Monday, November 27, 2017

Photography workshops and expeditions 2018!

A Baltimore oriole is nicely accentuated by the flowers of a chokecherry, Prunus virginiana.

I am pleased to announce that master photographer Debbie DiCarlo and I are partnering to present a series of field-based photography workshops in 2018. Nearly all of the details have been settled, and you can see the offerings and details RIGHT HERE.

Both Debbie and I have extensive experience with helping others to improve their photography, and very much enjoy working with photographers of all levels. We each bring different skill sets to the table; Debbie is one of the premier landscape and night sky photographers, and plenty of evidence of her skills can be seen at her website, RIGHT HERE. I tend to specialize more in species-specific photography, but certainly cross-pollinate my work with forays into about every photographic facet, as does Debbie.

A colorful carpet of blue-eyed mary, Collinsia verna.

These workshops  focus on Nature and its many facets: spring wildflowers, butterflies, waterfalls, night skies and other landscapes, mammals, birds - nothing is out of bounds even though each trip has a focus. Each workshop ventures to places that Debbie, I, or both of us are intimately familiar with, so we can lead participants to the best hotspots and maximize our time afield.

A stunning rock formation in the Hocking Hills.

One thing is for certain when it comes to practicing the craft of natural history photography: The more one knows about nature, the better the nature photographer they will become. So, not only will we learn to better our photographic skills, we will also learn loads about natural history. We will attach names to nearly all of our subjects - stump me if you can :-) - and learn more about the subtleties of habitats, where to best find certain targets, the sounds of nature, and habits of animals.

A western Ohio prairie in its full midsummer glory.

We've given a lot of thought and planning to the details of each trip, to ensure maximum bang for the buck. We also will strive to do our best to make these workshops FUN! After all, that's why most of us pursue photography - it's an enjoyable and rewarding respite from the daily routine. Our photos can also serve to entice others to take an interest in the natural world, thus imbuing our work with a higher purpose.

Cameras are complex mechanical and electronic organisms, and it's tough to learn how to take full advantage of all the features that they offer. Yet with a bit of coaching, one's photographs can improve tremendously with the same amount of time and effort. Mentoring can also be extremely useful in learning to "see" both Nature's smallest details, and the epic scope of big landscapes.

Debbie and I love working with photographers of all levels, especially newer practitioners. Group sizes will be small, to ensure all participants see and photograph everything, and so that we can work easily with everyone.

For complete workshop details, and to register, GO HERE. And please pass the word!

A ruby-throated hummingbird taps nectar from a statuesque royal catchfly, Silene regia. Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of this spectacular prairie plant.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count: December 16

Your narrator's car - several years back - sits along a rarely traveled lane in rural Jackson County, Ohio. I was searching for birds during the Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This census, which is part of the National Audubon Society's massive effort to conduct winter bird surveys from roughly mid-December through early January, is one of several dozen such counts in Ohio. And it is one of the more interesting ones, as the Beaver circle is sparsely populated, and contains a diversity of habitats.

This year's Beaver CBC falls on Saturday, December 16 and you are invited. If you are interested in joining one of the teams, please send me an email: jimmccormac35 AT

Below is a (somewhat crude) map of the count circle:

Click to expand image

We nearly always find interesting species, especially half-hardy birds like pine warbler, Wilson's snipe, eastern phoebe, gray catbird, chipping sparrow, and more. In general, the count circle is a birdy place and it's a fun area to spend a day birding.

Jackson Lake, one of the count's water features. We always conduct the count as early as possible within the CBC time frame, to maximize the chance of lingering migrants, and to better ensure unfrozen water.

Again, if you'd like to help, just send me an email and we'll put you on the team.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nature: Green Lawn Cemetery’s majestic old trees leave lasting impression

Randy Rogers provides scale for the Green Lawn Cemetery tree estimated to be about 313 years old

November 19, 2017

Jim McCormac

A century before Ohio became a state, a white oak acorn fell on gravelly terrain in what’s now the southwest side of Columbus. The following year, 1704, the fruit sprouted and a seedling arose.

That year, the first regular newspaper in the thirteen colonies was printed: the Boston News-Letter. One hundred sixty-seven years would elapse before the first edition of The Dispatch appeared.

