Monday, November 12, 2018

Black-legged kittiwake in central Ohio!

Waters cascading over Hoover Reservoir form the backdrop for a soaring juvenile kittiwake.

Conferences, speaking and other stuff had kept me from triggering a camera shutter for far too long, until a brief window this morning. So I ran up to commune with the now-famous black-legged kittiwake that has been frequenting the tailwaters below Hoover Dam, only a short drive away. These pelagic gulls are a rarity in Ohio, and there have only been a few Franklin County records. This one is a juvenile, with its ornate patterning. I think there has only been one confirmed record of an adult in Ohio, but we get a handful of wayward juveniles every fall/early winter, usually along Lake Erie.

This bird has been present since November 10, I believe, and has delighted throngs of onlookers. Black-legged kittiwakes are abundant, with a total population of nearly 3 million birds, but few of them make it to the midwestern U.S. In North America, virtually all of them winter at sea, in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The Hoover bird is quite cooperative, often winging by observers at very close range. Today was a typical late fall Ohio white sky day - what I would have given for blue skies and golden light! - but even so, it was possible to capture a bit of the beauty of this young kittiwake.


Monday, November 5, 2018

Bird photography talk: Worthington, Ohio, Wednesday evening

A Franklin's gull's reflection melts into a puddle of quicksilver. Deer Creek Reservoir, Pickaway County, Ohio, October 21, 2017. Canon 5D IV and 800mm lens, f/8, ISO 400, 1/1250, +0.3 exposure compensation.

I'm giving a program this Wednesday evening for the fabled Westbridge Camera Club, which has been around in its current form since 1969. The meeting is at the Griswold Center at 777 High Street, in Worthington, Ohio. The meeting begins at 7 pm. All are welcome and the admission is free.

This will be a general talk on bird photography, touching on the basic mechanics of camera control and general failsafe settings. But I also want to delve into finding subjects and learning more about them, tricks for discreetly getting into position for good shots, using photography to further conservation, and more. The program will, of course, be heavily spiced with bird imagery.

Hope to see you there!

Hudsonian godwit, juvenile, Lucas County, Ohio, October 18, 2017. Canon 7D II and 800mm lens, f/6.3, ISO 320, 1/1250, +0.7 exposure compensation.

Nature: October brings sightings of 2 rare birds - gray kingbird and northern wheatear - to Ohio


A gray kingbird recently sighted in Clark County/Jim McCormac 

November 4, 2018

NATURE
Jim McCormac

October was a notable month for Ohio birders. Nothing exhilarates the binocular-toting set like a major rarity. Last month brought not one, but two mega-rare birds.

On Oct. 17, Jeff Peters — fairly new to birding — was chasing a flock of sparrows through rough brush in a Clark County park. A quick learner, Peters already has advanced to identifying the little brown birds. He was looking for either Nelson’s or Le Conte’s sparrow in the flock, both of which are unusual here and most likely in late fall.

Peter’s sparrow chase brought him into proximity to a bird he didn’t recognize. Quickly suspecting it to be a flycatcher — any species but eastern phoebe would be notable in mid-October — he took some photos. The sparrows were quickly forgotten as Peters realized he had found something very unusual.

Peters had documented Ohio’s first record of a gray kingbird, and the birding communication networks lit up like a forest fire. Within an hour, other birders arrived and during the next week hundreds more visited. Oct. 24 marked the bird’s last day, but by then nearly everyone who wanted to view the chunky thick-billed flycatcher had done so.

Gray kingbirds nest throughout the Caribbean and northern South America, and are rare but regular nesters in the southeastern states from Mississippi to South Carolina. Only in south Florida, the Keys especially, do they become common. It’s possible that Hurricane Michael pushed the bird northward.

The gray kingbird sighting overlapped with another major rarity. A Richland County homeowner glanced out her kitchen window and spotted an unfamiliar thrushlike bird standing on a nearby woodpile. The family was called in, books were consulted, and they realized a northern wheatear was gracing their farm.

