Water Creatures

For a couple of months during the winter, we usually pack up the camper and head to Florida to explore nature. And yes, to enjoy the warmer temps and sunshine. That trip usually includes bringing the canoe and spending time with friends. It allows us to see nature up close and personal. Sometimes it can be a bit “too close” and involves some maneuvering.

But what you see can be mesmerizing. Or entertaining. Or funny and cute. And sometimes not quite so calming… Sometimes it’s what’s keeping an eye on YOU.

Yes my friends, there definitely are alligators in Florida. And when you’re paddling in a canoe you see them. You also see them when hiking. But sometimes these little guys (in the photo below) fall under the category of “cute.” Unless Momma is nearby, which she probably is.

Baby gator hatchlings are only about 7 inches long, give or take, and require protection by Momma to keep predators away. Racoons, snakes, birds, otters and even other gators find these little guys appetizing. Baby gators tend to stay together in a group when they’re young, and you often see this out in the wild. Sometimes they stay close to Momma for two or even three years for protection.

But I digress. Let’s move onto the category of mesmerizing. When people hear you’ve been to Florida, the most asked question tends to be Did you see alligators? We know the answer to that one, but the second most asked question is Did you see manatees? And the answer to that is also Yes!

Paddling near the mouth of a natural spring that flows into the Suwannee River at Manatee Springs State Park we saw about a dozen manatees gently floating leisurely by enjoying the warm waters. It’s difficult to photograph a manatee. But look at the horizontal shape amongst the reflections of the trees on the surface of the water in the photo above.

Their front flippers help steer them through the water while the large tail provides the power to move them forward. These gentle giants are threatened due to a number of things including boats collisions, entanglement in fishing lines, harassment, habitat loss and starvation. They are protected by State and Federal law in Florida, and we can only hope they continue to survive.

Paddling around Florida’s waterways always provides a look at many creatures that love water. From shorebirds along coastal waterways (like this Brown Pelican that came in for a bouncing landing), to inland lakes with those creatures that focus on fish as a mainstay of their diet, like the Osprey.

Otter Lake in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is surrounded by towering Bald Cypress trees. The water is vivid blue and on windless days it’s smooth as glass. Sunlight reflects tree images on the water while Ospreys glide overhead.

The Cypress trees towering height make excellent locations for Osprey nests. The trees provide nest locations that offer easy approaches for the birds and good visibility to watch for potential predators.

An Osprey is considered a type of fish-hawk and eats almost exclusively live fish (although there are some exceptions). So having waterways nearby with ample food supply is critical.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is also a haven for water creatures. From the shy little Pied-billed grebe (which is not a type of duck) to beautiful Redhead ducks and more.

Pied-billed grebes are quite common in most of the U.S. I find it entertaining with it’s quick little dives to avoid being seen. Did you know Grebes eat large amounts of their own feathers. This helps block indigestible items long enough that they can form a pellet (which also includes those feathers amongst other things) they can regurgitate. And they’re the ONLY bird that does this.

And now on to the aforementioned Redhead ducks – a diving duck that’s interesting to observe. Talk about a beautiful creature, wow! As with many birds, the male is always the most colorful of the pair. According to Wikipedia, Redhead ducks make up just 2% of the North America’s duck population. Maybe it’s no wonder I don’t see them very often!

On this day we found them sharing the pool of water with a couple of American Coots. According to what I’ve read, Redheads are very “social” ducks and this photo appears to concur with that.

But Wood ducks are equally as resplendent as the Redheads, at least I believe so. This beautiful pair were remarkably calm and stood quite still for this photo. Generally I find Wood ducks to be quite shy.

And speaking of water creatures that are shy, how about the North American river otter? I rarely see them out of the water, and generally just see them quickly swimming away. But not on this day. Mother nature was kind to us and decided to share their beauty with observers paddling by. These guys were as curious about us as we were about them!

I’ve read river otters can be up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds. The males are generally bigger, so I’m guessing that this might be a male due to its obvious size. They’re playful creatures, and on this day we found them scrambling about with several other otters as we paddled along.

And there you have it. Just a few of the water creatures we were able to share our time with while in Florida this year. Oh, there’s lots more photos to come in some future blogs. Nature has a way to mesmerize and amaze, and it’s so beautiful you just have to share it!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close!

The Bees Among Us

When I became a Volunteer Naturalist several years ago, I imagined birds would become my passion and primary area of interest. And they did, for a few years. (Although I have to admit they still do when it comes to colorful migrating warblers or seeing fledgling Eastern bluebirds in the spring.) Then I thought perhaps plants would become my focus, as I love spring wildflowers and colorful perennials which attract pollinators and butterflies. But what has really garnered my attention surprisingly is native bees.

When the word “bee” is mentioned most people tend to think of honey bees or the pesky yellowjackets which are everywhere in the late summer/early fall. Honey bees are actually native to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. They are not native to the U.S. And yellowjackets? They’re not a bee, but rather are a type of wasp.

So what are native bees you might ask? Well there are probably about 400 to 500 bee species native to Ohio. And there’s a wide variety of them, from the tiny little iridescent sweat bee…

to the large bumble bee, which is big enough you can’t miss it.

Two-spotted bumble bee (B. bimaculatus) on clover

Bumble bees are generalists. That is, they obtain pollen and nectar from a variety of plants, which is a good thing as it helps supply them with food from early spring into fall. You will often see them fly from flower to flower, generally staying with the same species of plant rather than to just any flowering plant in front of them. I’ve heard that is because it is easier to remain with the same flower type (on each pollen/nectar run) to make it rather “mindless” to find the pollen and nectar but I don’t know if that’s true.

