Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beaver, oiling up

The following video shows something that I bet you've never seen. It was definitely new to me. Those ultimate cam-masters, David and Laura Hughes, sent along a new crop of animal videos from one of their magical Monroe County game trails. This one depicts a Beaver, Castor canadensis, maintaining its pelage. Dave and Laura had sent along another Beaver video previously, and I expounded a bit about their engineering feats IN THAT POST.

This time around, the Beaver has the good manners to stop right in front of the trail cam, plunk down, and begin oiling its fur. Beavers have a pair of glands located near the tail - the castor glands - that exude an oily water-repellent secretion known as castoreum. The castoreum is the fourth tier of protection insulating the animal from the icy waters of winter. A beaver has a dense layer of fat, overlain by a dense cloak of short underfur. Overtopping that are longer and coarser guard hairs. The final protective coat is the castoreum, which we see the beaver applying in Dave and Laura's video. With all of these protective layers in place, water has no chance of penetrating to the Beaver's skin, and the furry engineers can operate with impunity, even in the frigid winter waters.

People have found uses for castoreum, too. It is used in various products as a food additive, and also in some perfumes. Glamorous models strutting the runways scented with Beaver castoreum probably do not know that fur trappers also use the pungent mask as a lure for other animals.

Thanks, as always, to David and Laura for allowing me to share their work.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A crab spider hug

Winter brings its charms, but as I get older I also find myself pining for spring, warmer weather, and the explosion of life, earlier each year. Here it is in late December and I'm already longing for bugs, flowers, warblers and all of that other stuff of the balmy months.
The good thing about taking, and keeping, reams of photos is that I can beam myself back in time via pictures. I clicked into a folder from an Adams County, Ohio foray of last August 18th - that day was MUCH warmer than it is right now - and ran across these crab spider photos.
The animal had staked out the discoid flowers of a Wingstem, Verbesina alternifolia, and was awaiting its next meal. Any tiny flower fly or other well-intentioned pollinator would die a grisly death soon after alighting on this blossom. The spider was a juvenile, and tiny, and I don't know the species other than it's some sort of crab spider. Good enough for now.

As the front glass of my lens neared his eight-eyed grill, the itsy-bitsy spider menacingly spread its forelegs wide, as if to give your narrator an arachnoid hug. No backing off here, in spite of my size advantage. I made my images and let the little crab spider get back to its homicidal work.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

White-tailed Deer bucks

This is an oft-viewed vista at the Wilds - the landscape as seen from the birding platform at Jeffrey Point. I was exploring the 10,000 acres of this massive reclaimed strip mine area last Saturday as part of the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count. Towards day's end, a few hardy teams went to favored Short-eared Owl hunting meadows to tally these strange birds. Chilly and windy as this spot may be, I was not disappointed - five owls were hunting the grasslands before me, at times so close that I could hear their curious terrierlike barks.

Owls weren't the only thing in view...

White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus, abound within the Wilds, and it's not uncommon to sizeable herds of the beasts grazing in the fields. There are always some good-looking bucks sprinkled in, such as the fellow above. While he's a fine-looking specimen, the animal probably isn't much above average size, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 lbs. That's a far cry from the heaviest specimen on record, which was shot by Carl Lenander in Minnesota in 1926. The brute weighed in at 402 pounds, field dressed, and it was estimated to have been about 511 pounds when alive.

I never tire of looking at deer, especially bucks with racks. Judging by the condition of the base of this one's antlers, I'd say he'll soon shed them. Bucks lose their antlers every winter, and begin to regrow a new rack in spring. Many people enjoy searching for the "sheds", but it can take a lot of time and footwork to luck into some.

If you want to explore the Wilds firsthand with experienced guides, the Ohio Ornithological Society hosts their 9th annual Wilds Winter Raptor Extravaganza on January 19th. Participants should see some interesting birds - we had the old reliable Golden Eagle last Saturday, and numerous Northern Harriers and Rough-legged Hawks of both color morphs, among many other species. All the details ARE HERE.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Long-tailed Weasel caught on video!

