Sassafras: The root beer tree

Sassafras is an easy tree to identify by its leaves. The leaves can have a mitten shape, with either a left thumb or a right thumb, or the leaf can be three-lobed. It can also have an oval, unlobed leaf. Usually, you’ll see all three shapes on the same tree.

The Sassafras Tree is a member of the laurel family and it has aromatic foliage. Rub a leaf between your fingers, and its spicy scent becomes noticeable. Crushing a twig from this tree produces that same result.

In earlier times, homemade root beer was made by fermenting molasses and Sassafras root. Commercial root beer used oil of Sassafras for flavoring. Oil of Sassafras was also used “back in the day” for perfuming soap.

This tree often has a crooked trunk, it produces dense cover and provides fruit for wildlife. Sassafras doesn’t attain its full growth potential in northern states. Around here a typical tree is about 30 feet tall.

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A Hike on the Erie Canal Towpath

Like so many parts of the United States, Northeast Ohio has had very warm Summer temperatures and little rain for quite some time. There’s been a change in past three days; there’s been a fair amount of rain and somewhat cooler weather. I decided to take a hike on the Erie Canal Towpath and see what was up.

I noticed this Black Rat Snake’s shed skin up in a tree. It’s the second shed that I’ve found in this spot. I have yet to see this serpent. Black Rat Snakes are my favorite snakes.

Then I saw this female Bullfrog too – there were lots of frogs out.

Here’s a Sulphur Butterfly on a Cup Plant. Why is it called a Cup Plant?

 Answer: Because its leaves hold water!

There were many Painted Turtles out.

How can a baby Muskrat be both cute AND be a rodent at the same time?

Little Turtle/Big Turtle.

Young Wood Ducks that hatched earlier this year hanging out with their mother (in front).

This Painted Turtle isn’t going to catch many rays while covered in Duckweed.

A Green Heron that kept staring intently at the water, waiting for a small fish to swim by.

I like turtles and there were more turtles than you can shake a stick at!

 It was a good day for hiking the towpath.

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Cicada Killer

Lately, with the “dog days” of Summer upon us, I’ve been seeing these big bugs. Cicada Killers are large, solitary, ground dwelling, predatory wasps. It is interesting to watch them scan the stems of plants as they search by sight for their quarry – Annual Cicadas.

The female Cicada Killer will paralyze a cicada with her sting, bring it back to her burrow, lay an egg on it and seal the burrow. A grub will hatch from the egg in a few days, eat the cicada and overwinter underground in a hard cocoon which it weaves.

During the past two years a bit of “driveway drama” played out as a Killer subdued a Cicada in my yard. Check out how fast the two insects were spinning in this classic stuggle between life and death.

Despite their large size and fearsome appearance, male Cicada Killers cannot sting and females rarely sting people. Males live for only two weeks or so. After a short life of intense patrolling, fighting and mating, they then die. Females live about four weeks, but work even harder than the males, digging many burrows and hunting.  In a typical season 100 female Cicada Killers will clear over 16,000 Cicadas from the surrounding area.

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Banded Darter

We have some surprisingly colorful fish in northeast Ohio, some of them rivaling the appearance of tropical varieties. Today I found a couple of great examples of one of the more common darter species found in Ohio – the Banded Darter.

These 2-inch fish can be found in all sizes of streams, from small creeks to large rivers. In the same family as Perch, Darters are small, bottom dwelling fish with two dorsal fins. They are often noted for their brilliant coloration.

Like many darters, breeding males are very brightly colored (right), while females are duller in appearance (left).

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Great Blue Heron

Of the many bird species that inhabit wetlands, perhaps none is more iconic than the Great Blue Heron. Great Blue Herons get their name from their blue-gray plumage and their large size. A fully grown adult bird is an impressive sight. It can stand about 4 feet tall, with a wing span of 6 feet.

Great Blue Herons are one of the most widespread species of wading birds in the Western Hemisphere.

Males perform elaborate courtship displays during the mating season. They also construct nests of sticks and twigs as high as 50 or 60 feet in trees to discourage predation by animals like raccoons. Great Blue Herons use the same nests year after year, adding on to them during each breeding season. As a result, these nests can get quite large over time.


Great Blue Herons are not picky eaters. They feed on a wide range of aquatic animals, such as fish, frogs, snakes, small turtles and aquatic insects. In upland areas, they will also feed on small mammals, such as mice. These birds are solitary hunters and are rarely found in close proximity to one another.

Their feeding technique is to stand very still, watching for movement in the water by a potential food source. When the time is right, they swiftly dart their head into the water, spearing their hapless victim with their beak.


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Queen Snake

Walking along this creek, it was apparent that it contained a large number of crayfish.

They could be seen scurrying along the bottom, slowly exploring the surfaces of rocks, or rapidly backswimming away when they sensed my approach.

