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.

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.

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.

Of Expectations

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time…no, not that story. It’s the story of leaving a home in a rather bucolic setting on 3 acres along a river where a multitude of birds, water fowl, flowers and butterflies abounded. And moving into a brand new home in a subdivision on a postage-stamp-sized lot. Easier to maintain. Single story. Better for the body as it ages, right? I had expectations of sterile, orderly subdivision bushes and shrubs with no birds, no flowers, no butterflies, no nature. Just shoot me now…

So…during Covid prime time 2020, we ripped out some of those “sterile subdivision bushes” (yes, I have more to do) and created what we hoped would attract pollinators. It certainly didn’t look promising when the flowers were planted.

NEWLY PLANTED FLOWERBED 2020

Here’s just a portion of that same flower bed in 2021. If you plant them, they do grow!

SAME FLOWERBED 2021

We also added a rear patio which now hosts a multitude of blooming flowers along with Arrowwood Viburnum and Serviceberry bushes. Are they all native plants? Unfortunately no, but a portion of them are – or at least the ones I could get my hands on last year.

Surprisingly it didn’t take long for nature to find us.

In the spring, we had a momma Mallard duck and ten little ones declare our little retention pond their home.

MOMMA MALLARD AND 10 BABIES

They would visit our bird feeder daily to find anything that may have fallen (or that we may have deliberately dropped to the ground). They stayed almost all summer until they grew to full size and flew off to begin their new adult adventures. That’s Momma to the right in the photo below. She would anxiously watch over the little ones while they ate. She was a good Momma (though somewhere along the line she lost two).

SAME MALLARD FAMILY

Ducks weren’t our only water fowl visitors. We periodically had a Great Egret that decided those little frogs and tadpoles in the pond were pretty tasty as well. Made for a great mid-morning snack.

GREAT EGRET

We also had a few surprises…like this Canada Goose and Mallard duck that decided to be best buds for the day. Swimming around the pond together. No other ducks or geese in the pond, just these two. Who knew?

CANADA GOOSE AND MALLARD DUCK

And surprisingly, even in a new subdivision with no large trees, birds also made our area their home.

Shortly after our house was built, we had a visitor (Northern Rough-Winged Swallow) that was quite beautiful, which unfortunately for us decided the HVAC exhaust pipe would make a fine nesting place. Who needed to built a nest in a hole in a creek or river bank? This one was perfect. Not! It didn’t take long to add a screen to the pipe and encourage this little lady to find a more appropriate home elsewhere.

NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW

We had a pair of Tree Swallows fledge 7 this year in our nest box. Turns out the retention pond is great for easily finding insects to feed their hungry little brood. It was a very successful year for them. We also had nests of Mockingbirds and House Finches in shrubs in neighboring yards so there were plenty of these little birds fluttering around.

TREE SWALLOW

And much to our amazement, we had a Red Headed woodpecker that visited quite frequently. Seems our suet was within easy flying range of the treed area he called home. Red Headed woodpeckers are more rare in Ohio than they used to be with their numbers dwindling over the years.

RED-HEADED WOODPECKER

And not to be outdone, we had a very surprising visitor just this past week. Yep, a wild turkey. In a brand new subdivision. Huh! I guess nature really does come to you if you let it.

WILD TURKEY

The retention pond was extremely good for attracting dragonflies and damselflies. Delicate creatures that are exquisite when viewed closely like these Familiar Bluets.

FAMILIAR BLUET DAMSELFLIES

Or (what I believe to be) an Eastern Forktail, which is only about an inch long.

EASTERN FORKTAIL DAMSELFLY

Frogs were commonplace here. In spring and summer many voices were heard. Tree frogs, American Toads and Bull frogs would be the accompaniment when drifting off to sleep at night. This little Gray Tree Frog decided he liked our grill. We had to persuade him that there are better places to reside (and ones that don’t get hot).

GRAY TREE FROG

The flowers drew in their own admirers. Hummingbirds were constant visitors.

HUMMINGBIRD

As were many butterflies and moths. This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail had been battered about quite a bit; its wings showing the damage. Often times this damage is a result of eluding predators such as birds. Butterflies can continue to fly with damaged wings, but if one becomes broken, they cannot fly and will die.

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLY

Adult Painted Lady butterflies (like the one in the photo below) like Asters, Ironweed, Blazing Star and Joe Pye weed among others. Typically flowers that are 3 to 6 feet tall. In this photo it’s on Butterfly bush although Blazing Stars and Ironweed are both found close by.

