Sunday, February 25, 2018

Red bat, in flight!

Last Monday, Debbie DiCarlo and I were doing some pre-casing of field sites for our photo workshop (CLICK HERE for more info), which began the following day. She had not seen the fabulous and expansive Clear Creek Metropark, so we buzzed in for a quick overview. We weren't long on Clear Creek Road, which follows the stream of the same name, when an eastern red bat zoomed out of nowhere and right over the vehicle!

I tossed the Jeep to the side of the road and out we leapt, to better see this amazing aerial beast. It didn't disappoint. The bat was actively feeding on this unseasonably warm winter day (mid-70's F!), and was patrolling a regular section of road. Plenty of moths, flies, and other insects were out, so the hunting was good.

The red bat, caught in flight. I won't tell you how many shots I fired off to get one or two keepers. This one was the best. From afar, bats don't look all THAT fast, but believe me, they are. A bat on the hunt is also prone to unbelievably fast directional changes, when it jukes or jags after a small insect. Keeping a camera on one is tough to put it mildly.

This image was made with the Canon 7D II and the amazing little Canon 300mm f/4 lens. The latter is fantastic for flying objects, as long as they are fairly close. Settings were f/5 and 1/1000.  Light was dim by this point in the day, necessitating a too high ISO of 1600. But I'll take it.

The bat was making long hunting trips, spending up to a half-hour on the wing. At times it would come within feet of us, offering wonderful views of the handsome animal. I've seen red bats do this a number of times - they often hunt during the day - and knew it would occasionally land in a shrub or on a tree trunk to rest. Despite our best efforts, we missed the animal's first siesta spot - it just seemingly vanished. When it reappeared, I was determined not to miss finding its hiding spot the next time

Good thing I didn't blink. The bat made an astonishingly rapid jig and flew right into the boughs of a small deciduous sapling right in front of that evergreen hemlock on the roadbank in the above photo. Despite seeing almost exactly where it went, it still took us five minutes to discover the roosting bat. They blend astonishingly well with plants, looking much like a hanging dead leaf.

Here's the bat, hanging upside and perhaps pondering the odd admiring bipeds below. Once we saw where it was, we rushed back and got some photographic heavy artillery to make portraiture shots. These images came out far better than did the in-flight shots, I can tell you. Here, the bat is in the act of urinating. I caught a tiny little golden orb of bat effluvia in midair. And no, it didn't hit the bat in the head. The little animal artfully expelled the golden drops out and over its head.

This shot is from last April, and shows a red bat roosting among beech leaves at a locale in Highland County, Ohio. Red bats are highly migratory, and spring is a good time to encounter them. The frequency of wintering red bats in Ohio is, insofar as I know, poorly known. Most of them undoubtedly winter south of Ohio, but probably do not move all that far.

While the bat that we found last Monday may have been an early migrant, stirred by the warm snap, I suspect it was one that was wintering locally. The warm day brought it out of hiding for snacks, most likely. In any event, it provided us with an interesting 2+ hours of bat-watching.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Waterfalls galore!

I just returned from a wonderful excursion to the beautiful Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio. This region is a gem, and is richly endowed with stunning rock formations, streams, forests, and waterfalls.

For the better part of three days, Debbie DiCarlo and I led a photography workshop in which we visited some of the iconic Hocking Hills features - and some little known jewels. Debbie and I have a full slate of interesting workshops for 2018, and I invite you to check them out RIGHT HERE. We keep groups small, to ensure that everyone sees and shoots everything we find, and to better work with people on composition and technique. You can be assured we find lots of COOL THINGS, big and small.

We had planned this week's excursion long ago, and had given it the reasonable title of "Winter Wonderland", figuring that mid-February would bring ice and snow. While the Hocking Hills is gorgeous when clad in the frostings of winter, it also shines when wet. And wet is what we got. Temperatures were unseasonable, ranging from the 40's into the 70's. Lucky for us, the rains occurred largely at night and we dealt with little of the wet stuff when out shooting images.

Following are few quick edits of some shots that offer a glimpse into the grandeur of the Hocking Hills. Most of our participants had not seen these places, at least for a long time, and it was fun to share them and work with everyone to help them photographically capture their beauty.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

The lower falls at Old Man's Cave. I had never seen this falls looking so good, with a near perfect volume of water. And we had the place to ourselves, which is not often the case at this popular locale.

Majestic Ash Cave, one of the most impressive recess caves in the Hocking Hills. Walking into this place is akin to entering a mystical cathedral of rock - visually stunning, and great fun to try and capture with a camera.

