Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New(ish) Museum Blog!

The Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity is a treasure trove of fascinating subjects. It houses one of the world’s premier insect collections, a vast store of plant specimens from around the globe, a world class archive of bird and other nature sound recordings, and much more. Museum curators have started an interesting blog that showcases their research and collections. It is well worth bookmarking, and reading. Here’s the link:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Showy things from here and there

I haven't let much grass grow under my feet of late. I took much of last week off work to help conduct a photo workshop with David FitzSimmons, then it was off to Shawnee State Park at the opposite end of the state to meet with the Mothapalooza planning committee. Long days and not much sleep, but a lot of fun. Following is a small selection of photos from these excursions.

Dave FitzSimmons gets into the surf to make interesting wave photos. Note the tripod, and the remote shutter release in his hand. Those tools make it easier to focus on tripping the shutter when the timing is right. We based our photo workshop at beautiful Lakeside, right on the shores of Lake Erie, and visited a variety of spots on and near the lakefront. It was a great time with a great group of people, and we're planning on doing it again in September 2016.

To get the silky quality with the waves, I used a very slow shutter speed, 1/8 of a second. The camera was tripod-mounted of course - hand-holding would not allow for a sharp image at such a sluggish shutter speed.

We were up EARLY both mornings of the workshop, to get in good locales for shooting sunrises, before the sun appeared. This shot shows the sun popping above the horizon over Lake Erie near East Harbor. Timing is everything - you have to be in position and ready to fire away right as the sun appears. Sometimes a wide-angle perspective looks great, but I often prefer a smaller field of view as seen through a larger lens. This one was shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon's superb 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens set to 135mm. Settings were f/8; 1/160; ISO 100.

After shooting sunsets one evening on Lakeside's pier, I turned my lens to the moon, which looked especially striking in this waxing gibbous phase. It was the same camera and body as was used in the previous photo, but this time the lens was extended to 400mm. While overkill is probably possible with the moon, in general the more reach the better for shooting distant celestial objects. For this shot, the camera was set to f/11; 1/40; ISO 100. Overexposing moon images is common, and easy to do. One must remember that it is necessary to underexpose. The previous settings are good starting points; play with speeding up or slowing the shutter speed until the exposure is correct.

A young Herring Gull tugs entrails from a dead fish washed up on a Lake Erie beach. We had a lot of fun with this bird, waiting until just the right moment to trigger our shutters. Everyone wanted the entrails shot. This one was shot with the same rig as the previous images, but at f/5.6; 1/400; ISO 200, at a focal length of 400mm. The sun, unfortunately, was coming in at an acute angle from the right. Not optimal, but not bad. Some post-processing would make it look even better, but I am a post-processing minimalist.

The gorgeous textures and patterns of a land snail make for an irresistible shot. This one was shot with the amazing Canon 7D Mark II, rigged to their equally proficient 100mm L macro lens. This is a crop-frame sensor camera, and one I was using mostly for birds and distant wildlife. I've come to find that it works just great for macro work, too, and have been experimenting with that. This one was taken at f/16; 1/250; ISO 100. In general, an f-stop range between f/11 and f/16 works well for many macro situations.

We spent a fair bit of time looking for interesting art in seemingly mundane things, such as milkweed seeds bursting from a pod. This photo was shot with the same rig as in the previous photo, but at f/6.3 and a much faster shutter speed of 1/500, no flash used. It was breezy, and I wanted to ensure a reasonably sharp image. The plant, by the way, is Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora.

Our group hit the botanical jackpot when we stumbled into a nice stand of Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata, in the Castalia Prairie. Scores of photos were taken of these stunning flowers. For this one, the fringing of the rear petals of the foremost flower was my focal point. Again, the Canon 7D Mark II with 100mm macro lens was used. I set f/11; 1/200; ISO 100, and fired with Canon's twin-lite flash rig. In hindsight, I should have used f/16 for greater depth of field.

OK, to the opposite end of the state and my beloved Shawnee State Forest. After the Mothapalooza planning committee meeting - yes, this strange but wonderful event will be back at Shawnee in 2016! - we headed afield for a bit. And saw many interesting things, but unfortunately for the others, I found this gem on my way out of the forest, after we all went our separate ways. It is the state-endangered Sampson's Snakeroot, Gentiana villosa. Not quite as flashy as the previous gentian, but it has its charms. More 7D Mark II/100mm macro work here, with settings of f/16; 1/250; ISO 100. A big part of making decent images of stuff like this is getting the flash intensity right, and that's what I tend to play with the most.