PAINTED LADY BUTTERFLY

And this female Monarch. Though not visible from this photo, the male Monarch is distinguished from a female by having two black dots on its hind wings.

FEMALE MONARCH BUTTERFLY

This tiny little Summer Azure was also seen flying about. To give you a better perspective of size, it’s on a piece of clover in the backyard.

SUMMER AZURE

Bees and other insects were also regular visitors. This is a Two-Spotted bumblebee on Purple Coneflower. And if you look closely, there’s a green sweat bee right behind the bumblebee.

TWO-SPOTTED BUMBLEBEE ON PURPLE CONEFLOWER

And one of my all-time favorites. This is a Bombus fervidus (Golden Northern Bumblebee). Gorgeous, isn’t she? Not one that you see on a regular basis in Ohio.

GOLDEN NORTHERN BUMBLEBEE (Bombus fervidus)

Bumblebees have a unique lifecycle, living just one year and in most cases, less than a year. A fertilized Queen overwinters in the ground by herself. In the spring, she flies low over the ground locating a suitable habitat for a nest. She then feeds on nectar and pollen to gain strength, then begins laying eggs in the new nest. Her first nest will be of all daughters, then she ceases to forage and focuses on laying successive generations of eggs (all females). The new daughters will now be the workers that will collect nectar and pollen for the nest and all future eggs/larvae. In late summer the Queen will produce both males and females. Both sexes will mate with different colonies of bumblebees, while the rest of the daughters who have worked so diligently throughout the summer will die off, as will the Old Queen and the males. The newly mated (fertilized) Queens will then overwinter in the ground, and the cycle will continue the following year. A Queen could produce 50 to 300 bees in a year.

We also get Eastern Carpenter bees with their “shiny hineys” which some people confuse with bumblebees. These are usually quite large bees but they have no sting. This one is on a Monarda (commonly called Bergamot or Bee Balm).

EASTERN CARPENTER BEE

One bee that was a visitor to our yard was the European Wool Carder bee. It’s pretty unique. This male has black barbs that are visible at the end of its abdomen. It’s actually quite territorial and will chase away other bees from areas it determines is “his.” It’s a non-native and rather aggressive with other bees.

EUROPEAN WOOL CARDER BEE

There are so many other things I could share with you. Beautiful flowers that burst with color. Queen of the Prairie, Lupine, Black-Eyed-Susan, Speedwell, Butterfly Weed, Cardinal flower, Coreopsis, Great Blue Lobelia, Ironweed and more – flowers that can attract nature to your yard.

Beautiful color for the yard. For fresh-cut flowers. For the birds, bees and other insects that live amongst us. Even in a newly constructed subdivision.

I’ve changed my expectations about what it means to live in a new subdivision. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve given you something to think about when your expectations tell you something won’t work or isn’t possible. Perhaps you will consider digging your hands in the dirt and plant something new – sometime that may attract welcome visitors such as what you’ve seen here. There’s a lot of nature out there just waiting for you to give them a helping hand.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The color of winter

Winter has color? Isn’t it always just drab gray in Ohio? Not really…

Granted, winter doesn’t have the wondrous colors of spring, summer or fall, but it offers something that isn’t as readily noticed in the other seasons. Textures. For those of us who love to be outside, it forces the senses to see beyond color and observe more deeply. It does take effort, and practice. But it’s well worth it.

Take for example the colors and textures of goldenrod (Solidago). It’s a perennial plant with more than 100 species. Its pollen is heavy so while it is transported by insects, it is not transported by wind and really can’t be blamed for seasonal fall allergies. Goldenrod is practically everywhere if you look in winter. It’s seeds provide food for many birds including chickadees, finches and juncos. At this time of year, its seeds are just waiting for the wind to distribute them far and wide. The fluff on these seeds are soft to the touch. It’s easy to see how the wind can carry the seed away so effortlessly.

Sometimes it’s the combination of plant seed that catch the eye, like this Mullein foxglove alongside goldenrod. Mullein foxglove has small bright yellow flowers in summer, can grow to 5 feet or more and has hundreds (if not thousands) of seeds per plant. The black seed pods are quite unique in shape and are actually pretty hard.

Lichen readily retains color in winter. No surprise here. I’m sure you’ve seen it in a number of places. Trees both alive and dead may have lichen growing on it, but you sometimes find more color and variety on dead limbs like this one. This lichen has fruiting bodies (apothecia) which are the cup-like organisms with the dark brown centers. There are a tremendous number of lichen species. I haven’t even begun to learn enough to try an identification as yet. But I do find the mixture of colors and textures amazing.

