Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nature: Show-off herons shine in national park

A juvenile least bittern in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

September 17, 2017

Jim McCormac

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 51 square miles preserves a treasure trove of biological diversity. Ohio’s only national park, it occupies the state’s most populous region and is bookended by Akron and Cleveland.

Although waterfalls, forests, rock formations, streams and other scenic items of interest lure visitors, it was one of the world’s smallest herons that drew me to the park a few weeks back.

For most of the summer, an uncharacteristically conspicuous pair of least bitterns put on a show along a boardwalk that bisects a lush marsh. As an Ohio breeding bird, this one is especially noteworthy. The least bittern is listed as threatened by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and nesting locales are few and far between.

The least bittern is a true elfin in a family of typically robust birds. One of these diminutive waders is about the size and weight of a blue jay. For comparison, its much-better-known relative, the great blue heron, has a wingspan over four times longer than the bittern’s 17-inch set of flappers. The larger heron is nearly four times as long and weighs 30 times more than the bittern’s paltry 80 grams.

Size doesn’t dictate beauty, though, and the least bittern is exquisite. The bird’s feathers are a palette of rich chestnut, tan and cream. Greenish-yellow skin forms goggles around the eyes, and a stiletto-like bill fronts the face. Perhaps most amazing are the little bird’s big feet. They are disproportionately huge, the greatly elongated toes useful in tightly clutching the stalks of aquatic plants.

One reason the Cuyahoga Valley birds caused such a stir was the ease of seeing them. I’ve seen a fair number of least bitterns over the years, but I’ve heard far more. They frequent the densest stands of cattails and other wetland plants, and are often impossible to see. Only the curious cuckoo-like murmurings of the herons give them away.

My experience was typical of most visiting birders. Shortly after my early-morning arrival, one of the bitterns was spotted lurking at the edge of some cattails. Before long, another bird joined it. For the rest of the morning, great views were freely had.

Better yet, the extroverts were two juveniles — especially good news, as nesting was obviously successful. The adult birds called regularly from the cattails, but they did not show themselves during my visit.

It was a rare experience to observe the bitterns clambering about vertical cattail stems, stabbing at small fish and frogs with their daggerlike bills. At one point, a bird popped out in the open on some spatterdock lilies, enabling me to take the accompanying photo.

We have not been good stewards of wetlands, and least bitterns and many other species have suffered accordingly. These tiny herons were once common in Ohio wetlands, but they have declined tremendously. For instance, famed ornithologist Milton Trautman recorded nearly 100 pairs nesting most years around Buckeye Lake in the 1920s and ’30s. Today, there are none.

It is fortunate that we’ve set aside natural areas such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park to protect some of our biodiversity.


Jim McCormac will present "A Romp through Ohio's Flora and Fauna," with photos, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The presentation is free, and no reservations are required.

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 11, 2017

Sunflower field, various photographic perspectives

Scads of Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brighten a large field just north of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Every fall I see people posting photos of this field, which is owned and planted by the Tecumseh Land Trust, or other such fields. And every year, I fail to make it over to this or any other sunflower field.

Until today.

I met fellow photographer Debbie DiCarlo at the Tecumseh Land Trust field at the crack of dawn, and set about creating images of the golden masses of sunflowers. This species normally towers to epic Jack-in-the-beanstalk proportions, often ten feet or more in height. They must have a stubby cultivar now, as these plants rose to only 4-5 feet or so, making the creation of images much easier.

Anyway, Debbie and I are thinking of partnering to conduct some photographic workshops and trips next year, and ostensibly met today to discuss those. But the sunflower field ended up occupying about three hours of time, and it was worth every minute. Anyway, more on the photo workshops in the future, but they'll all feature very interesting subject matter and locations, and it'll be a pleasure to work with Debbie as she's a fabulous photographer. Check her out HERE.

While shooting traditional shots of the sunflowers was obligatory, and I did so, my main goal was to try WEIRD STUFF. Read on...

