Sunday, February 28, 2010

Waterfowl Symposium

This weekend past, Columbus Audubon and the Ohio Ornithological Society jointly hosted a "Waterfowl Symposium" at the fabulous new Grange Insurance Audubon Center in downtown Columbus, Ohio. In spite of inadvertently choosing one of the winter's worst weekends for snow, everything came off fine and nearly everyone made it. We were greatly looking forward to hosting Jesse Barry and Chris Wood of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and hearing their presentation, but the weather and aircraft gods conspired to prevent that. Jesse and Chris made it to the Detroit airport, where multiple snafus prevented them from making the next leg - either by car or plane - to Columbus. We missed you guys, and hope you made it back to New York just fine. Paul Baicich drove in from Maryland, and reported that the drive was harrowing in places. Planning late winter events in Ohio is always a dicey proposition, and we are grateful that everything worked out as well as it did.

Following are a few photos of the event, but first a few much-deserved acknowledgments. Pulling off events such as this one are a ton of work, and both of the partnering organizations are indeed fortunate to have numerous talented and hard-working volunteers that are willing to put them together. Their work makes it possible for the rest of us to just show up, have a good time, and learn about birds. The planning committee deserves major props; they were: Ann Oliver, Peter King, Andrea Cook, Julie Davis, Warren Grody, Jen Sauter, Nadya Bennett, Darlene Sillick, Randy Rogers, and Barb Fate. Many other volunteers helped in various capacities, as did a number of field trip leaders. Thanks to all, and a special thanks to Heather Starck, Doreen Whitley, and Wade Walcuut of the Grange Insurance Audubon Center for graciously hosting us. We hope to do future events at this facility.

We sponsored six young birders to attend, and major kudos go to the sponsoring organizations for committing the funds to make that possible.

Not deterred by the elements one bit, the amazing Swinging Orangatangs swung up all the way from Marietta, Ohio, and rocked the house on Friday night. That's Bill Thompson on the ar left, his much better half Julie Zickefoose is to Bill's left. If you haven't heard the SO, you must. It was a great time, the acoustics were superb, and the sound was hot.

We pretty much filled the facility with vendors, and thanks to all who came and pitched their wares or promoted their groups. The center is open and airy, with lots of windows and a really nice layout for hosting this sort of thing. If you are casting about for a venue, you might check them out.

The focus of the conference was Saturday's speakers. We had a bit of a wrench thrown in the gears when Jesse and Chris were unfortunately marooned in Detroit, making for a last-minute bit of improv. No problem; Randy Rogers stepped up and dusted off a sensational program and delivered it flawlessly. Keith Lott of the Ohio Division of Wildlife gave a synopsis of his work conducting aerial surveys of birds on Lake Erie as part of a wind power study. He has lots of great data, including information that is essentially new regarding the diversity and numbers of avian species on the lake at certain times of year.

Paul Baicich came over from Maryland and spoke about birds, birders, and conservation, especially the role that waterfowl have played. Great stuff, as always, and if you ever get the chance to hear Paul speak, do it.

A real standout was Dr. Gwen Myers of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She's been involved in a project on Spectacled Eiders (some of us call them "Spectacular" Eiders) on Alaska's north slope. Her program was incredible and filled with standout images and information. So much so that I'm going to try and slap up a blog about that later.

After a wonderful catered affair, we sat back to listen to Dr. Azzam Alwash, who came in from Iraq. That's Azzam, with Ann Oliver on the left and Randy Rogers on the right. Randy and Dr. Alwash estabished a rapport when Randy - a Major in the Ohio National Guard - was serving his two tours of duty in Iraq. One of the upshots is that Randy helped forge a relationship between Ohio birders and Alwash's organization, Nature Iraq, which is dedicated to conserving the country's wildlife and habitats.

To say that Alwash is a passionate and knowedgable speaker would be an enormous understatement. He delivered a spellbinding program on one of the world's most significant wetland complexes, the vast marshes that flood the land where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. Saddam Hussein did his best to drain the wetlands and nearly succeeded; Alwash is doing his best to put them back, and doing very well at it. Among many great photos, he shared a shot of thousands of Marbled Teal darkening the sky.

Dr. Alwash holds the ceremonial check, flanked by Major Randy Rogers on the right, your narrator on the far left, and Julie Davis, president of Columbus Audubon. Unfortunately, the check blocked Julie and this is the only shot I've got. She's far more photogenic than the rest of us!

