Thursday, May 28, 2020

Waterscorpion!

As always, click the image to enlarge

At the onset of last Monday's aquatic expedition (perhaps more on that later) to Rocky Fork in Scioto County, Ohio, I mentioned to Laura Hughes that I'd really like to see a waterscorpion, which would be a new one for me. She began searching, and darned if she didn't produce one by noodling around at the base of twisted sedge (Carex torta) tussocks at the stream's edge! This is an amazing predatory bug that resembles a walking stick. It sits in hiding under the water and pounces on lesser insects, jabbing them with a stiletto-like proboscis. The waterscorpion sticks that long tube arising from its posterior to the water's surface, and takes in air through it. Sort of like a guy hiding under the water, breathing through a hollow reed. I believe this waterscorpion is Ranatra fusca.

Bugs never cease to amaze me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The beautiful fire-pink, and an ultra-long exposure

As always, click the image to enlarge

A fire-pink, Silene virginica, in portraiture. Taken in situ on a steep roadbank in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio. It was so deep into twilight that the eastern whip-poor-wills were singing.

Yesterday was an epic day with a crew of really great people. Most of it was spent doing aquatic work in a high quality stream near the Adams/Scioto county line. We found scads of interesting stuff and I'm sure I'll share some of that later.

After we packed up the gear late in the afternoon, John Howard and I had not yet had enough. We decided to head to the depths of Shawnee State Forest to seek out a rare and beautiful mint, Meehania cordata. John had recently found a population in a wonderful little hollow, and we made images of the plant along with a number of other things.

As there was still some light when we finished with the Meehania, we opted to seek out the very rare early stoneroot, Collinsonia verticillata, along a sparsely traveled forest road. We knew we'd find it there, and we surely did. Photos were made, and as we did so it became so dim that the whip-poor-wills began to call.

Sprinkled through the area were many fire-pinks, Silene virginica. As a last hurrah, I decide to do some portraiture work with one of the plants. By now, it was so dark that my auto focus could barely detect and lock onto the subject. I know, I can always use manual focus but I generally figure that if it's too dark for auto focus to work, it's probably time to pack it in.

Anyway, I set up my black velvet swath behind the subject - fire-pink typically grows among other plants and I wanted to completely isolate the subject - then proceeded to shoot. This image was made with the tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. I shot in live view to stop internal mirror movement, and used the two-second shutter delay to eliminate any operator-induced shake after pressing the shutter button. The ISO was 200, and the aperture was at f/7.1.

Shutter speed? An absurdly low 10 (ten) seconds! One of the reasons that John and I stayed out so late and kept at this was the virtual absence of any wind. Rare are the conditions that you can shoot a flower with a ten second shutter speed and not end up with a major blur-fest.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

White-tailed Deer fawn, Part II

Yesterday I posted about a newly born white-tailed deer fawn that I found in the backyard. Apparently my yard served as a deer nursery. When I found it, the fawn was absolutely tiny and remained motionless and curled up in deep grass, as newborn deer do.

That phase doesn't last long.

I was out photographing a very rare plant early this morning, and returned about 10 am. The doe had moved the fawn about 20 feet, to a more sheltered nook. She kept in close proximity to the fawn, and would occasionally sneak about to peek at the neighbors' activities from behind shrubs. Other times, she would rest on the ground near the fawn.

Later, I got into a few hour work jag at the computer, and finally got up to have a look out back. To my surprise, the doe had brought the fawn right up by the house, to an even more shaded and densely vegetated area that's even safer.

The little one is now walking, albeit somewhat clumsily. It's small enough to walk underneath mom, and also regularly nurses from her. As anyone who knows deer knows, the animals are hyper-vigilant. If I make any sort of movement near a window, she's on me right away. But my presence doesn't seem to bother her much, and doesn't cause her to back off.

The fawn can hardly contain itself, and makes little frisks around the immediate area of the doe. The youngster looks back over its shoulder here, to make sure where the mother is. The fawn need not worry. Momma doe keeps very close tabs on it.

The doe hasn't yet got much stamina, and after a bit of adventuring will plop down for a rest. For longer naps, it retreats into deeper vegetation such as where I originally found it.

I don't know how long this all will go on, but I'll have fun observing while it does.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

White-tailed Deer fawn

An unexpected treat! A white-tailed deer fawn, very recently born. It was in the back part of the back yard, which is very wild, especially compared to my neighbors. I was Facetiming my mom this afternoon, who is in a retirement village, and I always walk around the yard to show her various flora and fauna. This time, I went back to show her an active house wren nest box, glanced down and there was the fawn. Went back to get a telephoto lens, was able to stand on a distant bench and get a few shots of the little fella. It never flinched, and I suspect mom was hidden in the massive dense forsythia bush in the corner of the yard. I had noticed a doe back in that part of the yard for several hours this morning, but didn't think much of it as deer are regular visitors. 

I suspect she dropped the fawn last night or early this morning - or some time very recently. But it'll not be long until it's trying to scamper about on gangly legs. I've had great experiences with fawns over the years, including a couple times when tiny fawns ran right up to my leg. I suspect they thought I was an adult deer. Once they saw the error of their ways, they quickly scuttled back off into the vegetation. But this is the best photo op I've had with one, and its beautiful pelage contrasts wonderfully with the rich green grass.  This little deer could not be in a safer part of the neighborhood.

