Sunday, April 29, 2018

Nature: Snipe's aerial courtship ritual worth seeing, hearing

Nature: Snipe's aerial courtship ritual worth seeing, hearing

Wilson's snipe is noted for its long bill and large eyes/Jim McCormac

April 29, 2018

Jim McCormac

For more than 170 years, people have been duped into “snipe hunting.” A rite of passage for campers and scouts, the mark is led into darkened woods and instructed to remain motionless while holding an open bag. The “snipe” will eventually enter the bag.

Descriptions of the mythical snipe vary but usually involve fantastical creatures, such as a cross between a hare and a squirrel. These have nothing on the real thing.

The Wilson’s snipe is a bona-fide bird that transcends the imagination of snipe-hunting pranksters. A type of sandpiper, the snipe is notable for its Pinocchio-like bill, an appendage that seems to stretch half the length of the body.

Disproportionately huge eyes stare from a striped head, and the snipe’s body is elaborately decorated in ornate vermiculation and cross-hatching. The overall color scheme is browns of varying tones.
Camouflaged coloration helps the snipe blend with the grasses and sedges of the wetlands it frequents. If flushed, the snipe rockets off at great speed, zigging and zagging while emitting low rough “Scape! Scape!” calls.

The snipe has long been hunted but is hard to hit; bringing down a fleeing bird takes a crack marksman. Successful gunners were dubbed “snipers,” and that’s the origin of the term sniper for ace marksmen.

Snipes are normally shy and retiring, but the need to procreate brings males out of their shells. Commencing in early spring, males begin an aerial courtship display that must be seen to be believed.

The usually ground-bound male takes wing and climbs so high that he appears to be a speck. Imbued with the euphoria that must come with being able to shoot hundreds of feet into the air, the snipe begins to “sing.” With its tail.

To sing with the wind, the courting snipe whips into shallow dives while flaring its tail. Air distorted by the tail feathers creates an eerie, ethereal winnowing sound like the distant quaver of an amplified musical saw. Smitten with his bizarre sound-making ability, a singing snipe might remain aloft for a half-hour.
Although Wilson’s snipe is one of North America’s most abundant shorebirds, most Ohioans have probably never seen one. Scores pass through in migration, headed to northern nesting grounds, but breeders are very rare here. Most nesting records come from the northern tier of counties.

Thus, while making an Earth Day foray to Glacier Ridge Metro Park, I was pleased to discover two territorial snipes sky-singing over a large wet meadow. I had seen courting snipes here in April 2017, and I suspect that they might nest in the park.

Prior to John Deere’s 1837 launch of his steel plow, Ohio hosted about 5 million acres of wetlands. It didn’t take people long to figure out that wetland soils grew great crops, and Deere’s device offered a way to transform the wetlands into America’s breadbasket.

Today, only about 10 percent of Ohio’s wetlands remain, most of them converted to an alien triumvirate of beans, corn and wheat. Wetland dwellers that probably were historically common Ohio breeders, such as the snipe, suffered accordingly.
Glacier Ridge is a green oasis surrounded by crop fields and the ever-encroaching sprawl of suburbia. Thanks to Metro Parks for saving a piece of our wetland past, and the snipes that come with it.

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, April 21, 2018

A week in Ohiopyle country

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Water rushes over Cole Run Falls near Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. This region is rich in beautiful water features, and many of the streams are traced by thick stands of great rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum.

I was in this area all of last week, co-instructing a photo workshop along with Debbie DiCarlo. It was our third expedition this year, and more are to follow. CLICK HERE for a complete listing and descriptions. Finally, our Facebook page features trip reports and images, and IS HERE.

We have a lot of fun on these trips, and hopefully everyone learns a lot - and returns with some great images. While there may be a theme - waterfalls and wildflowers on this one - we'll ignore nearly nothing, and try our hands at many types of imagery.

Just one day after I made the first image, last Monday, this is what Cole Run Falls looked like on Tuesday! A snowfall commenced early Tuesday morning and continued throughout much of the day. We didn't mind. It was a rare spring snowfall, and a chance to capture some gorgeous landscapes capped with snow.

Water rushes around a boulder in a small mountain stream - name unknown, at least to me. We were driving by and had to slam on the brakes and get out for some photos when we saw this scene.

A long exposure streaks the waters of a rushing brook, its waters swollen by recent rainfall. Ohiopyle State Park and vicinity is an extraordinarily beautiful place at any time of year, but may be at its aesthetic best in early spring. April showers fill the streams, and the area's numerous waterfalls cascade torrents of water. We're definitely planning on repeating this trip next year.

The never-ending winter of 2018 had the spring flora a bit tardy, but plants were beginning to pop. This large-flowered trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, was in fine fettle, one of scores covering a wooded slope. Most were not yet open, but would be in a "normal" spring. Nonetheless, it was not hard to find showy specimens.

