Thursday, December 5, 2019

Purple jellydisc

A bizarre fungus, the purple jellydisc, Ascocoryne sarcoides. The hairs are those of a small mammal, probably a white-footed mouse. The world of fungi is fascinating, bizarre, and impossibly diverse. I wish I had more time to delve into it. I made this image last Tuesday in Hocking County, Ohio.

Time has been tight of late, with book projects, other writing obligations, a move, and various speaking gigs. I've barely had time to trigger the shutter, but hopefully that'll all change soon.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Glaucous Gull, a sure harbinger of winter

A mammoth glaucous gull yelps its commanding presence to the masses. It's headed into a fray of hundreds of ring-billed gulls and some herring gulls following our boat. Only the great black-backed gull is larger, at least among gulls that appear in Ohio. This glaucous gull will immediately establish primacy among its lesser brethren by sheer force of size and personality.

Last Saturday I boarded the Holiday near downtown Cleveland along with several dozen other birders. It was the first "pelagic" Lake Erie trip of the season sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. I believe the December trip is full, but there may be spaces on the January 1 voyage.

We motored slowly down the Cuyahoga River from our launch point at Collision Bend, stopping once to await the passage of the 615-foot lake freighter American Courage. The river seems impossibly narrow to accommodate these giant ships, but it does although lesser craft may have to duck out of the way until they squeak past.

The same glaucous gull from a different angle, showing its pure frosty-white wing tips. This individual is a first-cycle bird. It will go through four cycles of distinct plumage before reaching adulthood at four to five years of age.

Before long we hit Lake Erie. Chum-master Tim Jasinski created a steady effluvia of bird-friendly chum (no popcorn or bread here!) off the stern, and before long we had a blizzard of ring-billed gulls in tow. As the weather has been relatively mild thus far, the ring-billeds were far and away the dominant gull, although a number of herring gulls peppered the flock. Bonaparte's gulls were almost non-existent, and every lake birder loves to encounter swirling masses of that species. Such swarms can attract rarer species such as black-headed or little gulls, or perhaps even a jaeger.

We did see a few great black-backed gulls - another species that will greatly increase in numbers as winter sets in - but this glaucous gull was the highlight. They breed in the high Arctic, and Lake Erie is a Floridian vacation for these feathered toughs. Most of them winter in colder waters, although some make it all the way to the Gulf Coast.

A few other avian highlights were peregrine falcon, which rocketed by offering a few fairly close passes. A rough-legged hawk passed high overhead; my first of the season. And the day's best rarity was a purple sandpiper, which obliging foraged on mossy rocks of a nearby breakwall.

All in all, an interesting four-hour float.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Red-shouldered hawk in LOW light

Corning Lake in the Holden Arboretum, on a chilly, foggy morning.

I visited the amazing Holden Arboretum yesterday for a meeting, and of course threw some photography gear in the car. The 3,600+ acres of the arboretum, which is a bit to the east of Cleveland, is a goldmine of interesting subjects. Following the meeting, we headed out to snap a few photos, mostly intending to shoot landscapes. The day was perfect for that, with persistent fog misting the grounds.

Days such as this, especially as wind was nearly non-existent, are great for shooting moody landscapes. Shutter speed is inconsequential as long as one is using a tripod. The image above was made at f/16, with a 1/2 second exposure at ISO 100. Good luck hand-holding that and achieving a sharp image.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An adult red-shouldered hawk attentively watches a garden below. There must have been a vole or some other rodent at work in the duff of the old plants. The hawk's head was on a swivel as he watched the potential prey.

I saw the raptor a little ways off, and being a big fan of this most beautiful of eastern Buteo hawks, naturally wanted to make some photos. Red-shouldered hawks tend towards the tame, especially ones that live in places with lots of people as this one does. And sure enough, the bird was not put off by my approach and largely ignored me as it fixated on the vole or shrew or whatever it was.

Fortunately I had Canon's remarkable little 100-400mm II lens already mounted on my camera, which was on the tripod. I like trying to create tight landscapes with telephotos and that was my game until the hawk surfaced.

The challenge was light. Completely overcast white skies and fog do not offer ideal bird photography conditions. If I were to shoot the bird at any sort of "typical" setting, the ISO would have been sky high. I am not a fan of enormous ISO ranges, especially if cropping of any sort will be necessary. We're talking grainy images, even with noise reduction applied in post-processing.

As it became clear that the hawk was unconcerned with me, I only had to hope it would remain in place long enough to practice some alternate photo tactics. With the gear firmly locked in place on the tripod, and at a comfortable working range from the animal, I dialed in f/11 to create sharpness throughout the subject, and set the two-second shutter delay option. Because of the awful lighting, it was necessary to go to +2.3 exposure compensation. Once focus was set - on the bird's upper breast* - I flipped the camera into Live View mode. This eliminates any internal movement from the mirror, as it's now locked up and doesn't activate. All of this gave me a shutter speed of 1/50 - too slow to handhold and expect much in the way of crisp images, even with the 100-400's stellar image stabilization. The ISO was 800 - near the upper limits of what I prefer, but okay and it was ISO that was largely driving the shutter speed that I selected.

Once all was set, it was just a matter of activating the shutter button, and hoping the bird didn't move between then and the taking of the image. It did fidget a few times, but for the vast majority of the shots it didn't. And I got something. Shooting against blah white skies won't give the pop that superb lighting conditions will, but sometimes that's all one has to work with. And not many animals will cooperate or remain immobile long enough to employ these photographic tactics, but when they do, this is a way to keep the ISO to a sane level and thus create less grainy images. I've used it on roosting owls and nesting birds in dim light, for instance. Thus, I can remain well out of their disturbance zone, and get images that can be cropped in without noise manifestation caused by high ISO.