Black Vulture chick

A ramshackle shed, long past its heyday, disintegrates in a scrubby Adams County, Ohio woodland. A friend, Randy Lakes, put me onto this site. A pair of black vultures had made the derelict outbuilding their home, and I wanted to see them and get some images if possible.

I wasn't far into the vicinity of the collapsed shed when a black vulture emerged. She or he did not go far. It flew to a nearby tree and kept an eye on me. Thus, I hurried through my mission to allow her back into the shed in short order. It was in the shed with its offspring, as adults - both sexes assist - will sometimes brood the chicks for several weeks.

There was one gap between vegetation that allowed a portal into the shed and Voila! There was one black vulture chick, a few weeks old. It's the little grayish lump just left of center, amongst the debris. Black vultures nearly always lay two eggs, and there may have been another chick back amongst the dark recesses, but I only saw this one.

I had brought along a 400mm lens, and that was ample for making photos from well outside the shed. While mom/dad certainly noticed me, the little one paid no heed, and alternated between sitting like a bump on a log, or playing with sticks.

And here's the handsome youth, covered with down and sporting feet nearly as large as the adults. Judging by that bulge, it's well fed.

As adults, black vultures are extremely conspicuous, on the wing, at roosts, and when feasting on dead animals. They're not exactly shrinking violets. Finding an easily observable nest is quite another matter. The majority of black vulture nests are hidden in dense thickets, on the ground, and it'd be very hard to find a view like this with such a nest. I've seen a few nests over the years, and all those were tucked in rocky recesses. You knew the nest was in there, and in one case I could make out the eggs, but they were really impossible to examine. Other commonly used sites are hollows in fallen trees and stumps, and old barns and the like. In parts of South America - this species has a huge range - black vultures commonly nest on skyscrapers and other large buildings.

The black vulture is an extremely adaptable and successful species, and is rapidly spreading north. Up to the 1970/80's, it was a very local bird in Ohio, which is at the northern limits of its range. There were only a few locales one could expect to find them. Now, I wouldn't be surprised to see a black vulture anywhere in the state and the number of colonies around Ohio has increased tremendously. Data from the first Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (1982-87) and the second Atlas (2006-11) showed a 387% increase in the black vulture population from Atlas I to Atlas II.

I appreciate Randy providing this opportunity to actually see a black vulture chick, and let me learn a bit more about these interesting birds.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Nature: Red head is feather in bird's cap

A red-headed woodpecker looks back at its mate at Shawnee State Forest/Jim McCormac

Nature: Red head is feather in bird's cap

May 17, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

A bird that serves as the catalyst to pique someone’s interest in the feathered world is termed a “spark bird.” The red-headed woodpecker was the spark that launched Alexander Wilson’s career. Wilson was a contemporary of John James Audubon, and has been overshadowed by the much better known frontiersman.

Although Audubon’s bird paintings clearly outshine those of Wilson, the ambitious Scotsman was probably the better ornithologist. His legacy is commemorated by several honorifics such as Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s storm-petrel and Wilson’s warbler.

I suspect he would have traded them all for “Wilson’s woodpecker.”

Small wonder Wilson or anyone else would be captivated by the red-headed woodpecker. Adults are clad in a tuxedo of sorts — bold black and white plumage. But, oh, that head! It appears that the well-named bird wears a hood of fine velvety scarlet.

On May 1, I found myself social distancing in the depths of southern Ohio’s 65,000-acre Shawnee State Forest. As luck would have it, I encountered a very cooperative pair of red-headed woodpeckers in a regenerating clear-cut with scattered snag trees that were tall and dead.

That’s perfect red-head habitat, and the birds were in full courtship mode. There were frequent energetic chases between trees punctuated with loud calls, mutual head-bobbing displays and other evidence of amorous behavior.

Best of all was the “hide-and-seek” game. Each bird would perch opposite of the other on a tree trunk, then slowly hitch around until they spotted each other. Then, quick as a wink, they’d duck out of sight, only to immediately repeat the game.

Red-headed woodpeckers are quite diverse in diet. They’ll frequently grab large flying insects in aerial sorties from tall snags and glean insects from bark. Like other woodpeckers, they use their chisel-like bill to excavate grubs, ants and other goodies from wood.

Most interesting is their fondness for acorns and other mast. Come fall, the red-heads embark on an ambitious agenda of acorn caching. A productive individual might cache hundreds of acorns daily. The birds typically stuff these nuts into tree crevices, and heavily used cache trees are sometimes called “granaries.”

This woodpecker also has a fondness for various soft fruit, and this habitat made it a reviled bird in the early days. The aforementioned Audubon wrote: “I would not recommend to anyone to trust their fruit to the Red-heads; for they not only feed on all kinds as they ripen, but destroy an immense quantity besides. ... I may safely assert, that a hundred have been shot upon a single cherry tree in one day.”

Today, of Ohio’s six widespread breeding woodpecker species, the red-headed is easily the scarcest. There are an estimated 26,000 birds in the state. For comparison, the most common species, the downy woodpecker, has an estimated population of 375,000 birds. The red-heads’ overall uncommonness is tied to its need for open woods with plenty of mast-bearing trees and standing dead snags. Such woodlands are not common these days.