It wasn’t long before I came upon a Queen Snake, also in the water and actively exploring the rocks in the bed of the creek. It would swim over to a rock and poke around along and under the edges before moving on to another rock.

This snake is semi-aquatic and only eats one thing: crayfish. Not just any kind of crayfish, but those which have recently shed their exoskeleton and therefore are soft-bodied for a period of time before their shell hardens.

These are medium-sized snakes, typically about 2-3 feet in length. This particular snake is a female and probably carrying babies. Queen Snakes give birth to live offspring.

They often bask on overhanging shrubbery or tree branches at the water’s edge. When not basking or foraging, Queen Snakes often remain concealed beneath flat rocks on the shoreline.

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Black Swallowtail

A couple of weeks ago I was out walking and I came upon this green butterfly chrysalis. It looked like it was from a swallowtail, but I’d never seen a green swallowtail chrysalis, just brown ones. So I e-mailed a photo of it to by 10 year old nephew Max. He said that it was from a Black Swallowtail. Max indicated that they could have either a green or a brown chrysalis (who knew?).

I set the thing up in one of these plastic-type aquariums and put it in the kitchen to keep an eye on it. A swallowtail will overwinter in its chrysalis, and emerge as an adult butterfly the following Spring or Summer.

This morning I saw this. This butterfly is a mimic, meaning its pattern copies another animal. Its cousin, the Pipevine Swallowtail is poisonous to many predators. By copying the Pipevine Swallowtail, the Black Swallowtail gains protection from predators, even though it is not poisonous.

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Like most butterflies, the Black Swallowtail is a good pollinator. As it visits plants, looking for nectar, it spreads pollen from flower to flower so the plants can grow.

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Humans have greatly helped the Black Swallowtail. They brought non-native carrot species from Europe to North America. The Black Swallowtail uses non-native carrot species as food for its caterpillars (another food source is Queen Anne’s Lace).

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Bee Balm

When I first saw Bee Balm I knew that it was something that I wanted growing in my yard, due to the crazy-looking flower this plant has. I was a bit surprised to find out that Bee Balm is native to Ohio, though the wild version does not have the vibrant colors that the cultivated varieties feature. Here a few that I saw while walking the Canal Towpath.

The flowers are well known to attract hummingbirds and insects, such as bees, butterflies and beetles. This plant is a member of the mint family and one characteristic of mints is a square stem. It’s kind of weird to feel a plant stem with “corners,” but Bee Balm has them.

It’s fragrant leaves are often used to make potpourri. Bee Balm has been used in folk medicine as a “mint tea” to treat respiratory and digestive ailments. The oil from this plant is an essential flavoring ingredient in Earl Grey tea.

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When I was in grade school a read I book titled Nature Thought of It First, which illustrates how man has adapted principles of nature’s tools, traps, defenses, weapons, and inventions for his own purposes. Dragonflies, with their ability to hover in the air, are man’s inspiration for the invention of helicopters.

Dragonflies are characterized by large multi-faceted eyes, two pairs of strong transparent wings, and an elongated body. They are some of the fastest insects in the world. Dragonflies are valuable predators that eat mosquitoes and other small insects. They are usually found around marshes, lakes, ponds, streams, and wetlands because their larvae, known as “nymphs,” are aquatic.

In the United States dragonflies and their relatives, the damselflies are sought out as a hobby similar to birding and butterflying, known as “oding,” from the dragonfly’s Latin species name, odonata. Oding is especially popular in Texas, where 225 different species of odonates have been observed.

Along with butterflies, dragonflies fascinate and capture our imagination. No doubt, their prowess as aviators has a lot to do with that fascination. Dragonflies flit and dart to and fro, up and down, hovering and zigzagging. Their aerial movements are the envy of human pilots and aeronautical engineers everywhere – their ability to catch (and devour) flying insect pests is nothing short of amazing.

The predecessors of modern dragonflies and damselflies appeared more than 300 million years ago. One of these, Meganeura monyi, is the largest flying insect ever known. Fossils of this giant dragonfly ancestor show it had a wingspan of 2-1/2 feet compared with modern species wing spans of just a few inches.

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Florida Box Turtle Laying an Egg

I was feeding my aquatic turtles at 8:00PM when I noticed some activity in the Florida Box Turtle pen nearby.

This turtle was busy digging a hole. First she’d scoop out dirt with one back foot until she got tired, then she’d switch feet.

This went on for quite some time. Before I knew it, it was 9:00. But the reptile just kept on slowly but surely digging.

It was pretty exhausting just watching. This friendly neighborhood deer came by to keep me company for awhile.

By 10:00PM I was ready to take a nap. I seriously needed a cup of coffee. But that turtle just kept on digging.

A little while later this raccoon stopped by and was watching me watching the turtle from the deck.

Finally, at 10:15 – an egg!

Then she quickly covered it in dirt to make it look like nothing ever happened.

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