Sunday, November 29, 2015

Trumpeter Swans at Maumee Bay State Park

There is nothing more noble on a lake than a Trumpeter Swan gliding through the water, and it's a sight uncommon down in Cincinnati (meaning I've never seen a pair of Trumpeters on any lakes, ponds or wetlands near us...with the exception of Swan Lake at the Cincinnati Zoo), but up in northern Ohio, Trumpeter Swans are almost a common sight. At least they were for us when we were at Maumee Bay earlier in November...

A Trumpeter Swan on the inland lake at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo, Ohio.
(Photo courtesy of my cousin, Curg. I didn't have my camera with me, so Curg stepped in and captured this fellow!)

In Cincinnati we have Mute Swans on some of our ponds and lakes, which are also beautiful, but not native, so I was really excited to see these huge native swans in the wild! Trumpeter Swans are the largest waterfowl in North America and create quite an impressive sight. In the early 1900s Trumpeters were almost hunted to extinction. Their feathers, skins, meat and eggs were in demand, and hunting coupled with habitat destruction nearly wiped them out. Through habitat restoration, protection and reintroduction, Trumpeter Swans have survived and are now making a comeback!

Two Trumpeter Swans were inseparable on the inland lake at Maumee Bay State Park. I assume they are a mated pair because Trumpeter Swans are monogamous and mate for life. (Photo credit to my cousin, Curg.)

How to tell the difference between a Trumpeter Swan, a Tundra Swan, and a Mute Swan...
Three species of swans live in North America: the Trumpeter Swan (the largest swan), the Tundra Swan (the smallest of the three), and the Mute Swan. The Trumpeter Swan and the Tundra Swan are native. The Mute Swan is an exotic, invasive Eurasian species introduced in the late 1800s as a decorative pond species. Originally, owners kept their wings clipped to keep them on their ponds, but over time, several escaped and now breed in feral populations. Mute Swans are easy to identify. They have large orange bills with a black knob. It's a little harder to tell Trumpeter and Tundra Swans apart since they both have black bills, but there are specific field marks that help you ID the birds. Here are a few sites to help you learn the differences:

Click here for a guide from the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary that explains how to tell the swans apart. It even has a little interactive test to help you learn the differences.
Click here for swan identification tips from the Trumpeter Swan Society.
Click here for a 6-page printable pdf that explains how to spot the field marks that differentiate swans and geese.

If you read any of the ID tips on the links above, you learned Trumpeter Swans are often described as wearing "lipstick." If you look closely, you can see that field mark in this photo. ( credit to my cousin, Curg.)

The field ID marks of a Mute Swan are easy to orange bill with a black knob.
(I photographed this fellow back in 2009 on a pond near my house.)

Trumpeter Swans are making a comeback in Ohio, but they are not safe yet...
The exotic Eurasian Mute Swans populating many of the lakes and ponds in Ohio are very aggressive and can outcompete Trumpeter Swans trying to establish a territory. They also are voracious eaters and can deplete aquatic vegetation for native waterfowl and even destroy entire wetland ecosystems, further squeezing out Trumpeter Swans.

Click here for a post titled "Swan Song," by John Windau on the Wild Ohio Education blog that explains in more detail the Trumpeter's plight and the steps taken to reintroduce them to Ohio.
Click here for details from the ODNR Division of Wildlife.
Click here for two previous posts with photos of Mute Swans and their cygnets on a pond near my house.

Migrating Tundra Swans at Maumee Bay...
We also saw a small flock of migrating Tundra Swans on the inland lake as well. They were off in the distance and didn't stay long. It was an impressive sight to watch them take off together to move on to another lake.

This post is part of our recent Big Water trip to Maumee Bay, click here for more posts in the series.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful. "I'm grateful to my family and friends for all of the love you've given me." synonyms: thankful, appreciative
I was talking to my mom this morning about how special Thanksgiving is. She summed it up with one word, grateful. It truly is wonderful to have a day set aside every year to simply be grateful for everyone in our lives and all that we have. I'm deeply grateful I have a loving and kind family, close friends and neighbors, and sweet pets and animals...