*A minor gripe about the 100-400mm II lens is its seeming inability to focus on tiny areas with great precision. The reason that I had to focus on the hawk's upper breast is that the camera/lens combo could not auto focus on the eye. I could have tried to manually focus there, but prefer the bulletproof accuracy of auto focus, and in single-shot mode, the auditory beep that proclaims focus has been achieved. With a relatively small f/11 aperture, it wasn't a big deal, though. And I am probably spoiled by having some of Canon's larger prime telephotos. Those lens are incredible in their ability to focus in with laser-like precision on the smallest of targets, including the eye of this raptor in bad light. But the little 100-400 costs WAY less than those big primes, and one can't expect everything at that price point. And in general, the 1 to 4 is a sensational lens. I'm nitpicking here :-)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Nature: Rare sightings still bring a thrill for veteran birder

A vermilion flycatcher spotted in Wayne County/Jim McCormac

November 17, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The allure of birds drew me in as a tot. By the age of 6, I was glued to the windows of our Worthington home, watching feeder birds. It didn’t take long for this nascent interest to blossom into a passion.

By the fifth grade, other kids were quizzing me about bird identifications. They would bring bird photos in magazines, cover the name and see if I knew what it was.

When the state granted me a driver’s license at age 16, my birding world expanded tremendously. Wanderlust is a common trait of hardcore birders. Every weekend was spent exploring interesting habitats, many of them far afield.

In one especially prolific teenage year, I made it to Lake Erie at least 50 times. Our Great Lake is Ohio’s most productive birding locale, by a long shot.

Many birding excursions were rarity chases. Unusual birds draws birders like moths to a flame. The rarer the bird, the more visitors. Praise be if it’s a “life” bird (never before seen) or “state” bird (new sighting for one’s state).

After 40 years of auto-assisted birding, and amassing 381 species for my Ohio list (about 430 species have been recorded in Ohio), the thrill of the chase has worn a bit thin.

I have come to view the acquisition of big lists as somewhat akin to avian postage-stamp collecting. I would rather spend valuable field time in interesting haunts, studying and photographing whatever crosses my path, common, rare or in between.

The obsession with the atypical never entirely wanes, though, and I took up the hunt again on Nov. 3. A vermilion flycatcher was discovered near Wooster on Oct. 25 by local birders Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber. This species is a denizen of the southwestern U.S. and a very rare sighting in eastern North America. There have been about seven Ohio records.

It didn’t take long to spot the flycatcher as it hawked insects from snags in a marsh. Even on this cool day, the bird had no problem finding bugs.

A first-year female, the bird probably had its discoverers temporarily flummoxed. While males are adorned with their namesake vermilion color and are unmistakable, females are somber in hue and not nearly so distinctive.

Word of the flycatcher quickly spread, and hundreds of birders from Ohio and adjacent states have paid homage to the western stray. For many it was a life bird, and a state bird for far more. The last sighting was Nov. 5, and hopefully the bird is now in much warmer climes.

As luck would have it, another rarity lurked 25 minutes from the flycatcher. A gorgeous male rufous hummingbird turned up at the Holmes County residence of Martha and Wayne Weaver. Martha first saw the bird at their hummingbird feeders on Oct. 23, and it remains as of this writing (Nov. 10).

The Weavers graciously allowed birders to visit, and by the time I stopped by more than 110 names were scrawled in their guestbook. This wasn’t the Weavers’ first rufous hummingbird rodeo. Amazingly, their feeders lured another in 2011.

Like the flycatcher, the rufous hummingbird is a westerner, breeding from Alaska south to Idaho and Oregon. This species is quite cold-hardy, and eastern vagrants typically appear in late fall. Some linger into winter. One or a few appear in Ohio most years.

It was great to revisit these normally distant feathered friends again, and almost in my backyard.

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.

A rufous hummingbird seen in Holmes County/Jim McCormac

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A plethora of pipits

A perfect storm of snow, followed by some rain and sleet, followed by a major temperature plunge, left much of Ohio enshrouded in an icy wonderland. Yesterday brought our first really cold weather, and I was out before dawn to experience it.

The virgately branched inflorescence of a tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima, shimmers with crystallized ice. It was 1 F when I made this shot. A vast field of iced over Indian grass forms the backdrop. Conditions such as these can make for good birding, as 1) birds are often more approachable in bitter cold, and 2) species that typically forage in fields such as this are forced to roadsides to find spilled grain, weed seeds and other fare.

Make no mistake, #2 is not a good deal for birds, as the incidences of road strikes by vehicles can skyrocket. Fortunately, the back roads of northern Marion County and southern Wyandot County, where I was yesterday, see relatively little traffic. Despite seeing scads of birds foraging along roadsides, I saw not a single roadkill.

Most interesting, to me at least, was the number of American pipits. I think I put a conservative estimate of 75 individuals in my eBird report for the day. The overall tally may have been 100+. Small flocks were scattered far and wide, sometimes comprised only of pipits, but often mixed horned lark-pipits flocks. The most interesting group contained a few dozen larks, a smattering of pipits, and two snow buntings. The bird in the photo was part of a group of four, and they were cooperative. Unfortunately for the photographer, it was only about 4 F and I was lying on the cold tarmac to try to get on their level. Tough shooting.

