Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cave Salamander

An old springhouse seems to merge with the forest that surrounds it. This isn't any old springhouse, though. Sited in the hills near western Cincinnati, the 166 year old structure is bank vault solid, its thick limestone walls probably destined to last another century and a half, or more. In a minute we'll go through the creaky wooden door at the bottom right, and meet the building's special inhabitants.

FOOTNOTE: Springhouses are usually simple structures, typically made of rock, that were built over springs. Their main purpose was to protect the emergent spring water from debris or contaminants, and exclude animals. As the cool water also keeps the interior of the springhouse at a consistently low temperature, at least when compared to outside air during warm periods, they also served as a mild form of refrigeration for perishables.

I recently received an irresistible invite from herpetologist Jeff Davis, one of the authors of the new Amphibians of Ohio book. Would I like to join him on a visit to see a population of one of the rarer of Ohio's 25 salamander species? Of course! So last Sunday, I met Jeff and off we went to document Cave Salamanders, Eurycea lucifuga.

Immediately upon entering the dank gloom of the springhouse's interior, we were greeted by Cave Salamanders. A few dozen clung to the moist limestone walls of the building, regarding us with inscrutable smoky eyes. The animals were not put off by our appearance in the least, and we were able to obtain a careful count, and make documentary photos.

Cave Salamanders are at the extreme northeastern limits of their range in Ohio, and nearly all of the relatively few populations in the state are in Hamilton County. There are also a few in neighboring Butler County, and one in Adams County.

These sleek amphibians are well adapted to a world of tight cracks and fissures. This one later disappeared into the slight gap surrounding the wooden dowel that it's perched by. While Cave Salamanders do indeed inhabit the perennial gloom of cave openings in much of their range, that's not the case in Ohio. They are found along small streams incised into fractured limestone bedrock, with an abundance of subterranean groundwater. These sorts of haunts are really not that different than a proper cave - there are plenty of fissures and crevices in the rock that the salamanders can occupy.

A Cave Salamander is an amphibian of great beauty, by almost any standard. Bright orange-red skin is stippled with ebony dots and dashes, and the animal possesses a graceful elongate shape. It would be interesting to better understand their long-term evolutionary history. Why would an animal that seems to live nearly its entire life in habitats so dark that eyes can't see, be possessed of such bright color? Many true troglodytean animals have devolved coloration, and are white or very pale. It would seem that Cave Salamanders, up until very recently (on an evolutionary scale), were much more of an above-ground inhabitant.

Jeff holds a ruler to document a big 'un. Pulled straight and taut, this Cave Salamander probably would have taped out at seven inches. That's about as big as they get.

Give a Cave Salamander enough time - years, for sure - and they can get as large as the one in the preceding photo. But life begins as one of 75 or so eggs, and when the larvae hatch, they look like this. A tiny whitened grublike object that most of us probably wouldn't notice, or if we did wouldn't recognize it for what it is. Jeff found several of these hatchlings in pooled water on the floor of the springhouse, and fortunately I had Canon's MP-E 65mm mega-macro lens in my bag, and could make some images. I think this one was about 7 mm in length.

Before long the white grublike larva loses its pale coloration, develops patterned pigmenting, and begins to look much more like a salamander. If memory serves, this one was about 17 mm or so in length.

After we finished documenting the animals in the springhouse's interior, we moved outside to some nearby cisterns. These are just small subterranean tanks for storing water, and in this case the cement cisterns were five feet or so deep, with a chamber at the bottom.

As soon as Jeff popped the lid off the first cistern, there were salamanders. In all, we counted a few dozen in the two cisterns. This photo shows only 15 of the 74 animals that we saw this day. It is still more Cave Salamanders, by a long shot, than the vast majority of humans will ever see.

We gently netted all of the cistern-dwellers, and in assembly line fashion made documentary photos of each animal's dorsal surface and face, then quickly returned them to the cistern. Every salamander has a unique pattern of spotting, and by amassing sharp digital images Jeff can document and identify the individuals in the population. Thus far, he has found at least 1,390 animals at this site.

We also took a mug shot of each - an image that shows the face well enough to determine the sex. If it is a male, as this one is, it will have a pair of tiny toothlike appendages known as cirri (singular: cirrus) projecting downward from the upper lip. They are small but easy enough to see in this photo. Note also the flattened head, which is a good adaptation for an animal that habitually travels through tiny crevices.

I appreciate Jeff taking me along on this expedition, and letting me help with the work. And great gratitude goes to the owners of the property, who are proud of their rare salamanders and want them protected. I wish everyone had their attitude - the world would be a far better place.

