Sunday, August 18, 2019

Crayfish species known as mudbugs excel at tunneling

Roger Thoma with a little brown mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, a species named for him/Jim McCormac

August 18, 2019

Jim McCormac

Ohio has plenty of wild “micro-lobsters”, although they’re largely out of sight and mind. And off the dinner plate. They are crayfish, and many a young Huck Finn wannabe grubbed for these pincered crustaceans in the local creek.

Stream-dwelling crayfish are the most conspicuous of the approximately 22 species known from Ohio. Far less known are the “mudbugs,” a suite of crayfish species that spend most of their time in the subterranean. Their presence is often revealed by impressive mud chimneys that ring the burrows.

Although mudbug chimneys often stimulate comments, few people probably know the architect’s identity, let alone meet one. The relatively few burrowing crayfish that I’ve encountered have been during rainy nights, when they’ll sometimes roam overland.

Thus, a recent invitation from Anthony Sasson, who works with the Midwest Biodiversity Institute, was of great interest. He had organized an outing with two of the country’s premier crayfish researchers, Mael Glon of Ohio State University and Roger Thoma of the biodiversity institute.

Thoma has the rare distinction of having a crayfish named in his honor, and it was this crayfish that was our primary quarry. In the 67-year-old Ohioan’s decades of crayfish research, he has described at least a dozen new species. Thoma is regarded as one of North America’s foremost experts. Glon, at only age 29, is hot on his heels, having already described three new species, with more to come.

Soon enough, the four of us were bushwhacking along a small western Franklin County stream. In no time, Glon and Thoma had located crayfish burrows and set about the laborious task of extricating the occupants. Crayfish “noodling” involves stretching a gloved arm deep into the burrow and feeling for the crayfish.

Before long, a little brown mudbug was unearthed: Lacunicambarus thomai, Roger’s honorific crayfish. Thoma’s colleague Raymond Jezerinac described it in 1993, and now the secretive crustacean is known to occur in much of the state and in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The burrows created by little brown mudbugs and similar species are marvels of excavation. Although most tunnels are only a few feet in depth, exceptional burrows might go 10 feet deep if that’s what it takes to reach the water table and permanent moisture.

Mudbugs spend most of their time in the cool, dank depths, luxuriating in an enlarged chamber at the tunnel’s terminus. Come nightfall, the crayfish ventures to the tunnel’s above-ground portal. It lies in wait for potential prey such as insects, worms and other small invertebrates. Vegetation also forms part of the diet.

So, “what good are mudbugs?” some might ask. Burrowing crayfish are keystone species — their work positively influences numerous other species. Snakes, including the rare Massassauga rattlesnake, use the burrows for shelter. Larvae of the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly mature in the tunnels.

Numerous other small critters — mole crickets, spiders, salamanders — routinely occupy crayfish burrows. The crayfish themselves are an important part of the food web. They’re eaten by bass and other fish, herons, mink, raccoons and turtles. A declining reptile, the queen snake, feeds almost exclusively on soft, freshly molted crayfish.

Many thanks to astacologists Glon and Thoma for shedding light on a poorly known but fascinating part of the animal kingdom.

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
A crayfish chimney at the entrance to a burrow/Jim McCormac

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ruby-throated Hummingbird pollinates Cardinal-flower

I made an epic foray into southern Ohio's Shawnee State Forest back on August 1, and had several photographic goals in addition to shooting whatever I might bumble into. One of these goals was to photograph a ruby-throated hummingbird in the act of pollinating a plant that the little birds are especially smitten with. Some success was had, and the story plays out below.

Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, one of our showiest native plants. It seems fitting that such a gorgeous plant would have an interesting pollination ecology that involves one of our most charismatic birds.

The flowers on this spike are young, and mostly staminate (male) at this point. The arcuate grayish projection from the summit of the flower contains the sexual parts, and when the flowers are new they extend a brushlike clump of stamens capped by the anthers which contain pollen.

This is a different cardinal-flower in the same colony, but the flowers are older and have progressed to putting forth largely female organs. The stubby grayish protrusions are now mostly capped with longer extensions that contain the stigma, or female pollen receptacle. The male anthers have done their work regarding pollen dispersal, and been replaced by the opposite sex.

One must exercise some patience when trying for shots such as these. I found a few particularly stately cardinal-flower spikes, rigged up my tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV with 400mm lens, and 600 speedlite, then settled into a three-legged camo chair to await my quarry. As it happened, I did not have to wait long before a female ruby-throated hummingbird appeared. After making these images, I disassembled my big rig and went back with a wide-angle lens for general flower shots. While doing that, this tiny but fearless hummer returned and began working flowers within a few feet of where I knelt.

