Friday, October 24, 2014

Raptors, Rodents, and Reptiles (and More) at Sheldon Marsh

Yesterday was sunny and gorgeous and not all that cold, so I headed out for my first dedicated woods walk in a public park since moving to Ohio. (It sounds crazy, I know, but I've been so impressed with the nature in our own yard that I haven't really felt the need to explore other places.) I've been very curious about this whole Great Lake thing, so I drove up to Sheldon Marsh Nature Preserve, which is right on the shore of Lake Erie. For such a small park (there was only a mile or so of trails) this place had a whole lot of things going for it, including really lovely woods, fields, marshes, and beaches, and wildlife all over the place.

A Red-tailed Hawk was soaring over the small field near the entrance right when I arrived:

At the edge of the lake, an even bigger raptor was keeping watch:

I'm fairly certain this is the closest I've been to a wild Bald Eagle. An impressive bird indeed:

Wow, what a huge beak. I wouldn't want to be a smaller creature in this bird's sights:

Ready for launch (the tree's branches got in the way of my pictures of the takeoff):

The path through the forest featured lots of small mammal activity, even with all the people walking by. Fox Squirrels buried nuts next to the path and waved their fancy red tails:

We have regular old Gray Squirrels around here too, but I see Fox Squirrels much more often -- a first for me, since I've never lived in a place with Fox Squirrels before. I definitely admire their orange bellies and tails.

This Eastern Chipmunk was keeping an eye on me, but it was much more interested in the second Eastern Chipmunk a few feet away (a grand chase began soon after I took this picture):

I was surprised and happy to see several Painted Turtles basking in one of the ponds, even though it's getting quite late in the year:

We have a different subspecies of Painted Turtle out here than we had in Connecticut (Midland vs. Eastern Painted Turtles), but I still recognize these guys as familiar friends. I love the extreme balancing act of the turtle on the far left of this picture.

I was just a footstep away from this little Brown Snake before I noticed it. It's a good thing twigs aren't usually so curvy! I took this picture then urged the little fellow off the path and out of the way of dangerous feet:

I got to meet a new (for me) bird on this visit, too. Rusty Blackbirds have been declining dramatically in numbers in recent decades and they're listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN. A couple of these handsome fellows were hanging out with some Red-winged Blackbirds and they stopped only briefly for a picture before heading off to forage in the swampy woods:

A bunch of different ducks were hanging out in the marsh, and I was super happy to meet a pair of Wood Ducks close to the path. They were foraging behind a screen of bushes, which made picture-taking rather difficult, but it also helped them feel safe despite the person with the camera nearby. Wood Ducks are -- I think -- the most beautiful of ducks. The female was lovely (with duckweed on her bill, so cute), and I love the faint sheen of iridescent purple in her hair:

And of course the male was resplendent:

I love the way he looks against the reflected fall trees:

And boy do I wish this next picture was entirely in focus! I had no idea his wings would be so colorful as well:

As I was leaving, I met the most personable (or perhaps most tired/hungry) White-throated Sparrow ever:

This little bird kept hopping along the path I was taking, basically right next to me. It would startle up every few seconds while I walked, but then it would come back and continue foraging on my path, only a few feet away. So I did what I used to do with shorebirds in Connecticut: I walked a little ways ahead of the bird and then crouched down and let it keep foraging and work its way toward me. I've never had a sparrow come so close!

The food on this path must have been really good; this bird found a morsel every few steps:

It's nice to get a sparrow's-eye view of the woods every once in a while:

So Sheldon Marsh turned out to be a lovely place, with lots of awesome creatures. I'm sure I'll make my way back here at some point!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Niagara Falls Nature

Paul and I had a mini-vacation in Niagara Falls this past weekend. We'd each visited this place when we were little, but neither of us had any clear memories of it, and we figured hey, why not take advantage of our northeastern Ohio location and drive a few hours to see some crazy impressive landscapes. So that's what we did. And the falls were very impressive indeed:

We weren't thrilled by the surrounding cities and (mostly rundown) tourist traps, but everything we saw of the actual falls -- on both the American and the Canadian sides -- was amazing. I love the color of the Niagara River:

That's a lot of water! (Note the tiny people in the top left corner of the next picture for scale.)