David and Laura Hughes are trail cam masters, and have been getting the coolest video footage that I've ever seen by way of cams. They've got some magical spots in eastern Ohio's Monroe County that are teeming with critters, all of which the Hughes' seem to capture on film.

Brief as it may be, the video below is incredible and shows an animal that is seldom seen by most of us. In all of my time afield, I believe that I've only encountered four Long-tailed Weasels, Mustela frenata, well enough to get any sort of decent look. They aren't rare and occur across Ohio, but weasels are normally nocturnal, and as we shall see, quite speedy.

Note the insane speed with which this weasel locomotes! I wouldn't want to be a mouse or some other lesser creature, and get caught in the sights of this thing!

Thanks as always to Dave and Laura for sharing their stellar work.

Hedgehog, cute as can be, and Billy Gibbons

A North African Hedgehog, Atelerix algirus, looking like some sort of bizarre cocoon with a face. I had the good fortune to cross paths with one of these strange beasts on a recent excursion, and just had to share some photos. Normally I avoid blogging about captive fare such as this, but this little critter is just too cool. This one was part of a small collection at an animal research and conservation facility.

North African Hedgehogs are indigenous to the northernmost rim of Africa, and apparently are plentiful in the right areas. When threatened, they instantly roll into a perfect ball, and all one sees is an orbicular spiny mass. When wrapped up tight, the hedgehog resembles a spiky baseball. In this shot, the animal just poked his face out, to see what's going on.

I really know next to nothing about hedgehogs, and from a quick perusal of various literature sources, this little guy may actually be a cross with the aforementioned North African Hedgehog and one of the other species, such as the Four-toed Hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris. Whatever its lineage, the little animal is cute as a wink. Hedgehogs resemble porcupines of the Americas, but are quite unrelated, being most closely allied to shrews.

Many predators would no doubt enjoy noshing on a tasty little hedgehog, hence the evolution of the spiny exterior and the ability to instantly transform into a largely impenetrable jumble of stiff spinyness. Those spines really aren't that stiff to the touch, though - certainly nothing like a porcupine's quills. To up their odds of predator avoidance, wild hedgehogs typically do their foraging at night.

It didn't take this little fellow long to decide his new visitors were not going to eat him, and he quickly thrashed himself from his tightly wrapped ball. If all hedgehogs are like this one, they're a bit on the spastic side, and one strange movement could send him back into a tightly packaged sphere in a nanosecond.

Yes, it does have legs, and quite the snout. Hedgehogs are primarily insectivores, and use that Pinnocchio nose for rooting out bugs, although apparently they are not selective and will eat nearly anything they can choke down.

Once on its feet, the hedgehog actually looks like a mammal, albeit an odd mammal.

And now I know where ZZ Top's guitarist, Billy Gibbons, got the inspiration for that goofy cap. Hey, peace brother, any PR is good PR, as they say.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rick Nirschl discovers new U.S. dragonfly

Photo: Rick Nirschl

Rick's done it again. Mr. Nirschl, of Toledo, Ohio, made the above photograph last Tuesday, December 18th, in Mission, Texas. Rick has taken to migrating south to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for the winter, and just as he routinely does here in his home state, he makes amazing finds in the Lone Star State.

The dragonfly in the photo is a tropical species of dragonlet known as Erythrodiplax fervida. I wish I could also cite a good English name for the beast, but it doesn't seem to have one. Rick was working the grounds around the National Butterfly Center when he spotted this dragonlet, which was unfamiliar to him. He didn't know it with good reason - no Erythrodiplax fervida had previously been seen in the United States! Within a day or so Rick had figured it out and Voila! Another new species for the United States.

This isn't Rick Nirschl's first major Texas find. Back in February of 2008, he discovered the first U.S. record of Slender Clubskimmer, Brechmorhoga praecox. In March 2009 he outdid himself by discovering a previously undescribed species of dragonfly in the Big Thicket area of Texas, which has since been named the Sarracenia Spiketail, Cordulegaster sarracenia. And Rick shall forever be immortalized in the bird world by finding the first U.S. record of Bare-throated Tiger-Heron at Bentsen State Park in the Rio Grande Valley on December 21, 2009. The heron lingered well into 2010, and was seen by scores of birders. CLICK HERE for photos of that bird.

