Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hocking Hills photo workshop: February 20-22

One of the most scenic regions in the Midwest is the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio, and late winter (really, early spring!) is a great time to be there. Debbie DiCarlo and I have planned a field-based photo excursion for February 20-22, and we'll visit some of the most scenic spots. Debbie is a sensational landscape photographer (many other genres, too), and an excellent teacher. Both of us love to work with photographers of all levels, especially those just finding their photographic feet.

To learn more about Debbie and her work, visit HERE. For details on the Hocking Hills trip, CLICK HERE, and for a list and descriptions of our other trips, GO HERE.

Following is a tiny pictorial sampler of Hocking Hills highlights, with brief commentary. Hope you can join us!

The Hocking Hills region is noted for its spectacular sandstone features. This is the inside of Rock House, a sensational cathedral of brightly colored rock.

The boulder-strewn lower gorge at Conkles Hollow. There are numerous gorgeous sites such as this, and winter is perhaps the best time to capture their beauty photographically.

Graceful evergreen hemlocks, Tsuga canadensis, give the Hocking Hills much of its character. Myriad hemlock-lined streams create numerous landscape photography opportunities.

Waterfalls abound, and winter can be the best time to shoot them. Depending on temperatures, spectacular ice formations can occur. Open water or ice, either situation is stunning.

Nearly 80 species of ferns can be found  in Hocking County, and some, such as this maidenhair spleenwort, Asplenium trichomanes, are evergreen. Late winter botanical photography opportunities abound, and we'll learn lots about flora and fauna on this excursion.

Believe it or not, the Milky Way can look like this in Ohio. There are dark skies in the Hocking Hills and if clear skies prevail, we'll try our hands at astrophotography. This is a fun photographic art form with techniques all its own, and DiCarlo excels at capturing the night sky.

CLICK HERE for details, and to register.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Horsefly eggs

Word to the wise (from the not so wise): keep up on your photo archival! If you're a frequently active shooter, as I am, it's MUCH easier to amass lots of "keeper" images than it is to neatly label and archive them. Eventually all of my photos make their way into well organized folders, and I can lay hands on anything in seconds flat. But, over the past year, I have let some photo archival duties lapse, and am spending lots of time getting everything caught up - with dreams of not getting behind on this stuff again.

One perk of sorting through and labeling material from the year past is reminders of great field trips. On one of these - a foray to one of my favorite regions, Adams County, Ohio - from last September, I had taken a photo of "mystery" insect eggs. Hundreds of the off-white cylindric eggs were neatly arrayed into a fortlike pile, artful in its arrangement.

I knew who I could ask about their identity - Laura Hughes, who I have mentioned many times before on this blog. She quickly came back with an answer; an answer you may not necessarily be pleased to hear.

Horsefly eggs!

While these brutish biters are not everyone's cup of tea, I've always liked horseflies, in part because of some species' wild op-art technicolor eyes.

A horsefly in the genus Tabanus, perched atop my car and ready to attack. I made this image in Erie County, Ohio back in 2013. Note the crazy eyes. I've been known to take bites in order to get photos, as HERE. And I'll take more bloody rasping bites for the team, I'm sure, in order to get ever better photos of the fantastic eyes of these amazing creatures.

Who, as it turns out, also have amazing eggs.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And therein often lies the rub, as far as the owls are concerned. A natural inclination of photographers is to get closer, closer, closer. This may be just human nature, a lack of oomph regarding lens power, or the desire to frame-fill the bird and minimize the need to crop. However, close approaches put a sleepy owl on edge, and are apt to flush it. Just because snowy owls "hide" in plain sight during the day doesn't mean they're active. They hail from treeless tundra regions and are pre-programmed to roost in wide open spaces, typically on the ground. While a bird may opportunistically grab prey during daylight hours, like most other owls they are largely nocturnal. It's best to give resting birds a wide berth and enjoy them from a reasonable distance. Flushing one causes it to expend unnecessary energy, potentially alerts harassers such as crows to its presence, and depending upon location, may drive the bird across a road and into traffic. If disturbances happen too frequently, the animal may leave the area. If it is spooked from a site in which prey was plentiful and forced to try and locate another spot that can meet its feeding requirements, the owl's chances of survival drop.

Fortunately, these mammoth avian predators (up to 5 lbs! nearly 5 foot wingspan! two feet long!) can easily be appreciated from distances outside of the owl's discomfort zone, but plenty close enough to admire well, and often get decent shots. It isn't hard to tell when your presence is bothering the animal. It'll fidget, stare at you for extended periods, possibly adjust its position, and if pushed too much, ultimately take flight.  A touchdown as far as snowy owl photos go is obtaining nice images, and the bird is exactly where it was when you leave.

