Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hunter Prairie

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a unique habitat in the Captina watershed with biologist Ron Preston.  Hunter prairie is one of only two documented limestone prairies or "cedar glades" that occur in eastern Ohio.  Other limestone prairies exist in Ohio but most are in the Edge of Appalachia region of Adams county, far to the southwest of Captina Creek.  Limestone prairies develop on south facing slopes where limestone bedrock is exposed at the surface making soils shallow, well-drained and alkaline.  These poor soil conditions allow for the growth of herbaceous and woody plant species not normally found in the eastern deciduous forest habitat.

Hunter prairie.  Note the grassland merged with evergreen growth.
Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana), located in the foreground, are
one of the dominant woody plants of this community hence the name
cedar glade.  A few white pines (Pinus strobus) have also taken
residence on this slope.  Note also the dominance of the grass Little
Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) which is similar to Broomsage but has
a thinner, darker stalk and does not grow in clumps.  **See last week's post
on broomsage for a pictorial comparison of the two grasses.

Further up the ridge the grasses become more sparse and
deciduous trees mix with the evergreens.  More on the diversity of
deciduous trees found here later.

A rocky limestone outcrop.  This limestone is Pennsylvanian in age
and is part of the Conemaugh formation.  Note the lack of deep top-
soil and herbaceous growth.

A white pine sapling rooted in limestone gravel substrate.  Again,
the lack of any topsoil is rare for the watershed area.

A medium-sized eastern red cedar about 25 feet
in height.  Pleasantly aromatic in the autumn breeze.

An understory growth of Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
with distinctive purple berries.  These shrubs were numerous
throughout the prairie.

More to come on Hunter Prairie tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Watershed Geology

Captina Creek cuts through a section of the state known as the Little Switzerland plateau.  The plateau is part of the larger Western Allegheny plateau and occupies the extreme eastern end of the state, particularly Jefferson, Belmont and Monroe counties.  The upland ridgetops of these counties have horizontally deposited bedrock layers composed of lower Permian Period (~290 myo) sandstones, mudstones and siltstones.  The deeper valleys are composed of limestone rock layers that are slightly older from the upper Pennsylvanian Period (~310 myo).  When bedrock is exposed at the surface it can play a role in determining what types of vegetation become established on a land parcel.

Horizontal layering of shales, mudstones and siltstones.  The
underlying shale layer is much less resistant to weathering and
erodes quicker than the overlying layers of siltstone and mudstone.
The result is a rocky outcrop or overhang that adds diversity to an
ecosystem.  Rock formations like this can support unique plant
communities and provides habitat for reptiles, small mammals and
a diversity of invertebrates.  Siltstones and mudstones are similar
to sandstone but have a smaller grain size making them more brittle
and easier to fracture in some cases.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Correction - Broomsage (Bunchgrass)

Broomsage (Lepidospartum sp.) is a native perennial monocot that grows in aggregate clumps within hayfields and pastures of the watershed.  Although it first appears in summer months as tiny bluish or purplish sprouts, it doesn't become noticeable until mid-autumn as brilliant golden-red stalks.  The grassy clumps range from 2 to 3 feet in height and disperse white, feathery seeds in early autumn.  Little Bluestem seems to be less prevalent in overgrown or secondary growth fields and prefers full sun.

Update - Intially I posted a misidentification of this grass as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Little bluestem is similar to broomsage in appearance but is not as bright golden, as tall and does not grow in aggregate clumps. Also, little bluestem prefers poor limestone soils whereas broomsage prefers open pasture and farm fields. For comparison with little bluestem look at the photos in the Hunter Prairie post.  Bear with me while I learn my grasses!!

Broomsage grows in dense clumps of 50-100 individual stalks.

Large populations are easily recognizable in open hilltop pastures. 
This is one of the few grasses that whitetail deer seem to not bother.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Late Fall Sunsets

The sun is now setting before 5:30 in eastern Ohio with approximately 1 minute of daylight being lost per day unitl the winter solstice.  Winter is a great time of year for sunset pictures due to colder temperatures in the atmosphere that cause tiny ice crystals to form.  These crystals refract sunlight making the sky picturesque under the right conditions.  In other cases, cold dry polar air can clear the sky of haze and clouds allowing for crisp landscape shots and crystalline skies.

Lichen Diversity - British Soldiers

Hi all.  Sorry for the lack of posting this week but we are entering one of the slowest, least active times of the year for the eastern deciduous forest.  Not to say there is no activity in the forest - I've seen plenty of whitetail deer and the normal over-wintering backyard birds, but the majority of forests' notable residents from the spring and summer have either migrated, entered hibernation or torpor, or gone dormant for the year.  One type of organism that doesn't seemed bothered by the colder temperatures and decreased photoperiod is the lichen.

Easily overlooked because of their small size, lichens are among the most fascinating of forest inhabitants and are often used as examples of symbiotic relationships in nature.  The lichen is actually two organisms in one - a fungal body that houses an algal resident giving the organism a greenish coloration.  The fungus provides the algae a home while the algae photosynthesizes energy using sunlight to nourish the fungus.  Lichens commonly occur in three vartieties - crustose (flat, encrusting), foliose (leafy) and fruticose (club-like).  Look for them attached to tree bark or rocks in damp forested areas.  Lichens are good indicators of air pollution and are extremely drought tolerant with some species able to lose up to 90% of water content and still survive!

