Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Out Hunting Tigers

What, you were expecting something else? I'm talking Tiger Beetles.

Tiger Beetles are in the family Cicindelidae, or often just lumped in with the Ground Beetle family Carabidae. Tiger Beetles are recognized by their long legs, and they appear to stand high, like on stilts. These are the guys who fly right in front of you, landing 6 feet away, then flying another 6 feet as soon as you approach them. You can see in the picture they prefer open ground. Paths, dirt or mud flats, and sandy open areas.

Big bulging eyes is another character to look for. Many species are iridescent green.

Tiger Beetles are predators, and are equipped with large curved mandibles for hunting.

The best way to identify tigers is by the arrangement of the white spots on the wings, and they can vary within a species. This one is Cicindela rufiventris, which essentially translates to Red-bellied Tiger Beetle. Though not visible here, a red abdomen can be seen when they take flight.

Here was the trophy I went hunting for. This is Cicindela splendida, the Splendid Tiger Beetle. These are rare beetles. Known from only 5 counties in West Virginia, and only 3 counties in Ohio. A couple years ago Alex Webb found a large population of them on our land lab, making Athens County the fourth known location.

This is a brilliant looking beetle whose head and thorax are bright blue and green. The elytra are a deep red color. No other eastern tiger has this color combination.

You can see the elytra is damaged on this specimen, most likely because it's an old carryover from the spring population. They will raise another brood that appears again in late summer-fall.

I had hoped for more than two tigers, but there were plenty of other things to see. This is the caterpillar of a silk moth known as Hemileuca maia, the Buck Moth. It's a day flying moth that comes out in October. Below it is not another larva, but the hollow shed skin of the caterpillar above. Be careful handling these guys. The spines inject a poison, and the pain is intense.

One would think hunting in open fields, I would have bagged lots of phuail, quesant, and wabbits, but I wasn't doing that type of hunting. Like tiger beetles, flushing out grasshoppers is a common thing. What's noticeable on this one is the markings and noise they make in flight. This is Arphia sulphurea, the Yellow-banded Grasshopper.

Even after stunning him with a net, it was not very cooperative when I tried to open the wing. Anyway, you can see where the name comes from.

The previous grasshopper belongs to a family known as Short-horned Grasshoppers. This relative is a Tetrigidae, Tetrix arenosa, the Obscure Pygmy Grasshopper. If you look at the back of the head where the thorax begins, you will see the 'collar' continues all the way down the back, unbroken. If you look at the last species you will see the thorax has a break line where the wings start to grow. This is how you separate the families, and not presume these little guys are just baby grasshoppers.

In my wetland wildflower post, I illustrated the Fringed Loosestrife. Sometimes the petals end in a single pointed tip, others like this will have the entire petal margin with a fringe.

While looking at the Loosestrife, I noticed right below me a small Paper Wasp nest. Wasps hunt for meat not nectar, which is why they don't overwinter in their nest or hives. In Paper Wasps, only mated queens will overwinter. She alone builds the nest, and after the first generation hatches, she will no longer do any of the nest work.

Many wasps cover their eggs to protect them and control the temperatures. Paper Wasps leave their combs open, you can see an egg sticking out of a cell. This wasp continued to buzz its wings from time to time as a method of cooling the nest.

If the paper wasps aren't bad enough, the flowers, in this case, mountain mint, are full of Mason Wasps like Monobia quadridens.

Another species of day-flying Lightning-bug, Lucidata atra.

It's not unusual to see damselflies in open dry fields apparently no where near a water source. This is the Azure Bluet, Enallagma aspersum. All the blue damsels can be difficult to identify. Every abdominal segment, as well as the thorax and head markings must be examined.

Often confused with the Forage Looper, this is a Clover Looper. They are very common moths of open fields.

The dull brown and black markings take on a different appearance in full sunlight, making identification even trickier.

Very abundant during the summer in fields is Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a member of the aster/daisy family. The plant contains chemicals very similar to that of aspirin.

There are many white flowers in open fields, but the very fine fern-like leaves are distinct on Yarrow.

Crawling around the ground looking for a meal was this Bee Assassin Bug, Apiomerus crassipes. The abdomen is flanged in this group, and sticks out beyond the wings. The black and red pattern denotes the species. This species is covered in stiff hairs, and it often results in having dirt and dust stick to the body. Other than body shape, looking at wing veins can separate many of the True Bug families.

Assassin Bugs have very long thick beaks ideal for penetrating the bodies of other insects. As the name implies, the Bee Assassin does seek out bees to pierce and suck the body fluids.

