24 December 2011

Christmas Bird Counts

Going into this year's Christmas Bird Count season, I had said that with the irruption of Snowy Owls happening this year, it would be a failure if we couldn't find a Snowy Owl on one of our counts.  Luckily, Lindsay salvaged count season by finding the owl in the photo below.

No, it's not a Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) in the sense of the large, white, circumpolar owl species that's been observed at various locations throughout the Midwest this fall/winter.  It is, however, an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) that must have had its head sticking out of that Wood Duck box for quite some time to accumulate a layer of snow on its head... hence, a snowy owl!  I'll take it.  Lindsay found this bird while we were driving past a wetland in South Bend during the South Bend Christmas Bird Count on 17 December.  During our count, Lindsay and I tallied 34 species in our portion of the southwest sector, and 57 species were tallied in the South Bend circle overall (both tallies were right on the mean for this count).

The next morning (18 December), I was at it again, joining Kip Miller, Gabriella Meredith, and Sherry Manison for the Berrien Springs Christmas Bird Count in Berrien County, Michigan.  On that count, our foursome tallied 42 species; I haven't yet heard the total for the count circle, but Kip mentioned that due to the range of habitats it is typically one of the top five or so counts in Michigan.  Some of our highlights were Common Merganser, Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2), Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Swamp Sparrow.  Although not rare birds, we enjoyed nice looks at the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) and the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) shown above and below, respectively.

I have one more count to do this year, on 31 December in Elkhart, Indiana.  Christmas Bird Count season runs through 5 January 2012, so there is still time to join a count in your area.  If you've never done the Christmas Bird Count, I recommend it to beginners as well as experts.  The first count that Lindsay and I ever did was a Christmas Bird Count, and from that count we learned a lot about both birds and birding.

11 December 2011

A Siskin Surprise

This morning, I was looking out the window at our feeders and was pleasantly surprised to see a Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus), the first individual of this species that I've seen at our feeders this fall/winter. I later found a second individual as well.

Pine Siskin (above) and American Goldfinch (below)

Note the differences in the photos above and below between the Pine Siskin and the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  The other species with which a Pine Siskin could potentially be confused is a female House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), but the beak of the Pine Siskin is more sharply pointed, Pine Siskins are smaller than House Finches, and Pine Siskins usually have some yellow pigment in some of their feathers, most often on and/or behind the wing bar.

Pine Siskin (above) and American Goldfinch (below)

Like many other finch species that breed in Canada and only visit the continental United States in winter, Pine Siskins are considered an "irruptive" species.  This means that in some years, environmental conditions lead to large numbers of individuals of these species in areas further south of their normal range.  The Pine Siskin is the most common of these irruptive species, with a winter range extending in some years south into Central America.

Pine Siskin

We've had Pine Siskins at our feeders the past several years, with more in some years than in others, and with birds present for a longer period of time in some years.  I enjoy their presence, even though they can eat a tremendous amount of black-oil sunflower and thistle seed.  Hopefully they stick around all winter, and hopefully some of their irruptive relatives show up this year as well.

24 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wherever you may be this holiday weekend, we hope that you and your family enjoy your Thanksgiving feast.

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) Thanksgiving dinner at the Namestniks'

Happy Thanksgiving!

-Lindsay, Scott, and Bootypants

18 November 2011


You're probably going to have to think back to high school or college French class for this one... what the heck is a chouette?  Translated from French to English, a chouette is a small owl.  As you will see shortly, it is somewhat easy to understand why the French Canadians, upon first seeing the bird in the photographs below, would have called it a chouette. As time passed and the colloquial name chouette was used by more and more English speakng people, the name eventually became slurred and changed into saw-whet, and later this species was named the Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Face-to-face with a Northern Saw-whet Owl
On 5 November, members of South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society were afforded a unique opportunity to see Indiana's smallest owl, the Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), at Indiana Dunes State Park.  Brad Bumgardner, resident naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park, has been banding and collecting data on this species for several years, and because of a recent donation from South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society to help fund equipment necessary for banding, Brad invited our group for a private presentation on Northern Saw-whet Owls during the peak of their migration through the area.

Members of South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society watch intently as naturalist Brad Bumgardner collects data on a Northern Saw-whet Owl
We had a packed house for the event, and we were not to be disappointed.  The initial mist net check yielded no owls.  For the second net check, Dawn and Eric Scarborough and Lindsay and I went with the volunteers and were lucky enough to find that a Northern Saw-whet Owl had flown into the mist net in response to the speakers blaring out the calls produced by this species.  The volunteers bagged the owl and brought it back to Brad, and in front of the group he collected data and put an identifying band on its leg.

