Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day leapers!

Being that it's Leap Year, which only rolls around every four years, I figured that I'd better do something saltatorial. And as today is Leap Day, the time is now. So here for your viewing pleasure are some extraordinary leapers.

A bold jumping spider, Phidippus audax, perches atop the mountain of disk flowers that forms the cone of a gray-headed coneflower. The spider was stalking pollinator prey. When a victim bumbles into range, the spider will pounce like an eight-legged leopard. Photographed October 8, 2013 in Franklin County, Ohio.

While at ease in this image, eastern fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, can explode to life in the blink of an eye. Their speedy bursts can include impressive leaps. Photographed on April 7, 2012 in Adams County, Ohio.

A glance at the impressive legs of this curve-tailed bush katydid, Scudderia curvicaudata, gives away its common mode of locomotion. When at ease, the animal stalks about slowly and mechanically. If a threat looms, it springs to life and out of the danger zone with impressively long leaps. Photographed September 7, 2014 in Adams County, Ohio.

Grasshoppers are well known for their jumping ability, and this differential grasshopper, Melanoplus differentialis, is not an exception. Grasshoppers have thickened powerful hindlegs - fabulous springboards for their impressive leaps. Photographed in Adams County, Ohio on September 7, 2013.

I do not believe any of our amphibians can hurdle along with the jumping ability of a northern leopard frog, Lithobates pipiens. One doesn't even need a good look at the animal - the spectacularly fast and lengthy jumps as the frog flees is all it takes to cinch the identification. Photographed on May 19, 2012 in northern Michigan's Presque Isle County.

Tiny leafhoppers are capable of extraordinary leaps proportionate to their size. When they go, it's as if the bug was strapped to an ejection seat. This one (species unknown [to me]) was photographed on September 20, 2014 in Adams County, Ohio.

Lastly, the feisty red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus. These helter-skelter beasts are prone to racing around maniacally, and their antics often include jaw-dropping leaps made at death-defying speed. This animal was imaged in Presque Isle County, Michigan on May 17, 2013.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A few birds of late

Last Saturday, I got up really early, and was down in deep southern Ohio not long after sunrise. This was a bird mission, primarily, and my target was a large wild area in Adams County that I had not visited in a few decades. Time has not been kind to this place, and an infestation of nonnative honeysuckle shrubs and various other factors have caused a sharp reduction in plant diversity, and as a consequence, overall biodiversity.

I had to kick around quite a bit before finding a honey-hole. But finally, while cruising a gravel lane, I spotted a clearing surrounded by various native shrubs, saplings, with a backdrop of more mature forest. Best of all, there was a robust thicket of fruiting staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina. I knew this spot would produce some action, so I parked, hauled my rig in, and pushed up against some small trees.

I spent the next two hours near the sumac, being treated to a regular procession of birds. Lots of species love to snack on the fruit of sumac, including this Carolina Chickadee. The chickadee was loosely accompanied by many other species.

At one point, this inquisitive Tufted Titmouse came near, no doubt wondering who the odd-looking invader was. He gave a few husky grumbles, but mostly whistled loud clear Peter-Peter-Peters! The timouse's talking brought a number of other birds around to see what was going on. Through it all, I stayed still, camera at the ready. Small songbirds have short attention spans, and before long they would proceed with business as usual, allowing me to try to make shots of birds behaving naturally.

I had my Canon 7D Mark II on the tripod, connected to the 500 f/4 II lens with a 1.4x teleconverter sandwiched in between. Given the camera's crop factor, that makes the setup the equivalent of an 1120mm lens. With no cropping at all, the titmouse nearly filled the frame. When I reviewed the file later, I saw that the photo was pretty much razor sharp, so I cropped it down to highlight the bird's face and attendant plumage details. These are truly handsome little animals.

Another species that was apparently lured by the titmouse's fussing was this Winter Wren. While there was a lot of simultaneous action, I kept one eye on the wren to see if any opportunities would arise. This is a hard species to image well, due to their habitat of skulking in dense cover.

Finally, the unseasonably springlike day caused the wren to burst into song, and to my great pleasure, it jumped into the lower boughs of a honey locust to deliver its long gushing aria. Yes! By quietly moving a few feet, I got a narrow but clear opening, and was able to click off the best images that I have ever managed of this species. The honey locust thorns were a real bonus.

On my way out, I drove by a small meadow that was greatly enlivened by the flutelike whistlings of an Eastern Meadowlark. Spotting a discreet hiding spot, I parked and lugged the tripod and camera into some shrubbery. Within a half-hour I had managed a number of decent images. So full of the promise of spring was this meadowlark that he even sang as he waddled through the grasses seeking food, often closely approaching my position. While everyone oohs and aahs over this species' spectacular lemony breast marked with a coal-black chevron, note the incredibly ornate detailing of its back. I prefer this image to the full frontal shots that I made.