Seven decades after the oak’s emergence, Americans, chafing under British rule, would fight for independence. By the time the Revolutionary War broke out, the acorn had matured into a large oak.

When the acorn sprouted in 1704, Ohio was pure wilderness. The city of Columbus’ predecessor, Franklinton, would not be platted until 93 years later, and it was 15 more until the “Borough of Columbus” was established.

This oak still stands, aged an estimated 313 years and witness to extraordinary change. Its gnarled, massive boughs stretch crazily from an elephantine trunk, the upper branches scraping the sky. The botanical Methuselah is one of the oldest trees in the state.

Fortunately for it and neighboring old-growth trees, Green Lawn Cemetery’s sprawling 360 acres includes them. Ohio’s second-largest cemetery was opened in 1849.

Burial grounds are sacred places, not subject to clear-cutting. So, beneficiaries of incidental conservation, the big timber was spared the ax: Twenty-seven other oaks exceed 200 years of age, and over 90 more are centenarians.

Because of its scores of huge trees, Green Lawn also serves as an arboretum. The cemetery has long been known for its wildlife value and as a birding Mecca. The originator of this column, Edward S. Thomas, wrote many pieces about the birds he found here. Thomas’ final resting place is near the fabled pond in the cemetery’s midst.

I’ve been visiting the cemetery since I was a kid and have made probably hundreds of trips over the years. Like many others, I’ve got lots of good memories of seeing great birds there, including numerous rare species.

Because of Green Lawn’s dual identity as a park and because of the numerous wildlife-watchers it draws, conservationists have long had a role on the cemetery board. Local physician and birder nonpareil Bernard Master began this tradition in 1995, serving for six years.

I replaced Bernie in 2000 and was on the board for 12 years. Randy Rogers followed me in 2011 and has been a dynamo, often spending 40 hours a week on cemetery business.

Rogers and I met at the cemetery on a recent frosty fall day and inspected the ancient oak and other mammoth trees. Our foray also produced numerous intriguing nuggets of human history. Residents include a who’s who of famous Ohioans.

Five governors are interred at Green Lawn, as is James Thurber, Eddie Rickenbacker, industrialist Samuel Bush (President George H.W. Bush’s grandfather), architect Frank Packard and many other notables.

A trip through Green Lawn Cemetery is always interesting. Its giant trees provide spectacle, and peppered throughout are historical points of interest courtesy of the many famous residents. Visitation is encouraged. Information can be found at

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

Further afield
• Jim McCormac and Green Lawn board member Randy Rogers will lead a trip through the cemetery on Dec. 2. They’ll visit the largest, oldest trees and various points of human interest. All are welcome. Meet at 10 a.m. at the administration building just inside the gates at 1000 Greenlawn Ave.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Native bees do the heavy lifting

A sunny roadbank covered with a spring-blooming fleabane known as robin's-plantain, Erigeron pulchellus. The flowers of this species, and the similar Philadelphia fleabane, E. philadelphicus, lure scores of interesting native pollinators.

I have a massive archive of natural history photographs, and have learned to not let them pile up without curation. Nonetheless, a bit of a backlog has accumulated and I've been trying to spend some time each day whittling away at them. When everything is neatly labeled and placed in the appropriate folder, I can lay hands on anything in no time flat. Anyway, today I was working through an unprocessed folder of stuff from Shawnee State Forest (Scioto County, Ohio) from April 26 of last spring (2017).

Reviewing these images reminded me of the hour or so I spent prostrate on the ground, watching and photographing a constant procession of tiny native bees to the fleabane flowers. And once again, I was reminded just how vital these largely unnoticed insects are to the health of our native plant communities.

A small sweat bee in the Halictidae family (I think) works over the tiny button of disk flowers of a Philadelphia fleabane.

Nonnative honeybees, Apis mellifera, are certainly the best-known pollinators among the general public. However, these social hive-dwellers are probably of little consequence to the pollination of our native flora. While they certainly do visit native flowers, their role in pollination of these plants is probably not critical. Honeybees' primary importance is in pollinating nonnative plant crops. It's the myriad native bees and other insects, mostly ignored, that do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollination of native plants.