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Falling water

Here in Central Ohio, fall is well advanced. The trees are a bit past peak color, although many sugar maples and other of the arboreal torches of autumn are still showstoppers. Today brought a heavy rain, likely the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia, and as I watched the precipitation from my office window this afternoon, Hayden Run Falls popped to mind.

I don't know about you, but I all too often ignore the little honey holes right in my backyard. When field opportunities present themselves, it usually means travel to some far-flung place. There are plenty of sweet little spots close at hand, though, and I'm guilty of all too often ignoring them. Hayden Run and its falls, which is only about ten minutes from where I live, is one such place.

I knew the rain would fuel the falls that caps the end of this lovely little limestone box canyon, so after work I hustled home, grabbed some camera gear, and headed out to do some waterfall-ing.

Just off the parking lot, which is just off very busy Hayden Run Road, is an interesting boardwalk that begins with a steep staircase that descends into the gorge. As soon as I hit the planks, I could hear the water from the falls. This shot, by the way, was made with my little Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, which - as far as lenses go - is quite inexpensive and extremely compact. I don't use it very often, but it can make people look like models, and render landscapes in very sharp relief. This was shot with the Canon 5D Mark III, set at f/11, 1/2 second, ISO 50.

The falls were quite Niagaraesque today. Hayden Run is not a large stream and does not drain a huge area, thus its water dries up fairly quickly. If you want to shoot the falls in their full majesty, it's best to go on the heels of a good rain.

I don't do a lot of waterfall shots, or landscapes in general, at least when compared to all of the flora and fauna that I shoot. So, an hour in the depths of Hayden Run Gorge would be good instruction. Perhaps not always, but probably mostly, waterfalls photograph best when the camera settings are dialed in to produce a soft silky look to the water. That's the look I wanted to fool around with, and experiment with different settings and techniques.

A SLOW shutter speed is essential to producing the silky look of the water. That means two tools should be brought into play: 1) a tripod, and 2) remote shutter release. The first is actually essential. Shutter speeds should be so slow that there's no way you'll successfully handhold the camera without your shot looking as if it were taken during the peak of an earthquake. The remote shutter release is just an inexpensive cord with a button on its end. Plug it into the camera and the button becomes the shutter. Once the camera is all set up for the shot, you can trigger it without having to touch the rig and possibly induce some camera shake at the beginning of the exposure.

This image was made with the Canon 5D Mark III and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens set at 70mm focal length. Settings: f/18, 1 second exposure, ISO 50 in Aperture Priority Mode.

The falls are 35 feet high, and when in deluge mode generate an incredible mist as the water smashes into the creek below and temporarily atomizes. I could only point my lens at the falls long enough to make a few images at best, before I'd have to turn the rig around and wipe down the lens.

This shot was made with the aforementioned 5D III, this time bolted to the Canon 16-35mm f/4L lens set to 20mm. Settings were f/16, 1/5 second, ISO 100, -1/3rd exposure compensation. Compare the look of the water to the previous image, which was made with a shutter speed five times slower, and the image before that which was at a shutter speed about 2.5 times slower..

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Turkey Vultures and Tree Swallows on the wing

On October 11, I made an expedition to the St. Marys Fish Hatchery in western Auglaize County, near the eastern shore of Grand Lake St. Marys. The primary purpose was to photograph shorebirds, especially White-rumped Sandpipers. I had success on that score, returning with many nice files of white-rumps and several other species. You can see some of those photos HERE, and HERE.

But life is not just shorebirds, and after I was done shooting those, I set out to walk the entire hatchery and see what the other ponds and wetlands might hold.

One of the drawn-down ponds held the carcasses of a number of sizeable fish, and these tasty sun-baked morsels had not escaped the Turkey Vultures' sharp eyes. Or nostrils. Vultures don't miss a trick. They rank high among the most observant, and intelligent, birds in the world.

Turkey Vultures are conspicuous on the wing, with their six and a half foot wingspans. Despite the birds' massive size, they can be harder to make crisp images of than one might think. That's because the bird is often FAR away, much further than one might think. Huge crops in post-processing often produce a rather noisy image that lacks in crispness. But this situation allowed close access. I stood on the edge of a fencerow and shot the birds as they came and went.

These images were made with a tripod-mounted Canon 7D Mark II, with the 500mm f/4 II lens. A 1.4x teleconverter connected the two, making for 700mm of reach and that's not counting the 1.6x crop factor of the camera. Such a rig allows for LONG reach, and the photographer can stay out of the birds' wariness zone. This photo was shot at f/8, 1/3200, and ISO 500.