American pipits breed in the northernmost reaches of North America, in the tundra, and in high alpine meadows in the western part of the continent. The nearest nesters to north-central Ohio, where I made yesterday's observations, are about 1,000 miles to the north. Many pipits pass through Ohio in both spring and fall migration, but they are largely overlooked. The birds are prone to foraging way out in big agricultural fields and are easily missed. They are powerful flyers and diurnal migrants, but if one is not familiar with their flight calls as they pass high overhead, they'll pass by undetected.

The peak fall passage extends from mid-October through November. This recent early wintry weather forced pipits out of the vast agricultural hinterlands and to the roads where people could see them. Much of Ohio was awash in pipit reports, shedding light on just how many birds move through the state.

Also notable was a flock of five Savannah sparrows forced to the roadsides. This is another extremely common fall migrant. However, we're past peak fall passage, which mostly occurs from late September through late October. I suspect these birds are going to attempt to winter locally. They occurred in an area of 1,000+ acres of conservation reserve program lands dense in Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans.  These thick grass stands create their own ecology by spawning scores of seed, insects and their eggs/larvae, and offer protection from sometimes brutal winter elements. I've found Savannah sparrows here before in January.

ASIDE: This beautiful little sparrow is NOT named for the plant community of scattered large trees, which is properly spelled savanna. Rather, the common name stems from Savannah, Georgia, where Alexander Wilson bagged the first specimen. As a "species" the Savannah sparrow is widespread and complex. Nearly 30 subspecies have been described and many of these variations are quite different in appearance.

This northern mockingbird was one of five or six that had staked claim to a long fencerow of scrubby hawthorns and plums. The trees were rich in fruit, and those berries will play a big role in getting these mockers through the winter. Like gang toughs, the mockingbirds zealously defend their turfs against all comers, especially other frugivores.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Two rare (for Ohio) birds

As always, click the photos to enlarge

A gorgeous first-year (I believe) female vermilion flycatcher hawks insects from a branch low over a marsh. While common nesters in parts of the southwest U.S. - with most birds wintering south of the border - the vermilion flycatcher is a major rarity in Ohio. The bird shown in this photo is about the 7th state record, I believe.

I finally had time to go look for it on November 3rd, but Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber first found the bird on October 25. A great find by the two gentlemen and one that may have had them temporarily scratching their heads. Female vermilion flycatchers are not nearly as distinctive as the brightly marked males, and when birding the Wooster, Ohio region in late October, this flycatcher would not be high on your list of expected species. Insofar as I know, it's still there as of this writing.

This bird frequents a small portion of a large marsh in Wayne County, which is northeastern Ohio. I spent over an hour observing her, and she seemed to be catching many a bug, in spite of cool temperatures. Most of our records come from late fall and early winter, with at least one or two lingering into December, so this species can endure frosty weather.

Fortuitously, this little animal was only twenty-five minutes from the aforementioned vermilion flycatcher, in nearby Holmes County. A stunning adult male rufous hummingbird and another western species, it turned up at the feeders of Martha Gingrich Weaver and family. I made this image as the bird perched atop prominent branch tips of an ornamental crabapple, from which it sallied after small flying insects. The bird also made regular trips to nearby hummingbird feeders for sugar-water fixes.

The first Ohio record of rufous hummingbird dates to 1985, and we've had dozens of records since. It's still quite the rarity, with only a few birds seen in any given year, and very few of those have been showy males as is this bird. Like the flycatcher, it's a westerner and the hardiest of the U.S.-breeding hummingbirds, nesting all the way into Alaska and at high elevations in the Rockies. Martha first saw it on October 23, and it's still there as of today. The Weavers have been extraordinarily gracious in allowing visitors and at the time of my visit, well over 100 people had been there to admire the spunky rufous hummingbird.

This November 3 rare bird safari offered the possibility of a trifecta, but alas, it was not to be. Right on my driving route from Columbus, and only 30 minutes or so from the vermilion flycatcher was a cooperative pomarine jaeger. The gull-like kleptoparasite was frequenting a large reservoir and was found by Sue Evanoff and Sue Snyder on October 29. The vast majority of jaegers that appear in Ohio occur on Lake Erie, and one on an inland reservoir is always extraordinary. Reservoir jaegers nearly never linger for any length of time, let alone five days as this one did. Alas, its final day was the day before I was there. It was seen late in the day on November 2, and I was there near daybreak on the next day. Somewhere in between it flew the coop.

Two out of three ain't bad, though.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Nature: 'Logan Oak' stands tall after five centuries

The enormous "Logan Oak" in Old Logan Cemetery in southern Ohio/Jim McCormac

November 3, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

On Sept. 28, I finally corrected an enormous arboreal oversight by visiting the legendary “Logan Oak.” Located in Old Logan Cemetery in the city of Logan at the gateway to the Hocking Hills, the gnarled white oak is a Methuselah tree.

Why I waited so long to pay respects is beyond me. The tree is splendid in every way. Huge gnarled limbs radiate from a skyscraper trunk, creating a gargantuan bonsai that must be seen to be believed. I had intended a brief visit, but my homage extended for more than an hour.

The Logan Oak is easily the largest and most ornate tree of its ilk that I have clapped eyes on, and I have seen scores of its species. It’s awesome from any angle, and I did my best to photographically illustrate the sheer majesty of this plant.

Similar nomenclature sometimes causes confusion with the former Logan Elm. That tree was just south of Circleville in Pickaway County, and was a huge and fabled American elm. Its name commemorates Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe. A storm brought the tree down in 1964, its vitality sapped by Dutch elm disease.

