Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Talk this Sunday - butterflies & moths!

A pair of Spicebush Swallowtails spar over blossoms of a pinxter-flower azalea. Swallowtail butterflies are a major pollinator of deciduous rhododendrons, or azaleas.

I'm giving a program at the fantastic Aullwood Audubon Center in Dayton, Ohio this Sunday, February 5th, at 2:30 pm. The title? "Butterflies, and Moths, Their Darker Side". It'll be a photo-intensive romp through the wild world of some of our most interesting insects. In addition to the eye candy factor, I hope to drive home the importance of this massive group of bugs, and why we should be interested in conserving them. Get all the details RIGHT HERE.

All are welcome, and I would love to see you there. Aullwood charges a nominal fee of $5.00 per adult/$3.00 per child - members are free. Such funds go to support the far-reaching educational efforts of this effective operation.

NOTE: The Super Bowl, should you be concerned, does not start until 6:30 pm. I can assure you we will be through LONG before then!

A Dot-lined White Moth, looking somewhat yak-like, stares down the photographer. Moths, as we shall learn, outnumber their better known butterfly counterparts by a factor of 12 in this part of the world. Largely nocturnal and out of sight, they nonetheless are a fascinating group of animals.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Great gray owls are magnificent birds

A great gray owl scrutinizes a visitor to a Minnesota bog

January 29, 2017

Jim McCormac

Milton B. Trautman was the undisputed dean of Ohio birds. Trautman, who died in 1991 at the age of 91, hailed from the shotgun era of ornithology. In his early days, a significant bird record hardly counted if it wasn't collected.

Imagine, then, Trautman's surprise on Oct. 30, 1947. He was boating to his home on South Bass Island in Lake Erie when he spotted a huge bird perched in a scrubby tree on tiny Starve Island. Drawing nearer, Trautman realized it was a great gray owl - dimensionally, the largest North American owl.

Trautman must have been bouncing off the gunwales, especially when he realized the rocky surf made getting in range to shoot the bird impossible.

Although he didn't make a museum specimen of the bird, he carefully described one of Ohio's few records of this northern owl.

A great gray owl is a mind-numbing bird. It measures over 2 feet in length, with a wingspan stretching nearly 4 1/2 feet. Despite its massive size, the owl weighs less than 2 1/2 pounds - nearly a pound lighter than the much more familiar great horned owl. Dense insulating feathers, which keep the great gray owl warm on frosty boreal nights, make up much of its mass.

I recently made a foray into northern Minnesota bog country, where great grays routinely can be found. At times, I wished I had this species' feathers - the temperatures were well below zero every day, and they sank to minus 29 one frigid morning.

Great gray owls do much of their hunting at dawn and dusk, and cruising appropriate habitat can yield sightings. One magical evening, we came across a knot of birders who had found an owl perched in a nearby snag. The bird was intent on hunting, its head on a swivel as it listened for rodents.

Owls have long fascinated people, and it's no wonder when one looks into the visage of a great gray owl. Piercing yellow eyes are fixed in a large humanlike facial disk, and when the bird deigns to bayonet you with those eyes, the effect is startling. I would not wish to be the luckless vole on the receiving end of that stare.

As the north woods are typically blanketed with thick snow cover in winter, the owls do much of their hunting by ear. Voles and other small rodents mostly remain in tunnel-like runways under the snow - seemingly out of sight and out of mind.

There's no escaping the owls, though. A hunting great gray constantly scans the snow surface, using its incredible hearing to locate rodents under the snow. Offset ears allow it to triangulate on sounds, pinpointing the victim from amazing distances.

When a vole is located, the owl silently swoops to the spot, dives through the snow blanket, and seizes the hapless animal sight unseen.

Although it has been 70 years since Trautman's Ohio sighting of a great gray owl, it's possible that another could appear here. Somewhere along Lake Erie would be most likely. Whoever finds it would be in owl heaven.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. Find out more about the birds he saw in Minnesota bog country at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dawes Arboretum's holly collection - and its birds

A Northern Mockingbird guards "his" patch of possumhaw, Ilex decidua. There were plenty of would-be frugivorous marauders to fend off.

A few days ago, I ventured to the always interesting Dawes Arboretum, near Newark, Ohio. The arboretum sprawls over nearly 2,000 acres, and much of the landscape is natural habitats. But much of the site is also a showcase of various ornamentals, although some of these plants are native, at least to the eastern U.S.

