Friday, March 22, 2019

Devil's Courthouse sunrise


Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as seen from the summit of the Devil's Courthouse near Asheville, North Carolina a few mornings ago. Debbie DiCarlo and I had a great time scouting the region for a possible 2020 photo workshop. Fantastic vistas abound. We're thinking about doing this in late June, when myriad rhododendrons are in bloom. This is also one of the richest regions in the world for salamanders, both in diversity and numbers. Interesting Appalachian flora abounds, including many rare species, especially atop the mountain balds. Send me an email if you might be interested (jimmccormac35 AT gmail.com)and we'll add you to our monthly newsletter. You can also follow our Focus on Photography Facebook page by clicking RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Short-eared Owls

A short-eared owl courses low over grasslands in a reclaimed stripmine in eastern Ohio. It and three comrades were mousing, or perhaps more accurately, "vole'ing".

The short-eared owl is one of my favorite birds. Everything about them is cool. Their looks, behavior, and even the vocalizations. Last Monday I ventured to some "reclaimed" strip-mine grasslands in eastern Ohio that have been hosting a handful of these open country owls. Whenever opportunity allows, I'll go out of my way to commune with short-ears, and I got to do a lot of that on this day.

Quite often, short-ear owls don't take wing until dusk, and often so late that it's nearly dark. On such days, the viewing window is short, and what there is, is dim and shadowed. Not this day. The owls emerged around 5 pm and alternately rested on fence posts or the ground, or actively hunted, giving me a few hours of daylight to observe them.

I have noticed that short-ears seem antisocial and irascible, but this churlishness adds to their charm. If two owls come near one another, a spat is likely to erupt. Ditto for any northern harrier that ventures by, and these two raptors are frequently hunting companions in the same meadows. When an agonistic interaction occurs, the owls will rapidly fly at one another like giant enraged moths, barking like terrier dogs. Sometimes you'll hear the strident yips before spotting the dueling birds.
One perk of being in the presence of short-eared owls is having the opportunity to photograph them. Making good shots is often not easy, in large part because of poor light at or near dusk. The light in this situation was okay. By the time the owls commenced flying, the blue skies of earlier had clouded over to the all too common white skies found in Ohio. While I used to hate white skies as a backdrop for birds, I've come to rethink that stance. Sometimes raptors, cranes, waterfowl and other species can be portrayed quite pleasingly against such backdrops.

At times, short-eared owls will soar and circle high in the air, and that's what the animal in the image above was doing. I was tracking him with my tripod-mounted telephoto as he came ever closer. There's a tip for shooting flying birds: pick up and lock focus on your subject as far out as possible - even when it's still out of range - and grab the subject using AI servo tracking mode, then when the quarry comes into range (if it does), start firing away.

Some amount of positive exposure compensation is required for birds against a pale backdrop, and that's what I did here. The latter shot was made with the tripod-mounted (Gitzo, with Wimberly head) Canon 5DSR and Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. The camera was in manual mode, wide-open at f/5.6, and 1/1250 shutter speed. ISO was 1000, and in Auto ISO mode. Manual Mode and Auto ISO are by far my favorite bird settings. I want to be able to alter both shutter speed and aperture instantly, but do not want to worry about manually manipulating the ISO. As the latter is always displayed in my view finder, I can quickly rein it in if need be by opening the aperture and/or slowing the shutter speed. In the case of this shot, I didn't want to go any lower than 1/1250 because I know from experience that if I dip below that my percentage of sharp shots of flying birds will suffer. I had nowhere to go on the aperture, as f/5.6 is wide open on that lens. So, given the less than optimal light I had to settle for ISO 1000 - a bit over what I prefer but not too bad.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

In the Footsteps of Conant: Herping Ohio’s Hill Country/Guest blog by Ryan Wagner

NOTE: The following piece is a guest blog written by Ryan Wagner, a student at Ohio University studying Wildlife Biology and Conservation. He is an exceedingly good naturalist, with a special appreciation for the scaly crowd as we shall see. Ryan is also a superb photographer - his images speak for themselves. It's a pleasure to host some of his work here, and please visit his "Field Life" blog to see much more of Ryan's work.

In the Footsteps of Conant: Herping Ohio’s Hill Country

“Also, there were many objects to overturn, and there was always the chance of finding something unusual beneath any log or rock. Springs and both clear and muddy streams abounded. In short, there was a great variety of habitats to be explored. The net result was that we probably spent more man hours in the hill country than in any other part of the state. Southeastern Ohio was unquestionably our favorite collecting area.”

