Saturday, June 15, 2019

Southern Flying Squirrel Extravaganza!

A southern flying squirrel, in a rare moment of repose. 

I had a rare treat last night, when a friend, Roman Mast, invited me to see an incredible display of southern flying squirrels at his property in north-central Ohio. Roman is into birds, and puts out feeders for the feathered crowd. It didn't take him long, some years back, to realize that come nightfall an army of flying squirrels would descend upon his feeders.

He made some clever tweaks to the feeding operation to facilitate the squirrels (and the squirrel-watchers!), and they've responded to his largesse. While at least a few squirrels visit year round, for a few magical weeks in June/early July, the numbers are over the top. Last night, we estimated 50-70 of the furry gliders were around the feeders. But there's really no way to estimate them very accurately. Flying squirrels are such frenetic balls of energy, racing pell-mell through the trees, and routinely leaping into space to glide to a distant tree, that's it's impossible to keep any sort of tab on them. A possible explanation for this seasonal boom in numbers may be juveniles fresh from the nests. April is apparently a big month for birthing flying squirrels, and they remain under their mothers' care for about six weeks. It's possible that the parents bring the newly active juveniles to Roman's feeders for some easy pickings. As the youngsters become more adept at harvesting wild foods, and are forced to strike out on their own, the numbers of squirrels at the feeders drops.

At times, ten or more animals would be on one tree trunk in the vicinity of the feeders, and a glance into the towering white pines would reveal many others darting about. A hallmark of a flying squirrel is its astonishing ability to glide. A loose flap of skin - the patagium - stretches between fore and hind legs, and when the squirrel launches into space, it flares it legs and becomes a furry wingsuit. Glides in excess of 300 feet are possible, and the squirrel can adeptly jig and jag to avoid limbs and trees. When it's ready to alight, it flips its flat wide tail up vertically, which acts as an airbrake and serves to force its body down and head up. This positions the animal for a graceful landing, and oftentimes upon alighting, it'll race around to the other side of the tree. This may be a behavior designed to thwart owls that might be on their heels.

Flying squirrels are said to be the most common squirrel in wooded regions of eastern North America, including Ohio, and I'd have no reason not to believe it. This animal is so thoroughly nocturnal that few people see them. I do lots of nighttime field work and have done so for years, and I hear their high-pitched twitters and the scrabble of sharp claws on bark all of the time at night. The concentration of squirrels at Roman's place offers a window into their abundance. I don't think, nor does he, that there is anything exceptionally unusual about the overall habitat around his property. A mixture of various ages of deciduous forest interspersed with openings as is common in much of the state, excepting the regions of intense agricultural.

Here's a video from last night's flying squirrel extravaganza.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Five-lined skink

An extraordinary reptile, an older male five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, basks atop the kickrail of the boardwalk at Cedar Bog in Champaign County, Ohio. When young, these lizards are prominently striped, don't yet have the orange head, and sport a conspicuous blue tail. With age, the stripes fade and the body turns a rich bronzy-brown, and that amazing orangish coloration develops.

Many a person has had their first exposure to a lizard (in Ohio!) at Cedar Bog. Five-lined skinks are common there, and frequent the boardwalk, or logs and stumps along the trail. Ohio is probably not considered a hotspot for lizards, but several species are locally common, including this one.

Five-lined skinks, like most of our other lizards, can be quite arboreal. I imaged this one on June 2, during a photography workshop at Cedar Bog led by Debbie DiCarlo and myself. It climbed high in a hackberry, pausing along the way to regard our group. The first image was shot the day before. This seems to be a very good year for skinks at the "bog", and if you go, you're probably going to see some. Along with scores of other interesting fauna, and flora.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Who foots the bill for conservation?

