do more whole-and-spot editing. Like I said before, I wanted to lose all detail in the background and have it only exist as a white color. To work toward this goal, I added nearly 20 "control points" to the background using Viveza. Viveza has this awesome setting where you can view where your control points are exactly altering the photo. If you look at the photo above, you can see that some areas are super dark, while other areas are super white. Portions that a control point will greatly influence and alter will show up white, while portions that a given control point won't alter will be black. As you can see, the background is white, while the frog is black. That's exactly what I wanted for now. I then turn this informational view off and decrease the "Structure" setting in Viveza. The Structure setting can either bring out or strip away fine details in a photo. By decreasing the structure in the background, I'm washing away any remaining detail of the paper I used.

Using Control Points in Nik
Then I do the exact opposite with the frog. I want the fine details of the frog to show up crisp and clean. To do this, I add several control points to the frog, using the helpful informational display to ensure that I'm only going to affect the frog and not the background. After making sure the frog is covered adequately, I switch off this informational display and increase the structure of the frog.

Problems with Amphibian Photography
I save the photo file from Viveza and then open it back up in Lightroom. By this stage, I'm almost done with post-processing and all that remains are any trouble areas that I missed up to this point. I noticed that my flash reflected oddly in the bottom half of the frog's eye, giving it a gray wash in the bottom half that stood out in an unattractive manner. I used Lightroom's brush feature to try and tackle this problem. I applied a total of 3 separate brush areas to the eye, each with a different set of edits. My goal was to get rid of the gray wash that covered the bottom half of the eye.

Before (left) and after (right).
By using a combination of darkening the shadows, increasing the clarity, decreasing the highlights, and decreasing the brightness of the problem area, I was able to get rid of the gray wash that was a byproduct of my flash. Now the eye looked normal!

Lithobates sylvaticus Photo
And finally, after about 20 minutes of editing, the final product was nearing completion. The only remaining steps were to export the file to a JPEG format, apply some slight sharpening to the entire photo, and add a watermark. And with that, the photo is done.

Taking a photo is only half the battle in photography. Post-processing is an integral step in creating a finalized product that the photographer is happy about. The world of post-processing is complicated, however, with an array of programs available and nearly unlimited stylistic choices and tools to utilize. Hopefully this post gave you a window into my personal workflow. Although the details vary from photo to photo, and case to case, the overall process I explained in this post is how most of my photos are generally post-processed.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Some Magnificent Moths

Moths: the drab and boring cousins of butterflies? I think not! In fact, thousands and thousands of people around the world are beginning to fall in love with moths. Mothing—a new hobby in the same vein as birding and herping—is breaking into the mainstream. Well, mainstream as nature-centered hobbies go at least. Mothing is essentially the appreciation and seeking of moth diversity, especially with the use of "light traps." Why do people find moths interesting? Although I can't speak for everyone, I'm interested by the sheer diversity of species, colors, and patterns of moths. Just to give some perspective, there are about 130-140 species of butterflies in Ohio, with about 725 species of butterflies that are in the US and Canada. Now what about moths? Ohio alone has over 1,000 species of moths. If you combine all the species of moths in the US and Canada, that number jumps to over 10,000! This diversity is incredible!

Moth Faces
I love moth faces.
Two weeks ago I was down in Shawnee State Forest for the Ohio Ornithological Society's Warblers and Wildflowers Weekend, where I was assisting as a guide. On Friday and Saturday night of the event, when darkness fell, fellow guide Jeremy Dominguez set up his custom-built moth light trap. Although moths can be easily enough encountered, light traps are an incredibly effective way to draw in scores of moths. Jeremy uses a strong mercury vapor light (the most effective at drawing in moths) to attract any nearby moths. He strings up a white sheet next to the light to allow the moths a place to rest, which also gives the moth-ers a place to easily view the moths. The moths in this post are a few of the more eye-catching species that came to this trap.