Zoom lenses are great tools for creating photographic weirdness, and I spent much of my time experimenting with two Canon lenses: the 16-35mm f/4, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. By using long exposures and twisting the zoom while the shutter is open, one can create some cool (at least to me) blurred distortion shots.

This one was done by using a long exposure and moving the camera horizontally on its tripod mount while the shutter was open. In order to achieve long exposures in fairly bright conditions, I used a three-stop polarizing filter, and a ten-stop filter. The latter is a "black glass" filter that is so dark that you must focus the camera prior to mounting it, as the camera cannot focus through it. That filter allowed me to get up to a 30 second exposure, depending on my aperture and ISO settings.

Another "explosion blur" using the 16-35 lens and zooming from 16mm to 35mm with the shutter open.

This one was made with the 70-200mm, using an eight second shutter speed at f/4 (with the ten-stop filter), and zooming completely in and out multiple times during the exposure.

While this style of imagery may not be everyone's cup of tea, it does allow for an alternative presentation of a landscape that everyone is generally shooting about the same same way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Nature: Known for fur, minks are voracious predators

An American mink in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park

September 3, 2017

Jim McCormac

The American Fur Co. was founded in 1808, and for a brief time in the 1830s, it was one of America’s largest companies. Its success made its founder, John Jacob Astor, the first multimillionaire in the United States.

Although demand for beaver pelts drove much of the American Fur Co.’s business, other mammals were vital to its success, especially the American mink. As the easier-to-trap beaver became increasingly rare, the mink became more important to trappers.

Between 1820 and 1900, the American Fur Co., Hudson’s Bay Co. and other fur purveyors sold about 12.5 million mink pelts.

Fortunately, these large weasels survived the days of indiscriminate trapping and are common today. But they are often wary, largely nocturnal and usually difficult to observe in the wild.

I recently visited Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park to photograph birds, arriving around dawn. I was not long into a grassy trail that weaved through a marsh when who should come bounding down the path? A mink!

Like a semi-psychotic mammalian Slinky, the mink romped along the trail, moving rapidly in exaggerated, undulating bounds.

When it got within 20 feet of my position, the hunter finally noticed me and careened into the cattails, but not before I took a series of photos in the dim light.

Mink belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels and otters. Of Ohio’s regularly occurring mustelids, only the river otter is larger. A big male mink — males are 15 to 20 percent larger than females — can measure 2 1/2 feet from nose to tail tip. It might weigh nearly 3 pounds.

While a 3-pound mammal might not seem like much, in the case of the mink, it’s Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun rolled into a well-furred, tubular package. Just ask a muskrat. Even though these aquatic rodents can significantly outweigh a mink, they often fall prey to the voracious predators.

Streams and wetlands are the bailiwicks of mink. The animals play an important role in the food chain, taking fish, amphibians, small mammals, birds and other such fare. Would-be victims are in a tough spot if they land in the sights of a hungry mink, which has speed and the ability to swim and even climb trees.

Few predators will attempt to take a mink, although coyotes and great horned owls might try.

A mink that finds itself among prey aplenty adopts a kill-and-cache strategy. It’ll dispatch everything it can and attempt to hide the uneaten victims. On occasion, the owner of a poorly secured chicken coop learns about mink killing frenzies.

Come early spring, minks become amorous. As befits such a savage animal, the mating process is not lovey-dovey. The male seizes the female, pins her and often bites her neck and head. After she’s survived that rough romance, she’ll deliver four or five pups in an underground burrow.

Humans who act like minks are likely to be institutionalized, and good thing. But we have nothing to fear from these fascinating beasts, although we can be grateful they’re not the size of bears.

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Caterpillar season is upon us!

Well, caterpillar season is really year 'round, but in terms of mature specimens and conspicuousness, late summer and fall are best. I've been afield a lot of late, and have been seeing plenty of the tubular crowd. The following pictorial display is of specimens that I've seen and photographed in the past week, mostly in southern Ohio's Adams and Scioto counties. The variation in caterpillars is mind-blowing, as is their appearances.