A juvenile Turkey Vulture wafts by. Notice its dusky-gray head. Shooting vultures, at least when they're as close as these ones were, is relative child's play. They don't move fast enough to present major challenges. It's more a matter of keeping the camera trained on the subject, and waiting until the bird presents a good angle, with the best available light. All settings were the same for this shot as the prior two.

Flying Tree Swallows present a far greater photographic challenge. One of the ponds had 100 or so of the little speedsters zipping about, and I spent a bit of time trying for shots. While some are OK, none are fabulous. My biggest mistake here was not having my 100-400mm lens along. That lens is great for handheld flying bird images, as can be judged by the examples RIGHT HERE.

So, to experiment, I took the 1.4x teleconverter off, and tried shooting the birds with the straight 500mm off the tripod. I probably should have tried for some handheld shots as well, but the big lens acts a bit like a kite in windy conditions, and that makes it hard to get sharp shots. This image came out OK. It was shot at f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 500, and -1/3rd stop exposure compensation.

Locking on and keeping focus on flying swallows on a breezy day is tough. Most of my efforts went into the digital dust bin. But it wouldn't have mattered much if I got any keepers or not. Tree Swallows are one of my favorite birds, and it was fund to watch their antics and aerobatics. This one is in the act of water-skimming - hitting the water with the top of its head, and with a quick backwards neck snap, sending a spray of water over its body. When you fly as well as these birds do, almost everything can be done on the wing: feeding, bathing, drinking, even mating.

I look forward to honing my skills some more with swallows in flight, but that's probably going to have to wait until next spring (unless a Florida trip pops up this winter!).

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Wheelbug visits

Well, well, my lucky day! As I arrived home from work and set about wheeling the car into the garage, a peculiar blob on the wall caught my eye. A Wheelbug! This was the second Arilus cristatus that I've seen by my garage door this fall, and I've seen a number of others elsewhere. I suspect these bizarre hemipterans are having a good year. Not one to let a good photo op go to waste, I rushed inside, rigged the macro gear and flash, and rushed back outside to deal with the little (but BIG as bugs go!) animal.

A word of caution for would-be handlers of Wheelbugs. Exercise caution. These are predatory insects, and have quite the powerful tool for dispatching victims. I'm told that the bite of a Wheel Bug is painful indeed, and can take a while to heal. I exercised caution, and carefully moved the insect to a nearby shrub in order to create a better backdrop.

Fortunately, Wheelbugs have rather calm dispositions, and can be worked easily. But I have seen them strike and kill, and their pounce is speedy as a leopard. If you were to allow one to crawl onto your hand at its own pace, everything would probably be cool. But if for whatever reason the bug decided to bite, you wouldn't react in time to prevent the strike. Better to allow it to crawl onto a branch or leaf, and move it around that way.

Wheelbugs look otherworldly, like some science fiction alien come to life. The sight of a fully grown adult, such as this one, is sure to get a reaction from anyone who sees it. This critter is one of the assassin bugs, which are six-legged stalk and pounce predators. I once fed a Wheelbug a leaf-footed bug to see its tactics firsthand. The kill is impressive, and fortunately for you, the reader, I made a video of that experience which you can see RIGHT HERE.

Here's the Wheelbug's death-dealing proboscis. It's as if a stout hypodermic syringe was bolted to its face. The bug jabs that into its victim with a powerful stab, and pumps in chemicals that quickly disable the prey, and dissolve the soft inner parts. Once the kill's insides have reached the consistency of a slushy milkshake, the Wheelbug sucks out the contents. Nice. That's an efficient proboscis: combination killing needle, and drinking straw.

I like Wheelbugs, and certainly let them be. They are native, and part of the ecological chain. And now for a bit of utterly anecdotal, completely hypothetical speculation. As we've seen - if you watched my video above - Wheelbugs have no qualms about killing stinkbugs and their allies. I have seen FAR less of those horrid invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs this year than in the past four or five years. Like, maybe two or three in the house this fall. Normally I'd have to dispatch a few dozen by this time of year, and my place is sealed fairly tight. I have to wonder if the Wheelbugs are exploiting the nonnative stinkbugs as a food source, and impacting their numbers. That might explain the seemingly larger than normal Wheelbug numbers that I and others have seen this fall.

Well, one can hope, anyway. If the Wheelbugs manage to run out the brown marmorated stinkbugs, they'll deserve an award of some kind.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

City at night

Click the photo to enlarge, as always

I've become somewhat interested in capturing urban night scenes: the interplay of various lights, and streaming moving lights by the use of SLOW shutter speeds. I've only made a few attempts, and will never make this style of shooting my bread and butter, but no use being a one-trick pony. Trying to become proficient in many styles will probably only make one better at any sort of photographic attempt.

