Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Northern Gannet on Lake Erie!

Last Sunday, December 4, I took a trip to one of my favorite Lake Erie hotspots, the municipal pier at Huron, Ohio, in Erie County. I was undecided about any trip until late the night before, due to some pending projects, but ultimately felt it was in my best interest to get out for a while and try to trip the shutter on some interesting targets. And I found a completely unexpected and mega-interesting target.

A juvenile Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)! The mouth of the Huron River and nearby Lake Erie was teeming with gulls, mostly Ring-billed and Herring gulls. A smattering of Bonaparte's Gulls, and at least one Lesser Black-backed and a few Great Black-backed gulls, too. I had walked out to the furthest southwestern corner of the riprap wall surrounding the huge dredge impoundment on the west side of the pier, as this position offered a commanding view of the action, and the light was good.

I wasn't in position for ten minutes when I saw an enormous bird cruise in from the direction of the open lake. I got my big lens on it ASAP and verified that it was indeed a gannet. The camera was all set for action, as I was already focused on shooting birds in flight. The Canon R5 was in electronic shutter mode, which yields a burst rate of 20 frames a second. Unfortunately, the gannet was at a distance of perhaps a quarter mile or so and never came nearer than that. But fortunately, I was shooting with the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, and had the 1.4x extender attached, making for an 1120 mm lens. Even with that firepower, this image was the best that I could do - and it's extremely cropped - but it leaves no question regarding the identification.

Northern Gannets are certainly not unprecedented on Lake Erie, but they are great rarities. They appear every few years, but I think the last report prior to this one dates to 2017. It's the third gannet that I've seen on Lake Erie.

Within a few minutes of the bird vanishing towards Cedar Point to the west (I got to watch it for perhaps 2-3 minutes) I got word out to the birding community via Facebook. And scuttled my other plans to hit other lakefront locales. I proceeded out to the end of the pier, which offers a commanding view of Lake Erie, and hoped the big bird would reappear. A number of other birders stopped by as well, but at least by the time that I left around 3:30, the gannet had not reappeared. Hopefully it will turn up in the area again and others can see it. The lake between Huron and Cleveland is the zone for wayward gannets on Lake Erie, and that's where most Ohio records come from.

This is the first image that I took of the gannet, shortly after spotting it. The big seabird dwarfs the nearby Ring-billed Gull.

I suspect that gannets that appear on Lake Erie or elsewhere on the Great Lakes originate from the massive colony (100,000+ birds!) on Bonaventure Island at Perce, Quebec. That's the red dot on the Google Earth map above. "Ile Bonaventure" sits at the terminus of the Gaspe Peninsula, in the expansive Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the outflow for the entirety of the Great Lakes. I believe all Ohio gannet records are of juveniles. Apparently, the naive youngsters mistake west for east, and instead of heading out into the Atlantic Ocean to winter with the other gannets, the wayward birds head up the St. Lawrence River and inland. They pass by the iconic Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto, through Lake Ontario, on past Niagara Falls and up the Niagara River, and into Lake Erie. It's about 1,100 miles from Bonaventure Island to Huron, Ohio, as the gannet would fly.

A juvenile Northern Gannet in the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City, Maryland. I made this image on February 27, 2022, during a pelagic seabird trip run by George Armistead and his company, Hillstar Nature. We saw many gannets, of all ages.

It takes gannets 4-5 years to attain full adult plumage. After their first (juvenile) year in which they are all brown like the bird that I photographed, immature gannets start to develop a patchwork of white. In general, they go from darker to whiter but there is great plumage variability even among gannets of the same age. All or virtually all Lake Erie gannet records are of brown first-year birds.

A smattering of the 100,000+ Northern Gannets that nest on Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the likely source of origin for wayward juvenile gannets that appear on the Great Lakes. I made this image on July 1, 2018.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Two showy creatures at Kankakee Sands

A Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) atop a particularly showy hunting perch. The beautiful predatory insect chose this equally beautiful flowering spike of Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta) as a lookout from which to hunt game. This was at Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana, last June 29, 2022.

