Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thresherman's Park

Thresherman's Park, where the Rock River Thresheree takes place over the Labor Day Weekend has a woods. And in those woods the wild grapes are ripe. The drought that curled the leaves, broke with weeks of rain which has filled the grapes with juice to bursting. It was in my mind to gather some of those grapes and perhaps make something out of them. Jelly? Grape juice? Wine?
Thresheree? Yes, Thresheree. Many years ago, some farmers realized that threshing, harvesting and removing the grain from the chaff, was no longer being done the old way and people were fascinated by the old techniques and in the old machines because they'd never seen it done that way before. So they banded together donated some land, and formed a club to keep the knowledge and the machines from being lost. The Rock River Thresheree was born.
My extended family has been participating in the Thresheree for decades.
That's my second cousin Marty, (Once removed?), on top of the tractor. So since I'm here...
My "job" for the Thresheree doesn't start until the steam engines (steam powered tractors) are fired up. I'm scheduled for the water wagon. The water wagon goes from engine to engine refilling their boilers as needed. Because if the boilers get short of water the whole machine blows up. And I mean BLOWS UP, giant chunks of metal hundreds of feet in the air.
This gave me a bit of a pause. But obviously these guys know what they're doing or they'd be dead. Right? At least that's how I comfort myself. But as they are slaving away, getting these fascinating machines going, I'm thinking grapes and head for the woods. It is the time of year when the fruits come to, well, fruition.

The woods are absolutely full of grapes. Unfortunately, I realize, the grape vines have crawled up the very tall trees and getting them down to do anything with them, could just be a rather large problem.

They do look luscious and perhaps tomorrow if I brought the long gadget in the garage, meant to lop tree limbs, perhaps I could clip clusters down. But today, I'm just not tall enough. I'll just wander awhile.

That's when I notice these. Perhaps some sort of cherry? I've not found out yet so I'm not making any jelly out of them. Good Rule Number One, as your mother told you, if you don't know what it is, don't eat it.

Then walking down the tracks, yes there is also a steam powered train on site, The Cannonball, I come across this flower. I think it's Woodland Sunflower. I've not seen one before. It's interesting that because the Park is about machines. Machines and rarely herbicides are used to control the plants. And as there are many portions which aren't mowed all that often there are still native plants on the land.

And here, Red Ossier Dogwood with it's distinctive white berries and red stems. Also a favorite of migrating birds. What about people? Dogwood Berry Jelly? Good Rule Number Two, even if you know which kind of berry it is, if the frugal local people don't make jelly out of it, it's either nasty tasting or poisonous.

Which brings me past the steam engines again. Look into the fire box. That's the hole with the door. See the pale streak inside near the top? That's the arm of a fourteen year old boy. And what's he doing in the firebox? He's giving it an ultrasound. I kid you not.
Typically it's pregnant women who have a clear gel squirted on their abdomens from a container that looks like nothing so much as the old plastic ketchup and mustard bottles used at hotdog stands, and then a sensor is passed over the area in order to get a look at their unborn babies. In this case, the squirt bottle of gel looks exactly the same, the boy inside squirts a bit on the metal inside the firebox, puts a pen like sensor to the metal and "ultrasounds" it. This is the method used to find out the thickness of the metal of the firebox. A spot that's too thin could--you guessed it--cause the machine to blow up. I'm off again.

Look at this! This is a giant anthill. A giant anthill for Wisconsin or New York anyway. It's a good three feet across. Guess they've not be disturbed in awhile.

They look to be regular ants. Amazing what happens when humans haven't intervened either intentionally or unintentionally.

Then I see these. Bright red, luminous berries on a bush with lobed serrated leaves. I think they're currants but back to Good Rule Number One. Take it home an look it up before you eat it and be sure.

Yes, they are definitely currants and currently definitely sour. I wonder if they're ripe?. Then when I looked up a jelly recipe and find it takes 7 cups of sugar for 4 pounds of currants I realized these might not be ripe but even ripe they are possibly a little tart.

Now here we have more luminous red berries and look, on the left is that lobed serrated leaf. Currants? Take that out of your mouth! Actually look more closely. These berries are more "drop" shaped and the currant leaf on the left doesn't belong to these berries. Look closely, they are on a plant that is mature enough to vine slightly. Look carefully. This is Nightshade. Or as my mother called it Deadly Nightshade. If I touched it she made me immediately go into the house and scrub my hands.
Actually, according to my botany professor, it's quite hard to poison oneself to death by eating , Nightshade. Though as he said, "You'll just wish you were dead. The hallucinations are reputedly horrid." The common name of the compound in question is belladonna. Spanish women used to make an infusion of it and put drops in their eyes to dilate the pupil.
Marks of beauty can be very strange.

