Sunday, February 26, 2017

A smattering of Florida birds

I've been roaming various biodiversity-rich southwest Florida habitats for a few days now. Some photos follow... As always, click the photo to enlarge.

Painted Bunting, female, bathing

Great Egret in breeding condition, fanning aigrettes.

Laughing Gulls, courting

Royal Tern

Snowy Egret

Wood Stork, portrait.

Royal Tern, portrait

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A few images from the Okefenokee

A made a one-day whirlwind trip through  the eastern side of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia yesterday, on my way to points south. Here are a few images.

Southern Cricket Frog, Acris gryllus

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon

Inflated Bladderwort, Utricularia inflata

Pine Warbler, Setophaga pinus

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Wasp-eating moth fills rare niche

Sooty-winged Chalcoela moth/Jim McCormac/For the Dispatch
Scroll to bottom of post for more photos

February 19, 2017

Jim McCormac

One August evening last summer, I was in Adams County in southern Ohio shining specialized lights on white sheets with some expert lepidopterists.

We were trapping moths deep in the midst of the Nature Conservancy's Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserve, which encompasses 20,000 acres. "The Edge" harbors some of the richest biodiversity in the Midwest.

Like a moth to a flame, the insects flocked to our sheet. We could survey what was present without needing to kill or collect the specimens.

At one point, a moth unknown to me fluttered in. It was gorgeous: tawny-buff in color, with large patches of peppered black and white. Gemlike dots trimmed the trailing edge of the hind wings.

We had lured a sooty-winged chalcoela, or Chalcoela iphitalis.

Someone mentioned that it is a parasite that kills paper wasps.

"What?" I exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding!"

Nearly everyone knows paper wasps, in the genus Polistes. They construct many-chambered, papery nests that hang from slender stems under the eaves of buildings and other structures. The adult wasps fiercely protect their nests and a female's sting packs a punch.

Sure enough, sooty-winged chalcoela caterpillars consume the larvae of various paper wasps. This is rare. The vast majority of caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies, are strictly vegan.

Soon after my initiation to this bizarre moth, an acquaintance showed me a photo of a moth that mystified her. It turned out to be a sooty-winged chalcoela, resting on the side of her house only inches from an active paper-wasp nest.

Figuring that the moth had raided the wasp's lair, we hatched plans to inspect the nest once winter set in and the wasps were gone. On the frosty night of Dec. 23, we removed the wasp nest from the eaves and took it inside for inspection.

It didn't take long to find the tiny moth caterpillars. The nest was infested with a dozen or more.

Each of the cells within a paper wasp nest contains a wasp larva, or grub. The female chalcoela moth flies to the nest under cover of darkness, when the wasps are inactive, and lays eggs on the structure. Caterpillars soon hatch, invade the cells and consume the wasp grubs.

By the onset of winter, the caterpillars are ensconced within dense silken cocoons woven within the cells, or on the back of the wasp nest. Come summer, the adult moths will emerge and begin the cycle anew.
As adult paper wasps often hunt and feed on moth caterpillars, this is a particularly apropos form of revenge.

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
An active paper wasp nest, fiercely guarded by its inhabitants. This is the actual nest that was parasitized by the moth in the accompanying images.

A sooty-winged chalcoela caterpillar peeks from a cell in the wasp nest.

A closer view of the caterpillar. This is its head, and the foremost three pairs of legs (thoracic prolegs)

A caterpillar, removed for inspection. It is the spitting image of the wasp grubs that it consumes; maybe visual trickery plays a role in protecting it from wasps.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ohio Natural History Conference - February 25

You won't want to miss the upcoming annual Ohio Natural History Conference, organized and executed by the Ohio Biological Survey. This event attracts many naturalists, biologists, students and admirers of the natural world from all over the state. It's always a good time, with many interesting talks. There will also be a few very special award winners, and you won't want to miss that.

This year's topics include birds, plants, wetlands, conservation, park districts, and mudpuppies. The complete itinerary is RIGHT HERE. As in year's past, the event takes place in the Ohio History Center, the main building of the Ohio History Connection (Ohio Historical Society). It's right off I-71 in Columbus, adjacent to the Ohio State Fairgrounds. To register, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A visit to the orchid house

The scene within one of the glassed atria at the Franklin Park Conservatory yesterday. It wasn't a bad place to be, with temperatures in the 20's-30's F, and high winds.

