Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A cold sky indeed!

Last night was bitterly cold here in central Ohio, as evidenced by my car's thermometer. Yes, it says -20 F, as in MINUS TWENTY. I knew it was going to be about as cold as I've ever experienced, and I wanted to experience such frigidity. So, after getting home from work last night, I took a nap. Then got up, prepared, and headed out the door around midnight.

The only way that I could think of to try and visually portray the brutally cold temperatures was with sky shots. As is usually the case when the mercury plunges to extreme lows, the sky was bright and clear. I headed north, with a few locales in mind. The goal was to get away from city lights, and find a VERY dark spot, perhaps with some interesting scenery. As I worked north of Delaware, the temperature fell until it hit the reading above, which was at the spot where I made the following image. As an interesting footnote, the extreme cold noticeably effected the way that my car drove. It felt wooden and clunky, and fuel economy dropped to less than half of what it would normally be.

I eventually landed in this remote cemetery, and set up the camera gear to make my first stab at shooting star trail photos. There are essentially two ways to expose the camera to capture the earth's rotation, thus making the stars appear to streak across the sky. One is to take a long series of 30 second exposures (or thereabouts), and later stitch them together with editing software. I did take a long series of such shots, but have not yet stitched them. I'm curious to see the results.

The other technique is to take a VERY long single exposure, which is how this shot was made. I did learn at least two things from this exposure. One, as dark as it seemed, there still was probably too much ambient light pollution from distant cities and towns. And two, a distant farm with its attendant night lights shows up far too well - like the onset of a sunrise. I did not know these things. But I look forward to learning from my errors and trying some more star trail shooting.

This image was made with my Canon 5D Mark III firmly affixed to a tripod. For foreground interest, I placed the cedars along the right side of the image, and that small round tree in the lower lefthand corner. I used the 17-40 f/4 ultra wide angle lens, set to a focal length of 25mm. The aperture was at f/8, and ISO at 100. Here's the kicker - the shutter speed was 56 minutes. To get that long of an exposure, you must use the Bulb setting, and trigger the shutter with a locking remote release. Also, the white balance was set to the "tungsten" setting. That gives the sky a more metallic blue look. Finally, Polaris, or the North Star, is near the top left corner of the image. Focusing on or near this celestial body adds interest, is it seemingly remains stationary while the other stars appear to rotate around it.

All of this worked quite well - I just need to find totally dark areas to shoot star trails, AND wait for one of our rare cloudless nights where the moon is not full.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Gadwall, a study in understated aesthetics

The tail waters of Hoover Dam, northern Franklin County, Ohio, last Monday. There was a wee bit of a nip in the air - it was about 10 F - creating a steam cloud from the flume of warmer water exiting the dam. As the catch basin remains ice-free, it is a great spot to observe and photograph waterfowl at reasonably close range.

A drake Mallard tips up to scavenge algae from the rocks. One must admire the hardiness of fowl on a frigid day, as they cavort in water barely above freezing on the downside, and air that is far frostier yet on the upside. The geese and ducks go about their business as if it is a summer day. Less hardy human observers shiver and shake, and would quickly perish if they fell into this drink.

There were several species of ducks plying the waters on this day, including this handsome pair of Northern Shovelers. Note how the hen swims with her rotund spoonbill skimming the water, seining up food. She could easily be dismissed as some other species of somberly hued hen duck, but the fat bill and emerald-green wing speculum give her away instantly. As does her distinctive companion.

While shovelers, wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and other ducks are cool, it was the Gadwall that mostly intrigued me. I've always rooted for underdogs, and this duck just does not get its proper due. From afar, even a drake such as this can look unassuming and blend with the masses. Waterfowl illiterati might not even notice the Gadwall.

Hen Gadwall are even less distinguished, and look quite female Mallardesque. Note her white speculum peeking through - it often shows on resting birds - and the richly scalloped look to the back.

Wintry as it may be, it is Spring - Spring! - for the fowl, and bonds have already been struck. This charcoal-rumped drake Gadwall watchfully escorts his mate. They no doubt pine for breeding grounds far to the northwest, but ice-choked waters hold them back. Come the spring thaw, they'll bumping against ice-out until they reach their prairie pothole or whatever northern wetland they seek for the making of more Gadwall.

The English name of this duck is odd, and it seems that no one is quite sure of its origins or even exactly what Gadwall means. The scientific name Anas strepera is easier to interpret. Anas = "duck", and strepera = "noisy". One of the aural delights of a spring marsh packed with ducks is the comically nasal blurting quacks of drake Gadwall. CLICK HERE to listen for yourself.