—Roger Conant
Herpetology in Ohio—50 Years Ago

Northern Red-bellied Snake.

Gravel crunched under our tires as we pulled off Route 50 onto the first backroad of the day.  The morning sun was already beginning to bake away any evidence of last nights rain, but by midday, our sweat-stained shirts and hair would look as if a storm had caught us by surprise.  My backpack held two full water bottles, a tablet of dissolved electrolytes in each.  A third and a fourth were stashed below the rear seat next to Carls water-filled orange juice containers.  Neither of us wanted to tempt fate by running out of water in the heat of Ohio's Hill Country.

As we pulled to a stop along the roadside, the fluttering hum of cicadas died down and the air hung still for a moment as if the forest was waiting to inhale.  I grabbed my snake stick from the bed of the truck as Carl slipped his backpack over his head.  We both knew the drill.  The hillsides all around us held promise of snakes, lizards, and turtles hidden below cover.

Eastern Black Kingsnake.

During each of our treks into Ohios backwoods, I cant help but feel we are a small instance of history repeating itself.  Just shy of a century ago, Roger Conant might have hiked these very same hillsides and ravines.  In the 1930s, Conant was the first to attempt an exhaustive survey of Ohios reptile diversity (an undertaking sorely in need of updating since the previous survey by Kirtland in 1838).  During his six years as Curator of Reptiles at the Toledo Zoo, he would eventually make it to 87 of Ohios 88 counties, drive some 41,000 miles, collect countless voucher specimens, and publish his collective work in The Reptiles of Ohio in 1938. 

Weekends were Conants designated field days.  He would travel from his home base in Toledo, accompanied by a small and variable band of zoo colleagues, local naturalists, and a few wide-eyed teenagers, all eager to indulge their persistent childhood urges to catch the scaly and slimy.  The crew would pack snake bags and collecting jars into Rogers 1931 Chevy and set out for the unknown.  Their findings were quintessential, helping to verify species records and contributing to the states first range maps.

Eastern Smooth Earthsnake.

Conants work wasn't limited to Ohio alone.  Take down your copy of A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America and youll find a conspicuous authorship.  For most of us fascinated with reptiles and amphibians (Carl and myself included), this field guide was our ticket into the world of herpetology.  Anyone who herps Ohio today (or anywhere in North America) is indebted to the work of Conant and his colleagues. 

For over 15 years, Carl Brune has spent his free weekends and rainy evenings ‘filling in Conants gaps.  Originally from California, Carl moved to Ohio to teach physics at Ohio University.  He has helped to expand the known ranges of species from copperheads to streamside salamanders, and has even authored two chapters in the Amphibians of Ohio Textbook. 

Northern Copperhead.

I began herping with him in late August 2017.  Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, reptile diversity was somewhat lacking.  For as long as I can remember, Ive dreamed of seeing the creatures hidden among the rolling hills of Ohios southern counties.  In 2016, I moved to Athens to study Wildlife Biology and Conservation.  By luck or fate, I found myself in the middle of one of Ohios most herpetologically diverse regions.

A map of the physiogeographic regions of Ohio from Conant's The Reptiles of Ohio.

It is no secret that Roger Conant preferred the Hill Country over any of Ohios other physiogeographic regions.  Eleven of the thirty reptile species he documented there were found nowhere else in the state.  The Hill Country encompasses the southeastern third of Ohio and sits on the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau at the base of the Appalachian Mountains.  Except for the blue grass region, the Hill Country is the only part of Ohio that was free of ice during the Pleistocene.  When the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, their melt waters carved out the labyrinth of ravines and hilltops that define the Hill Country of today.

Black Racer.

Before the arrival of Europeans, 95% of Ohio was covered by huge stands of old-growth forest.  Oaks and hickories cloaked the rolling hills and provided habitat for wolves, bison, elk, black bear, and even wolverine.  By the beginning of the 1900s, the states megafauna would be gone, and the forest would be reduced to 10% of its former grandeur.  The trees were cleared for timber and to allow access to the exposed layers of coal, iron, and oil.  Once these natural resources were fully exploited, industry moved on, and the forests were allowed to regrow.  Remnants of old coal towns and iron districts still stand in isolated pockets of the backwoods, totems to this past age.

Northern Ring-necked Snake.