While walking in the woods at this time of year, it’s very easy to identify beech trees. They’re one of the few trees that retain their leaves, which appear almost paper-like. As the leaves age, they fade a bit to a lighter shade. If you look closely, you can see buds at the branch terminus.

I’ve always wondered why beech trees (and some oaks) retain their leaves while other deciduous trees drop theirs. Seems this is a question many people ask, and according to various websites and research there are many suppositions. Some believe that retaining leaves or dead plant matter (known as marcescence) could be because these trees are on dry, infertile soil – such as where oaks and beech trees typically grow. Retaining leaves during the winter could help beech trees to slow decomposition of leaves so they deliver organic matter to the soil in spring when it’s needed most. Some think retaining leaves helps hold snow for more moisture for the tree. I’ve also read that retaining leaves could be a frost protection for buds, and that it is also a deterrent to deer browsing. Are any of these accurate? No one seems to know definitively, at least based upon what I’ve read.

With leaves off most trees and plants, it’s much easier to see some of the berries that remain. Unfortunately most of those remaining red berries may be from invasive honeysuckle (at least in Ohio). That is a food for some birds but mostly described as “junk” food as they don’t have the nutrition that berries from native plants provide. Recently I ran across some black berries – no, not the good tasting blackberries we have in summer. These were small and slightly oval, clustering somewhat like grapes and almost a blue-black color. I wasn’t sure what these might be. But based upon cursory research, I believe these are privet. Yes, another invasive plant unfortunately. But colorful nonetheless.

Plants are not the only thing providing color in the winter. Animals do too and sometimes you don’t know what you may find – or learn. I heard something skittering in the leaves and stopped – motionless – to watch this squirrel. It was frantically digging at the leaves and then upended itself so it’s entire head was covered by leaves. And it stayed that way for awhile. Looking for acorns? No. My guess is it was burying a nut. After completion of the burial procedure, it meticulously arranged, and rearranged, and rearranged yet again the leaves over top of the area. Then he was gone like a shot.

Birds offer color in the wintertime. Bright red Cardinals. Colorful Blue jays. Eastern bluebirds. Even (what some call) the lowly sparrow provide color, though granted, some (like this Song sparrow) are not very vivid with their tan, brown and black coloring. But their song more than make up for it.

And sometimes there is drama to add to the color. Like when this Cooper’s hawk swooped in to catch breakfast in my backyard. One can admire the color and magnificence of this hawk. And also realize, all creatures need to eat to survive. Hopefully it didn’t eat one of my favorite birds.

Winter color is everywhere if one looks closely enough. And it has its own dramatic beauty, like that of the bird above. Or perhaps it’s the magnificence of a small stream rippling through a winter woodland with hushed quiet all around. The color and texture of winter is all around us. And it’s up to us to find that beauty and recognize its value in our lives. Winter has much to offer, if we only take a closer look.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A year like none other…

This past year has been a hard one for us all. We have had to step away from family and friends, isolating ourselves in an effort to not spread Covid further than it already has been. Isolation can be one of the cruelest forms of punishment, and unfortunately this has happened to us all.

But I continue to believe that we must seek a positive outlook, regardless of circumstances. Please don’t get me wrong. My life has had plenty of sadness, death and discouragement; I’ve not led a charmed life. Nor I believe does anyone…not really. We all have our crosses to bear in one form or another. But I believe it’s extremely important to our well-being to step back from our worries and find things that make us happy. Things that bring a smile to the face. Things to be grateful for. Appreciation of what is.

For me, that’s my escape to nature.

Earlier this year I started this nature blog you’re reading, Nature Views. And it’s been a true blessing for me. Because it’s let me explore nature more diligently, taking a camera with me wherever I go. Looking at things up close. Researching things I don’t know much about. Continually learning. And sharing what I’ve learned with you. Something I hope you’ve enjoyed.

Nature offers so much to us all. Research has shown that a walk in the woods can improve our physiological well-being. It can lower blood pressure. Decrease stress. And in some countries is even being written as a prescription. For me, I find I can breathe easier. Sounds strange I know. But there’s just something about being in a woods that restores me.

The peace, quiet and essence of just “being” surrounds you. You slow down to really listen to the birds. Hear a squirrel up on tree branch gnawing on a walnut. See the Tufted Titmouse rustling in the leaves on the ground. Hear the Blue Jay calling overhead. Notice the striking color of a Northern Cardinal amongst snow-covered branches – almost like a Christmas card. Or perhaps find a group of wild turkeys eating peacefully in a meadow. And if you’re extremely lucky, you get to see the very rare occurrence of a visiting Snowy Owl.

