Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bald Eagle relieves Lake Erie of a fish!

I journeyed to one of my favorite Lake Erie haunts today, the city of Huron, in Erie County. The lakefront here features the mouth of the Huron River, and it is nearly always birdy. Even today, when the lake was placid, the skies were mostly blue, and winds were calm. Bad weather makes good birding, along Lake Erie.

After spending an hour or so at the far end of the municipal pier without seeing much in the way of avian diversity, I started the long plod back to the mainland. As I did, I began to hear the calls of Snow Buntings passing overhead. As nearby Nickel Plate Beach is often a good bunting locale, I figured some of the birds might have put down there, so it was off to the beach.

An adult Bald Eagle prepares to snatch a fish from the waters of Lake Erie. As always, click the photo to enlarge, and you'll see the victim swimming in the bottom right hand corner of the image. A millisecond after this photo was made, the eagle snatched the scaly treat.

All morning, Bald Eagles had been soaring about, occasionally putting up clouds of resting gulls. Both adults and juvenile eagles were around, and rarely was one not in sight. As I was stalking the sands of Nickel Plate Beach seeking buntings, I noticed an adult eagle coming near the beach. Just as I glanced over at it, the bird made a sudden careening dive for the surface, but missed the fish. Figuring he/she would try again, I got ready, and sure enough, in came the bird and this time it was not to be deprived its fish.

This image was two shots after the one above, and my camera's burst rate is about seven shots a second. The fish never knew what hit it.

Bald Eagles sometimes get a rap for being vulturelike and frequently noshing on carrion and other easy - dead - pickings. But they are highly adept fishermen, and I've seen scenes like this play out many times. I'm just not usually fortunate enough to be able to capture them with my camera.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Giant Leopard Moth cats on the prowl!

The caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia, a bit sluggish but decidedly active at a temperature of 41 F. I saw four of these large caterpillars today in Hocking County, all crossing roads. I took the liberty of helping this one across the road, and temporarily posed him on some branches for a photo.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars overwinter in the larval stage, and on sunny days when the temperature rises somewhat above freezing, some will become active and commence wandering about. This one had a bit of mud caked on its bristles; it had undoubtedly been under leaves or wood. Because of the GLM cats' predilection for late season and winter wandering, they are often confused with the Woolly-bear by the larvally illiterate. The Woolly-bear, as you know, is the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and is fabled for its alleged ability to predict winter's severity, or lack thereof.

So, people seeing roaming GLM cats may presume it to be a very dark Woolly-bear, and thus predict an exceptionally harsh winter (the darker the Woolly-bear the more severe the winter). On the lighter side, another late fall/early winter wandering caterpillar is that of the Virginian Tiger Moth, Spilosoma virginica, the Yellow Bear. This larva is also similar to the Woolly-bear but is quite pale. Misidentifications of this animal result in predictions of a mild winter.

As the Woolly-bear as winter predictor is a demonstrably false myth, none of these larval identification challenges much matters.

I've written in more detail about Woolly-bears and larval forecasting RIGHT HERE.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Intricate ice patterns

Intricate ice patterns formed in a frozen pond, Alley Park, Fairfield County, Ohio. Christmas Day. Much of the surface of this several acre pond was etched in ornate patterns; the effect was quite striking. Photographically, one hardly knew what to focus on as the potential compositions were endless. I finally settled on this piece, for this post.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Merlins of Union Cemetery

The open, savanna-like habitat of Union Cemetery, with its wide open spaces punctuated by scattered large trees. This cemetery, in Columbus, Ohio, straddles Olentangy River Road just south of Riverside Hospital, and is only a ten minute drive from my house.

Union Cemetery is also excellent habitat for wintering Merlins, and one or two have taken up residence here for several years. I had seen numerous reports and photos of the tough little falcons, and finally had a run at them a few days ago.

Upon entering the cemetery (the section on the east side of Olentangy River Road), it took all of a minute or so to spot one of the burly little falcons. Merlins have little of fear of anything, from what I have seen, and are prone to perching on conspicuous limbs as this animal is doing.

For a moment, she deigned to glance my way. This was about all the attention I received. If you are not food, or a threat, you are utterly inconsequential to the Merlin. To be fair, a person could and would flush the bird if too close of an approach is made, but Merlins are quite tolerant of observers, even at fairly close range.

