Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mothapalooza - registration is open!

A Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, glares menacingly at your narrator. Well, at least as menacingly as a pink and yellow critter can manage.

Last year, we launched the inaugural Mothapalooza, and it was an unmitigated success if I do say so myself. The idea was hatched by several of us while doing field work in the summer of 2012, and we fully expected to atttract a few dozen hardcore moth'ers to the conference. Well, were we ever surprised when we finally had to close registration after 140 people signed on. That conference was held at Shawnee State Park in Scioto County, and CLICK HERE for a recap.

By popular demand, Mothapalooza II was plotted and is now open for registration - CLICK HERE to enlist. The 2014 iteration will be held at the beautiful Burr Oak State Park Lodge in Morgan County, which was recently renovated and is stunning. I will warn you - get your tickets soon! We just opened the event for registration Tuesday, and already have at least 50 registrants and we can only accommodate about 120 people.

Mothapalooza boasts one of the oddest schedules you'll ever see. Moths, as you know, tend to be nocturnal, thus, so must we. We'll have light traps such as the one above sprinkled around the best habitats in the vicinity of Burr Oak Lodge, and you can be assured they'll lure all manner of odd creatures. Nocturnal trips depart around dusk, and depending on the moth action and energy of the group, might not return until after the bars close. That's why the following day's festivities won't commence until well after the sun rises. Unless you're one of the hardy ones that goes on my early morning bird walk. Did I mention that Burr Oak and vicinity is also a treasure trove of avian diversity? Well, someone has to eat all of those tasty moth caterpillars!

Dr. David Wagner (kneeling, center) was a star of Mothapalooza I, and he'll be back for II. Dave wrote the now legendary guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America, and is a moth'er's moth'er. He's a blast in the field, as demonstrated in this photo, where he has the entire group enraptured over some small bug. We're fortunate to have a great many experts lend their talents, and all trips and mothing stations will be manned by topnotch guides. That's Mary Ann Barnett on the far left, who has essentially served as Mothapalooza's CEO both last year and this, and John Howard to her right (hands on hips). John is the consummate naturalist and one of our many great guides. This year, a number of very talented and cool people stepped forth to make Mothapalooza a reality, and you'll meet them all if you make the scene.

In addition to the nocturnal forays, we'll have daytime excursions, and a number of special field trips and workshops. Get the complete agenda RIGHT HERE.

Not all moths shun the sun. This interesting Hummingbird Clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, is one of the species that we should encounter on daytime trips. The botanical diversity in Burr Oak State Park and the nearby Wayne National Forest is fantastic, which allows for fabulous moth diversity. Butterflies, too, and we should find lots of the latter.

Your narrator standing beside the van that we used for the rather bizarrely named Giant Moth-eating Bird Wilderness Adventure! What a great field trip that was. We plumbed the depths of the nighttime forest in search of a moth's worst enemy, the Eastern Whip-poor-will. We found plenty, as well as other strange stuff of the night. We'll be doing something similar at Mothapalooza II.

The giant silk moths are always crowd-pleasers. This huge Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis, graces the hand of Dave Wagner. We had many of these blotchy purple and yellow dead maple leaf mimics at Mothapalooza I, and expect to see them and many others of their ilk at II.

Sign on soon, and pass the word. Mothapalooza II will surely be another memorable event full of fun and learning. Registration is just a CLICK AWAY.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Snow Rollers! Snow Rollers!

Just when you think you've seen it all...

Yesterday, while heading out to lunch, I passed as usual a small lake near my office. Glancing over at its smooth, snow-covered surface, I did a double-take. What in the bejeesus were all of those lumps dotting the otherwise unbroken plain?! It looked like kids had gone haywire, tossing giant marshmallows onto the snow.

As I progressed with my short drive to retrieve lunch, I noticed more of the snowy marshmallows anywhere there was a smooth unbroken surface of any size: lawns, roadsides, parking lots, etc.

I'm no stranger to the outdoors, and might even make a claim of being a keen observer of natural history phenomenon, but these miniature round haybales of snow were a new one on me. Upon return to my office and access to The Google and other online resources, it didn't take long to figure out what these circular lumps of frozen water were.

Snow Rollers!

