Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cooper's Hawk

 

An adult male Cooper's Hawk perches on a backyard fence, yesterday. These exciting raptors routinely enter my yard, lured indirectly by my bird feeders. They seek the birds who come to plunder the seeds, not the seeds themselves.

It's virtually impossible for a raptor to "sneak" into the yard. Too many sharp sets of eyes. This guy was made instantly, and the alarm went up. About 12 feet away, in front of the hawk and to the left and out of the photo, is a dense shrub. A pair of Tufted Titmice were cursing up a blue streak at the Cooper's Hawk. He was ticked, and would make false starts in their direction, as he is here, but wouldn't launch as he knew there was probably no chance of snagging one in all that cover.

I've been pretty well glued to my desk for some time now, and can't see the backyard from my office. Today, on a rare trip by the back windows the same male Cooper's Hawk shot in and landed maybe ten feet from the porch windows. I always have a big camera rig mounted on a tripod and ready for action, fortunately. The hawk then hopped over to a nearby redbud snag I placed near the feeders. It makes for a great perch, including for raptors.

When The Coop's barreled in, he spooked a bevy of House, Song, and White-throated sparrows into the lush American Beauty-berry thicket that surrounds this perch. The hawk glared into the dense growth, but it's just too thick for him to work, and the sparrows remained safe.

Before long, he shot out of the yard, empty of talon. I'm sure these raptors take their share of "my" birds, though. I sometimes see evidence of their kills. This male is not the only one, either. A massive adult female sometimes visits - females can be one-third larger than males - and a subadult bird as well.

While the local songbirds don't care for these raptors, they do add action to the yard. The entire yard instantly changes when one enters. Mourning Doves will hurtle into tree cover as if shot from a cannon. Many songbirds dive for thick cover. Chickadees often "sleek": flatten their feathers and sit tight like a bump on a log, not even moving their head. They may remain sleeked for five minutes or more if need be. Bolder birds, like titmice Blue Jays, and Carolina Wrens might deliver unrelenting and loud scolds.

Interestingly, the Gray Squirrels act as if nothing is amiss when this male Cooper's Hawk is around. They'll continue feeding on the ground almost underneath the perched bird, as if it isn't there. Yesterday, a squirrel even went onto the same limb the hawk was sitting on and flushed it. If it's the much larger female, or one of the Red-shouldered or Red-tailed Hawks, the squirrels aren't nearly so bold and they too cower in cover. Conversely, the songbirds - at least with the red-shouldereds and red-taileds - carry on nearly as normal. It's hard for the comparatively clumsy buteo hawks to catch little birds, and the little fellows know it. They never fool with the much more dangerous Cooper's Hawks.



Sunday, October 25, 2020

Monkey Slug: larval bizarro world

While going through scores of photos for a book project, I re-encountered these shots of a Monkey Slug, Phobetron pithecium, from Adams County, Ohio on September 17, 2016. The moth it becomes is nearly equally strange, and is known as the Hag Moth. Some think this cat (of a largely tropical lineage) is a mimic of a shed tarantula skin. Presumably most would-be predators, like birds, would find such fare distasteful and avoid it. I think, when viewed from underneath, the slug cat resembles a gracefully swimming sea turtle (image below).


 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Nature: Northern flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

A northern flicker stretches on a feeder at Jim McCormac's home/Jim McCormac

Nature: Northern Flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

Columbus Dispatch
October 18, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

One fine April morning in 1919, an eleven year old boy named Roger Tory Peterson was exploring a natural area in Jamestown, New York. He happened along what appeared to be a clump of dead feathers stuck to the side of a tree, and investigated.

Poking the inert tuft with a finger, the object sprang to life and burst into flight, revealing underwings the color of molten gold.

Peterson’s inaugural experience with a woodpecker called the northern flicker would shape his life. He was instantly smitten with birds and would become a renowned artist, writer, and conservation tour de force.

His A Field Guide to the Birds appeared in 1934 with numerous subsequent editions. The Peterson bird guides anastomosed into a series of books covering numerous branches of natural history and influenced the careers of scores of naturalists and scientists.

Perhaps no one has done more to promote birds and natural history than Roger Tory Peterson. And the flicker was his inspiration.

Small wonder that a flicker would inspire Peterson, or anyone else. The robin-sized woodpecker is art on wings. It displays a potpourri of field marks: crimson crown patch, fawn-speckled underparts, golden lower wings and tail shafts, and snowy rump. If a male, bold ebony mustaches mark the face.

The flicker looks like it was designed by a committee of artists, but the members never communicated with one another. Yet the result is perfection.

I returned home the other day to find a male flicker occupying my backyard feeder, and quickly set about making some photos. This species is not a frequent visitor, unlike several other woodpecker species.

Of Ohio’s six commonly occurring nesting woodpecker species, the flicker is the most migratory. We’re in the peak window of fall migration, and my feeder bird was likely passing through. Their spring migration peaks in in mid-April and the birds are even more conspicuous then. Many flickers do stay to breed, and overwinter.

Flickers excavate cavities in trees – typically in dead timber – for nest sites. Old nest holes are used by other species: chickadees, titmice, tree swallows, and other cavity-nesting birds. Even flying squirrels make use of the handiwork of these master carpenters.

Most woodpeckers forage on tree trunks and limbs, excavating for tasty beetle grubs and other arboreal fare. Flickers are no exception, but they also habitually forage on the ground. Ants form the bulk of their diet, and ground-bound birds are usually plundering ant colonies.