While the bird's welfare should come first, there is the human factor to consider. Like it or not, you will probably not be the owl's only admirer. Other people will visit, and most of them will not appreciate the person who insists on making an irresponsibly close approach - and Hedwig forbid they flush the bird in front of a group of people! Many nasty people encounters have been spawned by such behavior, and no one wants that.

This is the lay of the land - the beach area at C.J. Brown Reservoir. Upon arrival near first light this morning, I saw the big white bird instantly. Its location is denoted by the red pin closer to the bottom of the map - it was sitting atop a raised berm along that section of parking lot. The other pin shows where I was when I made the first image in this post.

The gate to these parking lots is closed for the winter, so one must park in the lots along the north-south road to their right. As I walked in, I kept a few parking lots and the berms between them between me and the owl. I have no doubt that it instantly saw me when I appeared, but my distance was such that it paid me no mind. To get the over-the-back look from the owl for my photo was just a matter of patience, as it routinely scanned in all directions.

I am fortunate in that I've got Canon's superb 800mm f/5.6 lens, which greatly increases the distance that the photographer can be from the subject and still get good images. Nonetheless, this bird could be photographed well with lesser lenses, from similar distances, especially on days with better light.

Following is some wonky techno-stuff for photographers working a snowy owl from afar. Always use a tripod (sturdy one, hopefully!), as a solid base of operations is vital. If you don't already, learn to shoot in RAW mode regarding image preservation. RAW files are digital negatives that capture all the data, and are often thrice the file size of a jpeg (the latter file type compresses the image thus losing some data). The ability to crop and otherwise edit a RAW file and still retain detail is much greater.

This day was gusty, which presented stability issues. The camera/lens being firmly locked down on the tripod helped, but big telephoto lenses have huge lens hoods. Mine is about the size of a coffee can. The first thing I did was take it off, to prevent the hood acting as a parasail. The ambient light was still not very bright when I made my images, and I try my best to keep the ISO to 800 or preferably less, to help ensure clean mostly grain-free images. To do that, I opened the lens to f/5.6 - wide open - and had to drop the shutter speed to 1/160, with 0.7+ exposure compensation. Those settings gave me an ISO of 800, which was OK. To further help ensure a relatively sharp image, I shot in live view, which locks the mirror up, preventing even the slight shudder caused by the mirror's actuation. My Canon 5D IV has a touch-sensitive back screen, so I could just touch the part of the screen where I wanted the focus point to be. Finally, I set the drive mode to 2-second delay, which meant that I wasn't even touching the equipment when the camera fired. I then positioned myself as a wind block, although I tried to shoot between gusts. Resting snowy owls don't move much, making these techniques possible. If the bird did move its head during the 2-second delay, I just shot again. These tactics gave me some nice files that could be greatly cropped and tweaked later, and to the owl, it's as if I wasn't even there.

I had noticed several hundred gulls resting on the nearby beach, and foraging offshore. Being a huge gull fan, I headed their way after working with the owl. Gulls are awesome on many levels. They're beautiful, masterful aeronauts, excellent identification challenges, exhibit fascinating behavior, and some are great case studies in evolution.

This is an adult ring-billed gull, and it has captured a spotfin shiner, Cyprinellus spiloptera (I think). Naturally, once the other gulls saw this bird with its hard-earned meal, the chase was on. Shooting gulls in flight is great fun, and relatively low-hanging fruit on the photographic difficulty scale. I like to wait for some interesting performance, such as an aerial dogfight or just-caught fish to create a more interesting image.

After an hour of playing with the gulls, I ascended the low hill back to the parking lots where the owl was. Keeping the snowy in mind and figuring it was probably where I left it, I detoured north so I came into the lots as far away from the owl as possible. A quick glance showed that it was not where I left it. It was now in a tree - a few hundred feet away. With a photographer nearly under it. Having no desire to publically embarrass anyone, I've shaded out the person's body in the photo above so they can't be identified, but you can see the telephoto lens sticking out to the right. And the owl staring at the person from the tree to the right - probably about 40 feet away and that's way too close.

I imagine the person saw the owl where I had seen it, got too close and spooked it into the tree (NOT a typical resting spot). They then followed it, and from my unseen perspective from the distant corner of the parking lot I watched the next flush unfold. The person crept ever closer, and through my lens I could see the owl staring and fidgeting. It finally fluffed up and shook its wings and I knew it was about to bail again.

The flushed owl came straight my way as I stood quietly behind one of the berms, and alit not too far away. I imagine this is the type of shot the person was trying for, although I'm not particularly gratified by my effort due to the circumstances.