One of my goals on this day was testing the new Canon 5D IV, and thus far I am very pleased with the results. While the improvements over its predecessor, the 5D III, are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, they are substantial. Canon bumped up the burst rate about two shots a second, and seemed to make big improvements in focus acquisition. It also has a much larger 30 megapixel sensor. I look forward to more work with this camera. This Merlin was the first bird that I've shot with the 5D IV, but there will be many more I hope.

After a rest period, she took to the air. Merlins in flight are amazing, especially when they are hot on the trail of a songbird, their main prey. Speedy and bulletlike, the muscular falcons are astonishingly agile, and capable of fantastic burst of acceleration.

I was a bit worried about this Red-breasted Nuthatch, and his mate. The two were working large spruce trees in the immediate vicinity of the resting Merlin, and (in my opinion) foolishly kept flying between trees. Each time they did, the Merlin locked its laser-like eyes on them and followed every move. The slow little nuthatches would seemingly be easy prey for the falcon as they crossed open airspace, but it never made a move on them.

Maybe the Merlin ignored the nuthatches because it was preparing to wage war against the local Blue Jays. The jays did not like the Merlins (another was present) and scolded them, often flying near to make their protestations better heard. A jay would be wise to take these raptors seriously. In this shot, the Merlin has just barreled around the top of a spruce, and nearly whacked the jay, which can be seen at the bottom right of the image fleeing for all its worth. The jays were the recipients of many a chase while I was there, but all came out with feather intact. That's not always the case, though.

Merlins are great photographic subjects, because of their approachability, and penchant for stretching and various gymnastics. If one is patient, a resting Merlin is eventually sure to strike an interesting posture like this.

Populations of this falcon are on the upswing, and we are seeing more of them each year wintering in Ohio. They are fixtures in many of our large urban cemeteries, and there have even been two modern nesting records. I suspect more nesters are to follow, and some of them will likely utilize cemeteries such as this one.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ubiquitous gray squirrel an acrobat - and a thief

A hungry gray squirrel dines in a box-elder/Jim McCormac

December 18, 2016

Jim McCormac

One of the most widespread, familiar mammals in Ohio is the gray squirrel.

They occur in the wildest woodlands and the most urban parklands, the common denominator being trees.

Gray squirrels are a fixture of suburbia, and many bird lovers have waged war against the wily seed-stealers. Keeping gluttonous squirrels off backyard feeders involves both a battle of wits and superior engineering. Homeowners often lose.

It sometimes seems as if the animals have Velcro paw pads. A squirrel racing through the trees at full tilt makes for a spectacle. Running full-barrel up and down trunks, and racing across spindly limbs, the beasts make wild, death-defying, branch-to-branch leaps that would put any circus performer to shame.

The range of the gray squirrel delineates that of the great eastern deciduous forest, which once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to southern Canada. Before settlement, this was probably the second most numerous squirrel in the East. The secretive, nocturnal southern flying squirrel was likely even more common.

A healthy gray squirrel is a handsome animal. Taping out at nearly a foot in length, a squirrel’s length doubles if the thick, brushlike tail is added. A healthy specimen might tip the scales at a pound and a half.

While the coat normally lives up to the squirrel's name — grayish with a white underbelly — color variants are not uncommon. Occasional albinos sometimes become conspicuous celebrities. In some areas, many or most squirrels are melanistic, or black. The Columbus area has small pockets of black squirrels, but it seems that in places like Kent, most gray squirrels are black.

Rural squirrels tend to be far warier than their citified brethren, and they serve vital ecological roles. They harvest and stash a wide variety of tree fruit, some of which will be forgotten and sprout new trees. While acorns, walnuts and other large woody nuts are favored, squirrel diets are quite varied.

The squirrels themselves often become meals. Large raptors such as great horned owls and red-tailed hawks are fond of squirrel meat. Foxes, bobcats and even big black rat snakes also take them.

Squirrel hunting is popular with some people, too, and many gray squirrels are harvested annually in Ohio. Partly because of reasonable bag limits, hunting doesn’t affect populations of this prolific breeder, but that wasn’t always the case. The earliest settlers often had crops ravaged by large numbers of raiding squirrels. One squirrel reduction hunt in 1822 killed nearly 20,000 animals.