The hummers routinely visit cardinal-flowers, which apparently are prolific nectar-makers. The nectaries are deep within the corolla, forcing the bird to plunge its bill far into the flower. In the process, the top of its head makes contact with the downward-curving sexual flower parts. If the flower is in the male phase, pollen will be deposited on the hummingbird. If in the female phase, pollen from some other flower - hopefully from another plant - will transfer from the bird's head to the stigma, and thus pollinate the flower and allow production of fruit.

A closer view, showing the flower's stigma scraping the top of the hummingbird's head. It'd be virtually impossible for the bird to access its reward - the nectar - without coming forcefully into contact with the flower's reproductive parts.
While hummingbirds certainly must be the primary pollinator of cardinal-flower, as is often said, I believe that swallowtail butterflies, especially spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, must at least occasionally provide pollination services. This is a spicebush swallowtail working the same patch that the hummingbird above frequented. Swallowtails swarm blooming cardinal-flowers and at times there were a dozen or more mobbing these flowers. While the butterfly/flower dynamic is not as well architected as the hummingbird/flower arrangement, I bet pollen still gets transferred between both flower forms.

The coevolution of cardinal-flower and hummingbirds is a particularly showy example of the myriad ways in which plants have forged alliances with animals.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Macrophotography Workshop! Dawes Arboretum, September 14

A blue dasher dragonfly in its entirety may not really qualify as "macro" material, but its eyes do.

I'm giving a workshop focusing on macrophotography on Saturday, September 14, at the fabulous Dawes Arboretum near Newark. It'll start at 9 am at the Red Barn with a PowerPoint program on the nuances of imaging small things. The lushly illustrated talk will discuss equipment such as lenses, extension tubes and flash, camera settings, composition, etc. Also plenty of tips for finding COOL SUBJECTS.

The Red Barn is conveniently located in the midst of a diversity of wonderful habitat, so all we need do is walk outside the doors to quickly locate our own COOL SUBJECTS. The sprawling grounds of the Dawes Arboretum are always a treat to explore, and we'll have a blast doing just that. We'll end the day around 3 pm.

Cost is a mere $30.00. I hope you can make it. Registration is required, and to do so click RIGHT HERE.

A tiny zabulon skipper glares at the cameraman from atop the bud of a swamp thistle.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Yellow-fringed Orchid, and Butterflies

Last Thursday, August 1, I made an epic photographic foray into Shawnee State Forest. I really needed a hardcore solo shoot, and besides it was an 18-hour day (only had one day) and I can't find many photogs who will put up with such an agenda :-). Many interesting observations and images were made.

This vast southern Ohio forest is full of biological riches, and I had several primary targets in mind, not the least of which is featured here. The yellow-fringed orchids, Platanthera ciliaris, were just starting to flower, and I wanted to work some more on attempting to capture their pollinators.

Yellow-fringed orchid is staggering in its beauty. Seeing a meadow dotted with gorgeous spikes of orangish-yellow flowers is an amazing experience, and as always I spend time just drinking in the scene.

But before long, the photographic game was afoot. Swallowtail butterflies are the pollinators (moths may visit at night, but I don't know that firsthand). As these butterflies are big, and the orchid's flower spikes are large, I arm myself as I would for birds. I lug out a lightweight camo chair, tripod, and telephoto lens. In this case, the rig was the Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 400mm f/2.8 II, with fill flash from a Canon 600 speedlite. I select the most conspicuous of the orchids, set up 15-20 feet away, and await my quarry.

At one point, a male zabulon skipper, Poanes zabulon, chose "my" orchid as a lookout. Male zabs are feisty as can be, and often sit in a conspicuous spot from which they dash out at nearly anything that flies by. Hoping for females, I suppose. This skipper could not have chosen a showier perch.

A spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, drops in for nectar. Yes! This is what I wanted. The butterfly's long proboscis, and ability to hover/perch, allows it access to the nectaries that are deeply imbedded in the base of the long nectar spurs. In the process of mining its sugary reward, the swallowtail pollinates the plant.

I saw other swallowtails - only spicebush, I rarely see other species - nectaring at distant orchids. That's somewhat frustrating - over here! over here! I feel like shouting - but chasing them madly about with camera is no way to operate. It's just likely to spook the butterflies, and rushing into position makes it tough to compose a nice image.

Better to set up out of the pollinator's sphere of awareness, in perfect light and on a prime plant, and let the subject come to you.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rare plants of Cedar Bog

A meadow full of fen indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum. The plant is an odd member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and is quite rare in Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Saturday, August 10th at Cedar Bog, a legendary botanical sweet spot that is full of rare flora - and fauna. The program commences at 10 am, and following that and lunch, we'll step out the back doors of the visitor's center and onto the boardwalk. An easy foray along the freshly rebuilt boardwalk will produce all manner of interesting flora (and fauna).

All are welcome. Cost is a mere $5.00 if a Cedar Bog Association member; if not, it's $10.00. The hard working members of the Association do nearly all of the heavy lifting in regards to management of this incredibly important natural area, and proceeds benefit their work. Details are RIGHT HERE.

