Thursday, December 2, 2021

Dancing cranes

 

I recently spent a few days in northwestern Indiana, at and in the vicinity of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area. This area is legendary for the numbers of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) that gather here in late fall and early winter. They are southbound from northern nesting areas. During my time there in the last week of November, crane numbers were reaching their peak. About 30,000 birds were estimated to be in the area.

The photo above shows typical land use in the regions around the wildlife area. Agriculture on an epic scale, and streams transformed to deep ditches. The Kankakee River drains much of northern Indiana, including this area. At the time of European settlement, there were about a half million acres of wetlands and prairies along the river's corridor. By the early 1920's, agriculturalists had managed to drain nearly all the wetlands and destroy nearly all of the prairies and savannas. The destruction of the "Grand Marsh" is one of the greatest and saddest tales of large-scale land conversion in North America. Mountains of biodiversity was lost, and the Kankakee itself was channelized into a linear ditch over its entire length in Indiana.

But the cranes still come to this ancestral staging area. The big birds are far more resilient than, say, Greater Prairie-Chickens, which were thoroughly vanquished from the state. A hard and inescapable fact in nature is that there are always winners and losers resulting from our actions. Specialists such as prairie-chickens, Regal Fritillary butterflies, and Prairie Fringed Orchids tend to be the losers when people more or less successfully bend nature to their will. Facultative opportunistic species such as Canada Geese, Butterweed (Packera glabella) and Coyotes are winners, adapting well to massive change. And, to a degree, the cranes are winners.

The cranes spend their nights in big marshes within the wildlife area and radiate out into agricultural fields during the day. There, they feed on spilled grain and whatever morsels these omnivorous opportunists can find. In certain areas, the fields are full of cranes. At one point, I was watching and photographing a group of them when something put up thousands of birds about a mile away. The din created by all those bugling cranes was easily audible from my position, and they created a semblance of low scudding clouds on the horizon.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes picks through the stubble. It would be interesting to know how old they are, and how long they have been paired. The oldest known wild Sandhill Crane (from a western population) was forty (40!) years old. Sadly, we know that because it was shot by a hunter. An ignominious ending for such a regal elder. But as the bird was banded, we did glean something of value from the unfortunate episode.

Cranes are thought to often mate for life, and one way in which they reinforce bonds is by "dancing". If you visit Jasper-Pulaski at peak crane season, you will see this behavior. To me, it is one of the most interesting things about crane-watching. Much of the dancing occurs beyond the range of my lens, and I just enjoy it through binoculars. Sometimes, a pair's dancing sparks more dancing by other birds, and before you know it it's like a feathered flash mob erupts, dancing to some primal beat.

I had a feeling the pair featured here was going to do something, and they were close enough that I could work my camera. Sure enough, the dance soon commenced. The bird on the left has tossed plant debris aloft - you can see it in the air over its head. Object tossing typically accompanies these displays. We can assume the other bird is impressed.

Dancing cranes offer showy wing flourishes, polite bows, and frequently hop vertically several feet into the air, like pogo-sticks.

This synchronized, energetic bird ballet is impressive. It'll usually last for a minute or few, then it's back to gleaning seeds from the stubble as if nothing happened.

If you've not been to Jasper-Pulaski, I highly recommend a visit. The incredible Kankakee Sands prairie restoration is less than an hour west and should be included on the itinerary. I'll write more about Kankakee later.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

 

 As always, click the photo to enlarge

A squadron of Sandhill Cranes drops the landing gear and parasails to the ground. There, they will join several thousand of their comrades. Perhaps 30,000 birds are in the general area. In an age-old ritual, cranes gather in early winter in the big prairie marshes of northwest Indiana. They fill the air with loud bugles punctuated by the keening jangly trills of juveniles. Family units are still intact, and the juveniles will stay with their parents into next spring.

