Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Birth of a dragonfly

The cobbled, narrow streets of the ancient Guatemalan city of Antigua. As our crew rolled into town in our magic birding bus, I noticed Wandering Gliders, Pantala flavescens, patrolling these lanes, darting through traffic. Wandering Gliders are one of the world's most widely distributed dragonflies, so it wasn't that surprising to see them here.

The lovely grounds of Los Andes, a very eco-friendly finca that we spent time at. The following drama all took place in that little hemispherical-shaped pool, just to the left of those blue chairs.

The shed exuvia of a Wandering Glider, with a one Quetzal coin for a size comparison (about the size of an American nickel). One evening, Chuck and Barbara Vellios and myself took a nocturnal prowl around the grounds of Los Andes, and spotted this very nymph climbing from the water. Once high and dry, it locked itself to the wall and we were witness to one of the most spectacular transformations in the insect world.

After a short while, we could see the top surface of the nymph begin to rupture, as the dragonfly contained within struggled to escape. Dragonflies live most of their lives in the larval stage - nymph - and are competely aquatic during this phase. Wandering Gliders are certainly among the quickest to go from egg to adult - they can do so in five weeks or so. Some large dragonfly species might live several years under the water as a nymph.

It didn't take long for the fledgling dragonfly to burst out of its shell - termed an exuvia by this point - and reach the position pictured above. Note the tiny whitish wing buds, barely projecting. The whitish threadlike filaments are termed tracheal tubes, and transport oxygen to the young dragonfly.

Not long after I took the previous photo, the dragonfly began energetically flexing and stretching its legs. Then, it snapped around like an acrobat, flipping over in less than a second and reversing its position. This movement freed its abdomen from the cramped confines of the exuvia, and allowed it a far superior position to commence full expansion.

About 15 minutes later. Note the dramatic expansion of the wings. At this point hemolymph - the dragonfly version of blood - is being energetically pumped throughout the insect, causing body parts to expand and harden.

Less than an hour after emerging, the young glider had reached this point. The very broad wings, characteristic of this highly migratory species, are already evident.

A scant ten or fifteen minutes later, and the wings have nearly expanded completely, the network of veins conducting fluid throughout their length and breadth. At this point the animal is defenseless and very vulnerable to predation; this is why dragonfly nymphs typically emerge from the water and transform at night, when fewer potential predators are about.

Not much longer than an hour after emerging from the exuvia, the glider looked like this. Wings are nearly fully expanded, but not yet snapped to the horizontally extended position of a mature adult. The eyes are gaining much of their color, as is the tissue of the thorax and abdomen.

In th blink of an eye, the wings suddenly folded to the horizontal position.

In about an hour and a half, the Wandering Glider looked like this. At this fragile stage, it is termed a teneral, not yet fully hardened nor capable of swift and agile flight. Probably 24 hours later, this glider was on the wing and far away, or at least I hope so.

Dragonflies, especially this species, are not rare so the transformational event that we just saw isn't rare either. Nonetheless, it was amazing to watch and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The other turkey

There are two species of turkey in the Americas - the familiar, wide-ranging Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and another, far less common species.

I saw the other turkey on my recent Guatemala trip, and saw it well.

A gorgeous male Ocellated Turkey, Meleagris ocellata, struts his stuff. Click on the photo to blow it up and admire the intricate details of its plumage. Ocellateds are showier than Wild Turkeys; nearly peacocklike in their fanciness.

Ocellated Turkeys have a very limited distribution, being confined to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and adjacent Belize and Guatemala. This bird was photographed at Tikal in the Peten Department of northern Guatemala. Turkeys, and all wildlife, is protected within Tikal and the turkeys are now just as bold as you can imagine.

Just as it is here in Ohio, it's gobbling season for stud Ocellated Turkeys. They sound a bit like amplified bongo drums. Check the above video to see a performance.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Guatemala: people, places, and things

Whew! It's nice to have a day of (sort of) rest today; the first in weeks. Following ten days in Guatemala, it was off to the races immediately upon return, with back to back lectures at the Ohio Botanical Symposium (Friday) and the Shreve Migration Sensation (yesterday). Kudos to the organizers of those events; I believe both set attendance records (430+ and 1,000 +-, respectively).