After a bit, a drake Gadwall drifted near, and began bathing - plunging his head under the icewater, and showering itself with spray. I locked the camera on the bird, hoping for interesting compositions, and was not disappointed. In this shot, taken in mid-shake and frozen with a 1/5000 shutter speed, the true majesty of this bird smacks one in the face. It is like an ornately detailed work of art. Note the extremely fine vermiculations of the flank and breast feathers - avian op art in real life. The fanned plumes are nearly egretlike, and the duck reveals its wing panels of chestnut, ebony, and ivory. When caught primping like this, the wallflower becomes a supermodel!

The Gadwall blows the water off with powerful strokes of its wings, offering another perspective of its beauty. Suffering the breezy chill of a frigid February day was well worth it, in order to do a shoot with one of our most beautiful ducks.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vanilla Ice meets Cooper's Hawk

This is the front page of one of the sections of last Sunday's Columbus Dispatch, and I was pleased to see my column, Nature, got the banner treatment. As did my Cooper's Hawk photo. This isn't the first time that I've managed to come up with something interesting enough to get bannerized, but IT IS the first time that any of my work has shared space with Vanilla Ice.

Yes, THAT Vanilla Ice. He of the explosive 1990 hit Ice Ice Baby, complete with its unmistakable stuttering bass line. Sorry, I imagine that little rapster ditty is now incessantly circling some of your brains, and it may not soon go away. And if his big hit isn't yet wedged in your mind, CLICK HERE.

Well, it turns out that Mr. Robert Matthew Van Winkle (no wonder he goes by Vanilla Ice) is an accomplished home remodeler. That's why the Dispatch featured him on the front page of the At Home section. But as I can't help noting, below my stuff.

Sharing the page with Vanilla Ice. Wonder if this is going to be the pinnacle of my career?


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cooper's hawk is songbird assassin

Cooper's hawk is a songbird assassin

February 15, 2015

Jim McCormac

Few visitors to backyard bird feeders are as polarizing as the Cooper’s hawk.

Many songbird lovers have recoiled in horror when one of these feathered furies has barreled into the yard and plucked a cardinal from the air.

The Cooper’s hawk is the common backyard plunderer of songbirds.

Bad attitudes toward the magnificent raptor go way back. Early ornithologists disparaged them, adding legitimacy to efforts to soil the bird’s reputation and provide fuel for hawk shooters. Said William Dawson, author of the 1903 book Birds of Ohio: “THIS is the real culprit! Punish him who will (for its) . . . evil deeds/"

Waxing anthropomorphic about Cooper’s hawks is irresistible. The hawk possesses the strategic genius of Genghis Khan, the slick agility of Wayne Gretzky and a punch like Mike Tyson.

Cooper’s hawks feed almost entirely on songbirds. Their short rounded wings and long rudderlike tail allow the birds to maneuver like stunt planes. Females are much larger than males and will sometimes take down squirrels. A hawk on the hunt might sit quietly in a tree, awaiting prey. Other times, the bird will explode into a flock of potential victims, using shrubs, houses or other obstacles to hide its approach.

An adult Cooper’s hawk is beautiful. The upperparts are shaded a rich bluish-gray, and colorful orange barring stripes the underside. The head is capped with black, as if the hawk has donned a hoodie, and under that are glaring red eyes (stare into a Cooper’s hawk’s eyes and you’ll be struck by the absolute fearlessness within). Young Cooper’s hawks are clad in muted browns with bold smudgy streaking below.

While common today, Cooper’s hawks’ populations plummeted in the mid-1900s. Harvesting by gunners played a role, but environmental contamination by DDT was worse. The pesticide interfered with raptor reproduction cycles. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, Cooper’s hawks began to recover.

When one feeds the songbirds, one also feeds Cooper’s hawks. One invites them into the yard by providing a buffet of cardinals, jays, sparrows and such. Rather than excoriating the hardworking hawk for plying its trade, one should instead appreciate the hawk for what it is. A Cooper’s hawk is the pinnacle of avian engineering, an indomitable spirit of the wild in the midst of our largely domesticated lives.

As do all high-end predators, Cooper’s hawks play a vital role in creating equilibrium among populations of lesser beasts.