Congratulations once again to Rick on a fantastic find! If you're interested, Rick and I are co-leading an expedition for the Toledo Naturalists' Association on July 20th, and it should be quite the natural history free-for-all. We'll be visiting some very cool locales near Lake Erie, and all of the details are RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snow Goose, at cement plant

As we have for quite a few years now, Dr. Bernie Master and myself headed afield last Sunday to scour our turf for the Columbus Christmas Bird Count. This annual foray takes us into some of Columbus, Ohio's most industrial terrain. The view above is from the long drive back to the Columbus Impound Lot, where illegal parkers and other motorized mischief-makers have their vehicles towed. The impound lot was recently moved to this site, and we like it because we can now get access to this huge stand of Giant Reed, Phragmites australis, and other wetland plants. We found Swamp Sparrows in there, and last year a Rough-legged Hawk was present - a very hard bird to find on this count.

Not far away is the vast grounds of the Anderson Cement Plant, and the Anderson folks always kindly allow us access. While this site looks rather bleak, we routinely find interesting birds here. There are some quarries with fowl, and the mighty Scioto River flows past. We fully expect to someday find a Northern Wheatear in the extensive barren gravelly waste grounds such as above, but have decided not to hold our breath waiting to discover Ohio's 4th record of that Mega.

If you read this blog very often, you know that I am rather spoiled when it comes to field expeditions. A great many of my trips are to fairly pristine habitats which are often rare and unusual places filled with interesting flora and fauna. I don't rue my time spent in urban jungles, though. It's always interesting to see how birds adapt to highly modified landscapes. In fact, there is a very cool bird in this photo. Just beyond that yellow excavator in the distance loafed a flock of Canada Geese, the first that we had seen on this day. It's always worthwhile to make more than a cursory investigation of such flocks, as rarer geese such as Cackling Goose or Greater White-fronted Goose have a penchant for hanging with their chin-strapped brethren.

Sure enough, it was BINGO! time! A white blob stood out like a sore thumb, and our optics quickly revealed it to be a Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens, which is a dandy bird for the Columbus Christmas Bird Count. The animal did not seem put off in the least by its surroundings of heavy equipment, slag piles, and nearby railroad tracks, even though such haunts are a far cry from the untrammeled wilds of the Arctic tundra where it was spawned.

The sooty dusting on its crown, nape, and back and dark bill and legs reveal this to be a juvenile Snow Goose, pipped from the egg just this summer. Of course, it is a "Snow" Snow Goose, or the white morph of this strongly dimorphic species. The other form is known as the "Blue Goose", and it is quite different indeed. Blues are mostly slaty-brown with a white head - they look like a completely different species. And indeed, until 1983 they were considered separate species.

NOTE: The forms of the Snow Goose are often referred to as "phases"; i.e. "I saw a blue phase Snow Goose". The definition of phase: a particular appearance or state in a regularly recurring cycle of changes. A Snow Goose does not change forms, however - it is either blue or white and will remain that way throughout its life. Stable forms such as in this species, or the Rough-legged Hawk, are correctly termed "morphs". Morph means: "Each of several variant forms of an animal or plant."

Ohio lies between major flyways for the Snow Goose and we don't get very many. Singles or small flocks are the rule, with occasional exceptions. The exception of all exceptions occurred on October 25, 1952 in Mahoning County. On that date, stunned observers tallied massive flocks totalling some 150,000 birds within a two hour period.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Golden Eagle" attacks baby! Not

I can't even bring myself to write about this latest YouTube silliness that duped about eight million people into believing that a "Golden Eagle" roared out of the sky and snatched up a toddler. How it is that people believe such stuff is beyond me; maybe I am too cynical... Anyway, if you somehow, SOMEHOW, managed to miss this latest globally viral video hoax, CLICK HERE.

The hoaxers 'fess up HERE, allowing babies worldwide to breathe a bit easier...