By now, I was desperately wanting to make photos of this ephemeral phenomenon, but didn't have my trusty Canon along. When I got home yesterday evening, there were even Snow Rollers in and around my yard, but it was too dark by that time to make any images.

Fortunately, last night's frigid temperatures worked to preserve the Snow Rollers pretty much as they were yesterday, and I tossed the camera gear in the car before setting off to the office today. Around 9 am, I begged out of the office for a short while, and headed out into the -8 F temperature to make Snow Roller photos. The grassy expanse above is the yard of a school only a few minutes from work, and I headed there to photo-document Snow Rollers.

An obvious question: how do Snow Rollers form? Well, the brew of ingredients apparently must be just so - their formation is nearly magical and very rare, at least in this part of the world.

First, the ground must be slick and icy - a surface to which snow will not adhere very well. Two, the ice must then be blanketed by snow of just the right consistency - not too dry nor wet, and of just the right fluffiness. Three, a fairly forceful but not overly powerful wind must whip up and start moving chunks of snow. As the nucleus of the Snow Roller begins to gain momentum, it collects more snow and eventually forms a near perfect roll. Too much wind, and the snow rolls will disintegrate.

They remind me of those scrumptious cinnamon rolls, where you can see the various layers of dough spiraling into layers. Some of the Snow Rollers are hollow, like a tire. This one nearly is - you can see a small hole that goes right through its center.

Snow Roller tracks. Many fail to reach maturity, as it were, and peter out before attaining true magnificence. But plenty do build to a magnificent size, and a field or lawn dotted with Snow Rollers suggests a hayfield full of those round bales. A big one might be a foot and a half in height.

I got a call earlier today from a reporter with a TV station in Cincinnati about - what else - Snowy Owls. It turns out that she is also a meterologist, so I grilled her about Snow Rollers. According to her, they are indeed a rarity and I probably hadn't just been overlooking them every winter. Most of the people that I've talked to today had never seen any, either. I spoke to my 87 year-old father today (after he finished shoveling 4 inches of snow off his driveway, the dynamo) and he didn't recall ever seeing Snow Rollers either.

So if you happen across any Snow Rollers, take a moment to drink them in. It may be a long time before you see any again.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The wacky world of mimicry

A showy Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, nectars in a patch of Shale-barren Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium.

This morning, in a fevered bid to conjure warmer times, I posted a photo of an Orange-patched Smoky Moth, and lamented the seemingly unending Arctic air mass that has cloaked our state. It didn't work; the temperature is hovering near 0 F as I write this piece. On the up side, the frigid temperatures and a proper mixture of snow underlain with ice have spawned an absolutely remarkable bounty of a very odd snow formation. I will photograph some of these snowy artworks tomorrow, and post about it here.

Anyway, that Orange-patched Smoky Moth got me thinking about mimicry. The Monarch above was long considered a consummate example of Batesian mimicry. This form of flattery is quite pragmatic. Named for its describer, English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, Batesian mimicry refers to a (more or less) harmless or nontoxic organism that mimics the appearance of a toxic or otherwise dangerous animal. Monarchs are foul-tasting at the least, as their caterpillars ingest and sequester nasty cardiac glycosides from their host milkweed plants. Birds and other predators quickly learn to shun the butterflies (and their caterpillars).
More than a few people have misidentified this butterfly with the Monarch. The mistake would be a reasonable one - the similarities are astonishing. This is a Viceroy, Limenitis archippus, and despite its close appearance, it is quite distinct from the Monarch.

Monarchs and Viceroys were long held up as an example of Batesian mimicry. The harmless Viceroy evolved much of the morphological characters of the toxic Monarch in order to fool predators, and thus gain a significant measure of protection from its foes.

Well, scientists have come to learn that Viceroy butterflies are not so inert after all. In fact, Viceroys are thought to be as foul if not more so than the model of its mimicry. Viceroy caterpillars feed on willows and other trees in the Salicaceae family. These plants are infused with salicylic acid, and the caterpillar concentrates this compound in its body, much of which apparently is passed to the adult stage. Thus, the butterfly is bitter and distasteful.

So much for Batesian mimicry, in this case. Enter Mullerian mimicry, which leads us to the aforementioned Orange-patched Smoky Moth.