Black and Gold bumble bee (B. auricomus)

Unlike honey bees which can overwinter in hives and survive for sometimes several years, most bumble bees have a short lifespan in comparison. Queens can live generally a year, while worker bumble bees may only survive 3 to 6 weeks depending upon their job within the colony and their species.

The lifecycle of a bumble bee is quite interesting and truly amazing. In the fall, a mated queen will seek shelter underground, where she will go into a type of hibernation for the winter. All by herself.

In the spring, she will emerge when the temperature is warm enough. She will feed on pollen and nectar to gain her strength, then she will roam just above ground level seeking a suitable structure for a nest. Perhaps an old rodent nest, in leaf litter or near old logs. She will make tiny wax cups of pollen and nectar (pollen balls) and then lay an egg on each one. She will warm the eggs with her body so they will hatch within a few days and become larvae. The larvae will feed on the pollen ball. During this time, the queen is on her own. She has to seek pollen and nectar to feed herself, protect the nest from predators and incubate the brood.

The larvae will go through different stages before spinning a cocoon and metamorphizing into bumble bees. All of them will be female worker bees. The queen will continue laying eggs while the new worker bees go out to seek pollen and nectar for the colony.

Once the queen has enough worker bees, she will cease to go out and will remain on the nest producing eggs. Her workers will take care of feeding and maintaining the nest. They will keep new eggs warm so they can hatch. They will clean the nest of debris, as well as protect the nest from predators. And they will find nectar and pollen to bring back to the colony. It’s easy to understand why worker bees live a short life. It’s a tough one.

The nest may only have 50 to 300 bumble bees in total. In comparison, honey bee hives can contain upwards of 40,000 bees or more!

While queens are fertilized in fall before they hibernate for the winter, the queen has the ability to determine which sex they want their eggs to be. This allows them to lay eggs in the spring that are all female worker bees. And in late summer the queen produces eggs that are both male (drones) and female (gynes) which will become new queens.

The new queens and the drones will fly off to find a mate from other bumble bee colonies. After mating, the drones, the original queen (which started the colony) and any remaining worker bees will die. The newly mated queens will seek suitable shelters to hibernate through the winter — each of them totally on their own. Come spring, the cycle will begin anew.

Yes. Pretty amazing creatures.

Brown-belted bumble bee (B. griseocollis)

Bumble bees are very docile. They generally only sting when they’re threatened. I’ve gotten my cell phone camera pretty close to them without harm (as these photos show), though I try to not to be a pest. They are, after all, just trying to survive.

There are about 30 species of bumble bees in eastern North America, although only about 10 are considered common. The most often seen bumble bee in Ohio is the Common Eastern (Bombas impatiens) which you will see more than 50% of the time.

Common Eastern bumble Bee (B. impatiens)

There are many beautiful bumble bee species beyond the Common Eastern, such as the Brown-belted (B. griseocollis), Two-spotted (B. bimaculatus), Golden Northern (B. fervidus) (my favorite) and the Black and Gold (B. auricomus). I’ve photographed these over the last couple of years. Sometimes the bees are flitting about so quickly, it’s hard to make a positive ID without a photograph.

Golden Northern bumble bee (B. fervidus)

I’ve been fortunate to be a volunteer this summer for a bumble bee survey being done by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab in Maryland. Their project covers 13 states in the New England area. Their scope is to observe and identify bumble bees and the blooming plants they are obtaining nectar/pollen from. The end goal is to identify the appropriate species of plants/seeds to better encourage the sustainability of our bumble bees throughout the area. While Ohio is not within the 13-state scope of this project, we anticipate the data may be able to be used (if sufficient resources become available.) I certainly hope so!

I hope this research data ultimately helps us all better understand the types of plants we can use in our own yards to assist these amazing creatures to thrive. They pollinate the beautiful flowering plants that make our world a better place in which to live. I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the amazing world of some of our native bees.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Exploring Cedar Bog

If you’ve never been to Cedar Bog Nature Preserve (just south of Urbana OH), I’d highly recommend it. If you enjoy seeing nature at its finest, this is the place to explore. A 1.2-mile boardwalk guides you through the interesting ecosystem of the preserve. Wetlands, meadows and Northern white cedar embrace you as you meander some of nature’s finest. Conveniently placed benches invite one to sit a while and enjoy the coolness that comes from this unique area.

The name “Cedar Bog” makes one naturally assume that this preserve is a bog. It is not. True, there is a lot of water throughout, hence the need for the boardwalk. But Cedar Bog is actually a “fen.” A fen allows water from an aquifer to come above ground in places and continuously flow through the area. A long time ago, Ice Age glaciers buried the Teays River (just east of this area), and it is this aquifer that comes above ground in two places within the preserve. The alkaline water is cool and maintains the ambient temperature at a cooler level during the summer and warmer during the winter. So…water continuously flows through the area. Hence, it is a fen and not a bog.

Cedar Bog is said to contain the widest diversity of plants within the state and features 40% of the rare and endangered plant species in Ohio (https://historicsites.ohiohistory.org/cedarbog/). With such a diversity of plants, you will always find something new to attract your attention, regardless of the season. June is a great time to see the Showy Lady’s Slipper, which is said to be one of the tallest orchids in North America.

These delicate pink and white plants grow primarily in wetlands and wooded swamps. The fen is a perfect place for them. They thrive in this environment. And that’s a very good thing because these orchids are rare and considered threatened in Ohio. According to the U.S. Forest Service, these plants can take up to 16 years to flower for the first time. It’s especially amazing when you find that these orchids have a special symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. They won’t just grow anywhere. So when you see them you will recognize that this is a rare plant indeed.

