Thursday, March 29, 2018

Spectacular waterfall photo workshop!

Click to enlarge

It would be hard to find a showier environment than the Ohiopyle region of southwest Pennsylvania in April. Gorgeous streams and waterfalls abound, making for a photographer's paradise. Perks include a profusion of showy spring wildflowers of many species, gorgeous covered bridges, and even Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Fallingwater house.

Famed landscape photographer Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a foray here in mid-April, as outlined on the flyer above. We welcome all levels of skills, and can assure attendees of more outstanding photo ops than can a stick be shaken at! We will learn a ton, not only about photography, but also natural history.

For details and registration, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Photo Exhibition and Talk: Brukner Nature Center, March 29

A stunning Baltimore oriole forages in a flowering chokecherry, singing as he snatches insects.

I embark on a second photo exhibition on Thursday, March 29, and this one is at the Brukner Nature Center near Troy, Ohio. I'm giving a talk there that evening, on the biodiversity of Ohio. You can be sure that the program will feature much in the way of fascinating flora and fauna, just as the photo exhibit will.

Information about Brukner Nature Center IS HERE, and the calendar has more specifics on the talk.

A trio of showy lady's-slipper flowers provides colorful punctuation to the somber hues of sedges in a fen meadow.

I've probably got more printed photos than Brukner's walls will hold, but the images in this post are just a few of the ones that will be hung. And I should note, all will be for sale. There will be images from at least six or seven states, and Canada.

Following are a few more examples of photographs that will be featured. If you can make it over on March 29, that would be great - I'll look forward to seeing you!

An orange sunset lights up crashing waves during a November gale on Lake Erie. As always, click the photo to enlarge.

A stunning male Luna moth, fresh as can be. These giant silkmoths look aged and tattered within a week, and their life span is not much longer than that.

Six red-eared slider queue up on a log, perhaps admiring their reflection in the waters below. The turtles were photographed in southern Indiana, which is part of their indigenous range.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Nature: Insects stride the boundary of water and air

Common water striders during mating

March 18, 2018

Jim McCormac

Water striders

Dancing on water,

With swirls of blissful motion;

Aquatic ballet

— Raul Moreno

Moreno’s beautiful haiku captures the allure of these graceful insects. Water striders are the epitome of aquatic insect art.

One needn’t venture far to find water striders. They are found throughout Ohio and are common on sluggish water in streams, ponds and lakes. I saw a mating pair during a recent trip to southern Ohio. In spite of temperatures in the 30s, numerous striders skated about the backwaters of a stream that we were investigating.

Sometimes known as “Jesus bugs” for their seemingly supernatural ability to walk across water, striders actually employ high-tech aquatic hardware to master watery haunts. As do all insects, water striders have six legs, but the rear two sets are greatly elongated. They serve as powerful oars and outriggers, quickly jetting the bug about and providing stability.
The undersurface of the legs is coated with specialized “hydrophobic” hairs that repel water to such a remarkable degree that scientists have studied striders, seeking human applications. The tiny hairs are clumped in dense fascicles, providing buoyancy.

Water striders live at the interface of air and water, exploiting the peculiar properties of surface tension. Water molecules “reject” air and where water meets air, water molecules bond more tightly with one another. The effect is akin to a thin elastic membrane covering the water’s surface. Striders effortlessly traverse this watery film, almost never breaking through.

These six-legged swimmers might appear to be loafing about, but that’s not the case. Water striders are essentially insect lifeguards, but instead of rescuing their victims, they kill and eat them. Hapless insects are constantly falling into water for one reason or another. Those that do, at least the small ones, are likely to meet a water strider.

When an insect falls into water, it creates ripples. If still alive, its struggles create even more ripples. The disturbance telegraphs a signal to water striders, who glide over to investigate.

Upon arrival, the strider seizes the prey with its powerful forelegs. It then jabs a syringe like proboscis into the victim, injecting compounds that soften inner tissues. The strider then sucks out the contents, leaving an empty husk.
Little escapes the notice of water striders, and they serve an important role as a cleanup crew in watery habitats. They also consume mosquito larvae, which must venture to the water’s surface to obtain air through a structure resembling a snorkel. This puts the larva at great risk of strider predation, and most readers, no doubt, will appreciate this choice in prey.

One might suspect fish would be likely strider predators, but apparently not. Water striders manufacture foul substances from abdominal organs that repel the fishy crowd.

Other insects do capture them, and perhaps the most interesting of these predators is a parasitic wasp. Female water striders dive to deposit eggs on rocks or underwater vegetation, securing them with gelatinous secretions. This doesn’t thwart tiny female wasps in the genus Tiphodytes, who swim down and lay eggs within the strider eggs. The hatchling wasp grubs then consume the eggs’ contents.