I was struck by the pattern and texture of fruiting Hairy Angelica plants, Angelica venenosa, and exerted some effort in making photos of them. The little grooved fruit form clusters in arrangements known as umbels. The aggregate of the umbels forms one big umbel - the inflorescence in its entirety. It wasn't until I reviewed my images that I noticed numerous tiny, unfamiliar insects among the fruit. The dominant one appears to be some sort of true bug (Hemiptera), but I have no idea as to the species. There are oil tubes located in the grooves of the fruits, and I wonder if the insects aren't tapping into those to extract food. Had I noticed this in the field, I would have produced the Canon MP-E 65mm mega-macro lens to try and shed light on this mysterious world dwelling within the umbels. Another time, perhaps.

Finally, I'll end with this beautiful plant, the Downy Lobelia, Lobelia puberula. It reaches its northern limits in Ohio, occurring in only a dozen or so of our southernmost counties. Downy Lobelia is common along Shawnee's forest roads, and I find it an irresistible subject. This specimen was particularly compelling, as it meets the criteria of the pleasing Rule of Thirds. Once again, after reviewing the image on the computer, I noticed a stowaway I missed in the field. Some tiny green insect is hiding under the calyx of the top flower. As with the other Shawnee flower images, this one was taken with the 7D Mark II and 100mm macro lens. Twin-lite flash was used, and the settings for this one were f/16; 1/250; ISO 100.

I'll be back.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mantidfly looks as if built out of spare parts

Mantidfly, Dicromantispa interrupta

September 27, 2015

Jim McCormac

Scotsman John Hunter was an inveterate explorer and officer in Great Britain’s Royal Navy. A natural scholar, Hunter was sent to then largely unknown Australia in 1788. He spent much of the next 12 years there. In 1798, he was made privy to the discovery of a bizarre Australian mammal and promptly sent a specimen to the British Museum.

Curator George Shaw, upon examining the specimen, felt it might be a hoax, as did several of his contemporaries. Their skepticism was understandable. The duck-billed platypus looks like a hodgepodge of various animals sewn together — a seemingly impossible anomaly.

The mantidfly is an entomological counterpart to the platypus. The bugs look like the work of a mad scientist. It’s as if the wings of a dragonfly were bolted to a wasp’s body, and a long skeletal neck was welded to the front. Capping the latter is a small head dominated by huge jewellike eyes. Powerful forelegs are armed with stiff spines, and the creature is held erect by long spindly legs. The mantidfly shown above is Dicromantispa interrupta, one of five species found in Ohio.

If one didn’t know better, he might think the mantidfly is the product of an ornate prank.

Adult mantidflies are predatory, stalking other insects and seizing them with their praying mantislike forelegs. The larvae also are predatory, with a life cycle almost too freakish to believe.

Female mantidflies lay up to 1,000 tiny eggs on the lower surfaces of leaves. The eggs dangle from threads. She places the egg cluster in an area frequented by spiders.

The tiny, freshly emerged larvae are capable of crawling and leaping. When a spider passes by, they attempt to jump aboard. If successful, the mantidfly larva nestles into a crevice and commences to feed on the spider’s hemolymph for sustenance.

Their primary purpose is to hitch a ride to the spider’s nest. If a male spider is boarded, the mantidfly larva will cross over to the female spider when the spiders come together to mate. When the female spider deposits her eggs, the larva debarks and attaches to an egg. It feeds on the contents of the egg via specialized mandibles.

Once the larva matures, it forms a cocoon and pupates within the husk of the spider egg. Later, it morphs into the strange-looking adult mantidfly.

Mantidflies are rare — and with such a life cycle, it’s easy to see why.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Sunday, September 20, 2015

American Birding Expo: October 2-4

Mark your calendars for the upcoming extravaganza known as the American Birding Expo! It takes place from October 2 thru 4, right here in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. The venue is the beautiful Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which is sited right along the banks of the mighty Scioto River, just a stone's throw from downtown. All of the expo details are RIGHT HERE.
Admission is free. Your free pass grants you access to what certainly must be the most amazing array of birding-related gear, including optics, photography, bird feeding products and other birding and outdoor products ever assembled in the U.S.A. Tour companies will be well represented, too. Information on many of the world's most bird-rich destinations will be available, directly from the people who can take you there. In all, about 80 vendors representing nearly 30 countries will be at the American Birding Expo. 

