Sunday, September 30, 2012

OOS Annual Meeting

Yesterday morning's sunrise, as observed from the pier at Lakeside, Ohio. Lakeside was home base for the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual meeting, and I was part of the festivities. This was the 7th annual powwow if I've got things straight, and these "meetings" are always a great time. They're meetings only because the official vote on elected officers takes place, but that's a tiny part of the get-together.

The main focus of an OOS meeting is speakers, and field trips. Being along Lake Erie, as we were, shorebirds were the primary theme, but it could just have well been warblers. The songbirding probably eclipsed the shorebirding, but both were good. Our two keynote speakers were Mr. Shorebird himself, Kevin Karlson, and Lukas Padegimas, who gave a great presentation on his work with shorebirds in Alaska last year.

About 150 people convened for this year's meeting, and all of us went out in the field. Field trips have always been a staple of OOS events since Day One, and the group does a great job of getting topnotch experts involved to lead the field excursions. That's Jen Brumfield front and center, probably receiving an update on some rarity from one of numerous agents deployed along the lakefront.

We partnered with the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which provided access to areas of the refuge that are normally off limits. Saturday afternoon's field trip along the dikes was quite an affair, with some 40 vehicles queued up. The sheer volume of optics was staggering.

Ohioans are fortunate in that we have Ottawa NWR, which is a state and national treasure. Its location along the shores of western Lake Erie make the refuge's marshes a beacon for migrant birds. This is the mouth of Crane Creek, which is shallow and estuarinelike. It's mudflats were host to enormous numbers of Common Terns, a lesser number of Forster's Terns, a great diversity of waterfowl, and a couple of American White Pelicans. There weren't scads of shorebirds, but we saw a decent diversity: American Golden-Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, and a few other species. The highlight was two cooperative Buff-breasted Sandpipers, which was a lifer for many.

I helped out at East Harbor State Park on Saturday morning, and we had scads of songbirds, including at least 17 species of warblers. Most conspicuous, by far, were the blizzards of Blackpoll Warblers. I went over to East Harbor with Kevin Karlson for a few hours on Friday afternoon, and we estimated that we saw well over 100 Blackpolls. The next morning our group had even more, and all of the field trips were reporting scads of Blackpolls. The individual in this photo - which I took with my macro lens - was gorging on the fruit of Gray Dogwood, Cornus racemosa, as were many others.

The Ohio Ornithological Society is truly a birder's organization, and does an excellent job of working with birders of all skill levels. Don't let the OR-NIH-THO-LOJ-IH-KAL word spook you! We have a blast, and the various conferences and symposia are worth their weight in gold. CLICK HERE for membership info.

Thanks to everyone who worked to make this another great event!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meet the Cycnias

Spreading Dogbane, Apocynum androsaemifolium, easily the handsomest of the three dogbanes that occur in Ohio. It's rather local, but widespread, and prefers damp partially shaded sites.

The flowers of Spreading Dogbane are magnificent, at least by dogbane standards. The large whitish corollas are prominently striped with pink, with a prominent outward flare to the corolla lobes.

As with the other dogbanes - and their close allies the milkweeds - Spreading Dogbane has thick milky latex coursing through its veins. Tear a leaf and you'll spark a gusher of the stuff. This latex is fairly nasty, as it is rich in toxic cardiac glycosides. The goo is an effective anti-herbivore defense, and dogbane's chemical arsenal safeguards it from most leaf-noshing caterpillars.

Photo: Alison Hunter/Wiki Commons

But not all herbivores are repelled by dogbane toxins. If you ever encounter a pale brown caterpillar that looks like an escapee from a box of pipecleaners, and it's snacking on dogbane, it's apt to be the larva of the Delicate Cycnia (Sik-nee-ah), Cycnia tenera. The caterpillars of this moth are among the few species of Lepidoptera that have successfully battled through the plants' chemical protection.

If the fuzzy caterpillars survive the threat of tachinid flies and other parasitoid predators, this is what they'll become - one of our most elegant moths. Delicate Cycnias are easily recognized by their flawless creamy-white complexion, disrupted only by a showy orange-yellow band that gilds the forewings and head.

The Delicate Cycnia seems to be pretty common and widespread in Ohio, and if you keep a watch, you're likely to encounter one.

Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa, fabled among butterfly connoisseurs for its magical ability to lure the fluttery crowd to its rich nectar. Sometimes butterflies get so punch-drunk on butterfly-weed that you can practically handle them as the insects plumb the depths of the orange blossoms.

It's not only butterflies that depend on this showy milkweed. Look carefully, and you might spot an interesting caterpillar in this shot.

We zoom in, and unmask the tubular orange beast. This is the larva of a MUCH rarer moth than the aforementioned Delicate Cycnia. What we have here is the caterpillar of the Unexpected Cycnia, Cycnia inopinatus, which is an Ohio endangered species. I photographed this cat last July in Adams County, which is one of only two Ohio regions where it is known to occur.

Unexpected Cycnia caterpillars are clad in an incredible shade of soft orange that matches the flower color of Butterfly-weed to a remarkable degree. They'll eat other species of milkweed, and probably even dogbane, but seem most at home on the Butterfly-weed. I was delighted to have the opportunity to see this caterpillar, one of several that we found in a small prairie. It wasn't entirely unexpected, though, as I was with John Howard and he knew that they could be found in this spot.

