Thursday, January 20, 2022

Loggerhead Shrike


As always, click the photo to enlarge

A Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) watches for victims from a wispy perch. These predatory songbirds are brutish hunters and are sometimes known as "butcher birds". I must admit, I watched this animal for some time hoping he might score a kill. It did chase a Song Sparrow into a palm, but the sparrow escaped. Shrikes often impale their victims on thorns, barbed wire, etc. As the shrike lacks large powerful talons, sharp objects serve to hold their meal in place while the bird rips it apart. Pine Glades Natural Area, Jupiter, Florida, January 15, 2022.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Florida Scrub Jay, and Florida


A Florida Scrub Jay (Amphelocoma coerulescens), one of a clan of five birds that I encountered this morning near Hobe Sound, Florida. This rare jay, which is endemic to Florida, is but one of numerous interesting sightings on this expedition.

I left last Sunday, spent time in North Carolina then worked south into Florida. Working my way back to wintry Ohio now. When I return, I'll share more.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Ruby-crowned Kinglet eats Poison Ivy berries


I visited this birdy swath of edge habitat back on December 26, 2021. The first time I stumbled into this place, which is a bit off the beaten track in Slate Run Metro Park, Pickaway County, Ohio, was about a week prior. I wrote a brief piece about that trip, HERE.

Habitat-wise, there is much going on here. Just outside the photo to the right is a large mixed-emergent marsh. Behind me is a fairly mature patch of woodland. Older White Pine (Pinus strobus) can be seen in the photo. Plenty of dead American Elm (Ulmus americana) and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) lured lots of woodpeckers. But the biggest bait of all is prolific growths of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and most of the vines were heavily laden with fruit.

Nonnative Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) was also present, and birds were taking fruit from these plants. Especially American Robins (Turdus migratorius). While I will photograph birds at such plants, it's really not my bag. I do it mostly to document the feathered agents of dispersal that assist such plants in their spread. Not blaming birds for this, of course - many species are opportunistic survivors and will eagerly eat whatever palatable fare we leave in their paths. But I'm far more interested in documenting relationships between birds and native flora.

My main goal here was catching birds in the act of eating berries of the native Poison Ivy. This is a long-running bucket list project for me, and I might have 15-20 species noshing on the much-maligned plant by now.

But I was in for a surprise on this frigid morning and bagged an unexpected species.

While I have a number of images of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) in and among Poison Ivy plants, I had yet to capture a nice sharp image of one with berry in bill. Now I have. At least I think it's nice.

The importance of Poison Ivy to Yellow-rumped Warblers overwintering at northerly latitudes cannot be understated. In fact, I think the plant may be the primary reason that the hardy warblers can ride out cold and snow.

This phenomenon is interesting to me from a long-term perspective. Poison Ivy is very common, now, but it almost certainly wasn't in the not so long ago past. It is an opportunistic successional species, and the large-scale disturbances created by people have unintentionally created tons of habitat for it. I would bet that prior to European settlement, Poison Ivy was much better "behaved" and probably nowhere near as prolific as it is today.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula) caught in the act of eating Poison Ivy!

ASIDE: Those of you that are interested in scientific names may notice that this kinglet is now placed in the genus Corthylio. It long resided in Regulus, along with the Golden-crowned Kinglet (R. satrapa). Recent studies of kinglet genetics show significant variation between Regulus kinglets and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. That, along with morphological differences (not to mention behavior) led to the segregation of the genera.

While I was standing quietly watching and photographing fruit-plundering birds, I heard the emphatic jit-jit call notes of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This is not a common winter bird in central Ohio, and I wanted to see it. Kinglets are inquisitive and a few crude imitations of its calls brought it raging in through the brush. It was a male, as it made known by puffing its scarlet topknot feathers.

After a bit, the kinglet forgot about me and resumed foraging. I saw it make a few sallies after (presumably) flying insects - probably winter-hardy species like winter stoneflies. It was also grabbing unknown items from branches and bark, these probably insects as well. Suddenly the sprite shot over to a Poison Ivy vine and grabbed a berry! I had read where they will eat small amounts of vegetable matter in winter, but I had never seen this behavior. In the half-hour or so that I watched the kinglet, it made several trips to grab Poison Ivy berries, usually taking a few fruits each time. Like most everything that kinglets do, he was quite speedy and it was tough to get a clear shot of him in the act. This is the only acceptable image that I managed, but it certainly provides proof that Ruby-crowned Kinglets occasionally join the ranks of Poison Ivy-eating birds.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Nature: Wandering woolly-bears well known, but can they predict the winter weather?

