28 April 2011

Symbols of the Silver State

While in Nevada recently, I had the opportunity to shoot photographs of two of the state symbols.

The state bird of Nevada is the Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides).

The state flower of Nevada is Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).

I can clearly see why the Mountain Bluebird is the state bird, as it is abundant and brightly colored. Big Sagebrush as the state flower is an interesting choice. It certainly is abundant and it smells wonderful, but its flowers are individually inconspicuous. I would understand if it was the state plant or the state shrub, as in definitely deserves a place as one of the symbols of the Silver State, but surely there are common, widespread plants with more attractive flowers in Nevada.

Spring Valley

The part of Nevada in which I was working recently consists of a series of mountain ranges and valleys oriented north to south. The small town in which we stayed, Ely, is located in Steptoe Valley. To the west of Steptoe Valley is the Egan Range, and to its east is the Schell Creek Range. The highest point on both of these ranges is approximately 11,000 ft. Spring Valley, where we spent most of our days, is to the east of the Schell Range; the Snake Range borders Spring Valley to the east. The highest point in the Snake Range is Wheeler Peak, at over 13,000 ft. This is the highest point in Great Basin National Park, and the highest peak in Nevada. The highest point in Nevada is Boundary Peak on the Nevada-California border; this point is technically not a peak because the peak of the White Mountains (to which Boundary Peak belongs) is actually on the California side of the border.

Welcome to Spring Valley! Some of the more common plants throughout the valley include Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), Bud Sage (Artemisia spinescens), Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Yellow Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), Winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), and Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens). Unfortunately, very little was in flower when I was there.

During my stay, I took numerous photographs of this sagebrush desert valley with mountainous backdrop.

By the end of my trip, you couldn't take more than a few steps without seeing one of these reptiles darting into a burrow. This is a Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus graciosus), also known as a bluebelly because of the blue coloration on their undersides.

With all of the thorny, shrubby vegetation in the sagebrush desert, Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) are right at home, and by the end of my trip were one of our daily observations. These predators hunt insects, lizards, small rodents, and other birds, and then impale them on thorns as they tear them apart for a tasty meal.

Spring Valley is a windy place. We were battered by relentless winds nearly every day. As a result of these winds, dust devils like the one above are a common site.

Wheeler Peak was almost always in clouds or haze. Above and below are a few photos of Wheeler Peak when it was most visible.

In my last post, I mentioned that we watched the Burrowing Owl from 6:30 am to 7:00 pm. This gave us the opportunity to watch the sun go down on Spring Valley, and provided me with some interesting photo opportunities.

27 April 2011

Western Burrowing Owl

One of the highlights of my trip to Nevada was seeing a Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea), a small species of owl found in grasslands, deserts, agricultural land, and other open habitats. Burrowing Owls hunt both during the day and at night, catching mostly insects during the day and small mammals at night.

Why is it called a "burrowing" owl, you ask?

The photograph above says it all; Burrowing Owls nest and roost underground in burrows. Be sure to take a look at the top right portion of this photo, where you can see the approximately 8 inch tall Burrowing Owl perched above his burrow. Although Burrowing Owls are capable of digging their own burrows, they more often use burrows initially created by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, badgers, etc. They even find artificial structures, such as culverts, pipes, or burrows intentionally created by humans for Burrowing Owl use inhabitable. In fact, given the choice of an artificial burrow or a natural burrow, Burrowing Owls apparently often choose the manmade structure.

Even though they are able to use artifical structures as burrows, and even though they can withstand disturbance (see Jim McCormac's post on the Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral, Florida), Burrowing Owl populations are unfortunately declining. According to a source from California, the plummeting populations are due to several factors, including habitat loss and fragmentation, removal of rodents that create burrows later used by Burrowing Owls, burrow destruction, pesticide use, predation by non-native species, vehicle strikes, collisions with wind turbines, and shooting; in addition, many states allow "passive relocation" of the owls, but without creation of adequate artificial burrows there is no guarantee that relocated owls will survive (http://www.physorg.com/news204388626.html).