Many of us have seen this sign, which a landowner across from Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (northwest Ohio) puts up every spring when thousands of birders descend on the region. I'm with the sign-poster - buy those stamps! - but the clear implication is that birders need to do more conservation work (note it doesn't single out any other group, only birders). Anyone with a foot in conservation and natural history has heard, probably scores of times, that it is hunters who pay the bill for conservation. I've seen that in print articles several times recently. And adamantly disagree with the contention that the hunting and fishing communities support the bulk of conservation work,

I don't dispute that hunters/anglers have played an invaluable role in conservation, and still do. But to imply or state outright that they are the primary group doing conservation's heavy lifting is wildly inaccurate. To do so dismisses The Nature Conservancy, an organization that has protected tens of millions of acres in North America and abroad. Scores of local metro parks own and manage many thousands of acres, and many of these agencies are supported by public levies. As hunters constitute only 4-5% of the public, presumably it is the nonhunting conservation community that overwhelmingly supports metro parks, their levies, and all of their conservation work. Along that line, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved passage of the Clean Ohio Fund in 2000 (again, following the demographics, passed by roughly 95% nonhunters). This 400 million dollar program has resulted in the conservation of tens of thousands of acres. Our federal agencies such as the USFWS and other facets of the Dept. of Interior are funded mostly by the general public's tax dollars, as is the EPA, both federally and on the state level. Legions of nonprofit land trusts, museums, arboretums and other land-owning/managing organizations funded primarily if not nearly exclusively by the nonhunting community do wonderfully effective conservation work, collectively on a major scale. At least one study makes a case that the non-hunting public foots the vast majority (94%) of the bill for conservation, when all things are considered:…/uploads/2014/…/SMITH-1.pdf

Yes, hunters/anglers' license fees (which they purchase for the right to physically harvest wildlife, which is held in the public trust) do provide much of the funding to state wildlife agencies. But there is FAR more to North American conservation than just those programs.

My position is not anti-hunter, or pro-birder, or any other biased slant - just an interest in the truth about conservation and its funding. And an interest in seeing all parties, no matter their persuasion, do a better job of uniting to help protect more land. And to see all parties who foot the bill for conservation have a voice at the table. Right now, especially in regards to the latter sentence, that's not the case.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Shooting swallows in flight: Good luck!

As always, click the photo for a larger version

A cliff swallow in repose on a fence wire. The animal is easy enough to photograph like this. When it's on the wing, creating an image is an entirely different matter. The difficulty level rises significantly.

I like wing-shooting (with camera) birds. It's a challenge to be sure, but finding potential subjects is easy. Some species are really pretty simple to nail in flight. Big sluggish flyers like bald eagles, great blue herons, or gulls don't represent a major challenge, other than getting yourself in range.

I shot this classic "blue-bar" rock pigeon this morning. It's the form closest to the wild version, but variation among rock pigeons is staggering. The site where I saw this animal hosts scores of pigeons and the different plumages are seemingly endless.

Anyway, this place has many swallows - barn, mostly, along with a handful of cliff and tree swallows - and these were my primary targets. I shot this pigeon photo partly as an antidote to the frustrations of trying to hit jigging and jagging speedster swallows, and partly because I think pigeons are cool. CLICK HERE for a detailed piece on pigeons that I wrote back in 2008.

I made this image of a zigging barn swallow at top speed inches above the grass last evening. Out of many dozen images taken, I think I kept two. The discard rate is high when trying to make relatively crisp shots of fast-flying songbirds.

Barn swallow hunting over a mowed field

I went back this morning, and the light was considerably better than last evening's overcast conditions, but still not the bright cloudless early morning skies that I hoped for. Abundant natural light is essential, or at least a major asset, when wing-shooting swallows, for reasons I'll list in a bit. While the challenge of obtaining relatively sharp pleasing images of flying swallows is part of the reason I'm on a swallow kick and trying to up my game, there's a better rationale. I mostly try to use my photography for interpretation, and swallows and flight are as interconnected as the Wright Brothers and aircraft. We see these birds more often on the wing than at rest, and their whole stock in trade depends upon their aerial insect-catching prowess. A good wing-shot probably is more revealing of a swallow's nature than any other type of portrayal - it's just tough to get such an image.

A barn swallow banks away from the shooter. Of my go-rounds of the past 24 hours with these birds, this one is probably my favorite.

If you're interested in trying your hand at swallow shooting (or birds in flight, in general), here are a few tips:

1) Find a spot with plenty of birds that tend to use the same area and follow predictable pathways.

2) The faster the lens, the better the odds of photographic strikes. Auto focus is a must, and it has to grab and lock onto the subject quickly. A camera with a fast burst rate is best. I used the Canon 5D IV, which fires about 7-8 rounds a second. A lens - prime or zoom - that is or can reach about 400mm is probably best for this sort of thing. I am fortunate to have recently got my hands on a Canon 400mm f/2.8 II lens, and it has me rethinking birds on the wing shooting. It's phenomenal, but plenty of other lenses can work.