Nature offers us so much more than we can even imagine. It costs us nothing, yet provides a wealth beyond measure. If we only reach out to embrace it.

I hope you take some time to explore nature soon. Go to a local park. Visit a lake. Take a walk in the woods. Explore something new. You’ll be happy you did.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The colors of my world…

The colors of nature never fail to amaze me. Sometimes it’s as if someone had a 128-pack of crayons and went a bit wild. That’s especially true when you’re talking about the color of macrofungi which have large fruiting bodies, such as the ones you will see in this blog post.

Fungi (also commonly known by many as simply “mushrooms”) provide a valuable service in decomposition on the forest floor. Some fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees or plants, while others cause disease and the ultimate death of a tree. Usually this is as a result of some kind of stress to the tree which blocks its defensive responses and allows insects and/or fungi to attack. Fungi are also a food source for wildlife. I once observed a slug eating one – not the most fascinating thing to watch, but it was something I had never seen before. And by the way, this slug was not a fastidious eater.

A large part of fungi are actually found underground in very dense threadlike hyphae found in the soil. When there are multiple interconnecting hyphae, it’s called mycelium. This is what allows fungi and trees or plants to develop a symbiotic relationship – one that is good for them both.

BRACKET FUNGI – PERHAPS A CINNABAR POLYPORE NEXT TO LICHEN

I discovered a new-found fascination with fungi a few years ago when I took a class that not only taught about the various types, but also had us exploring the woods to find them. Unfortunately I’m still not adept at good identification, but I certainly enjoy photographing them and I am continually learning. The colors, shapes and sizes are as amazing as the common names…names such as Bleeding fairy helmet, Eggs in a nest, Northern tooth, Witches butter, Turkey tail and Chicken of the Woods.

Speaking of which, here is what I believe to be Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), although I typically see these much more brightly colored with shades of coral and orange. It could be this is drying as it loses some of its color at that time. Chicken of the Woods attacks the heartwood of the tree, so when you see this fungi, the poor tree is a goner.

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) fungi is very prevalent in almost any woods with hardwood trees. The colors vary greatly – brown, gray, green, tan, rusty brown, even purple. It’s a very delicate looking fungi that reminds me of ruffles on clothing. The underside of this fungi has white to yellowish pores.

And of course, there’s also False turkey tail (Stereum ostrea) which can appear somewhat similar. It’s found mostly on dead hardwood species. Colors vary from tan to rust to greenish gray. The underside is generally light tan and smooth without gills, teeth or pores.

FALSE TURKEY TAIL

There are times when hiking in a woods that the fungi is so prominent it almost jumps out to grab you like this Northern Tooth (Climacodon septentrione) which prefers to grow on standing maple trees and is usually high above the ground. It’s pretty unmistakable. I’ve read that it enters the tree through some kind of wound and causes heartwood rot. It’s a parasitic fungus and is rather disheartening to see.

And then there’s these little guys which I almost walked on as they were growing directly on the trail – Ringless honey mushrooms (Armillaria tabescens). They’re an orange-brown color and usually like to grow on wood, such as oak and maple, so perhaps there was decayed wood beneath them just below the trail’s surface

RINGLESS HONEY MUSHROOMS

Sometimes mother nature throws a spotlight on something I believe you’re meant to see and observe, like this Bleeding fairy helmet or also called Bleeding Mycena (Mycena haematopus) which I found at a local park. The name refers to the red-like fluid that oozes from the fungi when it is cut. I didn’t test that fact, as I don’t like to disturb creatures in nature.

And this little orange guy I’m not sure what it is (perhaps witch’s hat?), but it reminds me of something that should have elves nearby. It’s the kind of thing you just can’t look at and not smile. Sometimes names just aren’t important.

And speaking of elves, how about a fairy ring like these? I’ve only seen fairy rings a couple of times. The photo below on the left shows a small one with the one on the right much larger. The fungi in the photos are the fruiting bodies with the mycelium beneath the soil. The mycelium is multiple threadlike hyphae that interconnect and grow throughout the soil – sort of like the roots of a plant. As the mycelium utilizes the nutrients in the soil at the center of the ring, the mycelium continues to expand outward, thereby making the ring larger each year, while the mycelium in the center of the ring dies, returning nutrients to the soil.

