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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Indian Run Falls

A gorgeous series of limestone shelves cascades the waters of Indian Run ever lower, their fate to eventually merge with the much larger Scioto River.

I am all too often guilty of ignoring my backyard in favor of more distant and exotic places. Such was the case with the stunning Indian Falls Park, which is only ten minutes from home.

I'd been here, to be sure, but the last time was pre (serious)-camera, and that was probably 15 years ago. Lately I've been seeing some nice photos posted here and there of Indian Run Falls, and decided this morning was the ideal opportunity to visit.

There was a rainfall last night that added an almost perfect amount of water to the stream - not so much that one couldn't traverse the stream, but enough to create nice waterscapes. So, over to the falls I went, arriving shortly after sunrise on a cold - high 30's - blustery November day.

Accessing the best section of falls is quite easy. The City of Dublin owns the property and maintains it as a park. Well-maintained trails and strategically sited viewing platforms offer good vistas. I made almost none of these photos from those spots, but if one just wishes an easy ogle of the waterfalls, there's no need to get feet wet.

The upper reaches of the stream is punctuated with low limestone shelves, creating a series of small but very showy drops. This section of Indian Run is represented by the first three photos.

Soon enough, we come to the first big drop - a cascading chute that tumbles about 15-20 feet into a limestone box canyon sided by vertical cliffs.

Here's a view from the precipice of the chute, looking down into the gorge.

In a bit tighter on the same general perspective as the previous shot, but here we can better see the whirling eddy of leaves at the base.

I've moved on downstream for this image. We're looking back upstream at the chute seen in the previous two photos.

Finally, the namesake of the site, the larger of the two Indian Run Falls. This shot was created from the viewing platform at the top of the gorge. There's undoubtedly better perspectives to shoot this falls, but time didn't permit me to explore extensively.

If you've got a like for waterfalls, and who doesn't, I'd highly recommend a stop to Indian Run Falls. It's an incredibly easy place to access, just seconds off State Route 161, and minutes from I-270 and U.S. Route 33 in Dublin. I greatly look forward to a return visit. There are so many vistas, both great and small, that one could easily spend all day here, at least if they're trying to create landscape imagery. I suspect the place looks amazing in winter, too, when ice formations hang from the falls.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


The city of Columbus, Ohio, as seen last evening just prior to nightfall. I made this image from the Rich Street bridge across the Scioto River, and the fading light cast the edifices of downtown in a beautiful golden glow.

I, and many others, were down here to see - and attempt to photograph - the largest "Supermoon" since January 26, 1948. The moon circles Earth on an elliptical orbit, and when a full, or new, moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to our little blue dot, we get the so-called Supermoon.

The proper term for this phenomenon is the perigee-syzgy moon, the perigee being the closest point that an orbiting body comes to its host. As it had been 60 years since the moon had been this close to Earth, people were understandably excited. And if you missed last night's celestial show, you'll have to wait until November 25, 2034 for a similar lunar performance.

Click the pic to enlarge - it'll look better

The Supermoon can be seen cresting the buildings of downtown, at the far right of the image. While certainly a nice moon, as full moons go, the Supermoon really isn't radically different in appearance than most other full moons. But hey, at least I can say I saw it.

Photographing the moon with an interesting foreground, such as a city's downtown, is tricky business indeed. Many (most? all?) of the really great photos one sees with a perfectly exposed foreground, AND a tack-sharp perfectly exposed moon are the result of Photoshop trickery - a bit of slicing and merging of separate images. I don't engage in that stuff, mostly because I primarily shoot natural history subjects and in general want to portray them just as my eye saw them in the field. And, equally important, I lack the technical know-how to do such things :-)

So, the best I could do with the moon/cityscape was to try HDR (High Dynamic Range) experimentation. The shot above is a merger of five different photos, shot in instant succession. The only camera parameter that changed between shots was shutter speed, so that exposure time varied between images. This allowed me to expose the city fairly well, yet not totally blow out (overexpose) the very bright moon. But this will only work when the moon is placed as a distant, minor part of the composition. As the moon moves surprisingly fast on its orbit, the overall lengthy exposure required by this technique means that the moon has moved enough during the duration of the exposure to introduce blur.

NOTE: The size of the uncompressed image above is massive - about 25 megabytes and that's using jpegs. When I compressed it, a necessity to post on the blog, there was a noticeable reduction in quality. Clicking the photo to enlarge will make it look somewhat better, but it looks really good at the uncompressed 25 megabyte file size. The series of five images which made this composite were shot with the Canon 5DS-R with its 50 megapixel sensor, the amazing little Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, at f/8 and ISO 400. Shutter speeds ranges were 13, 5, 2, 4/5, and 1/3 seconds. Camera mounted on a tripod of course, and fired with a remote shutter release while in live view.

And finally, here it is up close and personal, the amazing 2016 Supermoon. After the moon had risen beyond the point where attempts at cityscape shots were possible, I pulled out the 500 f/4L II lens, with 1.4x teleconverter, and switched to the crop sensor Canon 7D II body. That combo offers 1,120 mm of reach - adequate for reaching FAR into the night sky.

I'll hope to be around, and still snapping pictures, when the next Supermoon orbits around in 2034.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A parliament of Cedar Waxwings

Too much STUFF has kept me out of the blogosphere of late, or at least much reduced my normal volume of posts. That might continue for a few weeks.

But I've not been idle, and have scads of material. For now, I will leave interested readers with this dignified parliament of Cedar Waxwings, lording over the summit of a tall pin oak. They were part of a flock of about 120 birds at Stage's Pond State Nature Preserve last Friday morning. After the group preening was complete, they descended en masse on lianas of wild grape and plundered the berry crops.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Ohio Natural History Talk: Thursday, November 10, Worthington

I'm giving a talk in my own backyard, for a change, for the Friends Foundation of Worthington Libraries. It starts at 7pm next Thursday night, November 10, and it's free and all are welcome.

You can get the gist of the subject matter from the beautiful flyer that the Friends created, above. That subject and description gives me ample wriggle room, and I look forward to dusting off lots of images of a wide spectrum of Ohio's flora and fauna, and natural beauty. I'll have some overarching point to all of this, which will be the importance of conservation and why ALL the cogs in the wheel are important.

CLICK HERE for more info, and I'll look forward to seeing you there if you can go.