Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Northern Michigan birds

Greetings from northern Michigan's Presque Isle County. I've been up here for a week, so far, and have been burning the candle at both ends. Doug Tallamy and John MacIntosh were up for a few days, and we collectively shot off many thousands of images. Then my group came in last Sunday to base camp at the beautiful Nettie Bay Lodge and we've been tearing it up ever since. Many amazing experiences, a huge bird list racked up thus far, and an incredibly exciting life mammal for your narrator (more on that later).

Yesterday was the most amazing day in the jack pine country that I've ever had, and today's foray to the shores of Lake Huron brought over 400 migrating Broad-winged Hawks, among MANY other interesting observations. We've been having a great time, and everyone is seeing lots of new things, and seeing most of them quite well.

Following are a few avian delights that I managed to snap photos of in the past few days...

Lincoln's Sparrow, gushing forth his rich buzzy melody in a scrub oak thicket in a young jack pine plains

A strong breeze ruffles the feathers of a male Vesper Sparrow. The clear fluid whistled notes of this handsome sparrow introduce a delightfully complex buzzy song which is a common part of the soundscape in jack pine country.

Star of the jack pine show, a male Kirtland's Warbler tees up and delivers his rich forceful reverb warble.

Golden-winged Warblers are fairly common up here, their few-parted buzzy songs a distinctive melody.

One of the flashiest warblers is the Magnolia Warbler, and this male was singing from dense white cedar and spruce in boggy ground.

A secretive Mourning Warbler gives your narrator a glimpse before retreating into a thick stand of red-osier dogwood.

A shockingly neon Scarlet Tanager, fresh from South America, feeds near the Lake Huron shoreline.

Sandhill Cranes are common up here, and this pair is foraging among dense sedges buffering a pristine kettle lake.
More to come, when time permits.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The ferocious dragon hunter

Dragon hunters, even as youngsters, are ferocious
Jim McCormac

May 17, 2015

The first column I wrote for this newspaper — appearing Aug. 16, 2005 — was about the dragon hunter, our largest species of dragonfly.

Hagenius brevistylus, as the dragon hunter is formally known, is a brutish insect. An adult can measure 31/2 inches. Comparatively small eyes cap a beefy, broad-shouldered thorax. Long, powerful, spiny legs seize prey, which the dragonfly plucks from the air.

Dragon hunters are extreme aerialists, putting on Ferrari-like bursts of speed and jagging with mind-numbing quickness. They use their skills and power to overcome big victims such as swallowtail butterflies and other dragonflies almost as large as themselves.

A large part of the dragon hunter’s mission is to make more dragon hunters. When a male encounters a willing female, he roughly grabs her by the head and mates with her. The courtship is Neanderthalish, no gentle New Age insect here.

Dragon hunters and their ilk have been around for about 300 million years.

The female dragon hunter deposits her eggs in the still waters of high-quality streams. Those that hatch produce a larva known as a nymph. The nymph is even more ferocious than the winged adults, if that’s possible. It is longer-lived, too. The nymph stage can last for several years, while the adult dragonfly might live a few months.

On a recent trip to Little Darby Creek, Anthony Sasson of the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy and I trawled up a dragon hunter nymph. I was excited to handle one, as I’ve seen the adults several times but never the completely aquatic larva.

A dragon hunter nymph is a leaf come to life, a horror show for lesser aquatic beasts. The quarter-size larva lurks in leafy detritus on the stream bottom. It blends perfectly with its surroundings.

When a victim happens along, the dragon hunter shoots out its lower “lip” (technically a labium) as far as one-third its body length in fractions of a second. A pair of toothed appendages at the lip’s terminus seizes the prey and yanks it back into the maw of the murderous larva. The victim, which might be a caddisfly larva, worm or even a small fish, has no time to react.

When it comes time to shift position, the dragon hunter nymph employs an odd style of locomotion. Its gills are in its rectum. By pushing water through the gills and out its rear in forceful blasts, the strange beast can jet itself about quite handily. As with the adult’s mating habits, such behavior would be considered rather crass among humans.

Dragon hunters are one of myriad interesting animals that depend upon streams with high water quality. Their presence means a healthy ecosystem.