3) Camera settings: Use manual mode, auto ISO, and AI Servo drive mode. When the shutter is half-depressed in AI Servo, it stays locked on and tracks the moving subject, as long as the camera is kept on the subject. Back-button focusing is far better; if you're unfamiliar with that, CLICK HERE. If your camera allows for a range of focus point options, pick the center point and a block of four surrounding points. Creating a small tight block of focus points increases the likelihood of a hit, but having all of them activated means that your camera would likely grab some object other then the bird. If your focus point options are limited, select the center point only. You'll probably have to dial in a fair bit of exposure compensation. I was at about +1 for these images. Shoot the camera wide-open or close to it. I made these at f/2.8, but had light allowed for it, I would have stopped down to f/4. Shutter speed has to be really fast, as in somewhere between 1/2000 and 1/4000. The ISO value should be displayed in your viewfinder and keep an eye on it. If mine reaches 1600 or so I'll usually try and rein it in by lowering the shutter speed - and/or opening the lens more if possible. I much prefer an ISO under 1000 but that's not always possible. This is why abundant ambient light is best for doing this sort of shooting. The more light that enters the lens, the faster the shutter speed at a lower ISO.

4) Hand-holding is best. It's easier than trying to smoothly track an erratic fast-flying bird with a tripod-mounted rig. Needless to say, make sure your lens' image stabilization is turned on.

5) Pick up the bird WAY out, lock focus on it, and track it as it moves your way. When the bird gets near, hold the shutter down and fire away. Pan as smoothly as possible, trying to keep focus locked. Swallows are tough, though, as they're prone to sudden jigs and jags that make them impossible to accurately track. The good thing is swallows are relatively fearless and will routinely fly near to people, so a good locale should yield plenty of chances.

6) Spray away whenever a bird presents itself. Your keeper rate won't be good, but if you get one or two nice shots out of a hundred, that's quite a feat and you'll have a decidedly uncommon image.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Showy lady's-slippers nearing peak bloom!

Today was a gorgeous early summer day in central Ohio, and Debbie DiCarlo and I spent it teaching/guiding a photographic workshop at the incomparable Cedar Bog about 45 minutes west of Columbus. I've written about this place many times, as Cedar Bog is so rich in biodiversity. It's full of rarities, both plant and animal. There is always lots to see, especially this time of year, and the place is a photographer's dream. We had a wonderful group of eleven photographers today, and it's always rewarding to expose people to this gem of a place for the first time. Many wonderful photos were made at the bog on this day.

But one organism - a plant! - trumps all else, and it's nearing peak bloom now. I'd say mid to late this week the collective population will be at its best, and will still look good through the weekend and for a bit beyond. You'd do your inner psyche good to pay a visit, and be sure to take a camera. While the jumbo orchids will steal the show, there's tons of other stuff to see, including the very interesting five-lined skink. These lizards seem to be doing very well, and our group saw a number of them today.

Here's a photo of one of the numerous showy lady's-slippers, from today. Perhaps it can tide you over until you reach the bog yourself, to see it in person.

If you go, and I hope you do, be sure to support the nonprofit Cedar Bog Association, which does most of the heavy lifting in managing Cedar Bog, and providing tremendous public outreach. Among numerous accomplishments, they spearheaded the completion of an amazing new boardwalk last year. It's handicap-accessible and offers a way to commune with the bog without damaging the ecosystem, or getting your feet wet. Becoming a member would be a great way to support local conservation. GO HERE for more info.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Michigan flora and fauna from recent epic foray

A room with a view! This is Lake Nettie, the backdrop for NettieBay Lodge and its complement of cabins. I made this image a few evenings ago, right behind my cabin.

I've just returned from nine days in Presque Isle County, Michigan and vicinity, where I've gone the past ten years. I lead natural history forays, with an emphasis on birds, in conjunction with NettieBay Lodge. You can read about those RIGHT HERE, or use the search box in the top right corner of this page to find much more about past trips. We'll probably be doing one, and if interest warrants, two trips next year. The dates should be set and on the NettieBay Lodge website before long. We'd love to have you along, and feel free to contact Mark or Jackie at the lodge to get on the list, RIGHT HERE.

This year's group poses by Ocqueoc Falls, the largest falls in Michigan's lower peninsula. They may not be Niagaraesque, but are showy and situated in the middle of excellent forested habitat. We always stop here on the final morning of these workshops.