Some of our local metro parks support red-headed woodpeckers. Good parks to seek them include Battelle Darby, Glacier Ridge, Prairie Oaks and Sharon Woods.

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, May 15, 2020

Purple-rocket, a beautiful native mustard

As always, click the photo to enlarge

I spent yesterday morning on a privately owned piece of Adams County, Ohio real estate, and birds were the target. There was one very special treat that sent me there, and I managed to capture that species on "film". I'll share that here later. Many other interesting birds were seen and photographed as well. A great day.

Following that, I ducked into a few interesting habitats on the way home to look for plants. One that I was pleased to see is this post's subject: Purple-rocket, Iodanthus pinnatifidus. It's a delicate, moderately sized mustard of rich alluvial floodplains. This was the earliest I'd seen it in bloom, and the photo subject was very much in the act of unfurling. Here in central Ohio, it's more of a June plant.

By the time purple-rocket hits its stride, the companion vegetation on floodplains is lush and robust. Thus, the rocket is often well obscured and can easily be missed. Furthermore, it often occurs as isolated plants or small clusters - not conspicuous colonies. While I'm sure that interesting insects (well, ALL insects are probably interesting) make use of this rocket, and visit it for nectar/pollen, very little seems to be known about its faunal associations.

PHOTO NOTE: Over the years, I have shifted my tactics for plant photography considerably. Much of the sea change is the result of my association with Debbie DiCarlo, with whom I teach photo workshops (at least when viral pandemics are not raging). She's a master of plant photography, and plants are not nearly as easy to portray well as one might think. Whereas I used to use lots of flash on flora, now I rarely do. Flash can impart a harshness that I've come to see as undesirable, although in some situations it can be effective. But when circumstances allow, I've largely cut out artificial lighting and that was the case with this image.

One trick that I learned from Debbie is the black velvet backdrop. Just take a stiff piece of cardboard, roughly 8.5 x 11, and cover it with black velvet. In cluttered situations, you can often prop this backdrop behind your subject - or have someone hold it - and thus isolate the plant. Furthermore, most flora really pops when presented against such a backdrop. When one learns this trick, it's tempting to overplay it, so some restraint should probably be practiced lest all your images begin to look the same. But in the case of this purple-rocket, it was highly effective. It was shot with a tripod-mounted Canon 5DSR and 70-200mm lens at 123mm, coupled with a 25mm extension tube. Settings were f/14, 1/10 of a second, ISO 320, and as stated previously, no flash.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Buckeyes, and birds

Yesterday morning, at nearly the crack of dawn, I went to a local Columbus greenspot known as Duranceaux Park. It sits along the banks of the Scioto River, and that big stream is a thoroughfare for migrant birds. I'd been hearing all manner of reports from there, and the little park has been heavy with warblers and other songbirds. And birders. In this spring of reduced travel and social distancing, scads of local birders are visiting Duranceaux, and issuing interesting reports.

The light was stellar yesterday morning, and as I rolled into the park about the first thing that I noticed was the conspicuous flowering spikes of Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra (above). In the short distance to the parking lot I saw a number of flowering buckeyes, and also saw a photographic opportunity.

Once on foot, it didn't take long to see that things were moderately birdy. Most frequent were yellow-rumped warblers. This is the most common of the wood-warblers with a total population of nearly 100 million birds. I'm not jaded to the "butterbutts" though - I mean, look at that male above! A case could be made for this species as the most handsome warbler.

Lots of other migrants were around, including many blue-gray gnatcatchers. I took a photographic swipe at this one, as these high-strung fidgety little songbirds are not particularly easy to shoot well, and my archives are not especially rich in acceptable gnatcatcher photos. The bird finally rewarded my efforts by posing on this grapevine which made for nicely artistic prop.

But the flower spikes of the buckeyes kept 90% of my attention. As soon as I saw the buckeyes I thought about ruby-throated hummingbirds. Buckeye flowers are an important early spring nectar source for hummers, but I'd never managed to document this relationship with a camera.

I didn't have to wait long before I heard the squeaky chirps of a hummingbird, and moments later she raced in to the closest buckeye flower spike. She quickly tapped about half the flowers in this spike, then shot off to parts unknown. Nice.

The mistake, photographically, that I made was not putting my flash rig on the camera, knowing there was probably a pretty decent chance of a hummer-buckeye happening. Hummingbirds definitely pop much better with a puff of light, and it allows for much faster shutter speeds to mostly freeze wing movement. As it was, I shot this at 1/500 - fast enough for everything else I was shooting, but not this little speedster. I'm loathe to use super high shutter speeds if it causes the ISO to go sky high, and in this setting it was already at ISO 640 at f/8. Probably should have opened the lens up to f/5.6, jacked the shutter to 1/1000 or more and just rolled with it. But, whatever - the photo still proves that hummingbirds stick their bills in buckeyes.

Not long after the hummingbird encounter, I noticed a female northern parula showing interest in buckeye blooms. Here, she appears to critically evaluate the flowers.

A second later, she jumped into the flower raceme and began probing her thin bill deep into the flowers. Northern parulas are known to take flower nectar, especially on the (largely tropical) wintering grounds. It's been unseasonably cold around here of late, and on this morning the temperature was in the high 30's F when I arrived. The frosty temps and reduced insect availability might be driving increased nectariferous behavior from birds like this parula.

