Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Macrophotography at Dawes Arboretum

Looking stunning against the pure blue sky of a fall Ohio day is this purple swamp aster, Symphyotrichum puniceum. There are over 35 native aster species in the state, and they all make for great photo subjects.

I led a macrophotography workshop at Dawes Arboretum last Saturday, September 14. The 15 spots filled quickly, and we had a great time exploring the grounds of this state treasure. Following a presentation about various macrophotography techniques in Dawes' "Red Barn", all we had to do was step outside the building to immerse ourselves in a macro wonderland. All of the subjects shared here were taken within sight of the barn.

If you've not been to Dawes Arboretum, I'd recommend a visit. The grounds encompass about 2,000 acres, and about half of the property contains more formal plantings and gardens, while the remainder is natural landscapes. The place is a gold mine for photographers, and I believe we will repeat this workshop next fall.

A bit of nocturnal scouting the night before yielded some excellent larvae, such as this Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar, Eumorpha pandorus. As is often the case, the boldly spotted cat was found on straggly Virginia creeper plants at the base of a tree. I temporarily detained this cat and a Luna moth caterpillar, and shared the tubular livestock with everyone on Saturday. Many images were made, and the cats were later released where they were found.

OMG! This is a Holy Grail of spiders and only the second one that I've seen. It is a toad-like bolas spider, Mastophora phrynosoma, and we found this one low in the boughs of a sugar maple. There was an enormous hatch of bronzed cutworm moths, and they were resting on tree foliage everywhere. I think that's what the victim here is. Bolas spiders are incredible, producing pseudo-pheromones to lure male moths into their sphere. Gullible moths are then snared and reeled in with the equivalent of an arachnid fishing line. You can see more photos and read about these amazing spiders RIGHT HERE. Unfortunately, I could not capture this one for the group to see/photograph the following day. To do so would have messed up her operation, and besides to really see the magic of a bolas spider, one must see them on their terms after nightfall, when they are hunting.

Everyone could and did see and image this spider, one of many of its kind that we saw. It's a banded garden spider, Argiope trifasciata,  and this was a particularly compelling composition for us. The huge female lays in wait in her web, while two males attend her, at a safe distance. The disparity in size between the sexes is stunning. The males' comparative puniness makes mating a risky business. If he makes a misstep, she's liable to seize, kill, and eat him. I don't know what happened to the male at right center. He's missing four legs, but is still hanging in there.

Everyone was pleased to see and photograph this golden tortoise beetle, Charidotella sexpunctata. A specialist of plants in the morning-glory family, the "gold bug" is an amazing creature. When stimulated, it can change color by forcing liquid through tiny grooves in its opaque shell. Beetles will shift to reddish or orange hues, often while mating. As a point of trivia, the longest recorded copulation in this species was 583 minutes.

A showy little short-winged meadow katydid, Conocephalus brevipennis, patrols the flora like a six-legged wandering minstrel. This is a male, and he sings with his wings, rubbing them together to create a song that attracts females. Meadow katydids are near their peak right now, and their sputtering trills are a big part of the insect soundscape.

I have long wanted this shot, and got it during the workshop. A spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer, basks in a pool created by the fused leaves of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum. The basket-like basal portions of the plant's lower leaves hold water, and I figured someday I'll find a frog in one of these. Well, that didn't happen at the workshop, so we placed this peeper - which Becky Donaldson found nearby - into the cup plant. The frog seemed happy in his moist environment on this hot day, and so were my fellow photographers. It was a great way to conclude the workshop.

My thanks to Greg Payton of Dawes Arboretum for conceiving this workshop, and inviting me to participate. Also to Becky Donaldson, the naturalist at Mentor Marsh (see this RECENT ARTICLE) who was hugely helpful in finding subjects and sharing her vast knowledge of critters great and small.

Photo-wonky stuff: Teleconverters

As always, click the photo to view at full size

A white-eyed vireo whisper-sings as he works through a dense snarl of vegetation. I made this image yesterday morning in Hocking County, Ohio, before the sun had fully illuminated the vireo's shady haunts. Experienced photo critics will notice the flaws in this image, perhaps most notably the graininess. Even at a low shutter speed of 1/400 - given the lens I was using and the bird's movement - I was still at an ISO of 3200 - far higher than I'd want. Good noise reduction programs can't completely vanquish digital noise. Even with excellent full frame cameras, I really don't like the ISO rising above 800, and 500 or lower is far better yet.