Kankakee Sands is an epic prairie restoration owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. This year's trip was my fourth visit, and each one has been interesting and highly productive. While my house in Worthington, Ohio, is less than 300 miles east of Kankakee Sands, the ecological difference is vast. Many true prairie species - flora and fauna - did not make it quite as far as Ohio, and Kankakee represents their eastern terminus.

So smitten with Kankakee Sands am I that I successfully cajoled the editor of BWD (formerly Bird Watcher's Digest) into letting me pen an article on the place in their upcoming January/February issue. While the article focuses mostly on birds, of which there are many, it also gives a thumbnail of the fascinating history of this region. BWD is well worth getting - learn more about the magazine RIGHT HERE.

I made this image on the same Kankakee trip. While Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) are not rare, who cares? The extroverted little buntings are astonishing in appearance, and I never tire of looking at them. Within earshot of this chap's briar patch were Bell's Vireo, Grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, Western Meadowlark (Eastern Meadowlarks, too), and TNC's fabulous, reintroduced herd of about 100 head of American Bison.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Orchid program - next Monday evening


I'm giving a program on orchids, and the photography thereof, for the Westbridge Camera Club next Monday evening, December 5, at 7 pm. All are welcome. It's at Midwest Photo, 2887 Silver Dr, Columbus, OH 43211. Details from the club below:

Please join us next week for Education Meeting, December 5
Doors open at 6:30pm for socializing, meeting starts at 7:00pm
Jim McCormac, botanist and photographer, will speak on Photographing Ohio Orchids. His presentations are always informative and inspiring!

The Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) is the second largest flowering plant family in the world, eclipsed only by the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). Orchids reach peak abundance in tropical haunts, and as an example, over 4,200 species have so far been documented in Colombia! Ohio pales in comparison to that, but our 47 (depending on how you slice them) species are interesting and imminently photogenic. Some are furtive and take sleuthing to track down while others are bold and showy. Insects are vital to the pollination of most species, including many fascinating coevolutionary relationships with moths. This talk will be a pictorial journey through some of Ohio’s most notable orchid species and will include notes on their photography.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Frost Flowers


This is a showy little mint known as Dittany (Cunila origanoides). It is a southern species, and Ohio is at the northern limits of its range. Dittany ranges across the southeastern and eastern portion of the state - the hill country.

Little pinkish flowers are held in axillary fascicles. Dittany blooms in late summer. The preceding image was made on August 23, 2014, in Athens County, and the above shot dates to August 24, 2019, from Scioto County.

Dittany is habitat-specific: it favors poor often rocky and acidic soils in well-drained sites. Sparsely vegetated roadbanks along or near ridgetops are good places to look.

The little mint is well-known for producing the subject of this post: frost flowers. Ephemeral in the extreme, one's window to seek the fascinating phenomenon of frost flowers is quite brief. I've long known of frost flowers but had not managed to catch up to them until last Friday, November 18. I was at the lodge at Shawnee State Park in Scioto County for a meeting and stayed over that night. The day had been relatively warm and the ground was damp due to previous rains. That night the mercury nosedived, and when I went afield at dawn the following day it was 13 F. Perfect for finding frost flowers and that mission was foremost on my list.

After a wonderful encounter with a Gray Fox - no photos, unfortunately - I soon arrived at a ridgetop lush with Dittany. And in no time clapped eyes on frost flowers. The one above is among the first that I saw.

Frost flowers are formed when the plant's roots are still forcing liquid upwards into the stem, and soil temperatures are warm enough that water has not yet frozen. A sudden overnight drop in temperatures below freezing is then required to produce the beautiful ice formations. As the liquids are forced into the old brittle stems, the water freezes, expands, and cracks the stems. Water is then forced outwards and freezes into bizarre formations on the lower stems.

