Thursday, September 22, 2016

Marblehead Lighthouse

Ohio's famous Marblehead Lighthouse, along the rocky shoreline of Lake Erie at the tip of the Marblehead Peninsula. As seen yesterday morning, just before sunrise.

A too full agenda of late has kept me from posting as much as I'd like; hopefully that will change soon.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ohio sighting of swallow-tailed kite draws birders

A swallow-tailed kite is a study in black and white

September 18, 2016

Jim McCormac

People who seek rare birds are called “chasers” or “listers” in the United States and “twitchers” overseas. To some people, such an avocation might seem silly, especially if the quarry is an obscure sandpiper or sparrow.

One look at a swallow-tailed kite, though, and anyone can understand why a bird-watcher might go out of his or her way to see it.

This graceful raptor is Rudolf Nureyev on wings, a sleek aerialist that would turn the Blue Angels blue with envy.

A swallow-tailed kite is a study in black and white. The dark tail and outer wings contrast strikingly with the snowy-white underparts and head. From stem to stern, the kite measures almost 2 feet, and its long slender wings span just over 4 feet.

Although the kite is as large as a red-tailed hawk, it weighs less than half as much. Its lightness lends a buoyancy and agility that makes most other raptors look clumsy in comparison.

The kite’s most striking feature is its namesake tail. It is cleft into two long streamers, which the kite manipulates in flight to instantaneously tweak course.

On Aug. 28, a swallow-tailed kite appeared on the Holmes County farm of David Yoder. Word rocketed through the birding network, and binocular-toting admirers were soon on their way.

I made the trip on the morning of Sept. 11. Yoder’s farm is nestled in a picturesque valley skirted by rolling hills and scattered farms. An azure sky dotted with fluffy clouds made the scene all the better.

Soon after I parked, David Yoder came out and welcomed me. A nicer guy would be hard to find. He and his neighbors have tolerated an incursion of 700 to 800 birders. After a chat, two Amish boys and I struck out for the magical alfalfa field.

After pushing through a gate, dodging heifers in a pasture, scrambling under a barbed-wire fence and climbing a steep hill, we reached the lofty hayfield. The kite swooped into view almost instantly. We stood entranced at the aerial acrobatics of the magnificent raptor, and I did my best to capture photos of the fleet predator.

Swallow-tailed kites are largely insect eaters, and the bird entertained us by deftly plucking large grasshoppers from the clover during high-speed strafes. The kite would then soar aloft and eat its victim on the wing.

Kite food abounded. Amish are good stewards of the land, and Yoder’s farm is a patchwork of woods, fence rows and contour-farming practices.

He told me he wasn’t mowing the alfalfa field until he was sure the kite had departed. The field teemed with grasshoppers, sulphur and black swallowtail butterflies, migrating monarchs and various crickets and katydids.

Evidence suggests that swallow-tailed kites bred in Ohio before European settlement, but they had disappeared by the 1830s. There have been about nine recorded sightings in the past 20 years, including one in the Dayton area this summer.

A steady increase in kite sightings well north of their Florida/Gulf Coast breeding range gives hope that the spectacular birds might eventually recolonize former breeding haunts.

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

American Birding Expo II

This weekend marks the 2nd annual American Birding Expo, which once again will be held in Columbus, Ohio, at the conveniently located Grange Insurance Audubon Center. The expo takes place this coming weekend, September 16-18, and every last detail can be found RIGHT HERE.

Last year's extravaganza drew over 2,000 people, lured by dozens of vendors and exhibitors hawking everything from binoculars and scopes to exotic tours to nearly every piece of merchandise imaginable for the birder and/or outdoor enthusiast. You won't want to miss it.

Again, see the entire agenda and all of the expo's offerings RIGHT HERE.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Two supremely cool spiders: Arachnids one seldom sees

Ohio Brush Creek, as seen early on a misty morning, last Sunday, September 4. This stream is the epicenter of the sprawling Edge of Appalachia Preserve, owned and managed by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Cincinnati Museum Center. The preserve's 16,000+ acres in Adams County contain some of the richest biodiversity in the Midwestern United States.

Last Saturday, I joined spider expert Richard Bradley, along with John Howard and Laura and David Hughes, for an epic natural history excursion. We were after a rare beetle (got it, check), and a couple of rare spiders. Along the way, we found scads of interesting flora and fauna, but I will confine this post to two supremely cool spiders, both of which were brand new to me.

