Friday, September 17, 2021

The Art of Conservation: Gallery exhibition and talk, October 1, Columbus, Ohio

I am pleased to collaborate with wildlife illustrator Juliet Mullett on a mixed medium exhibition featuring her original watercolor artwork, and my photography. The exhibit showcases 25 species of animals featuring a diversity of creatures including amphibians, birds, crayfish, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles. Each species is depicted by one of Juliet's illustrations, and one of my images, accompanied by brief text explaining its significance and conservation issues, pro or con.

This Gray Fox image, presented at 16 x 24 dimensions, will accompany Juliet's fox kit artwork as seen in the previous image of the exhibition postcard. Many of the images in the gallery are printed in large scale.

It has taken us the better part of a year to prepare for this show. I had it much easier. Juliet created nearly all of the pieces just for the show, and her detailed watercolor pencil illustrations take some time to create. While it does take me effort, expertise, and field craft to make my images, once I'm in position and my quarry is in range, a click of the shutter and it's mostly done.

The exhibition is at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center just south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River. It opens Friday, October 1, with a reception, and I will give a brief presentation on how and why this conservation art show came to be, and natural resources conservation in general. It is free, but registration is required. CLICK HERE to register, and see more details about the exhibition and the October 1 event. We would love to see you there, and please pass the word!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hummingbird confronts fly!

On the long-term bucket list is photographing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at every major native plant nectar source with which the birds have an intimate co-evolutionary history. Thanks to a friend who lives nearby, I was able to obtain images of this female/immature male Ruby-throat at the beautiful flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens.

NOTE ABOUT NATIVITY: Trumpet Honeysuckle is a southerner, and reaches its northern limits in southernmost Ohio. In my opinion, there is only one indisputably native Ohio population, in Scioto County (and not all botanists would agree with my opinion of that site, but that's another topic). So, this planted honeysuckle patch in Columbus is clearly beyond the species native range, but the hummingbirds don't care.

Anyway, it didn't take long after I set up my rig for the hummers to start hitting the flowers. There was also an adult male, but he didn't visit as often and never gave me a good shot. This bird was pretty easy to work, and I obtained a number of nice images. Of them, I liked this one the best. As I waited for its visits, I noticed that the "greenbottle" fly favored this group of flowers as a perch. When the hummer came in and I made this particular shot, she/he took umbrage at the fly, confronted it accompanied by loud chitters, and sent the fly packing. The bird then proceeded to plumb the deep floral nectaries with its long bill and tongue. While perhaps some larger sphinx moths might visit Trumpet Honeysuckle at night, and be effective pollinators, it's hard to think of pollinators that would be more effective than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Because of their relationship with flowers, hummingbirds come into confrontations with large insects constantly. Bumblebees in the genus Bombus are common rivals, as are larger species of wasps. Sometimes big insects clearly win out, as when a large bumblebee is working a flower - the hummers usually wait for it to depart. This fly was no match though, and the bird quickly drove it away.

PHOTO NOTE: I generally do not like the look of flash on birds, and rarely use it on the feathered crowd. Hummingbirds are an exception. The flash does not seem to bother them at all, and the light makes the feather iridescence really pop. However, on this day light was abundant and well situated, so I did not use flash. This image was shot at 1/6400, f/8, and ISO 3200. While the ISO is beyond what I would prefer, the camera is the (fairly new) Canon R5 mirrorless, and it handles higher ISO ranges pretty well. I made a series of shots - since my little subject was so cooperative - ranging from shutter speeds of 1/1600 clear up to 1/6400 (maximum shutter speed for the R5 is 1/8000). When a hummingbird is really working those wings hard to maneuver around flowers, a speed of at least 1/5000 is necessary to mostly freeze the wings.


 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Shorebirds, including the fantastic Wilson's Snipe

 

I made a trip to the St. Marys Fish Hatchery last Wednesday, September 1, a place I have birded myriad times for many years. The hatchery is in western Auglaize County, Ohio, along the eastern shore of massive Grand Lake St. Marys. The hatchery is a magnet for migrant birds, and many a rarity has been seen here over the years. The site's reputation as a bird magnet goes way back. In 1970, Clarence Clark and James Sipe published a booklet, Birds of the Lake St. Marys Area. It's a gem, although tough to lay hands on now.

