Friday, July 28, 2017

The gorgeous Purple Fringeless Orchid

Back on July 17, I had an early morning meeting in Athens, Ohio. The meeting was early, because this is a beautiful part of the state that's full of interesting biodiversity, and I wanted time to explore after the work was done. My fellow meeting attendees were amenable to the early morning rendezvous, and I'm grateful as it left plenty of time to explore the outdoors afterwards. While, as always, I was interested in just about everything I could see, there was a primary focus to the field work - locating one of our coolest orchids.

After departing Athens, I headed to neighboring Vinton County, long a favorite of mine among our 88 counties. Vinton County is sparsely populated and mostly wild, and there is always lots of intriguing flora and fauna to be found.

On the way, I noticed a Box Turtle attempting to cross the two-lane state highway I was motoring on. As is often the case when a vehicle goes by, the turtle stopped its SLOW and perilous progress and boxed itself into its shell. This, of course, ups the odds that they'll get pancaked. Fortunately, this was not a busy road and I jammed the brakes, whipped off the road and trotted back to grab the animal. He was placed far off the road, on the side he was headed for, and my future good karma credits increased. These amazing little tortoises can live for many decades, and merit all the help they can get.

Before long, I began to notice the enormous candelabras of flowers of one of our most spectacular native lilies, the Canada Lily, Lilium canadense. It would have been irresponsible of me not to stop and admire some of them. A whopper can reach well over one's head in height, and the inflorescence might sport ten or more of the reddish fawn-spotted flowers.

Nice as the lilies were, my target remained to be found.

Ah! A bright pink spike of flowers erupts from the springy soil of a roadside seep! This is it, the incredible Purple Fringeless Orchid, Platanthera peramoena, certainly one of the showiest of Ohio's 47 native orchid species. While I've seen this orchid a number of times over the years, it had been too long since renewing its acquaintance. When that Athens meeting came together, I realized it would be prime time for purple orchids, and they would be fairly close at hand. Heading out to find it was a no-brainer.

It wasn't too tough to locate some plants, but none were truly exceptional specimens. After a bit more road cruising, I came across the champion above, which towered over two feet skyward, and whose blooms were pitch-perfect. I spent a lot of time admiring this plant, and playing with different photography tactics.

The flowers are beyond awesome; little screaming purple angels, wings spread wide. It seems to me that if everyone knew we had plants like this, everyone would become a botanist. How some people can be utterly indifferent to such beauty is completely beyond comprehension.

You may have noticed the fringes on the flowers' petals. But it is named the "fringeless" orchid. As a point of comparison, there are a couple of species of "fringed" purple orchids and their fringing is so extreme that I guess this species doesn't even count in the petal laceration department.

Apparently the primary pollinators of Purple Fringeless Orchid  are hummingbird moths in the genus Hemaris. I would have loved to have photographed one in the act of orchid pollination, but despite staying around as long as I could, no moths made the scene. Ah, well, one should always have goals and shooting a hummingbird moth at Purple Fringeless Orchid remains one of them.

Map courtesy BONAP

Ohio lies at the northern limits of the Purple Fringeless Orchid's range, and it isn't common here. It certainly doesn't occur anymore in some of the counties marked on this map.

While it takes a bit of effort and knowledge of its locales, locating Purple Fringeless Orchids is a definite botanical highlight of mid-summer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hummingbirds and Royal Catchfly

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird plunges its long swordlike bill deep into the corolla of a Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, flower. Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of this beautiful prairie plant.

I promised in the last post to share a few photos of the fruits of my hummingbird photography labors. Last Thursday, July 20, I was at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio shortly after dawn. I knew the catchfly would be at peak flowering, and this would mean lots of hummingbirds. There are few if any better situations in which to photograph Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and as that was probably the only day I'd get a crack at this, for this year at least, I wasn't going to waste it.

Botanist Thomas Nuttall, a man who had seen a tremendous spectrum of our flora, called the royal catchfly "one of the most splendid species in existence." Adding to its allure is the fact that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are its primary pollinator. Standing in a large prairie dotted with the scarlet spikes of catchfly, with numerous hummingbirds darting about tending to the colorful flowers, is near magical.

Even if I never attempted a photo, I'd still savor the time spent watching these feathered sprites shooting about the rich prairie, tapping nectar from catchfly plants, snapping tiny insects from the air, and constantly sparring with one another. The sheer aggressiveness of these elfin birds is astonishing. As often as not, I'd be setting up on a hummer that starting exploring a plant's flowers, when another bird would strafe in at top speed and send my photo subject packing. Occasional, two birds would get in a real dust-up, spiraling up, up, and up, chittering and buzzing around each other until they were tiny specks in the sky.

