Monday, December 30, 2013

Snowy Owl in urban Columbus!

The urban jungle of Columbus, Ohio, about ten minutes from my office. I was peacefully eating my lunch at my desk today, when word came down from Scott Albaugh that one of his students had just seen a Snowy Owl. The bird was sitting high atop a water tower along Huntley Blvd, right where the yellow stick pin in this map is. Whoa! This I had to see!

I asked one of our administrative assistants, Vicki, if she would like to see (hopefully) a real live Hedwig, she said of course (who wouldn't!), and ten minutes later we were on the scene.

This is the street view, courtesy my Droid's camera. I had driven my non-field car into the office today, and it was clean as a whistle - no scope, binoculars, cameras, nothing. I borrowed a pair of bins before leaving, but upon arrival found another dozen birders there, with plenty of optical power.

Scott's student deserves the Medal of Eagle Eyes for spotting this owl. This unmagnified view shows the tower, from where we gazed upon the owl. I suppose if you click this photo to enlarge, you can make it a small protuberance on the left side of the summit of the tower, but it isn't obvious. Furthermore, this is not the type of locale that one would necessarily be on their toes for Snowy Owls.

Photo: Karen Chism

Yet there was the bird, a young of the year female, showing lots of dark stippling. By now, other birders were arriving, as word had been put out via Facebook and the Ohio Birds Listserv. It had been sitting up there for at least an hour at this point. I appreciate Karen Chism allowing me the use of her photos - pretty darn good, considering the distance!

SIDEBAR: I have noticed an increasing trend, and a rather disturbing one, of criticism of owl photos. Facebook is the place to see this sort of strange and often ignorant attack. Someone will post a photo, often like this one, and someone else will jump in and accuse them of being too close to the owl, and "bothering" it. While I'm not denying that can happen, in many cases they are looking at an image that was taken with a 500 mm lens, like Karen's, that was then cropped heavily. Look at the first landscape image, then the above image. Cameras can do amazing things these days. Don't launch attacks on photographers if you don't know the circumstances in which the photo was made, please. I've even noticed that a number of photographers must feel guilt-tripped, as there seems to be an increasing tendency for some to make sure and note their image was "heavily cropped" in an attempt to stave off the keyboard warriors' attacks before they start.

Photo: Karen Chism

After we watched the great white owl for a while, it began to stretch and shake out its wings a bit. Then, Presto! It leapt into the air, quickly gained altitude, and headed unerringly due south. It'd be interesting to know where it is now.

This wasn't the only new owl to come to light today. I heard of four others, and insofar as I can calculate, there have been reports of 112 owls in 39 counties since the first one was reported on November 22. CLICK HERE for the latest update and map.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Raccoons well-suited for survival


Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jim McCormac

Edward Crump presided over Tennessee’s political machine for much of the first half of the 20th century. The former Memphis mayor, in campaigning against political foe Estes Kefauver, portrayed the Democratic challenger for a U.S. Senate seat as being “raccoonlike” and a “communist puppet."
In response, Kefauver wore a raccoon-skin cap when on the stump and stated, “I may be a pet coon, but I’m not Boss Crump’s pet coon.”

Kefauver won the 1948 election handily.

Being compared to a raccoon isn’t such a bad thing. It’s more flattering than being compared to a skunk.

Raccoons are abundant and range throughout Ohio. Close relatives of bears, they are instantly identifiable by their black bandit mask and ringed tail. A big one can weigh 35 pounds. The wily mammals occur in all habitats and may thrive best in citified landscapes.

Raccoons are consummate omnivores, meaning that they’ll eat almost anything. The meal plan includes our castoffs, as victims of plundered trash cans have learned.

The Algonquin Indian name for raccoon is aroughcoune, which means “He scratches with his hands.” These masked bandits indeed have handlike paws, and their prints are easily recognized along muddy creek banks. Raccoons use their appendages with great dexterity, and they can open refrigerator doors, gates and other impediments that would thwart most beasts.

They are great climbers and often spotted high in trees. To facilitate headfirst descents, a raccoon can rotate its hind paws 180 degrees.

In northern climes, raccoons go on autumnal food binges, packing on massive quantities of fat. Up to a third of a successful glutton’s body weight is blubber. So much fat is stored that a raccoon can ride out winter without eating, if need be. They don’t truly hibernate but will remain holed up in a den for extended periods during cold snaps. Come spring, a raccoon might weigh half of what it did at winter’s onset.