My target was the holly collection, a colorful section heavily planted with a dizzying array of various holly species and their cultivars. I knew many of the trees and shrubs would be heavily laden with fruit, and there would be fruit-eating birds in photogenic settings.

A striking male American Robin tees up on American holly, Ilex opaca. Robins abounded, and I never tire of photographing them. The opportunity to present these handsome thrushes amid equally handsome plants festooned with colorful fruit was irresistible, and many shutter clicks were directed towards Turdus migratorius.

As is often the case in winter, large numbers of Cedar Waxwings mingled with the robins. These suave animals were a primary target on this day, and I had plenty of opportunities. Here, a juvenile waxwing watches an elder scarf down the berry of an American holly.

By just standing quietly among shrubs, and waiting for the birds to come to nearby favored berry bushes, it was quite easy to make satisfying images. Because the skies were cloudy and dark, it was necessary to use fill flash - I generally prefer natural light. But this was good practice, and allowed me to capture images that I couldn't have otherwise made.

If you're looking for a great place to visit, bird, and photograph, make a foray to Dawes Arboretum. CLICK HERE for more information.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Baby rhino!

Yesterday was the annual Ohio Ornithological Society's "Raptor Extravaganza" at the Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio. This mid-winter event has been going on for about a dozen years, and always attracts a full house - 130 or so birders from all across the Buckeye State. The main thing is to seek birds on and around the Wilds' 10,000 acres, and the many thousands of acres of adjacent reclaimed stripmine lands. We divide into eight teams, and fan out through the area. It's a big logistics task organizing all of this, and kudos to Jason Larson for pulling it all together this year.

It was unseasonably balmy yesterday, with temperatures hitting about 60 F. A far cry from several years ago, when it was pushing minus 20 F in some local areas at the morning rendezvous time. I was co-leading one of the groups, and we found many of the usual suspects: Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Golden Eagle (yes!!) and other raptors, singing Eastern Meadowlarks, and a host of other birds. At dusk. a cooperative Short-eared Owl put on a show for those who stuck around.

The Wilds is a conservation and research facility specializing in the study of large mammals, and most of the species that they work with are imperiled in their native ranges. It has become custom - and we are very grateful to the staff of the Wilds for accommodating us - to take a midday tour of the rhinoceros facility. Nearly everyone goes, even though a lot of us have taken the rhino tour many times. I know I wouldn't miss it.

Dave, the head rhino keeper, always has good info for the groups, and patiently answers the same questions year after year. This year, he had a real gem to show us - a two month old Greater One-horned Asian Rhinocerus, Rhinoceros unicornis, which is sometimes more simply known as the Indian Rhino.

As I would think that just about anyone would like to see photos of a baby rhinoceros, if they can't see the real thing, some photos from yesterday follow...

And there he is - the "tiny" male rhino, which was born on November 11, 2016. That's his formidably protective mother, Sanya, on the left. Junior probably weighs about 400 lbs.; mom tips the scales at around two tons.

The Wilds got Sanya in 2004, and this calf is her fourth since arriving at the Ohio facility.

Up close and deep into the eye of the baby rhino. These "little" ones are fun to watch. They're rather kitten or puppy like, and quite curious and playful. This one was mostly sleepy when we were there. I suspect it had been outside playing prior to our arrival and had gotten tired out.

A tolerant mother indeed, at least towards her calf. She'd be far less so of us, I am sure.

If you haven't been to the Wilds, put it on your calendar for this year. Their tours are fascinating, and it is a wonderful day trip. In addition to rhinos, you'll get to see many other interesting large beasts. CLICK HERE for more information.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sax-Zim Bog and boreal birds

As seen in the previous post, a massive Great Gray Owl casts its baleful gaze on the photographer. I was glad indeed that I was not a vole.

While it is the allure of Great Gray Owls that lures many people to the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota, there are many other interesting birds to be found, as we shall see. I was up there for three solid days last week - my first visit - and was quite impressed with the place. January and February are obviously peak times for winter birding, but come prepared for icy cold. The first morning saw a low of minus 29 F, and the mercury was well below zero each of the following two mornings.

Sax-Zim is an interesting place. Its boundaries include black spruce bogs, cultivated fields, and mixed and deciduous woodlands. A wonderful organization, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, has built and staffs a new visitor's center. This building, contrary to many similar installations that see peak visitation in summer, is only open during the winter months.

This tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl was a real bonus. It was hunting from a prominent perch well before nightfall. Although this is normally a highly nocturnal species, the extreme cold and mixture of snow and ice cover may have forced it to temporarily shift its hunting habits in the quest for food.

Some years, other species of northern owls, most notably Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl, invade Sax-Zim in numbers during winter. This wasn't one of those years, but I hope to return when a full-fledged owl invasion is in progress.

It was nice to become reacquainted with Gray Jays again. This is a species of the far north, and not prone to wandering very far south, even during the toughest winters. One must go to their haunts to see them.

The most common songbird at Sax-Zim is also one of my favorites, the Black-capped Chickadee. I made innumerable photos of the tough little birds; I find them photographically irresistible. They are tough as nails, too - how they survive long winter nights when the mercury plunges well below zero is beyond me.

Evening Grosbeaks have nearly fallen off the radar screen in Ohio, so it was good to catch up with them once again. This resplendent male was one of a flock of 20 or so birds visiting publicly accessible feeders at a private residence. There are a number of local residents who feed birds, and welcome birders to visit.

This is a female Evening Grosbeak, and I might be tempted to argue that she is showier than the gaudy male!

A true finch of the north, the Pine Grosbeak. Males, like this one, are quite dashing. Flocks of these largish tame finches might be encountered anywhere in Sax-Zim Bog, but they are especially easy to observe at the visitor's center.

A female Pine Grosbeak. More subtly marked and colored than the male, but still quite showy.

A partridge in a willow tree. Ruffed Grouse can be quite arboreal, and we saw at least 25-30 of them high off the ground in trees and shrubs. They go aloft to snack on buds and catkins.

A grouse makes a big stretch to reach an especially tasty staminate catkin in a paper birch tree.

There are lots of spruce in Sax-Zim, and the white spruce were heavily bedecked with cones. Such fodder means crossbills.

A pair of White-winged Crossbills plunder the cones of a spruce. It was minus 25 F when I made this image! A flock of about 25 birds was working the tree over, and as is typical for crossbills, they were quite tame. The flock actually flew into the tree that I was standing near, making things easier, although I feared either my hands or equipment would give out in the extreme cold.

Crossbills act much like parrots, pulling themselves about with both feet and bill, often engaging in acrobatics to reach coveted cones. As I stood by this spruce, all one could hear was the snap and crackle of cone scales being popped off. A gentle rain of these scales misted from the tree as the industrious crossbills harvested the conifer seeds.

This little glutton decided to pull an entire cone from the tree. He deftly held it with one foot while making mincemeat of the cone with his bill. I have read where a hardworking crossbill can harvest several thousand seeds in a day. The bird either pops the scale completely off the cone, or pries them apart to reach the fruit (each scale subtends a seed). Using its long barbed tongue, the crossbill quickly snags the seed.

I would have dearly loved to have spent much more time with the crossbills, but circumstances did not permit it. They are highly fascinating birds, and vital to the ecology of the boreal forests in which they live.

I look forward to a return trip to Sax-Zim Bog to catch up with the owls, crossbills, and all of the other interesting avifauna.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Great Gray Owl!

Well, my blogging has certainly fallen behind! I was hoping for more time for this sort of thing, but travels and other stuff have made for less of it.

Anyway, just returned from a trip to the bog lands of northern Minnesota, and saw and photographed many interesting birds. Just time for this one photo now, but I'll try and put up some others soon.

A Great Gray Owl bayonets the photographer with its laser beam stare. Of all the birds that frequent wintertime Sax-Zim Bog, this spectacular owl draws by far the most attention.

It was nearly dark when I made this image. Dusk is an excellent time to find these massive owls, as that's when they typically emerge to hunt. The photo demonstrates the vast improvements in camera technology in recent years. It was shot with the amazing new Canon 5D VI, at an ISO of 12,800! Even so, and with minimal noise reduction applied in post-processing, the image still holds up fairly well. Such a high ISO was needed to harvest enough light to make the image, even with the lens (800mm) wide open at f/5.6 and using a fairly slow shutter speed of 1/320 (could have gone slower and should have), and exposure compensation at +1.7. To help produce a sharp shot, I utilized live view to eliminate shutter slap, and careful camera-holding technique (tripod-mounted). Should have used a remote shutter release too, but forgot to throw it in my pocket.

