Thursday, December 8, 2016

White-tailed Deer, on a tear

Not far from me is a wonderful metropark known as Glacier Ridge. For years, I rarely went there - maybe a stop once or twice a year. As I've become more acquainted with the place's little wildlife honey holes, I've been going more regularly, though.

Such was the case yesterday morning. I only had the morning to go shooting (with camera), so after a thorough shoot of some nearby waterfalls, it was off to Glacier Ridge. There is a field at the park's north end that is usually full of bluebirds and other songbirds, and the light is great in the early hours.

Not this day, though. The meadow was largely silent, and I thought about just packing it in. But I wanted to stay out a bit longer, so I slung the camera rig over my shoulder and struck out on a well-used deer trail. Before long, I flushed a gorgeous Coyote with lots of rufous highlights. The wary animal spotted me long before I was in camera range, and trotted out of the meadow into a vast recently mowed field. The beast casually trotted across the field, occasionally stopping to stare back at me.

This gave me hope that a White-tailed Deer might do the same. The chances were decent that I would flush one off its bed in thick cover, and if it followed the Coyote's lead and ran into the mowed field, I might be able to snag some action shots.

Shortly thereafter, I heard a rustle and looked ahead to see a large doe looking around warily in dense cover. She'd picked up on me, but hadn't yet spotted me. A few seconds later she did, and bolted for the open field. Unfortunately, there was tall vegetation between her and I, but it didn't take long to get into a semi-clear spot and drop the tripod.

Here, she shows her conspicuous white "flag tail"; the earmark of an alarmed deer at speed. We can also see her cleft hooves - a character of an ungulate (the "hooves" are really thickened keratin-based toe tips).

After her initial romp, she paused briefly to stare at me. Then, as if realizing how exposed she was, she really put on the speed and galloped towards a distant woods. White-tails at full whirl are impressive indeed. She punctuated her galloping with enormous, almost playful skyward leaps that were beyond impressive. In this shot, she is five or six feet off the ground.

In moments, she had reached distant cover and vanished. And I was quite glad that I decided to follow that deer trail.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A trip to Slate Run Metro Park: Botanical highs and lows

Part of a large wetland complex at Slate Run Metro Park in Pickaway County, Ohio. A section of the westernmost part of this 1,705 acre park is a mosaic of meadows, ponds, and wetlands.

It's sometimes easy to overlook the jewels in one's own backyard. Even though Slate Run is only a bit over a half-hour's drive, and it's been there for a while, I had never been to the place. That situation got remedied with two visits in the past few days, and I was impressed with what I found.

Immediately upon arrival, it was birds galore, and since finding and imaging the feathered crowd was the foremost priority of these expeditions, I was pleased indeed. Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks (wish they'd shorten that name! "Franklin County Metroparks") has long been a leader in ecological restoration and it shows at this park. Lots of native plant diversity in the wetlands and fields, and a logical blend of uplands and lowlands.

The Kokomo Wetland Trail winds for about 1.5 miles through meadow and along wetlands. At one point, a boardwalk crosses a pond/wetland. I found lots of birds along this trail, including many Swamp Sparrows. This is a hardy species, and many try to overwinter here, especially in sites with thick cattail stands.

Slate Run was rich in sparrows during my visit, and their ranks included American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Eastern Towhee.

One honey hole was a photographer's dream. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw and heard numerous American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. It didn't take long to figure out that many of the birds were venturing to a small pond buffered by woods, and drinking and bathing.

I crept into a good situation, and after a while the birds acclimated to my presence and carried on with their activities. This robin is perched on a perfectly sited log, which many of the birds used as a stop before or after a visit to the nearby water. While I like robins - one of the handsomest birds in North America, we're just jaded because they are so common - I've got scores of photos of them, and really hoped that a waxwing would tee up in this same spot.

Voila! Before long, a Cedar Waxwing did just that. Few of the world's birds can rival this elegant species for suave sophistication.

After a while, waxwings began coming so close that I couldn't even focus - they were inside my minimum focus range. Such problems!

The birds' close proximity allowed me to create portraiture shots such as this. This adult waxwing is impeccably groomed, as is typical.

In a minute, I'll discuss the abundant food source that had so many birds concentrated in this area. But with the waxwings, what I really wanted was to make some photos of them eating their botanical namesake: the fruit (cones) of eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. This native conifer provides an important winter food source. There were a few cedar very close at hand, and eventually several of the birds flew in and began plundering the fruit. One cedar was so close that I would have needed my 70-200mm lens to capture the birds in its boughs - the 500mm plus 1.4x teleconverter was overkill.