As part of our conference, we were able to raise $1,500.00 to donate to Nature Iraq. I believe that over $3000.00 has been donated by Ohioans over the past year. This is money well spent, and has helped Iraqi biologists purchase optics, field guides, and other essentials. Thanks to everyone who has helped to support this important work!
Field trips radiated out this morning, scrabbling about for open water. Where ice-free conditions could be found, there were ducks. My group first went to the Scioto River at the Greenlawn dam, then shot over to Green Lawn Cemetery. We had lots of goodies, and that massive oak harbored one of them.

Ensconced within a hole in the tree was an incubating Great Horned Owl. Look closely. Through the scope, we had great looks of her piercing yellow eyes shooting needles at us. Most Great Horneds use old stick nests appropriated from raptors, but many also use semi-open tree cavities such as this one.

A highlight at the cemetery were great and extended views of the resident Merlin, which was a lifer for a few in the crowd. They express their jubilation with the Victory sign; either that or everyone is trying to make those stupid rabbit ears over people's heads.

Thanks again to everyone who came out, and all who worked to make the event a success.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference

If you like nature, you'll almost be certain to enjoy the upcoming Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, to be held Wednesday, March 10 in Columbus. All of the details are HERE.

From humble beginnings some 20 years ago, the conference has blossomed into one of the largest of its kind, anywhere. Last year, over 900 people attended. It's a wonderful venue to meet other wildlife enthusiasts and hear great talks about a wide array of topics.

Angry-looking Northern Saw-whet Owl. This one was caught at a banding operation near Chillicothe spearheaded by Kelly Williams-Sieg. She'll be presenting a talk on these fascinating micro-hooters. Kelly and her team have captured hundreds, and learned some amazing things about these owls of the boreal forest.

Among many bits of more scientific information, they've also learned how to tame a savage owl. Just stroke the back of the head, just like a cat, and the owl immediately mellows. Kelly's will be a great program.

Wil Hershberger, who along with Lang Elliot authored the landmark book The Songs of Insects, will deliver the keynote program. This is a fabulous talk, richly illustrated with amazing photos of our insect songsters - katydids, crickets, coneheads and the like - and featuring the actual sounds created by the entomological symphony. The world of singing insects is fascinating, and I believe birders will become increasingly interested in this group. Most can readily be recognized by song, and they are great practice for sharp-eared birders.
The above photo is of a Broad-winged Bush Katydid, Scudderia pistillata, the "counting katydid". It truly does count!

Stan Gehrt of the Ohio State University is set to deliver a talk on skunks. Striped Skunk, above, one of the only shots that I've managed. My efforts to capture this beast on pixels made the person I was with rather nervous. But I'm told that a skunk will stamp its feet before blasting, so you'll get some warning, and this one didn't do that.

John Harder, also of OSU, will speak about Ohio's small mammals. As abundant and diverse as this group is, few people know much about them. The above is one of our more common species but I suspect few who read this have actually seen one. It's a Short-tailed Shrew, Blarina brevicauda, a voracious predator that actually possesses venom that helps it to subdue lare prey. This individual is posing with my Ferrari F-40; you can read about that bit of nonsense RIGHT HERE if so inclined.

And there's more, much more. GO HERE for registration info, and I'll hope to see you there.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Some mice are kind of nice to look at


Some mice are kind of nice to look at

Columbus Dispatch

February 21, 2010

Jim McCormac

White-footed Mouse, photo by Jim McCormac

"If you build a better mousetrap, you will catch better mice" (George Gobel). "Get a cat" (Jim McCormac)

There are lots of mice for the catching. Many readers know the uneasy sensation that comes from hearing the soft scrabble of little feet running behind the walls. We react with loathing; our cats prick their ears up with interest.

Most of these unwanted squatters are house mice, Mus musculus. Small and gray, a house mouse measures only five inches from tail tip to nose, and weighs but 20 grams. Opportunistic colonizers, these mighty mice are native to Asia, but long ago hitched a ride with man. Everywhere we go, they go, and the aptly named rodents are now ubiquitous wherever our abodes are found.

So successful are house mice at riding our coattails that they may be the world's most abundant mammal. Small wonder, given their prodigious reproductive abilities. Chew on this: A female can have 10 litters, averaging five pups, annually. Females become sexually mature around eight weeks of age. Thus, one female and her subsequent offspring might crank out several hundred mice a year!