You'll have plenty of opportunity to test out your new optics and gear, too. Fall migration will be in full swing, and the grounds around the Audubon center can offer good birding. Last October, Bill Heck and I spearheaded a Big Sit on October 11 from the rooftop of the building and racked up 62 species in less than 24 hours. There are also birding hotspots nearby, such as Green Lawn Cemetery, Battelle Darby Metropark, Pickerington Ponds Metropark, the beautiful Clear Creek Valley, and more. A visit to the American Birding Expo could easily be combined with some great birding opportunities.
Hope you can make it, and CLICK HERE for the complete American Birding Expo scoop.

Gulls in flight

iPhone 5S photo

Last Wednesday, I and about 27 other birders boarded the Miss Cindy in Vermilion, Ohio, and headed out on Lake Erie. This was one of Jen Brumfield's freshwater "pelagics", and she and crew have drummed up amazing stuff in trip's past. This day, alas, we were treated to weather much too fine for good lake birding: high in the 80's, little wind, and calm conditions for the prior few days. One highs for cool blustery weather, just rough enough that the boat will still go out.

But in spite of that, it was a fantastic trip and I encourage you to try one of these. Jen's pelagics fill fast, and I'm not sure there will be any more opportunities with her this year. However, Black Swamp Bird Observatory has two trips this year; details RIGHT HERE. Sign up for one of them now!

In spite of the calm weather, we saw lots of interesting things. A Red-necked Phalarope, spotted by the inimitable Jerry Talkington, was a great find. So was a first of season Horned Grebe. Good looks at Common and Forster's terns. And lots of Monarchs - yes, Monarch butterflies! It was amazing to see the hardy insects making the open water crossing from Canada. In all, we sailed 67 miles and made it 12-14 miles out from shore. Monarchs, steadfastly winging south, were seen just about everywhere.

Chum-master Ben Warner flings popcorn. He also spewed a lot of oily fish parts overboard. This practice is known as "chumming", and the edible detritus keeps a constant cloud of gulls swirling in the boat's wake. Sometimes rarer gulls come in to investigate, and even birds that shun chum, such as terns, will fly near to see what the hubbub is about. If any jaeger is anywhere near, there's a darn good chance that it will shoot over to add to the ruckus.

While no rare gulls or jaegers materialized this day, the parade of Ring-billed and Herring gulls made for great photo ops. Here, one of each species mixes it up. The former on the left, the latter on the right.

A sleek adult Ring-billed Gulls cruises by. I had a fantastic time shooting images of gulls in flight. Photographing flying birds (well, at least) is not the easiest thing to do. But gulls are relative child's play compared to many species. Nonetheless, good equipment used properly makes a huge difference.

I was shooting my Canon 7D Mark II, coupled to Canon's 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens. This is an awesome setup for bird photography, especially for handheld shots of flying birds from a moving boat.

An adult Herring Gull tumble-dives towards the chum, while letting his comrades know he's coming. For most of these shots, the camera was set to 1/4000 of a second to thoroughly freeze action. I used auto ISO, as it was a bright day and high ISO's (and their attendant graininess) would not be a problem. Most of my images emerged at ISO 200 to 250. F-stops ranged from f/5 to f/6.3. The 100-400 zooms very smoothly, and I shot these photos at anywhere from a 100mm focal length to the lens' maximum of 400mm. The 7D Mark II has 63 focus points, with myriad combinations possible. For larger birds, especially flying ones, I like to use a tight grid of five active focus points.

A big challenge with gulls on a sunny day is overexposure. I almost guarantee that if you leave your camera in full auto, or any other setting with the exposure at neutral, you'll end up with blown-out overexposed images. The gleaming white on the birds really causes significant light blowback. For most of these images, the exposure compensation was dialed down a full stop, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

Trying to capture the birds in some sort of action pose is great fun, and rewarding when you strike the target. This Herring Gull is in the midst of a quick midflight contortion as it augers into the feeding flock below. A really fast shutter speed is imperative if one hopes to stop the action. It's also important to always remain cognizant of the sun's position, and keep it behind you.

An adult Herring Gull passes by, showing off its glaring yellow eye and pink legs.

This is a first-cycle Herring Gull - a bird in its first year of life. It looks nothing like the adults, and I suppose many nonbirders see mixed flocks of gulls of various ages, and think that the young birds are different species.

This first-cycle Herring Gull floated by so close to the boat that I didn't even have to zoom the lens - this image was taken at 100mm. As always, click the image to enlarge. The detail in the bird's feathers is ornate indeed.