The upper end of the gorge at Conkles Hollow. I had never seen it like this. There had been rain all the preceding night, which fortunately for us had faded to a drizzle by morning. Mother Nature had laid down enough water to send torrents gushing over the ledges and into the gorge. Normally there is just a trickle of water lazily cascading over these cliffs - nothing like the rushing flumes we found on this day.

A raging river appears to burst from the rocks at the upper end of the Conkles Hollow gorge. This water wonderland doesn't last long. I'd say one has only a few hours following a hard rain to see these high water flows. The watershed that feeds the hollow is small, and the water dissipates quickly.

A six-spotted fishing spider peers curiously at your narrator with its many eyes. This is one of the cool things we stumbled across, and nearly everyone overcame arachnophobia to practice macro work. On this foray, the spectacular waterfalls trumped nearly all else, though, and that's what we mostly focused on.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Nature: Crossbills an ever-evolving species

Red crossbills (female above, male below) have primarily stayed north of Ohio this year

February 18, 2018

Jim McCormac

For birders, one of the most exciting avian winter events is an irruption of winter finches. Not eruption, as in a blowing volcano. Irruption refers to a mass migration of birds to a new region, usually because of food shortages.
Winter finch irruptives include northern species such as common redpoll, evening grosbeak, pine siskin and purple finch. Perhaps most exciting, though, are the crossbills.
There are two eastern species, the red crossbill and white-winged crossbill. This winter showed promise for the former, and there have been a number of Ohio sightings. However, the majority of red crossbills stayed north of Ohio.
Crossbills are boreal breeders, nesting in the great swath of coniferous forest that stretches across Canada and the northern U.S. Their range also extends along mountain ranges in the east and west, where pine or spruce forests occur.
These scissor-billed finches are uniquely adapted to harvest seeds from conifer cones. A crossbill’s mandible tips are elongated and curve strongly in opposite directions, as if the bird suffers a deformity. The bill’s odd shape is a perfect adaptation for popping open tight cone scales so that the bird can access the seed within.
A crossbill in a feeding frenzy can harvest seed at a remarkable rate. It will deftly grasp the cone with its feet, parrotlike, while forcing the cone scales apart. A long barbed tongue flicks the seed out in the blink of an eye. An ambitious bird might harvest 2,000 of the nutrient-rich seeds daily.
I’ve made two trips to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, this winter. The abundant white spruce in that region are experiencing a boom year for cone production, and crossbills are everywhere. Even though it’s midwinter, the crossbills are showing signs of nesting. Breeding can occur at almost any time of year if food sources are plentiful. The tough finches are unaffected by brutal cold. Winter temperatures in Algonquin regularly plunge far below zero.
Crossbills are highly nomadic, a lifestyle forced by the irregular production of cone crops. Most conifers — spruce, pine, hemlock, etc. — produce bumper crops of cones only every other year, or at even longer intervals. Thus, what might be excellent habitat one year could be nearly lacking in food the next.
On a geological time scale, boreal forest habitats in their current distribution are modern. The last glacial advance retreated from Ohio only about 10,000 years ago. Up until a few thousand years ago, spruce, fir, pine and other conifers covered much of the state. Now one must travel a few hundred miles north to find this habitat commonly.
Red crossbills seem to be in a state of active evolution, still changing with the shifting coniferous forests following glaciation. Ten “types” have been delineated, and one of these, the western Cassia crossbill, was described as a distinct species last year.
The various crossbill types differ in bill shape and size, and are adapted for feeding on different cone sizes and shapes. Our ability to tell them apart is evolving, and identification rests largely on differences in call notes.
In a way, the red crossbills are the Darwin finches of the north, actively evolving to exploit shifting niches. Someday, ornithologists might split the red crossbill complex into 10 species.
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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ohio Bluebird Society annual conference: February 24

A male eastern bluebird, fat caterpillar in tow, drops in to an old-school fencepost nest. The Ohio Bluebird Society is holding their annual conference on Saturday, February 24, at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus. I'm giving a talk on cavity-nesting birds, and how people have helped - hugely, in some cases - with their conservation. I'm sorting through scads of images - this one included - in prepping for the gig. All are welcome and complete info is at:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Irregularly semi-annual skunk-cabbage post

A fine passel of skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, rises from the mire of an ultra-soggy spring-fed quagmire. It is a rite of early spring - for me - to stop in and check for the first flowering of this odd arum, the first of our native wildflowers to truly bloom.

I'm fortunate to live near a wonderful skunkery; a gorgeous spring-fed wetland that teems with the plants. So, in less than ten minutes I can be wetting my feet in the springy mire and ogling one of our strangest plants and a harbinger of spring if there ever was one.