I've got reams of cool photos from the Guatemala trip, which went exceptionally well. Our group tallied 315 species of birds, in addition to numerous mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and flora. I've got photos of much of this stuff, and hope to share a bit more of it before being carried off in the tide of spring in Ohio and vicinity.

Following are some shots of places we visited, and the people who were involved.

Our group birds a finca (farm) in the mountains above Antigua. That's Jen Sauter on the far right; she did a superb organizational job on the Ohio end, making for a worry-free trip for the rest of us. The rest of our crowd - all from Ohio - included Judy Hendrick, Julie Davis, Barbara and Chuck Vellios, Chip and Sue Metheny, Deanne and Dave Helm, Dan Hadley and Mary Elizabeth Huey, and your narrator. Great bunch of people, and some exceptionally sharp sets of eyes.

From the finca in the first photo, we had a clear view of Fuego Volcano, one of the world's most active. Several times we were treated to enormous volcanic belches and plumes of ash spewed skyward.

Our guide, the incomparable Hugo Haroldo Enriquez Toledo. Hugo knows the birds of Guatemala extremely well, and it was thanks to his talents that we managed to record so many species. His talents are much broader in scope, though - here he attempts to wrestle a large boa constrictor from its burrow. Hugo works with the tour company Operador Latino, and if you want to assemble a fascinating and productive Guatemalan trip, I highly recommend contacting them. Irene Rodriguez founded and runs the company, and they do an outstanding job.

Our group seeks the easy to hear, hard to see Blue-throated Motmot. We found several on this trip, but they were mostly unwilling to show themselves.

Our mode of transportation for reaching the highlands above Los Andes. After the truck could go no further, we struck out on foot and found nesting Resplendent Quetzal. A large fig in full fruit lured Azure-rumped Tanagers, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, and many other species. Shortly upon our return to the truck, a pair of Solitary Eagles soared overhead.

This idyllic glen produced many wonderful birds, including Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Golden-browed Warbler, and Tufted Flycatcher.

We met up with Miguel Marin (center) at Tikal. Probably no one knows the birds of this iconic locale like he does. Miguel's ability to locate the most secretive species by a chip or distant note was impressive, and because of him we recorded a large number of species at Tikal, including the rare (for here) Dot-winged Antwren. We also found a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, probably a first for this heavily birded area.

On vigil for the sensational Long-tailed Manakin at Los Torrales. The males had a lek in the dense growth to the left of the group, and we had wonderful views of displaying birds.

We had several nighttime excursions, and while at Los Torrales a young lady named Andrea led us around. She is infatuated and incredibly knowledgeable about insects, and set up a light trap - above - one evening. She also took us to a small limestone cave to see Vampire Bats.

A great variety of insects came into Andrea's illuminated sheet, including many species of leaf and plant hoppers. These two were exceptionally showy.

While enroute between spots, Hugo spotted a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher on a tree top. We shut down, jumped out, and found that the adjacent fields were full of White-collared Seedeaters, Yellow-faced Grassquits, and some Blue-black Grassquits. A pair of Prevost's Ground-sparrows lurked nearby, as did a pair of Blue Grosbeaks.

Chip and Sue Metheny high up on the slopes of San Pedro Volcano, heading towards the summit. We were making the trek primarily to seek the Horned Guan, one of the world's rarest birds. It occurs only in this part of Guetamala and adjacent Mexico, and perhaps as few as 1,000 birds survive. We missed it, in spite of thorough searches. There are no guarantees with birds! The trek was still fun and included many interesting observations.

The view from the halfway point of the San Pedro trek. Lake Atitlan sits in the bowl at the bottom.