Low light and high ISO settings are not the point of this post, though. The lens and its accouterments is. I shot this with Canon's remarkable 400mm f/2.8 II, which is great for low light shooting and insanely fast at attaining focus and holding it. But 400mm is at the low end of reach insofar as birds go. Birds are often tough to approach closely, and oftentimes size matters. The bigger the lens, the better.

I have both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters (Canon version III). Teleconverters are stubby little magnifiers that can be quickly mounted between the lens and camera, and increase magnification by the power indicated on the converter. In this case, my 400mm lens becomes a 560mm lens with the 1.4x teleconverter, and obviously an 800mm lens with the "doubler" mounted. Voila! Like magic, we're in truly big lens territory, and much more able to hunt those bashful birds.

But few things come without cost. For sure, the teleconverters are WAY less expensive than are huge lenses, but they exact a different price. One, you're shooting through more glass - the teleconverters have internal lenses - and the more glass one shoots through, the more the image quality suffers. This deterioration, however, is almost negligible with Canon's 1.4x. It's more noticeable with the 2x, but still the image quality can be quite reasonable even with this super-magnifier. Probably a bigger burden brought on by teleconverters is the loss of aperture. With the 1.4x, you lose one stop, and the 2x causes a loss of two stops. So, with the 1.4x mounted on my 400mm f/2.8, I'm at f/4. With the doubler, f/5.6. If conditions are sunny and light is abundant, this may not be much of a problem - you can still use a sufficiently fast shutter speed, yet maintain a low ISO. In the case of this vireo, that wasn't possible.

For this photograph, I used the 2x doubler, giving me a much-appreciated 800mm.That got me in good working distance to my bashful subject. But at 1/400 shutter speed - what I felt was about the lowest I could go - it gave me that dreaded 3200 ISO. If the doubler did not cause a loss of two stops and I was able to shoot at f/2.8, my ISO would have been 800. But as I said, there's no free lunches.

In great light, especially, teleconverters are a fantastic tool for extending reach. I use the 1.4x all the time, and see nearly no downsides to it. Autofocus is nearly unaffected, the loss of a stop is almost never an issue - ideally, I like to stop down to f/8 or so if light permits - and image quality remains superb. It's nearly magic without strings.

The 2x is a different story, and I usually don't recommend them, as I and many others have found that attaining sharp focus can be difficult with one. Micro-adjustments are usually necessary, and even with such tweaking it can still be hard to make crisp images. Autofocus is lost on some lenses, and if it's still enabled, it's slowed significantly. I've only had one lens where I could just slap on the 2x and take consistently sharp images and that's the Canon 300mm f/4 (600mm with the doubler). Until I got this miracle-working 400mm. With no micro-adjusting, it took perfectly to the 2x teleconverter. Not only that, but autofocus remains incredibly fast, and images look sharp and clear, especially under good lighting.

If you want more reach for birds, it might be worth renting a teleconverter or two. If they mate well to your lens and you're happy with the results, a teleconverter(s) is well worth the investment. The recent Canon version III lenses - like the 400mm and 600mm - are the best yet at mating effectively to teleconverters. They'll only get better, too.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nature: Restoration of Mentor Marsh is magnificent

Naturalist Becky Donaldson has helped restoration efforts in Mentor Marsh, allowing native flora and fauna to make an impressive comeback/Jim McCormac

September 15, 2019

Jim McCormac

On Aug. 13, I journeyed to the largest undiked wetland on the U.S. shores of Lake Erie: Mentor Marsh, just east of Cleveland. My guides were Becky Donaldson and Ben Piazza, Cleveland Museum of Natural History employees and on-the-ground marsh managers.

We hopped in an Argo “marsh buggy” and set off on a comprehensive tour of the 800-acre wetland. I have long been familiar with the marsh, but the changes that have been wrought in recent years are stunning.

