Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Climbing Fern, Lygodium palmatum

Way back on August 13, I made a visit to Vinton County in southeastern Ohio, to visit my friend Ray Showman and his wife, Carol. The primary mission was to deliver a presentation to Carol's garden club, and that task was dealt with. But there was time for a field excursion into Vinton County's wildlands, and Ray and I hit some of the local hotspots.

One organism that I really wanted to revisit was a strange plant known as Climbing Fern, Lygodium palmatum. For as long as I can remember there has been a large station of this plant in a scruffy cutover woods not far outside of McArthur. Ray and I made our way there, and lo and behold - there was the fern. Vegetation succession has eliminated much of it - back when I first became acquainted with this spot the fern clambered over vast expanses, and suggested an out-of-control growth of Japanese Honeysuckle from afar. But the odd tangle of the odd fern persisted here and there.

In the photo above, we see the finely cleft fertile leaves of Climbing Fern, near the summit of the filamentous vining stems that scramble over other plants. Its support plant - at least one of them - is the noxious Japanese Honeysuckle, and supporting this beautiful fern is one of the better uses that I've seen for that invasive species.

This is what the ground below looked like. A vegetative tsunami of interesting hand-shaped leaves; the sterile foliage of the Climbing Fern. Their shape provides the plant's scientific name's specific epithet: palmatum (hand-like).

Here are both leaves together on an aerial stem. The narrowly lobed fertile leaves, which bear the indusia or spore cases, adorn the upper part of the twining stem. A few of the larger sterile leaves are below. All in all, a very showy climber well worthy of our attention and respect. It would seemingly make an excellent garden plant, but may be tough to grow, and it seems virtually unknown in the nursery trade.

Up until recently, Climbing Fern was a member of the strangely named Curly-grass family of ferns (Schizaeacaea. It has since been segregated into the Lygodiaceae). Only two species in these groups make it this far north: Climbing Fern (map), and the strange little Schizaea pusilla of the east coast and northeastern maritime regions. Ohio is on the edge of the Climbing Fern's range, and although it can be locally common, generally the fern occurs sparingly and locally in a handful of southeastern counties. The rest of the 35 or so species are tropical, and occur far to our south.


Monday, October 5, 2015

2015 Wetlands Summit: October 17, Dawes Arboretum

Cedar Bog, Champaign County. Perhaps the richest biological diversity in Ohio occurs in the fens of Cedar Bog. Wetlands in general fuel major spikes in biodiversity.

Mark your calendar for Saturday, October 17. That's the date of the Ohio Wetlands Association's annual Wetlands Summit. The event takes place at the beautiful Dawes Arboretum, which is a stone's throw from Newark and easy to reach from nearly anywhere. Complete details and registration information can be found RIGHT HERE.

Ohio has lost about 90% of the wetlands that were here when the first European settlers arrived. Prioritizing their protection, strategizing effective ways to save and restore them, and educating people about wetland values should be of paramount importance. The Ohio Wetlands Association excels at this mission.

A star-studded cast of speakers will make for a very informative and entertaining day, and there should be time to visit some of the wetlands that were restored in recent years in Dawes' property. Some of these wetlands host legions of sparrows in migration, and it's prime time for those beautiful but furtive skulkers, the Nelson's Sparrow and the Le Conte's Sparrow. Bring your binoculars. As an added bonus, the foliage should be awesome - it is fall in Ohio! - and Dawes is loaded with trees of all types.

To register, just CLICK HERE.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Rare in Ohio, Swainson's Hawk draws a crowd

The famous Holmes County Swainson's Hawk

October 4, 2015

Jim McCormac

On a summer day in 1827, naturalists John Richardson and Thomas Drummond were exploring uncharted territory near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Spying an unfamiliar raptor, Drummond drew a bead with his shotgun and fired. He had collected the first Swainson’s hawk specimen.

Named in honor of scientist/artist William Swainson, the Swainson’s hawk is an animal of great beauty. It’s about the same dimensions as the familiar red-tailed hawk, but it has a slimmer body and longer wings.

The plumage is variable, ranging from very dark forms to much paler types. Most are classified as “light morphs;” the “dark morphs” are scarcer.

