Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sax-Zim Bog and boreal birds

As seen in the previous post, a massive Great Gray Owl casts its baleful gaze on the photographer. I was glad indeed that I was not a vole.

While it is the allure of Great Gray Owls that lures many people to the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota, there are many other interesting birds to be found, as we shall see. I was up there for three solid days last week - my first visit - and was quite impressed with the place. January and February are obviously peak times for winter birding, but come prepared for icy cold. The first morning saw a low of minus 29 F, and the mercury was well below zero each of the following two mornings.

Sax-Zim is an interesting place. Its boundaries include black spruce bogs, cultivated fields, and mixed and deciduous woodlands. A wonderful organization, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, has built and staffs a new visitor's center. This building, contrary to many similar installations that see peak visitation in summer, is only open during the winter months.

This tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl was a real bonus. It was hunting from a prominent perch well before nightfall. Although this is normally a highly nocturnal species, the extreme cold and mixture of snow and ice cover may have forced it to temporarily shift its hunting habits in the quest for food.

Some years, other species of northern owls, most notably Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl, invade Sax-Zim in numbers during winter. This wasn't one of those years, but I hope to return when a full-fledged owl invasion is in progress.

It was nice to become reacquainted with Gray Jays again. This is a species of the far north, and not prone to wandering very far south, even during the toughest winters. One must go to their haunts to see them.

The most common songbird at Sax-Zim is also one of my favorites, the Black-capped Chickadee. I made innumerable photos of the tough little birds; I find them photographically irresistible. They are tough as nails, too - how they survive long winter nights when the mercury plunges well below zero is beyond me.

Evening Grosbeaks have nearly fallen off the radar screen in Ohio, so it was good to catch up with them once again. This resplendent male was one of a flock of 20 or so birds visiting publicly accessible feeders at a private residence. There are a number of local residents who feed birds, and welcome birders to visit.

This is a female Evening Grosbeak, and I might be tempted to argue that she is showier than the gaudy male!

A true finch of the north, the Pine Grosbeak. Males, like this one, are quite dashing. Flocks of these largish tame finches might be encountered anywhere in Sax-Zim Bog, but they are especially easy to observe at the visitor's center.

A female Pine Grosbeak. More subtly marked and colored than the male, but still quite showy.

A partridge in a willow tree. Ruffed Grouse can be quite arboreal, and we saw at least 25-30 of them high off the ground in trees and shrubs. They go aloft to snack on buds and catkins.

A grouse makes a big stretch to reach an especially tasty staminate catkin in a paper birch tree.

There are lots of spruce in Sax-Zim, and the white spruce were heavily bedecked with cones. Such fodder means crossbills.

A pair of White-winged Crossbills plunder the cones of a spruce. It was minus 25 F when I made this image! A flock of about 25 birds was working the tree over, and as is typical for crossbills, they were quite tame. The flock actually flew into the tree that I was standing near, making things easier, although I feared either my hands or equipment would give out in the extreme cold.

Crossbills act much like parrots, pulling themselves about with both feet and bill, often engaging in acrobatics to reach coveted cones. As I stood by this spruce, all one could hear was the snap and crackle of cone scales being popped off. A gentle rain of these scales misted from the tree as the industrious crossbills harvested the conifer seeds.

This little glutton decided to pull an entire cone from the tree. He deftly held it with one foot while making mincemeat of the cone with his bill. I have read where a hardworking crossbill can harvest several thousand seeds in a day. The bird either pops the scale completely off the cone, or pries them apart to reach the fruit (each scale subtends a seed). Using its long barbed tongue, the crossbill quickly snags the seed.

I would have dearly loved to have spent much more time with the crossbills, but circumstances did not permit it. They are highly fascinating birds, and vital to the ecology of the boreal forests in which they live.

I look forward to a return trip to Sax-Zim Bog to catch up with the owls, crossbills, and all of the other interesting avifauna.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Great Gray Owl!

Well, my blogging has certainly fallen behind! I was hoping for more time for this sort of thing, but travels and other stuff have made for less of it.

Anyway, just returned from a trip to the bog lands of northern Minnesota, and saw and photographed many interesting birds. Just time for this one photo now, but I'll try and put up some others soon.