A placard near the Logan Oak puts its age at 600-plus years. I’m not sure how that was determined, and six centuries would put the oak at the extreme upper limits of life span for Quercus alba. Even if we estimate a bit more conservatively and age it at 500 years, that’s still an ancient organism.

Five centuries of growth makes for a big tree. It would take many people to join arms around the trunk, and lower lateral limbs would make big trees in their own right. The crown spread is an enormous leafy arbor that covers 9,000 square feet. That’s about the expanse of two Clintonville lots.

Amazingly, the Logan Oak is not the largest of its kind in Ohio. That honor goes to a tree in Mahoning County. Its circumference is 298 inches, the crown spread is 128 feet, and this oak is 94 feet tall. As impressive as those stats are, the Logan Oak is not far behind, and bests the official state champion in ineffable grandeur.

If we arbitrarily made the Logan Oak’s birthday today, Nov. 3, and accepted an age of 500 years, that means the tree sprung from its ancestral acorn in 1519. The oak’s inaugural year saw Cortes and his band of conquistadors invade Mexico and Leonardo da Vinci die at age 67; the Ohio country was still wilderness. It would be 284 years before Ohio’s statehood.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Logan Oak has seen. It was huge when Ohio’s sixth governor, Thomas Worthington, established the village of Logan in 1816 and even bigger in 1839 when it was incorporated. Scores of people undoubtedly have marveled at the tree through the centuries.

A mature oak can produce 10,000 acorns in a boom year, less in a lean year. As oaks are producing fruit within two or three decades, the Logan Oak has been an acorn factory for nearly five centuries. It likely has produced more than 2 million acorns so far.

As I photographed the tree, several blue jays — migrants, probably — cavorted in its upper boughs. It likely was a jay that planted this tree. Jays are inveterate cachers of acorns, which they bury. Many of these buried fruit are forgotten, thus the birds are avian Johnny Appleseeds of oaks.

Fortunately, interested arborists occasionally collect and grow acorns from the Logan Oak, ensuring that spawn from the mighty plant will continue its venerable legacy.

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.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Eastern Hemlock roots

The tentacular roots of an eastern hemlock tree, Tsuga canadensis, clutch a sandstone boulder at Old Man's Cave. Hemlocks do well on thin soil over rocky substrates, and over long time spans undoubtedly help break rock down by fracturing it, and calving big chunks from cliffs when ice and windstorms bring large trees down. The nooks and crannies within the root network also make great foraging areas for winter wrens. Hocking County, Ohio, yesterday.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Balanced Rock

This is "Balanced Rock", an interesting sandstone structure in Hocking State Forest. Softer rock comprising the lower portion of the pillar has eroded more rapidly than the cap at the top, creating this geological mushroom.

I had long heard of this amazing rock, but it wasn't until this morning that I hoofed it back to where it stands. It's a bit off the beaten track, but isn't particularly hard to reach and involves - if you took my somewhat circuitous route - about two miles, round trip. There are some other interesting sandstone features along the way, and plenty of nice scenery, as is nearly always the case in the Hocking Hills.

Today was our first truly cool morning, and I loved it. The temp when I first got out of my vehicle around dawn was around 32 F. I don't think it ever eclipsed 40 F while I was down there, and that was fine by me. We've crossed over into late fall, and winter will soon arrive.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Meet the jewel mudbug


Meet the jewel mudbug, Lacunicambarus dalyae, the most recently described North American crayfish species. Astacologist Mael Glon allowed me to visit his offices at OSU yesterday to see one of these showy animals in person, and create some images. Glon is the principal author of a paper published on October 9 that describes this colorful burrowing crayfish species. It occurs in five southeastern U.S. states, and is named for Meg Daly, Director of the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity. Meg's support was essential to the research that led to this discovery. I'm going to write a piece on this charismatic animal in the next month or so for my Columbus Dispatch column. I would add that people like Mael and Meg, who support the biological underdogs, make the world a better place.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Autumnal tree tunnel

As always, click the image to enlarge

Autumnal tree tunnel, reflected in the mirrored waters of Clear Creek. Hocking County, Ohio, October 23, 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A sparrow safari to Dutch Fork Wetlands, Dawes Arboretum

A wonderful mixed-emergent marsh restoration, known as the Dutch Fork Wetlands. It's part of Dawes Arboretum, a sprawling 2,000-acre palette of wildly diverse flora. Part of the arboretum is formal plantings comprised of numerous ornamental plants, many from distant lands. But a bigger part of the property is native plants in more or less natural landscapes, and arboretum staff work hard to properly manage the indigenous assets.

I was over at Dawes about a week ago for a meeting, and arrived early - the crack of dawn to be precise. Mid-October is peak for migrant sparrows, and I figured the Dutch Fork Wetlands and its associated meadows would produce lots of the little brown jobs. I was not disappointed.

A juvenile white-crowned sparrow surveys his temporary domain from a sapling. I saw many of these big sparrows, and several were singing their haunting minor-keyed whistles. White-crowns are strictly migrants here. They breed in the FAR north; the sub-tundra taiga and on north into the true tundra, and in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains in the west.

Many field sparrows were present. This species is quite the contrast to the previous one in terms of bulk. A good measure of "bulkiness" in a bird is weight. The white-crowned sparrow weighs about 30 grams. A well-fed field sparrow, about 13 grams. Only the chipping and clay-colored sparrows are ever so slightly smaller.