For such a seemingly bright animal, raccoons don’t make their own dens. They use tree cavities, rocky crevices, hollow logs and sometimes storm sewers. Motorists are sometimes startled to see two eyes glowing from a sewer’s grate, reflected by the car’s headlights.

Raccoons mate in late winter or early spring, and the female gives birth to as many as eight coonlets in April or May. They grow rapidly, and before long will be sneaking through the night plundering crayfish from creeks and raiding unprotected trash cans. The mincing humpbacked gait of a coon is unmistakable.

In the 1950s, ABC aired a TV series featuring Fess Parker as the coonskin-capped Davy Crockett. Sales of the furry headgear skyrocketed to 5,000 a day. By the mid-1970s, the raccoon was the most economically important North American fur bearer.

By the early 1980s, a prime pelt could fetch $30 — now, about $72. Today, exterminators probably make more money from raccoons than trappers do.

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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Golden Eagle on deer carcass!

I received an interesting email this afternoon, accompanied by photos, from Fred Rau of the Dayton area. Fred, who owns property in rural western Pike County, runs a trail cam on his land, and of late has had its lens pointed at a White-tailed Deer carcass. What a surprise he got when he checked it recently!
Trail cam photo courtesy Fred Rau

A Golden Eagle, its namesake nape aglow, eyes the venison steak. This photo and the others were taken on the morning of December 22nd - last Sunday. The cam is motion-activated, and will run for a few weeks before its batteries die. Fred will be back down to check it soon, and it'll be interesting to see if he has any additional shots of the eagle.

 Trail cam photo courtesy Fred Rau

This spot is on an upland ridge along the edges of a clear cut. What looks to be American Beakgrass, Diarrhena americana, provides the ground cover. An amazing shot, this one, as the eagle mounts its carcass. To my eye, it looks to be a subadult bird, but not a juvenile (first-year). Golden Eagles don't obtain fully adult plumage until their first year of life, when they will appear darkest overall. This animal still has a fair bit of white in the wings and tail. Perhaps a 2nd or 3rd year bird.

 Trail cam photo courtesy Fred Rau

I happen to know the area where Fred documented this eagle, and it is along a large wooded valley interspersed with lots of large clearcuts of varying ages of succession, and extensive agricultural lands not far to the west. The human population is sparse in this region, too. Not a bad land use mosaic to support an overwintering Golden Eagle.

 Trail cam photo courtesy Fred Rau

Golden Eagles are quite rare at any time in Ohio. We get maybe a half-dozen reports annually in migration, mid-March thru April and October/November being prime times. Overwintering birds are few and far between, but might be showing an ever so slight uptick. Of course, the famous bird(s) at the Wilds in Muskingum County are best known and have been found for the past decade or so. Although we couldn't find them last Saturday on the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count.

Two winters ago, a juvenile Golden Eagle was found and photographed in Knox County, MORE INFO HERE. There have been a number of other sightings from recent winters, too. Golden Eagle is far more frequent in the western U.S.; the eastern breeding population is much scarcer. We don't know where the origins of this bird or the others found in Ohio in winter are, but it surely would be interesting to know. The states of Georgia and Tennessee have successfully hacked birds back into the wild in the last two decades, although I don't know the current status in those states. Historically, it was thought that Golden Eagles nested in many of the eastern states.

Here's a map showing the specific location of the Golden Eagle, in Pike County. State Rte. 32 (James A. Rhodes Highway) runs to the south, and State Rte. 124 is to the north. There's a decent chance this bird will hang out in the area for a while and perhaps overwinter. Anyone in the area should keep an eye out.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Woodpeckers boom, probably because of invasive pest

The skeleton of a Green Ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica, is tagged with a sign telling us what caused its demise.  The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis, is an Asian wood-boring beetle in the Buprestidae family. It was first detected in southeastern Michigan, adjacent to Ohio, in 2002. The bug quickly spread like wildfire, and was found in Ohio in 2003. It's gone far beyond Ohio; as of early December, EAB has been documented in over 20 states (CLICK HERE for a current distribution map).

