Monday, July 25, 2016

Huffman Prairie, catchflys, and hummingbirds

Sunrise over Huffman Prairie, as seen last Friday. This 100(ish) acre prairie patch is located at the south end of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

Dave Nolin, recently retired Director of Conservation for Five Rivers Metroparks, sent me a few photos of the prairie last week. It looked so spectacular, just nearing peak bloom, that I couldn't wait to go see it in person. So, I took Friday off and was there before daybreak. So amazing was the place that I went back for an encore on Sunday morning. Some photos from these excursions follow.

Major kudos go to the management of the giant air force base for their support of Huffman Prairie, which sits on their property. Double kudos to Dave Nolin, who spent the better part of three decades working with the base to provide the best possible management for the prairie. All that long hard work is bearing major fruit today, as we shall see. Even though Dave has left the helm at Five Rivers Metroparks, the staff there continues with the fine work.

On the prairie's south edge sits this replica of the Wright Brother's original hangar - yes, those Wrights, Orville and Wilbur! This is the site where they researched and improved their aircraft, and where many early test flights took place. By 1910, a mere seven years after their inaugural flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they had founded the Wright Flying School at Huffman Field. Today, flying machines representing the current pinnacle of aviation routinely fly the skies over the huge air force base just north of this hangar.

In a delicious irony, Barn Swallows fill the Wright Brothers hangar with their nests instead of artificial flying machines. These feathered speedsters are incredible aeronauts, and one might argue that no manmade flying machine can rival their flight skills.

Now, I'm sure, you'll understand why I was in a hurry to get there! A sea of coneflowers, catchfly, blazing-stars and scores of other prairie plants create a fantastic palette of color.

Standing out like crimson beacons is the Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, this one embedded in a cushion of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The catchfly is a pure prairie plant, and never have I seen so much of it in one locale.

To Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Royal Catchfly is irresistible. If there are any hummers about, you can be sure that sooner than later the catchfly's brilliant blossoms will draw them over. On Friday, I guesstimated (an accurate estimate is probably impossible) that at least 100 hummingbirds were present, and likely far more than that. At times, I would see 6 or 8 birds from one spot, and that's a big prairie with scads of catchfly.

A female hummingbird dips deep into the flower's corolla, seeking nectar rewards. The catchfly has coevolved with long-billed hummingbirds. The flowers do not have stiff petals (landing pads) and thus the core of the flower is inaccessible to many insects, other than swallowtail butterflies. Furthermore, the sticky gluelike calyx (the green and white striped tube below the flower) prevents access to climbing insects. But these little feathered helicopters have no difficulty at all in dealing with catchfly flowers, and work them speedily and efficiently. The birds are probably their most important pollinators.

A camera's eye view of the prairie. I picked a prime spot with many catchfly plants in fairly close proximity, including several "signal tower" plants - catchflys that were much taller than most of the surrounding vegetation and thus great lures to feeding hummers. The flash rig atop the camera allowed me to send soft fill flash out to about 50-60 feet, giving me a good radius to work in.

Once I had my spot picked, I just stayed there. Five hours on Friday, and about four hours on Sunday. Obtaining crisp photos of feeding hummingbirds is no easy task. I find it is best to stay quietly in one spot, and let them come to me. Which they did, on a regular basis. About a dozen times, a nearby hummingbird would suddenly take notice of me and the camera, shoot about ten feet straight up in the air and move closer, and hover for a few seconds obviously checking me out. About half the time, they'd decide they didn't like the large invader and shoot off to some more distant flowers. The other times, they'd seemingly decide I was OK and drop right back down and commence feeding.

I have little problem remaining immobile for long periods when the surrounding environment is as interesting as this prairie. A Blue Grosbeak made the rounds, serenading me with its forceful finchy warble. Two local Common Yellowthroat males routinely delivered their fabulous aerial flight songs at close range. Bobolinks occasionally darted overhead, issuing their pleasing musical pink! pink! call notes. Young Eastern Cottontails nibbled on succulents just down the path. Giant Swallowtails coursed by, and one female paused nearby to deposit eggs on a wafer-ash. And on went the wildlife parade, nonstop. Plus, it was a great opportunity to observe the habits of the hummingbirds. They are easily among our most feisty animals, and if a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was the size of a swan, we'd be in serious trouble. Were they that big, I'm sure I would have been impaled and tossed aside for my transgressions into their turf. As often as not, a hummer would just have set up perfectly for a photo, when another would whir by and the fight would be on! The birds would chase one other at top speed across the prairie, sometimes shooting high into the sky. At one point, an American Robin had the temerity to attempt to wing over the prairie, and a hummingbird (outmassed by 25 times by the comparatively huge thrush) immediately launched skyward and sent it packing.