A waxwing poses, briefly, with berry in bill. A second later it was down the hatch.

The new norm for many Ohio woodlands is this nasty plant, Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii. A native of Eurasia, it was intentionally introduced in eastern North America long ago, partly for its ornamental value, and partly for its "wildlife value".

Even this late in the year, the leaves of this understory plant remain green, and its branches drip with bright red berries. And the birds love 'em.

Amazingly, the various bush honeysuckles (there are a few invasive species) were still formally recommended as a wildlife planting by wildlife agencies into the 1990's - long after botanists and ecologists could have told them that this was a bad idea. The nursery trade must be implicated in this infestation, too, although I think by now virtually everyone has wised up and stopped selling the stuff.

But honeysuckle is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Even in a managed park such as Slate Run, there is far too much of it to eradicate.

A Northern Cardinal plows through a honeysuckle berry, one of many that I watched it eat. And he, and all of the other birds feeding on the stuff, will spread the plants about. Some of the seeds survive the rough ride through the digestive tract and emerge from the other end scarified and ready to grow.


I was pleased to hear the loud smacking CHAK! calls of a Fox Sparrow, and eventually saw 5 or 6 of the large handsome sparrows. I was not so pleased to see them succumbing to the honeysuckle addiction shared by many of their feathered companions. Note the evidence on the tip of this bird's bill.

Dozens of American Robins were in the area, and all of them were feeding heavily on the honeysuckle. These thrushes are one of the major consumers of honeysuckle fruit, and the plant is a primary reason why we in the north see so many robins around in winter. The Cedar Wawings were also consuming honeysuckle fruit en masse, but I preferred to use my shots of them eating the native cedar fruit.

Even the White-throated Sparrows were in on the act. This handsome white-striped morph ate many of the berries while I watched, as did many of his companions.

So, if honeysuckle is such an abundant and rich source of bird food, what's the problem?

For one, the berries themselves. They are high in sugar and low in fat and protein - exactly the opposite of what birds need in winter. Native berry-producing shrubs produce far less fruit, but it provides much better nutritional needs for birds that might be subjected to severe cold snaps and ice storms which might largely lock the birds out of many food sources for days on end.

Too, the absolutely enormous berry crops lure many species to overwinter in much greater numbers far to the north of where they normally would. Like all those robins. This creates the potential for large winter die-off's, as has happened conspicuously with American Robins, should extended severe weather strike.

Honeysuckle also forms extensive tangles that choke out many/most native shrubs and other plants. It has been shown to be allelopathic as well - the roots exude enzymes which inhibit the growth of competing plant species. Botanical chemical warfare, if you will.

Perhaps most insidiously, the nonnative honeysuckles are unsuitable hosts for nearly all of our (in Ohio) 2,500+ moth and butterfly species. Their caterpillars cannot eat the stuff, because they share no evolutionary history. This means vast swaths of honeysuckle infestations that do not produce the caterpillars that are so essential to fueling our nesting and migrant songbirds.

On its face, the honeysuckle might seem a great thing for birds. But there is a much darker side to this story.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nature: Damming of Scioto spares two magnificent waterfalls

Indian Run Falls/Jim McCormac

December 4, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Columbus and the surrounding flatlands are not known for waterfalls. Yet some mini-Niagaras lurk in hidden spots.

In northwestern Franklin County, the Scioto River flows through a massive layer of Columbus limestone. The rock is so-named because the original core was extracted near the capital city.

Formed during the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago, Columbus limestone is a prominent geological feature in these parts. Massive quantities have been mined in the western part of Franklin County, and limestone cliffs are prominent in places along the Scioto River.

Before the construction of Griggs Dam (1905) and O’Shaughnessy Dam (1925) on the Scioto River, numerous limestone box canyons and their attendant streams flowed into the river. The pooling of the reservoirs submerged most of them, and their waterfalls.

Fortunately, a few falls survive, two of which are easily accessed showstoppers.

Hayden Falls was spared because it lies along the short section of the Scioto between the reservoirs and wasn’t inundated. The city of Columbus owns the falls, and access is from a parking lot on the south side of Hayden Run Road, just east of the Scioto River.

A wooden staircase descends to the depths of the narrow canyon, and a boardwalk leads to the 30-foot falls. This is a spectacular waterfall in a gorgeous setting — easily one of the top falls in Ohio.
Perhaps even better is nearby Indian Run Falls. The city of Dublin is owner and has provided easy access via a parking lot at 700 Shawan Falls Drive, near Rt. 161 and Frantz Road.