The wheatear was found Oct. 22 and remained for a few days. The homeowners — who wish to remain anonymous — kept a visitor’s log, and probably several hundred birders signed in. Their generosity in allowing access to the farm was much appreciated.

The first Ohio record of northern wheatear dates to January 1988. I was fortunate enough to see that bird, which frequented the frigid environs of Lake Erie in Ottawa County. In the intervening years, four others have been found, including this most recent sighting.

Northern wheatears are bluebird-sized songbirds that breed in far northerly climes around the globe. In North America, there are two distinct populations. One occurs in northwestern Canada and Alaska; the other in northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland.

Upon departing their boreal nesting grounds, wheatears embark on one of the most stupefying migrations of any North American songbird. The eastern population — presumably where the Ohio vagrants originate — fly east, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The 23-gram birds eventually make their way to western Africa where they winter.

It’s only speculation that wayward wheatears originate from the closest breeding population. For all we know, it’s the Alaskan/western Canada birds that turn up here. Those birds normally head west through Asia and the Middle East, also ending up in Africa. But these powerful flyers, if disoriented, could probably end up in Ohio.

The gray kingbird brings Ohio’s official bird checklist to 434 species. As one or two new species are added each year, the list will keep growing.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.
A northern wheatear recently observed in Richland County/Jim McCormac

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ohio Caverns: "America's Most Colorful Caverns"

Recently, I had a rare opportunity to descend into the depths of the remarkable Ohio Caverns with only two other people, one of which was an exceptionally knowledgeable guide named Karen. She works for the Ohio Caverns operation, and they kindly permitted me access to make photos for an upcoming piece that I'm writing about the caverns.

I'll post that article here after it comes out, but for now will share some subterranean highlights, each briefly captioned. This cavern is easily the most spectacular in Ohio, filled as it is with scores of beautiful geological features. The rocks, in many areas, are painted in exceptionally brightly hues, hence the tag of "America's Most Colorful Caverns". I'd highly encourage a visit; Ohio Caverns is open every day of the year excepting Christmas and Thanksgiving, and is located in Logan County, not far from Bellefontaine. It's an easy enough place to access and traverse, and tours last about an hour. Try for Karen as your guide if you make it. Complete details on Ohio Caverns RIGHT HERE.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: I don't have much in the way of cave photography experience, but tried my best and learned a lot in the course of this excursion. All images were made from a tripod, with very long exposures. I only made a total of eleven images, but each was a bit of a production and took some time. All were shot with the Canon 5D IV and nearly all with the Canon 16-35mm f/4 or Canon 14mm f/2.8 lenses. For the "Old Town Pump" shot I used the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. All but the latter image are HDR (High Dynamic Range) composites derived from five bracketed shots, mostly made at about one-stop intervals. General settings were ISO 100 or 200 and f/16. I see now at least some of my mistakes and look forward to honing skills with other future subterranean shoots.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I was fortunate in that circumstances allowed for tripod photography and the time to work out various shots. Tripods are not allowed on regular tours, as they're too cumbersome and time would not permit for lengthy shoots. That said, non-tripod mounted cameras are allowed and pretty good images can be captured with such. Artfully placed subtle LED lighting provides adequate light to work with.

Parts of Ohio Caverns are awash with stunning stalagmites and stalactites. Here, a huge stalagmite arises from the cavern floor, and scores of stalactites hang from the ceiling.

In some areas, the walls are stippled with curious rust formations, as seen in the upper left corner of this image, the result of exceptional iron concentrations. A quintet of sturdy stalagmites is in the foreground, and an oddly-shaped stalactite hangs in front of the rust formations.

An underground pool is a prominent feature in one spot, and can be viewed from either end. The rocks are especially colorful in this locale.

In places, stalactites and stalagmites join and fuse; such structures are called columns or pillars. The part of the cavern seen here is rich in "soda straws" - small thin hollow stalactites.

Occasionally soda straws become clogged and the water which forms them is forced out the sides, creating strange formations known as helactites. This is the most famous of Ohio Caverns' numerous helactites, the "Old Town Pump".