I'm at Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana, for a few days. I arrived in time for the evening crane show, where thousands of birds assemble in a giant field for socializing before flying to nearby marshes for the night. Skies are gray and there'll be rain tonight, but I'm hoping for at least a day of blue skies. Cranes in flight photograph much better then. I'm also visiting the amazing Kankakee Sands area about an hour to the west, on the Illinois state line. The Nature Conservancy has done remarkable restoration work here, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in this season. I've only been once, in July. The primary target of that trip was the rare Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). You can see some photos of the frit, and the prairie, RIGHT HERE.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Nature: Conkles Hollow features scenic gorge and gorgeous scenes

Conkles Hollow, on a misty fall day/Jim McCormac

Nature: Conkles Hollow features scenic gorge and gorgeous scenes

Columbus Dispatch
November 21, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Water is a relentless force of nature. Taken as a single drop, H2O is innocuous. Gathered into a raging torrent, water is an indomitable sculptor of landscapes.

Eons ago, water began seeking its path of least resistance high on a ridgetop in Hocking County, not far south of the village of Gibisonville. The trickle flowed downslope, as water always does, and over time forged a rivulet.

Heavy rains temporarily transformed the streamlet into a gully washer with the power to eat rock. Over the ages, the woodland rill incised deeply into the underlying Black Hand sandstone.

Conkles Hollow was born.

This 87-acre Conkles Hollow State Nature preserve is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Hocking Hills, and that’s saying something. It vies with breathtaking scenic icons such as Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, and Old Man’s Cave.

In places, sheer cliffs 200 feet provide rocky bulwarks to the gorge at Conkles. As one moves up the valley trail, the walls close in and form a narrow box canyon. At its terminus is the falls where water plunges into the gorge. Normally, a mere drizzle sprays from the summit. Visit during heavy rains, which I have, and the drizzle is transformed into a raging deluge.

The gorge’s odd name stems from initials carved into a sandstone wall in 1797 by a settler named W.J. Conkle. Graffiti has been with us for a long time.

Conkles Hollow offers a taste of the boreal forest, in southeastern Ohio. A dominant tree on the gorge’s slopes is eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This conifer occurs in peak abundance far to our north, but the cool microclimate of Conkles Hollow provides refugia for these hardy trees.

Shallowly rooted hemlocks cling tenaciously to boulders and cliff faces, and the largest specimens tower 75 feet or more in height. The specialized plant community anchored by the hemlocks fosters an unusual — for Ohio — breeding bird community.

Species that breed in peak abundance in the conifer belt of the extreme northern U.S. and Canada have established disjunct outposts in hemlock gorges such as Conkles Hollow. Their ranks include blue-headed vireo, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, and a suite of warblers: Blackburnian, black-throated green, Canada and magnolia.

An aural standout of the northern birds is the hermit thrush. Visit in spring or summer and you’re likely to be serenaded by the exquisite song of this speckle-bellied skulker. Its honeyed notes combine to form an ethereal symphony well-suited to the cathedral-like majesty of its environs.

I made the accompanying photo on Oct. 29, when colorful autumn foliage spiced the landscape. But Conkles Hollow is a feast for the eyes at any season. Spring brings a profusion of woodland wildflowers. In summer, the gorge is cloaked in a lush carpet of fancy fern (Dryopteris intermedia). Winter can bring fantastic ice formations.

Fortunately, the State of Ohio had the foresight to purchase nearly 150 acres at Old Man’s Cave in 1924, and the Hocking Hills State Park had its genesis. Since then, landholdings have mushroomed to about 2,000 acres, augmented by state nature preserves, the Hocking State Forest, and various private conservation initiatives.

Nearly 5 million people visit the Hocking Hills annually, and create a major economic input to the region. While ecotourism has its benefits, some prefer a dose of solitude. Pro tips: Arrive at your destination at dawn, go on weekdays, or select the coldest winter days. You should have time largely free of fellow primates.

For more information on Conkles Hollow, visit: https://ohiodnr.gov/

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, November 19, 2021

Lunar eclipse of the "Beaver Moon"

 

The moon, as it looked around 4 am this morning. At the peak of the eclipse, the earth's shadow darkened about 97% of the moon's visible surface.

It was an impressive spectacle, and I'm glad I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours to observe the eclipse. Fortunately the sky was crystal clear in central Ohio, and the increased darkness around the height of eclipse made the stars shine much more brightly than normal. Selfishly, I was glad that the moon was clearly visible from my backyard, so I didn't have to venture far to see the eclipse.