Disaster struck in the 1960s, when tailings from local salt-mining operations leached into a nearby feeder creek. Salt might be good on fries, but it’s disastrous for freshwater marshes. The worst consequence of the salinity spike was invasion by an aggressive nonnative grass, Phragmites australis, or common reed.

The Eurasian grass is salt-tolerant, and it eventually cloaked nearly the entire wetland. Indigenous flora was choked out by the nearly impenetrable stand of 10-foot-tall bamboo-like plants, and biodiversity plummeted.

A Mentor Marsh strangled by Phragmites was all that I, and most of my contemporaries, knew. However, in a stunning reversal of fortunes, the Cleveland museum has orchestrated one of the most ambitious wetland restorations on the Great Lakes.

Beginning in 2004, common reed control was implemented. It was baby steps at first, but in recent years the efforts have grown tremendously in intensity. The varied management tactics include physical mashing and cutting, aerial spraying, and on-the-ground herbicide treatments.

I could hardly believe my eyes as Donaldson and Piazza shepherded me through the marsh. There was scarcely any common reed to be seen. Freed from the shackles of this infestation, native flora has resurfaced from the seedbank.

Dozens of native-plant species, some not seen in decades, dotted the marsh: pink mists of swamp milkweed, attracting migrant monarch butterflies; swamp rose mallow, with its gargantuan showy pink flowers formed thickets; brilliant magenta flowering spikes of swamp loosestrife — a native — bringing numerous butterflies.

Nearly 200 species of native plants have been documented, and most are far more prevalent now that the common reed has been removed. New finds are made every year, and Donaldson recently made a stellar discovery, the state-endangered northern wild rice.

The astronomical spike in floristic diversity has spawned a proliferation of animal life. We saw birds galore, including bald eagle, Caspian tern, common gallinule, osprey, Virginia rail, wood duck and many others. Fish such as pike and yellow perch have returned, and beaver and river otters are occasionally spotted.

A healthy marsh is a boon for the Cleveland region, attracting scores of natural-history enthusiasts from far and wide. Lake Erie water quality is better, and visual appeal for local residents is enhanced. The threat of blazes that erupted periodically in stands of incendiary common reed has been eliminated.

Many partners have played a role in Mentor Marsh’s recovery, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dan Donaldson of the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District was especially helpful in implementing restoration practices.

But the catalyst for this success story is the Cleveland Museum’s Natural Areas Program and its visionary leader, Jim Bissell. He and his staff — Donaldson, Piazza, David Kriska and others — have done the heavy lifting.

Mentor Marsh was Ohio’s first state nature preserve, dedicated in 1971. Kudos to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for working to return it to its original splendor.

For more information, visit

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Dragonfly swarms, of epic scope and scale!

 An admittedly poor shot, but it shows seven or so of the thousands (probably) of common green darners, Anax junius, in a massive feeding swarm just before sunset tonight. Via Facebook and other sources, I saw reports coming in from all over Ohio of big dragonfly swarms, so I ran over to a nearby farm in Columbus, Franklin County, that has lots of meadows and open space. Sure enough, as soon as I entered through the gates, dragonflies appeared.

There's just no way to make any sort of semi-exact estimate of rapidly flying and darting insects on this epic a scale, but as dragonflies were everywhere I went on this property, and I saw hundreds and maybe a thousand+ in my very limited coverage, there were certainly thousands of dragonflies across the whole property, I'd say.

Every dragonfly I could clap eyes on well enough to identify was a common green darner (this shot of a male in flight from several years ago). From other reports of today, this seems to be the primary species involved in the massive migration. Other species, such as gliders and saddlebags, can intermix with these swarms, though.

I've written about these swarms before, such as HERE, HERE, and HERE. Many people made comments on those posts, reporting additional swarms. If you saw such a swarm today or recently, or in the days to come, please leave a comment. Be sure to note at a bare minimum, the county, state if not Ohio, and a rough guess at how many dragonflies were present. If you know dragonfly identification and can say what species were involved, all the better.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Photo Tour: Michigan's Upper Peninsula! October 6-10

The mighty Mackinac Bridge, the gateway to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The UP is a paradise for photographers at any season, but at the peak of fall color it truly is a magical place.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a photo tour here from October 6 thru 10, and the details are RIGHT HERE. We have a few spaces available, and if you like shooting awesome landscapes, waterfalls, and amazing fall foliage, you'll love it. The UP is sparsely populated, and not heavily visited by tourists in fall - other than perhaps the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Even there, traffic is light, especially in the lesser known sites that we'll visit.