By the 1930s, second-growth had returned to much of southeastern Ohio.  Conant described the state of the forest in his autobiography, “The charm of the hill country lay largely in the fact it was mostly wild in those days.  Agriculture was confined to some of the valleys, and second growth had re-clothed the hillsides and many other areas to the point where the forest had more or less returned to its original climax stage.”  As much as 70% of the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau is now forested.  Glacial melt waters washed away most of the areas rich soil, sparing the land from agriculture.  Had the soil been more profitable, the Hill Country would likely be a very different place today.
Despite the disappearance of many of Ohios native fauna during this era of rapid and intense deforestation, there have been no documented extinctions for any of Ohios 47 species of reptile or 40 species of amphibian.  Just how and where these fragile creatures survived is something of a mystery.  Logging took place over many decades, and it is possible species found refuge in small, remaining tracts of habitat, recolonizing the surrounding land once the forest had regrown.  Considering the scale of habitat loss that swept through Ohio in the 1800s, it is remarkable any native herpetofauna survived at all.

Black Ratsnake.

One thing is clear, however, Ohios reptiles and amphibians are no strangers to adverse environmental conditions.  A year (or even a day) in Ohio can fluctuate wildly in temperature and weather conditions.  Winter lasts for nearly half the year, forcing ectothermic species to remain inactive for months on end.  Summer is prime herping season, but with midday temperatures easily reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit in southern Ohio, most species are forced to seek shelter to avoid overheating or desiccating. 

Logs and rocks provide cool, moist places for snakes to hide during the heat of the day.  Nature, however, can be supplemented with a little human ingenuity.  In Conants time, logging operations left behind huge saw dust piles strewn along the steep slopes.  When covered with pieces of hacked-off bark, these damp, sturdy piles provided the perfect escape from the elements.  Conant recounts one exceptionally good find, “a large slab-covered pile in Hocking County yielded a fence lizard, three young broad head skinks, a northern water snake, eleven hatchling black rat snakes, and two juvenile copperheads.”   As mill practices shifted, Conants fruitful saw dust piles became a thing of the past.

Eastern Milksnake.

Today, man-made cover is still important for finding snakes.  Plywood boards and tins scattered throughout the roadsides and hilltops of southern Ohio are easily flipped and are a proven way to find scads of snakes in an otherwise desolate landscape.  Reptiles aren't picky; old pool liners, ratty carpets, deck chairs, smashed televisions, and gas tanks might be an eye sore for most hikers, but for folks like us, theyre a treasure trove.  A good trash pile always gets my blood pumping in anticipation of what might be lurking below.

During the course of our search, Carl and I might flip upwards of 100 pieces of cover and hike ten miles through the ravines and hilltops, all to find a handful of serpents.  Somedays, the snakes are plentiful, others require hours of work to find the most common of species.  There is really no telling where or when a species might turn up; it's often a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Eastern Wormsnake.

Carl and I have been lucky enough to find more snakes in Ohio than most people will see in their entire lives.  Even where snake populations appear stable, however, the impacts of humans are plainly visible.  Whether it be road mortality, habitat loss, or direct persecution, "snakes engender mighty little sympathy from the general public," a statement that still rings true today.

Conant was well aware that with each decade, more species were pushed closer toward extirpation.  Fifty years after his surveys, Conant lamented that, “many places that once supported thriving colonies of various species have vanished.”  Rattlesnakes, spotted turtles, Kirtlands snakes—species Conant would have commonly encountered in his day—have all but disappeared from most of the state.

Timber Rattlesnake. 

Conant laid the ground work for our modern generation of herpetologists.  It is now up to us to protect the species and populations that remain.  Efforts to mitigate the damage we have done to our natural environment can often seem confusing and convoluted, but I have found there is something very down to earth about the study of reptiles and amphibians.  Even someone unaccustomed to the complex and long-winded jargon of scientific literature might be able to detect a hint of the adventure and mystery only thinly veiled behind tables of snout-vent lengths and scale counts.

Hobby, obsession, the weird cousin of birding, call it what you will, but herping has captivated my life ever since I first opened Roger Conant's field guide.  In a few months time, the snakes, lizards, and turtles will begin to emerge from their frozen retreats. Carl and I will soon be back among the rolling hills of Southern Ohio, flipping logs, boards, and carpets for the secrets hidden beneath.  Only time will tell what we find.

