30 May 2011

Cee-lo in Indiana!

No... not that Cee-lo...

This Cee-lo... Coeloglossum viride var. virescens, aka Frog Orchid or Long-bracted Green Orchid. I had long hoped to see this inconspicuous orchid in a mesic upland forest setting in the Hoosier State, but until a couple of weekends ago, when Keith Board and I were aided by excellent directions to a known population consisting of a single plant, I had been skunked. Sure, using directions to find the plant wasn't the same as finding a population on our own, but it was still exciting, and now I have a better search image for finding this plant in its Midwestern habitats. At this location, it was surrounded by May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Clustered Black Snakeroot (Sanicula odorata).

Prior to seeing this species in Indiana, the only time I had seen it before was in Colorado, where the associated species and habitat were quite different; I posted about that find here.

Don't blink or you'll miss those flowers. In fact, as we approached the location, I spotted the plant, bent down and took a quick look, and told Keith it wasn't flowering. He told me to check again, and sure enough there were tiny yellowish green lips hanging down beneath the hood-like calyces. The flowers were quite a bit smaller than what I remembered on the plants I saw in Colorado; in Colorado, the plant is known as Coeloglossum viride ssp. bracteatum. All of the varieties and subspecies are now taxonomically lumped together, and the plant is currently known as Dactylorhiza viridis. No matter what you choose to call it, this is one cool orchid that was certainly worth the trip to see it.

22 May 2011

Tree Swallows

Binocular views of swallows are often less than satisfactory, as they quickly maneuver through the sky making rapid movements and sharp turns. That's why I was thrilled to get these shots of one of our more common species of swallow, Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor).

The bird in the photograph above is an adult male; the one below is a drab adult female. Some female Tree Swallows have more blue pigmentation in their feathers and thus more closely resemble the male.

I remember when I used to mow softball fields at Painesville Township Park in northeast Ohio, before I knew anything at all about birds, and the swallows (Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica), as far as I can recall) would dive-bomb me the entire time. It wasn't until a few years later when I realized that they weren't at all dive-bombing me, but instead they were feeding on the insects that I was kicking up with the mower.

14 May 2011

Final Shots of the Great Basin

I expect that this will be the last of my posts on my trip this April to the Great Basin Desert. Of the four deserts in North America, the Great Basin Desert is the largest and the coldest.

As I drove from Salt Lake City, Utah to Ely, Nevada, my first views of the Great Basin were of the Great Salt Lake Desert, pictured above. Deserts are defined as receiving less than 10 inches of precipitation per year or having evapotranspiration rates that exceed precipitation rates. These conditions, at least on an annual basis, are too dry to support vegetation.

As I continued west, I started seeing salt deposits in places. Eventually, the amount of salt deposits was greater than the amount of sand. At Bonneville Salt Flats (pictured above), the salt hardpan was all that could be seen for miles and miles, causing the desert to appear snow covered. This area is what remains of the 20,000 square mile and 1000 foot deep Lake Bonneville, which existed during the Pleistocene epoch.

Since the early 1900s, Bonneville Salt Flats has been home to the Bonneville Speedway, a test track where numerous land speed records have been set. In 1997, Andy Green set the current speed record of a staggering 763 mph.

After driving out of the salt flats, the scene became more like that above, with scattered big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.), saltbush (Atriplex spp.), and other drought-tolerant shrubs.

This is more representative of the portion of the Great Basin where I spent my two weeks.

As I hope you've been able to see through this series of posts, the Great Basin is home to many stunning views even before the plants begin to flower. As I've said in previous posts, I can't wait to get back here at some point when the vegetation is further along.

13 May 2011

Cave Lake State Park

On one of my final days in Nevada last month, I made a quick stop at Cave Lake State Park, which was just a few miles down the road from our hotel.

As dusk was rapidly approaching on both the day and my two week trip, I took a quick stroll on Twisted Pine Trail. Along the trail were numerous twisted trees, but most of them were cedars instead of pines. These twisted cedars provided intriguing photoraphic subjects.

The gravelly, mountainous desert yields harsh conditions for plants to thrive... I would love to see this place during the growing season.

It apparently doesn't take much soil for the cedars and pines to root into the limestone substrate.

Scenic views at Cave Lake were abundant; the shot below is from the end of Twisted Pine Trail.

I wish I had more time to spend at Cave Lake State Park and other natural areas during my short time in Nevada. Hopefully Lindsay and I can make time to visit this part of the arid west soon.

11 May 2011

Great Basin National Park

Still trying to get caught up from my Nevada trip last month, so here is another set of photos with little commentary. These photos were taken at Great Basin National Park during a quick trip I took there on 17 April.

No, my camera wasn't angled for the photograph above, though it looks like it.

A frothy stream through an aspen forest...

... and a few shots from the point where my trail disappeared...

04 May 2011

Comins Lake

As if we couldn't get enough birding in during our work days at Spring Valley, nearly every day on the way back to the hotel we stopped at Comins Lake. Located in Steptoe Valley, Comins Lake is an artificial lake that was created in 1953 when Highway 93 was realigned, damming Steptoe, Cave, and Willow Creeks.

Although dormant, the plant community immediately surrounding the lake appeared rather interesting, with a dominance of rushes and sedges.

On most days, we only spent a few minutes watching waterfowl on the lake, but on a couple of occasions when I had a bit more time I walked or drove around other parts of the lake and spent more time birding. Comins Lake was very productive and played a huge part in my reaching 80 bird species for my trip list.