On a less gruesome note, with summer comes the ripening of Dewberries. A Dewberry is essentially a three leaved Blackberry that grows along the ground rather than upright. The fruit is less sweet than Blackberry, yet still quite edible.

If that isn't good enough, the Raspberries are also ripe. Raspberries differ from Black and Dews by having white under the leaves, and the fruit is hollow when picked. Time to gather both of these fruits and head home.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mill Creek Metro Park, Boardman OH.

Mill Creek in Mahoning County is a Hemlock lined gorge that I've tried repeatedly to visit this spring, but you know how the rain was unending. Finally with summer here I'm getting a chance to explore.

I missed all the spring species, but the Rhododendrons are starting to bloom. This is the Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. The park has an abundance of these planted, and the gardens are full of many varieties. More on the arboretum later.

Driving along the road, a bright red plant caught my eye. This is Red Elderberry. Sambucus racemosa (pubens). While occasionally found in some southern Ohio counties, it's primarily a Northern Hardwoods species of Michigan and Canada. In Ohio it is most common in the North-East counties. The flowers and fruit occur in a panicle form, narrow at top, wider further down, not flat-topped like our purple fruited Common Elderberry. The red fruit is NOT edible.

Already going to fruit is Ostrya virginiana. Called Ironwood, the preferred name is Hop-hornbeam. That is due to the resemblance the fruit has to Common Hops, the plant used to brew beer. Each air filled sac contains a hard nutlet. Green now, they will turn brown come fall. There are hairs on both the fruit and its stem. I have handled planted varieties of this where those hairs act like Stinging Nettle!

Another plant I ran into is this Poison Ivy look-alike. I haven't seen this in quite some time. It's Fragrant Sumac, Rhus aromatica. It has three leaflets like poison ivy, which may be why more people don't approach it. It's a shrub, smaller than the other sumacs of Ohio. The male flowers are in a catkin form, also different than other sumacs. Crush the leaves for a very agreeable odor.

Fragrant Sumac does not have large panicle shaped fruit either. The clusters are round, golf ball to tennis ball sized.

Why it looks like two doves kissing. Walking along the wet areas I came across the Water-Willow, Justica americana. They are common along lake edges, and can form large dense stands. The flowers are irregular and blue and white.

Also found in semi wet areas were these small plants known as Forget-Me-Not, Myosotis scorpioides.

Another very small flower I noticed had me for a minute. The flowers look like a Wood Sorrel, but not with divided, fern like leaves. The long fruit clusters had me thinking Geranium. Turns out it's Herb Robert, Geranium robertianum. Commonly planted in gardens, it's a non-native species.

Speaking of gardens, Mill Creek has a very nice arboretum. I usually don't post species from such areas, but why not. The following are just a few non natives I came across. This one above is Smoketree. Named for how the flowers and fruit billow out in these plumes. Cotinus varieties are commonly used in landscaping, though there is a rare native species in the southern states.

Also common as ornamentals are the many many variations of Acer palmatum, Japanese Maple.

I recently did a post on woody plant blooms where I showed several Magnolia species. This is a gulf coast species known as Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana. It can be both deciduous and evergreen.
One of the best ways to separate it from other magnolias is to look for white on the leaf undersides.

Another plant I used to see a lot in the south was Hydrangea quercifolia, an appropriate latin name for a species called Oak-leaf Hydrangea.

By far one of the most mesmerizing plants in the gardens was this Globe Thistle, Echinops ritro. Don't stare at this picture too long, it may do funny things to your eyes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wetland Wildflowers

Ooooh how pretty. Well that's the only reason I put it in here. Bet it caught your attention. Too bad this is an exotic species that doesn't belong here. This Pink Water Lily has tons of varieties, and I wouldn't even venture to try and narrow the species down. Lake Hope State Park is full of these in the summer.

Common Arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia. While the leaves are variable, they usually end in these sharp downward pointing lobes, giving it the shape of an arrowhead. These are common in shallow marshes, and are important species in waterfowl management.

Often growing alongside arrowhead is Pickerel Weed, Pontederia cordata. It prefers shallow marshes. The plant has unlobed leaves and the flowers occur in a spike. Although native, it has a tendency to sprawl and take over an area. Water Hyacinth of the south also has blue flowers and is in the same family. It is very invasive and undesirable. Unlike Pickerel Weed, it has leaves that float on the water surface.

In early spring look for Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. The five petaled flowers grow in bunches like this in either marshes, boggy areas, or clean fresh water seeps. Look for it most often in open sunny areas.

