American Black Duck

The American black duck is not really black – it is more of a dusky brown. It blends in well and hides in plain sight in the shallow wetlands of the Cuyahoga River floodplain.

Male and female American Black Ducks are remarkably similar in appearance, which is unusual for waterfowl. These days they can be seen staking out nest sites in preparation for egg laying. The female usually selects an area in a clump of grass, under a shrub or tree.

Numbers of this duck declined sharply in the mid-twentieth century. Hunting regulations seem to have helped to stabilize their numbers, though the continental population of these birds is less than half of its historical size.

These ducks forage for food by dabbling; they tip their heads down and lift their tails up so they can probe the mud and water for submerged plants, seeds and invertebrates.

An average-sized clutch of 9 eggs hatch after just under a month of incubation. Ducklings appear in May and early June and are mobile within a few hours of hatching.

The American Black Duck is shy and is widely regarded as the wariest of all ducks. It is often seen in company of Mallards. If a mother is killed or separated from her brood, another American Black Duck with ducklings of her own, regardless of their age, will quickly adopt the orphans.

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Ohio Haircap Moss

Though the forest is mostly brown these days, there are a few spots where green can be seen, like on patches of Ohio Haircap Moss. It is found on soil, logs and rocks in hardwood forests of Eastern North America, New Mexico and Europe.

Mosses have no vascular system, which is a network of tubes that transport water and nutrients. Plants without vascular systems cannot grow very large. These are actually “carpets” of individual plants. They are rarely taller than one inch high.

Another characteristic of mosses is that they require water to reproduce, rather than having a flower, like most plants. Mosses are primitive plants and like their ancestors, they are aways found in moist situations. They colonized on land almost half a billion years ago.

The leaves have a unique adaptation that allows them to better withstand dry conditions. Under moist conditions, leaves spread away from the stem and permit a maximum use of light when moisture is adequate.

However, under dry conditions, the leaves curve and twist around the stem. This behavior minimizes water loss. The central stems form tough, pliable strands that “back in the day” were used to make small brushes.

Never underestimate the power of moss. Recent research indicates the the arrival of the first land plants triggered a series of ice ages, by cooling the Earth’s climate due to reducing the atmospheric carbon levels.

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European Sowbug

Even in the Winter if it is not too cold out, by heading out into the woods and turning a few logs, you can find European Sowbugs. Though the high temperatures have only been in the 30s for the last few days, there were plenty of these interesting creatures to be found.

Despite the “bug” in its name, the sowbug is actually a terrestrial crustacean and is more closely related to lobsters, shrimp and crayfish than insects. This is not a native species, although it is found throughout much of North America; it was introduced from Europe.

Sowbugs love dark, damp places and are commonly found in yards under wood or rocks. Compost heaps are another great retreat for this animal. They also often crawl through spaces in the foundation or through gaps around basement windows and end up in the basement where they can survive quite well if the basement is unfinished.

They feed primarily on dead plant and animal matter, including rotting wood. Sowbugs are considered beneficial because they are effective decomposers.

The European Sowbug has a smooth texture and has a wide, flat, oval-like shape. When disturbed it tends to freeze before moving off. They cannot “roll up” like their relative, the Pillbug.

Like a kangaroo, female sowbugs have a pouch called a marsupium, in which the eggs are incubated until they hatch. The young leave the pouch and typically molt soon after. It may take a number of months to mature and the mother sowbug will often stay close to her young until they are adults.

In some parts of the world, it is believed that eating sowbugs can help ease an upset stomach. Although not proven, this might be true, because sowbug shells are high in calcium carbonate. Sowbugs have the amazing ability to store very high concentrations of metals in the pancreas. This trait has been used by scientists to study metal contamination of various environments.

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Wood Frog

What’s the toughest frog in the land? My vote goes to the Wood Frog. It is the only frog found north of the Arctic Circle.

