Saturday, April 28, 2018

Earthsnakes around Earth Day



The un-glaciated forests of the Edge of Appalachia Preserve System in southern Ohio.

The southern Ohio hills of Adams County, with its large tracts of continuous forests, are the perfect place to find one of the most secretive snakes in the Eastern U.S.  Spending most of its life under the leaf litter of our forests floor, the Eastern Smooth Earthsnake Virginia valeriae valeriae, lurks slowly while searching and tasting for its primary food, earthworms.



This 200mm Eastern Smooth Earthsnake Virginia v. valeriae, was found around Earth Day of 2018.


Every April around Earth Day, I am reminded that it is time to search for these elusive snakes.  Especially since heavy rains on warm nights seem to be a perfect time for these snakes to come out of their hibernating spots to hunt worms.  Sometimes you notice earthworms exposed on the surface after heavy rainfalls, and so do Eastern Smooth Earthsnakes.  Now that it's warm and the ground is soaking,  this is a perfect time of year to go on a snake hunt.  But even though the conditions are favorable most people have never seen, nor will ever see, this snake. 

Eastern Smooth Earthsnake's are non-descript snakes that hide under debris, rarely venturing out in the open.

Earthsnakes have only been found in 12 of Ohio’s unglaciated counties: Adams, Athens, Clermont (1 record), Jackson, Pike, Scioto, Lawrence, Muskingum, (1 record), Ross, Hocking, Vinton and Gallia.  Many of these counties have very few records of the snake making this one of the least encountered snakes in the state. The lack of encounters are due to its secretive habits.  Earthsnakes could be incredibly common in the unglaciated forests of Ohio, but it’s simply just not that easy to find.  Its small size and lack of colorful markings already make it hard to detect, not to mention it prefers to be hidden under debris.  In fact, I have never found one of these snakes unless it was under some sort of cover.  And in most cases under coverboards that I have intentionally left out to survey reptiles.
This coverboard (roofing tin) used to survey reptiles in the forest produced an Earthsnake.
This snake can be grey or brownish dorsally with no markings, except possible pairs of faint dark specks running down its back.  The back color fades gradually into a pale color on the belly. It rarely reaches more than 11 inches in total length.


Notice the white chin and black longitudinal dots running down the back of this Eastern Smooth Earthsnake.

The Eastern Wormsnake Carphophis amoenus, is a similar species which also fits this profile but they have a distinct coloration change on the sides of their body between their brown back and pinkish belly, and lack any black dots on their backs.  The wormsnake's eyes appear tiny on its small head.  Every other small snake in Ohio forests have some color or markings on them that gives away their identification.
Do not confuse with the Eastern Wormsnake, notice the drastic color change between the back and belly of the snake and no black spots.

Little is known about the life history of these snakes since so few are found in Ohio (fewer than 100 Ohio records in museums).  In most states they breed in late spring/early summer and give live birth in late summer.  Since they are live birthers (viviparous), you won’t encounter eggs like some other snakes.  Knowing exactly when a female gives birth is difficult and coming across new born (neonate) Earthsnakes could prove even more onerous.

The Eastern Smooth Earthsnake spends so much of its life underground that very little is known about its habits.


Rare photo of an Earthsnake feeding on Lumbricus rubellus. Earthworms are their primary diet.
Researching this snake in captivity is difficult as it has a tendency to burrow, remaining hidden and rarely eating.  But this spring I was lucky enough to observe an Earthsnake bite, hold, then swallow a large earthworm. 
Earthsnakes are harmless to people and most other animals--except earthworms, or soft-bodied arthropods which they can eat.  It will rarely attempt to bite, if at all, and is not known for leaving a musk smell on your hands after handling. 

10 year old Lexi fearlessly holds an Earthsnake while it coils into a pretzel shape.  This is the snake's average size.
Many Earthsnakes I have encountered freeze in place to remain undetected.  It seems they stay rigid and motionless to appear lifeless like a stick or a root.  This video, although shaky and blurry (apologies if you get sea sick), showcases an Earthsnake's reluctance to move while I harass it, relying on crypsis rather than retreat.



Earth Day seems to be a time when folks try to get outside and enjoy their natural surroundings.  As you are out this spring keep an eye on the forest floor for this small snake.  It may be coiled like a pretzel under some leaves, or under a piece of debris.  It would be nice to increase the amount of photo records for this snake and expand its range in the state. These snakes are surely way more common than Ohio’s herpetologists are aware.  The best way to find them is to place a piece of roofing tin, metal, or wood on the edge of the forest and check underneath it on warm days.  If you find what appears to be an Eastern Smooth Earthsnake in Ohio, take a picture and send it me at mzloba@cincymuseum.org.
Posted by: Mark Zloba

Monday, April 23, 2018

Finally feels like spring in 2018

Ahh spring!  Spring of 2018 has had a rough start.  One nice warm day gets the wildflowers going then three cold days set everything back.  So things are coming along...just slower than usual.  I finally had a sunny day to take a few minutes to look for some bees.  My main goal was to find oligolectic bees associated with particular plants (see past post on oligolectic bees). 
I stopped at a big tree plum, Prunus mexicana, since it was full of flowers and many insects flying around.  Below are some interesting finds beginning with the emerald green colored Augochlora bee.