Another, more cylindrical frost flower. No two are alike. Frost flowers are very white, and it might be easy to pass them by as pieces of debris - Styrofoam, or something similar. But because of their whiteness, they stick out like sore thumbs in the brown leaf litter of early winter. Once attuned and on the search, a frost flower hunter will have little difficulty finding the quarry, as long as the conditions are right, and the hunter is out early. Once the first sun rays strike them, the frost flowers quickly melt away.

The gossamer rime is exceptionally fragile, as I quickly learned. Even slight contact with a frost flower, say, attempting to pull a leaf away and bumping one, often shatters it. One must work gently with these icy subjects.

The striations and banding patterns of frost flowers are fantastically varied and ornate. They often resemble ribbon candy.

This was one of the larger frost flowers that I encountered. While shaped differently, it was near the size of a pop can. Others were perhaps the size of a roll of pennies.

A hollowed-out cup-like frost flower. That's the Dittany stem that formed out, spanning the top of the "flower".

This Saturday was a very good day afield - nearly all of it serendipitous. I usually have a fairly concrete plan of attack when going afield. In this case, when I headed down on Friday my plan was to look for and photograph birds the following morning. Then, when I realized how the temperatures would be nose-diving that night, my focus shifted to frost flowers. The Gray Fox first thing was a good omen. Within 10 minutes of that sighting, I had located my first frost flowers, and went on to find several dozen. Then, around 10 am I encountered the Bobcat family that is featured in the previous post.

Not a bad day, and I hope to time things right for next year's frost flower crop.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Bobcat, with kittens

BLOG NOTE: About every week of late, someone asks me 1) why I stopped making blog posts, or 2) why the email notifications for new posts went away. The two are related, as #1 is from people who depended on those email blasts to alert them to a new post and didn't otherwise check. For reasons unknown, to me at least, my platform, Blogspot, did away with the email notification system. As it's apparently now completely phased out the email notifications have stopped arriving. I wish they hadn't, as do I'm sure all other bloggers who used that service. I don't as yet know a workaround or other solutions, and don't know when/if I will. If you like seeing the content here, I would recommend that you bookmark the blog, and check in routinely. I normally create one or two posts weekly.

A female Bobcat (Lynx rufus) crosses a forest road with two kittens. This was in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, where there is probably a sizable population. Nonetheless, even though I have spent scores of hours there over the last 25+ years, these are the first cats I've clapped eyes on in Shawnee.

I was out in the woods at dawn yesterday, with two primary missions: 1) shoot imagery of frost flowers, and 2) engage on some bird photography. Success on #1 and I'll post later about these strange ephemeral ice formations.

By 8:30 am or so, I was about a half mile back in the tangled growth of an old reverting clear cut. This is a good spot for several woodpecker species, including Red-headed Woodpecker. Lots of fruiting Staghorn Sumac promised Hermit Thrush, and there were at least two, but they never presented themselves well. After an hour or so the wind started coming up, and as I wasn't getting much action I headed back for the car.

Fortunately, I had pulled the Jeep far enough off the forest road that it wasn't glaringly apparent from down the road. As is my habit, when I arrived at the vehicle, I glanced down the road. Voila! The three cats were in the act of crossing, and I made the image above shortly after spotting them. They didn't make me, either. Using the rear of the vehicle as a blind, I dropped my tripod on the ground and was ready to shoot within seconds. NOTE: I almost never turn off my camera or disassemble the rig until I'm ready to stow it in the vehicle. Never know what might happen and you want to be ready for it when it does. ANOTHER NOTE: While it goes without saying that, when stalking game, one should wear colors that aren't conspicuous, it's also a good practice to try and walk quietly, something that seems to be a dying art. Avoiding even creating the crackle of leaves or the grating of pebbles might offer you an edge over wary targets. Outside heel down first, roll onto the foot, etc. By doing so, one can move along soundlessly. All this might have helped me from unknowingly alerting the cats before I had the chance to see them, although I was distant enough that that worked in my favor too. Fortunately, I had just been after birds, so my big 800mm was on the tripod.

