Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nature: Monarch butterfly numbers increasing by droves

A monarch taps nectar from a swamp milkweed/Jim McCormac

October 21, 2018

Jim McCormac

On Sept. 15, 2013, my Nature column covered monarch butterflies. The message was gloomy. Following is an excerpt:

“Far fewer Monarchs are making this journey (to Mexican wintering grounds). Only 20 years ago, their ranks blanketed 45 acres of Mexican fir forest. Last winter, the butterflies occupied less than three acres. Many people have commented on their absence this fall. Some authorities estimate that Monarch numbers declined by 60 percent over the past two years.”

Then, monarchs appeared to be in dire straits, and a prime factor in the butterfly’s decline was the loss of milkweed. Monarchs require these plants as hosts — milkweeds are the only flora that the caterpillars can consume.

There are 13 native milkweed species in Ohio, and monarchs probably use them all. But the two species that do most of the heavy lifting are common milkweed and swamp milkweed. The latter grows in damp soil, and as we’ve lost about 90 percent of our state’s presettlement wetlands, the milkweed has also declined.

The aptly named common milkweed is by far our most numerous monarch fuel, and it will grow in nearly any dry, open habitat. Roadside mowing, excessive herbicide use, and the proliferation of increasingly sterile agricultural landscapes has greatly decreased this plant.

Fortunately, highly nomadic monarchs are quick to capitalize on new opportunities and will readily find new places to reproduce. People heeded a call to action. No one wanted to see the iconic orange-and-black butterflies fall to the wayside, and thus began a fevered campaign of milkweed planting.

The insects have responded. Even postage-stamp-size urban yards are cranking out monarchs, and an army of human foster parents now raise and release the butterflies. Scores of conservation organizations, park districts, highway departments and others have also joined the effort for milkweed production.

On Sept. 30, some friends and I were having lunch on a balcony overlooking a gorgeous wooded valley in southern Ohio. During our hourlong respite, we estimated that 70 to 80 monarchs coursed by on an unerring southwest trajectory. I’ve probably seen more monarchs this fall than in the past five years combined.

Many people have reported similar spikes this year. Late September brought reports of several massive roosts — congregations of thousands of butterflies — along the Lake Erie shoreline. These tough monarchs were resting after an arduous flight across the lake, en route from Canada.

The most accurate assessment of monarch populations comes from evaluating the coverage of butterflies in the Mexican oyamel fir forests where they winter. There, monarchs form shimmering burnt-orange cloaks over the trees, and scientists can calculate the acreage that they occupy.

Last winter, about 6 acres of fir forest were butterfly-filled, a doubling from 2013 when I previously covered this subject. Because of this year’s bumper crop, prospects look even brighter. Chip Taylor of the butterfly-conservation organization Monarch Watch estimates that butterflies could occupy up to 12 acres of fir forest this winter. The butterflies blanketed 45 acres two decades ago, so we’re still a ways from peak numbers.

The upward trajectory of monarch populations is a clear example of how people can positively intervene to help an imperiled natural resource. Congratulations to everyone who has assisted in the proliferation of North America’s most fabled butterfly.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Autumn Upper Peninsula

The "Big Mac", or as it's properly known, the Mackinac Bridge. This massive span links Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas, and is a gateway to true north. I made this image from the Upper Peninsula side, looking south across the Straits of Mackinac towards Mackinaw City on the south side of the bridge.

Debbie DiCarlo and I just returned from an epic scouting trip to the UP, to determine sites for a photo workshop that we'll be leading in October 2019. We'll have the details of that sorted soon, but for now HERE IS THE LINK to our workshops for 2019. They'll all be good, and we'd love to have you along on any of them. We've got dates and itineraries for most, and the Upper Peninsula trip details will appear there soon.

Following is a visual feast of fall in the Upper Peninsula from our recent reconnaissance trip.

The fall color in the UP is breathtaking. Early to mid-October is peak, and nearly everywhere one goes there are numerous photo ops. "Tree Tunnels" such as this abound. This one was deep in the Hiawatha National Forest south of Munising.