Various stuff precluded a full field day the following day, so I ran down to the local Green Lawn Cemetery for a bit. A recently felled tree and attendant ground-up stump must have harbored beetle grubs or other insects, and a tribe of Eastern Bluebirds were feeding there. Two nearby tiny fake conifers were regularly being used as perches by the birds, so it was a simple matter of positioning the rig where the light was optimal. I do regret not pulling that garish ribbon off the fake tree. But I worried that encroaching on the spot might spook the birds, and it wasn't my place to remove someone else's decoration. I suppose I can do that with Photoshop if need be.

When a bird habitually returns to the same perch, it is a photographer's dream. I just locked my focus on the tip of the tree, and didn't even look through the viewfinder. When I saw one of the bluebirds flying towards the perch, I'd just trip the shutter as it drew near, and the Canon's 10 frames a second burst mode produced some nice results.

I still wish I had pulled that stupid purple ribbon off, though.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

First spring wildflower in bloom!

In my quest to deliver the coming gospel of spring and all things vernal, I offer up the news of our first spring wildflower, which is in full bloom. Yesterday, butterflies, today, flowers.

It is February 21. But while calendars and convention may proclaim that it's still winter, the flora and fauna know better. The tidal wave of spring's flora and fauna is in its gestation period, and visible diversity will only increase in the days to come. The early vanguards of spring are evident right now, especially birds. Migrant flocks of blackbirds are sweeping north, as are Killdeer and Turkey Vultures. Meadowlarks are conspicuously singing, and someone will soon hear singing Eastern Phoebes in southern Ohio.

And, the Skunk-cabbage is in bloom. I took this series of images today, in a local quagmire that sports hundreds of these odd arums.

A spearlike leaf juts from the mire, next to a liver-spotted Skunk-cabbage spathe. The leaves emerge and unfurl after the spathes have largely withered away. The foliage is far more conspicuous, too - massive cabbagelike leaves that form a malodorous carpet over the soggy seeps from which they spring.

The curious-looking spathe of the Skunk-cabbage, which looks like some sort of malformed witch's hat, is of course not the flower. To see those, one must probe into the depths of the spathe. For this photo, I peeled away part of the thick, leathery spathe so that we might see the spadix, which is the oblong column that bristles with tiny simple flowers all producing yellowish pollen.

I had a higher purpose for opening this spathe, other than just to showcase the true flowers for this post. Small flies and beetles are supposed to be the primary pollinators, and I've seen precious few (any?) really good photos of these bugs in action. So I parked my tripod-mounted Canon macro rig lasered in on the flowers, hoping for some action. Alas, nothing came in my short window of time in this bog, but someday I'll try this again.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

First butterfly of the year!

A Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationis, basks in warm sunlight in Shawnee State Forest this afternoon. This species is an extraordinary dead leaf mimic, at least in this posture. When the wings are splayed out to the sides, the butterfly is more colorful and conspicuous. It was an unseasonable (it's February 20!) 65 F when I made the image. The butterfly had plenty of spunk, and I got only this one photo before it flew off, not to be seen again.

Question Marks, their close ally the Comma, and Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults. It isn't unexpected to see any of them flying about during a midwinter warm snap. In fact, I'm surprised that I didn't see more of them today. It was just the Question Mark in the photo, another Question Mark/Comma type (never got near enough to tell), and one Mourning Cloak. I would have loved to photograph the latter, which nearly hit me in the head as it coursed about, but it never alit and was soon gone.

These butterflies will retreat back to sheltered nooks and crannies with the next cold spell. But their appearance on a late winter day, with snow still persisting in shaded spots, was a nice harbinger of spring.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gadwall, in creamy waters

Of all our dabbling ducks, I would venture that the Gadwall may be the most overlooked. To ignore such a subtly beautiful animal would be an aesthetic crime on the part of the observer. The Gadwall in this photo is a drake, and it is finely etched with artistic vermiculations that create delicate op-art on its breast, flanks, and back. A beautiful tawny-brown head punctuates golden-tan highlights on the back, and the duck is capped rearward with an ebony rump.

Nice.

I made this image last Saturday from an elevated viewing platform at the tailwaters of Hoover Dam in Westerville, Ohio. I normally don't much like shooting from that spot, because it forces one to shoot down on the birds at a fairly steep angle. This often means that there isn't enough contrast between ducks and water, and the ducks get lost among the reflections.

