Thursday, January 30, 2014
Last year, we launched the inaugural Mothapalooza, and it was an unmitigated success if I do say so myself. The idea was hatched by several of us while doing field work in the summer of 2012, and we fully expected to atttract a few dozen hardcore moth'ers to the conference. Well, were we ever surprised when we finally had to close registration after 140 people signed on. That conference was held at Shawnee State Park in Scioto County, and CLICK HERE for a recap.
By popular demand, Mothapalooza II was plotted and is now open for registration - CLICK HERE to enlist. The 2014 iteration will be held at the beautiful Burr Oak State Park Lodge in Morgan County, which was recently renovated and is stunning. I will warn you - get your tickets soon! We just opened the event for registration Tuesday, and already have at least 50 registrants and we can only accommodate about 120 people.
Dr. David Wagner (kneeling, center) was a star of Mothapalooza I, and he'll be back for II. Dave wrote the now legendary guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America, and is a moth'er's moth'er. He's a blast in the field, as demonstrated in this photo, where he has the entire group enraptured over some small bug. We're fortunate to have a great many experts lend their talents, and all trips and mothing stations will be manned by topnotch guides. That's Mary Ann Barnett on the far left, who has essentially served as Mothapalooza's CEO both last year and this, and John Howard to her right (hands on hips). John is the consummate naturalist and one of our many great guides. This year, a number of very talented and cool people stepped forth to make Mothapalooza a reality, and you'll meet them all if you make the scene.
In addition to the nocturnal forays, we'll have daytime excursions, and a number of special field trips and workshops. Get the complete agenda RIGHT HERE.
Sign on soon, and pass the word. Mothapalooza II will surely be another memorable event full of fun and learning. Registration is just a CLICK AWAY.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Just when you think you've seen it all...
I'm no stranger to the outdoors, and might even make a claim of being a keen observer of natural history phenomenon, but these miniature round haybales of snow were a new one on me. Upon return to my office and access to The Google and other online resources, it didn't take long to figure out what these circular lumps of frozen water were.
Fortunately, last night's frigid temperatures worked to preserve the Snow Rollers pretty much as they were yesterday, and I tossed the camera gear in the car before setting off to the office today. Around 9 am, I begged out of the office for a short while, and headed out into the -8 F temperature to make Snow Roller photos. The grassy expanse above is the yard of a school only a few minutes from work, and I headed there to photo-document Snow Rollers.
First, the ground must be slick and icy - a surface to which snow will not adhere very well. Two, the ice must then be blanketed by snow of just the right consistency - not too dry nor wet, and of just the right fluffiness. Three, a fairly forceful but not overly powerful wind must whip up and start moving chunks of snow. As the nucleus of the Snow Roller begins to gain momentum, it collects more snow and eventually forms a near perfect roll. Too much wind, and the snow rolls will disintegrate.
Snowy Owls. It turns out that she is also a meterologist, so I grilled her about Snow Rollers. According to her, they are indeed a rarity and I probably hadn't just been overlooking them every winter. Most of the people that I've talked to today had never seen any, either. I spoke to my 87 year-old father today (after he finished shoveling 4 inches of snow off his driveway, the dynamo) and he didn't recall ever seeing Snow Rollers either.
So if you happen across any Snow Rollers, take a moment to drink them in. It may be a long time before you see any again.
Monday, January 27, 2014
This morning, in a fevered bid to conjure warmer times, I posted a photo of an Orange-patched Smoky Moth, and lamented the seemingly unending Arctic air mass that has cloaked our state. It didn't work; the temperature is hovering near 0 F as I write this piece. On the up side, the frigid temperatures and a proper mixture of snow underlain with ice have spawned an absolutely remarkable bounty of a very odd snow formation. I will photograph some of these snowy artworks tomorrow, and post about it here.
Anyway, that Orange-patched Smoky Moth got me thinking about mimicry. The Monarch above was long considered a consummate example of Batesian mimicry. This form of flattery is quite pragmatic. Named for its describer, English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, Batesian mimicry refers to a (more or less) harmless or nontoxic organism that mimics the appearance of a toxic or otherwise dangerous animal. Monarchs are foul-tasting at the least, as their caterpillars ingest and sequester nasty cardiac glycosides from their host milkweed plants. Birds and other predators quickly learn to shun the butterflies (and their caterpillars).
Monarchs and Viceroys were long held up as an example of Batesian mimicry. The harmless Viceroy evolved much of the morphological characters of the toxic Monarch in order to fool predators, and thus gain a significant measure of protection from its foes.