The boat's attendant swarm of gulls offered an outstanding opportunity to not only study the various age classes of Herring Gulls, but also the variation between individuals of the same age. This is a second-cycle bird.

Second cycle, or third?

This, I believe, is the same individual as in the previous photo, but in different light and at a different angle.

And finally, I believe this must be a third cycle Herring Gull that has mostly molted in its gray mantle, but still retains a broad black tail band.

Whatever you call them, gulls are fun to watch, and great practice for in-flight bird photography.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Caterpillar mania! Part III

OK, this is the last of the tubular crowd for a while. Check the previous two posts, HERE and HERE, for parts I and II. The first one explains where they all came from, and why and how we obtained the material.

This is certainly a crazy cat. It's a Showy Emerald moth caterpillar, Dichorda iridaria. They feed on various species of sumac (Rhus spp.) and allegedly Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. Just one of many reasons to appreciate the latter plant, which is a very valuable native species.

Looking like some sort of limbless alien sporting strange orange eyes, a larval Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus, glares at the camera. Well, it isn't really glaring - those are fake eyespots, possibly meant to frighten songbirds that peek into the caterpillars leafy lair. We found many of thse on False Indigo, Amorpha fruticosa. They eat other species in the pea family as well.

Meet the strange tanklike Skiff Moth caterpillar, Prolimacodes badia. From any distance, they look like plant galls and could easily be dismissed by the uninitiated. The disguise doesn't fool parasitoid tachinid flies. That little whitish spot is a fly egg case. The grub is no doubt inside the animal, consuming its tissues. A moth this caterpillar will never be. We found quite a few Skiffs, and nearly all had been parasitized.

An outstanding snake mimic, the over the top caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail, Papilio troilus. During the day, the caterpillar fashions a bivouac by rolling into a leaf of its host plant, which is either Spicebush (duh!), Lindera benzoin, or Sassafras, Sassafra albidum. You can imagine that some small birds might be repelled by such an appearance, and this is a fairly large caterpillar. Not all of them are, though - I just saw a presentation by Doug Tallamy, and he had a great photo of a White-eyed Vireo feeding one of these to its nestlings.

A Spiny Oak Slug moth caterpillar, Euclea delphinii, which looks a fantastical creature from the coral reefs. Common, especially on oaks. This won't make it; notice the several tachinid egg cases stuck to its body.

The Spotted Apatelodes caterpillar, Apatelodes torrefacta, resembles an elongate Pomerian dog. Its feet are bright pink. The moth that it morphs into is a fantastic dead leaf mimic that becomes virtually invisible when it rests on leaf litter.

Oh yeah, one of the Holy Grails for caterpillar hunters, the Spun Glass Slug, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri. It was a great find, but I can't remember who found it. We found so much stuff in a compressed period of time that I've lost track of who found what, or I'd give them credit! Anyway, this caterpillar is nearly translucent, and a sight to see. They aren't particularly rare, just hard to find. Their fringed "arms" are fragile and detach easily. This cat has lost a few, as you can see.

This thing looks a bit like a court jester's hat, but it is a Stinging Rose Moth caterpillar, Parasa indetermina, peeking over the top of a leaf. This photo was taken at night, in the field, and Laura Hughes' bright blue shirt created an interesting albeit unnatural bokeh.

A perennial favorite, and sure to please even the most disinterested of people. An aggregation of Turbulent Phosphila moth caterpillars, Phosphila turbulenta, clusters on the underside of a greenbrier leaf. Probably not many people study catbriers and greenbriers (genus Smilax) very closely. If you do, it shouldn't be too long before you uncover some of these. This one also wins the Best Name Award.

A Walnut Sphinx moth caterpillar, Amorpha juglandis. It is rather elegant in its sleek coat of green outfitted with wine-red buttons. CLICK HERE for a description of its effective and bizarre defense strategy.

Speaking of bizarre defensive ploys, here's a doozy. This is a White-dotted Prominent Moth caterpillar, Nadata gibbosa, and I have threatened the animal by poking at it. That bit of agitation prompted it to coil up like a serpent, stick its head over the top of the coil, and bare its mandibles. The end result is snakelike indeed.

Well, that's enough caterpillars for now. I'll leave you with this, the tail end of the Tuliptree Silkmoth caterpillar, Callosamia angulifera. You can take its message however you see fit.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Caterpillar mania! Part II

In the last post, I briefly described our inaugural trial run caterpillar workshop that was an offshoot of Mothapalooza. More importantly, I shared lots of cool caterpillar photos. I will continue in the latter vein in this post.