Crow roost

I found myself in this spot, in rural Jackson County, Ohio, last Saturday at twilight. I was down there to cover my turf for the Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count, so-named for the sprawling metropolis of Beaver several miles to the south. That forested ridge across the field is one of many in the area. The topography of this immediate region still shows the effects of a massive river system long obliterated by past glaciation. The mighty Teays River, which arose near the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park, coursed northward and into Ohio. Its main channel and side tributaries left behind broad flat valleys, such as above, interspersed with sharp ridges.

If you are an American Crow, these razorback ridges make great roosting spots. The birds can see everything for some distance in every direction, and potential enemies have no chance of sneaking up undetected. Click the photo to expand it. All of those specks are crows, and this is but one tiny part of the local roost. Such an aggregation of crows is known by the sinister term "a murder of crows".

Crows have roosted in this immediate vicinity for a long time, probably as long as I've been doing this count and that's been 15 years or so. It's a spectacle, watching all of the birds return from far and wide at sunset. The air is filled with a cacophony of caws as the birds greet each other and otherwise interact, constantly jabbering as crows will do. Occasionally a collective nervous tremor ripples through the flock, and they briefly rise into the sky as of one mind, their chatter rising to a fevered pitch and totally dominating the surrounding landscape.


This video offers a mild taste of the ambience of the roost. I did not reach the roost site until a great many of the birds were already in residence, and didn't have time to thoroughly explore the area to tally the roosting zone in its entirety before nightfall. I turned in an estimate of 7,000 birds, but there are far more than that in the area. Next year I intend to get to this spot sooner, and attempt to make a more accurate accounting of these crows.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Bird Count season

Jackson Lake, Jackson County, Ohio. A brief respite from gray skies and drizzle allowed me a scenic shot. Minutes earlier, a rainbow arced across the sky, but I was not in a good position to capture that scene.

I was down in the Hill Country last Saturday to participate in the Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count, just as I have for many years now. Yesterday, in stark contrast to the beauty of this scene, Bernie Master and I covered our turf for the Columbus CBC. Our terrain there is mostly highly urbanized or industrial, yet we managed a number of interesting finds.

As usual, my camera was in tow and I recorded some things of interest. More to follow...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A brief essay on the House Centipede

House centipedes creepy but cool
Sunday December 16, 2012

Jim McCormac
You and your family aren’t the only animals in your house. Many other critters lurk in the hidden nooks and crannies of your dwelling. These creepy-crawlies are often out of sight and out of mind, but every now and then, one bursts forth in spectacular fashion to remind us we share quarters with some undesirable “camp followers.”
As humans have marched about the globe, we’ve unwittingly carted along all manner of hangers-on — creatures that are so adapted to Homo sapiens that they rarely, if ever, live out of our fold.

Depending on your inclinations, one of the coolest or creepiest of these unwanted domestics is the house centipede ( Scutigera coleoptrata). If one of these many-legged arthropods scuttles out of the woodwork, it is sure to be noticed. Its creep factor is enormous. House centipedes don’t walk or run as much as they glide, sort of like a spooky undulating feather magically levitating across the wall. They aren’t tiny, either — a magnificent specimen can stretch the tape to 2 inches. That is big enough to elicit shrieks of terror.

Fortunately, house centipedes usually do their wandering under cover of darkness, and thus seldom clue in homeowners to their presence. If you’re really curious, drop down to the basement with a flashlight and start probing the dark recesses of crawl spaces and junky corners. You’ve got a good chance of unearthing a house centipede.

Centipedes are predators and adept at running down and slaying prey. When on the hunt, the centipede constantly tests the road ahead with its sensitive antennae. When a victim is sensed, the many-legged monster pounces and injects potent venom via a set of modified legs. If there is an upside to this horror show, it is the fact that the centipede is generally offing other undesirables such as ants, bedbugs, spiders, silverfish and cockroaches. If we continue with an optimistic outlook, we can also be glad that house centipedes aren’t 4 feet long and eyeing us hungrily.

House centipedes originally hailed from the Mediterranean region but hopped into people’s baggage long ago. They’re good travelers and now occur throughout much of the world, although almost always close to people. While these centipedes can flourish outdoors, they aren’t particularly cold-tolerant, and autumn’s chill drives them back indoors with us.

