Today dawned with a chill in the air, and a dense cloak of fog shrouding the landscape. I was up and out early to complete some errands, but when I saw the misty ethereal landscape, plans were tabled. Tossed some camera gear in the vehicle, and headed out to attempt to create some fogscape images along the nearby Olentangy River.
As always, click the image to see at full size (it'll look better)
Robinson Falls, formerly "Corkscrew Falls", Hocking County, Ohio
Finally, after several untapped opportunities, I am presenting my first public exhibition of photography. The exhibit will be housed at the Lowe-Volk Nature Center in Crestline, Ohio, and will debut Saturday, January 27. It runs through February 24. Thanks to Josh Dyer of the Crawford (County) Park District for the invite, and prod. Also, at 1 pm on January 27 at the same place, I will present a program entitled "A Romp through Ohio's Flora and Fauna". The photo gallery is basically a microcosm of the talk - a showcase of the fascinating biodiversity of Ohio. All are welcome and I hope to see you there!
Scroll on for some examples...
The colorful, architecturally ornate flowers of purple fringeless orchid, Platanthera peramoena
I selected 43 images, all of which were taken in Ohio in 2017. So, the pictures are hot off the press, and cover a wide range of flora, fauna, and landscapes. All of the images will be for sale, neatly mounted on 1/4" foamboard, frame-ready.
Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, in flight
It was a challenge entering my archive of thousands of digital photos, spanning nearly 15 years, and selecting just a couple of dozen images. Hence, the decision to only use Ohio material, and only from the year just past.
A mountain chorus frog, Pseudacris brachyphona, rasps out its surprisingly loud song
Many of the photos will be printed at up 16 x 24 inches, to better display the subject. I also plan on having brief descriptions to accompany each image.
A pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar, Eumorpha pandorus, rears its head. It feeds only on members of the grape family
While there is plenty of showy landscapes and well known wildlife, I've peppered the exhibit with many lesser known animals. The underdogs deserve a showing, too.
An Ohio rarity, the "prairie pigeon" Franklin's gull, Leucophaeus pipixcan, is a long distance migrant that breeds primarily in the prairie pothole region of the north-central U.S. and adjacent Canadian provinces
I hope you can stop by and see the photos, and if you can make it next Saturday for the talk, I'll look forward to seeing you! Details about Lowe-Volk Nature Center can be found RIGHT HERE.
The west entrance to one of North America's great protected wildlands, Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I made a whirlwind trip here over the last week - a journey I could be writing about for some time. There were other stops, including Niagara Falls which was a mind-numbingly beautiful icy wonderland, and Lake Ontario near Toronto. There, scores of long-tailed ducks and other fowl congregated.
But it isn't everyday one gets a "life mammal", at least someone like me, who has made an effort to see mammals for a long time. So, if I post nothing else about this northern foray, I will at least share this new mammal, an extraordinary beast by any accounting.
Ontario Route 60 slices through the park, and the scenery along its entirety is stunning. There was a fair bit of snow but not that much, so getting around wasn't too tough. One mammal to watch for while driving is moose. The massive beasts are frequently seen along 60, and sometimes come to the roadside to lick salt in winter. Didn't see any on this expedition, though.
Sunday evening turned out to be crisp and clear - a frosty minus 10 F. The utter lack of light pollution in Algonquin means that night skies are bold and vibrant, and celestial bodies can be seen in a way that they no longer can in much of North America.
Photographing such a sky was irresistible so out we went into the cold. This image is a composite of 16 exposures, each made at ISO 800, 30 seconds, and f/2.8. I used my Canon 5D IV, and Canon's sensational 24mm f/1.4 lens. This lens is amazing for astrophotography, despite what more than a few "experts" on various photography Internet sites claim. The trick is to stop it down to at least f/2, and f/2.8 works better. Then, it is scarily sharp.