The breeding range of Swainson’s hawk encompasses much of western North America, into the southern Canadian prairie provinces. A tiny population in northern Illinois represents the easternmost breeders.

Swainson’s hawks rarely appear in Ohio, and if one does, it will draw great interest.

Most have been fly-overs that didn’t linger. If you weren’t there when the bird winged by, you missed it. I was lucky indeed to be part of Ohio’s first record, on July 1, 1983. A gorgeous Swainson’s hawk flew low over Bruce Peterjohn, Don Tumblin and me as we stood awestruck on a dike near Lake Erie.

Thus, when a Swainson’s hawk appeared in a Holmes County field on Sept. 17, it was big news. This bird was no fly-by, either. It stuck tight for the next five days, spending much time in its favored 6-acre field.

The bird’s unusual site fidelity and lengthy stay made it easy for legions of birders to see.

Hundreds of binocular-toters from all corners of Ohio made the pilgrimage, as did others from surrounding states.

An unaffected celebrity, the hawk utterly ignored visitors. It was entertaining to watch as it raced about snapping up grasshoppers. Otherwise, it perched on a fence post and scanned for bugs.
Swainson’s hawks are notable for being highly insectivorous, except during breeding season when they seek rodent meat for the nestlings.

Adding to the interest was the hawk’s color. It was a dark form. I believe all six or so previous records have been of the more typical light form birds.

Swainson’s hawks are highly migratory, and virtually the entire population shifts to the Pampas region of Argentina for the winter.

That’s more than 6,000 miles — one way! By the time you read this, Holmes County’s avian star will be well on its way to the southern grasslands.

It will join legions of others on the migratory passage.

One of the great hawk-watching spots is Veracruz, Mexico. Up to 1 million Swainson’s hawks have been tallied there in fall migration. Individual flocks can number 10,000 birds.

Major thanks go to Ed Schlabach, the Amish bird-watcher who first confirmed the hawk’s identity. Ed has found many other rarities, including most of Ohio’s other Swainson’s hawk records.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hackberry Emperors, quadrupled

A quartet of Hackberry Emperors, Asterocampa celtis, adorn a tree at Kiwanis Park in Columbus. This little-known park is nestled along one of the wilder sections of the Scioto River in this otherwise urban area, and is one of my honey holes when little time is available.

So it was back on August 2, when only a few hours were available to shoot some images. So off to the nearby Kiwanis Park I went, where something of interest can always be found. I had meant to post these pictures long ago, but they got preempted by this, that, and the other. That happens all of the time. Even one good field trip can produce numerous subjects well worth writing about, and things constantly get sent to the end of the line, often never to see the light of day, at least on this blog.

Anyway, I've long had a soft spot for these beautiful butterflies, and admire their pugnacious mannerisms. Chances are good, if a butterfly boldly lands on you, and stays put, or keeps returning, it is a Hackberry Emperor. I have a number of shots of them perched on people's hats, shoulders, noses, whatever.

It's a well-named butterfly, too. The caterpillars eat hackberry foliage. Hence the scientific epithet of the animal's formal name: Asterocampa celtis. Celtis is the genus of hackberry trees. Kiwanis Park has many such trees, and the namesake butterfly isn't hard to find. The Emperor part of the name comes, I suppose, from their habit of regally using people or other animals as their thrones (but I don't know this for sure and feel too lazy to attempt to find out right now).

There is a sister species that is a near look-alike, the Tawny Emperor, Asterocampa clyton. They're around, but at least from my experience, never as commonly as the subject of this post. In fact, that's what I thought these might be at first, as they seemed so bright and buffy - not the colder gray tones that I associate with the Hackberry Emperor. But color varies, and these are bright individuals. A good mark to differentiate the two involves those dots and the bar along the leading edge of the forewing, closest to the body (the black marks, inboard from the white ones). In the Hackberry, the inner bar is broken into two dots. In the Tawny, they congeal into a continuous bar (Hackberry: bar and two dots; Tawny: two bars).

Hackberry Emperors seem prone to perching head down on trees, just as this one is doing. They are easy photographic subjects, often allowing very close approaches. In fact, too close sometimes, as when they land on your camera lens.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New(ish) Museum Blog!

The Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity is a treasure trove of fascinating subjects. It houses one of the world’s premier insect collections, a vast store of plant specimens from around the globe, a world class archive of bird and other nature sound recordings, and much more. Museum curators have started an interesting blog that showcases their research and collections. It is well worth bookmarking, and reading. Here’s the link: https://u.osu.edu/biomuseum/


Monday, September 28, 2015

Showy things from here and there

I haven't let much grass grow under my feet of late. I took much of last week off work to help conduct a photo workshop with David FitzSimmons, then it was off to Shawnee State Park at the opposite end of the state to meet with the Mothapalooza planning committee. Long days and not much sleep, but a lot of fun. Following is a small selection of photos from these excursions.

Dave FitzSimmons gets into the surf to make interesting wave photos. Note the tripod, and the remote shutter release in his hand. Those tools make it easier to focus on tripping the shutter when the timing is right. We based our photo workshop at beautiful Lakeside, right on the shores of Lake Erie, and visited a variety of spots on and near the lakefront. It was a great time with a great group of people, and we're planning on doing it again in September 2016.

To get the silky quality with the waves, I used a very slow shutter speed, 1/8 of a second. The camera was tripod-mounted of course - hand-holding would not allow for a sharp image at such a sluggish shutter speed.

We were up EARLY both mornings of the workshop, to get in good locales for shooting sunrises, before the sun appeared. This shot shows the sun popping above the horizon over Lake Erie near East Harbor. Timing is everything - you have to be in position and ready to fire away right as the sun appears. Sometimes a wide-angle perspective looks great, but I often prefer a smaller field of view as seen through a larger lens. This one was shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon's superb 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens set to 135mm. Settings were f/8; 1/160; ISO 100.

After shooting sunsets one evening on Lakeside's pier, I turned my lens to the moon, which looked especially striking in this waxing gibbous phase. It was the same camera and body as was used in the previous photo, but this time the lens was extended to 400mm. While overkill is probably possible with the moon, in general the more reach the better for shooting distant celestial objects. For this shot, the camera was set to f/11; 1/40; ISO 100. Overexposing moon images is common, and easy to do. One must remember that it is necessary to underexpose. The previous settings are good starting points; play with speeding up or slowing the shutter speed until the exposure is correct.

A young Herring Gull tugs entrails from a dead fish washed up on a Lake Erie beach. We had a lot of fun with this bird, waiting until just the right moment to trigger our shutters. Everyone wanted the entrails shot. This one was shot with the same rig as the previous images, but at f/5.6; 1/400; ISO 200, at a focal length of 400mm. The sun, unfortunately, was coming in at an acute angle from the right. Not optimal, but not bad. Some post-processing would make it look even better, but I am a post-processing minimalist.

The gorgeous textures and patterns of a land snail make for an irresistible shot. This one was shot with the amazing Canon 7D Mark II, rigged to their equally proficient 100mm L macro lens. This is a crop-frame sensor camera, and one I was using mostly for birds and distant wildlife. I've come to find that it works just great for macro work, too, and have been experimenting with that. This one was taken at f/16; 1/250; ISO 100. In general, an f-stop range between f/11 and f/16 works well for many macro situations.

We spent a fair bit of time looking for interesting art in seemingly mundane things, such as milkweed seeds bursting from a pod. This photo was shot with the same rig as in the previous photo, but at f/6.3 and a much faster shutter speed of 1/500, no flash used. It was breezy, and I wanted to ensure a reasonably sharp image. The plant, by the way, is Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora.

Our group hit the botanical jackpot when we stumbled into a nice stand of Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata, in the Castalia Prairie. Scores of photos were taken of these stunning flowers. For this one, the fringing of the rear petals of the foremost flower was my focal point. Again, the Canon 7D Mark II with 100mm macro lens was used. I set f/11; 1/200; ISO 100, and fired with Canon's twin-lite flash rig. In hindsight, I should have used f/16 for greater depth of field.