That soft tickle across your cheek that snaps you from sleepy reverie in the wee hours? You don’t want to know.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012


I received my brand spanking new edition of Bird Watcher's Digest today, cracked it open, and was pleased to see this full-page ad for the upcoming Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS). Not only that, the ad features Dave "Birds From Behind" Lewis and his infinitely better half, Laurie Boylan, both of whom are stalwart Ohio birders.

If you've been to MBS, I don't have to sell you on this birding extravaganza, and I trust that you'll be back in 2013, September 19-22 to be exact. If you've not been, well, please do put MBS on your calendar. It may not be the biggest avian fest, but it's the best! And with some 1,000 birders converging on the idyllic Lake Erie village of Lakeside, Ohio, MBS is certainly no small potatoes! There's outstanding speakers galore, an amazing vendor's hall, excellent local birding at the peak of fall migration, and so much more. CLICK HERE for a pictorial recap of the 2011 affair.

It's never too early to plan one's calendar, so click on over to the Midwest Birding Symposium website and PREREGISTER NOW!

A quick plug for the mag that sports this MBS ad. Bird Watcher's Digest is, simply put and in my totally biased opinion, the best general interest birding publication on the market. It launched in 1978 - I purchased and still have the inaugural issue - and is still ticking strong. If you haven't read BWD, try it, you'll like it if you like birds. A subscription also makes for a fine Christmas present! GO HERE to learn more about BWD.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inquisitive otter investigates camera

Back at the tail end of October, I shared a wonderful video of a family unit of River Otters, Lontra canadensis. The videographers were David and Laura Hughes, who have taken trail cam cinematography to a fine art and are achieving amazing results. The previous otter video can be seen HERE.

Well, Dave and Laura have done it again, with the following crisp vid of momma otter rooting around with two of her offspring. The sharp-eyed elder otter spots the camera, and takes a gander at it. This film was shot at the Hughes' now legendary Monroe County, Ohio game trail.

Thanks, as always, to Dave and Laura for sharing their work with us. Their videos offer glimpses into the lives of mammals that are normally very hard to observe, at least for very long, in the field.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Owl Symposium! February 15-17, 2013

Mark your calendars in ink for the weekend of February 15th thru the 17th. The Ohio Ornithological Society is putting on a conference that's all about those wisest of birds, the owls. The venue? The fabulous Mohican State Park lodge, nestled in the thick of a 5,000-acre forest full of wonderful birds. GO HERE for details about the Owls of North America Symposium.
A sleepy Barred Owl, Strix varia, fails to acknowledge your narrator. I photographed the animal as it slumbered in a gnarly Swamp White Oak along a back road in the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area. Barred Owls are one of only two owls that occur in Ohio that have dark eyes. I'm sure you can guess the other. We'll be out looking for owls in their natural haunts at the symposium, and there's usually an obliging pair of Barred Owls a mere stone's throw from the lodge.

This Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, did acknowledge your blogger, although I wasn't nearly as close to the animal as the photo suggests. The bird pierced me with its fierce yellow eyes as it perched at the entrance to its burrow in Cape Coral, Florida. Believe it or not, there are four Ohio records of these lanky-legged ground dwellers, and we'll probably have others. Burrowing Owls have a broad but patchy distribution throughout the Americas, and western U.S. and Canadian populations are highly migratory.

Our keynote speaker hails from the west, just like this owl. Denver Holt is director and founder of the Owl Research Institute and one of the world's foremost experts on owls. He is a dynamic speaker, and a hoot to listen to. The chance to hear Denver is worth the price of admission alone. His subject is awesome - Snowy Owls, Bubo scandiacus, and his work with them on their home turf, the high Arctic of Alaska.

Its "ears" flopped down like a hound dog, a plump-looking Long-eared Owl, Asio otus, looks down in wonderment. I luckily espied the bird from afar, long before it saw me, and managed to furtively sneak near enough for some photos before it detected my presence. This, apparently, is what a Long-eared Owl in repose looks like - fat, fluffy, and ears adroop. Seconds later, it snapped to attention, sleeking its body to impossibly slender branchlike propertions and erecting the ear tufts to complete the illusion of a broken off snag.