A heart made of acorns to show the love and appreciation of nature.
...and I'm also grateful for Mother Nature and all the love she has to offer!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gobble, gobble...

...makes you think of the birds that will soon grace many tables on Thanksgiving Day, right? Sounds logical, but I'm not talking about those birds at all. I'm referring to the "greedy" Blue Jays in my backyard gobbling up sunflower seeds and peanuts like they are going out of style...

One of our backyard Blue Jays on the coconut feeder outside our kitchen window. He's not greedy. He's filling the gular pouch in his throat with sunflower seeds to hide in one of his many winter food caches. 

How can one bird eat that many seeds?
It can't! When you see Blue Jays downing one seed after another, watch closely, and you'll see they aren't eating the seeds at all, they are storing them in a pouch in their throats called a gular pouch. Blue Jays have a built-in carrying case called a gular pouch under their tongues. This expandable pouch extends down into their throats as far as the upper esophagus. In late summer and all through the fall Blue Jays and other birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice, start hoarding acorns and other seeds and nuts in winter caches. By storing their food, they can survive long, cold winters when their normal food sources freeze over or run out.

Click here for an older post with photos of a Blue Jay filling his gular pouch with peanuts, and learn how Blue Jays with their acorn caching ways repopulated areas with oak trees after the last glaciers retreated.

Click here for an earlier post on scatter-hoarding and winter food-caching birds in our area.

Gobble,'s fun to watch Blue Jays gobbling up sunflower seeds. They waste no time filling their gular pouches, then fly off to a winter cache, deposit them, and come back for more.

Blue Jays behaving badly (or is it just fall migration?)...
While most of the red, yellow and gold leaves of autumn have fallen from the trees and faded away, it's still fall, and Blue Jays are still out there doing their autumn antics. My mom called a few weeks ago reporting 17 Blue Jays were in her backyard behaving badly. They were impersonating hawks, stealing seed, frightening the titmice, and taking over every feeder in their yard...but, she loved it! It's very exciting to have a marauding band of migrating Blue Jays in your yard, especially when you live in the city! She wanted to know what was going on, so I let her know in autumn, some northern Blue Jays take to the wing and migrate south, while others stay put. When they migrate, they form large groups of what really do look like marauding bands, and when a flock lands in your backyard, watch out. They will raid all of your feeders and plunder till nothing remains. Then they will be gone in a flash, not to return.

Click here for a pdf of a paper by Paul A. Stewart in North American Bird Bander, July-Sep. 1982, titled, "Migration of Blue Jays in Eastern North America," pgs 107 - 112. Stewart analyzes banding and recovery records to identify the birds' migratory movements, showing Blue Jays are partly migratory because some groups stay throughout the year, and of those that do migrate, not all return to their same nesting grounds. Stewart includes maps that show the locations of direct recoveries of banded migratory birds.

This fellow is not part of a marauding band. He's just a regular at the Coconut Cafe outside our kitchen window. 

...put the blue in the coconut and shake it all up. 

Gobble up those sunflower seeds Ol' Blue and secret them off to your winter food cache. Your scatter-hoarding will get you through the winter, plus it's great for seed dispersal!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Big Water, Big Grass (or...when ignorance really is bliss)

During the first weekend of November, my parents, my aunt, my cousin, and I headed up to Maumee Bay State Park and Lodge near Toledo, Ohio to kick off the winter. It's been a tradition of ours to head north for the last hurrah of fall so we can experience Big Water, go hiking, and do a lot of laughing. Each year we tend to focus on a piece of natural history in the area, and this year it was the tall grasses or reeds that line the boardwalk in the marsh...

Behemoth grasses (Phragmites australis) line the boardwalk in the wetlands at Maumee Bay State Park. The reeds are outrageously beautiful, but the beauty comes at a price...a non-native monoculture that is choking out native plants.