I've never seen an adult Unexpected Cycnia, but this is what they look like. Work took me to the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity today, and Dave "Mothman" Horn was kind enough to pull out a specimen so that I might photograph it. Note how the orangish forewing gilding only extends to the midwing, and this species is a bit less robust than the similar Delicate Cycnia. The label for this specimen is partially visible, and records the collection locale as the Oak Openings near Toledo. This interesting and imperiled ecosystem harbors the greatest concentration of rare flora and fauna in Ohio. Its close runner up for rarity treasure trove is the prairies of Adams County - the other Ohio region in which the Unexpected Cycnia occurs.

There are two other Cycnia species. One, the Collared Cycnia, Cycnia collaris, is a westerner that doesn't make it as far east as Ohio. The fourth species is the Oregon Cycnia, C. oregonensis, and despite its distinctly occidental name, it does occur sparingly in Ohio. I've seen it once - I think - also in Adams County. Those photos are on another drive, or I'd slap one up.

Mothing is a fascinating pursuit, and Ohio moth'ers should be in for a few treats next year. A new publication on Buckeye State moths is in the works, and a scheme is afoot to hold what should be a real "Mothapalooza".

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A very urban viceroy

This gorgeous and productive little wetland graces the grounds where my office building sits, and the elfin marsh spikes the biodiversity of our urban oasis in a major way. Our complex is located in a very urban area of Columbus, with little in the way of natural features close at hand. Thus, our big splotch of greenery serves as a bit of a trap for migrants, whether they be birds, butterflies, or other insects. The total bird list is nearly 140 species, and the wetland has lured such goodies as Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sora, Virginia Rail and much more.

Plenty of interesting animals breed on site as well, in part due to the botanical diversity. The wetland is hemmed in by a variety of wetland plants, including black willow, Salix nigra, sandbar willow, S. interior, and eastern cottonwoods, Populus deltoides. I single these three species out as they are germane to this story.

Every time I find myself walking by the wetland, I make a quick search of the willow foliage. My quest? The ugly caterpillar imaged above. It is the larva of the viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, one of our flashiest butterflies. This is truly an ugly duckling story, with the homely caterpillar transforming into the Lepidopteran swan.

I personally find viceroy caterpillars quite cool, and perhaps a bit more interesting than your average caterpillar. They are one of the scores of animals that imitate bird droppings, and the viceroy has raised fecal-mimicry to an art form. Just look at the thing. Who'd want to eat that? They're sort of an unappetizing shade of poo-brown, and dappled with shiny white waxy zones. The overall effect is of a freshly deposited strand of songbird goo, and few things are interested in such fare.

Well, in spite of my occasional searches, I never have found viceroy caterpillars on our willow, which are favored host plants. They'll also use cottonwood, but all of the viceroy caterpillars that I've found have been on willow, such as the one in the previous photo.

But lo and behold, when I took a short stroll between buildings last Thursday, there sat this stunningly fresh viceroy! Fortunately I had a camera in the car, and was able to document the animal as it rested in the cool early morning sunshine. I'd bet two pearl crescents and a northern pearly-eye that this butterfly was raised on our nearby willows. Or possibly the cottonwoods. One very cool thing about many species of butterflies is that you can actively manage for them by planting the appropriate host plants. As this situation illustrates, butterflies can even be "raised" in very urban environments.

Using native plants to support animal diversity is a major message of the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference, which will hold its fifth event next July in Dayton. We're especially pleased to be hosting Doug Tallamy as a keynote speaker. You'll want to mark July 26, 27 & 28, 2013 and hold the dates. More conference info can be found HERE.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tomato killer meets its match

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Ah, the tomato. A much beloved fruit, although many enthusiasts of Lycopersicon esculentus might give it a second thought if they knew that it is spawn of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which contains many very poisonous species. But there's obviously no issues with eating the ripe plump succulent fruit, or our world's population would not be what it is. You'll not want to graze on the foliage, however, as it contains small amounts of various toxins, true to the tomato's nightshade heritage.

There is one very prominent tomato foliage feeder, much to the dismay of hard-working tomato growers. It is the larva of one of our flashiest moths, the Carolina sphinx, Manduca sexta. Its caterpillars are also quite showy, although their good looks don't often win them a pass from peeved tomatoists. Nor from a very deadly parasitoid wasp.

One of my co-workers mentioned that she had plenty of tobacco hornworms noshing on her tomato crop, and that many were victimized by a very interesting and oft-seen hornworm predator. I convinced her to cup one up and bring it into the office so I could capture some images, and she most kindly did just that.

NOMENCLATURE NOTE: Sometimes caterpillar common names are confusing, and this is one of those cases. Manduca sexta is an example of a moth that has different names for the adult (Carolina sphinx) and the larva (tobacco hornworm). In this case, it is doubly confusing as there is also a tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata, larva of the five-spotted hawk moth. It is also a nightshade specialist, but is far less commonly found on tomatoes than is the tobacco hornworm. The common names of these two species should probably switched for clarity's sake.

In any event, you probably couldn't help but to notice all of those little whitish tubes bristling from the hornworm caterpillar, and if you grow tomatoes, you've probably seen this with your own eyes. These tiny sacs are the cocoons of a parasitoid braconid wasp, Cotesia congregata.