The striking grass-pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosus, one of several rare orchids at the "bog". Cedar Bog, per square foot, has perhaps the richest botanical diversity of any site in Ohio. Many species of plants officially listed as endangered, threatened, or potentially threatened occur here. Even many of the plants that aren't listed as rare, at least in the fen meadows, are quite uncommon in the state.

Sedges drive much of the ecology at Cedar Bog - which is actually a fen. This one, seen here in full flower, is twig-rush, Cladium mariscoides. A close relative is the sawgrass of the Florida Everglades.

Wand-lily, Anticlea elegans, a highly poisonous member of the lily family. While you wouldn't want to eat it, the plant is nice to look at.

Seen here in fruit, prairie valerian, Valeriana edulis (syn: V. ciliata) is probably the rarest plant at Cedar Bog, and it has quite a story particularly insofar as this site goes.

If you can make it out, we'll have a good time and see lots of interesting stuff. Details about Cedar Bog are RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Midwest Native Plant Conference 2019

Beautiful original artwork, courtesy of artist Ann Geise of Cincinnati, featuring the 2019 Midwest Native Plant Conference's conference plants: coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, and wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Keeping with the conference end goal of connecting flora and fauna, a hummingbird moth is included.

The weekend past saw the 11th iteration of the Midwest Native Plant Conference. As for the past ten years, it was held at Bergamo Center on the grounds of Mount St. John in western Greene County, Ohio. I don't see us moving the conference in the foreseeable future even though demand exceeds carrying capacity. The facilities are great, there is onsite lodging, and the 150 acres of grounds is rich in native flora and biodiversity.

We have a "problem" most conference organizers would envy. The event sells out within a day of registration opening. As we would like to be able to host everyone that wishes to attend, but can't, this year we re-jiggered some room logistics and were able to accommodate about 35 additional attendees. That enabled about 220 people to come, plus around 30 volunteers - the latter the lifeblood of this all-volunteer run event. The conference runs like a well-oiled machine and that's due to all of the wonderful people who work year-round and at the event to ensure things go smoothly.

Over the decade+ of the conference, we've raised over $100,000, which has been donated to Ohio-centric conservation causes, most of which are involved in acquisition and conservation of natural lands, such as the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, Cedar Bog, and The Nature Conservancy.

This photo and the next two are from the Midwest Native Plant Conference's Facebook page.

The main hall in Bergamo Center is packed for one of our keynotes. We are fortunate in being able to attract outstanding speakers well-versed in the world of native flora. This year's slate featured Tavia Cathcart-Brown, Nancy Stranahan, Steve McKee, and Julie Zickefoose, plus a host of excellent breakout speakers. This year's complete speaker roster can be seen HERE.

The aforementioned Ann Geise, who has done our conference artwork since year one. She is also a conference vendor, along with many others and a raft of native plant vendors. Ann's obviously been hugely helpful to the conference, as has our planning committee, which currently consists of Yvonne Cecil, Alan Duffy, Lisa M. Ruschmann, Yvonne Dunphe, Ann Geise, Teri Gilligan, Scott Hogsten, Ned Keller, Randy Lakes, Diana and John Malas, Jim McCormac, Kathy McDonald, Cathy Plum, Joyce Pontius, Mike Shade and Debi Wolterman.

I would be remiss in not giving big thanks to the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. I've been going there to speak on occasion starting over 15 years ago, and it didn't take me long to ponder a similar event in Ohio. The Millersville conference is approaching its third decade, and is large, well run, and superb about promoting the importance of native flora - before many people were. Our original Midwest Native Plant Conference committee initially convened about 12 years ago, pulled off our first event the following year and the rest is history. An original committee member is Kathy McDonald and she has operated as our conference CEO ever since. She's the glue that binds the large complex event together.

A staple of the conference is vendors of native flora. The lane in front of Bergamo Center is lined with sophisticated sellers of natives, and attendees can find plenty of cool plants including species quite hard to find. On Saturday, we open the sale to the general public to further our reach and the sales of vendors' wares.

A big part of the conference agenda is field trips. We do nocturnal forays on Friday and Saturday nights, right on the grounds of Mount St. John. There are also diurnal excursions on all three days of the conference. Brother Don Geiger got this ball rolling decades ago when he started experimenting with native plants on the 150-acre grounds. Today the fruits of Don's labors is writ large, and within a short distance of the conference facility we can find all manner of interesting flora and fauna.

This is a last instar caterpillar of the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, noshing on one of its host plants, wild senna, Senna hebecarpa. It will become a big lemony butterfly with a tinge of green, and we find them here every year.

On Friday's nighttime field trip, we inspected a large path of Culver's-root, Veronicastrum virginicum, and were pleased to see the spires of luminescent white flowers covered with moths. Many moths are nectar-seekers and pollinators - we just don't notice them as much as we do their more conspicuous counterparts the butterflies. This stunner is a zebra conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis. Several were on these plants.