A Great Gray Owl bayonets the photographer with its laser beam stare. Of all the birds that frequent wintertime Sax-Zim Bog, this spectacular owl draws by far the most attention.

It was nearly dark when I made this image. Dusk is an excellent time to find these massive owls, as that's when they typically emerge to hunt. The photo demonstrates the vast improvements in camera technology in recent years. It was shot with the amazing new Canon 5D VI, at an ISO of 12,800! Even so, and with minimal noise reduction applied in post-processing, the image still holds up fairly well. Such a high ISO was needed to harvest enough light to make the image, even with the lens (800mm) wide open at f/5.6 and using a fairly slow shutter speed of 1/320 (could have gone slower and should have), and exposure compensation at +1.7. To help produce a sharp shot, I utilized live view to eliminate shutter slap, and careful camera-holding technique (tripod-mounted). Should have used a remote shutter release too, but forgot to throw it in my pocket.

But nerdy photo-talk is not the point here, cool birds are. I'll hope to share some other hardy boreal birds before long. And hardy they are - every morning saw temperatures well below 0 F, with the mercury plummeting to minus 29 F one memorable morning!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Female Northern Cardinal, in flight

A female Northern Cardinal nears a perch, and flares its wings. This species, which is Ohio's state bird, is very common in central Ohio where I live. They're pretty easy to photograph, at least when at rest, but are so striking I could probably shoot them all day.

One way to try and make photographs of very common species stand out is to capture them in unusual postures, situations, or in flight. Making a sharp image of a rapidly moving songbird on the wing (click the photo to enlarge) is not easy. In this situation, there was a feeder a few feet to the left, and that's where this bird is headed. As it was about 12 F when I made this image, birds were hungry and the feeders were quite active, and I saw an opportunity. By pre-focusing my camera at a point a few feet off the feeder's right side, I could wait, (frozen) finger on the trigger, for targets to enter the bulls-eye zone.

I got plenty of opportunities with several species, but the vast majority of images will be throw-aways. Only a few times did I nail a photo when the bird was: 1) smack in the focus area; 2) and displaying good posture ( head not turned away, wings in a pleasing position, etc.). Because of the cold and the need to attend to something else, I only spent about a half-hour at this, but want to go back and try some more.

This shot was made with the new Canon 5D IV, and I'm finding this to be a stellar camera, especially for bird photography. Its focus acquisition system is amazing, and it handles high ISO levels well. For this shot I used the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, at f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 1600, exposure compensation +1.7, no flash.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hocking County rich in bird diversity, as new book shows

January 1, 2017

Jim McCormac

Hocking County rich in bird diversity, as new book shows

One of Ohio's smallest counties has long been a favored refuge of Columbus residents fleeing the big city. Hocking County is small, but its 421 square miles are packed with natural beauty.

It's the stunning sandstone gorges, their steep, rocky slopes carpeted in towering hemlock trees, that give the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. Iconic places such as Conkles Hollow, Old Man's Cave and Cantwell Cliffs are treasured by tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Because of Hocking County's varied habitats and extraordinary botanical diversity, birds also abound.

A recent book, "The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" (McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co., 144 pages), does a stellar job of documenting the Hocking Hills' avifauna. The authors are three legends of Ohio natural-history exploration: John Watts, Paul Knoop Jr. and Gary Coovert.

Studies of Hocking County's bird life really picked up steam in the 20th century, thanks to the labors of an early Dispatch writer. Edward Sinclair Thomas, who penned this column for 59 years beginning in 1922, maintained a cabin for decades in what he dubbed Neotoma Valley. The cabin still stands, and it is now part of Clear Creek Metro Park at the north end of the Hocking Hills.

A who's who of naturalists regularly made the pilgrimage to Thomas' Neotoma retreat, and they added much to our knowledge of the region's birds. The first photo in "Birds of Hocking County" is an image of a Bewick's wren taken by Thomas in 1923. While relatively common then, this species no longer occurs in the state.

Those planning a trip to Hocking County in search of certain species will find the book helpful. It documents a remarkable 266 species, describing the status and habitat of each in short accounts. Changes in abundance, such as with the aforementioned wren, are well-described.

Peppered throughout are several dozen photos of birds and habitats. Especially interesting are the images by Thomas, taken nearly a century ago, packaged with modern photos taken by Watts. They make one grateful for conservation — there are almost no trees in the old images! Today, these areas are densely cloaked with timber, thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies.