 Photo: Beatriz Moisset/Wikipedia Commons

The wasps are tiny indeed, as can be seen in this image. Note how neatly the tips of the cocoons rupture when the adult wasp pushes its way out. Female Cotesia wasps seek out tobacco hornworms, and when a victim is located, she'll inject numerous eggs into its tissue with a needlelike ovipositor. Along with the eggs comes symbiotic viruses that hamper the caterpillar's defense systems. The wasp eggs hatch in about two days, and the little grublets begin devouring the nonvital soft parts of the caterpillar's innards.

About two weeks after the wasp grubs hatch, they'll be mature and then burst through the hornworm's skin and form the strange little cottony cocoons that have given many a gardener pause. A week or so later, the adult wasps will emerge from the cocoons, find other Cotesia wasps of the opposite sex, mate, and begin the cycle anew. By this point in the cycle, the caterpillar will have perished, its inner workings too ravished by the wasp grubs for it to survive.

Nature is chock full of predators on every level, and the hornworm/Cotesia wasp dynamic is an especially obvious example of a predator-prey relationship that would normally go unnoticed. I recently wrote about two similar but far less seen parasitoids HERE. Were it not for the legions of predators engaging and killing their legions of victims, ecosystems would go wacky. Even though some of the tactics employed by insect predators - especially, perhaps, the parasitoids - seem grisly, they are also fascinating studies.

In this case, we have a plant - the tomato - that has evolved chemical toxicity that is effective enough to exclude most caterpillars from eating its foliage. Some tubular warriors will always manage to battle through the plant's chemical defense systems, and in this case the hornworm is the conqueror. It wins two prizes, as not only does the caterpillar get to nosh on tomato foliage free of competing herbivores, it also sequesters the nightshade's toxins and thus becomes unpalatable to most predators. Nothing is enemy-free, however - enter the parasitoid Cotesia congregata wasp. But the wasp undoubtedly has its enemies as well. It may well be victimized by even more devious hyperparasitoids - other wasps whose larvae consume those of the parasitoid. Even if that doesn't happen, the adult wasps are vulnerable to scores of predatory insects, songbirds, and others.

A bit of hornworm management advice. Most gardeners don't want their tomato crop depleted by ravenous caterpillars, so if you see caterpillars bristling with wasp cocoons, leave some be. They'll hatch more wasps and in this case the wasp is the gardener's friend. Better yet, set aside a small patch of tomatoes and allow the hornworm caterpillars to have at them. With luck, a few will make it all of the way to adulthood, and then your yard will be graced by one of our coolest moths, as SEEN HERE.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Winter finch predictions!

The always eagerly anticipated Ron Pittaway report on the state of the boreal forest's various fruit crops, and his attendant predictions as to what might happen in regards to winter finch movements, arrived today. Ron is with the Ontario Field Naturalists, and he employs a small army of observers to provide him data on the cone and other fruit crops around eastern Canada. Many birders and biologists look forward to the annual Pittawayian Prognostications, as Ron is often pretty well spot on in foretelling the movements of boreal birds.

The forecast is promising. Ron believes that we'll see good southward flights of redpolls, Purple Finch, and as is already happening, Red Crossbill. Birders in Ohio will likely find themselves lurking around cemeteries with lots of mature conifers this winter. Who knows, we may even get a Bohemian Waxwing or Pine Grosbeak this winter.

MINOR GRIPE: The Pittaway forecast - and many other reporters - constantly refer to a lack of cone or other fruit crops as a "failure", meaning the trees did not produce abundant cones. The lack of fruit production in trees is certainly not a "failure"; most woody plants and conifers in particular have boom and bust fruit production cycles. Lean years and boom years are an integral part of their life cycle as the plants alternate between putting energy into seed production, and years that they must recharge their batteries, so to speak. A lack of a crop is really just a lean production year, not a failure.

Here's Ron's report:


The theme this winter is that each finch species will use a different
strategy to deal with the widespread tree seed crop failure in the
Northeast. It will be a quiet winter in the eastern North Woods. See
individual species forecasts for details. Both coniferous and hardwood
tree seed crops are generally poor from northeastern Ontario extending
eastward across Quebec to Newfoundland south through the Maritime
Provinces, New York and New England States. Within the Northeast there
are pockets of good crops. Cone crops are much better in the Hudson Bay
Lowlands and northwestern Ontario west to Alberta, Northwest Territories
and Yukon. Three irruptive nonfinch passerines whose movements
are linked to finches are also discussed.


A good flight is expected into southern Ontario because
the mountain-ash berry crop is variable in the boreal forest.
Many berries are hard with low moisture content because of the drought.
The European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapple crops are poor to
fair in southern Ontario so these crops won't last long.
Grosbeaks will be attracted to the usually abundant buckthorn berries
and to bird feeders offering black oil sunflower seeds. The Ontario
breeding population of this grosbeak is stable.

Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this
fall because both coniferous and deciduous hardwood seed crops are very
low this year in the Northeast. Purple Finch numbers dropped
significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided and
currently a moderate population decline continues in the province.

Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 types
in North America. Each type probably represents a separate or newly
evolving species. Most types are normally impossible to identify in the field without
recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that there is currently a large early irruption of Type 3 Red Crossbills (smallest billed type) from the west into eastern North
America. Recordings can be made with a cell phone and sent to Matt to be
identified (may6 AT Every recording adds an important
piece to the puzzle, especially when accompanied by notes on behaviour
and ecology, including tree species used for foraging and nesting. Matt
emphasizes that the conservation of call types depends on understanding
their complex distributions and ecological requirements.