Here it is again, the beautiful Orange-patched Smoky Moth, Pyromorpha dimidiata.This insect does not really look like a moth, and if you are into bugs, its appearance might remind you of something else...

A Net-winged Beetle! We have a few species of these pretty black and tangerine bugs in Ohio, and this one is Calopteron terminale, which is common throughout the state. The similarity between this beetle and the utterly unrelated moth is fairly startling, and their close resemblance is probably not a coincidence.

The beetle-moth relationship would seem to be a good example of Mullerian mimicry.

Named after German naturalist Fritz Muller, this form of imitation describes poisonous species that have evolved a similar appearance - quite different than Batesian mimicry, in which one of the organisms (the mimic) is more or less harmless and takes on the looks of a dangerous organism (the model).

In Mullerian mimicry, both mimic and model theoretically benefit - this would be an example of mutualism. In essence, each species is aiding the other by adding to the collection of similar-appearing creatures that predators learn to avoid by sight because of their toxicity. Of course, a predator must learn the hard way - at least until avoidance becomes encoded in its genetics - and thus there must be sacrifices by the Mullerian mimics. If both moth and beetle serve equally well as an example of what not to bite into, there should in theory be fewer sacrificial individuals given up from each species' population in order to train predators.

Net-winged beetles contain toxic compounds, as might be guessed by their black-and-orange warpaint, which serves as a visual advertisement of toxicity (although predators still apparently must sometimes learn this firsthand). The smoky moth also is know to be infused with a nasty substance, hydrogen cyanide.

Arctic Ohio

A Great Blue Heron hunts in temperatures that hover around 0 F. Note the ice forming on its plumes. Ohio and the Midwest has been in the midst of a cold snap the likes of which we have not seen for some time. As I write, the temperature is about 14 F and dropping. We could see wind chills hitting 20 below within the next 24 hours or so.

Frigid temps have been par for the course this winter, and I do not speak in a vacuum when I say I'm tired of it.

I, and many others I'm sure, long for the return of warm temperatures and the bursting forth of flowering plants and all that they bring. Such as this Orange-patched Smoky Moth, Pyromorpha dimidiata, nectaring on Dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum.

The cold and snow of winter is a necessary part of the shift of seasons; a forced dormancy before the resurgence of spring. But it does grow old after a while.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bowling Green talk tonight CANCELLED

I know that at least a few people who regularly read this were thinking of going to my program in Bowling Green tonight, hence this notice. Wood County and surrounding counties are under snow emergencies, and we just decided this morning to pull the plug. Strong winds and drifting snows have made travel unadvisable, and some people probably can't even get out of their driveways.

CLICK HERE for a brief plug about the talk, which will be rescheduled, probably for some time within the month. Scheduling things can always be a dicey business in wintertime Ohio. Usually it works out, but every now and then the heavy hand of Mother Nature intercedes and reminds us who is boss.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Native wasp attacks emerald ash borer

A while back, I wrote HERE about the apparent spike in at least some woodpecker populations. It seems that the feathered hammerheads have found the juicy grubs of the invasive emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, to their liking. Can't beat that - any native predators rising up to attack and hopefully repel the incredibly destructive nonnative borer can only be a good thing.

Yesterday, I was going through reams of photos in my Hymenoptera (ants, bees, sawflies, wasps) folder looking for images for a new project. Filed away was this image of a small but stunning braconid wasp. I had taken it last August in Athens County, Ohio. At the time, I had determined its identity as Atanycolus cappaerti (no known common name, to me), and forgot about it. Since the new project - more on that later - is all about bees and wasps, I delved deeper into this little beast.

Wasps in the Braconidae family - which is immense, with some 17,000 species so far described - are parasitoids. I've written many times about various parasitoids, which typically kill their host organisms.

As it turns out, the little charmer above goes after wood-boring beetle grubs, and has apparently taken a shine to the grubs of the emerald ash borer. Very few of our native parasitoid insects seem to have set their sights on EAB as a host, so major props to those that have, such as the exquisite Atanycolus cappaerti.

The animal in my photo is a female, evidenced by that long "stinger" projecting from her abdomen. The needlelike structure is actually an ovipositor, and she uses it to auger through tree trunks and into EAB grubs, into which she injects an egg. The egg soon hatches, and the emergent wasp grub begins eating its host. Native wasp - 1; nonnative borer - 0.