Note the pollen grains adhering to this sweat bee (take my names with a grain of salt; there are numerous very similar families of bees and I won't masquerade as an expert). By just lying in this spot for 10-15 minutes, I could watch a nonstop procession of hardworking little bees stopping by.

The underside of this bee is totally cloaked in a dense layer of pollen. One can only imagine how many flowers it has successfully cross-pollinated. Multiply this worker by tens of thousands (millions?) and the scope and scale of its species' value to plants, just in the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest, becomes apparent.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in our native bees. Written by Heather Holm, it contains a wealth of information about the identification and natural history of our various groups of bees, along with great information on native plants. Get a copy HERE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mink punks muskrat, scares ducks!

The tranquil waters of the pond at Char-Mar Ridge Park in Delaware County, Ohio. I made my second visit to this site yesterday, and left scratching my head as to why I've not been here more often. It's only 20-25 minutes away, and the place can be a goldmine for bird photography. There is a fantastic roofed observation blind - where I made the shot above - and it's one of the best-sited blinds that I've seen. Not only is it in a great location, but is positioned such that the light, especially in early morning in spring and fall, is ideally suited for lighting subjects on the pond.

UPDATE: A little while back, I wrote a piece about another Preservation Parks of Delaware County site, Shale Hollow Park. That column, which appeared in the Columbus Dispatch and which I shared on this blog, HERE, touted the virtues of the park district and its holdings. I am pleased to say that one week later, Delaware County voters overwhelming approved passage of a park levy continuation, along with a small increase, by a 62% to 38% margin. People do like their parks and wild spaces and we need to do all we can to support effective conservation organizations.

Back to the subject at hand. A stunning quartet of hooded mergansers - two drakes bookending a pair of hens - steams along between underwater fishing forays. They, and numerous wood ducks, were my primary quarry on this day. Persistent autumn foliage is still tinting the water with color, making for nice waterfowl photo ops.

When I arrived at the blind shortly after sunrise and cast my eyes on the scene out front, one of the first thoughts that I had was "this looks perfect for a mink!" These aggressive weasels love to hunt along shorelines of ponds, lakes, and wetlands, and I've seen them in such settings numerous times. Here would be a great potential photo opportunity if one of the tubular beasts would make an appearance.

Sometime later in the morning, a fellow photographer, Victoria Koroleva, appeared in the blind. I had not previously met her but had seen her work on Facebook. One of the great things about Zuckerberg's massive social media outlet is it often "introduces" people before they actually meet for real, and this was one of those cases. At some point I verbalized my mink-aura feelings to Victoria, and it wasn't much later that she exclaimed "look! a mink!"

The mink appears, just across a narrow arm of the pond. This was a wonderful opportunity to observe the beast without it being alarmed, as it didn't know we were there. Mink, for all practical purposes, are raging psychopathic homicidal well-furred mammalian slinkies. They rapidly bound about with an exaggerated undulating gait, exploring all nooks and crannies and prepared to pounce with murderous intent as soon as a victim shows itself.

The mink rapidly moved along the bank, poking under logs and occasionally pausing to scan its surroundings. Interestingly, on a few occasions it dove into the shallow water along the pond's edge, temporarily disappearing from sight. I think I know what it was looking for.

Soon after the mink turned a corner of the pond and vanished from sight, we saw a muskrat rapidly swimming towards the middle of the pond from the immediate direction of the mink. Once it got out there, it paused and just floated motionless low in the water for five minutes or so. I'd not seen this behavior from a muskrat before, but it wasn't hard to decipher what was going on.

I imagine the mink's underwater dives were to search out and enter the burrows of muskrats. The latter often create subterranean lairs with the entrance under the water. Mink are said to be quite fond of muskrat meat and are more than capable of killing them. I suspect the mink nearly caught this 'skrat unaware, and the rodent fled to deeper water and a strategic advantage. It's probably a very lucky muskrat.

After a while, the muskrat paddled back to shore and hauled out on a log. And there he sat for quite some time, not moving a muscle and casting wary glances about before finally disappearing.