With very poor spruce cone crops in the
Northeast, most White-winged Crossbills will likely stay this winter in
the Hudson Bay Lowlands, northwestern Ontario and western Canada where
spruce cone crops are generally very good. They will be virtually absent
from traditional hotspots such as Algonquin Park where spruce crops are
very low. Wandering birds may show up throughout the Northeast.

There should be a good southward flight because the
white birch seed crop is poor to fair across the north. Watch for
redpolls on birches and in weedy fields and at bird feeders offering
nyger (preferred) and black oil sunflower seeds. Check flocks for the
rare Greater Common Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from
the High Arctic. It is reliably identified by its larger size, darker
and browner colour, longer/thicker bill and longer tail in direct
comparison to Southern Common Redpolls (nominate flammea
subspecies). Note: The notion of a biennial periodicity
that redpolls irrupt south every second winter is not supported by
records in Atlantic Canada (Erskine and McManus 2003). The authors
concluded that "irregular abundance but near-annual occurrence" of
redpolls in the Atlantic Provinces is a better explanation than a two
year cycle. Similarly redpolls were recorded on 32 of 38 Christmas Bird
Counts in Algonquin Park (Lat. 45.5 N), Ontario.

Check redpoll flocks for Hoary Redpolls. There are two
subspecies. Most Hoaries seen in southern Canada and northern United
States are Southern Hoary Redpolls (subspecies
exilipes). Hornemann Hoary Redpoll (nominate
subspecies hornemanni) from the High Arctic was previously regarded as a
great rarity in southern Canada and the northern United States. In
recent decades a number have been confirmed by photographs. Hornemann
is most reliably identified by its larger size in direct
comparison to flammea Common Redpoll or exilipes Hoary Redpoll.
Caution: White birds loom larger than life among darker birds and size
illusions are frequent.

Some siskins currently in the Northeast should move south
this fall and winter because cone crops are poor. However, siskins are
an opportunistic nomad wandering east and west continent-wide in search
of cone crops. Most siskins will probably winter in northwestern Ontario
and western Canada where cone crops are generally very good. Major
southward irruptions occur when cone crops fail across most of North

This spectacular grosbeak is ABA Bird of the
Year in 2012. We can expect some at feeders in central Ontario and
probably elsewhere in the Northeast because coniferous and hardwood tree
seed supplies are low. Highest breeding densities are found in areas
with spruce budworm outbreaks. The larvae are eaten by adults and fed to
young. Current populations are much lower than several decades ago when
budworm outbreaks were much larger and more widespread.

Movements of the following three species are
often linked to the boreal finches.

Expect a smaller flight than last year along the north
shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the red oak acorn crop is
very good in central Ontario. Beechnut and hazelnut crops were poor to
none, but the acorn crop may be large enough to keep many jays in the
north this winter.

A widespread irruption of this nuthatch beginning
in mid-summer indicated a cone crop failure in the Northeast. Most will
leave the eastern half of the province for the winter, but some will
probably remain in northwestern Ontario where cone crops are much

Expect a flight this winter because the mountain-ash berry crop in the boreal forest was affected by drought. Even though some areas have large crops, many berries are hard with low
moisture content. Farther south Bohemians will be attracted to the usually abundant buckthorn berries because European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapple crops are generally low and of poor quality.

Algonquin Park is a winter adventure about a three
hour drive north of Toronto, but this will be a very lean finch winter
in the park. Conifer crops are poor to none. Feeders at the Visitor
Centre (km 43) should have Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, and redpolls. The
Visitor Centre and restaurant are open weekends in winter. Arrangements
can be made to view feeders on weekdays by calling 613-637-2828. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and Opeongo Road are good spots for Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees, Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Be sure to get a copy of the new Birds of
Algonquin Park (2012) by Ron Tozer. It is one of the best
regional bird books ever published with lots of information about winter
finches and boreal specialties.

WINTER FINCH BASICS: A primer about finch facts, seed crops and

Excellent paper on berry crops in Ontario.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural
Resources designated by an asterisk* and others whose reports allow me
to make annual forecasts:
Dennis Barry (Durham Region), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward
Island), Pascal Cote (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Bruce Di
Labio (Eastern Ontario and Churchill, Manitoba), Carolle Eady (Dryden),
Cameron Eckert (Yukon), Marcel Gahbauer (Alberta & Northwest
Territories), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David
Govatski (New Hampshire), Charity Hendry* (Ontario Tree Seed Facility),
Leo Heyens* (Kenora), Tyler Hoar (Northern Ontario & Quebec
Laurentians), Jean Iron (Hudson Bay, James Bay & Northeastern Ontario),
Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Brian Naylor* (Nipissing), Justin Peter*
(Algonquin Park), Genevieve Perreault (Regroupement QuebecOiseaux), Fred
Pinto* (North Bay), Harvey & Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan),
Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner
(Haliburton Highlands), John Woodcock (Thunder Cape Bird Observatory)
and Kirk Zufelt (Sault Ste Marie, Ontario). I especially thank Matt
Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for advice and detailed
information about seed crops in New York and adjacent states and for
information about Red Crossbills. Jean Iron proofed the forecast and
made helpful comments.

LITERATURE CITED: Erskine, A.J. and R. McManus, Jr. 2003. Supposed
periodicity of redpoll, Carduelis sp., winter visitations in Atlantic
Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 117(4):611-620.