Azalea Sphinx (Darapsa choerilus)
I'll start with the Azalea Sphinx (Darapsa choerilus). The sphinx moths are all attention-grabbers due to either their size, colors, or both. The Azalea Sphinx is a medium-sized sphinx mothwhich is on the larger size compared to most mothswith a rich chestnut color and pinkish hues. Many times the common name of a moth will reflect its preferred host plant (which is the type of plant the caterpillar will feed on), and the Azalea Moth is a great example. The caterpillars of this species will feed on various azalea species (genus Rhododendron), but will also feed on Black Gum and various Viburnum species.

Hebrew (Polygrammate hebraeicum)
This inch-long black and white beauty is the Hebrew (Polygrammate hebraeicum). The name stems from the black markings on its wings, which resemble the characters of the Hebrew Alphabet. The host plant of the Hebrew is the Black Gum, a species of tree. When it comes to host plant specificity, moths can be broken into 2 general groups. There are moths who have two or more host plant species, and then there are moths who only utilize a single specific plant species as their host plant. With the Hebrew falling into the latter group, this moth can only be found wherever there are populations of Black Gum.

Oak Beauty (Phaeoura quernaria)
Next up is the Oak Beauty (Phaeoura quernaria). Due to the sheer diversity of moths in Ohio, identification can be difficult. Unique looking moths, like the previous two, can be relatively easy to identify. When you come across a more "stereotypical" moth, with a camouflaged appearance, identification becomes more difficult. You begin relying on the shapes of lines on the wing, presence or absence of any dots or otherwise characteristic features, colors, wing shape, etc. And then you get moths like the Oak Beauty, which are "variable." With variable moths, the exact colors, lines, patterning, etc. can vary from individual to individual, making identification even harder. The Oak Beauty can be ID'ed by its overall charcoal color and the presence of 2 wavy black lines across the wings with a varying amount of white associated with these black lines.

Maple Caloptilia (Caloptilia bimaculatella)
When you're dealing with such a diverse group of animals, you're going to run into a variety of body forms. A group of moths with a rather unique body form are the leaf blotch miner moths (what a name!). These micro-moths often prop themselves up using their forelegs, such as the individual pictured above. This specific species is the Maple Caloptilia (Caloptilia bimaculatella), which can be identified by the presence of two creamy-white triangles on either side of its wings..

Plume Moth Ohio
Another group of moths with a unique body form are the plume moths. A moth can instantly be identified as a type of plume moth (family Pterophoridae) by its T-shaped body. At rest, a plume moth will roll up its modified wings, giving it this T-shape appearance. Plume moths are very difficult to identify down to species, with most cases requiring careful dissection. Suffice to say, I have no idea what species that the pictured plume moth is!

White-Fringed Emerald (Nemoria mimosaria)
A group of moths I am always delighted to see are the emeralds. The emeralds are all mostly pale green moths with lines of various other colors. This individual is a White-Fringed Emerald (Nemoria mimosaria). The emeralds belong to the incredibly diverse and speciose family of moths called the geometers (Geometridae). You might better know the geometers as the inch-worms. In fact, this is why the family is named Geometridae. Geometridae is based off of the Latin word "geometra," which translates to "Earth measurer." As the caterpillars of the Geometridae moths inch-along, they could be said to be "measuring" the Earth.

Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) Ohio
My favorite moth of all time is this magnificent beauty, the Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda). Moths don't get much better than this, in my opinion. Luckily, the Rosy Maple Moth is pretty common in Ohio. The Rosy Maple belongs to the Saturniidae family of moths, also known as the giant silkworm and royal moths. This family holds most of the large, stunning moths people are familiar with, such as the Luna Moth, Cecropia Moth, and Imperial Moth. But not all the Saturniids are large; the Rosy Maple Moth is only about two inches long and an inch wide—small by Saturniid standards. Like other Saturniid moths, the adult Rosy Maple Moth has no mouthparts. It does all of its feeding during its caterpillar phase. The sole purpose of an adult upon emergence from the pupal stage is to find a mate, reproduce, and then wait for death.

Luna Moth Ohio
I'll end this post with the star of the weekendwell, at least when it comes to moths. As you might recognize, this is a Luna Moth (Actias luna). The Luna Moth, a large moth in the Saturniidae family, is always one of the highlights of any mothing event when they make an appearance. This individual flew in just before the sheet was closed down for the night. If you want to learn more about the Luna Moth, click on this link for a post that's all about Lunas!