On the big screen, Brad collects data on the beak length of the Northern Saw-whet Owl
To allow more people to see what was going on, Brad worked beneath a camera and projected what he was doing onto a big screen.  With the data that were collected, Brad was able to determine that the bird we captured was a hatch-year female.

Reluctantly, the Northern Saw-whet Owl allowed Brad to place a band on her leg
Banding the owl allows it to be tracked as it is captured at other locations along its migratory route.  Later that evening, the volunteers found two more owls in the mist net.  One was believed to have been banded at Whitefish Point; the other happened to be the same hatch-year female that we had captured earlier in the night!

After data collection and banding, Brad took the Northern Saw-whet Owl on a tour around the room
Northern Saw-whet Owls aren't much larger than a can of pop, at 6.7-8.6 inches tall.  Their wingspan, however, reaches up to nearly two feet.  The weight of this nocturnal species ranges from 1.9-5.3 ounces.  Females are a bit larger than males.  Hunting takes place primarily at dusk and dawn, with small mammals (and particularly deer mice) being the prey of choice.  Northern Saw-whet Owls inhabit deciduous and coniferous forests with dense, shrubby understories.  They are found from southern Alaska to as far south as Mexico, and from coast to coast in the continental United States.  The year-round and breeding range is generally further north within this overall range, and they generally spend winters in the southern portion of this range; however, breeding occurs along the west coast as well as south through the Rocky Mountains into Mexico.  In Indiana, this species is primarily here during migration.

Not many people have the opportunity to pet an owl!
Thanks to Brad Bumgardner for an interesting evening and the chance to see this tiny but fierce predator!

05 November 2011

Safe Travels

In the last month, the shallow well that had provided Lindsay, Bootypants, and me with water at our home since we moved here in 2007 began to go dry.  This week, we had a new well drilled that should provide us with water for a long, long time.  What does this topic have to do with this blog, you ask?

Our old well pit
Our old well was located in a pit behind our house, covered by a wooden board.  When we first moved into our house, we looked in our well pit and were excited to find five Eastern Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum).  Thinking I was helping them, I moved three to our pond.  I then read somewhere that this species can thrive in well pits, so I left two of them in the pit.  They must have eaten well for the last four years, because when I removed the board from the pit this week the two salamanders still looked quite healthy.  Looking back at some notes I had taken on these salamanders a few years ago, I was reminded that I once saw one take a Common Pill Bug (Armadillidium vulgare).  In addition to insects, they also commonly eat worms, and large adults have been known to eat small frogs and even baby mice.

Eastern Tiger Salamanders in the well pit (one is beneath the PVC; the other is on the ground in the upper right of the pit (click on photo to enlarge)
Knowing that our well pit would be abandoned and that the drilling company would need to be in the pit to cap the old well, I decided that it was time to move the last two salamanders out of the pit this week.

Eastern Tiger Salamander in well pit
I climbed down into the pit and removed the salamanders from what possibly was the only home they had ever known.  Eastern Tiger Salamanders are known to occur throughout Indiana.  There are several subspecies known from North America; as a species, Tiger Salamanders are known from most of the United States, with the exception of the Appalachians and the lower Mississippi valley.  The subspecies that we have in Indiana (subsp. tigrinum) is known from New York to Florida and west to Texas.

The last two Eastern Tiger Salamanders have been removed from the well pit
Eastern Tiger Salamanders are found in forests and prairies, usually near wetlands or ponds.  Although they require ponds for breeding, this species spends much of its life, especially as an adult, in uplands.  It seems to require loose soils, as its habits are to burrow into the ground or to use the burrow of another small animal.  Unlike many other salamander species, the Eastern Tiger Salamander can persist in areas with heavy anthropogenic influences, such as in cities and in farmland, so long as they have adequate breeding habitat.

One of the salamanders had a more marbled appearance
The two Eastern Tiger Salamander individuals looked quite a bit different, as seen above and below.  One was much more marbled, whereas the other was somewhat spotted. 

The other salamander had a more spotted appearance
So, I took the two salamanders to an area on our property near our pond.  We don't really have loose soil, so I put them near some downed wood so that they would at least have cover.  When I temporarily put them in the lawn for photos, they quickly began to burrow in, and were difficult to get out.  I'm hoping that they quickly burrowed in where I released them as well.  As soon as I walked away, I thought to myself, "that might have been a bad idea... that sure looked like a good spot for garter snakes."