Finally, a short while later I noticed this Nashville warbler flit over to yet some other buckeye flowers. Same old story - into the flowers she went, working them over. This is a well-known nectar feeder, and was the second most common warbler on this day at this site. I'm sure I could have seen more Nashville nectar feeding had I paid closer attention.

I hope to have another crack at this phenomenon before the buckeyes go out of bloom. There are several goals: flash-assisted hummingbird shots, and capturing Cape May warbler, and Baltimore and orchard orioles in the act of plumbing these flowers.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Henslow's Sparrow

A stunning Henslow's sparrow grasps the withered stalk of last year's Queen Anne's lace, his singing perch. Note the intricate details of this seldom-seen sparrow (at least not often seen by non-birders). Big bill, flat head, huge feet, plumage ornately stippled with dashes and streaks, and a subtle palette of colors: ocher, buffy-yellow, purplish, and a faint olive wash to the head.

I made my annual visit to Tri-Valley Wildlife Area (well, some years 2-3 visits) in Muskingum County, Ohio and this species was high on my list. I knew I would see it, as the large dry meadows there support many. But, as always, I first HEARD the sparrow and therein lies the rub. If one is not clued to their song, the chances of seeing a Henslow's sparrow plummet.

The song is quite charismatic, in my view, but could easily be overlooked. Indeed, to someone unfamiliar with it, the short aria might well be thought to be a cricket or some other insect. It's an explosive little chirp that is said to last about 3/5th's of a second. I'd say that's about the right duration. My Canon 5D IV, somewhat turbocharged by its auxiliary battery pack, can crank off about 8 frames a second. If I hold the trigger down on burst mode for the duration of the Henslow's song, I'll get maybe three or four images of the bird is some phase of delivering the song.

The little fellow in full throated song. It's like an aural explosion and don't blink or you'll miss it. The male rapidly throws his head back, puffs his wings, raises his throat feathers, quivers his tail, and issues a faint t-slik! While it all passes quickly to our ears, the birds probably hear something quite different. If you slow a recording of a Henslow's sparrow song down by 50% or more, numerous trills and flourishes become evident. The complexity is clearly far greater than our hearing can capture, and it offers a window into the differences between bird hearing and our own.

As far as photography goes, with some advance knowledge of the species I find Henslow's sparrows to be quite easy subjects. The way that I got onto this one is typical, for me at least. I heard him fairly near the road while slowly cruising with the windows down. A bit of scanning with the binoculars and I picked him up. In this case, the sun - it was very early morning - was right behind the bird. So, tripod and big rig in hand, I circled out into the meadow and around until the bird was in the golden light, and moved in. If one is quiet and somewhat stealthy in their movements, these sparrows can be incredibly tame. Sure enough, I eventually got to within 20 feet or so of the singer, photographed and video'd him for about ten minutes, and when I got back to the Jeep it was still sitting there singing.

Here's a brief video of the same bird in the images above singing. You can draw your own conclusions about the vivacity of its song.

Data from the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II (field work from 2006-11) suggests there are about 11,500 singing males, and that figure probably has not changed significantly since. The majority of the birds now occur on old "reclaimed" strip mine lands in southeastern Ohio. Tri-Valley Wildlife Area is such a site, and in total there could be as much as 250,000 acres of reclamation grasslands in the southeastern hill country. While strip mining was - and is - one of the greatest ecological catastrophes perpetrated in North America, the use of post-mining habitats by grassland species such as Henslow's sparrow has been an unexpected positive effect.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

A tale of two elms

For many years, I would admire this massive American elm, Ulmus americana, on my trips to southern Ohio lands via State Route 104. It had the classic elm vase shape, and an enormous canopy spread. Then, about three years ago the tree began to show signs of being infected with Dutch elm disease. It succumbed quickly and its skeleton is rapidly disintegrating. I finally forced myself to stop and document its demise today. It sits near the southwest corner of the Ross County fairgrounds, not far north of Chillicothe.

Dutch elm disease is a virulent fungus that probably is indigenous to Asia. It somehow got to our shores in the early 20th century and quickly laid waste to our American elms. These stately trees used to be commonly used as street trees, forming overarching leafy canopies that shaded streets and such situations were apparently quite spectacular. Behemoths would have been quite common in wild landscapes as well.

Today, American elm is still very common, but generally only as saplings and small trees. Once they get to a certain size, the fungus attacks and takes them out. Gargantuan specimens such as the tree above are decidedly rare these days, and over the years I have watched many such isolated plants succumb to the Dutch elm disease.

Fortunately, about 15 miles up the road in Pickaway County is a survivor and I stopped to pay respects today. It, too, is isolated out in a field and the Dutch elm disease has not yet managed to get to it. I rue the day when I pass by and notice dead and dying branches - near certain signs that the fungus has gained a beachhead.

But maybe this amazing tree will be spared, who knows. It certainly looks grand now, and from what I can tell, healthy as a horse. Even though it's pretty far removed from other trees, I'd wager there are Baltimore orioles preparing to nest in it. Nearly every big elm like this that I've seen has its resident orioles. Back in the day, the colorful blackbirds were strongly tied to elms, and still are whenever they can find one.