Trails provide access to Indian Run, and strategically sited observation decks offer commanding views of the falls. In the upper reaches of the park, Indian Run cascades over short limestone shelves.

Farther downstream, the creek funnels into a limestone chute and plummets into a steep-sided gorge. A short distance beyond, the waters plunge over a 20-foot drop — the falls pictured with this column.

Not only are the limestone waterfalls and gorges of northwestern Franklin County visually stunning, they are botanically significant.

In 1834, pioneer botanist John Leonard Riddell stumbled across an unfamiliar lily somewhere near the previously described falls (he was inexact in recording the specifics). Riddell had discovered the diminutive snow trillium, which still persists in this area.

Eight years later, in spring of 1842, William Starling Sullivant, the botanist son of Lucas Sullivant — the man who founded Franklinton — was exploring the Scioto River’s box canyons.

He found a showy white-flowered mustard growing on ledges of the limestone cliff faces. Flummoxed by its identity, he eventually realized he had found a new species and named it Arabis patens, the spreading rock cress. Small numbers of this state-endangered plant still hang on in local gorges.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

An American tree sparrow/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

November 27, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Come late October/early November, the American tree sparrows descend on Ohio’s meadows. To these plucky little songbirds, Ohio’s winters are its Florida vacation.

Tree sparrows breed as far north as the Arctic Circle. Some of the birds that winter in Ohio might have traveled 2,000 miles south to reach our latitude. Tropically speaking, that’s equal to hopping on a jet and flying south to San Jose, Costa Rica.

One often hears the sparrows before seeing them. Foraging flocks are usually concealed in the vegetation, but they make their presence known with beautiful calls. Tree sparrow notes sound like delicate icicles softly shattering; a crystalline tinkling melody that carries the promise of short frigid days to come.

Tree sparrows are rather extroverted, unlike most of their brethren. When on alert, flocks will often rise atop vegetation where we can admire them. The tree sparrow wears a rusty cap, and sports a black stickpin in the center of its breast. A pair of white bars stripe its wings, and its bicolored bill is yellow below, black above.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Tree sparrows generally shun trees. They are birds of treeless plains, whether it be Canadian tundra or Ohio meadow. The first Europeans to encounter them were reminded of a songbird of the Old World, the Eurasian tree sparrow, hence the name.

Although tree sparrows won’t rebuff an insect meal, such fare is hard to come by in an Ohio winter. Thus, they adopt a vegan diet and feed heavily on the seeds of plants.

I recently visited Glacier Ridge Metro Park near Dublin and had my autumnal reunion with the tree sparrows. That’s where I shot the accompanying photo.

Park managers have encouraged large, diverse meadows rich in native flora. The birds offered a ringing endorsement. Dozens of American goldfinches capered about, plundering the fruit of various “ weeds”.

In Glacier Ridge’s north meadow, several dozen eastern bluebirds hunted nearly inert grasshoppers stunned by the brisk air. An eastern meadowlark, its lemon breast emblazoned with a black chevron, took to the summit of a small tree. Buoyed by an impeccable azure November sky, it whistled its sharp cheery song.

Numerous sparrows were in the mix: field, song, swamp, white-crowned, and white-throated. And, of course, tree sparrows. The latter fixated on abundant tall goldenrod. Like feathered acrobats, the sparrows would dangle from the goldenrod heads, deftly plucking seeds.

The fruit of goldenrod is rich in fat and protein — just the thing for firing fast metabolisms and creating the energy necessary to survive long frigid nights.

Food-rich meadows rife with native plants have become much scarcer, victims of overly neat agriculture and other development. Natural refugia such as Glacier Ridge have become all the more important in protecting our songbirds.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Conkles Hollow, on a misty morning

One of the crown jewels of Ohio's rich natural resources is the Hocking Hills. This region, which is a short drive southeast of Columbus and is centered in Hocking County, is noted for its steep hemlock-cloaked gorges, impressive sandstone cliffs, and overall stunning scenery. While I've made scores of trips here over the years, I must confess to avoiding the area somewhat in recent years.

Too many people.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm glad the tens of thousands of folks visit Old Man's Cave, Ash Cave, Cantwell Cliffs, Cedar Falls and all of the other iconic Hocking Hills hotspots. By visiting such glorious natural areas, a person would seemingly have to become more interested in nature and conservation, or so it would seem. So, I'm glad my fellow primates flock to these places. But, alas, my fellow primates are also VERY NOISY. And that drives me crazy when I'm in places such as the one we will visit in this blog.