A bee, Augochlora sp. on big tree plum.


Many bees were visiting the sweet smelling flowers of the big tree plum.  It seemed to be a favorite of many bees, flies and butterflies.  Even the massive (comparatively) Eastern carpenter bee was enjoying this nectar.


Carpenter bee, Xylocopa sp., also enjoying the nectar of the big tree plum.

At last, I spotted what I believe to be an long-horned bee, Eucerni tribe, or Osmia sp.on this plant (to be determined).  Many of the Eucerna and Osmia genera are bees that come out in spring.


A bee, possible Eucerna sp. (to be determined) on big tree plum.

While photographing these bees I noticed a possible Andrena species posed in an unusual position and remaining uncharacteristically still.


Possible Andrena bee sitting in a peculiar position.

I figured something else must be keeping this bee in such a position, and sure enough there was.  Blending in to the pinkish base of the flowers was an ambush bug, Phymata sp.  This ambush bug, a kind of assassin bug, hides among flowers and grabs prey as it flies in.  It then sticks its long straw-like mouthpart (proboscis) into the exoskeleton of the prey and sucks out the juicy innards.


Ambush bug feeding on bee.  Notice the yellowish  proboscis mouth part holding up the bee.

While watching this spring drama I noticed a bee flying to a common blue violet, Viola sororia, at my feet. I remembered there was an Andrena violae which only feeds or collects pollen on violets.  I do not have this bee listed for the preserve, and hopefully after tedious microscopic keying of bee body parts, this will be a new species for the preserve.


Possible Andrena violae, oligolectic on Violets.

While laying on the ground photographing the bees visiting Violets I noticed an odd white shape in the grass.  I had to get real close for my brain to explain to my eyes what I was seeing.  The visual mystery was two falcate orangetips mating on the top of a bittercress.  If you look closely you can see the two touching abdomen tips between their wings.  When finished mating the female will lay her eggs on this cress, or another plant of the mustard family, which their caterpillar feeds upon.



Mating falcate orangetips, Anthocharis midea annikae.  You can see the hook to the tip of the wing (falcate).

When not mating, these butterflies rarely sit still very long.  They seem to hit flowers quickly for a taste and move right along.  It was tough to find a male falcate orangetip that would sit still long enough to get a picture of its orange patch.  But after much crawling around on hands and knees one finally sat still long enough to get a shot.  The females lack the orange coloration on the dorsal side of the forewing.


A male falcate orangetip, displaying why the name fits.
It's wonderful how a twenty minute search for bees on a flowering tree can produce many interesting encounters, Ahh spring!

Posted by: Mark Zloba


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Spring 2018 Eulett After Hours Programs

Get ready for a brand new line-up of interesting and informative talks courtesy of our Eulett After Hours program! Check out the schedule and topics here!


Friday, March 23, 2018

Leafminers

I think many people believe that we already know what lives on this planet, and there is not much more to discover.  But there are still some curious explorers in this country that are making new discoveries, more than one could imagine.  Yes, we have names on many of the trees and birds and mammals found around the world.  But many tiny creatures, some in your own backyards, are waiting to be discovered.  Two of these taxonomic pioneers, Charley Eiseman and Julia Blyth, recently made a trip to the Edge of Appalachia to teach a class on leafminers.  Leafminers are not people that dig in the earth to find leaves, but rather tiny insects which, in the larval stage, mine (eat) through the fleshy inner cell layer of leaves.  Just as Lewis and Clark traveled the country keeping notes on new plants and animals they witnessed, Charley and Julia travel across this country's backyards and forests to discover new insect tunnels on leaves made by creatures still un-described in science.

Charley Eiseman showing the class an insect larva eating the inner portion of a leaf.

Have you ever seen a leafminer?  I bet you have.  Look closely at leaves on almost any tree, and you will probably find one.  Although you may not see the insect, the trail it leaves by tunneling through and eating the innards is evidence of its existence. These tiny insects can be larval moths, flies, beetles or even sawflies (wasp-like hymenopterans).  They have utilized the niche of the tiny space within the mesophyll of a leaf to eat, grow and presumably stay safe from predation.  But as in all things in nature, nothing is safe.  Many predators have honed in on these hiding insects and eat them. Parasitoids, many of which are wasps, can find and lay eggs on these sitting ducks, by piercing the leaf with their ovipositors. 

