Monday, July 15, 2019

Mothapalooza 2019

The sixth Mothapalooza is in the books and it was a smashing good time! Thanks to all of the organizers and volunteers, of which there are too many to name. I'll single one out: Mary Ann Barnett, who acts as conference CEO and is the glue that holds the whole complicated affair together.

Mothapalooza was hatched in an Adams County, Ohio roadside ditch some years ago, where a few of us saw a really cool moth (can't even remember what it was). I remarked something to the effect of "if we could show this to everyone, they'd all become moth fans". Now we have Mothapalooza as a vehicle to help do just that.

The first four conferences were annual, but the rigors of orchestrating such a large complex affair with a completely volunteer crew took its toll and we've backed off to an every other year strategy. As all but one Mothapaloozas have been, this year's event was based at Shawnee State Park and its lodge in the thick of the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest. Native plant diversity is staggering, and thus so is moth diversity. Couldn't be a better place to host this affair, at least in this neck of the woods.

To our initial great surprise, all Mothapaloozas have filled to a capacity crowd and quite rapidly after the opening of registration. This year, counting everyone involved, we had just north of 200 participants representing 20 states and one other country, Canada. As an important aside, Mothapalooza has generated several hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue for our hosting venues and in ancillary local expenditures. Mothing ecotourism writ large.

Field trips are strange, with 10 pm departures and many participants not returning to the lodge until 3 or 4 am. Mothing sheets are scattered throughout the hinterlands of the vast dark forest, with one or two in the biological riches of adjacent Adams County. We are fortunate to be able to attract the best of the best in terms of entomological experts and biologists, and the opportunities for learning are vast. We're recalibrating how we approach these nocturnal forays in the future, and think some excellent improvements will be coming that will make it even easier for everyone, and result in yet more moths (and caterpillars!).

The next Mothapalooza will take place in 2021, dates to be decided. We'll have it sorted out soon, and the venue should once again be at Shawnee.

For now, here's a few photos from Mothapalooza 2019. I've got scads, and am nowhere near getting through all of them, so I may post additional stuff later.

Samantha Marcone of Sam Jaffe's Caterpillar Lab provides scale to an enormous female black witch, Ascalapha odorata. This tropical stray to these latitudes turned up last Friday over the front door of Don Tumblin's daughter's house in Columbus. Her husband Matt spotted it, Lacey texted Don, who was at Mothapalooza, and Lacey chauffeured the giant moth down to Mothapalooza the next day. Thus, a few hundred people got their first look at this fantastic moth. Such a cool entanglement of circumstances, and better yet the moth dropped 75 eggs in its cage on the way down. Sam has them and will attempt to farm a crop of black witches and document the complete life cycle. The moth was later released to venture wherever it may.

We have diurnal field trips as well (not starting too early!), and hot weather and sunny skies produced scads of butterflies this year. Red-spotted purples, Limenitis arthemis, were quite common and wowed everyone with their extraordinary showiness.

A botanical treat was a huge sprawling mass of leather-flower, Clematis viorna. Scads of the interesting flowers adorned the vines, and this site turned out to be a major biological hotspot. Indeed, our Saturday field trip began here and we never made it anywhere else. The stroll along this sparsely traveled lane produced blizzards of interesting STUFF, from this plant to zebra swallowtail caterpillars to gnat-ogres to yellow-billed cuckoo and much more.

A saddleback caterpillar moth, Acharea stimulea, stares menacingly at the photographer. Its larval form is stunning, looking like a little tubular pony draped with a Day-Glo green horse blanket. The moth is incredibly spider-like from certain angles. This one was one of many that appeared at the moth sheets.

A white flannel moth, Norape ovina, seemingly having a bad hair day. Moths are a photographer's dream, and the subjects warrant attention from all angles.

A quite interesting little fellow, this one. It is a tiny moth in the genus Calioptilia, and perhaps part of a complex in which there are species awaiting description. No one could pin a name to this one. It's only about 5-6mm in length. Calioptilia (cal-ee-op-tee-lee-ah) moths are sometimes called "push-up moths". 

More to follow...

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nature: New book quite handy for hiking in Hocking Hills

July 7, 2019

Jim McCormac

In Ohio, only Lake Erie, our inland sea and northern border, drives more tourism than the comparatively tiny Hocking Hills region. The core of the Hocking Hills is Hocking County. About 3 million visitors flock to the region each year to marvel at the incredible rock formations, cool hemlock gorges and impressive waterfalls.

The undisputed centerpiece of the Hocking Hills is Hocking Hills State Park and the popular Old Man’s Cave. This site and nearby Ash Cave and Cedar Falls are magnets for those seeking to commune with nature in perhaps the showiest scenery in the Buckeye State.