On Sunday, we conclude the conference with field trips to farther-flung places: prairies, fens, woodlands, home gardens and other interesting haunts. It's all a great time, and we'd love to have you there in 2020. Some very special speakers will be in the house for that one.

Go to the conference homepage, RIGHT HERE, and sign up for email bulletins. This is the quickest way to learn about news and events (we usually have one or two other mini-conferences annually), and most importantly to receive notification as soon as conference registration opens.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Merlins' appearance is rare treat for Ohio birders

Merlin nest with two chicks (one visible here) in Upper Arlington/Jim McCormac

July 21, 2019

Jim McCormac

Avid birder Leslie Sours was gardening in her Upper Arlington yard on a fine day in April when she was startled by a bullet-like bird whooshing over. Its emphatic yipping calls drew her eyes skyward before the bird appeared.

A merlin! These small but powerful falcons are uncommon in Ohio, with most observations during spring and fall migration. Small numbers spend the winter months in large cemeteries, where mature scattered trees mimic the savannas and open woodlands favored by this species.

Sours was surprised when a second bird joined the first. A male and female, and at a time when any wintering merlins should have departed. The birds’ fidelity to the neighborhood, and behavioral cues, suggested potential breeding.

The hunt for the nest was on, and Sours soon found it. High in the boughs of a nearby Norway spruce was an old crow’s nest, and the falcons had appropriated the flimsy stick nest.

It wasn’t long before the female merlin was spending most of her time hunkered on the nest, incubating eggs. About a month later, Sours spotted tiny white fuzzballs peeking over the nest’s rim — the merlins had spawned a pair of offspring.

Merlin chicks grow like weeds, stoked on a steady diet of songbirds. When mature, they’ll weigh about 6½ ounces, and be 10 inches long with a two-foot wing span. By the time that I visited on July 1, the young birds were near adult-sized and clambering about the nest and venturing onto nearby limbs. While we watched, the adult female rocketed in with a small bird — possibly a house sparrow — as food for the begging chicks.

By now, the young merlins are free-flying and learning the complex aerobatics involved with successfully pursuing and taking down lesser birds in flight. A merlin is a winged terror to the songbird crowd. Feeding almost exclusively on birds, a hunting merlin spots its victim from afar and swoops in with jaw-dropping speed. Like a feathered air-to-air missile, it strikes its quarry with great force. The impact produces an eruption of feathers and the impact trauma alone may kill the prey. If not, a quick bite to the neck vertebrae will.

Songbird enthusiasts might be horrified by the merlins’ dietary preferences but that’s nature, which is seldom Disneyesque. Merlins are the pinnacle of avian hunting prowess and they’ve been plying their trade for far longer than humans have been around. Outdoor cats and car strikes are a much greater threat to songbirds than are natural predators.

The overall number of wintering merlins has steadily increased in Ohio, as has the overall population that lies north and west of us. A locally famous wintering merlin spot is Union Cemetery off Olentangy River Road — less than two miles from Sours’ home. It would be interesting to know whether those birds — which include both sexes — are the Upper Arlington colonizers.

Up until the early 1900s, there might have been a small merlin breeding population in extreme northeast Ohio, but evidence is scanty. The first confirmed nesting was in 2009, when adults were seen feeding dependent but free-flying chicks in Lake County. The following year, a nest was found in a Mount Vernon neighborhood reminiscent of the Upper Arlington birds’ haunts.

Sours’ discovery marks the third documented Ohio merlin nesting and the best chance to document the entire event. Because of the nest’s visibility, Sours has been able to share the birds with many of the neighbors via spotting scope. Everyone is fascinated with the spunky little falcons, and seems honored to have them as neighbors.

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

Friday, July 19, 2019

Shawnee Photography Workshop: August 23-25, 2019

Early morning fog  mists the edges of a small lake within Shawnee State Forest. Fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorants, blankets the water's surface.

If you've read this blog much, you've likely heard talk of the amazing Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio's Adams and Scioto counties. Indeed, the prior post mostly deals with this place. I've been to this area a lot; it's my favorite region of the state. The biodiversity is mind-numbing, and it's all encased in exceptionally scenic habitats.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are doing one of our field-based photo workshops here on August 23-25. This is a time of riches, photographically speaking. We will also seek out some of the lesser known creatures - read on for a few examples. We've got a few spaces left, and would love to have you. All of the details are RIGHT HERE.

Shawnee and vicinity hosts a bounty of butterflies. Twenty-five species or more would not be surprising on a good day. This is a red-spotted purple, one of the showiest butterflies and one that is quite common here.

This region is botanically superb, with 1,000+ native plant species. Thus, the animal diversity is staggering. Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, should be in good shape at the time of the workshop and it draws spicebush swallowtails (seen here) in big numbers. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also frequent visitors. We may be able to see some very interesting "albino" cardinal-flowers as well.