There are reports of Atanycolus population spikes in areas of EAB infestation. Let's hope that trend continues, and the native wasps help to eventually bring the uber-destructive pest under control.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kittiwake thrills crowd, nearly gets whacked!

Ah, downtown Cleveland in mid-winter. If you like birds, it is a destination point. Here, a freighter steams out of port off Wendy Park and into icy Lake Erie. Legions of gulls, roiled aloft by the ship's passage, create a cloud. Gulls are a big part of the allure. Amongst the throngs of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls are rarer species, and picking through the masses to find them is actually fun for some of us.
I was up in Cleveland two weekends ago, and my first port of call was the legendary power plant at East 72nd Street. That's the plant on the left; the busy State Route 2/90 expressway is between the plant and your picture-taking narrator, and Lake Erie is on the right. The plant pumps warm water into the lake, and thus keeps a patch open and ice-free. The unfrozen oasis often lures mobs of gulls and other interesting waterbirds.

Note the plant's large stack - the farthest to the left.

Peregrine Falcons often roost on the aforementioned stack, and here we have one roaring in, while its mate watches from its perch on the railing. The perched bird is just left of the red light. These falcons don't miss a trick, and see all that is spread beneath them: Birders, ducks, gulls, everything.

Anyway, when I arrived at E. 72nd around 9 am, other birders were already assembled and glassing the waters. No surprise; this spot almost always has birders.

It's been cold - MIGHTY COLD - here in Ohio, and for the most part, Lake Erie has become choked with ice. This is the open lead created by the power plant's warm effluvia, and when conditions are like this the birding is great. Oftentimes the birds are nearly at fingertip range, which makes for great photography. Picture-taking aside, it is just great fun to watch the masses of gulls wheel and fight, fish and squabble. It is also pleasurable (to some of us) to sort through them looking for rarer beasts such as Glaucous, Iceland, and Thayer's gulls.

Cleveland's most famous gull in residence, an immature Black-legged Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla.This gorgeous specimen has been present at E. 72nd for several weeks, and it was quite nearly the first bird that I saw upon my arrival. Shortly after exiting the car, Larry Rosche waved me over and there was the kittiwake, fishing in the small opening. One might argue that an immature kittiwake bests even the suave adults (CLICK HERE for adult kittiwakes) in the looks department. The bird is an artistic study in patterns of black, gray, and white. The bold W-pattern on the wings is offset by a sooty neck collar and inky tail band, creating an unmistakable appearance.

Black-legged Kittiwake is quite the rarity in Ohio, with a relative handful seen each year. Nearly all are in November and December, and most are non-lingering flybys. Once in a while one tarries into winter, but seldom are they as cooperative as this bird is. Many birders have seen it, and the bird has made for more than a few new checks on life lists. I spent nearly two hours at this spot, in total, and ran into lots of birders, including many seldom seen friends SUCH AS THESE.

The kittiwake was a blast to watch. It nearly always stayed in the small sphere of open water, and at times came too close to photograph. At times it was the only bird working the waters. Kittiwakes like fish, as does any self-respecting gull, and the bird made frequent shallow plunge-dives such as this.

Up it pops, with a shell-shocked emerald shiner. These little silvery minnows seemed to be the dietary staple of the kittiwake. Don't come back as an emerald shiner in the tail waters of the power plant at East 72nd Street in wintertime Cleveland. You may be fated to be snatched unexpectedly from the tranquil depths, rudely swallowed whole and dissolved by gastrointestinal acids, then catapulted back to the waters as a powerful fecal explosion of guano from a kittiwake's posterior.

These dives, which always or at least nearly always culminated in the capture of a shiner, were executed with great rapidity. From striking the water, gagging down the sushi, and taking flight all took place within a half-minute or so. Why the rush? It's best to be in a situation where all of your senses can be focused on your surroundings, and that's hard to do when preoccupied with catching minnows.