But orchids aren’t the only thing you will see as you wander.

There are open areas where wildflowers abound, such as (what I believe to be) Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon genus). It’s a beautiful little white flower with delicate purple stripes to guide bees inside for nectar. It’s a favorite of bumblebees. The plant is said to thrive in moist meadows but also tolerates compact urban soils – possibly a flower for all of our yards!

Here’s something that stopped me in my tracks.

The leaves on this plant looked to be a type of rose, but what is the spikey red ball? Not a flower. It’s a Spiny Leaf Gall Wasp (diplolepis polita). In the spring the larvae inside the gall will become mature wasps which will chew their way out and fly off to find a mate. The fertilized female will lay eggs in a leaf bud. The eggs will hatch, begin feeding, and the plant will grow a layer of cells around the larvae. (Amazing how nature protects itself.) Larvae will continue to grow inside the gall and eventually enter a pre-pupa stage which lasts throughout the winter. In spring it enters a pupa stage until it’s time for the wasp to chew its way out of the gall. And the life cycle will begin anew. Why is the gall spikey and red, and not smooth or otherwise shaped? Good question. I’m not sure. Perhaps a reader knows the answer to this?

Painted Skimmer dragonflies are out and about quite a bit in May and June. They enjoy marshy areas. This one posed quite nicely for a bit, though it was a distance away.

This male Ebony Jewelwing decided to sit a spell as well. Males have black wings and iridescent blue/green bodies which can be 2 1/4 to 3 inches in length. Females have brown wings and are a bit less colorful. These damselflies love shaded, cool, moist areas with slow-moving water and lots of vegetation. You’ll find them throughout the eastern United States. I’ve read they have a habit of turning their heads to watch us as we watch them. Certainly looks like that is the case here!

This Silvery Checkerspot butterfly is sometimes confused with the Pearl Crescent. It certainly confused me at first glance. They’re both small orange and black butterflies, although the Silvery Checkerspot is slightly larger. One way to distinguish them is the small dots along their hindwings, which can be white-filled dots, and they also have more black around the outer wing edges. Easier to identify if they’re sitting still with wings outstretched, but much more difficult if they’re flitting about. They do seem to like being near water, while Pearl Crescents you will see in varying environments.

And sometimes you find things you don’t necessarily expect…

Like this baby Barred Owl having breakfast, although it did stop long enough to take a look at the humans on the boardwalk below before quietly enjoying it’s food. Food undoubtedly provided by a parent owl which was in a nearby tree keeping a watchful eye on the little one.

Cedar Bog can offer much to those who love nature and slow down to explore its depths. It’s a great place to wander and learn.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Exploring Nature at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

At 90,000 acres, this wildlife refuge is impossible to fully embrace in just a few days. But I’d like to share some photos of nature’s wonders that just might encourage you to visit here when you’re in the area.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is in the panhandle of Florida and hugs the Apalachee Bay. It’s a wintering location for a large number of migratory birds. The area is absolutely huge! But don’t let its great expanse overwhelm you. Go to the Visitor Center first and explore the drive out to the lighthouse. Then broaden your wanderings by foot or bike.

Here’s a map of this section of the refuge that might be of help. The black and white line on the map is the paved public road. At the top of the map, the Visitor Center is indicated. But keep in mind this is just one portion of the Refuge.

Wetlands attract a diverse range of ducks and birds – birds of prey, shore birds, ducks, warblers, songbirds and many others. Hiking areas provide easy access for closer views. This White-eyed Vireo was singing melodiously near the overlook at a wetland just off the main drive. It’s easy to see why it’s called “white-eyed.”

These Ring-necked ducks are easy to spot with the male’s gleaming black head and back. But it’s the bill I find so interesting. It appears to almost have been hand painted. Nature’s wonders indeed!

We also saw American Wigeons, Blue-Winged Teals and others, along with the ubiquitous Pied-Billed Grebes. The Pied-billed is a rather small bird and actually not considered to be a duck at all. Its diving antics are fun to watch. I read that its ancient lineage is more closely related to (believe it or not) the Flamingo. But that is still debatable by many.

Speaking of Flamingos, another visitor to the refuge told us they had heard of sightings of one. So naturally, off we go scouting the park to find the elusive bird. And lo and behold, there it was hanging out on Mounds Pool #3. Much too far away for a decent photo, but it’s enough determine it was a Flamingo.

Shorebirds were plentiful. Like this Great Egret. Look closer at the photo and you will see a Little Blue heron directly behind it and what might be a Greater Yellow Legs just to the left. But don’t quote me, as identification of shore birds are not my forte.

One enjoyable way to explore the area of the Mounds ponds is by trail bike. You can cover lots of ground while still having binoculars and camera close at hand to stop and check out the creatures you see. There are quite a few ponds there with dikes around them for easy access and observation.

Creatures come in a variety of sizes and shapes. And they co-exist. Like this alligator and the Greater Yellow Legs. The angle of this photo distorts the closeness of the two, but I still think that bird is rather brave.

The scenery in this area is breathtaking, with wide expanses of water and marsh grasses blending together. It’s quiet out here, with wind gently blowing through grasses and occasional calls of birds drifting through the area. If I had to define the term “peaceful,” this would be it. It’s a place where you can lose life’s distractions, time-commitments and “just be.”

In the photo below, a Tri-colored heron blends into its colorful surroundings, becoming at once an intricate and natural part of the scenery.