This is a view of downtown Columbus, Ohio, looking from the east. One of the major hurdles to composing large-scale complex images such as this is finding a place to take the photos. Ideally, the photographer will be elevated somewhat, to get above the level of all the street clutter such as signs, traffic lights, parked vehicles, etc. I finally found a decent spot about half a dozen stories up, but even this place has a bit too many distractions in the foreground for my taste, mainly those lofty street lights. I'll be keeping my eye out for other, better vantage points of my fair city.

For shots such as this, a tripod is essential. Shutter speeds are far too slow to even think about hand-holding. The image was made with my Canon 5D Mark III, and Tamron's excellent 70-200mm f/2.8 lens set at a focal length of 95mm. The photo was framed to capture the majority of the city skyscrapers, with multidirectional freeway traffic at the bottom of the image. The white streams are headlights; the red streams taillights. Camera settings were f/18, 30 second exposure, ISO 100. The very small aperture (high f-stop number) causes nearby bright lights - street lamps in this case - to explode into many-pointed finely rayed stars of light.

I look forward to further experimentation with this sort of shooting.

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Butterfly another buckeye popular in fall

Butterfly another buckeye popular in fall

Columbus Dispatch
October 18, 2015

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Anything with buckeye in the name is generally popular in these parts. Thus, the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) should indeed be an esteemed butterfly.

No matter what the name, the buckeye is a beautiful bug. Its wings are like an entomological artist’s canvas, painted by a master. Buckeye-shaped spheres rimmed with ocher and tinged with violet and azure accent a brown and orange backdrop. Dashes, bars and wavy lines create striking points of interest.

A casual observer probably wouldn’t notice the butterfly’s ornate detail. Buckeyes dash low over the ground with great rapidity. On the wing, all ablur, they look like little more than a moth on steroids.

But when one alights to feast on flower nectar — whoa! Game on, and out come the cameras. A more striking lepidopteran subject could hardly be found.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about these flashy insects. But a special award merits a repeat performance. In August, an image of a common buckeye was selected to grace the 2016 edition of the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp.

Having one’s photo judged worthy to grace the stamp is a high honor, and Alice Kahn’s fine photo that made the cut, besting 170 other entries. Kahn, of Oxford, photographed the butterfly on the snowy blossoms of white snakeroot.

Most buckeyes in Ohio are immigrants from farther south. They invade northern latitudes in late summer and fall, sometimes in big numbers. When abundant, the butterflies can appearanywhere, even in weedy urban lots.

Other years, such as this one, buckeye numbers are lean. I had seen very few until last weekend, when I noticed several dozen in Auglaize County. That’s where I made the accompanying image. The buckeye is extracting nectar from the flowers of white heath aster. This abundant native plant is a vital late-fall source of energy for butterflies.

At least some northwardly mobile buckeyes attempt to reproduce here. I’ve encountered their beautiful caterpillars several times on various species of figworts, which are the butterfly’s host plants.

Whether the chrysalises survive the winter is another question. Most buckeyes found here are ones that have recolonized from farther south.

The aforementioned Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp is sponsored by the Ohio Division of Wildlife and is in its seventh year. Having one’s photography adorn the stamp has become quite an honor.
Previous stamps depicted the eastern bluebird, the painted turtle and the eastern amberwing dragonfly, among other interesting subjects.

Ninety-three percent of the stamp’s $15 purchase price is invested into the Wildlife Diversity Fund. Monies go to support educational material such as the free natural history booklets provided by the Division of Wildlife. Other stamp-supported projects include endangered species research, restoration of rare species and habitat acquisition.

The 2016 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stampfeaturing Kahn’s common buckeye photo will go on sale on March 1. For more information, visit www.wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.

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

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Shooting shorebirds (with camera)

Fish hatcheries can be birding hotspots, and the St. Marys Fish Hatchery in Auglaize County has been hopping lately. Several of the ponds there have been drawn down to mudflats, attracting lots of shorebirds. I headed over last Sunday to see what I could find, and attempt to make some images. Some of my photos from this foray are in the previous post.

The St. Marys Fish Hatchery lies just a stone's throw from the eastern shore of Grand Lake St. Marys. At the time of its construction as a canal feeder lake in the 1830-40's, this was the largest manmade lake in the world. Unfortunately, its construction drowned what must have been a spectacular wet prairie and swamp forest. But the lake, feeble substitute as it may be for the original prairies and woodlands, quickly turned into a bonanza for water birds. In 1970 Clarence Clark and James Sipe published their Birds of the Lake St. Marys Area, which documented an impressive cast of avifauna. The fish hatchery, which launched operations in 1913, provided many of these records. It attracts noteworthy birds to this day.