The Big and Little Darby creeks are the crown jewels of central Ohio waterways and foster legions of animals that fire the imagination.

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.jim mccormac.blogspot.com.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Caterpillar season!

 On recent forays, I have been noticing caterpillars everywhere. Most are small early instars - just little tubes that are easily missed. Those that survive will grow dozens of times bigger and more meatier than they are in their earliest instars, or growth stages. The first big seasonal flush of caterpillars coincides with spring leaf out. Many of the early caterpillar species are ones who overwintered in the egg stage; their hatching coincides with the appearance of leaves, which will be their food. In a perfectly orchestrated symphony, our migratory songbirds arrive just as this caterpillar bloom is starting. Inestimable scores of caterpillars become the fuel which propels the warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles and most of the other songbirds (and some nonpasserines) that we enjoy observing.

The eastern deciduous forest biome, which cloaks much of the eastern half of the United States, stretching from the Gulf Coast to southern Canada, grows the lion's share of caterpillar biomass in northern North America, along with the great boreal forest of the far north. This is why the migratory pathways of so many of our Neotropical migrant songbirds goes through eastern North America, even if the species ultimately heads far to the northwest to breed. Hungry migrants are assured of finding lush food sources when they travel through a region rich in broad-leaved trees and their attendant caterpillar crops.

As for the photo above, it's a bit of a fooler. While the animal is quite caterpillar-like, it is actually a sawfly larva. Sawflies are in the order Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), not the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). It's the larvae of the latter that we call caterpillars, and which are arguably (or not) the most important foodstuff for a great many of our bird species. Sawflies do not seem to be particularly well known, and I'm unsure of this species. It is eating black oak, Quercus velutina. Many sawfly species seem to be "chemically protected"; they sequester toxic compounds that render them unpalatable to birds. However, I have seen birds eat sawflies on several occasions.

Now this was a cool find! I was with Ann Bowe, a friend from Kentucky, yesterday. I was down there to seek out the Kentucky lady's-slipper (success!), and along the way Ann spotted this beauty. It is the caterpillar of the Canadian owlet moth, Calyptra canadensis. I had never seen it before, at least that I recall. Adding to its intrigue, this species eats only meadow-rues in the genus Thalictrum. They are big cats, and meadow-rues are typically rather spindly herbs. The three caterpillars on this meadow-rue were making mincemeat of the plant, and the lower leaves had been stripped down to bare petioles. Caterpillars that are rather large and conspicuous, and feed during the day when birds are active, often possess chemical properties that make them distasteful to birds (as mentioned under the sawfly above).

I was, it should go without saying, quite excited to find this little oddity. I had a few short hours to photograph this morning, and ran over to a nearby local patch, Kiwanis Park. It is an oasis of high quality habitat along the Scioto River, and is loaded with a diverse native flora. After getting some keepers of various birds doing interesting things, I was making the short drive home when I felt a tickle on my arm. Glancing down, I saw this caterpillar inching along.

It is the filament bearer, Nematocampa resistaria, another species that I knew of but had never seen. I quickly detoured into a parking lot, got a vial from the trunk, and caged the animal. Upon arrival home, I placed it on my serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea, and made some images. The odd protuberances on the caterpillar's dorsal surface probably act as disruptive camouflage, perhaps helping it to blend in when at rest. When disturbed, it elongates the filaments significantly, as here. I suppose it is possible that the caterpillar may use them as flails - whips by which it can repel would-be parasitoid flies or wasps.

In any event, I hope this filament bearer flourishes on my native serviceberry. They are known to eat a wide variety of woody plants, including species in the rose family, such as serviceberry. If all goes well for it, the caterpillar will morph into a rather undistinguished brown moth. If one of the local birds gets it before that, well, that's life on the food chain.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Native azaleas attract swarms of pollinators

I had a very interesting field trip today. It involved a "life orchid", among many other interesting finds. More on some of that later, I hope. A brief peregrination into Shawnee State Forest also produced some noteworthy observations, not the least of which was the flowering of pinxter-flower azaleas, Rhododendron periclymenoides. These small shrubs were near peak bloom, their spindly boughs awash with pink flowers. Every bit as nice as the architecturally interesting flowers was the constant parade of pollinators. Here, a pair of spicebush swallowtails, Papilio troilus, battles for primacy at a particularly coveted snarl of blossoms. Eastern tiger swallowtails, several species of skippers, and both hummingbird clearwing and white-lined sphinx moths also visited.