The group of eight (we usually keep it to that number, to better ensure that everyone sees everything) was fantastic. From L to R: your narrator, Jodie (in yellow, hiding like a bittern), Ned, Carolyn, Kay, Sara, Leigh, Bob, Ted, and Vinnie. Mark Schuler, lodge proprietor, took the image.

As a group, we found about 115 species of birds and many other interesting elements of natural history, and we barely left Presque Isle County! I added about 15 other bird species to the list during my pre-trip scouting, and post-trip photography excursions. These forays are essentially three full days: a half-day on either end, and two full days between.

Luxuriant carpets of ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, cloak the banks of the Trout River. High levels of tannins from plants darken the stream's waters.

There cannot be many more (any?) biodiverse Michigan counties than Presque Isle County. Its eastern boundary is Lake Huron and a vast array of boreal habitats. On the western side are the massive jack pine plains, with an entirely different complement of flora and fauna. On one of the full days, we go east, and on the other, west. The two half days are spent visiting interesting nooks and crannies.

A mosquito provides scale to the elfin flowers of bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica. This tiny plant occupies cold calcareous gravelly soils along or near Lake Huron. In a normal spring, it is mostly done by the time we arrive, but this year spring was tardy and plants in general seemed about a week or two behind.

The small ivory flower of nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum, dangles below overarching leaves. It's easy to walk right by these beautiful wildflowers and miss the blooms. This species is locally common in rich woodlands.

A snowshoe hare ponders our group. These big bunnies prefer dense white cedar forests, and when feeling threatened simply disappear into the thick growth. This rabbit put on quite the show, dashing this way and that on the trail and venturing quite close at times. His odd behavior makes me think he was on the trail of a doe.

A gorgeous magnolia warbler peeks from the white cedars. This is a very common breeder here, but they have a penchant for the gloom of thick understory. Only by learning the soft warbled song does one get a sense of their frequency.

No soft warbled songs here! This is a northern waterthrush, a common breeder in swampy woods, alder swamps and the like. Its loud explosive song can be heard from afar, but the birds are tough to see in the well-vegetated quagmires they occupy. This one, at Cheboygan State Park, had a singing perch right along the road.

Even in late May migration is still in full swing this far north, and the late migrants have entered the picture. This is a yellow-bellied flycatcher, a tiny songbird that might be confused for a warbler from afar. Yellow-bellieds are often quite active, flitting and dashing through the dense understory that they typically frequent. I heard about five, but this bird was the only one that I clapped eyes on.

The fabulous alder flycatcher, which always reminds me of a miniature olive-sided flycatcher. It replaces the more southerly willow flycatcher in the north, and is well-named as its primary habitat is alder swamps. The alder's song is an explosive free-beer! and it gives loud pip-pip calls suggestive of the olive-sided flycatcher. Until 1973, this species was lumped with willow flycatcher under the name Traill's flycatcher.

I spotted this American bittern while driving the entrance road to Wilderness State Park, and stopped for some photos. When "hiding", bitterns stick their bill in the air, sway slightly as if blown by the wind, and become one with the cattails. This bird was singing on occasion, a bizarre sound reminiscent of a pump being run under water.

State and Federal agencies have been doing a fantastic job of managing the jack pine plains for Kirtland's warblers, and we see every stage of jack pine succession from new plantings to old-growth. The warblers occupy the pines when they are around five years of age, and quit using the stands when they age to about 20 years. This animal was in a very young stand of five year old jacks - the first year I had seen the warblers in this locale.

A great many other species benefit from Kirtland's warbler management, including clay-colored sparrows. This little fellow belts out his odd song of raspy buzzes from the summit of a young jack pine.

One of our most colorful songbirds, a Nashville warbler sings from an aspen branch. It's a common species in jack pine country, and about every other type of wooded habitat in this region.