Following are some images from last year's trip, at the same time of year. They offer a small taste of fall in the Upper Peninsula.

A spectacular tree tunnel in the Hiawatha National Forest. Colorful landscapes abound in this region.

A flaming maple punctuates a red pine forest.

 Maple leaves accent an old white birch log nestled in haircap moss.

 An autumnal white birch forest near the shore of Lake Superior is a riot of color.

 The coffee-colored waters of Tahquamenon Falls. We'll visit many waterfalls of various size and structure, but all showy and trimmed with beautiful autumnal foliage.

An onrush of Lake Superior water washes over colorful polished rocks on the shore of Au Train Bay. Many beaches in this area are carpeted with such stones.

Sunrise over Lake Superior, as seen at dawn from atop Sugarloaf Mountain near Marquette, features an interesting "sun pillar". Finding scenic vistas for sunrise and sunset images is quite easy in the UP.

We'd love to have you join us. Again, GO HERE for details.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Nature: Western kingbird is a sight to see in Ohio

A rare western kingbird hunts from a fence/Jim McCormac

September 1, 2019

Jim McCormac

On the Northwest Side of Columbus lies a large stretch of green in an otherwise heavily urbanized setting. The Ohio State University Airport (Don Scott Field) and the adjoining OSU livestock facility cover about 1,300 acres. This land forms a big green oasis, especially for birds that like open country.

Birders like to check the farm’s perimeters, where there is some access at the western end of the complex. Expert birder Irina Shulgina was exploring here on Aug. 11 when she spotted an out-of-the ordinary flycatcher hunting insects from phone wires. She had found a rare western kingbird!

This wasn’t Shulgina’s first experience with western kingbirds. She has found two others at this locale, one last May and another in May 2018. Add a kingbird in Union County in 2014 to her tally, and she is the undisputed western kingbird champion of Ohio.

Western kingbirds normally inhabit the western half of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada. In winter, they retreat to Mexico and Central America, with a small wintering population in southern Florida. These robin-sized flycatchers are rare visitors to eastern North America, with most sightings along the Atlantic coast.

Ohio’s common counterpart is the eastern kingbird, which breeds in all 88 counties.

Ohio’s first western kingbird record dates to Sept. 13, 1930, when one was seen near Toledo. That pioneer was the vanguard of many more to come. These kingbirds remained scarce until the 1980s, with only a few reports a decade. After that, sightings blossomed and western kingbirds were recorded regularly, with multiple birds some years.

By the early 1990s, records had plummeted. The kingbird yo-yo ascended again in the 2010s. Since 2011 there have been 10 sightings — the most of any decade since the original discovery.

I journeyed to the OSU farm on Aug. 12 to see Shulgina’s most recent discovery. It didn’t take long to spot the bird hunting from a chain-link fence. As the name suggests, kingbirds are not shrinking violets and typically hunt insects from conspicuous perches.

The pugnacious flycatcher lived up to its name by aerially bombarding a nearby American kestrel, causing the little falcon to flinch and duck. Kingbirds are notorious for badgering raptors that dare fly through their turf. Even bald eagles are not exempt from harassment.

In turn, some birds think little of kingbirds and express their displeasure. Several barn swallows seemed to enjoy strafing the kingbird as it hunted.

Many other birders have stopped by to view the rare flycatcher, which was present until at least Aug. 21. For many, it is a “state bird” — their first sighting of this species in Ohio. Many birders love to collect new bird sightings like a philatelist collects stamps, and I confess to lacking immunity to listing fever. I first saw a western kingbird in Ohio in Butler County in 2002, but the protagonist of this column is only my second Buckeye State bird.

Given the recent sightings of western kingbirds at the OSU livestock farm, it will be interesting to see whether they attempt nesting here in years to come.

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

Macrophotography at Dawes Arboretum

Looking stunning against the pure blue sky of a fall Ohio day is this purple swamp aster, Symphyotrichum puniceum . There are over 35 nati...