As the temperature drops below freezing each winter, the Wood Frog drifts into a deep hibernation; its breathing and heartbeat grind to a halt, and as much as 65% of the water in its body gradually crystallizes into ice. How’s that for tough?

Earlier this week we had a day with temperatures in the 50s and constant rain. During the night Wood Frogs migrated over to their breeding ponds. The male frogs call day and night in a duck-like, raucous quacking chorus.

The days following the migration have been cold, with temperatures in the 30s and 40s. The frogs have not been calling and stay hidden, awaiting higher temperatures.

I found this cold, dark example today under a log near the pond. It appeared to be in a trance and hardly moved, but it will be ready for action once it gets a bit warmer.

After laying eggs, Wood Frogs leave the pools of water to spend the rest of the year in wooded areas, often quite some distance from standing water. They blend in well with fallen forest leaves.

The Wood Frog grows to about three inches long. Its color ranges from pinkish-orange to tan to dark brown. It is easily recognized by its dark “robber’s mask.” It’s ability to withstand cold make for a pretty awesome amphibian.

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Virginia Opossum

As I approached this thicket of bamboo, I saw a creature run for cover into the brush – so I followed it.

The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in North America. It quickly ascended a tree. They are active at night (this was the first wild one I’ve ever seen in the daytime) and they do not hibernate in winter.

These animals are most famous for “playing possum.” When threatened by a dog, fox, or bobcat, an opossum will sometimes flop onto its side and lie on the ground with its eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. It will extend its tongue and generally appear to be dead.

An adult Virginia Opossum is about the same size as a house cat, but with much shorter legs. These animals have long, pointed noses, round, hairless ears and a chunky body. Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long semi-prehensile (gripping) tail.

They are considered a primitive mammal have a small brain and many teeth (about 50). The Virginia Opossums is are one the shortest-lived mammals for their size – they rarely live longer than 18 months.

Opossums eat insects, snails, rodents, berries, over-ripe fruit, grasses, leaves, and carrion; occasionally they will eat birds, snakes, eggs, corn or other vegetables.

At birth the young opossums are tiny; they are so small that 20 could fit into a teaspoon. Each one crawls to its mother’s pouch. After two months, the young are ready to leave the pouch for increasing lengths of time. They follow their mother on her food-gathering trips, occasionally riding on her back. After another month, the young are independent.

The opossum has been around for at least 70 million years and is one of Earth’s oldest surviving mammals. Despite a rapidly changing world, it manages to survive in modern times. Not only is it surviving, but this “old school” animal’s range has been expanding steadily northward into Canada.

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Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadees are one of the most easily recognized birds in Northern Ohio. Their inquisitive behavior and friendly demeanor make them a regular visitor to birdfeeders.

They are small, with a solid black “cap” and “bib.” Males and females look alike. Their vocalizations are of one of the most complex in the animal kingdom.

Depending on slight variations in the phrases, their call can convey separate, unique messages: in addition to acting as a contact call or as an alarm call, chickadees also use their voice to relay information about an individual’s identity or to indicate that they recognize a particular flock.

These birds spend most of their day searching for food. They move along stems and branches of trees and shrubs, searching crevices for insects. In Winter, insect and spider eggs make up half their diet while seeds, berries and other plant matter account for the other half.

When food is plentiful, Black-capped Chickadees store it away. They stash food under bark or in patches of lichen. A single chickadee may stockpile hundreds of food items in a day, placing each item in a different spot. Not only can they remember thousands of their food hiding places, but they can also remember where they have hidden their stored foods for up to a month.

On cold winter nights, Black-capped Chickadees conserve energy by lowering their body temperature by 10 to 15 degrees F.  While this may seem counterproductive, “nocturnal hypothermia” probably reduces energy expenditure by as much as ten percent.

A compact, cheerfully sociable bird, the energetic Black-capped Chickadee does not migrate – allowing us to enjoy it all year long.

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