There are a number of water strider species in Ohio, and the common water strider is abundant statewide. Taxonomists have placed it in a wonderfully named scientific genus: Aquarius.

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, March 15, 2018

Finding screech-owls

A jumbo tiger salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, peeks over a log. I photographed the amphibious brute back on February 15 on a nighttime prowl through the backcountry of Champaign and Logan counties. That evening was relatively warm and rainy, and although a bit early in the salamander migration season, some animals were moving. We've had nearly no good conditions in this part of the state since - too dry, too cold, etc.

A route that I like to patrol when looking for migrant salamanders goes through an oft-flooded area dominated by porous limestone karst topography. When rains bring the water table up, the h2o comes bubbling from the ground, saturating soils and flooding large areas. The Google Earth map above depicts one of my favorite salamander haunts. Nearly uninhabited by people - because their homesteads would routinely be flooded - and dominated by a nice mosaic of habitats.

Habitats that are not only desired by tiger salamanders and others in the amphibious crowd, but also owls. Namely, the eastern screech-owl. The aerial photo shows a screech-owl Eden: a juxtaposition of open meadows bordering brushy copses, scattered stands of larger trees, and water - lots of water. Screech-owls, in general, are not really birds of dense woodlands, but seem to reach peak numbers in largely open habitats such as shown above.

If you find yourself in any sort of similar situation - scruffy woods, lots of interspersed open country, small streams, wetlands or damp meadows - I guarantee that screech-owls are close at hand. This is easily our most common owl in Ohio, and localized populations can be large. Perhaps the most notable illumination into screech-owl numbers came during a Toledo area Christmas Bird Count conducted on January 6, 1982. Intrepid owlers detected 112 owls!

When I exited the car and drank in the sounds of an abnormally warm February evening - the odd spring peeper and western chorus frog calls, gadwall and other ducks chortling in the nearby marsh - I decided to call in an owl. A few renditions of the quavering mellifluous whistles triggered a response within a minute or two. Screech-owls can be quite ventriloquial, and even though this one sounded distant, I knew it wasn't.

A quick flick of the flashlight revealed the bird sitting about 20 feet away low in shrubs, looking around and occasional calling. We remained in this spot for about 10-15 minutes, and the owl remained the entire time. It seemed to quickly disregard us and resume its scanning for prey. I'd bet a newt that this bird and its mate gorge heavily on migrant salamanders, such as the tigers, when the amphibians make their vernal overland exodus to breeding pools. Screech-owls are well known for their fondness of aquatic fare, even snatching small fish, hence their proclivity for watery places.

This bird seems to be an intermediate brownish morph. Eastern screech-owls typically manifest two color morphs: ashy gray, and a brighter rufous-red coloration, with these intermediate forms cropping up occasionally.

NOTE: The color forms of screech-owls, rough-legged hawks, gray squirrels, etc. are not PHASES, although they are often referred to that way. A phase is a temporary condition, like a phase of the moon. Something in a phase will not remain that way; it will eventually transition to something else. Screech-owls and other animals that manifest distinctly different color forms normally do not change, or phase out of their innate coloration - they remain as such for their lifetime. Thus, such animals are properly termed MORPHS.

To make this image I used the Canon 5D IV and Canon 500mm f/4 II lens, handheld. My salamandering buddy put mild light from the outer sphere of a flashlight's glow on the bird, so I could find it and focus. A Canon 600 speedlite with diffuser, set to fairly low intensity, provided fill light. Camera setting were ISO 800, f/8, and 1/80 second. While the flash helps freeze the scene, the lens' image stabilization is extraordinary, allowing crisp handheld shots of a large camera rig at rather slow shutter speeds.

The owl-admiring paparazzi seemed not to bother the bird at all, and it was still there, head aswivel watching for salamanders, when we left.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


Yesterday, I made my first trip of spring to the wonderland that is Adams County, Ohio. Spring arrives much earlier down there than it does even 100 miles to the north, in Columbus where I live. I was looking forward to the opportunity to get a much-needed botanical fix, following a long largely chlorophyll-free winter.

There was another purpose to the trip. The Mothapalooza planning committee was convening to sketch out Mothapalooza 2019. Which we did and it should, this 6th Mothapalooza, be another fantastic affair. But as we weren't meeting until 3 pm, there was plenty of time beforehand to commune with Nature. I got down there not long after sunrise, then later that morning joined up with Mary Ann Barnett, Kim Banks, Judy Ganance, and Colleen Sharkey, fellow committee members all.

Following is a brief selection of some of yesterday's finds.