A red maple sapling glows as if it's been plugged in. Ashy-white reindeer lichen punctuate the foreground and a foggy red pine forest provides the backdrop.

Brightly bicolored red maple leaves accent an old white birch log on a frosty morning, nestled in a bed of haircap moss and reindeer lichens.

An amazing - as in stop the car! - white birch forest in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We spent quite a while here, before dragging ourselves away. There were gale warnings on this day, and even a half-mile inland from Lake Superior the winds were powerful. That ended up working to my advantage as the stout breeze shook the leaves to create a blurred painterly look to the photograph.

Coffee-colored water rushes over a set of falls at Tahquamenon Falls. There are several tiers of falls here, and numerous compositional opportunities. This is the largest set of falls in Michigan, and when at peak spring flow, Tahquamenon facilitates the third largest volume of water of any falls east of the Mississippi River.

Bridalveil Falls, cascading 140 feet down a colorful cliff in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This is Michigan's tallest falls, and it can be seen from a LONG ways away. The regular boat tours here probably offer the best and closest perspective of Bridalveil. There is no way to get near the falls on the ground, except at the summit where the view is not great and the situation is hazardous. I made this image from about one-half mile away, using a 500mm telephoto with 1.4x extender for a 700mm reach.

Memorial Falls, within the city limits of Munising and one of many waterfalls in the area. This one is reminiscent of the sandstone recess cave waterfalls in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.

The shores of Lake Superior are renowned for colorful cobble beaches, and this is a prime example. This shoreline is along Au Train Bay, about 15 minutes west of Munising. Various rocks - basalt, rhyolite, gneiss, granite and others - provide for stunning photo ops.

One could spend half the day with these rocks and a camera. I spent some time standing in the wave zone with my camera pointed down at the cobble, trying to time shots with incoming waves.

Upon arrival to this magical Au Train Bay beach, I noticed a trio of Lapland longspurs foraging in the wrack line. So I rushed back to the Jeep, grabbed a telephoto lens, and rushed back down the beach to get in front of the birds. Tame as they tend to be, the longspurs ignored me and advanced right by my position as I crouched in the sand.

The sunsets and sunrises over Lake Superior can be incredible and we were lucky in that we caught several showy ones. Here, the setting sun lights the horizon on fire, as seem from Miners Beach in Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.

This was a sunrise of epic scope, viewed from one of the most remarkable lookouts along Lake Superior, Sugarloaf Mountain just west of Marquette. Making it even better is an unusual solar flare known as a "Sun Pillar" The sun was still below the horizon when I made this photo, but is telegraphing a columnar yellow reflection into the sky.

We'll be going to all of the above locales, and numerous others, on next fall's photo tour. Again, for details CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Mackinac Bridge

The mighty Mackinac Bridge, festively lit and stretching five miles across the Straits of Mackinac, linking Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. This image was shot last night during an approaching electrical storm, which created some weird lighting in the sky. Taken from the Upper Peninsula, looking south towards Mackinaw City at the opposite end of the bridge. I'm up here scouting for a 2019 photo workshop that Debbie DiCarlo and I are planning. It'd focus on spectacular landscapes and stunning fall color, both of which occur up here in spades. We got scads of cool imagery today, and will amass even more over the next few days. More photos to follow...

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hocking Hills redux

A set of hand-hewn rock steps exits a tunnel in the sandstone cliffs of the Hocking Hills at Old Man's Cave. This area is renowned for its beauty, in Ohio and far beyond.

I'm always in a game of catch-up when it comes to sorting and filing photos. I generally take more images than is easily dealt with in a timely manner. So, over the past few days I finally got around to archiving photographs from a wonderful photographic workshop that Debbie DiCarlo and I led last February. It was the better part of three days, in the Hocking Hills. We visited many of the iconic hotspots, ostensibly to photograph icy and snowy landscapes. Mother Nature had other plans, and the weather was unseasonably warm and rainy.

This unexpected meteorological twist worked to our advantage. The streams and waterfalls were perfectly filled, and the wetness created wonderful saturation of colors. We lucked out in that the rain usually fell at night or at other times when we weren't out in it.

