Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wind-dancers of The Wilds

The Ohio Ornithological Society winter field trip to The Wilds

Open country raptors like Golden Eagles, Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls, American Kestrels, and Rough-legged Hawks bring their ancient wind-dance to the new landscape of The Wilds seasonally. The Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS) visits The Wilds annually to witness the spectacle at its wintertime best.

About 120 OOS participants and guests scoured The Wilds Saturday, January 19, 2008. Organizers Marc Nolls and Cheryl Harner assembled eight teams with skilled leaders, and excellent maps and descriptions, and they scheduled teams in a rotation through commanding observation locations through the day. Everyone had a chance to see great birds. The great birds made their rounds, too. Team radios crackled updates and whereabouts: "A Golden Eagle is going east between Jeffrey Point and the Visitors Center." and "Merlin over the parking lot!"

It felt like a day on the high plains of Montana. An Alberta Clipper had descended on the Midwest with real Arctic temperatures and a wind to bring them. The sky cleared by lunchtime, and the wind steadied to a northwesterly breeze: And, the raptors were soaring and kiting: Skilled wings used the wind effortlessly.

Hawks and falcons scribe lines and spirals in the sky, and suspend high over mousy fields as if held in place by kite strings. A tweaking of wing angle and tail position, an occasional flurry of shallow wing-flaps, and their continuing exquisitely skilled fine adjustments of wing-extension and alulae position keep the soaring birds in place, no strings attached. The wings of raptors know the breeze, and it's a wonderful thing to watch them soar.

My team saw numbers of beautiful Rough-legged Hawks in both light- and dark-morph plumages. These boldly patterned chunky small-footed lemming specialists from the tundra seemed right at home in The Wilds.

Northern Harriers were especially abundant through the day. Their nonchalance; their buoyant frolicking, winging over grass-tips, teetering for better hearing of squeaky voles, allowed an easy close look and an entertaining spectacle. Occasionally, an immaculate white and ice-gray colored male sporting ink-dipped wing-tips wandered through our view and we were awed by nature's perfected art.

Raptor numbers are high in wintering areas this season, due to low rodent populations in more northern areas. We saw high numbers of raptors.

I most enjoyed the Golden Eagle as it perched on a large sycamore branch overlooking the stretched pond below the visitor's center. Wind ruffled its golden hackles as it peered eagle-eyed across the landscape. Maybe it was interested in the Ring-necked Ducks, the American Black Ducks or Mallards, or the collar-banded Trumpeter Swans? I wonder if eagle predation effects reproduction among any of the globally rare species conservation biologists support and study at The Wilds? I’m sure there is room for both eagles and rare ungulid grazers in these wide-open spaces.

The best show of the day came at lunchtime for the first lunch-shift. Al Parker, Conservation Educator for The Wilds presented his illustrated tour of raptors found through the seasons at The Wilds while birders lunched in warmth behind glass. Right on cue, stage-left, enters a Golden Eagle, flying at eye-level, peering into the center through the glass while a gathering of birders peered out at the passing eagle (So I was told: I was in the second lunch group).

The Wilds is a pond-spangled grassland spanning 10,000 acres in the topsy-turvy landscape of coal country in Muskingum County, Ohio. Several neighboring counties support many tens of thousands of acres of similar landscape. These hills were denuded, excavated, and turned upside-down; then re-contoured into rolling hills with ponded ravines: Their strip-mined coal powered Baby-boomer abundance.

History is the best window for viewing a place. The biological history of Ohio coal country once was defined by forest giants and giant flocks of pigeons, Passenger Pigeons, now extinct. Today, humans rule. Modern anthropogenic paroxysms have reshaped the hills of coal county. Within just two-hundred years, the collective half-life of the once-upon-a-time forest giants, we have seen landscape change rivaling the Pleistocene. We rout that change.

Throughout The Wilds and beyond award-winning reclamation converted mining spoil to grassy turf, and small rodents found the new habitat. Now microtine rodents tunnel the turf, and abundant raptors listen and watch for a favorite meal; chubby meadow voles squeaking through the grass: A new ecology is introduced here.

The enormous biological diversity of the original mixed-mesophytic forest will never return to these hills, but so long as there are wide open grasslands with voles, the wind-dancers will return, and these new hills will host their simple new ecology.