Hatchery staff obviously have fish production as their major goal, but as part of operations they routinely draw down impoundments. When draw-downs coincide with shorebird migration, birding can excel. The staff is birder-friendly, just stay out of the way of hatchery activities.

Several ponds have been recently lowered, including one of the large ones, and shorebirding has been interesting of late and should remain so for a while.

A Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) strikes a pose. This one was foraging out on the open mudflats; normally they are more reclusive and lurk in vegetation. And thus are easily overlooked. Dozens or even triple figures sometimes haunt wet meadows in migration, but remain largely out of view. Snipe come out of their shells on breeding grounds, where they engage in fantastic aerial courtship flights accompanied by a surreal winnowing sound produced by their tail feathers.


A beautiful little Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) in its favored milieu, a rich mucky mudflat. Several of these elfin "killdeerlets" with the single band were present. Like most of the shorebirds - plovers and sandpipers - that appear in Ohio during migration, this species nests FAR to our north, across the upper reaches of the Canadian and Alaskan tundra regions. Like most of our plovers, Semipalmated Plover winters mostly along coastal zones: Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, and coastal zone of much of Central and South America, as well as throughout the Caribbean.

A trio of our other "half-webbed" shorebird, the Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla). Semipalmated refers to the partial webbing between the toes. If you enlarge the Semipalmated Plover shot you can see this webbing. While the scientific epithet pusilla means "tiny", the Semipalmated Sandpiper is not the smallest of the five species of "peep" sandpipers that pass through Ohio. That honor goes to the Least Sandpiper (C. minutus). The latter was the most frequent of the peeps at the hatchery on this day.

I was especially pleased to encounter two Baird's Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). This is one of our larger peeps, although we're not talking eagle-sized here. A hefty Baird's stretches the tape to about 7.5 inches in length and weighs little more than an ounce. But those wings! They span a whopping foot and half! You can see how the wingtips project beyond the tail in the photo. This is a bird meant to fly, and fly they do. Baird's Sandpiper is one of the world's great long-haul migrants. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the North American tundra. This incredible sandpiper winters along the Andes in Ecuador, all the way south to the southern tip of the world: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Some of these animals probably fly 9,000 miles - one way! - between breeding and wintering grounds. Rich mudflats where they can rest and refuel along this long journey are vital, but mudflat conservation for shorebirds seems to get little conservation attention in this region.

The Baird's Sandpiper is named for one of North America's great scientists and educators, Spencer Fullerton Baird. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and was widely regarded as one of the country's leading naturalists. He richly deserves having this bird named in his honor, as well as the Baird's Sparrow and at least 14 other animal species.

A quartet of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) rests on a mat of desiccated Chara algae. This was the most common shorebird on this day - perhaps 150 yellowlegs were present. Only perhaps five of their rank were the much larger Greater Yellowlegs (T. melanoleuca), but they generally are greatly outnumbered by their lesser brethren.

A Lesser Yellowlegs shows off its namesake legs. In the olden days of unregulated market hunting (late 1800's, primarily), this species along with many other shorebirds was shot in large numbers. The Lesser Yellowlegs recovered well following establishment of wildlife conservation laws, but not all shorebirds did. The Eskimo Curlew, which may be extinct although there are glimmers of hope, is a sad case in point.


 Finally, here's a video of that Wilson's Snipe putting its LONG bill to work, probing the mire for invertebrate animals. Note its gait: bouncy coolness that verges on avian nerdiness. Maybe there should be a national Walk Like A Snipe Day, and we'd all have to mimic that walk everywhere we go. Probably take our minds off all the STUFF going on, temporarily.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Chaparral State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

The purple flower wands of spiked blazing-star at Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve in Adams County/Jim McCormac

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

Columbus Dispatch
August 29, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The hot, muggy dog days of early August is the time to visit prairies. Flowering is at its peak, and these relicts of our diverse botanical past can be stunning.