A woolly-bear crosses a road in Muskingum County/Jim McCormac

NATURE: Wandering woolly-bears well known, but can they predict winter weather?

Columbus Dispatch
January 2, 2021

Jim McCormac

On Dec. 12 of last year, I headed to remote areas of Muskingum County. Bird photography was my primary goal. The sun shone brightly, but it was a seasonally apropos 43 degrees for a high.

Especially alluring was a gorgeous northern mockingbird occupying a dense thicket. He was as interested in me as I was in him and popped out to closely scrutinize me. Mockingbirds are far more inquisitive than most songbirds and pay close attention to their surroundings.

His behavior allowed for great photo ops. Suddenly, the mocker dropped to the nearby roadbed and seized a woolly-bear! This is the first time I can recall seeing a bird take one of these heavily bristled caterpillars. Unfortunately, the bird shot into the thicket’s innards with his prize, and I could not see how he dealt with the larvae and its coat of spiky hairs.

The mockingbird tipped me to watch the roads more closely. I ended up seeing dozens of woolly-bears, and many giant leopard moth caterpillars (Hypercompe scribonia), which look similar.

Woolly-bears are perhaps North America’s best-loved and most familiar caterpillar. They are often noted — and frequented smashed — as they wander across roads. They can be active in very cool temperatures, especially if the sun is out. I’ve seen them wandering in temperatures in the mid-30s.

A woolly-bear is the immature stage of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The moth is quite attractive: creamy-yellow and burnt-orange, and sparsely peppered with black dots. In spite of its good looks, hardly anyone other than a lepidopterist would recognize the moth. But everyone from elementary school kids to the mailman knows the fuzzy, banded caterpillars.

One reason that so many people know them is because woolly-bears are abundant. The second of two broods of caterpillars hatch from eggs in late summer or fall, and the mature larvae seek sheltered nooks with the coming of cold weather. Once ensconced in its winter sanctuary, the woolly-bear will ride out the winter months and form a cocoon come spring.

But if it gets warm enough, the larval bears rouse themselves and wander, even in mid-winter. They are provisioned with nature’s version of hand warmers, chemicals known as cryoprotectants. These solutions allow the caterpillar to endure temperatures so cold that it becomes a larval popsicle, yet not suffer tissue damage.

It has long been held that woolly-bears are weather predictors: they foretell the severity of the coming winter. Legend has it that the wider the light-brown center band of the caterpillar, the milder the coming winter. Blacker caterpillars are an omen of a long severe winter.

Charles Curran, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, studied the woolly-bear band width theory between 1948 and 1956. He, his wife, and several acquaintances would make annual fall foliage trips to the area of New York’s Bear Mountain State Park, where they also encountered scores of woolly-bears. Curran kept fastidious notes on woolly-bear coloration in an attempt to link them to weather patterns.

Curran and his allies jokingly formed the Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly-bear. His larval weather correlations were inconclusive, and caterpillar forecasting can probably be put in the same league as that of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and his winter-ending shadow.

Further throwing a wrench into woolly-bear weather-predicting is the issue of misidentifications. Giant leopard moth caterpillars also overwinter, are commonly seen roaming about, and greatly resemble black (bad winter) woolly-bears.

Yet another caterpillar active into early winter is the yellow-bear, the larva of the Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica). It looks like a pale woolly-bear, and thus a predictor of a mild winter.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Shawnee Nature Safari: May 20-22, 2022. Registration is open!