During the eclipse's peak moments, the sun only illuminated a tiny sliver, and the darkened portion of the moon was cast in a deep reddish-orange hue. This eclipse coincided with November's full moon, which is sometimes known as the "Beaver Moon". Legend has it that this particular phase of the moon coincides with trappers ramping up their efforts to catch beavers. I prefer "Frost Moon", a more accurately descriptive name for November's full moon, which comes at a time of marked seasonal change from fall to winter.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A hodgepodge of natural history

Hi all, and long time, no see! I've been lax in updating this blog, which I normally do once or twice a week. A number of speaking gigs, the final throes of a book project, a few large photography projects and OTHER STUFF have kept me temporarily from my favored duties.

Anyway, here is a very random assortment of photographs that I have run across lately while researching projects, or subjects from fairly recently that I never posted. No story, no theme, just some cool stuff.

American Angle Shades caterpillar, Euplexia benesimilis, on Bulblet Fern, Cystopteris bulbosa, Highland County, Ohio, September 3, 2021.

An American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, towers over lesser trees in a Knox County, Ohio forest. Beech are hyper-productive plants, supporting all manner of wildlife. This large specimen is notable in that no one has carved their initials in the bark - beech are irresistible targets for tree vandals.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio glaucus, rests on a Tuliptree leaf. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of this species' major host plants. Adams County, September 7, 2015.

Daughmer Savanna, probably the best remaining oak savanna in Ohio. Most of our original prairie - 99%+ - has been converted to agricultural lands, or otherwise destroyed. This site is in Crawford County, Ohio, and I made this image on October 9, 2016. "Savanna" is the proper spelling for the plant community, at least in North America and most other regions. "Savannah" is a proper noun typically used as a name for a place or person, such as Savannah, Georgia.

A Dot-lined White, Artace cribarius, photographed in Highland County, Ohio, on June 26, 2021. Who said moths aren't cute?

Frost beards on a Honey Locust tree, Gleditsia triacanthos, in Knox County, Ohio, on November 5, 2021. It was 25 F when I made the photo early in the morning on one of the first truly chilly days of early winter.

The iconic Fallingwater house, perhaps architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous creation. Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, November 14, 2017.

A Master's Dart, Feltia herilis, peeks from a sea of Wrinkled-leaf Goldenrod flowers, Solidago rugosa. Delaware County, Ohio, August 30, 2020.

A Postman, Heliconius ssp., poses on artwork created by the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. The butterfly is a higher art form, in my opinion. Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio, March 20, 2017.

The showy blue fruit of Silky Dogwood, Cornus amomum. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, August 14, 2016.

Sweat Bees in the genus Lasioglossum seek nectar at Clasping-leaved Aster flowers, Symphyotrichum patens. Asters are a major nectar source for pollinators in fall. Scioto County, Ohio, October 30, 2016.

A Tricolored Bumblebee, Bombus ternarius, taps nectar from Sand Dune Willow, Salix cordata, on a Lake Michigan beach. Wilderness State Park, Michigan, May 25, 2014.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Nature: Fast, gravity-defying red squirrels would give Spiderman a run for his money

A red squirrel de-husks a walnut in the writer's backyard/Jim McCormac

Nature: Fast, gravity-defying red squirrels would give Spiderman a run for his money

Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, November 7, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Four species of tree squirrels occur in Ohio: fox, gray, red, and southern flying squirrels. Of this quartet, I find the high-strung red squirrel the most interesting.

Thus I was pleased when a pair recently took up residence in my yard. The occasional individual has spent time here, but their stays were usually of short duration. The current duo seems committed to the backyard ecosystem. They have even appropriated a cavity in my black walnut tree.

Red squirrels reach peak abundance in northern coniferous forests. Columbus is near the southern limits of their range. This is probably the least common squirrel in Ohio, due to its decided preference for conifers, especially spruce.

These squirrels readily adapt to suburbia, but favor sites with some cone-producing conifers. Even ornamental Norway spruce will do. My neighbors have several large specimens of the latter, and I suspect that’s what drew the squirrels.

The red squirrel is a handsome animal, with a rich reddish-brown pelage, creamy underparts, and thick white eye arcs that impart a surprised look. A strapping specimen is only a foot long from nose to tail tip, and weighs less than a half-pound.