The headwaters of Scioto Brush Creek slice through interesting limestone cliffs in Adams County, at the Arc of Appalachia's Chalet Nivale preserve. Scioto Brush Creek is one of the highest-quality streams in the state, and this particular locale harbors many rare or unusual plant species.

This is a snow trillium, Trillium nivale, which occurs at the above site by the thousands.  The plant's specific epithet, nivale, accounts for part of the preserve's name. Nivale means "snowy", and probably refers to the coloration of the petals. However, this species flowers so early that plants are frequently covered with early spring snows. While no snow dusted the plants during this visit, it was only 29 F when I made this image.

The trillium is growing on a gorgeous moss-cloaked limestone slump block that supported a vigorous colony of one of our strangest pteridophytes, the walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum. Those odd straplike leaves are the fern's fronds. The tips become greatly elongate, and eventually arch over and reconnect with the soil. New leaves sprout and "walk" to new points from these rooted tips.

One of the coolest but most easily overlooked flowers of spring, the female blooms of hazelnut, Corylus americana. This shrub would easily be missed at this season, were it not for the conspicuous yellowish dangling catkins of male flowers. If you see those, go inspect closely. The tiny maroon female flowers will be protruding from buds nearby.

As always happens when I'm around a stream, water striders drew my eye. Sluggish of pools of Scioto Brush Creek harbored many of these curious hemipteran insects, and some were in the process of making striderlets, as are the two in the photo. I believe these are the common water strider, Aquarius remigis (what a fantastic genus name!). I'll have an upcoming post dedicated to these fascinating creatures.

We made our way to the Ohio Star Retreat Center around 3 pm, to meet with John Howard and the rest of planning committee to talk Mothapalooza. By the way, this retreat was just founded by John and his wife, Tina. If you are looking for an inexpensive but outstanding base station for exploring the many wonders of Adams County, such as the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, this is your place. CLICK HERE for more details.

John, as he often does, had brought along some interesting creatures for us to study and photograph. This is a fairy shrimp in the genus Eubranchipus. This is a female, and the dark sac-like structure in the center holds the eggs. Fairy shrimp can be common denizens of vernal pools in spring, and John got this animal from a nearby pool.

John also brought this little beast, a larval marbled salamander, Ambystoma opacum. They have an interesting reproductive strategy, making their way to vernal pools in fall. Once there, they breed and thus get a jumpstart on the rest of the spring-breeding salamanders. I wrote a bit about this strange salamander RIGHT HERE.

Although the temperatures weren't exactly toasty yesterday, it was the first excursion that I've made that truly smacked of spring, and offered the first native plant species I've seen this year. The botanical floodgates are ajar, and soon will burst open unleashing a deluge of spring wildflowers.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Wilds Science Symposium

The Wilds, a place that I've covered numerous times on this blog, is hosting a science symposium on Saturday, March 24, at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. Can't beat the price - it's free! Experts will be speaking about pollinators, prairies, salamanders, grassland birds, and more. Should be a great time, and a very educational experience. The conference site is very near The Wilds, and attendees might consider staying over and birding the area the following day. CLICK HERE for information about birding this area.

For complete information and registration, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The "oldsquaws" of Lake Ontario

I made two northern forays this winter to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. This vast holding is a treasure trove of cold weather goodies, and I was there to see beasts like the American marten, along with boreal birds that included both crossbills, gray jay, spruce grouse, and more. All in a striking wintry landscape. On the second trip, Debbie DiCarlo and I were scouting locations and details for potential future photo tours. We know it would make for a fantastic location, and could guarantee lots of fascinating photo subjects, but would anyone wish to deal with the cold? It was minus 24 F one morning, but normally temperatures are not that crisp, although Florida this place is not. Nonetheless, it's easy to dress for cold success and well worth the effort. For our current photo tours, CLICK HERE.

On both of these excursions, we made time to spend part of a day along the western side of Lake Ontario, which is enroute. There are numerous excellent lake access points from Hamilton to Toronto, and ducks abound. Lake Ontario almost never freezes due to a variety of factors, thus hardy fowl find it a reliable food-rich wintering ground. Of special interest to me are the scads of overwintering long-tailed ducks (formerly known as "oldsquaw"). The eastern waters of Ohio's section of Lake Erie are less than a hundred miles to the west, yet this duck is a rarity with us. But not so on Lake Ontario, where they occur by the thousands in winter.

A small portion of a massive flock of long-tailed ducks wings by Bronte, Ontario, not far west of Toronto. At one point, at least a thousand birds were in sight.

A handsome drake long-tailed duck crests a wave in the chilly waters of Lake Ontario. These ducks are deep divers and not daunted by the depths of this lake, which averages 283 feet deep. Long-tailed can dive that deep, or nearly so, to reach mussel beds.

