Monday, October 31, 2016

Hawk attempts to punk bigger hawk

Gorgeous fall foliage along the long entrance drive to Triangle Lake Bog State Nature Preserve, Portage County, Ohio.

Last Saturday evening, I was the invited speaker for the The Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio's annual soiree, which was held at the Pine Lake Trout Club near Chagrin Falls. That was a great time and I appreciate the group's hospitality.

Not one to miss an opportunity, I headed up that way a bit early, and arrived at the aforementioned preserve near Ravenna well before the sun rose.

A 1/2 mile or so of planking makes access to the bog easy. And I can tell you, were it not for this boardwalk, one would truly be bog-stomping. The place is essentially a massive sponge, and the possibility of stepping through the mat and into water much deeper than expected would be an ever-present risk.

Years ago, Greg Schneider and I waded all through this place, seeking a tiny aquatic carnivorous plant known as Two-scaped Bladderwort, Utricularia geminiscapa. It had never been recorded in Ohio, but we figured it might occur at this place. And we found it, growing in small pools on sections of the bog mat that bounced like a trampoline. It was truly tough going, and it's probably a minor miracle that neither of us fell through the mat, to be unearthed centuries later as "bog mummies".

Capturing the beauty of the bog at first light was my primary mission. To step into this place is to be transported hundreds of miles to the north, where glacial kettle lake bogs are still common. They once were in northeastern Ohio, too, but most have long succumbed to the forces of vegetative succession.

A largely undisturbed oasis like Triangle Lake is full of interesting flora and fauna. I wasn't out of my car in the parking lot before I heard the mellow chuck-chuck notes of Hermit Thrushes. Kinglets of both species worked the shrubbery, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere. Cedar Waxing flocks darted about and woodpeckers of six species made themselves known. At one point, a Northern Flicker dropped into a berry-laden Poison Sumac treelet eight feet from my position, and began scarfing down fruit while eyeing me with some suspicion.

Not long after daybreak, one of the local Red-tailed Hawks took to the air, and it was in sight as much as not for the remainder of my time, tracing lazy circles overhead. After the golden light of dawn had passed, I returned to the car and got my telephoto lens, found a semi-hidden vantage point and began to work the birds.

Early on, I had noticed a Sharp-shinned Hawk that rose on the thermals and would reappear from time to time. Judging by its behavior, I figured it, like the red-tail, was the product of local breeders. Well, as luck would have it, I was drawing a photographic bead on the red-tailed when suddenly the "sharpie" came in towards the larger hawk at speed.

If you're not wise to the ways of Sharp-shinned Hawks, they are feathered bundles of testosterone - one of the most aggressive birds there is. They love to attack and strafe larger birds, especially other raptors. The sharpie in these photos is a young female, and she's about one-third larger than a male would be, the latter being not much larger than a Blue Jay. Nonetheless, she is dwarfed by the red-tail, which outmasses her by 5-6 times.

The little hawk made a few half-hearted strafes of the larger bird, but wasn't as persistently aggressive as I've seen them be. I figured that if both were the spawn of local breeders, they were pretty used to each other by now. This is probably the two hundredth play-fight the poor red-tail has probably had to endure from the crazy little raptor. You can almost see it rolling its eyes and thinking "great! this little jerk again!"

After a few passes, the sharpie angled off to wreak havoc elsewhere. But I certainly appreciated the show.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The cliffs of Vermilion

Soaring shale bluffs tower over the scenic Vermilion River in western Lorain County. I found myself in this area last Saturday, and could not resist a stop to admire the big cliffs, and attempt some photographs.

This spot is within Lorain County Metroparks' Vermilion River Reservation. The park is subdivided into Mill Hollow on the river's west side, and Bacon Woods on the east. I took this shot from the Mill Hollow side, and it's an easy little hike back to this part of the stream.

One more shot for the road. Fall foliage was fairly crisp on this nippy, blustery day, and massive puffy clouds blocked the sun far more than they allowed its exposure. I waited some time to get these images, for the very few brief interludes in which the sun popped out and cast its glow on the river's corridor.

For photography buffs: These are High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos. Each is a composite of five images made in immediate succession, from a tripod and using a remote shutter release to trip the shutter. They were made with the ultra-high resolution Canon 5DS-R, and 16-35mm f/4L lens. Bracketing mode was used, with 2/3rd stop intervals; only the shutter speed changes between exposures, giving five different exposures in each burst. The top image was made at f/11, ISO 100, with the lens wide open at 16mm. The second image was shot at 27mm, and f/16. Photomatix software was used to blend the images into the final product.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Most Famous Bear in the World Belongs to Us

Next Monday evening, October 24, Thomas Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson will present a program on Yellowstone's Grizzly Bears at Ohio State University's Ohio Union. Registrants already number over 900, but it's a big room and if you wish to go, CLICK HERE for details.