Royal Catchfly flowers are normally the brilliant scarlet of those in the preceding photo. However, a very small number of plants at Huffman Prairie sport these gorgeous pale pink blossoms. I've only seen this variant one or two other places, both in Ohio prairies. It apparently does occur very sparingly in a few locales outside of Ohio.

I picked my photo spot carefully. The patch of trail that I set up on had plenty of normal catchfly plants, including a few large sentinels. Best of all, though, were two nearby fine pink-flowered specimens. I figured that sooner or later, a hummingbird would visit these botanical oddities and give me a chance to shoot it in the act of going pink. Sure enough, I did get a few opportunities and the shot above is one of the successful attempts.

Photographing hummingbirds isn't easy, and requires considerable patience. At least if you're shooting them in the wild, on their own terms - not at a feeder. I spent about four hours, mostly in the same spot, awaiting opportunities. None of it is time wasted. One learns tons about hummingbird behavior by doing this. Plus, bonuses abounded. A Dickcissel chattered its song from nearby high-rise plant stalks the entire time. Bobolinks passed overhead, giving their mellow pink pink call notes. The soft insectlike hiccup of a male Henslow's Sparrow provided aural accompaniment. Two rival Common Yellowthroat males routinely launched into their flight songs, ascending about 25 feet vertically into the air all the while delivering a more ornate version of their song, then fluttering feet down back into the vegetation.

I tried a new tactic with equipment this time, screwing on my Canon 800mm lens to the 5D IV. More is better, you know. It was overkill, and I probably won't use it again for hummers. That lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 19 feet, and on several occasions hummers came much closer than that, sipping from nearby flowers and offering what would have been awesome shots with a lesser lens. I've got a smaller, lighter 500mm that focuses to 7.5 feet, acquires focus faster, and is just as razor sharp. That's the lens for hummers, at least in a situation like this. Fill flash came from a single on-camera Canon 600 II speedlite intensified with a Better Beamer, all of this equipment atop a tripod, of course. I used shutter speeds ranging from 1/2000 to 1/3200, depending on lighting conditions. On high speed sync mode and at shutter speeds above the 1/200 sync speed, the flash loses a ton of intensity, and its working distance becomes ever shorter the higher the shutter speed goes. ISO becomes the ruling factor - I don't like running it beyond perhaps 1600, and am much happier with 800 and below. Nonetheless, even though these images were made at ISO's over 1000, they still look pretty clean and noise-free even without much post-processing work. I also shot the lens wide open - f/5.6 - to permit entry of as much light as possible.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hanging Thief bags wasp!

I visited the famous Huffman Prairie last Thursday, mainly to photograph hummingbirds. The Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, is at peak bloom, and there are many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This plant is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds, and I can think of no better setting or situation in which to photograph these tiny birds. I did manage some nice images of hummingbirds face deep in the catchfly flowers, and will perhaps post some of those here later. CLICK HERE, though, and you can see my efforts from last July.

A prairie as rich as Huffman always has legions of INTERESTING THINGS, whether they be floral or faunal in nature. After packing up the big lens, I had a few minutes before I had to leave to go teach a macrophotography course, so I clipped on a macro lens and set out to see what I could find in a short time frame.

I didn't have to wait long. I'd barely got 30 paces from the Jeep when a strangely shaped, largish tan and black blob whirred by. Giving chase, I followed the UFO for a short distance, trying to place what I was seeing, when it had the good manners to alight on some foliage. Scroll on...

A "Hanging Thief"! Not only that, but it had bagged a large wasp! This is the aggregation of predator and victim that buzzed by me, and why I had a hard time placing it while on the wing.

The so-called hanging thieves are robberflies in the genus Diogmites. There are supposedly two dozen or so species in North America, and I'm unsure of the species involved here. Maybe someone can let us know. They've earned the name "hanging thieves" by their peculiar perching habits. Our star in this scene illustrates this perfectly. Note how it casually dangles from one leg, its "foot" wrapped around a leaf, while it deals with the wasp with its other five legs.

Robberflies typically hunt from perches, and when a suitable victim flies by, the robber launches and strikes it on the wing. It uses its long, spiny legs to embrace the prey in a death grasp, and administers the coup de grace with its long syringelike proboscis. Debilitating neurotoxins are pumped into the victim, nearly instantly disabling it. Other compounds cause a speedy liquefication of the innards. The robberfly retreats to a comfortable perch, as this one has done, and casually sucks out the sloshy contents with the same proboscis that dealt death to the hapless prey.

I will tell you right now, were these robberflies the size of swans, it would be the stuff of our worst nightmares. They are entomological Clint Eastwoods; true tough guys seemingly without fear and capable of taking down even the most dangerous of insects. I'm not sure which wasp species this hanging thief has captured, but it looks like it might be one of the spider-hunting species, which are quite tough in their own right and also pack a stinging punch.