Come spring, flickers commence courtship rituals and this can be a raucous affair. Birds will deliver long series of wicka-wicka calls from prominent perches. This is the likely source of their name: flicker is an onomatopoeia of the wicka call.

Courting males, especially, love to drum and the louder the better. The amorous percussionist will find the loudest possible substrate and deliver short bursts of 25 beats a second. Creative birds might use metal downspouts and the ensuing racket rivals a pneumatic jackhammer. While nearby humans will be peeved, the female flicker is presumably enamored by her clangorous courter.

A beautiful, conspicuous and charismatic bird, the northern flicker has been branded with scores of colloquial names. Frontier ornithologist John James Audubon dubbed it the golden-winged woodpecker. Gary Meiter in his book Bird is the Word notes that flickers have at least 160 nicknames, including cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellow-hammer.

Whatever you call it, flickers rank high amongst our most interesting, showy, and ecologically valuable birds.

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, October 16, 2020

Virginia Creeper: Stunning Fall Color

A liana of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinqefolia, partially frames a window at the back of my house.

Virginia Creeper is a native vine, and a member of the Grape Family (Vitaceae). It turns an impressive shade of scarlet-red in autumn, and is one of the more impressively colored plants of fall.

Creeper vines its way up the telephone pole in the back corner of the yard. Utility poles and all their junky attendant wires are ugly, and this vine improves their look. Especially at this time of year.

Yet another stand of Virginia Creeper clambers over a backyard fence. I mostly leave the stuff alone, as in my estimation the vines improve the look of whatever they're on. Also, Virginia Creeper hosts some really cool caterpillars, which in turn become really cool moths. Their ranks include several species of spectacular sphinx moths. One of these is the Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus, which often turns up in urban areas. This creeper and various closely related grapes are why. CLICK HERE for photos of this moth and its caterpillar, and a brief essay on the Vitaceae family.

Best to always leave at least some creeper and grape in the yardscape, and ignore the popular notion that these plants are "weeds" and best eradicated. They're native plants, and quite valuable ones.
 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Raccoons raiding feeders

 

A young but already robust Raccoon, Procyon lotor, treats your narrator's bird feeder as its buffet. The masked bandidos are a nightly occurrence in the backyard.

I don't mind them, too much. Raccoons are clever, adaptable, and engaging mammals and they're darn good looking to boot. They do cause problems, perhaps especially with the raccoon-borne Raccoon Roundworm, which causes a disease that can be devastating to Allegheny Woodrats among other organisms. And a lot of people seem to hate coons just because of their very traits of intelligence and adaptability. If a family unit gets access to your attic, I suppose such a sentiment would be understandable. For me, the coons are strictly outdoors - the house seems tightly sealed and I've never had any issues with Raccoons or other mammals other than the rare White-footed Mouse getting in.

I made this photo back on August 17, when the mother was still escorting her two kits around. This spring, when they were very young and could not yet climb up the feeder, she would sweep seed off the feeder and down to the ground for them. It didn't take too long for them to manage to clamber up, though.

I've had fun on Facebook posting photos of "my" Raccoons, and joshing about my ongoing battles with the feeder-raiding coons. The truth is, with only slight effort, they are pretty easy to defeat. If I really don't want them plundering my feeders - which only happens at night - I just take them down and put them in the (apparently coon-proof) shed. It takes less than a minute to stow them and the same to put the feeders back out in the morning.

But sometimes I leave them out, just because I like to watch the masked bandidos.

Photo Note: With these two images, you are looking at extreme ISO: 32,000! For instance, the first shot was handheld, at 1/40 and f/2. The other photo used about the same parameters although it was at f/2.8 using a different lens. By the time the Raccoons come around, it is generally pitch black. In the second shot, the image was made in the dark. For the first, I had an outdoor light on which provides better illumination, but the coons don't like that and will usually leave the feeder if I leave it on for long. I'm shooting through a (very clean) window and am close to the animals, so images do not have to be cropped much - cropping would greatly exacerbate the graininess of such high ISO images. A better solution would be to use flash, and maybe I'll have to play with that a bit.


Saturday, October 10, 2020

Northern Flicker

A Northern Flicker sits for a portrait. This bird is a male, as evidenced by the prominent black "mustache" (malar stripe).

I don't get many flickers in the yard, thus I was pleased to look at the backyard feeders the other day and see this handsome animal gorging itself on seeds. Earlier in the year, a female flicker was a regular at the suet feeder. The regular woodpeckers here are Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied - all pretty much daily fixtures. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are consistent in winter, but they forage in the conifers - large spruce and pine - and I've never seen them at the feeders. I've never seen Pileated or Red-headed woodpeckers here in this patch of suburbia, although I know that they are not far off.

The flicker pauses to stretch, revealing its golden underwings. Flickers in western North America are of a different subspecies that was once considered distinct: the Red-shafted Flicker, with bright red underwings and tail shafts. There is a narrow but extensive zone of hybridization where the two subspecies come into contact.
 
Warring male flickers, sparring over a nearby nest cavity and female. The bird in the upper right won. This display was all bluff. I never saw them actually come to blows.

The Northern Flicker is one of North America's most interesting birds, in my opinion. I've written a piece about them, to be published in my Columbus Dispatch newspaper column next Sunday, October 18. I'll share that here after it's published.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Black Witch in Ohio!

A Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata, rests on the hand of your narrator, the latter appendage offering a size scale for the enormous moth. Note the moth's beautifully intricate patterning and subtle lavender shading. Hints of gold and blue dot the wings. It truly is an impressive insect.

Dimensionally, this tropical vagrant to Ohio and northerly latitudes is the largest moth species that we get. The resident Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia, might edge it slightly in terms of weight, but when it comes to sheer size nothing beats one of these spectacular witches. Females are slightly larger than males, and can have a wingspan of seven inches.

The Black Witch perches on a raceme of ripe Pokeberry fruit. It is a male - females have a broad whitish band running across each wing.

A Facebook acquaintance, Kim McCoy, posted photos of this insect on October 5. It turned up on the side of her father's Fayette County house, and she went over to see it and remove the moth for eventual release. I asked if I could photograph it, and she gave it to me.

Opportunities to photograph Black Witches in Ohio are few and far between. And all that I have seen - and photographed - have been females, so this was an easy opportunity to make photos of a boy.

The Black Witch peers over a corymb of White Snakeroot flowers. Their size and appearance can lend a spooky look, to those predisposed to believe that moths and other insects can be "spooky". And many people do. Their are a number of myths about Black Witches, which are sometimes known as Mariposa de la Muerte - "Butterfly of Death". Legend has it that if a witch flies into the casa of someone who is ill, that person will soon die.

To people of my ilk, finding a Black Witch is a wonderful and fortuitous event.

A New England Aster provides a perch for the moth. Today's temps are expected to reach the 70's F, and I'll let it go this afternoon. The core range of the Black Witch is from the southernmost U.S. - I have seen many in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas - south into South America and Brazil. I'd be amazed if any of these northern vagrants ever make it back down that way, though.

And "vagrant" is probably not an accurate descriptor. That implies that the moths are idly wandering. I doubt that's what's happening, from a long-term population perspective. Black Witches are powerful flyers, and increasing numbers seem to be peregrinating far to the north of their "normal" range. In the long term, this is how species expand ranges - by sending scouts far into the hinterlands. Most will probably perish, but over time if climate and habitat shift to better accommodate their needs, the scouts will discover new opportunities and establish new colonies. Indeed, this happened with the Black Witch in Ohio in 2012 when Omar Baldridge discovered a newly eclosed Black Witch on a Mimosa tree, Albizia julibrissin, in their yard in Scioto County. Read about that RIGHT HERE.

Mimosa is an Asian tree commonly in cultivation, and increasing as a "wild" escapee, but they provide suitable fodder for Black Witch caterpillars. Natives that this moth will use as hosts include Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, and Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus. The former is abundant statewide and the latter is locally common. I think we'll likely see this huge moth increasingly reproducing itself in Ohio and other northerly locales. It is the perfect entomological organism for rapid range expansion, and its common host plants provide ample opportunities.


Like the moth it becomes, the Black Witch caterpillar is a gargantuan larva. I made this image last year. A Black Witch had shown up in Columbus, and it turned out to be a gravid female. I and nearly two hundred other people were at Mothapalooza, but as luck would have it, the moth turned up at Don Tumblin's daughter Lacey's house. Don was at Mothapalooza, enticed Lacey to drive the moth down from her Columbus home, and the entire crowd got to see the witch. It was a very cool event. You can see the actual moth HERE.

That moth was a female and full of eggs. A number of eggs were extracted from her before she was released. I'm sure she deposited her remaining eggs on some suitable host plant up this way. Kim Baker took some of the eggs and successfully reared at least one. This caterpillar is one of the spawn from her batch of eggs. If you ever come into close proximity to one munching away on a locust or coffee tree, you probably won't miss it, and you're even less likely to miss the moth should you be fortunate to have one appear under your night light.. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Nature: Curve-lined owlet caterpillars have a remarkable ability to camouflage themselves

A curve-lined owlet dangles from a leaf in Adams County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Curve-lined owlet caterpillars have a remarkable ability to camouflage themselves

Columbus Dispatch
October 4, 2020
NATURE
Jim McCormac

The world of caterpillars is fantastically bizarre and their role in nature cannot be understated. Many of these creatures are by turns beautiful, outrageous, astonishing, and otherworldly. The fertile minds of Dr. Seuss or J.R.R. Tolkien could not have dreamt up some of these insects.

Caterpillars are one of four phases of a butterfly or moth lifecycle. Life begins as an egg, from which springs a caterpillar. Fresh from the egg, the larva will be so tiny as to be barely visible. But it is a plant-eating machine and grows rapidly through multiple molts. With each shed of its skin, the caterpillar emerges bigger. By the time this phase concludes, the caterpillar might be thousands of times more massive than when it began.

Next stop is the cocoon (moth) or chrysalis (butterfly), which is how many species overwinter. This is where a magical reorganization of tissues occurs. The caterpillar that formed the transformative chamber will eventually materialize as a winged adult, ready to start the cycle again.

Butterflies are chump change in this world. Only about 140 species have been recorded in Ohio. Moths? Try 2,000 or more species. And scores more await discovery.

The mortality rate of caterpillars is staggering. Some experts believe it hovers around 99% for many species. They are nature’s hotdogs and seemingly everyone wants a bite. Birds and other insects are especially voracious predators.

Astronomical kill rates have led to carpet-bombing reproductive strategies. Some female moths might dump several thousand eggs in the quest to survive the predatorial gauntlet to reach adulthood.