The two kittens watch their mother melt into the brush. They messed about on the road's edge for a minute, one even taking a few air bats at the other, before disappearing as well.

I've seen Bobcat twice before in Ohio and both were good looks, but not in situations where I could photograph them. I'm planning on writing more about these cats in a future newspaper column and will post that here after it appears.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck nesting update


Four of Ohio's now famous Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks loaf along the shoreline of the small pond where the state's first apparently wild nesting record of this species occurred. I visited the Wayne County site yesterday, and all eight juveniles (although there were ten originally) were doing well. Although it was a nippy 30 F, the birds seemed to be fine. For a recap of the nesting record and status of this species in Ohio, GO HERE.

Here are all nine birds - pink-billed adult in front center - seining Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor) from the pond's surface. They don't call this tiny flowering plant duckweed for nothing, and it seems to be a staple food for this bunch. Unfortunately, the duckweed, which blanketed the pond when the chicks hatched, is quickly disappearing.

A juvenile stretches its wings. There was much stretching and test flaps going on. However, as you can see by looking at the base of this bird's wing, not all of the wing feathers have fully grown in yet. While others have seen some of these juveniles make short test flights across the pond, I suspect they are not yet ready for long sustained flights, thus the reason that they remain in ever colder Ohio. It can take up to 13 weeks for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks to finish their juvenile molt. In this case, that would be the first or second week of December. But, on the short end of the molt timing, it's about 10 weeks, so hopefully everyone will be ready for the long southward haul before the small pond freezes over.
All nine birds tuck into the vegetation on the pond bank for a siesta. The watchful adult is in the upper left corner. The youngsters are every bit as big as the adult, and all it took was a small one-third acre pond to raise them. Hopefully all continues to go well with them.

There are a few things worthy of pondering in this case. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are normally a spring nester, typically April and May. Of course, that's in the core range in North America, which lies far south of Ohio and Wisconsin. But it's interesting to note that the only nesting record further north than this one was of a brood in Wisconsin in 2020. Curiously, the Wisconsin brood was also hatched in mid-September, and was only tended by one bird. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck pairs normally share nesting duties through the duration of parental care of the juveniles. No one has seen a second adult at the Ohio nesting site.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are also cavity nesters, and there doesn't appear to be any suitable cavities near the Wayne County pond that hosts the brood. The Wisconsin nesting site was also unknown. But in a pinch, this species will nest on the ground, and it seems likely that's what happened.

Not to throw a wrench in things, but Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is pretty commonly kept among aviculturists. And there are apparently a fair number of those in this part of Ohio. See THIS POST I made a decade ago and be sure to read the comments. For the record, in the case of the above-sited post, it is my opinion that the Ringed Teal was clearly an escapee, but the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck was more likely a wild vagrant. I'm quite aware that Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are rapidly expanding their range northward unassisted, and there is a mountain of evidence to prove it. Yet that doesn't mean the species no longer can escape from captivity. In a back recess of my mind, I can't help but to wonder about that possibility in the case of Ohio's decidedly atypical nesting record. We don't have any evidence to prove that, though, and likely never will. However, I guess I would lean towards a wild, unassisted nesting record given the sheer scope of the northward invasion of this species. If the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck continues the course, it stands to reason that there will be more breeding records to come in Ohio and other northern states, and a breeding trend will become established.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk


A juvenile male Cooper's Hawk sits on my backyard fence yesterday. I routinely receive visits from several different individuals, and it's not hard to tell when one is around. The songbirds make themselves scarce, and all gets pretty quiet. Interesting is the reaction of the Gray Squirrels. If a male hawk enters the yard, they'll often continue with business as usual. One was feeding at a feeder 15 feet from this perched hawk. However, if one of the much larger female Cooper's Hawks comes around, the squirrels typically scramble for cover. Female Coops are much larger - up to one-third again the size - of males. The squirrels feel decidedly uncomfortable when the big females lurk nearby, and with good reason. The bigger of the sexes can capture a squirrel, or at least make a valiant effort.