See OOS President, Jim McCormac's blog for great pictures and more detail about the field trip. Jim and his teams put together great partnerships and bring Ohio naturalists together in great places: Thanks, Jim, and everyone else working to make these events so successful.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lightning makes kindling of hickory tree

Lightning strikes about 100 times each second somewhere on Earth (see NASA's Lightning Primer).

About 2000 active thunderstorms rain electrical discharges at any given moment, mostly during spring and summer.

One of these thunderstorms found this Lawrence County, Ohio hickory tree, a ready conductor between airy thermal and moist ground.

This tree shows damage from a double-strike, right and left spalls. Lightning's strobe-effect results from repeat strikes separated by 40 or 50 milliseconds. Two of these repeat strikes hit this hickory tree last summer. Each strike lifted a series of long splintery spalls exposing sapwood.

Lightning's enormous current is conducted mainly along surfaces: This is known as the skin-effect. The skin-effect often results in damage to the bark and outer sapwood of trees, leaving the core of the tree relatively undamaged. The spalls seen here are about two inches deep, at most.

This hickory is alive today, and may repair the damage, or it may be stricken in years to come by secondary infestations. Many trees heal-over lightning damage, and go on shading the forest floor for decades or centuries.

Many forms of disturbance modify forests annually, opening niches for diverse organisms. What insects or fungi are adapted to exploit frequent lightning damage?

Hickory splinters raised by lightning strike.

The lightning bolt's current was conducted through the inner bark and outer sapwood of this hickory tree. Internal moisture was flash-heated and instantaneously vaporized. The super-heated vapor expanded so rapidly it violently splintered bark and wood into kindling still dangling from the tree from high on a major branch, down to ground-level.

Lightning strikes occasionally result in forest fires, a natural and necessary force shaping forest composition. Most natural fires occur during dry summer months when thunderstorms are frequent and woodlands are tinder-dry. Oak seedlings and saplings survive fires more frequently than other young hardwoods like maples. Many forest professionals believe that fire-suppression during the 20th Century resulted in shifting forest compositions.

Prior to the era of massive cataclysmic wildfires resulting from accumulated logging-slash in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, fire was a cultural tool, not a cultural fear.

Mixed oaks, hickory, maple, and pine on shoulder of hill,
Brushy Fork area, Wayne National Forest, Lawrence County, Ohio.

Native Americans and early settlers were fire-savvy. They used fire as a primary tool for clearing forest undergrowth, influencing large mammal populations, and for slash and burn agriculture. They used fire without devastating consequences: Frequent fires reduce the likelihood of destructive conflagrations.

Numerous references to fire frequency are found in contact-period literature. One early reference may be found in the Diary of George Washington*. During October and November 1770, our future first president led an expedition to the Ohio County to survey and mark tracts of land for service-grants to Virginia military officers. Washington valued Native American first-hand terrain descriptions and landscape information. In an entry for November 4, referring to Native American description of the hills flanking the Ohio River across from Millersport, Ohio, Washington writes,

"& to the Hills, wch. the Indians say is always a fire to which the Bottom from the Mouth of the Kanhawa continues & then ends."

*The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 2. Donald Jackson, ed.; Dorothy Twohig, assoc. ed. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Recommended further reading: Stephen J. Pyne's Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982; paperback edition, University of Washington Press, 1997)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

American Pipits chill-out in Pickaway County, Ohio

Fourteen cold American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) reluctantly left the roadway to allow my vehicle to pass, then immediately returned to the roadway along Pickaway County's Canal Road. Several chose the blacktop for landing, waddle-stepping, tail-pumping, then sitting on their legs, feathers ruffled for warmth, as if the blacktop offered just a little more warmth. Others landed along gravelly edges to peck roadside gravel. Weather brought them into view: A New Year snowfall drifted under stiff breeze (8-15 mph) while bitter cold (14 F) froze surrounding moist agricultural fields preferred by pipits.

Snowy weather brings pipits to the roadside where they are easy to see. At other times they remain in barren fields where they are easily overlooked. This bird was photographed along Canal Road January 2, 2008.

American Pipits are common migrants through Ohio during the Fall. Most depart by early December, though some linger and are counted on Ohio Christmas Bird Counts each year. American Pipits were found on zero to three Ohio CBC's 1970 through the 90's (six CBC's in 85th count, four in 95th), then in the 2000's more and more frequently (a high of 19 CBC's in the 104th count). Bruce Peterjohn ranks them casual to rare through the first half of January and accidental thereafter (The Birds Of Ohio, 2001).