We took a boat across Lake Atitlan to reach the village of San Pedro La Laguna, the jumping off point for those of us that hiked the volcano. On the return trip, the boat sputtered to a stop in the middle of the lake - out of gas! No worries, th pilot had an extra can and the delay allowed me an opportunity to scan for birds. Many American Coots and Lesser Scaup can be found, and this was the spot for the now extinct Atitlan Grebe. It was last seen in 1989, and its demise can be directly linked to the introduction of Smallmouth Bass, which decimated the grebes' food sources and ate the chicks.

Lake Atitlan was created by volcanic activity, and is ringed by volcanos. A garagantuan eruption over 80,000 years ago created the caldera in which the lake now sits. There is no outflow - the water seeps into the bedrock - and the maximum depth is estimated to be about 1,100 feet.

Some of us took a fascinating tour of Antigua, one of the country's most interesting cities. That's Jane, our guide, second from left. It was founded in 1524, and the city is full of fascinating cultural history.

An open air market in Antigua. I brought back many goodies from this trip. The vendors were quite friendly, and it was amazing how every one of them had a special bargain just for me!

A woman looms a blanket, creating an exceptionally ornate and colorful swatch.

A man paints a scene before our eyes; no doubt that this artwork didn't come from China!

If you are of an adventurous bent and like to see new and interesting places, consider a trip to Guatemala.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mourning Cloak

Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Jim McCormac


Glorious mourning cloak struts its stuff early

Few creatures are more surefire signs of spring than the butterfly.

The sight of one of these gossamer-winged beauties flitting along on the season's first warm breezes is indeed welcome after the brutal winter just past.

One of the first Ohio butterflies to emerge and welcome spring is also one of the showiest species on the globe. The mourning cloak ( Nymphalis antiopa) is a jaw-dropping whopper insofar as butterflies go. With a wingspan that stretches the tape to 4 inches - like the familiar monarch butterfly - mourning cloaks are easy to spot.

If you see one, sneak in for a good look. Cloaks are extraordinary; painted in a background color of rich, velvety ebony-purple. The wings are trimmed in brilliant gold, as if gilded by elfin butterfly goldsmiths.

A row of tiny azure-blue dots stitches the margins of the gold, creating a fantastic tapestry of design that would turn Martha Stewart green with envy.

The Brits have coined a suitably magnificent name for this cosmopolitan stunner: the Camberwell beauty.

Mourning cloaks are perhaps our longest-lived butterfly. Some individuals can survive for 10 months or more. The adults spend winter in sheltered areas such as bark crevices or woodpiles. The first warm days bring them out: On a March 7 foray, with temperatures in the 50s, our group saw our first cloak of spring.

Butterflies and native plants are intimately intertwined. The larvae, or caterpillars, require specific plant species that provide the right nutrients and chemicals to spur their growth.

Thus, the butterfly seeks out certain suitable host plants upon which it lays its eggs. In the case of the mourning cloak, birches, willows, elms and hackberries are the fodder that ultimately cast this sensational butterfly to the skies.

You can help by learning more about native plants and planting them in your yard. By picking the species favored by particular butterflies, you might enrich your local turf with these winged wonders.

A good resource for learning more about Ohio butterflies and their host plants is the book Butterflies of Ohio by Jaret C. Daniels. Look for it in bookstores and on

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

White-throated Magpie-Jay

White-throated Magpie-Jay, Calocitta formosa, Guatemala. The specific epithet of the scientific name, formosa, means "beautiful". Very apropos.

One of the craziest, eye-catching, surefire crowd-pleasers that we saw on our recent foray into Guatemala were the magpie-jays. Our group saw quite a few, and every one of them elicited shouts and raised binoculars. These are truly spectacular animals: big, brash, loud, massively tailed and insanely crested.

One can almost see the influence this species had on Mayan art. Mayans were - and are - keen observers of nature, and impressively showy birds such as this one made an impact on them.

We saw or heard about 315 bird species on this trip, including five other species of jay, but the raucous magpie-jays may have been my favorite.