There is much more to the Hocking Hills, which extends into Hocking County’s neighboring counties. Many people might not be aware of all its hidden gems.

So I was pleased to recently receive a wonderful little guide, “Hocking Hills Day Hikes.” Author Mary Reed is a veteran hiker who is intimately familiar with the trails of the Hocking Hills, and she succinctly and clearly outlines 25 day hikes.

The book is elfin in dimension at roughly 4 by 7 inches, and for good reason. It slips neatly into your back pocket, and it will prove much more useful than your cellphone when out on the trail — especially when there is no cell service, as can be the case in this area.

A short but useful introduction covers most details that visitors would want to know, especially first-timers. As Reed notes, all of our state parks, forests, preserves, etc., have no entrance fees; Ohio is one of the few states that doesn’t charge for access. The only exception in the book is the privately owned Butterfly Ridge Conservation Center in Rockbridge. Entry to this 21-acre site is $5, and it’s well worth the five-spot for the lepidopteran education. Sixty butterfly species have been recorded along the preserve’s mile-long trail.

Each site account in the book begins with basics: trail length(s), contact information, hours, dogs (yes/no), and facilities such as picnic areas, restrooms and visitor’s centers.

The meat of the book includes directions to each site, detailed on-the-ground trail directions and descriptions of interesting flora and fauna that might be encountered. A black-and-white photo of some particularly interesting aspect of the site heads the account, and a clear trail map fills one page. With this book in hand, no hiker should get lost.

My favorite section of the site accounts is the “Trail Description.” Reed includes plenty of fascinating information here, such as why Old Man’s Cave was so-named, or how Ash Cave got its moniker. In some cases she mentions the bounty of wildflowers to be seen, or the aural soundscape of pigeons gone feral and living high on wild cliffs and in the rock houses.

I highly recommend this small but info-rich book. For the price of half a tank of gas, you will have an invaluable guide to some of the best day hikes in the Midwest.

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

Saturday, July 6, 2019

An amazing little robber fly!

I pay more than a fair share of attention to "bugs". Insects make the world go 'round, I've become convinced. Not only are they ecologically indispensable, their diversity and interesting habits are endless. Many - most? - are also beautiful in their own way, some extraordinarily so.

Such is the case with this tiny robber fly, known only by its scientific moniker, Taracticus octopunctatus. At only 7mm or so in length, it's an easy one to pass by. I'm glad I noticed it, as T. octopunctatus has amazing eyes, and could be dubbed the "fiery-eyed robber fly". I encountered it along the edge of a dry oak-hickory woodland in southeastern Ohio's Fairfield County on July 4, 2019.

Once I locked the animal into the sights of my macro lens, I saw the stunning eye coloration and set about working the fly. Alas, it did not give me too many chances before darting off to points unknown. This was my first acquaintance with this species. It may be common for all I know, although I do tend to pay special heed to robber flies.

I'll certainly be on the lookout for Taracticus octopunculatus in the future.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Nature: Dragonfly rarities pop up in survey

A young male Paiute dancer (Argia alberta) at Cedar Bog/Jim McCormac

June 30, 2019

Jim McCormac

The Ohio Dragonfly Survey, which began in 2017, is in its third and final season of field work, and mountains of records have been contributed by scores of volunteers. More than 43,000 individual observations have been submitted by about 1,100 contributors.

So far, about 165 odonata (dragonfly and damselfly) species have been documented in the state. Most are common, at least regionally, and make up the bulk of records. The top five most frequent species are eastern pondhawk, eastern forktail, blue dasher, fragile forktail and common whitetail.

Those damsels and dragons are low-hanging fruit. Important to document, but easy to find. However, it’s the rarities that really get dragon hunters pumped. Some utterly unexpected species have turned up during the survey.

I crossed paths with one of these new Ohio odonates recently at Cedar Bog near Urbana in Champaign County. Last year, uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon found Ohio’s first record of Paiute dancer (a damselfly) in a Clark County fen. He went on to document more dancers at Cedar Bog, and Sarah White located a Greene County population.

The beautiful Paiute dancer resembles a few species common here. Lemon, who has contributed nearly 7,000 observations to the dragonfly survey so far, went back through his old photos. He unearthed Paiute dancer images from Cedar Bog dating to 2014, mislabeled as common look-alike species. Many of the state’s dragonfly experts had apparently passed them by for at least several years at the heavily studied Cedar Bog.