Well, scientists have come to learn that Viceroy butterflies are not so inert after all. In fact, Viceroys are thought to be as foul if not more so than the model of its mimicry. Viceroy caterpillars feed on willows and other trees in the Salicaceae family. These plants are infused with salicylic acid, and the caterpillar concentrates this compound in its body, much of which apparently is passed to the adult stage. Thus, the butterfly is bitter and distasteful.
So much for Batesian mimicry, in this case. Enter Mullerian mimicry, which leads us to the aforementioned Orange-patched Smoky Moth.
The beetle-moth relationship would seem to be a good example of Mullerian mimicry.
Named after German naturalist Fritz Muller, this form of imitation describes poisonous species that have evolved a similar appearance - quite different than Batesian mimicry, in which one of the organisms (the mimic) is more or less harmless and takes on the looks of a dangerous organism (the model).
In Mullerian mimicry, both mimic and model theoretically benefit - this would be an example of mutualism. In essence, each species is aiding the other by adding to the collection of similar-appearing creatures that predators learn to avoid by sight because of their toxicity. Of course, a predator must learn the hard way - at least until avoidance becomes encoded in its genetics - and thus there must be sacrifices by the Mullerian mimics. If both moth and beetle serve equally well as an example of what not to bite into, there should in theory be fewer sacrificial individuals given up from each species' population in order to train predators.
Net-winged beetles contain toxic compounds, as might be guessed by their black-and-orange warpaint, which serves as a visual advertisement of toxicity (although predators still apparently must sometimes learn this firsthand). The smoky moth also is know to be infused with a nasty substance, hydrogen cyanide.
Frigid temps have been par for the course this winter, and I do not speak in a vacuum when I say I'm tired of it.
The cold and snow of winter is a necessary part of the shift of seasons; a forced dormancy before the resurgence of spring. But it does grow old after a while.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
I know that at least a few people who regularly read this were thinking of going to my program in Bowling Green tonight, hence this notice. Wood County and surrounding counties are under snow emergencies, and we just decided this morning to pull the plug. Strong winds and drifting snows have made travel unadvisable, and some people probably can't even get out of their driveways.
CLICK HERE for a brief plug about the talk, which will be rescheduled, probably for some time within the month. Scheduling things can always be a dicey business in wintertime Ohio. Usually it works out, but every now and then the heavy hand of Mother Nature intercedes and reminds us who is boss.
Friday, January 24, 2014
Wasps in the Braconidae family - which is immense, with some 17,000 species so far described - are parasitoids. I've written many times about various parasitoids, which typically kill their host organisms.
As it turns out, the little charmer above goes after wood-boring beetle grubs, and has apparently taken a shine to the grubs of the emerald ash borer. Very few of our native parasitoid insects seem to have set their sights on EAB as a host, so major props to those that have, such as the exquisite Atanycolus cappaerti.
The animal in my photo is a female, evidenced by that long "stinger" projecting from her abdomen. The needlelike structure is actually an ovipositor, and she uses it to auger through tree trunks and into EAB grubs, into which she injects an egg. The egg soon hatches, and the emergent wasp grub begins eating its host. Native wasp - 1; nonnative borer - 0.
There are reports of Atanycolus population spikes in areas of EAB infestation. Let's hope that trend continues, and the native wasps help to eventually bring the uber-destructive pest under control.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
East 72nd Street. That's the plant on the left; the busy State Route 2/90 expressway is between the plant and your picture-taking narrator, and Lake Erie is on the right. The plant pumps warm water into the lake, and thus keeps a patch open and ice-free. The unfrozen oasis often lures mobs of gulls and other interesting waterbirds.
Note the plant's large stack - the farthest to the left.
CLICK HERE for adult kittiwakes) in the looks department. The bird is an artistic study in patterns of black, gray, and white. The bold W-pattern on the wings is offset by a sooty neck collar and inky tail band, creating an unmistakable appearance.
Black-legged Kittiwake is quite the rarity in Ohio, with a relative handful seen each year. Nearly all are in November and December, and most are non-lingering flybys. Once in a while one tarries into winter, but seldom are they as cooperative as this bird is. Many birders have seen it, and the bird has made for more than a few new checks on life lists. I spent nearly two hours at this spot, in total, and ran into lots of birders, including many seldom seen friends SUCH AS THESE.
