Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Interesting yellow grasshopper

A thick growth of Partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) lines my front walkway. There are many other native plants in this bed, but few of them can match the Partridge-pea for pollinator allure. Dozens of bumblebees (genus Bombus) are on the plants at any time, and the high-pitched collective buzz as they buzz-pollinate the flowers is awesome. Partridge-pea also has extrafloral nectaries - I once wrote about those HERE - and myriad bees and wasps are always visiting those. There is always something interesting to see in this patch.

This, however, was completely new! I've seen a lot of Differential Grasshoppers (Melanoplus differentialis) in my time, but never one like this. This large species is one of our most common grasshoppers, but they are usually a drab olive color.

Back on July 18, my brother Mike came over to shoot pool - I LOVE shooting pool and have a table in the basement - and I was showing him all the action in the Partridge-pea. He peered into the plants and spotted the grasshopper, sitting just as it is on the fruit of Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis). Fortunately, my macro rig with flash and diffuser was sitting inside on the kitchen counter. I did not pose the grasshopper, although I confess the bug looks good on the fruit. I'm not saying I wouldn't have perhaps posed it there, but you try "posing" a grasshopper sometime. Not easy to impossible.

Anyway, orthopterans routinely but rarely have pink or yellow variations, but I've never seen nor heard of yellow forms with this species. A bit of a scan around the Internet for images produced only one or two, so I imagine lemony-colored Differential Grasshoppers are pretty rare.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Nature: Local couple has created an ecologically-friendly yardscape rich in native flora

Josh McElhaney's yard, thick with a diversity of wildflowers/Jim McCormac

Nature: Local couple has created an ecologically-friendly yardscape rich in native flora

August 7, 2022

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Trick question: What is the largest irrigated crop in the United States? Answer: Your yard, and all the rest of them. Lawns cover 40 million acres of the U.S., which is more than the 11 largest national parks combined and three times the acreage of corn crops. About 10% of Ohio is in lawn.

People dump billions of gallons of water on the ground daily to keep the turfgrass emerald-green. Can’t have “weeds” encroaching or unwanted insects attacking the grass, so over 100 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides drench lawns annually. These toxic chemicals make their way into waterways and cause various environmental and human health issues.

I won’t even go into the gas use and pollution generated by lawn mowers, and that noisy scourge of suburbia, the gas-powered leaf blower.

Lawn management is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so there is plenty of seductive spin aimed at convincing people that a manicured lawn is good and healthy. Don’t want the Joneses to leave you behind! The truth is that all of this non-native grass and its attendant management has laid waste to native plants and wildlife.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And increasing numbers of homeowners are eschewing traditional high maintenance turfgrass wastelands in favor of hardy and beautiful native flora. And just last week, The Dispatch garden writer offered suggestions for alternatives to turfgrass.

When I moved to Worthington a few years ago, I immediately set out to vanquish lawn in favor of native plants.

Today, my yardscape is floristically diverse and full of interesting low-/no-maintenance plants. Numerous butterflies provide fluttering proof of increased eco-friendliness. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen American snout, cloudless sulphur, hackberry emperor, monarch, and summer azure laying eggs on appropriate host plants (none of which are turfgrass).

Last year, my brother Mike introduced me to one of the kings of lawn-to-native conversion, Josh McElhaney. Josh and his wife Abby live in the epitome of urbanized suburbia: the corner of Karl and Cooke roads in northeast Columbus. I visited their “yard” again on July 13 and was blown away by its diversity.

Josh began his mission to diversify an acre of lawn in 2015. Seven years later, it bears beautiful fruit. At least half the grass is gone, replaced with a rich palette of native flora. Various coneflowers, cup-plant, several goldenrod species, prairie-dock and sunflowers provided lemony highlights and sent the local goldfinches atwitter in anticipation of the coming seed crop.

