Monday, August 31, 2009

World Wide Webs

By the most recent count (not mine) there are more than 35,000 species of spiders in the world. About 3,000, give or take, live here in North America. I find it reassuring that there might be an equal number of spiders living out there without names, because names don’t matter to them.
Spiders were kind of on my mind this morning as I hiked a section of the Buckeye Trail that runs through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This section is a favorite of ours. It’s sometimes called the Bluebird Trail because of the extensive number of nesting boxes installed along the way. Someone’s research project, I suppose. Susan and I refer to part of the trail as Warbler Ridge since we’ve had exceptional luck in the spring catching the northward movement of warblers over this spot.
Today it was just me, a nice selection of woodpecker species, a few Eastern Phoebes—and the spiders. Early morning is a great time to venture into the woods to see the vast array of webs, evidence of last night’s efforts. When you look over a field in the low morning light, it’s hard to imagine how many spiders must have been working to create this sea of webs. Or how many other insects were captured and eaten.
And while you might see the webs, rarely do you see the creatures that made the webs. Since most spiders have eight eyes and six legs, it’s understandable how they disappear before we see them. But left behind, we can see the canvas on which they’ve worked and the art they’ve created. Particularly, when covered with morning dew, there is a rich palette of clouds, waves and strings of pearls.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fish Bites Man

Yesterday, Tom, his brother Ed and I made a trip out to the stream. It’s one of those things a person has to do from time to time to maintain a socially acceptable level of sanity. And if you have a fly rod in hand, so much the better.
For some, fly fishing is synonymous with frustration. You do the same thing over and over, expecting different results. That’s also a fair definition of insanity, I think.
The odds are against the fisher. In the course of casting, assuming he’s chosen the right fly and is casting to where a fish might actually be, there are a thousand mistakes waiting to happen. For the fish, he has only one mistake to concern himself with. And even a fish is smart enough to know, if he keeps his mouth shut he’ll stay out of trouble.
The three of us had a good day on the stream. As we were heading back to the car, I could not help but make another cast, or two, along the edge between a gravel bed and the stream bank. The water was about three inches deep and gin-clear. I could see there were no fish in the spot. I don’t know why I decided to cast there. Maybe just because I could. Much to my surprise, a black rock that I had been casting toward, grew fins and a huge mouth! Wham! He almost ripped the rod out of my unready hand.
While he held the advantage for the first 30 seconds, we both eventually won the match.
The gorgeous brook trout, when seen from the side, had been just another dark stone in the stream when viewed from above. There’s probably some important life-lesson in all of that. All I know is that while the fish might be nursing a sore jaw this morning, my left thumb is taking it easy since he nipped me as I released him back into the icy water.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who’s That Knockin?

Primordial. Could there be pterodactyls?

As with most surprises in the woods, what I heard seemed out of context and grabbed my attention. Why would a roofing crew be working in the middle of a National Park? And, my first thought when they flew was, yikes, a family of pterodactyls!
I came to my senses and remembered I was not quite old enough to remember what pterodactyls really look like. So the noise, obviously, was the hammering of Pileated Woodpeckers.
I’ve seen countless Pileated Woodpeckers, yet, I’m always amazed at how large the bird is. And how colorful, even though it has only three colors, red, white and black. Seeing one is a treat. Sometimes you get lucky and see a pair. I was watching five! It appeared to be a family outing. A day to teach the kids how to make noise and get some eats in the process. True to form, the kids seemed more interested in what their siblings had found crawling under the bark of the huge oak than what their parents worked on. Mom and dad paid little attention; it was instruction time. You learn some life lessons or you get kicked out of the gene pool.
The hike would prove to be like any other day in the woods; that is to say, like no other day in the woods can be. As with never being able to step into the same stream twice, so it is with hiking even a familiar trail. I needed a hike so I set off on one of my favorite birding trails just to see what it was like in the depths of summer, a period considered the nadir of the birding season by some folks.
I hadn’t been in this section of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park since last spring. A productive wetlands spot, where in the spring the fallen logs are covered with birds, was now covered in green velvet. Plant life sprouted from where there had been only tree bark. A single female Common Yellowthroat probed in the bushes.
Higher up on the valley’s rim, a constant, albeit small, chorus of birds competed for my attention. Red-eye Vireos kept saying, “Look at me! Up here! Here I am!” The Eastern Wood-pewee called out his name, over and over.
I guess in terms of species count, the six-mile hike did not yield much. About a dozen species where active this morning. However, any time you can watch a flock of Wild Turkeys forage, or see an American Robin drink from a concave oak leaf on the trail, it’s hardly to be considered a “low point.” Fewer birds just means you can devote more of your resources and attention to the task at hand. It’s about education. Just like watching dad probe under the bark of a tree for something--anything.

What lies around the bend?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It’s Only a Name

Human-contrived names for birds don’t always make sense. A non-birder friend of mine was recently telling me he doesn’t understand how they get the common names for birds. I told him, the names are made up by the same people who generate names for shades of paint. Just what color is Belgian Waffle?
His problem was with the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It has way more red on its head than belly. True enough, I said, however, from the right angle, in the right light, you can see the red patch on the tummy. And besides, “Red-headed” was already taken.
The conversation, still in shades of red, moved on to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. He agreed this bird was aptly named—most of the time. The male, with his iridescent ruby-red gorget (throat), does appear black under some lighting conditions ...
The conversation next turned to the industriousness of the hummers in their constant search for food—and defense of that food source. Then the conversation turned to watching—the best part of birding.

Monday, August 03, 2009

What’s in a Name?

In this summer that has yet to happen in northeast Ohio, working out on the deck has been a real pleasure. Usually it’s too hot, or the sun’s glare on the screen too much of a challenge. This year, however, I’ve been able to relax and enjoy the comings and goings at the bird feeders and plants that define our little piece of the globe, under the guise of working.
This afternoon I had a special visitor. And, as luck would have it, a camera within arm’s reach. The visitor was a Hummingbird Moth, Hemaris thysbe. These are strange creatures. They get their common name from their size and feeding habits. Some people think they’re looking at a baby hummingbird.
There are about 17 species of Hummingbird Moths in the world. We have four in North and South America. They are clear-winged moths and, lucky for us, diurnal.
I watched my visitor go about its business. It did not seem to mind my intrusion. The body was about two inches long and olive green with red bands across the abdomen. Its tail fans out, reminiscent of a lobster’s, or a hummingbird.
The fine hairs on its side looked a lot like feathers. It is a nectar feeder and its long proboscis worked all the flowers, just like a hummingbird. The really neat thing to watch was how the insect would roll that proboscis up, like a garden hose, when it moved from flower to flower. Then it would unroll the needle-like mouth part and probe the flower.
The Hummingbird Moth is an excellent pollinator and a great distraction from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.