British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella) cover an old fence post.  Named
after British soldiers of the Revolutionary war (red caps), these lichens
grow on rotting wood. The red cap is actually a spore producing
reproductive structure (about 1/4" in height) that grows out of the leafy body
that anchors the organism to the wood.  British soldiers don't seem to mind
the cold of winter and will reproduce year-round.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Witch Hazel

One of the more interesting shrubs of the Captina watershed is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  The name witch hazel is somewhat of a misnomer because the plant is not a hazel, nor is it associated with witches in folklore.  Its fruit and leaves are very similar to the American hazelnut in appearance and the "witch" is derived from an old English word for pliable branches.  In colonial times dowsers would use witch hazel branches to search out hidden sources of water, hence their nickname "water witch".  There are several chemical extracts in the bark having medicinal qualities leading to its widespread use among native Americans and European colonists to treat ailments such as diarrhea, inflammation and bleeding. Witch hazel is noted as the only shrub in the watershed that blooms in late autumn after the growing season has ended for most plants. 

Witch hazels are understory resdients of the tree
canopy growing to heights of 20 feet or less.  This
shrub has taken root under a large red oak canopy.
The most common place to find witch hazel is under-
neath large dark oak tree stands in upland wooded
ravines with rich soils.  Note the tiny yellow flowers
on the banches. 

The bark of the witch hazel trunk, about 4 inches in diameter.

Witch hazel branches.  Note the crooked forks - similar
to spicebush but a much larger shrub and more flexible branches. 

The witch hazel flower.  Only measuring an inch or so across these
flowers are the only ones in this forest tract meaning they will get the
full attention of pollenating insects.  Two honeybees were visiting
nearby flowers when this photo was taken.

The witch hazel fruit.  Tiny black seeds are contained inside a
a brownish capsule.  These seeds have matured from last year's
flowers.  Witch hazel is the only shrub that has both seeds and
flowers intact at the same time.  The seeds are dispersed mech-
anically.  When the capsule dries it bursts open with a
popping sound propelling them several feet in the air. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Captina Coal Slurry Spill Update - 11/9/10

Nearly five weeks have passed since a pressurized transfer pipe containing coal slurry burst in a hayfield next to Captina Creek in extreme eastern Wayne Township spilling the waste into the mainstem of the creek.  Although the intensive cleanup process ceased over two weeks ago, remnants of the spill can still be observed as far as a mile downstream of the burst.  The last earthen dike has been removed from the spill zone allowing water to freely move downstream.  Hindering the natural cleanup of the spill is the slurry sediment itself.  It is relatively dense and sticky in texture making it difficult to remove from substrate in the creekbed.   As mentioned previously several more heavy precipitation events are needed to dilute the slurry in this section of streambed. 

The slurry's texture makes it difficult to remove from sediment in
the creekbed.  This location is approximately 3/4 of a mile down-
stream from the burst pipe.

Since the spill there has only been one precipitation event totaling
over 1/2 inch in the watershed.  Though the rocks aren't
black from the slurry anymore, they still retain a grayish

A haybale dam occupied this space a couple of weeks ago.  The
water itself is clear but slurry remains on the rocks. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Invasive Species Bulletin - Part 1

Hi all.  This week I'm debuting a new series that focuses on invasive species and their impacts on the Captina Creek watershed.  An invasive species is one that has been transplanted to a non-native habitat from other areas of the world usually unintentionally.  One of the most famous invasive species in the eastern US is the lake Erie zebra mussel transplanted from Eurasia by ballast water in shipping vessels.  If the transplanted species is able to survive and reproduce in its new habitat it will begin to occupy space and compete with native species for resources often with few limiting factors (predators, disease, etc.).  Invasives can take on a variety of forms ranging from fungal, to plant, to animal with one commonality - they are extremely disruptive and crippling to the balance of native ecosystems.  To date, the majority of the invasives identified in the watershed have been plant variants but animal invasives do exist.

Part 1 of this series features an invasive in Captina that has become more widespread over the last five years and poses a threat to trees and shrubs - especially those in forest margins and edge areas.  Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.) is a perennial species of vine that has invaded the eastern US from the far east (China, Japan, Korea).  It was introduced as an ornamental plant in the 1860's and easily escaped from gardens and old home sites into the surrounding landscape.  Once established at the base of a tree or shrub the vine will quickly overtake the native vegetation by encircling and climbing into the canopies.  In some cases, the vine wraps so tightly around the tree it ends up girdling the tree leading to death.  The vines can be heavy as well weighing down and collapsing branches, and can cover over tree leaves outcompeting the native vegetation for sunlight. 

What makes oriental bittersweet so threatening is its ability to aggressively reproduce and spread via seeds and a shallow underground network of roots called rhizomes.  Simply cutting the vine at its base stimulates the production of plant growth hormones that trigger the rhizomes to send up new stolons (shoots) by the dozen!  Having this reproductive capacity enables the vine to dominate forest margins along fields and utility right-of-ways in short time.  Currently there are no known consumers of oriental bittersweet in the eastern US making it that much more of a threat.  Eradicating the vine is time consuming and often involves repeated application of woody herbicides to the stolons.