This field sparrow is perched on a cup-plant, Silphium perfoliatum. Most of the sparrows present this day were smitten with this robust native member of the sunflower family. I quickly learned to spot the cup-plant colonies from afar, creep up, and be rewarded with gangs of sparrows stripping the fruit.

As is to be expected nearly anywhere in Ohio, song sparrows were frequent. Given the numbers that I saw, I suspect local breeders were augmented by migrants.

Beginning birders often lament the alleged difficulty of sparrow identification. But there aren't that many - 15 commonly occurring Ohio species - and most are quite distinctive. As with learning to identify any group of organisms, become very familiar with the common species such as this song sparrow, then the others will start to stand out as different.

We have three North American species of sparrows in the genus Melospiza, and I saw them all this day. The aforementioned song sparrow is one, and so is this swamp sparrow, distinctive in its chestnut hues. It's well-named - swamp sparrows are very much birds of wetland habitats. This one perches on a senescent snarl of soft-stemmed bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. I probably saw or heard several dozen in the Dutch Fork Wetlands. Prior to the arboretum's wetland restoration work, there were probably none.

This normally shy skulker was the best of the Melospiza sparrows, if one feels obligated to rank such things. It is a Lincoln's sparrow, named for 21 year old Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied John James Audubon on his 1833 expedition to Labrador. Young Lincoln bagged the first specimen of this sparrow, and Audubon named it for him.

I see plenty of breeding Lincoln's sparrows every year on their breeding grounds in northern Michigan and usually elsewhere in the North Country. There, they come out of their shell and often sing their beautiful melodies from open perches. I have never heard one sing down here in migration, and they typically sneak about furtively in dense tangles of vegetation near the ground.

Thus, I was pleased to hear the call notes of several Lincoln's sparrows soon after arriving, and found about ten of them in all. This one - and several of the others - were feasting on cup-plant seeds.

In total, I located nine species of sparrows on this day (others included chipping sparrow, eastern towhee, Savannah sparrow, and white-throated sparrow). Missed were my hoped for primary targets, the Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows. Dutch Fork Wetlands in fall should be a great place to turn up one or both of these rarish wetland species.

Of course, not all was sparrows on this foray, and this nosy marsh wren amused me for several minutes. I was standing quietly and somewhat concealed, when the wren burst from a snarl of cattails and curiously investigated me from all angles. Marsh wrens are quite photogenic, if you are lucky enough to have clear shots at them.

Finally, it was time to head for my meeting, but this birdiferous sapling held me up briefly. For some reason, about every songbird in the Indian grass meadow wanted to use it as a lookout. In its branches, and I'm sure I'm forgetting one or a few species, were eastern bluebird, American goldfinch, house finch, palm warbler, and song, swamp, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and white-crowned sparrows, most of them simultaneously (sorry for the poor iPhone photo - I was over-lensed in terms of capturing the entire tree with a real camera).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fall colors

Nice to finally see some vibrant fall foliage in Central Ohio. Tree reflections in Lake Ramona, Clear Creek Metro Park, Fairfield County, Ohio, this morning.

Hydrological abstraction: Sycamore trunks and autumn foliage reflected in rippled waters of Clear Creek. Hocking County, Ohio, this morning.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nature: Golden fly a beauty, not some biting pest

An Atylotus bicolor fly, dubbed a "golden velveteen fly" after a recent sighting by explorers at Mentor Marsh near Cleveland/Jim McCormac

October 20, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Say the word “fly” to someone and you likely will get a negative reaction. There are legitimate reasons for this. Tsetse and bot flies, pesky houseflies and savagely biting horseflies contribute to the bad rap. We will circle back to those horseflies in a bit.

Tarnishing the name of this astonishingly diverse group of insects because of the transgressions of a few bad actors is hardly fair. To date, more than 125,000 species in the Order Diptera (flies) have been described. Entomologists think that there could be more than 1 million species worldwide.

Most flies pose no problems to people, and they operate out of sight and mind. They are ubiquitous in nearly all habitats and are an integral part of the natural world. Flies pollinate myriad flowers, serve as food for higher-end predators, and keep other animals in check by predation. Overall, we know little of the roles played by the actors in this massive order of insects.Back on Sept. 15, I wrote about Mentor Marsh near Cleveland and the transformative restoration work there. Staff members of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Natural Areas Program have directed the removal of about 800 acres of invasive reed grass (Phragmites australis).

Native flora, no longer suppressed by reed grass, has returned with a vengeance. The proliferation of plants has ushered in a major spike in animal diversity.

On my tour of the marsh on Aug. 13, guided by Cleveland museum employees Becky Donaldson and Ben Piazza, I saw abundant evidence of the spike in animal populations. Bald eagles, Caspian terns, Virginia rails and several dozen other bird species were detected.

Interesting moths and butterflies flitted about, a coyote trotted across our path and gorgeous banded garden spiders awaited prey in their complex webs. However, it was a fly that won the day in terms of uniqueness, at least in our book.

At one point, a shout went up from Piazza — he had spotted a bizarre golden fly resting on a swamp rose-mallow leaf. We rushed over to investigate, and were rewarded with a stunning half-inch-long work of six-legged art.

The fly was elegantly clad in velvety golden hairs, and its enormous, multifaceted goggle eyes seemed disproportionately large. Even the wings were tinted in gold. The fly seemed imported from a Dr. Seuss tale; an entomological Lorax come to life.

Later, we determined the mystery fly was Atylotus bicolor, a member of the horsefly family. The gorgeous fly apparently lacks a common name, so we informally dubbed it the “golden velveteen fly.” Unlike other members of its tribe, this one doesn’t seem to be a biter, and I had to chase it a bit to obtain photos.

