Saturday, September 30, 2017

Allegheny Woodrat, a charming packrat

A sheer cliff face of dolomitic limestone thrusts upward from the forest floor in a remote area of Adams County. The rock is pockmarked with crevasses and alcoves; perfect habitat for one of the rarest mammals in Ohio.

Some time back, Laura Hughes invited me along on one of her field research visits to this Allegheny Woodrat site. Of course I said yes, especially as I'd never seen one of these interesting little rodents. So, finally, September 24 was the day, and John Howard and I met Laura and her assistant Shane Herbert early that morning along a road near the Ohio River in southern Adams County.

The night prior, Laura and crew had placed 31 traps in ideal woodrat habitat. This work is spearheaded by longtime woodrat researchers Cheryl Mollohan and Al LeCount, former instructors at Hocking College. Captured woodrats are weighed, sexed, and a small blood sample is taken so that DNA can be extracted.

After arriving at the site, we loaded our gear up and headed back into the woods to see what the traps might yield. The first set was a bust, although Laura thought that they might be most likely to produce a woodrat. Just as I began to wonder if all would be for naught, a cry went up from Laura - a woodrat was in a trap!

We rushed to the scene, and there he was, peeking curiously at his captors. A male Allegheny Woodrat, weight 340 grams. After Laura and Shane efficiently dealt with gathering necessary information, we prepared to release the mammal. There aren't many good photos of woodrats in their native haunts, at least in Ohio, and both John and I wanted to portray the mammal in the best possible light. My big fear was that it would quickly dart back into one of the cliff's narrow crevices, never to be seen again and before we could get any shots off.

Allegheny Woodrat, staring curiously at our group of large bipeds. No need to worry about getting photos, as it turns out. These charming mammals seem to have no fear whatsoever of people, probably because they rarely if ever encounter Homo sapiens, at least at this site. So, upon release into a rocky alcove, the woodrat turned, sat, and stared at us for a good minute or so. During that period, both John and I got some excellent images, with John also obtaining remarkable video footage (a clip is at the end of this post).

I really wish the word "rat" was not in this wonderful little mammal's moniker. That word instantly conjures very bad connotations for most people, as they associate it with the Norway (now, Brown) Rat, Rattus norvegicus. This is the introduced (in this part of the world) rodent that can infest buildings, sewers, dumps, etc., and is a carrier of bubonic plague. The Allegheny Woodrat could not be further in character, habits, and habitat than that invasive mammalian scourge. In fact, we wonder if its common name should be changed to something more user-friendly, such as "Velveteen Cliff-Mouse". Who would not want an animal with a name like that around?

The word "packrat" probably stems from woodrats in the genus Neotoma. These species (only the Allegheny Woodrat, N. magister, occurs in Ohio, but there are about 21 other species, mostly in western North America), are fabled for their propensity to stockpile all manner of items. The above photo shows a woodrat midden ("trash heap") in a long abandoned outbuilding in Adams County. I made the image ten years ago, on one of my previously futile ventures to see one of these beasts.

Woodrat middens are often comprised mostly of leaves, but the curious mammals are attracted to all manner of objects, especially shiny ones. It's not uncommon to find pop can tabs, pieces of glass or metal, rocks, and freshly cut plant material in the middens. Woodrats also have the interesting habit of often strewing dried leaves about the floor of the rocky recesses in which they reside, as perhaps the crackling of the leaves warns them of approaching predators.

Ten or more years ago, Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum's Eulett Center within the Edge of Appalachia Preserve took me into a sinkhole cavern in Adams County on a woodrat hunting quest. While we didn't see any, we knew they were there as fresh fern cuttings were neatly laid upon many of the cave's rocky ledges, as if the woodrat was keeping current with its interior decorating.

The Allegheny Woodrat is in precipitous decline over much of its range, and its fate is unknown. It formerly occurred from Connecticut and New York south through the Appalachians to northern North Carolina and Alabama, but is now gone or reduced to perilously low numbers in many if not most areas. They once occurred more widely in Ohio, such as in the Hocking Hills, but are now absent from all former areas other than the tiny area of Adams County where we saw the animal featured here. Perhaps fewer than 100 woodrats remain in the state.

Threats are many, including logging and other habitat destruction, human disturbance of their cliff-face habitat, and isolation of populations due to habitat fragmentation. Greatly reduced populations may become more vulnerable to extreme winter weather events. But perhaps the greatest threat to the Allegheny Woodrat comes in the form of raccoons, and an associated disease, Raccoon Roundworm. Woodrats contract the disease when they scavenge raccoon scat and mine it for undigested nuts and other plant fruit. The disease is fatal to the woodrats, and as raccoon populations have boomed in most areas, the likelihood of woodrats encountering the roundworm has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, recent work with woodrats may be producing solutions to these issues, especially the raccoon roundworm, so there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Here in Ohio, the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy deserves kudos for their acquisition and protection of our only remaining woodrat stronghold.