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario
19 September 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Canada goldenrod: harbinger of winter

Our most conspicuous member of the Asteraceae, bar none, is now thoroughly coloring the meadows golden. Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, is sometimes maligned as a "weed", but only by those who don't know its charms. Or its ecological value. Few of our native plants produce the abundant contributions to the food web that this goldenrod does.

A classic fall scene in Ohio. Old fields gilded in yellow, punctuated with the white bursts of boneset and shocking bolts of purple courtesy of New England aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Insect enthusiasts know to enter the goldenrod fields and search the panicles of showy lemon blooms to find all manner of six-legged wonders. More importantly, myriad predators also hunt goldenrod patches, contributing to an ever upwards spiraling web of life.

One downside, at least for the winter-phobic, is that the golden fields of Solidago will soon give way to frosty nights and Old Man Winter. Goldenrods are the growing season's last hurrah.

But even in winter, the senescent sprays of goldenrod are rich with nutritious seeds. While the plants themselves may not overly beautify an old fencerow, the flocks of Tree Sparrows, filling the wintry air with melodious tinkling calls that suggest icicles delicately crashing to earth, certainly add life to winter's drabness as they feast on the fruit. Even in death, goldenrods foster plenty of life.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The transformation of an urban wasteland

The Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which smacks right up against downtown Columbus, Ohio, takes shape. I made this photo on December 3, 2008, when the center was under construction. It was officially dedicated on August 3, 2009 and is now a vibrant center that hosts lots of events and provides outreach within the urban core of Columbus.

I was there yesterday to present a program as part of a dragonfly workshop - just one example of the varied events that take place at GIAC.

This Google Earth map is a few years old, and shows some of the former uses of the Whittier Street Peninsula, where the GIAC is located. The big parking lots are part of the former City of Columbus Impoundment Facility; many an irate driver had to to make the pilgrimage here to retrieve a misparked vehicle. The impound lot is gone now, moved to a new locale on the south side. Franklin County Metro Parks owns and manages much of the peninsula as the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, and has made great strides in improving the local habitat.

I've long been familiar with this area. Ever since I was a kid, I'd head to this wide spot in the Scioto River - courtesy the Greenlawn Avenue dam - to look for birds. The pooled waters behind the dam are, and were, a beacon for waterbirds. Many a rarity has turned up here over the years, and yours truly has found Great Black-backed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake here - both major central Ohio rarities.

While we were always interested in the river, birders pretty much shunned the terrestrial habitats of the Whittier Street Peninsula. It was a rough place, peopled by unsavory characters frequenting unsavory habitats. Excepting a narrow fringe of cottonwood, silver maple and a few other riparian trees along the river, there just wasn't much habitat worth exploring.

A Virginian tiger moth, Spilosoma virginica (I think) peers at your blogger. After yesterday's talks had concluded, we split the group up and headed outside to look for dragonflies and other critters. What a change has come to the Whittier Street Peninsula since the pre-GIAC days! Restoration and recovery of habitat has led to an enormous spike in native plant diversity, and with that increase in botanical diversity comes a huge increase in animal diversity.

We only had an hour and a half to poke around, and it went fast. While the dragonflies weren't overly exceptional, although we did see quite a few, there were scads of other interesting animals and we nearly always had something noteworthy in our sights.

A locust borer, Megacyllene robiniae, feasts on goldenrod nectar. What was not long ago waste ground is now reverting to meadow, and much of it is rich with Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. I am an unabashed goldenrod fan; if you want to find fabulously diverse insect communities, just dive into the local goldenrod patch.

A gray hairstreak, Strymon melinus, delighted the group and for a brief time, become a Lepidopteran celebrity with cameras clicking all around. We saw lots of butterflies of many species, including immigrants such as the common buckeye. Metro Parks and GIAC are augmenting the natural flora of the area with native plant plantings, and it's working - the local biodiversity has exploded compared to what it was just a few short years ago.

I was especially pleased to find this gorgeous caterpillar - it is the larva of the snowberry clearwing, Hemaris diffinis. This is one of the day-flying "hummingbird moths".

We saw far more during our brief foray than I can share here. Many species of dragonflies were frequenting the newly created wetlands, and the buffering meadows were full of cool insects. A Pied-billed Grebe and a couple of Blue-winged Teal loafed in the water, and a muskrat put on quite a show, as did a big snapping turtle accompanied by a painted turtle that was attempting to graze algae from the larger turtle's back. Especially exciting was the appearance, directly overhead, of a pair of Peregrine Falcons, probably the local downtown nesters.

The Whittier Street Peninsula will only improve with age. As the wetlands, meadows, and woodlands mature and diversify, the attendant animal life will also improve. Given its location in such a highly urbanized area, the Audubon Scioto Metro Park serves as a major beacon to migratory birds and insects. I suspect some very noteworthy records will be made here in coming years.

It has been gratifying to watch the ongoing restoration of what, not long ago, was pretty much an urban wasteland. The transformation of the Whittier Peninsula from impound lot/industrial refuse to vibrant natural habitats is a great positive for the City of Columbus, and should serve as a model of urban brownfield restoration.

To learn more about this area, CLICK HERE, and HERE.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Invasion of the Japanese burrowing cricket

A Japanese burrowing cricket, Velarifictorus micado, emerges from the plantain leaves long enough to allow your narrator a photo. The big field cricket-sized animals typically remain well hidden in mulch, cracks in the soil, or other nooks and crevices.