A focus of this workshop will be moths and other creatures of the night. It's easy to draw moths to properly illuminated sheets, and that's what we'll do. This is an Io moth, one of many species that make for fantastic moth portraiture shots. We should see a stupefying array of moths, and learn solid techniques for photographing them, as well as interesting ways of viewing these creatures.

If you want photos that few people have, this may be the workshop for you. Part of our nocturnal pursuits will involve caterpillars and we should find many, of numerous species. Most caterpillars are nocturnally active, the better to avoid daytime predators such as birds. This is a black-spotted prominent, an utterly fantastical bag of goo. We found it on last year's Shawnee workshop, within sight of the lodge and cabins (where we stay). It was just one of many exceptionally photogenic cats that we encountered.

We also have an EXTREMELY COOL photo opportunity arranged, that will wow you and anyone you share your work with, but I'm not saying what it is for now :-)

Again, for full details and registration info, CLICK HERE.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Mothapalooza 2019

The sixth Mothapalooza is in the books and it was a smashing good time! Thanks to all of the organizers and volunteers, of which there are too many to name. I'll single one out: Mary Ann Barnett, who acts as conference CEO and is the glue that holds the whole complicated affair together.

Mothapalooza was hatched in an Adams County, Ohio roadside ditch some years ago, where a few of us saw a really cool moth (can't even remember what it was). I remarked something to the effect of "if we could show this to everyone, they'd all become moth fans". Now we have Mothapalooza as a vehicle to help do just that.

The first four conferences were annual, but the rigors of orchestrating such a large complex affair with a completely volunteer crew took its toll and we've backed off to an every other year strategy. As all but one Mothapaloozas have been, this year's event was based at Shawnee State Park and its lodge in the thick of the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest. Native plant diversity is staggering, and thus so is moth diversity. Couldn't be a better place to host this affair, at least in this neck of the woods.

To our initial great surprise, all Mothapaloozas have filled to a capacity crowd and quite rapidly after the opening of registration. This year, counting everyone involved, we had just north of 200 participants representing 20 states and one other country, Canada. As an important aside, Mothapalooza has generated several hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue for our hosting venues and in ancillary local expenditures. Mothing ecotourism writ large.

Field trips are strange, with 10 pm departures and many participants not returning to the lodge until 3 or 4 am. Mothing sheets are scattered throughout the hinterlands of the vast dark forest, with one or two in the biological riches of adjacent Adams County. We are fortunate to be able to attract the best of the best in terms of entomological experts and biologists, and the opportunities for learning are vast. We're recalibrating how we approach these nocturnal forays in the future, and think some excellent improvements will be coming that will make it even easier for everyone, and result in yet more moths (and caterpillars!).

The next Mothapalooza will take place in 2021, dates to be decided. We'll have it sorted out soon, and the venue should once again be at Shawnee.

For now, here's a few photos from Mothapalooza 2019. I've got scads, and am nowhere near getting through all of them, so I may post additional stuff later.

Samantha Marcone of Sam Jaffe's Caterpillar Lab provides scale to an enormous female black witch, Ascalapha odorata. This tropical stray to these latitudes turned up last Friday over the front door of Don Tumblin's daughter's house in Columbus. Her husband Matt spotted it, Lacey texted Don, who was at Mothapalooza, and Lacey chauffeured the giant moth down to Mothapalooza the next day. Thus, a few hundred people got their first look at this fantastic moth. Such a cool entanglement of circumstances, and better yet the moth dropped 75 eggs in its cage on the way down. Sam has them and will attempt to farm a crop of black witches and document the complete life cycle. The moth was later released to venture wherever it may.

We have diurnal field trips as well (not starting too early!), and hot weather and sunny skies produced scads of butterflies this year. Red-spotted purples, Limenitis arthemis, were quite common and wowed everyone with their extraordinary showiness.

A botanical treat was a huge sprawling mass of leather-flower, Clematis viorna. Scads of the interesting flowers adorned the vines, and this site turned out to be a major biological hotspot. Indeed, our Saturday field trip began here and we never made it anywhere else. The stroll along this sparsely traveled lane produced blizzards of interesting STUFF, from this plant to zebra swallowtail caterpillars to gnat-ogres to yellow-billed cuckoo and much more.

A saddleback caterpillar moth, Acharea stimulea, stares menacingly at the photographer. Its larval form is stunning, looking like a little tubular pony draped with a Day-Glo green horse blanket. The moth is incredibly spider-like from certain angles. This one was one of many that appeared at the moth sheets.

A white flannel moth, Norape ovina, seemingly having a bad hair day. Moths are a photographer's dream, and the subjects warrant attention from all angles.