Carl and myself after a day of dip netting for salamanders in 2018.

Ryan Wagner is a student studying Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Ohio University.  He is an avid herper, birder, nature blogger, and wildlife photographer.  You can read more of his articles at ryansweeklywildlife.blogspot.com or follow him on twitter @weeklywildlife.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Guide packed with info to hook Ohio fish enthusiasts

"A Naturalist's Guide to the Fishes of Ohio" (Ohio Biological Survey) 391 pages, $29.95 by Daniel Rice and Brian Zimmerman. For more information, visit: www.ohiobiologicalsurvey.org/pub_highlight or call 614-457-8787

March 3, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The fascinating underwater world is out of sight and mind to many. Its creatures are masked by a watery cloak, and the game fish tugged from the depths by rod and reel are just the tip of the iceberg of what lurks below.

The new “A Naturalists Guide to the Fishes of Ohio” brings this world to readers in an exceptionally user-friendly way.

Authored by Daniel Rice, the text is lively and informative. Brilliant color photos by his collaborator, Brian Zimmerman, pop from the pages. Virtually all of the fish photos are of live animals caught in the wild, imaged and released.

Both Rice and Zimmerman are veteran fish men, each having spent countless hours exploring nearly every body of water in Ohio. This experience comes through in the book, yet readers are not overwhelmed with technical information that could be deciphered only by an ichthyologist.

It is the simple yet engaging way that this book describes our fishes that helps make it such a treasure. Many such books are heavy-handed tomes packed with information, but are often dull reads and mostly off-limits to the general public. Not so this book, even though it includes everything you’d probably want to know.

The book’s introductory material is rich in information about aquatic habitats, the history of fish conservation and study, a map of Ohio’s major drainages, and a key to fish identification. Want to know the best fish streams in Ohio, the primary threats to fish, how to better observe them, or the top 10 most pollution-tolerant species? Such information, and more, is included.

The meat of the guide is its 170 species accounts, each of which covers two pages. Additionally, 17 one-page accounts cover nonnative fishes and hybrids. The primary accounts are well-organized and include easily interpreted information of interest to readers.

Each species account features a gorgeous color image of the fish in question, showing better detail than if you had it in your hand. Short sections detail identification and similar species, habitat, associate species, spawning and abundance. A perk is “best sites”, featuring the prime locales for the fish in question. Artful maps show, in detail, the fish’s distribution.

A standout of each account is Rice’s introductory text. In about 400 words, he paints an informative overview of the species, including interesting tidbits and factoids that would not be widely known. By doing so, he personalizes the animal in a way that few such books do.

Under each species’ photo is a colored bar that visually interprets the risk of extirpation (local extinction). It ranges from 1 to 10, with the lower end representing species that are secure. The higher the number, the more vulnerable the species is to threats. Although many fishes have declined, we learn that many others have increased dramatically in recent decades, such as bigeye chub, bluebreast darter and smallmouth redhorse.

The “Guide to the Fishes of Ohio” sets a new bar. Although information-rich — it includes about everything anyone would want to know about Ohio fishes — the guide is easy to absorb, infinitely understandable and a treat to peruse. Reading the accounts of species such as dace, darters, and lamprey is sure to fire anyone’s imagination about what lies below the water’s surface. I highly recommend this book.

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, February 25, 2019

Salamanders begin to run

A bizarre "unisexual" salamander scrambles over some old elm bark in its single-minded drive to reach its ancestral breeding pool. This salamander is a blend of any of a few of several species, or maybe all: blue-spotted, Jefferson, smallmouth, and tiger. I have written more about the unisexuals in THIS POST from a number of years ago. I'm not sure they - the experts - know much more about them now then they did back then.

Last Saturday night was the first potentially good run for salamanders in my neck of the woods. It was about 50 F, and mild showers dampened the ground. That's when the mole salamanders in the genus Ambystoma emerge from subterranean pairs and march overland to their breeding pools. For whatever reason, not many were on the move in the west-central Ohio locale where I hunted. Maybe it wasn't wet enough. Only two of the aforementioned unisexuals were found. But, a major Holy Grail and the species that I was most interested in finding did reveal itself.

Read on...

Yes! A whopper of a tiger salamander! I was just about to throw in the towel after lots of country lane cruising when this bruiser appeared on the road. It was about 9 inches long - they can get nearly a foot in length - and smack in the middle of the wet pavement. After a brief photo session, the animal was placed in wet grass well off the road, on the side that he was headed for. Good thing, too, as several cars whipped along while I was working with him, and the slow-moving amphibian surely would have been pancaked. Road mortality in salamanders is a significant threat in some areas.