About mid to late winter, I really start to miss plants - green foliage and flowers. One of the drawbacks of living in the north is the complete disappearance of such things for several months. As an antidote of sorts, I decided to visit a place I don't get to nearly often enough, the Franklin Park Conservatory. This is a big plant-packed facility; the artificial tropics come to life right here in Columbus, Ohio.

There are often themes to the exhibits, and right now - thru March 5th - it is orchids.

The massive south wing of the conservatory sports a veritable jungle, complete with water features. You'll forget it's winter in here.

There's even a waterfall (a few, actually), so of course I took the opportunity to practice waterfall photography. I wasn't alone in sporting camera gear - several other people were rigged with serious gear, snapping away. For me, it's good practice for the "real" stuff outdoors.

Orchids are the stars of the show, and they're peppered everywhere throughout the conservatory. I am no expert on orchids not native to the eastern U.S., and the identification situation is muddied by scores of hybrid combinations in cultivation. If you were unaware, the Orchidaceae is perhaps the largest family of flowering plants in the world, rivaled only by the Asteraceae, or Sunflower Family. As many of the plants are not labeled, forgive me my botanical sins should I misname some. This is one of the Phalaenopsis, and there was a dizzying array scattered throughout.

A stunning Oncidium (?) arches from a mossy wall.

I believe this is another species of Oncidium; whatever it is, it is quite the looker. It also had the good manners to grow against a plain backdrop. One of the challenges of shooting in this plant-packed environment is getting a clear shot of the target - competing plants are often in the way. Manipulating the flora in any way is strictly taboo, too. Had I thought about it, I would have brought some "bokeh sheets" - colored paper that can be held behind the subject to provide a more pleasing backdrop.

Yet another Oncidium? Whatever it is, it's cool.

If this species or hybrid was labeled, I missed it, but surely would be interested in knowing its name. It was one of the major showstoppers, and it had lots of competition.

This one and the following may be something in the genus Trichocentrum, but I am unsure.

I suspect many of the orchids in this exhibit are crosses - hybridizing orchids is a huge thing among the fanatics.

And finally, a Paphiopedilum, one of a number on exhibit. I didn't run across these lady's-slipper-like orchids until my time was nearly up. I would have loved to spent more time with them. Well, there's still several weeks before the orchid show folds up, so maybe I will.

If you live in Ohio, and are into photography, you won't be disappointed by a visit to the Franklin Park Conservatory.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

An ever-growing eagle aerie

Our national avian symbol, the Bald Eagle, sits with apparent pride atop a large aerie that it and its mate have jointly constructed. This nest is already massive, in spite of "only" being five or six years old. Bald Eagles will reuse nests for many years, and add material constantly.

A few weeks back, I spent a frigid, snowy, windy day watching the comings and goings of a pair of eagles in eastern Ohio. The nest is in an easily viewable locale, and attracts scores of onlookers. Fortunately, because of the Arctic weather during my visit, few others stopped by. It can become quite a circus along this road, I am told, but the gawking onlookers don't bother the birds a whit.

I had only planned on staying here for a few hours, but that stretched into 6-7 hours by the end of which I had nearly lost feeling in my extremities. Well worth it, though, to spend time watching the birds add sticks to the nest, interact with each other, and the world around them.

Some flyby American Crows divert the pair's attention briefly. While the sexes look identical, there is a conspicuous size difference. Females are bigger; up to 25% larger than the males.

This nest is in a large, seemingly healthy American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Here, one of the birds goes out on a nearby limb and snaps free one of the beech's branches. Beech are pretty tough, and as long as the tree remains healthy it should provide good supporting superstructure for the massive nest within its boughs.

An eagle prepares for landing with a bundle of sticks. These will be artfully threaded into the nest, and from my observations, usually by the female. Most times, nesting material was collected far from the nest and outside my field of view. On at least one occasion, an eagle flew into the stubble of a nearby corn field, and returned with talons full of old corn debris.

 A stick is carefully jimmied into position, while the other eagle watches attentively.

I'm not sure which sex is which here, but a minor spat had broken out over who would handle the insertion of a branch. It seemed that most times, when the smaller male would return with twigs, the female would soon appear if she wasn't already there, snatch them away and place them herself.