As showy as Atylotus bicolor is, we figured there would be much information available. However, we ran into an informational brick wall. Apparently the insect is very rare, at least in the U.S., and we have found only one other modern record, near Utica, New York. Most records are north of Lake Erie in southern Ontario and scattered Canadian locales, but even there it doesn’t seem frequent.

We later found out that another Cleveland museum employee, Grai Oleksy, had documented this fly in Mentor Marsh last year. As far as we know, that’s the first Ohio record.

As striking as the golden velveteen fly is, there surely would be other records if it were frequent and widespread. From our research, it appears nearly nothing is known of its life cycle, other than that the larvae occupy damp leaf litter.

One might ask “What good is the golden velveteen fly?” I would answer with a quote from famed conservationist Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

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, October 16, 2019

Fishes of Ohio talk, next Tuesday evening, 10/22

If you like natural history, and especially fish, you'll like this talk. Dan Rice is always an interesting, humorous, and informative speaker, and he's the principal author of the recently released A Naturalist's Guide to the Fishes of Ohio. I believe that copies of the book will be available.

The venue is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center near downtown Columbus. The festivities begin at 7 pm. CLICK HERE for complete details. Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Harrier, snipe, and sparrow

Time to throw the birds back in Ohio Birds and Biodiversity! I needed some solo bird therapy this morning, having had precious little time to observe and photograph the feathered crowd this fall. So it was off to a tried and true local hotspot, Battelle Darby Metro Park and its huge and successful prairie restoration. This place never lets me down, and it didn't today.

A female northern harrier wings past, just as she glimpsed me concealed in a natural blind of cattails. Prior to spotting the interloper, she had her head canted downwards, watching for voles. I saw one other female, and a striking gray adult male. Note the hawk's owl-like facial disk. The bright buffy tones mark her as a juvenile.

Dapper and sleek, a neatly marked Savannah sparrow pauses briefly atop a snag in a cattail marsh. This sparrow favors open country, but is not named for the plant community of widely scattered trees (which is properly spelled "savanna"). Rather, its common name is derived from the city in Georgia, where pioneer ornithologist Alexander Wilson took the first specimen.

We are at the peak of migration for Savannah sparrows, and I saw perhaps 75 of them this morning.

A juvenile Wilson's snipe, its plumage fresh and crisp, blends well with the punky duff of a drawn down cattail marsh. This species blends astonishingly well with its haunts. I first picked up a few snipe as they flew by, then flushed a few others. After settling into a particularly good snipe honey hole and carefully watching, I gained a better estimate of their numbers. I tallied nearly 50, but as I saw only a fragment of the available habitat I'm sure many others were present.

All told, a wonderful three hours afield on a cold clear October morning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Old birch log with maple leaf

Red maple leaf, on old white birch log. Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, today.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Fall foliage along the Dead River

Colorful fall foliage along the Dead River, just west of Marquette, this morning. Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Today was the first full day of our Upper Peninsula photo tour, and we shot a diversity of subjects. Scenes like this, a gorgeous kettle lake bog, tree tunnels, a rocky Lake Superior beach, and a couple of interesting waterfalls. Much more to come...

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Fall colors along glacial lake

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Maples in various hues and the ghostly trunks of white birch punctuate a background of white pine. Fall color is starting to come on strong in the north country. Big Twin Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, yesterday. Just to show that big telephotos can make good landscape lenses, this image was made with the Canon 400mm f/2.8 II, at f/9, 1/40, ISO 200. Tripod-mounted, of course, and shot in live view with 2-second timer delay to eliminate any operator-induced movement.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Black Trumpets

The black trumpet, Craterellus fallax, an amazing mushroom. Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, provides the backdrop. The mushroom numbers and diversity up here right now are astonishing! Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, today. We scouted extensively in the Hiawatha today, finding scads of gorgeous landscapes and other interesting subjects, such as this fungus.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Woodland path, with bridge

The path to Grand Sable Dunes, where 300 foot tall sand cliffs cascade into Lake Superior. Grand Marais, Upper Peninsula, Michigan, this afternoon.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Lighthouse, and Spruce Grouse

Debbie and I are up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, scouting in advance of our photo workshop which begins on Sunday. Nine great people will connect with us in Marquette, and off we'll go to see waterfalls, lighthouses, fall color and lots of other showy highlights.

I left Columbus yesterday bright and early, where it later hit a high of about 92F. Big difference in temps up here, where yesterday's high was 50F. At the tip of Whitefish Point at sunrise this morning, it was a raw 43F with strong winds off Lake Superior and spitting rain. Good photos were made nonetheless.

Late yesterday, while driving back a seldom-used sandy lane to Crisp Point Lighthouse, we encountered this hen spruce grouse poking around on the edge of the road. She fluttered up into the low boughs of a nearby spruce, and watched us carefully. The "fool hen" as they are sometimes known, sat tamely and allowed us to make many images. She was still there when we left. Just down the road was a young black bear, but it skittered off before cameras could be activated.

This was our destination, Crisp Point Lighthouse on Lake Superior. Debbie made this beautiful image and kindly allowed me to use it. Haven't yet had a chance to do anything with my images. The colorful sunset we hoped for did not materialize, but it's still an incredibly showy spot and well off the beaten path. On the way out, a snowshoe hare darted across the road.

More to follow...