While a bit ticked at watching this go down, angry encounters generally do no good. I gave the owl a wide berth and worked my way to the other end of the parking lots to say hi to the photographer, who I didn't know but did recognize. Hopefully our cordial chat about owl welfare will help in future encounters.

If you do see a snowy owl - and this is the winter for it! - please keep a fair distance away and don't risk flushing the animal. Patience rules. If you wait long enough the bird will eventually do something - adopt interesting postures, preen, make a short flight to another spot, maybe catch a vole if you're really lucky. In the case of the snowy owl that was the subject of my previous two posts, I spent nearly eight hours watching it, and was rewarded with some wonderful photographic opportunities.

And if you do see inappropriate behavior on the part of one of your fellow owl-watching primates, please address it with civility. Loudly yelling across a field, angry confrontations, or other bellicose displays will probably not help; they'll likely make matters worse. A reasoned dialog might stimulate positive change. While there are exceptions, most people, including photographers, who unnecessarily disturb an owl may well not know any better. A casual chat about the birds and their amazing life history, habits and needs might be all it takes to help improve a situation.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Nature: Snowy owls once again making their way into Ohio

A snowy owls rests atop a Holmes County feed silo/Jim McCormac

December 17th, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Four years and two days ago, I wrote a column on snowy owls. That winter saw a massive invasion of these stunning, white arctic predators. At least 170 owls were reported from 59 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Deja vu. In perfect harmony with an oft-cited four-year cycle, the owls are irrupting again. I’ve heard of about 50 owls so far, in perhaps 25 counties. One of these was a brief sighting of a bird near the Main Post Office on Twin Rivers Drive in Columbus.
This winter’s irruption isn’t confined to Ohio. Scores of owls have been reported in a band from Montana and the Dakotas east to the Atlantic coast and in adjacent parts of Canada.
The majority of Ohio reports come from Lake Erie, as is typical. Harbors and the lakeshore provide an abundance of food in the form of gulls, ducks and small rodents. Even in lean owl years, a smattering of birds are found near Lake Erie.
Small rodents called lemmings drive the great white owls’ movements. These small tundra-dwelling mammals have boom and bust cycles that peak about every four years. Apparently they reached a crescendo in the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec last summer, about 1,500 miles north of Columbus. This region also fostered the owl boom that triggered the invasion of four winters ago.
When lemming numbers soar, snowy owls respond en masse. Through some poorly understood homing ability, owls descend on lemming-rich tundra regions, while all but abandoning areas of low lemming numbers. Their frequency of nesting skyrockets, and nest success rates go up.
Scads of owlets are produced during lemming explosions. Once the arctic winter sets in and mammalian pickings get slimmer, these youngsters are forced to flee south. Seasoned adults tend to remain in the far north.
The most famous of the Ohio snowy owls is a bird that appeared on Thanksgiving Day on the farm of Orris Wengerd in Holmes County. Word rapidly migrated through the birding community, and owl enthusiasts soon converged on the scene.
I visited the Wengerd farm on Dec. 4, twelve days after the owl’s initial appearance. It wasn’t hard to find. While driving in on the adjacent county road, I saw the bird sitting in a field about one-third mile off. I drove into the farm and the designated parking area, and while getting out camera gear, the owl flew to the top of a feed silo about 100 feet away.

My intended short visit turned into more than seven hours, as like so many others, I became enchanted by the massive white bird. At one point, it spotted a vole in a pasture about 100 yards off, dropped from its perch, sailed down and bagged the rodent. It mostly rested atop silos and a barn — as with other owls, snowies hunt primarily at night.

At the time of my visit, about 700 birders had visited the farm. The owl remains as of this writing, and visitors probably number nearly 1,000 now. The Wengerds run a busy operation — mostly chickens and dairy cows — but have been amazingly hospitable in sharing their arctic visitor with all comers. On behalf of the birding community, many thanks to Orris Wengerd and family.

The snowy owl irruption of four winters ago spawned an amazing research project called Project Snowstorm, which studies the habits and movements of these owls. Visit that site at https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/.

And keep an eye out for large white birds. Snowy owls can materialize nearly anywhere. Please let me know of any observations.

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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Snowy owls irrupt!

This winter is shaping up to be another decent-sized irruption of snowy owls in the Great Lakes region, and points east. We've had a few dozen reports here in Ohio - mostly along Lake Erie but a smattering well inland. Not all of which have made the birding networks. For instance, I heard about one that was seen at the main post office in Columbus. One wonders how many owls pass through undetected, or set up turf in remote agricultural country and never come to light.

Some owls do become celebrities, and this post is about one of those owls. On Thanksgiving day, a gorgeous snowy owl appeared at a farm in Holmes County, and has been there ever since. I finally made the pilgrimage last Monday, and photos from that excursion follow.

