Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cold Trend Continues

Today marks the 16th day in a row that temperatures have failed to reach the freezing mark in eastern Ohio.  Though temperatures have been below average for much of the month, snowfall has been on the light side with the greatest twenty-four hour accumulation being less than 2 inches.  A warm-up is forecast for later this week that should break the freezing streak.  Those wishing for big snowstorms should not give up hope as most heavy snows on record in Belmont County historically have occurred January through March with the exception being the thanksgiving storm of 1950.  Posted below are some interesting pictures of ice crystals taken after last February's heavy snow event.

Ice needles collect on top of a frozen vernal pool.

Rime ice attached to tree branches.  Rime ice forms
when super cooled water droplets (usually from fog)
collect on frozen surfaces.  The resulting crystals
take on a jagged appearance. 

A closer view of the rime ice crystals.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Surviving the Freeze

Extended stretches of subfreezing temperatures can be challenging for animals who live in temperate climate zones.  For some animals avoiding this problem is simple - migrate to a warmer location (birds), burrow beneath the freeze line (some snakes, mole salamanders), take up residence in a deep body of water that won't freeze completely (fish, turtles, some salamanders) or hibernate in a secluded den like a rock cavern or hollow log (bear, small mammals, terrestrial arthopods).  What about animals in which none of the above choices are possible?  Are they cruelly left to fend for themselves in the icy depths of winter with nowhere to go?  Well, yes.

Certain species of frogs and caterpillars have a unique way of dealing with winter's frigid conditions - they simply freeze, or so it may seem.  Gray treefrogs, wood frogs and chorus frogs have highly elevated levels of glucose in their bloodstreams that acts as a cryoprotectant in subfreezing temperatures.  These frogs will take up residence under loose pieces of bark, rocks and leaf litter where they remain the entire winter - sometimes frozen solid.   Higher concentrations of blood glucose enables them to survive by limiting ice formation in their tissues, as long as the duration and severity of cold conditions are not too extensive.  Amazingly these organisms are able to respire anaerobically in a frozen state allowing them to make limited amounts of energy in the absence of bodily function. To see a picture of a frozen wood frog and gray treefrog click here

Cryoprotectants not only allow these frogs to survive winter conditions, but also give them an advantage when it comes to breeding strategy.  It's not surprising that the first frogs to breed in late winter and early spring are those with highest amounts of cryoprotectant in their bodies - wood frogs followed by spring peepers followed by the rest of the chorus frogs.  Depending on the weather, wood frogs will breed in vernal pools with ice still on their edge at a time where few predators are prowling about.  By being able to tolerate colder temperatures, wood frogs and chorus frogs have the advantage of arriving at vernal pools in large numbers without having to worry about mass predation from snakes and other warm-weather pool inhabitants. 

*Side Note:  Though we just passed the winter solstice and are in the midst of a multi-week cold snap, amphibian breeding season is not far away.  I've seen wood frogs in pools as early as February 22nd in one of the warm winters of the early 1990's.   

Friday, December 17, 2010

Backyard Birding

Ok so maybe resurrecting the embattled American Chestnut isn't your thing.  Here's another way you can become involved with nature through your own backyard.  The Ornithology Lab at Cornell University sponsors a backyard bird monitoring program designed to track migratory numbers of bird species across North America.  Anyone can participate and contribute data to their records.  Click on the link below to read more.

Project Feeder Watch 

Cornell also has an amazingly detailed online bird ID website as well.

All About Birds

I spent some time trying to decide if this Bluejay was
serving as a feast for a Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperi)
or sharp shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).  Based on this
 perspective I'm going with Cooper's.  If anyone feels I'm in
error, feel free to comment and correct me.  Thanks to Len
Smith for the photo.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The American Chestnut

Until the 1920's the Amercian Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was a dominant tree species of southern Appalachian forests preferring well-drained upland slope habitat with acidic soils.  It was commonly found growing among a variety of oak species and tulip poplar that preferred the same soil conditions and occupied up to 25% of climax forest canopies.  In 1904 a fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) introduced at the Bronx Zoo in New York City from an infected blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut tree began a domino effect of destruction that would reduce one of the most important hardwood trees of the Appalacian forests to a cherished memory in alomst the blink of an eye.  In a matter of a couple of decades an estimated 3.5 billion chestnut trees were destroyed in the forests of southern Appalachia changing the forest ecosystem in a way never before seen. 

Except for a handfull of blight resistant indivuduals, most American Chestnut trees now exist as small shoots protruding from ancient rotting stumps.  Most of the shoots will only grow a few feet before succumbing to the fungus, but a few exceptions sometimes make it to reporductive age and produce nuts before expiring.  The fungus enters the tissue of the tree through cracks that occur in the bark forming lesions that begin expanding until they disrupt the flow of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves.  Interestingly, the fungus can only survive above ground which is why stumps of old trees remain active years after the trunks and canopies perish. 