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Logan Oak

As always, click the photo to enlarge

This is the "Logan Oak", a spectacular specimen of a white oak, Quercus alba, easily the largest and most ornate such tree I have clapped eyes on. I've known of this woody colossus for a long time, but had not paid personal respects until last Saturday. Why I waited so long is beyond me. The tree is splendid in every way; breathtakingly massive. Huge gnarled limbs radiate from a skyscraper of a trunk, creating a gargantuan bonsai that commands the observer to stand and gawk. I had intended this to be a brief stop en route to somewhere else. Instead, I communed with the oak for over an hour, sizing it up from every angle, and attempting to capture images that might suggest the sheer majesty of the plant.

It's an easy tree to find, and respectful visitors are welcome. The northeast corner of Old Logan Cemetery is where the oak's roots anchor it, just southwest of the junction of Keynes Drive and North Mulberry Street (if any street should be named Oak Street, it's this one). This is on the north side of Logan, in Hocking County, Ohio.

The Logan Oak is said to be about 600 years old. I do not know how that age was determined. White oaks can live that long. One in New Jersey recently petered out, apparently succumbing to the ravages of old age. It was proved to be over a half-millennium old. I've seen photos of this arboreal Methuselah and it was impressive. But it's got nothing on the Logan, Ohio tree and I might argue that ours is even more impressive.

I'd highly recommend visiting the Logan Oak. You won't be sorry you did.

A male common green darner in flight/Jim McCormac

September 29, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

An incredible spectacle unfolded in early September, when untold numbers of dragonflies descended on Ohio and surrounding states. Feeding swarms, ranging from a few dozen to thousands, were reported over fields and meadows in all corners of the state.

In some places, flying dragonflies were so thick that they were visible on weather radar. Many news outlets breathlessly reported the “invasion” of dragonflies. Some Facebook users marked themselves “safe” from the swarms, as if it were some sort of Hitchcockian entomological counterpart to “The Birds.”

Most folks were enchanted by the sight of dozens of insect aerialists, wings glittering in the sun, zigging and zagging as they tore after midges and other small flying insects.

The overwhelming majority of the dragonflies were common green darners (Anax junius). They are big, reaching 3 inches in length, with a slightly longer wingspan. Males have a turquoise-blue abdomen, while female abdomens are purplish-red. The thorax of both sexes is bright green.

Other species were mixed in with the swarms, but in far smaller numbers. Companions included black saddlebag, green-striped darner and wandering glider.

I posted a plea for swarm sightings on my blog, and on a few online forums. Nearly 200 reports came back, from 63 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Hundreds of other postings about swarms were made on Facebook and elsewhere, documenting a massive movement that certainly touched all counties.

This migratory movement was short-lived, with most records falling on Sept. 10 and 11. Some reporters estimated swarms numbering over 1,000 dragonflies, but most observers saw between a few dozen and several hundred.

Dragonfly migration is imperfectly understood. The common green darner has long been known for large autumnal southward movements. Like migratory monarch butterflies, these swarms are generally on a southwest trajectory. They certainly are headed to warmer climes, but exact destinations remain a mystery.

Evidence suggests that most migratory dragonflies are headed to points from the Gulf Coast to Central America. The big movements generally coincide with the passage of a cold front, and in many areas it appears the dragonflies follow prominent landmarks such as lakeshores, rivers, ridges or other land features.

It’s likely that the dragonflies that move south in winter are not the same ones that return in spring. Vernal migrations are far less conspicuous, and spring migrants don’t seem to form swarms. It might be that adults newly arrived on the wintering grounds mate, produce offspring and die. Their spawn are the dragonflies that recolonize the north the following spring.

More conjecture than fact surrounds dragonfly migrations. No one is sure why some species — only a handful of the hundreds of North American species are known to migrate — form enormous aggregations. Some swarms have been estimated to number well over 1 million.

The passage of these “flocks” is typically rapid, and if you’re not looking skyward when they pass over, they will go unseen. Only when the dragons drop down to feed on smaller flying insects do they become conspicuous. Those people fortunate enough to see a feeding swarm bore witness to one of nature’s great fascinations — and enigmas.

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.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Two birds, mostly unloved

I encountered this large congress of rock pigeons, Columba livia, convening on a wire yesterday. The cinnamon-colored bird especially caught my eye. A stop was in order, to attempt to capture the animals as they conferred with each other in undiagnosable pigeon-speak.

Classic "blue-bar" pigeons bookend this set of birds - this is the wild phenotype. A glance down the wire revealed all manner of color variants among the 100+ members of the avian colloquium, although the bird clad in cinnamon was the one that really drew my eye.

Homo sapiens brought pigeons over from the Old World in the 17th century, and it goes without saying that they took. I share none of my fellow primates' common disdain for this species. Pigeons are quite showy, and masters of the air. Their powers of flight are renowned. Homing pigeons display an incredible orientation to their cote, sometimes beating their masters back home. Feral urban pigeons seem to organize pleasure flights, especially early in the morning or towards dusk. A squadron will head aloft, and race about the ether in well-organized packs, seemingly enjoying their incredible aeronautic abilities.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook reminded me of this photo, which I took and posted to the social media mega-site one year ago today. I had intended to post the image here, then, but never got around to it.

That morning, before first light, I headed to a local hotspot, Pickerington Ponds Metro Park. A very rare (for Ohio) roseate spoonbill had been hanging out there, and I wanted to see and perhaps photograph the pink visitor from the Deep South.

Upon my arrival, I found the wetlands socked in with thick pea soup fog. The overall ambience was stunning, but not good for finding or photographing birds. As the sun's rays began to thin the mist, these double-crested cormorants slowly materialized. I sometimes recognize a good shot when I see it, and I knew this was a photogenic opportunity. 