There are 23 ponds covering 43 acres at the hatchery, and they're normally full of water and fish. But from time to time, it becomes necessary to draw them down, such as the pond in the foreground. It's here where I spent most of my time last Sunday, and where all of the photos that follow were made.

The day prior, I had stopped at a drawn-down pond near Killbuck Wildlife Area in Wayne County, on my way back from the Lorain area. The site was attracting lots of shorebirds. As soon as I saw the situation, I knew it would be pretty much a bust for photography. The birds were too distant, and/or were in terrible light and it wasn't possible to get into a suitable situation lightwise. No matter, I stayed for several hours and enjoyed studying the birds and their interactions.

I know this fish hatchery well, though, and had a strong idea as to how I could view the birds. Departing well before dawn, I arrived at the hatchery before the sun poked above the horizon. Taking my camera rig, I holed up at the base of that cement water control structure on the side of the pond, sitting on some steps right up against the structure's wall. Positioning the tripod and camera comfortably in front of me, I waited for the sun to appear.

One of the tricks to obtaining really sharp bird photos is to get yourself close to the action. Without spooking the birds or otherwise being an annoyance. While I know the birds noticed me, my quiet presence as an extension of the water control structure did not put them off in the least. Even wary loudmouths such as Killdeer were coming within 15-20 feet of me. For the three+ hours I remained in this spot, birds were usually close at hand, unless a car or people on the road above spooked them. The light was flawless - beautiful golden early morning light coming right over my shoulder. All of the bird images in this post were made with the amazing Canon 7D Mark II, and Canon's 500mm f/4 telephoto lens. No flash was used, and as almost always I used auto white balance and evaluative metering. All images were shot with the camera in manual mode.

Note how the Killdeer's head is turned slightly towards me. That's a sweet spot for bird posture - much better than if it was looking slightly away, or even straight ahead. The settings for this photo were f/6.3; 1/1250; ISO 640. Exposure compensation was dialed down -1/3rd of a stop.

I don't like shooting over ISO 800, generally, if it can be helped. The lower the ISO number, the cleaner (less grainy or "noisy") the image. The 7D holds up quite well until about 800 or so. Even at higher ISO's its OK if you don't have to crop much. If you're not familiar with exposure compensation and how to quickly alter that on your camera, study up (Google is your friend). When left in the neutral exposure position (0 compensation), you're almost certain to overexpose bright parts, such as the white of this Killdeer's underbelly.

This Lesser Yellowlegs and a few of its brethren were so confiding that they approached TOO close for photos from time to time. Yellowlegs are exquisite sandpipers and very photogenic. I made many keepers, but liked this shot of the bird as it canted forward, scanning the mud for tiny invertebrate life. Show yourself, create a disturbance, or otherwise be conspicuous and the yellowlegs will set about scolding you loudly, and alerting every other bird on the flats. Good luck with close range studies then.

f/6.3; 1/1600; ISO 400; -2/3rd stop exposure compensation. Notice that in spite of reducing exposure compensation another one-third stop, AND increasing the shutter speed over the settings of the previous photo, my ISO reading still dropped. That's because the sun is getting higher, and feeding more light to my position. When shooting birds, especially shorebirds, I usually want to keep the shutter speed fast to freeze movement. Especially as I was interested in trying for in-flight shots, and wanted to be ready when the opportunity arises.

At one point, this little Semipalmated Sandpiper nearly scrambled over my feet. I should have spent more time with it, but did not due to other nearby distractions that I was targeting. This image is OK, but the bird's posture doesn't lend itself well to a truly stunning photo. Nothing against the sandpiper - it's beautiful - it was my fault for not spending more time tracking it and awaiting an interesting pose.

Three major aids in shooting active birds: 1) AI Servo mode (in Canon-speak). This setting allows the camera to constantly remain focused on a moving object, as long as the shutter remains half-depressed. 2) Back-button focusing. The button marked with an asterisk (*) on the back of my camera sets focus and exposure, and is controlled with my right thumb. The only thing the shutter button up front does is fire the shutter. This is a MUCH better arrangement, especially for bird photography, and I thank Dane Adams for prodding me into this setup. I wouldn't go back. Google this up and read about it. 3) Burst mode. Almost an imperative for bird shooting. Set your camera to the fastest burst rate (number of images per second). The 7D Mark II can click off 10 a second, and obviously your odds of getting a great shot go up when engaging in such photographic carpet bombing.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper was shot at f/7.1; 1/2000; ISO 640; -2/3rd stop exposure compensation.

