Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Golden-winged Warbler, feeding

A male golden-winged warbler, with brilliant golden ingot stamped across his wing, forages in a choke cherry, Prunus virginiana. I made this image and the following ones a few days ago, while in between groups that I'm leading here at NettieBay Lodge in northern Michigan.

These acrobatic little warblers are not too tough to find up here, and seem especially smitten with cherries in the genus Prunus. A feeding bird will quickly flit about leafy boughs, quickly inspecting leaves and often dangling upside down like a chickadee. The primary reason that golden-wings are probably interested in cherries is due to caterpillars. Prunus is well known for the diversity and numbers of caterpillars that feed on the foliage, and the warblers are adept at ferreting them out.

Read on for a pictorial display of golden-winged warbler foraging technique.

I had secreted myself and my large lens as best I could, after hearing a golden-winged warbler's lazy breezy song along a back road in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. It wasn't long before the bird presented itself - this species is not especially bashful - and I took the opportunity to closely watch the bird as it worked its way through the adjacent choke cherry colony.

Here, the warbler has found a potential treasure concealed in two silked-together cherry leaves, and has plunged its bill in for a better look.

Detecting a tasty larval snack, the bird inserts its long sharp bill, and opens wide. The mandibles act as scissors, prying apart the caterpillar's lair. Just below the bird's bill tips, you can see the whitish cords of silk that the caterpillar used to seal shut its hiding spot.

A second later, the warbler has a tiny but nutritious snack (as always, click the photo to enlarge). The entire operation, from discovery to swallow, took all of about ten seconds. Given the energy and sharp-eyed efficiency of golden-winged warblers, one must wonder how many caterpillars a bird must take in a day. Hundreds, probably.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Some birds from the jack pine plains

Today was my "day off" in between leading a pair of trips up here in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. We're based at NettieBay Lodge, and the area's diversity is staggering. It's only about 20 minutes to huge jack pine plains on the west, and the more boreal habitats along Lake Huron about 20 minutes to the east. All manner of interesting places between, too.

Our first excursion met with much success. Killer looks of many wonderful species, and the sum total bird list was 131 species. Bonuses included a porcupine in a nearby tree, many interesting plants and insects, many species of warblers including golden-winged, Kirtland's, and mourning, and a nice late spring hawk migration along Lake Huron. That included a pair of sharp-shinned and a red-tailed hawk, a peregrine falcon, an osprey, dozens of turkey vultures, five bald eagles, and perhaps 80 broad-winged hawks.

I was up and out at dawn to head over to the jack pines, one of my favorite habitats. Following are a few photos from today's foray.

While traveling along a remote gravel lane, I encountered a large wild turkey gobbler, shepherding a pair of hens. He was busy strutting and fanning his tail and wings, and allowed me a surprisingly close approach.

Stars of the jack pines are, it should go without saying, the Kirtland's warbler. Here, a male pauses briefly between bouts of singing and foraging. These largish warblers are fairly sluggish and tame. They are also curious. I have noted repeatedly that when I'm by myself, being quiet and still, a bird will often come near seemingly to inspect me before continuing his rounds.

I was very pleased to see this female, who was following the male shown above. Female Kirtland's warblers are far skulkier and difficult to observe than the outgoing males, who often perch in conspicuous places for extended periods while singing. As I watched, the pair came together on the ground, and copulated. Missed that shot - the act lasts but a second or so - but the female then retreated to cover and sat for a few minutes preening.

Upland sandpipers are fairly common in the jack pines, especially the very young open stands. They are prone to alighting atop conspicuous snags to survey their domain.

Not a great shot - sorry - but by this point it was early afternoon and harsh contrasting sunlight. But this is a cool bird and one that I don't find commonly in the jacks. It is a Brewer's blackbird, and a male with his bright staring white eyes.

Sparrows are a big part of the jack pine avifauna, and at least ten breeding species can be found: eastern towhee, and chipping, clay-colored, field, vesper, savannah (rarely), song, Lincoln's, and white-throated sparrows, and dark-eyed junco. This is a clay-colored sparrow, a male in between delivering his odd buzzy insect-like song.