Elms also host a massive assemblage of specialized moth larvae such as the amazing double-toothed prominent, Nerice bidentata. Its caterpillar specializes on elm foliage and the caterpillar's back is scalloped in such a way that it mirrors the serrations of the elm leaves.

Next time you're driving on State Route 104 in Pickaway County, watch for this behemoth on the east side of the road. It's 1.7 miles south of State Route 56. The tree even shows up readily on Google Earth!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Nature: Private group protects land from developers across Ohio

Goldenstar lily at the Arc of Appalachia's Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve/Jim McCormac

Nature: Private group protects land from developers across Ohio

May 3, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”

— Mark Twain


No. 43. That’s Ohio’s ranking among the 50 states in regard to state and federal land ownership. These lands include wildlife areas, state parks, natural areas, state and national forests and federal wildlife refuges.

Here’s another statistic: 2.59%. That’s the total area of the state taken up by the above lands. Of our neighbors, only Indiana has less public land: 2.28%. By comparison, the state to our north is a conservation paradise. More than 20% of Michigan is protected land, and it ranks No. 15 among the states.

Increased protected land equates to increased biodiversity and healthier ecosystems. As conservationist Aldo Leopold famously said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” This Leopoldism is not possible with land that is gobbled up for development.

Plants drive ecosystems at a base level, and a glance at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ most recent Rare Native Ohio Plants Status List should raise a red flag. One-third of the state’s roughly 1,800 native plant species are listed in some category of peril. Less plant diversity equates to less animal diversity.

We are fortunate to have a private organization that has done an astonishing amount of heavy lifting in increasing Ohio’s protected lands. The Arc of Appalachia was founded in 1995, and since then has acquired 19 preserves totaling nearly 7,000 acres.

True to its name, the “Arc” focuses its work in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills, from Chillicothe in Ross County southwest to Adams County. Its director, Nancy Stranahan, and her staff possess an acute ecological literacy and thus have been able to pluck some of the top natural areas from the path of potential future development.

Their successes are borne out botanically. To date, Arc lands have protected about 700 native plant species — that’s well over one-third of all Ohio’s native species. And that’s on only 7,000 acres, or one-fifth of 1% of the state’s land.

Furthermore, Arc acquisitions have proved a boon for rare-plant conservation. At least 62 state-listed species have been protected, including some of the rarest of the rare.

On March 26, I visited a 186-acre gem of the Arc’s holdings, the Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve in Scioto County. Its namesake lilies were in peak bloom, in nearly inestimable numbers. There might have been more than 10,000 plants. Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum) is found in 11 states, and the Ohio population is the northernmost in its range.

Although the beautiful lily might be the totem, the old-growth forest is full of diversity. Scores of interesting animals occur, from box turtles to streamside salamanders to cerulean warblers.

On April 10, I visited an Arc property in Adams County. Its flagship species is the heart-leaved water plantain (Plantago cordata). This robust plantain was once known in 10 Ohio counties but now is found at only three sites. It has declined precipitously in all 15 states in which it occurs, and is among the rarest of the rare.

A three-hour ramble through this property revealed lots of other goodies: newly arrived Henslow’s sparrows, massive Allegheny mound ant nests, flowering papaws and much more. While the plantain was the catalyst for acquisition, a mountain of biodiversity comes along for the ride.

The Arc of Appalachia’s successes places them at the forefront of Ohio’s private conservation organizations. For those interested in helping to protect our dwindling ecosystems, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better cause. See more about the Arc of Appalachia at arcofappalachia.org/.

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, April 29, 2020

Stream Cruiser: A "life" dragonfly

A stream cruiser, Didymops transversa, rests briefly, moored to a low plant. Note those lanky legs! I was exploring a prairie in Adams County yesterday, when we noticed two moderately sized dragonflies patrolling low over the plants. No bells were ringing in terms of absolute identity, but it didn't take long before one landed not too far off.

Fortunately, I had my 70-200mm lens on the camera, coupled to a 25mm extension tube. I use that setup a fair bit for plants, but it's also great for dragonflies. I was able to crawl on in, get prostrate, and shoot the cool insect at its level.

Stream cruiser! A new one for me, and in a completely unexpected bit of serendipity. While this species often patrols low over the waters of small streams - there was a creek not far off - they'll also hunt over nearby meadows, as we observed.

Stream cruiser distribution map, courtesy the Ohio Dragonfly Survey/Jim Lemon

This dragonfly has a patchy distribution in southern and eastern Ohio, with post-1990 records in 17 counties. The five counties marked with white diamonds represent new county records recorded during the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (2017-19).

Technically, it wasn't a "lifer", as I've seen a few patrolling streams, but those were relatively unsatisfying fly-bys that didn't really allow me the chance to study them. This one offered a great view, and good opportunities to observe their flight style and hunting tactics.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Heart-leaved Water Plaintain: Rare, and getting rarer

A damp gravel bar in a tiny Adams County stream is dominated by eastern North America's largest plantain, the heart-leaved water plantain, Plantago cordata. The basal leaves can reach two feet across in exceptional specimens. It's also one of this region's rarest plants, and seemingly quickly becoming rarer.

Historically documented in ten Ohio counties, this plantain is now known from only three: Adams, Hardin, and Mahoning. Fortunately, all three populations are on protected lands.