Now that the leaves have fallen, basketball-sized leafy clusters high in trees become conspicuous. They are dreys, or squirrel nests. The animals use these botanical forts to raise young and as shelter during cold winter days and nights. Sometimes, multiple animals live in a drey, and their collective body heat can raise the internal temperature far beyond that outside.

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gargantuan Sycamore, in ghostly light

While exploring the artwork of the Chinese Lantern Festival photo-documented in the previous post, I was struck by the more natural beauty of some of the massive Sycamores, Platanus occidentalis. These trees predate the natural resources park where they grow, and I would imagine also the Ohio State Fairgrounds upon which they are located. I could not resist making a few images of one tree in particular.

Lights from the various lantern displays below cast a strange luminescence on the upper boughs of this huge Sycamore. I would have loved to have created an image of the entire tree, but just below the bottom of the photo, lamp posts, the edge of a building, and other manmade intrusions lurked.

The moon, partially obscured by hazy clouds, framed by the upper limbs of the Sycamore.

Sycamores rank high among our most valuable trees, and I can't believe I've never written about this species, either here, or in my Columbus Dispatch newspaper column. I'll have to do something more detailed about the wonders of this super tree.

Monday, December 12, 2016

And now, for something completely different: Chinese Lantern Festival!

Going off the reservation a bit with this post, to be sure. If you're looking for something totally different, visit the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus. Despite thinking that it sounded hokey, a friend and I went down there Saturday night. Fortunately, I had a lot of camera gear with me, as we'd been doing some shooting outdoors earlier in the day. It was great fun, and offered photo subjects of a very different sort (than what I usually shoot).

All the festival details can be found RIGHT HERE.

The event fills the Natural Resources Park at the southeast corner of the fairgrounds, and this massive dragon greets visitors soon after entering the park.

A group of pandas was popular with onlookers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of intricately crafted and artfully illuminated lantern effigies scattered throughout the park.

A giant peacock struts near some magical mushrooms.

A trip of cheetahs gallops past a giraffe.

An especially colorful butterfly.

Interesting acts take the stage at regular intervals. This man was impossibly acrobatic with that massive urn; he played it better than a Harlem Globetrotter does tricks with a basketball.

A school of fish swims by.

A few trellis-framed walkways were adorned with showy hanging lanterns.

Pearls sit in an oyster.

A flowery walkway.

A frog sits among water-lilies.

Back to regularly scheduled programming soon!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Swartz Covered Bridge

A covered bridge spans the cold waters of the Sandusky River, as seen yesterday morning. It was about 23 F, windy, with snow flurries and I was in Wyandot County, Ohio to chase birds.

Even though this bridge is only a short distance from the birding hotspot of Killdeer Plains, and I'd seen signs pointing the way for years, I had never stopped by for a look.

I'm surprised it took me this long to check out this bridge. Covered bridges are a throwback to time long gone, and there aren't many left. They've gone the way that old wooden barns are headed - into architectural extinction. Fortunately there are avid bridge enthusiasts that work hard to save such structures, and I'm glad they do.

The driver's view of the Swartz Covered Bridge. This span is infinitely more interesting than some unadorned architecturally bland carbon copy of nearly every small bridge these days. The bridge was built in 1879, and I'm sure it eventually fell into a sorry state of disrepair, and was probably heavily sleeved with obnoxious Day-Glo graffiti in the interior.

In the early 1990's a band of local bridge supporters came together and raised the resources to rehabilitate the structure. And in 1992-93, the work was completed. Now, over two decades later, the bridge looks nearly pristine, as if they just finished the job last week. That pad of bricks at the entrance - and another on the other side - commemorate the names of all of the supporters.

The truss work on the bridge's interior is amazing, and fun to photograph. The span measures 96 feet across, the decking is nearly 13 feet wide, and it's 13 feet from the floorboards to the overhead beams.

Should you find yourself in Wyandot County, and wish to see a wonderful specimen of our covered bridge past, stop by. More details RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

White-tailed Deer, on a tear

Not far from me is a wonderful metropark known as Glacier Ridge. For years, I rarely went there - maybe a stop once or twice a year. As I've become more acquainted with the place's little wildlife honey holes, I've been going more regularly, though.