Tiger salamanders are among our rarer amphibians, and I'd dare say most people haven't seen one. Big ones like this are a sight to behold, and finding one - better yet, many - makes the late wet nights well worth venturing out in.

I'd say the big salamander runs are still in the future, and I'll do my best to be out there for them. Expect some more salamander imagery before long.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

A wacky experiment in mega-magnification

A friend (I don't want to say who so as to avoid giving any hint about this location, but I am very grateful!) recently tipped me to a great horned owl nest, and as it was near a site that I was going to anyway, I stopped by for a peek. As it turns out, the owl was incubating atop an old raptor nest and was fairly visible. But a long ways away! I measured the distance from where my camera rig, above, sits to the owl nest using Google Earth. A whopping 665 feet, or well over two football fields!

Great horned owls using platform nests like this should not be approached. Owls atop such relatively exposed nests tend to be very skittish, and will likely flush even when the interloper is still a long ways off. But in this case, the road and place that I parked was far outside the owl's discomfort zone.

I decided to try an experiment. The rig above, which is securely mounted on a Gitzo tripod and Wimberly head, is the Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 800mm f/5.6 lens. Sandwiched between lens and camera are the Canon 2x III teleconverter and 1.4x teleconverter, linked by a 12mm extension tube (the teleconverters will not directly connect). The end result: a 2240mm lens! That gave me the oomph to reach out to that owl nest, but given all the layers of glass that I was shooting through, I didn't think the results would be very good.

And they're not, but they do provide documentary images. Also, two things decidedly not in my favor were overcast skies, and gusts of 15-20 mph. The results would certainly be better on a calm, bright day.

Here's the uncropped owl photo. From 665 feet away. To maximum sharpness, I shot in Live View, which prevents any mirror slap, and used 10-second delay, so there would be no operator-caused movement. I also removed the enormous lens hood, which reduces wind shake, and held the camera strap in a way that it wouldn't blow or cause camera movement (to lazy to remove it).

With those teleconverters, the base aperture is reduced to f/16, which is what I shot at. I used 1/500 shutter speed, as that's about the slowest that I thought I could get away with. Exposure compensation was +0.3. These settings spiked the ISO to 6400 - way past my comfort zone, but there was nothing to be done about it. Also, the teleconverters eliminate auto focus, so focusing must be done manually.

Here's the same image as above, but cropped about 50%. Neither image is art, to be sure, but they do identify the subject. And the subject probably scarcely noticed me. So, I learned that this complicated and quite expensive technique will work, but you'll probably never get truly superb images. It's more for documentation.

ADVICE? If you want to take bad long range photos such as this, save a ton of money and buy one of those inexpensive super-zoom point & shoot cameras :-)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Red-shouldered hawk, fore and aft

A gorgeous adult red-shouldered hawk scans for prey from a prominent perch. I photographed this animal last Thursday in a very suburbanized area of Columbus, Ohio.

Upon arrival at a postage-stamp natural area not far from my house, about the first bird that I detected was a red-shouldered hawk. Its strident screams couldn't be missed. An instant later, it flew in with a big branch, and led me right to its nest site. The nest isn't complete, and it may be a false start, but I hope the birds keep on with construction and use it as the nest is in a great place to discreetly watch the birds' progress.

Shortly thereafter, its mate flew in and the pair promptly copulated. Branches and other factors conspired to keep me from getting a good shot of that activity, but I tried.

The red-shouldered hawk population in Ohio and surrounding regions has been on the upswing for some time. This is a forest raptor, and as our woodlands have matured, so has favorable red-shouldered hawk habitat. Their increase has been especially notable in urban and suburban areas. Many of the neighborhoods in which I see them around Columbus now have numerous trees that are near climax stage. The effect is that of an urban forest, and in spite of all the people, houses, and traffic, the hawks have moved in.

