Black-eyed Susan

How about that storm? After 36 hours without power, it’s nice to have heat and light again. Ever wonder about one of America’s favorite wildflowers?  Who was Black-eyed Susan?  Her story is one of the grand romantic tales of the wildflowers. Legend says it comes from an Old English poem of the post-Elizabethan era entitled “Black-eyed Susan.”

These plants are most easily recognized by their flowers, which are yellow with a brownish-purple center. Black-eyed Susans grow in open woods, gardens, fields, and roadsides. They grow quickly in just about any kind of soil.

They are a pioneer plant; this means that they are one of the first plants to grow in a new field. For example, if a fire burns down part of a forest, this plant will be one of the first to recolonize the charred land.

Black-eyed Susans generally bloom from June to October. They are considered beautiful plants and many people include them in their gardens, where they attract butterflies. Birds also enjoy their ripe seeds.

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Eastern Gray Squirrel

Walking through the woods today it was hard to ignore the activities of Eastern Gray Squirrels as they busily went about their work of collecting and stashing away food for the winter.

Squirrels are beneficial to the maintenance of Ohio’s forests through their habit of burying excess food supplies, such as nuts, seeds, and acorns. Although squirrels dig some of these up to eat during winter, many are left alone. In the spring, those will sprout, giving new growth to the forest. 

At the time of settlement, Ohio was 95% forested, making an ideal habitat for squirrels. A common saying is that a squirrel could travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie without ever having to touch the ground. Agriculture and hunting have reduced their numbers significantly, but they can still be quite common in the right habitat.

Gray Squirrels prefer large expanses of wooded areas of hardwood trees. Although they are usually gray, on occasion they can be black. The mix of squirrels is often blamed on Kent State University, a rumored epicenter for the melanistic (black) squirrels in Northeastern Ohio.

Squirrels have been known to pretend to bury an object if they feel that they are being watched. They do this by preparing the spot as usual and miming the placement of the food while actually concealing it in their mouth, and then covering up the hole as if they had deposited the object.

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Cedar Waxwing

I never really notice Cedar Waxwings until autumn, when shrubs are full of ripe berries. It is at this time that the birds can congregate in large numbers on a readily available food source.

Cedar Waxwings have a rather regal appearance, they strike a commanding pose with their erect profile. But their “unapproachable” image belies their gregarious, highly social nature. Groups of them evoke a party-like atmosphere. Several Cedar Waxwings sitting in a row will pass a berry or insect from one to another up and down the row until finally one bird decides to swallow it.

These birds do not appear to establish territories and are almost always encountered in groups. Their diet of cyclically available fruit probably causes the “safety in numbers” lifestyle they have due to their nomadic wanderings in search of food.

Thier “proper image” contrasts sharply with this bird’s propensity toward over-eating and constant chatter. Cedar Waxwings have been reported to devour an entire fruit crop of Red Cedars over a two-day period. Such feats have earned it an alternative name, the “Cedar Bird.” It is probably an important seed disperser of Red Cedar (as well as other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs).

Though fruit is its mainstay, insects are consumed during summer.  While they will eat a wide range of bugs, they are particularly fond of caterpillars. They are excellent flycatchers, too.

The Cedar Waxwing prefers forest “edges” or open woodlands as a general habitat.

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While doing a little hiking in Brecksville Reservation I came across a Katydid. Their great camoflauge is obvious. When looking straight down at one, it can be very difficult to detect in a field.

And while looking at one from the side, it appears to be a leaf. They can use their leaf-like wings to take flight if necessary.

Katydids eat a wide variety of vegetation. Males are capable of generating sound by rubbing their wings together. Females hear them with an “ear” located in each front leg.

They can be distinguished from grasshoppers by their long antennae, which may exceed their own body length. Females (like this one) possess a sword-shaped egg-laying structure called an ovipositor.

The Katydid is to the night what the Cicada is to the day, filling the night with its song. To some it sounds like it is saying “Katy did, Katy did, she did, she did,” over and over again. We don’t know what Katy did, but that is likely how the Katydid got its name.