Such was the case yesterday morning. I only had the morning to go shooting (with camera), so after a thorough shoot of some nearby waterfalls, it was off to Glacier Ridge. There is a field at the park's north end that is usually full of bluebirds and other songbirds, and the light is great in the early hours.

Not this day, though. The meadow was largely silent, and I thought about just packing it in. But I wanted to stay out a bit longer, so I slung the camera rig over my shoulder and struck out on a well-used deer trail. Before long, I flushed a gorgeous Coyote with lots of rufous highlights. The wary animal spotted me long before I was in camera range, and trotted out of the meadow into a vast recently mowed field. The beast casually trotted across the field, occasionally stopping to stare back at me.

This gave me hope that a White-tailed Deer might do the same. The chances were decent that I would flush one off its bed in thick cover, and if it followed the Coyote's lead and ran into the mowed field, I might be able to snag some action shots.

Shortly thereafter, I heard a rustle and looked ahead to see a large doe looking around warily in dense cover. She'd picked up on me, but hadn't yet spotted me. A few seconds later she did, and bolted for the open field. Unfortunately, there was tall vegetation between her and I, but it didn't take long to get into a semi-clear spot and drop the tripod.

Here, she shows her conspicuous white "flag tail"; the earmark of an alarmed deer at speed. We can also see her cleft hooves - a character of an ungulate (the "hooves" are really thickened keratin-based toe tips).

After her initial romp, she paused briefly to stare at me. Then, as if realizing how exposed she was, she really put on the speed and galloped towards a distant woods. White-tails at full whirl are impressive indeed. She punctuated her galloping with enormous, almost playful skyward leaps that were beyond impressive. In this shot, she is five or six feet off the ground.

In moments, she had reached distant cover and vanished. And I was quite glad that I decided to follow that deer trail.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A trip to Slate Run Metro Park: Botanical highs and lows

Part of a large wetland complex at Slate Run Metro Park in Pickaway County, Ohio. A section of the westernmost part of this 1,705 acre park is a mosaic of meadows, ponds, and wetlands.

It's sometimes easy to overlook the jewels in one's own backyard. Even though Slate Run is only a bit over a half-hour's drive, and it's been there for a while, I had never been to the place. That situation got remedied with two visits in the past few days, and I was impressed with what I found.

Immediately upon arrival, it was birds galore, and since finding and imaging the feathered crowd was the foremost priority of these expeditions, I was pleased indeed. Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks (wish they'd shorten that name! "Franklin County Metroparks") has long been a leader in ecological restoration and it shows at this park. Lots of native plant diversity in the wetlands and fields, and a logical blend of uplands and lowlands.

The Kokomo Wetland Trail winds for about 1.5 miles through meadow and along wetlands. At one point, a boardwalk crosses a pond/wetland. I found lots of birds along this trail, including many Swamp Sparrows. This is a hardy species, and many try to overwinter here, especially in sites with thick cattail stands.

Slate Run was rich in sparrows during my visit, and their ranks included American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Eastern Towhee.

One honey hole was a photographer's dream. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw and heard numerous American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. It didn't take long to figure out that many of the birds were venturing to a small pond buffered by woods, and drinking and bathing.

I crept into a good situation, and after a while the birds acclimated to my presence and carried on with their activities. This robin is perched on a perfectly sited log, which many of the birds used as a stop before or after a visit to the nearby water. While I like robins - one of the handsomest birds in North America, we're just jaded because they are so common - I've got scores of photos of them, and really hoped that a waxwing would tee up in this same spot.

Voila! Before long, a Cedar Waxwing did just that. Few of the world's birds can rival this elegant species for suave sophistication.

After a while, waxwings began coming so close that I couldn't even focus - they were inside my minimum focus range. Such problems!

The birds' close proximity allowed me to create portraiture shots such as this. This adult waxwing is impeccably groomed, as is typical.

In a minute, I'll discuss the abundant food source that had so many birds concentrated in this area. But with the waxwings, what I really wanted was to make some photos of them eating their botanical namesake: the fruit (cones) of eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. This native conifer provides an important winter food source. There were a few cedar very close at hand, and eventually several of the birds flew in and began plundering the fruit. One cedar was so close that I would have needed my 70-200mm lens to capture the birds in its boughs - the 500mm plus 1.4x teleconverter was overkill.

A waxwing poses, briefly, with berry in bill. A second later it was down the hatch.