Shortly after getting airborne, the kittiwake vigorously shakes itself free of water droplets. I didn't Photoshop this image - just caught the bird in mid shake with a very fast shutter speed. Enlarge the photo by clicking on it and you'll see the spray of droplets around its head.
With an unexpected rush, this Peregrine Falcon suddenly shot right over the heads of the assembled birders, snapping all of us from our kittiwake reverie. When these big powerful falcons burst into a pack of birds, it's almost as if shock waves from the predator alters the immediate cosmos. You can almost feel the big bird's energy, and its presence triggers instant pandemonium. I managed this one decently sharp image as the falcon briefly hovered nearly overhead, its sights apparently set on our kittiwake. Apparently the lone kittiwake hunting in the patch of water was too much for the tower-roosting falcon to stand, and it bombed down and tried its best to exert its will and demonstrate that Peregrine Falcons sit atop the avian food chain.

After an excited chase, the falcon departed the hot waters sans kittiwake, and rocketed out towards the gulls roosting further out on the ice. Its progressive was marked by clouds of gulls swirling aloft, and eventually the falcon singled out one of the few Bonaparte's Gulls in the area. The raptor harried the small gull and eventually snatched it and headed back to shore. Through our optics, we watched as the gull struggled valiantly, its wings flapping wildly. The wildly struggling gull eventually proved too much for the falcon to grasp, and it dropped it. As if upset by this failure, the falcon raced around the gulls like a fighter jet, creating a massive uproar, before eventually soaring back to its lofty perch atop the power plant's tower.

All in a day's birding on the Cleveland lakefront.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A much reviled bug

An entomophobe I am not, but I utterly despise this bug. It is the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys, and you may also know the ugly pest. These flattened wretched annoyances have a real knack for entering homes, seemingly being able to pass through the thinnest of slits. Come fall, in they come, and into hiding they go. Periodically, all winter long, the warmth of the home's innards coupled with lights will draw them out of wherever they lurk. My house is relatively new and nearly tight as a drum, or so I thought. Nonetheless, I find one of these stinkbugs nearly every day. I have no idea where they're roosting - maybe the attic, since the majority that I find are upstairs.

When a BMSB enters the room, there really is no rest until it is dispatched. They're big enough that you'll not be at peace knowing it is crawling about, and when they fly, the loud irritating drone is sure to make you ill at ease. Watch 'em when you grab 'em - squeeze too tight, and they can release a noxiously aromatic spray.

This is yet another invasive species courtesy of Asia. They first turned up in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998, and are now well in their way to conquering America. BMSB's have appeared in something like 33 states thus far. I first starting noticing them around here - Columbus, Ohio - three or so years ago, and they have increased tremendously since then. Besides being a six-legged source of irritation when they come inside with us, the bugs are real threats to fruit crops. They are hemipterans, and use their sucking mouthparts to pierce orchard crops and about any type of fruit, apparently, thus doing great damage.

Conventional wisdom has it that Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs do not bite. Look around the web; just about every fact sheet says so.

I will challenge that, admitting that my evidence to the contrary is circumstantial.

Several weeks ago, I returned after a long day, and settled down for a half-hour nap before going back at it. About 20 minutes after nodding off, I awoke to feel flushed all over, and completely broken out in hives. Also, as I came to, I heard a scrabbling on the pillow next to my head, and there was one of these nasty beasts.

I am allergic to nearly nothing, save a nip of poison ivy if I really get into it on a hot day. Therefore, having an outbreak of hives was a very strange, scary, and new sensation. I also felt slightly nauseous and a bit like I had the flu coming on. Well, all of these unpleasant symptoms passed within the hour, and I was more or less back to normal. With the exception of a rather small but nasty wound on the back of my shoulder that is only now fading. Of course, I wanted to know what caused these conditions, and the stupid stinkbug was my primary suspect.

Stinkbugs have mouthparts modified into a strawlike tube, and this structure is what they use to puncture the skin and pulp of fruit and tap its juices. While I am quite sure the BMSB does not make a habit of feasting on humans, I see no reason why one couldn't stick a person if it were accidentally pinned or trapped, just as spiders will bite reactionarily if mishandled.

Furthermore, some Hemipteran insects, such as kissing bugs, do bite people, and apparently the aftereffects can include some of the same symptoms that I described above.

So, I cannot conclusively prove that one of these blasted stink bugs actually bit me, but there is some circumstantial evidence that suggests it. Bite or not, I still hate the things and hope that some native predator rises up and vanquishes them from American soil.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Golden eagles a rare, beautiful sight

Photo: Fred Rau

January 19, 2014

Jim McCormac

The untamable ferocity of birds of prey is awe-inspiring. In a field crowded with formidable predators, the golden eagle rules.