FINDING CATERPILLARS: When I share photos such as these on social media, someone(s) will invariably ask how to find caterpillars. Because, for the most part - even though there are probably well over 2,000 species in Ohio - they are out of sight and out of mind. The biggest thing one must do is venture out after dark. Most caterpillars become active under cover of darkness; an evolutionary response to bird predators and various predatory insects that are mostly diurnal, no doubt. During the day, most caterpillars secrete themselves exceptionally well, and are much more difficult to locate. Searching the undersides of leaves should yield results, and a good flashlight is essential. Best of all are UV blacklight flashlights, as many caterpillars glow brightly under such beams. A good knowledge of botany is hugely helpful, as many species are keyed to certain plants. Some plant groups, such as grapes and oaks, are major search sites for caterpillar-hunters, as they often yield fabulous cats. Best of all is getting afield with experienced searchers. I've taken out people who have never caterpillar-hunted many times, and it's always fun to see their reactions as various fantastic bags of goo come to light.

A fabulous leaf-edge mimic, the Checker-fringe Prominent, Schizura ipomoea. They feed on tree species with jagged leaf margins, and the back of the caterpillar matches the shape of the leaf quite convincingly. I see these feeding boldly during the day on occasion; apparently their disguise is so effective that birds often overlook them. The scientific name's specific epithet, ipomoea, is an apparent misnomer. It refers to a genus in the morning-glory family, a group of plants this caterpillar was apparently erroneously recorded as feeding upon, but probably never does.

"... slug caterpillars seem more fantasy than reality." From David Wagner's epic Caterpillars of Eastern North America book (2005). This, by the way, is the book to get should you want to learn more about caterpillars.

This extraordinary beast is a Nason's Slug Moth caterpillar, Natada nasoni. Virtually all of the slugs cats, a few more of which appear below, are exceptional in appearance. The rather distasteful name for these beautiful creatures stems from the caterpillars, and their peculiar gliding mode of locomotion.

A Luna moth caterpillar, Actias luna, appears to glow from within. Unlike the tiny slug cats, this one is a thumb-sized whopper and often stands out from afar under a UV light. We frequently find them on black walnut, but Luna cats will eat a variety of woody plant foliage. The adult moth is one of the most beautiful and widely recognized of our North American moths.

Rather alien in appearance is this Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus, larva. They're most easily found on black locust but feed upon other members of the pea family including hog-peanut, which is what I found this one snacking on.

Another fantastic slug cat, this one the Black-waved Flannel Moth caterpillar, Megalopyge crispata. It resembles a turtle covered in brown shag carpeting, or perhaps Donald Trump's hair. Caterpillars grow through molts, and often look very different at different growth stages. The stages - termed instars - preceding this one look utterly different. The caterpillar above is in its final instar, but earlier ones are white with exceptionally long hairs - like ill-kempt cottonballs. Look, but don't touch - this species is beset with stinging spines capable of delivering painful stings.

A bizarre Camouflaged Looper, Synchlora aerata, feeds upon the flowers of stiff goldenrod. These flower-specialist inchworms adorn their bodies with flower parts of whatever it is that they're eating. Those are goldenrod flower petals projecting from its body. The moth it will become goes by a different name, the Wavy-lined Emerald.

One of our more bizarre larva is the Red-washed Prominent, Oligocentria semirufescens. That's the head at the left, overarched by a strange rhinoceros-like horn. When this beast is eating leaves dappled with browning necrotic tissue, it can blend in amazingly well. I believe it was sharp-eyed Laura Hughes who spotted this one on an Adams County foray, and I'm glad she did - it's only about the third one I've seen.

PHOTO NOTE: I shot this image in the field, as with all the others in this post. The interesting blue background is someone's shirt. The quality - mainly color and blur - of a photo's background is known as the bokeh. Creating an effective bokeh that complements the subject is vital, and the photographer should pay great attention to what's in the background. Bokeh can be artificial, too, by having someone stand behind the subject as in this image, or by holding colored pieces of paper in the backdrop, or leaves or other natural material. Often highly effective are black backgrounds. This look is achieved with flash, and by ensuring there are no objects within five or so feet behind the subject. Then, at least in many situations, the flash causes the background to go black.