Another drake shows off his pectoral muscles, while ice drifts in the background. I never fail to be amazed by the hardiness of such beasts, and the amazing insulating qualities of their feathers. You or I would not last long if we fell into this drink.

A juvenile long-tailed duck floats before an older female. At some places, such as the pier at the marina in downtown Bronte, the birds are exceptionally approachable. Indeed, they seem curious about people and would occasionally approach quite closely.

It wasn't only long-tailed ducks, of course. Common goldeneye are also common, and just as cold-tolerant. Here, a male goldeneye fronts a group of greater scaup - a hen on the left, and three drakes.

Here's a drake greater scaup caught in flight. Note the white wingstripe extends well out onto the primary flight feathers, and the birds is big-billed with a nicely rounded head. The much less hardy lesser scaup is quite similar, but nearly all the birds that I saw up there where greaters, as would be expected in mid-winter.

Yet another treat were numerous white-winged scoters. This female posed closely in gorgeous light but there were plenty of the striking coal-black adult males about. This species, like the long-tailed duck, is a deep diver and right at home on deepwater Lake Ontario.

Midwinter birder/photographer visitors to Lake Ontario will likely have to deal with very frosty temperatures, but it's worth it for the duck show, and photographic opportunities.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ohio taxpayers can opt to support state nature preserves

Irwin Prairie near Toledo, one of Ohio's rarest habitats

March 4, 2018

Jim McCormac

From a natural-history perspective, Ohio is a crossroads state. Major ecosystems collide here, creating a cornucopia of biodiversity unlike any other Midwestern political region.
The fourth-largest Great Lake, Erie, forms Ohio’s northern border. This grand inland sea brings a wealth of flora and fauna, some of it unique to the state.

Boreal habitats normally found far to the north provide a glimpse into our recent glacial history. The ecological footprints of a frigid history can be found in relict bogs, fens and hemlock ravines.

The majesty of the Appalachian Mountains sweeps into Ohio from the east, impressing with rugged forested terrain. Spectacular rock formations and deep gorges harbor a beauty that contradicts outsiders’ superficial impression of this “rust belt” area.

Four hundred and fifty one miles of the Ohio River, one of America’s mightiest streams, delineates
our southern boundary. The river’s broad valley brings a taste of the south. Southern plants such as mistletoe, cross vine, and purple passionflower reach their northern limits on the Ohio side of the stream.

During the hotter, drier xerothermic period, about 5,000 years ago, Great Plains prairies expanded east. These rich grasslands largely petered out in what is now Ohio, and at the time of European settlement, prairie covered nearly 5 percent of the state.
When Ohio was granted statehood on March 1, 1803, the newly minted Buckeye State was home to about 45,000 people. Today, there are more than 11.5 million Buckeyes. Such astronomical growth put tremendous pressure on our habitats, and much was lost before anyone thought to protect it.
On Aug. 31, 1970, the Ohio legislature established the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves as part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Its mission: identify and protect the best of Ohio’s remaining habitats.
Today, the division owns or manages a system of nearly 140 state nature preserves. Many of them, such as Clifton Gorge, Conkles Hollow and Sheldon Marsh, are popular and heavily visited. Scores of others are largely off the radar screen. They all share a common denominator — protecting the best of the best and the rarest of the rare.
Irwin Prairie, a preserve in the Oak Openings just west of Toledo, is an excellent example of the value of our natural-areas program. Irwin preserves one of the only remaining examples of imperiled wet prairie habitat. The 207-acre preserve is incredibly rich in flora and fauna, including many rare species. A boardwalk allows easy access.
Protecting plant life is at the core of conservation, and the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves excels at this. Probably 90-plus of Ohio’s roughly 1,800 native plant species are safeguarded in the collective of state nature preserves. Plant diversity spawns animal diversity. I think that conservation of the state’s natural resources is important to most Ohioans.
There’s an easy way to support stewardship of our state nature preserves. Tax day quickly approaches, and your state income-tax form has an easy checkoff option that allows filers to donate a portion of refunds to “natural areas.” It will be money well-spent.
Make time to visit one of your state nature preserves. More 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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Early spring wildflower photo workshop: March 23 - 25

Click the pic to enlarge, as always

While March is roaring in like a lion here in central Ohio, Old Man Winter is in his death throes and spring is charging north at breakneck speed. The very earliest spring wildflowers have already started in southernmost Ohio, but it's a botanical trickle compared to what the flowers will be like down there in a few weeks.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are doing another photo workshop from March 23-25, this one focusing on wildflowers. During the course of our foray, I expect we'll see many other interesting things - maybe even one of those red bats from my last blog post. We're sure to have fun, and learn a lot. If you are interested, please CLICK HERE for all of the information and registration info. We'd love to have you along!