If you are looking for an especially showy situation in which to photograph butterflies, I would head to Shawnee in the next week or so. Cruise the forest roads and watch for blooming azaleas. Set yourself up in a good position with favorable light and a good backdrop, and let your subjects come to you.

I also learned a new technique for butterfly photography. The azalea featured in this photo was rather high on a steep bank; further than I could comfortably reach with my normal go-to 100 mm macro lens with Canon's twin light flash setup. So, thought I, what the heck, and pulled out my tripod and big 500 mm f/4 II bird lens and attached it to the Canon 7D Mark II. Same setup I'd use to go after songbirds and anything else with feathers. Well, that rig also works very well for butterflies, at least the large ones. The parameters for this shot were f/4.5; shutter speed of 1/3200, ISO 640, and no flash. When I saw this pair of swallowtails bickering and dogfighting, I jacked the shutter speed way up, and that made it possible to freeze both of the rapidly fluttering insects. A nice leafy green backdrop created a pleasing bokeh (background blur).


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dragonfly in flight, and the new Canon 7D Mark II

A female Common Green Darner, Anax junius, at rest, showing the bulls-eye mark on top of the frons (nose). This is a large, common, and spectacular species.

Last Saturday, while at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area along western Lake Erie, a bunch of us were standing around awaiting the emergence of a Kentucky Warbler that had secreted itself in some shrubs. Growing restless, I focused my attention on some nearby Common Green Darners that were dashing about. Just like many of the birds at Magee, these big dragonflies are highly migratory. Large numbers pass through the western Lake Erie marshes, often pausing to feed. This one is a male, with its beautiful sky-blue abdomen. Where he came from is anyone's guess: The coastal Atlantic states, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe even Mexico or points south.

Shooting fast moving dragonflies in flight offers a challenge for photographers. Good gear definitely helps, but so does steady hands smoothly tracking the subject, and an awareness of the dragonfly's habits. I noticed that this one tended to pause and hover in one particular spot as it made its circuit, and I was ready for it. I made the image with the spectacular new Canon 7D Mark II coupled with a Canon 100-400 mm 4.5/5.6 II lens. This is an amazing combo for nature photography. The parameters of this particular shot were f/6.3, 1/640 of a second shutter speed, ISO 160, no flash, and lens fully extended to 400 mm.

The aforementioned camera rig is superb for birds, and is easily handheld. Sometimes a tripod is awkward, although they ensure a stable shooting platform. However, I find that getting a good percentage of sharp handheld shots with this setup is often easy. This Black-throated Blue Warbler was one of many songbirds that I captured over the weekend at Magee.

I have been impressed with the versatility of the Canon 7D Mark II with the 100-400 mm lens. This White Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium candidum, came out rather nicely. The only real fault with the photo is that I failed to temporarily pull the Prairie-dock leaf behind the orchid out of the way; it creates background clutter.

The 100-400 lens focuses down to about three feet, and thus can work well for plants and other nearby objects.

Here's the rig as assembled. It is pretty compact, although gets a fair bit longer when the lens is twisted out to full zoom. I think that if I could only have one camera/lens setup, this would be it. I'm still learning the nuances of this combination, but my satisfaction with this setup grows stronger every time that I use it. If you're looking for a great all-around photographic nature rig, this might be the combo for you.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Magee Marsh warbler madness

A tiny fraction of the thousands of birders that descended upon Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Lucas and Ottawa counties, Ohio, last Friday. Even more people were in the area the next day, which was International Migratory Bird Day. Spring songbird migration is near peak, the Biggest Week in American Birding is in full swing, and there are few better places to be if you are a warbler enthusiast.

