Sycamore Tree

In the Winter, the exfoliating bark of Sycamore Trees can look quite appealing under the January sky. The bark flakes off in great irregular masses, leaving the trunk surface mottled, and greenish-white, gray and reddish-brown.

The rigid, brittle nature of the bark tissue lacks the elasticity of the bark of some other trees, so it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath and the tree sheds it off.

This makes for an easy tree to identify – you don’t even need to see the leaves. The camouflage-patterned bark is a feature allowing Sycamore Trees to be recognized in any season.

Growing up in Cleveland, these trees were planted by the city as “shade trees”; they lined the street that I lived on. In a natural setting they are “flood plain” inhabitants and often grow along the edges of rivers and large creeks.

This tree easily reaches heights of 80 feet tall and 60 feet wide, but can grow much larger. While not the tallest tree, is considered the most massive tree (as defined by its circumference) in the eastern United States.

The Sycamore Tree’s leaves are very large and can reach 7 to 8 inches long and wide. Here’s a leaf from last Summer.

The fruit clusters appear as hanging balls, one per stalk. The fruit hangs on all Winter, then falls apart in early Spring to disperse their many small seeds.

During this time of year, Sycamore Trees stand ghostly along river edges, with their smooth white limbs in stark contrast to the brown, textured bark of the trees that surround them.

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Western Blacknose Dace

Minnows are a huge family of fish. North America has over 230 species – let’s check out a type that lives in my backyard.

The Western Blacknose Dace is a small, slender minnow that grows to about three inches long. During the Winter this fish often wedges itself under rocks, where it is quite sluggish as it patiently waits out the cold weather.

Its species name, atratulus, is derived from a word that means “clothed in black.” Sprinkled along the sides are dark scales that give the fish a spotted appearance. The fish’s most obvious characteristic is its black side stripe. The stripe runs from the snout through the eye, and along the length of the side to the tail.

These fish are creatures of flowing water. Although they thrive in stream pools as well as rocky riffles, they won’t be found in the still water of lakes and ponds. Dace feed on many types of aquatic insects, worms and algae.

During breeding season, the male’s black side stripe transforms into beautiful red-orange hue. Here’s a male that I caught in the Summer. At this time a male will stake out a territory and guard a bit of underwater turf against other male minnows. The male circles the area and seems to “dance” to attract females.

Many fishing lures have been modeled after the Western Black-nosed Dace, because this fish is known to be a favorite prey item for many sport fish, especially trout.

The humble dace is a wonderful river species that inhabits tiny little streams to huge waterways.

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Belted Kingfisher

The kingfisher actively hunts for small fish by perching on limbs over the water. When it spots a fish, it leaves its post and hovers over the water until it plunges in after its prey.

After snapping up a fish with its bill, the bird takes it back to its perch, where it stuns the fish by beating it against a branch or tree trunk before gulping it down.

Somewhat larger than a pigeon, they can grow up to 13 inches long. Belted Kingfishers have a large, shaggy crest and a long, heavy beak – causing them to look rather top-heavy.

This bird is a female. Belted Kingfishers are unusual in that females are more colorful than males, which lack the rust colored markings.

They are often first detected by their distinctive dry, rattling call. They do not hesitate to scold any invader who enters their hunting territory – including humans. I discovered this particular bird’s territory on the Erie Canal Towpath last Summer; I can usually find her there whenever I visit the area.

Water is not only their resource for obtaining food, but it can provide an escape route as well. A trick Belted Kingfishers use to avoid being caught by hawks is to dive into the water at the last minute.

These birds are solitary except during breeding season, when the male and female will dig a tunnel into a mud bank. The tunnel, which can be up to eight feet long, has a small chamber at the end. Belted Kingfishers sometimes share their tunnel with swallows, which make small “rooms” off of the tunnel’s “main hallway.”

With its brushy crown, energetic flight, and piercing call, the Belted Kingfisher seems to have an air of royalty as it patrols the shoreline of its domain.

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The First Herps of 2013

With temperatures hitting the mid-60s today, I decided to go outside and take a look around. Though warm, there were still patches of snow on the ground and many areas of standing water were still frozen.

As I hiked, I could hear Spring Peepers calling off in the distance, but there calls were scattered and sporadic. The first herp of 2013 was a much bigger frog than a Spring Peeper – American Bullfrog.

In the same area while looking through the underbrush, I spotted my first reptile of the year – Midland Painted Turtle. I could hear lone Spring Peepers calling off in the distance, but these herps were right in front of me, so I photographed them.

I wasn’t the only one herping today – Red-tailed Hawk.

Here’s male a Midland Painted Turtle courting a female. To express his affections, he scratches her cheeks with his extra-long front fingernails.

She did not seem impressed with his technique.

These Ground Beetles are cool. They have big jaws and “play dead” by freezing in this position when they feel that they’re in danger.

Soon it began getting dark. I decided to track down one of those Spring Peepers that I’d been hearing throughout the day. Finding one can be tricky, they are very small and tend to stop calling as they are approached. But persistence paid off.

Not a bad outing for January 12th in the Greater Cleveland area!

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Cinnabar-red Polypore

What’s the best looking fungus in the land? Right now this one has my vote. Polypores are fungi with many tiny holes, or pores, on the undersides of their shelves. They are also called “bracket fungi.”

Fungi provide a critical part of nature’s continuous rebirth by recycling dead organic matter into useful nutrients. They digest food outside their bodies by releasing enzymes into the surrounding environment and breaking down organic matter into a form they can absorb.

Without fungi, forests would become choked with logs, sticks and dead plants; nothing else is able to perform the function of reducing these forest byproducts back down into soil.

“Poly” means “many.” Checking out the underside of one of the shelves, it’s easy to see why it’s called a polypore. The pores are used to release spores into the air, which is the way fungi reproduce.

The shelves (or brackets) are the fruiting bodies of the organism – they are also known as conks. Most of the fungus is embedded in fallen wood. The pores are all perfectly vertical, as the spores must be able to fall out of the pores without sticking to the sides.

Cinnabar-red Polypores are often found on fallen cherry trees (like this one). They are widely distributed in North America, but a number of sources state that they are rare, so finding these today was an unexpected surprise.

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Even in cold weather, by turning rocks over in creeks you can find one the most fearsome freshwater invertebrates in Ohio – the Hellgrammite.

Though they live underwater, they are poor swimmers - but voracious predators. Hellgrammites will capture and eat any creature smaller than themselves.  They hide under rocks at the bottoms of lakes, streams and rivers and catch food with their short, sharp jaws (if handled carelessly, they can inflict painful bites on humans).

They have pincers on the tail end too, which enable them to grab onto rocks in fast-flowing water.

After two or three years of living and growing underwater, Hellgrammites crawl out onto land and pupate. They stay as a pupa over the Winter and emerge in the Summer only to mate. Here’s a pupa that I found under a rock at the edge of a creek.

Upon emerging, they live for only seven days. The winged adult insects are known as Dobsonflies. They are among the largest flying insects in the United States and look like something straight out of a horror movie. Males appear quite fearsome, with gigantic jaws that can be nearly half the length of their body.

Though intimidating, they are unable to harm humans, as they have such poor jaw leverage that they are incapable of biting. Their mandibles are used exclusively during courtship, when males show them off to, and later grasp interested females with them. Dobsonflies don’t eat and die shortly after mating.

The Hellgrammite is an interesting aquatic insect and an intriguing creature to seek out year-round. It goes through two easily recognized stages of life and its behavior and lifestyle in each stage is dramatically different.

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