Sunday, December 29, 2019

Limpkin's rare journey from Florida to Ohio causes stir among bird watchers

A limpkin with freshly caught snail at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Jim McCormac

Limpkin's rare journey from Florida to Ohio causes stir among bird watchers

December 29, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

An amazing report crackled through the birding grapevine on July 6.

A limpkin was found at a small suburban pond in Orville in Wayne County. Birders fortunate enough to reach the site in time found it. Come dusk, the wayward oddity, which looks like a cross between a heron and a rail, flew into a nearby tree to roost for the night.

Many birders were on-site at the crack of dawn the following morning, myself among them. Alas, the limpkin had flown the coop. We searched likely habitats nearby, but no one could find the bird.

Why the excitement? In the U.S., the limpkin is known as a Florida specialty, rarely seen away from the Sunshine State. That is the northern limit of its breeding range. Limpkins occur south through the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, and into South America.

Limpkins are largely nonmigratory, and records north of Florida are few. Most vagrants turn up in southeastern states near Florida: Georgia, the Carolinas, with a handful of Maryland and Virginia records. Astonishing is a trio of old reports from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

The same day the Orville limpkin was discovered, an after-the fact report came in via new birder Nannette Patrick. She found and photographed a limpkin near Mentor, east of Cleveland, on July 3. Then, in mid-October, longtime birder John Pogacnik found yet another limpkin in the same region.

In between the Mentor records, a limpkin appeared at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area east of Toledo. That bird stayed through fall and was widely seen. By October, the Magee limpkin was getting harder to find, until it appeared at the adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on Nov. 16.

I visited the Ottawa limpkin on Nov. 18. It was a snap to find. Seemingly unafraid, it went about its business of capturing snails in a small patch of swamp woods. In between hunting escargot, it would rest and preen in close proximity to a small knot of fawning birders.

If all of these records pertain to different individuals, it would constitute a mini-invasion of four birds, in a state where none had ever been recorded. Furthermore, they represent the farthest north the species has been seen in the U.S. Another limpkin turned up in southeastern Illinois — the only other Midwestern record.

Limpkins feed almost exclusively on snails, and to a lesser extent small mussels, and in Florida and points south they favor large apple snails. The Ottawa bird also fed on aquatic snails, but a smaller species, perhaps in the genus Stagnicola. It was adept at finding them, and in a half-hour period, I watched it capture and eat more than a dozen.

What would prompt such an unprecedented northward movement of a largely sedentary southern bird? Perhaps the best explanation is linked to a tremendous limpkin population expansion in Florida in recent years.

The limpkin population was perhaps constrained by its preferred food, the native Florida apple snail. In the past decade, populations of at least four species of nonnative apple snails have flourished. Opportunistic limpkins took a shine to this new food source, and their numbers have skyrocketed.

A limpkin boom means more birds to wander. These “scouts” that turn up in far-flung regions might perish, as they presumably do not have migratory roadmaps hardwired into their DNA. But over time, it is likely that new populations will become established north of the current home range.

The only certainty with bird populations is change.

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.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Kestrel flyby, and a showy prairie sunset

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A male American kestrel wings by, having been flushed from a roadside wire by a passing vehicle. I was ready for him. Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County, Ohio.

This is Bird Behavior 101, but what the heck, I'll throw it out anyway. When I made this shot, I was far out in a field of tall prairie grasses interspersed with openings of sparser growth. Armed with my easily handholdable Canon 5D IV mated to Canon's brilliant 100-400 II lens, I was stalking sparrows. I had noticed the distant kestrel on the wire, but it was far out of range so I was just keeping a casual check on it from time to time.

The road that it was perched along is very sparsely traveled, and I remained on alert for the next vehicle. Eventually I saw a pickup truck coming along way down the road, and turned my full attention to the kestrel. These little falcons tend to be wary, and passing vehicles nearly always flush them from roadside wires, at least on small slow speed roads such as this one.

I tucked myself into a convenient clump of head-high switch grass that did a good job of masking me. My bet was that the flushed kestrel would wing right by my position. The opposite side of the road was barren plowed field, and I knew the bird was more likely to head to a new spot on the wire by traveling over prime hunting ground than over a lifeless agricultural field. I also didn't think he would head north and away from me, as a short distance in that direction is railroad tracks and a broad state highway, forming a barrier of sorts at least in regards to good hunting habitat. It would be easier for the little raptor to shift a short distance to a new spot in his current prairie patch.