One of my favorite Ohio prairies is Chaparral State Nature Preserve in Adams County. It’s just west of the county seat, West Union.

I made a trip there on a suitably scorching day, Aug. 5. Tolerating the heat and humidity was a small price to pay for the spectacular floral show. The prairie was a riot of color, and I was not the only admirer. Word has increasingly spread about this botanical hotspot, and many visitors stopped by that day.

Perhaps most striking was the towering purple spires of spiked blazing-star (Liatris spicata). The club-like inflorescences can rise several feet, and are irresistible to monarch butterflies. Many of these migratory insects were working the prairie, and the blazing-star was their drug of choice. Enrichening the display were a number of white-flowered forms.

Gargantuan flowering stalks of prairie-dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) loomed over their lesser botanical brethren. These giant sunflowers can rise to eight feet or more, and the lemony-yellow flowers are major pollinator magnets. Numerous American goldfinches gamboled about, eagerly awaiting the ripening of the seeds. Once they ripen, the “wild canaries" will swarm them and quickly devour the crop.

In places an odd parsley, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), was dominant. Its spherical clusters of small white flowers attracted legions of insects: tiny native bees, wasps of many stripes, and myriad interesting beetles. Hairstreak butterflies — the warblers of the Lepidopteran world — are smitten with rattlesnake-master flowers. I saw both coral and red-banded hairstreaks getting nectar fixes.

Less conspicuous but perhaps of greater interest to botanists were two Ohio rarities: bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and pink milkwort (Polygala incarnata). The former can be overshadowed by larger plants, but its gorgeous bluish-purple flowers are the rival of any of its vegetative comrades. Bluehearts is a hemi-parasite — it augers its roots into those of surrounding plants, and taps some if its nutrition from these hosts.

It takes a keen eye to spot pink milkwort. A whopper might rise to six inches in height. Growing in the driest most sun-baked barrens, the milkwort’s tiny flowers would be measured in millimeters. True to the name, the Lilliputian blooms are a pleasing shade of coral-pink.

Tremendous botanical diversity drives exceptional animal diversity, and Chaparral was buzzing with insects working the flowers. As always, and an important part of the food web, insect predators thinned the herd. Crab spiders and ambush bugs blended with the flowers, ready to pounce on hapless pollinators. Despite all the flattering flower poetry, a flower is a potential deathtrap — a showy land of booby traps and landmines.

King of the predatory insects were giant “cannibal fly” robber flies. The peregrine falcons of the fly world, these jumbos take down the largest bumblebees and wasps, and have even been recorded taking hummingbirds.

The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources acquired Chaparral Prairie about three decades ago. Then, the prairie was cloaked in red cedar and other woody plants. Open prairie was reduced to tiny fragments. Years of well-conceived management and lots of hard work have wrought wonders.

Mark your calendar for a visit to Chaparral Prairie next summer. Even though the loop trail is under a mile in length, it sometimes takes hours to hike given all the interesting occupants, both floral and faunal.

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, August 25, 2021

Dolly Sods, West Virginia

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Sunrise from Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods, West Virginia. August 22, 2021. This mountaintop is an amazing place, and I was glad to finally experience it. Even though I only had part of a day to explore Dolly Sods, I packed a lot in and saw lots. I'll probably post more from my adventures up there, but for now, here are two images.

A tough Red Spruce, Picea rubens, exhibits the "Krummholz Effect". Strong and near constant winds (from the west in this case), sometimes severe, have stunted the growth of branches on the upwind side. Krummholz means "twisted wood", and such trees are also called flag trees or banner trees. This spruce was at Dolly Sods in West Virginia, and that mountaintop can be a harsh environment.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Black Bear, and Blackwater Falls

 

I spent the last four days in eastern West Virginia, in the Canaan Valley and vicinity. The first half of the trip involved participation in the annual meeting of the West Virginia Master Naturalists group, and I appreciate Andrea Dalton inviting me. Great time with lots of great people - the WVMN is large and active. As I came down the entrance drive to the lodge where we were based, late in the day last Friday, I glanced over to see a bear ambling through a lower parking lot. I stopped, he ended up passing by fairly close, I had a camera at the ready, and bagged this shot. It was a good omen of many interesting things to come.