EAB larvae are phloem feeders, and these grubs bore elaborate galleries just under the bark, as seen in the photo above. The end result is that the tree eventually can no longer uptake water and nutrients and it dies. In the Midwest, Green Ash and White Ash, Fraxinus americana, are the most common ashes and thus the most frequently killed, but EAB does not discriminate. Our other three species (in Ohio) are also destroyed.

The ash borer lays waste to ash trees on an incredible scale. The above photo is of a wetland along Lake Erie's Sandusky Bay, taken in August 2011. In places, it's like winter in summer due to all of the dead ash. That area and much of northwest and central Ohio look even worse now. Where I live, in the center of the state, nearly all of our ash are gone. The city of Columbus removed most of the dead ash husks along the streets in my neighborhood within the last year.

As ash trees can comprise up to 40% of forest communities, especially in low-lying damp areas such as in this photo, the impact of EAB is extreme. There most certainly will be losers, in addition to the ash themselves. A host of moth species are ash-dependent; their caterpillars must feed on the foliage of these trees. Their prognosis is dicey at best, and we may lose a number of these animals. There are undoubtedly many other ash-dependent organisms as well. Any genus of tree as prolific as are the ashes will serve as important keystones for many animals.
Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

The downfall of ash will also spawn some winners, at least in the short term. An obvious group of beneficiaries are woodpeckers. The fat juicy EAB grubs are easily available to these chisel-billed hammerheads, and woodpeckers quickly learn to exploit this new food source. In fact, I believe it was abnormally high woodpecker activity that first alerted people to the initial infestation in Michigan.

Here in Ohio, there is little question that woodpecker populations are increasing across the board. This increase has been apparent for a while. I edited the winter season for the Ohio Cardinal for 2009-10, and made this comment under the Downy Woodpecker account, after noting that its Christmas Bird Count total was easily the largest ever reported: One must wonder what temporarily beneficial impact the runaway proliferation of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer is having on woodpecker populations.

A few recent papers SUCH AS THIS showing increases in certain woodpecker populations tied to EAB, and a recent media request seeking my opinion on the matter, prompted me to revisit the Ohio Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data. While problems may exist with CBC data, I think it works well in documenting woodpecker trends. Woodpeckers, for the most part, are easily identified, and rather conspicuous and likely to be found.

The following graphs represent the collective data of all Ohio CBC's from the years 2003 (onset of the EAB invasion) to 2012 (last year that CBC data is available). I threw in White-breasted Nuthatch, too, as these bark feeders are well known for taking wood boring grubs, including species in the Bupestridae. The results are telling. It'll be interesting to see what this winter's crop of CBC reports brings, but it'll be a while before all of that data is accessible. Likewise, the summaries of woodpeckers for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas will be interesting, and the Atlas book should be out sometime in 2014.

Downy Woodpecker is the most abundant of the six common breeding woodpecker species in Ohio. Last winter's CBC total was the 2nd highest ever reported, and showed an increase of 52% over 2003.

While not a woodpecker, obviously, White-breasted Nuthatches also exploit tree bark ecosystems and feed on beetle grubs at least occasionally. Their population is at record high levels, with an increase of 66% over 2003 numbers.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is the second most common species of woodpecker in Ohio, and it's thriving. 2012 CBC totals were a 55% increase over 2003, and a record high count.

Hairy Woodpeckers are more strongly tied to large contiguous woodlands and mature trees than most of the other species, but they too are doing well. Their 2012 count was the 3rd highest, and a 62% spike over 2003 numbers.

The giant Pileated Woodpecker, our largest species by far and an animal capable of wreaking havoc on wood-boring beetle grubs, is booming. Last winter's CBC tally was 56% higher than in 2003, and was a record high count. This species, like the Hairy Woodpecker, is probably benefiting from other factors too. As Ohio's forests continue to increase in area, and more wooded acreage reaches mature climax stage, this species continues to flourish and it was expanding its reach prior to the EAB invasion.

Northern Flickers also set a high count record on last year's CBC's and posted a jaw-dropping increase of 476% over 2003 totals. Other variables besides the availability of EAB grubs play into this one, though. Flickers are highly migratory and their numbers vary during Ohio winters. Weather and perhaps factors other than EAB may influence numbers of this species more profoundly than most of the other woodpecker species.