Video by John Howard

I'll conclude with this wonderful video by John Howard. It brings out the charm of these most interesting of Appalachian mammals, and I hope that a brighter future is in store for the Allegheny Woodrat.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A very rare gentian, with distorted interpretation

An autumn meadow in the Oak Openings near Toledo glows on a gorgeous fall day. The brilliant scarlet foliage of Winged Sumac, Rhus copallina, contrasts with the cobalt inflorescences of one of Ohio's rarest plants, the Soapwort Gentian, Gentiana saponaria.

I'd not seen these gentians in many years, and have been fortunate to twice renew my acquaintance with them over the past week or so. This state-endangered species is known only from a few locales within the Oak Openings of Lucas County, a globally rare ecosystem full of imperiled flora and fauna. While I've made scores of visits to the Oak Openings over the years, I'd not spent much time there recently, and needed to atone for that.

Soapwort Gentian, in portraiture. The odd bullet-like flowers of these strange plants are pollinated primarily by large bumblebees in the genus Bombus. The flower "petals" (plaits) are fused together, forming a botanical bag with only one entry point - the summit. Even there, entry is challenging, as there is but a tiny opening, or pore, and the pollinating insect must be powerful enough to force its way inside.

I had really hoped to catch a bee in the act of pollinating one of these gentians, but no such luck. You may wonder what the enticement is for the bee to go to fairly great lengths to enter the flower. Well, the inside of the plaits are boldly striped with colorful lines - nectar guides - and the bee sees those through the exterior of the bloom. Their visual allure is great, and the bee eventually forces its way inside, and then contacts the pollen, gets a dusting, and also deposits pollen from previous visits on the flower's stigma, or female parts.

I decided to create a bit of photographic abstractions with the soapworts, which in my opinion lend themselves to artistic expression.

Another take on the soapwort.

This is yet another of Ohio's rare gentians, the Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis virgata, with creative liberties unapologetically taken. The gentians rank high among our most beautiful wildflowers, and several species have become quite rare due to habitat loss. I've been fortunate enough to catch up with four of the true gentian species this autumn, and hope to add yet a few more species before fall chills into winter.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Free program - this Tuesday evening, September 26!

I'm - yes, that's me in the photo - giving a talk for Columbus Audubon this Tuesday evening, September 26, at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center along the Scioto River, just south of downtown Columbus. The talk is entitled "A Romp Through Ohio's Flora and Fauna" and features many images from various premier natural areas around the state. As you can see, I'll go to any length to obtain these images :-)

The evening starts at 7 pm and all are welcome. The price of admission can't be beat - it's free. Hope to see you there. For all details, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Nature: Show-off herons shine in national park

A juvenile least bittern in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

September 17, 2017

Jim McCormac

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 51 square miles preserves a treasure trove of biological diversity. Ohio’s only national park, it occupies the state’s most populous region and is bookended by Akron and Cleveland.

Although waterfalls, forests, rock formations, streams and other scenic items of interest lure visitors, it was one of the world’s smallest herons that drew me to the park a few weeks back.

For most of the summer, an uncharacteristically conspicuous pair of least bitterns put on a show along a boardwalk that bisects a lush marsh. As an Ohio breeding bird, this one is especially noteworthy. The least bittern is listed as threatened by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and nesting locales are few and far between.

The least bittern is a true elfin in a family of typically robust birds. One of these diminutive waders is about the size and weight of a blue jay. For comparison, its much-better-known relative, the great blue heron, has a wingspan over four times longer than the bittern’s 17-inch set of flappers. The larger heron is nearly four times as long and weighs 30 times more than the bittern’s paltry 80 grams.

Size doesn’t dictate beauty, though, and the least bittern is exquisite. The bird’s feathers are a palette of rich chestnut, tan and cream. Greenish-yellow skin forms goggles around the eyes, and a stiletto-like bill fronts the face. Perhaps most amazing are the little bird’s big feet. They are disproportionately huge, the greatly elongated toes useful in tightly clutching the stalks of aquatic plants.

One reason the Cuyahoga Valley birds caused such a stir was the ease of seeing them. I’ve seen a fair number of least bitterns over the years, but I’ve heard far more. They frequent the densest stands of cattails and other wetland plants, and are often impossible to see. Only the curious cuckoo-like murmurings of the herons give them away.

My experience was typical of most visiting birders. Shortly after my early-morning arrival, one of the bitterns was spotted lurking at the edge of some cattails. Before long, another bird joined it. For the rest of the morning, great views were freely had.

Better yet, the extroverts were two juveniles — especially good news, as nesting was obviously successful. The adult birds called regularly from the cattails, but they did not show themselves during my visit.

It was a rare experience to observe the bitterns clambering about vertical cattail stems, stabbing at small fish and frogs with their daggerlike bills. At one point, a bird popped out in the open on some spatterdock lilies, enabling me to take the accompanying photo.

We have not been good stewards of wetlands, and least bitterns and many other species have suffered accordingly. These tiny herons were once common in Ohio wetlands, but they have declined tremendously. For instance, famed ornithologist Milton Trautman recorded nearly 100 pairs nesting most years around Buckeye Lake in the 1920s and ’30s. Today, there are none.