Especially interesting is the rich introduction, which covers Hocking County's history of nature exploration, its habitats, changes in bird life and excellent sites to seek birds. Among many interesting nuggets, the reader will find historical photos of giant trees — snapshots of what the Hocking Hills would have looked like before timbering.

Hocking County is especially notable for the rare birds that breed within its hemlock gorges. Species such as the blue-headed vireo, hermit thrush, and Canada and magnolia warblers are birds that normally nest far to the north of Ohio. These birds are just part of the highly specialized ecosystems of Hocking County — habitats that should be fiercely protected for their natural treasures.

"The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" should be indispensable to anyone who visits or lives in the area and is interested in natural history. Birders statewide also will find it a valuable resource. Copies can be had for $24.95 from the Newark-based publisher, or from Amazon.

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bald Eagle relieves Lake Erie of a fish!

I journeyed to one of my favorite Lake Erie haunts today, the city of Huron, in Erie County. The lakefront here features the mouth of the Huron River, and it is nearly always birdy. Even today, when the lake was placid, the skies were mostly blue, and winds were calm. Bad weather makes good birding, along Lake Erie.

After spending an hour or so at the far end of the municipal pier without seeing much in the way of avian diversity, I started the long plod back to the mainland. As I did, I began to hear the calls of Snow Buntings passing overhead. As nearby Nickel Plate Beach is often a good bunting locale, I figured some of the birds might have put down there, so it was off to the beach.

An adult Bald Eagle prepares to snatch a fish from the waters of Lake Erie. As always, click the photo to enlarge, and you'll see the victim swimming in the bottom right hand corner of the image. A millisecond after this photo was made, the eagle snatched the scaly treat.

All morning, Bald Eagles had been soaring about, occasionally putting up clouds of resting gulls. Both adults and juvenile eagles were around, and rarely was one not in sight. As I was stalking the sands of Nickel Plate Beach seeking buntings, I noticed an adult eagle coming near the beach. Just as I glanced over at it, the bird made a sudden careening dive for the surface, but missed the fish. Figuring he/she would try again, I got ready, and sure enough, in came the bird and this time it was not to be deprived its fish.

This image was two shots after the one above, and my camera's burst rate is about seven shots a second. The fish never knew what hit it.

Bald Eagles sometimes get a rap for being vulturelike and frequently noshing on carrion and other easy - dead - pickings. But they are highly adept fishermen, and I've seen scenes like this play out many times. I'm just not usually fortunate enough to be able to capture them with my camera.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Giant Leopard Moth cats on the prowl!

The caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia, a bit sluggish but decidedly active at a temperature of 41 F. I saw four of these large caterpillars today in Hocking County, all crossing roads. I took the liberty of helping this one across the road, and temporarily posed him on some branches for a photo.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars overwinter in the larval stage, and on sunny days when the temperature rises somewhat above freezing, some will become active and commence wandering about. This one had a bit of mud caked on its bristles; it had undoubtedly been under leaves or wood. Because of the GLM cats' predilection for late season and winter wandering, they are often confused with the Woolly-bear by the larvally illiterate. The Woolly-bear, as you know, is the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and is fabled for its alleged ability to predict winter's severity, or lack thereof.

So, people seeing roaming GLM cats may presume it to be a very dark Woolly-bear, and thus predict an exceptionally harsh winter (the darker the Woolly-bear the more severe the winter). On the lighter side, another late fall/early winter wandering caterpillar is that of the Virginian Tiger Moth, Spilosoma virginica, the Yellow Bear. This larva is also similar to the Woolly-bear but is quite pale. Misidentifications of this animal result in predictions of a mild winter.

As the Woolly-bear as winter predictor is a demonstrably false myth, none of these larval identification challenges much matters.

I've written in more detail about Woolly-bears and larval forecasting RIGHT HERE.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Intricate ice patterns

Intricate ice patterns formed in a frozen pond, Alley Park, Fairfield County, Ohio. Christmas Day. Much of the surface of this several acre pond was etched in ornate patterns; the effect was quite striking. Photographically, one hardly knew what to focus on as the potential compositions were endless. I finally settled on this piece, for this post.