Conference artwork by Cincinnati-based artist Ann Geise

Registration is now open for the "Spring Nature Safari", put on by the Midwest Native Plant Society. It'll be based at Shawnee State Park Lodge in the midst of the 65,000 Shawnee State Forest. Dates are May 20 - 22, 2022. The 20,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve is right next door, and expert-led field trips will explore both the Edge and Shawnee. There will even be nocturnal trips. There is no better place to be in Ohio at that season. Check out all of the details RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Cooper's Hawk visits backyard

As always, click the image to enlarge

A juvenile male Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) glares my way. He's actually looking in front of my position, into a thicket of Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) where various songbirds were cowering. Much as I might enjoy the routine visits of these magnificent raptors, the songbird crowd would have a very different perspective. A Cooper's Hawk is their grim reaper in the flesh, come to rip them asunder and make a snack of them.

I generally know when a "Coop's" is around, even without seeing it. The normally bustling feeders and hedges are quiet as a library. I find it amusing that when a comparatively clumsy and lumbering Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) enters the yard, not much changes regarding songbird behavior. They know the big raptor has little chance of capturing them. Chickadees will dart right by its head going to and fro from feeders, and the same general activity level continues.

Not so with a bird hawk like a Cooper's Hawk. This animal is an extreme threat and the small birds know it. As soon as one is detected, the little fellows instantly vanish into thick cover, or if caught out, freeze still as a stone. I have watched chickadees, nuthatches and others sit without moving a muscle for five minutes or more. Such behavior is sometimes termed "sleeking" and as Accipiter hawks seem to key in on movement, sleeking presumably helps them avoid detection.

This Cooper's Hawk remained in the yard for about 45 minutes. Mostly it sat still for extended periods, waiting and watching. At one point it burst into flight and dove into the neighbor's dense arbor-vitae tree, where a score of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) huddled. It emerged empty-taloned. In my opinion, the House Sparrow is the smartest species of songbird in the yard, and they're very hard for the hawks to catch. After a bit, the hawk left for greener pastures and within a few minutes everyone was emerging from their shrubby trenches and activity was soon back to normal. But this scenario will soon be repeated. The raptors are daily visitors. No one should be bothered by indirectly feeding hawks by providing seed to lure songbirds. Nature is shot through with all manner of predator-prey relationships, although not too many are as conspicuous as a Cooper's Hawk whacking a cardinal outside your back window.

PHOTO NOTES: I generally always have a telephoto lens handy in the house, for situations such as this. I usually try and quietly open an appropriate window, so I don't have to shoot through additional glass (never shoot through unnecessary glass. Including filters, at least most of the time). When this Cooper's Hawk eventually flew to a nearby fence, he gave me opportunities for portraiture type shots. And the shot that I wanted was pretty much just what I ended up with: the bird glaring directly at me, so that the portrait would show what an unlucky songbird might see in its last moments. It was just a matter of waiting for the bird to adopt that posture, and I was ready when he did.

This image was shot with the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6mm lens, handheld but balanced on the back of a chair. Knowing that this was the priority head angle I was waiting for, I was stopped down to f/13 to give more depth of field throughout the face and eyes. Shutter speed was a low 1/250, but it was a poorly lit day and that was an effort to help keep the ISO lower. Nonetheless, the latter was 1600 with +0.3 EV dialed in. A bit high for my tastes but when light is poor higher ISO's are a reality. And I don't like shooting that heavy huge rig at slower shutter speeds than what I used, at least without a tripod.

Monday, December 27, 2021

A wayward Brant


As my route last Sunday went right past the area that has hosted a Brant (Branta bernicla) for a few weeks now, I stopped in to see the locally famous bird. Kelly Miller found it on December 6. The wayward sea goose could not have picked a more urbanized site. The white background is the wall of a massive Amazon warehouse, and the little goose is traipsing through turf grass among overly mulched ornamental trees. It associates with the flocks of Canada Geese that inhabit the numerous retention ponds.

The area is nothing but gargantuan warehouses and scads of noisy, lumbering semi-trucks. A far cry from the wild northern tundra where this bird spends its summers. In winter, Brant typically is found along seacoasts. While small numbers move through the Ohio waters of Lake Erie, Brant is quite rare inland.

Here's what the area looks like, courtesy of Google Earth. I marked the exact spot that I took the above image, and the goose is normally seen in this area. Not exactly wilderness, but the Brant seems to be doing fine, and flies well. Why it chose such a site is hard to fathom. But many a landlubber birder has gotten their "life" - or at least "state" Brant because it did.