Water gushes through a gap near the upper falls at Old Man's Cave. The old stone bridges in this area fit perfectly with the environment, and if they ever replace them I hope it is with similar structures.

A big sandstone cliff hems in a stream flowing through a picturesque hemlock gorge. The conditions and locales were perfect for learning about landscape photography.

Cedar Falls, rendered in black and white. One advantage - huge one, photographically - of visiting the Hocking Hills during midweek in winter is that the crowds of people are nearly absent. Thus, we were able to capture scenes of incredibly popular tourist destinations, like this one, with no people cluttering the shot.

Hidden Falls, just below Cedar Falls. This is about as wintry as things looked while our group was there. Not having to deal with freezing temperatures was nice, and the perfect water levels in the streams couldn't be beat. Lots of ice and snow is great too, it just creates a completely different ambience. Chances are, our next workshop here in January (16 thru 18) will feature snow and amazing ice formations.

The colorful stone walls of Rock House, one of the most spectacular sandstone formations in this region, as seen through a VERY long exposure (it's quite dark inside).

We of course tried our hand at sunsets, as we nearly always do when the skies and cloud cover cooperates. This is Lake Logan, just minutes from our hotel base camp.

If you are interested in next year's workshop to Hocking Hills - or any of the others - we'd love to have you. We will only take a maximum of ten people, and several have already signed on, so if you're thinking about it, might be good to pull the trigger fairly soon.

Details about all of our photographic workshops, and they're all going to be good, can be found RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Golden cinnamon ferns

Lush beds of cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum, brighten seasonally damp swales in a beautiful prairie savanna complex yesterday. This scene was photographed in The Nature Conservancy's Kitty Todd Preserve. Fall colors - other than these ferns - are just starting, with sassafras, blackgum, maples and a few other tree species beginning to brighten. Within two weeks, the eastern deciduous forest should be a bright tapestry of colors here in the Ohio Country.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Nature: Humans malign, persecute, crowd out snakes

A juvenile northern copperhead/Jim McCormac

September 30, 2018

Jim McCormac

Venomous snakes strike way over their weight in regard to reputation. They can pack a punch, but the odds of encountering one in Ohio is very low.

Three venomous serpent species occur here. The massasauga rattlesnake and timber rattlesnake are listed as endangered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The former is an imperiled denizen of wet prairies and has declined tremendously. Timber rattlesnakes are rare inhabitants of remote tracts of southern Ohio forest. They formerly ranged much more widely, including the Lake Erie islands.

People and venomous snakes do not coexist well. If human encroachment into their turf becomes too dense, the snakes always lose. If habitat destruction doesn’t vanquish them, persecution will.

I recently got a lesson in snake/people conflict, and it wasn’t the first time. While returning from a nocturnal forest foray in southern Ohio on Sept. 15, I encountered a northern copperhead, our third venomous snake species.

A copperhead could win a reptilian beauty pageant. The coloration and patterning is exquisite. After shooting imagery of the handsome young snake, I transported it to the safety of a distant woods

The snake was in the vicinity of a lodge where I was staying. A few employees were in the lobby when I entered, and curious as to their reaction, I mentioned the copperhead. Sure enough, one instantly blurted out, “Just killed two of them last week!”

Years ago, I was road-cruising in the same region late on a steamy summer night. Encountering a large copperhead on the road, I stopped for photos and to move it off the pavement. Suddenly a man materialized from the gloom. It turned out I had stopped near his shack, and once he saw the snake, he began an anti-snake rant. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff said, caution is preferable to rash bravery. I said my goodbyes, and that snake probably didn’t fare as well as the protagonist of this column.

Copperheads have the widest distribution of Ohio’s venomous snakes, but the range encompasses only a dozen or so southeastern counties. It once occurred throughout southern and eastern Ohio, but it has been eliminated from most areas. Although the bite would be painful, deaths are nearly unheard of

My sinuous friend was docile, as copperheads usually are, and posed beautifully. It was a juvenile, with a greenish-yellow tail tip. The latter feature is retained for the snake’s first three years or so. Apparently the young snakes use the bright tail tip as a lure. By holding it out, wormlike, they attract insects and then snap them up. Adults are efficient mousers, with rodents a dietary staple.