That this insect would occur here was a shock. There is only one other small population west of the Mississippi River, in central Indiana. One must travel 500 miles to Missouri before Paiute dancers become reasonably common. The core of the range is much farther west yet: the Great Basin region of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.

Although we can’t be sure of how long the Paiute dancer has occupied Ohio, there are other, more clear-cut recent range expansions. Lemon also discovered our first jade clubtails last year in Auglaize and Shelby counties. A species of the Great Plains, the Ohio population is the easternmost record.

Lemon also found Ohio’s first swift setwing in 2014 in Champaign County, and he and others have located populations in eight additional counties since. This distinctive, conspicuous dragonfly’s main range is the southern one-third of the U.S. south into Central America.

Survey coordinator MaLisa Spring located double-ringed pennants this year in Jackson County in southern Ohio. No one anticipated this discovery; this beautiful dragonfly normally occurs well south of Ohio.

Nina Harfmann found the little blue dragonlet this year in Jackson County. No one had seen one in the state since 1933, the only prior record. It, too, is a species of the far south.

Several damsels and dragons have staged massive immigrations into Ohio in the past few years, all southern species. They include blue-faced meadowhawk, great blue skimmer, lilypad forktail and slaty skimmer.

Dragonflies are powerful aerialists capable of quickly expanding ranges when favorable changes open new opportunities. In 2001, dragonfly expert Dr. Dennis Paulson published a paper titled “Recent Odonata Records from Southern Florida — Effects of Global Warming?” Perhaps we could ask Paulson’s question here, now.

For more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, visit or contact Spring at

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, June 28, 2019

Some dragons of late

A blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, adopts the obelisking posture. On hot days, as this one was, a perched dragonfly will often point its abdomen directly at the sun. By doing so, it minimizes heat absorption by exposing less of its body to direct sunlight. Obelisking dragonflies make for great photographic subjects.

I have been doing my level best this field season to focus on surveying for dragonflies. It's the final year of the three-year Ohio Dragonfly Survey, and our last crack at fleshing out the distribution and status of Ohio's Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies). If you photograph these insects in Ohio, we'd love to have your records and they're very easy to submit. CLICK HERE for instructions.

A Carolina saddlebags, Tramea carolina, moors to an old plant stalk. It's been a good year for these.

I had the good fortune of making a recent foray into various west-central Ohio haunts with uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon. He's submitted over 7,000 records to the Ohio Dragonfly Survey to date, a remarkably prolific effort and far beyond anyone else. This was one of the special species Jim showed me, a jade clubtail, Arigomphus submedianus. Lemon discovered it along the shore of Lake Loramie in Auglaize and Shelby counties last year. It was a new Ohio record, one of a number of state firsts for him.

Jade clubtail's core range is the Great Plains states, well to the west of Ohio. The habitat where Jim found this species is utterly common - shorelines of a large lake, often armored with riprap or with only a fringe of unmowed vegetation. It would seem likely that these showy clubtails inhabit other Ohio lakes, especially in the western part of the state, but no one has yet found others.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An odd perspective on a slender spreadwing, Lestes rectangularis. This group of damselflies is noted for the wide separation between the eyes, as can clearly be seen here. The animal is perched on the stem of a rush, and was cooperative enough to allow me to sneak into position to make this shot.

Another slender spreadwing, this one carrying a complement of water mites. Such parasitism is very common in damselflies, with the larval mites appearing as tiny reddish-orange bumps on the abdomen, usually towards the base. Apparently newly hatched mites first invade the aquatic larvae of damselflies, and when a larva leaves the water and emerges from its larval case, the mites jump to the teneral (newly emergent) damselfly. Later, when the damselfly enters or nears water to mate or lay eggs, the mites hop into the water where they live out the rest of their life cycle. While the larval water mites do siphon body fluids from the damselfly host via feeding tubes, I don't believe they normally do much harm to the host.

A sphagnum sprite, Nehalennia gracilis, one of our smallest (the smallest?) damsels. They're less than an inch long, and very easily overlooked. Jim also showed me a population of these enchanting little bugs, at a beautiful fen. Sure enough, the small zone supporting these sprites was rich in sphagnum moss. Perhaps the sprites oviposit into the sphagnum and the nymphs then inhabit it, but I'm not sure about this.

Finally, a very common species, and one of our largest and showiest, the twelve-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella (pulchella means, essentially, beautiful or pretty). One perk of participating in this survey is the numerous opportunities to photograph these gorgeous insects. Not only that, but highly predacious dragonflies are fascinating to observe. Their powers of flight are often astonishing, and the pursuit of "dragonflying" reminds me of birding in many ways.