However, every now and then the water color and reflections complement the duck, and I think that's what happened with this image. As the air temperature was maybe 9 F at the time the photo was taken, the water was actively icing up in places, and that may have contributed in some way to its creamy texture. The image was made with the Canon 7D Mark II and 500mm f/4 II, with the 1.4x teleconverter. Shutter priority mode, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 400, using center point focus with four surrounding points active.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Frozen falls and frozen birds

Yesterday was bitterly cold in central Ohio. The day began about 7 F, and warmed into the low teens. Yet winter and subfreezing temperatures brings its own charms, and frozen Hayden Run Falls is one of them. I figured it would have been transformed into a cascade of ice, and sure enough that was the case.

A closer view of the Hayden Falls ice sculpture. I wrote about this place late last fall, and shared some images of the falls when the water is freely flowing. Just CLICK HERE for that.

Below the falls, towards its confluence with the Scioto River, Hayden Run was mostly unfrozen. This pair of Mallards rested and foraged in the stream. Although it still seems - and is! - wintry, spring is very much in the air. The daylight lengthens and stretches the days, and ducks are entering courtship mode. This drake was quite attentive to the hen, and tailgated her constantly as she swam about.

Nearby Kiwanis Park produced lots of birds, as it nearly always does. Being a sucker for charismatic chickadees, I can seldom resist imaging them if the opportunity arises. This is a Carolina Chickadee, which is common over the southern three-quarters of Ohio. North of their range lies that of the Black-capped Chickadee.

Scads of American Robins were evident on this day. While we've had many all winter, it seems that their ranks have been bolstered by new arrivals in the last week or so. This bird was feather-fluffed to truly rotund dimensions as it did its best to stave off the biting cold. He - it is a male - and his comrades were feasting on the fruit of the nasty invasive nonnative European highbush cranberry, Viburnum opulus var. opulus. The robins and other frugivorous birds are vectors for the spread of these weedy invasives, unfortunately.

I've said this before and I'll say it again - the American Robin is one of our showiest birds, bar none. Were it a major rarity, everyone would go ape at the sight of one. But it's easy to get jaded to the commonplace and ignore birds like robins. Thus, when I espied this extremely cooperative chap, I resolved to do my best photographic portraiture work and really try to bring out his handsomeness.

The image was made with the tripod-mounted Canon 5D Mark III and 500mm f/4 II. A 1.4x teleconverter allowed me to reach in even closer. Single point focus was shifted to the upper left of the grid and placed squarely on the bird's eye. Settings were f/8, 1/640, ISO 800, and +1/3rd exposure compensation.

A trip to the tail waters of Hoover Dam revealed many fowl cavorting in the icy waters. My favorite, perhaps, was this flashy drake American Wigeon. Or in hunter parlance, the "baldpate".

I've long been partial to these kleptoparasitic dabblers. It isn't uncommon to see thieving wigeon out in deep water associating with diving ducks such as scaup, Redheads, or Ring-necked Ducks. When one of the divers returns to the surface with a billfull of succulent plant matter, the wigeon attempt to snatch it away. That's one way to get at food that lies in the depths beyond one's reach.

One more wigeon photo, just because. It was 7 or 8 F when I took this image, with a gusty breeze cooking across the water. The tough wigeon seemed utterly unfazed. I wasn't, though, and resorted to hand warmers in the gloves, and noticed that my camera's controls were getting a bit sluggish after an hour or so in the elements.

Tomorrow is supposed to bring a high of 37 F. Spring is rapidly approaching, and with it the wild yo-yo weather of late winter and early spring in the Midwest.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two great conferences

The annual Ohio Natural History Conference takes place on February 27 at the Ohio History Connection (Historical Society) building in Columbus. This is a great venue for such a conference, and you won't want to miss it.

Lots of great talks will be heard, including one by the cicada-master himself, Gene Kritsky, who will speak about periodic cicadas. As you may know, a mass emergence will take place across much of eastern Ohio this year. I made the photo above in 2008, when a smaller cicada brood erupted in southern Ohio.

The inimitable Joe Letsche is speaking about his work with one of our most fascinating serpents, the gentle Rough Greensnake. He has uncovered all manner of interesting nuggets about these secretive creatures. I made the photo above last fall while on a foray with Joe at his Chillicothe-area stomping grounds.

There will be many other points of interest at this conference, including a great keynote by the one and only Guy Denny. To register, CLICK HERE.

Registration is now open for the fabled Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference. This year's keynote is none other than Chip Taylor, the founder and director of Monarch Watch. Few people know more about the charismatic Monarch than Chip, and his talk is a must-see.

There'll also be programs on flying squirrels, woodpeckers, pollinators, bird migration and more. This is always a great event, so mark your calendars for April 12. Full details and registration info is RIGHT HERE.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Bluebirds hunting and eating

A stunning male Eastern Bluebird hunts insects from a conspicuous perch. While these seemingly gentle creatures are thrushes - a group known for shrinking violets in this part of the world - I think of bluebirds as "hawk-thrushes".