A final look
Now, I can only hope for the best for them.  Good luck, salamanders.

29 October 2011

It Ain't Over Quite Yet

In keeping with tradition, below are photos of Greater Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) from a wet sand prairie in Griffith, Indiana.  It seems that each of the last three years, I've posted photos of this species from different sites and different habitats.

It is difficult not to love the fringed, blue blooms of Greater Fringed Gentian.

I saw these plants flowering earlier this week.  Although fall has nearly seized the last of summer's blossoms, a few of the hardiest plants are putting forth a final effort before frost drapes us with dormancy.

The Field Botanist

My coworker Abby recently sent me the quote and picture of an engraving below, which reminded her of her first summer of monitoring with Tony and me. I liked them so much that I created a poster out of them...


A happy 9th anniversary!

23 October 2011

The Forsaken Flora

Ever wonder, as you're cruising along the interstate at 70+ mph, what plants are growing in the harsh environment created by asphalt-induced higher temperatures, vehicle-created winds, and runoff including road maintenance chemicals?  If you're like most people, probably not... there are plenty of other things to think about, like talking on cell phones, eating, and putting on make-up.  But if you're like me, observing the highway flora is a top priority.

Fetid Marigold thrives in a narrow band along the highway shoulder

Here in the Great Lakes region, our highway flora consists of an interesting assemblage of plants native to the Atlantic coast, plants native further west and south of here, opportunistic Midwestern natives, and your typical Old World weeds.  One of the most conspicuous is the low-growing, malodorous composite that forms a yellowish- to reddish-colored band immediately adjacent to the highway shoulder.  This is Fetid Marigold (Dyssodia papposa), a plant native through the Great Plains south to Texas, but introduced in the eastern and western thirds of the country.

Not much else grows in the zone with Fetid Marigold

Fetid marigold is so named because of the characteristic strong, unpleasant odor that is emitted from the glands on the phyllaries (you can see these glands in the photograph below).  The Latin name for the genus (Dyssodia) is Greek for "disagreeable odor."  In fact, in the 1800s, C.W. Short included on the herbarium specimen label of one of his collections of this species that "This plant is so abundant, and exhales an odor so unpleasant as to sicken the traveler over the western prairies of Illinois, in autumn."

The orange-colored glands on the phyllaries contain a watery liquid with the characteristic odor of Fetid Marigold

Fetid Marigold has an interesting history in the Chicago Region.  After being introduced to the area in the 1800s, it spread to nearly every road and trail throughout the region.  Between approximately 1930 and 1970, Fetid Marigold nearly disappeared from this area, but beginning in the 1970s, it again began to spread.  Now it can be found along most of our highways.

The habitat in which Fetid Marigold grows is not conducive to the growth of many other species

Another conspicuous composite found along our roadsides is Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens).  Unlike the previous species, however, Seaside Goldenrod has been introduced around the Great Lakes region from the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, where it grows in sandy soils and on the edges of salt marshes near the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  I have seen this goldenrod thriving in tiny cracks in concrete along Lake Michigan in Chicago, where no other plant dares to grow.

Seaside Goldenrod is tall and showy with fleshy, leathery foliage

Of the goldenrods found in the Chicago region, Seaside Goldenrod is one of the most attractive, as its individual flowers are quite large for a Solidago. Seaside Goldenrod has leathery, waxy leaves characteristic of many plants that grow in the harsh conditions adjacent to the ocean, making it well suited for the similarly windy and salty conditions that exist along our highways.

Notice the large flowers of Seaside Goldenrod

Saltmarsh Aster (Aster subulatus, or Symphyotrichum subulatum) has similar native and introduced ranges in the United States to those of Seaside Goldenrod, and the two are often found growing together.  Known locally in the Chicago region as Expressway Aster (for obvious reasons), this aster is somewhat inconspicuous, as it has very short light lavender ray flowers that are not much longer than the phyllaries.  It is an annual aster with smooth and somewhat succulent stems and leaves.

Saltmarsh Aster has short (but obvious) ray flowers

Saltmarsh Aster appears late in the season but can form near monocultures in places of high salinity.  At a location I visited for work twice in 2011, it was undetectable during my June visit, but abundant when I was back at the site in September.

Near monocultures of Saltmarsh Aster can be formed in moist to wet areas with high salinity

Another annual aster that grows in the salty zone along our highways in the Great Lakes region is Rayless Aster (Aster brachyactis, Brachyactis ciliata, or Symphyotrichum ciliatum).  Unlike the previous two species, Rayless Aster is native in the western United States and Canada, as well as in Eurasia.