A quite interesting little fellow, this one. It is a tiny moth in the genus Calioptilia, and perhaps part of a complex in which there are species awaiting description. No one could pin a name to this one. It's only about 5-6mm in length. Calioptilia (cal-ee-op-tee-lee-ah) moths are sometimes called "push-up moths". 

More to follow...

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nature: New book quite handy for hiking in Hocking Hills

July 7, 2019

Jim McCormac

In Ohio, only Lake Erie, our inland sea and northern border, drives more tourism than the comparatively tiny Hocking Hills region. The core of the Hocking Hills is Hocking County. About 3 million visitors flock to the region each year to marvel at the incredible rock formations, cool hemlock gorges and impressive waterfalls.

The undisputed centerpiece of the Hocking Hills is Hocking Hills State Park and the popular Old Man’s Cave. This site and nearby Ash Cave and Cedar Falls are magnets for those seeking to commune with nature in perhaps the showiest scenery in the Buckeye State.

There is much more to the Hocking Hills, which extends into Hocking County’s neighboring counties. Many people might not be aware of all its hidden gems.

So I was pleased to recently receive a wonderful little guide, “Hocking Hills Day Hikes.” Author Mary Reed is a veteran hiker who is intimately familiar with the trails of the Hocking Hills, and she succinctly and clearly outlines 25 day hikes.

The book is elfin in dimension at roughly 4 by 7 inches, and for good reason. It slips neatly into your back pocket, and it will prove much more useful than your cellphone when out on the trail — especially when there is no cell service, as can be the case in this area.

A short but useful introduction covers most details that visitors would want to know, especially first-timers. As Reed notes, all of our state parks, forests, preserves, etc., have no entrance fees; Ohio is one of the few states that doesn’t charge for access. The only exception in the book is the privately owned Butterfly Ridge Conservation Center in Rockbridge. Entry to this 21-acre site is $5, and it’s well worth the five-spot for the lepidopteran education. Sixty butterfly species have been recorded along the preserve’s mile-long trail.

Each site account in the book begins with basics: trail length(s), contact information, hours, dogs (yes/no), and facilities such as picnic areas, restrooms and visitor’s centers.

The meat of the book includes directions to each site, detailed on-the-ground trail directions and descriptions of interesting flora and fauna that might be encountered. A black-and-white photo of some particularly interesting aspect of the site heads the account, and a clear trail map fills one page. With this book in hand, no hiker should get lost.

My favorite section of the site accounts is the “Trail Description.” Reed includes plenty of fascinating information here, such as why Old Man’s Cave was so-named, or how Ash Cave got its moniker. In some cases she mentions the bounty of wildflowers to be seen, or the aural soundscape of pigeons gone feral and living high on wild cliffs and in the rock houses.

I highly recommend this small but info-rich book. For the price of half a tank of gas, you will have an invaluable guide to some of the best day hikes in the Midwest.

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

Saturday, July 6, 2019

An amazing little robber fly!

I pay more than a fair share of attention to "bugs". Insects make the world go 'round, I've become convinced. Not only are they ecologically indispensable, their diversity and interesting habits are endless. Many - most? - are also beautiful in their own way, some extraordinarily so.

Such is the case with this tiny robber fly, known only by its scientific moniker, Taracticus octopunctatus. At only 7mm or so in length, it's an easy one to pass by. I'm glad I noticed it, as T. octopunctatus has amazing eyes, and could be dubbed the "fiery-eyed robber fly". I encountered it along the edge of a dry oak-hickory woodland in southeastern Ohio's Fairfield County on July 4, 2019.

Once I locked the animal into the sights of my macro lens, I saw the stunning eye coloration and set about working the fly. Alas, it did not give me too many chances before darting off to points unknown. This was my first acquaintance with this species. It may be common for all I know, although I do tend to pay special heed to robber flies.

I'll certainly be on the lookout for Taracticus octopunculatus in the future.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Nature: Dragonfly rarities pop up in survey

A young male Paiute dancer (Argia alberta) at Cedar Bog/Jim McCormac

June 30, 2019

Jim McCormac

The Ohio Dragonfly Survey, which began in 2017, is in its third and final season of field work, and mountains of records have been contributed by scores of volunteers. More than 43,000 individual observations have been submitted by about 1,100 contributors.

So far, about 165 odonata (dragonfly and damselfly) species have been documented in the state. Most are common, at least regionally, and make up the bulk of records. The top five most frequent species are eastern pondhawk, eastern forktail, blue dasher, fragile forktail and common whitetail.

Those damsels and dragons are low-hanging fruit. Important to document, but easy to find. However, it’s the rarities that really get dragon hunters pumped. Some utterly unexpected species have turned up during the survey.

I crossed paths with one of these new Ohio odonates recently at Cedar Bog near Urbana in Champaign County. Last year, uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon found Ohio’s first record of Paiute dancer (a damselfly) in a Clark County fen. He went on to document more dancers at Cedar Bog, and Sarah White located a Greene County population.