The family that owns the farm has been exceedingly gracious to visiting birders. Even their signs reminding people to stay out of the fenced fields are very nice, and prefaced with a big WELCOME. At least 700 people have visited thus far, and unfortunately with the crowds come a few people who need such reminders.

A couple of milk cows playfully butt heads. Animals such as this are one reason why it isn't a good idea to mess around with gates, fences, and entering fields. No one wants a renegade Elsie escaping the pasture.

The celebrity owl perches high atop the peak of the largest barn on the property. In a case of strange bedfellows, it shares space with a flock of house sparrows. What the owl thought of the sparrows remains unknown, but they seemed rather excited by the presence of the massive white bird.

I arrived at the site not long after sunup, and my original intent was to spend 3-4 hours. That ultimately stretched to 7.5 hours. Once again, I was drawn in by the allure of these fascinating Arctic predators, and this was an outstanding opportunity to observe one at fairly close range, and watch its behavior.

The owl nestles in atop a feed silo - a favored resting spot. As I was driving in on the adjacent county road, I spotted the owl probably a third-mile off, sitting on the ground in the field behind the feed silos. I pulled up to the designated parking area beside a long chicken coop, hopped out and began prepping my camera gear. While I was doing that, the big owl silently swooped in and alit on the silo, only 100 feet or so away. And there he sat, for much of the day.

Snowy owls are largely nocturnal, like our other owls, and spend lengthy periods sitting in one spot during the day. They will hunt diurnally if an opportunity arises, though, and at one point it spotted a meadow vole at an incredible distance. When one of these owls spots prey, you'll know. It'll extend its neck and stand nearly upright, eyes focused like laser beams on some distant object. It then launches itself, and speeds directly towards the victim with impressive rapidity. As it nears the hapless rodent, the huge snowshoe-like feet and rapier talons are thrust forward and the owl will either snatch it up without stopping, or pounce and land on the prey.

I suppose many would find observing one owl for 7.5 hours tedious, if not downright boring, and I did outlast all of the some 30 people who stopped by that day. I would have stayed even longer, if time permitted. Like many snowy owls, this animal was utterly unconcerned about the presence of people, or any of the other activities associated with the running of a large farm. Thus, it was a great opportunity to watch and learn more of its behavior. Here, the owl strikes an amusing pose while preening. Note the massive size of its feet. Occasionally  he (this is a juvenile, and presumably a male) would briefly doze, eyes hooding and mostly shut, but for the most part it kept an eye on its surroundings.

As far as the people fawning over him, the owl paid us nearly no mind. After the first wave of visitors brought a few incautious interlopers invading spaces they shouldn't have, the landowner wisely established viewing areas, and that's where everyone remained. Nonetheless, we would have been quite obvious to him, but the owl didn't care. There are probably a few reasons for its lack of interest in us. One, it hails from northern Arctic regions that are largely beyond the occupied zone of Homo sapiens. It doesn't know what we are, especially a youngster such as this, that was born only last summer. Also, predators such as this do not waste much time on idle pursuits or focus attention on things that are of no use to them. And we are of no use to it. People, at least in this situation, do not represent potential food items, nor threats, thus we are not worthy of notice. We by and large do not exist to the owl.

The utterly blasé attitude towards people observers was striking. The bird's magnificent indifference to the lowly bipeds was grand to watch. At one point, someone made a comment to the effect of "why won't it look at us?". About the only reply I could offer is "because we are less than nothing to it."

During my time, the owl only made a few flights, mostly short hops between the silos and barn. But I was ready for him when he did move. While I did a lot of photographic work with a tripod-mounted telephoto, I kept a Canon 7D II and 300mm f/4 lens around my shoulder and ready for action. This is a great combo for in-flight shots, and that's what I used for this one.

All of us who have visited owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Wengerd, the property owner. He and his family have been exceedingly gracious in not only tolerating, but welcoming, an invasion of some 700 owl-enthusiasts thus far. I got the chance to talk with him for a while, and he seems thrilled not only with the owl and its presence, but that so many people are taking delight in seeing the rare Arctic visitor.

I would also note that the owl has found a wonderful landlord, and that's why it is staying around. This is an Amish farm, and as such the land management practices are far more eco-friendly than most farming operations are these days. The meadows and fallow fields contain a nice diversity of various plants - they aren't plowed to bare soil or corn stubble as so many farms are right now. Thus, the fields are great habitat for meadow voles, those plump little mammalian sausages with legs, and the fields on the Wengerd farm produce a nice supply of these rodents. The 50-gram voles approximate the lemmings that are a staple of the snowy owl in its Arctic haunts, and when they come down to this latitude, voles become an important dietary component in some areas.