Red-headed Woodpeckers exhibit a peak and valley cycle, with peaks every two or three years, and this pattern predates EAB. This boom and bust interval may relate to mast crops such as acorns, as the Red-heads are heavily dependent upon mast as a wintertime food source. Nonetheless, they've fared well: 2012 CBC numbers were 81% higher than in 2003, and scored a record high.

Finally, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, our only woodpecker that could be termed a Neotropical migrant. It is a rare Ohio breeder, mostly in the extreme northeastern counties, but a fairly common to common migrant and winter resident. Some individuals make it all the way to southern Central America in winter. Sapsuckers also feed heavily on tree sap via their specialized well fields. These variables aside and since they certainly can and do excavate grubs under the bark, I threw it in. The 2012 CBC total was the 3rd highest ever and a whopping 87% over the 2003 count.

There are certainly a host of variables aside from the Emerald Ash Borer that can effect the population status of our woodpeckers. But evidence is increasingly suggesting that the new and abundant food source is stimulating population growth, at least in some species. One thing seems certain. Whatever the causes, it's high times for our woodpeckers.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Birding (and mammaling) at the Wilds

Yesterday was the Chandlersville Chistmas Bird Count, ably orchestrated by compiler Scott Albaugh. Scott's been running the count for the past five years or so, and I've been along for all or most of them. The day dawned overcast and rainy, and it didn't abate until the very end of the day. At least it was fairly warm, with temperatures in the upper 50's. Such wet balmy weather allowed us to add an amphibian to the count list - Spring Peeper.

The 15-mile diameter count circle is quite diverse, including large tracts of woodlands, numerous ponds and wetlands, and vast grasslands. It's a lot of ground to cover, and we don't have too many people to deploy. If you enjoy bird counts, put the Chandlersville count on your calendar for next year.

Most birders know this region of southeastern Muskingum County because of the Wilds, a sprawling 10,000-acre large animal conservation and research facility. The Wilds, and thousands of acres of surrounding lands, were cleared and flattened in the course of coal strip mining. Diverse mixed mesophytic forests were destroyed, and in their place, "reclamation" resulted in expansive rolling grasslands. But to make lemonade from lemons, the new and utterly artificial grasslands have proven to be beneficial breeding habitat for a declining suite of grassland birds, and good wintering grounds for a variety of raptors.

I am fortunate indeed that Mr. Albaugh assigns me to cover the fenced off interior of the Wilds. These areas are normally off-limits, unless you take one of the tours in the open season. The Wilds provides us with hosts who escort our team throughout the inner sanctum, and it is always interesting. Kudos to the management of the Wilds for supporting research, surveys, and management of native birds, in addition to their core work involving large mammals.

Susan Nash and I were paired with Win Fox and Rachael Glover, who are apprentices at the Wilds. They were fabulous hosts and excellent spotters, and shuttled us though the core of the Wilds. Once inside the fence, one will quickly be reminded who the VIP's are. These Bactrian Camels were reticent to move from the road as we approached.

The Wilds' various big game comes first, and all we could do was hope that the camels decided to allow us past. They did, finally, sidling to the edge of the road while we hoped that they wouldn't spit in the window.

At another point, a fine herd of Bactrian Deer browsed near the road. Note the herd's stud-in-chief, center, with the huge rack. In all, the Wilds works with over 20 species of large mammals, including rarities such as Przewalski’s Wild Horse. This species had disappeared from its native range in Mongolia and China by the end of the 1960's. The Wilds' and other facilities' successful propagation programs has allowed about 400 of the horses to be reintroduced back into their native haunts.

The Wilds also works with Cheetah, Fringe-eared Oryx, Greater One-horned Asian Rhino, Persian Onager, Giraffe, African Wild Dog and many others. Seeing strange beasts such as these as one birds the place is a rather surreal experience. Be sure and take a tour of the Wilds sometime. It is one of the most interesting outdoor experiences that one can find in Ohio. CLICK HERE for details.

Many indigenous mammals also can be found on the Wilds' property. This Red Fox (some would argue it ISN'T native!) was huddled in a sheltered spot along a fence, trying its best to stay out of the steady rain. Scores of White-tailed Deer roam the landscape, as do plenty of Coyotes. This area seems to have plenty of Bobcats, too, and I saw my first wild one here back in 2009, and detailed the experience, with photos, RIGHT HERE.

