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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Black Fork Bottoms

Just returned from a unique area outside Ashland Ohio. Black Fork Bottoms is both a natural area and a public hunting area. It is being managed by the Ashland Park System and Pheasants Forever. The area is rich in diverse habitats, so let's take a tour.

The center of the property is surrounded by both upland and bottomland hardwood forest. Growing along the edges is the common Wild Cucumber, Echinocystis lobata. This is a spreading herbaceous vine whose white flowers have 6 petals.

Wild Cucumber is a member of the Gourd family. It's the star-shaped leaves that grabbed my attention. There is another  close relative whose leaves look nearly identical.

Here is the relative I mentioned. This is Bur Cucumber, Sicyos angulatus. It's fruit is in a star shaped cluster and contains many bristly spines. The fruit of Wild Cucumber is single and looks like a mini cucumber or watermelon, and also has spines. The flower of Bur Cucumber has only 5 petals.

As we head out of the woods towards the marsh, we come across a small stream. Bordering its edges are lots of Sandbar Willows, Salix exigua (interior). Sandbar Willow is often overlooked or simply mistaken for Black Willow, S. nigra. Black Willow attains a large tree size, where Sandbar Willow is more of a large shrub. It forms dense thickets, and has two-thirds less teeth on the leaf margin. From a distance notice the bluish-white color.

Growing under the willows is the Asiatic Dayflower, Commelina communis. It may be exotic, but the true blue color is definitely eye catching. It is commonly cultivated in gardens, but can become hard to control once it escapes. The flower has two blue upper petals and a reduced white petal below. Our native Dayflowers have three blue petals.

As we leave the stream area, we make our way over to the swamp and marsh site. I can only imagine the variety of aquatic plants blooming here earlier in the season. Being late August, there wasn't much in flower except this Swamp Smartweed, Polygonum amphibium. Sometimes called Water Knotweed, this Smartweed has two forms, one with the leaves growing erect in the air, and another that floats on the water surface.

Swamp Smartweed is one of the most robust and showy of the Polygonum species. There are other pink smartweeds in Ohio, but their flowers are smaller in size. These are important foods for waterfowl, and Black Fork Bottoms has recorded many duck species during migration.

As you leave the marsh and continue upward, the area becomes a large grassland. It was formerly an agricultural field, and is now being established as a prairie. Canada Wild Rye, Elymus canadensis, is considered an early successional species, which is why we found it more often on the edges of the site rather than in the middle. It makes a good cover plant, and can be used as part of a hay mixture. In prairies it's ideal to plant both warm and cool season grasses. Wild Rye is a cool season grass.

Nitrogen fixing legumes such as this Alsike Clover are also nice to have in an open field.

Walking along the edge of a prairie, Queen Anne's Lace will still be abundant. In a couple years of management though, this species will disappear. Of course what caught my eye was this Praying mantis sitting on top. This is not the Chinese Mantid we are all familiar with, but a much smaller species known as the European Mantis, Mantis religiosa. Notice how the wings extend all the way to the end of the abdomen. In the similar sized Carolina Mantis, the wings, (especially in females) only cover half the body. Also different, but not seen in this picture, are the two black spots, looking like eyes, at the base of the raptorial front legs.

Even though this is a non-native species, I hear that some states like Connecticut, recognize it as an important species and protect it. I find that bizarre.

Bustling among the ground plants is the common Eastern Tailed Blue. Although it is abundant just about everywhere, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take another shot of it.

Standing among the Big Blue Stem was a large composite common on prairies known as Prairie Dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum. This species can take several years growing its roots before blooming, but once established adds to any prairie. I've seen this plant get 10 foot tall. There were many other prairie species growing here, but I will post them in a two part prairie blog in the future. I understand Guy Denny is the person who worked on this site, and I wish to verify some of the plant I.D. with him first.

As we made our way back to the starting point, this beautiful darner dragonfly appeared. Neither Alex or I recognized it, and turns out it was new for both of us. This is the Lance-tipped Darner, Aeshna constricta. When identifying darners, you need to look for several things. The arrangement of body spots is often more important than the color. The wings were a smoky or dusky color, not perfectly clear.

Then you have to look at the stripes on the side of the thorax. Notice how the first green stripe seems to be "squeezed" in the middle so it doesn't appear straight. Hence the name, constricta.

Unlike pond dragonflies which continue to patrol their territories back and forth, forest dragonflies are more weary. Try not to miss your chance. If you scare them too much while photographing them, or when trying to capture them, they will fly to the tree tops and just sit there till you leave. Luckily there were several of them, affording us multiple opportunities.

I should mention that this is a female. You can barely see the black sword shaped ovipositor under the end of the abdomen. Instead of yellow-green, the males of the species are blue.

Speaking of new species, this Damselfly is another I didn't recognize. Unlike dragons, damselflies are small and fly slow. You can't usually spot them walking along a trail. You have to STOP moving, then look around. But like dragonflies, the identification is in the details. This critter has small yellow rings around each abdominal segment, a white tip at the end, and most importantly, the green stripe on the back of the thorax is broken by a black spot. The only thing I know that has that is the Fragile Forktail, Ischnura posita. I did not collect it, so I can't verify it. Any corrections are welcome.

In the same group as the above, a very common species is the Eastern Forktail, Ischnura verticalis. Every abdominal segment is marked with iridescent green-black. This should help in separating it from other orange damsels.

I had a lot of fun shooting the wide array of Orthoptera around the area. This stocky one I'm not sure about. Looks like Melanoplus differentialis, the Differential Grasshopper. If so, it's a major pest of many agriculture crops, and considering where we were, it would be no surprise.

I see Snowy Tree Crickets all the time, but I haven't come across this in awhile. It's the Black-horned Tree Cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis. The ghostly white eyes against the black thorax, legs, and antennae separate it from the other species of tree crickets. It's a grass feeder, and was just resting on the milkweed. This is a male. Males have much broader, rounded wings, where females are long and skinny.

Everyone is familiar with the common black Field Crickets, but here is another relative, the Red-headed Bush Cricket, Phyllopalpus pulchellus. To tear apart the name, both the head and thorax are red. Though called Bush Cricket, I almost always find these guys crawling on the ground. The antennae are long and white. Those black structures coming off the head are mouth palps. The palps somewhat resemble mandibles, and it has been discussed that these may be mimics of Ground Beetles. Another common name is the Handsome Trig.

Continuing with the Orthops, in a previous post I illustrated a gray version of the Carolina Grasshopper. I just wanted to show another color variety.

The most colorful creature of the day was this young grasshopper nymph, probably a Melanoplus species. You would think with these bright colors, finding a species name would be easy. On the contrary. After looking at hundreds of plates, I gave up. Because so many grasshoppers change color as they grow, I'll quote a more respected entomologist than myself. "Trying to identify grasshopper nymphs like this is impossible, it can't be done". That means I'm done with it. This time I will simply appreciate it for its striking color pattern.

Since we are covering some of the Orthoptera, I thought I'd show you the boss of all Grasshoppers. The common name is "Hopper", and the latin name is Kevinis spaceyii. Ahhhh, the world is a bugs life.


  1. As we head out of the woods towards the marsh, we come across a small stream. Bordering its edges are lots of Sandbar Willows,evergreens

  2. Hi, I think your Red-headed Bush Cricket is actually a Handsome Trig. Great pics. It's amazing what's right in front of us and what we miss. Take care.