A true bird of the far north, the gray jay. These tame corvids were fixtures around campgrounds and anywhere that people frequented, but there are plenty more of them off the beaten path. Gray jays deal well with cold - it had been something like minus 30 F a few days prior - and routinely encounter temperatures plunging below 0 F. Biologists have been conducting research with the Algonquin birds for about three decades, and it's hard to find a jay that isn't ornamented with bands on both legs. This one had 'em, but has its feet and legs tucked in to keep them toasty.
Another denizen of the north woods and a sought after species by birders, the spruce grouse. This bird was one of three males foraging in a white spruce, and they were eventually joined by a hen. Spruce grouse specialize in feeding on the needles of spruce and pine. They are incredibly tame, which led to one of their nicknames, "fool hen". Such tameness makes them easy photo subjects - if you luck into one. When not out feeding, they often retreat into dense boughs near trunks, and you'd never know they were there.
Here it is - the American marten, the protagonist of this post! I had heard that martens were fairly plentiful in Algonquin, and not only that, they would frequent campgrounds, picnic areas and such. So, there was always a chance of at least getting glimpses of these stout weasels.
We had stopped at a picnic area with a complement of various trash and recycling bins to look for birds, when a rapid scurrying movement caught our eye. We had caught a marten unawares, and it rapidly dashed into the paper recycling bin!
I knew he/she would be back out sooner than later - they are curious beasts - so we retreated to distant cover and waited. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the triangular-faced weasel popped from his box to scan the surroundings.
After a while, the marten jumped down to the snow's surface and began snuffling about. This was awesome in the extreme, and I had secreted myself behind the forked trunk of a maple, with my camera lens poked through the fork. The mammal apparently didn't know I was there, permitting an excellent series of shots.
Martens are about the same size as a mink, but look more robust to me. An adult like this measures about two feet in length, with males being somewhat larger. The bushy tail adds another half-foot. A big one weighs around three pounds. Their tri-toned coloration is striking: whitish face and bib, black legs and tail, and yellowish-brown body.
PHOTO TIP: When shooting wary subjects - as was this marten, movements or sounds sent him scurrying back into his lair - use "silent" drive mode on your camera. It isn't truly silent, but probably cuts the sound of the shutter by half. Shooting off high-speed continuous bursts without muffling the sound will often send shy subjects fleeing, if you're close. The downside to silent drive mode is you lose several frames a second in burst mode, but that's often not a big deal, at least with slower-moving subjects.
As fantastically good fortune would have it, we found another marten, and this one was bolder. Martens are voracious carnivores, feeding on mice, voles, and even prey up to the size of snowshoe hares. But they'll eat seeds and other vegetation, and that's what this one was foraging for.
A snowy muzzle gives away the marten's feeding behavior - the hole he dug in the snow to reach the ground can be seen. While the first marten would run into hiding at the first sign of movement or noise, this one was far bolder. Here, he takes pause to scrutinize your narrator, but quickly returned to his hunting.
While martens may look cute and cuddly, a glance at their impressive set of teeth should shatter that illusion. You certainly would not want to be a small rodent and find yourself in a marten's path.
American marten (formerly pine marten) once occurred in Ohio. There are at least two specimen records from Ashtabula County, and one from Ross County. It's likely that they disappeared by 1850. By then, Ohio would have been at the southern periphery of their distribution, and it may be that most remaining animals were trapped out for their fur. Now, the southern border of the marten's range is considerably farther north and it'll be interesting to see if the range keeps contracting northward in future years.
Last Saturday, I made my umpteenth million trip to Lake Erie, that great water body that sits about two hours to my north. The lake is an irresistible draw, especially for one who is deeply into birds. Of the 420+ species that have been found in Ohio to date, well over 400 have occurred along Lake Erie.
Many of my excursions to our 4th largest Great Lake (by far the smallest, by water volume) have been in winter. Conditions can be brutal, but if you're willing to tough it out, the rewards are often great. I had no doubt that this day, January 6, would be a bit nippy. At one point on the drive up, near Lodi, the mercury registered - (minus!) 11 F!