A tunnel mine of a moth, Phyllocnistis populiella.  Notice the dark line of droppings left behind in the tunnel.

A moth, Stigmella intermedia, on sumac, lays eggs on the leaf surface.  After hatching, the larva starts eating and you can see the tunnel grow wider as the larva grows until exiting the tunnel after pupation.
Enjoy this short video of a beetle larva feeding on the inner layer of an oak leaf.

Charley and Julia have keen eyes and did not have to walk far from the building before finding leaves that bear the mark of a leafminer.  They would find splotch mines or tunnel mines on grasses, tree leaves or any herbaceous plant.  One species of beetle that feeds on Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, was new to science a few years back.  This weevil is named Orchestomerus eisemani.  Eisemani of course, from Eiseman because Charley discovered this new species.  When they find a mine on a plant they have not seen before, they will take the plant home and wait for the critter creating the mine to pupate.  At that point they can identify the adult and record the culprit.

Charley Eiseman holding the leaf of Virginia Creeper with the mine of Orchestomerus eisemani 
Charley and Julia recording data of the mines collected during the class.
Within two days of our class, Charley and Julia had collected, identified and pressed the plants of over 100 specimens containing at least 80 species of leafminers.  All of these insects were new species additions for the Edge preserve collection.  Charley is working on keys to identify the leafminers.  Knowing the shape and size of the tunnel on specific plants can give you clues as to the species that created it.  So you may never see an adult Agromyza ambrosivora fly, but you can identify the mine on the leaf of an Ambrosia plant.  These leaves have been mounted and housed in the Eulett Center herbarium for reference. 
A few of the mounted specimens kept for reference.
Following are some examples of leafmines showcasing the artistic blotches and squiggly lines helpful for identification.
A moth, Astrotischeria astericola on aster
A fly, Aulagromyza orbitalis on Orange-fruited horse gentian,  Triosteum aurantiacum.
A moth, Cameraria guttifinitella on Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans.
A moth, Coptotriche fuscomarginella on Black oak, Quercus velutina.
A moth, Ectoedemia platanella on Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis.
A fly, Liriomyza eupatoriella on white snakeroot, Ageratina altissima.
A fly, Liriomyza sp. on Ironweed, Vernonia.
A moth, Parectopa robiniella on black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia.
A moth, Phyllocnistis vitifoliella on grape, Vitis sp.

A moth, Stigmella prunifoliella on black cherry, Prunus serotina.

I think it is safe to say that you could count on one hand, if there are any other naturalists in this country that could have identified this many leafminers in such a short time.  They are a great team and have shared with us a whole new world living inside a leaf.  To see more of their work, publications, and blog, and to get information on how to obtain Charley’s new book, Leafminers of North America as well as his last book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (co-written with Noah Charney) click on the link here: http://charleyeiseman.com/leafminers/.

Posted by: Mark Zloba

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Who's watching you?

There is something to be said for being at the right place at the right time.  If there is anyone around here that IS at the right place, it's usually Rich McCarty.  While turning the truck around in a driveway in the middle of the preserve, Rich noticed something unusual.  This particular driveway has 2 squirrel boxes on top of the posts holding up a gate.


A quick cell phone picture before exiting the truck.
As he pulled in, one squirrel box hole was black as usual, the other was not.  After doing a double-take, he realized something was stuffed in the hole, blending in with the old barn wood front.  It was just before dark, and this little critter must have been sticking its head out to see if the coast was clear to come out for the night.

Almost looks like this Eastern screech owl ate too many jumping mice last night and can't get out of the opening!
What are the chances of pulling up to this gate and seeing an Eastern screech owl staring at you as if it wanted to ask a question??? Well, pretty good, as one week later he drove by again in the evening and it was peering out of the hole once more.

It must have assumed it's camouflage was enough to escape detection, or was waiting to pass on some wisdom! 
Eastern screech owls are cavity nesters, and will reside in bird/squirrel houses if the hole is big enough, abandoned buildings and holes in trees.  It will be interesting to go back in late April, early May to see if this owl used it for egg laying and the fledglings are hanging around.


A good reminder to keep an eye on those holes out in nature, because you never know who or what's keeping an eye on you!!

Posted by: Mark Zloba via Rich McCarty

Friday, February 2, 2018

What's eating that deer?

A bald eagle was spotted flying from the forest floor along Waggoner Riffle Rd. near the Edge of Appalachia Preserve headquarters.  Rich McCarty was the spotter, and after further investigation he found a white-tailed deer carcass, which he assumed the eagle had been feeding upon.  Rich showed me the deer and we wondered if the eagle really was feeding on it and what other animals would visit for a feast.  So I decided to put a game camera near the deer which, triggered by motion, will take photos and video of anything moving in front of it.  After leaving the camera out for 2 nights, it was fun to go through the hundreds of videos to see what appeared.  Enjoy this short video of the culprits (you might want to finish eating first).