Although house mice cause us plenty of consternation, they've served science well. This is the species bred for lab experimentation in genetics and psychology.

This will be slim consolation to the mouse-plagued homeowner, but there is a better mouse.

About 25% of the "house mice" in some areas are actually a native species, the gorgeous white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus. Charmers upon close inspection, white-foots have huge brown eyes, bicolored coats of sable and white, and giant dumbo ears.

Like the house mouse, white-foots are prolific breeders, but the vast majority remain outdoors. Their young are raised in globular nests of shredded plant material and any soft stuff that can be found. People who regularly clean out bird boxes know all about white-footed mouse nests, but they'll place them under old boards, in tree cavities, thick shrubs, hollow logs, etc.

White-footed mice may be the most common native mammal in Ohio. While the reviled house mouse has found a niche serving science, and thus us, white-foots are invaluable in natural food chains. Like little sausage links with legs, they scamper about delighting all of the hawks, owls, snakes and larger mammals that capture them.

Plants prosper because of mice, too. White-foots harvest seeds galore of many species, and lose enough of them to help in the distribution of our native flora.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Golden Eagle attacks deer!

The same day that I posted Lisa Sells' fantastic pics of the unfortunate Ruddy Duck meeting its demise at the talons of a Bald Eagle, Aaron Boone sent me a link to the Illinois Birders' Forum. There, Eric Walters had posted a spectacular sequence of photos of a Golden Eagle attacking a White-tailed Deer!

Talk about tough! Goldens are well-known for their ferocity; many of you have probably seen the photos of one not so gently shooing a fox away from a desirable carcass. Somewhere I once saw a video of one that was sicced on some other species of small deer, which it knocked to the ground. There is another widely circulated video of a Golden Eagle knocking a goat off a high cliff face to its death; the eagle presumably then made a meal of it.

I have said it before about various animals, and will say it again: if these things were much bigger, we'd all be dead.

A few of Eric's photos are below; GO HERE for his entire pictorial story.

An incredible encounter at the Nachusa Grasslands in the Lincoln State. By now, the deer has obviously spotted incoming enemy aircraft and is high-tailing ot out of there.

Deer are fleet of foot, but a Golden Eagle in full downward thrust is far swifter. One has to wonder what was going through the deer's mind - they certainly are not accustomed to aerial attacks.

It's hard to believe an eagle would attempt to take down a decent-sized white-tail doe, but it looks like that is what it's attempting. Apparently it raked th beast with its formidable talons.

After the not so gentle back-scratching, the deer jigged hard and shot off another direction, shaking off the eagle. In this angle, we can see just how big an eagle is - Goldens have a wingspan that stretches to nearly seven feet. A bruiser can tip the scales at over ten pounds, too, but c'mon! A deer?! This is true ferocity!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Job opportunities at the Wilds

As many an Ohio birder knows, the Wilds in Muskingum County is a very interesting place. Ten thousand acres of Bobolink-filled grasslands in the summer; raptors galore in the winter. There's plenty of non-native beasts, too - everything from giraffes to rhinos to African painted dogs to cheetahs. If you or anyone you know might be interested in working at the Wilds, read on, and pass this along...

The Wilds is actively recruiting for approximately 100 seasonal positions and we really would like to see more applications coming in since our training starts in a mere 5 weeks. We are especially anxious to get more Conservation Educator and Lead Conservation Educator applicants. The information is on our website – and it is also pasted below.

Thanks for any help you can provide in getting the word out.

Denise Natoli Brooks, CIG, CIT
Interim Director of Conservation Education
the Wilds
(740) 638 5030 x2116

Seasonal Employment

Conservation Educator – Conservation Education

Facilitate day programs, overnights & residential summer camps for youths, families and adults; research and present nature appreciation and conservation-based education programs including Wilds Safari tours; assist with wildlife research and habitat restoration; guide outdoor skills development; maintain trails and education facilities; pass first aid and CPR training. Must have completed a minimum of 2 years of college. Positions available March – October 2010. Apply to

Lead Conservation Educator – Conservation Education

Assist with seasonal training and mentoring seasonal educators, facilitate day programs, overnights & residential summer camps for youths, families and adults; research and present nature appreciation and conservation-based education programs including Wilds Safari tours; assist with wildlife research and habitat restoration; guide outdoor skills development; maintain trails and education facilities; pass first aid and CPR training. Must have a B.S. or B.A. in a related field. Positions available March – October 2010. Apply to