The new norm for many Ohio woodlands is this nasty plant, Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii. A native of Eurasia, it was intentionally introduced in eastern North America long ago, partly for its ornamental value, and partly for its "wildlife value".

Even this late in the year, the leaves of this understory plant remain green, and its branches drip with bright red berries. And the birds love 'em.

Amazingly, the various bush honeysuckles (there are a few invasive species) were still formally recommended as a wildlife planting by wildlife agencies into the 1990's - long after botanists and ecologists could have told them that this was a bad idea. The nursery trade must be implicated in this infestation, too, although I think by now virtually everyone has wised up and stopped selling the stuff.

But honeysuckle is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Even in a managed park such as Slate Run, there is far too much of it to eradicate.

A Northern Cardinal plows through a honeysuckle berry, one of many that I watched it eat. And he, and all of the other birds feeding on the stuff, will spread the plants about. Some of the seeds survive the rough ride through the digestive tract and emerge from the other end scarified and ready to grow.

I was pleased to hear the loud smacking CHAK! calls of a Fox Sparrow, and eventually saw 5 or 6 of the large handsome sparrows. I was not so pleased to see them succumbing to the honeysuckle addiction shared by many of their feathered companions. Note the evidence on the tip of this bird's bill.

Dozens of American Robins were in the area, and all of them were feeding heavily on the honeysuckle. These thrushes are one of the major consumers of honeysuckle fruit, and the plant is a primary reason why we in the north see so many robins around in winter. The Cedar Wawings were also consuming honeysuckle fruit en masse, but I preferred to use my shots of them eating the native cedar fruit.

Even the White-throated Sparrows were in on the act. This handsome white-striped morph ate many of the berries while I watched, as did many of his companions.

So, if honeysuckle is such an abundant and rich source of bird food, what's the problem?

For one, the berries themselves. They are high in sugar and low in fat and protein - exactly the opposite of what birds need in winter. Native berry-producing shrubs produce far less fruit, but it provides much better nutritional needs for birds that might be subjected to severe cold snaps and ice storms which might largely lock the birds out of many food sources for days on end.

Too, the absolutely enormous berry crops lure many species to overwinter in much greater numbers far to the north of where they normally would. Like all those robins. This creates the potential for large winter die-off's, as has happened conspicuously with American Robins, should extended severe weather strike.

Honeysuckle also forms extensive tangles that choke out many/most native shrubs and other plants. It has been shown to be allelopathic as well - the roots exude enzymes which inhibit the growth of competing plant species. Botanical chemical warfare, if you will.

Perhaps most insidiously, the nonnative honeysuckles are unsuitable hosts for nearly all of our (in Ohio) 2,500+ moth and butterfly species. Their caterpillars cannot eat the stuff, because they share no evolutionary history. This means vast swaths of honeysuckle infestations that do not produce the caterpillars that are so essential to fueling our nesting and migrant songbirds.

On its face, the honeysuckle might seem a great thing for birds. But there is a much darker side to this story.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nature: Damming of Scioto spares two magnificent waterfalls

Indian Run Falls/Jim McCormac

December 4, 2016

Jim McCormac

Columbus and the surrounding flatlands are not known for waterfalls. Yet some mini-Niagaras lurk in hidden spots.

In northwestern Franklin County, the Scioto River flows through a massive layer of Columbus limestone. The rock is so-named because the original core was extracted near the capital city.

Formed during the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago, Columbus limestone is a prominent geological feature in these parts. Massive quantities have been mined in the western part of Franklin County, and limestone cliffs are prominent in places along the Scioto River.

Before the construction of Griggs Dam (1905) and O’Shaughnessy Dam (1925) on the Scioto River, numerous limestone box canyons and their attendant streams flowed into the river. The pooling of the reservoirs submerged most of them, and their waterfalls.

Fortunately, a few falls survive, two of which are easily accessed showstoppers.

Hayden Falls was spared because it lies along the short section of the Scioto between the reservoirs and wasn’t inundated. The city of Columbus owns the falls, and access is from a parking lot on the south side of Hayden Run Road, just east of the Scioto River.

A wooden staircase descends to the depths of the narrow canyon, and a boardwalk leads to the 30-foot falls. This is a spectacular waterfall in a gorgeous setting — easily one of the top falls in Ohio.
Perhaps even better is nearby Indian Run Falls. The city of Dublin is owner and has provided easy access via a parking lot at 700 Shawan Falls Drive, near Rt. 161 and Frantz Road.