The beautiful Paiute dancer resembles a few species common here. Lemon, who has contributed nearly 7,000 observations to the dragonfly survey so far, went back through his old photos. He unearthed Paiute dancer images from Cedar Bog dating to 2014, mislabeled as common look-alike species. Many of the state’s dragonfly experts had apparently passed them by for at least several years at the heavily studied Cedar Bog.

That this insect would occur here was a shock. There is only one other small population west of the Mississippi River, in central Indiana. One must travel 500 miles to Missouri before Paiute dancers become reasonably common. The core of the range is much farther west yet: the Great Basin region of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.

Although we can’t be sure of how long the Paiute dancer has occupied Ohio, there are other, more clear-cut recent range expansions. Lemon also discovered our first jade clubtails last year in Auglaize and Shelby counties. A species of the Great Plains, the Ohio population is the easternmost record.

Lemon also found Ohio’s first swift setwing in 2014 in Champaign County, and he and others have located populations in eight additional counties since. This distinctive, conspicuous dragonfly’s main range is the southern one-third of the U.S. south into Central America.

Survey coordinator MaLisa Spring located double-ringed pennants this year in Jackson County in southern Ohio. No one anticipated this discovery; this beautiful dragonfly normally occurs well south of Ohio.

Nina Harfmann found the little blue dragonlet this year in Jackson County. No one had seen one in the state since 1933, the only prior record. It, too, is a species of the far south.

Several damsels and dragons have staged massive immigrations into Ohio in the past few years, all southern species. They include blue-faced meadowhawk, great blue skimmer, lilypad forktail and slaty skimmer.

Dragonflies are powerful aerialists capable of quickly expanding ranges when favorable changes open new opportunities. In 2001, dragonfly expert Dr. Dennis Paulson published a paper titled “Recent Odonata Records from Southern Florida — Effects of Global Warming?” Perhaps we could ask Paulson’s question here, now.

For more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, visit or contact Spring at

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

Friday, June 28, 2019

Some dragons of late

A blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, adopts the obelisking posture. On hot days, as this one was, a perched dragonfly will often point its abdomen directly at the sun. By doing so, it minimizes heat absorption by exposing less of its body to direct sunlight. Obelisking dragonflies make for great photographic subjects.

I have been doing my level best this field season to focus on surveying for dragonflies. It's the final year of the three-year Ohio Dragonfly Survey, and our last crack at fleshing out the distribution and status of Ohio's Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies). If you photograph these insects in Ohio, we'd love to have your records and they're very easy to submit. CLICK HERE for instructions.

A Carolina saddlebags, Tramea carolina, moors to an old plant stalk. It's been a good year for these.

I had the good fortune of making a recent foray into various west-central Ohio haunts with uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon. He's submitted over 7,000 records to the Ohio Dragonfly Survey to date, a remarkably prolific effort and far beyond anyone else. This was one of the special species Jim showed me, a jade clubtail, Arigomphus submedianus. Lemon discovered it along the shore of Lake Loramie in Auglaize and Shelby counties last year. It was a new Ohio record, one of a number of state firsts for him.

Jade clubtail's core range is the Great Plains states, well to the west of Ohio. The habitat where Jim found this species is utterly common - shorelines of a large lake, often armored with riprap or with only a fringe of unmowed vegetation. It would seem likely that these showy clubtails inhabit other Ohio lakes, especially in the western part of the state, but no one has yet found others.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An odd perspective on a slender spreadwing, Lestes rectangularis. This group of damselflies is noted for the wide separation between the eyes, as can clearly be seen here. The animal is perched on the stem of a rush, and was cooperative enough to allow me to sneak into position to make this shot.

Another slender spreadwing, this one carrying a complement of water mites. Such parasitism is very common in damselflies, with the larval mites appearing as tiny reddish-orange bumps on the abdomen, usually towards the base. Apparently newly hatched mites first invade the aquatic larvae of damselflies, and when a larva leaves the water and emerges from its larval case, the mites jump to the teneral (newly emergent) damselfly. Later, when the damselfly enters or nears water to mate or lay eggs, the mites hop into the water where they live out the rest of their life cycle. While the larval water mites do siphon body fluids from the damselfly host via feeding tubes, I don't believe they normally do much harm to the host.

A sphagnum sprite, Nehalennia gracilis, one of our smallest (the smallest?) damsels. They're less than an inch long, and very easily overlooked. Jim also showed me a population of these enchanting little bugs, at a beautiful fen. Sure enough, the small zone supporting these sprites was rich in sphagnum moss. Perhaps the sprites oviposit into the sphagnum and the nymphs then inhabit it, but I'm not sure about this.

Finally, a very common species, and one of our largest and showiest, the twelve-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella (pulchella means, essentially, beautiful or pretty). One perk of participating in this survey is the numerous opportunities to photograph these gorgeous insects. Not only that, but highly predacious dragonflies are fascinating to observe. Their powers of flight are often astonishing, and the pursuit of "dragonflying" reminds me of birding in many ways.