Gail Laux of the Ohio Bird Sanctuary will be on hand and giving a lecture about the various Ohio owls and their amazing anatomy and habits. She'll have props, too - live owls that the Sanctuary has taken in, but which can't be released due to injuries. In addition to up close and personal owl encounters, we'll also be out-of-doors and finding wild owls, in addition to all manner of other birds, As you probably know, this has been a bonanza year for crossbills, and the hemlock-choked Mohican Gorge usually has them.

Photos of Northern Saw-whet Owls, Aegolius acadicus, often elicit involuntary "aahs" from people, and I've got to admit - they're cute. You wouldn't be oohing and aahing if you were a White-footed Mouse and saw this thing swooping in, I'll tell you that much. To the rodents, this is a feathered Freddie Krueger come to life. This one was photographed during a banding operation.

Bob Placier and Tom Bartlett, who have banded hundreds of saw-whets between them, will give a program about their fascinating work with eastern North America's smallest owl. As a major perk, they'll set up nets and try to capture saw-whets on Saturday night.

There's much more, including live music by the inestimable band of birders, the Rain Crows, on Friday night. These symposia are a lot of fun, and a great chance to learn, see lots of birds, and meet lots of like-minded people. Even if you live in far-flung places such as Uzbekistan or West Virginia, I'd encourage you to make this scene.

Registration and all of the other details are RIGHT HERE. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Coyotes caught on camera!

Once again, the amazing trail camsmanship of Laura and David Hughes is on display here. This time, they've bagged a pair of Coyotes, Canis latrans, at their traditional Monroe County game trail hotspot.

Coyotes, while very common in most areas, can be quite furtive and are prone to doing most of their wandering at night. Thus, we don't often get to see how they operate, especially when the "dogs" are unaware of our presence.

Thanks again to David and Laura for another awesome peek into the secret lives of Ohio's mammals!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Caterpillars are fascinating - really!

A pair of jumbo Cecropia Moth caterpillars, Hyalaphora cecropia, make mincemeat of a black cherry sapling. This spectacular "cat" is but one of about 3,000 species of moth larvae eating their way through our woods and fields.

I'm giving a program entitled "Growing Caterpillars: A Tale of Birds, Plants, and Conservation" at the Columbus Natural History Society next Monday evening, December 10th. The price of admission is just right - free! The Society meets at the Ohio State University's Museum of Biological Diversity at 1315 Kinnear Rd., Columbus, Ohio 43210. Doors open at 7 pm; the show gets under way at 7:30 pm. All are welcome.

A Checker-fringe Prominent caterpillar, Schizura ipomoea, does its best to become one with a black maple leaf, and it's doing a pretty darn good job if you ask me.

I've had a casual interest in caterpillars for a long time, but really started becoming passionate about studying them in the last five years. Why? I began to realize just how important these tubular eating machines are to our environment. It's hardly an understatement to say that caterpillars make the world go 'round.

A tiny work of art, painted and shellacked, a gorgeous caterpillar known as The Asteroid, Cucullia asteroides, chows on flat-topped goldenrod. All caterpillars are intriguing on some front, whether it is beauty, camouflage, toxicity, bizarre defense systems, ecological value, or any combination of the above.

If you were able to toss all of Ohio's caterpillars into a pile, and a honking big pile it would be, their collective biomass would exceed that of a more conspicuous herbivore, the White-tailed Deer. If it were not for all of these caterpillars, many songbirds would go extinct, forests would largely fall silent, plant diversity would plummet, and our humanoid world would suffer greatly.

Sporting bright coloration warning would-be predators that it is poisonous and unpalatable, a Black Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polyxenes, caterpillar noshes on cowbane, Oxypolis rigidior, one of our native parsleys. Even though butterflies garner the lion's share of attention, they are outnumbered by moth species by a factor of 20 in these parts. Even though they may be underappreciated, it is moths that do the heavy ecological lifting, especially stage II of their four-part life cycle, the caterpillars.