Sometimes you’ll stumble upon something that will truly amaze you, like these Ghost pipes, also known as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). So delicate and practically translucent. They’re usually found in deep shady woods and can be up to about 8″ tall. They are not fungi, but rather a parasitic plant that gets its nutrients from trees, plants and decaying matter. They’re sometimes found near decaying trees and/or beech trees. But their color and shape was so interesting I just felt compelled to include them in this blog post.

I’m not sure of the identification of this colorful orange fungi. It was a little on the thin side and I didn’t get a good look at the underside of it. The color combination contrasting with the green plants, tree bark and moss is what made this one so dramatic for me. Like artwork in the woods.

And sometimes that artwork is rather unusual and reminiscent of something else in nature, like this Bird’s nest fungi (Family┬áNidulariaceae). It’s easy to see how it got its common name. Little miniature cups filled with tiny eggs, or so it appears. Those “eggs” are actually spore packets that will bounce out of their cup when hit by something as simple as raindrops. Nature’s pretty amazing at methods of reproduction.

And then there are these colorful translucent fungi known as Witches butter (Tremella mesenterica), a yellowy-orange type of jelly fungi. I’m not sure whether I love it because of its color or its common name. Both are appealing.

And finally, one last photo that had mother nature shining her light down on a particular spot again – my guess is this is a bracket fungi of some kind. But again, the contrast of colors made this particular photo one that stands out, at least to me.

So there you have it, some of the colors of my world as I continue to explore nature. With each new adventure there’s always something new. And always something new to learn.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Hiking down a different path

We’re probably like a lot of people right now, trying to find outdoor activities to keep us active in cold weather yet still keep away from crowded parks. That can be a challenge. The Ohio state nature preserves usually work quite well, and we’ve been visiting quite a few of these lately. But today our destination was to walk part of the bike trail west of Gambier. It’s a pretty trail. Quite scenic. But that’s not what we actually explored…

Just off the trail, past the first bridge over the Kokosing River, was a dirt path leading through the woods and beside the river. Interesting. Thankfully it was an invitation we did not ignore. And that was an excellent decision, as this was our introduction to the 500-acre Brown Family Environmental Center. Until now, I’d never heard of it.

The trail followed the river and offered benches that would have been inviting on warmer days. Huge Sycamores lined a portion of the waterway, no doubt loving the wet low ground.

Along the way we saw a few trees that still had green leaves, which was surprising. It’s December. Leaves should have already fallen or at least be brown and dried by now, like on Red Oaks or Beech trees which retain their leaves. These were green. What’s up?

These were not the leaves of a tree. It was Oriental Bittersweet vines (an invasive) that had wrapped around the tree and was prolific enough to resemble tree leaves at first glance. Luckily someone had recently cut the 3″ thick vine near the base of the tree. Hopefully this tree will live to see another year because an environmentally conscious person recognized the destruction vines pose to trees.

The Kokosing River is 57 miles long. It’s watershed is 435 square miles covering a good portion of Knox county as well as parts of Morrow, Richland, Ashland and Coshocton counties. If you’re near in the summer, you’ll undoubtedly see kayakers floating peacefully along this State scenic waterway. The trail we were on continued along this river and then made a turn to cross the Kokosing bike path and lead upward into the woods.

The woods was moss-covered with varying shades of green throughout the area. At this time of year, one might think it’s pretty gray outside, but this woods proves different. Like the colors found on this decaying log and at the base of the beech tree. What I believe are puff balls are at the tree’s base, though they have undoubtedly seen their better days.

Ferns covered the north-facing hillsides which are typically more shaded and provide moisture for these plants which grow in colonies. In the fall, ferns reproduce via spores which are so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye. However, some spores are encapsulated within something called “sori” which can be seen on the underside of the frond. I’m not sure how many species of fern call Ohio home, although I’ve read Wakeena state nature preserve in Fairfield county is home to 29 of them.

There was an interesting building at the Brown Family Environmental Center closer to the administrative building. It appeared to be used for storage. It had a stone base with some type of concrete or stucco wall. There were tiny cylindrical windows which were oddly shaped and not flat. Upon closer inspection these turned out to be bottles that had been incorporated into the walls. Pretty creative!

Within the woods is a pine plantation which was planted in 1991 by the biology faculty at Kenyon College. The area was used for student research to look at relationships between growth rates and tree spacing. The trails were softly carpeted with pine needles and you could hear the gentle breeze in the branches overhead.

But the trails were not all within the forest. A huge prairie meadow was in the lowland and was home to many types of wildflowers and native grasses. The prairie is maintained by annual spring burns which discourage tree growth – a necessary thing to do to maintain prairie.