I got to revisit two of the three sites this spring, after not seeing them for over a decade. While admittedly anecdotal recollections, my immediate sense upon seeing these sites again was that the populations had shrunk significantly since I had last seen them.

A flowering spike of Plantago cordata, bristling with elongate filaments capped by brownish anthers. While no one would call this a showy wildflower, its overall robustness and ornate architecture gives the plant a certain charisma.

Two giant plantains spring from the rocky bed of this headwater stream. Fortunately, the Arc of Appalachia has acquired this site and is monitoring the plants. There is no question that their ownership - and that of the other two sites, which are also owned by conservation organizations - gives the rare plantain a better long-term outlook.

Courtesy of the USDA Plant Database, here's a county-level distribution map of heart-leaved water plantain. The plant is long gone from many if not most of those green counties, and is now listed as endangered or some other category of imperiled in most of those states.

The reasons for the demise of this species of undisturbed wooded swamps and streams is not too tough to suss out. Habitat loss, and water quality degradation certainly must be the overriding factors in the plantain's decline. Heart-leaved water plantain apparently does not rebound well from logging or other large-scale disturbance, and much of the habitat in its range has been converted to agriculture.

Even sites that survive may be adversely impacted by land abuses further upstream in the watershed. Increased siltation may be a detrimental factor, as is greatly increased "flashiness": sudden and abnormally large water surges caused by removal of protective vegetation along stream banks, and rapid run off from farm fields or other forms of development.

Plantago cordata would be a good candidate for Federal listing - the rarest of the rare.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nature: No foolin': Rare oriole really did visit Ohio

A male hooded oriole makes a dazzling display in an okame cherry tree in Tim Hutson's yard/photo courtesy Tim Hutson

Nature: No foolin': Rare oriole really did visit Ohio

April 19, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

There is a long tradition of tomfoolery on April 1. People have become accustomed to looking askance at sensational reports or stories made on this date.

In the Ohio birding community, there is a history of April Fools’ Day pranks. Some have been clever, others foolish. The upshot is that savvy birders maintain a healthy skepticism toward unbelievable April 1 reports.

Thus, when Tim Hutson of Upper Arlington posted an incredible April 1 observation to a Facebook group devoted to rare bird reports, suspicions of a hoax quickly surfaced. Hutson’s sighting was of a hooded oriole, a stunning blackbird clad in the colors of Halloween.

Never had a hooded oriole been found in Ohio, and a glance at its range map would trigger disbelief. Its distribution extends from coastal California to south-central Texas, and south into Mexico. Columbus is about 1,200 miles east of where one might reasonably expect to see a hooded oriole.

However, hooded orioles have a propensity for wanderlust. There have been nearly two dozen records of vagrants east of the Mississippi River. One exceptionally ambitious nomad made it all the way to the Gaspe Peninsula of eastern Quebec.

So, the hooded oriole was not totally off Ohio birders’ radar screens. It quickly became apparent that, despite the unfortunate date of posting, Hutson’s report was totally legitimate. The beautiful photo that accompanied his post left no doubt as to the identity. Hutson, a retired research scientist at Battelle, just wanted independent confirmation of his remarkable record.

It turns out that Hutson first saw the oriole, a male, on March 30, when he spotted a glimmer of flame orange in his flowering okame cherry tree. Eventually he was able to capture diagnostic images of the gorgeous bird, and determine its identity.

For four days, the hooded oriole frequented the Hutsons’ flowering cherries. The brilliant-orange bird feeding among the pink cherry blossoms made for a dazzling clash of loud colors.

Although the oriole caught the occasional insect, including various pollinating bees, it spent much time with its face stuffed deep in flowers. Many orioles frequently eat nectar, and this hooded oriole was plumbing the blossoms for sugary sustenance.

The oriole was conspicuous all day on April 2. That evening, it flew its floriferous coop and departed to points unknown. Hopefully it headed back southwest to its home range.

For birders, the timing was unfortunate. The coronavirus pandemic and guidelines for safe distancing precluded the Hutsons from allowing a mob of birders to descend on their property. Their call to disallow visitors was absolutely correct, inasmuch as they would have loved to share the bird with all comers.

This hooded oriole becomes species number 437 (or thereabouts) for Ohio. Of the surrounding states, only Michigan has a larger list, and only by a few species. One or two species are added to Ohio’s list each year, and someday we will surpass that state up north.

Congratulations to Hutson for his incredible find, and superb documentation of an amazing record. Very few people, including longtime veteran birders, find a new state record.

Hutson’s interest in photography dates to the film days, and he has an impressive portfolio of imagery, including additional hooded oriole photos. To see his work, visit: www.flickr.com/photos/bugtrumpet.

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, April 17, 2020

Cooper's hawk strikes, misses!

I was in my home office around noon today when I heard a loud BANG! against a window. That can only mean one thing, the local Cooper's hawk is staging a raid. Window strikes are nearly nonexistent here, thanks to deterrent stickers, but when the Cooper's hawk barrels in unexpectedly, jays and others sometimes smack a window in their haste to escape. Today, I was quick with the camera and caught the hawk sitting atop my mealworm tray feeder. He was unsuccessful this time but I don't begrudge him his livelihood. Although I would be seriously bummed if he got a bluebird, or - horrors! - Albert, the white-headed blue jay.