Interpretive Guides - Visitor Operations

Be a Wilds ambassador who educates and entertains Wilds' visitors. Learn about wildlife and share your love for wildlife with others. Interpret the work of the Wilds and our conservation message to visitors. Guide/drive visitors through the open-range pastures and/or at the Wilds unique destinations. Positions available March - October, 2010. Apply to

Visitor Operations Support Staff - Visitor Operations

A summer job in one of the many Wilds retail venues such as admission clerk, restaurant, gift market, and a variety of destination locations all support the Wilds. Assist visitors, handle purchase transactions, and create an attractive environment. As a visitor operations staff member and front-line worker, you make a visit to the Wilds a special time for visitors. Positions available April - October, 2010. Apply to

Nomad Ridge Concierge – Park Operations

Be a Wilds ambassador who entertains and educates Wilds' visitors at Nomad Ridge, the Wilds luxury camping experience. Interpret the work of the Wilds and our conservation message, while taking care of guests. Positions available April – October, 2010. Apply to

Park Operations Staff – Park Operations

A summer job in one of the many Wilds venues such as shuttle driver, parking booth attendant, grounds keeper, and house keeper all support the Wilds. Assist visitors and create an attractive environment. As a park operations staff member and front-line worker, you make a visit to the Wilds a special time for our visitors. Positions available April – October, 2010. Apply to

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eagle gets ruddy - incredible photo sequence!

The following images are courtesy of the photographer, Lisa Sells, who e-mailed me this incredible pictorial story today. Lisa was visiting Lake Logan in Hocking County, Ohio, in early January checking out the birds. There were only scattered leads in the largely iced over lake, but there's been plenty of waterfowl - mostly Mallards, Gadwall, Canada Goose, and a few other species, including a couple of Ruddy Ducks.

Always lurking about are a few Bald Eagles. Now I don't normally think of eagles as overly agile; they seem more adept at picking at beached carp than deftly snagging rapidly flying waterfowl from the air. Well, check the action below. This eagle is a real ace!

Adult Bald Eagle hot on the heels of a Ruddy Duck. This ruddy would have fared better had it dove under the water rather than take wing. Ruddy Ducks are fairly speedy when in the air, but display little in the way of jigging and jagging evasion maneuvers.

Eagle closes in for the kill.

It's almost curtains for the hapless Ruddy Duck. Note the extreme size difference between hunter and hunted!

A bit hard to make it due to the backdrop, but the eagle has the ruddy in its talons and is making for a perch to enjoy its meal.

If you want to learn more about ducks, consider attending THIS.

Thanks to Lisa for sharing these amazing photos!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Merlin revisited

Yesterday, a few of my fellow Ohio Ornithological Society board members - Cheryl Harner, Gabe Leidy, and Bob Placier - darted into Columbus's Green Lawn Cemetery for a quick look. We had a board meeting later in the morning, but couldn't stand the thought of not getting at least a little birding in.

Upon arrival, we spotted the resident Merlin quicker than you can say Falco columbarius. No shrinking violets, these little death-dealers. This bird, which looked to be a young male, was teed up on one of the most prominent perches available.

Here's the general lay of the land. The Merlin is visible; it's the speck in the crown of the huge tree just to the right of the big Norway Spruce that dominates the center of the photo. The Merlin is just to the right of the giant TV antenna in the backdrop.

Green Lawn is the 2nd largest cemetery in Ohio at 360 acres, and it essentially replicates a savanna. There are scores of large scattered trees, and no shortage of songbird prey. Merlins have wintered here for several years, and they are found in many other Ohio cemeteries as well. I suspect that many a golf course hosts them as well, but birders don't tend to bird such places.

Merlins have become far more common in Ohio in recent years. Their overall population is increasing, and the feathered speedsters are reclaiming former breeding areas, and seemingly expanding into new turf. I feel it is just a matter of time before they begin breeding in large urban Ohio cemeteries such as Green Lawn. Merlins don't build nests; they appropriate stick nests of species such as American Crow, Cooper's Hawk, and other raptors. We were wondering if an artificial stick platform placed high in a conifer might lure them to nest. Worth a try, perhaps.