Rayless Aster can be somewhat inconspicuous

Rayless Aster is probably the most inconspicuous of the species in this post, especially because its ray flowers, as the common name implies, are absent or undeveloped.  However, when in fruit, the fluffy pappus is quite noticable.

Although the ray flowers are lacking, the spreading involucral bracts are helpful in the identification of Rayless Aster

This just scratches the surface regarding some of the plants that make their home in one of our harshest environments.  Although all of these plants are non-native around the Great Lakes, they perform the difficult task of growing in an area that is too salty, windy, and sediment-covered for most of the other plants in our flora to survive, while at the same time going almost completely unnoticed even though they are probably amongst our most frequently seen plants.  Some of the other plants that frequently are found with these four composites in this unique habitat include Quack Grass (Agropyron repens), Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus), Triangular-leaved Orach (Atriplex prostrata), Expressway Sedge (Carex praegracilis), Oak-leaved Goosefoot (Chenopodium glaucum), Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Barnyard Grass (Echinochloa crusgalli), Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea), Squirrel-tail Grass (Hordeum jubatum), Burning Bush (Kochia scoparia), Willow Lettuce (Lactuca saligna), Salt-meadow Grass (Leptochloa fusca var. fascicularis), Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Knee Grass (Panicum dichotomiflorum), Common Reed (Phragmites australis), Sidewalk Knotweed (Polygonum arenastrum), Alkali Grass (Puccinellia distans), Alkali Bulrush (Scirpus maritimus var. paludosus), Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis), Lesser Salt Spurrey (Spergularia marina), Sheathed Rush Grass (Sporobolus vaginiflorus), Sea Blite (Suaeda calceoliformis), Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia), and Hybrid Cattail (Typha x glauca).

If you're ever in search of a new county or state record, I recommend looking for these rapidly spreading highway plants.  Three of the species above were new county records where I found them in Dane County, Wisconsin a few weeks ago.

17 October 2011

Still Time To See Sallies

When I received my most recent volume of Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, I found myself looking at a Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) on the front cover, and immediately thought of my searches for this species earlier this year (click here and here) with Lee Casebere, Scott Holaday, and Bill Ringer.  Upon looking at the first article, I was excited to read about the surveys for Four-toed Salamanders that Lee had done with Michael Lodato in Indiana during the past several years [Casebere, L.A. and M. Lodato. 2010. The Four-Toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) in Indiana: Past and Present. Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. Vol. 119 (2)].  After reading the article, I emailed Lee to let him know how much I enjoyed the article and that I hoped we could look for Four-toed Salamanders again soon because I needed to get some new photos of them (since the only time I'd ever seen one previously was several years ago in Michigan).  It didn't take long for Lee to write back and thank me for my compliment, and soon enough we had plans to go look for salamanders at Koontz Lake Nature Preserve on 15 October.

Our target, a Four-toed Salamander

It didn't take long to find our first Four-toed Salamander. Although this species was listed as endangered in Indiana until very recently, it was still a treat to find several of them on this blustery autumn day.

A white belly with dark spots gives away the identity of a Four-toed Salamander

The telltale identification feature of Indiana's smallest salamander is the polka-dotted ventral side, with dark spots on a white belly.  Other good identification features are the scaly back (this species was once known as the Scaly Salamander), the dryer texture, and the constriction at the base of the tail (where the body and tail meet).  Oh yeah, and they have four toes on their hind feet.  Males and females look similar, but the males have blunt snouts, whereas those of the females are rounded.

At up to 3 inches long at the most, Four-toed Salamanders are Indiana's smallest salamander species

The geographical range of the Four-toed Salamander includes much of the eastern half of the United States and into Canada to Nova Scotia, with a more concentrated distribution in the northeastern U.S., along the coastal plain, and around the Great Lakes.  Disjunct populations occur in the Ozarks, in the Florida panhandle, and in eastern Louisiana.  In Indiana, Four-toeds are found in sphagnum and tamarack bogs, near woodland springs, in swamps, and in forests with vernal pools.  Sedge clumps or mosses seem to be essential, as the species uses these microhabitat features for nesting sites.

Note the scaly skin and the constriction at the base of the tale in the Four-toed Salamander

Although Four-toed Salamanders were our target for the day, we had good luck with other species as well.  Blue-spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) were abundant.  Although they can be impossible to distinguish from triploids and hybrids of the Ambysoma jeffersonianum complex without genetic analysis, Lee felt pretty confident that the individuals we were seeing were most likely true Blue-spotted Salamanders, which seem to be confined in Indiana to the northern quarter of the state.