Note his fluffy white undertail coverts. They can flare those out to the sides during display flights. He’s been making these lately. It’s a slow flight with really deep exaggerated wing beats punctuated by glides with the wings held in a steep dihedral (V-shaped) position. Absolutely nothing like their normal flight, and if a distant observer was not familiar with it, I could see the bird being called a something other than a Cooper's hawk.

I'm sure the nest is not far off. One or the other of a pair visits more days than not. As does a pair of red-shouldered hawks. The reaction of the feeder birds to these two raptors is radically different. If a red-shouldered hawk sails in, the lesser birds might instinctively duck for cover, but their fear is short-lived. Even if the hawk sits prominently on the fence or elsewhere in the yard, they'll quickly resume business, visiting feeders and flying to and fro, often nearly right over the glaring hawk's head. Red-shouldered hawks are not very adept at catching birds, and the little fellows know it. Chipmunks, that's a different story. I have yet to see one in the yard this spring. I suspect the red-shouldereds have done a number on them.

Contrarily, when a Cooper's hawk hits the yard - usually in an instantaneous blitzkrieg, using the house, fences, or trees as cover - it's like a bomb went off. This species is a specialist of songbird hunting. Birds explode in every direction in a mad dash for thick cover. In the back corner of the lot is an old, dense forsythia shrub, and that's a common shelter. I've seen the hawks run in there on foot in their lust to kill a songbird. Birds that have no time to react to the appearance of a Cooper's hawk will "sleek": pull their feathers in tight and not move a muscle. They remain utterly frozen in place, scarcely even moving their head, until the danger has passed. I have seen Carolina chickadees remain motionless for probably five minutes. Not until everyone is well convinced that the hawk has departed do the crowds return to the feeders.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Southern Ohio wildflowers

One of the rarest of Ohio's nearly 30 species of Viola, Walter's violet, Viola walteri. A tiny species of thin soil over limestone, this early bloomer is rare in Ohio, and the populations here are the northernmost in its range. The diminutive violet is named for Thomas Walter, a British botanist who came to South Carolina in the mid-1700's and ended up describing about 200 new plant species.

I made an epic botano-centric trip to Adams County last Saturday, and covered a lot of ground. Met with some people to look at a very interesting piece of land - more on that later, perhaps (and yes, we "social-distanced"), but on the way there I stopped to admire this stunning violet.

Here's a bigger picture view of the Walter's violet habitat. There's scarcely more than a dusting of soil over dolomitic rock, and a number of other rarities grow at this locale. It's at the summit of high limestone cliffs, and white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, partially shades the violets.

At our rendezvous point was a fine grove of pawpaw, Asimina triloba, just starting to flower. I find these bizarre blossoms photographically irresistible. This is the host plant for the beautiful zebra swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus. We would see several of these butterflies later in the day.

John Howard was at the meeting/hike, and after that he and I headed south into the depths of Adams County. We had a number of targets, and had a quite fruitful day. At one site, a dry oak-dominated hillside sported dozens of pink lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. Some of them were already in bud. The upcoming cool weather will probably hold them back a bit, but it won't be too long before the floriferous pink "slippers" burst forth. I'll hope to visit again around that time.

A small prairie near Lynx was starting to push forth a showy display of Indian-paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea. The brightly colored bracts - the true flowers are very inconspicuous - of this figwort family member really lit up the otherwise brown prairie.

Eventually, John and I made it down to the Ohio River. One target was this, the cross-vine, Bignonia capreolata. We figured it would be in bloom, and we were not disappointed. This limestone cliff face was draped with vines, and the flowers were coming on strong. A large bumblebee or two worked the blooms. These burly insects are a primary pollinator.

The family Bignoniaceae is huge (800 species), mostly tropical, and many species are vines. Up here, there are only two: this species, and the much more widespread and familiar trumpet-creeper, Campsis radicans. I find the cross-vine to be the more exotic of the two. But if you're an Ohioan, you'll have to travel south to see it. Cross-vine is at its northern limits on our side of the Ohio River. The hills of Kentucky loomed large at this site.

A breath-taking rural roadside, carpeted with wildflowers that have spilled out from the adjacent wooded slope. It's hard to imagine how anyone could pass by a scene like this and fail to take note, or be awed by the dazzling display. We were, and stopped for a look. Dwarf larkspur, Delphinium tricorne, provides much of the colorful pizazz.

Here's a raceme of typically colored larkspur flowers.

And here's a more interesting (to me) bicolored form. There is also a pure white form, which has been described as forma albiflorum. I have seen that, but this variegated form is even showier and not something one sees at every larkspur patch.

Sprinkled among the larkspur was false garlic, Nothoscordum bivalve, arguably the showiest of our wild onions (Allium cernuum is a strong contender). It's rare in Ohio, and listed as threatened, with extant populations in only two counties: Adams, and Clark. The Clark County site is tiny, the Adams County populations can be robust. However, it's only in a very limited area along or near the Ohio River, and mostly west of Ohio Brush Creek.

By the time we reached this spot, the day was rapidly aging and there wasn't a lot of time left. Someday, I want to spend more time with false garlic to search for an oligolectic bee known as Andrena nothoscordi. The small mining bee only visits the flowers of this plant species. Its fortunes are completely tied to false garlic. Such specialization is not at all rare in Nature. This is why true conservation strategies should take into account ALL species and be ecologically based, such as The Nature Conservancy does, and the group we met with earlier on this day, the Arc of Appalachia, certainly does.

