Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chuck Island, The Northern Range of Chuck-Will's-Widows

It's almost Memorial Day, which reminds me that chuck-will's-widows, Caprimulgus carolinensis, are sitting on eggs or have possibly already left their "nest" with fuzzy chuck chicks.  Its really not much of a nest since they simply lay their eggs on the leaf littered ground.  Soon after hatching, the chicks are on the move.  This leaves very little time to observe these large nightjars, kin to whip-poor-wills, while sitting on eggs. 

Chuck-will's-widow on eggs.
Chuck-will's-widows are a rare breeding bird in Ohio. The only place it annually breeds in Ohio is in or near the Ohio Brush Creek valley of Adams and possibly Highland County.  Occasionally, these birds show up elsewhere in the state, but for some reason, this valley bordering the preserve, supports a large population which is the only reliable place in Ohio to hear, or if you're lucky, see a chuck.

Amazing camouflage of a Chuck-will's-widow on the ground.
 Even though they are large birds (up to a foot long), they are incredibly difficult to see while on the ground.  So difficult, that the few times I've stumbled upon one on eggs, I almost stepped on the bird before he/she flushed.  I say he/she because a few years back, a student named Ryan O'Conner was researching chucks on the preserve and captured this video of a male flying in and swapping duties with a female already sitting with chicks.  Until then, it was unknown that males played this role.  The video below shows the male flying in and the chicks moving underneath the male.

Typical "nest" and 2 eggs of chuck-will's-widows.  (Photo by Rich McCarty)
Chuck-will's-widows feed on moths at night.  Its mouth is very large and the beak is rimmed with bristles that act as a basket to help catch moths as they intercept them in mid air.  There are even reports of chuck's being able to catch and eat small birds with this large mouth.  The video below, also captured by Ryan O'Conner, shows the size of the birds open mouth.  If you've never heard the song of the chuck's, I added the song to this video of a bird I recorded this 4th week of May in the Ohio Brush Creek Valley.

Never wanting to disturb the chuck on its eggs, photos can be taken through a scope from a safe distance.
Roosting near the barrens during the day, if you're lucky, you might find one sitting on a tree. Can you see the bird in the middle of the picture? (Photo by Rich McCarty)
It is somewhat of a mystery as to why chucks choose this valley over the rest of southern Ohio.  Why haven't they been breeding in the hills surrounding Scioto Brush Creek of Scioto County for example?  I have one theory and it has to do with their nesting preferences. These birds almost always seem to nest around the same kind of habitat.  This habitat is about the same elevation due to the geology of the area.  It seems they are always near a post oak (Quercus stellata) or blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) barren, and they lay eggs somewhere near the edge of these barrens.  There are a lot of these barrens around the Ohio Brush Creek valley, but not around valleys in the surrounding counties.  In fact, if you go across the river, south into Kentucky, you would have to travel at least 100 miles before you get into chuck-will's-widow breeding territory.  So we really do have a small island of chuck-will's-widow's breeding in southern Ohio. 

Posted by: Mark Zloba

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Few Reptiles From The Edge

I took the opportunity to visit a tract that we recently acquired, as a part of the EOA Preserve, in an attempt to locate some of the seldom seen reptiles of the Edge.  The weather has been cool and damp so I expected that these guys might be holed up under some cover, waiting for some sunshine and warm temperatures to get their systems going.  While the day was overcast with sometimes steady rain and temperatures in the 50's, I discovered several species content to provide a photo opportunity. 

Ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus
A small snake, easily identified by the yellow or sometimes orange band that encircles the neck, this ring-necked snake was the first that I discovered.  While fairly common within the southern half of Ohio, I rarely see ring-necked snakes unless I am specifically looking for them under boards or tins.

Red-bellied snake, Storeria occipitomaculata
Soon thereafter, I located this Red-bellied snake. This woodland resident is fairly common within the Edge Preserve and is readily identified by its reddish - orange belly. 

Eastern Wormsnake, Carphophis amoenus
Searching through leaves led to the discovery of this small fellow, the Eastern Wormsnake.  Usually grey to reddish brown in color with a pinkish belly, the wormsnake fits its name very well.  The wormsnake looks very similar to the Smooth Earth snake, with the earth snake typically having some black specks along the sides of the body where the Easterm Wormsnake does not.  Both of these snakes are restricted to only a few counties in southern Ohio and are challenging to find.

Eastern Milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum
Finally, I found a snake of some appreciable size!  If you look at the first three pictures and compare the snake to the surrounding leaves in the picture, you can see that those are some small snakes.  The Eastern Milksnake is a medium sized snake, maybe reaching two feet in length, and fairly common in Ohio.  The milksnake is often mis-identified as a Northern Copperhead by the casual viewer though its pattern differs from that of the copperhead and it lacks the vertical pupils of a venomous snake.

North American or Black Racer, Coluber constrictor
Now we are getting somewhere in this effort...this guy is a racer and as the name suggests, these snakes can move quickly.  Black racers can reach lengths of 5 - 6 feet and can be aggressive if threatened or startled.  Yep, they can be intimidating!  I know from personal experience that they will strike repeatedly when captured.  The species is most active during the day during hot weather, at time when they are capable of moving very quickly.  Fortunately the cooler temperatures have this snake content to stay put and simply "scent" what level of a threat I may be.  We often hear folks refer to our racers in southern Ohio as Black Racers or Blue Racers, dependent mostly on the predominant coloration of the snake.  We recognize this snake as a racer, and regardless of his predominant color, he is likely to be quick and have a mean disposition!

Northern Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix

A fitting end to a long day of searching, I found a Northern Copperhead.  The copperhead is not very excitable, often laying still to the point that it is stepped on by passers by.  While common in southern Ohio and within the Edge preserve, this snake can be hard to find.  This guy has the trade mark copper colored head and if you can see the eye, you will see a vertical pupil that removes all doubt that this snake is venomous. 
Searching for reptiles can be challenging, even in "good" weather,  finding this many species in these cool conditions was pretty satisfying.  We are still searching for a Timber Rattlesnake within the bounds of the Edge preserve.   We will keep searching for and discovering what we have protected within the Edge of Appalachia Preserve.

Posted by: Rich McCarty