After a bit, the Merlin moved to this station - about 4/5ths the way up the big tree, on the right. This is a cool shot, because it is perched in the former state champion Cucumber Magnolia, Magnolia acuminata. A larger specimen has been found, knocking our tree to a lower spot on the podium.

As is usually the case, this Merlin was arrogantly unmindful of our presence. They usually just could care less about people, not even bothering to cast a sideways glance at the bipeds clustered and fawning under the tree. No matter; we just felt fortunate to be in its presence.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Return to Joisy

There is a thing known as "I and the Bird". This I & B is a creation of the blogosphere; the spawn of the boom of social sharing via the Internet. I had heard of it, and the attendant phenomenon known as a "Blog Carnival", but through no fault of my own. As nature-based blogs have increased exponentially - there are now 970 of them indexed on the Nature Blog Network - this sort of thing becomes inevitable.

I am not too hip to this stuff. Even though I've had a "blog" long before the term was coined - remember "Angelfire"? - I pretty much remain stuffed in my little corner of the World Wide Web.

But, not now! My friend, Laura of Somewhere in NJ, has tagged me, among others, to provide fodder for her blog carnival. And that's what this post is - fuel for Laura's carnival. She has coerced me into poking out from my sheltered Internet existence, with promises of riches and great fame. And, since she is from New Jersey, one of the Union's most misunderstood and least appreciated states, I can use this chance to try and shed some of the misconceptions of the Garden State.

Lighthouse at Barnegat Light, NJ, a spectacular birding spot.

New Jersey is much more than greasy-haired Guidos and their shrill-voiced tarts with hair piled high. It isn't just about Mafioso and casinos; seedy seaside resort towns full of semi-delapidated summer cottages adorned with pink flamingos and other tacky lawn ormamentation; rusty old Buicks whacked hard with the full brunt of salt-laden air; and the odd moralistic rantings of their favorite Native Son, Bruce Springsteen.

Oh yes, pinched between the great states of New York and Pennsylvania, Jersey is the proverbial annoying pebble in the shoe; a long-running butt of jokes for East Coast sophisticados. Ohio has West Virginia to dish on, New York has New Jersey. But, we shouldn't be put off by the state's rep as a a toxic dumping ground and pollution-spewing industrial wasteland - I mean, this is the place that birthed the Sopranos.

Believe it or not, for the natural history buff, NJ is one of the major MUST SEE right coast destinations. At least parts thereof. I've dipped into the files from December 2006, so that we may return to the salty waters lapping the Jersey shore and visit two of the extraordinary beasts that brave the New Jersey winter.

Looking seaward from the summit of Barnegat's lighthouse. And please, before my New Jersey friends dispatch "Big Benny" to measure me for cement overshoes, I really do love the state and have made multiple visits. And can't wait to return, if they can overlook all of my jokes in poor taste at their expense.

Ground level and walking out the massive jetty that spikes seaward from the lighthouse. Watch your step! The cracks between the massive limestone slabs are deep, and wide. Famous is the story of a birder who, in an inattentive moment, tripped and got wedged in one of these fissures, headfirst with only feet sticking out. Fortunately, he was extricated before the gulls got him.

Braving the rocks and cold winds of the Barnegat jetty is well worth it for the birder. A winter visit will produce lots of goodies such as Long-tailed Duck, scoters, Common Eider, Great Cormorant, Snowy Owl and much more.

Perhaps Barnegat's most famous feathered visitors, Harlequin Ducks. They're a breeze to see here, and often at exceedingly close range. These chaps were only 20 or 30 feet from my lens, and not overly concerned. Like the result of some mad paint by numbers project, the drakes are an impossible mixture of dots and dashes on a canvass of slate blue and chestnut. I would think that even the most hardened Jersey shore gel-caked Guido slathered in Fake Bake tan oil would be impressed.

A bit the chauvinists, these Harlequin Ducks, I happened to notice. When pressed by an unknown threat, like me, the males would condense into a tight little group. There were hens with the boys, but when push came to shove, and potential dangered loomed, the girls were pushed to the outside of the protective flock. Sort of the duck version of the settlers circling the wagon train to guard against the marauding Indians, except the Harlequins toss their women outside the circle. When they are assured all is well, the males invite the females back into the fold. So Jersey!