Again, for more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, GO HERE.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Barn swallows in golden light

As always, click the photo to enlarge

I'm fortunate to have an accessible and pretty wildlife-friendly farm in close range. I'm free to enter, and practice photography. This is especially nice when time is tight, or I see that the late day light is going to be stunning, as it was tonight.

I only had about a half-hour tonight, but the golden light was pristine and a couple of barn swallows provided irresistible targets, so I spent my time with them. A gorgeous adult is above. Barn swallows nest in good numbers in the barns and outbuildings of this farm, and the manager is bird-friendly. Lots of swallows are produced here. Recently I made a post, HERE, about trying to capture these birds on the wing. That's MUCH harder to do than shooting the swallows at rest on a fence.

A recently fledged juvenile barn swallow flexes a wing. The youngster has a steep learning curve, learning to use its innate and superb aerobatic skills to glean insects from the air. While I imagine some of those skills are built-in, it seems to me like they keenly watch their parents and the other swallows hawking insects nearby. Observing the adults ply their trade probably helps train the youngsters.

The barn swallow is the world's most widely distributed swallow. It breeds nearly throughout North America, well into Canada and even reaching Alaska, with some nesters as far south as Mexico. Elsewhere, barn swallows breed in Iceland, throughout Eurasia, northern Africa, parts of the Middle East, and China and Japan. The North American nesters winter primarily in South America, with some individuals even reaching the Galapagos Islands.

In 1980, nearly a dozen barn swallows were discovered nesting in the Buenos Aires Province of Argentina, nearly 4,500 miles south of the nearest known nesters. These swallows, when first found, bred during the austral winter (our summer), but over time shifted their nesting phenology six months to breed during the austral summer (our winter). These birds migrate north to northern South America during the austral winter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A few interesting insects from recent days

The insect world is seemingly endlessly diverse, and always fascinating. "Bugs" make the world go around, and natural systems would collapse without them. Insects also make for great macro photography. Here's a few images from recent outings.

Ants tend the caterpillar of an Appalachian azure butterfly, Celastrina neglectamajor. Caterpillars of this species eat only the flower buds of black cohosh, Actaea racemosa. A bud cored by the caterpillar can be seen at right. The somewhat shapeless greenish-white blob of a caterpillar has its tiny brownish head to the left. Ants (species unknown to me) swarm the larva. This batallion will stay with the caterpillar, defending it from would-be insect predators. In return they are rewarded with nutritious "honey dew" secretions from the caterpillar. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Tiny Buck's plume moths, Geina bucksi, dangle from the flower of a poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. These moths, which resemble mosquitoes when in flight, are smitten with milkweed nectar. We saw hundreds of them swarming milkweed flowers on this day. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A ferocious "bumblebee" indeed! A robberfly in the genus Laphria (possibly L. thoracica) perches atop a black ash leaf. It is the consummate bumblebee mimic, and probably is often dismissed as such. When a suitable insect victim wings by, the robberfly whirs into action, overtakes and grabs the victim, and injects it with its hypodermic proboscis. The prey is quickly debilitated by neurotoxins and is taken to a perch to be consumed. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, June 12, 2019.

A female ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, pauses briefly in a dim forest understory. These dark-winged damselflies are common sights along wooded streams, and are distinctive in their fluttery flight. Seen well, they are marvels of iridescence, as shifting light brings out different colors in the animal's body and wings. Scioto Brush Creek, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A margined calligrapher, Toxomerus marginatus, taps nectar from the flower of brookweed, Samolus parviflorus. The blossom is only 3mm across, giving scale to the elfin flower fly, which is an excellent bee mimic. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

From afar, this gold-spotted ghost moth, Sthenopsis pretiosus, would be nearly invisible. It hides in plain sight, looking all the world like a bit of dead leaf. Sharp-eyed Laura Hughes spotted it. The caterpillars of this interesting moth eat ferns. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A summer azure, Celastrina neglecta (L) butts heads with a harvester, Feniseca tarquinius. The two butterflies were tapping minerals from moist gravelly ground. Each is no larger than a quarter. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A northern pearly-eye, Enodia anthedon, regards the photographer from a nearby leaf. I normally find these butterflies tough to shoot. They frequent dim forest understories, and are prone to quickly flushing and then alighting high on a tree trunk, facing downward. Not so this one. It flew right to me as if to demand its photo be taken. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A pair of six-spotted tiger beetles, Cicindela sexguttata, making more of their kind. These predatory beetles are the cheetahs of the insect world, chasing down lesser bugs with astonishing speed. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Crayfish species known as mudbugs excel at tunneling

Roger Thoma with a little brown mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, a species named for him/Jim McCormac Columbus Dispatch August 18, 201...