About three years ago, I began to hear an unfamiliar cricket here and there around my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. It didn't take too much sleuthing to determine that the singer was a nonnative Orthopteran - the Japanese burrowing cricket. Their deep rich (for a cricket) series of chirps are distinctive, and always given from the ground. This cricket is strictly terrestrial.

In the three or so years since first identifying this species, they've gone fairly haywire. I now hear Japanese burrowing crickets nearly everywhere I go, including places where I know they weren't present just a year or so ago. I think I heard my first one at the office complex where I work last year; now they are everywhere and I might hear a half-dozen or more on a short jaunt between buildings.

Japanese burrowing crickets frequent highly landscaped situations such as mulch beds, mulched trails, areas where ornamental trees have been planted, etc. As long as they stay in such places, they'll probably pose no threat to our native animals, Orthopteran or otherwise. This species is clearly hitchhiking in mulch and soil that is attached to landscape trees and other ornamental plants. It is amazing how rapidly they have been able to colonize new areas; a testament to all of the (bad) landscaping that people do.

Listen for this cricket, which sings day and night. I'll bet you'll hear one sooner than later. CLICK HERE to hear Wil Hershberger's excellent recording of a Japanese burrowing cricket.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Making more music-makers

A Davis's tree cricket, Oecanthus exclamationis, in between fiddles. This little fellow is a contributor to the great musical backdrop of late summer and fall, courtesy of the Orthopteran symphony. Most tree crickets produce long droning trills, and as there are generally many of them in close proximity, tree crickets are major contributors to the sounds of the night.

The males are singing to attract mates, just as songbirds do. Tree crickets and other Orthopterans have their "ears" or hearing organs located just below the "knee" on the foreleg. This odd placement allows the ears to be about as far apart as possible, and that allows the animal to more accurately triangulate on sounds. And in the case of females, to better locate singing studs such as the guy above.

Ah! His melodious charms have worked! He's successfully wooed a mate, and she has joined him on the leaf. That's the female on top, which may seem to be an odd position. They are engaged in courtship feeding, a bizarre quirk of tree cricket reproduction. The male has an organ called a melanotal gland on his back, just behind the wings. This structure produces a tasty nutrient-rich substance that lures the female into an optimal position, and she is feeding from the melanotal gland in this photo. Once she's settled in, he'll curve his abdomen upwards to contact her genitalia and transform his spermatophores to her. Sometime after she's been successfully fertilized, she'll use her ovipositor to puncture bark on twigs and inject her eggs. Come the following spring, the eggs will hatch and a new crop of tree crickets will begin life.

While on a nocturnal field trip a week or so ago, Cheryl Harner spotted this scene and alerted the rest of us. It's a pair of short-winged meadow katydids, Conocephalus brevipennis, caught in the act of mating. The female is on the right, kindly holding her swordlike ovipositor aloft so as to not impale her mate. The male has managed to contort himself into a rather spectacular position; he must have studied the insect Kama Sutra.

The white globule is the spermatophore - we've caught him just as he was transferring his reproductive material to his mate. At the tip of his abdomen, just to the right of the spermatophore, we can see the specialized claspers that he uses to grasp and hold the female. These are called cerci, and each species of meadow katydid has uniquely shaped cerci.

The scenes in these photos are the fruition of the male's songs - successful courtship with a female, and perpetuation of the species. These Orthopteran romances play out by the score each night, all around us, but we seldom get to see them in action.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Superfly, and an even cooler cat

Life has been especially busy of late, but I've been seeking interesting flora and fauna between speaking gigs, writing, and work with modest success. I love football, and like to catch as many Ohio State games as possible, which is maybe half of them if I'm lucky. Yesterday was one of those football Saturdays when I was in town, so I headed up to watch the game with my parents, at their wonderfully wildscaped home in Worthington.

At the half, I trotted out to the backyard, where interesting animals can nearly always be found. Fortunately, I had the Canon T3i in tow, as I spotted the following beast, straight out of BizzaroWorld.

A picture-winged fly, Delphinia picta, regards your narrator with its inscrutable visage. As I passed near the metal hull of the home's air conditioning unit, I noticed an oddly shaped small insect sitting on it, seemingly unconcerned about being exposed. My first impression, from afar, was of some sort of predator. It actually resembled a large pseudoscorpion, and from other angles, perhaps a jumping spider. To be honest, I wasn't really quite sure what it was, but after fetching the camera and frame-filling the lens with the animal, it was obviously a fly.

It's apropos that this fly's specific epithet is picta, which means "painted". That descriptor stems from its wings, which are ornately marked.

I have searched around a bit for information on this species, but have found little beyond its feeding habits. This species of picture-winged fly - there are dozens of other species - feeds primarily on rotting vegetation. Apparently fallen, overripe fruit is often used, and that would make sense as there is a crabapple that has shed plenty of fruit nearby. The larvae wallow about in the mushy old fruit, and eventually morph into the rather attractive fly shown in these photos.

But back to the potential mimicry. Like I said, my first reaction was of some sort of predatorial bug, based on three things: it was sitting in the open, seemingly unconcerned and as if it were on alert for victims; the fly looked like some strange little arachnid or some other dangerous thing from afar; and finally, when a larger fly landed nearby, the picture-winged fly pounced in its direction, seemingly aggressively. It also locomoted in the manner of a jumping spider, with quick, jerky lunges.

Insofar as I know, adult Delphinia picta flies are completely vegetarian, like their larvae. Any attempt to look like and act like a bad guy would just be bluff, to dissuade legitimate bad guys from making a move.