A few Harlequin hens here - much less gaudy than the highly ornamented drakes. These ducks thrive in dangerous habitats, living their lives in crashing sea surf and the torrents of rushing rivers. Theirs is a niche not exploited by others, and one that is full of crustaceon treats, if you are tough enough to survive. The ocean is relentless, bludgeoning the rocky shores with nonstop pile-driving waves, creating forceful eddies and swirls that would suck you or I to sea in the blink of an eye, were we to fall in. Not even all of the Harlequins emerge unscathed. Apparently many museum specimens have fractured bones, stark evidence of the perils of life at the interface of sea and rock.

Purple Sandpiper, the world's toughest shorebird. Barnegat Light in New Jersey is their Floridian vacation. Most sandpipers retreat to tropical haunts for the winter, where the sun beats down and keeps the mud soft. Not so with the purples, and most of them winter on northern Atlantic sea coasts in weather that could kill an Eskimo. Tame as house cats, the purples virtually scamper at your feet here, delighting onlookers with their yellow feet and bill, and dumpy proportions.

If, for some reason, you find New Jersey looming on the horizon, make a stop at Barnegat Light.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Common Goldeneye: Aquatic Break-dancer

Photo: John Pogacnik

The Columbus Dispatch
February 7th, 2010
Jim McCormac

Goldeneye striking in looks, action

Probably no other group of birds has had the impact on conservation that waterfowl has. Most people are familiar with the mallards and Canada geese that frequent ponds, but there is much more to the ducky crowd. Forty-three species of ducks, geese, and swans have occurred in Ohio, and most of them are common, at least in migration.

In the 1930’s, Dust Bowl droughts had depleted North America’s waterfowl to perilously low levels. From the dusty ashes of near catastrophe arose a group that is now one of the world’s most effective conservation organizations. The year 1937 marked the formation of Ducks Unlimited, and in their 73 year history they’ve raised $3 billion which has gone to protect well over 12 million acres of habitat.

A good thing, as waterfowl rank high among our most interesting, beautiful birds. And protecting their habitat also safeguards scores of other animals, and lots of plants, too.

Hardy beasts, waterfowl are among the very first migrants to push north in spring. Today’s date is February 7th – very much winter in our eyes – but already the spring wanderlust is striking some ducks.

One of the toughest of this crowd is the common goldeneye. These diving ducks will stay about as far north as open water can be found, cavorting in the icy water of open leads as comfortably as if afloat in a tropical sea. Goldeneyes are already chomping at the bit, moving north as fast as thaws open up water, in their quest to reach northern breeding grounds.

Drake goldeneyes are art sculpted in feathers. Black and white is the dominant theme, creating a gorgeous piebald pattern. It’s as if the male’s head was dunked in inky paint, the jet-black noggin marked with an oval white spot just aft of the bill. Brilliant yellow eyes appear as topaz jewels imbedded in coal, their contrast lending the duck a perpetually surprised appearance.

Some ducks merely tip up in shallow water to feed, their butts sticking above the surface. Not so the goldeneye. These are divers, plunging down deep to harvest goodies unavailable to fowl that only dabble at the surface. Watching feeding goldeneyes cavorting among ice floes gives one a real respect for avian engineering and the insulating ability of feathers. A human submerged in such waters would be lucky to last 20 minutes.

About now, hormones flood drake goldeneyes and their thoughts turn to the ladies. Coy and aloof, the somber brown hens require work to woo. So, stud goldeneyes become aquatic break-dancers, pulling out all the stops to get the girl. A courting male throws his head back till his bill is vertical, folding into a floating pretzel. It’ll then scoot forward, thrusting a pair of brilliant orange webbed feet from the water, all the while shaking its head and pirouetting about.

It must work. Common goldeneyes are still common.

Jim McCormac

Further Afield

One of the easiest, most effective ways to help waterfowl and wetlands is by purchasing a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, more popularly known as the “Duck Stamp”. The 2010 stamp features a gorgeous American wigeon . Since its inception in 1934, Duck Stamp sales have generated over $750 million, and protected nearly 5 ½ million acres.

Duck stamps will be available at a waterfowl symposium to be held the weekend of February 27-28 at the new Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus. Keynote speaker is Dr. Azzam Alwash, who leads restoration efforts of the massive wetlands flanked by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Conference details are HERE. Stamps can also be purchased at many post offices, and at:

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Space limitations in the newspaper sometimes lead to editing down my column. I am able to reprint the entire, original column here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hummers, gnatcatchers, and lichens

For some time, I've been curious about the specific makeup of the lichen communities of Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nests. The literature contains abundant reference to the fact that these species use lichens in nest construction, but I've yet to see a study that analyzed the lichen species and composition.