Again, for more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, GO HERE.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Barn swallows in golden light

As always, click the photo to enlarge

I'm fortunate to have an accessible and pretty wildlife-friendly farm in close range. I'm free to enter, and practice photography. This is especially nice when time is tight, or I see that the late day light is going to be stunning, as it was tonight.

I only had about a half-hour tonight, but the golden light was pristine and a couple of barn swallows provided irresistible targets, so I spent my time with them. A gorgeous adult is above. Barn swallows nest in good numbers in the barns and outbuildings of this farm, and the manager is bird-friendly. Lots of swallows are produced here. Recently I made a post, HERE, about trying to capture these birds on the wing. That's MUCH harder to do than shooting the swallows at rest on a fence.

A recently fledged juvenile barn swallow flexes a wing. The youngster has a steep learning curve, learning to use its innate and superb aerobatic skills to glean insects from the air. While I imagine some of those skills are built-in, it seems to me like they keenly watch their parents and the other swallows hawking insects nearby. Observing the adults ply their trade probably helps train the youngsters.

The barn swallow is the world's most widely distributed swallow. It breeds nearly throughout North America, well into Canada and even reaching Alaska, with some nesters as far south as Mexico. Elsewhere, barn swallows breed in Iceland, throughout Eurasia, northern Africa, parts of the Middle East, and China and Japan. The North American nesters winter primarily in South America, with some individuals even reaching the Galapagos Islands.

In 1980, nearly a dozen barn swallows were discovered nesting in the Buenos Aires Province of Argentina, nearly 4,500 miles south of the nearest known nesters. These swallows, when first found, bred during the austral winter (our summer), but over time shifted their nesting phenology six months to breed during the austral summer (our winter). These birds migrate north to northern South America during the austral winter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A few interesting insects from recent days

The insect world is seemingly endlessly diverse, and always fascinating. "Bugs" make the world go around, and natural systems would collapse without them. Insects also make for great macro photography. Here's a few images from recent outings.

Ants tend the caterpillar of an Appalachian azure butterfly, Celastrina neglectamajor. Caterpillars of this species eat only the flower buds of black cohosh, Actaea racemosa. A bud cored by the caterpillar can be seen at right. The somewhat shapeless greenish-white blob of a caterpillar has its tiny brownish head to the left. Ants (species unknown to me) swarm the larva. This batallion will stay with the caterpillar, defending it from would-be insect predators. In return they are rewarded with nutritious "honey dew" secretions from the caterpillar. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Tiny Buck's plume moths, Geina bucksi, dangle from the flower of a poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. These moths, which resemble mosquitoes when in flight, are smitten with milkweed nectar. We saw hundreds of them swarming milkweed flowers on this day. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A ferocious "bumblebee" indeed! A robberfly in the genus Laphria (possibly L. thoracica) perches atop a black ash leaf. It is the consummate bumblebee mimic, and probably is often dismissed as such. When a suitable insect victim wings by, the robberfly whirs into action, overtakes and grabs the victim, and injects it with its hypodermic proboscis. The prey is quickly debilitated by neurotoxins and is taken to a perch to be consumed. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, June 12, 2019.

A female ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, pauses briefly in a dim forest understory. These dark-winged damselflies are common sights along wooded streams, and are distinctive in their fluttery flight. Seen well, they are marvels of iridescence, as shifting light brings out different colors in the animal's body and wings. Scioto Brush Creek, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A margined calligrapher, Toxomerus marginatus, taps nectar from the flower of brookweed, Samolus parviflorus. The blossom is only 3mm across, giving scale to the elfin flower fly, which is an excellent bee mimic. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

From afar, this gold-spotted ghost moth, Sthenopsis pretiosus, would be nearly invisible. It hides in plain sight, looking all the world like a bit of dead leaf. Sharp-eyed Laura Hughes spotted it. The caterpillars of this interesting moth eat ferns. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A summer azure, Celastrina neglecta (L) butts heads with a harvester, Feniseca tarquinius. The two butterflies were tapping minerals from moist gravelly ground. Each is no larger than a quarter. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A northern pearly-eye, Enodia anthedon, regards the photographer from a nearby leaf. I normally find these butterflies tough to shoot. They frequent dim forest understories, and are prone to quickly flushing and then alighting high on a tree trunk, facing downward. Not so this one. It flew right to me as if to demand its photo be taken. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A pair of six-spotted tiger beetles, Cicindela sexguttata, making more of their kind. These predatory beetles are the cheetahs of the insect world, chasing down lesser bugs with astonishing speed. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Mothapalooza 2019

The sixth Mothapalooza is in the books and it was a smashing good time! Thanks to all of the organizers and volunteers, of which there a...