Non-native Phragmites (Phragmites australis), the common reed
We had no idea what this sea of grass was as we walked through it. Down in Cincinnati we're not exposed to grasses that live near Big Water, so when we were walking through the towering reeds with their feathery plumes backlit in the late-afternoon sun, we didn't know it was a bad thing. We just knew it was breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the autumn breezes swept through the fronds, tossing them, and swirling them in one fluid motion...but unfortunately, the 15-ft tall plants are a non-native, invasive species that is slowly choking the life out of biodiverse coastal marshes and wetlands. As phragmites rushes through a wetland, it creates a monoculture in its wake, creating dense thickets that squeeze out native plants such as cattails.

A sea of common reeds is beautiful from the observation deck on the boardwalk in the coastal wetlands of Lake Erie.
If only it were supposed to be there... 

Phragmites australis, the common reed, along the Lake Erie coast.

We loved walking the boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Lodge. It winds through a wet woods that was filled with migrating White-crowned Sparrows and then pushes through an expansive marsh where Red-winged Blackbirds were gathering.

Even though the reeds have squeezed out many of the native plants, a small flock of Black-capped Chickadees didn't mind, and it melted my heart watching them flit back and forth in the reeds, chittering and calling out to each other. I wish I had had my "real" camera with me and not just my cell phone so I could have captured some of their antics.  

Native phragmites
Not all phragmites is bad. Native phragmites hugs the coastal and interior wetlands in the Great Lakes region as well. It supports our native wildlife and lays the foundation for a biodiverse habitat, but it can easily be squeezed out by the non-native form. The invasive form creates dense thickets that kill wild rice, cattails, and wetland orchids, which all grow well around native phragmites.

Click here for a post by the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative to help you tell native and non-native phragmites apart.

Click here for a wonderful video created by the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council that shows how to differentiate between the two types.

Click here for another site with information on phragmites and other Great Lakes Restoration projects.

Goats to the rescue?
In an article titled "The Goats Fighting America's Plant Invasion," by Joanna Jolly in BBC News Magazine (January 13, 2015), Jolly writes that marine biologist Brian Silliman of Duke University in North Carolina has been working over 20 years to figure out how to eradicate invasive phragmites. He tried insects and other forms of bio-control, but had no luck. Then after a trip to the Netherlands, he saw the plant wasn't a problem there because it was constantly being grazed by animals. Cue the goats! Silliman got to work and found goats can get the job done. In one study, 90% of the phragmites in the test area was eliminated. Click here to read the entire article.

Normally, we look for deer hiding along the boardwalk, but I would love to look for goats...

Click here for more of our Big Water (November at Maumee) posts.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bristly Greenbrier along the Little Miami River...

Rick and I walked the Little Miami River yesterday afternoon and were surprised when we came across this Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalky type vine. The leaves were huge, and the vine was growing straight up the tree alongside a poison ivy vine...

Large, tropical-looking leaves grow on Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax hispida), a native vine that produces berries eaten by birds and other animals. All the leaves are simple, and there is only one leaf per node along the vine.

With the exception of invasive honeysuckle, all the leaves on the trees in the area were down, which made this large green vine stand out. I'll have to keep an eye on it and see how long the leaves stay green (the vine always stays green).

My cell phone offers a good size comparison for this large leaf. (Looks like a hungry caterpillar visited this summer!)

The sharp prickles start to thin out as you look further up the vine. What looks like a large thorn is the remnants of a leaf stem. Tendrils extend from it and seem to have grown wherever a node was. Higher up the vine (newer growth), the stalk is smooth and green with no prickles.

At the base of the Bristly Greenbrier's green stalk, dark needle-sharp looking bristles of all sizes protrude. Very intimidating...enough to keep any Jack from climbing this beanstalk! 

Thanks to Rick for taking these photos with his cell phone! They look great. I didn't have my camera with me, so Rick stepped in to capture these images for me. I didn't have my binocs either, so I couldn't see if there were any berries at the top of the vine. I photographed a Red-bellied Woodpecker eating greenbrier berries along the Little Miami River a few years ago. It was a different species of greenbrier and the leaves were much smaller. Click here for a link to see the woodpecker eating the berries.