In spite of the nonstop rain, we did fairly well with the birds. Our team tallied 46 species, including plenty of waterfowl, a count first Double-crested Cormorant, two Ruffed Grouse, three Short-eared Owls, gorgeous examples of both light and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks, and much more.

If you want an interesting wintertime immersion into the Wilds, consider signing up for the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual foray on January 18th. We've been doing this event for a decade, and about 150 birders usually show up. It's a blast, with lots of interesting birding. Details HERE.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snowy Owl numbers grow

We're up to 68 owls in 30 counties in Ohio, by my reckoning. CLICK HERE for the latest distribution map, which is regularly updated.

Theft of images. A real problem!

A while back, the inimitable myrmecologist Alex Wild made a post about Google's reverse image search capabilities. Alex captures absolutely stunning macro images of ants and other small things at his blog, Myrmecos. He, like me, has a lot of money and time invested in his photography and equipment. Anyway, Alex's post was on his other blog, Compound Eye, and dealt with the frequency with which people steal images from other people's websites and use them without permission or attribution. It's a good read, and the post generated scored of comments about the issue of using others work without credit. Read it HERE. Sometimes, these thefts are fairly innocuous: people sharing them on Pinterest or on personal blogs. Other times, less savory types are trying to pass other people's work off as their own, or even attempting to sell it.

After reading Alex's post, I meant to delve into The Google's reverse image search, and see what photos of mine might have been pirated. But I am always busy, and never got around to it. Today, Kenn Kaufman made a post on our Ohio Birds Listserv regarding a Common Eider that was recently reported to eBird, with a photo. The eider would be a mega-rarity of high order in Ohio. Kaufman's reverse image search revealed that the photo was in fact taken several years ago by Cleveland birder Jerry Talkington, and was run with one of Jim McCarty's columns in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

This prompted me to finally dip into Google's reverse image search, and the results were depressing. I'm not naïve about this stuff - I know that people right click and snag photos from the web all the time. My images, like most posted to the web, are greatly compressed and I figure they're too small to reproduce on any scale. I've seen my photos appear elsewhere without credit a number of times, and that prompted me to post the notice about use of photographs that appears on the right side of this page. Interestingly, after putting that up a year or so ago, the number of requests to use photos sky-rocketed - I have probably received 40-50 over the last year.

But that warning wasn't good enough. The photo theft thing has been gnawing at me more than usual, as a couple of people have approached me in the last few months wanting high-resolution images that they could use for their own purposes. Trying to be a nice guy, I sent them the images on their promise that they would pay the agreed upon fee. Nothing. So much for being a nice guy. I've also had the same lack of payment issue with a couple of articles that I've written and were published. Guess one can't rely on "handshake" agreements anymore.

Anyway, tonight I picked one of my images that I thought might be popular, and prone to theft. It's below:

A particularly adorable Northern Saw-whet Owl that appeared on my blog in THIS POST way back in 2007. I dropped the image into the Google machine, and was stunned at the hits that came back! There were several dozen websites using the photo, from all over the place, nearly all unknown to me and with no credit. I certainly didn't provide these pirates with the image.

That was depressing. There's no way I'd ever have time to contact all these sites and ask them to remove the image. And that owl is the only image that I've searched on so far. Not really sure that I want to check any others, as I'm sure I'd find legions of other thefts. I've posted a lot of pretty cool original photos over the years, in 1,263 blog entries since I began using BlogSpot in 2007.

Some argue that once one posts a photo on the Internet, it's fair game. I disagree. I view it in the same light as plagiarism, particularly if the thief doesn't cite the source. After all, it's me, or Alex, or anyone else who has invested in camera equipment and made the effort to go afield and capture interesting images, who did all the work and paid the price.

As Alex Wild points out, there is really no way you can completely safeguard your image. Watermarks can be removed. Right click disabling software can be defeated. Even shrinking the photo doesn't totally solve the problem - it can still be used in many capacities.

I'm not the most tech-savvy guy in the world, admittedly. If anyone knows ways of thwarting photo thieves, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nettie Bay, Michigan: May 2014!