A male palm warbler pauses between bouts of song. This animal has occupied a large jack pine plain, with Kirtland's warblers as neighbors. He sang conspicuously from scrubby oaks such as the young white oak in this image, and dead jack pine snags. The bird is an incidental beneficiary of large-scale jack pine management for Kirtland's warblers, as is a large list of other species: badger, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, brown elfin butterfly, black-banded orange moth, upland sandpiper, clay-colored, field, Lincoln's, vesper, and white-throated sparrows, hermit thrush, brown thrasher, merlin, common nighthawk, northern harrier, eastern bluebird, northern flicker, Nashville warbler, indigo bunting, Brewer's blackbird and plenty of others.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Michigan revisited

A male Brewer's blackbird sings from an old jack pine snag. I found a small colony of about ten birds breeding in Kirtland's warbler country, in northern Montmorency County, Michigan.

I'm up here for about my tenth year in a row, leading natural history trips from NettieBay Lodge in the incredibly biodiverse Presque Isle County, Michigan. We've got a great group and have been having lots of fabulous observations. Yesterday we explored Lake Huron habitats, and today it was the jack pine country on the other end of the county. We're over 110 species of birds thus far, and many interesting mammals, plants, insects, and more.

A burly porcupine comes at your narrator. I came up two days before the group, to scout. I had great luck with porkies, and have seen about eight so far. This one was very approachable.

Last night's excursion was epic, with common nighthawks doing their booming display over the young jack pine country, several close range eastern whip-poor-wills singing, and displaying American woodcock, all in earshot of each other.

I'll probably have some more posts and pics from northern Michigan.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

White Slantline: The "Mayapple Moth"

A colony of mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, in an Ohio woodland in mid-April. This common wildflower is easily distinguished, in flower or not, by its distinctive deeply cleft umbrella-like leaves. A patch such as in this photo is likely a clone. The plant quite successfully spreads by rhizomes, forming extensive colonies.

When at rest on a wall near a nightlight, this moth cannot be missed. Its ivory coloration makes it stick out like a sore thumb. The white slantline, Tetracis cachexiata, derives its name from its pair of conspicuous orangish-yellow lines that adorn the wings. A common enough species, the caterpillars of white slantline feed on a wide variety of woody plants common to eastern forests. The adult moth has an interesting relationship with mayapple flowers.

Come May, the curious waxy-white flowers of mayapple open. They're held on an elongate pedicel below the overarching leaves, and although of notable size, can be missed due to the leafy canopy that overarches them.

Mayapple flowers do not produce nectar, and savvy pollinators apparently quickly catch on that no rewards are to be reaped by visits. It has been shown that mayapples that grow near or among a profusion of other spring wildflowers up their chances of pollinator visits. The other nectiferous flowers lure plenty of bees, beetles, wasps and other nectar-seeking insects, some of which are likely to investigate the mayapple flowers.

The white slantline moth also visits mayapple flowers, but without expectation of any reward other than a camouflaged environment. I first saw these moths roosting on mayapple flowers in May 2007 in southern Ohio, and have been looking for them on flowers ever since. No luck, until yesterday...

While hiking a trail in the Hocking Hills, I glanced over at a mayapple flower, and Voila! There it was, a beautiful white slantline tented around the stamens of a mayapple flower. I found three moths similarly situated, all in a small area. The mayapple flowers were mostly past, and that may have upped my chances as the moths' floral hiding spots were few and far between. I'm told white slantlines also roost on flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, flowers, but given the profusion of blossoms on one of these trees, finding a moth would be quite the needle-in-a-haystack search.

Selection of these flowers as a daytime hiding spot could largely be attributed to camouflage, but I have to wonder if the moths do provide some pollination services. It's reasonable to assume that some pollen might adhere to their fuzzy bodies, and could be transferred to other plants. Whatever the case, it is a very cool spectacle to encounter, and keep an eye on those mayapple flowers.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: Shooting these moths was tough. Overcast skies, vigorous breezes, and deep woods conspired to reduce light tremendously and create movement of the subject. Flash would be an obvious solution, and I made a number of shots using artificial light. I wasn't particularly happy with any of the latter. While the flash-aided shots were sharp, and mostly blacked out the background, they created a harshness and sharp-edged look to the soft white subjects. Even muting the light's intensity to soft fill-flash levels didn't render much that I liked, but I should go revisit these and see what can be done. Anyway, the moth shot above was made with the Canon 5DSR and Canon's 180mm macro lens, with no flash, at f/11, 1/25, and ISO 1600 (way too high for my tastes). The rig was stabilized on a tripod and I shot in Live View so there was no mirror movement. I also used high speed burst, and when the plant would stop moving for a second I'd fire off a bunch of rounds. Some of the results were fairly sharp.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Nature: Spread of humanity taking toll on songbirds

A male chestnut-sided warbler forages in new oak foliage/Jim McCormac

May 19, 2019

Jim McCormac

Each spring, a migration of epic proportions takes place. Songbirds of many species return to nest in Ohio, or pass through on a long journey to points north. Their ranks include many favorites such as orioles, swallows, tanagers and warblers.

