Sunday, May 31, 2020

Nature: Orange you glad you saw lots of orioles this spring?

A male Baltimore oriole plunders an orange/Jim McCormac

May 31, 2020

Jim McCormac

This was the spring of the oriole.

Staggering numbers of Baltimore orioles appeared at feeders throughout much of May. This species, our most colorful blackbird, amazed many a feeder-watcher with their brilliant colors and sheer numbers.

Fans of backyard wildlife learned long ago that putting out sliced oranges would lure the orange birds. It’s not because style-conscience orioles want to color coordinate with their food. Rather, the sharp-billed birds regularly include nectar and fruit in their diet. To them, oranges are an irresistible treat.

Baltimore orioles will even dangle at hummingbird feeders, slurping at the tasty sugar water. Some people also put grape jelly out for them, which the birds will readily eat. However, jelly is not a recommended oriole food — there is no redeeming nutritional value to jelly.

Orioles’ calls are as conspicuous as their plumage. The birds regularly give loud flute-like whistles, creating a wonderfully melodic soundscape.

Back to the numbers. I cannot recall a spring with as many orioles being seen and reported on. Many people who target them with fruity handouts were stunned by the flashy displays. Bill Weaver of the Newark area sent me an amazing photo of his sister’s oriole feeding operation. She attracted as many as 27 birds at one time. The yard was awash with the flashy birds.

Attracting numbers like that also will provide a showcase of varying plumages. Male Baltimore orioles are the showiest. These sharp-dressed blackbirds are resplendent in crisp orange and black plumage. The bird’s name was bestowed by early naturalist Mark Catesby. He was reminded of the family colors of Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, the first proprietor of what was then the Province of Baltimore.

Among the ranks were plenty of female orioles. First-year females — those born last year — can be rather dull: mostly brownish-gray with orange tinges on the breast and tail region. Females brighten with age, and older ones can become nearly as orange as males, but they lack the ebony hood and back.

The Baltimore oriole’s lesser-known relative, the orchard oriole, was a minor part of the invasion. Although far fewer in number, many people were excited to see this smaller species appear in their yards for the first time.

A glance at eBird, a data repository of bird sighting hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, showed Ohio blanketed by oriole sightings. Such numerous sightings weren’t just limited to Ohio, either — birders over much of the eastern U.S. reported above-average oriole numbers.

The million dollar question: Why so many orioles? Like most things in nature, multiple factors probably contributed to the big numbers. Orioles have become increasingly attracted to feeding operations, and more people are trying to attract them. There probably is an overinflated sense of their commonness as compared with the myriad bird species that never visit feeders.

This was an unseasonably cold spring, which would have made insect stocks harder to access for migrant orioles. Also, flowering seemed delayed — orioles often take nectar from flowers — and in some cases, flower mortality probably was high because of late freezes. Floral paucity might have pushed higher-than-normal oriole numbers to feeders.

Most Baltimore orioles winter in the tropics of central and northern South America. Navigating this long migratory corridor back to northern breeding grounds is a hazardous endeavor. As the human population has burgeoned, we have thrown up an ever-more-perilous gauntlet that migratory birds must run.

A major mortality factor is collisions with Illuminated skyscrapers and other buildings, as most songbirds migrate at night. Vehicle roadkills also are common. Self-quarantining and temporary business shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an enormous reduction in human activity related to bird mortality.

Dimmed buildings and less traffic might have meant fewer bird kills. I wonder if the lack of human activity at the peak of spring migration allowed for higher than normal survivorship among orioles and other migrants.

Maybe there truly were more orioles around this spring to grace us with their presence.

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, May 28, 2020


As always, click the image to enlarge

At the onset of last Monday's aquatic expedition (perhaps more on that later) to Rocky Fork in Scioto County, Ohio, I mentioned to Laura Hughes that I'd really like to see a waterscorpion, which would be a new one for me. She began searching, and darned if she didn't produce one by noodling around at the base of twisted sedge (Carex torta) tussocks at the stream's edge! This is an amazing predatory bug that resembles a walking stick. It sits in hiding under the water and pounces on lesser insects, jabbing them with a stiletto-like proboscis. The waterscorpion sticks that long tube arising from its posterior to the water's surface, and takes in air through it. Sort of like a guy hiding under the water, breathing through a hollow reed. I believe this waterscorpion is Ranatra fusca.

Bugs never cease to amaze me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The beautiful fire-pink, and an ultra-long exposure

As always, click the image to enlarge

A fire-pink, Silene virginica, in portraiture. Taken in situ on a steep roadbank in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio. It was so deep into twilight that the eastern whip-poor-wills were singing.

Yesterday was an epic day with a crew of really great people. Most of it was spent doing aquatic work in a high quality stream near the Adams/Scioto county line. We found scads of interesting stuff and I'm sure I'll share some of that later.