It is fortunate that we’ve set aside natural areas such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park to protect some of our biodiversity.


Jim McCormac will present "A Romp through Ohio's Flora and Fauna," with photos, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The presentation is free, and no reservations are required.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sunflower field, various photographic perspectives

Scads of Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brighten a large field just north of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Every fall I see people posting photos of this field, which is owned and planted by the Tecumseh Land Trust, or other such fields. And every year, I fail to make it over to this or any other sunflower field.

Until today.

I met fellow photographer Debbie DiCarlo at the Tecumseh Land Trust field at the crack of dawn, and set about creating images of the golden masses of sunflowers. This species normally towers to epic Jack-in-the-beanstalk proportions, often ten feet or more in height. They must have a stubby cultivar now, as these plants rose to only 4-5 feet or so, making the creation of images much easier.

Anyway, Debbie and I are thinking of partnering to conduct some photographic workshops and trips next year, and ostensibly met today to discuss those. But the sunflower field ended up occupying about three hours of time, and it was worth every minute. Anyway, more on the photo workshops in the future, but they'll all feature very interesting subject matter and locations, and it'll be a pleasure to work with Debbie as she's a fabulous photographer. Check her out HERE.

While shooting traditional shots of the sunflowers was obligatory, and I did so, my main goal was to try WEIRD STUFF. Read on...

Zoom lenses are great tools for creating photographic weirdness, and I spent much of my time experimenting with two Canon lenses: the 16-35mm f/4, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. By using long exposures and twisting the zoom while the shutter is open, one can create some cool (at least to me) blurred distortion shots.

This one was done by using a long exposure and moving the camera horizontally on its tripod mount while the shutter was open. In order to achieve long exposures in fairly bright conditions, I used a three-stop polarizing filter, and a ten-stop filter. The latter is a "black glass" filter that is so dark that you must focus the camera prior to mounting it, as the camera cannot focus through it. That filter allowed me to get up to a 30 second exposure, depending on my aperture and ISO settings.

Another "explosion blur" using the 16-35 lens and zooming from 16mm to 35mm with the shutter open.

This one was made with the 70-200mm, using an eight second shutter speed at f/4 (with the ten-stop filter), and zooming completely in and out multiple times during the exposure.

While this style of imagery may not be everyone's cup of tea, it does allow for an alternative presentation of a landscape that everyone is generally shooting about the same same way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Nature: Known for fur, minks are voracious predators

An American mink in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park

September 3, 2017

Jim McCormac

The American Fur Co. was founded in 1808, and for a brief time in the 1830s, it was one of America’s largest companies. Its success made its founder, John Jacob Astor, the first multimillionaire in the United States.

Although demand for beaver pelts drove much of the American Fur Co.’s business, other mammals were vital to its success, especially the American mink. As the easier-to-trap beaver became increasingly rare, the mink became more important to trappers.

Between 1820 and 1900, the American Fur Co., Hudson’s Bay Co. and other fur purveyors sold about 12.5 million mink pelts.

Fortunately, these large weasels survived the days of indiscriminate trapping and are common today. But they are often wary, largely nocturnal and usually difficult to observe in the wild.

I recently visited Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park to photograph birds, arriving around dawn. I was not long into a grassy trail that weaved through a marsh when who should come bounding down the path? A mink!

Like a semi-psychotic mammalian Slinky, the mink romped along the trail, moving rapidly in exaggerated, undulating bounds.

When it got within 20 feet of my position, the hunter finally noticed me and careened into the cattails, but not before I took a series of photos in the dim light.

Mink belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels and otters. Of Ohio’s regularly occurring mustelids, only the river otter is larger. A big male mink — males are 15 to 20 percent larger than females — can measure 2 1/2 feet from nose to tail tip. It might weigh nearly 3 pounds.

While a 3-pound mammal might not seem like much, in the case of the mink, it’s Genghis Khan, Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun rolled into a well-furred, tubular package. Just ask a muskrat. Even though these aquatic rodents can significantly outweigh a mink, they often fall prey to the voracious predators.

Streams and wetlands are the bailiwicks of mink. The animals play an important role in the food chain, taking fish, amphibians, small mammals, birds and other such fare. Would-be victims are in a tough spot if they land in the sights of a hungry mink, which has speed and the ability to swim and even climb trees.

Few predators will attempt to take a mink, although coyotes and great horned owls might try.

A mink that finds itself among prey aplenty adopts a kill-and-cache strategy. It’ll dispatch everything it can and attempt to hide the uneaten victims. On occasion, the owner of a poorly secured chicken coop learns about mink killing frenzies.

Come early spring, minks become amorous. As befits such a savage animal, the mating process is not lovey-dovey. The male seizes the female, pins her and often bites her neck and head. After she’s survived that rough romance, she’ll deliver four or five pups in an underground burrow.

Humans who act like minks are likely to be institutionalized, and good thing. But we have nothing to fear from these fascinating beasts, although we can be grateful they’re not the size of bears.

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