But even a big wasp is no match for a fearsome robberfly.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Boom in fearsome stag beetles a boon for ecology

A female stag beetle, left, has smaller "horn" than does a male, right

July 16, 2017

Jim McCormac

The scene has played out scores of times this summer: People are sitting in their yards, a park or anywhere outside, when suddenly a giant buzzing bug whirs in.
To the terror of entomophobes, the insect sometimes lands on people.
Meet the reddish-brown stag beetle, or “pinching beetle,” Lucanus capreolus.
At first blush, an adverse reaction is understandable. A stag beetle is a superficially intimidating insect. It tapes out at about an inch and a half, and that’s not counting the impressive mandibles. The latter are what people notice first.
A male stag beetle’s mandibles are a pair of ferocious-looking curved appendages arcing forward from its head. The female’s “horns” are much smaller; the accompanying photo shows both sexes.
Although one of these beetles can give a good nip if mishandled, they are not aggressive and do not ordinarily pinch people. Like many horned or antlered mammals, the male beetles use their impressive appendages to spar with one another during breeding season. Presumably the dominant alpha gets the girl beetle.
This has been a boom year for stag beetles. Blizzards of reports have surfaced on social media and elsewhere, from nearly all quarters of Ohio and beyond. This species occurs throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, and reports suggest the beetle has been plentiful in much of its range.
A chance encounter with a stag beetle is an opportunity to inspect one of our most interesting insects.

These beetles can live for two years, but much of that time is spent in the larval stage. The grubs are as impressive as the adults. They are finger-sized tubular bags of goo capped with a chestnut-colored head capsule. You’re unlikely to encounter the larva, though — they remain ensconced in decaying wood.
Stag beetles play a vital role in the decomposition of rotting wood. The larvae chew and digest the woody cellulose, and in the process convert vegetative matter to digestible protein. This is much to the benefit of woodpeckers, who seek out the grubs. Even to a crow-sized pileated woodpecker, a stag beetle larva is the equivalent of eating a footlong hot dog.
In general, dead and dying trees support far more life-forms than healthy, living trees do. The stag beetles are part of an enormous ecological web associated with timber that is, in forestry parlance, “over-aged.” If you are fortunate enough to have timber on your land, leave as many dead and downed trees, stumps and logs as possible. You’ll be making great contributions to the circle of life that we all depend on.
The recent stag beetle boom might be due to the invasive emerald ash borer. This beetle has decimated our ash population, and the landscape is full of dead and dying trees. If so, this would be an interesting twist— a terribly destructive invasive beetle causing a spike, at least temporarily, in the population of one of our most valuable and interesting native beetles.
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, July 13, 2017

Life in a drainpipe: How to make photographic lemonade from lemons

As always, no shortage of material as I prepare this, my 1,708th blog entry since beginning this blog almost exactly ten years ago. Mothapalooza was held last weekend and it was a smashing success. I want to put up some pics and commentary about that soon, but for now, an adventure from yesterday.

Word has been circulating about great shorebird habitat developing in the easternmost big impoundment at Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County, so I finally made it there late yesterday to check things out. The reports were not exaggerated; plenty of mudflats and shallow water bode well for waders. We're early in the fall migration for shorebirds - yes, fall migration in mid-July! - and there weren't a lot of birds. Killdeer were most common, probably mostly birds that bred somewhere in the general region. Others included Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least and Semipalmated sandpipers, and Solitary and Stilt sandpipers. Most of these birds have already been to the Arctic to nest, but probably experienced nest failure. The brief Arctic summer does not always allow for a second attempt, so the birds head south and begin to appear at our latitude in July.

I took the photo gear, but conditions were not great for photography, so I mostly just watched the birds, and life in the marsh. I've always enjoyed watching groups of shorebirds, and their feeding dynamics. For birds that seemingly always have their bills buried in the mire, they don't miss a trick. Several juvenile Bald Eagles were making regular forays into this impoundment for fish, and if they got too near the shorebirds would often rise en masse before settling back in. Always pay heed to their behavior - they'll tip you to an incoming Peregrine Falcon or other predator long before you'll see it.

At one point, I decided I wanted another piece of gear from the Jeep, about a third mile from my hiding hole, so I trotted back for it. As I neared the parking area, I saw the grass moving and a brief flash of brown. Juvenile Muskrats! After spending some more time with the shorebirds, I stealthily crept up on the muskrat ditch. That's it, above, after I had settled in with camera, tripod, and camo chair. You can see a culvert at the far end of the ditch - it connects with the big marsh which is about 30 feet or so to the left. Most of the photographic action on this day centered around that pipe.