From a photography perspective, trying to capture hummingbird photos is fun and challenging. The birds are often rather unpredictable, and usually don't remain at any given flower for more than a few seconds. One must learn to be fast on the trigger and smooth and accurate in tracking the fast-moving quarry. When all goes reasonably well, photos such as this one can result. I FAR prefer shooting the birds on native wildflowers than feeders, too.

Interspersed with the typical catchfly plants were a number of specimens of this variant, a salmon-colored form. This is a decidedly rare type, and I've only seen it in a handful of spots, and always in very low numbers. One of the reasons that I picked the stakeout spot that I did was because an exceptionally large and striking salmon plant was within close distance (the plant in the photo). To capture a hummingbird nectaring at one of these flowers would be exceptional, probably the best trophy photo one could get in this place. So, I kept an exceptionally close watch for hummers moving in on the salmon catchfly.

Yes! After several hummer visits to the salmon catchfly and an equal number of missed photo opportunities, I finally managed this one image. While not technically my best effort, the photo is OK and can (and will) be improved upon later. The image above is a quick edit of the jpeg. I shot this with my Canon 5DS-R, and the RAW file of this shot is about 70 megabytes and that allows for some wonderful tweaking of imperfections.

If you get the opportunity to visit Huffman Prairie in the next week or two, do it. The prairie will still be looking magnificent, and you're sure to see plenty of hummingbirds and other critters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mostly small things, in limited areas

bi·o·di·ver·si·ty: the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem

I spent much of last weekend with friends and fellow explorers of the natural world John Howard, and Laura and Dave Hughes. Elisabeth and Nate Rothschild were able to join us for a while on Saturday.

We visited only a handful of sites in Adams County, Ohio, and within each of those sites we probably never traveled more than a hundred yards or so. It's not that we couldn't have covered much more ground - all of us easily could. The biodiversity kept stopping us in our tracks.

A primary reason why I spend so much time in this region is because of the amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Homo sapiens has managed to eliminate or greatly reduce animal and plant diversity in most parts of Ohio, and now I suspect the overwhelming majority of people have no idea what they/we are missing. Shades of Louv's NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER coupled with E.O. Wilson's warnings of a vanishing planet coming to fruition.

But there are places where the original inhabitants still thrive, even in Ohio, and Adams County is one of those places. Those of us that believe that big chunks of the natural world should be saved for us, now, and future generations can thank The Nature Conservancy and the Cincinnati Museum Center for contributing greatly to that cause. Their magnificent 18,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve contains an enormous chunk of Midwestern biodiversity.

The following is a word-sparse slideshow of a little piece of what we saw last Saturday, and Sunday morning. There was far more than this. I was in macro-mode most of the time, and focused mostly on small things.

An Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus. Large specimens can reach nearly three inches in length, and males, like the one shown, use their spectacular "antlers" to joust with one another during mating season.

Up close and personal with a female Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus. They resemble something out of a Japanese sci-fi movie. The winged adults are short-lived, but the strictly aquatic larvae last for much longer and are well known to many fishermen as hellgrammites.

Whimsical and alien, as if it jumped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, is this nymph planthopper in the genus Acanalonia. As it matures and molts into an adult, it will lose that fungus-like appendage.

Katydids are masters of camouflage, and this nymph Greater Anglewing, Microcentrum rhombifolium, is no exception. It's a male, and following one more molt it'll be completely grown and able to "sing". By rubbing its wings together, it produces a loud metallic tapping. This is a very common song of late summer and fall.

A White-dotted Prominent moth, Nadata gibbosa. It is one of well over 1,000 species of moths in this region. White-dotted Prominent caterpillars eat oak. When threatened, they curl into a coil, bare their yellow mandibles, and look quite snakelike. Small songbirds are presumably intimidated.

One of our craziest and most interesting spiders is the Trashline Orbweaver, Cyclosa turbinata.  They build perfectly symmetrical intricately woven webs, then create a line of trash - composed of indigestible parts of victims - through the center of the web. The spider hides within the trash, blending to perfection. It's there, in the exact center bulls-eye of the web, facing head down.