By the time I arrived at Miller Park, in the shadow of the big power plant at Avon Lake, it had warmed to 5 F. Offsetting that warming trend were strong icy winds blasting across frozen Lake Erie from the north. Warm water outflows from the plant always keep a big patch of water from freezing, and winter birding is always interesting at this spot. Unfortunately, insofar as photography went, the copious puffs and tendrils of steam resulting from the clash between "warm" water and cold air precluded much in the way of shooting birds.
No matter, I spent two hours at the end of the pier watching the avian show. Lots of the true feathered tough guys gamboled about as if on a Floridian spring break. Herring gulls were abundant, having usurped the ring-billed gull's normal rank as commonest gull, as is always the case when true winter sets in. Lots of giant great black-backed gulls were about, looking nearly eaglesque from afar. A few ghostly arctic larids made the scene, a pair of glaucous gulls and an Iceland gull. There were scores of mergansers, both common and red-breasted, and many common goldeneyes. The latter is sometimes known as "whistler" due to the distinctive quavering sound produced by their wings in flight - a sound I was treated to on several occasions. As nearly always, a rogue American coot was toughing it out - world's toughest rail!
When it gets as cold as it's been, fantastic ice formations develop. This hunter's blind at Lorain Harbor is encased in frozen water, and large windrows of ice can be seen on Lake Erie in the backdrop.
In my last post, I wrote about birds' adaptability to cold. These Canada geese demonstrate winter hardiness. As soon as I walked onto the pier at Miller Park, I was struck by the spectacle of these ice-covered geese lolling about, resting and snoozing. It was 5 F and windy when I made this photo. The geese illustrate the supreme insulating effects of feathers.
After Avon Lake, it was back to the Jeep to warm up on the short drive west to Lorain, and its harbor. As an aside, about a year ago I got a 2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, which is proving to be a supreme winter vehicle. One of its bells among the whistles is a heated steering wheel. When those started showing up on cars, I considered it an excessive bauble. Not anymore. Greatest hand-warmer there is, after an extended immersion into polar temperatures.
Upon arrival to Lorain Harbor, I noticed a sizable elongate dark smudge on the ice, as seen in the above photograph. A polynya - packed with fowl! Aside II: "Polynya" is a Russian word that refers to an open water patch among sea ice. It's a great word that was brought into the birder lexicon when it was discovered in 1995 that spectacled eiders, whose whereabouts in winter was previously a mystery, were overwintering on polynyas in the Bering Sea. I see no reason why it can't be adapted to freshwater conditions.
Anyway, back to our Lake Erie polynya and its occupants. Mergansers! By the boatload! You can count up the individuals in this photo - I'm not! - and extrapolate, but there must have been a few thousand birds in this lead. The majority were red-breasted mergansers, although their ranks were spiced with a fair number of common mergansers. One thing is for sure - if you were a fish, you would NOT want to swim under this hole!
Here's a tight shot of the ever-shifting pack, using a gleaming white male common merganser as a centerpiece. Sharp-eyed birders will pick out some hen common mergs among the masses. The latter have brighter rufous heads, and a much cleaner demarcation between the white throat and rusty head than do the female red-breasted mergansers.
I spent quite some time watching this amazing frenzy of life in an otherwise frozen landscape. Birds were always coming and going - how do they take off and land in this crowd?! - and I bet the underwater view of the feeding birds would be incredible. There's a challenge for a serious aquatic videographer!
The exceptionally frigid weather of late reminds me, as it always does, how tough the feathered crowd is. When the mercury plummets to zero or below, one wonders how birds survive. It’s 1 degree Fahrenheit outside as I write this, and I’d surely not want to overnight out there.
But not only do birds survive Arctic chills, most of them thrive. At least those that linger.
Far fewer species occur in Ohio in winter than any other season. Most birds migrate to warmer, more food-rich climes. Some may only venture a few states southward; others might go all the way to the tropics. They’ll return when days lengthen and food supplies increase.