Most of our highly migratory songbirds are neotropical — species that breed at northerly latitudes but winter in tropical haunts. That Baltimore oriole whose flashy orange-and-black plumage and cheery flutelike whistling you enjoy wintered in Costa Rica or elsewhere in Central America. If you’re lucky enough to lock eyes on a neon-red scarlet tanager, marvel in the knowledge that it likely travels more air miles annually than you do. Tanagers mostly winter in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Long-distance travelers such as these make up a big chunk of our songbird diversity. There are about 135 species of songbirds that occur annually in Ohio (this excludes many species of non-songbirds, or nonpasserines). Of them, 70 species, or just over half, spent the winter south of the U.S. border.

About 100 species of songbirds nest in Ohio. More than half of them, about 55 species, are neotropical migrants. It would be unfair to think of such birds as “Ohio” birds. They belong to the Americas, as their passage takes them through potentially many countries and numerous states. Some birds occupy their wintering grounds far longer than the breeding grounds. For instance, orchard orioles and prairie warblers arrive to nest in mid- to late April. The males, who depart before females, start reappearing in the Caribbean and Central America by the end of July.

Our largest family of songbirds is the warblers, and they are the most popular group among birders. Thirty-seven species pass through Ohio or remain to nest every year. Collectively, all these warbler species wintered in nearly every country south of the U.S., with the lion’s share in Central America — the locus of their evolutionary origin.

Warblers, in general, are not faring well. The chestnut-sided warbler pictured with this column is an exception. John James Audubon, the energetic naturalist/ornithologist who roved widely throughout eastern North America, encountered this species only once. He shot five chestnut-sided warblers in May 1808 near Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, but never saw another.

Today this bird is far more common, a beneficiary of clearing of primeval forests, which created lots of scruffy woodlands that the bird favors.

A more typical trajectory is that of the cerulean warbler, the totem of the Ohio Ornithological Society. Its numbers have plummeted by 80% over the past five decades. Mass cutting of the old-growth woodlands that it favors is a major cause of decline.

Burgeoning human populations have made life much more difficult for migratory songbirds. In 1800, only about 1 billion people occupied the planet. Today, there are more than 7.7 billion of us, and much of that growth has been in the Americas. We’ve destroyed habitat, erected a gauntlet of skyscrapers, wind turbines and transmission towers that many birds strike, and unleashed hordes of feral cats. All of these things and more have taken a big toll on songbirds.

I penned this column last Sunday, International Migratory Bird Day. Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on Lake Erie, near Toledo, is a hub of birding activity. Tens of thousands of birders descend on Magee’s fabled “Bird Trail” during April and May.

Birds are environmental barometers, and as they fare, so probably shall we, eventually. The more people watching birds the better, as birds are a great catalyst to promote environmental protection.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Cedar Bog macro/rare flora and fauna photo workshop!

Debbie DiCarlo and I will be repeating last year's one-day Cedar Bog photo workshop on June 3. This is a Monday, but we chose that day as the center is closed to the public and we'll pretty much have the bog to ourselves. We'll start with a PowerPoint overview of the finer points of macrophotography, then head out of the visitor's center and onto the boardwalk where numerous floral and faunal riches await. Chief among them is the spectacular showy lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae, which should be in peak bloom. We'll not only learn more about photographic techniques, but also lots about rare fen habitats and the species that occur in these specialized peatlands. We have space for a few more participants. Read on for a brief blurb about the workshop, and a link to register.

Orchids and More!
June 3, 2019

The amazing Cedar Bog harbors some of the richest botanical diversity in Ohio. There is probably a greater density of rare plants there than any other site in the state. While the name is Cedar “Bog”, this interesting wetland is actually a fen, which is a type of wetland fed by cold artesian springs. A mile long boardwalk traverses the best of Cedar Bog’s 400+ acres, making exploration easy. The botanical highlight will be showy lady’s-slipper, a huge spectacular orchid with pink and white flowers. We will see much more, though: scads of other beautiful plants, many of them rare, unusual dragonflies, butterflies, and interesting birds, all in scenery reminiscent of northern Michigan or Canada. Jim is an expert on “the bog”, having formally studied its flora and published a scientific paper on the plants. This will be an excellent opportunity to learn about the natural history of one of Ohio’s most unusual ecosystems.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Rosy Maple Moth, in hiding

Just returned from a fabulous photography workshop led by Debbie DiCarlo and yours truly, in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia. Our group was wonderful, and we were confronted with numerous excellent photo ops at nearly every turn.