The most common of the jack pine sparrows is the vesper sparrow, which has a beautiful voice indeed. The song begins with two downslurred notes, then launches into a rambunctious series of buzzy trills. One hears them everywhere.

Finally, my favorite of the jack pine sparrows, the Lincoln's sparrow. Many birders know this one only from migration, south of the breeding grounds. When in passage, it has a well-deserved reputation as a furtive skulker and getting a good look at one of these dapper sparrows can be challenging. Furthermore, they seldom sing in migration.

These neatly dressed birds resemble a carefully manicured song sparrow. They drop the shyness on the nesting grounds - at least the males - and can be found teeing up on prominent perches belting out a boisterous buzzy song.

We'll be exploring more of the jack pines with our second group later this week, and I look forward to returning.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Northern Michigan, in a few random photos

As I've done for the past seven or eight years, I'm at NettieBay Lodge in northern Michigan's Presque Isle County. From this serene spot on the shores of Lake Nettie, we embark on natural history tours throughout the area's diverse landscapes. From dry jack pine plains reverberating with the songs of Kirtland's warblers to the cool shorelines of Lake Huron, we see a ton of interesting stuff.

I've been scouting since Monday afternoon, prior to the arrival of our first group this afternoon, and found a lot. Following are a few photos in utterly random order from the scouting forays.

We'll decide the dates of next year's NettieBay excursions soon, but they be in late May and there'll probably be two trips. Each one will be a half-day on either end, and two full days between. That's time to cover a lot of ground and see many, many things. For info about NettieBay, info about our trips, and contact info if you'd like to reserve a spot, GO HERE.

An extroverted mourning warbler poses nicely on a stump. He was singing from exposed perches right before my eyes for about 20 minutes, and was still doing so when I left. I found about six territorial males today in the Pigeon River Country State Wildlife Area. Mournings are pretty common there. So are golden-winged warblers. I found about eight singing males today.

A black-banded orange moth, Epelis truncataria, poses briefly on Grayling sands. These pretty little day-flyers are especially abundant this year in Kirtland's warbler country; the vast jack pine plains of Michigan's northern lower peninsula.

Doobie the lodge cat trots over to see your narrator. She is an especially extroverted feline and enjoys seeing what people are up to. On her own terms, of course.

Up close with a Blanding's turtle. The lemon-throated reptiles are pretty common up here. I found this one wandering overland and headed towards a road. Even though traffic is sparse indeed here, I carried the turtle to the other side of the road, after spending a bit of time on its level.

Looking much like a spring azure butterfly, tiny bluish spring moths, Lomographa semiclarata, are also quite abundant in the jack pines, intermixing with the aforementioned black-banded orange moths.

This is one of the Lake Nettie common loons, as soon from the lodge's pontoon boat. Loons are often curious about the boat and will approach closely. Thanks to our pilot, Vinnie Baideme, who skillfully maneuvered the craft to place the loon and us in a patch of colorfully reflected foliage.

An eastern kingbird tees up on a mullein stalk. Kingbirds are common here, and always fun to watch as they hawk for large insects, including dragonflies.

After a bit of effort, I was able to catch the kingbird in flight on an aerial attack on some hapless insect.

That's all for now, but more Michigan material will undoubtedly follow.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Nature: Night hunt reveals green salamander's hiding spot

A green salamander hunts along the face of a cliff in West Virginia/Jim McCormac

May 20, 2018

Jim McCormac

Twenty-four species of salamanders occur in Ohio, but they mostly remain well-hidden.
Most of these low-slung amphibians prefer to haunt wet, mucky soil under logs, rocks and other such niches. Even though many species can be surprisingly common, it takes an expert to find them.