Freshly back from Guatemala, having endured the rigors of International travel once again. I was COMPLETELY off the grid for the better part of ten days - no e-mail, no phone service, no nothing to link me to the world from which I came.

As usual, I made many images, and below are a few...

Like some strange piece of furry, living art, a sea of coati tails hooks sinously skyward. This platoon was foraging on a lawn at Tikal, Guatemala.

His "brother" may be the raccoon, but White-nosed Coatis look much like a small bear. That spadelike snout is an extremely effective digging implement. A favored treat is large tarantulas, which the coatis snout from their earthen dens.

More to come...

Monday, March 15, 2010


The grounds of Rincon Suizo, Guatemala. Our breakfast this morning at their fabulous restaurant was preceded by a hike through interesting oak-pine forest. Just standing in the clearing above yielded sensation birds, including the following warblers: Crescent-chested; Wilson's; Black-and-white; Red-faced; Townsend's; Olive; Hermit; and Slate-throated Redstart. And... Pink-headed Warbler, one of the world's truly outrageous birds!

In just a day and a half we've already racked up a big list, and there's much more to come. I'm writing this from the remote hinterlands of the Guatemalan highlands, at a place called Los Andes Reserve. This place is a stunner.

A terrible pic, but you can get the idea of the outlandish coloration of the Pink-headed Warbler. This bird did allow for great looks by the entire group.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Natural History weekend - Presque Isle, Michigan

White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, form an interesting boreal habitat that supports many bird speices and spectacular plant life in Michigan's Presque Isle County.

On the weekend of May 21 - 23, I'll be leading forays in stunning Presque Isle County, Michigan. We'll be based out of NettieBay Lodge, which allows for a life of luxury and excellent food when we're not afield.

Scenic Presque Isle County sits in the far northeastern corner of Michigan's lower peninsula, hard on the shores of the 2nd largest Great Lake, Lake Huron. This is the edge of the vast boreal forest, and there are extensive cedar swamps and other conifer-dominated forests, as well as fascinating habitats such fens, which support many interesting plants and animals. Long stretches of sandy beaches along Huron add to the diversity, and in places support breeding Piping Plovers.

The county breeding bird list is extensive, and includes Common Loons yodeling on the lakes, Golden-winged Warblers among 20+ other breeding warblers, Upland Sandpiper, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, and over 100 others. On Sunday, we'll drop a bit to the south and visit the Jack Pine habitats to see and hear Kirtland's Warblers.

It'll be a fantastic time for spring flora, and the wildflowers will be a bit of a distraction. We'll see various orchids and such northern beauties as Fringed Milkwort, Polygala paucifolia, and Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. The whole experience should be a riot for the senses, and a great way to learn more about birds and other elements of natural history.

We are keeping this event to a small group size so as to maximize the experience and the learning opportunities. For more information, and to register, please visit the NettieBay Lodge site HERE.

Sandy dunes and beaches along beautiful Lake Huron offer some interesting habitats in Presque Isle County.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The run of the salamanders

Up from the primordial ooze, a Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, unerringly hones in on its ancestral breeding pool where it will mate, deposit eggs, and then return to its subterranean lifestyle.

Perhaps no passage of spring is more fleeting than the overland migrations of mole salamanders to their woodland breeding pools. Mole salamanders are large species in the genus Ambystoma, and for all but a few days they live out of sight under the earth. Each year with the first warm evening rains, these underground dwellers rise up from the earth and make fantastic voyages to pools where they will complete their life cycle, and do their best to ensure that their kind remains. I suspect few people know about this phenomenon, which is truly one of Nature's most interesting events.

I knew last night would be good, and it was. Dave Hughes, Laura Stalder, and Skip Trask met up with me and off we went into the wet rainy night to some hotspots near Bellefontaine. Following are some photos from that adventure.

The phrase Nature Deficit Disorder is everywhere. I just wish we could get all kids out on a night like this, and maybe more of them would become interested in our natural world. Nocturnal exploits are always full of surprises and interesting stuff; way better than sitting around the tube. This was one of two Virginia Opossums that we encountered; this individual allowing for close approach. Looks like the tip of his bare tail got frostbitten and dropped off; not an uncommon malady for opossums.