A discerning botanist would have fun searching the McElhaney yard. Curiosities such as queen-of-the-prairie, pawpaw, persimmon, rattlesnake-master, royal catchfly, and wild honeysuckle dot the grounds. Five species of milkweeds are in the gardens, a boon for monarch butterflies. One is Sullivant’s milkweed, which was first discovered in Ohio in the 1830s. Its finder was William Starling Sullivant, the botanist son of Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton, which would evolve into Columbus.

Splashes of color come courtesy of easily grown native standards such as blue false indigo, mountain mint, redbud, and wild bergamot. A daring gardener, Josh has also planted two species of sumac: ecological heavy lifters, but they occasionally need to be reined in. In all, about 100 native plant species now flourish in the McElhaney yard and it in no way resembles its grassy predecessor.

I asked Josh why he started down the native path, and he gave a wonderful answer. The McElhaneys have two girls, ages 8 and 10, and wanted them to be able to experience nature and all that comes with it at fingertip range. That they can; just a step or two out the door and this easy opportunity has sparked an interest in flora and fauna in the girls.

Josh likes showing off his homegrown wildlife refuge and sharing what he’s learned about establishing native flora.

If you would like to visit, send me a note at jimmccormac35@gmail.com and I will put you in touch.

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, August 5, 2022

Purple Fringeless Orchid

A stunning Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena) grows in a rich bottomland forest. It and others were along the margins of an irregularly inundated overflow channel of a nearby stream.

I made a trip into Zaleski State Forest (Vinton County, Ohio) on July 28 of this year, in large part to look for this amazing orchid. It is fairly easy to find in this region, and in places is along the roadsides. This plant and the following were off the beaten path, though - bit of a hike up a trail, then a bushwhack down to the bottomland and voila! There they were. As a bonus, I located a handful of Cranefly Orchids (Tipularia discolor) in flower.

A closer view of the ornately structured flowers. A nearby plant had a much more densely flowered spike, but I prefer these more open inflorescences if one may be choosy about their Purple Fringeless Orchids.

Various swallowtail butterflies and hummingbird moths in the genus Hemaris visit the flowers during the day, and next year (perhaps) I will return to an orchid patch and sit, wait, and try to photograph the pollinators in action. These are all diurnal pollinators, and I don't know if there is a night shift of moths that visits the flowers.

PHOTO NOTES: This is a big plant, up to three feet in height and sporting lengthy spikes of flowers. Thus, I used a big lens: my Canon 400mm f/2.8 II, on a tripod of course. I prefer telephotos for certain flower photography, as the beautifully blurred bokeh is very complementary to the subject. The second shot was made at f/8, 1/13, and ISO 320. My only real job was to choose an angle that didn't have other vegetation immediately behind the subject. Stopping down three stops brought more depth of field to the flowers, but still did not pull in background distractions. Because of the dim light and my desire to keep the ISO low, a SLOW shutter speed was required. But as there was mostly no wind, that wasn't a problem. No flash - that would have created a black background, not the look I was after. Also, flash can impart a harshness that I don't really care for with plants.

The first shot was made with Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8 II, a superb ultra-wide angle. The lens was dialed in to 22mm. By the way, both images were made with the Canon R5. Settings for the first image were f/11, 1/13, and ISO 320 - same as the second other than the aperture. Something really critical with the use of ultra-wide lenses is to get CLOSE to your subject. I probably had the lens six inches or so - maybe less - to that orchid. If an anchor subject isn't close enough, wide-angle shots can look unmoored and somewhat featureless. An obvious and interesting foreground subject sets a tone and draws the viewer's eye into the image.


 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Cedar Bog photography talk and walk - this Saturday

The meadows of Cedar Bog as seen from the air. White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) ring the margins of the fen meadows. This extraordinary glacial relict habitat is unique to Ohio, and as a writer, I generally despise the blatant misuse of "unique". But there is no other cedar swamp in the state. Cedar Bog harbors the richest diversity of plant life in its meadows, according to the Ohio Floristic Quality Assessment Index, and rare species are liberally spiced throughout the botanical ranks.