The possible reasons why people fear snakes are interesting. Some of it is undoubtedly innate. Scores of generations of our ancestors learned the hard way that bites can be dangerous. Caution is now hardwired into our DNA.

Snakes have long been the recipients of bad press — consider the snake as the evil tempter in the Garden of Eden

Unflattering portrayals, along with adults reacting badly to snakes in front of kids, have discolored their reputation.

Snakes have been here far longer than we, and they deserve space and freedom from persecution. The only way to pragmatically conserve them is to protect large swaths of habitat free from excessive human inhabitation.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Nature: Seldom-seen caterpillars vital link in food chain

A mammoth hickory horned devil caterpillar/Jim McCormac

September 16, 2018

Jim McCormac

Caterpillars represent the vast underworld of the food chain. Out of sight and out of mind, they make the natural world go ’round.

Trick question: What’s the biggest group of herbivores (by biomass) in Ohio? No, not white-tailed deer. Caterpillars. All our state’s deer would make a big heap. Pile up all of the caterpillars, and that stack would dwarf the deer.

So why don’t you see many, if any, caterpillars? After all, these larvae of butterflies and moths are fantastically diverse, with a collective 2,000-plus species in Ohio.

Short answer: They’re very good at hiding. But caterpillars are prolific and everywhere, especially in wooded areas.

I’ve been stalking caterpillars with a camera for years, and have made thousands of images of them. The vast majority were taken at night. Like a hidden army, caterpillars emerge from hiding spots under cover of darkness, the better to avoid predatory birds, insects and other diurnal predators

Caterpillars have evolved a large, diverse bag of tricks to avoid predators, but literally tons are still found and eaten. Experts think the mortality rate hovers at about 99 percent. Thus, most moths and butterflies engage in carpet-bombing reproduction. One female might lay hundreds or thousands of eggs. Such prolificacy is necessary to get a few through the predatory gauntlet and to the adult-reproductive stage.

The fallen caterpillars did not perish in vain. Birds galore, other insects, and even mammals made meals of them. Caterpillars underpin food webs, and without them we would lose many of our higher animals. The plants that are eaten by caterpillars — which is all of our native species — would go haywire.

Some of these crawling tube steaks are especially impressive, and I recently encountered a Holy Grail. While on a southern Ohio excursion, an exceptionally keen-eyed friend, Molly Kenney, spotted a hickory horned devil 12 feet up in a black-walnut sapling

Our group gathered to marvel at the hotdog-sized behemoth. We eventually extracted the horned devil from its tree for photos. Fierce as it looks, horned devils are harmless. The orange-and-black spines do no damage, nor does it bite.

However, the shock-and-awe factor probably sends most songbirds fleeing.

Eventually, hickory horned devils come to the ground of their own volition and roam about searching for soft earth. This is when people most often encounter them. Once a suitable site is found, the devil will burrow in and form a subterranean pupation chamber in which it spends the winter

Come spring or summer, the adult moth, which is known as a royal walnut moth, will push from the ground. The adult moth is bat-sized, orange-brown and as spectacular as its larva. Unlike its gluttonous caterpillar phase, the moth does not feed, lives but a week or so, and exists only to find a mate and reproduce.

Hickory horned devils are an important part of the ecology of hickory, sweetgum, walnut and a handful of other trees. Most other caterpillars are tightly wedded to a small suite of plants that are indigenous to their area; they will eat nothing else.

Caterpillar production is a huge part of why conservation of native plants is vital — they serve to fuel much of the rest of the food chain. Nearly all caterpillar species shun non-native flora. By planting native species in your yard, you can help generate little sausages for birds and other critters.

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
Head on with the fantastically bizarre hickory horned devil/Jim McCormac

Nature: Monarch butterfly numbers increasing by droves

A monarch taps nectar from a swamp milkweed/Jim McCormac Columbus Dispatch October 21, 2018 NATURE Jim McCormac On Sept. 15, 20...