So I was poised and ready, the truck sure enough flushed the kestrel, and as I hoped it flew out over my field and fairly near my position. I got a series of shots, the falcon returned to the wire to continue hunting rodents, and I returned to trying to drum up some Savannah sparrows.

Later I ran into Ken Busch, who is one of Ohio's standout natural history photographers, especially anything involving birds. Check his website out RIGHT HERE. We set up our big camera rigs along the edge of what often is a prime short-eared owl hunting meadow, crossed our fingers and hoped some owls would commence hunting before it got too dark to work with them. Alas, it was not to be on this night, but we had a good time talking photography.

After Ken left, I walked around the prairie a bit, taking in the sounds of various waterfowl calling as they headed to roosts, the day's finale of various songbird calls, and the raspy trills of western chorus frogs, roused from their slumber by unseasonable 50+ F temperatures.

A glance westward made me rush towards the Jeep, as I saw an explosion of color quickly taking shape on the western horizon. I shot down the road towards a better vantage point, flipped lenses around and got everything mounted on the tripod. For a brief while, the sky danced with hues of red, orange, blue, purple and yellow. In my opinion, one can never savor too many sunsets (or sunrises). And sunsets and sunrises nearly always look better over a prairie.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: One might think it would be best to use the widest angle lens available to shoot sunrise/sets. Generally that's not the case. With really wide perspectives, such as 16mm (my widest lens is a 16-35mm), the colorful hotspots tend to get lost in the overall vast landscape. I prefer to zoom in tighter on the core color to really emphasis it. My go-to lens is a 70-200mm, and it's superb for these sort of shots. I usually use it at or near the 70mm end. However, I recently obtained Canon's versatile 24-105mm f/4 II lens and it is quickly becoming a workhorse. This shot was made with that lens, at 55mm. I started shooting this sunset with my 70-200, but the expanse of the color along the horizon was such that I wanted a bit wider perspective. The new lens fit the bill perfectly.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Beautifully eerie fogscapes

The white roof of a barn melds into pea soup fog so thick you could, as they say, cut it with a knife. The structure sits only 50 feet or so off the rural lane from which I made the photo. Wyandot County, Ohio.

I arose on Christmas Eve day with a yen to shoot short-eared owls. Dense fog blanketed the earth's upper crust, where we humans mostly reside, and that's an atmospheric condition not suitable for photographing owls on the wing, nor most other birds. However, fog in these parts nearly always burns off by mid-morning or so, and with that expectation I left for points north in late morning.

As I headed north along the Scioto River towards Big Island and vicinity, the fog thickened. As the day wore on, its density only increased and at times it made for somewhat risky driving, especially at rural intersections as visibility was greatly reduced.

In short, the fog never did dissipate, skewering owl and other bird photography. On the plus side, I know how and where to find owls and other birds. So those opportunities will arise again. But coastal New England-type fog such as this is a relative rarity here. Thus, it was a grand opportunity to explore the fogscape for interesting targets. As an added bonus, the dense cloaking mist and pre-Xmas prep kept most people inside and I had this little part of the planet nearly to myself.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

This wooded rural lane stopped me in my tracks. Dense fog created an aura of eerie mystery to this landscape; irresistible for photography.

Cemeteries lend themselves to fog, and I kept my eyes open for opportunities. This is Thompson Township Cemetery along the banks of the Scioto River in northern Delaware County.

A ghostly shroud cloaks the Sandusky River at Swartz Covered Bridge in Wyandot County.

This is Daughmer Savanna in Crawford County, perhaps Ohio's best remaining example of an imperiled habitat, the prairie savanna. These massive bur oaks are fire-resistant and impervious to the frequent blazes that swept the prairie. Daughmer is within the former 200,000 acre Sandusky Plains, a vast prairie that once covered parts of Crawford, Hardin, Marion, and Wyandot counties. Only a fraction of a percent of this former prairie survives. Daughmer is managed by the Crawford Park District and open to the public. The savanna looks good at any time, but the fog created a spectacular moodiness to the site that I'll probably not see again anytime soon.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: With the exception of the barn photo, I chose to render these images in black and white. Tinges of color take away from the eerie moodiness of fog and the largely black and white world that it creates, in my opinion. I did not shoot these scenes using in-camera black and white settings, though. I never do, as it takes away future options. The images were converted to black and white using the NIK Collection's Silver Effex Pro 2 editing software. It works wonderfully for black and white conversion, and with the original files in color, I can later work with color files should I ever see the need. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas "Bird" Count at The Wilds

A grand view of a big swath of The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, as seen last Saturday just before sunrise. That was the day of the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, and I was there to participate. Scott Albaugh became compiler of the count about ten years ago, and established a consistent team of surveyors who cover the very rural reaches of the count's 15-mile diameter circle. I've been helping since Scott took charge, and am fortunate to survey The Wilds' fenced inner sanctum with their staff, which as we shall see is very interesting.