I found myself roaming parts of south-central Ohio last Saturday, on an unseasonably balmy day. Temps hit near 50 F, and that got some insects stirring. One of the places that I visited was Stage's Pond State Nature Preserve just north of Circleville. Recent habitat management there left a savanna-like situation, with a recently mowed meadow interspersed with scattered small trees. Perfect bluebird habitat, and sure enough there was a small flock hunting the site.

I'm certainly not the only one smitten by bluebirds. This species - all three species, actually - have a virtual cult following. Much of their fan club is driven by "bluebirders" who collectively erect scads of free housing for these cavity-nesters. I'm not among their ranks - I've just always liked these beautiful songbirds for their good looks, pleasing warbles, and interesting behavior.

So, when I noticed the pack of bluebirds waging battle against the insects in the grass below, I semi-concealed myself, remained as still as possible, and watched/photographed the animals for an hour or so.

The female in the photo above is watching the ground with keen eyes. Moments after I made the photo, she flutter-dropped to the ground and seized something. Maybe one of the sluggish but still active grasshoppers, I'm not sure. In any event, this is classic Eastern Bluebird hunting modus operandi. Sit on an often-exposed perch over good foraging habitat, watch for prey, and fly down and seize the victim. Much like a Red-tailed Hawk or many other raptors do. The scale of the prey is just smaller.

As I was working my way back to the parking lot, I spotted this male bluebird as it darted into an unkempt patch of vines adorning a small tree. Yes! - he was going to harvest the fruit of one of my favorite plants, and also give me an opportunity to photo-document yet another species feeding on the berries of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans.

Poison ivy is one of the most disparaged of our plant species, and I suspect most Homo sapiens who revile it don't know that it is native (or care). But poison ivy has been a part of North America's landscape for far longer than we've been around, and many animals have developed a relationship with the plant. Including bluebirds.

The berries of this dermatitis-inducing plant are apparently mighty tasty to the feathered crowd, and probably loaded with nutritional value, too. While this is the first time I've managed to photograph a bluebird in the act of eating ivy berries, it's not the first time I've seen such behavior. I've also watched American Robins, and Hermit and Swainson's thrushes eat the stuff. Yellow-rumped Warblers are addicted to the poison ivy fruit. It's amusing to watch gargantuan Pileated Woodpeckers dangle from the flimsy, swaying vines as they attempt to pluck the small berries. And many other birds take advantage of the fruit of this oft-reviled plant.

Should you be interested, CLICK HERE for "A Brief Essay in Defense of Poison Ivy" that I wrote almost exactly two years ago.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Hardy Seuss-like Himalayan beasts among stars of the Wilds

The Sichuan takin, among the species in the Wilds, is a lumbering mammal native to the frigid highlands of the Himalayans in Tibet and China

Hardy Seuss-like Himalayan beasts among stars of the Wilds

January 31, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

One of my favorite places is the Wilds in Muskingum County.

Sprawling across almost 10,000 acres, the massive conservation center is a bonanza for bird-watchers. In the summer, its meadows ring with the songs of bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, and many other species.

Wintertime brings raptors: Northern harriers, short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, even rare golden eagles.

I was there Dec. 26 to participate in the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, which includes the Wilds. Although plenty of wild birds were to be found, it's the mammals that steal the show.

It's surreal to be scanning the meadows for birds and spot a trio of Bactrian camels on the horizon. A group of distant animals materializes into a herd of fringe-eared oryx. These muscular African antelopes sport long spikelike horns. A large pack of American bison dots a neighboring hillside, while Przewalski's horses - native to Mongolia - graze on another slope.

Of the Wilds' exotic stock, my favorite is the Sichuan takin (tock-in). The lumbering beasts resemble musk oxen and project a standoffish surliness that is somehow endearing. Big bulls can weigh more than 700 pounds. Although takins are occasionally referred to as "goat-antelopes" because of similarities to those animals, they remind me of a cross of a moose, bear, and wildebeest. They'd fit well in a Dr. Seuss story.

Takins are hardy animals, native to the frigid highlands of the Himalayans in Tibet and China. Their massive nostrils warm air before it enters the lungs, and oily skin secretions prevent water penetration, further protecting them from bitter cold. They typically inhabit dense bamboo forests, sharing habitat with a more famous mammal, the giant panda.

The takin's coat is a spectacular patchwork of dense brown and black fur capable of keeping the animal warm in the frostiest air. It has been claimed that the takin's beautiful pelage was the inspiration for the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology.

The Wilds is North America's premier wildlife conservation center, housing nearly two dozen species of large mammals. Many of them are imperiled in their native ranges. The staff has been successful in breeding many species and advancing knowledge that aids in conservation of wild populations.

Visitation opens in May, and I highly recommend a trip. Visit thewilds.columbuszoo.org

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com

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