I was armed for bear - or distant spoonbills - with my Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. Needless to say, that optical tank was mounted on a tripod, and I quickly plugged a remote shutter release into the camera, and threw the latter into live view mode. After framing a composition, I watched the birds closely as they preened and prepped for a day of fishing. When their collective postures looked interesting, I'd hold the trigger down and fire away. The beautiful juxtaposition of fog and light lasted only a few minutes, and I'm glad that I was there to live in that moment.

Like the aforementioned pigeons, double-crested cormorants are often held in low regard. Where cormorants are plentiful, such as on the Great Lakes, fishermen especially want to wage war on the piscivorous birds. The rod and reel set view them as competition, even though cormorants probably take few fish species, such as perch and walleye, coveted by fishermen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Caterpillars, and more caterpillars

I reported on last weekend's great caterpillar safari in my last post, but showed few caterpillar photos. I will atone for that here. Our group found at least four dozen species, and I photographed a fair chunk of them.

Caterpillaring becomes addictive. Taken to extremes, it LOOKS LIKE THIS. I've been at the larval game for some time, and love the thrill of the hunt. Caterpillars do not want to be seen, and the vast majority of species are nocturnal, the better to avoid diurnal songbirds and insect predators. That means the successful hunter must also be active after dark, and that's when most of the subjects of this post were found. Throw in the allure of photography, the challenge of nightime shooting, and the novelty of charismatic subjects that few people photograph, and it's hard to beat.

More importantly, learning about caterpillars helps one learn MUCH more about food webs and ecosystems. Caterpillars are tube steaks on legs; Nature's hotdogs. It seems like everything eats them, and caterpillars are such a huge staple in the diet of many species of birds that we'd lose these songsters without the larvae. Some experts feel that the mortality rate of many caterpillar species is well over 90%. In other words, almost all of them are eaten. Those that make it become butterflies or moths, mate, lay eggs, and carry on the species.

Driving it all is native plants. Our caterpillars are chemically finicky and generally shun nonnative flora, with which they have no real co-evolutionary history. This is yet another reason to plant natives. You'll be growing crops of caterpillars, and feeding the higher-ups on the food chain.

A black-blotched prominent, Schizura leptinoides, rests atop some sort of cocoon, maybe that of a silk moth. I believe the cat's juxtaposition with the cocoon was just coincidence. One thing's for sure, it is a walking dead caterpillar. Those little white cylinders stuck to its upper body are tachinid fly egg cases. The maggots have already hatched, and are eating the caterpillar from within. Death by parasitoid insect is an extremely common fate in this world.

A pair of common buckeye caterpillars, Junonia coenia, nosh on slender foxglove, Agalinis tenuifolia. If they make it, they will morph into one of our most beautiful butterflies. The overwhelming majority of caterpillars are those of moths. Around 2,000 species of moths have thus far been documented in Ohio (some authorities believe MANY others await documentation), while we've only tallied about 140 butterfly species.

The leaf of a sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. An obligate sycamore feeder sits prominently on the leaf. Or perhaps not so prominently. Caterpillars are masters of disguise, or at least many of them are.

A closer view of the caterpillar in the previous photo. It is a drab prominent, Misogada unicolor, which insofar as I know feeds only on sycamore. The pale stripe on its back mimics the pale midribs of sycamore leaves remarkably well. Go look at the previous image. By the way, sometimes the English names of moths are derived from the adult moth, sometimes the caterpillar. There's nothing "drab" about this larva; the name stems from the bland appearance of the moth.

This was a great find, by, I believe, Ann Geise (someone who was there correct me if I'm wrong). It's a hitched arches, Melanchra adjuncta. These caterpillars are often found in fairly conspicuous spots during the day, and that's when this one turned up. It is on water hempweed, Amaranthus tuberculatus, which the cat matches quite well.
 
An amazing bag of goo, this one, and always a crowd-pleaser. A specialist in the extreme, this honey locust moth, Syssphinx bicolor, feeds only on its namesake tree, Gleditsia triacanthos.

One of many oak specialists, this orange-striped oakworm, Anisota senatoria, is feeding on a black oak leaf, Quercus velutina. Oaks support more species of caterpillars than any other floristic group, by a long shot. Their conservation is vital to the ecology of the great eastern deciduous forest.

The slug moth caterpillars are often otherworldly in appearance, often looking like sea slugs plucked from a coral reef. This is a Nason's slug, Natada nasoni. Note the pale vermiculations (squiggles) on its body. Unlike the specialist caterpillars, this one is polyphagous - it eats many species of plants.

Hard to top the exoticness of a purple-crested slug, Adoneta spinuloides. How could you miss this thing, one might think. Like most slug moth cats, it is tiny, maybe a half-inch in length, and quite easy to overlook. We often employ ultra-violet flashlights in our quest. Many caterpillars, including most slugs, glow brightly under such beams.

I was quite pleased to see this species, and this individual was one of at least three found during the weekend. Chris and Sue Zacharias found two on white pine (which is not native in this region), and Randy Lakes found this specimen on native Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana. It's the aptly named pine sphinx, Lapara coniferarum, and it was new for nearly everyone including me.

Thanks to everyone who joined the hunt last weekend! I look forward to the 2020 expedition.

Purple jellydisc

A bizarre fungus, the purple jellydisc, Ascocoryne sarcoides . The hairs are those of a small mammal, probably a white-footed mouse. The w...