Are you interested in moths? Do you live in the northeastern portion of the United States? If so, I highly recommend getting the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America! This is a must have field guide for anyone trying to identify moths in Ohio and the surrounding states. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Virginia Rail

It's spring migration right now in the bird world. Many species across many different groups of birds are moving from their southern overwintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds. One such species is the Virginia Rail.

Virginia Rail Ohio
A few days ago I found myself in my hometown of Circleville, in Pickaway County, Ohio. I decided to head to the Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park, a local city-owned park. This park has a small marsh with some open water, and last year I had found Soras in the marsh (which you can read about at this link!). This marsh had only recently been built when the city purchased the land a few years ago, and I was curious if Soras were utilizing this marsh every year, or if last year had just been a random occurrence. As I walked up to the wood deck which overlooks the marsh, I took out my phone and played the call of a Sora to see if one would call back from the reeds. Instead of a Sora calling back, a curious Virginia Rail ran straight out of the reeds. I will admit, I was not expecting that to happen!

Virginia Rail Central Ohio
The Virginia Rail is secretive species of rail, a group of marsh-loving birds who are known for being shy and hard to see. The Virginia Rail is a wide-ranging species, which can essentially be found across the lower 48 states in appropriate habitat at some point during the year. Generally speaking, they overwinter along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts of the US, and breed throughout the west and the northern portion of the eastern US.

Virginia Rail Habitat
Can you spot the rail?

The Virginia Rail is a wetland-dependent species. They mostly inhabit freshwater marshes, but occasionally can be found in saltwater or brackish marshes, mostly during the winter months. They require emergent vegetation for shelter. The browns, tans, and grays of the Virginia Rail's plumage allow it to essentially disappear among the grasses, sedges, and cattails that grow in the shallow areas of marshes. When rails feel threatened, they will often simply freeze among the cover they are currently hiding in. When a rail freezes in a stand of dense reeds or grasses, it can be nearly impossible to see the rail unless you already had eyes on it.

Virginia Rails
The cautious Virginia Rail looks to the sky to scan for any potential aerial predators.

There are 5 species of rail that can be found in Ohio (I'm excluding the Common and Purple Gallinules and the American Coot from this number; although these 3 species are in the rail family Rallidae, they aren't what most birders think of when they think of rails). Of those 5 species, the Sora is the most common and the Yellow Rail is the rarest. The Virginia Rail is the second most common species of rail in Ohio, and one of the 3 species which regularly breed in the state (the other 2 are the Sora and King Rail). How widespread and abundant are Virginia Rails in Ohio? No one really knows. Rails are super secretive, and this makes estimating populations difficult. The vast majority of them probably go unnoticed. If you check the reports of Virginia Rails on eBird, you will notice that the vast majority of reports are centered around urban areas. Does this mean that rails love urban areas? No; urban areas simply have a higher concentration of birders. More birders in an area means more eyes to find secretive species like Virginia Rails.

Virginia Rail Pickaway County

The Virginia Rail is an omnivore, but they focus mostly on arthropods. Like other water-tied birds with long beaks, the Virginia Rail will probe into the mud in an attempt to find various arthropods. They also feed on arthropods that are either on the surface of the water or the ground, such as spiders and beetles. The individual pictured above was actually foraging farther from the water than I thought it would. When I took this picture, the rail was foraging about 10 feet from the water's edge. There were at least 2 Virginia Rails present in this marsh, along with at least 2 Soras, and they seemed to have established trails for them to move between foraging areas. They would feed in an area of dense grasses before darting quickly along an obvious narrow trail devoid of plants to another dense foraging area.