Then suddenly I see another cluster of berries. And just what are those? They're low; they'd be easy to get. They seem to be attached to the wand like plant with the broad leaves. It's False Solomon Seal. False Solomon Seal Jelly? Never heard of it. Do you remember Good Rule Number Two? Indeed.
Enough with the berries for the moment, next up something for the squirrel fans.
New Yorker, Bill Walters, sent a link to a New York Times piece about the squirrel in right field at the Yankees vs Red Sox game the other night...

SPORTS / BASEBALL August 30, 2007
A believer of Norse mythology might have advised Yankees fans to not make too much out of their victory against the Red Sox on Tuesday night.
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blakeman Responds:Voles, Owls, and Red-tails

The Milton Krider's Red-tail sits on her wooden power pole perch, watching for rodents.
As John Blakeman had put forth the hypothesis that the reason Barn Owls were becoming scarce was because of the diminishment of rodents due to row crops instead of pastureland in the Midwest. I asked, if that were the case, why were country Red-tails, who tend toward a diet high in small rodents also, doing well? Here is his response.


Good question. If there aren't enough voles and other rodents for barn owls today, why are there record numbers of red-tailed hawks, whose primary diet is the same "missing" rodents.

A partial answer involves the hunting techniques and habitat preferences of the two species. The barn owl is half the size of a red-tail and is not very powerful. Unlike the red-tail, it can't (and doesn't) take anything larger than a rat. The species is stuck with voles and mice.

The red-tail is large and powerful. If it wants to, it can take cottontail rabbits, muskrats, all local reptiles, and even grasshoppers. In the spring, red-tails occasionally take fish from local streams. Red-tails can eat virtually all animals less than five pounds in weight.

But in fact, the majority of the red-tail diet is voles and mice, the exact same diet of barn owls. Strength and prey preferences aren't the primary controlling factors. It's really habitat preferences. Red-tails spend lots of time sitting out on utility poles, looking down into the grassed ditches for ambling voles, mice, and rats.

Barn owls, however, prefer to hunt in low, grazed meadows, where the grass is kept low by sheep or cows, where the mice and voles are easily seen (or heard). Red-tails commonly drop through two or three feet of dense weeds or brush to take their prey. Barn owls are more reluctant to do this.

The prime factor limiting modern barn owl populations, however, is probably---can you believe this?---barns. Barn owls are cavity nesters, requiring large, enclosed spaces to nest (such as the ancient caves). Modern barns are closed, have no hay mows or other interior high shelves, or other spaces for a nest.

Here in Ohio, the Division of Wildlife has promoted the installation of large barn owl nest boxes in or on barns. The program has been very successful, but only where the new nest boxes are immediately adjacent to large grazed meadows and prairie restorations that can support hundreds of acres of vole habitat.

The limiting factor in modern barn owl populations is not so much the lack of prey and habitat (although the loss of grazed meadows is surely a factor), it's really the lack of nesting sites.

If barn owls are resurging in Iowa, it's surely because more nest sites are available, either from the opening of old barns (boards falling off), or more likely, because people have installed barn owl nest boxes in or on barns. Here is one barn owl nestbox design website:

--John Blakeman
And Beth Edwards of the U.K. sent in this link for Wirral's Barn Owl Webcam. Enjoy!
Donegal Browne

Blakeman on Barn Owls and a Photo of the Day

Barn Owl hissing with feeling.
Being nocturnal, he isn't all that happy about being awake perhaps?

John Blakeman, comments on the severely reduced numbers of Barn Owls in Wisconsin and in his state, Ohio, and presents another theory as to why.

I noted our comment about the depressed state of barn owls in Wisconsin. There are only a few left here in Ohio, too.

But the best ecological evidence is that in pre-settlement days, before either Ohio or Wisconsin were converted primarily to rural agricultural landscapes, barn owls did not reside in either state. The birds almost surely moved into the northern tier of states upon European settlement.

Consequently, the bird (in geological or biological time frames) is only a recent invader, from the south.

To presume that the barn owl is a legitimate, continuing resident of either the Badger or Buckeye states would be to also presume that the typical agricultural landscapes that the bird thrived in, those of the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were the real, "natural" state of our respective landscapes.