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Back in Ohio, the Witch-hazel is starting to bloom in South Chagrin Reservation. Its twisted yellow flowers appear in clusters of three. It has an unusual flowering time (in the autumn).

This small tree (typically less than 20 feet tall) usually has multiple crooked trunks. It tends to grow naturally along rivers and anywhere else where the soil is very rich.

Witch-hazel’s name strikes mysterious connotations. In colonial America, the shrub’s flexible forked branches were a favorite “witching stick” of dowsers used for searching out hidden underground water. This has nothing to do with witchcraft, rather it originates from the old English word for pliable – “wych.”

Although it’s not a hazel, the leaves have a striking resemblance to those of the common American Hazelnut.

Its leaves, twigs and bark are aromatic and have long been used for medicinal purposes. Witch-hazel produces an oil that is widely used as an ingredient in skin care products and pain relief medication.

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Rough Green Snake

Crawling on and around the limestone bluffs were several slender and elegant Rough Green Snakes.

This is a mild-mannered snake that is often seen near water. It is frequently found climbing in low vegetation, where it blends in quite well – it is often overlooked because how well it can match its surroundings.

In the United States, their bright green coloration is only matched by their relative, the Smooth Green Snake.

They feed mainly on insects and spiders and are particularly fond of caterpillars. When captured, they never bite and are usually very gentle when held.

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Five-lined Skink

Skinks belong to a superfamily of lizards with about 1200 species, their family the second most diverse family of lizards, exceeded only by geckos.

The Five-lined Skink is one of the most common lizards in the eastern U.S. They are ground-dwelling reptiles that prefer a moist, partially wooded habitat that provides cover as well as sites to bask in the sun.

The bright blue tail can be detached if the lizard is attacked by a predator. The tail will twitch for quite some time while the lizard makes its escape.

As their name implies, Five-lined Skinks have five light lines that run down their backs and tails. They tend to grow to 6 or 7 inches in total length.

They will often climb dead trees where there are a lot of insects, which are their main source of food.

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Eastern Box Turtle

Walking the edge of this cypress swamp, something up ahead caught my eye.

The box turtle gets its name for its ability to close up the bottom of its shell with a “hinge.” Although it lives on land, the box turtle is more closely related to aquatic turtles than tortoises.

This turtle lives in a wide range of habitats, including woodlands, field edges, thickets, marshes, bogs, and stream banks. Box turtles have high, domed shells and eat a variety of plant and animal matter.

Male Eastern Box Turtles, like this one, often have red eyes. Many Box turtles stay in a small home range (under five acres) most of their lives; they routinely live for several decades, and occasionally for a century or more.

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Marbled Salamander

Today I found my first Marbled Salamanders ever. They are named because of their pattern.

Marbled Salamanders are part of a group known as “mole salamanders,” and spend most of its life under logs or in burrows.

Unlike most mole salamanders, instead of laying eggs in the spring, Marbled Salamanders lay their eggs in the fall in low areas that are likely to flood during winter rains. The female coils around the eggs until they can be underwater.

This reproduction strategy gives baby Marbled Salamanders a “head start.” The Marbled Salamander larvae gain a size advantage by feeding and growing for several months before the much larger Jefferson Salamanders and Spotted Salamanders hatch later in the spring.

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Western Cottonmouth

Greetings from southern Illinois. Let’s see what kind of cool stuff that can be found in the next few days. The first snake of the trip was this young Western Cottonmouth.

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The cottonmouth is a dark, stout, thick-bodied venomous snake. The name “cottonmouth” is derived from the snake’s habit of opening its mouth in a defensive posture when it feels threatened. Other names for this snake are “water moccasin” and “trap jaw.”

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This is a snake that is usually found in or around water. When swimming, the cottonmouth holds its head above water with most of its body barely touching the surface.

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The young wiggle their tails so that the yellow tip appears to be a small worm. When small frogs and lizards see the wriggling tail, they think it’s something to eat and rush forward to grab it, only to be eaten by the baby cottonmouth.

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