Shortly after we entered a sun-baked prairie opening, sharp-eyed Laura Hughes spotted this barely discernable aberration in the soil. It's the circular cap in the exact center of this image, sort of like an earthen manhole cover. Even though we knew what to look for, it was an amazing spot, as the lid blends with its surroundings almost to perfection.

We carefully opened the lid, which is held in place with a silken hinge. The little stick on the right props it open, and reveals the smooth hole below, which is a few inches deep.

And here is the occupant, a rarely seen Trapdoor Spider, Ummidia adouini. Rich had received a report and photo of one of these some time back, from this general area. Given that actually finding the burrow is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, we felt good about locating this, and rather quickly, too.

The spider returns to the depths of its lair. We teased it out with a pipe cleaner in order to admire the animal and make some photos. It's a decent-sized spider, but not overly big - it would probably mostly cover a nickel.

The hunting technique of a Trapdoor Spider is beyond awesome. At night, it comes to the summit of the burrow, and pushes the trapdoor open ever so slightly. When prey wanders near - small insects mostly - the spider erupts  from its burrow with blinding speed, and pounces. The victim is blanketed by the spider's large forelegs, and quickly pulled back into the burrow where it will be eaten. If all goes smoothly, the entire attack sequence, from trapdoor popping open to spider bursting forth to prey disappearing back into the burrow, takes just a second or so.

Here's a great video of a Trapdoor Spider in action: CLICK HERE.

The next cool spider was an unexpected bonus. We were searching for various nocturnal creatures about 1 am on Sunday morning, and were making a last round of a very interesting area before packing it in. Suddenly a shout went up from Dave - he had found an amazing spider that we had long wanted to see. In this distant photo, it looks just like a bird dropping on one of the leaves of this redbud. I made this image later that morning, after the sun had risen and the spider went into resting mode for the day.

And here she is, the Toadlike Bolas Spider, Mastophora phrynosoma. Strange indeed. This shot is of her at rest, head on. Her head is interesting, with its bidentate "horns", and she tucks her forelegs neatly around her face. In real life, the effect is quite remarkable and it takes a while to realize what one is looking at, and which end is which. The spider really looks like an amorphous glob of something decidedly unpleasant.

The real magic of this amazing spider takes place at night. This is her, shortly after Dave discovered it. The bolas spider runs a few silken struts from the leaves of her host tree, and dangles from those. She then releases a "bolas" line (a bolas is a weapon of South American origin; a strong line with a ball or balls attached. It is thrown at an enemy and entangles their limbs). The liquid droplet at the end of the bolas is very sticky, and most amazing secretes a fragrance that is a near exact match for the pheromones of a few species of moths.

When one of these moths flutters in to investigate the source of the pseudo-pheromone, the spider deftly swings the bolas and snares it. The moth is then reeled in and eaten. I would love to be able to stake one of these spider out long enough to observe - and hopefully photograph - a kill.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Ohio's orchid species can grab attention, but many species are threatened

Yellow-fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris

September 4, 2016

Jim McCormac

For the orchidophile, a trip to Colombia’s tropical forests would be living a dream. The country harbors several thousand species. Orchids new to science are routinely discovered.

In the world of flowering plants (angiosperms), the orchid family might be the most diverse: An estimated 24,000 species exist worldwide. The only rival is the sunflower family, which has about the same number of species.

For Ohio orchid hunters, prey is far scarcer than in Colombia. Nonetheless, 46 native species are found in the state. There is probably at least one species in every county.

The range of Ohio’s small suite of indigenous orchids represents an artist’s palette of color. Pink, orange, ivory, emerald, purple and other colors paint a fantastic diversity of flower structures.

Among our showiest orchids are those in the genus Platanthera. There are (or were) 12 Ohio species, and most are big and spectacular.

I recently had the pleasure of viewing perhaps the most spectacular Platanthera orchid of all: the yellow fringed orchid, P. ciliaris. This plant is otherworldly in appearance and sure to stop people in their tracks.

A robust yellow fringed orchid rises to almost 2 feet tall, capped by a robust cluster of dozens of flowers. It is these flowers that cause jaws to drop. Their color is a gorgeous orange-yellow, a hue not seen elsewhere in nature, at least around here.

Each flower is held on a long, slender pedicel. The flower’s lip, or lower petal, is divided into a spectacular brush of fringes, as if it were briefly shoved into a paper shredder. A long threadlike spur juts from the flower’s other end, providing interesting architectural punctuation.

As befits such a showy plant, its principal pollinators are beautiful as well. While I was admiring these plants recently, several spicebush and Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies were busily working over the colony. Swallowtails do the heavy lifting of pollination for this species.

Yellow fringed orchid is listed as threatened in Ohio, and there are essentially only four populations. Some occur in the Oak Openings area west of Toledo, and reportedly a small population exists in Hocking County. A small colony maintains a tenuous foothold in Washington County.

The mother lode of this orchid occurs in Shawnee State Forest, Ohio’s largest state forest and a site unbelievably rich in biodiversity. That’s where I made the accompanying photograph on my Aug. 7 trip.

Ohio’s orchids are benchmarks of habitat health. Our scorecard is not good. Of the state’s 46 species, eight are endangered, six are threatened and eight are potentially threatened. Two of our six federally threatened plants are orchids.

Saddest of all, four of Ohio’s orchids are considered extirpated: They no longer occur in the state.

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

Friday, September 2, 2016

A pictorial talk on the sunflower family: Cedar Bog, 9/10!

Fen Indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum, dots a wet meadow at Cedar Bog. This is one of our stranger, and rarer, members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).

On Saturday, September 10, I am giving a talk on the always interesting sunflower family, at the aforementioned Cedar Bog.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jagged Ambush Bugs: Homicidal Killers in the Flowers

Tis the season for meadows full of beautiful native wildflowers, such as this tall ironweed, Vernonia gigantea. Various goldenrods, asters, and other flowers of fall are starting to come on strong, too.

While a flower-filled field may look peaceful, in reality scores of wee killers lurk among the blooms. A flower can be a very dangerous place for a nectar-seeking pollinating insect. I did a pretty intensive field trip through several southeastern Ohio counties last weekend, and managed to find a number of specimens of one of my favorite killers in the flowers, the Jagged Ambush Bugs in the genus Phymata.

An ambush bug sits, rather uncharacteristically conspicuously, on the magenta flowers of ironweed. It is like a little gargoyle. Note the powerful raptorial forelegs. If a small bee, wasp, fly, or anything that can be overpowered lands here, it is likely doomed. With a quick lunge, the ambush bug will seize the victim, and then punch it with a syringe-like proboscis. Toxins in its saliva quickly immobilize the victim, and digestive enzymes rapidly decompose its innards. When a nice, slushy consistency has been reached, the ambush bug slurps out the contents.

The keen observer of Jagged Ambush Bugs soon notes that they come in an array of colors. I have read that at least some species can change color, chameleonlike, to match the flowers that they hunt in. I do not know for sure if that is true, but it makes for a good story. The animal in the photo above is nestled in the flowers of boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum. Boneset, ironweed, and goldenrod are surefire bets for finding these interesting predators. Ambush bugs are very small and easily overlooked. Once one has developed an eye for them, they're easy to see and you might be surprised at how common they are.

I found this little chap to be in an especially showy setting - the flowers of a wonderful little mint known as dittany, Cunila origanoides. I dropped to the ground and spent 10-15 minutes with my camera trained on the ambush bug, hoping some luckless pollinator would fly in and get whacked. It was not to be while I was there, but given the number of tiny bees and flies in the area, I'm sure plenty of meals are scored.

The genus Phymata is not especially large in North America north of Mexico - 20 species or so - and diversity thins out even more east of the Mississippi. Apparently nearly all of the ones in Ohio and vicinity fall into three species: Phymata americana, P. fasciata, and P. pennsylvanica. Separating these species can be quite difficult, especially from photos, so I'm just leaving it at that.

This ambush bug hit the jackpot! It has killed a comparatively massive tachinid (tak-in-id) fly, illustrating the potency of the debilitating neurotoxin that it injects into victims. Not only did the elfin bug quickly KO the larger fly, it then drug it from the flowers and down into the plant, where it was better hidden.

The kill shown here is a great irony; karmic payback? Tachinid flies are parasitoids, laying eggs on hosts such as caterpillars and katydids. The fly egg hatches a tiny grub which quickly bores into the host and commences eating it alive. The fly maggot feeds and grows within its victim, ultimately killing it. This tachinid has met its match in this ferocious little ambush bug.

Keep an eye on the flowers this fall, and I'll guarantee you'll spot a Jagged Ambush Bug sooner or later.