Half-hardy species can be “fair-weather” migrants, such as blackbirds, turkey vultures and eastern bluebirds. If winter conditions turn brutal, many of them flee south. They may remain in mild winters.
Waterbirds such as ducks, herons and gulls have little choice but to bail out when water turns to ice, as it is now. Still, if any open pockets remain, such as below dams, there will be lingerers. It’s bone-chilling to watch a mallard or ring-billed gull cavorting in freezing water in single-digit temps, acting as if it’s on a Florida beach.
Birds have a physiological mechanism that helps them cope with cold: a specialized circulatory system called the rete mirabile, a Latin term meaning “wonderful net.” Dense meshlike arteries and veins in the feet and legs efficiently circulate warm blood, thus preventing freezing.
Birds’ feathers are magical insulators. Imagine wearing a heated sleeping bag. A dense layer of down feathers traps and retains body heat. Overlapping the down, like shingles, are various contour feathers. These further prevent heat loss, shield against icy gusts and repel water.
Behavior helps, too. Birds will often alternate tucking their legs into dense feathers when at rest, an effective warming tactic. They’ll fluff their down to elephantine proportions, becoming fat, toasty butterballs.
Of course, food is the fuel that stokes avian fires and gives them the energy to combat frigid winter weather. American robins, European starlings and cedar waxwings form nomadic flocks, moving between fruit trees. Seed-eaters often become more plentiful at backyard feeders during cold snaps. Blue jays, nuthatches and red-headed woodpeckers tap into caches of seeds they hid in the fall. Open pockets of water can be packed with gulls and ducks seeking fish and aquatic plants.
Perhaps the most amazing of our wintering songbirds is the golden-crowned kinglet. One of these Lilliputs is just 4 inches long and weighs the same as a quarter. An Ohio winter is their tropical vacation. Most kinglets breed in the broad swath of coniferous forest spanning Canada and the northern United States.
Remarkably, kinglets are almost entirely insectivorous. They are adept at locating insects and their larvae, especially caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars. A number of species of inchworms overwinter on branches, freezing solid, and emerging from their cryogenic state when temperatures warm. Many fall prey to sharp-eyed kinglets.
To help survive long, cold winter nights, kinglets sometimes huddle together under snow-capped conifer needles, creating their own microclimate.
Perhaps toughest of all songbirds is the horned lark. These birds frequent wide-open agricultural wastelands, where they forage for seeds. Howling winds, polar temperatures and snow cover do not deter them. Come nightfall and plunging mercury, larks huddle in earthen divots, or even become covered with snow, which helps insulate them.
Cold as you may be watching them, don’t worry much about the birds. They’ve been dealing with frosty winters far longer than we have.
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.
A tiny golden-crowned kinglet foraging in single-digit temperatures/Jim McCormac
The polar blast continues here in Columbus, Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. It's 10 F as I write this, and will drop below zero tomorrow night. It's been frigid for a while - a true winter! - although it is projected to warm significantly next week.
I've been working through photos from a Florida trip of last February - paring the wheat from the chaff, labeling, and archiving. Just looking at all of these Floridian birds makes me feel warmer, and the images bring back memories of basking in balmy Sunshine State weather, often only arm's length from excellent subjects. If you like to photograph birds, it's hard to beat Florida.
All of these, with the exception of the burrowing owls, were shot at either Ding Darling on Sanibel Island, or Gatorland near Orlando. The owls were some of the many that call Cape Coral home.
The drive through Ding Darling produces LOTS of birds, and lots of photo ops. Here, from L to R, is a white ibis, snowy egret, and great egret - studies in elegant whites.
A snowy egret, yellow slippers on display, drops in for a landing.
Gotta love the wild head of plumes on a snowy egret. I came back from this trip with many thousands of images, thanks to numerous encounters with photogenic beasts such as this.