A Red Paper Wasp, Polistes annularis, guards its nest. Freshly laid eggs can be seen within some of the chambers. She also secretes a chemical around the base of the pedicel that attaches the nest which repels ants. While seemingly a formidable defender, these wasps are rather passive and will go through a series of threat displays before attempting to sting. Heed their warnings, as the sting hurts.

The Wheelbug, Arilus cristatus, is a ferocious hemipteran predator. They stalk insect prey, and when the time is right the beast lunges forward and seizes its victim while simultaneously stabbing it with that syringelike proboscis fronting its face. Chemicals are injected which quickly immobilize the prey and liquefy its innards. When all is suitably mushy, the Wheelbug sucks out the contents.

A smaller cousin of the Wheelbug is the Spined Soldier Bug, Podisus maculiventris.  This one has just speared a caterpillar of the Silvery Checkerspot butterfly. For details about what will ensue, read the Wheelbug description above. Much of Nature is not very Disneyesque.

A stunning purple spike of Tall Larkspur, Delphinium exaltatum, flowers brightens the gloom of a shady woodland verge. These big buttercup family members are amongst the showiest of the midsummer wildflowers, but are rare in Ohio. Not at this spot, though - dozens grew here. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was busily plumbing nectar from the colony's flowers.

Juniper Hairstreaks, Callophrys gryneus, always cause excitement out of all proportion to their thumbnail-sized dimensions. This one was smitten with the nectar of Purple Coneflower. Some years these tiny butterflies are scarce, but this year seems to be a boom year for them.

The Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, is probably an arachnophobe's worst nightmare, but we were pleased as punch to come across this female. She is a protective parent, and carries her egg sac attached to her spinnerets. Given that the animal would pretty much fill your palm if you had the nerve to hold her, probably not much is going to mess with this eight-legged momma. This is the species that hadn't been seen for 50 years in Ohio, until 2014 when John, Dave, Laura and I rediscovered it in Adams County.

Life beetle! Ever since I learned of the existence of the Delta Flower Scarab, Trigonopeltastes delta, I've wanted to see one. We found at least two, both of whom were smitten with the flowers of Rattlesnake-master. Note the pattern formed by the elytra (brown wings) and the rear of the abdomen. It looks like a big scary wasp face - each brown wing is an eye, and the white tip are the mandibles. Weirdly similar to the mug of a hornet.

A suave Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus, was another visitor to the Rattlesnake-master flowers. If you want to see and/or photograph lots of cool insects, stake out a patch of this plant. You'll see a constant parade of six-legged characters.

Dangling acrobatically from a branch is this Cope's Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis. Visually it is indistinguishable from the look-alike Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor, but their songs give them away. The Cope's blasts out a much harsher raspier trill - especially apparent when one is singing a foot or two from your head, as this guy did.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Photography Workshop: September 20-22!

A gorgeous Lake Erie sunrise pinkens the sky behind the historic Marblehead Lighthouse, one of the most picturesque signal towers on Lake Erie.

I made this image last September, during a photography workshop instructed by David FitzSimmons and myself. Our base of operations was the beautiful lakefront town of Lakeside, which is not even five minutes from this lighthouse.

The aforementioned Dave FitzSimmons, nearly kneeling in the surf creating silky wave images. This September 20-22, Dave and I will be back and doing the workshop again, this time joined by the inimitable Art Weber, founder of the National Center for Nature Photography. Dave, as some of you know, is the creator of the Curious Critters book series. All of the workshop details are RIGHT HERE.

A juvenile Herring Gull poses in early morning sunlight, in between working on its scaly meal. Had the bird only turned its head about 10-15 degrees my way, the photo would be that much better.

The great thing about a photography workshop at Lakeside is the sheer diversity of subjects within a stone's throw of base camp. After the group finished shooting a glorious sunrise at East Harbor State Park, we turned our lens to this cooperative gull.

Fringed Gentian flowers appear to be spun from cobalt silk. The frayed petal edges lend a nice touch. Just 15 minutes from Lakeside is one of Ohio's finest remnant prairies, and it has plenty of these gentians and many more botanical subjects. The gentians, especially, are great fun to photograph but require good technique for quality images.

Growing with the gentians is this, the Riddell's Goldenrod, one of our rarest goldenrods and a true prairie species. It is one of about 100 species of vascular plants discovered and described to science from Ohio.

In addition to learning lots about photography, and getting much practice on a wide array of subjects, we'll also learn lots about natural history.