OK, to the opposite end of the state and my beloved Shawnee State Forest. After the Mothapalooza planning committee meeting - yes, this strange but wonderful event will be back at Shawnee in 2016! - we headed afield for a bit. And saw many interesting things, but unfortunately for the others, I found this gem on my way out of the forest, after we all went our separate ways. It is the state-endangered Sampson's Snakeroot, Gentiana villosa. Not quite as flashy as the previous gentian, but it has its charms. More 7D Mark II/100mm macro work here, with settings of f/16; 1/250; ISO 100. A big part of making decent images of stuff like this is getting the flash intensity right, and that's what I tend to play with the most.

I was struck by the pattern and texture of fruiting Hairy Angelica plants, Angelica venenosa, and exerted some effort in making photos of them. The little grooved fruit form clusters in arrangements known as umbels. The aggregate of the umbels forms one big umbel - the inflorescence in its entirety. It wasn't until I reviewed my images that I noticed numerous tiny, unfamiliar insects among the fruit. The dominant one appears to be some sort of true bug (Hemiptera), but I have no idea as to the species. There are oil tubes located in the grooves of the fruits, and I wonder if the insects aren't tapping into those to extract food. Had I noticed this in the field, I would have produced the Canon MP-E 65mm mega-macro lens to try and shed light on this mysterious world dwelling within the umbels. Another time, perhaps.

Finally, I'll end with this beautiful plant, the Downy Lobelia, Lobelia puberula. It reaches its northern limits in Ohio, occurring in only a dozen or so of our southernmost counties. Downy Lobelia is common along Shawnee's forest roads, and I find it an irresistible subject. This specimen was particularly compelling, as it meets the criteria of the pleasing Rule of Thirds. Once again, after reviewing the image on the computer, I noticed a stowaway I missed in the field. Some tiny green insect is hiding under the calyx of the top flower. As with the other Shawnee flower images, this one was taken with the 7D Mark II and 100mm macro lens. Twin-lite flash was used, and the settings for this one were f/16; 1/250; ISO 100.

I'll be back.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mantidfly looks as if built out of spare parts

Mantidfly, Dicromantispa interrupta

September 27, 2015

Jim McCormac

Scotsman John Hunter was an inveterate explorer and officer in Great Britain’s Royal Navy. A natural scholar, Hunter was sent to then largely unknown Australia in 1788. He spent much of the next 12 years there. In 1798, he was made privy to the discovery of a bizarre Australian mammal and promptly sent a specimen to the British Museum.

Curator George Shaw, upon examining the specimen, felt it might be a hoax, as did several of his contemporaries. Their skepticism was understandable. The duck-billed platypus looks like a hodgepodge of various animals sewn together — a seemingly impossible anomaly.

The mantidfly is an entomological counterpart to the platypus. The bugs look like the work of a mad scientist. It’s as if the wings of a dragonfly were bolted to a wasp’s body, and a long skeletal neck was welded to the front. Capping the latter is a small head dominated by huge jewellike eyes. Powerful forelegs are armed with stiff spines, and the creature is held erect by long spindly legs. The mantidfly shown above is Dicromantispa interrupta, one of five species found in Ohio.

If one didn’t know better, he might think the mantidfly is the product of an ornate prank.

Adult mantidflies are predatory, stalking other insects and seizing them with their praying mantislike forelegs. The larvae also are predatory, with a life cycle almost too freakish to believe.

Female mantidflies lay up to 1,000 tiny eggs on the lower surfaces of leaves. The eggs dangle from threads. She places the egg cluster in an area frequented by spiders.

The tiny, freshly emerged larvae are capable of crawling and leaping. When a spider passes by, they attempt to jump aboard. If successful, the mantidfly larva nestles into a crevice and commences to feed on the spider’s hemolymph for sustenance.

Their primary purpose is to hitch a ride to the spider’s nest. If a male spider is boarded, the mantidfly larva will cross over to the female spider when the spiders come together to mate. When the female spider deposits her eggs, the larva debarks and attaches to an egg. It feeds on the contents of the egg via specialized mandibles.

Once the larva matures, it forms a cocoon and pupates within the husk of the spider egg. Later, it morphs into the strange-looking adult mantidfly.

Mantidflies are rare — and with such a life cycle, it’s easy to see why.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com