The skunk-cabbage is usually right on time. Mid-February is very typical for the beginnings of a mass emergence, and finding the first flowering specimens. This is a 'tweener season; winter is still much in the midst of throwing off its shackles of snow and ice, slowly losing the battle with spring, which is rolling steadily north like a vernal steam roller.

One can be assured that these skunk-cabbage will be powdered with snow and crusted with ice, probably several times more. No matter, Symplocarpus foetidus is thermogenic - it creates its own heat, and thus defrosts itself. Nothing that dying Old Man Winter can throw at it is liable to do harm.

Proof is in the spathe. If we peek through the gap in the fleshy hood (spathe) of the closest plant, we can glimpse the summit of the columnar spadix - the structure that holds the tiny yellowish flowers. Several of the Lilliputian blossoms are visible, each dusted with pollen.

Take hope, winter is nearly vanquished, as the botanical skunks do not lie.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Hocking Hills photo tour - last call!

We've got a nice group of cheery photogs assembled for this one, but could take a few more if you pine for a Hocking Hills photographic adventure. February 20-22. All details here:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Naturalist position: Crawford Park District (Crawford County, Ohio)

Interested, and qualified, applicants should contact Crawford Park District, HERE. This is a small but dynamic park system that is doing great things, and constantly growing in all aspects. It would be a great place to work!

Click the image to expand for easier readability

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Nature: Marten among mammals that have disappeared from Ohio

An American marten hunts in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario

February 4, 2018

Jim McCormac

In the big picture, mammals don’t constitute a large segment of Ohio’s animal diversity. Fifty-six species occur in the state. Compared with birds, fish, insects or spiders, they’re a drop in the bucket.
Yet, wild, free-ranging mammals always generate excitement among observers. The thrill often seems disproportionate to their frequency. A coyote, striped skunk or white-tailed deer — all common – will nearly always grab and hold one’s eye.

Maybe we subconsciously recognize them as our distant kin in the phylum Chordata.

As a sad reflection on how the times have changed, nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s mammals that occurred at the time of European settlement are extirpated — vanquished from the state.

In the 1700s, the true wilderness of Ohio teemed with fish, fowl and various beasts. Its expansive forests, prairies and fruited plains harbored mammals that few modern Ohioans realize were part of our past.

American bison forged “buffalo trails” and ranged statewide. The last one was shot in Lawrence County in 1803, our year of statehood. Gray wolves and mountain lions were common predators, but they were shot out by the mid-1800s. Lynx roamed northern Ohio forests, but they couldn’t compete with burgeoning human populations and vanished early in our settlement era. Elk, once common and widespread, were hunted out by the 1840s.

A lesser-known animal once found here is the American marten. It, like the other vanished mammals, disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

The marten is a fascinating carnivore belonging to the Mustelidae family, which includes minks, otters and weasels.
On a recent trip to Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, I finally made firsthand acquaintance with the marten. Although its range has shifted far to the north of Ohio, it remains common in the vast swath of boreal forest that blankets much of Canada and the northern U.S.
The first marten encounter was utterly serendipitous. I and a photographer friend were seeking birds in a campground when a marten dashed from cover and darted into a paper-recycling bin. We retreated to cover and waited it out in minus 2-degree cold.

Eventually the curious brute emerged from cover and offered fine looks. Martens are similar in size to a mink, but appear burlier — mildly bearlike. An adult measures about 2 feet in length. The bushy tail adds another half foot.

A hefty individual weighs about 3 pounds. Their tri-toned coloration is striking: whitish face and bib, black legs and tail, and yellowish-brown body.

We later ran across another, bolder marten foraging in the snow — it is the animal in the accompanying photo.

Martens are voracious predators, feeding mostly on small mammals such as mice and voles. But few critters up to its size or even larger are safe in the sphere of a hungry marten. They are known to take snowshoe hares — another mammal no longer found in Ohio — and these strapping bunnies can weigh 4 pounds.
Bison, martens, lynx and the other eradicated mammals I mentioned will probably never again grace Ohio’s wilds. But we can always harbor hope. Five mammal species once eliminated from the state have returned, or show signs of trying.
Black bears are now routinely seen, especially in northeastern Ohio. River otters are thriving over much of the state. A bigger relative of the marten, the fisher, has been reported several times in recent years in eastern Ohio. So has the famously prickly porcupine. And bobcats grow more common each year: There were over 500 sightings in 2017.

But for Ohio marten enthusiasts, a trip to Canada’s north woods is 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

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day, February 2. A beautiful buck, photographed last summer in the wilds of Ashtabula County. An excellent mammal, worthy of our respect and the holiday that honors it.