Five animals were large enough to trigger the camera in that 2 day period.  They were:  American crow, Red-tailed hawk, Coyote, red-shouldered hawk and a juvenile bald eagle.  Doing what many animals do, they start feeding on the rear end of a carcass first.  This must be where the best meat is... the rump.  Here are some photos from the feeding event in the case your device won't play the above video.
Juvenile bald eagle showing its size and power tearing into the deer.




Red-shouldered hawk flying in for a taste.
Notice the size difference in the red-shouldered hawk on the deer and the bald eagle above.
A red-tailed hawk joined in for a few videos one morning.
Both days and nights a coyote (probably different individuals) made multiple appearances.
Coyotes did the majority of tearing on the deer's rump.
American crows also made numerous stops to have a meal.
Although unfortunate for the deer, a dead animal is an important part any ecosystem.  Especially in winter when some predators may have more difficulties hunting food.  An incredible amount of organisms will benefit from this one dead animal.  A game camera will not display the myriad of insects, worms, fungus and even plants that will benefit from the decaying of this deer.  But there are many.  If you have a game camera, hold your nose and use it in this way to explore what is utilizing carcasses in your territory.

Posted by: Mark Zloba

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Buzzardroost Rock Mural

Artist Suzanne Chouteau in front of completed mural.
West Union, Ohio is home to a new mural depicting the preserve's iconic Buzzardroost Rock thanks to the Adams County Arts Council who received a grant from the Ohio Arts Council for painting murals in Adams County. The mural was based on a reduction woodcut by Xavier University Art Professor, Suzanne Chouteau who oversaw all the artistic aspects of the mural and was one of three people to paint the colossal 19 x 62 foot image.  

The mural is dedicated to renowned ecologist E. Lucy Braun who was instrumental in having Buzzardroost protected.
(E.Lucy Braun photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati Archives)

The three artists at the start: Suzanne Chouteau, son Eli Bedel and husband Chris Bedel.
Chris Bedel, Preserve Director for Cincinnati Museum Center at The Edge of Appalachia Preserve (and husband to the artist) painted and oversaw the technical aspects of the production like how to enlarge a 6 x 19 inch woodcut to building size and then how to get it on the wall. Eli Bedel, Xavier University DIFT major, and son to Suzanne and Chris, also braved shaky scaffolding and dizzying heights on the lift to assist with painting. ArtWorks of Cincinnati generously offered their advice on paint and other technical aspects.
Eli Bedel with mural background colors and terribly scary scaffolding used to paint parts of the mural.
The under painting necessary to provide background colors to the final over lay of paint had the West Union town folks worried as to what exactly they were going to have to live with for the next 20 years or so! One person guessed it was a piano. 

Suzanne Chouteau doing over painting that brings the mural to life.
In complete disclosure, the author was a bit worried as to how it would turn out until the over painting revealed that the mural was going to be a stunning painting worthy of representing Buzzardroost Rock as it has never been seen before. As well, the mural has many moods depending on the time of day and light. The light before sunset makes the mural glow and the vivid colors become radiant, at times taking the author's breath away.

The other scary apparatus used to paint, a hydraulic lift generously donated for the painters' use by local contractor Doug Ruehl.
While the picture makes the lift look harmless and safe enough, it took time getting used to being off the ground. As well, its occasional malfunction got the painters' attention and put hair on end when 25 feet in the air. It also provided a perch from which to see the hills of the preserve to the east and the many insects that frequented the wall's bright colors, like butterflies, flies and grasshoppers. Soaring vultures were also constant companions as if they wondered whether the three painted vultures on the mural were real.

Letters were hand stenciled using tape and free hand cut masks to block out letters for painting. Suzanne shown peeling tape off to expose finished letters. 
If someone would have told the author that painting murals was very difficult, he would have said "How hard can it be?" Let us count the ways: the solar radiation reflecting off a white wall in summer is beyond blinding. Not to mention feeling like walking "fried chicken" with temps at the wall 10-15 degrees hotter than the surrounding air. Thankfully some of the painting took place at night, late at night, there were countless nights where painting took place until 3 and 4AM! Did I mention the wind?

The mural half done showing the background colors that were painted first then the final detail overlaid in purple.

Chris Bedel at the microphone for the dedication ceremony.
All in all the mural was a great success. The building's owner, attorney and judge, Alan Foster is very pleased with the results as well as the town folks who came up on many occasions to express their gratitude. An unexpected result were the many hikers who had just come from hiking the trail to Buzzardroost Rock to stop for a picture with the mural. Maybe a new craze will ensue that will drive increased tourism? The mural is located across the street from the eastern side of the courthouse so stop and pay it a visit on your next visit to The Edge of Appalachia Preserve! 

Proudly posted by: Chris Bedel, Preserve Director