After we packed up the gear late in the afternoon, John Howard and I had not yet had enough. We decided to head to the depths of Shawnee State Forest to seek out a rare and beautiful mint, Meehania cordata. John had recently found a population in a wonderful little hollow, and we made images of the plant along with a number of other things.

As there was still some light when we finished with the Meehania, we opted to seek out the very rare early stoneroot, Collinsonia verticillata, along a sparsely traveled forest road. We knew we'd find it there, and we surely did. Photos were made, and as we did so it became so dim that the whip-poor-wills began to call.

Sprinkled through the area were many fire-pinks, Silene virginica. As a last hurrah, I decide to do some portraiture work with one of the plants. By now, it was so dark that my auto focus could barely detect and lock onto the subject. I know, I can always use manual focus but I generally figure that if it's too dark for auto focus to work, it's probably time to pack it in.

Anyway, I set up my black velvet swath behind the subject - fire-pink typically grows among other plants and I wanted to completely isolate the subject - then proceeded to shoot. This image was made with the tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. I shot in live view to stop internal mirror movement, and used the two-second shutter delay to eliminate any operator-induced shake after pressing the shutter button. The ISO was 200, and the aperture was at f/7.1.

Shutter speed? An absurdly low 10 (ten) seconds! One of the reasons that John and I stayed out so late and kept at this was the virtual absence of any wind. Rare are the conditions that you can shoot a flower with a ten second shutter speed and not end up with a major blur-fest.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

White-tailed Deer fawn, Part II

Yesterday I posted about a newly born white-tailed deer fawn that I found in the backyard. Apparently my yard served as a deer nursery. When I found it, the fawn was absolutely tiny and remained motionless and curled up in deep grass, as newborn deer do.

That phase doesn't last long.

I was out photographing a very rare plant early this morning, and returned about 10 am. The doe had moved the fawn about 20 feet, to a more sheltered nook. She kept in close proximity to the fawn, and would occasionally sneak about to peek at the neighbors' activities from behind shrubs. Other times, she would rest on the ground near the fawn.

Later, I got into a few hour work jag at the computer, and finally got up to have a look out back. To my surprise, the doe had brought the fawn right up by the house, to an even more shaded and densely vegetated area that's even safer.

The little one is now walking, albeit somewhat clumsily. It's small enough to walk underneath mom, and also regularly nurses from her. As anyone who knows deer knows, the animals are hyper-vigilant. If I make any sort of movement near a window, she's on me right away. But my presence doesn't seem to bother her much, and doesn't cause her to back off.

The fawn can hardly contain itself, and makes little frisks around the immediate area of the doe. The youngster looks back over its shoulder here, to make sure where the mother is. The fawn need not worry. Momma doe keeps very close tabs on it.

The doe hasn't yet got much stamina, and after a bit of adventuring will plop down for a rest. For longer naps, it retreats into deeper vegetation such as where I originally found it.

I don't know how long this all will go on, but I'll have fun observing while it does.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

White-tailed Deer fawn

An unexpected treat! A white-tailed deer fawn, very recently born. It was in the back part of the back yard, which is very wild, especially compared to my neighbors. I was Facetiming my mom this afternoon, who is in a retirement village, and I always walk around the yard to show her various flora and fauna. This time, I went back to show her an active house wren nest box, glanced down and there was the fawn. Went back to get a telephoto lens, was able to stand on a distant bench and get a few shots of the little fella. It never flinched, and I suspect mom was hidden in the massive dense forsythia bush in the corner of the yard. I had noticed a doe back in that part of the yard for several hours this morning, but didn't think much of it as deer are regular visitors. 

I suspect she dropped the fawn last night or early this morning - or some time very recently. But it'll not be long until it's trying to scamper about on gangly legs. I've had great experiences with fawns over the years, including a couple times when tiny fawns ran right up to my leg. I suspect they thought I was an adult deer. Once they saw the error of their ways, they quickly scuttled back off into the vegetation. But this is the best photo op I've had with one, and its beautiful pelage contrasts wonderfully with the rich green grass.  This little deer could not be in a safer part of the neighborhood.

Black Vulture chick

A ramshackle shed, long past its heyday, disintegrates in a scrubby Adams County, Ohio woodland. A friend, Randy Lakes, put me onto this site. A pair of black vultures had made the derelict outbuilding their home, and I wanted to see them and get some images if possible.

I wasn't far into the vicinity of the collapsed shed when a black vulture emerged. She or he did not go far. It flew to a nearby tree and kept an eye on me. Thus, I hurried through my mission to allow her back into the shed in short order. It was in the shed with its offspring, as adults - both sexes assist - will sometimes brood the chicks for several weeks.

There was one gap between vegetation that allowed a portal into the shed and Voila! There was one black vulture chick, a few weeks old. It's the little grayish lump just left of center, amongst the debris. Black vultures nearly always lay two eggs, and there may have been another chick back amongst the dark recesses, but I only saw this one.