It's not just flora and fauna, though - Lake Erie abounds with all manner of manmade subjects, such as this massive lake freighter. It is the John D. Leitch, which was launched in 1967, and refitted in 2001. When it left the docks in 2002, it was the largest self-loading freighter on the Great Lakes. I made this image from the pier at Lakeside; the freighter was taking on limestone from the Lafarge quarrying operation not far to the east.

Here's last year's group, wrapping up a good session with lots of photos made, of scores of subjects.

Another sunrise, this one from the beach at East Harbor State Park.

Please sign on if you are interested in advancing your photography skills, and getting exposed to some really cool subjects that you might not otherwise see. Between Art, Dave, and myself, I'm sure you'll learn plenty of new tricks.

All the details are RIGHT HERE. More on Lakeside can be FOUND HERE.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pinching Beetles Ride Again!

Appearing somewhat ferocious and otherworldly, a large "Pinching Beetle", Lucanus capreolus, looks askance at the photographer. For reasons unknown, he was fooling around in the flowers of an ornamental bottlebrush buckeye when our crew came along and ferreted him out.

Wil Hershberger, Lisa Rainsong, Wendy Partridge and I were leading a nocturnal prowl last Friday night as part of the Midwest Native Plant Conference when we found the beetle.

ASIDE: The 8th annual Midwest Native Plant Conference was held last weekend, at Bergamo Center on the 160 acres of ground of Mount St. John near Dayton. This event is always packed with great speakers, vendors, and field trips and fills up fast. This year, registration opened in early February and all 175 slots were claimed by February 27. Get your seats early next year, and find out all of the details RIGHT HERE.

Anyway, back to the beetle. Pinching Beetles (there are other names, such as stag beetle, but I like this one) seem to be having a boom year. I've heard of many reports. For reasons unknown, at least to me, they apparently have boom and bust years. Most of the life cycle is spent deep in the rotting pulp of dead trees and downed logs, where the giant grubs happily nosh on decaying cellulose. I can only imagine the jackpot lottery hitting rush of elation a Pileated Woodpecker must feel when it drills down and strikes one of the tubular T-bones.

As for the pinching part, yes, they do, but no one will die. It's just a little bit of a nip, although the burly beetles sometimes are reluctant to relinquish their hold. I was the one who spotted the critter in the photos, and scooped him right up with no problems. Later, a less experienced coleopteran-handler in the group did indeed receive a pinch, after some careless finger placement. The "antlers" are normally used to spar with rival males during rutting (mating) season. I'm not making that up.

So, if you see one of these spectacular insects, do not entertain thoughts of pancaking it. Instead, take note that you are seeing one of our most sensational beetles, which is not a bug one encounters very often. It plays a vital role in the decomposition of dead timber - one of the myriad life forms that is dependent upon dead or "over-aged" trees.

I've written on Pinching Beetles before, and if this short piece hasn't sated your curiosity, GO HERE.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some cool bugs!

Precious little time for blogging of late, so here are a few snapshots of interesting bugs from recent forays.

Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus. Greene County, Ohio, yesterday.

Sleepy Orange, Abaeis nicippe, Greene County, Ohio, yesterday.

American Snout, Libytheana carinenta, Greene County, Ohio, yesterday.

Eastern Forktail, Ischnura verticalis, Wyandot County, Ohio, July 3, 2016.

Swamp Spreadwing, Lestes vigilax, Wyandot County, Ohio, July 3, 2016.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Flora-Quest + Rails!!

Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata, a plant so striking it inspired William Cullen Bryant to commemorate it in poetry.

If I've added properly, this year marks the 10th anniversary of Flora-Quest, an Ohio-centric botanical event. F-Q is always loads of fun, and a great learning experience. Plants are pretty much the building blocks of most of our animal life forms, so what better group of organisms to study. Besides, many plants such as the gentian are knock-your-socks-off stunning.

This year's F-Q takes place on Friday, September 30 (what an excuse for a three day weekend!) and ventures to the shores of Lake Erie and the idyllic village of Lakeside. CLICK HERE for all the details. Within a stone's throw from base camp are LOTS of interesting habitats full of fascinating flora. The gentians are only 20 minutes off, in one of Ohio's finest prairie remnants. Field trips will explore marshes, beaches, prairies, alvar, and woodland, and in the process we'll cast eyes on many species of plants, learn about what makes them tick, and how they fit into the ecology of their habitats.

Wetland ecologist Mark Dilley will give one of his always entertaining talks, this one entitled Wetland Plants: Twenty to Thrill, Five to Kill. The title alone ought to entice you to attend.

