Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nature: Show-off herons shine in national park

A juvenile least bittern in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

September 17, 2017

Jim McCormac

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 51 square miles preserves a treasure trove of biological diversity. Ohio’s only national park, it occupies the state’s most populous region and is bookended by Akron and Cleveland.

Although waterfalls, forests, rock formations, streams and other scenic items of interest lure visitors, it was one of the world’s smallest herons that drew me to the park a few weeks back.

For most of the summer, an uncharacteristically conspicuous pair of least bitterns put on a show along a boardwalk that bisects a lush marsh. As an Ohio breeding bird, this one is especially noteworthy. The least bittern is listed as threatened by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and nesting locales are few and far between.

The least bittern is a true elfin in a family of typically robust birds. One of these diminutive waders is about the size and weight of a blue jay. For comparison, its much-better-known relative, the great blue heron, has a wingspan over four times longer than the bittern’s 17-inch set of flappers. The larger heron is nearly four times as long and weighs 30 times more than the bittern’s paltry 80 grams.

Size doesn’t dictate beauty, though, and the least bittern is exquisite. The bird’s feathers are a palette of rich chestnut, tan and cream. Greenish-yellow skin forms goggles around the eyes, and a stiletto-like bill fronts the face. Perhaps most amazing are the little bird’s big feet. They are disproportionately huge, the greatly elongated toes useful in tightly clutching the stalks of aquatic plants.

One reason the Cuyahoga Valley birds caused such a stir was the ease of seeing them. I’ve seen a fair number of least bitterns over the years, but I’ve heard far more. They frequent the densest stands of cattails and other wetland plants, and are often impossible to see. Only the curious cuckoo-like murmurings of the herons give them away.

My experience was typical of most visiting birders. Shortly after my early-morning arrival, one of the bitterns was spotted lurking at the edge of some cattails. Before long, another bird joined it. For the rest of the morning, great views were freely had.

Better yet, the extroverts were two juveniles — especially good news, as nesting was obviously successful. The adult birds called regularly from the cattails, but they did not show themselves during my visit.

It was a rare experience to observe the bitterns clambering about vertical cattail stems, stabbing at small fish and frogs with their daggerlike bills. At one point, a bird popped out in the open on some spatterdock lilies, enabling me to take the accompanying photo.

We have not been good stewards of wetlands, and least bitterns and many other species have suffered accordingly. These tiny herons were once common in Ohio wetlands, but they have declined tremendously. For instance, famed ornithologist Milton Trautman recorded nearly 100 pairs nesting most years around Buckeye Lake in the 1920s and ’30s. Today, there are none.

It is fortunate that we’ve set aside natural areas such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park to protect some of our biodiversity.


Jim McCormac will present "A Romp through Ohio's Flora and Fauna," with photos, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The presentation is free, and no reservations are required.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sunflower field, various photographic perspectives

Scads of Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brighten a large field just north of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Every fall I see people posting photos of this field, which is owned and planted by the Tecumseh Land Trust, or other such fields. And every year, I fail to make it over to this or any other sunflower field.

Until today.

I met fellow photographer Debbie DiCarlo at the Tecumseh Land Trust field at the crack of dawn, and set about creating images of the golden masses of sunflowers. This species normally towers to epic Jack-in-the-beanstalk proportions, often ten feet or more in height. They must have a stubby cultivar now, as these plants rose to only 4-5 feet or so, making the creation of images much easier.

Anyway, Debbie and I are thinking of partnering to conduct some photographic workshops and trips next year, and ostensibly met today to discuss those. But the sunflower field ended up occupying about three hours of time, and it was worth every minute. Anyway, more on the photo workshops in the future, but they'll all feature very interesting subject matter and locations, and it'll be a pleasure to work with Debbie as she's a fabulous photographer. Check her out HERE.

While shooting traditional shots of the sunflowers was obligatory, and I did so, my main goal was to try WEIRD STUFF. Read on...

Zoom lenses are great tools for creating photographic weirdness, and I spent much of my time experimenting with two Canon lenses: the 16-35mm f/4, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. By using long exposures and twisting the zoom while the shutter is open, one can create some cool (at least to me) blurred distortion shots.

This one was done by using a long exposure and moving the camera horizontally on its tripod mount while the shutter was open. In order to achieve long exposures in fairly bright conditions, I used a three-stop polarizing filter, and a ten-stop filter. The latter is a "black glass" filter that is so dark that you must focus the camera prior to mounting it, as the camera cannot focus through it. That filter allowed me to get up to a 30 second exposure, depending on my aperture and ISO settings.

Another "explosion blur" using the 16-35 lens and zooming from 16mm to 35mm with the shutter open.

This one was made with the 70-200mm, using an eight second shutter speed at f/4 (with the ten-stop filter), and zooming completely in and out multiple times during the exposure.

While this style of imagery may not be everyone's cup of tea, it does allow for an alternative presentation of a landscape that everyone is generally shooting about the same same way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Nature: Known for fur, minks are voracious predators

An American mink in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park

September 3, 2017

Jim McCormac

The American Fur Co. was founded in 1808, and for a brief time in the 1830s, it was one of America’s largest companies. Its success made its founder, John Jacob Astor, the first multimillionaire in the United States.

Although demand for beaver pelts drove much of the American Fur Co.’s business, other mammals were vital to its success, especially the American mink. As the easier-to-trap beaver became increasingly rare, the mink became more important to trappers.

Between 1820 and 1900, the American Fur Co., Hudson’s Bay Co. and other fur purveyors sold about 12.5 million mink pelts.

Fortunately, these large weasels survived the days of indiscriminate trapping and are common today. But they are often wary, largely nocturnal and usually difficult to observe in the wild.

I recently visited Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park to photograph birds, arriving around dawn. I was not long into a grassy trail that weaved through a marsh when who should come bounding down the path? A mink!

Like a semi-psychotic mammalian Slinky, the mink romped along the trail, moving rapidly in exaggerated, undulating bounds.

When it got within 20 feet of my position, the hunter finally noticed me and careened into the cattails, but not before I took a series of photos in the dim light.

Mink belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels and otters. Of Ohio’s regularly occurring mustelids, only the river otter is larger. A big male mink — males are 15 to 20 percent larger than females — can measure 2 1/2 feet from nose to tail tip. It might weigh nearly 3 pounds.

While a 3-pound mammal might not seem like much, in the case of the mink, it’s Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun rolled into a well-furred, tubular package. Just ask a muskrat. Even though these aquatic rodents can significantly outweigh a mink, they often fall prey to the voracious predators.

Streams and wetlands are the bailiwicks of mink. The animals play an important role in the food chain, taking fish, amphibians, small mammals, birds and other such fare. Would-be victims are in a tough spot if they land in the sights of a hungry mink, which has speed and the ability to swim and even climb trees.

Few predators will attempt to take a mink, although coyotes and great horned owls might try.

A mink that finds itself among prey aplenty adopts a kill-and-cache strategy. It’ll dispatch everything it can and attempt to hide the uneaten victims. On occasion, the owner of a poorly secured chicken coop learns about mink killing frenzies.

Come early spring, minks become amorous. As befits such a savage animal, the mating process is not lovey-dovey. The male seizes the female, pins her and often bites her neck and head. After she’s survived that rough romance, she’ll deliver four or five pups in an underground burrow.

Humans who act like minks are likely to be institutionalized, and good thing. But we have nothing to fear from these fascinating beasts, although we can be grateful they’re not the size of bears.

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