As the mink continued its shoreline rampage, it eventually got into a sheltered cove at the rear of the pond where many of the ducks retreat. The fowl apparently didn't like the ferocious weasel either, and suddenly a cloud of ducks skittered out of there and onto the pond's open waters, including this pair of gadwall.

It's fascinating to watch the dynamics of a situation when a dangerous alpha predator appears. Just about all of the animals go on alert, or outright flee to safer spots. The mink was a wonderful addition to an already fantastic outing, and to watch it in action, acting naturally, was a huge perk.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Earthstar fungus

A bizarre but strangely showy earthstar fungus, Astraeus spp. (probably A. hygrometricus) graces dry sandy soil in the Oak Openings of northwest Ohio. From my experience these interesting fungi are not very common, and thus always a treat to come across.

Although I've got - as always - an abundance of material, it's been tough to make time to share much of it here. Lots of things going on, including some big new endeavors that are taking much time. More on that stuff later.

Back on October 19, I made an all too rare foray into the biodiverse habitats of the Oak Openings just west of Toledo, Ohio. This expansive sandy region, carpeted with prairies, wetlands, and savannas, is a treasure trove of unusual flora and fauna. I have spent untold hours in this region, but not much time in recent years. Thus, it was great to connect with local natural history enthusiast and fellow blogger Kim Smith and venture into a new addition to The Nature Conservancy's fabled Kitty Todd Preserve. Our main target was the day-flying buck moth, Hemileuca maia, which occurs there in big numbers. There were plenty of distractions along the way, one of the most notable being this cool fungus.

One of the dry, open sand prairies hosted dozens of earthstars, and naturally it was incumbent upon us to stop and admire them, and make some photos. This fungus resembles a starfish, or perhaps a muted ground-dwelling flower clad in tones of ocher. The whitish central disk or ball contains the spores, and the one in this image has already ruptured. The jagged opening in the center of the puffball is where the windborne spores exited en masse.

While the earthstars often grow on barren sand or dirt, they'll sometimes be in or near mosses such as this haircap moss in the genus Polytrichum, which makes for showier photo ops. And we're all about showier photo ops here.

I fear this bit of photographic expression might be getting a bit overplayed but what the heck. Here is the same photo as the previous, but "twirled" using a recipe of various Photoshop trickery. It does look pretty cool if you ask me, but the fungus sans the artistic license probably looks even cooler.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Nature: Long-flying godwits make rare pit stop near Toledo

A juvenile Hudsonian godwit at Maumee Bay State Park

November 5, 2017

Jim McCormac

The average American flies about 1,500 miles per year. That figure is dwarfed by the travels of certain birds.

In mid-October, I spent time with one of the world’s great long-haul migrants, the Hudsonian godwit. These Pinocchio-billed sandpipers travel more than 10 times the average annual air miles of jet-assisted humans.

Rick Nirschl, an ace naturalist in Toledo, had reported Hudsonian godwits from Maumee Bay State Park, just east of Toledo. As I had business in the area, I stopped to look for the birds.

Soon after arriving at the park beach, I heard the distinctive calls of godwits. The slightly comical sound is like an amped-up kitten putting the hurt on a squeaky toy.

Three of the big shorebirds soon materialized, whooshing by at high speed as they investigated the situation before setting down. In flight, the godwits revealed their striking black-and-white wing pattern and long, powerful wings.

Eventually the godwits gracefully landed in shallow water just off the beach and began preening. I and fellow photographer Kim Smith went prostrate on the sand to minimize our profiles, and soon the birds had wandered into close range.

While clicking photos, I admired the handsome birds. The Hudsonian godwit is the smallest of the world’s four godwit species, but it’s still hefty. It dwarfs our best-known shorebird, the killdeer, outweighing that species by a factor of three.

Perhaps the godwit’s most-striking feature is its huge bill. This long, upswept appendage is probably a third of the length of the bird’s body. A feeding godwit often plunges its beak deep into the mire, seeking small invertebrate animal life.

The bird is named for Hudson Bay, where the first specimen was procured in the early 1800s. Fieldwork in the intervening two centuries has shown that this species has small, widely scattered breeding populations in boreal and arctic regions of Alaska and Canada.