No one should complain about having this species around. Very few raptors rival a red-shouldered hawk for showiness. In my view, their presence adds much to a neighborhood, and besides, they're fun to watch. In warmer seasons, red-shouldered hawks take lots of snakes and its always interesting to watch them rise from a dive with a wriggling reptile. I'll try and keep tabs on this pair, and see if they successfully nest at this site.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: The day that I took these photos was a typical white sky winter day. The bird in the images did cooperate nicely by hunting from a perfectly exposed perch, not far off. Red-shouldered hawks often can be quite tame, and as long as the observer is quiet they'll tolerate interlopers fairly well. Anyway, with that dastardly white sky as a backdrop, I had to GREATLY increase exposure compensation, to +2.7 EV (nearly three stops). Even then, the images were still somewhat underexposed, and I had to brighten them a bit more in post-processing. The shots were made with the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6 lens, at f/5.6, 1/320, and ISO 800, in manual mode. As often is the case, ISO drove much of my settings. I really don't like going higher than 800 if possible. As the lens was wide open at f/5.6, I had nowhere to go there. I also knew I needed all that positive exposure compensation - backing that down would have reduced the need for light. But I'm not into adding huge amounts of exposure correction in post-processing as I think it leads to poorer image quality. Thus, I dialed back the shutter speed to keep the ISO in my desired range. Even though that 800mm lens is a tank, by using good tripod-mounted stabilization techniques, it's amazing how slow a shutter speed one can use and still get a sharp image.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Nature: Dad's encouragement helped us become birds of a feather

John McCormac, shown here on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, helped foster his son's appreciation for nature/Jim McCormac

February 17, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

My interest in nature is apparently innate. I was intensely curious about birds, bugs and other fauna for as long as I can remember. Fortunately, my parents were supportive of my two brothers and my interests and helped us develop them.

We all walked different paths. My brother Mike was always interested in rocks and became a geologist. My other brother John liked to fix stuff from an early age and ended up fixing people and disasters big and small as a fireman and paramedic.

Our varied pursuits were actively encouraged by our mother, Martha, and dad, John. It didn’t matter that their sons’ interests deviated from tried-and-true familial pursuits. For instance, my mother was a teacher and dad a lawyer.

By the fourth grade, I was already pretty knowledgeable about birds, my first passion. My elementary school teacher that year was Deborah Moon. She liked birds and greatly encouraged my interest. By the end of that school year, she had other kids interested in the feathered crowd, too.

Around the time that I turned 16, I met Bruce Peterjohn. He was a walking encyclopedia of all things avian, and his field-identification skills were amazing. Bruce went on to author the definitive work on Ohio’s birdlife, “The Birds of Ohio.” We began birding together, and did so scores of times over several years, giving me the equivalent of a Ph.D. in field ornithology.

Through Bruce, I met scores of accomplished bird people: Tom Bartlett, Dave Corbin, Jim Fry (former author of this column), Tom LePage, John Pogacnik, Larry Rosche, Esther Reichelderfer, Tom Thomson and many others. All of them patiently encouraged me, and jump-started my skills.

But no one was more supportive than my parents, and parents are usually the most critical to a child’s early intellectual growth. Before I had my driver’s license, they — and my brother Mike — would motor me to good birding spots and to see rarities that I learned about via the phone rare-bird alert.

Dad and I made some epic chases to see mega rarities. One of these was a Bachman’s sparrow, which spent part of the summer of 1974 at Highbanks Metro Park. It was the last known territorial bird in Ohio.

Even better was our successful pursuit of a red-cockaded woodpecker that appeared at Old Man’s Cave in 1975. The only other Ohio record dated to 1872, and no one thought another would appear.

Even after I struck out on my own, there were birding excursions with dad. Some were as far as Alaska and Costa Rica. All of these forays fostered a deep interest in nature, especially birds, in my parents.

Dad’s legal career filled his life with weighty responsibilities. After a short career as a trial lawyer, he became dean of Franklin University’s law school. He orchestrated its successful transition to Capital University, where he also served as dean. He went on to serve three terms as an appellate court judge, was president of the Ohio State Bar Association and served the legal community with distinction in many other capacities.

Through it all, he made time for me and birds. For nearly two decades, he volunteered at Highbanks Metro Park, where his favorite duty was tending to numerous bluebird nest boxes. Dad helped produce hundreds of bluebird chicks, something he considered a noble calling.

On Feb. 1, dad passed away at the age of 92. His legacy lives on through the countless people that he mentored, and the progeny of all those bluebirds that he cared for. We’ll miss him greatly.