Closer to the shoreline is the famous St. Marks lighthouse. It’s located on the east side of the mouth of the St. Marks river and is second oldest light house in Florida. It opened in 1831 and has had several renovations. The lighthouse and keepers quarters were closed when we were there this past winter. The Fresnell lens in the lighthouse was removed during one of the renovations and is on display at the Visitors Center. A replica lens is now in its place in the lighthouse and is lit seasonally according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service website.

On the shoreline beneath that lighthouse, shorebirds are prolific. Bonaparte’s Gull, Terns of several species, Sandpipers, Plovers and others.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph a Piping Plover. Note the bands on both legs. After a bit of research, I was able to report this little guy to the USGS for their banding project research. Coastal populations of the Piping Plover are considered threatened here, while inland populations are considered endangered.

Here’s another shorebird I rarely see, the American Oystercatcher. It favors coastal areas with sand and shell beaches as well as salt water marsh areas. And yes, it does eat oysters as well as clams and other mollusks. This is a poor photo, even with a super zoom lens. These guys were quite shy.

The Wildlife Refuge sports not only coastal areas but also inland lakes. If you bring your canoe, Otter Lake is a wonderful place to spend a quiet morning. Its banks are entirely lined with Bald Cypress trees, draped with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze overhead. Its deep blue waters encourages one to paddle gently, hugging the shoreline and exploring its depths.

Osprey love this lake. Seems it’s the perfect habitat to raise their young. Great nesting areas and plenty of fish. We saw at least a dozen Osprey nests while we paddled the shore.

Osprey nests are typically found in tall trees or other structures which provide good visibility for the pair to protect their nest. At Otter Lake, many nests could be found high atop dead trees lining the lake. Nests are typically built of sticks with grasses, bark and other materials lining the inside. It is common for osprey to return to the same nest the following year. Osprey are largely monogamous.

Osprey are beautiful birds of prey. These raptors can be up to two feet in length and have a six-foot wingspan. Their diet is almost exclusively fish. I’ve read they dive for fish feet first. And they are exquisite creatures when in flight. Note the coloration of the wings in the photo below.

Otter Lake also sported a few other “black and white” birds. Wood Storks. These huge birds that can be four feet tall with five-feet wingspans. They nest in colonies in Winter and Spring in Florida. Their diet is primarily fish, but they also eat other small aquatic creatures, even baby alligators. They’re the only native stork in North America. I think they have a rather “prehistoric” look, but perhaps that’s why I am drawn to them. I don’t think many would call them beautiful.

And before we leave the wildlife refuge, I’d like to provide you with just one more look. This one impressed me with its color vibrancy. The green adorning the rocks could have been angel hair, it looked that soft and silky.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a truly wondrous area that has so much to explore. I know it’s on my list to visit again in the future. I hope it’s now on yours.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Myakka’s Wonders

In central Florida there is a very special state park called Myakka River. While it’s known by visitors as a place to see alligators, it holds so many more wonders of nature. Its beauty is breathtaking. It’s the type of place that holds you entranced even without the multitude of birds and other creatures that call it home.

The wide array of greens and blues in the scenery are magnificent to behold on this late January day. Dried grasses rustle softly in the wind. The waters are calm, with mirror reflections of the sky.

The slow-moving waters of Myakka River meander between narrow banks. Shorebirds hunt peacefully nearby. Like this Great Egret with its recent catch. I was told it may be an armored catfish, which are considered invasive in Florida, and sometimes challenging for a bird to swallow (depending on the size of the fish).

Quite often you will see birds of different species hunting or abiding peacefully together in the waters. Like these Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. Roseate Spoonbills are interesting to watch when feeding. They swing their wide bill back and forth beneath the water, literally mining for food.

On this late afternoon/early evening the Wood Stork decided it was time to bathe (or was it just playing?). He was pretty interesting to watch him splash about, totally ignorant of its audience.

One shorebird which is usually quite reticent to have its photo taken is the Green Heron. But when they’re on the hunt, their single-minded focus is second to none.

There is one bird I think is rather peculiar looking with its red legs, large curved bill and pale blue eyes. The White Ibis are all white except for their black wingtips seen when flying. They roost in trees and shrubs and are native to coastal states from North Carolina to Texas and even further south.

This year, we were fortunate to see a multitude of Glossy Ibis. You would definitely not mistake it with the white one! The Glossy Ibis has dark bills and legs, and the most miraculous looking wing feather colors when the light strikes it just right.

Herons of numerous species abound in Myakka River state park. There never seems to be a shortage of Little Blue Herons. Like this one. It’s coloring is blue-gray with maroon around the neck. It’s a quiet bird you see frequently by itself, wading in and amongst the greenery near shore.

The juvenile Little Blues are not blue at all, but are white. Their legs and feet are a greenish yellow. I’ve read their coloring will change to a mottled white/blue in a sort of “molt” before they become adults and develop their blue/gray/maroon coloring.

And then, of course, there’s the Tricolored Heron which is white and blue/gray, although there appears to be some maroon coloring around the neck as well. Their behavior is comical to watch, with their quick movements, sharp stops and starts as they run after prey. This one is in a more relaxed pose with its neck tucked in.

We would be remiss if we didn’t include a photo of a Great Blue Heron. It’s a much larger bird. This one we see in Ohio quite often along shallow streams. The Great Blue emits a loud, almost prehistoric cry when disturbed. It’s something you won’t forget when you hear it.

The Black Crowned Night Heron is a much stockier heron than the ones preciously shown. As the name implies, it is active at night and roosts during the day. Usually you might get a photo of one sleeping in a shrub, although the one in the photo below was awake and watchful.