A jaw-dropping stalactite if there ever was one, the famed "Crystal King". Located at the end of a short spur passage, the King hangs like a work of art. Which it is, and a priceless one at that. It's estimated that this amazing stalactite began to form around 200,000 years ago, about the time that Homo sapiens diverged from common ancestors. The Crystal King measures about five feet in length, and is estimated to weigh around 400 pounds.

Again, for complete details about Ohio Caverns, visit HERE.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Fall color, finally!

A gorgeous palette of colors paints a pond at Myeerah Nature Preserve in Logan County, Ohio, this morning.

Until the last few days, I'd not seen much in the way of vibrant fall foliage here in Ohio. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was near peak a few weeks ago (GO HERE for pics), but that was about the only place I'd yet seen colorful fall foliage. Due to weather and temperature, presumably, the colorful signaling of leaves as they announce fall's end and the onset of winter has been late in coming.

The photo above was made at a little known but interesting preserve not far from Bellefontaine. I didn't have much time to explore Myeerah Preserve's 450 acres as I was in the area for something else, but hope to get back. This large pond is an excellent spot for landscape portraits, and should only get more colorful in the coming week.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nature: Monarch butterfly numbers increasing by droves

A monarch taps nectar from a swamp milkweed/Jim McCormac

October 21, 2018

NATURE
Jim McCormac

On Sept. 15, 2013, my Nature column covered monarch butterflies. The message was gloomy. Following is an excerpt:

“Far fewer Monarchs are making this journey (to Mexican wintering grounds). Only 20 years ago, their ranks blanketed 45 acres of Mexican fir forest. Last winter, the butterflies occupied less than three acres. Many people have commented on their absence this fall. Some authorities estimate that Monarch numbers declined by 60 percent over the past two years.”

Then, monarchs appeared to be in dire straits, and a prime factor in the butterfly’s decline was the loss of milkweed. Monarchs require these plants as hosts — milkweeds are the only flora that the caterpillars can consume.

There are 13 native milkweed species in Ohio, and monarchs probably use them all. But the two species that do most of the heavy lifting are common milkweed and swamp milkweed. The latter grows in damp soil, and as we’ve lost about 90 percent of our state’s presettlement wetlands, the milkweed has also declined.

The aptly named common milkweed is by far our most numerous monarch fuel, and it will grow in nearly any dry, open habitat. Roadside mowing, excessive herbicide use, and the proliferation of increasingly sterile agricultural landscapes has greatly decreased this plant.

Fortunately, highly nomadic monarchs are quick to capitalize on new opportunities and will readily find new places to reproduce. People heeded a call to action. No one wanted to see the iconic orange-and-black butterflies fall to the wayside, and thus began a fevered campaign of milkweed planting.

The insects have responded. Even postage-stamp-size urban yards are cranking out monarchs, and an army of human foster parents now raise and release the butterflies. Scores of conservation organizations, park districts, highway departments and others have also joined the effort for milkweed production.

On Sept. 30, some friends and I were having lunch on a balcony overlooking a gorgeous wooded valley in southern Ohio. During our hourlong respite, we estimated that 70 to 80 monarchs coursed by on an unerring southwest trajectory. I’ve probably seen more monarchs this fall than in the past five years combined.

Many people have reported similar spikes this year. Late September brought reports of several massive roosts — congregations of thousands of butterflies — along the Lake Erie shoreline. These tough monarchs were resting after an arduous flight across the lake, en route from Canada.

The most accurate assessment of monarch populations comes from evaluating the coverage of butterflies in the Mexican oyamel fir forests where they winter. There, monarchs form shimmering burnt-orange cloaks over the trees, and scientists can calculate the acreage that they occupy.

Last winter, about 6 acres of fir forest were butterfly-filled, a doubling from 2013 when I previously covered this subject. Because of this year’s bumper crop, prospects look even brighter. Chip Taylor of the butterfly-conservation organization Monarch Watch estimates that butterflies could occupy up to 12 acres of fir forest this winter. The butterflies blanketed 45 acres two decades ago, so we’re still a ways from peak numbers.