One of the rarest and most furtive Ohio species is the green salamander (Aneides aeneus). Listed as endangered in Ohio, this salamander is known from a handful of rocky outcrops along the Ohio River. The best populations are found within the sprawling Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County, owned by the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Green salamanders hole up in tiny fissures of cliff faces during the day. By using a flashlight, seekers can sometimes locate them in their rocky lairs. Daytime looks are rather dissatisfying — little more than a bit of eye shine and a sinuous shape deep in the shadows.
Years ago, I saw my only green salamander in Adams County. It was a daylight discovery deep in a crevice. Attempts to tease the wee beast out with a stick met with failure, and just pushed it deeper into its dwelling.

This southern species becomes more common to our south, and I recently had the opportunity to make a much better acquaintance with the green salamander.

As I’ve done for the past 13 years, I was leading trips as part of the New River Birding & Nature Festival. The event takes place around the New River in southern West Virginia, a region noted for its extraordinary biodiversity.

This year, festival organizers launched a new field trip with an amphibious theme. They tapped the Mountaineer State’s leading salamander authority, Tom Pauley of the department of biological sciences at Marshall University, to lead the expedition. At 77, Pauley remains active and is an intrepid field man.

I wasn’t on the Pauley expedition, but eagerly sought an accounting upon the expedition’s return. The group found 15 species of amphibians, including two green salamanders. Attendees provided me the location of the cliff, and that night I headed out salamander hunting.

My impromptu posse consisted of Suleka Deevi,
Paul Shaw and Tom Stephenson. None had ever seen a green salamander, and were up for the nocturnal challenge.

Green salamanders emerge under cover of darkness to hunt along the cliff faces. Our evening could not have offered better conditions. Recent rains left a veneer of moisture on the rocks — humidity was high, and temperatures were in the 60s.

We fanned out along the cliff face, scanning the rocks with our flashlights. Before long, I spotted a green salamander emerging from its fissure. Before the night was done, we had found four of the beasts. They blended well with the stone, courtesy of irregular green blotches that mimic lichen-dappled rocks.

It was interesting to watch the salamanders hunt. When a small fly or other insect entered one’s hunting sphere, the salamander would quickly move its way. With a rapid snakelike strike, it would lunge and snap up the victim.

Ohio’s green salamander populations are sparse, live in a highly specialized habitat, and occur at the northern reaches of the range. Fortunately, the best sites are owned by the Nature Conservancy and that’s a good landlord to have if you are an endangered salamander.

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cape May Warblers, and the Friends of Magee Marsh

A fabled place, especially at this time of year. Tens of thousands of birders make the peregrination to western Lake Erie, especially Ohio's Lucas and Ottawa counties, and stop #1 is a mile-long boardwalk that bisects a lakefront patch of swamp woods.

Owned and managed by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Magee Marsh Bird Trail can be akin to birding in an open-air zoo aviary. Scores of warblers and other songbirds fill the woods, and can often be seen at arm's length. Fixated on feeding to fuel the long flights ahead, and replenish fat deposits lost in the long migration to reach this point, the birds are little concerned with the throngs of human admirers.

I was up there over the weekend, and the birds put on a heckuva show. At least 29 warblers species were seen, most in large numbers. The rarity highlight among that crowd was a vagrant black-throated gray warbler - one of relatively few Ohio records.

Many visitors commented on the sparkly new look to the boardwalk. We can thank the Friends of Magee Marsh (FOMM) for that. This nonprofit exists to provide support and help make improvements to the marsh and its infrastructure. FOMM embarked on an ambitious two-year fundraiser to replace the aging boardwalk, ultimately pulling in several hundred thousand dollars and seeing to the complete replacement of the boardwalk's planking. That work benefits scores of people who visit Magee Marsh from all over North America, and far beyond. Support the Friends of Magee Marsh - details on the organization RIGHT HERE.

This spring, the stars of the warbler parade have been Cape May warblers. Here, a male forages in a patch of American black currant, Ribes americanum. A male Cape May warbler is a thing of great beauty; a colorful dynamo packaged in an 11-gram bundle of chestnut, yellow, black and green feathers. Charcoal tiger streaks complete its exotic appearance.

It is no coincidence that the bird in the photo above is in a patch of currant. And, once again, we have the Friends of Magee Marsh to thank for this. Read on...