A striking White-rumped Sandpiper seems to ponder its reflection. This species was my primary target, and I wasn't disappointed. Rick Asamoto had reported a good-sized flock here prior, hence my trip. As many as 75 white-rumps were present during my stay, and as often as not they were in very close proximity. This is truly a feathered globetrotter. They breed in the highest reaches of the Alaskan and Canadian arctic. In an incredible journey, the white-rumps migrate all of the way to the Atlantic coast of southern South America, with many making it all of the way to Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina. The animal in this photo is likely to travel 8-9,000 miles in its southward migration. Making it all the more remarkable is that it - and all of the others that turned up in Ohio this October - are juveniles. The adults have preceded them. Built-in GPS allows the youngsters to navigate unerringly from one end of the earth to the other, having never made the journey before, and with no parental guidance.

This image was made at f/7.1; 1/2000; ISO 800; -2/3rd stop exposure compensation.

A squadron of White-rumped Sandpipers settles onto the mudflat. While foraging on the flats, the birds scurry about like feathered mice, and perhaps to some - at least those ignorant of their amazing story - would not appear overly impressive. But in flight the birds are transformed. Long strong wings provide an impressive wing surface to body mass ratio, and the animals are swift, graceful, and direct. Some legs of the white-rumps' journey might last for three days aloft nonstop, and cover 4,500 miles. Fueling way stations such as this mudflat, that offer an abundance of fat and protein filled animal life, are imperative to their success.

Shooting flying birds is, needless to say, a bit trickier than a bird at rest. Especially when they are fast flyers prone to erratic jigs and jags. The idea is to smoothly track the bird or flock, ideally when they are far out, and keep them in your sights and in focus until they get into shooting range. Just as in skeet-shooting, smoothly depress the shutter (trigger) while all the while tracking the moving birds. This image was made at f/7.1; 1/2000; ISO 400; -2/3rd stop exposure compensation.

This White-rumped Sandpiper took a rare breather from its normally frenetic feeding, and sat for a minute looking around. For photographic purposes, its posture was sublime - facing slightly away, but obligingly looking back slightly over its shoulder towards the camera. By the time you read this, there's a good chance the bird will already be in South America.

This shot was made at f/6.3; 1/2000; ISO 640, -2/3rd stop exposure compensation.

After about three and a half hours frozen in place tucked up against the water control structure, it was time for a stretch and a look around the rest of the hatchery. When I circled back to the mudflat pond an hour and a half later, the pump had been activated and water was rushing over the flats. Back to the fish business, but there were several other drained ponds that hosted shorebirds. Nonetheless, my timing was fortuitous indeed, and as they say, the early bird gets the worm.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hunting shorebirds

A Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia, nectars at the flowers of White Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum. There's nothing "common" about the appearance of this exotic-looking butterfly, and while the plant is abundant and sometimes derided as weedy, it is an important native late-season source of energy for butterflies and other pollinators. I made this image last Sunday at the St. Marys Fish Hatchery in Auglaize County, Ohio.

I haven't been letting grass grow under my feet of late, hence the scarcity of posts. Three recent and highly productive field days resulted in many sightings and images, though. I'm still sorting and cataloguing those, but present a few photos here.

This freshly molted male Red-winged Blackbird, many feathers still fringed with buff, felt the spirit of a late fall Indian Summer day and could not contain himself. I photographed him in the yellow glow of the final minutes before sunset at Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area in Wayne County. He obligingly posed on a fruiting stalk of our native cattail, Typha latifolia.

A Turkey Vulture takes wing in western Ohio. Photographers are sometimes disappointed with their vulture images. As large as these birds are, they'd seem to be easy pickings with a camera. But vultures on the wing are often much further away than they appear, making it tough to get a crisp image. This animal and many of his compadres were feasting on dead fish in a freshly drained pond at the aforementioned St. Marys Fish Hatchery, and they permitted close approach.

A highlight of the fish hatchery foray was this stunning female Surf Scoter. Any of the three scoter species is rare away from Lake Erie in Ohio, and it's often not possible to get near enough to obtain imagery such as this. The scoter was quite confiding as it feasted on submergent aquatic vegetation in one of the ponds.

Shorebirds were my primary targets at the fish hatchery. Personnel there have temporarily drained several ponds, and their timing coincided nicely with the tail end of shorebird migration. This Lesser Yellowlegs was one of several that were present during my visit.