Bird predation, most likely, has spawned the evolution of fabulous camouflage in an enormous number of caterpillar species. Many of them hide in plain sight, but blend so well with their surroundings that even a sharp-eyed warbler might miss them.

On Sept. 6, I received a message from Chris Zacharias alerting me to his discovery of one of the grand prizes of the caterpillar world. Zacharias and his wife Sue are expert lepidopterists and sharp-eyed observers. They had discovered a curve-lined owlet caterpillar in a remote Adams County woodland.

I have searched for years for one of these extraordinary caterpillars, unsuccessfully. As have many of my entomologically-minded friends. Plans were made to seek the caterpillar early the next morning. Even though Zacharias found it a half-mile from the nearest road, his directions were explicit.

The next morning, I met naturalists Cheryl Carpenter and John Howard at the site. As we worked through the woods, we inspected the numerous greenbrier plants in the understory. Greenbriers are straggly shrubs in the genus Smilax. Curve-lined owlet caterpillars are specialists that feed only on these plants.

Suddenly a cry arose from John: “Here’s one!” Finally the spell was broken. We had found our larval Holy Grail. And it wasn’t even the caterpillar that Zacharias pointed us to, which we did find later.

As greenbrier foliage ages, brownish patches of necrotic tissue form, especially along leaf margins. Greenbriers also have tendrils to assist them in clambering over other vegetation. The curve-lined owlet mimics all these things, simultaneously resembling dead leaf tissue and greenbrier tendrils.

When disturbed, even by a gust of wind, the caterpillar will slowly twist and turn in the manner of a hanging dead leaf. Even the most sharp-eyed titmouse could easily overlook this potential meal.

This organism’s name stems from the moth, which has a prominent curved line across the wings. It, like its larva, is spectacular.

Caterpillars are a little-known but abundant part of the natural world. They are an endless source of fascination.

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, October 1, 2020

Two cool and unusual moths

A gorgeous insect and one that was utterly unknown to me when I photographed it WAY back on June 14, 2013 in Adams County. It is the Ornate Compacta Moth, Compacta capitalis.

I'm hard at work on a major moth project, and that has prompted me to go back and review my collection of "mystery moth" images. I have a digital stack of probably close to 500 photos dating back nearly a decade of moths that I never pinned names to. Not necessarily because I'm lazy, but because moth photography brings with it a set of challenges. One, there are thousands of moth species. Determining the identity of subjects can be incredibly time-consuming. This task is getting easier by the day, thanks to the ever-increasing utility of iNaturalist and various lep-ID apps such as LepSnap. Even with such help, in many cases it still requires delving into literature to sort out similar species and obtain independent verification.

Also, dedicated mothing excursions, where we are putting up lights and often attracting blizzards of moths, result in scores of photos. For the most part, it's like shooting fish in a barrel and I might return from such a foray with dozens or hundreds of photos of a great many species. Oftentimes, especially in the older days, I wouldn't have time to try identify all of them and would just toss them in the unidentified folder and basically forget about them. Now I am wading through all these mysteries and doing my best to put names to everything.

In the process, I have come across some interesting stuff. The Ornate Compacta Moth seems to be a rarity, and in Ohio there have only been a relative handful of records.

Here's the Ornate Compacta Moth distribution, as mapped by the uber-moth site the Moth Photographers Group.

The host plant(s) for this species is unknown, which makes it pretty much impossible to figure out the moth's ecological role and habitat specifics. However, it is a member of the crambid family and some related species have an aquatic component to their larval phase. Maybe that's the case here. The moth in my photo was found near a high quality stream. Also, there is the possibility that this species is generally not attracted to lights and thus largely evades detection. However, it is a fairly large and extremely showy species, and if it was common one would think there would be many more records.

Here's a cool and apparently uncommon species: Polygrammodes langdonalis, or "Langdon's Root Moth" (the common name is my innovation, as I could not find an existing name).  Highland County, Ohio, June 26, 2020.

Map courtesy Moth Photographers Group

This species occurs in a very limited region of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Apparently the caterpillars feed on the roots of Ironweed, and presumably mostly or entirely Vernonia gigantea. Which makes me wonder why the moth is apparently so range-restricted as its host plant is abundant over a much broader range.

There is no shortage of mysteries in the moth world.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A few fall warblers

The extreme upper end of Alum Creek Reservoir, in Delaware County, Ohio. The beginnings of fall tinge the foliage with bits of color. This spot will look autumnally fantastic in a few weeks.

I was here last Saturday at the crack of dawn to photograph plants. There are some interesting meadow-like openings atop high shale bluffs along the east side of the reservoir. They support the striking combination of Showy Goldenrod, Solidago speciosa var. speciosa, and Smooth Aster, Symphyotrichum laeve. I use the nominate trinomial for the former, as this goldenrod is carved into several distinct varieties. One of these, var. rigidiuscula, also occurs in Ohio. It is very rare and listed as state-endangered. The variety I saw on this day is not much more common and is listed as state-threatened.

A Bay-breasted Warbler peeks from oak foliage. About the time that I was through photographing plants, the sun was cresting the distant tree line and casting solar energy onto the nearby treetops. And in came the warblers.

A mixed feeding flock that included at least these species: Tennessee, Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Cape May, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Black-and-white warblers. I may have missed one or two, as I became fixated on trying to capture imagery of the small active animals. In any case, dozens of birds comprised the flock.

A Tennessee Warbler pauses briefly to survey its surroundings. Note its very fine, sharply tipped bill.