Burrowing Owls are very attentive and alert, but they blend in to their environment so well and stay so still that they can easily be overlooked or mistaken for a clump of dirt. While in Nevada, Brad Woodward and I watched a Burrowing Owl nonstop from 6:30 am to 7:00 pm one day. During that time, it only left its perch for 20 minutes, when it flew to its burrow as a Swainson's Hawk flew by. The only other movement we noticed was turning its head and ejecting a couple of pellets.

In addition to its small size, bright yellow eyes, white eyebrows, and white chin patch, Burrowing Owls have long legs and large feet, as seen in the two photographs below. They also lack ear tufts and are spotted on the back and barred on the front. These characteristics coupled with the habit of being perched on the ground are all you need to know you are looking at a Burrowing Owl.

You know what they say about owls with big feet, don't you?

One Native American tribe believed that Burrowing Owls were protective spirits for brave warriors, and their feathers were worn by warriors to frighten their enemies. You may think, "who would be afraid of this tiny, cute little owl..."

... after seeing the photograph above, I can see why this tribe thought their enemies would be frightened by feathers from a Burrowing Owl!

26 April 2011

Nevada Raptors

When I was initially asked if I would be interested in going to Nevada for work to do raptor surveys, my first thought was "Ferruginous Hawk!" I have always wanted to see this large, snow white-breasted Buteo, but living east of the Mississippi River there is little chance for me to see one along my day-to-day routine. During my two weeks in the Sagebrush State, we had numerous Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sightings, including one bird that was present in nearly the same location on our drive down Route 50/93/6 almost every day. Ferruginous Hawks can often be found on the ground or on low perches. The individuals that we saw were nearly all light morph birds; Ben Hess was lucky enough to see a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk during his time in Nevada the three weeks before I was there.

For the three weeks before I arrived in Nevada, Prairie Falcons (Falco mexicanus) were seen in abundance on our site every day, as reported by Ben. During my two weeks, however, they were replaced by the smallest falcon in North America, American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). We did not see any Prairie Falcons, but instead saw four or five American Kestrels each day, primarily in the late afternoon hunting from high perches or hovering.

Another raptor that I expected to see plenty of in Nevada was Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Unexpectedly, however, we did not see any Swainson's Hawks during the first half of my trip, but by the end of my trip we were seeing three to five each day. As with many of the other Buteos, there are light and dark morph Swainson's Hawks. The bird in the photograph below appears to be an adult of the intermediate phase.

Below is a photograph of what I believe to be an adult of the dark phase Swainson's Hawk. Note the dark face; the light and intermediate phases have white faces.

One of our highlights had to be seeing the juvenile Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) pictured below soaring over our site. These are enormous birds, reaching up to 30 inches long with a wingspan of over six feet. Juveniles usually show the characteristic white patches on the tail and wings.

I believe that the Golden Eagle below is also a juvenile, as I can still see the white tail patch. Note the small head in relation to the body, another characteristic of the Golden Eagle. The name of this species comes from the golden nape that is present on individuals of all ages and that can somewhat be seen in the photograph below. Also note the feathered legs on the bird in the photograph below.

Throughout much of the eastern United States, the "default" raptor that is seen along roadsides is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); this could not be said for the areas I saw in Nevada. Red-tailed Hawks that we see most commonly in Indiana are said to be the eastern subspecies (B. j. borealis). In Nevada, we most frequently saw the western subspecies (B. j. calurus).

Even within the western subspecies, there are light, dark, and intermediate phases. The bird in the photograph above is the light morph; the one in the photograph below is the dark morph. Thanks to Brian Wheeler for help with identifying this dark morph western Red-tailed Hawk. The dark morphs of all of these Buteos can be very difficult to identify, especially for someone not familiar with the western species in general.

Stay tuned, as I hope to post more photos from my trip to Nevada soon, if I can find the time.

22 April 2011

Goodbye, Nevada

Goodbye, Nevada. You treated me well.

The American Avocets at Comins Lake were a wonderful send-off.