The bird is named for Hudson Bay, where the first specimen was procured in the early 1800s. Fieldwork in the intervening two centuries has shown that this species has small, widely scattered breeding populations in boreal and arctic regions of Alaska and Canada.

Pioneer ornithologist John James Audubon said this of the godwit: “I had never seen it in the flesh, until I went to Boston in 1832, when I found specimens of it in the market late in September.” Mass harvesting of easily shot shorebirds decimated the ranks of many species, and the practice continued well into the 20th century. Hudsonian godwit numbers may have never fully recovered from the indiscriminate shooting.

The trio of birds we saw, one of which is pictured with this column, were juveniles born somewhere several thousand miles north of Ohio last summer. Adult godwits depart breeding areas before the juveniles. In a mind-bending feat of migration, the young birds make their way to the other end of the world, unguided, thanks to a genetically encoded GPS system.

It’s possible the godwits we saw flew from Maumee Bay to northern South America — an epic flight of several days and several thousand miles. Eventually they will join others of their ilk in Tierra del Fuego province in southern Argentina.

Most godwits fly over most of the U.S. and other populated regions, hence the relative scarcity of observations. When they do stop to refuel, birds often spend several days feeding and fattening up for the long flights ahead.

Protection of wetlands used by godwits in migration is vital to their conservation, just as much as is protection of breeding and wintering grounds. Scores of other species also benefit by preserving these wetlands.

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummingbird - only one record, from Chillicothe from October 28 - November 1, 2002. So in a case like this, the Rufous Hummingbird would be the go-to suspect.

As I understand it, birder Bryan Sharp, who is familiar with Calliope Hummingbird from time spent out west, saw photos and pegged the identification, thus triggering many cases of rarity fever. I was traveling and out and about, but returned yesterday to various messages informing me of the find, and as it's only about 25 minutes away, shot up late in the afternoon. It was a treat to clap eyes on a Calliope Hummingbird again. The little sprite is the smallest bird found north of the Mexican border, weighing less than a ping-pong ball.

Fortunately Tania kept up the feeder late into fall, and her supply of sugar-water forms the nucleus of the bird's turf. It is amazingly tame and perches for extended periods on a wire by the feeder, or in an adjacent lilac bush. The bird has been present for the better part of a week.

I also want to make note of the Perrys' generosity. A rarity of this magnitude generates an avalanche of interest, and is sure to attract lots of visitors. Tania and Corey have briefed the neighbors, organized parking, and delineated a convenient viewing area which will offer wonderful views of the hummingbird. Would only all backyard rarities appear at the homes of such gracious hosts.

The little fellow offers another interesting pose. It's hard to grasp just how small these elfin puffballs are until one is seen in person. As a point of comparison, in terms of weight it would take 31 Calliope Hummingbirds to equal a Blue Jay. Or 2,444 of them to match a Tundra Swan. The Calliope Hummingbird averages about 15% smaller than our familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird. That's dinky.

I spent much time watching the wee beast like a hawk through my camera, awaiting telling postures. Such diligence allowed me to capture this pose, which shows the tail well. I knew that Allen Chartier, a hummingbird bander and expert, would likely be able to definitively age and sex the bird from shots like this, so I sent some along to him. Allen's prognosis: hatch-year male, based on the shape and coloration of the retrices (tail feathers).

As I write this, at 1:20 pm on Wednesday, November 1st, the bird is present and being observed. Presently it is rainy and about 42 F. The weather is supposed to be rainy/overcast for a few days, but with temperatures warming into the 60's F over the next few days. Small they may be, but Calliope Hummingbirds are tough as nails, breeding in western montane regions where evening temperatures regularly plunge to freezing or below.

This range map shows just how errant our little hummingbird is. But it is part of a well-established pattern of western hummingbirds appearing far to the east of their normal ranges. There have been a number of Calliope Hummingbird records east of the Mississippi River, and I'm kind of surprised it took 15 years to generate another Ohio sighting following the inaugural 2002 record.

An excellent place to keep apprised of this hummingbird's status is the Facebook Ohio Chase Birds site.