But nerdy photo-talk is not the point here, cool birds are. I'll hope to share some other hardy boreal birds before long. And hardy they are - every morning saw temperatures well below 0 F, with the mercury plummeting to minus 29 F one memorable morning!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Female Northern Cardinal, in flight

A female Northern Cardinal nears a perch, and flares its wings. This species, which is Ohio's state bird, is very common in central Ohio where I live. They're pretty easy to photograph, at least when at rest, but are so striking I could probably shoot them all day.

One way to try and make photographs of very common species stand out is to capture them in unusual postures, situations, or in flight. Making a sharp image of a rapidly moving songbird on the wing (click the photo to enlarge) is not easy. In this situation, there was a feeder a few feet to the left, and that's where this bird is headed. As it was about 12 F when I made this image, birds were hungry and the feeders were quite active, and I saw an opportunity. By pre-focusing my camera at a point a few feet off the feeder's right side, I could wait, (frozen) finger on the trigger, for targets to enter the bulls-eye zone.

I got plenty of opportunities with several species, but the vast majority of images will be throw-aways. Only a few times did I nail a photo when the bird was: 1) smack in the focus area; 2) and displaying good posture ( head not turned away, wings in a pleasing position, etc.). Because of the cold and the need to attend to something else, I only spent about a half-hour at this, but want to go back and try some more.

This shot was made with the new Canon 5D IV, and I'm finding this to be a stellar camera, especially for bird photography. Its focus acquisition system is amazing, and it handles high ISO levels well. For this shot I used the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, at f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 1600, exposure compensation +1.7, no flash.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hocking County rich in bird diversity, as new book shows

January 1, 2017

Jim McCormac

Hocking County rich in bird diversity, as new book shows

One of Ohio's smallest counties has long been a favored refuge of Columbus residents fleeing the big city. Hocking County is small, but its 421 square miles are packed with natural beauty.

It's the stunning sandstone gorges, their steep, rocky slopes carpeted in towering hemlock trees, that give the Hocking Hills their distinctive flavor. Iconic places such as Conkles Hollow, Old Man's Cave and Cantwell Cliffs are treasured by tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Because of Hocking County's varied habitats and extraordinary botanical diversity, birds also abound.

A recent book, "The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" (McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co., 144 pages), does a stellar job of documenting the Hocking Hills' avifauna. The authors are three legends of Ohio natural-history exploration: John Watts, Paul Knoop Jr. and Gary Coovert.

Studies of Hocking County's bird life really picked up steam in the 20th century, thanks to the labors of an early Dispatch writer. Edward Sinclair Thomas, who penned this column for 59 years beginning in 1922, maintained a cabin for decades in what he dubbed Neotoma Valley. The cabin still stands, and it is now part of Clear Creek Metro Park at the north end of the Hocking Hills.

A who's who of naturalists regularly made the pilgrimage to Thomas' Neotoma retreat, and they added much to our knowledge of the region's birds. The first photo in "Birds of Hocking County" is an image of a Bewick's wren taken by Thomas in 1923. While relatively common then, this species no longer occurs in the state.

Those planning a trip to Hocking County in search of certain species will find the book helpful. It documents a remarkable 266 species, describing the status and habitat of each in short accounts. Changes in abundance, such as with the aforementioned wren, are well-described.

Peppered throughout are several dozen photos of birds and habitats. Especially interesting are the images by Thomas, taken nearly a century ago, packaged with modern photos taken by Watts. They make one grateful for conservation — there are almost no trees in the old images! Today, these areas are densely cloaked with timber, thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies.

Especially interesting is the rich introduction, which covers Hocking County's history of nature exploration, its habitats, changes in bird life and excellent sites to seek birds. Among many interesting nuggets, the reader will find historical photos of giant trees — snapshots of what the Hocking Hills would have looked like before timbering.

Hocking County is especially notable for the rare birds that breed within its hemlock gorges. Species such as the blue-headed vireo, hermit thrush, and Canada and magnolia warblers are birds that normally nest far to the north of Ohio. These birds are just part of the highly specialized ecosystems of Hocking County — habitats that should be fiercely protected for their natural treasures.

"The Birds of Hocking County, Ohio" should be indispensable to anyone who visits or lives in the area and is interested in natural history. Birders statewide also will find it a valuable resource. Copies can be had for $24.95 from the Newark-based publisher, or from Amazon.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com