"Is this the wildlife officer? This is a garden club member, please go down to the marsh and tell those people to stop removing our beautiful purple flowers." Yes, this has happened. Never mind the use of the word "our",  educating people about the threat of invasive species is now a part of ALL natural resource agencies. It's funny how wildlife management students say they chose that over nature interpretation because they don't want to talk to the public. Boy are they in for a surprise.

Dominating much of our marshland around the Great Lakes is the exotic Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria. It blankets areas in solid patches, not allowing room for any native species to flourish. Unless you're manipulating water levels, burning, mowing and herbicide won't work. Several species of beetles have been introduced to feed on the plants, but the best way to control it is to get down to the roots and pull them out. Once restricted to northern Ohio, I have seen it down here in Athens County, and clear over in Cincinnati. It is said a large plant can produce 2 million seeds a year, so you can see why we have our work cut out for us.

There are a lot of other native Loosestrifes in Ohio, including another purple one. This is a very common one found not only in wetlands, but any moist soil on woods edges. Fringed Loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliata. The tops of each flower petal end in a fine tip. The flowers usually droop downward.

Another Ohio Lysimachia is L. nummularia or Moneywort. It has small rounded leaves, much like that of Partridgeberry, and can form solid carpets on mudflats. It is non-native, and considered an escape from plantings. The common variety used in gardens is called Creeping Jenny.

Speaking of Partridgeberry, here is a member of that family, Buttonweed, Diodia teres. You nearly have to get down on your hands and knees to find this. It's quite small, the bloom is barely 1/4 inch across. The leaves are narrow or linear, and are sessile (no stems). I have found huge patches of this in dry pond beds, but being weedy, they are found in most habitats, including dry areas and disturbed sites.

Another member of the Pickerelweed family is Water Stargrass, Heteranthera dubia. It ranges from New England into the prairie states, and scattered locations further west. Look for this also on mudflats or in shallow waters of lakes. This is different than the Yellow Stargrass found in upland hillsides.

Nodding Smartweed, Polygonum lapathifolium. The flowers on this species tend to hang downward. For anyone who wants a challenge, tackle the genus Polygonum. Flowers can be erect or drooping, thick or narrow, pink or white. Usually you have to examine the sheaths on the stem for exact species I.D. Smartweeds are desirable in wetlands and are very important foods for waterfowl.

Another wetland plant often stepped over because of its small size is Phyla lanceolata. Known as Lippia, Frogfruit or Frogbit, it's a Verbena family relative. As with many of the plants mentioned, it can also form dense thickets on mudflats and shallow water areas. Individual flowers are irregular in shape. They are white to pink, and clustered around a maroon head. The small fruits are fed upon by ducks.

A much showier member of the family is Blue Vervain, Verbena hastata. Look for this in flatlands and wet ditches. This plant can reach 4-5 feet in height, and it has a square stem. Blue Vervain has a long list of historic uses as a home remedy, but like many herbs, it has no solid scientific proof, and therefor has never been approved.

A large showy plant of wetland edges is the Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. One of the few milkweeds found in wetlands, it has much narrower fruit and leaves than our Common Milkweed. The flower tops are white to pink, and the bottom portions pink to purple. The blooms attract many butterflies, and of course the Monarch feeds on the leaves.

Is it me or what, but seeing an Iris growing in a sedge meadow or along a shoreline does something that a garden variety just doesn't do. This is the Large or Northern Blue Flag, Iris versicolor. The beautiful color of this is made up of both petals and sepals. The very similar Southern Blue Flag, Iris virginica is restricted to the Gulf and Atlantic coast states.

Whether you describe them as helmet shaped, dragon shaped, or snakeheads, the Skullcaps are an interesting group of plants. This is one of the larger blooming species known as Marsh Skullcap, Scutellaria galericulata (epilobifolia). Generally they are 2-lipped, blue tubular shaped flowers. These square stemmed plants are members of the Mint family.

Similar in size and appearance is the Square-stemmed Monkey-flower, Mimulus ringens. More closely related to Figworts than Mints, the flowers are also blue-purple, but lack the 'hood' shape of Skullcaps. They are quite common in wet soils during the summer.

It's not often I get to find a real gem like this. You are looking at Michigan Monkey-flower, Mimulus michiganensis. Formerly a M. glabratus variety, it has been elevated to species level. This is an endangered species known from maybe 12 locations along the coastline of Michigan. This batch is from Beaver Island, where I spent a lot of time studying the flora and fauna. This population is found along a freshwater spring , and luckily in a protected area.