I simply could not get enough of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus - now that's a descriptive Latin name if I've ever seen one... yellow head yellow head). These loud, obnoxious Icterids with bright yellow heads and striking white wing patches were present in large flocks every day at Comins Lake.

I'd only seen Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera, below) in books and photos, so it was a real treat to see this reddish duck on several occasions at Comins Lake. I was surpried at just how red the males were; females are quite drab, and I was really only able to identify them at long range by their association with the brightly-colored male.

Cinnamon Teals are dabbling ducks, meaning that they feed mostly at the surface. The two ducks below are diving ducks, meaning that they dive for food and often spend several seconds under water. This can be frustrating when trying to photograph them.

Above is a male Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) in breeding plumage. This is an unmistakable duck, with its powder blue bill, red body, black cap, white face, and rudder-like tail that often sticks straight up. If ever there was a cute duck, Ruddy Duck is it.

On the opposite end of the size spectrum for diving ducks is the much larger Canvasback (Aythya valisneria). Those of you familiar with aquatic plants will recognize the specific epithet of the Latin name for Canvasback as the genus for eel grass (Vallisneria americana). The winter buds and roots of Eel grass are said to be the preferred food of this diver during the non-breeding period.

We observed one or two Common Loons (Gavia immer, above) on the lake. One of its alternate names (Great Northern Diver) provides a precise description of the habits of this bird. Common Loons can dive up to 200 feet deep in search of fish to feed upon. Growing to over three feet long, Common Loons can weigh up to 12 pounds; they are not the most graceful of birds in flight.

A common bird on Comins Lake that was intermixed with American Coot (Fulica americana, not pictured) was the Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), known in some places at the Black-necked Grebe. The birds in the photograph above are in breeding plumage; in non-breeding plumage, they are much less spectacular, with a grayish body, whitish neck and face, and dark cap.

I only saw one gull that was close enough to identify during my trip. Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia, above) have black hoods when in breeding plumage, but in non-breeding plumage, as I usually see them in Indiana, they have white heads with a small black spot behind the eye. During migration, this species can be seen throughout nearly the entire United States, but to see them on breeding grounds, you would need to travel north to the taiga and boreal forest regions of Canada.

I was excited to see the bird in the photograph above, Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus). Brewer's Blackbirds are fairly uncommon in Indiana during migration, but this species is common in the western United States during the summer (and year round in some places). Brewer's Blackbirds can be difficult to distinguish from the more eastern Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), but males of the former are more glossy than those of the latter, and the female Brewer's Blackbird often does not have the yellow iris (seen in the male above), whereas the female Rusty Blackbird does have a yellow iris.

Finally, as I posted previously, one of the highlights for me at Comins Lake was American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana). This shorebird is primarily a western species, but I have seen them on one occasion along Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park. The very smooth looking plumage, white eyering, and upturned bill makes these birds look cartoonish to me.

Other birds of interest at Comins Lake included Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii), Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), Great Egret (Casmerodius albus), Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi), Gadwall (Anas strepera), American Wigeon (Anas americana), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca), Redhead (Aythya americana), Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Common Raven (Corvus corax), Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides), and Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).

01 May 2011

Nevada Sparrows

There were several sparrows that I hoped to see while in Nevada, and luckily I saw most of them. One (not pictured) was the very drab Brewer's Sparrow (Spizella breweri), which began showing up at Spring Valley the last week that I was there. Brewer's Sparrows are known from southwestern North Dakota to Texas and west in the United States, reaching north into southern Canada and wintering in Mexico. Another sparrow not pictured here was the Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) a beautiful sparrow with a grayish body, white face stripes and a striking black throat. Black-throated Sparrows are known from the deserts of the western United States and Mexico. Unfortunately, I only saw one Black-throated Sparrow on my trip. Yet another sparrow, which is shown below, was the Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli), with its distinctly gray head, black and white mustache stripes, and white breast with distinct stickpin. Sage Sparrows are known for running on the ground between big sagebush (Artemisia tridentata) plants with their tails up... a sight we got very used to seeing at Spring Valley. Sage Sparrows are known from the desert areas of the western United States.

Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus, below) is a primarily western sparrow that has a range reaching as far east as Ohio. I had seen this species in Indiana once before, but it was nice to get a good look with a mountain backdrop. Lark Sparrows have an intricate facial pattern and a dark stickpin on a white breast.

The much more widespread Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina, below) is found throughout North America. Chipping Sparrows are easily identified by their rufous cap, black eyeline, and clean gray breast.

I had also hoped to see some new junco species in Nevada, and my wish was granted. We did see the ubiquitous Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis, not pictured), but more exciting was the subspecies shown below, Oregon Junco (Junco hyemalis oreganus). Oregon Juncos have a black head that is distinctly separated from the brown back; they also have reddish flanks. Common in the western United States, Oregon Juncos rarely make it to Indiana. There has been a pair of Oregon Juncos in St. Joseph County, Indiana since December or so. The property owner has had at least one Oregon Junco show up for the past couple of years.

Another subspecies of junco that we saw was the Gray-headed Junco (Junco hyemalis caniceps), shown below. Note that you may need to click on this photo to see it enlarged to be able to see the junco. The light gray color and rusty back distinguish this subspecies from the other subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco. This is a western subspecies that breads from Colorado to New Mexico and that winters in Mexico.

Other sparrows not pictured here that I saw in Nevada were Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus), Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), and White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys).