Sunday, August 18, 2019

Crayfish species known as mudbugs excel at tunneling

Roger Thoma with a little brown mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, a species named for him/Jim McCormac

August 18, 2019

Jim McCormac

Ohio has plenty of wild “micro-lobsters”, although they’re largely out of sight and mind. And off the dinner plate. They are crayfish, and many a young Huck Finn wannabe grubbed for these pincered crustaceans in the local creek.

Stream-dwelling crayfish are the most conspicuous of the approximately 22 species known from Ohio. Far less known are the “mudbugs,” a suite of crayfish species that spend most of their time in the subterranean. Their presence is often revealed by impressive mud chimneys that ring the burrows.

Although mudbug chimneys often stimulate comments, few people probably know the architect’s identity, let alone meet one. The relatively few burrowing crayfish that I’ve encountered have been during rainy nights, when they’ll sometimes roam overland.

Thus, a recent invitation from Anthony Sasson, who works with the Midwest Biodiversity Institute, was of great interest. He had organized an outing with two of the country’s premier crayfish researchers, Mael Glon of Ohio State University and Roger Thoma of the biodiversity institute.

Thoma has the rare distinction of having a crayfish named in his honor, and it was this crayfish that was our primary quarry. In the 67-year-old Ohioan’s decades of crayfish research, he has described at least a dozen new species. Thoma is regarded as one of North America’s foremost experts. Glon, at only age 29, is hot on his heels, having already described three new species, with more to come.

Soon enough, the four of us were bushwhacking along a small western Franklin County stream. In no time, Glon and Thoma had located crayfish burrows and set about the laborious task of extricating the occupants. Crayfish “noodling” involves stretching a gloved arm deep into the burrow and feeling for the crayfish.

Before long, a little brown mudbug was unearthed: Lacunicambarus thomai, Roger’s honorific crayfish. Thoma’s colleague Raymond Jezerinac described it in 1993, and now the secretive crustacean is known to occur in much of the state and in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The burrows created by little brown mudbugs and similar species are marvels of excavation. Although most tunnels are only a few feet in depth, exceptional burrows might go 10 feet deep if that’s what it takes to reach the water table and permanent moisture.

Mudbugs spend most of their time in the cool, dank depths, luxuriating in an enlarged chamber at the tunnel’s terminus. Come nightfall, the crayfish ventures to the tunnel’s above-ground portal. It lies in wait for potential prey such as insects, worms and other small invertebrates. Vegetation also forms part of the diet.

So, “what good are mudbugs?” some might ask. Burrowing crayfish are keystone species — their work positively influences numerous other species. Snakes, including the rare Massassauga rattlesnake, use the burrows for shelter. Larvae of the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly mature in the tunnels.

Numerous other small critters — mole crickets, spiders, salamanders — routinely occupy crayfish burrows. The crayfish themselves are an important part of the food web. They’re eaten by bass and other fish, herons, mink, raccoons and turtles. A declining reptile, the queen snake, feeds almost exclusively on soft, freshly molted crayfish.

Many thanks to astacologists Glon and Thoma for shedding light on a poorly known but fascinating part of the animal kingdom.

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
A crayfish chimney at the entrance to a burrow/Jim McCormac

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ruby-throated Hummingbird pollinates Cardinal-flower

I made an epic foray into southern Ohio's Shawnee State Forest back on August 1, and had several photographic goals in addition to shooting whatever I might bumble into. One of these goals was to photograph a ruby-throated hummingbird in the act of pollinating a plant that the little birds are especially smitten with. Some success was had, and the story plays out below.

Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, one of our showiest native plants. It seems fitting that such a gorgeous plant would have an interesting pollination ecology that involves one of our most charismatic birds.

The flowers on this spike are young, and mostly staminate (male) at this point. The arcuate grayish projection from the summit of the flower contains the sexual parts, and when the flowers are new they extend a brushlike clump of stamens capped by the anthers which contain pollen.

This is a different cardinal-flower in the same colony, but the flowers are older and have progressed to putting forth largely female organs. The stubby grayish protrusions are now mostly capped with longer extensions that contain the stigma, or female pollen receptacle. The male anthers have done their work regarding pollen dispersal, and been replaced by the opposite sex.

One must exercise some patience when trying for shots such as these. I found a few particularly stately cardinal-flower spikes, rigged up my tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV with 400mm lens, and 600 speedlite, then settled into a three-legged camo chair to await my quarry. As it happened, I did not have to wait long before a female ruby-throated hummingbird appeared. After making these images, I disassembled my big rig and went back with a wide-angle lens for general flower shots. While doing that, this tiny but fearless hummer returned and began working flowers within a few feet of where I knelt.

The hummers routinely visit cardinal-flowers, which apparently are prolific nectar-makers. The nectaries are deep within the corolla, forcing the bird to plunge its bill far into the flower. In the process, the top of its head makes contact with the downward-curving sexual flower parts. If the flower is in the male phase, pollen will be deposited on the hummingbird. If in the female phase, pollen from some other flower - hopefully from another plant - will transfer from the bird's head to the stigma, and thus pollinate the flower and allow production of fruit.

A closer view, showing the flower's stigma scraping the top of the hummingbird's head. It'd be virtually impossible for the bird to access its reward - the nectar - without coming forcefully into contact with the flower's reproductive parts.
While hummingbirds certainly must be the primary pollinator of cardinal-flower, as is often said, I believe that swallowtail butterflies, especially spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, must at least occasionally provide pollination services. This is a spicebush swallowtail working the same patch that the hummingbird above frequented. Swallowtails swarm blooming cardinal-flowers and at times there were a dozen or more mobbing these flowers. While the butterfly/flower dynamic is not as well architected as the hummingbird/flower arrangement, I bet pollen still gets transferred between both flower forms.

The coevolution of cardinal-flower and hummingbirds is a particularly showy example of the myriad ways in which plants have forged alliances with animals.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Macrophotography Workshop! Dawes Arboretum, September 14

A blue dasher dragonfly in its entirety may not really qualify as "macro" material, but its eyes do.

I'm giving a workshop focusing on macrophotography on Saturday, September 14, at the fabulous Dawes Arboretum near Newark. It'll start at 9 am at the Red Barn with a PowerPoint program on the nuances of imaging small things. The lushly illustrated talk will discuss equipment such as lenses, extension tubes and flash, camera settings, composition, etc. Also plenty of tips for finding COOL SUBJECTS.

The Red Barn is conveniently located in the midst of a diversity of wonderful habitat, so all we need do is walk outside the doors to quickly locate our own COOL SUBJECTS. The sprawling grounds of the Dawes Arboretum are always a treat to explore, and we'll have a blast doing just that. We'll end the day around 3 pm.

Cost is a mere $30.00. I hope you can make it. Registration is required, and to do so click RIGHT HERE.

A tiny zabulon skipper glares at the cameraman from atop the bud of a swamp thistle.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Yellow-fringed Orchid, and Butterflies

Last Thursday, August 1, I made an epic photographic foray into Shawnee State Forest. I really needed a hardcore solo shoot, and besides it was an 18-hour day (only had one day) and I can't find many photogs who will put up with such an agenda :-). Many interesting observations and images were made.

This vast southern Ohio forest is full of biological riches, and I had several primary targets in mind, not the least of which is featured here. The yellow-fringed orchids, Platanthera ciliaris, were just starting to flower, and I wanted to work some more on attempting to capture their pollinators.

Yellow-fringed orchid is staggering in its beauty. Seeing a meadow dotted with gorgeous spikes of orangish-yellow flowers is an amazing experience, and as always I spend time just drinking in the scene.

But before long, the photographic game was afoot. Swallowtail butterflies are the pollinators (moths may visit at night, but I don't know that firsthand). As these butterflies are big, and the orchid's flower spikes are large, I arm myself as I would for birds. I lug out a lightweight camo chair, tripod, and telephoto lens. In this case, the rig was the Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 400mm f/2.8 II, with fill flash from a Canon 600 speedlite. I select the most conspicuous of the orchids, set up 15-20 feet away, and await my quarry.

At one point, a male zabulon skipper, Poanes zabulon, chose "my" orchid as a lookout. Male zabs are feisty as can be, and often sit in a conspicuous spot from which they dash out at nearly anything that flies by. Hoping for females, I suppose. This skipper could not have chosen a showier perch.

A spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, drops in for nectar. Yes! This is what I wanted. The butterfly's long proboscis, and ability to hover/perch, allows it access to the nectaries that are deeply imbedded in the base of the long nectar spurs. In the process of mining its sugary reward, the swallowtail pollinates the plant.

I saw other swallowtails - only spicebush, I rarely see other species - nectaring at distant orchids. That's somewhat frustrating - over here! over here! I feel like shouting - but chasing them madly about with camera is no way to operate. It's just likely to spook the butterflies, and rushing into position makes it tough to compose a nice image.

Better to set up out of the pollinator's sphere of awareness, in perfect light and on a prime plant, and let the subject come to you.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rare plants of Cedar Bog

A meadow full of fen indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum. The plant is an odd member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and is quite rare in Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Saturday, August 10th at Cedar Bog, a legendary botanical sweet spot that is full of rare flora - and fauna. The program commences at 10 am, and following that and lunch, we'll step out the back doors of the visitor's center and onto the boardwalk. An easy foray along the freshly rebuilt boardwalk will produce all manner of interesting flora (and fauna).

All are welcome. Cost is a mere $5.00 if a Cedar Bog Association member; if not, it's $10.00. The hard working members of the Association do nearly all of the heavy lifting in regards to management of this incredibly important natural area, and proceeds benefit their work. Details are RIGHT HERE.

The striking grass-pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosus, one of several rare orchids at the "bog". Cedar Bog, per square foot, has perhaps the richest botanical diversity of any site in Ohio. Many species of plants officially listed as endangered, threatened, or potentially threatened occur here. Even many of the plants that aren't listed as rare, at least in the fen meadows, are quite uncommon in the state.

Sedges drive much of the ecology at Cedar Bog - which is actually a fen. This one, seen here in full flower, is twig-rush, Cladium mariscoides. A close relative is the sawgrass of the Florida Everglades.

Wand-lily, Anticlea elegans, a highly poisonous member of the lily family. While you wouldn't want to eat it, the plant is nice to look at.

Seen here in fruit, prairie valerian, Valeriana edulis (syn: V. ciliata) is probably the rarest plant at Cedar Bog, and it has quite a story particularly insofar as this site goes.

If you can make it out, we'll have a good time and see lots of interesting stuff. Details about Cedar Bog are RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Midwest Native Plant Conference 2019

Beautiful original artwork, courtesy of artist Ann Geise of Cincinnati, featuring the 2019 Midwest Native Plant Conference's conference plants: coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, and wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Keeping with the conference end goal of connecting flora and fauna, a hummingbird moth is included.

The weekend past saw the 11th iteration of the Midwest Native Plant Conference. As for the past ten years, it was held at Bergamo Center on the grounds of Mount St. John in western Greene County, Ohio. I don't see us moving the conference in the foreseeable future even though demand exceeds carrying capacity. The facilities are great, there is onsite lodging, and the 150 acres of grounds is rich in native flora and biodiversity.

We have a "problem" most conference organizers would envy. The event sells out within a day of registration opening. As we would like to be able to host everyone that wishes to attend, but can't, this year we re-jiggered some room logistics and were able to accommodate about 35 additional attendees. That enabled about 220 people to come, plus around 30 volunteers - the latter the lifeblood of this all-volunteer run event. The conference runs like a well-oiled machine and that's due to all of the wonderful people who work year-round and at the event to ensure things go smoothly.

Over the decade+ of the conference, we've raised over $100,000, which has been donated to Ohio-centric conservation causes, most of which are involved in acquisition and conservation of natural lands, such as the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, Cedar Bog, and The Nature Conservancy.

This photo and the next two are from the Midwest Native Plant Conference's Facebook page.

The main hall in Bergamo Center is packed for one of our keynotes. We are fortunate in being able to attract outstanding speakers well-versed in the world of native flora. This year's slate featured Tavia Cathcart-Brown, Nancy Stranahan, Steve McKee, and Julie Zickefoose, plus a host of excellent breakout speakers. This year's complete speaker roster can be seen HERE.

The aforementioned Ann Geise, who has done our conference artwork since year one. She is also a conference vendor, along with many others and a raft of native plant vendors. Ann's obviously been hugely helpful to the conference, as has our planning committee, which currently consists of Yvonne Cecil, Alan Duffy, Lisa M. Ruschmann, Yvonne Dunphe, Ann Geise, Teri Gilligan, Scott Hogsten, Ned Keller, Randy Lakes, Diana and John Malas, Jim McCormac, Kathy McDonald, Cathy Plum, Joyce Pontius, Mike Shade and Debi Wolterman.

I would be remiss in not giving big thanks to the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. I've been going there to speak on occasion starting over 15 years ago, and it didn't take me long to ponder a similar event in Ohio. The Millersville conference is approaching its third decade, and is large, well run, and superb about promoting the importance of native flora - before many people were. Our original Midwest Native Plant Conference committee initially convened about 12 years ago, pulled off our first event the following year and the rest is history. An original committee member is Kathy McDonald and she has operated as our conference CEO ever since. She's the glue that binds the large complex event together.

A staple of the conference is vendors of native flora. The lane in front of Bergamo Center is lined with sophisticated sellers of natives, and attendees can find plenty of cool plants including species quite hard to find. On Saturday, we open the sale to the general public to further our reach and the sales of vendors' wares.

A big part of the conference agenda is field trips. We do nocturnal forays on Friday and Saturday nights, right on the grounds of Mount St. John. There are also diurnal excursions on all three days of the conference. Brother Don Geiger got this ball rolling decades ago when he started experimenting with native plants on the 150-acre grounds. Today the fruits of Don's labors is writ large, and within a short distance of the conference facility we can find all manner of interesting flora and fauna.

This is a last instar caterpillar of the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, noshing on one of its host plants, wild senna, Senna hebecarpa. It will become a big lemony butterfly with a tinge of green, and we find them here every year.

On Friday's nighttime field trip, we inspected a large path of Culver's-root, Veronicastrum virginicum, and were pleased to see the spires of luminescent white flowers covered with moths. Many moths are nectar-seekers and pollinators - we just don't notice them as much as we do their more conspicuous counterparts the butterflies. This stunner is a zebra conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis. Several were on these plants.

On Sunday, we conclude the conference with field trips to farther-flung places: prairies, fens, woodlands, home gardens and other interesting haunts. It's all a great time, and we'd love to have you there in 2020. Some very special speakers will be in the house for that one.

Go to the conference homepage, RIGHT HERE, and sign up for email bulletins. This is the quickest way to learn about news and events (we usually have one or two other mini-conferences annually), and most importantly to receive notification as soon as conference registration opens.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Merlins' appearance is rare treat for Ohio birders

Merlin nest with two chicks (one visible here) in Upper Arlington/Jim McCormac

July 21, 2019

Jim McCormac

Avid birder Leslie Sours was gardening in her Upper Arlington yard on a fine day in April when she was startled by a bullet-like bird whooshing over. Its emphatic yipping calls drew her eyes skyward before the bird appeared.

A merlin! These small but powerful falcons are uncommon in Ohio, with most observations during spring and fall migration. Small numbers spend the winter months in large cemeteries, where mature scattered trees mimic the savannas and open woodlands favored by this species.

Sours was surprised when a second bird joined the first. A male and female, and at a time when any wintering merlins should have departed. The birds’ fidelity to the neighborhood, and behavioral cues, suggested potential breeding.

The hunt for the nest was on, and Sours soon found it. High in the boughs of a nearby Norway spruce was an old crow’s nest, and the falcons had appropriated the flimsy stick nest.

It wasn’t long before the female merlin was spending most of her time hunkered on the nest, incubating eggs. About a month later, Sours spotted tiny white fuzzballs peeking over the nest’s rim — the merlins had spawned a pair of offspring.

Merlin chicks grow like weeds, stoked on a steady diet of songbirds. When mature, they’ll weigh about 6½ ounces, and be 10 inches long with a two-foot wing span. By the time that I visited on July 1, the young birds were near adult-sized and clambering about the nest and venturing onto nearby limbs. While we watched, the adult female rocketed in with a small bird — possibly a house sparrow — as food for the begging chicks.

By now, the young merlins are free-flying and learning the complex aerobatics involved with successfully pursuing and taking down lesser birds in flight. A merlin is a winged terror to the songbird crowd. Feeding almost exclusively on birds, a hunting merlin spots its victim from afar and swoops in with jaw-dropping speed. Like a feathered air-to-air missile, it strikes its quarry with great force. The impact produces an eruption of feathers and the impact trauma alone may kill the prey. If not, a quick bite to the neck vertebrae will.

Songbird enthusiasts might be horrified by the merlins’ dietary preferences but that’s nature, which is seldom Disneyesque. Merlins are the pinnacle of avian hunting prowess and they’ve been plying their trade for far longer than humans have been around. Outdoor cats and car strikes are a much greater threat to songbirds than are natural predators.

The overall number of wintering merlins has steadily increased in Ohio, as has the overall population that lies north and west of us. A locally famous wintering merlin spot is Union Cemetery off Olentangy River Road — less than two miles from Sours’ home. It would be interesting to know whether those birds — which include both sexes — are the Upper Arlington colonizers.

Up until the early 1900s, there might have been a small merlin breeding population in extreme northeast Ohio, but evidence is scanty. The first confirmed nesting was in 2009, when adults were seen feeding dependent but free-flying chicks in Lake County. The following year, a nest was found in a Mount Vernon neighborhood reminiscent of the Upper Arlington birds’ haunts.

Sours’ discovery marks the third documented Ohio merlin nesting and the best chance to document the entire event. Because of the nest’s visibility, Sours has been able to share the birds with many of the neighbors via spotting scope. Everyone is fascinated with the spunky little falcons, and seems honored to have them as neighbors.

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

Crayfish species known as mudbugs excel at tunneling

Roger Thoma with a little brown mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, a species named for him/Jim McCormac Columbus Dispatch August 18, 201...