A squadron of White-rumped Sandpipers rockets by, low over a mudflat at the fish hatchery. It was this species I had, first and foremost, come to see. White-rumps are fascinating birds, and record - or near record - numbers have turned up in Ohio this October. Rarely will one get the chance to study this species as we have had this month, and I've tried to take full advantage of the unusual opportunity.

I spent several hours studying and photographing White-rumped Sandpipers last Sunday, only rarely turning the lens to other subjects. The little birds are exquisite in plumage, habits, and voice, and I clicked off more images than I care to admit.

Hopefully, if unexpected distractions don't crop up, I'll soon make a more detailed post about White-rumped Sandpipers. I'd like to share more images of these incredible birds, and some details about their amazing lives and travels. Also, perhaps, some tips on how to position oneself in such a way as to maximize study and photo opportunities, without bothering the birds.


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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Climbing Fern, Lygodium palmatum

Way back on August 13, I made a visit to Vinton County in southeastern Ohio, to visit my friend Ray Showman and his wife, Carol. The primary mission was to deliver a presentation to Carol's garden club, and that task was dealt with. But there was time for a field excursion into Vinton County's wildlands, and Ray and I hit some of the local hotspots.

One organism that I really wanted to revisit was a strange plant known as Climbing Fern, Lygodium palmatum. For as long as I can remember there has been a large station of this plant in a scruffy cutover woods not far outside of McArthur. Ray and I made our way there, and lo and behold - there was the fern. Vegetation succession has eliminated much of it - back when I first became acquainted with this spot the fern clambered over vast expanses, and suggested an out-of-control growth of Japanese Honeysuckle from afar. But the odd tangle of the odd fern persisted here and there.

In the photo above, we see the finely cleft fertile leaves of Climbing Fern, near the summit of the filamentous vining stems that scramble over other plants. Its support plant - at least one of them - is the noxious Japanese Honeysuckle, and supporting this beautiful fern is one of the better uses that I've seen for that invasive species.

This is what the ground below looked like. A vegetative tsunami of interesting hand-shaped leaves; the sterile foliage of the Climbing Fern. Their shape provides the plant's scientific name's specific epithet: palmatum (hand-like).

Here are both leaves together on an aerial stem. The narrowly lobed fertile leaves, which bear the indusia or spore cases, adorn the upper part of the twining stem. A few of the larger sterile leaves are below. All in all, a very showy climber well worthy of our attention and respect. It would seemingly make an excellent garden plant, but may be tough to grow, and it seems virtually unknown in the nursery trade.

Up until recently, Climbing Fern was a member of the strangely named Curly-grass family of ferns (Schizaeacaea. It has since been segregated into the Lygodiaceae). Only two species in these groups make it this far north: Climbing Fern (map), and the strange little Schizaea pusilla of the east coast and northeastern maritime regions. Ohio is on the edge of the Climbing Fern's range, and although it can be locally common, generally the fern occurs sparingly and locally in a handful of southeastern counties. The rest of the 35 or so species are tropical, and occur far to our south.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

2015 Wetlands Summit: October 17, Dawes Arboretum

Cedar Bog, Champaign County. Perhaps the richest biological diversity in Ohio occurs in the fens of Cedar Bog. Wetlands in general fuel major spikes in biodiversity.

Mark your calendar for Saturday, October 17. That's the date of the Ohio Wetlands Association's annual Wetlands Summit. The event takes place at the beautiful Dawes Arboretum, which is a stone's throw from Newark and easy to reach from nearly anywhere. Complete details and registration information can be found RIGHT HERE.

Ohio has lost about 90% of the wetlands that were here when the first European settlers arrived. Prioritizing their protection, strategizing effective ways to save and restore them, and educating people about wetland values should be of paramount importance. The Ohio Wetlands Association excels at this mission.

A star-studded cast of speakers will make for a very informative and entertaining day, and there should be time to visit some of the wetlands that were restored in recent years in Dawes' property. Some of these wetlands host legions of sparrows in migration, and it's prime time for those beautiful but furtive skulkers, the Nelson's Sparrow and the Le Conte's Sparrow. Bring your binoculars. As an added bonus, the foliage should be awesome - it is fall in Ohio! - and Dawes is loaded with trees of all types.

To register, just CLICK HERE.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Rare in Ohio, Swainson's Hawk draws a crowd

The famous Holmes County Swainson's Hawk

COLUMBUS DISPATCH
October 4, 2015

NATURE
Jim McCormac

On a summer day in 1827, naturalists John Richardson and Thomas Drummond were exploring uncharted territory near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Spying an unfamiliar raptor, Drummond drew a bead with his shotgun and fired. He had collected the first Swainson’s hawk specimen.