I had brought along a 400mm lens, and that was ample for making photos from well outside the shed. While mom/dad certainly noticed me, the little one paid no heed, and alternated between sitting like a bump on a log, or playing with sticks.

And here's the handsome youth, covered with down and sporting feet nearly as large as the adults. Judging by that bulge, it's well fed.

As adults, black vultures are extremely conspicuous, on the wing, at roosts, and when feasting on dead animals. They're not exactly shrinking violets. Finding an easily observable nest is quite another matter. The majority of black vulture nests are hidden in dense thickets, on the ground, and it'd be very hard to find a view like this with such a nest. I've seen a few nests over the years, and all those were tucked in rocky recesses. You knew the nest was in there, and in one case I could make out the eggs, but they were really impossible to examine. Other commonly used sites are hollows in fallen trees and stumps, and old barns and the like. In parts of South America - this species has a huge range - black vultures commonly nest on skyscrapers and other large buildings.

The black vulture is an extremely adaptable and successful species, and is rapidly spreading north. Up to the 1970/80's, it was a very local bird in Ohio, which is at the northern limits of its range. There were only a few locales one could expect to find them. Now, I wouldn't be surprised to see a black vulture anywhere in the state and the number of colonies around Ohio has increased tremendously. Data from the first Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (1982-87) and the second Atlas (2006-11) showed a 387% increase in the black vulture population from Atlas I to Atlas II.

I appreciate Randy providing this opportunity to actually see a black vulture chick, and let me learn a bit more about these interesting birds.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Nature: Red head is feather in bird's cap

A red-headed woodpecker looks back at its mate at Shawnee State Forest/Jim McCormac

Nature: Red head is feather in bird's cap

May 17, 2020

Jim McCormac

A bird that serves as the catalyst to pique someone’s interest in the feathered world is termed a “spark bird.” The red-headed woodpecker was the spark that launched Alexander Wilson’s career. Wilson was a contemporary of John James Audubon, and has been overshadowed by the much better known frontiersman.

Although Audubon’s bird paintings clearly outshine those of Wilson, the ambitious Scotsman was probably the better ornithologist. His legacy is commemorated by several honorifics such as Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s storm-petrel and Wilson’s warbler.

I suspect he would have traded them all for “Wilson’s woodpecker.”

Small wonder Wilson or anyone else would be captivated by the red-headed woodpecker. Adults are clad in a tuxedo of sorts — bold black and white plumage. But, oh, that head! It appears that the well-named bird wears a hood of fine velvety scarlet.

On May 1, I found myself social distancing in the depths of southern Ohio’s 65,000-acre Shawnee State Forest. As luck would have it, I encountered a very cooperative pair of red-headed woodpeckers in a regenerating clear-cut with scattered snag trees that were tall and dead.

That’s perfect red-head habitat, and the birds were in full courtship mode. There were frequent energetic chases between trees punctuated with loud calls, mutual head-bobbing displays and other evidence of amorous behavior.

Best of all was the “hide-and-seek” game. Each bird would perch opposite of the other on a tree trunk, then slowly hitch around until they spotted each other. Then, quick as a wink, they’d duck out of sight, only to immediately repeat the game.

Red-headed woodpeckers are quite diverse in diet. They’ll frequently grab large flying insects in aerial sorties from tall snags and glean insects from bark. Like other woodpeckers, they use their chisel-like bill to excavate grubs, ants and other goodies from wood.

Most interesting is their fondness for acorns and other mast. Come fall, the red-heads embark on an ambitious agenda of acorn caching. A productive individual might cache hundreds of acorns daily. The birds typically stuff these nuts into tree crevices, and heavily used cache trees are sometimes called “granaries.”

This woodpecker also has a fondness for various soft fruit, and this habitat made it a reviled bird in the early days. The aforementioned Audubon wrote: “I would not recommend to anyone to trust their fruit to the Red-heads; for they not only feed on all kinds as they ripen, but destroy an immense quantity besides. ... I may safely assert, that a hundred have been shot upon a single cherry tree in one day.”

Today, of Ohio’s six widespread breeding woodpecker species, the red-headed is easily the scarcest. There are an estimated 26,000 birds in the state. For comparison, the most common species, the downy woodpecker, has an estimated population of 375,000 birds. The red-heads’ overall uncommonness is tied to its need for open woods with plenty of mast-bearing trees and standing dead snags. Such woodlands are not common these days.

Some of our local metro parks support red-headed woodpeckers. Good parks to seek them include Battelle Darby, Glacier Ridge, Prairie Oaks and Sharon Woods.

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

Nature: Orange you glad you saw lots of orioles this spring?

A male Baltimore oriole plunders an orange/Jim McCormac Columbus Dispatch May 31, 2020 NATURE Jim McCormac This was the spring ...