To many Hocking Hills veterans, Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve would be Numero Uno among the region's natural treats. It's only 87 acres, but what an 87 acres! I have been remiss in trying to capture some of the beauty of this place with my camera, but today was the day for an attempt. Most factors were in my favor. One, I was there EARLY, like right after sunrise. Thus, beating the crowds. Two, it was cold and misty and such weather would help keep people away. Three, it was Thanksgiving, and the holiday would also keep many people in their bungalows.

The weather was a double-edged sword. The fumaroles and puffs of mist swirling in the valleys create interest and drama. But my favorite camera for landscape work, the Canon 5DS-R, is a priss. Too much moisture can shut it down, and potentially lead to an expensive fix. I do all I can to protect it, but no matter - if the skies unleashed water by the buckets, and I was a mile or so out on the trail, it would be quite difficult to keep moisture at bay. But, luckily, that didn't happen - the skies spit a bit, and even sprinkled on occasion, but it was manageable.

For this expedition, I brought along Canon's amazing 14mm f/2.8 II ultra wide-angle lens to test out. I rented it from my favorite camera gurus, Midwest Photo Exchange here in Columbus, for a mere $35 for a long weekend. Many of the following images were taken with that lens. Others in the bag and also employed were Canon's 16-35mm f/4, 50mm f/1.4, and 70-200mm f/2.8.

The view from partway up the long set of stairs leading to the gorge's upper rim. There are two trails at Conkles Hollow: this one, and the much easier lower gorge trail. My plan was to traverse the upper rim, then work the lower gorge. However, by the time I returned to the lower levels in late morning, there were already enough yelling, screaming people running around down there that I decided to save that part of Conkles for another day.

The rim trail is really not very tough. Once the hiker has ascended to the top, it's a nice flat hike all the way around the gorge, until the descent at the other end. You'll quickly be rewarded with spectacular vistas such as this.

The cliffs along Conkles' box canyon are massive, some of the tallest (the tallest?) in the state. Some rise to 200 feet. Over the years, many people have fallen, resulting in serious injuries and fatalities. More than a few have been photographers. Caution is advised when trying to frame that award-winning shot.

One of the spectacular Blackhand Sandstone promontories that stands guard over Conkles Hollow.

Shifting mists and a different lens creates a different perspective of the scene in the previous photo, only minutes later.

Another, smaller sandstone promontory along the rim trail.

 Same view as the previous image, with a different lens and slightly shifted position.

The highlight of the lower gorge is the recess cave at the trail's terminus. After rains, a waterfall splashes over the cliff at this point. This is the stream that creates that fall, and feeds the gorge, as seen from above. Just past the downed logs, the stream tumbles over the cliff and into the gorge. Little water in it on this day, though.

Jumbled logs and dead snags punctuate old-growth timber. This is how a forest should look. Too many of Ohio's forests are excessively manicured due to ecologically ignorant, poor timber management practices. While I was creating images in this area, a massive Pileated Woodpecker was working high in a nearby snag. THUMP! CRACK! The brutish woodpecker was probably after wood-boring beetle larvae, and his crude carpentry caused giant chunks of the snag to crash to the forest floor with resounding thumps. That's the only type of logger I want to see in a place like this.

The trail passes along the crest of steep cliffs which drop into rich coves. Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is a dominant tree here. This northern and Appalachian conifer is what gives the gorges of the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. The trees also provide habitat for disjunct populations of breeding birds that normally nest far to the north: Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, and Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Canada, and Magnolia warblers among others.

A blanket of still green "Fancy Ferns", Dryopteris intermedia, brighten the forest floor.

One of several stunning sandstone recess caves, nestled in a cathedral woodland. As always, I look forward to a return visit to Conkles Hollow, and as always, it'll be at first light so I can have the place to myself for a few precious hours, selfish as that may be.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Indian Run Falls

A gorgeous series of limestone shelves cascades the waters of Indian Run ever lower, their fate to eventually merge with the much larger Scioto River.

I am all too often guilty of ignoring my backyard in favor of more distant and exotic places. Such was the case with the stunning Indian Falls Park, which is only ten minutes from home.

I'd been here, to be sure, but the last time was pre (serious)-camera, and that was probably 15 years ago. Lately I've been seeing some nice photos posted here and there of Indian Run Falls, and decided this morning was the ideal opportunity to visit.

There was a rainfall last night that added an almost perfect amount of water to the stream - not so much that one couldn't traverse the stream, but enough to create nice waterscapes. So, over to the falls I went, arriving shortly after sunrise on a cold - high 30's - blustery November day.