Later that evening, I headed up to Highbanks Metro Park to conduct a symposium on "singing insects". This gig stemmed from an article that I wrote on Orthopteran insects which just appeared in the Franklin County Metro Parks quarterly magazine ParksScope. I appreciate the magazine's editor, Virginia Gordon, inviting me to pen this piece, and plastering my photo of a broad-winged bush katydid, Scudderia pistillata, on the cover!

We limited the lecture/night hike to 25 people, as any more than that and the group becomes unwieldy in the field. And as always, I wondered if anyone would be interested enough in bugs to sign up. I need not have worried - it filled quickly, and a waiting list formed as well. People are enchanted with the singing insects, and I think much of this fascination stems from familiarity. Virtually everyone who ventures out at night, even if only to the backyard, hears the great wall of sound put up by the nocturnal six-legged fiddlers. When presented with an opportunity to learn more about them, many people are interested.

An extraordinary caterpillar indeed, the grandly named Asteroid, Cucullia asteroides. As with so many other caterpillars, this is a reverse ugly duckling tale. The caterpillar is stunning, looking as if it was handpainted by elfin artisans, then given a glossy coat of wax. It'll mature into one of the myriad owlet moths; a total plain jane, at least by the standard of beauty set by the caterpillar.

Someone in our group last night - wish I could remember who! - spotted The Asteroid, much to the delight of the crowd. We also saw and heard plenty of singing insects, our primary target, but this Asteroid was a huge bonus.

It turned out to be showering Asteroids last night - we ended up finding three of them. Part of our short trek took us by a small field full of grass-leaved goldenrod, Euthamia graminifolia, in full bloom, and it was those plants that the Asteroids were feeding on. I was quite pleased with the opportunity to make some new images of these showy tubes of goo, and I think the other field trip participants were also enamored by the elegant cats.

Thanks to Elizabeth Fields, naturalist at Highbanks Metro Park, for helping with the program and field trip, and to the other park naturalists that attended and helped find The Asteroids and many other interesting creatures of the night.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Insect sings like a frog

An oblong-winged katydid, Amblycorypha oblongifolia, shouts his song to the night.

I was tasked with leading a nocturnal foray last Friday night in Ohio's northeasternmost county, Ashtabula. Insects, of course, were a dominant part of the evening's festivities. Many in the group were birders, and I always enjoy sharing the songs of insects with birdwatchers who may not be in tune with the Orthopteran symphony.

Most, or at least many, birders strive to improve their ability to recognize bird calls. It isn't always easy, depending upon the amount of tin in your ear, but the dividends of improved bird call recognition are enormous - you'll find WAY more birds. Come late summer, though, the level of songbird song drops way off. What's an aspiring song-learner to do, short of pulling out the tapes for practice?

Turn your ear to the bugs! The Orthopterans - crickets, coneheads, katydids and the like - start to come on strong about the same time that bird song falls off the acoustical cliff. The various fiddles of the "singing insects" can also be learned, just as can bird calls. Some are easy and in your face; other species have much subtler tunes, or sound a lot like other species. It's fun and rewarding to learn to sort them out, and doing so will make one far more adept at mastering bird song.

We move in much closer to the oblong-winged katydid in the preceding shot. I had heard him from some distance away, singing back in a scruffy woodland opening. Once pointed out to the group, everyone quickly keyed in on the animal's song. It is a rather loud scratchy ree-DIP that sounds like a frog. Hear it for yourself, RIGHT HERE.

Experience has taught me that this species, and some of the other bush katydids, "tee up" when singing, just as many songbirds do. You just can't see them, because its dark. But by moving furtively, following the sound, and shining a flashlight well out in front, you can sometimes spot the six-legged singer from afar. That's what we did in this case, and the cooperative if not somewhat perplexed bug sat tight atop his twig and allowed many of the group to close in for a good look.

The nocturnal world of sound is a fascinating subject, and is all around us. Many of the singing insects are urbanites, and liable to calling in your backyard right now. As I write this, from my home in the big city, I can hear fall field cricket, Japanese burrowing cricket (blog to come), two-spotted tree cricket, greater and lesser anglewing katydids, and more. They are creating the night's sound track; a staple feature of the ambiance of late summer and fall evenings.

A landmark book that brought the conspicuous yet hidden world of singing insects into the public eye is the Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. This is one of the finest natural history works in modern times, and greatly aids one's ability to easily learn many of these insects. The photography is stunning, and it comes with a CD of sounds. Get it RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ohio Sustainable Landscape Symposium

Ohio Sustainable Landscape Symposium
September 15, 2012 8:30am-4pm
The Dawes Arboretum, Licking County, Ohio

Learn about the benefits of native plants, their importance to the green industry, and practical approaches to sustainable landscaping. Discover new ways to integrate sustainable “green” ideas into widespread traditional practices. From the keynote address to the 20-minute talks to the garden tour, spend the day at this exciting symposium exploring a world of native plants that are both beautiful and ecologically important!

Featured speaker Allan M. Armitage is one of the world’s most distinguished horticulturists and a professor at the University of Georgia, Athens, where he conducts research on new garden plants and runs the university’s Horticulture Gardens. Charming and lively as well as highly knowledgeable, Dr. Armitage is in constant demand as a speaker and has lectured worldwide.