This year I also managed to get a photo of a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron – a first for me! It’s smaller than its cousin the Black-Crowned Night Heron. This photo was not taken at Myakka, but I couldn’t resist showing a photo of my “new” find.

And we mustn’t forget Sandhill Cranes. You hear their melodious calls early in the morning and in the early evening as they fly high overhead to or from their roosting areas. They’re beautiful creatures. If you ever get a chance to see their mating dance, it’s something you won’t forget. They jump and spin. Sometimes toss up a clod of dirt into the air while they perform.

But birds were not the only winged wonders at Myakka River state park. One of the most beautiful butterflies I found was this White Peacock, with it’s exquisite brown/tan/white coloring. It’s native to Florida, southern states and central America. It’s landed on a Spanish Needle flower in search of nectar.

Some of the equally beautiful creatures at Myakka are small. Very small. Like this Great Pondhawk dragonfly which landed amongst the dried Live Oak leaves. Again, another “first” for me. According to iNaturalist, it is prevalent through South America and is primarily found in the southern regions of the U.S. although there have been a few sightings further north. Its vivid green coloring is spectacular.

This is the second time I have seen a Bobcat at Myakka River state park. I apologize for the poor photo but it caught me unaware. This photo was taken early one morning along the main roadway through the park. We must have been walking very quietly because the cat didn’t seem to realize we were there.

And to end this very long blog, I have to include a photo of what most visitors seek when visiting the park. Alligators. Some are just babies, like this one on the log. It was perhaps a foot and a half long.

While some gators are pretty large. This big boy could easily be 8 feet in length, or more. I was very content to guess its length from a distance…a great distance.

If you find yourself in the Sarasota FL area, consider visiting Myakka River state park. Explore more than just the 7-mile drive through the park. Take some hikes. It’s well worth it. You will discover so much more than you expected. The natural wonders at Myakka are varied and plentiful. It can enrich your life as it has done mine.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A Winter Hike

I admit it…my favorite time of year is Spring. But the contrasts winter brings can also be mesmerizing. Hiking in winter isn’t for everyone, I know that. It’s cold. It’s sometimes snowy, icy, muddy or wet. And my fingers never seem to get warm when I hike in the winter, no matter what combination of gloves I wear.

But winter hikes can also bring a fresh perspective and a new view of your world.

Some friends recently shared a couple of their favorite winter hikes with me. Hiking these trails in southeastern Ohio in winter brings not only wonderful views, but few (if any) people on the trail. You virtually have the entire preserve to yourself. A cell phone had to suffice for photography on these adventures. (It’s hard to be gloved up with hiking poles in hand and manipulate a camera too.)

Near Logan there is a short hike of just over a mile that is in Rock Stalls Preserve. While privately owned, it is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The trail starts out rather mildly with a level, fairly wide grass trail through woods, then steps take you down into the “rock stall.” I’ve been told that Indians used to winter their horses in this area due to the nature of the rock formations and water source. I’m not positive as to the accuracy of this, but once you view the area, you will understand its plausibility.

You drop down into fantastic rock formations that surround you on three sides with heights of roughly 20 to 30 feet or more.

A small meandering creek winds through the bottom ground. You cross this several times when hiking through the area. It’s peaceful there and quiet except for the sound of water. Waterproof hiking boots are highly recommended if you want dry feet.

Rock formations rise impressively on both sides. It’s very easy to understand how horses could have been “corralled” within these structures. It’s natural fencing of sorts.

And at the very end is a waterfall that is approximately 20 feet tall, although at this time of year it was only a trickle over the rocks. But mineral stains easily show the normal width of the falls in times of increased rainfall. A tree had, at some point, lost the battle of balance along the top edge of rock and tumbled down.

Extricating oneself from this area (without backtracking) means climbing up a rock surface that thankfully had small foot indentions for boots but does require a bit of skill to scale. It’s a beautiful area that captures the imagination of not only today but days gone by as well. You can almost hear the whinny of horses in the distance echoing off the rock walls (or so I imagine).

* * *

Another hike close to Conkle’s Hollow State Nature Preserve is Airplane Rock and Chapel Cave. While I’ve hiked at Conkle’s Hollow, I’d never been to the other two trails. I was in for an amazing experience.

Rock formations in this area also astound the mind with their intricacies and grandeur. It makes one stand in awe thinking how these rock formations came to be…how water, wind and weather helped shape their very existence.

The views continue to amaze, with towering formations of moss-covered rock and cave-like crevices. Small trees cling tenaciously to rocky surfaces, sometimes defying gravity in their exuberance to thrive. I always find this aspect of nature thought-provoking. That is, when living things survive best when left to their own devices without human intervention. I think there just might be an underlying lesson there for us all in this.

Some of the rock formations (see photo below) appear to defy gravity, like Table Rock. Not sure if that is this formation’s actual name, but it seems to fit quite well, don’t you think?

This one made me stop and fathom how this particular formation could have possibly developed. How does the effect of water, wind and ice over an untold number (millions?) of years create such an amazing grouping of stone that balances so precariously? I believe it’s the very essence of art created by nature, which somehow makes me feel small and rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.

Further along the trail, one encounters a magnificent waterfall. Another of nature’s gems to behold and experience. The sound of water encompasses the entire area, making one halt and admire its dramatic effect.

And just in case you haven’t seen enough waterfalls yet, here’s another view of one I found amazing.

Did I mention that it was cold on this hike? Yep. In the mid-20s, which made for more solid footing and also for some interesting ice formations. At the base of the waterfall, ice had formed on logs and twigs where water splattered off the rocks. The ice on the twig (in the photo below) was more than an inch thick.