Bald Eagles are the second-largest raptor in North America, weighing up to 14 lbs. Accordingly, the birds can handle big sticks.

A landscape style shot illustrates the size of the aerie. Hard to believe its only about five years in the making. The mother tree has a lot to do with how large the nest can get. The arrangement of large limbs anchoring the nest dictate how tall the birds can pile the sticks over time. As this nest is in the crotch of a couple of very large sturdy trunks, and those trunks remain close together as they ascend, it appears that the birds can continue to expand upwards for quite some ways.

Big eagle nests can be their own downfall. As size and weight increase, the nest becomes more and more of a liability to the anchoring tree. Eventually windstorms can topple the nest, shear off branches to which the nest is attached, or even bring down the entire tree.

Photo credit: Francis Herrick

Here's the gold standard for giant Bald Eagle aeries: the so-called "Great Nest", which was located in Brownhelm Township, Lorain County, Ohio. This nest was about 12 feet from top to bottom, nearly nine feet across at the summit, and eventually attained a weight of around two tons. By the time the tree collapsed during a great storm on March 25, 1925, the nest had been in use for some five decades. It was anchored in a sturdy shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), and that probably explains much of the nest's longevity. Professor Francis Herrick of Western Reserve University spent years studying these eagles, even erecting a lofty observation platform in a nearby elm from which he could better observe and photograph the birds.

It'll be interesting to see how large the aerie featured in this blog eventually gets. Only time will tell, but the somewhat protected nature of the site, health and sturdiness of the tree, and the arrangement of the support limbs suggest that the nest will grow much larger than its current size.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bald eagles prove healthy environment is essential

Bald eagles build a nest in eastern Ohio. There are now more than 200 nests known in the state.

February 5, 2017

Jim McCormac

On June 20, 1782, the bald eagle was formally adopted as the symbol of the fledgling United States of America.

Contrary to myth, one of the committeemen involved in the decision, Benjamin Franklin, probably never protested the choice in favor of the wild turkey. However, in a missive to his daughter two years later, he did lament the bird as being of "bad moral character."

Franklin's sniping aside, the mascot was a good pick. Eagles have long represented power, nobility and freedom.

In the early days of the Congress of the Confederation, bald eagles flourished. The huge raptors would have been a familiar sight to most Americans.

By the turn of the 20th century, 100,000 pairs of nesting eagles were estimated to inhabit the U.S. Serious threats would soon loom, though.

Indiscriminate shooting and loss of habitat began to take their toll. The eagle population declined. An alarmed Congress enacted the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 to help protect our national avian emblem.

A new, insidious threat would soon wreak havoc on America's eagles. A highly toxic pesticide, DDT, was introduced after World War II, and its use quickly became widespread.

DDT seeped into the ecological web and had terrible effects on predators that ate tainted prey. It caused severe thinning of eggshells, leading to a collapse in reproduction. By the 1960s, eagle populations were in a tailspin.

Richard Nixon squeaked into the office of the president of the United States through the election of 1968. Public outrage over environmental degradation was nearing its zenith, and Nixon noticed.

In 1970, Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and one of its major issues was a ban on DDT. Finally, its hand somewhat forced by environmentalists, the EPA banned DDT in 1972.
The following year, 1973, saw the enactment of the Endangered Species Act, which ramped up protections for imperiled organisms.

These measures were just in time. By 1979, Ohio's bald-eagle population was down to four nesting pairs. The situation was similarly dire in much of the continental U.S.

As DDT gradually was purged from the environment, and other protective strategies bore fruit, eagle populations began to rise. In 2007, the federal government delisted the formerly endangered bald eagle. From a low of 417 nests in the lower 48 states in 1963, eagles had rebounded to nearly 10,000 pairs by the time of delisting.

Today, there are over 200 nests in Ohio, and new aeries turn up each year. At least one nest is in view of Downtown's skyscrapers. Winter eagle concentrations can be almost Alaskan in impressiveness. Recent congregations at Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve on Lake Erie have numbered nearly 50 birds.

There has been much recent talk of neutering the EPA and dismantling many environmental protections. I hope that decisionmakers recall our relatively recent dirty history of pollution and toxicity, and are aware of how those problems were fixed.

A healthy environment is not only good for eagles, it's also good for us.

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