I am giving a PowerPoint talk on "Conservation Photography" this Saturday at 10 am. All are welcome. The talk is in the visitor's center, which is just off to the left and out of the picture in the image above. The address is 980 Woodburn Road, Urbana, OH 43078. It's a nominal $5.00 ($10.00 for nonmembers) to attend. Money goes to support the wonderful work of the Cedar Bog Association, the nonprofit that manages the preserve.

After the talk and lunch, we'll head on to the boardwalk to explore. There will be much flora and fauna to see, and photograph. We should get to view the newest mega-rare plant, an interesting carnivorous species that came to light in an unexpected way. There will be many other rare plants to see, North America's smallest dragonfly, a threatened species of dancer (damselfly), skinks and much more. Hope to see you there!
 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Nature: Everything's coming up rabbits, thanks to 2022 bunny baby boom

 

A young eastern cottontail in the writer's Worthington backyard/Jim McCormac

Nature: Everything's coming up rabbits, thanks to 2022 bunny baby boom

Columbus Dispatch
July 31, 2022

NATURE
Jim McCormac

One of our most familiar mammals is the eastern cottontail. It is also one of the most prolific mammalian reproducers. Apparently, the rabbits have been hard at work, as there seems to be bunnies hopping everywhere this year.

Just about everyone that I’ve asked has seen lots of rabbits, probably more than normal. So have I. My local cottontails have been above average in producing kits, and they are a daily feature of the yardscape. One magical morning, I glanced out back to see six — two adults and four little ones — gamboling around.

Last spring, I saw their incredible courtship display on several occasions. A buck and doe will square off, acting tense and jerky. Sometimes the doe, apparently irked by the amorous buck, will literally rabbit-kick it with her front paws. This can stimulate the male to charge and spray urine at her — a dating strategy perhaps best left to the bunnies.

Soon they’re rushing one another, with a rabbit springing straight into the air like a furry pogo stick. Sometimes the airborne bunny will twist 180 degrees in mid-flight so that it’s facing the other rabbit upon landing.

The jumping exhibitions are interspersed with chases and other high-speed antics. This is all a precursor to making more bunnies, something that rabbits are quite good at. Cottontails are prolific breeders, with females able to produce five or more litters of up to eight kits, each season. Some of those kits will produce litters in their first year. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that we could quickly be awash with rabbits.

This is where the predators come into play. Rabbits might be thought of as hopping steaks, at least if you’re an animal that likes to eat them. And plenty do, including coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls and weasels. Tiny kits still in their ground nest are especially vulnerable, and crows and raccoons often prey on them.

I once came across a great horned owl on a rural Ross County lane about 2 a.m., sitting atop a freshly killed rabbit. The enormous owl glared ferociously at me, refusing to relinquish its prize, a testimony to its tastiness. Finally, it dragged the carcass up the steep road bank, the rabbit apparently too heavy to get aloft. I passed by, the owl skewering me with its huge yellow eyes.

I’m not sure what happened this year to trigger such an apparent rabbit boom. Perhaps I’m misreading the situation, but I’ve seen bunnies galore about everywhere I go — and I do travel a lot. Even a trip to the prairies of western Indiana and adjacent Illinois produced scads of rabbits. These observations, coupled with numerous similar reports from other observers, lead me to believe that 2022 was an exceptionally good year for cottontails.

Perhaps certain predators, especially coyotes and foxes, are down in numbers. These wily hunters are exceptionally adept at picking off rabbits.

Gardeners might find themselves stocking the rabbits’ table more than usual. But green thumbs can take solace in knowing that the fuzz-tailed plunderer is one of our most interesting and successful animals, and that the rabbit has hopped on Earth for far longer than humans have been around.

My point is that when you look at a bunny and can only see a pest, or vermin, or a meal, or a commodity, or a laboratory subject, you aren’t seeing the bunny anymore.”