Oriental bittersweet leaves are some of the last foliage
to fall making the vines easy to identify across a
landscape.  The leaves are serrated on their edges and
are arranged alternately on the vine.

Green leaves turn a bright yellow in autumn making for
easy identification.  The red circles higlight the girdling
effect of the vine on this tree.  If left unaltered the vine
will essentially strangle the tree.  This vine didn't exist two
years ago.

A closeup of the vine's seeds which are readily
consumed and distributed by birds making control
that much more difficult.  A single vine can produce
hundreds of seeds per growing season. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Habitat Restoration

Earlier this week I was able to observe a habitat restoration project implementation on a property in west-central Goshen Township.  The project was sponsored by U.S. Fish and Wildlife and centered on two goals for improving the existing forest and wetland ecosystem on the property.  First, a field and small plot of forest were selectively cleared to remove invasive vegetative growth, particulary autumn olive and multiflora rose.  Second, several vernal pool habitats were created in a moist field bottom below the woodland area with the goal of increasing amphibian and reptile population diversity in the habitat.

A restored field habitat.  Invasive growth was mechanically removed
leaving native hardwood saplings (a mix of oak species with white ash,
black gum and tulip poplar).  This makes great habitat for certain
neo-tropical migrant birds like the yellow breasted chat and common
yellow throat warblers. 

A view from the top of the same field.  Spring seeps in the field
were identified and left undisturbed (note the cattail growth in the

The property owner informaed me that many years ago this was
a thriving small pond that filled in with sediment over time.
The habitat was excavated with hopes that it will fill over the winter. 

A smaller vernal pool was constructed behind the pond above.
The shallower habitat will support different species than the
deeper pond shown above.

In the lower portion of the field a second pool was constructed
that was a bit shallower than the reconstructed pond at the edge of
the woods.  The hope is to attract migrant amphibians like spotted
and jeffersons salamanders as well as numerous frog and toad

The skid-steer attachment used to clear invasive brush from the
field.  Repeated clearings will have to be implemented over the next
few years to be effective in allowing native foliage to take back the

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bobcats in Eastern Ohio

Good morning.  I want to focus today on a species that is becoming more prevalent throughout the watershed but is still listed as state endangered.  You're probably assuming I am venturing into a piece about the eastern hellbender - but not this time.  I am referring to the bobcat (Felis rufus) which is also state endangered.  Traditionally bobcats occupied the forested hills of the Western Allegheny Plateau in the eastern part of Ohio but were driven to near extinction in the late 1800's by trappers and farmers who removed their habitat.  Throughout the 1900's the bobcat population quietly rebounded as habitat in eastern Ohio converted from farmland back to forest.  According to ODNR, bobcat population densities in Ohio have been highest over the last few decades in Noble County which is located immediately west of the headwaters of Captina Creek.  Over the last decade bobcat sightings in Belmont and Monroe Counties have steadily increased with isolated roadkill reports in the watershed and sightings by hunters using trail cameras.  The bobcat is a shy, stealthy animal that prefers forested habitat near secondary growth fields where birds and small mammals thrive.  It is not likely to be encountered in broad daylight which is why this picture is unique.  Thanks to Laura Hughes for the photo!  Any viewers with bobcat photos from eastern Ohio are encouraged to send them to me in either digital or hard copy.

A bobcat was observed feeding on a deer carcass next to a rural road
in Lee Township, Monroe County.  This is about twenty miles south
of the Captina watershed.  Note the short, stubby tail and tufts of fur
on the sides of the face.  The bobcat is perfectly camouflaged for its
habitat - nearly cryptic with the leaf litter on the forest floor which may
make spotting them in daylight difficult. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

HHEI Sampling from Captina - Salamanders

As a followup to last Friday's post, here are some additional pics from HHEI sampling in Captina.  I'm going to focus on salamanders this time because of their importance as a barometer species for stream quality.  Salamander skin is permeable to an extent giving them the ability to absorb substances from water directly into their bodies.  Finding numerous salamanders in a stream is a good indication of the quality of water although other supporting tests need to be conducted for confimation.  Here is a sampling of some of the native salamanders of the Captina headwaters.

A closeup of a larval southern two-line salamander (Eurycea cirrigera).
Note the external gills still present behind the head.  Two-lines
are probably the most commonly encountered salamander in the
cold headwater stream habitats of Belmont and Monroe Counties.

An adult ravine salamander (Plethodon electromorphus).  Another
commonly encountered resident of the Captina watershed.  Ravine's
are more commonly found under rocks and debris upwards on hillsides
surrounding headwater streams as opposed to actually in the stream.
Note the long tail and slender body.

A juvenile ravine found under a rock next to the stream. 
Approximately one inch in length.  The smallest one I've ever seen.

The second of two adult spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus
porphyriticus) found in this stream.  Measuring about
5 inches in length this individual was under a stream
side rock.