Fall warblers are subtle, and don't exactly draw one's eye. The still dense foliage masks them, and in many species the plumage is somewhat more muted than in spring. No males are singing, but the birds regularly emit soft chip notes that alerts one to their presence.

A Magnolia Warbler flits through the shadows within an Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginianus. A few small specimens of this conifer were nearby, and I was surprised at the number of warblers foraging among the needles.

The Black-throated Green Warblers were especially smitten with the cedars. Which makes sense, as they are conifer-breeders over most of their range.

A Black-throated Green Warbler hover-gleans cedar foliage. It tugged out what looked like a Juniper Geometer caterpillar, Patalene olyzonaria. This is very common warbler feeding strategy.

Seemingly as quick as the flurry began, it was over. 
 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The onset of fall color

 

The first blushes of fall color paint trees along the shoreline of Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware County, Ohio this morning. My hunch is this will be a doozy of a fall for brilliant foliage. Autumn is one of the best seasons in the Upper Midwest, in no small part due to the riot of color caused by leaf change. I look forward to the increased vividness to come, and will hope to capture more of it with my camera.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

American Pipit

A portion of the massive mudflats at the upper end of Hoover Reservoir in Delaware County, Ohio. Mudflats of varying size form here every autumn, and this can be a great place for seeking shorebirds. I made a trip to Hoover on September 15, and as always the birding was good and varied. The most notable shorebird was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, although these fascinating long-haul migrants are annual here and to be expected.

As a footnote, the vegetation of these seasonally exposed mudflats is fascinating. Shorebirds such as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper probably play a role in the distribution of some of these plant species, when looking at plant distributions on a long time scale. CLICK HERE to read a piece I wrote about that phenomenon quite some time ago (and probably should write another).

An American Pipit briefly mounts a rock, the better to cast an eye about its wide-open surroundings.

I was quite pleased to hear the calls of pipits as I made my way out the flats. This bird is strictly a transient with us, and it's possible that the animal in the photo came from from the high Canadian arctic or even Alaska. In North America, they breed at northerly latitudes across Canada, throughout much of Alaska, and at high elevations in the western mountains. American Pipits - there are seven subspecies - also occur across much of Eurasia.

This pipit is a diurnal migrant, and knowing their flight calls will greatly aid in their detection. Many times they will only be heard as flocks pass by high overhead. At the peak of their migrations, in favorable locales such as along the south shore of Lake Erie, I have heard several hundred pass over in a few hour time span. Fortunately for me on this fine day, a small flock of four birds did settle onto the flats to forage.

There's no sneaking up on an American Pipit, as they favor flat, wide-open landscapes. But they are rather tame, and I was able to sneak into a good spot and let the birds wander my way. Eventually I was able to get the above shot and some other decent ones - the first acceptable American Pipit shots that I have managed to obtain.

PHOTO NOTE: It's often best to try and get as close to the level of your subject as possible. In the case of a pipit, that means you'll have to be on the ground or as close to it as possible. I was shooting my big telephoto on a tripod, but had the legs splayed out so that the camera rig was only a foot or so above ground level. Such an angle puts the photographer on the same terms as the bird, and leads to a more pleasing image.
 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wayward brown booby a delight for Ohio birders

A juvenile brown booby on its favorite perch along Nimisila Reservoir near Akron/Jim McCormac

Wayward brown booby a delight for Ohio birders

Columbus Dispatch
September 20, 2020
NATURE
Jim McCormac

Big bird news erupted Aug. 25 when word of a brown booby appeared on various birding forums.

Henry Trimpe, along with longtime birders Dwight and Ann Chasar, discovered the bird late that day at Nimisila Reservoir near Akron.

Brown boobies normally are strictly ocean-going birds. They breed on islands in tropical seas nearly worldwide. Seeing one inland on fresh water, especially as far north as Ohio, is unusual indeed.

Trimpe’s find quickly mobilized the binocular-toting crowd, and birders descended on the site the next morning. And there was the booby, in the very tree that it was seen in the previous evening.
This dead shoreline tree turned out to be the booby’s favored roost site, and, when it wasn’t fishing over the lake, it returned to perch on one the tree’s limbs. This habit made it simple to find and, over the next few days, hundreds of birders converged on the site.

Boobies are quite tame, and seemingly fearless of people. Thus, the fawning masses had no effect on it, although the optical-laden crowds drew the attention of other people.

Non-birder to birder: “What are you all looking at?”

Birder: “Brown booby.”

Hilarity ensues.

The funny name derives from the Spanish bobo, meaning dunce. Consulting Gary Meiter’s informative book, “Bird is the Word,” reveals this: “Sailors apparently named the birds because they were so tame and easily caught. Then the ship’s cook could prepare a big pot of booby stew.” Boobies are not dumb; rather they are extraordinarily tame, as many isolated island-dwelling animals tend to be.

I could not get to Nimisila Reservoir until Aug. 29, but I need not have worried — the bird was still present and seemingly at home in its unnatural freshwater haunts.

It wasn’t long before I was gazing upon it. The spectacular bird was up in the tree on its favorite branch, watching the world go by. As the best place for unobstructed views and photos was out in the lake, I waded in with tripod and camera.

Brown boobies are especially impressive: The 2½-pound bird is 1½ feet long, with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet.

Juveniles, like this bird, are brown throughout, though adults have bright-white bellies. Their large yellowish feet are webbed and ducklike, and the stout stiletto of a bill is designed for seizing fish.