For the past four years, I've been leading natural history tours in Presque Isle County, Michigan in conjunction with Mark and Jackie Schuler, the owners of NettieBay Lodge. I've written about past trips many times here, and if you type in "Michigan" in the search box in the upper left corner of this page, you'll easily find those accounts. I'll be guiding trips there again next year, on the dates of May 15th thru 18th, and a second trip from May 19th thru 22nd. The lodge is our base of operations, and we make forays throughout the county each day, as well as nocturnal trips for those who are interested. By the way, epicures will become rapturous over Jackie's cooking. She's world class and the food is out of this world. I can't find a restaurant around here that can produce such scrumptious fare.

That's the grounds of NettieBay Lodge, above, with its lakefront cabins bordering Lake Nettie. Towering oaks and white pine support lots of birds, including the resident pair of Pine Warblers. American Woodcock display in the front yard. Eastern Whip-poor-wills carry on in the woods, sometimes upstaged by the local Barred Owls. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (the commonest breeding woodpecker), Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches are common yard birds. Much more, too, and we haven't even made it out of the "yard"!

When I first went up there, in 2010, I wasn't sure what to expect. Presque Isle County is wedged in the far righthand corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, hard against the blue waters of Lake Huron. No one I talked to knew much about the area. It seems that birders and natural history buffs generally blow right by in their rush to get up to the Upper Peninsula. Having been up there a number of times, too, I can tell you that the UP has little or nothing on Presque Isle County. When it comes to sheer biodiversity and diversity of habitats, it's just hard to beat.

On my inaugural trip into the county, I quickly saw that things were going to be awesome when I found a completely unexpected (to me) population of Kirtland's Warblers within a half-hour of the lodge. And it only got better from there.

Mark Schuler prepares the pontoon boat for launch. Our groups are small - we keep them to about eight people - so we all easily fit on this boat, and don't overwhelm our resources and one another when on trips further afield.

After dinner on one of the nights, we walk out back, hop on the boat, and work the lake. For several decades Common Loons have nested on a nearby island, and the birds know the Schulers and their boat and often swim right up, as this bird has done. You'll also have no problem hearing their loud, eerie yodeling every night - a true sound of the wilderness. We find scads of other interesting birds from the boat, including nesting Ospreys, Sedge Wrens, Virginia Rails, Alder Flycatcher and more.

Ocqueoc Falls, a beautiful spot not far from NettieBay Lodge, and I believe the largest waterfalls in the Lower Peninsula. We always take time to visit and hike the trail along the stream. There are always interesting birds and plants to be found here.

Chestnut-sided Warblers are very common breeders, one of 19 nesting warbler species. Specialties include the aforementioned Kirtland's Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, and occasionally the hybrid Brewster's Warbler. Sometimes we catch huge movements of migratory warblers along the shores of Lake Huron, too. Last May, one of our groups was dazzled by hundreds and hundreds of warblers of many species streaming by in the trees. At one point we had eight species in one tree! You can read an account of that experience RIGHT HERE.

There is much more than birds to see in Presque Isle County. This is a Badger den, with fresh tailings from the beast's excavations. This sandy woodland lane has a few dozen dens along its length. No guarantees we'll see the burly mammals, but we'll certainly try.

Another interesting mammal is the Porcupine, and we're almost sure to see one. They're quite common. We know where a few active den trees are, too.

A typical total bird list for one of the three day excursions is about 150 species. While we largely do know what to expect, and where to look, you never know exactly where things will turn up. This American Bittern - a common breeding bird - was standing in the middle of Rainy Lake Road when we turned the corner.

I'll promise you a good time if you can make the trip, and lots of opportunities to see and learn about birds, other animals, and plants. To sign on, touch base with Jackie Schuler at NettieBay Lodge, RIGHT HERE. So far, we've filled each of the trips in short order, so if you're interested, I'd check into it pretty soon.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sumac creates biological hotspots!

Your narrator's car, perched along the verge of a Jackson County, Ohio lane, deep in the boondocks. I was down there yesterday to participate in the Beaver Christmas Bird Count - about the 20th year that I've done this count. Tis the season for bird counts; the count period began Saturday. I started doing CBC's when I was just a young lad, long before I had a driver's license, and have participated in nearly 100 to date.

The weather isn't obvious in the photo, but it was dismal. The temperature at 8 am was 34 F, and rose to only 37 F. Frosty temps are no problem, but the nonstop rain that ranged from light to moderate showers was an issue. To me, there are no worse weather conditions than drenching rain at temperatures just above freezing. Makes it much harder to find birds.