I'm on the slate, too, offering up a program called: Lake Erie: Ohio's North Coast. It'll be a big picture look at how our Great Lake functions, its global importance and critical habitats, with special emphasis on plant life.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes cernua.

After the morning programs and after the sun has warmed the earth's crust a bit, we're heading outdoors to SEE MANY THINGS. A premier cast of guides has been recruited to escort attendees to interesting habitats and their floral denizens. In addition to the orchid depicted above, we may also see the rarer Great Plains Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes magnicamporum. And many, many other botanical delights. Plus birds, dragonflies, moths, butterflies, katydids, reptiles, etc. etc.

A Virginia Rail briefly shows itself. These marsh chickens are normally shy skulkers.

There is easy opportunity for a major double-whammy! After Friday's Flora-Quest diurnal activities, Jason Lewis will present a program on Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. There's no one better to do this, as Jason is the refuge manager. His openness and innovations at Ottawa have become widely known and appreciated, especially his making the refuge much more accessible to the public.

The following day, October 1, the Ohio Ornithological Society holds an event known as Rally for the Rails. It is also based at Lakeside, and I'd advise just staying over and making a double-header botany and birds weekend of it. There will be interesting speakers, field trips, and an evening banquet featuring Auriel Fournier talking about her research into the lives of secretive rails. You can see all the details about Rally for Rails RIGHT HERE. Lodging at Lakeside is very nice and very inexpensive. CLICK HERE for more details.

I''ll hope to see you there on what should be a glorious fall weekend along Lake Erie!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Once rare, blue grosbeak sightings increase throughout Ohio

The blue grosbeak is expanding its range north.

July 3, 2016

Jim McCormac

The blue grosbeak has long been a coveted bird in Ohio.

Until relatively recently, the best chance at seeing one was to cruise the back roads of rural Adams County, which is along the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Portsmouth. There, a bird-watcher might see this exotic songbird among unkempt pastures.

A male blue grosbeak is bedecked in rich cobalt feathering, punctuated by cinnamon wing bars. Its massive bill looks like it belongs on something else. The bird's song is a melodious warbling, as if the songs of a purple finch, indigo bunting and orchard oriole were fused into one.

Small wonder that those of an avian bent would want to view this bird.

In the early 1900s, naturalists eagerly reported Ohio blue grosbeak sightings. Perhaps the first indisputable sighting dates to 1925 in Lake County, when Edward Doolittle published a note about a bird he found in Painesville in the Wilson Bulletin.

Sightings were sparse until 1940, when ornithologist Lawrence Hicks found the first Ohio nest, in Adams County.

Adams County is a biological hot spot, well-known for hosting animals and plants rare or nonexistent elsewhere in the state, many at the northern limits of their ranges. Hicks’ inaugural grosbeak nesting was near the only established Ohio breeding locale for chuck-will’s-widow, which was discovered in 1932. This large nightjar is at its northern limits in Adams County.

By the 1980s, blue grosbeaks were obviously expanding north. Ohio sightings became more widespread and frequent. They could be expected in appropriate habitat in Ohio River counties from Cincinnati upriver to Gallipolis.

The expansion continues unabated, and now it would not be surprising to find a blue grosbeak anywhere, although southern Ohio remains the stronghold.

Birds appear annually as far north as the Oak Openings west of Toledo and routinely occur in central Ohio. Glacier Ridge Metro Park near Dublin hosted a singing male last summer.

The recently published Atlas of the Breeding Birds in Ohio (field work conducted from 2006 to '11) documented a 237 percent increase from the first atlas, which took place from 1982 to '87. Only seven other species showed greater increases between atlases.

Why the spike in blue grosbeaks? No one knows exactly, but it’s probably a combination of factors. This species favors open meadows interspersed with brushy fence rows and scattered trees, a habitat that greatly increased after the deforestation of much of Ohio. Steadily increasing mean temperatures may also be beneficial to this southern species.

Blue grosbeaks breed extensively across the southern United States and north in the Great Plains to the Dakotas. This highly migratory bird winters throughout Mexico and Central America.
Nonetheless, it is considered an uncommon species, and the North American population is estimated at 18 million birds; about one-fifth of that is its better-known relative, the indigo bunting.

Amazingly little is known of basic life history elements of the blue grosbeak. If someone with ornithological inclinations is looking for a master’s or doctoral thesis, this beautiful bunting would be a good candidate.

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