The upward trajectory of monarch populations is a clear example of how people can positively intervene to help an imperiled natural resource. Congratulations to everyone who has assisted in the proliferation of North America’s most fabled butterfly.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Autumn Upper Peninsula

The "Big Mac", or as it's properly known, the Mackinac Bridge. This massive span links Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas, and is a gateway to true north. I made this image from the Upper Peninsula side, looking south across the Straits of Mackinac towards Mackinaw City on the south side of the bridge.

Debbie DiCarlo and I just returned from an epic scouting trip to the UP, to determine sites for a photo workshop that we'll be leading in October 2019. We'll have the details of that sorted soon, but for now HERE IS THE LINK to our workshops for 2019. They'll all be good, and we'd love to have you along on any of them. We've got dates and itineraries for most, and the Upper Peninsula trip details will appear there soon.

Following is a visual feast of fall in the Upper Peninsula from our recent reconnaissance trip.

The fall color in the UP is breathtaking. Early to mid-October is peak, and nearly everywhere one goes there are numerous photo ops. "Tree Tunnels" such as this abound. This one was deep in the Hiawatha National Forest south of Munising.

A red maple sapling glows as if it's been plugged in. Ashy-white reindeer lichen punctuate the foreground and a foggy red pine forest provides the backdrop.

Brightly bicolored red maple leaves accent an old white birch log on a frosty morning, nestled in a bed of haircap moss and reindeer lichens.

An amazing - as in stop the car! - white birch forest in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We spent quite a while here, before dragging ourselves away. There were gale warnings on this day, and even a half-mile inland from Lake Superior the winds were powerful. That ended up working to my advantage as the stout breeze shook the leaves to create a blurred painterly look to the photograph.

Coffee-colored water rushes over a set of falls at Tahquamenon Falls. There are several tiers of falls here, and numerous compositional opportunities. This is the largest set of falls in Michigan, and when at peak spring flow, Tahquamenon facilitates the third largest volume of water of any falls east of the Mississippi River.

Bridalveil Falls, cascading 140 feet down a colorful cliff in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This is Michigan's tallest falls, and it can be seen from a LONG ways away. The regular boat tours here probably offer the best and closest perspective of Bridalveil. There is no way to get near the falls on the ground, except at the summit where the view is not great and the situation is hazardous. I made this image from about one-half mile away, using a 500mm telephoto with 1.4x extender for a 700mm reach.

Memorial Falls, within the city limits of Munising and one of many waterfalls in the area. This one is reminiscent of the sandstone recess cave waterfalls in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.

The shores of Lake Superior are renowned for colorful cobble beaches, and this is a prime example. This shoreline is along Au Train Bay, about 15 minutes west of Munising. Various rocks - basalt, rhyolite, gneiss, granite and others - provide for stunning photo ops.

One could spend half the day with these rocks and a camera. I spent some time standing in the wave zone with my camera pointed down at the cobble, trying to time shots with incoming waves.

Upon arrival to this magical Au Train Bay beach, I noticed a trio of Lapland longspurs foraging in the wrack line. So I rushed back to the Jeep, grabbed a telephoto lens, and rushed back down the beach to get in front of the birds. Tame as they tend to be, the longspurs ignored me and advanced right by my position as I crouched in the sand.

The sunsets and sunrises over Lake Superior can be incredible and we were lucky in that we caught several showy ones. Here, the setting sun lights the horizon on fire, as seem from Miners Beach in Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.

This was a sunrise of epic scope, viewed from one of the most remarkable lookouts along Lake Superior, Sugarloaf Mountain just west of Marquette. Making it even better is an unusual solar flare known as a "Sun Pillar" The sun was still below the horizon when I made this photo, but is telegraphing a columnar yellow reflection into the sky.

We'll be going to all of the above locales, and numerous others, on next fall's photo tour. Again, for details CLICK HERE.

Black-legged kittiwake in central Ohio!

Waters cascading over Hoover Reservoir form the backdrop for a soaring juvenile kittiwake. Conferences, speaking and other stuff had kep...