A golden eagle is daunting. Females are larger than males, and a hefty specimen can weigh 14 pounds and have a wingspan longer than 7 feet. Golden feathers cap the crown and nape, making identification easy if the bird is seen.

It takes five years for a golden eagle to reach maturity, and first-year birds have prominent white splashes at the base of the tail and on the underwings. They become increasingly dark with age. The oldest known wild eagle reached 23 years; one in captivity lived to 46.

As befits their size, golden eagles capture prey off limits to lesser raptors. Rabbits are a dietary staple, but much larger fare is sometimes caught. They sometimes take bobcats, coyotes, herons, turkeys and even young white-tailed deer. In days of yore, when falconry was an entitlement of nobility, the golden eagle was the bird of kings.

Although golden eagles prefer live prey, they are not above sampling carrion, especially if it is venison. Fred Rau of Dayton recently sent me a series of spectacular images from western Pike County. Rau had focused a trail camera on a fresh deer carcass and was rewarded with crisp images of a golden eagle.
Golden eagles are quite rare in Ohio, with perhaps a half-dozen sightings a year. Although fairly common in mountainous regions of western North America, they are far scarcer in the East. There is a breeding population in northern Quebec and Labrador, and evidence suggests that area is the origin of Ohio birds.

Small numbers of them winter in Ohio, but they’re tough to find. Golden eagles frequent remote, sparsely populated regions, keep huge territories and are people-shy. Trail cams fixed on deer carcasses are an effective technique for documenting the birds.

Historical records suggest that small numbers of golden eagles have long wintered along Ohio’s glaciated Allegheny Plateau. The region is the interface of unglaciated hill country and the flatlands to the west. Records from the early 1900s include birds in Adams, Highland and Pike counties. Vast reclaimed strip mines such as the Wilds in Muskingum County have also harbored wintering golden eagles.

While these eagles undoubtedly take plenty of rabbits and other small mammals, an abundant deer population provides lots of carrion. Increased efforts to place trail cams on deer carcasses might catch photos of more golden eagles.

For those who think of Ohio as all industry and agriculture, think again. Golden eagles are among the wildest of North American birds, and their presence in Ohio’s hill country speaks to our wilderness heritage.

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.jim

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wildlife Diversity Conference: March 12!

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, and this is an event you won't want to miss. From humble beginnings, the conference has morphed into a 1,000 attendee celebration of Ohio's rich natural heritage. There are always interesting talks, and this year's slate looks to be one of the most interesting in quite some time.

Mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 12th. The conference is held at the Aladdin Shriner's Center on the east side of Columbus, and it's a snap to get to. The cavernous interior has one of the best audio-visual setups going, with a topnotch professional sound system and three huge screens. There is vendors and exhibitors galore, and a whole lot of like-minded people.

On to the talks:

The inimitable David FitzSimmons is the keynote, talking about wildlife photography. Dave's an awesome lensman, and his book Curious Critters, attests to his innovative skills. I've heard Dave talk a number of times, and it'll be a great presentation packed with awesome images.

There are also talks about Barn Owls, American Woodcocks, cavity-nesting birds, fishes, museum specimens and their importance, and aviation's role in wildlife management. CLICK HERE for the agenda.

Finally, those trail cam masters themselves, Laura and David Hughes, round out the day. If you've followed this blog for a while, you've seen their work here. The Hughes excel at camera placement and technical mastery of their equipment, and the results are stunning. They've obtained amazing footage of bobcats, river otters, long-tailed weasels, beaver, ravens, and much more. We'll be treated to some spectacular wildlife footage, and hear about the tricks of the trade that allow one to get quality recordings with an inexpensive trail cam. To see some of their footage, click HERE, and HERE.

To register for the conference, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Opossum in the window!

I walked into my office - pictured - around 8 am this morning, as usual. A visitor awaited, but I didn't see it right away. As is my custom, I stumbled to my desk and dug into emails and the other stuff that awaits each morning. Around 9 am, I got a phone call and as is often the case when I'm on the phone, I stand up and scan the grounds from the window. As soon as I glanced out the window today, it was WHOA! What a fine marsupial in my tree!