I finally made a stop at fabled Blackwater Falls in Tucker County, West Virginia today. It lives up to the hype, and is well worth the stop. The falls lures about 900,000 visitors annually. That's a bit too many people for my taste, but as fate would have it, I was there early on this Monday morning.

NO ONE was there for a much-appreciated 45 minutes or so, enabling me to get this rare shot - the staircase to the lower platform, with not a soul on it.

Even though I only had less than two days to explore, I made it to some of the iconic regional hotspots, such as Dolly Sods and Cathedral State Park, with its gargantuan old-growth trees. Plus, there was heavy-duty mothing into the wee hours on two nights, and many interesting moths were tallied.

I'll surely make some more posts about this trip and some of the interesting sightings.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

A pair of juvenile black vultures perch in a window of the barn in which they were born/Jim McCormac

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

Columbus Dispatch
August 15, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

In nature, there are always winners and losers. Increasingly, human activity drives successes, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, there are far more losers than winners.

The black vulture is, as Charlie Sheen says, “Winning!” It is one of a group of generalist bird species that is thriving on the heels of man, and expanding its range northward with remarkable rapidity.

When I was a kid, back in the 1970’s, it took a special effort to see a black vulture in Ohio. Their strongholds were few and far between. A trip to the Ohio Brush Creek Valley in Adams County or along the Hocking River south of Lancaster usually produced sightings.

Back then, a black vulture sighting was a standout on any trip checklist.

Telling a black vulture from the far more common and widespread turkey vulture isn’t hard. The latter is larger and soars with its wings in a dihedral: held above the body, forming a v-shape. Turkeys also have bare red heads which can be seen from some distance.

Black vultures hold their wings in a flat plane, and the undersides are prominently marked with white near the wingtips. They often dangle their legs in flight, which project beyond the stubby tail. The head is black. These differences are apparent when black and turkey vultures are mingling, as they often do.

I’ve made a half-dozen trips to Central America, and my fellow travelers and I would wager on what the first bird would be that we’d see upon arrival. Usually, spotted while still in flight on the approach to Guatemala City or San Jose, soaring black vultures were our welcoming committee.

This is primarily a species of southern latitudes, ranging throughout almost all of South America, Central America, and Mexico. Strangely, black vultures are nearly absent from the Caribbean.

North of the border, black vultures were long considered a bird of the southern states. John James Audubon, writing in the early 1800’s, noted that the “carrion crow” ranged north to Kentucky and Indiana, and “as far as Cincinnati”.

By the 1930’s, black vultures had been recorded in a dozen southern Ohio counties but were still scarce. Ohio ornithologist Lawrence Hicks estimated fewer than 100 birds were in the state at that time.

In the 1990’s a marked expansion ensued, with new populations surfacing in many areas in the southern two-thirds of the state.

The black vulture boom continues to pick up steam. Today, reports come from nearly all parts of the state, including the northernmost counties. Many new resident colonies have been established.

Columbus and vicinity is not excluded from this invasion. I have been seeing black vultures in the Dublin area for at least a year, sometimes feasting on road-killed deer along Interstate 270. Twice in the past month, small squadrons have drifted over my house in Worthington.

Why the range expansion? Black vultures are smart and opportunistic. Plentiful roadkill, the offal of industrial animal farming, and large deer populations (and resultant carrion) mean plenty of food. Tough and savvy, black vultures easily compete with – and often outcompete – turkey vultures. And rising mean winter temperatures make it easier for them to survive and thrive in the north.

They’re adaptable nesters, too. Barns and various abandoned structures provide nest sites, but black vultures will place nests in heavy brush, hollow logs, and amongst boulders or other rocky areas.

Keep an eye to the sky, or on roadside carcasses, and it probably won’t be too long before you spot a black vulture.

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.