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, was just coming on and we found a few showy flowers. Next spring, with luck, this patch will be in full bloom. Not only is it in the shadows of the amazing Cucumber Falls, but the colony features a number of cream-flowered plants.

A striking feature of the violet flora are huge numbers of the showy round-leaved violet, Viola rotundifolia. In places, drifts of plants covered trailside banks.

A diminutive Carolina spring-beauty, Claytonia caroliniana, springs from a mossy bank. For a middle Ohioan flatlander, it's nice to see this species of high elevations. It is quite localized in the Buckeye State - NE Ohio - and I seldom get to clap eyes on it, at least compared to our abundant Claytonia virginica. Note the plant's fat egg-shaped leaves - quite different than the narrow straplike leaves of C. virginica.

We weren't really after birds, at least photographically, but certainly saw and heard plenty of species. This is a broad-winged hawk, which I shot on our Monday scouting expedition. The group got to see and hear them on another day, fortunately.

While encamped on the banks of the Youghiogheny River along some turbulent rapids, awaiting kayakers and flyby common mergansers (the latter nest along local streams), this Louisiana waterthrush flew in nearly at our feet. We were ready, and able to make some images. We also saw and/or heard black-and-white warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, yellow-throated warbler, pine warbler, and a real heavyweight, the Swainson's warbler. The latter seems to be fairly common along local streams.

Finally, the rushing waters of the "Cascades", turned to silk courtesy of a 10-stop neutral density filter and 30 second exposure.

If mountains, waterfalls, stunning streams, birds and flowers tickle your photographic fancy, think about coming with us to Ohiopyle in 2019.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ohio's Scenic River Act a leader in conservation

The Big Darby Creek in southwestern Franklin County/Jim McCormac

April 15, 2018

Jim McCormac

Next Sunday, April 22, marks the 48th annual Earth Day. The inaugural Earth Day’s hub was Central Park in New York, where a million Americans converged for a peaceful protest over worsening environmental degradation. Elsewhere, another 21 million people added their voices to the fledgling environmental-reform movement.
Newly minted president Richard Nixon took notice. In December 1970, the Republican launched the Environmental Protection Agency. Its mission: clean up the ravages of decades of industrial pollution that had degraded the health of our air, land and water.

Ohio played a pivotal role in the groundswell of late 1960′s environmentalism. On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River famously went aflame. This was at least the 13th time that oil and debris turned the river into a watery tinderbox.

People have an understandable aversion to seeing their streams ablaze, and the ’69 Cuyahoga River fire was a catalyst for the rise of environmentalism that led to Earth Day.

Ohio conservationists were ahead of the curve. In February 1968, legislators passed the nation’s first Scenic Rivers Act. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ohio’s Scenic Rivers Program, administered through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

On April 23, 1969, the Little Miami River in southwest Ohio was the first to be designated as a State Scenic River. On June 26, 1974, parts of the Cuyahoga River was officially designated as a State Scenic River, the sixth stream to earn this status. The river that burned had become a symbol of aquatic health.
In the years to follow, eight more Ohio streams earned designation as Scenic Rivers — the best of the best. This recognition, and the hard work of engaged citizens, EPA pollution enforcement and Scenic Rivers Program staff, has indisputably improved the quality of these streams.
In central Ohio, two streams are designated Scenic Rivers, the Big Darby Creek and its tributary Little Darby, and the Olentangy River. The Darby creeks are nationally renowned as exceptional warm-water habitats. Aquatic surveys by the Ohio EPA scored the highest quality rating of any stream in the state.
Because of protections given to the Darby, it supports almost 90 kinds of fish — 60 percent of Ohio’s total species. Their ranks include several endangered and threatened species.

According to aquatic ecologist Anthony Sasson of the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, fish protected in the Darby provided a major source of restocking the once badly polluted Scioto River.

As EPA-driven efforts to reduce sewage overflows into the Scioto took hold, water quality improved. Fish, including rare bluebreast and Tippecanoe darters, began to move from the Darby and recolonize in the Scioto.

A recent report by Chris Yoder of the Midwest Biodiversity Institute documents notable increases in the diversity and health of Scioto River fish. This speaks to the success of EPA anti-pollution efforts, and the stewardship of the Scioto’s feeder streams such as the Darby.

Protecting Ohio’s streams benefits everyone. Thanks to Ohio’s Scenic Rivers Program for leading the way, and for 50 years of river conservation.