Epic Green Lawn Cemetery tour!

A month or so ago, I visited Columbus's famous Green Lawn Cemetery with cemetery board member Randy Rogers. Our main mission was to look at some of the massive old trees that are harbored in the cemetery. I wanted to write one of my Columbus Dispatch columns about the cemetery's ancient timber, and did so RIGHT HERE.

As I penned the column, the thought occurred that some people might like the opportunity to visit the cemetery in the company of guides who know the nooks and crannies of the sprawling 360-acre park/cemetery. So, I messaged Randy and he agreed that this was a good idea, and would co-lead the excursion with me. Excellent news, as I don't think anyone is as well rounded in their knowledge of the cemetery - its residents and human history, trees, and wildlife - as is Randy. So, I slipped a note into the column about the field trip, and that any and all were welcome.

Last Saturday was the day for the trip. Any interested parties were to convene at the administration building near the entrance, at 10 am. I ended up meeting friends Liz and Jamie Taylor at 9 am, to do some hunting for crossbills and other avian fare. About 10 till 10, I remarked that I'd better get to the meeting spot, to see if anyone showed up for our scheduled field trip.

And show up they did...

Our group, probably nearly 200 strong (and that wasn't everyone!), poses by the 313 year old white oak that is the oldest tree in Green Lawn Cemetery and was featured in my Dispatch column. We started here, to ensure that everyone got ample opportunity to commune with this spectacular plant.

As I neared the rendezvous point, I was stunned to see lines of cars everywhere and an enormous crowd of people. It was impossible to tally everyone, especially as Randy and I had the formidable task of gathering everyone into a cohesive group and shepherding them about. There may have been 250+ at the outset.

In spite of the crowd size, things worked out quite well and we enjoyed a nearly 2.5 hour foray through the cemetery, seeing many of the highlights.

Interesting wildlife, such as this striped skunk, even put in an appearance. At one point, a subadult bald eagle flew right over out large group, and at another point a young Cooper's hawk put on a show for everyone. Interspersed were lots of history highlights - Green Lawn is home to many famous individuals, including five governors, numerous Columbus luminaries, James Thurber, and many others. Dr. Bernard Master - a former cemetery board member and major world birder - was also along, and contributed great info about the cemetery's history and notable residents, such as Thomas Blakiston.

Thanks to everyone who attended. Maybe we can do it again next year!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nature: Calliope hummingbird excites birdwatchers in central Ohio

A calliope hummingbird in Delaware County/Jim McCormac

December 3, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The most famous bird in Ohio right now is a tiny puffball that weighs little more than a penny. Nearly 650 visitors from at least nine states have fawned over the wayward visitor. The tiny bird even has its own Facebook page (with hundreds of “likes”).
This avian notable is a calliope hummingbird, and it is only the second one to appear in Ohio. The first was in 2002, in Chillicothe, and both birds are among very few records east of the Mississippi River.
A calliope hummingbird in Ohio is decidedly off-track. The species breeds in mountainous regions from British Columbia to Washington, Oregon, Idaho and nearby states. These sprites undertake an incredible migration proportionate to their size. Most of the population winters in southwestern Mexico. Some birds probably migrate nearly 6,000 miles annually.
Only the familiar ruby-throated hummingbird regularly shows up and breeds in Ohio. Most ruby-throats have left for tropical climes by mid-October. Any hummingbird seen after that warrants scrutiny.
Thus, when Delaware County homeowner and birder Tania Perry spotted a hummingbird in her yard in late October, she knew it might be something unusual. Identification of immature or female hummingbirds is often not straightforward, but it didn’t take long to secure excellent documentary photographs.
From the images, hummingbird expert Allen Chartier was able to confirm the bird as a hatch-year male calliope hummingbird.
Tania and her husband, Corey, knew the birder interest would be enormous if the bird’s presence was made public. Scores of people would want to see a major rarity such as this.
After consultation with some longtime birders, the Perrys made the decision to allow all comers. As noted above, come they did. I’ve seen many backyard rarities over the years, but few situations that drew as many people, or were as well-managed.
The Perrys braced their neighbors for an onslaught of unfamiliar visitors. They flagged appropriate parking areas and established visiting hours. Straw was cast on areas of foot traffic to protect the lawn. A viewing gallery was established, and feeders were placed in sites offering the best views.
Finally, a log book of visitors tracked the names, locations and comments of the hummingbird’s legions of fans. Imagine having nearly 700 visitors to your house over a span of two weeks. Yet the circus was managed with minimum disruption to the quiet rural neighborhood on a dead-end road. After a two-week viewing window, visitation was ended, but by then nearly everyone who wanted to had seen the bird.
Despite being the smallest breeding bird in North America, calliope hummingbirds are tough. As I write this, last Sunday, the bird is still present. It has endured nighttime temperatures into the 20s on a number of occasions.
While the sugar-water feeders provide a major source of energy for the hummingbird, it also catches lots of tiny insects, from which it gets necessary protein. Probably, once conditions get too cold for consistent insect activity, the bird will move on.
In 1985, the first vagrant hummingbird was detected in Ohio. The rufous hummingbird, a western species, has become annual, with dozens of records to date. Including the calliope, four other species have appeared — three of them westerners and one tropical. This pattern of increasing vagrancy holds true throughout eastern North America.
No one knows exactly what causes the spike in wayward hummers, but the reasons are undoubtedly multifaceted. Warming mean temperatures, a proliferation of feeders, increases in ornamental flowers and large-scale habitat changes probably all play a role.
Incredible aeronauts that they are, hummingbirds can rapidly exploit new opportunities.
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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Photography workshops and expeditions 2018!