Hosted by The Dawes Arboretum, in partnership with Licking County Master Gardeners

Allan ArmitageNative Plants Are for Everyone: The Mainstreaming of Native Plants
Today, through natural hybridization, breeding and marketing, many wonderful “nativars” have come to the market. Join Dr. Armitage as he discusses his observations of the native plant market and share his observations of the newest in nativars of such well-known plants as Echinacea, Coreopsis and Rudbeckia, along with other North American plants that all gardeners and professionals will enjoy.

David BrandenburgWild Collecting in the 21st Century
Increase your knowledge of plant exploration and learn how native species are chosen, collected, propagated and disseminated to passionate gardeners eager to expand their plant palettes.

Sandy Frey & Susan WeberTen Great Strategies for a Beautiful, Sustainable Back Yard
Learn easy, cost-effective strategies that will help make (and keep!) your yard ‘greener’ and more beautiful. Discuss vertical gardening, rainwater harvesting, organic lawn care practices and other top ‘green’ landscaping practices.

Don HumphreyGardening with Nature
Discover how one gardener created an urban oasis that is in bloom from late winter to late fall, is wildlife friendly, and feeds the gardener in both body and spirit.

Pablo JourdanGenes in the Bank: Investment Opportunities with Our Native Herbaceous Plants
Hear about The Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center, a gene bank that captures, conserves and utilizes the genetic diversity of our native species to facilitate development of the wonderful plants that enliven our landscapes.

Richard LarsonThe Splendorous Selectivity of Nature
Explore the exciting variations in native trees and shrubs that have been selected, marketed and introduced into the landscape. Unique characteristics set these plants apart from the species, making them highly desirable for both the landscaper’s use and the homeowner’s garden.

Garden Tour
Accompanied by a Dawes Arboretum professional, stroll off-trail and immerse yourself in our extensive plant collections and diverse natural woodlands.

Native Plant & Book Sales
Plant sale area featuring unique native plants and gardening items is open during the symposium. Selections of books related to the symposium are for sale, including books written by our speakers.

Hampton Inn –
Hebron Rd., Heath, OH 43056 740.788.8991
Reservations must be made two weeks in advance of September 15. Mention The Dawes Arboretum for the $78 symposium rate.

Symposium Registration
To register call 740.323.2355, payments may be made by credit card. If you choose to pay by check, make checks payable to The Dawes Arboretum and mail to 7770 Jacksontown Rd. SE, Newark, OH 43056.
Early bird registration of $50 is through September 1, 2012. Registration fee is $60 after September 1, 2012.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lights Out for Birds

Indigo Bunting, tower-killed in downtown Columbus, Ohio

Turning out skyscraper lights saves migrating songbirds

Columbus Dispatch

Sunday September 2, 2012
Jim McCormac

More than 420 species of birds have been found in Ohio, but most aren’t permanent residents. More than 300 species show up annually; the rest are rarities with few recorded sightings. This core group of 315 or so species is of greatest conservation concern within Ohio. These are the species that breed here or depend on Ohio’s habitats as way stations on much longer journeys.

Our annual avian visitors include 125 species strictly passing through the Buckeye State. About 170 species nest here but spend the rest of the year elsewhere. By far the smallest core group of Ohio’s birds is the permanent residents. Only about 22 species are largely nonmigratory and with us year-round. This latter group includes familiar feeder birds such as the Carolina chickadee, downy woodpecker and white-breasted nuthatch.

Ohio plays host to vast numbers of migratory birds, and during spring and fall, the passage of feathered journeyers spikes into the millions. The largest group of long-haul migrants is the songbirds: flycatchers, thrushes, warblers and others. Their ranks include colorful favorites such as the Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak. The songbird species that travel through our state winter in the Caribbean, Central America and South America and breed as far north as Alaska.

If they make it.

A songbird’s journey is fraught with peril. Most species migrate at night, for several reasons. Predators such as sharp-shinned hawks aren’t active; winds are often calmer; celestial objects play a role in many species’ orientation; and nighttime passages leave the day free to forage.

One of the greatest manmade hazards to migrant birds is the proliferation of skyscrapers that rise into their flight paths. New York’s 1,454-foot-tall Empire State Building was topped out in 1931 and remained the world’s tallest building for the next 40 years. Its construction sparked a boom in high-rises, and today North America’s largest cities bristle with behemoths. In Columbus, 17 buildings exceed 300 feet — well into the flight paths of migrant songbirds.

Night-flying birds now must run a gantlet of big buildings. One of the big problems is the lights that are either left on or used to illuminate the structures. Birds are disoriented by artificial lights and tend to fly toward them and strike the building. An estimated 550 million birds die annually from building strikes. Such incidents are a major contributor to the diminishing numbers of many songbird species. To put this carnage into perspective, 550 million birds equals the entire collective populations of our 14 most common warbler species. Exact numbers aren’t known, but scores of birds perish from building strikes in Columbus each year.

The solution is simple: Turn out the lights! The Lights Out campaign began in the 1990s in Chicago and has been embraced by most managers of tall buildings there. Lights Out coordinators recommend dimming the lights during spring and fall peak migratory periods. Doing so has drastically reduced bird deaths. In Columbus, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center are spearheading Lights Out and have secured the cooperation of managers of several of Columbus’ tallest buildings. It would be great to see even more tall buildings go dim when songbirds are passing through.

To learn more about Lights Out Columbus, contact Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative coordinator Amanda Conover at 614-432-8489 or send email to

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

Baltimore Oriole, tower-killed in downtown Columbus, Ohio