Earlier I mentioned the name of one hiking trail was Airplane Rock. And why you ask is it called Airplane Rock? Here’s the answer for those inquisitive folks who want to know…

Okay, now look at the above photo and squint your eyes a bit. See the point of the rock in the top center of the photo? Well, that’s the airplane “cockpit.” And the rock ledge I was standing on to take this photo is the right wing. Hence, airplane rock.

And now, on to the next portion of the hike. Chapel Cave is probably one of the most amazing caves I have experienced in this area. Its shape and size are astounding. From a distance, it beacons you to come explore.

It takes a while for the eyes to become accustomed to the darkness, and I have to admit, I did have images of bats flying around. But fortunately (for me) those were only in my head.

This is one cave you really need to experience personally to fully appreciate its beauty. You need to stand in its cool interior and see the height of the ceiling, the walls that encompass you and the embracing smell of earth.

The hiking I have shared with you in this blog wasn’t long by hiking standards; it was just short of 8 miles or so. But I can’t remember a hike in which I have felt more in awe and wonder of the natural beauty around me. It’s the kind of hike that leaves you feeling energetic and alive. And very happy to add this experience to your treasured memories.

My sincere thanks to our hiking friends, Chris and Eva, who shared these wonders with us, along with the stories behind them. You made this day very special!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Awe and Wonder

I guess it’s natural towards the end of the year to take time for reflection. Some quiet time to think. Perhaps to assess where you are in life or simply reevaluate what’s important. And perhaps even more importantly, what’s not important. To get rid of the “clutter” in your mind. To find the place inside that is just “you.”

Nature is where I unerringly find the real me. It’s where I stop and take the time to really see what is around me. Not just look at it. But to experience it. To feel it. To breathe.

Most times I have a camera in hand, or at least a cell phone. Oh, the photos aren’t necessarily good but they’re enough for me to slow down and remember not only what was in front of me, but also how it made me feel. The awe and wonder of nature’s beauty, like this collage of colorful leaves that floated to this particular arrangement through no human intervention.

Perhaps it’s how the light filters through the trees in a woods, like a spotlight illuminating your path and brightening your day.

Or the wonder of two different tree species growing together, sharing nutrients and helping each other to thrive. Like this black walnut and maple. Sharing resources to grow stronger. Perhaps it’s a lesson we could all learn from. If we could only slow down enough to see it.

Beauty in nature captures the eye and the mind if we only let it. Nature’s harmony is all around us. Like this Great Spangled Fritillary with a small bee sharing nectar from a thistle.

I too need to be reminded to slow down and really see what’s in front of me. I almost walked right on by this innocuous little thing in the pasture field till a friend pointed it out and told me what it was.

It’s a praying mantis (mantid) egg sac. The first I’ve ever seen (or rather, the first I’ve ever fully recognized as such). The little sac (called ootheca) is about one inch long and the outside looks like foam but is hard. I’ve read the eggs overwinter and emerge in spring as 1/2 inch nymphs that look like a praying mantis but don’t have wings yet. And there can be from 50 to 200 of them in a single egg sac. Amazing.

Beauty in nature comes in many forms. This tree had me stopping in my tracks to wonder how this growth happened.

And stand in awe and wonder how the tree survived whatever had caused it to be shaped like this. Yet it continued to grow. Perhaps rather like we survive tough times and have the resilience to “soldier” on through it all. Just another reflection of nature in its many forms and the lessons it has to provide.

I hope you are fortunate enough to take a few moments to stop and really see whatever view of nature may be around you, wherever you live. To marvel at its magnificence. And stand in awe and wonder of its beauty. Whether it’s an close up view of the intricacies of an insect, such as this Gold-marked Thread-waisted wasp…

or experiencing the cold quiet hush of a partially frozen wetland on a morning walk.

May your Holiday and New Year be filled with awe and wonder of the nature that abounds around us all.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Migrating Sandhill Cranes

If you’ve never experienced seeing (and hearing) sandhill cranes, I’d highly recommend seeking opportunities to do so. They’re truly amazing birds. Standing 3 feet tall with a wing span of 6 feet, I guarantee they’re something you will not easily forget.


They have long bills, necks and legs, and have gray bodies, red on the head area above the eye and white cheeks. They weigh somewhere between 7 to 11 pounds. There are only two species of cranes in North America, sandhills and whooping cranes (which are even larger).

This October, I drove up to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana to see sandhill cranes that were beginning to migrate through the area. Their flight takes them from some eastern areas in Canada and funnels them through this wildlife area. And with good reason. Sandhill cranes seek flat, wet, marshy land that provides good overall vision of the area. And add the appeal of recently combined agricultural fields and you have a good source of grain foraging which helps feed them on their routes south.

Not all sandhill cranes migrate through this area. The majority of sandhills migrate through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska. Hence the source of the “sandhill” name.


Sandhill cranes migrating through Indiana do so from about mid-October through early to mid-December. When migrating, they can average 150 to 400 miles per day and fly predominantly during the daytime. When they fly, their necks are outstretched with legs extended straight behind them. It’s a graceful and striking pose.


If you want to see Sandhills in flight, plan to arrive in the early morning after sunrise or in the evening before sunset, as this is the time they’re on the move. During the day you will usually find them foraging in fields.

Sandhill cranes can live 20 years or more and they mate for life. The females will lay one to three eggs (usually 2 eggs), with often only one surviving to adulthood. Young cranes will stay with their parents for about 10 months until the adult pair begin nesting again. Sandhill cranes begin breeding between two and seven years of age.