More photos and commentary from my recent trip to Nevada yet to come. I apologize that I have not had time to blog in the last couple of weeks.

08 April 2011

That Time Of Year

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent 2 April 2011 in Attica, Indiana botanizing with Bill Ringer. We first visited Fall Creek Gorge (aka The Potholes) (shown below), and then spent some time in similar habitat on property owned by Bill and some of his neighbors.

Our target for the day, as determined when I first met Bill at the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) annual conference in November 2010, was Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale). Little did I know when we set up our excursion that fall day that I would have already had the opportunity to see this species in 2011 with Lee Casebere. Regardless, I met up with Bill last Saturday morning, and it was definitely worth the trip.

It didn't take long to find Snow Trillium (above), which was in bloom just outside of the parking area in a somewhat degraded calcareous upland forest. After seeing our first population of blooming Snow Trillium, we continued to hike, finding more and more Snow Trillium and discussing the other plants we were seeing along the way. Just like every other spring, I couldn't resist photographing the blooming spring wildflowers. I don't know what it is about them... my collection contains loads of photos of all of the plants included in this post, but every spring, I cannot resist the urge to photograph them again. Maybe it is the fact that these plants are adapted to bloom early enough in the year that the trees towering above them have not yet produced leaves, allowing enough sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor. Maybe it is the glorious array of color produced almost instantaneously after the much anticipated build up as the days get longer and the ground temperature increases. Or maybe, just maybe, it is that wait itself that makes this suite of plants so alluring. If Harger's Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis var. hargeri) bloomed in April, would we not display the same exuberance that we do at the first signs of the burgundy blossoms of Bloody Butcher (Trillium recurvatum)? It's just that time of the year.

You've seen them before, and you'll most likely see them here again next year, but I simply cannot resist. Above is Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and below is Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooms for a very short time, making it difficult to find that perfect plant to photograph. I can't say that I'd ever seen a plant at this stage, with the flowers still mostly closed but starting to open and with a pinkish tinge, somewhat reminiscent of a tulip (Tulipa sp.) flower.

The Bloodroot plants that I enjoy seeing the most, though, are those with open flowers and leaves that are still wrapped tightly around the stem, like the one below.

I had seen these wildflowers blooming already this year, but I had not yet seen the two species below.

Purple Cress (Cardamine douglassii, above) is sometimes confused with the more conservative Spring Cress (Cardamine bulbosa, not pictured), but the former has stems that are pubescent above, sepals that are usually deep purple at the tips, and petals that are often lavender (but sometimes white); the latter has stems that are hairless above, sepals that are usually green, and petals that are white). You can find Purple Cress in nearly any moist woods, regardless of how much disturbance has taken place. Regardless, each year, I take photos of this species the first several times I find it in flower.

And who can resist taking photos of flowering Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria, above)? This has to be one of the most interesting and attractive of the spring wildlfowers, does it not? Like many of the ephemerals, Dutchman's Breeches relies on insects for more than just pollination. In addition to the long-tongued bees that help this species to reproduce, ants play a very important role in seed dispersal of Dutchman's Breeches, as they find the sugary, fleshy seed appendages known as elaiasomes and take them back to their nest for a tasty feast. Unbeknownst to the ants, they are also spreading the seeds to new locations, giving rise to new populations of Dutchman's Breeches within the forest.

Finally, just a few more photos of Snow Trillium from last weekend, as my photographing obsession was taken to new heights with this species this spring (I took almost 100 photos of Snow Trillium at the three sites at which I saw it this year!).

The plant below was tiny, or my lens cap is enormous...

... and lastly, one of my favorite shots of Snow Trillium this year.

01 April 2011

Flipping Rocks And Logs

During the past several weeks, I've done a lot of rock, log, and moss flipping looking for salamanders. Lee Casebere came up to northern Indiana on 13 March 2011 to search for early Four-toed Salamanders (Hemidactylium scutatum), and Scott Holaday and I joined him in this effort.