Hard to beat this one for its Seuss-like fantasy, though. A rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, hides among fresh red maple samaras (seeds). These moths, when seen in the open, cannot be missed. When among maple samaras, their bold pink and yellow coloration and samara-like shape render them nearly invisible. Hint: lower right corner of the image.

Our workshops produce treasure troves of natural history, and are a great way to learn more about natural history, in addition to honing your photography skills. This year's slate of workshops is RIGHT HERE, and we'd love to have you join our Focus on Photography Facebook page, HERE.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

New River Birding & Nature Festival

Cathedral Falls, Glen Ferris, West Virginia. The waters of Cane Branch tumble 60 feet over a series of cascades, and soon merge with the New River.

As for the past 14 or 15 years, I'm down here in Fayetteville, West Virginia for the New River Birding & Nature Festival. We have a great time, and are dazzled with a stunning array of flora and fauna. The New River and local Appalachian mountains harbor some of eastern North America's richest biodiversity. Field trips are the bread and butter of the event, and organizers Rachel Davis, Keith Richardson, Geoff Heeter and Paul Shaw bring in some of the best guides in the industry (present company possibly excluded).

This gorgeous little bird, clad in ocher earth tones, is one of the area's most coveted species. It is a Swainson's warbler, one of the rarest of our warblers. It occupies visually stunning habitats: mountain streams hemmed in by dense great rhododendron thickets overlain with hemlock and birch overstory. The bird's piercing whistled song slices through the dense vegetation and reveals their presence.

I photographed this animal on our trip today. It was one of 19 species of warblers, which were among the 73 species that we found on this excursion. A personal highlight was the nest of a least flycatcher. The birds, at least the female, was busily constructing it. She had placed the nest right in the fork of a red maple, by the trunk and about 25 feet off the ground. Unless you saw her fly in to it, as sharp-eyed Alma Lowery did, you'd not spot the nest in a million years so well did it blend with the tree.

The festival takes place every spring in late April/early May. If you like birds and nature, you'd love this event. CLICK HERE for the details.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Rosyside Dace, in nuptial colors

From L to R, Phil Melillo, Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard, and your narrator inspect a mess of fish hauled from a small stream in southern Ohio's Scioto County.

Last Tuesday was an epic ichthyological day, at least as far as I was concerned. Fish-hunting is something I'm lucky to get in on once or twice a year, and these aquatic forays are always fruitful, and highly educational. And when I say fish-hunting, this isn't bluegills with doughballs or bass with rod and reel. We're nearly always after far more obscure species than that, and the target this day is a fish known to very few.

Our guides were aquatic biologists Kelly Capuzzi and Laura Hughes. You've seen Laura's name in posts here many times, if you are a regular reader. Kelly works with stream surveys and fish routinely as part of her job with the Ohio EPA. And man, does she know the scaly crowd. Back in my early days with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend untold hours afield conducting fish surveys with Dan Rice (who wrote this NEW BOOK) and Ted Cavender. Both of those guys are ichthyological legends, and I never failed to be awed at how they could glance through a seine full of similar minnows and shiners and quickly call out the different species. Deja vu set in after watching Kelly and Laura do the same.

The stream in the first image is a big one, considering the habitat of our primary quarry on this day. We didn't find it in there, but did produce some interesting species including this rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum. It is a male resplendent in its nuptial colors - a gaudy dress it'll only hold for a brief few weeks during the courtship and mating period. Hard as it may be to believe that such an exotic looking creature occupies Ohio streams, rainbow darters are pretty common statewide. It epitomizes the wonders of conducting subsurface aquatic explorations. Streams are full of fascinating creatures, but one must dive in to observe them.