A Baltimore oriole is nicely accentuated by the flowers of a chokecherry, Prunus virginiana.

I am pleased to announce that master photographer Debbie DiCarlo and I are partnering to present a series of field-based photography workshops in 2018. Nearly all of the details have been settled, and you can see the offerings and details RIGHT HERE.

Both Debbie and I have extensive experience with helping others to improve their photography, and very much enjoy working with photographers of all levels. We each bring different skill sets to the table; Debbie is one of the premier landscape and night sky photographers, and plenty of evidence of her skills can be seen at her website, RIGHT HERE. I tend to specialize more in species-specific photography, but certainly cross-pollinate my work with forays into about every photographic facet, as does Debbie.

A colorful carpet of blue-eyed mary, Collinsia verna.

These workshops  focus on Nature and its many facets: spring wildflowers, butterflies, waterfalls, night skies and other landscapes, mammals, birds - nothing is out of bounds even though each trip has a focus. Each workshop ventures to places that Debbie, I, or both of us are intimately familiar with, so we can lead participants to the best hotspots and maximize our time afield.

A stunning rock formation in the Hocking Hills.

One thing is for certain when it comes to practicing the craft of natural history photography: The more one knows about nature, the better the nature photographer they will become. So, not only will we learn to better our photographic skills, we will also learn loads about natural history. We will attach names to nearly all of our subjects - stump me if you can :-) - and learn more about the subtleties of habitats, where to best find certain targets, the sounds of nature, and habits of animals.

A western Ohio prairie in its full midsummer glory.

We've given a lot of thought and planning to the details of each trip, to ensure maximum bang for the buck. We also will strive to do our best to make these workshops FUN! After all, that's why most of us pursue photography - it's an enjoyable and rewarding respite from the daily routine. Our photos can also serve to entice others to take an interest in the natural world, thus imbuing our work with a higher purpose.

Cameras are complex mechanical and electronic organisms, and it's tough to learn how to take full advantage of all the features that they offer. Yet with a bit of coaching, one's photographs can improve tremendously with the same amount of time and effort. Mentoring can also be extremely useful in learning to "see" both Nature's smallest details, and the epic scope of big landscapes.

Debbie and I love working with photographers of all levels, especially newer practitioners. Group sizes will be small, to ensure all participants see and photograph everything, and so that we can work easily with everyone.

For complete workshop details, and to register, GO HERE. And please pass the word!

A ruby-throated hummingbird taps nectar from a statuesque royal catchfly, Silene regia. Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of this spectacular prairie plant.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count: December 16

Your narrator's car - several years back - sits along a rarely traveled lane in rural Jackson County, Ohio. I was searching for birds during the Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This census, which is part of the National Audubon Society's massive effort to conduct winter bird surveys from roughly mid-December through early January, is one of several dozen such counts in Ohio. And it is one of the more interesting ones, as the Beaver circle is sparsely populated, and contains a diversity of habitats.

This year's Beaver CBC falls on Saturday, December 16 and you are invited. If you are interested in joining one of the teams, please send me an email: jimmccormac35 AT gmail.com.

Below is a (somewhat crude) map of the count circle:

Click to expand image

We nearly always find interesting species, especially half-hardy birds like pine warbler, Wilson's snipe, eastern phoebe, gray catbird, chipping sparrow, and more. In general, the count circle is a birdy place and it's a fun area to spend a day birding.

Jackson Lake, one of the count's water features. We always conduct the count as early as possible within the CBC time frame, to maximize the chance of lingering migrants, and to better ensure unfrozen water.