Some people just don’t like the way they go about it — although many folks who deride a Cooper’s hawk for doing what comes naturally would defend the nonnative house cat that slays backyard birds.
Cats are beautiful and have their place — in the house. Leave the bird-hunting to the natives such as the majestic Cooper’s hawk.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com


Saturday, February 14, 2015

A gorgeous winter sunset

A fading sunset paints the sky in warm hues, reflected off interesting cloud formations. Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County, Ohio, February 7, 2015.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wildlife Diversity Conference: A perk for attendees

I recently wrote about the upcoming Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, which will take place in Columbus on March 11. CLICK HERE for that post and additional conference details.

It is customary to unveil new Division of Wildlife publications at this conference, and this year will be no exception. Scroll on down...

Conference attendees will be the first to receive a showy new publication entitled Milkweeds & Monarchs. This slick little booklet describes the current plight of our most iconic butterfly, lays out its ecology and the integral role of milkweeds in the butterfly's life cycle, and details many of the other benefits that milkweeds provide. Above all, the publication outlines ways in which people can easily and directly help the Monarch.

There will be other perks for attendees as well. Be sure to attend, and get your Milkweeds & Monarchs booklet, hear a bunch of great talks, and share with hundreds of other like-minded nature enthusiasts. And please, pass the word. For conference registration, CLICK HERE.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rough-legged Hawk

Teed up like an angel ornament crowning a Christmas tree, a Rough-legged Hawk surveys its surroundings from atop a scraggly locust at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County. Students of raptors soon learn of this hawk's propensity for perching at the very tip of whatever surveillance point the hawk chooses, often mounting impossibly small twigs. Such perching behavior can give the observer a strong idea as to what species is involved, long before any field marks can be seen. Years ago, I had a new birder in my car, and as we drove through the wintry Ohio landscape, I espied a raptor perched on the extreme uppermost branches of a large oak in the middle of an otherwise barren field. "Rough-legged Hawk!" I proclaimed, even though the bird was very far off and just an undefined speck. She was stunned, and demanded to know how I could possibly be sure of its identity. I launched into an utterly - but unbeknownst to her - fanciful description of how the legs were feathered to the feet, the small bill and delicate facial features, blah blah blah. By now she thinks I must have Superman vision, and soon we were close enough to the bird to stop and and admire it through our optics. Sure, enough, light morph Rough-legged Hawk.

I was just playing the odds in order to have some fun, relying on the treetop perching habits of this beautiful raptor to prove me right. As we admired the stunning raptor, I of course came clean and divulged why my guess was what it was. And why such knowledge can make for a good party trick when with newer birders.

A closer view of a Rough-legged Hawk in flight, as seen yesterday at Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County. A stunning bird indeed, with a complex pattern of white, black, and brown. In addition to their habit of treetop perching, Rough-leggeds excel at "wind-kiting": facing into the wind and hovering in place for sometimes extensive periods. They do this when prey is seen below. A favored food is meadow voles, and these little rodents often dash in and out of the snow or grass clumps. The raptor remains tethered overhead, as if attached to a string, awaiting an opportunity to pounce.

The bird in this photo is a light morph individual. There is also a striking dark morph of the Rough-legged Hawk that is mostly black. The color forms of Rough-legged Hawks - and other animals with distinct morphs such as Snow Geese - are often mistakenly referred to as "phases", as in "Did you see that beautiful dark phase Rough-legged Hawk?". Sorry to mount a nerdish, mildly pedantic soap box, but such forms are decidedly not phases and shouldn't be referred to as such. A phase is, according to Webster's: "a particular appearance or state in a regularly recurring cycle of changes".

The appearance of the moon at any given time is a phase. It'll change appearance in successive days, but it is still the moon, albeit with very different looks as it progresses through its phases.

Rough-legged Hawks do not change form. They are either light morphs (which most birds that appear in Ohio are), or they are dark morphs. If the bird changed appearance from a light type to a dark type over its development, then one might say that the first stage of color form was a phase. But since they don't, one cannot accurately apply the term phase in this case. Again, from Webster, the definition of morph, as the term relates to biology: "a phenotypic variant of a species". And that's what light and dark morphs of the Rough-legged Hawk are - variants of the same species, but stable variants that do not change appearance over time, or phase into other plumages.

Enough of that. A person could easily be bowled over by the dashing good looks of a Rough-legged Hawk even if they didn't know its name, let alone whether the bird should be correctly termed a phase or morph. Also of interest is that the closest breeding Rough-legged Hawks to Ohio are about 1,200 miles to the north. To these hardy raptors of the far north, wintering in Ohio is their Floridian vacation.