Selection of a mate is based upon dancing. Yes, dancing, which includes bowing, jumping and something I’ve heard called a “vertical toss.” That is when the male grabs a clump of grass or dirt and tosses it in the air with an accompanied dance or hop. Here are some photos of the action.


Look closely at the photo above and you can still see the clod of dirt he flung in the air before his acrobatics.

Although dancing is predominantly a sign of courtship, I have read it can also occur at other times as well. Some believe it’s part of their development process.

From what I could find online, the eastern sandhill cranes (which migrate through Indiana) are not hunted in that state. Habitat availability seems to be the most important aspect of sandhill crane populations. But don’t quote me on this one. There are quite a few varying points of view on the subject.


For myself, I hope this beautiful creature continues to maintain populations and inspire us with their unique dance. I hope this blog inspires you to seek an opportunity to see this mesmerizing migration display. It’s something you won’t forget.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

What Crawls in the Night?

I’m not a night photographer. My experience at that is zero…until recently.

I attended the Shawnee Nature Safari, a weekend program hosted by the Midwest Native Plant Society this past September. It was held at Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio and involved both day and evening hikes. Come along with me now as we explore the things that crawl in the night, and in the daytime. Some of them I guarantee will surprise you!


Okay, yes you’re right, a butterfly is not something that crawls in the night, but bear with me. Before this magnificent Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from it’s chrysalis, it was a caterpillar. And caterpillars do indeed crawl around in the night. Many prefer to feed at night so as to avoid detection by predators in the daytime.


Remember that beautiful Eastern Comma butterfly photo you just saw? Well, this (photo above) is what the Eastern Comma caterpillar looks like. Host plants for this caterpillar include nettles, elms and hemps. Adult Eastern Comma butterflies will overwinter under tree bark, leaves and similar locations, while most other caterpillars overwinter in a cocoon or chrysalis. I believe there are only about four or five butterflies that overwinter as adults in Ohio.


The Question Mark butterfly is very similar in appearance to the Eastern Comma, but the Question Mark caterpillar (above) has different coloring compared to it’s Eastern Comma “cousin.”

The Silver Spotted Skipper are plentiful in central Ohio. For identification purposes, skippers fall somewhere in between being a butterfly or a moth. Here’s a photo (below) of one on Bergamot.


And here’s what the Silver-Spotted Skipper looks like in caterpillar form. Tiny and cute! Looks like something from a cartoon doesn’t it?


Caterpillars are easier to find at night if you use a UV flashlight. The little creatures will gently “glow” in the dark and help you detect them. However, it’s very important that should you disturb these for a photograph that you return it to the same tree or shrub afterwards. Some caterpillars are generalists eating many different types of plants, while others are specialists and will only be able to eat from a particular plant/tree.

One type of caterpillar that is seen quite readily is the Tussock moth. There are several species of these rather nondescript moths with their brown/tan/gray coloring. But their caterpillars are anything but nondescript.


The one in the photo above is a Banded Tussock moth caterpillar. Actually, this is really a tiger moth caterpillar, despite it’s name.


The cute little pale yellow caterpillar above will become a Sycamore Tussock moth, named appropriately because its host (and preferred) plant is the Sycamore tree although it will eat other plants.


The photo above is a Definite Tussock moth caterpillar. Quite different in color and appearance from the other two. But beware, touching any of these Tussock caterpillars can cause a very uncomfortable itchy rash.


Another caterpillar that appears visually similar to the Banded Tussock is the American Dagger. This caterpillar will also cause a very itchy rash if touched, so be very careful when photographing these. The American Dagger moth is another rather nondescript moth of multiple shades of tan and gray. But I find this shaggy caterpillar adorable!


Here’s another interesting caterpillar. This one is a Spotted Apatelodes which is covered with what appears to be soft hair and sporting red “boots” on it’s little legs. Cute, but I’ve also read the caterpillar is poisonous although the adult moth is not.


At first glance, one might think this is some type of cocoon, but it’s the Black-Waved Flannel caterpillar. Cute but avoid at all costs! The hairs can embed into the skin and make one very sick. The moth on the other hand is a rather shaggy looking tan and brown but alas, also very dangerous to touch.


And while we’re looking at rather hairy caterpillars, here’s another one – the Delicate Cycnia moth caterpillar – also known as the Dogbane Tiger moth. And with good reason, as they they prefer milkweed species, especially Dogbane. This one was rather easy to find, as most of the leaves were stripped from a Dogbane plant with about eight of these caterpillars feeding on it.

Okay, we have now covered quite a few hairy caterpillars, how about we look at some with very distinctive shapes and colors?


This cute little one is an Io (eye-oh) caterpillar. And also one you should never touch. I wish I could share a photo of the Io moth, but I’ve never been fortunate enough to photograph one (and I try to use only my own photos in this blog.) The moth is very beautiful. Predominantly yellow with big black “eyes” on its hindwings. Well worth searching for a photo online to see it!


This tiny little caterpillar is a Purple-Crested Slug moth and is (yes, you guessed it) a species of slug caterpillar moth. They are generalists and can feed on a variety of trees and plants. Their “slug” name comes from the caterpillar’s resemblance to slugs.


This little guy is a Spiney Oak-slug caterpillar. Also a member of the slug moth family. I’ve read the spines are venomous and can cause serious health issues if handled. While “oak” is in the caterpillar’s name, they also feed on cherry and willow species as well as oaks. The moth is dark brown with pale green splotches on its wings.


And here’s yet another spiney looking caterpillar. This one is the Saddleback, appropriately named with it’s cute little brown and green “saddle.” Yes, it’s also another slug moth. And one you need to avoid because of its venomous spines.