If you're in the Columbus area next Monday and want to learn more about a strange and mysterious world with far-reaching impacts, come on down to the Columbus Natural History Society's get-together. Directions are RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bohemian Waxwing!

A trio of Cedar Waxwings, Bombycilla cedrorum, silky and dapper, pauses from plundering an ornamental crabapple. I made this image almost exactly four years ago in Wyandot County. Then, as would be the case now, I was excited to see these animals and lingered to admire them. To me at least, just about all birds are worthy of admiration, but waxwings require an extra glance. They are avian Clark Gables: sophisticated, impeccably tailored, unflappable and refined. A waxwing is the model sashaying down the runway; chickadees, robins, and jays are merely coarse and ill-mannered louts shouting and gawking from the seats below.

The family Bombycillidae is a small one:  it represents just .0003 of the world’s birds. Pictured above, courtesy WikiCommons, is the Japanese Waxwing, Bombycilla japonicum, one of only three waxwing species on the globe and the one least familiar to North American birders. This eastern Asian species gives up nothing in the looks department to its American counterparts.

Photo: Dane Adams

And finally, the third species in the waxwing trio, the robust and showy Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus.
Bohemian: “An itinerant person; a vagabond

In this part of the world, the appearance of Bohemian Waxwings always causes a stir. They’re rare – quite rare – here, and their appearances are utterly unpredictable in any given locale. Thus it was a momentous occasion last Saturday when a group of Columbus birders stumbled into a flock of eleven BoWax pilfering fruit from a crabapple tree at Maumee Bay State Park. Word soon spread and before long many other birders were basking in the presence of the regal waxwings. Dane Adams, who has kindly shared many of his excellent photos with this blog, made the scene and provided this beautiful image.

A Bohemian Waxwing is like a majorly gussied up Cedar Waxwing. If your firsthand familiarity of the waxwing tribe extends only to the latter, get ready to pick your jaw up off the sod when you first encounter a BoWax in living color. They’re jumbos; a classic example of Bergmann’s Rule. A plump Cedar X-wing might tip the scales at 32 grams; BoWax are honking big in comparison, like nearly 60 grams big. That’s like comparing Richard Simmons to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The artists also worked overtime when painting the Bohemians. True, Cedar Waxwings have those cool little red waxy nubs on their wing feathers. So do the BoWax, but their wing adornments also include bold white and yellow brushstrokes. The undertail coverts are a luscious shade of cinnamon-brown, and the forehead and cheeks are tinted in the same reddish-brown hue, making the bird look as if it is blushing. The bird in Dane’s photo is an adult; the extent of yellow on the tail and coloration in the wings increases with age.

This map, via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, helps to explain why Bohemian Waxwings are a BIG DEAL in Ohio and adjacent necks of the woods. They breed about 1,500 miles away, throughout the northern and western reaches of the great boreal forest. While the short northern summers bring a bounty of insects, and the waxwings certainly hawk for those, these birds are primarily frugivorous (fruit-eating). But not just any fruit – waxwings specialize on soft sugar-laden fruits such as those of mountain-ash, grapes, various members of the rose family, etc. Such fare tends to be ephemeral, not lasting long on the vine, so to speak. Thus, the waxwings must adopt a nomadic, or Bohemian, lifestyle in their constant quest for berries. Occasionally large-scale food shortages drive large numbers out of the core range and far to the south and east. And it is during such irruptions that we hope to find BoWax here in Ohio.
On average, one or a few Bohemian Waxwings turn up in Ohio every three or four winters, if that. We used to see more of them. At the time of earliest ornithological records, in the early to mid 1800’s, Kirtland and others mentioned BoWax flocks as a seemingly fairly regular occurrence. Even by the early 1900’s flocks were reported with some regularity, such as 75 in Lake County in January of 1920, which must have been a stunning sight.

This winter is shaping up to be a good one for Bohemian Waxwings in this region, or at least good for birders who are seeking them. This eBird map shows, in purple, the extent of their eastward sweep. Keep a close eye out for waxwings and scrutinize flocks when you find them. Sometimes Bohemians get in with the Cedars and can be easy to overlook. Waxwings, of either species, are often drawn to ornamental fruit-bearing trees such as crabapples, hawthorns, and the like and thus the birds can appear even in very urban areas.