In the photo above, look out the window to the right of the monitor on my mini-fridge, and just up and left of the picture of the red 1992 Ferrari 512 TR (not the first time I've used one of these Italian supercars in relation to a mammal, SEE HERE). A Virginia Opossum, Didelphis virginiana, resting in my crabapple tree!

Look closely on the lefthand limb of the crabapple on the right, and you'll see my (that's right, MY) opossum basking on his branch. He's (could be a girl, I dunno) sitting about three or four feet from my window.

We move in a bit closer to the magnificent beast. The silver rectangle in the window is the back of my fridge that we saw in the first photo.

I work my way in for the close shot, and was greeted with a feeble hiss and a less than frightening baring of 50 teeth. Then he ignored me. But lots of people didn't ignore my opossum. Aided and abetted by your narrator, word spread far and wide through the building that an opossum was lazing in my tree. Drawn by the curious spectacle of the only marsupial occurring in the United States, I had a steady stream of admirers (of the opossum, not me), passing through the office.

They say (them, not me) that all babies are cute. Well, you may think that big ole adult opossum was ugly as a mud fence, but even the naysayers might have to concede that these juvenile opossums are mighty cute. I photographed them last fall; they were in the hands of an animal rehabber.

Back in 2006, I wrote a column about Virginia Opossums in the Columbus Dispatch. It follows:

Virginia Opossum

Perhaps our most successful mammal is also our dumbest. Not to sound crass, but it’s true – Virginia opossums have a marble-sized brain. That’s why you see so many smashed along our roadsides. A dim wit coupled with slow reactions means that opossums never seem to recognize vehicles as threats, as more intelligent mammals like coyotes and red foxes do.

But the fact that we see so many opossums amongst the roadside carnage points to their success – there are lots of them. They’ve been around a while, too – their lineage can be traced back 100 million years.

Tropical in origin, opossums have not yet evolved adaptations like dense fur to protect them in northern winters. Their ears and tail are furless, occasionally leading to frostbite. Still, they continue their expansion, long ago colonizing Ohio and still spreading north.

Didelphis virginiana is North America’s only marsupial (pouch-bearing animal). Like kangaroos, females have a fur-lined pouch on their belly that shelters young. Baby opossums emerge blind and naked, and about the size of a piece of popcorn. In a rough introduction to life, the babies must clamber several inches from the vagina to the pouch immediately after birth. There they remain for 60 days, then stay together as a family unit for three more months. Sometimes the mother will carry the youngsters on her back.

Opossums also have the most teeth of any Ohio mammal – fifty. This dental excess serves them well in their omnivorous habits; opossums are true garbage heads, eating nearly anything they can find.

The term “playing ‘possum” is derived from these beasts. When frightened, they may fall over, let their mouth gape open and ooze saliva, looking thoroughly dead.

Opossums prove that even dummies can be successful.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wild Ohio program in Bowling Green

Sometime in 2007, I decided to do a book that highlighted Ohio's natural heritage: The best of the best of our wild places. I wanted it to be heavy on imagery, as pictures can speak a thousand words. With that in mind, I approached photographer Gary Meszaros, one of the best lensmen/naturalists in the business. To my delight, Gary agreed to the collaboration, and in June of 2009 our book was released.

It features 40 of the creme de la creme of Ohio's natural areas. Each site is accompanied by descriptive text, and includes several of Gary's stunning images. In total, the book includes a vast array of flora and fauna found in Ohio, including scads of little known and very rare species. We were pleased with the end product, and Kent State University Press's expert layout and design. The book's artistic director chose the Luna for the cover, which was a beautiful idea.

On Saturday, January 25th, I'll be giving a program that follows the book for the Bowling Green (Ohio) Parks and Recreation Department's Kuebeck Nature Forum on Nature and Environment. I was flattered to be invited to be the inaugural speaker in this series, and will do my best to live up to this honor. We'll take a pictorial trip through some of the greatest places in Ohio, featuring many of our coolest critters and most interesting plants. Since Bowling Green lies in the shadow of the Oak Openings, I'll certainly dip into that region, which harbors more rare plants that any other comparably sized place in the state.