Virginia Rail
As I mentioned in my Sora post last year, I absolutely love rails. For one, they're adorable. But I'm also drawn to the fact they are secretive and difficult to find and see. As a birder, it's always rewarding to find a rail species of any kind in a marsh, and even more rewarding to actually lay eyes on one. I'm really hoping that the two Virginia Rails in this Pickaway County marsh decide to breed here, but they might also simply be migrating through to a more northerly location. The creation of this marsh (and the surrounding prairie they planted) by the city of Circleville has turned out to be a wonderful action. This marsh and the open water in the center has proven to be a migration stopover for many species, including Virginia Rails, Soras, Pied-Billed Grebes, Horned Grebes, Blue-Winged Teals, and many other species. The surrounding planted prairie has attracted species such as the Savannah Sparrow and the declining Henslow's Sparrow. This prairie and marsh only make up half of the Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park, however. The other half is a well-established wet forest. This forest attracts many migrating songbirds and is a great place to bird in the spring and fall.

Do you love rails too? If so, I highly recommend following Dr. Auriel Fournier on Twitter (@RallidaeRule). She is an ornithologist conducting research on rails. If you aren't interested in rails yet, you will be once you follow her!

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Rehabilitated Osprey on Poplar Island, Maryland.
Every so often, especially when there's a big change in my life, I like to give a brief update. This is such a time. 

On Thursday, April 27, I graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor of science degree in wildlife and conservation biology. These past four years at Ohio University were filled with absolutely amazing experiences. Thanks to my education, I have traveled more than I have ever traveled before, and to places I had never imagined I would.

Sonoran Desert Toad, Sabino Canyon, Arizona
One of the best perks of majoring in wildlife and conservation biology wasby fargetting to see and interact with an incredible variety of animals. I have been lucky enough to see many more species than I dreamed to.

Olivia Brooks (L), Alayna Tokash (C), and me (R) looking for Great Horned Owls in a snow squall. We were successful!
I also met many amazing people while at OU and beyond, and they have all helped me grow as a budding biologist, naturalist, and person.

Photo courtesy of Chase Rokitt (Wikimedia Commons Contributor).
What's next? I will be working at Wayne National Forest for 12 weeks, starting on Monday. I will be surveying wildlife along a proposed mountain bike trail as part of the required environmental impact assessment. After that job ends in August, who knows! I am hoping to find an environmental education job somewhere, so if anyone knows of a place looking to hire a naturalist, I'll be available!

As always, I'll continue to post on this blog. I've been a little quiet recently, as the past semester has been incredibly hectic and time consuming. Hopefully with college done for now, I will have more free time to take photos and write blog posts!

And finally, thanks to all the readers of this blog. Your continued support pushes me to learn more and find cooler things to write about.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some Early Blooms

It's that wonderful time of year again; more and more wildflowers are blooming! The spring wildflower season begins in Ohio with the blooming of Skunk Cabbage in February, and slowly picks up speed until the end of March. With the arrival of April, the spring-blooming wildflowers prepare to reach a climax, with dozens of species in bloom at the same time. April is almost here, so I decided to head out and see what species were already blooming around Athens in southeastern Ohio.

White Trout Lily Ohio
I'll begin with these familiar flowers. This rather striking plant is White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum. It's a wide-ranging species here in Ohio, only absent in heavily agricultural or urbanized counties. The White Trout Lily is best at home in nutrient-rich forests, in rather moist or mesic soils. The individuals pictured above, for example, were living alongside a small stream in a stereotypical Allegheny Plateau ravine. The name "trout lily," which is part of the common name for several other Erythronium spp. flowers, is due to the mottled leaves. These mottled leaves resemble the coloration of the Brook Trout (compare with this photo).

White Trout Lily Flower
The nodding flowers of the White Trout Lily are some of my favorite when it comes to the spring bloomers. However, they aren't the only species with a nodding flower like this. Several other species in the Lily family (Liliaceae) found here in Ohio have similarly nodding flowers, including the Yellow Trout Lily, Canada Lily, and Michigan Lily.

Spring Beauty Ohio
Unlike most of the flowers I'll be covering in this post which bloom in scattered patches along the forest floor, this species is very different. This is Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica. In good areas, thousands of these will dot the forest floor. Sometimes they even make it into cities, where they dot lawns. The grasses around Ohio University's North Green, for example, live side by side with Spring Beauty come this time. Although Spring Beauty is incredibly common, the bottom one in the picture above is uncommon. Nearly all Spring Beauties are 5-petaled, like the one at the top. The bottom one, however, has 6 petals. Some sort of mutation is to blame, creating a flower that stands out among the hordes of others.