A little over a century after the blight's introduction scientists' hopes of resurrecting a genetically pure, blight resistant American Chestnut are becoming more of a reality.  Using the resistance of the Chinese Chestnut's genome, botanists  graft scions (green twigs) from chinese trees with those of native trees which gives the natives resistance.  If the grafted tree lives to reproductive age, nuts can be collected and germinated in the hopes that the resistance will be inherited in some with all of the American genomic characteristics.  It's a slow and tedious  process but you can help provided you have the time and space to grow your own chestnut seedlings.  Virgina Tech's Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science is sponsoring a program to reintroduce genetically pure American Chestnuts into the wild through the American Chestnut Cooperator's Foundation. 

Click on the link below to view VaTech's site and guidelines for ordering chestnut seeds.  There is alot of great information:

Virginia Tech American Chestnut Reintroduction Program  

*Sidenote - Chestnuts traditionally prefer well-drained acidic soils.  Since much of the Captina watershed area is composed of alkaline Pennsylvanian limestone bedrock, traditional chestnut habitat may have been restricted to higher, ridgetops with sandstone outcrops.  Pre-blight chestnut coverage in the watershed is not known but I have yet to see a remnant stump with young shoots which leads me to believe that maybe their distrubution here was not as widespread as in southern Ohio and West Virginia.  Slopes containing pure stands of oak or tulip poplar may be good places to look for these stumps.   

Anyone with records of Chestnut growth or knowledge of native American Chestnut trees growing in the Captina watershed should contact the Belmont Soil and Water Conservation office at (740) 526-0027.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Winter Settles In

As winter solstice approaches, forests within the Captina watershed are in the midst of a deep slumber.  Reptile and amphibian activity is minimal, neotropical migrant birds are gone for the season, wildflowers and grasses have withered and insects are no longer a part of the background noise.  Dismal as things sound this time of year, there are some forest inhabitants that remain active and rought it out in the cold snowy conditions.

The only green spots left in the eastern deciduous forest are mats
of mosses blanketing rocks and spotty patches of lichens attached
to tree bark. 

A gray squirrel takes advantage of sunflower
seeds intended for overwintering birds.  Gray
squirrels are master acrobats and are also pretty
good at pillaging winter bird feeders.   One of the
most common mammals in Ohio.  Thanks to Len Smith
for the photo.

A red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) feasting
on the same bounty of sunflower seeds.  Red squirrels
are smaller than gray squirrels and are unmistakeable
in the field.

Club mosses (Lycopodium sp.) surrounded by leaf litter.  One of the
few evergreens of the deciduous forest, these seedless plants
are related to ferns and grow in dense mats on the forest floor.
The Lycophytes were the dominant plants of the coal swamps of the
Pennsylvanian Period growing to medium-tree size.  Today's
lycopodiums are much smaller ground dwellers.  This particular species
prefers rich well drained upland soils.  I frequently see them
growing under stands of tulip poplar.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NOAA Climate Prediction Forecasts for Winter

The recent touch of winter weather may have you wondering what's in store for the upcoming season in eastern Ohio.  Lucky for you NOAA's seasonal outlook for the US was recently released.  Climatologists have observed persistent La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean so far this year.  What does that mean for us? Click on this link to find out.

For those of you who prefer a visual of the precipitation and temperature forecasts click here.

Click this link for NOAA predictions further into the 2011 growing season.  Remember, these are just generalized long-term forecasts that may change with time. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Flooding Update

Yesterday officials from the National Weather Service were concerned that the Ohio river may exceed flood stage at Powhatan Point (37') due to excessive rainfall.  Early this morning the river flood warning was cancelled as officials revised their forecast and predicted the river to crest at 36' at Powhatan Point Thursday afternoon (advanced hydrologic prediction center).  The official crest won't be known until later today.  Check out the five record river crests for Powhatan Point.  This event may threaten fifth place but is nowhere near the top four floods of all time.

Date                                Crest (feet)

March 19th, 1936               53.30

September 19th, 2004        45.60

January 21st, 1996             44.70

January 7th, 2005               42.65

January 6th, 2004               36.80

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More on Hunter Prairie

Yesterday I posted photos from one of Captina's most unique habitats - the Hunter cedar glade or limestone prairie.  Here are some additional photos from Monday's trip.

Sections of the ground were matted with birds nest lichens
(Cladonia sp.) also known as reindeer lichens.  They
are small fruiticoselichens that grow in clumps on poor
soils and are easily overlooked. 

Several stalks of greenbrier were observed with this being the

A stand of small eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis)with seedpods
still attached.  These will have brilliant red flower in the spring and
are indicator species of limestone-based soils.

Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) growing amidst the cedars.
The only oak in eastern Ohio without a lobed leaf.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is similar to the more
common staghorn sumac but lacks velvet fuzziness on
the seed clusters and twigs.

Weather Update

After receiving nearly 1.5 inches of rain Thanksgiving day, southern Belmont County was doused with an additional 1.5-2 inches of rain yesterday saturating the ground and recharging groundwater tables depleted from abnormally dry conditions over the summer and first half of fall.  Check out the river gauge and hydrologic prediction links in the righthand column.  Although no flooding was reported in the watershed area streams are bankfull (see below).  The recent rains will also help the creek continue to recover from October's slurry spill. 

Looking upstream at the CR 5 bridge.

A look downstream from the same location.

Additionally, cold air sweeping into the area early this morning caused the rain to switch to snow leading to the first light acculmulation of the season.