I had hardly settled into my watery lookout when a young peregrine falcon shot in and took a swipe at the booby. The aggressive raptor then chased the seabird around the lake, occasionally forcing it to the water. I don’t think it was an effort to kill the booby; the falcon likely was exerting dominance over a completely foreign large bird, a notion reinforced when the falcon appropriated the booby’s favored perch.

After the falcon left, the booby commenced fishing, making plunge dives to grab small prey. These freshwater fish probably were easier to take than a favored oceanic food, flying fish.

Why would a brown booby be on a freshwater lake in northeast Ohio, 1,100 miles north of its normal saltwater purlieu? Hurricane Laura. This storm formed off the coast of Africa a few days before this booby appeared, and it swept across the Atlantic. It undoubtedly blew the young, inexperienced bird far to the north, giving Ohio its first record of an unexpected species.

Unfortunately, the booby never made it back to southern oceans. Sometime during the night of Sept. 4 or the next day’s early hours, a great horned owl apparently picked it off. The booby’s wings were found below the tree, and dismemberment is a calling card of these powerful owls.

During its stay, though, this booby enriched many lives and brought a taste of tropical oceans to Ohio.

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, September 16, 2020

Curve-lined Owlet: A most extraordinary caterpillar!

 

A typical Ohio woodland, especially in southern Ohio's Adams County, where I made this shot. The leaves in the foreground belong to Common Greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia. Many hikers/woods-people know this plant because of its heavily thorned stems. Walking through a dense greenbrier patch is not fun.

But greenbriers - there are about a half-dozen Smilax species in Ohio - are ecologically important and play host to some very cool critters. One of them, the extremely bizarre Curve-lined Owlet Moth caterpillar, has been on my hit list for years. I have searched scads of greenbrier, which sometimes seems like the proverbial needle in a haystack quest, to no avail. Until September 8. The quest caterpillar is actually in the greenbrier in the above shot, but might be a bit tough to spot. You'll certainly see it well in the following images, though.

Chris Zacharias knew that I and a few others were hot on the trail of this owlet cat, and soon after he stumbled into one at the location above back on September 7 (his first, I believe) he sent John Howard and I messages with details. And so launched my first ever major caterpillar chase, as it was a two hour drive to reach the site. But the following day I headed out at dawn, and met John and Cheryl Carpenter at the site. Our hopes were high. If some annoying titmouse or other caterpillar-killing bag of feathers hadn't taken out the owlet, we were pretty confident about finding our Holy Grail.

The Curve-lined Owlet caterpillar in silhouette. Even from this, we get a sense of the strangeness of this tubular oddity.

Chris, detail-oriented as he is - not to mention sharp-eyed! - had sent explicit directions to the cat, which was feasting on a greenbrier plant about a half-mile down a woodland path. We headed that way, but were slowed by numerous greenbriers dotting the forest floor. Figuring that the moth that laid the golden egg that produced Zacharias's owlet caterpillar probably laid scores of other eggs in the area, we carefully inspected plants on the way.

The three of us were gathered around a small patch of greenbrier, when suddenly John uttered magic words: "Here's one!" And just like that, the spell was broken. Years of fruitless quests and thorny greenbrier searches fell by the wayside, and we drank in the charm of what may be our (in Ohio, at least) most bizarre caterpillar.

The Curve-lined Owlet caterpillar hangs from a stem of Common Greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia. Greenbrier leaves are often dappled with brownish patches of necrotic tissue, and leaf margins often turn brown and crisp. Furthermore, plants are beset with filamentous tendrils. The caterpillar seems to mimic all these things, and they can be incredibly hard to spot in the thickets. I shudder to think how many I've been in close proximity to, but missed.

A dead greenbrier leaf snagged on a stem. You can see how well the caterpillar mimics the look of dead plant material.

PHOTO NOTE: To get the uniformly brown bokeh (background) in some of these photos, we just held a piece of cardboard a foot or so behind the subject. I always carry such things - including sheets of other colors - to help separate my subject from a cluttered background when needed. I believe the greenish background in the previous shot was achieved by having John get behind the caterpillar so we could use his shirt for the bokeh.

After a suitable admiration session of the first caterpillar, we worked on down the trail and located Chris Zachariah's animal. Not one, but two Curve-lined Owlet cats in short order! This owlet was on a different greenbrier species, Bristly Greenbrier, Smilax hispida.

Their appearance is truly remarkable - look at those pseudo-tendrils! - but equally astonishing is the caterpillar's behavior. If disturbed, or even jostled by a puff of wind, the caterpillar will begin to slowly twist and turn, just as a hanging dead leaf will. John has great video of this leaf-mimicking behavior. I think the larva is aided in its ability to slowly twist and pivot from a single point by the fact that it has only two sets of medial prolegs - most non-inchworm caterpillars have four middle sets of legs.

Photo by John Howard and used with permission

If all goes well for the strange caterpillar, this is what it will become. The Curve-lined Owlet moth is also a very interesting insect. The common name derives from that prominent whitish line across the wings. I have never seen the moth, and appreciate John allowing me the use of his image. I believe he has seen only one or two of the moths. I too hope to some day clap eyes on one.

The seeming scarcity of this species is a bit of a mystery. Its host plants are common, and often locally abundant. Obviously the caterpillars, in spite of being of a decently large size, are tough to spot. But I and others I know have spent many hours looking for them and you'd think if they were fairly common we'd occasionally encounter cats. It's not like we're brand new to the caterpillar-hunting rodeo. Also, the moths don't seem to turn up very often at moth sheets. Perhaps they just are not strongly attracted to light, though. Anyway, some mystery surrounds this extraordinary animal.