Trails provide access to Indian Run, and strategically sited observation decks offer commanding views of the falls. In the upper reaches of the park, Indian Run cascades over short limestone shelves.

Farther downstream, the creek funnels into a limestone chute and plummets into a steep-sided gorge. A short distance beyond, the waters plunge over a 20-foot drop — the falls pictured with this column.

Not only are the limestone waterfalls and gorges of northwestern Franklin County visually stunning, they are botanically significant.

In 1834, pioneer botanist John Leonard Riddell stumbled across an unfamiliar lily somewhere near the previously described falls (he was inexact in recording the specifics). Riddell had discovered the diminutive snow trillium, which still persists in this area.

Eight years later, in spring of 1842, William Starling Sullivant, the botanist son of Lucas Sullivant — the man who founded Franklinton — was exploring the Scioto River’s box canyons.

He found a showy white-flowered mustard growing on ledges of the limestone cliff faces. Flummoxed by its identity, he eventually realized he had found a new species and named it Arabis patens, the spreading rock cress. Small numbers of this state-endangered plant still hang on in local gorges.

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

An American tree sparrow/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ohio winters offer a warm welcome for tree sparrows

November 27, 2016

Jim McCormac

Come late October/early November, the American tree sparrows descend on Ohio’s meadows. To these plucky little songbirds, Ohio’s winters are its Florida vacation.

Tree sparrows breed as far north as the Arctic Circle. Some of the birds that winter in Ohio might have traveled 2,000 miles south to reach our latitude. Tropically speaking, that’s equal to hopping on a jet and flying south to San Jose, Costa Rica.

One often hears the sparrows before seeing them. Foraging flocks are usually concealed in the vegetation, but they make their presence known with beautiful calls. Tree sparrow notes sound like delicate icicles softly shattering; a crystalline tinkling melody that carries the promise of short frigid days to come.

Tree sparrows are rather extroverted, unlike most of their brethren. When on alert, flocks will often rise atop vegetation where we can admire them. The tree sparrow wears a rusty cap, and sports a black stickpin in the center of its breast. A pair of white bars stripe its wings, and its bicolored bill is yellow below, black above.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Tree sparrows generally shun trees. They are birds of treeless plains, whether it be Canadian tundra or Ohio meadow. The first Europeans to encounter them were reminded of a songbird of the Old World, the Eurasian tree sparrow, hence the name.

Although tree sparrows won’t rebuff an insect meal, such fare is hard to come by in an Ohio winter. Thus, they adopt a vegan diet and feed heavily on the seeds of plants.

I recently visited Glacier Ridge Metro Park near Dublin and had my autumnal reunion with the tree sparrows. That’s where I shot the accompanying photo.

Park managers have encouraged large, diverse meadows rich in native flora. The birds offered a ringing endorsement. Dozens of American goldfinches capered about, plundering the fruit of various “ weeds”.

In Glacier Ridge’s north meadow, several dozen eastern bluebirds hunted nearly inert grasshoppers stunned by the brisk air. An eastern meadowlark, its lemon breast emblazoned with a black chevron, took to the summit of a small tree. Buoyed by an impeccable azure November sky, it whistled its sharp cheery song.

Numerous sparrows were in the mix: field, song, swamp, white-crowned, and white-throated. And, of course, tree sparrows. The latter fixated on abundant tall goldenrod. Like feathered acrobats, the sparrows would dangle from the goldenrod heads, deftly plucking seeds.

The fruit of goldenrod is rich in fat and protein — just the thing for firing fast metabolisms and creating the energy necessary to survive long frigid nights.

Food-rich meadows rife with native plants have become much scarcer, victims of overly neat agriculture and other development. Natural refugia such as Glacier Ridge have become all the more important in protecting our songbirds.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Conkles Hollow, on a misty morning

One of the crown jewels of Ohio's rich natural resources is the Hocking Hills. This region, which is a short drive southeast of Columbus and is centered in Hocking County, is noted for its steep hemlock-cloaked gorges, impressive sandstone cliffs, and overall stunning scenery. While I've made scores of trips here over the years, I must confess to avoiding the area somewhat in recent years.