We also hauled up several central stoneroller minnows, Campostoma anomalum. This is a male in breeding condition, flushed with peachy-orange and head beset with pointy tubercles. Apparently this "fish acne" helps male stonerollers win the girl. This fish has big lips. The lower lip is modified into a stiff cartilaginous ridge that it uses to rasp algae from rocks. Stonerollers are very common throughout Ohio, and one of relatively few fish species that tolerates heavy phosphorus loading. This common agricultural pollutant promotes the growth of algae - not good news for most things - but the hardy stonerollers capitalize and make lemonade from lemons.

Ah! This much smaller headwater stream holds today's primary target, which we'll soon get to. One could easily bound across this stream in places, and it's so small that the flow dries to a trickle in the heat of summer. Deeper pools like the one at the bend of the stream in this photo are critical in providing refugia for fish during low water flow. Dense forests along the stream's course ensure a lack of siltation and high water quality.

We were understandably pleased to find several orangethroat darters, Etheostoma spectabile. Here we have a pair - male above, female partially concealed in the rock cobble. The male is in its nuptial finery and we can see the namesake orange throat. Orangethroats are headwater stream specialists and normally occupy tiny streamlets such as this one.

Darters are icing on the cake, but today was principally a dace safari. Dace are small members of the cyprinid family, which includes carp, chubs, dace, minnows and shiners. The five Ohio dace species all inhabit small headwaters streams such as the one in the previous photo. Three species occur in the stream section in the image, or very nearby. This one is a female southern redbelly dace, Chrosomus erythrogaster.

This is a male western blacknose dace, Rhinichthys obtusus, its lateral band infused with rusty orange as it is during breeding season.

Finally, the main target, a long-coveted "life fish" for your narrator, and a stunning creature, the rosyside dace, Clinostomus funduloides. Rosyside dace have a very limited distribution in a handful of stream systems in just four southern counties: Adams, Jackson, Pike and Scioto. They were once thought to be much rarer, but heavy sampling of their (at the time) understudied habitat by the aforementioned Dan Rice and colleagues revealed the rosysides to be more plentiful than thought.

Kelly noted their resemblance to salmon, and I couldn't agree more. Elfin salmonlets. A big one is only a few inches long. These two males are still in breeding condition and it isn't hard to see where their common name is derived.

There are about 62,000 river miles in Ohio. Big rivers like the Maumee, Muskingum, and Scioto get more than their fair share of attention due to their size and conspicuousness. But it's the little headwater streams that do much of the heavy aquatic lifting. They make up nearly 80% of Ohio's river miles, and form and feed the big streams. As we've seen - and this is just a tiny sampler - headwater creeks support an interesting diversity of specialized fishes and other aquatic life. But they are vulnerable to destruction and detrimental impacts. One of the largest rosyside dace populations was wiped out by a highway construction project. Just a week or so ago, in the area that generated this article, I came across an excavator smack in the middle of a headwater stream, dredging rocks which were being hauled out by big dump trucks. Permits? Nah, probably not. Stuff like this goes on all the time, and it's not to the benefit of the streams' rightful occupants.

Major thanks to Kelly, Laura, John and Phil for creating a fascinating natural history foray.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

West Virginia photo workshop! May 6 - 9!

 The iconic mill at Babcock State Park in southern West Virginia.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading what promises to be a fantastic photo foray in one of eastern North America's most scenic regions, the New River Gorge and vicinity in southern West Virginia. We've got two or three open spots, and would love to have you. Dates are May 6 thru 9, and base camp is the charming little town of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Established in 1978, New River Gorge National River in West Virginia encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River. The New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth! It's a rugged, whitewater river that flows through deep and spectacular canyons, carving a deep and long gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. And we will be there to photograph oodles of things - sunrises/sunsets from majestic overlooks to waterfalls and cascades. From showy wildflowers to unique plant species in boreal-type bogs. And yes, the New River Gorge Bridge and the equally famous Glade Creek Grist Mill too!

For workshop details and to register, CLICK HERE.

Mountain streams such as this are commonplace, and you know we'll be photographing some of them.

Mountain gaps as seen from near the summit of Babcock State Park.

A four-toed salamander marches through mosses. This region is very rich in salamanders, birds, plants and other biodiversity. We'll see lots of flora and fauna, and capture much of it with our cameras.

Southern Flying Squirrel Extravaganza!

A southern flying squirrel, in a rare moment of repose.   I had a rare treat last night, when a friend, Roman Mast, invited me to see ...