So, a few weeks back, I put out a request to the Ohio birding community, and was rewarded with a few dozen nests that were made available for study.

Enter Ray Showman, without doubt one of the leading lichenologists in the U.S. Ray lives in Vinton County, Ohio, and recently retired as a biologist with American Electric Power. AEP originally hired him to study lichen populations in the vicinity of coal-burning power plants. Lichens are quite vulnerable to air pollution; thus they serve as readily studied barometers of environmental conditions.

Ray brings real street cred to any project involving lichens. This is his book, co-authored by fellow Ohioan Don Flenniken. This is the gold standard for lichens in these parts. I've spent many an hour in the field with Ray, and can attest to his amazing ability to spot different lichens among a sea of crusts festooning a tree trunk, and quickly identify them. He was quick to accept the challenge of identifying lichens used in hummingbird and gnatcatcher nests. Some of these nests were many decades old, making for a good challenge.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest. Truly tiny, a hummer nest could fit comfortably on a 50 cent piece. Hummingbirds tend to place small bits of lichens liberally on the nest's exterior, but don't completely shingle the structure with them.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest. These are elephantine in comparison to a hummer nest, and gnatcatchers tend to thoroughly shingle the exterior with a dense coating of lichens, and the individual lichen pieces are larger than those used by hummers. Gnatcatcher nests are usually more elongate and conical in shape, too, and the birds typically saddle them to a horizontal branch. In the field, they bear an amazing resemblence to a broken off branch stub.

Closeup of the exterior of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest from Licking County, Ohio. This one is shingled with almost equal proportions of Green Shield Lichen, Flavoparmelia caparata, and Hammered Shield Lichen, Parmelia sulcata, together totalling about 40% of the nest's lichens. The remainder were a species of Parmotrema lichen, not identifiable to species.

These artfully crafted, elaborate nests house some of the smallest eggs of any of the North American birds. This is a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher egg. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird egg is somewhat smaller. As both species use spider webbing liberally in nest construction, there is a certain amount of elasticity to the nest. Little hummers and gnatcatchers, just before fledging, are many, many times larger than the egg from which they emerged. The cup nest can expand - bow out - to accommodate the growing birds' bulk.

This is the nest of an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a species that also uses plenty of lichens. However, pewee nests are devilishly hard to come by, probably because of the difficulty of collecting them. Pewees generally place their nests on small horizontal limbs, well out from the trunk and often high off the ground. Such locations are nearly impossible for a person to reach without a bucket truck. When I was researching my book Birds of Ohio, the Eastern Wood-Pewee was the probably the hardest common species on which to find detailed life history information. The relative lack of information is in part due to the difficulty of studying active nests.
Relative size scale of lichen-spackled nests: Eastern Wood-Pewee (left); Ruby-throated Hummingbird (bottom); Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (top).

We found five species of lichens in hummingbird nests, and this one - Hammered Shield Lichen, Parmelia sulcata - was easily the most common. This was also the preferred lichen in gnatcatcher nests, but not favored to the exent as in hummingbird nests.

Hoary Rosette Lichen, Physcia apipifolia, a very common species on trees where the lichen species harvested by hummers and gnatcatchers grow. But, it was not seen at all, at least in the nests that we examined. Why?

Between the gnatcher and hummingbird nests, we found a total of five species, and all but one were used commonly by both species. The Hoary Rosette Lichen pictured above differs in that it grows tightly appressed - flat - to the bark. It would be difficult for a hummer or gnatcatcher to pry pieces of it away from the tree.

Both of these bird species site their nests on small lateral tree branches, typically well away from the trunk. The lichens that we found in their nests are species that thrive on branches, and at least in one instance, don't occur as often on large trunks. It stands to reason that these are the lichens most desirable for nest construction, as they occur in the immediate vicinity of the nest site, thus making for better camouflage.

Also, all of the lichen species used in nest construction produce elongated lobe tips that arc away from the bark. This growth habit makes for easy plucking and removal for birds that have small, delicate bills. All of the lichens we found are very common, too, and readily available to the birds.

Lichens tie these tiny birds to a much larger ecological picture involving plant communities, and man's impact on air pollution. Ray and I are working on a paper for publication in the Ohio Cardinal that will describe our study and findings in detail, and explore the birds' ecological relationship with lichens.