Immediately upon peeking into the ditch, I saw an adult Muskrat grazing on plants. I'm not sure how well these rodents see, or if she just wasn't bothered by me, but she remained in the open for a bit while I made images. Nice as she looks, it wasn't the photographic plum that I sought.

This is the photographic plum that I sought - baby Muskrat! Not long after I settled into the vegetation, this little fellow dropped out of the drain pipe and clambered up onto the adjacent bank. Here, he scratches an itch, while a large bullfrog looks on. The little mammal was not a lot larger than the frog! There was another juvenile 'skrat, and I was hoping to get images of both together - maybe even interacting - but no cigar.

For most of the time that the youngsters were out and about, an adult Muskrat - female, presumably - was around although sometimes hard to spot. Here, she keeps a watch from the entrance to one of her burrows. Muskrats are prolific burrowers, and thus draw the ire of marsh managers as their tunneling can greatly undermine the dikes that hem in many managed wetlands. But we've pretty much invited them into our all too often highly managed world, so what would we expect, especially seeing how we've destroyed most of their natural world. Ohio has lost an estimated 90% of its pre-settlement wetlands.

After the Muskrat family retreated back into the drain pipe and probably into the big marsh on the other side, I turned my camera's attention to the large Bullfrogs by the culvert's mouth. Here, a lunker stares inscrutably at the camera. I once saw a huge Bullfrog sitting just like this, with a much smaller Green Frog's head poking out of its mouth. I didn't have a camera then, but would have loved to photographed that scene.

As I was photographing the frogs, I noticed a roiling from within the culvert pipe, with noticeable waves coming from within. I thought that perhaps the Muskrats were in there, but the wave action seemed to extreme. A few seconds later, this absolutely monstrous Snapping Turtle emerged!

As I was above and behind the pipe when the turtle exited, it didn't see me and I ran around to the other side to get this shot. At that point, he/she did spot me and froze, allowing for some close up portraiture work of a beast that totally looks the part of its several hundred million years of evolutionary history.

I would not want to get my finger nipped by this brute. A turtle this size could and would do some serious damage if mishandled, and snappers are not known for their friendly temperament. They can live a long time - 50 years or more - and I suspect this one would have to be at least a few decades old. Note the numerous mosquitoes biting its head, and the leech on its shell. Maybe that's why they're ill-tempered.

Photo tip: A perfectly still subject such as this turtle allows for employment of techniques not often possible with animals. I had my camera on a tripod, and moved the rig in as close as possible. Then I used live view on the back of the camera, which keeps the mirror locked up, eliminating even the very slight "slap" caused by mirror motion. Using the two second timer allowed the camera to be totally still when the shot fired. This allowed me to use a very long exposure at a small aperture. Settings for this image were ISO 100, f/16, and a very slow one-third second exposure.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Macrophotography workshop: July 20 in Delaware County, Ohio

A Tuliptree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera, peeks from behind a leaf, as seen last Saturday night in Scioto County, Ohio.

I'm giving a free macrophotography workshop on Thursday, July 20, at the Stratford Ecological Center near Delaware, Ohio. It's part of their local camera club's regular series, but guests are welcome. Please just RSVP to me at jimmccormac35 AT if you wish to come. It starts at 1 pm, and to kick things off I'll give a PowerPoint primer about macro work. Following that, we'll head right outside the building where subjects galore should be found, and try our hand at photographing wee things. We'll try to wrap things up around 3 pm. More details about Stratford Ecological Center can be found RIGHT HERE.

A creative blur of the small flowers of Bluehearts, Buchnera americana, made last Saturday in Adams County, Ohio.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fireworks as Art

Fireworks - two nights in a row! Read the previous post to see images from last night's extravagant Red, White & Boom fireworks production in Columbus - the largest such display in Ohio. Tonight, it was Dublin's turn, and as the launch site is only a few miles from my place, I went on over to see what I could do, and experiment with a new (to me) technique.

The Dublin celebration included a performance by Peter "Do You Feel Like We Do" Frampton, and the area was packed. I thought I had a good, largely people-free locale to shoot from, but when the fireworks started, I found that a number of large trees were blocking too much of the view. So, it was to an unplanned Plan B, and I ended up finding a good spot to jam the Jeep in, jump out, and start shooting with about 1/3rd of the show left.

All the tips I offered in the last post applied tonight, with one exception. I used a different technique that might be termed "focus distortion". The lens of choice was Canon's superb 70-200mm f/2.8 II. By locking focus on the fireworks burst, and then twisting the zoom ring to either fully zoom from the widest angle, or conversely zoom out to the widest focal length from full zoom, one can create some interesting effects.

Once again, these images were made with the Canon 5DS-R, in Bulb Mode with shutter control via a remote release. ISO was set to 100, and aperture was f/16. As always, click the image to expand it.