Named in honor of scientist/artist William Swainson, the Swainson’s hawk is an animal of great beauty. It’s about the same dimensions as the familiar red-tailed hawk, but it has a slimmer body and longer wings.

The plumage is variable, ranging from very dark forms to much paler types. Most are classified as “light morphs;” the “dark morphs” are scarcer.

The breeding range of Swainson’s hawk encompasses much of western North America, into the southern Canadian prairie provinces. A tiny population in northern Illinois represents the easternmost breeders.

Swainson’s hawks rarely appear in Ohio, and if one does, it will draw great interest.

Most have been fly-overs that didn’t linger. If you weren’t there when the bird winged by, you missed it. I was lucky indeed to be part of Ohio’s first record, on July 1, 1983. A gorgeous Swainson’s hawk flew low over Bruce Peterjohn, Don Tumblin and me as we stood awestruck on a dike near Lake Erie.

Thus, when a Swainson’s hawk appeared in a Holmes County field on Sept. 17, it was big news. This bird was no fly-by, either. It stuck tight for the next five days, spending much time in its favored 6-acre field.

The bird’s unusual site fidelity and lengthy stay made it easy for legions of birders to see.

Hundreds of binocular-toters from all corners of Ohio made the pilgrimage, as did others from surrounding states.

An unaffected celebrity, the hawk utterly ignored visitors. It was entertaining to watch as it raced about snapping up grasshoppers. Otherwise, it perched on a fence post and scanned for bugs.
Swainson’s hawks are notable for being highly insectivorous, except during breeding season when they seek rodent meat for the nestlings.

Adding to the interest was the hawk’s color. It was a dark form. I believe all six or so previous records have been of the more typical light form birds.

Swainson’s hawks are highly migratory, and virtually the entire population shifts to the Pampas region of Argentina for the winter.

That’s more than 6,000 miles — one way! By the time you read this, Holmes County’s avian star will be well on its way to the southern grasslands.

It will join legions of others on the migratory passage.

One of the great hawk-watching spots is Veracruz, Mexico. Up to 1 million Swainson’s hawks have been tallied there in fall migration. Individual flocks can number 10,000 birds.

Major thanks go to Ed Schlabach, the Amish bird-watcher who first confirmed the hawk’s identity. Ed has found many other rarities, including most of Ohio’s other Swainson’s hawk records.

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

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hackberry Emperors, quadrupled

A quartet of Hackberry Emperors, Asterocampa celtis, adorn a tree at Kiwanis Park in Columbus. This little-known park is nestled along one of the wilder sections of the Scioto River in this otherwise urban area, and is one of my honey holes when little time is available.

So it was back on August 2, when only a few hours were available to shoot some images. So off to the nearby Kiwanis Park I went, where something of interest can always be found. I had meant to post these pictures long ago, but they got preempted by this, that, and the other. That happens all of the time. Even one good field trip can produce numerous subjects well worth writing about, and things constantly get sent to the end of the line, often never to see the light of day, at least on this blog.

Anyway, I've long had a soft spot for these beautiful butterflies, and admire their pugnacious mannerisms. Chances are good, if a butterfly boldly lands on you, and stays put, or keeps returning, it is a Hackberry Emperor. I have a number of shots of them perched on people's hats, shoulders, noses, whatever.

It's a well-named butterfly, too. The caterpillars eat hackberry foliage. Hence the scientific epithet of the animal's formal name: Asterocampa celtis. Celtis is the genus of hackberry trees. Kiwanis Park has many such trees, and the namesake butterfly isn't hard to find. The Emperor part of the name comes, I suppose, from their habit of regally using people or other animals as their thrones (but I don't know this for sure and feel too lazy to attempt to find out right now).

There is a sister species that is a near look-alike, the Tawny Emperor, Asterocampa clyton. They're around, but at least from my experience, never as commonly as the subject of this post. In fact, that's what I thought these might be at first, as they seemed so bright and buffy - not the colder gray tones that I associate with the Hackberry Emperor. But color varies, and these are bright individuals. A good mark to differentiate the two involves those dots and the bar along the leading edge of the forewing, closest to the body (the black marks, inboard from the white ones). In the Hackberry, the inner bar is broken into two dots. In the Tawny, they congeal into a continuous bar (Hackberry: bar and two dots; Tawny: two bars).

Hackberry Emperors seem prone to perching head down on trees, just as this one is doing. They are easy photographic subjects, often allowing very close approaches. In fact, too close sometimes, as when they land on your camera lens.

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