A tricolored heron rages through the shallows. This is a hyperactive hunter, chasing prey, flapping wings wildly, and in general acting spastic. Quite a contrast to the much more sedate, studied tactics of a great blue heron.
A goggle-eyed juvenile yellow-crowned night-heron lurks at the edge of some mangroves. It, as should be surmised from the name and huge eyes, does most of its hunting after dark.
As always, click the photo to enlarge. And in this case, admire the amazing cerulean-blue eye of this white ibis.
Two of the many burrowing owls that make Cape Coral home stand sentinel at the entrance to their burrow. This city - either the largest or second-largest of any in Florida by acreage! - harbors a large population of these subterranean nesters, and I've written more about them RIGHT HERE.
Perhaps no one knows as much about southern flying squirrels as Don Althoff. The professor of biology at Rio Grande College in southern Ohio has devoted two decades of study to these fascinating mammals.
I spent one early-December day shadowing Althoff as he conducted squirrel research in the rugged, forested hills of rural Athens County. We weren’t alone. The squirrels intrigue many of his students, and at least 15 of them joined us.
While largely out of sight and mind, flying squirrels are often the most common of our squirrels, at least in wooded habitats. They frequently occur in well-treed urban neighborhoods, including many in Columbus and its suburbs.
But southern flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal. Sometimes they’ll visit bird feeders, and if the feeders are lit by nightlights, people may notice them. Sometimes slathering peanut butter on tree trunks lures them in — Jif is irresistible to the elfin fliers.
A flying squirrel is much smaller than the more familiar, daytime-active gray and fox squirrels, which outweigh them by factors of 9 and 11, respectively. When seen in the flesh, a flying squirrel appears impossibly tiny: a lemur-eyed woodland sprite appended with a miniature beaver tail.
The indefatigable Dr. Althoff goes to great lengths to connect with his subjects. He has hung dozens of wooden nest boxes at five southeastern Ohio sites, all of which are far from the beaten path. Each box is about 12 feet aloft, tacked to a tree trunk.
Working a “squirrel trail” means lugging a large ladder and various research gear through dense woods and up and down steep slopes.
During the day, the squirrels hole up in cavities and readily adopt artificial boxes. Our expedition inspected 25 of them, and four boxes contained a total of 19 squirrels. The wee beasts are highly social and prone to sharing cavities. Althoff’s record is 13 in one box.
Between the mammals’ shared body heat and the insulating effect of plant material they place in the cavity, the inner box temperature remains quite toasty — an advantage on frigid winter days.
When researchers arrive at a box, they prop a ladder into place and go up. They quickly plug the entrance hole and bring down the box. An Althoff-engineered tube system safely funnels the squirrels from the box, and each is inspected, its weight and sex recorded. Each also gets a small ear tag for future identification and is photographed and released.
A squirrel’s liberation is interesting. After being placed on a tree trunk, it’ll typically scamper high at lightning speed. Then, earthbound observers are sometimes treated to a spectacular glide.
Flying squirrels are endowed with a membranous web of skin, called a patagium, between their fore and hind legs. When an animal throws its legs out upon launch, it becomes a mammalian parasail.
While the furry batmen can’t sustain flight, their glides can span hundreds of feet. They adeptly jig and jag to avoid limbs and trees, and sail unerringly to a desired target. Just before the squirrel lands, it throws its flat, wide tail upward, which acts as an air brake. Upon landing it runs to the opposite side of the trunk — perhaps a built-in behavior to thwart owls that might be in pursuit.
The only comprehensive treatise on Ohio’s mammals is Jack Gottschang’s book “A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio” (1981). In the southern flying squirrel account, he states, “No one has studied it in detail in Ohio.”
I’m glad there are intellectually curious researchers such as Althoff who attempt to unravel the mysteries of little-known creatures such as flying squirrels. Because of his work, we better understand their abundance, population cycles, reproduction, food requirements and preferred habitats.
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.