Hope to see you there, and CLICK HERE for all of the details.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bird food: It doesn't just come in bags

A wintry day along a Hocking County backroad, last Saturday, January 4th. Jeff White - standing by the car - and I were down in southeastern Ohio to cover my section of the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count. I've been birding this piece of turf for a number of years now, and it always produces interesting birding.

I have heard more reports of "missing" birds at feeders this winter than in any previous year, at least that I can recall. So much so that I've kept a folder of such complaints, in case some disease or other culprit comes to light. But in general, my answer is that birds are co-evolved with native food crops, and have been for FAR longer than they've had benefit of relatively new food sources provided by people and their feeders. If natural food crops are available, many birds will forsake your handouts in favor of nutritious native fare. At least, I believe that is usually the case. If it is a boom year for certain natural food crops, the species that feed on those may be especially apt to be AWOL at your feeders.

In general, it seems that the wintertime woodlands and meadows are bursting with food crops, at least in southeastern Ohio. I observed many examples of birds utilizing natural foods last Saturday, and managed to document a number of these relationships with my camera.

Jeff and I began our count with a bang, or more exactly, a loud sharp TSCHAK! At our very first stop, I jumped out of the car only to hear the noisy call of a Brown Thrasher, and quickly spotted the rufous-colored mimid in an adjacent thicket. The temperature was about 0 F when I made this image. I watched the thrasher for a bit, wanting to see what it might do. It quickly made its way into a tangle of climbing rose, Rosa setigera, one of five native Ohio roses in the genus Rosa, and began pucking and eating the rose hips. Rose fruit are high in vitamin C and other valuable nutrients, and given that the roses seem to have produced lots of hips, the thrasher is in a good spot.

We came across a small meadow richly carpeted with Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, and it was awash in sparrows. American Tree Sparrows (pictured) and Dark-eyed Juncos balanced like tiny acrobats, deftly plucking grains from the native grass.

We found four Hermit Thrush, and all of them were around sumac thickets. I've written about this hardy thrush and its proclivity for sumac many times, such as HERE.

While we watched the Hermit Thrush and a number of Eastern Bluebirds working the sumac, a Northern Flicker joined the crowd. The flicker is an extraordinary bird by any reckoning, and appears as if a committee of artists designed it without consulting one another. Their endpiece came out fine, however, and the flicker is truly a work of art. This is a male, as evidenced by the black malar strip, or "moustache".

The flicker quickly dug into the Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, and thus joins a long list of avian species that I have observed feasting on sumac fruit.

In warmer seasons, Eastern Bluebirds are voracious consumers of insects. Come winter, they shift to a diet high in fruit - they are seasonally frugivorous, if you'll pardon my multi-syllabic descriptor. This stunning male - could there be a more striking shade of blue? - performs gymnastics to get at the cones of red cedar, Juniperus virginiana.

The cedar "berry" crops (they are really cones, as this tree is a conifer) seemed plentiful, and the bluebirds were taking full advantage.

We came up with 28 Yellow-rumped Warblers during the count, and all of them were around that most despised of native plants, poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. This female stands ready to plunder the waxy nutritious berries.

She dangles agilely to pluck a berry. Note how many fruit have gone missing, no doubt due to the depradations of Yellow-rumped Warblers or any of numerous other bird species that feast on poison ivy fruit.

A berry goes down the hatch. I wouldn't recommend that you try this, no matter how sharp your hunger pangs. Homo sapiens is quite vulnerable to the rash-inducing compound Urushiol; birds are unfazed by the itchy chemical.

Some day, I will write an essay in support of poison ivy, a plant with a great many virtues. It seems that only humans abhor this valuable plant, which is of vital importance to many species of animals.

A Northern Cardinal sits high in a tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera.This large forest tree is our only common and widespread magnolia. At one point, at least eight cardinals were in the crown of this tree, plundering seeds from the abundant, persistent fruiting receptacles.

This male cardinal has his face in the cuplike calyx, busily ripping out the hard woody seeds. To my eye, it seems that the tuliptrees have produced an especially bountiful crop of seeds, and obviously cardinals enjoy them. I wonder if this might be the reason that many people have lamented the absence of cardinals, especially, at their feeders. The bright redbirds are instead lured to the crowns of tuliptrees to snack on their seeds.