Major thanks to Chris Zacharias for tipping us to his discovery. The caterpillar was everything we hoped for and more. Besides and as always, this foray got us deep into some interesting habitat, and that night we hunted more caterpillars and set up moth lights. Scores of other interesting finds were made and in all it was a highly productive long day of exploration and photography.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Big backyard buck!

 

I glanced into the backyard "refuge" a few days ago only to see this stud. He was eating my beauty-berry plants. He may be the father of the two fawns that frequent my yard, and he may be looking to hook up with the doe again. Fine by me, as is his consumption of my backyard flora. He vaulted that fence as effortlessly as we'd step over a curb. I wrote about the fawns - at least one of them, a second appeared later - RIGHT HERE, and HERE.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Concretions, galore


Hundreds of concretions litter the stream bed of Deer Creek in Pickaway County, Ohio. These concretions are composed of siderite, a type of iron carbonate, and many are massive. Over the eons, they have eroded from the much softer Devonian Shale. Shale cliffs line the western bank of the stream. The overall effect is quite dramatic and more than a touch surreal. It's like an army of rock blobs marching down the stream. I hope to get back here near the peak of fall color for more photography. Yesterday morning.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Eastern Racer

An excellent find on last Tuesday's foray deep into Adams County (Ohio) was this fine Eastern Racer, Coluber constrictor. The animal was basking on sun-soaked leaf litter near the trail, and held tight hoping we'd pass without noticing. The last person in the party, John Howard, did, fortunately. These are exciting snakes. Racers exude a raw charisma, an incredible sense of awareness, and feral charm. They're tough, and other snakes - even venomous species - constitute part of their diet. The "racer" name is warranted. When this one had enough of our act, it shot away like a snapped bullwhip and was into a brush pile 20 feet away in seconds.

This trip was incredibly productive. We were after a true Holy Grail species, and found it. Along the way, many other interesting organisms such as this snake were found. I'll post about the prized find of our foray later. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Nature: Despite "ick" factor, spiders play vital role as predator

A pirate spider lurks under a leaf/Jim McCormac

Nature: Despite "ick" factor, spiders play vital role as predator

September 6, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Like it or not, we’re entering prime spider season. And there’s a good chance YOU don’t like it. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears. That’s a shame. Spiders are fascinating in behavior and appearance, and critical components of ecological webs.

There are approximately 650 spider species known from Ohio, and they come in many shapes and sizes. Many species overwinter in the egg stage, and the tiny spiderlings hatch in spring. By autumn, they have grown to an appreciable size and we notice many of the larger spiders.

Spiders represent an enormous group of apex predators, and are a vital part of maintaining ecological balance. As one of the most abundant group of hunters in most of our habitats, they collectively harvest an enormous volume of prey.

Silken webs of all sorts are the most conspicuous evidence of spiders plying their trade. Some webs are small and inconspicuous; others are large and showy. The raison d’ etre for these webs is universal: snare unsuspecting prey.

I was recently part of a group that converged at the ridgetop home of artist and author Julie Zickefoose in rural Washington County. Our party included Kelly Ball, Laura Hughes, Jessica Vaughan Melfi, Shila Wilson, and Julie and I.

A big part of the foray involved a nocturnal outing. We were mostly stalking moths and caterpillars, but found numerous interesting spiders. Like eight-legged vampires, many spiders emerge under the cloak of darkness.

As the night wore on, members of our party gradually slipped away, sanely returning to base camp and soft beds. Eventually it was just Laura and I and our flashlights exploring the inky woodlands. We finally ran out of steam at 3 am, but as is often the case, the post-midnight hours were productive.

At one point Laura summoned me to look at a spider lurking under a leaf. She had found a pirate spider, Mimetus puritanus!

There were good reasons to exalt over this find. One, pirate spiders don’t seem to be very common, or at least I have seldom seen them. Two, pirate spiders are arachnoid Rambos.

Almost all of our spider species are venomous, and other small animals mostly do well to avoid them. A pounce and a quick bite and they’re paralyzed toast. Even spiders must watch their steps when around other spider species.

The pirate spider isn’t intimidated by its venomous kin. Indeed, this small group – there are 8 species in Ohio and 156 species worldwide – specialize on hunting other spiders.

Unlike many other spiders, pirate spiders do not construct webs. Some species lie in wait, and when another spider happens by they pounce on it, kill it and eat it.

More interesting from a tactical perspective are the web-raiding pirate spiders. A hunting spider will sidle up to a web and gently twang a strand like a homicidal banjo player. This creates vibration throughout the web, and the rightful occupant will rush from its hiding spot and into the web to investigate.

The pirate spider then blitzkriegs the unsuspecting victim, and kills it.

Such dramas play out in abundance under cover of darkness. Horrifying as they may seem when gauged by human sensibilities, this is just the reality of Nature. And Nature is usually not very Disneyesque.

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, September 4, 2020

The Booby is dead, long live the Booby!

 

Photo by Jeff Harvey, posted with permission

We - the birders of Ohio - were rocked by some unfortunate news this morning. I received an email around 8:30 am from Bob Lane, along with some photos taken moments before by Jeff Harvey. Jeff had gone to see the Brown Booby once more - the subject of my prior post, RIGHT HERE - and soon found this wing floating under the booby's favorite perch tree.