Too many people.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm glad the tens of thousands of folks visit Old Man's Cave, Ash Cave, Cantwell Cliffs, Cedar Falls and all of the other iconic Hocking Hills hotspots. By visiting such glorious natural areas, a person would seemingly have to become more interested in nature and conservation, or so it would seem. So, I'm glad my fellow primates flock to these places. But, alas, my fellow primates are also VERY NOISY. And that drives me crazy when I'm in places such as the one we will visit in this blog.

To many Hocking Hills veterans, Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve would be Numero Uno among the region's natural treats. It's only 87 acres, but what an 87 acres! I have been remiss in trying to capture some of the beauty of this place with my camera, but today was the day for an attempt. Most factors were in my favor. One, I was there EARLY, like right after sunrise. Thus, beating the crowds. Two, it was cold and misty and such weather would help keep people away. Three, it was Thanksgiving, and the holiday would also keep many people in their bungalows.

The weather was a double-edged sword. The fumaroles and puffs of mist swirling in the valleys create interest and drama. But my favorite camera for landscape work, the Canon 5DS-R, is a priss. Too much moisture can shut it down, and potentially lead to an expensive fix. I do all I can to protect it, but no matter - if the skies unleashed water by the buckets, and I was a mile or so out on the trail, it would be quite difficult to keep moisture at bay. But, luckily, that didn't happen - the skies spit a bit, and even sprinkled on occasion, but it was manageable.

For this expedition, I brought along Canon's amazing 14mm f/2.8 II ultra wide-angle lens to test out. I rented it from my favorite camera gurus, Midwest Photo Exchange here in Columbus, for a mere $35 for a long weekend. Many of the following images were taken with that lens. Others in the bag and also employed were Canon's 16-35mm f/4, 50mm f/1.4, and 70-200mm f/2.8.

The view from partway up the long set of stairs leading to the gorge's upper rim. There are two trails at Conkles Hollow: this one, and the much easier lower gorge trail. My plan was to traverse the upper rim, then work the lower gorge. However, by the time I returned to the lower levels in late morning, there were already enough yelling, screaming people running around down there that I decided to save that part of Conkles for another day.

The rim trail is really not very tough. Once the hiker has ascended to the top, it's a nice flat hike all the way around the gorge, until the descent at the other end. You'll quickly be rewarded with spectacular vistas such as this.

The cliffs along Conkles' box canyon are massive, some of the tallest (the tallest?) in the state. Some rise to 200 feet. Over the years, many people have fallen, resulting in serious injuries and fatalities. More than a few have been photographers. Caution is advised when trying to frame that award-winning shot.

One of the spectacular Blackhand Sandstone promontories that stands guard over Conkles Hollow.

Shifting mists and a different lens creates a different perspective of the scene in the previous photo, only minutes later.

Another, smaller sandstone promontory along the rim trail.

 Same view as the previous image, with a different lens and slightly shifted position.

The highlight of the lower gorge is the recess cave at the trail's terminus. After rains, a waterfall splashes over the cliff at this point. This is the stream that creates that fall, and feeds the gorge, as seen from above. Just past the downed logs, the stream tumbles over the cliff and into the gorge. Little water in it on this day, though.

Jumbled logs and dead snags punctuate old-growth timber. This is how a forest should look. Too many of Ohio's forests are excessively manicured due to ecologically ignorant, poor timber management practices. While I was creating images in this area, a massive Pileated Woodpecker was working high in a nearby snag. THUMP! CRACK! The brutish woodpecker was probably after wood-boring beetle larvae, and his crude carpentry caused giant chunks of the snag to crash to the forest floor with resounding thumps. That's the only type of logger I want to see in a place like this.

The trail passes along the crest of steep cliffs which drop into rich coves. Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is a dominant tree here. This northern and Appalachian conifer is what gives the gorges of the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. The trees also provide habitat for disjunct populations of breeding birds that normally nest far to the north: Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, and Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Canada, and Magnolia warblers among others.

A blanket of still green "Fancy Ferns", Dryopteris intermedia, brighten the forest floor.

One of several stunning sandstone recess caves, nestled in a cathedral woodland. As always, I look forward to a return visit to Conkles Hollow, and as always, it'll be at first light so I can have the place to myself for a few precious hours, selfish as that may be.