Ace photographer Brian Zwiebel, who lives but a stone’s throw from Maumee Bay State Park, got to the waxwings in time to snap this stellar image, and I appreciate his allowing me to share it. Be sure to check out more of Brian’s work RIGHT HERE.
Congrats to Andy Sewell, who was with the group of birders that first stumbled into the Maumee Bay waxwings and recognized them for what they were. He quickly got word out and as a result many a person added Bohemian Waxwing to their state and/or life lists.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Merlin in the prairie

An immature male Merlin, Falco columbarius, surveys his domain. This is the third winter in a row that I've found a Merlin in this massive restored prairie, and in every case I've found the birds sitting on this very fence post.

I stopped in this Pickaway Plains prairie last Friday after work, stopping along the way to pick up a fellow raptor enthusiast, Deb Bradley, who doesn't live too far from the site. Our primary mission: Short-eared Owls. It seems to be shaping up to be a decent flight of these floppy-flying grassland hooters, so I wanted to check this locale for them. We weren't disappointed; at least four short-ears emerged from the tall Indian Grass at dusk, and began hunting. There were also about five Northern Harriers working the grasslands.

I took this shot several years ago, and it shows the Merlin's favorite fence posts. If you visit, you'll have a darn good chance of seeing the speedy little falcon atop one of these posts. Just slow down and check them from afar before moving in too closely. Part of the massive grassland disappears in the distance behind the posts.

If you want to visit this spot, this map may help you. The yellow north-south road is U.S. Route 23, and Circleville, Ohio is just a few miles to the north. Turn west on the upper road traced in blue - Radcliff Road, and then just follow the roads that I've outlined. This route makes a big rectangle and dumps you back out on 23. The red arrow points to the exact spot where the aforementioned posts are located. The best birding, where the roads bisect the grasslands, is shown in red.

This is a spectacular site. Located along the Scioto River (seen on the far left of the photo), this land is smack in the middle of the former Pickaway Plains prairie, a long linear swath of prairie that roughly followed Rte. 23 from present-day Circleville and extended perhaps seven miles to the south. About six years ago, one of the landowners put over 1,000 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, and the land is now an ocean of prairie grasses. Birds have responded accordingly, and now the "Charlie's Pond" prairie is a fabulous birding locale.

If you're a songbird, this is the last thing you want to see staring needles at you. And it probably will be the last thing you see. Merlins are consummate bird-hawks, deftly flying down and snatching up lesser birds, ripping them up, and eating them.

I admire the Merlin's sheer insolence. They think very little of our species, and it shows. Had I not been as near as I was, with a long 500 mm lens bristling out the open car window, the bird probably would have paid me no mind. In general, we are not worthy in the world of the Merlin. One time, a bunch of us were at Green Lawn Cemetery, admiring a big female Merlin perched high atop a dead Sycamore snag. A woman, who had never before seen one of these falcons, finally burst out in semi-exasperation, "why won't it even look at us!". I had to break the news that, to the bird, she was a lesser species, not suitable for food or any other purpose, and therefore was not worthy of the bird's attention.

Note the acute wing tips, a characteristic of falcons. Merlins put those powerful wings to good use, and are feathered bullets capable of astonishing bursts of speed and remarkable veers and jags. They're very clever animals, too. Merlins have been documented following much larger Northern Harriers as the "Marsh Hawks" course low over grasslands, hoping to surprise voles. As a byproduct of their hunting, the harrier sometimes flushes songbirds, which are typically of little interest to the raptor. But songbirds are of great interest to Merlins, and when the harrier spooks one the Merlin is there to pounce.

An even better Merlin hunting story was published in an ornithological journal and described Merlins that flew in tandem with a speeding locomotive, up near the front of the train. When the train kicked up birds as it sped along, the Merlins were there to grab them.

In recent years, Merlins have become much more common in Ohio and many other parts of their range. We've even had two breeding records in the past few years, and I will guarantee that there will be more nestings. It's great to see these exciting and charismatic little raptors rebounding, even if they don't like us very much.