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

An epic aquatic foray

A dream team crew of aquatic biologists seines for fish in Little Darby Creek in southwestern Franklin County, Ohio. After two reschedulings due to high water, yesterday's foray was perfect in every way: temps in the 60's-70's, blue skies, and perfect water levels. While I was the prod to get this trip afoot, great thanks to Anthony Sasson of the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for his organizational efforts and tapping the involvement of the likes of Brian Zimmerman, Andrew Boose and other authorities on aquatic fare. I will take credit for getting the incomparable Laura Hughes to join us :-)

With this crew, we were assured of all manner of underwater wonders being found, and that's exactly what happened. It was one of the best days of aquatic exploration I've ever been part of. Ten species of darters were found (we missed two that are known from this locale), plus many other fish species. Lots of non-fish aquatic organisms as well.

This spot in Little Darby Creek is owned by Franklin County Metro Parks, as part of the sprawling Battelle Darby Metropark. Metro Parks deserves enormous credit for conservation efforts along the Darby Creeks, as does the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Big and Little Darby creeks are exceptional warm water habitats and rank high among the finest streams in the Midwestern U.S.

Perhaps the showiest fish in our streams, the gaudy rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum. This is a male in breeding colors, which they obtain and hold for a fairly brief period in early spring.

Note the peculiar lips on this male banded darter, Etheostoma zonale. This is another male in breeding colors. Darters are small members of the perch family, and lack swim bladders. They spend their time on the bottom substrate, rooting about for small animal life.

The pointed nose of this logperch darter, Percina caprodes, serves as a shovel of sorts to aid it in pushing pebbles around to uncover prey. Logperch are comparatively elephantine in regards to other darters, with hefty individuals reaching seven inches. Most of our other species are perhaps half that length.

A barred fantail, Etheostoma flabellare, offering a good view of its namesake tail. This small species is common in clean rocky riffles such as where we were working yesterday.

A small feeder stream entered Little Darby not far from our base camp of operations. A foray into that netted (literally) a few species that are mostly confined to small streams. This is one of them, an orangethroat darter, Etheostoma spectabile. This is a male in breeding colors. It's similar to the rainbow darter, and hybridizes with it, but differs in the conspicuous orange throat, completely aqua-blue anal fin (lower fin just before tail), among other differences.

A personal favorite, the gargoyle-like mottled sculpin, Cottus bairdii. These little predators become one with the rocks, hiding among stones on the stream bottom and lunging at passing prey.

Upon returning to base camp after following the survey crew upstream for a while, I arrived just as Laura Hughes found a stunning species of turtle. She's got it in hand in this shot, and I showcase the reptile in the following photo.

We lug our camera gear and other implements afield to make these shots. A small table on the gravel bar provides a stable platform. Several small aquariums stand ready to receive photographic subjects. The reasons for setting up operations streamside are at least threefold: 1) It's just easier to have everything so handy to the working site; 2) fishes in breeding condition lose their colors fairly quickly when removed from the stream and the exact water temperature which stimulated the coloration, and 3) we don't want to harm the subjects. By seining fish in close proximity to the photo operation, we can quickly release them back into the stream, where they were captured.

There's much more to making good fish photos, but I'll not bore you with details. Shooting into aquaria and through water, especially with flash, involves lots of nuances and efforts to keep water clear and tank sides clean.

Here's Laura's capture, a common map turtle, Graptemys geographica. This one must have been a female based on her size - they get much larger than males. By placing the turtle on the moist edge of the gravel bar, she gave us lots of photo ops. I was pleased to have the chance to create imagery of this species. Map turtles are incredibly wary, from my experience, and your mere appearance causes them to drop from basking logs and rocks before getting anywhere near the animals.

Another cool thing about map turtles is that they feed often on clams, which gives an indication as to their jaw power. Probably good to keep fingers away from those mandibles, although the turtles do not act particularly aggressive.

We found this rusty crayfish, Orconectes rusticus (I think; as always identification corrections are welcome), a female with eggs. Click the photo to enlarge and you'll better see the egg mass, which she carries under her tail. A protective mother indeed!

One of the seine hauls captured this cool little damselfly nymph, of an ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata. Damselfly and dragonfly larvae are strictly aquatic and mostly out of sight and mind. The winged adults are often highly conspicuous.

It wasn't all wee fish. The survey crew brought up this fine specimen of a smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu. It, of course, was released unharmed. The Darby Creeks are known for hosting good bass populations.

Finally, I'll end this fishy foray with one of our coolest catfishes, the stonecat madtom, Noturus flavus. There are five extant madtom species in Ohio, and this is probably the most common and widespread. Another, the Scioto madtom, Noturus trautmani, is perhaps Ohio's most fabled fish. It was only known from a handful of captures in Big Darby Creek, and is now considered extinct. The last captures date from 1957.

Madtoms are notable for their pectoral fin spines, which are armed with venom sacs at the base. Incautious handlers might receive a painful sting.