Scott handed the count's compiler reins to Steve Spear this year, ensuring a smooth continuation of the Chandersville CBC. Steve is The Wilds' director of Wildlife Ecology. I've been censusing with Steve and some of his staff since he came to work there about three years ago.

The Wilds is a conservation and research facility on a grand scale, not a zoo, make no mistake. Nearly all of the some 30 mammal species that they work with have become imperiled in their native ranges, some critically so. The primary mission is to keep this species going, with an ideal end game of restoring them to indigenous home lands. That said, visitation is encouraged, and a great way to see and learn about the animals in this post is through a Winter at The Wilds Tour.

A dozen white-tailed deer scatter along a distant grassy slope. White-tails are locally abundant, and they were one of four species of native mammal that we tallied during the "bird" count. The others were eastern cottontail, and fox and gray squirrel. There are a number of other native mammals - beaver, bobcat, muskrat, many species of small rodents - we just didn't encounter them on this day.

It's always interesting birding at The Wilds. Where else might someone exclaim "Rough-legged hawk!" Just above and right of the camel!" Indeed, a gorgeous light morph rough-legged hawk was in close proximity to this Bactrian camel.

A personal favorite is the Sichuan takin (tok-in). It's indigenous to the same regions of China that support giant panda, and frequents the same bamboo communities. Takins are goat-like and adept climbers, and favor steep rocky slopes. This is a large adult, and they can weigh up to 800 lbs.

Here's a baby takin, and it's a fraction of the size of the adult in the previous image. This little fellow was born last spring. The adults are quite protective of their offspring, and they make good guards.

This is a sika deer, a small ungulate that often retains faint spotting through adulthood, although this older male has lost them. The Wilds' works with the Indochina subspecies, Cervus nippon pseudaxis, which is probably extinct in its native Vietnam.

A Persian onager grazes along with a small herd of other onagers, who are just outside the photograph. Native to Iran, this wild ass is critically endangered in the wild, with perhaps 600 animals left. The Wilds is one of very few conservation facilities that works with the Persian onager.

A bull Pere David's deer luxuriates on a crisp mid-20's (F) morning. Most of the mammals at The Wilds are extremely hardy, hailing from cold climates such as Mongolia, or other cool regions of Asia. Pere David's deer went extinct in their native China by 1900. They have since been reintroduced to their original range.

Every time I clap eyes on one of these big Bactrian deer stags, I think instantly of the Hartford Group's iconic symbol. Bactrian deer are mammoth, and a subspecies of the North American elk. A big male can push 450 lbs. Native to central Asia, this species was reduced to about 400 wild animals by 2000. Conservation efforts have bolstered populations, and now there are 1,500 or so deer in the wild.

A pair of sable antelope peer curiously at the photographer. The animal on the left has lost a horn; not sure what happened there. Sable antelope vary in coloration, but males become black with age, like the animal on the right. Because males are larger than females, I suspect that the other antelope is also a male, perhaps a younger specimen, but I'm not sure. This ornately marked animal occurs in savannas of eastern and southern Africa.

Couldn't do much with this one photographically, due to light and angle, but it still looks cool. This is a dhole, or Asian wild dog. Dholes are indigenous in much of Eurasia, but have disappeared or become rare over much of its range.  Highly intelligent dholes are very social and clans form distinct hierarchies. Play-fighting is common, and when we were there the dholes had gotten ahold of a squeak toy and were romping about in an energetic skirmish over the toy.

In addition to dholes and the animal that follows, The Wilds' carnivore area houses cheetahs. The epitome of mammalian athleticism, the cheetahs seem to regard human observers with a degree of disdain, when the bother to note our presence. A number of cheetah cubs have been born here, and currently there is a litter of young cubs.

A pair of African painted dogs races across a meadow at breakneck speed (they can exceed 40 mph at full tilt), intensely play-fighting. These extremely intelligent and highly social canids are amazing to watch, but you wouldn't want to be in with them. Packs are well-organized and team members hunt in close cooperation with one another. The targeted prey has little hope of survival.

We saw much more but that's enough for now. Check The Wilds website for more information, and if you're looking for a fascinating and out-of-the-box trip, plan a visit.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Photography Workshops and Tours: 2020 Slate!