This orange beauty (about an inch long) in the photo above is a Stinging Rose Caterpillar and yet another one to avoid due to the venom from the stinging spines. The moth this one will become is a beautiful one of pale green, yellow and brown.


This little brown blob is something that could appear to be bird excrement, but is actually a Hag moth caterpillar, sometimes called a monkey slug. I’ve read they’re legless and have spines with stinging hairs. The caterpillars are about an inch in length.


Here’s one that could stop you in your tracks…the Hickory Horned Devil. With a name like that and those orange black-tipped “horns” it almost screams “stay away from me” but this one is harmless. This caterpillar is about the size of a large hot dog. These caterpillars can be found on hickory, walnut, sweet gum and other trees. The Hickory Horned Devil becomes a beautiful large Regal moth that is gray, tan and orange and nearly 6 inches across.


This caterpillar has the learned the art of self-disguise. It is the Saddled Prominent and it blends in quite well with the leaves. These caterpillars can defoliate trees when they occur in large groups. The moth is a gray-green color and rather “hairy” looking.


This PawPaw Sphinx also blends in well with its environment. And yes, it does like to eat PawPaw leaves, but it is also known to eat other tree leaves and plants as well.


This white-spotted, black/white/yellow vertically striped caterpillar is a Turbulent Phosphila. It appears to have two heads but doesn’t. Its host plant is greenbriar, a brambly vine with heart-shaped leaves and while not invasive, it is very aggressive.

And finally, if you’re not too tired of seeing all the things that crawl around in the night, here’s something that’s just darn cute.


Yep. It’s a spider with a smiley face! I believe it’s a White-Banded Crab spider. But regardless, it’s just darn cute and I couldn’t leave it out of this blog.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing the things that “crawl in the night.” Many of these were new to me before going on the Shawnee Nature Safari. All nighttime photos in this blog were my first effort at taking photos in the dark, so thank you for hanging in there with me and being tolerant.

And until next time, keep exploring nature up close, cause it’s pretty darn amazing!

A Part of It All

Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you get the unique opportunity to experience nature at a completely different level. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if you feel you’re a part of your surroundings, not just observing it. It’s a very special gift that doesn’t happen often. For me, that depicts my time spent at Rifle River Recreation Area in northeastern Michigan.

We camped in the primitive area in August and found beauty beyond words. Many pristine lakes offered canoeing adventures. Quiet early mornings paddling on mirror-smooth surfaces that reflected the skies above. No traffic noise. No motor boats. Nothing but the gentle sound of the paddle entering the water as you slowly move along, with loons calling in the distance.

You won’t find loons on very small lakes, as they require up to a quarter of a mile of open water to be able to lift off and fly because of their relatively heavy bodies.

Sometimes you’re rewarded with loons that decide to share the lake with you. And if you’re very lucky and your timing is right, they just might have immature ones with them, teaching them how to feed themselves. Guarding them. Protecting them.

Teaching them how to find breakfast… Until eventually it will be time for them to find their own way from freshwater lakes to winter on the east coast.

You can completely lose yourself on a paddle in Michigan. Whether it’s on one of the many lakes or on nearby streams that connect lakes together such as this one. Pristine waters with wildlife all around you.

It’s not uncommon to see Green Herons along the banks, keeping an observant eye upon you.

Or sometimes it’s an Eastern Kingbird in the overhead branches…

Or this Dragonhunter dragonfly who was ovipositing eggs in the stream just ahead of our canoe, and then decided to take a momentary break on a nearby shrub. Beautiful coloring on this big girl. The wing venation is so delicate in these creatures…almost lace-like.

And a new one for me is this American Rubyspot. A beautiful damselfly. I’ve read the males have a red head and thorax, so I’m assuming this is a female.

You may also see a Bald Eagle or two in your adventures. They’re not uncommon here, and sometimes seem very curious like this one.. Did you know they can live 20 years or more?

Being so near the water you’re also rewarded with views of flowers you may not see very often elsewhere. Like this Fen Grass of Parnassus. Small petite flowers with the most exquisite veining. Once you see it, it’s not something you easily forget.

Another flower that resides close to water is this Bur Marigold. It’s in the daisy family and has long stems. A very showy flower that I’ve read reproduces from seed.

When you paddle on a lake or stream, you have opportunities to see nature up close, like this view of a young Killdeer which blended so well into its surroundings, it was difficult to photograph. But well worth the effort. Such a quiet little well-camouflaged bird – as are their eggs. Killdeer usually lay 4 to 6 eggs – eggs that are sometimes laid in stones along a driveway and are so well camouflaged that you can look right at them and not see them at all.

Camouflage in required in nature for survival. Most creatures embrace it, like this Northern Leopard frog blending into the rocks.

And there’s always Mother Nature’s artwork wherever you look, like this American White Waterlily. You’ve seen it numerous times I’m sure in photographs, but there’s just something about this flower when it’s just below the edge of your canoe, floating gently on the water. No one planted it. No one takes care of it. It just is. Beauty, simple and pure.

I’ll leave you with just one more photograph of something that struck me as particularly beautiful. Oh, it’s not a rare flower or bird, or anything extraordinary by most standards. It’s probably pretty common – what I believe to be an Orange Hawkweed. Yes, to most people, a weed.

But on this day, while having lunch along the riverbank, canoe resting peacefully on the edge of the shore, it caught my attention and brought me back to the realization that we’re all a part of nature. We don’t just observe it. We are a part of it, as it is a part of us.

Until next time…