After an excited chase, the falcon departed the hot waters sans kittiwake, and rocketed out towards the gulls roosting further out on the ice. Its progressive was marked by clouds of gulls swirling aloft, and eventually the falcon singled out one of the few Bonaparte's Gulls in the area. The raptor harried the small gull and eventually snatched it and headed back to shore. Through our optics, we watched as the gull struggled valiantly, its wings flapping wildly. The wildly struggling gull eventually proved too much for the falcon to grasp, and it dropped it. As if upset by this failure, the falcon raced around the gulls like a fighter jet, creating a massive uproar, before eventually soaring back to its lofty perch atop the power plant's tower.
All in a day's birding on the Cleveland lakefront.
Monday, January 20, 2014
When a BMSB enters the room, there really is no rest until it is dispatched. They're big enough that you'll not be at peace knowing it is crawling about, and when they fly, the loud irritating drone is sure to make you ill at ease. Watch 'em when you grab 'em - squeeze too tight, and they can release a noxiously aromatic spray.
This is yet another invasive species courtesy of Asia. They first turned up in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998, and are now well in their way to conquering America. BMSB's have appeared in something like 33 states thus far. I first starting noticing them around here - Columbus, Ohio - three or so years ago, and they have increased tremendously since then. Besides being a six-legged source of irritation when they come inside with us, the bugs are real threats to fruit crops. They are hemipterans, and use their sucking mouthparts to pierce orchard crops and about any type of fruit, apparently, thus doing great damage.
I will challenge that, admitting that my evidence to the contrary is circumstantial.
Several weeks ago, I returned after a long day, and settled down for a half-hour nap before going back at it. About 20 minutes after nodding off, I awoke to feel flushed all over, and completely broken out in hives. Also, as I came to, I heard a scrabbling on the pillow next to my head, and there was one of these nasty beasts.
I am allergic to nearly nothing, save a nip of poison ivy if I really get into it on a hot day. Therefore, having an outbreak of hives was a very strange, scary, and new sensation. I also felt slightly nauseous and a bit like I had the flu coming on. Well, all of these unpleasant symptoms passed within the hour, and I was more or less back to normal. With the exception of a rather small but nasty wound on the back of my shoulder that is only now fading. Of course, I wanted to know what caused these conditions, and the stupid stinkbug was my primary suspect.
Stinkbugs have mouthparts modified into a strawlike tube, and this structure is what they use to puncture the skin and pulp of fruit and tap its juices. While I am quite sure the BMSB does not make a habit of feasting on humans, I see no reason why one couldn't stick a person if it were accidentally pinned or trapped, just as spiders will bite reactionarily if mishandled.
Furthermore, some Hemipteran insects, such as kissing bugs, do bite people, and apparently the aftereffects can include some of the same symptoms that I described above.
So, I cannot conclusively prove that one of these blasted stink bugs actually bit me, but there is some circumstantial evidence that suggests it. Bite or not, I still hate the things and hope that some native predator rises up and vanquishes them from American soil.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
The untamable ferocity of birds of prey is awe-inspiring. In a field crowded with formidable predators, the golden eagle rules.
A golden eagle is daunting. Females are larger than males, and a hefty specimen can weigh 14 pounds and have a wingspan longer than 7 feet. Golden feathers cap the crown and nape, making identification easy if the bird is seen.
It takes five years for a golden eagle to reach maturity, and first-year birds have prominent white splashes at the base of the tail and on the underwings. They become increasingly dark with age. The oldest known wild eagle reached 23 years; one in captivity lived to 46.
As befits their size, golden eagles capture prey off limits to lesser raptors. Rabbits are a dietary staple, but much larger fare is sometimes caught. They sometimes take bobcats, coyotes, herons, turkeys and even young white-tailed deer. In days of yore, when falconry was an entitlement of nobility, the golden eagle was the bird of kings.
Although golden eagles prefer live prey, they are not above sampling carrion, especially if it is venison. Fred Rau of Dayton recently sent me a series of spectacular images from western Pike County. Rau had focused a trail camera on a fresh deer carcass and was rewarded with crisp images of a golden eagle.
Golden eagles are quite rare in Ohio, with perhaps a half-dozen sightings a year. Although fairly common in mountainous regions of western North America, they are far scarcer in the East. There is a breeding population in northern Quebec and Labrador, and evidence suggests that area is the origin of Ohio birds.
Small numbers of them winter in Ohio, but they’re tough to find. Golden eagles frequent remote, sparsely populated regions, keep huge territories and are people-shy. Trail cams fixed on deer carcasses are an effective technique for documenting the birds.