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, February 13, 2019

Skunk-cabbage and an icy waterfall

I hadn't tripped the shutter on a real camera for several weeks, due to lots of more important things taking place, so getting out a bit last Monday was very photographically therapeutic. Time was short, so I ran over to two local spots. The first was Kiwanis Riverway Park, a postage stamp of a natural area but full of biodiversity. Kiwanis sits on the east bank of the Scioto River in Dublin, Ohio, and to me at least it is defined by the artesian springs that feed its wetlands. The boggy soil created by the springs is wonderful habitat for the first of our native spring wildflowers to bloom, the skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus

I was pleased but not surprised to find the skunkers lunging from the boggy mire, and a check of the more mature specimens revealed pollen adorning the tiny flowers. Full bloom, on February 11. I was especially pleased to be able to make photos of the plants in the snow. In this image, we can see evidence of the thermogenic nature of this odd arum. Skunk-cabbage generate heat as a byproduct of their growth, and self-warm enough to melt away the snow around the fleshy liver-dappled spathe - the fleshy hood that encloses the true flowers.

Spring has sprung.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Only a few minutes from Kiwanis Park is one of central Ohio's most iconic waterfalls, Hayden Run Falls. So, over I dashed to try my hand at a landscape image. Abundant snowmelt and lingering ice formations cast the falls in an especially pleasing light, and I was glad that I made the short detour. If you've not seen this place, make a visit sometime, especially after rainfall has swollen the small feeder creek.

Sometimes when reviewing winter waterfall shots, I find that I don't particular like the colorized versions. That was the case here. The Columbus limestone has an orangish tinge in places, and the juxtaposition of mossy greens and various browns was a bit unpleasing to my eye. So I converted the image to black and white and was much more pleased with the end result. Ice, snow, and water often lens themselves well to B & W interpretation. I always shoot in color, though, even though I have the option of shooting in black and white with my cameras. Converting images to B & W is simple, and as I ALWAYS work off copies of original images, I will always have the original color versions should I ever want to use them.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Nature: Common northern mockingbird is overlooked marvel

A northern mockingbird guards a nearby cache of rose hips/Jim McCormac

February 3, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Note: This column is a bit dated. What with all that's been going on, it's been impossible to produce much new material, or put stuff out that was already in the hopper.

With more than 350 Dispatch columns under my belt, I’ve covered many facets of Ohio’s extraordinary natural history. Birds are a large, conspicuous part of our world and I write more avian columns than on any other subject.

Occasionally I realize I’ve neglected some common, interesting feathered topic. Such was the case on a recent snowy day in Hocking County. While surveying birds for the annual Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count, our team ran across a particularly audacious northern mockingbird.

No shrinking violet, the mockingbird was teed up atop a robust multiflora rose shrub. The thorny thicket’s branches were heavily beset with rose hips, and the bird was defending its cache against all comers.

His primary antagonists were a large flock of eastern bluebirds that loitered nearby. Also smitten with vitamin-rich rose hips, the bluebirds would attempt occasional raids. The mocker was having none of it and quickly drove off his competitors.

Mockingbirds are famed for their aggression. When I was a kid, we had a big black cat who was tough as nails. “Inky” was famed for combating other cats, dogs, or anything else that crossed his path. The only thing we ever saw intimidate him was the local mockingbird. When the bird spotted Inky in the backyard (before we knew cats shouldn’t be outdoors), the one-sided battle was on. The bird would swoop and scold, sending a thoroughly cowed Inky scrambling for cover.

Few birds are more aptly named than the mockingbird. Both sexes sing, and their repertoire largely consists of mimicking sounds they hear. This predilection is defined in the bird’s scientific name: Mimus polyglottos (mimic of many voices). A bird can retain about 150 song types at any given time, and their skill in aping other sounds is remarkable.

My local mockingbird perfectly reproduces nearly all the songbirds he hears: cardinals, robins, bluebirds, flickers and many others. More interesting is his ability to reproduce mechanical sounds such as fire-truck sirens and the backup beeps of garbage trucks. Why mockingbirds mimic is unknown.

Largely a southern species, in spite of the “northern” in its name (it’s the northernmost of four closely related species), the mockingbird seems to be expanding northward. Ohio is near the northern limits of its range, and the species probably didn’t colonize the state until the mid-1800s. They expanded northward throughout the 20th century and continue their march north.

Suburbia often provides suitable habitat for mockers: dense shrubbery, open spaces, scattered trees and plenty of berry bushes. They’re pretty common in Columbus and the vicinity, and many readers are within earshot of one.