One unfortunate aspect of covering the same turf for many years is the negative changes one sees. Last year, the open area above was a wet thicket buffered by goldenrod meadows. For many years I pulled Swamp Sparrows and many other species from this plot. No more - cleared, and drained.

Sorry for the dreaded white sky background in these photos, but there's nothing I could do about that. White skies are the absolute worse for photographic backdrops, and we get a lot of those skies in Ohio winters.

On a more uplifting note, I was cruising this backwoods lane when I came across a nice thicket of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra. It's the plants on the left, adorned with reddish-brown clusters. Sumac is a gold mine for birds in the winter.

Here's a closeup of the fruit of Smooth Sumac. Each panicle is loaded with (apparently) tasty and nutritious fruit, and come lean times, frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds dig into them with gusto.

As I trolled up to the sumac, window down, I quickly heard and saw American Robins. Lots of robins. I estimated about 95 birds were flying around, dropping in to pluck sumac fruit, whisper-singing, and generally greatly enlivening the woods. This first-year robin stands guard by a nice cluster of sumac fruit.

One effect of having a big flock of active robins in a large woodland is that their hustle and bustle attracts lots of other birds. The sumac entices the robins. Their conspicuous activity draws many other birds who then forage in the vicinity even though the hangers-on aren't necessarily after the sumac's fruit. I probably had at least a dozen species in the mixed flock with the robin nucleus. In the songbird world, plants ultimately orchestrate the show.

Our young robin digs in. He and his brethren plucked many a berry in the time that I hung out and watched. Some of the fruit will probably pass through the ravages of the birds' digestive tracts intact, and thus new sumac colonies may spring up elsewhere. Birds do not get their due as avian Johnny Appleseeds.

The robin sates its hunger, one berry at a time. Just that one sumac panicle hosts hundreds of fruit.

In winter, this is the species that I key in on the most around sumac thickets, the Hermit Thrush. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I heard the distinctive low chuck call note. Shortly thereafter, the thrush flew in and also began harvesting sumac. Were the weather not so unpleasant, I probably would have found more than this one Hermit Thrush. They are more common than is generally thought in winter; searching sumac is key to finding them.

Every yard would benefit from having an assemblage of sumac. Native plants such as these are incalculably more valuable to birds and other animals than the all too common nonnative garden fare. In the sumac world, at least in this part of the world, the best bang for the buck probably comes from the aforementioned Smooth Sumac, and Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina. See if you can find some at an enlightened nursery, and stick 'em in the yard.

In the above photo, we see Smooth Sumac in full flower in mid-summer. The oceans of tiny greenish-yellow flowers attract legions of interesting pollinating insects. When I am out and about, camera in hand, and spot flowering sumac I always veer over for a look. I've obtained many a great insect image at these flowers.

By mid-August or so, the sumac thickets are sporting bright reddish-brown candelabras of long-lasting fruit. Come winter, it is there to provide sustenance to robins and other thrushes that are trying to ride out the northern winter.

Keep in mind next summer's Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton, Ohio: August 1st thru 3rd. That's an awesome venue to learn more about native flora, buy quality plants, and generally have a great time.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The origin of all these Snowy Owls?

As about everyone who is into birds in eastern North America knows, this is the winter of the Snowy Owl (I wrote about them HERE, and am keeping an updated map and numbers of the owls in Ohio). Even scores of nonbirders are aware of the incursion of these massive tundra owls, thanks to intensive coverage in the media. A common question surrounding this phenomenon centers on their origins. Just about everyone I've talked to about Snowy Owls wants to know where they originated.

That's an easy question, in a general sense. The Arctic tundra. But that answer covers a lot of ground. The tundra, of course, blankets the upper rim of the entire North American continent (not to mention polar regions around the entire top of the world). So, the refined question becomes: "Where exactly are these owls coming from?". That's often a hard thing to pinpoint. It's not like the Arctic is crawling with birders, and vast regions of the tundra see few if any people, especially people who are keeping specific tabs on Snowy Owls.

Bruce Mactavish provides the likely answer on his Newfoundland Birding Blog. Bruce has birding the Canadian island of Newfoundland for nearly 40 years, and his is a well known name amongst birders. We're pretty happy with our 61 (reported to date) Snowy Owls in Ohio, and that is an incredible number. Just imagine last weekend in southeastern Newfoundland. Bruce and other birders found a total of 301 (yes, 301!) Snowy Owls during their weekend wanderings! He has absolutely stunning photos of some of these birds on his blog.