I was there all day Friday and Saturday, and a good chunk of today as well. In all, I spent about 20 hours on the boardwalk "Bird Trail", mostly working with newer birders and helping them find and identify birds. Consequently, I took far fewer images than I normally would in that amount of field time, but did manage a few. The Canon 7D Mark II coupled to the 100-400 mm 4.5-5.6 II was slung over my shoulder, so shots of irresistible subjects would not be missed. By the way, this rig is certainly one of the best for handheld bird shots. Not only that, it is extremely versatile and I also used it to photograph snakes, muskrats, and even orchids this weekend. There were solid keepers in every group. I'll try to find time to write about this marvelous Canon pairing sometime.

A Yellow Warbler milliseconds before it sprang from the branch. It was one of untold thousands in the area. The marshes of western Lake Erie may be the Yellow Warbler capital of the world. These gorgeous warblers are smitten with soggy soils grown over with willow shrubs, and there's an abundance of such habitat at Magee and vicinity.

I've enjoyed experimenting with different photographic techniques for birds. This image was taken with the aforementioned rig, at f/5.6, a shutter speed of 1/640, and ISO at 250. When I know or suspect that my avian subject is going to put on a sudden burst of speed, my natural inclination is to bump the shutter speed WAY up to try and freeze the action. You know, get the image crisp enough so that the individual shafts of the primary flight feathers are crystal clear.

Such tactics surely do make for a good image, but so can using shutter speeds that aren't nearly fast enough to freeze all of the action. For this photo, my focus was locked on the bird's face, and when he started to move, I rattled off a 10 frames per second burst mode. I like the way this shot came out: face, eyes, and upper breast sharp, but the rest of the Yellow Warbler is an artistic blur of wildly gyrating feathers. As always, click the image to expand it.

I'll try and post some other images from my weekend at Magee later.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Great Horned Owl owlet

A gargantuan white oak, Quercus alba, towers over a central Ohio park. Its gnarled boughs predate the founding of the City of Columbus, the municipality in which the tree resides. Over its centuries of growth, this ancient woody Methuselah has spawned enough animals to fill a small ark. Tens of thousands of caterpillars have noshed on its foliage. In turn, the caterpillars fed (and feed) legions of migratory songbirds that stop to rest and refuel in the oak's branches. Scores of squirrels have harvested its seasonal bounty of acorns. Southern Flying Squirrels have glided from limb to limb. Hawks have used the tree as a lookout post. And in this very photo, there lurks our most ferocious avian predator of all.

A cavity created by the loss of a giant limb provides a nesting spot for a pair of Great Horned Owls. Here we see the female occupying the nest cavity. She could easily be overlooked, as her plumage matches the wood of the tree quite well. I made this image back on April 1, and the owl had good reason to still be occupying the nest cavity.

This is her feathered charge - a tiny, fluffy owlet. At this stage, the adult female owl spends much time in the nest; a formidable defender of the owlet.

Great Horned Owl owlets basically sleep (and yawn), eat, and engage in one function related to the latter. And grow like weeds.

 I had the chance to revisit the nest site almost three weeks after the preceding photos were taken, on April 19, and my how our owlet has grown. The chick, while still heavily fuzzed with down, is nearly the size of the adult.

Great Horned Owls can have as many as four chicks, although two is probably most common, at least around here. In this case, the other egg(s) may not have hatched, or something possibly led to the other chicks' demise shortly after hatching. This one is doing quite well, though.

Owls have nested at this place for as long as I can remember, although they typically shift nest trees from year to year. By now, this owlet is out of the nest and free-flying. This isn't the first Great Horned Owl owlet spawned in this massive oak, and I suspect it'll play nursery for many more to come.

NOTE ON PHOTOS: The nest cavity can be seen from some distance away (if one knows where to look). In the morning, the sun is to one's back creating excellent lighting. I made these images with either a Canon 5D Mark III or crop-sensor 7D Mark II with a 500 mm fitted with a 1.4x teleconverter. Such camera rigs allow one to keep far away, and still get "keepers" without bothering the birds. Nesting owls should never be approached closely. I'm reluctant to mention the exact site, as all too often publicized owl nests can attract scads of people and such activity can lead to nest failure.