In fact, barn owls can't survive in the forested or prairie areas that covered the northern tier of states in presettlement times. The barn owl is a recent invader here, having adapted to the rodent-filled meadows of livestock farming. Now, with the abundance of both human residences and the conversion of most agriculture to row-crop farming (where voles and other rodents can't survive), the days of the barn owl are limited. (Possibly, at least in these areas currently. D.B.)

The decline or loss of the barn owl merely reflects continuing changes in human uses of landscapes. Many biologists would claim that the barn owl isn't a real native; merely a recent opportunistic invader, one whose days are now limited because of modern landscape changes.

Nice, while it lasted.

--John Blakeman
Fascinating, so Barn Owls are autochthonous. They originated somewhere else and may have only been here only briefly in the big scheme of things. Which brings up the questions of what did they use in their range of origination for roosting and nesting as they used barns for here, and just where exactly did they come from before they were here?
Turns out it's not all that easy to find out in an hour. But I did find out where they roosted and nested, at least 94,000 years ago in Israel--caves. Actually makes perfect sense that they used barns in the Midwest instead. Most of the Midwest is pretty short on caves.
I wasn't having that much luck in finding out what their cavity of chose was until I ran across a tangential mention in a Harvard University Gazette article from 2003 on, which caves were inhabited when by which precursors of man. The answer: If there were Barn Owl pellet fossils in a given time frame, there were no pre-human inhabitants in residence.
Barn Owls don't like that much company.
Though I still don't know where the midwestern Barn Owls that took up residence here, came from yet, I did read that they are making a come back in Iowa.
Why Iowa? They were extirpated there far before they were even close to it in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Therefore if the surmise that the diminishment in rodent population is the big factor in the disappearance of Barn Owls in the Midwest, what are Iowans doing now, they weren't 50 years ago that hosts rodents?
Wait a second, in the Midwest many Red-tails survive on rodents,--voles, and what have you, and there are currently many many Red-tails here. Why haven't their populations been as severely diminished as the Barn Owls have been? Mr. Blakeman?

Remember Karen Anne Kolling, who wrote in and told us about the Gulls dropping sea creatures on her roof, to crack them so they could be readily eaten? Here is a photo of one of her recent visitors. Nice backyard for waterbird watching, don't you think?
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More Images From Tall Grass Restoration

Falco Peregrinus, a 12 week old Peregrine Falcon. Now there's focus for you.
Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, as the name suggests it was thought that upon being bitten by a rattlesnake if some of this plant were ingested by the bitee, that the victim would survive. Current science finds it has no true medicinal effect against snake venom. My thought is that in the case of snake bite, where fear and the ensuing rapid breathing, heightened blood pressure, and stress reduce the chance of survival, that the placebo effect might well have helped some people live through the experience.

Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum, a nifty relative of one of my other favorites the Compass Plant. Notice how the leaves come together around the stem. It's hard to see in the photo but there is water that has been collected in those shallow depressions during rainfall and that is where many small birds drink.
Here's a gross view of the Cup Plant where you can see the multiple leaves on the flowering stalks which form the cups. Not only is the water source important to birds but also important to microscopic organisms whose live cycles revolve around these small water sources.
Barn Owl, Tyto alba, nearly extirpated from Wisconsin due to lack of habitat, illegal shooting, and rat poison. Our only owl with a white heart shaped face. These guys don't hoot they hiss. They also have an interesting defense movement called toe dusting. If a predator appears while they are roosting, the head goes down and sweeps back and forth just above their toes. It's thought that the move makes them appear to be some kind of scary large mammal to the predator, who then intimidated, goes away.
Blue Vervain, Verbena Hastata, note the spikes where only a few blossoms appear at a time progressing towards the tip.
Partridge Pea, Cassia fasciculata, the drooping dark anthers help identify it from Wild Sensitive Plant, and Wild Senna. Note the pinnate compound leaves similar to the two previously mentioned. Partridge Pea is slightly reactive to touch but less so than Sensitive Plant.

A male Kestrel, Falco sparverious, with the most endearing expression on his face. About the size of a Blue Jay, they do pack a wallop for their small stature. Remember how they swoop at all the Red-tails during nesting season? They're part of the reason that many an RT prefers perching with a little bit of an overhang over their heads when they don't wish to be bothered.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Compass Plant

The blooms of the Compass Plant are the yellow ones at the top. They're nice and all but its the leaves at the base that have the nifty secret.
The fourteen foot Compass Plant being pointed out by one of the Tall Grass botanists.
I'd been meaning to make a visit to Tall Grass Restoration's acres and acres of prairie, ever since I ran across their sign. Particularly after I realized that a very high concentration of Red-tails seemed to be hanging around the edges sitting on power poles scoping out dinner. On Saturday I finally did it. It' a grand place which I'll say more about in a future blog but one of my big surprises of the day was the Compass Plant.
The Compass Plant was used by Native Americans and then by the pioneers in order to orient themselves. Walking around in grass taller than one's head can sometimes be directionally challenging. There are few landmarks directly above one's head or actually not so many of any kind in the topography locally anyway. On cloudy days or at night the sun isn't really all that much help.
The Tall Grass folks use a big Hickory on a slight knoll when they find themselves disoriented while working on the prairie. Well, that and the Compass Plants. Note the position of the leaves above.