Again, if you'd like to help, just send me an email and we'll put you on the team.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nature: Green Lawn Cemetery’s majestic old trees leave lasting impression

Randy Rogers provides scale for the Green Lawn Cemetery tree estimated to be about 313 years old

November 19, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

A century before Ohio became a state, a white oak acorn fell on gravelly terrain in what’s now the southwest side of Columbus. The following year, 1704, the fruit sprouted and a seedling arose.

That year, the first regular newspaper in the thirteen colonies was printed: the Boston News-Letter. One hundred sixty-seven years would elapse before the first edition of The Dispatch appeared.

Seven decades after the oak’s emergence, Americans, chafing under British rule, would fight for independence. By the time the Revolutionary War broke out, the acorn had matured into a large oak.

When the acorn sprouted in 1704, Ohio was pure wilderness. The city of Columbus’ predecessor, Franklinton, would not be platted until 93 years later, and it was 15 more until the “Borough of Columbus” was established.

This oak still stands, aged an estimated 313 years and witness to extraordinary change. Its gnarled, massive boughs stretch crazily from an elephantine trunk, the upper branches scraping the sky. The botanical Methuselah is one of the oldest trees in the state.

Fortunately for it and neighboring old-growth trees, Green Lawn Cemetery’s sprawling 360 acres includes them. Ohio’s second-largest cemetery was opened in 1849.

Burial grounds are sacred places, not subject to clear-cutting. So, beneficiaries of incidental conservation, the big timber was spared the ax: Twenty-seven other oaks exceed 200 years of age, and over 90 more are centenarians.

Because of its scores of huge trees, Green Lawn also serves as an arboretum. The cemetery has long been known for its wildlife value and as a birding Mecca. The originator of this column, Edward S. Thomas, wrote many pieces about the birds he found here. Thomas’ final resting place is near the fabled pond in the cemetery’s midst.

I’ve been visiting the cemetery since I was a kid and have made probably hundreds of trips over the years. Like many others, I’ve got lots of good memories of seeing great birds there, including numerous rare species.

Because of Green Lawn’s dual identity as a park and because of the numerous wildlife-watchers it draws, conservationists have long had a role on the cemetery board. Local physician and birder nonpareil Bernard Master began this tradition in 1995, serving for six years.

I replaced Bernie in 2000 and was on the board for 12 years. Randy Rogers followed me in 2011 and has been a dynamo, often spending 40 hours a week on cemetery business.

Rogers and I met at the cemetery on a recent frosty fall day and inspected the ancient oak and other mammoth trees. Our foray also produced numerous intriguing nuggets of human history. Residents include a who’s who of famous Ohioans.

Five governors are interred at Green Lawn, as is James Thurber, Eddie Rickenbacker, industrialist Samuel Bush (President George H.W. Bush’s grandfather), architect Frank Packard and many other notables.

A trip through Green Lawn Cemetery is always interesting. Its giant trees provide spectacle, and peppered throughout are historical points of interest courtesy of the many famous residents. Visitation is encouraged. Information can be found at www.greenlawncemetery.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.

Further afield
• Jim McCormac and Green Lawn board member Randy Rogers will lead a trip through the cemetery on Dec. 2. They’ll visit the largest, oldest trees and various points of human interest. All are welcome. Meet at 10 a.m. at the administration building just inside the gates at 1000 Greenlawn Ave.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Native bees do the heavy lifting

A sunny roadbank covered with a spring-blooming fleabane known as robin's-plantain, Erigeron pulchellus. The flowers of this species, and the similar Philadelphia fleabane, E. philadelphicus, lure scores of interesting native pollinators.

I have a massive archive of natural history photographs, and have learned to not let them pile up without curation. Nonetheless, a bit of a backlog has accumulated and I've been trying to spend some time each day whittling away at them. When everything is neatly labeled and placed in the appropriate folder, I can lay hands on anything in no time flat. Anyway, today I was working through an unprocessed folder of stuff from Shawnee State Forest (Scioto County, Ohio) from April 26 of last spring (2017).

Reviewing these images reminded me of the hour or so I spent prostrate on the ground, watching and photographing a constant procession of tiny native bees to the fleabane flowers. And once again, I was reminded just how vital these largely unnoticed insects are to the health of our native plant communities.

A small sweat bee in the Halictidae family (I think) works over the tiny button of disk flowers of a Philadelphia fleabane.

Nonnative honeybees, Apis mellifera, are certainly the best-known pollinators among the general public. However, these social hive-dwellers are probably of little consequence to the pollination of our native flora. While they certainly do visit native flowers, their role in pollination of these plants is probably not critical. Honeybees' primary importance is in pollinating nonnative plant crops. It's the myriad native bees and other insects, mostly ignored, that do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollination of native plants.