Unfortunately, no Four-toed Salamanders could be found... the photograph above is from September 2003 in Michigan. We knew that it was a bit early to find salamanders, but we were looking more for habitat than anything else. The habitat that we were searching for was vernal pool with mosses at the waterline. Four-toed Salamanders also are found in bogs, near springs, and in swamps in scattered areas throughout much of the eastern United States. Mosses, especially fern moss (Thuidium spp.) and sphagnum (Sphagnum spp.), are important for this species because females lay eggs within and underneath them to keep the eggs moist and to allow the newly hatched salamanders to drop into the water directly beneath. Four-toed Salamanders can be distinguished by the black-spotted white belly and the tail that is constricted at the point where it meets the body.

The following week, I joined Lee in southeast Indiana to search for Four-toed Salamanders and Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea cirrigera).

Again, we struck out, sort of. We weren't able to find any Four-toed Salamanders or Two-lined Salamanders on this trip, but as you will see below, we did have a productive day, finding five other salamander species. The Two-lined Salamander pictured above was found in west-central Indiana on 2 April 2011. Lee had told me that they hang out under flat rocks in moving streams, and he was exactly right, as Bill Ringer and I found numerous individuals on our 2 April 2011 excursion. The wide, dark stripe down each side of the often yellowish body identify this species as a Two-lined Salamander. The range of this species in the United States includes nearly all of the states east of the Mississippi River. A Two-lined Salamander spends its first year as an entirely aquatic larva, so this species cannot survive in creeks that completely dry up late in the year.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), which is entirely terrestrial. The individual shown above was seen during my 13 March 2011 trip with Lee to southeastern Indiana. You would think that a species with "redback" in the common name could be identified by its red back, like the one shown above, but there is also a color morph that has a dark back and that looks very similar to the much less common Ravine Salamander (Plethodon richmondi). Redback Salamanders are known mostly from the northern states in the eastern half of the United States, but their range extends as far south as North Carolina along the East Coast. Redback Salamanders are found in forests and woodlands.

Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus fuscus), shown above, are dark colored and somewhat nondescript. In Indiana, they are only known from the southeastern quarter of the state, but their range within the United States includes most states east of the Mississippi River, plus Arkansas and Louisiana. This species can be found in springs, creeks, and streams, and Lee and I found several under rocks in flowing water on 13 March 2011.

The amphibian above just screams "if you eat me, you will pay." This is the eft stage of the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), and like many other things in nature that are brightly red or orange colored, the Eastern Newt is highly toxic. In fact, the skin of both the eft and adult stage of this species contains one of the most lethal toxins known to man, tetrodotoxin. The concentration of this chemical is much greater in the eft stage than in the adult stage. The Eastern Newt has three life stages... the aquatic larval stage, the entirely terrestrial eft stage, and the aquatic adult stage. Eastern Newts are found in forests with nearly permanent pools that accomodate all three life stages; they are known from most of the eastern half of the United States (to as far west as Texas).

The fourth species that Lee and I saw on 13 March 2011 was the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), shown above and below. As the common name implies, the skin of this species has a marbled appearance. This species is found in forests, including floodplains, flatwoods, and uplands. It is known from southern New England to Texas but has a primarily southern distribution. This is likely due in part to the fact that, unlike many other salamanders, Marbled Salamanders breed in the fall and overwinter as larvae. This gives them a competitive advantage and allows the larvae to feed on larvae of other salamanders in the spring. However, a species that overwinters in the larval stage is not well adapted to harsh northern winters.

This one sure looks happy, doesn't it?

Finally, one of the most attractive salamanders in my opinion is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), shown above. There is no question about where the common name of this species came from! Like many of the other species in this post, Spotted Salamanders are known from much of the eastern half of the United States, to as far west as Texas. Its habitat requirement is forest with ponds, such as flatwoods. According to Minton (2001), "When injured or roughly handled, these salamanders exude a white fluid from skin glands, particularly those on the tail. Upon touching some to my tongue, I noticed an astringent taste followed by slight tingling and numbness." Can't say that I would have tried tasting the exuded fluid had I seen it.

Minton, S.A. Jr. 2001. Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Academy of Science.