While cruising the roads, I saw a flash of movement along the verge, stopped, and leapt out to discover a Meadow Vole. These are nature's french fries for raptors, and this little dude ran onto the roadway where, disoriented, it proceeded to race madly in circles. We placed him back in the grasses and off he tunneled into the vegetation.

Star of the amphibious show are the Spotted Salamanders with their brilliant yellow dots. This is still a common species, and we saw lots of them. This one, like most of the other shots, was taken on the road, and such crossings are incredibly perilous for salamanders. The routes that salamanders take to their breeding pools are ancient and etched into their DNA. Slap a road or other obstruction in the path and they'll do their best to cross it.

Unfortunately, this is all too often the result. Mortality can be extreme; amphibians are just no match for cars. Every spring when I make these trips, I see lots of smashed salamanders. This one almost made it, just getting clipped; most are utterly flattened.

This is the other big threat to the salamanders and other denizens of vernal pools - outright destruction of their habitat. We were dismayed to find that a logging operation had just been established in one of the best swamp woods in the area. Prior to European settlement, wooded swamps abounded; an enormous percentage of them have been destroyed.

A bizarre "unisexual" salamander crosses the road. At this site, there are many, and there is still much mystery about their life history. The unisexuals at this site seem to be a mixture of Jefferson, Smallmouth, and perhaps Blue-spotted salamanders. All are female, and they have extra sets of chromosomes and often display features of several species.

This is a Smallmouth Salamander, Ambystoma texanum, which is still common over much of the state. They can have beautiful bluish-porcelain flecking along the sides, as this individual does.

Like a tiny Kimodo Dragon, a unisexual salamander rears up to inspect me. Compare this photo with the next.

Smallmouth Salamanders are similar in their lead-gray ground color, but have a tiny rounded face because of the short nose projection.

Misfortune befell the only Redback Salamander, Plethodon cinereus, that we encountered. Part of its tail was neatly severed, illustrating the myriad dangers that salamanders face when they leave their element. Redbacks are abundant; often the most common woodland salamander, and can often be found by turning logs. They don't stage the incredible en masse migrations of the mole salamanders, though.

That Redback Salamander may have lost its appendage to one of these, a Rusty Crayfish, Orconectes rusticus (at least I think that's the species). It's common to find crayfish moving overland on wet nights, too. Their pinchers are powerful, and this one got me good as we transferred it for photo ops. They make quick work of salamander tails.

We observed many Red-spotted Newts, Notophthalmus viridescens, one of our most interesting salamanders. Gimlet-eyed and unafraid, newts casually swagger along, confident in their ability to thoroughly poison anybody stupid enough to eat one. This is our only salamander species that thrives in ponds with fish, as their toxins are powerful enough to dissuade the fish from wolfing them down. Newts are excellent swimmers; note the laterally compressed muskrat-like tail, an adaption for aquatic life.

This is a Red Eft, the larval stage of the newt. We didn't see any of these; I just threw it in to show the contrast between the life stages of the adult and immature. Efts are completely terrestrial, roaming the forest floor for up to three years before transforming into the somber olive hued adult and slipping into the water for the remainder of their lives. I took this photo in the highlands of West Virginia; it seems that the higher the elevation, the brighter the eft.

The evening soundtrack was punctuated with the loud voices of frogs. This is a tiny Western chorus Frog, Pseudacris triseriata. Thier song sounds like someone running a finger down the teeth of a comb, albeit highly amplified.

Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer. Peepers are abundant and they were everywhere, their astonishingly loud birdlike notes ringing out from any and all wet spots. So loud are these miniscule frogs that if you get yourself in the middle of a calling assemblage, it will literally hurt your ears.

We can see the elfin scale of a peeper; an amphibious David in the hand of a Goliath. When you hear the peepers and chorus frogs, you can be sure that winter has passed.