On the return to the parking lot we took one last look at the Kokosing River beneath the bridge and found what we believe is a type of liverwort growing on the wet stone abutment. I believe it’s in the genus Conocephalum, but am unsure of species. Regardless, it’s an interesting looking plant when viewed up close. I’ve read that this plant is reproduced by spores and is somewhat similar to mosses as it is non-vascular.

From here we took the car to a parking area on the northside of the Environmental Center just off New Gambier Road. The trails here were quite different from what we had encountered so far. The forest area embraced Wolf Run stream and contained beautiful large White Oaks. The trails climbed ridges and followed the stream in the low land. Some of the wetter areas had recently had boardwalks installed. It was so new the boards didn’t show signs of weathering as yet.

The trails were quite pleasant with footbridges over Wolf Run which meandered through the area. As we walked, we encountered not a single soul unless you count the squirrels. It was like having our own private park.

One spur trail climbed a hillside and descended to a small pond. On the way up we encountered this huge White oak which overlooked the pasture. Quite stately looking and regal. Much larger than any tree in the vicinity. Not sure how old this tree must be but you can estimate it’s size by comparing it to the metal gates beside it. It was impressive.

We didn’t hike all the trails on this day but we easily had about 8 miles that we explored. I would imagine this area would offer great wildflowers and migrating birds in the spring. The terrain would suggest so. If you’re looking for a good area to hike that offers diversity and very few people, this is it!

A copy of the trail map is below. Additional information can be found at: https://www.kenyon.edu/campus-life/sustainability-green-initiatives/brown-family-environmental-center/ Go exploring. It’s well worth the drive.

BROWN FAMILY ENVIRONMENTAL CENTER at Kenyon College

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The Preserves Among Us

This year has been different, to say the least. For all of us. One of the things that has proved helpful to me is exploring nature preserves – especially scoping out ones I’ve never visited or, in some cases, have never heard of. It’s like having little mini vacations. I explored a couple preserves near Lake Erie just a few weeks ago.

DuPont Marsh State Nature Preserve (SNP) is part of the Erie Metroparks in Ohio. The short loop trail (with it’s soft footing of pine needles) connects to a longer Metroparks trail that offers views of the marsh.

It’s a quiet place where nature thrives and encourages those wandering to slow the pace and absorb the peaceful surroundings. Ducks and other water fowl abound. Great egrets slowly move through the water, putting all their effort into fishing; their concentration and patience is quite admirable and readily pays off.

Wood ducks are notoriously camera shy. They generally fly at the slightest hint of human presence – a voice or even the slightest movement. So when I happened upon a large group of them I was extremely surprised to get a few quick photos through the tree branches. This photo shows probably just a third of the number of wood ducks enjoying this marsh cove on this day. One can imagine this is a favorite destination for many types of water fowl.

We also explored Old Woman Creek State Nature Preserve which is a National Estuarine Research Reserve. An estuary is typically defined as a place where salt water meets and mixes with fresh water. But in this case Old Woman creek mixes with water from Lake Erie and combines to create a chemically different water from either the creek or lake. It offers researchers a field laboratory to learn about estuarine ecology in a natural setting with habitats of marshland, forests, barrier sand beach, open water and swamp forest.

Boardwalk trails provide solid footing through potentially wet areas, while well-managed trails lead one through heavily wooded areas with magnificent views.

And in the midst of the woodland close to the estuary is a swamp forest. It’s an upland forest in an area that is poorly drained for a portion of the year. Soil here is too wet for most woodland trees, but it still provides habitat for some trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. It’s prime habitat for wood ducks, warblers, woodpeckers, belted kingfishers and even eagles.

I’ve never been particularly appreciative of scrubland – that is new growth areas with small scrubby trees and shrubs – although I have a new appreciation for it after visiting Old Woman Creek.

Scrub uplands never really caught my attention as particularly attractive but when I learned their value and their place in natural forest ecology, I now have a different mindset.

These scrubby areas provide habitat for bird nesting as well as provide a good food source. They protect birds during storms and can help as floodwater retention when located in lowlands. Because of their scrubby nature, it also protects animals from predators. Scrub lands are simply a natural progression through habitat changes over time. I guess I never really thought about it in this aspect before. Visiting Old Woman SNP expanded my view.

If you get the opportunity, take some time to visit Old Woman SNP and Estuary or any of the nature preserves near you. There is so much to explore and appreciate within the preserves. Nature abounds and awaits you.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.