Historical records suggest that small numbers of golden eagles have long wintered along Ohio’s glaciated Allegheny Plateau. The region is the interface of unglaciated hill country and the flatlands to the west. Records from the early 1900s include birds in Adams, Highland and Pike counties. Vast reclaimed strip mines such as the Wilds in Muskingum County have also harbored wintering golden eagles.
While these eagles undoubtedly take plenty of rabbits and other small mammals, an abundant deer population provides lots of carrion. Increased efforts to place trail cams on deer carcasses might catch photos of more golden eagles.
For those who think of Ohio as all industry and agriculture, think again. Golden eagles are among the wildest of North American birds, and their presence in Ohio’s hill country speaks to our wilderness heritage.
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
Thursday, January 16, 2014
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, and this is an event you won't want to miss. From humble beginnings, the conference has morphed into a 1,000 attendee celebration of Ohio's rich natural heritage. There are always interesting talks, and this year's slate looks to be one of the most interesting in quite some time.
Mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 12th. The conference is held at the Aladdin Shriner's Center on the east side of Columbus, and it's a snap to get to. The cavernous interior has one of the best audio-visual setups going, with a topnotch professional sound system and three huge screens. There is vendors and exhibitors galore, and a whole lot of like-minded people.
On to the talks:
The inimitable David FitzSimmons is the keynote, talking about wildlife photography. Dave's an awesome lensman, and his book Curious Critters, attests to his innovative skills. I've heard Dave talk a number of times, and it'll be a great presentation packed with awesome images.
There are also talks about Barn Owls, American Woodcocks, cavity-nesting birds, fishes, museum specimens and their importance, and aviation's role in wildlife management. CLICK HERE for the agenda.
Finally, those trail cam masters themselves, Laura and David Hughes, round out the day. If you've followed this blog for a while, you've seen their work here. The Hughes excel at camera placement and technical mastery of their equipment, and the results are stunning. They've obtained amazing footage of bobcats, river otters, long-tailed weasels, beaver, ravens, and much more. We'll be treated to some spectacular wildlife footage, and hear about the tricks of the trade that allow one to get quality recordings with an inexpensive trail cam. To see some of their footage, click HERE, and HERE.
To register for the conference, CLICK HERE.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
In the photo above, look out the window to the right of the monitor on my mini-fridge, and just up and left of the picture of the red 1992 Ferrari 512 TR (not the first time I've used one of these Italian supercars in relation to a mammal, SEE HERE). A Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginiana, resting in my crabapple tree!
Back in 2006, I wrote a column about Virginia Opossums in the Columbus Dispatch. It follows:
Monday, January 13, 2014
It features 40 of the creme de la creme of Ohio's natural areas. Each site is accompanied by descriptive text, and includes several of Gary's stunning images. In total, the book includes a vast array of flora and fauna found in Ohio, including scads of little known and very rare species. We were pleased with the end product, and Kent State University Press's expert layout and design. The book's artistic director chose the Luna for the cover, which was a beautiful idea.
On Saturday, January 25th, I'll be giving a program that follows the book for the Bowling Green (Ohio) Parks and Recreation Department's Kuebeck Nature Forum on Nature and Environment. I was flattered to be invited to be the inaugural speaker in this series, and will do my best to live up to this honor. We'll take a pictorial trip through some of the greatest places in Ohio, featuring many of our coolest critters and most interesting plants. Since Bowling Green lies in the shadow of the Oak Openings, I'll certainly dip into that region, which harbors more rare plants that any other comparably sized place in the state.
Hope to see you there, and CLICK HERE for all of the details.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
I have heard more reports of "missing" birds at feeders this winter than in any previous year, at least that I can recall. So much so that I've kept a folder of such complaints, in case some disease or other culprit comes to light. But in general, my answer is that birds are co-evolved with native food crops, and have been for FAR longer than they've had benefit of relatively new food sources provided by people and their feeders. If natural food crops are available, many birds will forsake your handouts in favor of nutritious native fare. At least, I believe that is usually the case. If it is a boom year for certain natural food crops, the species that feed on those may be especially apt to be AWOL at your feeders.
In general, it seems that the wintertime woodlands and meadows are bursting with food crops, at least in southeastern Ohio. I observed many examples of birds utilizing natural foods last Saturday, and managed to document a number of these relationships with my camera.
Some day, I will write an essay in support of poison ivy, a plant with a great many virtues. It seems that only humans abhor this valuable plant, which is of vital importance to many species of animals.