Anyway, Bruce made various inquiries of researchers who were in the high reaches of the tundra, where the Snowy Owls breed, last summer. To cut to the chase, it appears that the northernmost reaches of Quebec experienced a peak population of lemmings, and the owl nesting success spiked big time in response to the bounty of prey. Mactavish shared an amazing photo of an owl nest ringed with the carcasses of 70 lemmings augmented with eight voles posted on his blog. The eggs haven't even hatched yet! There was certainly no shortage of food for those owlets, and one might assume that most of the other nests in northern Quebec also resembled fortresses surrounded by ramparts of dead rodents. Researchers operating in tundra regions west, east, and north of this area reported low to normal numbers of Snowy Owls.

The area in red shows the approximate region where our Snowy Owls likely originated. Owls have been turning up all over the Great Lakes region, and the eastern seaboard of Canada and the U.S. Some of have made it as far south as North Carolina and Bermuda (yes, Bermuda!). Owls are still turning up, so keep your eyes peeled.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cool Altocumulus Clouds

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of getting afield with Joe Faulkner and Vicki Derr. They gave me a tour of the Rehoboth Reclamation Grasslands in Perry County. This massive strip mine complex is an interesting place, and already producing interesting bird life. I've got a lot of photos from our journey, and will hope to cobble together a piece when time permits.

At one point, we dropped into a valley full of wetlands, and got out to check for Swamp Sparrows and whatever else might be around. After a bit of searching, I turned the other direction, and Whoa! The sky was ribbed with a fantastic formation of clouds, as if a giant pinwheel was centered on some distant point and slowly revolving through the sky. It was a striking atmospheric spectacle, and I tried to capture the clouds with my camera.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

These, apparently, are classified as Altocumulus Clouds. They typically form between 7,000 to 20,000 feet, and can take on the look of rolling uniform layers, such as in this formation. It was a stunning skyscape, to be sure.

I'm glad we bumbled under these clouds. It's easy to get too busy to take time to appreciate - or notice - magnificent spectacles such as this.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snowy Owl report for Ohio (with regular updates)

UPDATE NOTICE: I first created this article on December 10, summarizing all of the Snowy Owl reports that I was aware of in Ohio. I then shared this with the 2,200+ member Birding Ohio Facebook page (Kudos to Jeff Loughman for founding that group). More reports came in, and the owl tally is now up to 70 birds in 30 counties. I have been hearing about new owls daily, and I will update the map and running tally below as new information arrives. LAST UPDATE: December 19th.
Photo: John Howard, Highland County, Ohio, December 1, 2013

I wrote about the ongoing irruption of Snowy Owls HERE on December 1, and at that time about a dozen of the big white(ish) birds had been reported in Ohio. Well, they just keep on coming! To date, I've heard of 70 owls in the state, and they are attracting attention far and wide. Most of the local newspapers in areas where the owls have appeared have written about them, and Snowy Owls have made national media as well.

One particularly noteworthy story involved JFK Airport in New York City. Owls have been dropping in to feed along the runways, and word leaked out that several had been shot by airport personnel. There had been five owl-plane collisions, and the airport felt that extermination with extreme prejudice was required. Of course, there are other ways of handling such a situation, and Boston Logan Airport provided the example. There, runway owls have been live-trapped and released elsewhere for many years. After a hue and a cry from the public, JFK to their great credit quickly adopted the more humane method of owl deterrence. NBC4 in New York covered the story, and Corey Finger of 10000 Birds was featured. He did a great job, and this news story was probably instrumental in effecting change. That piece IS HERE.

Anyway, back to the Buckeye State. Every day, it seems, one or a few more owls come to light. Following is a map showing their distribution, along with a number representing how many have been reported in each county. If you know of any additional owls, please send me a note:

NOTE ABOUT SIGHTINGS: Many of these birds have not lingered, apparently, and were only seen on one day. Several reports have come to light several days after the fact, too. In some cases, the landowners have made it clear that they did not want their location made public due to private property issues. I and others try to run down the specifics of sightings, and when possible make the information available to the birding community. Two good places to keep up to date on Snowy Owl sightings are the Ohio Birds Listserv, and the Facebook Birding Ohio site.