Accessing the best section of falls is quite easy. The City of Dublin owns the property and maintains it as a park. Well-maintained trails and strategically sited viewing platforms offer good vistas. I made almost none of these photos from those spots, but if one just wishes an easy ogle of the waterfalls, there's no need to get feet wet.

The upper reaches of the stream is punctuated with low limestone shelves, creating a series of small but very showy drops. This section of Indian Run is represented by the first three photos.

Soon enough, we come to the first big drop - a cascading chute that tumbles about 15-20 feet into a limestone box canyon sided by vertical cliffs.

Here's a view from the precipice of the chute, looking down into the gorge.

In a bit tighter on the same general perspective as the previous shot, but here we can better see the whirling eddy of leaves at the base.

I've moved on downstream for this image. We're looking back upstream at the chute seen in the previous two photos.

Finally, the namesake of the site, the larger of the two Indian Run Falls. This shot was created from the viewing platform at the top of the gorge. There's undoubtedly better perspectives to shoot this falls, but time didn't permit me to explore extensively.

If you've got a like for waterfalls, and who doesn't, I'd highly recommend a stop to Indian Run Falls. It's an incredibly easy place to access, just seconds off State Route 161, and minutes from I-270 and U.S. Route 33 in Dublin. I greatly look forward to a return visit. There are so many vistas, both great and small, that one could easily spend all day here, at least if they're trying to create landscape imagery. I suspect the place looks amazing in winter, too, when ice formations hang from the falls.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Supermoon!

The city of Columbus, Ohio, as seen last evening just prior to nightfall. I made this image from the Rich Street bridge across the Scioto River, and the fading light cast the edifices of downtown in a beautiful golden glow.

I, and many others, were down here to see - and attempt to photograph - the largest "Supermoon" since January 26, 1948. The moon circles Earth on an elliptical orbit, and when a full, or new, moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to our little blue dot, we get the so-called Supermoon.

The proper term for this phenomenon is the perigee-syzgy moon, the perigee being the closest point that an orbiting body comes to its host. As it had been 60 years since the moon had been this close to Earth, people were understandably excited. And if you missed last night's celestial show, you'll have to wait until November 25, 2034 for a similar lunar performance.

Click the pic to enlarge - it'll look better

The Supermoon can be seen cresting the buildings of downtown, at the far right of the image. While certainly a nice moon, as full moons go, the Supermoon really isn't radically different in appearance than most other full moons. But hey, at least I can say I saw it.

Photographing the moon with an interesting foreground, such as a city's downtown, is tricky business indeed. Many (most? all?) of the really great photos one sees with a perfectly exposed foreground, AND a tack-sharp perfectly exposed moon are the result of Photoshop trickery - a bit of slicing and merging of separate images. I don't engage in that stuff, mostly because I primarily shoot natural history subjects and in general want to portray them just as my eye saw them in the field. And, equally important, I lack the technical know-how to do such things :-)

So, the best I could do with the moon/cityscape was to try HDR (High Dynamic Range) experimentation. The shot above is a merger of five different photos, shot in instant succession. The only camera parameter that changed between shots was shutter speed, so that exposure time varied between images. This allowed me to expose the city fairly well, yet not totally blow out (overexpose) the very bright moon. But this will only work when the moon is placed as a distant, minor part of the composition. As the moon moves surprisingly fast on its orbit, the overall lengthy exposure required by this technique means that the moon has moved enough during the duration of the exposure to introduce blur.

NOTE: The size of the uncompressed image above is massive - about 25 megabytes and that's using jpegs. When I compressed it, a necessity to post on the blog, there was a noticeable reduction in quality. Clicking the photo to enlarge will make it look somewhat better, but it looks really good at the uncompressed 25 megabyte file size. The series of five images which made this composite were shot with the Canon 5DS-R with its 50 megapixel sensor, the amazing little Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, at f/8 and ISO 400. Shutter speeds ranges were 13, 5, 2, 4/5, and 1/3 seconds. Camera mounted on a tripod of course, and fired with a remote shutter release while in live view.

And finally, here it is up close and personal, the amazing 2016 Supermoon. After the moon had risen beyond the point where attempts at cityscape shots were possible, I pulled out the 500 f/4L II lens, with 1.4x teleconverter, and switched to the crop sensor Canon 7D II body. That combo offers 1,120 mm of reach - adequate for reaching FAR into the night sky.

I'll hope to be around, and still snapping pictures, when the next Supermoon orbits around in 2034.

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