The leaves at the base of the plant align themselves north and south. In other words the edges are north/south and the flat of the leaves are east/west. Just how cool is that? And it tends, even in mature tall grass prairie to be one of the tallest plants so you can see it above the other grasses.
I like it so much in fact, it tends to make me smile just thinking about it. Its a wonder in the true sense of the word.
Here's the abstract of a paper about Compass Plants , which you can access at the library through JOSTER.

"Leaves of Silphium laciniatum L. are nearly vertical and have compass orientation, i.e., the surfaces face east and west. We studied the manner in which compass orientation develops. Compass orientation was verified by measurements of azimuths for three sets of leaves in the field.

Averages of leaf azimuths were 77, 86, and 87 degrees from north. Averages of the absolute value of the differences between leaf azimuth and (east/west facing) were 24, 32, and 15 degrees. Adaxial and abaxial leaf surfaces were equally likely to face east. Newly emerged leaves had random orientation, but within 2-3 weeks compass orientation was achieved by twisting of the leaf petiole. Leaves turned either clockwise or counterclockwise, whichever produced compass orientation with the minimum amount of turning.

Orientation involved a growth response; the ability to orient was lost on completion of leaf expansion. Directional sunlight cues were necessary for compass orientation to occur; leaves provided with only overhead light exhibited random orientation.

In the absence of directional light, leaves displayed an endogenous, unidirectional turning pattern; a majority of leaves turned counterclockwise. We hypothesize that endogenous turning enables leaves to sample the light environment and that leaves use the position of the sun in the early morning to determine compass orientation."

This journal is licensed to JSTOR by Torrey Botanical Society

Development of Leaf Orientation in the Prairie Compass Plant, Silphium laciniatum L. Hanzhong Zhang, John M. Pleasants, Thomas W. JurikBulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 118, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1991), pp. 33-42doi:10.2307/2996973This article consists of 10 page(s).
Donegal Browne

Blakeman on the Hawk Through-The-Screen Episode.

Photo courtesy of The Janesville Gazette
Kramer the cat and his master standing in the hole in the screen made by the immature hawk.
John Blakeman, long time blog contributer on all things Red-tail, expresses his opinion about the Hawk through the screen episode in Janesville, Wisconsin.

John wrote:


The immature red-tailed hawk that attacked the cat was surely starving. Here's the story behind the story.

It's now the end of August, the end of summer. The heat (and in both Ohio and Wisconsin---the rain) is yet with us. But hawks reckon time primarily by day length, and the days are getting markedly shorter. In less than a month the autumnal equinox will appear, where the day and night periods are (sort of) equal.

Because of the shortening days, adult red-tails are no longer feeding any of their offspring. The fledged red-tails that have survived until now (many haven't, probably half who left the nest in June are now dead), must now find food on their own. Mom and Pop offer no assistance.

It's worse. Mom and Pop have driven their immature offspring out of the nest area and territory, pushing the youngsters out into unknown regions that usually are less than ideal hunting areas. Food is getting very hard to find. There are very few baby rabbits or bobbing baby robins to pluck off the ground. Vegetation is now tall and thick, making the sighting of voles more difficult than in early summer.

Altogether, it's survival crunch time, and the majority of the year's fledged red-tails are in the process of starving to death. Fewer than 25% or so will survive the winter and go on to their second years. Most won't be able to find a fall or winter territory with enough food to support them.

Surely, that is the case with the cat-attacking red-tail. The hawk saw the big, slow-moving animal with fur. The starving hawk couldn't resist.

Fortunately, it was unable to connect with the cat and was released back to the sky. But in reality, the hawk will probably be dead within a month. Survivors have already learned where and how to capture sufficient voles, ground squirrels, and other small rodents that are the sustenance of red-tailed hawks.

Life is tough in nature. Most offspring, of all species, fail to attain adulthood or to breed. There are more losers than winners. This was a loser, sadly.


John Blakeman