We even caught the tail end of the fall foliage, and the displays on some of the islands in the river were really fantastic:

All that mist made for some cool rainbows when the sun came out:

The waterfalls were awesome, of course, but I was also very curious to see what kinds of creatures live in this tumultuous place. I didn't see much diversity (perhaps because of all the human activity), but there were some cool animals around nonetheless. Below the falls, Double-crested Cormorants and Bonaparte's Gulls foraged in the water and rested on the rocks:

I'd never seen Bonaparte's Gulls before, and I think they're pretty darn cute with those bright legs and little black ear-spots (part of their winter costume):

There were lots of gulls around -- Bonaparte's and larger Ring-billed Gulls -- and sometimes they seemed to be part of the falls' roiling mist:

A few black Gray Squirrels were running around in the park. I don't get to see these guys very often!

One ledge in the middle of the American Falls had a little less rushing water than the surrounding areas, and when we got up near the top of these falls, I was absolutely astonished to see a few Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls foraging on this ledge:

I mean... what?? I know these are birds and they can fly and everything, but this is the edge of a gigantic waterfall!! Here's a view of those same falls from across the river; the birds' ledge is right in the middle (and again note the tiny people in the bottom right of the picture for scale):

Seriously, ahhh! I'm getting vertigo just thinking about that high/slippery/downward-rushing spot! These are definitely some daredevil ducks:

So yeah, Niagara Falls is a pretty cool place. I'm glad I got to check it out!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Common Grackle Invasion

We've been getting some really big flocks of Common Grackles here recently (I'm talking more than a thousand birds at a time), and the flock that visited today might have been one of the biggest yet. I was away (silly work!) and missed it, but Paul was on top of things and he took this video of so many grackles streaming through the woods behind our house:


I'm glad the house didn't get swept away in that flood of birds!

(Thanks to Paul for making the video and letting me share it! For more stuff from him, check out his blog about weird things at yard sales, Yardsaling to Adventure! It's awesome and hilarious and I'm not just saying that because I'm married to the author.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Two Snakes

I was just thinking how strange it was that we hadn't seen any snakes in our yard yet, and then yesterday afternoon I opened our front door and a tiny Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) tumbled off the step and into the flower bed. I found it curled up as perfect as could be under a fallen leaf, and it was nice enough to stay still for a portrait (with a quarter for scale):

What an adorable little creature!

I covered the little Brown Snake again with its leaf, and when I checked the spot a few minutes later, the little creature had moved on.
Later that same afternoon, we uncovered a second snake -- an Eastern Garter Snake this time -- under a wood pile. Something seems to have nibbled on this snake's tail at some point, but it was a very handsome creature nonetheless:

This snake was quite patient with me and my looming camera lens:

But this guy eventually wandered off as well. I'm glad to count these awesome creatures among our neighbors!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Things that Crawl on the Ground

It's getting downright chilly outside now, but last week's weather was wonderfully sunny and warm, and I came across several cool creatures while exploring the woods next to our house. After some rain and warm weather, this place turned into salamander paradise. This wonderful Jefferson Salamander (or perhaps it's a salamander in the quite confusing unisexual complex that involves genes from this and other species) was hiding out under a piece of bark on the forest floor:

Salamanders are always awesome, and I just love the handsome blue speckles on this guy. (I haven't yet figured out the best way to take pictures with my actual camera in the dark woods, so my iPhone's camera will have to do for now.)

A few Red-backed Salamanders (smaller and sleeker than the blue-speckled fellow) were nearby:

This next Red-backed Salamander was particularly active and surprisingly fast. I wouldn't want to be a bug with one of these creatures after me!

A big Groundhog was prowling the edge of the forest behind the house the other day, walking along drainage pipes and digging into the leaf litter:

It even went partway up a tree at one point. I didn't know Groundhogs could climb!

I thought this big orange sphere on a fallen leaf must be some sort of gall, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a species of orb weaver spider (Araneus iviei). Spiders are so weird!

I actually saw this last creature a couple of weeks ago, but it's too strange not to share:

What looks like a giant ant (maybe close to an inch long) is actually an oil beetle (genus Meloe). The small coverings (elytra) on its abdomen pointed me toward the beetle family, and some internet searching did the rest.

Here's hoping the cold weather doesn't come in too fast.... I'm going to miss all these cool creatures when they go away!