Wilkinson penned the following piece about these bears, and after reading it I asked David Hanselmann, the event organizer, if he could secure permission for me to run it here. Thanks to Todd Wilkinson for agreeing, and David for working things out. Read on...

The Most Famous Bear In The World Belongs To Us
By Todd Wilkinson

In Bozeman, Montana, I live directly across the street from a pair of proud Ohioans, one of whom is a man counted among the greatest science writers in America. David Quammen, who grew up in Cincinnati, wrote the entire May 2016 edition of National Geographic magazine about Yellowstone National Park and why it matters for all citizens in this great country of ours.

I was asked to write captions for the exquisite photographs accompanying Quammen’s piece. That edition of National Geographic is today the most widely read in the history of the legendary yellow magazine.  What this affirms is not only the love affair we Americans have with our first national park, but why Yellowstone remains, amid all of the present turbulence in our society, a point of common pilgrimage.

Consider this: 94 percent of us who travel to Yellowstone have desires of seeing a grizzly; we want to catch sight of bears more than we desire to see Old Faithful Geyser erupt.

Quammen and I have had many spirited street-side conversations about this phenomenon, many of our discussions centered on the plight of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population.  It is the  focus of my new book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” and the subject of a public presentation being held at Ohio State University on Monday evening, October 24.

I hope you can make it, for “A Night With Mother Grizzly 399, the Most Famous Bear In The World” will include an appearance by noted American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen who has trailed Grizzly 399 over the last decade in her life and death struggle for survival. His images are astounding.

Quammen, in his NatGeo piece, also organized his narrative around wandering grizzlies.  The reason: all of us are intrigued by these largest of carnivores, still persisting in the wild backyard of our country.  We are simultaneously left in awe and tinged with inner fear when thinking about these magnificent animals.

But more than that, here’s something that often escapes recognition among Ohioans—the grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone and the federal public lands they inhabit belong to you.  Yes, they are part of our birthright as citizens and their common ownership is something that factors prominently into what I call “capital D Democracy”—which is the idea that together, no matter where we live, we are stakeholders.

Right now, there are attempts under way in Congress to divest American citizens of public lands they own and hand over management to western states. Because the states cannot afford to manage these lands, which are vital for supporting public wildlife, many of these awe-inspiring landscapes very likely could be sold off to private interests.

In addition, there is a push underway to remove federal protections for grizzlies and subject the bear population to controversial sport hunting after 41 years of cease fire. Essentially, Grizzly 399, who spends much of her life in Grand Teton National Park and is known to millions around the globe, would be vulnerable to trophy hunters just as Cecil the lion was in Africa.

Mangelsen and I will talk about this emotionally-charged conundrum in our talk at Ohio State.  But foremost, we’ll emphasize this:  Caring for our national natural heritage is not—and should not—be treated as a partisan issue. It was, after all, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt who championed the noble concept of public lands and public wildlife conservation as a gift to all Americans that extends forward into the future beyond our own lives.

Democratic lawmakers, who commune with the great outdoors just as much, have made equal contributions to ensuring rare charismatic animals like grizzlies (our own unique versions of imperiled African lions and Bengal tigers) persist because we are willing to share the space they need to endure.

Famous grizzly mother 399 and her extended family of bruins belong to you, me, all of us.  That’s something worth celebrating, protecting and defending.  I know Ohioans care because I live across the street from two natives of the Buckeye State who express it every day.  You’ve played a mighty role in recovering species like the bald eagle and your voice matters with wildlife in the West. 

Todd Wilkinson, who makes his home in Bozeman, Montana, has been a professional journalist and award-winning author for 30 years. His stories have appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Washington Post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A quick trip to Goose Pond

I made a whirlwind trip to the Hoosier State last weekend, primarily to speak at the Hendricks County Master Gardeners' annual Adventures in Gardening conference just west of Indianapolis. That was a great time, a very well organized and run event, and an excellent turnout of 140 or so people. Thanks to Theresa Mathieson and crew for having me out.

As good fortune would have it, the conference venue was a short hour and a half drive away from an Indiana natural treasure, Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. I'd only been here once, last March, when David FitzSimmons and I teamed to teach a photography workshop there in conjunction with Roberts Camera of Indianapolis.

