What better way to start your Saturday morning than a 7:30 am breakfast at Cracker Barrel? I met up with my friend Ozark Bill, with whom I normally meet up once a month and go shooting. After catching up over good eats; we made our way over to Shaw Nature Reserve in search of spring wildflowers aka spring ephemerals (an ephemeral plant is one marked by a short life).
We arrived at the Whitmore Wildflower Garden parking lot and hiked to the River Trail. Bill did a great job bringing me up to speed on the lifecycle of ephemerals.
Earlier in the week, much of the country had a blast of Arctic cold air for almost a week, so we were concerned with the extent of frost damage to the blooming flowers, as was the case for much of the magnolia buds, crocuses and pear buds on the Whitmore Garden grounds.
On our way into Shaw Nature Reserve, we stopped by the Visitor Center, where we greeted by James Tragger – a U. S. entomologist and naturalist. He currently works as a biologist/naturalist for the Shaw Nature Reserve. Bill pointed out to me that James is responsible for the restoration, vegetation management, natural history education programs, and is a liaison to academic researchers who use the Reserve as a field site. James is also an active ant taxonomist and has published notable revisions of such groups as Solenpsis, Dorymyrmex, Nylanderia, Formic pallidefulva group), and Polyergus.
James was kind enough to direct us to the location of some more ephemerals. We headed off towards the Brush Creek Trail, but sadly we did not see much wildflowers along that trail. Then it was onto the Goddard River Trail, where Bill pointed out what he believes to be a 150-year-old Sycamore tree.
We had to hike a good distance before we saw any good signs of budding wildflowers. The first spring ephemeral we saw and photographed was the:
Claytonia Virginica (Common name: Virginia Spring Beauty.)
Remembering where James mentioned we should look for the bluebells, at first, the numbers were a little underwhelming and we thought maybe we were one week too early to the party. We did find them near an area referred to as the State Natural Area.
Mertensia virginica (Common Name: Virginia bluebells.)
I consider Bill one of the two best macro photographers I know; the other being Ann Aurbach. So, when Bill speaks I listen.
The first half of the day proved to be very productive. I cannot thank Bill enough for working with me to get a better understanding of “real” macro photography. As I followed his shooting lead for the vast majority of this hike, I came away with a better understanding of achieving 1:1 magnification, mixing available light with fill flash, working distance and operating in a shallower depth of field. By the time we packed up our gear and hiked back up the incline of the Wildflower Trail, it’s was closer to 4 pm. As we were walking back along the Brush Creek trail, from 1/2 mile away you could hear the serenade of the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) and then crescendos to an almost deafening peak as the Brush Creek Trail, and the Prairie Trail intersects. After checking ourselves for ticks in the parking lot, we cleaned our gear and headed off to our last destination in search of the “American Woodcock.”
A forest-dwelling shorebird, known by a host of familiar names, the most common being Timberdoodle. Other colorful nicknames include “Labrador Twister,” “bog-borer,” “big eyes,” “wood snipe,” “mud-bat.”, “bog-sucker,” and “mudsnipe.” A relative of the sandpipers, but strikingly different in habits. They are the shorebirds of the forest, and they only appear after the sun goes down.
This stout-bodied, and short-legged bird hides in forest thickets by day, where it uses its long bill to probe in damp soil for earthworms. Its eyes are set far back on its head, allowing it to watch for danger even with its bill buried in the dirt. Males perform a remarkable “sky dance” on spring and summer nights, in a high, twisting flight, with chippering, twittering, bubbling sounds. Having never seen one myself, I am relying on what my buddy Bill described to me their flight is nothing short of an acrobatic marvel, displaying males give a repeated, buzzy, nasal. A displaying male will catapult upwards, into the air and begin chirping melodically for as long as 15 seconds as he spirals in a zigzag downward from the apex of his display flight. All while trying to impress females, whom apparently finds it irresistible.
Click to hear “peening call”: American Woodcock audio:
About the size of a robin, Woodcocks are sexually monomorphic meaning that both males and females have essentially the same feather coloration and pattern. Their plumage consists of various shades of brown to light buff and grey, although females generally average a bit heavier than males – 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces – with the weight of each sex varying depending on the time of year. Female woodcock nest on the ground by making a shallow depression in the leaves and other dead vegetation on the forest floor. They typically nest in young forests and often within close proximity to the base of a tree or shrub. Woodcocks will readily re-nest if their first nest is destroyed. The average clutch consists of four eggs that are a pinkish buff to cinnamon and are speckled with varying shades of brown. The female incubates the eggs for 21 days. The chicks require maternal feeding for the first week after hatching and begin flight at around 18 days of age.
Woodcocks require a variety of habitat types to meet their daily and seasonal needs. Openings are necessary for courtship display and ideally are interspersed with moist-soil riparian forest systems that have well-developed shrub layers, cane thickets, and other covers to provide feeding grounds, loafing areas and protection from predators. Additionally, young sapling forests are preferred for nesting and brood rearing.
A woodcock is a worm-catching machine. A stout bird with big feet and a long bill stomps its feet to stir up the worms, then uses the outer portion of its bill like a pair of tweezers to extract its slimy prey from the ground. The tip of its bill has sensors that can detect worm mucus in the field for up to 24 hours. They do consume plant materials; such as seeds, but these constitute a low percentage of the total diet volume.
Like most other wildlife species American woodcocks are subject to a wide variety of mortality factors including pollutants, predators, and disease. Since a high percentage of the woodcock diet is earthworms, they may be particularly vulnerable to pesticides and other environmental contaminants. They have been known to carry DDT, dieldrin, PCBs, mercury, heptachlor, and mirex. Furthermore, it is safe to assume that many predators, including hawks, owls, various snakes, racoons, opossums, bobcats, coyotes and many others readily eat the birds and/or their eggs.
Waiting for the sun to set.
We had about 90 minutes before the sunset, we were joined by David. So off we went, hiking the trails looking for more spring ephemerals. It seems as if the spring freeze may have gotten the best of this area as well, there was not much diversity in the short-lived blooms, we saw sparse numbers of spring beauties, bluebell buds and one decent bloom of a bloodroot.
Sanguinaria Canadensis (bloodroot)
There is a lot of potential beauty along the trails of the Young Conservation area. There are two creeks of interest which Bill pointed out to us, but also warned us that during a downpour, we should not be caught near any of the creeks.
It was around 6:40 pm, and we did not quite make to the end of the trail, but we needed to head back to set up for photographing the American Woodcocks before we lost all available light on the trail. A brisk hike back to the trail where the Woodcocks frequent, we gathered our gear, then headed out into the fields.
Having all the right gear does make a difference. These birds are small, after the sunset, photographing any subject can become a challenge. We relied on the aid of flashlights and a spotter to help locate the subject. Sometimes when they were less than 15-20 feet away, we could hear them, but really could not see them. Remembering that I left my Speed light in my camera bag, I grabbed it. The addition of the flash helped to illuminate the subject once it was located. The display of the American Woodcock only lasts for a brief moment, less than an hour. I was lucky to capture an image that I am pleased with!
Until the next adventure.
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