Note the pollen grains adhering to this sweat bee (take my names with a grain of salt; there are numerous very similar families of bees and I won't masquerade as an expert). By just lying in this spot for 10-15 minutes, I could watch a nonstop procession of hardworking little bees stopping by.

The underside of this bee is totally cloaked in a dense layer of pollen. One can only imagine how many flowers it has successfully cross-pollinated. Multiply this worker by tens of thousands (millions?) and the scope and scale of its species' value to plants, just in the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest, becomes apparent.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in our native bees. Written by Heather Holm, it contains a wealth of information about the identification and natural history of our various groups of bees, along with great information on native plants. Get a copy HERE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mink punks muskrat, scares ducks!

The tranquil waters of the pond at Char-Mar Ridge Park in Delaware County, Ohio. I made my second visit to this site yesterday, and left scratching my head as to why I've not been here more often. It's only 20-25 minutes away, and the place can be a goldmine for bird photography. There is a fantastic roofed observation blind - where I made the shot above - and it's one of the best-sited blinds that I've seen. Not only is it in a great location, but is positioned such that the light, especially in early morning in spring and fall, is ideally suited for lighting subjects on the pond.

UPDATE: A little while back, I wrote a piece about another Preservation Parks of Delaware County site, Shale Hollow Park. That column, which appeared in the Columbus Dispatch and which I shared on this blog, HERE, touted the virtues of the park district and its holdings. I am pleased to say that one week later, Delaware County voters overwhelming approved passage of a park levy continuation, along with a small increase, by a 62% to 38% margin. People do like their parks and wild spaces and we need to do all we can to support effective conservation organizations.

Back to the subject at hand. A stunning quartet of hooded mergansers - two drakes bookending a pair of hens - steams along between underwater fishing forays. They, and numerous wood ducks, were my primary quarry on this day. Persistent autumn foliage is still tinting the water with color, making for nice waterfowl photo ops.

When I arrived at the blind shortly after sunrise and cast my eyes on the scene out front, one of the first thoughts that I had was "this looks perfect for a mink!" These aggressive weasels love to hunt along shorelines of ponds, lakes, and wetlands, and I've seen them in such settings numerous times. Here would be a great potential photo opportunity if one of the tubular beasts would make an appearance.

Sometime later in the morning, a fellow photographer, Victoria Koroleva, appeared in the blind. I had not previously met her but had seen her work on Facebook. One of the great things about Zuckerberg's massive social media outlet is it often "introduces" people before they actually meet for real, and this was one of those cases. At some point I verbalized my mink-aura feelings to Victoria, and it wasn't much later that she exclaimed "look! a mink!"

The mink appears, just across a narrow arm of the pond. This was a wonderful opportunity to observe the beast without it being alarmed, as it didn't know we were there. Mink, for all practical purposes, are raging psychopathic homicidal well-furred mammalian slinkies. They rapidly bound about with an exaggerated undulating gait, exploring all nooks and crannies and prepared to pounce with murderous intent as soon as a victim shows itself.

The mink rapidly moved along the bank, poking under logs and occasionally pausing to scan its surroundings. Interestingly, on a few occasions it dove into the shallow water along the pond's edge, temporarily disappearing from sight. I think I know what it was looking for.

Soon after the mink turned a corner of the pond and vanished from sight, we saw a muskrat rapidly swimming towards the middle of the pond from the immediate direction of the mink. Once it got out there, it paused and just floated motionless low in the water for five minutes or so. I'd not seen this behavior from a muskrat before, but it wasn't hard to decipher what was going on.

I imagine the mink's underwater dives were to search out and enter the burrows of muskrats. The latter often create subterranean lairs with the entrance under the water. Mink are said to be quite fond of muskrat meat and are more than capable of killing them. I suspect the mink nearly caught this 'skrat unaware, and the rodent fled to deeper water and a strategic advantage. It's probably a very lucky muskrat.

After a while, the muskrat paddled back to shore and hauled out on a log. And there he sat for quite some time, not moving a muscle and casting wary glances about before finally disappearing.

As the mink continued its shoreline rampage, it eventually got into a sheltered cove at the rear of the pond where many of the ducks retreat. The fowl apparently didn't like the ferocious weasel either, and suddenly a cloud of ducks skittered out of there and onto the pond's open waters, including this pair of gadwall.

It's fascinating to watch the dynamics of a situation when a dangerous alpha predator appears. Just about all of the animals go on alert, or outright flee to safer spots. The mink was a wonderful addition to an already fantastic outing, and to watch it in action, acting naturally, was a huge perk.

Autumn Upper Peninsula

The "Big Mac", or as it's properly known, the Mackinac Bridge. This massive span links Michigan's Upper and Lower penins...