This one looks like it came right off a coral reef in a tropical sea. It's the Stinging Rose Caterpillar, Parasa indetermina. Like many caterpillar species, they have boom and bust years, but can be fairly easy to find in seasons of plenty. They'll feed on a wide variety of woody plant foliage.

PHOTO NOTE II: Good general camera settings when shooting caterpillars are f/11 to f/16, ISO 100 to 200, and shutter speed of 1/200. Flash is mostly essential, and flash units that mount atop the camera on the hotshoe will probably always beat the built-in flash. I shoot Canon cameras, and have two types of flashes, both of which excel for caterpillars and other macro subjects. One is the Canon 600 II Speedlite, the other the Canon MT-24EX Twinlite.

Finally, another amazing slug cat, this one the White Flannel Moth caterpillar, Norape ovina. It looks like a jeweler studded the little beast with emeralds. Like the other species in this post, this one is at least fairly common in many areas, and is often easily found during nocturnal searches.

So, if chance permits, get afield under cover of darkness and inspect the leaves. You never know what might come to light!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Least Bittern

A richly vegetated marsh in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, home to a celebrity avian family in weeks past. I apologize for the rather poor photo above, but this is what one gets when shooting landscapes in harsh midday sun without a filter. I meant to shoot some lay of the land images upon first arrival not long after dawn, but became engaged with shooting birds right off the bat.

For weeks, reports had been circulating of an especially cooperative clan of Least Bitterns in this place. North America's smallest heron is not an especially easy bird to find in these parts - listed as threatened in Ohio - and even less easy to photograph, at least well. Being a fan of herons in general and Least Bitterns in particular, I finally made the pilgrimage on August 21.

It didn't take long to find the birds. A pair of adults successfully raised four (so reported, I only saw two) offspring. At the risk of redundancy, the little leasts were quite talkative, and their coocooish murmurings drew the assembled birders' attention to them. Here, one of the juveniles peeks from a nearly impenetrable wall of cattails. This is often how one sees these little waders - peering from a dense mass of vegetation. Note its exceptionally large feet, the better to adeptly clamber around on plant stems.

A Least Bittern is comparable to a Blue Jay in weight, and it's not much larger in dimensions. It would take about nine of them to equal the mass of its bigger brother, the American Bittern. Even more would be required to match the weight of a Great Blue Heron - 30 to be nearly exact.

This photo illustrates why Least Bitterns can be devilishly hard to see. They are prone to skulking in thick cattail stands like this. Often the only evidence of their presence is their vocalizations, some of which sound much like a cuckoo. Even if I had only seen the birds as presented in these first photos, I would have been pleased. But the juveniles, having not yet learned to hide themselves, were prone to coming right out in the open. I never did see an adult, though, although I'm told they too on occasion show nicely.

After a bit, one of the young birds fluttered out of the cattails and into the much more open spaces of the spatterdock-dominated part of the marsh. Some wispy down feathers can still be seen jutting from the bird's crown. This one put on quite a show for those of us in attendance, and offered wonderful photo opportunities.

As this bittern matures, it will probably become less obliging of its human admirers. Least Bitterns habitually forage along the edge of dense emergent marsh vegetation, as in the first two photos of the bird. In such haunts, they are often partly concealed and if disturbed can instantly melt away into the vegetation. To see one out in the open, posing on a lily pad, was quite a treat.

This beautiful elfin heron was probably quite common in Ohio's marshes in days of yore. Since European settlement, about 90% of Ohio's wetlands have been lost to agriculture and other forms of development, a trend typical throughout Midwestern America's breadbasket. The bittern and many other marsh birds have declined accordingly, and now seeing Least Bitterns around here is a big deal and an exceptional treat.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Photo Workshop - Lake Erie, September 20-22

Once again, award-winning photographer David FitzSimmons and I will be teaching a multi-day photography workshop along the shores of Lake Erie, at one of the showiest times of year. We'll be based at Lakeside, a quaint village on the Marblehead Peninsula. There's plenty of subject matter right outside the door, but we'll travel to local hotspots for birds, sunsets, sunrises, lighthouses, scenery, rare plants including the fringed gentian, and much more. It'll be a great hands-on immersion in a variety of photographic techniques, interspersed with some indoors lectures. All skill levels are welcome!