I was totally impressed by my inaugural Goose Pond foray, so after the conference I hopped in the car and headed down to Linton, which sits on the edge of the sprawling wildlife area.

I arrived with just a few hours of daylight on Saturday evening, and spent most of my time casing out honey holes; places I wanted to be at first light the next morning. As I was leaving the area headed back to Linton and the hotel, the moon nudged over the horizon. Whoa! There was no other option than to stop, pull out the camera gear, and create some images of the massive orange orb.

It was early out the following morning, well before sunrise. I stopped at a grand overlook of one of Goose Pond's big marshes to capture the sunrise. This is a great time to be in a marsh, what with the cacophony of coots cackling, squadrons of ducks coming and going, massive flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds loudly squabbling, and myriad other sights and sounds of a healthy wetland.

I hadn't even got my tripod up when a Sora fluttered by in the dim pre-dawn light, legs dangling. Before long, I heard many more, and saw one tiptoeing through the cattails in front of me. Fortunately, I had chest waders in the car, so I donned those, grabbed the tripod and big lens, and waded in. These small rails seem to hold feeding territories even in migration, and I figured out where two of the Soras were spending their time. Even so, it was a real challenge to grab good images, although I managed this one and a few others. It was much easier to just observe the birds skulking amongst the thick vegetation, and watch their behavior. Given the available habitat in this 8,000 acre marsh complex, I wondered how many rails might be present as we're at about the peak of their migration. Hundreds? Thousands? I heard Soras everywhere I went.

In spite of the unseasonably warm weather, the marshes still hosted lots of waterfowl. Here, six Gadwall cruise by in a loose v-formation.

After determining where most of the ducks were concentrated, I found a sweet spot where many incoming and outgoing birds would fly past. Tucked up against a thick cattail stand, the fowl generally didn't spot me until I'd already locked the lens on them. They'd immediately swerve further out, but not before I managed some images, at least some of the time.

This is a flock of American Wigeon. Their high-pitched piping whistles carry some distance and are a classic sound of a waterfowl-filled Midwestern marsh.

I love shooting ducks. Success generally involves several factors, none of which are particularly easy. One, you must know something of their behavior and be able to find a perfect spot from which to shoot. If I had had my portable blind along I probably would have used that, but in this case terrain and vegetation had to suffice. Two, ducks fly fast and are usually supremely wary, so one must be quick with the trigger. Oftentimes, there's only a few seconds to get the lens on the bird, lock focus, and start firing before the optimal window of light, angle, and proximity vanish. It's a heckuva lot like shooting skeet, only instead of shattering a clay pigeon the successful hunter returns with a sharp image of a fast-moving bird. Three, the shooter has to know his/her equipment. Shooting in auto mode will never work (very well).

This hen Blue-winged Teal was shot with the rig I used for all the bird shots in this post, a tripod-mounted Canon 5DS-R with Canon's superb 500mm f/4 II lens, increased to 700mm via their 1.4x teleconverter. Settings for this image were f/5.6 (wide open with this set-up), 1/2000, ISO 800, and +1/3rd exposure compensation in manual mode.

Yes! A pair of Wood Ducks rockets in. A split second later they spotted me and quickly diverted away. The marsh that I fixated on was full of "Woodies" and they routinely made passes by my location, giving me a number of chances to try for wing shots.

By using tall cattails as a shield, I got fairly close to this pair. I found a narrow window between vegetation where I could get the lens on them, but the ducks still picked up on my mostly concealed self and got edgy. Here, the female springs aloft; the drake followed seconds later.

Hen leads drake, which is usually how it is in the duck world. This was such a great experience: perfect light, gorgeous Indian Summer day, and scads of ducks in the marsh.

Mullet flying, a drake Wood Duck blisters by. This photo was taken just about the time he saw me, which worked to my advantage. My sudden appearance caused him to cant his head slightly in my direction, which created a wonderful angle to the bird. Birds, in general, photograph much better if their head is tilted 5-10 degrees towards the photographer.

Not all was ducks at Goose Pond, though. The restoration of these wetlands from agricultural land began only a decade or so ago. Nonetheless, a diverse and vibrant seed bank awaited the return of water, and a great diversity of marsh plants have sprung forth. This is a small, creeping species of vervain known as Fogfruit, Phyla lanceolata.

Great plant diversity spawns insect diversity, including dragonflies. This is a female Eastern Pondhawk, one of many that I saw.