The coloration of this handsome Blue-spotted Salamander reminds me of one of the poison dart frogs in the rainforest

Slightly larger and definitely stockier than the Four-toed Salamander, Blue-spotted Salamanders rarely exceed five inches in length.  The species is known from the eastern provinces of Canada, from the New England states, and from around the Great Lakes.  In Indiana, they are often found in moist, sandy woods.

The third species that we saw was the one that we most expected to see, Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus).  There are two common color morphs of this species: one with dark sides and a wide red to orange midline stripe (the striped morph), and one uniformly dark above (the unstriped morph).  A third color morph (the red morph) is uncommon in Indiana and only found in southeastern Indiana; it is uniformly red to orange above.

Probably the brightest and largest Redback Salamander (striped morph) that I've ever seen

For more information on the habits, habitat, and range of the Redback Salamander, see my earlier post that includes information on this species.

The unstriped morph (leadback) Redback Salamander (above) can be confused with the Ravine Salamander (Plethodon richmondi), which is restricted in Indiana to the southeastern part of the state

Lee told me that this was one of the best days he has ever had in terms of number of salamander individuals observed; it was certainly my best ever salamander day as well.  In our three-and-a-half hours together in the field, we tallied 7 Four-toed Salamanders, 20 Blue-spotted Salamanders, and 31 Redback Salamanders (16 striped morph and 15 unstriped morph).  After Lee left, I spent another half hour and found an additional 4 Blue-spotted Salamanders and 1 unstriped morph Redback Salamander.  There probably aren't many days left this year when the sallies will be active, so get out there soon if you plan to find them before the snow falls!

09 October 2011

Wisconsin Point In August

When I was in Superior, Wisconsin this August for work, a few of us took some time on our day off to visit Wisconsin Point, part of the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.  Although many people visit Wisconsin Point to see the historic lighthouse, we were there to see interesting plants.  Below are some of the highlights.

Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus) is an attractive legume of sandy beaches and gravelly shores that has a broad geographical range, known from four continents (North America, South America, Asia, and Europe).  The hard coat and high buoyancy of its seeds allow them to remain viable for many years as they float to far reaching parts of the world.  Although its populations are stable on the shores of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, Beach Pea is listed as endangered in Indiana and Illinois and threatened in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. 

Within North America, Beach Pea is known primarily from the Pacific Coast in the northwestern United States and north into Canada and Alaska, from the Great Lakes coastal beaches, and from the Atlantic Coast in the northeastern United States north into Canada.  There are also a few records from shores of inland lakes.  Several varieties of this species have been described.

The grapeferns that I see most frequently in northern Indiana are Rattlesnake Fern (Botrychium virginianum) and Cutleaf Grapefern (Botrychium dissectum), so it was nice to see another species for a change.  The plant in the photograph above is Leathery Grapefern (Botrychium multifidum).  All of the plants in the population had very short fronds, barely 7 cm long to a bit longer than 7 cm.  This fern is primarily known from much of the northern half of North America, but it is listed as endangered or threatened in several states.  It is most often found in fields, but is also found in forest openings.

We were lucky to see the orchid shown above and below, as it nearly blended in with its surroundings.  This is Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata), a plant primarily of the Upper Great Lakes and New England states, as well as the adjacent provinces in Canada.

Endangered or threatened in several states, Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain grows in forests ranging usually from dry to moist, but often with rich soils.  It is sometimes found in white cedar swamps and on margins of tamarack-spruce bogs.

Like other members of the genus Goodyera, Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain persists as an underground plant for many years before sprouting a basal rosette (shown above).  The basal rosette then persists for several years before the plant produces a flowering stalk.  After flowering, the visible part of the plant that flowered dies, and a new basal rosette is produced.

Although a common element of the boreal forest, I was very excited to see so much Narrowleaf Cowwheat (Melampyrum lineare), as this species is listed as rare in Indiana; it is also considered threatened and endangered in other states within its range.  Narrowleaf Cowwheat is a species with an affinity for boreal regions, but it is also found in several states throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

Narrowleaf Cowwheat is sometimes parasitic on the roots of other plants.  It grows in moist to dry forests  (often in pine woods and boreal forests) and in bogs.

I always enjoy getting out to see some of the natural areas when we are working in the northwoods.  Many of the plants that are somewhat common there are uncommon or nonexistant in northern Indiana, so a trip into the field makes being away from home for a week or more a bit more tolerable.