Two years ago, Debbie DiCarlo and I began collaborating on field-based photography workshops. We finished our second season last October, with a sensational trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the height of fall color. That region is fantastic for photographers, we've found lots of gorgeous nooks and crannies that are off the beaten path (well, most places are off the beaten path up there!), and we'll be repeating it next October. The 2020 trip already has six registrants so if you want one of the last four spots please think on it soon.

We've got the full slate (mostly, a few additions will probably be coming) of 2020 excursions online and open for registration. The 2020 season kicks off with a rare opportunity to visit the Cleveland Botanical Garden during off-hours to photograph their spectacular orchid display. A great diversion from the Ohio winter and an excellent tune-up for warmer weather and wildflowers to come. After that, it's off the wilds of North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. We always scout sites, and have been to most of them multiple times, so we've got wonderful photographic honey holes cased out.

In addition to learning lots about cameras, how to use them, composition, macro, flash and all manner of other important stuff, you'll learn tons about natural history. All the sites we visit are rich in biological diversity. We don't just take pretty pictures of pretty things, we learn their names and how they fit into the bigger picture. Lots of fascinating and aesthetically pleasing but little known animals and plants fall before our lenses. It's nice to shoot things that most people haven't photographed, and we certainly do that in addition to sunsets, sunrises, striking landscapes, waterfalls, etc.

Beginners to intermediate photogs are most welcome, as are people of any other skill level. To view the 2020 slate, CLICK HERE or just scroll down the right side of this blog - they're all listed there.

Hope to see you on one of these in 2020!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Plenty is in a name when describing species

Jewel mudbug, Lacunicambarus dalyae, at OSU Museum of Biological Diversity/Jim McCormac

December 15, 2019

NATURE
Jim McCormac

More than 1.7 million living species have thus far been described and named, and scientists estimate that Earth might contain as many as 10 million. That doesn’t count fossilized extinct species, which also are named.

The meat of an organism’s nomenclature is the scientific name, which doesn’t vary. While man’s best friend might go by German shepherd, dachshund, or Welsh corgi, Canis familiaris is the universal identifier of dogs of all breeds.

Discoverers of new species typically name them for some aspect of their appearance, behavior, habitat or distribution. However, scores of species are branded with commemorative honorifics. This can be a flattering tribute, as in Cooper’s hawk. I’m sure scientist William Cooper was pleased to have this dashing raptor named for him.

Dr. Bernard Master, a Worthington physician, conservationist and birder, provided critical financial support for a bird-rich region of western Colombia. His funding resulted in the protection of a bird recently described to science, the Choco vireo, which was formally dubbed Vireo masteri. Any birder would relish the chance to see this rare songbird.

Fossilized worms might not generate as much esteem. Eccentric paleontologist Rousseau Flower named one such group Khrushchevia, to express his distaste for Nikita Khrushchev and communism.

Back on Aug. 18, I wrote about the little brown mudbug crayfish Lacunicambarus thomai, whose name is a richly deserved recognition of Ohio researcher Roger Thoma. Being honored in the name of a charismatic pincered crustacean could only be considered cool.

On Oct. 9, Volume 4683, Issue 3 of the scientific journal Zootaxa was released. It included a paper titled “Lacunicambarus dalyae: a new species of burrowing crayfish from the southeastern United States.” The lead author was Ohio State University Ph.D. candidate Mael Glon.

After much fieldwork and study, Glon had shown that a common widespread species, the paintedhand mudbug, actually represented two species. The previously undescribed crayfish and the subject of his paper occurs in five southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Although Glon gave the newly minted crayfish the common name of jewel mudbug, the specific epithet of its scientific name — Lacunicambarus dalyae — honors Marymegan Daly, director of Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity.

Glon bestowed this recognition because of Daly’s support for his studies, and her backing of research into little-known, poorly understood organisms. An accomplished scientist, Daly’s specialty is sea anemones. She is no stranger to ferreting out new species, either, having described about 15 species of sea anemones.

Crayfish researchers such as Glon have plenty of work ahead. So far, about 700 species of crayfish have been described worldwide. But experts think several hundred other undescribed species lurk in waterways and wetlands.

There is an urgency to crayfish research. These crustaceans are among the most imperiled groups of aquatic organisms. Habitat destruction and water-quality degradation have laid waste to many species. It would be tragic to lose crayfish species before we even know they exist.

As famously stated by conservationist Aldo Leopold in his landmark book, “A Sand County Almanac,” “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.

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.

Orchid Photography Workshop!

A gorgeous Miltonia hybrid orchid Spectacular Orchids! Photo Workshop, Cleveland Botanical Gardens: February 9 The family Orchidace...