Alas, there's no mistaking that wing. Some predator had taken out what had become perhaps the most famous vagrant bird in the Midwest.

Photo by Jeff Harvey, posted with permission

One of the juvenile Brown Booby's wings, dismembered. Who would have done this dastardly deed?

An obvious suspect, and some fingers have pointed in this direction, would be the juvenile Peregrine Falcon that I discussed in my previous post about this booby. However, I do not think the falcon is guilty. It is true that peregrines are primarily bird hunters. But they generally take much smaller prey than this booby, although the powerful falcons can kill ducks and smaller geese. But a Brown Booby weighs nearly a pound more than a peregrine, is nearly twice the length, and its wingspan is almost a foot and half longer. It'd be a tall order for a falcon to take out a booby and it probably wouldn't be worth the effort, especially in an area where more manageable prey abounds. Plus, I don't think a falcon would neatly sever the wings.

Also, the last report of the booby from yesterday came from around sunset or even a bit after, and the booby was settled into its favorite perch tree. While Peregrine Falcons are known to occasionally hunt at night, such behavior is not typical and the species is normally a diurnal hunter. While the booby kill could have been made around dawn this morning, before Jeff or other birders arrived, it seems likely that something got it last night.

I would guess Great Horned Owl. These powerful owls are at the top of the avian food chain in these parts, and are known for dismembering body parts of larger victims. Especially the head. I don't know if anyone has found or will find the rest of the booby carcass, but if it turns up it'll be interesting to see if it's headless or at least partly so. Great Horned Owls are known to take birds up to the size of mergansers, Short-eared Owl, and even - at least once - an Osprey. A booby roosting more or less in the open in a dead tree would seem to be a sitting duck for a hungry owl.

Scores of people came to see the celebrity booby during its ten days at Nimisila Reservoir. There's no telling if the wayward youngster would have made its way back to southern oceans, eventually. But that's a moot point now. Fortunately, in the bigger picture, Brown Booby is probably the most numerous of the world's half-dozen booby species, with a population likely numbering several hundred thousand. So, while many of us will lament the loss of the Ohio bird, the species will carry on. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Brown Booby makes first Ohio appearance!

Birding by boat. A small flotilla of birders/photographers (the two groups are largely inseparable these days) watches what is easily the rarest bird in Ohio right now. On August 25, Henry Trimpe discovered a juvenile Brown Booby, Sula leucogaster, on Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County.

I finally made the journey up to see the bird yesterday. By then, the initial madness had worn off, and while dozens of people visited during my time, it wasn't the heavier crowds of days prior. The young booby seems quite at home here, and I figured it would linger. It's still present today.


Nimisila Reservoir and vicinity is a beautiful, watery region, and very much to the liking of "fish hawks", or Ospreys. I arrived at 7 am, and the first bird that I heard upon stepping from the vehicle was an Osprey. Their high-pitched piping whistles were a constant part of the soundscape, and perhaps six of the fish-eating raptors were present.

I saw lots of interesting birds during my five hours at Nimisila, but this beauty was what we had all come for: the young Brown Booby. The name, of course, provides constant fodder for witty repartee and interesting reactions from non-birders.

Non-birder: "So, what are you all looking at?"

Birder: "A Brown Booby"

Hilarity ensues.

The funny name arises from the Spanish bobo, which means "dunce". Sailors became very familiar with these birds early on, and thought them stupid due to their extraordinary tameness. Seabirds that nest on isolated islands and have little to no human contact often show little fear of people. But the misinterpretation of their intellect did give us the comical name. For more interesting information about boobies, and the sources and meanings of North American bird names, get a copy of Gary Meiter's book Bird is the Word. Go HERE to read more about this book, and HERE to get a copy.

Brown Boobies are an oceanic species, very rarely venturing inland and onto fresh water, especially this far north. That said, there is an Indiana record and several records from the eastern end of Lake Erie, so it's not altogether unexpected for this species to appear in Ohio.

While the numerous Osprey did not bother the booby in the slightest, this young Peregrine Falcon certainly did. Early in my visit, the falcon rocketed in and chased the booby off its favorite perch in a dead tree along the shoreline. It then proceeded to chase our rare visitor around the lake, forcing it onto the water and making several dives at it. I don't really think the falcon was attempting to kill the booby; it was probably just out for some fun. After thoroughly exerting its dominance, the Peregrine flew back to the booby's exact perch and sat for a while - that's where the above image was made.


While boobies may look somewhat clumsy and comical when grounded, they transform once airborne. Fast and powerful in flight, the Brown Booby specializes in catching flying fish when in its normal marine haunts. That takes extreme aerial prowess. The Nimisila vagrant seemed to be doing fine in capturing the lake's freshwater fish, and treated viewers to regular flights. Notice the heavy molt going on with this bird.


It's hard to say what the fate of this young booby will be. It likely was forced off the Gulf of Mexico and way to the north by Hurricane Laura, which formed and rapidly grew in intensity a few days prior to the bird's appearance here. Saltwater birds often don't fare well in the long term in freshwater habitats. With luck, the Brown Booby will make its way back south and onto the ocean. But whether it has any innate instinct as to where it should be remains unknown.

One thing is for certain. Many people will be keeping an eye on the bird, and it will be interesting to see how this booby situation plays out.
 

Cooper's Hawk

  An adult male Cooper's Hawk perches on a backyard fence, yesterday. These exciting raptors routinely enter my yard, lured indirectly b...