Never before have I seen so many Bronze Coppers in one locale. The tiny butterflies were everywhere and I saw hundreds, probably. This late in the season, many of them were looking a bit long in the tooth, but still very active. Small wonder so many are here. The caterpillars feed on species of dock and smartweed (family Polygonaceae), and I suspect they use Water Smartweed, Polygonum amphibium, which is abundant at Goose Pond.

Finally, I was pleased to see dozens of the beleaguered Monarch butterflies, more than I've seen in one location for a long time. I was probably never out of sight of several or more the entire day. In addition to providing habitat for waterbirds, Goose Pond also offers habitat for scores of upland species, and acts as a huge and vital way station for highly migratory Monarchs. Many of them - and lots of other butterflies - were tapping nectar from the extremely common plant in this photo, White Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum. This aster is an enormously important nectar source for late-season butterflies.

Before I knew it, my day was over and it was time to make the long haul back to Ohio. If you ever get the opportunity to visit Goose Pond, take advantage. CLICK HERE for more information.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels!

A rural Madison County, Ohio cemetery on a picture-perfect fall day. I was down hunting sparrows (photographically) around Deer Creek Reservoir last Monday, which is not too far from this place. As I knew there is a thriving colony of one of our most interesting mammals in the cemetery, I stopped by in the afternoon to visit.

I was hardly through the gates when a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus tridecemlineatus, scampered off the road's edge. After patrolling a bit, I found an area where multiple squirrels were in evidence, parked the car, and geared up for some ground squirrel photography.

Shooting these highly alert and wary little beasts is not as easy as you may think. I have seen some in northern Michigan that have become quite habituated to humans and are readily approachable, but that's not the case with this colony. The squirrels are vigilant against potential threats, and your narrator apparently falls in this category.

As soon as I got out of the car, big lens and tripod in tow, sentries were taking up positions to monitor my every move, and if need be alert their fellows with high-pitched squeaking beeps. I had planned on shooting and watching the animals for perhaps an hour. That plan ultimately elongated into three hours. For most of these images, I had my camera down nearly to the ground, and often had to wait for a half-hour or more in one position before the squirrels overcame their concerns with me and began to move around.

Several hours in close proximity to Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels would do anyone good, I submit. The burly little rodents are incredibly charismatic, and great fun to watch. They resemble chipmunks on steroids, but are quite different even at a glance. An Eastern Chipmunk weighs about half as much, is noticeably smaller, and lacks the beautiful alternating pattern of stripes and dashes.

Habitat is considerably different, too. Chipmunks are forest species, and ground squirrels - at least all that I have seen in Ohio - shun woodlands and occupy wide-open spaces. They are closely related to prairie dogs and act the part. It's thought that the squirrels expanded eastward with the bison, probably during the last Xerothermic Period, which was about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. Herds of bison are major game-changers when it comes to habitat manipulation, and they created vast open shortgrass plains perfect for the squirrels. While the bison are long gone, the squirrels persist, usually inhabiting human-maintained short grass haunts such as airports, golf courses, and cemeteries.

Ground Squirrels seldom roam far from a burrow entrance. The portals to their underground warrens are only a few inches across and often hard to see as they're partially concealed by vegetation. The hole usually drops down a half foot or so, then levels out and anastomoses into a series of tunnels and chambers. The squirrels live the majority of their lives in these subterranean warrens. They're strictly diurnal, and often only emerge on sunny days, at least for extended periods.

These beasts are furry Rip Van Winkles, and I'd bet they'll be down in the tunnels for the winter this week. Probably only the jumping mice rival them for extended hibernation, at least in this part of the world. With the coming of consistently cool weather, in October, they retreat to the burrows and don't emerge until April. A squirrel's normal active respiratory rate is up to 200 breaths a minute; when in hibernation mode that'll slow to about a breath every five minutes.

If an observer is far enough away, the squirrels pay little mind and go about their business. It's amusing to watch them forage, occasionally pop upright for a look around, and engage in high speed chases with one another.

However, when a threat looms, they're quick to race (8 mph bursts!) to a nearby hole. This can work to the photographer's advantage. When I would see one drop into a burrow, I'd quickly scramble into a good nearby position, partially concealed by a headstone if possible, and with the light to my back. After a few minutes, the squirrel would stick its head above ground. It would remain like that for several minutes, surveying its surroundings.

After a bit, it would proceed to Phase 2 of the Cautious Burrow Exit Strategy (CBES) and stick the upper half of its body above ground. This stage is usually accompanied by regular calls. Ground Squirrel talk consists of high-pitched beeping notes, often doubled but when excited they prolong them into a short series. The prolonged calls suggest a Sora's whinny call, but several octaves higher. The double-noted call greatly resembles the double-beep sound made by my Canon camera when it acquires focus. I found I could sometimes arouse their attention by beeping my camera.