This big bruiser is an Imperial Moth caterpillar, Eacles imperialis. As one might expect from such a sizeable cat, the moth that it morphs into is also huge - bat-sized. Most of the last or later instar caterpillars that I've seen have been this showy shade of lime-green. But they certainly can vary in hue. Read on...

This cinnamon-colored beast is also an Imperial cat! Wow! We found this one about two weeks ago at Buzzard's Roost Preserve in Ross County. It was near another that looked identical. First time I'd such a wild color variant, but they are well known for sporting different coats.

Here we have one of Nature's most superb mimics, a Juniper-twig Geometer caterpillar, Patalene olyzonaria. It feeds on Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana (obviously), and has evolved a look that renders it nearly undetectable. A living needle, if you will. When I found it, it was dangling below a branch on a silken belay line, or I'd never have seen it. I'd bet Prairie Warblers find plenty, though - they are habitual foragers in cedar trees.

There are a number of species that artfully duplicate the look of leaves dappled with necrotic patches of brown tissue. This is one, the Lace-capped Caterpillar, Oligocentria lignicolor. Even though it is a fairly large caterpillar, it's quite easy to pass one by, even at close range.

The weird Monkey Slug, Phobetron pithecium, always a major crowd-pleaser. One theory has it that this caterpillar mimics the appearance of a shed tarantula skin. No, we don't have tarantulas here, but this group of moths is a largely tropical lineage and many of the neotropical migrant birds that might encounter a Monkey Slug winter in tropical regions that harbor tarantulas. Note how the cat picked a brown patch of leaf to secrete itself on, and it blends remarkably well.

A Nason's Slug, Natada nasoni. The little slug moth caterpillars are always pleasing, and people who have never encountered one are usually excited by them. Most slugs are tiny and one must keep a close eye on the leaves - especially the undersurfaces - to spot them. Note the intricate patterning of pale stripes, and the jewel-like fascicles of scarlet setae.

If this looks like an ugly glop of bird excretia, the caterpillar would be happy that it fooled you. Many species of caterpillars (and other animals) are excellent bird dropping mimics. Apparently very little to nothing wants to eat bird poo. When Laura Hughes spotted this one, it temporarily mystified us, then lit the group up with excitement. It's a Paddle Caterpillar, Acronicta funeralis, one of the true Holy Grails of caterpillar hunters. It's only the third one that I've seen. If it makes it, it will morph into a Funerary Dagger Moth.

Amazement never ceases. We had the Paddle Caterpillar in captivity overnight, and by the next morning it had molted into its final instar! Hardly looks like the same animal. The paddles are much more developed, and it looks like little clam shells adorn its back. I suspect it uses those paddle-tipped setae to swat away parasitoid flies and wasps.

Many of the caterpillars that we found were victims of parasitoids, either flies or wasps. Such predation is exceedingly common. Indeed, nearly all of the Skiff Moth slugs that we found had tachinid fly eggs attached. This one is a Yellow-shouldered Slug, Lithacodes fasciola, and it has received a double whammy. Nine or ten braconid wasp grubs have just popped from its skin, and are forming shroudlike silken cocoons around their bodies. There are also at least four tachinid fly egg cases on the caterpillar - the ovoid ivory bumps.

Parasitoids are different than parasites in that they generally kill their host. Shortly after an egg is deposited on the victim, the grub hatches and bores inside the host. It eats the innards until it matures, then does what we see here. In relatively short order, the wasps will pop from the cocoons.

Gruesome as this may seem, such predation is absolutely vital to keep the stocks of other insects in check. The intricacies of the food web at work, just not in a particularly Disneyesque way.

I told you slug caterpillars are beautiful! This one is a Red-crossed Button Slug, Tortricidia pallida.

A personal favorite, the striking Red-humped Caterpillar, Schizura concinna. As is the case with many moths, the caterpillar is far more striking than the moth it will (may) become.

A congregation of Red-humped Oakworms, Symmerista concinna, under an oak leaf. At least in its earlier instars, this species clusters in groups on the underside of a leaf during the day.

For some reason, I really find this caterpillar quite artistic and spent much time making photos of it. Thanks to Diane Brooks, caterpillar rancher extraordinaire, for bringing along some of these Scallop Moth caterpillars, Cepphis armataria. I had never seen this species, and was struck by their style of dangling upside down from a stem in a J-shape with a flourish. From any distance, it would be quite easy to dismiss the cat as a bit of dead plant debris.

I've got one more batch of really cool cat pics to share sometime in the near future.