There's still some spaces, and if you register by September 1, there's a $30.00 discount. For all of the details and registration, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The amazing Green Heron

An adult Green Heron stands on a boardwalk railing at a marsh in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, yesterday. He flew in and landed about 20 feet away from where I was standing.

Maybe it's just good luck, but I seem to have seen many more Green Herons this summer than usual. Just about everywhere I go, there they are. I'm not complaining, these pint-sized waders punch way over their weight in terms of beauty and interest.

This is the same bird as in the previous photo, but in much better light and far more natural habitat. In the preceding shot, the light was terrible - here, the sunlight is coming over my shoulder during the golden glow of early morning. Thanks to the heron for being so cooperative.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been captivated by Green Herons, even when they were known by the overly hyphenated name of Green-backed Heron. Not only are they showy, but their behavior is interesting. Like many herons, this species is slow and methodical, patiently stalking small aquatic prey with movements so slow and measured that the animal virtually oozes closer to its victim millimeter by millimeter.

A juvenile Green Heron admires the view from high on a cattail stalk.

Not only are these herons adept hunters, they take hunting to a new level among their ilk. This is one of relatively few birds that is known to employ "lures" for fishing. Sometimes a Green Heron will seize a feather or some other object, and toss it in the water within striking range. If a small fish swims up to investigate, the heron strikes.

An adult Green Heron wings by my hiding spot in a marsh at Battelle Darby Metropark last Sunday. The molt pattern can be well seen on its wing feathering, with older brownish feathers being replaced by newer greener feathers.

In flight, Green Herons suggest the appearance of a crow, but have a distinctive deep and regular wingbeat that allows them to be identified nearly as far as they can be seen. When flushed, a bird often lets loose with a loud, piercing SKEOW! call that can't be missed. It often expels a prodigious white stream of guano, too - the latter habit leading to one of its many nicknames, "chalk-line".

I shot this Green Heron yesterday as it hunted from a log in a swamp. The birds at this site in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park are quite habituated to people and easy to approach. This bird was fixated on a frog, tadpole, or some other small creature and was ever so SLOWLY moving its bill towards the quarry.

PHOTO TIP: For a minute or so, the heron in the shot above froze motionless in this position. I was shooting with a tripod-mounted telephoto lens from only about 25 feet away. When I saw that the bird was remaining stock still, I switched to live view (scene displayed on the viewfinder on the back of the camera). This mode locks the internal mirror up, so when a shot is taken there will be no "mirror slap". Slight as that mirror movement may be, it can cause a bit of shake that might manifest itself at slow shutter speeds. I then flipped the camera's drive mode to 2-second timer delay, in order to eliminate any movement caused by me handling the camera to trip the shutter. Even though the heron's haunts were very dim and shady, this allowed me to stop down to f/8 for better depth of field, and use a relatively slow 1/100 shutter speed while still keeping the ISO to 640. In hindsight, I probably should have slowed the shutter speed even more to bring the ISO down further, but the Canon 5D IV handles higher ISO settings well, and I usually don't worry much until the ISO creeps north of 800. Also, the 5D IV has a touch-activated rear viewing screen, which is worth its weight in gold when making shots like this. All I need do is frame the subject, then touch the part of the screen where I want the camera to focus, then hit the focus button ( back * button on my setup; half-tap of the shutter button for most). This sort of touch-sensitive back screen will become commonplace on digital cameras before long.

A Green Heron strikes! I made this shot back in July at Lake Logan in Hocking County. It's amazing how far these birds can extend themselves when they lunge. It doesn't seem possible that this bird could pull itself back up after this, but it did, effortlessly.

I feel fortunate to have spent much quality time this year with Green Herons.