— Matthew Scully, author

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, July 29, 2022

Hummingbirds and Royal Catchfly

 

A female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) with a bill full of plant down. The vegan "wild canaries" are late nesters, with July and August peak breeding months. This one was building a nest in a nearby thicket. The colorful males do not assist. They are too busy chasing one another and delivering their impressive sky songs. While so engaged, the male arcs lazily about with slow shallow wing beats, all the while gushing forth an exceptionally ebullient song.

I photographed that goldfinch at Huffman Prairie during a visit on July 22. The 100-acre prairie is at its colorful peak from mid0July into August, and one of the botanical showstoppers is Royal Catchfly (Silene regia). This statuesque prairie plant attracts a very special little bird, and my main mission was to shoot them at catchfly plants.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) approaches a Royal Catchfly. It is thought to be the catchfly's only effective pollinator. The brilliant red flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds, and the sprites swarm Huffman Prairie at this season. Battles over catchfly are frequent. More than a few times I would have a hummingbird in my sights, ready to snap away, when another hummer would roar in and punk my subject. A speedy aerial chase would ensue, with the combatants sometimes spiraling high into the air.

I arrived not long after dawn, and it didn't take long to spot a hummingbird. My modus operandi here is to find a nice patch of catchfly, with at least a few unobstructed exceptionally tall catchflies towering above the snarl of colorful prairie wildflowers. One does not normally have to wait long for photo ops in such a situation. Shooting hummingbirds visiting the red-flowered catchflies wasn't too tough on this day, but I had a more challenging goal in mind.

Mission accomplished! A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits the flowers of a very rare pink or salmon-colored form of Royal Catchfly. This variant is exceedingly scarce, and even at Huffman Prairie with all its catchfly, probably only 1 percent or less of the plants are this form.

To expand upon my tactics outlined above, I try to find a large, pink-flowered catchfly surrounded by typical, red-flowered plants. Such a situation offers the best of both worlds. I will likely snag images of the birds at red flowers and may get the opportunity to shoot them at the rare form as well. And luck was with me on this day, and I got both types of shots.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: I shot these images with my Canon 800mm f/5.6 on the Canon R5 mirrorless body, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberly head. The R5 has made such tasks easier. Its Auto Intelligence focusing feature grabs moving subjects with astonishing rapidity and locks onto them. Even fast-moving hummingbirds. The big lens allows for a fairly expansive swath of habitat to be covered. I can work out to around 30-40 feet in any direction and even at the outer reaches of my sphere, get usable images. As hummingbirds are nearly fearless, they will sometimes come into plants well within my lens's minimum focus of 19 feet. Sometimes birds will come within 5 feet! Occasionally a hummingbird will roar in and hover about eye level and remain there for a few seconds, staring at me. I suppose they are trying to figure out what the large biped with the funny gizmo is doing in their prairie.

Anyway, flash is key when shooting hummingbirds as it helps freeze movement and causes the birds' feather iridescence to pop. I use a Canon 600mm speedlite and a Better Beamer flash extender. The fresnel lens of the latter can throw usable light out about as far as I can shoot the hummers. I learned of a new peril involving fresnel lenses on this day. At one point I small an acrid burning odor. As there is a gun range in the distance, I thought it might be the smell of discharged firearms drifting over. No. I had left my camera rig pointing so the sun was shining right through the fresnel lens. Like a magnifying glass it greatly amplified the sun's rays causing my lens's camouflage lens coat to start smoldering. Easy fix: just remember not to align the Better Beamer with the sun.