Thanks to everyone who was part of this expedition! It's always great to get afield with people who are not only top experts, but are passionate about their subjects, and conservation.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Nature: Survey to tally dragon-, damselflies

The blue dasher is one of the most common dragonflies and can typically be found near slow-moving water sources [Jim McCormac]

April 1, 2018

Jim McCormac

NOTE: I'm just getting around to posting this article on the blog, and sorry for not doing so on the heels of its publication in the Columbus Dispatch. Two events that you may be interested in related to the subject at hand:

1) Dragonfly Workshop, April 26 at Grange Audubon Nature Center in Columbus. A primer for the upcoming 2018 survey season for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey. Several interesting talks are scheduled. I'll be giving one that focuses on dragon/damselfly photography. CLICK HERE for details and scroll down to this event.

2) Odo-Con-18! The annual statewide dragonfly conference, hosted by the Ohio Odonata Society and the Ohio Dragonfly Survey. It promises to be a doozy, with great talks and field trips. Findlay, Ohio, June 22-24, all details RIGHT HERE.

OK, read on for the Dispatch article...

Dragonflies and their brethren, damselflies, are among our most interesting insects.
The class Insecta, which includes all our “bugs,” is remarkably large and diverse. The overwhelming majority of animals belong to this group, including beetles, bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths — anything with six legs.
Insects in the order Odonata, which includes dragonflies and damselflies, stand out from the crowd. These creatures are often highly visible and artistically colored and incredible aeronauts. Furthermore, they are high-end predators, snatching lesser insects from the air or foliage and gobbling them up.
Damsels and dragons are a highly effective part of the food chain because of their hunting prowess. They play a big role in keeping mosquitoes and myriad other insect populations in check. Because the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies are completely aquatic, this group serves as an important, easily monitored, barometer of water quality.
Because of the enchanting beauty of these insects, it’s small wonder that people have increasingly turned their eyes and binoculars to the damsels and dragons. This spike in interest has spawned a large series of field guides. Now, it’s easier than ever to put a name to an interesting odonate.
The year 2002 was important in the annals of Ohio dragonfly literature. The Ohio Biological Survey released “The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio,” authored by Robert Glotzhober and David McShaffrey. The 364-page book is a must for dragonfly-watchers.
Also issued that year was “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio,” published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Author Larry Rosche and colleagues assembled an outstanding, user-friendly guidebook that, although parochial in title, is useful statewide. It has been updated since. In 2007, the Ohio Division of Wildlife produced a popular booklet titled Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio. It covers all the common species that one is likely to encounter, coupled with color photos and useful natural-history information. Copies can be obtained, free, from the Division of Wildlife (1-800-WILDLIFE).

These publications and other work served to provide excellent baseline information on the 167 species of damselflies and dragonflies that have been documented in Ohio. They are informational steppingstones that led to the latest dragon-slaying project: the Ohio Dragonfly Survey.
Funded by the Division of Wildlife, the survey is an ambitious three-year effort to observe dragons and damsels statewide. The project is directed by entomologist MaLisa Spring and operations are housed at Ohio State University. Last year’s inaugural survey season generated more than 10,000 records, and the next two seasons should produce additional data.
The survey depends upon legions of volunteers of all skill levels, and the more helpers the more dragons and damsels will be tallied. We want to make this the most comprehensive survey of its kind.
On April 26, a program discussing the survey will take place at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The program will begin at 6:30 p.m. and feature talks on dragonfly identification, habitats, survey techniques, photography and more. It’s free, but registration is required by emailing MaLisa Spring at

For additional information about the dragonfly survey and upcoming events, visit the Ohio Odonata Society site, HERE.

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, April 4, 2018

Two upcoming events: Museum Open House, and Wildflower Talk/Walk

Sorry for the late notice about these two events; too many travels and other stuff have kept me from prompt blog updates. Both of these events are free and open to the public, and YOU are welcome!

The ever-popular annual Open House at the Ohio State University's Museum of Biological Diversity takes place this Saturday, April 7, from 10 am - 4 pm. The museum is a fascinating treasure trove of all manner of animals and plants great and small. This year's theme is "Magnified". The museum is easy to access at 1315 Kinnear Road in Columbus, and complete details are RIGHT HERE.

I'm giving a photo-rich talk about spring wildflowers this Sunday, at one of the gems of the Hocking Hills, Camp Oty' Okwa. It'll include lots of interesting ecological notes, such as the critical role that ants play with many of our spring bloomers. Preceding the talk and starting at 4:30 pm, we'll take a ramble around the sprawling grounds and rich habitats of the camp. Talk commences at 6:30 pm. For complete details and to register, GO HERE.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels arise!

The thirteen-lined ground squirrels have arisen from their long winter slumber! These furry Rip Van Winkles enter their burrows for keeps in October(ish), and don't emerge until about now. I did see one at a south-central Ohio colony back on March 22 - my earliest ever spring date. This one was part of a Wayne County colony, and the only one I saw out yesterday.

These little beasts are a better spring alarm clock than is the fabled groundhog, and their appearance means that spring has truly arrived.