Game-farming style management for selected, prioritized species, especially white-tailed deer, is a surefire way to doom an ecosystem over time.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A gallery of Bonaparte's gulls

Last Monday, I headed afield well before the crack of dawn. My destination was a wetland complex not too far to the north. I lugged my portable Doghouse blind along, with the intent of capturing some wetland bird species by utilizing it as cover. So, before the sun had pulled itself over the horizon, I was slogging the blind and a bunch of gear through a marshy quagmire. Upon arriving at a good spot, with the sun to my back and a nice marshy pond before me, I quickly set things up. Doghouse blinds are fantastic, and set up in minutes (see more about them HERE). Folding them up properly is more problematic, but that's another story.

I was buoyed by nearby calls of sora and Virginia rails, two species I had high hopes for photographing. A squadron of blue-winged teal rocketed in right as I was preparing to enter the blind, saw me, and rocketed off. Many green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and several other species of fowl were in the marsh. As the sun came up, the light became stellar and I crouched in my camouflaged blind awaiting the arrival of subjects.

And waited, and waited, and waited... Nothing, other than a few red-winged blackbirds and swamp sparrows, came into range. Such is life sometimes, but time spent in such a spot as this is never wasted. Even though birds were not frolicking in front of my lens, I could still hear plenty of the sounds of a spring marsh, and see lots of birds moving by. A Virginia rail called regularly, tantalizingly close, but would not reveal itself. Sandhill cranes issued their guttural racket from afar. Crows harassed a red-tailed hawk, and at one point a Cooper's hawk shot by and landed in a distant cottonwood, much to the consternation of local blackbirds. As the temps reached into the high 30's, a few hardy northern leopard frogs began to give their snoring calls.

But photography was my goal, and after two hours of this, I decided to shift location. All the while I was in the blind, I saw small groups of Bonaparte's gulls flying overhead, headed towards a nearby reservoir. I decided to head over there and see what was going on. Smart move.

A Bonaparte's gull, Chroicocephalus philadelphia, wings by. It is an adult, still in basic, or winter plumage.

As I neared the lake, I was greeted by a swarm of perhaps 150-200 Bonaparte's gulls - a nice inland spring concentration in Ohio. After kicking myself several times for not just coming to this spot straight away, I settled in to watch these interesting birds and their fishing activities.

Being early April, the gulls were actively molting into their breeding finery. For a few months during the breeding season, adult Bonaparte's gulls develop an inky black hood. The animal in this photo is a "tweener" - halfway between the white head of winter plumage, and the full black hood it will sport in a few days.

Here we have a gull in which molt is nearly complete. Only a very few white flecks remain on its head.

This gull is early on in the head molt; just starting to get a bit dusky. Observing and shooting these gulls was certainly way easier than the failed blind in the marsh project. The gulls could care less about me. They were mostly actively fishing for shiners and other small piscivorous fare in the shallows along the shoreline. All I had to was stand there, fully exposed, and track them with my camera as if they were feathered skeet. In the world of birds in flight photography, this is pretty easy stuff, although still fun and rewarding when you bag a good shot.

Here's a juvenile, a bird that would have been born last summer. It's distinctive with its black banded tail, and black bars on the wings which are also trimmed in black. It takes Bonaparte's gulls two years to reach maturity. Of this flock, there were only about three juveniles.

I'm sure I've said this before, but I am much more of a bird watcher than a birder. To me, the latter term rightly or wrongly has a listing implication, and I am far more into bird behavior, ecology and identification than just racking up big lists. And few birds are more interesting to observe than Bonaparte's gulls. These are not the dietary garbageheads that many of the larger gull species are, and Bonaparte's gulls will not be caught filching french fries from McDonald's parking lots. These small gulls are consummate fishers, and rather tern-like in their habits. The bird above had just plunged in after a fish, which it missed. Their success rate is normally pretty high, though.

Here's a mottle-head bursting from the water with scaly prey, perhaps a spotfin shiner but I'm not sure. These sorts of shots are a bit tougher, as once the gull has secured its prey, it leaps from the water and is out of there like a shot. This is probably a habit evolved from millennia of dealing with kleptoparasites such as jaegers and larger gulls trying to pounce on them and steal their prey. A successful Bonaparte's gull often has gagged the fish down the hatch before it has flown 50 feet.

A Bonaparte's gull appears to walk on water as it lifts from the surface. These gulls have a long journey ahead of them. They breed in the taiga lands (stunted coniferous forests) of northern Canada and Alaska. Once there, they will make the most unusual nests among the world's gulls - stick nests in trees. That's right, these beautiful gulls are the only arboreally nesting gull species. I once saw one of these nests, in Churchill, Manitoba, while enduring the strafing attacks of an adult. It was about twelve feet up a black spruce and seeing a gull in such a nest was an odd sight indeed.

All in all, it morphed into a wonderful morning of gull observation. Maybe that wasn't my intention at the outset, but you never know what'll happen and just have to roll with the punches.

Waterscorpion!

As always, click the image to enlarge At the onset of last Monday's aquatic expedition (perhaps more on that later) to Rocky Fork ...