Bloodroot Ohio
Next up is Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. It's still a bit early for this species, so most of the individuals I saw had just popped up and hadn't even fully unfurled their large basal leaf and flower. The strange common name for this species is due to a peculiar feature of its underground rhizome. If something cuts the rhizome, reddish-orange sap seeps from the wound. Early settlers thought it looked like this root was oozing blood, so they called the plant Bloodroot. The sap, however, is part of the Bloodoot's defense system. It's filled with toxic alkaloids, which brings up an important issue...

Does Bloodroot have medicinal properties?
If you search for "Bloodroot" on the internet, you'll get tons of results talking about its supposed "medicinal" uses. However, as I just mentioned, the sap contains toxic alkaloids. This highlights a huge topic I could rant on and on about, but I'll only make a quick aside. So many of these "alternative medicines" people talk about and advocate for either do nothing, or actually harm you. For example, people say you should put Bloodroot sap on skin cancer, as it gets rid of the cancer. In reality, the specific alkaloid contained in the sap (Sanguinarine) disrupts your cells' sodium-potassium pump, which results in your cells dying. The dying of these cells creates a type of necrotic scab called an eschar. It's literally a scab of dead flesh. Depending on the amount of Bloodroot sap you apply to your skin, the result can be a dangerous disfiguring of whatever part of your body you applied it to. This is not healthy or beneficial to do at all.

This is just one example of the thousands and thousands of "alternative medicines" actually being downright dangerous for people, as their supposed medicinal properties are simply unfounded. To quote the comedian Tim Minchin, "You know what they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine."

Wild Blue Phlox Ohio
Among all the primarily-white flowers that I saw while out stood a single bluish-purple flower. This is Wild Blue Phlox, Phlox divaricata. Ohio has several species of phlox, but this one can be identified by its hairy stem, narrow lance-like leaves, and a flower with the stamens and pistil not sticking out of the tube made by the fusion of the lower portions of the petals. This deep tube poses a problem to many potential pollinating insects. Only those insects with long tongues, such as butterflies and moths, can reach deep enough to hit the nectar and incidentally pick up the pollen.

Snow Trillium Ohio
And finally, I want to talk about a special flower. This is Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale. We have 8 species of trillium native to Ohio, with the most familiar being the Great White Trillium,
Trillium grandiflorum. Some of the other trillium species aren't as well known or widespread, and Snow Trillium is one such species. Aside from one random county in eastern Ohio, Snow Trillium is found scattered throughout southwestern Ohio. This range is not surprising, as Snow Trillium loves limestone-based soils, and southwestern Ohio has many appropriate areas. Even so, the presence of appropriate habitat does not mean Snow Trillium will be present; the Ohio populations are scattered and often in low numbers (aside from a few really good populations).

Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale
I've wanted to see Snow Trillium for several years now, but I never had the time nor means to travel to one of the populations. Until this year, at least. I learned of a population in Adams County, and on a free day during my spring break I drove the 1.5 hours from Athens to Adams County with the goal of finally seeing some Snow Trillium in bloom. It was an easy enough goal, as I saw my lifer Snow Trillium even before stepping onto the trail! And I have to say I was thoroughly surprised; I had read that Snow Trillium is a small flower, but I had no idea just how small they were. They are downright minuscule. Just to give you an idea, I put my 2-inch wide lens cap next to some for a comparison. Really tiny, right?

You might be wondering why this species is called Snow Trillium. The name has to do with what time of year it blooms. Snow Trillium is an early bloomer, blooming in mid March here in Ohio. Oftentimes this is still early enough for it to snow, and the blooming Snow Trillium might find itself dotting a snowy landscape. The early settlers called this trillium species Snow Trillium as a result, to help separate it from the later blooming trillium species, which bloom after the winter snows end.

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Do you love spring wildflowers? Do you live in Ohio? Do you want to keep up to date with what species are blooming where in the state? If so, you're in luck! Every spring, ODNR has a bloom tracker which gets updated weekly. This tracker tells you what species are blooming, and where they are currently blooming. To see the weekly reports, just click on this link!