Phase 3 of the CBES involves ejection of nearly the entire body, then holding this position for several more minutes. Beeping whistles accompany this position, of course.

Finally, CBES Phase 4 - squirrel completely ejected and in classic scurrying posture. Still, it'll often remain like this for minutes more as it sizes up the situation.

Once all is deemed safe, the squirrel moves into the grass and foraging continues. Ground Squirrels are classic omnivores, eating plenty of seeds and plant matter but never shunning tasty insects. When a large food item is found that will require a bit of time to consume, the squirrel often pops upright and eats while in the sentry position.

It took the fellow in the photo above a minute or two to finish his meal, and I did not realize what he (could be a she, I don't know how to tell) had until I reviewed my photos later.

We crop in close to see the snack - it's a Japanese beetle grub! These invasive beetles are a scourge on turf grass, as they eat the roots, often killing extensive areas of lawn. I suspect a thriving colony of ground squirrels really keeps down the beetle population, and to my untrained eye the lawn in this cemetery looked pristine.

A great many Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel colonies have been eradicated, especially when they take up residence in cemeteries or golf courses. There used to be a thriving colony in Columbus's Green Lawn Cemetery when I was a kid, and many (most?) visitors loved them. But the cemetery staff destroyed them long ago, probably due to concerns about their burrowing. My hunch is that the squirrels do more good than harm in these highly manicured landscapes but protecting them can be a hard sell.

That's why I don't want to name this cemetery. While I can't imagine that the people who maintain this place don't know they're there - I saw several dozen on this visit, sometimes six were in sight at once - no point in potentially drawing attention to them. However, if management does know they're there, AND intentionally allows these fascinating "prairie dogs" to remain, I would like to nominate them for some sort of medal, or perhaps entry into the Royal Order of the Ground Squirrel Benefactors.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Grizzly Bear program!!

On October 24 at 7 pm at OSU’s Ohio Union, Thomas Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson will present a fascinating account of grizzly bear conservation in Yellowstone National Park. The program will be liberally illustrated with Mangelsen’s stunning photography. The program is free but please preregister RIGHT HERE. Sponsored by the Environmental Professionals Network.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Bait scent, fishing-line device allow spider to reel in moths

A toadlike bolas spider holds her silken weapon: a sticky ball she dangles and flings at approaching moths.

October 2, 2016

Jim McCormac

A gaucho is a cowboy of the South American pampas. Gauchos are skilled horsemen and effective wielders of an odd weapon known as a bolas. The bolas is a stout cord to which they affix a heavy ball or balls. When hurled accurately, the bolas ensnares the legs of quarry and trips it up.

A group of spiders has been flinging bolas lines far longer than the gauchos.

The bolas spiders comprise a group of about 50 species, all of which occur in the Americas. Thirteen species are found north of Mexico, and four occur in Ohio.

Finding a bolas spider is always a big deal. They’re rare and easily overlooked. It wasn’t until Sept. 3 that I finally clapped eyes on one of these bizarre spiders.

I and others were conducting nocturnal field work in The Nature Conservancy’s sprawling Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County. Suddenly, a roar went up from David Hughes, who is a firefighter and expert photographer. He had found a toadlike bolas spider, Mastophora phrynosoma.

During the day, the toadlike bolas spider rests atop a leaf, looking like an amorphous glob of fungus or gooey bird dropping. From certain angles, it looks rather toadlike. Presumably, would-be predators ignore such an unpalatable-looking mass.

Come dusk, the spider spins a few silken guy wires under leaves and prepares to hunt. She hangs from her support lines and crafts her sophisticated weapon. By rubbing a silken line against sticky secretions generated by her spinnerets, the spider forms a gluey ball.

When all is ready, she suspends the sticky bolas from a silken strand and holds the line with one of her forelegs. The look is much like a fisherman holding a baited rod.

She then emits a fragrance that mirrors pheromones secreted by a certain group of female moths. Eventually a male moth will detect this pseudopheromone and fly in to investigate.

As soon as the amorous moth comes within striking range, the spider flings the bolas and snares the moth. The duped victim is reeled in, dispatched and eaten.

The much-smaller male spiders and young females do not hunt with a bolas. Remarkably, they produce a scent that attracts tiny moth flies, which are seized and eaten.

Lots of weird things transpire under cover of darkness.

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