Camera settings were mostly ISO 800 to 100, 1/4000 shutter speed, and f/8. The flash must be set to high-speed sync mode, of course, to allow it to function at shutter speeds beyond the sync speed of 1/200. The trade-off of going faster than sync speed is a great drop-off in light output from the flash. Enter the Better Beamer. Its light amplification allows one to throw the light far afield and hit distant objects.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Addendum to last post: Orchid/moth photo safari

My orchid-pollinating moth rig stands ready. In my last post, I shared photos of the beautiful albeit elfin Small Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata). As noted in that post, this orchid species has been shown to be largely or at least partially self-pollinating, but insect pollinators surely visit, at least on occasion. At least one known hybrid makes that clear. Well, I couldn't stop thinking about this and was eager to try to see if any moths - the most likely pollinators by far - might visit these orchids. As the pair of plants that I shared in the last post were quite large for this species, and in perfect condition, I decided it was now or never (at least until next year).

So off I went last evening, arriving at the west-central Ohio locale shortly before dusk. Moth pollinators are often crepuscular, visiting flowers at dusk or soon after. See THIS POST for an example of a similar hunt in which I met with success.

The photo above shows my camera rig, set up and ready to fire and affixed to my Gitzo tripod. It is pointed and focused on the orchids, which are near the base of the trees. It's a Canon R5 mated to a Canon 400mm f/2.8 II lens, coupled to a 50mm extension tube. That gets the minimum focus down to about six feet. A Canon 600 speedlite provides illumination, and it's equipped with a Better Beamer flash extender. That unit's fresnel lens magnifies the flash output, allowing light to be thrown further - a necessity when shooting fast shutter speeds in high-speed sync mode. Settings were 1/1000, f/8, and ISO 1000, which gave a good exposure in very dark conditions.

Here's a shot of my target, the lush inflorescence of a Small Green Woodland Orchid. Note the luminescent greenish/whitish/yellowish flowers with greatly elongate nectar spurs. These features strongly suggest moths as pollinators.

Conditions were perfect: absolutely no wind, warm, and humid. As evidence of the stillness, I made the above shot without flash - it was nearly dark - at f/18, ISO 200, and a whopping 13 second exposure. Try that with even the slightest breeze. I generally do not care for the look of flash on flowers. It can impart a harshness not in keeping with the subject's qualities. But when shooting fast-moving moths at flowers, in the dark, flash is essential.

What I would have given to have had a moth in a shot with the orchid. Alas, it was not to be.

A big female fishing spider in the genus Dolomedes was one companion on my nocturnal vigil. She carries her egg sac underneath her body, and the tarantula-sized spider is a formidable defender of her spawn.

As dusk darkened into true night, more creatures of the night emerged. Such vigils, even if "unsuccessful" regarding the goal, are always interesting. Early on I had a moment of hope when some smallish sphinx moth rocketed in and began pollinating nearby Spotted Phlox (Phlox maculata). It got within ten feet of the orchids and I had great hopes it would visit them. No go. As it got darker, ever more moths began flying, but none displayed interest in the orchids.

I packed it in a bit after 10:30 pm, but not before being treated to many interesting creatures of the night. A big old Raccoon came ambling down the trail, got within ten feet of me, and decided to do an about face and reverse course. A pair of Great Horned Owls duetted back and forth at close range, the deeper more resonant hoots of the male alternating with the female's higher pitched hooting. I later saw one of the birds atop a phone pole in my headlights on the way out. A Barred Owl screamed repeatedly at one point, which triggered a classic Who-cooks-you, all! response from its mate. A steady chorus of frog-like chirps came from nearby Northern Mole Crickets. The strange orthopterans are mostly subterranean and even sing from within their burrows. The walk out involved traversing a wet meadow, which was full of the amusingly named Slightly Musical Conehead, their rough "songs" the most conspicuous sound in the damp field.

I don't know if I'll get around to going for moths at Small Green Wood Orchid again. Such a photo would certainly be a challenge. Because of the plant's ability to self-pollinate, perhaps not many insect pollinators visit. Or maybe moths tend to come to the flowers in the wee hours, or just prior to dawn or in the early morning hours, as in THIS CASE. Trying for photos such as this can involve a lot of luck, a lot of time, or more likely a bit of both.