While small in size, red squirrels have enormous personalities. They seem almost psychotically aggressive, and often appear to be in a rage. Even if unseen, their near constant calls give them away. The bellicose mammals sputter out a barrage of chirps, clicks, clucks and discordant chatters. Their wall of sound is accompanied by frenetic flicks of the tail. If suitably irked, they’ll angrily stamp their feet.

My squirrels have developed a walnut fetish. The seeds of spruce cones are their normal stock in trade, but apparently the allure of walnut meat is irresistible.

Unfortunately for the local gray squirrels, they, too, are connoisseurs of the hard-husked fruit.

Fat chance the grays have of harvesting walnuts in my tree. The reds have dominion over the 75-foot tree and its myriad fruit. If a gray squirrel is spotted entering the walnut’s boughs, a red squirrel lights out after it like it was shot from a cannon.

A red squirrel at top speed would embarrass Spiderman on his best day. The red — which is half the size of a gray — tears after the interloper like an arboreal Usain Bolt, quickly driving the rival squirrel from the tree and usually out of the yard.

One possible explanation for this insanely aggressive behavior is the red squirrel’s need to defend numerous caches of cones, nuts, seeds and even mushrooms. The tough little squirrels don’t hibernate, and create warehouses of food tucked in tree crevices and other niches. They draw upon these larders when food sources are lean.

Other animals regularly try to raid the caches, but the vigilant red squirrels soon run them off.

Come early spring, the reds become amorous and begin courtships. This generally entails racing about at breathtaking speed, zipping through the branches and making death-defying leaps. When the female is suitably impressed, mating commences.

Eventually, 4 or 5 tiny naked pink kits are born, and hopefully, in my case, that’ll be in the walnut tree den hole. In only about 40 days, the kits go from blind, 7-gram, amorphous blobs to fully furred and active. After 2 to 3 months, the parents expel the youngsters from their home turf and they strike out on their own.

My neighborhood, I believe, could benefit from additional red squirrels. What better way to enliven peaceful suburbia than with gravity-defying maniacal peewee squirrels imbued with the ferocity of Genghis Khan and the agility of Wayne Gretzky, moving at the speed of bullets.

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.

 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Fall foliage and landscapes

October 29 dawned a wet, cool, and misty day, so I took advantage and headed to southeastern Ohio and the beautiful Hocking Hills region. The main destination was Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve, a picturesque sandstone box canyon thick with Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and many other tree species. The following photo was made along the Rim Trail, a path that traces the upper edges of the cliffs that define the gorge. Rolling waves of fog moved through the valley, and it was often necessary to wait until the mist cleared enough for photos.

Tenacious Eastern Hemlock trees cling to the cliffs on the sides of the gorge, interspersed with more colorful birch, maple, sourwood, tuliptree and others. The presence of a disjunct stand of hemlock - it becomes common far to the north of here - means a little slice of the boreal forest in southern Ohio. Northern species of breeding birds such as Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)) and other northerners nest here, attracted by the dense hemlock stands.

A steep forested slope rises from a river bottom, anchored by towering Sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) with their ghostly white trunks. While the oaks remain largely green, splashes of color are provided by Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), Red and Sugar Maples (Acer rubrum and A. saccharum), Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and others.

All of the precipitation flushed local streams with plenty of water, and the numerous waterfalls in this region were picturesque. This one is known as Robinson Falls, formerly called "Corkscrew Falls". It is now protected as part of a state nature preserve, and a permit is required to visit.

A small stream, its rocky banks littered with fallen leaves. One can practically smell autumn in this photo, and in real life the wonderful admixture of scents - overly ripe marcescent foliage, decaying leafy detritus, damp humus - epitomized the scent of fall.

A dashing vine by any standard, at least in fall, a vigorous stand of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) blankets a sandstone cliff face. This native member of the Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae) is a heavy-hitter in woodland ecology. Its copious berry production fuels birds galore in fall and winter. Everything from massive Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) to comparatively elfin Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) feast on the fruit. Indeed, Poison Ivy berries are one of the main reasons that the latter species can winter far to the north, unlike most warblers.

Finally, one more vista of the gorge at Conkles Hollow and its massive sandstone cliffs, some of which rise to 200 feet. One of the great pleasures of living in the midst of the great Eastern Deciduous Forest region that cloaks (or used to) much of the eastern U.S. is witnessing the change of seasons. All of them have their own allure, but fall is hard to beat for sheer showiness.