The mockingbird’s varied song is pleasing, and trying to identify the various sources of its mimicry is fun. But woe to the listener in close proximity to an unmated male. These bachelors often sing throughout the night. I once had one that loudly sang from my chimney top, serenading the neighborhood throughout the wee hours. This bird sometimes reminded me of the title of Harper Lee’s famous book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

John W. McCormac, 1926 - 2019

My father, John McCormac, speaking about his war experiences at a veteran's event on August 18, 2017. He was 90 at the time, but as always his thoughts were organized and his recall of those events of 70+ years earlier was phenomenal.

Dad passed away last Friday evening, February 1st, seven days before his 93rd birthday. He was a productive dynamo throughout his life, and his works touched a huge number of people over decades. Many readers here know him, or met him and my mother, Martha, somewhere along the line. Both were (mom, still is) keenly interested in birds and nature.

Below is dad's obituary, as printed in the Columbus Dispatch today:

McCormac, John
1926 - 2019

John W. McCormac, age 92, transitioned peacefully from this world surrounded by his loving family on Friday, February 1, 2019. John lived life with gusto, was a Renaissance man, friend and mentor to many, loving husband and caring father and grandfather. He will be dearly missed by many, including his wife of 66 years, Martha; sons, Jim and Mike, Mike's wife, Patrice and their children, Katie, Kevin, Luke, and Megan, and son John's (1960 - 2000) wife, Tammy and their children, Christa, Shawn, and Tara and many nieces and nephews.

John was born on February 8, 1926 in Zanesville, Ohio to the late Samuel and Phyllis McCormac. At age 17, John convinced his mother to sign a waiver allowing him to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He became an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the USS Thurston, a troop carrier that offloaded Higgins boats that transported marines onto the beaches. He was in the thick of battle at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Thurston at times besieged by Kamikaze aircraft and other threats.

Following the war, John embarked on a career in law, graduating with a law degree from Franklin University in 1960. His inaugural job was as a trial attorney, a post in which he won 24 of the 25 cases he tried. He later became dean of Franklin University's law school, eventually orchestrating its successful merger into Capital University, where he also served as dean. Among many accomplishments there, he began a successful paralegal program, and was a pioneer in actively recruiting females and African Americans to law school. In 1974, John was elected to the 10th District Court of Appeals, where he served three six-year terms. During the course of his legal career, John authored seven books on law and served the legal profession with distinction in many capacities, including president of the Ohio Bar Association.

A natural athlete, John participated in many athletic pursuits, and also refereed football and other sports. A crack table tennis wizard, his quirkiest sporting opportunity came in the 1950's when the Harlem Globetrotters offered him a contract to play exhibitions during halftimes. He declined, in order to pursue law school, a decision that always left him with mild regret. At age 53, John took up running, and went on to run 38 marathons, and was an Olympic Torch relay carrier in 1996.

He and Martha were long interested in nature. John faithfully volunteered for 25 years at Highbanks Metro Park, where his duties included monitoring bluebird nest boxes. His faith in God was vital to him, and John was a longtime member and deeply involved in Xenos Christian Fellowship. In spite of many serious duties and weighty responsibilities, John never lost his childlike curiosity for new subjects. He was always interested in other people, and wanted to learn what made them tick. When exposed to a new subject, his mind became a sponge. His intellectual thirst was insatiable, and that, coupled with an astonishing photographic memory, allowed him to become versed in an amazing array of topics. He was always willing to help anyone, or lend an ear.

John is preceded in death by his mother Phyllis and father Samuel, and his three brothers Bill, Don, and Scott, and his son John. Visiting hours are Wednesday, February 6 from 2-4 and 6-8 pm at Schoedinger Worthington Chapel, 6699 N. High St., Worthington, OH 43085. Funeral service is Thursday, February 7 at 1 pm at Xenos Christian Fellowship Main Campus, 1390 Community Park Drive, Columbus, OH 43229. Burial at Kingwood Memorial Park, 8230 Columbus Pike, Lewis Center, OH 43035 immediately following services. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the John M. McCormac Scholarship at the Columbus State Foundation. Gifts can be made online at foundation.cscc.edu or mail to Columbus State Foundation 550 East Spring St., Columbus, Ohio 43205. Visit www.schoedinger.com to send online condolences to the family.





Devil's Courthouse sunrise

Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as seen from the summit of the Devil's Courthouse near Asheville, North Carolina a few mornings a...