A week or so after the first male Cape May warblers return from their Caribbean and Central American wintering haunts, they are joined by the females. The lass in this photo perches on an elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, another native plant found along the boardwalk.

Over time, the woods along the Bird Trail became choked with nonnative flora, as happens to so many of our habitats. Two of the worst botanical offenders were bush honeysuckle, Lonicera morrowii and others, and garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata. These species are highly aggressive and crowd out the native flora. Not only that, they are also allelopathic - the plants produce growth-inhibiting enzymes from their rootstocks that impedes or eliminates the growth of competitors.

The upshot was a sea of nasty invasives along the trail, and very little native flora other than the overarching trees. Until the FOMM began an orchestrated and labor-intensive project to eradicate the nonnative flora. This work began about five years ago, and FOMM members keep on top of things with regular eradication sweeps.

Their work has been highly successful. There's hardly a weed to be seen these days, and the response of native flora - the species vanquished by the nonnative invaders - has been astonishing. Spring wildflowers have returned, along with jewelweed, native nettles (they play host to red admiral butterfly caterpillars!), and many other kinds of indigenous flora. Along with the major spike in botanical diversity has come a marked increase in value to birds and other wildlife.

Back to the American black currant and Cape May warblers. While the currant had nearly been eliminated when the invasives were at their worst, it has bounced back with a vengeance. Everyone who birds the trail can't help but to notice it. A small shrub, the currant is bedecked with dangling clusters of small yellowish flowers and is showily conspicuous.

What nearly everyone this spring has also noticed is the fixation of Cape warblers with the currant flowers. In this photo, a male plumbs the depths of a blossom with its slender bill, drawing out nectar with its semi-tubular tongue. Cape May warblers are big consumers of flower nectar, and the proliferation of currant plants along the boardwalk has given them back a large and important food source at a critical place and time in their long migratory trek to the boreal forests of the extreme northern U.S. and Canada. Once there, they specialize on spruce budworm caterpillars and I assume last summer saw large outbreaks of those caterpillars. The number of Cape May warblers seen this spring in migration has been astounding, likely due to high breeding success triggered by abundant food crops on the breeding grounds last year.

Cape May warblers aren't the only beneficiaries of currant blooms. Other warbler nectar-feeders include Nashville and Tennessee warblers, along with northern parula. This tale is an excellent and clearcut example of the value of native plants, and the often ornate ecology that binds plants and animals. Working to eradicate nonnative invasive plants is tough and time-consuming, but obviously can bear rich fruit.

Thanks once again to the Friends of Magee Marsh for their hard work, and I'm sure the warblers send their thanks, too. Again, for information about FOMM, GO HERE.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

New River Birding & Nature Festival

A long exposure brings out star trails, with the mighty New River Gorge bridge as frontispiece. I made this image at midnight from deep within the gorge.

I spent all last week near Fayetteville, in southern West Virginia, participating in the New River Birding & Nature Festival. This, I think, was my 14th year of leading trips and giving talks at this event, which celebrated its 16th year with this go-round. It is one of my favorite events, because of the people, the excellent organization of the event, and of course the outstanding biodiversity.

Thanks to Rachel Davis, Geoff Heeter, Keith Richardson, Paul Shaw and everyone else involved in planning and executing the NRBNF. Next year's dates are April 29 through May 4. You can come for part of it, or the whole thing. We'd love to have you. Festival details are RIGHT HERE.

Swollen by spring showers, the waters of Glade Creek rush through a rich Appalachian cove forest. Landscapes are stunning in the New River region.

I take very few photos during the event. Leading groups each day doesn't allow for much photography, as it's more important to find COOL THINGS and help everyone else see them. I usually stay for a day following the festival, and create images of things that I saw during the week. Following is a hodge-podge of imagery from this year's festival.

The waters of a mountain brook race by banks lined with yellow birch, pipevine, and other interesting plants. Spring is normally wet down here, but not this year. Monday through Friday was dry and mostly sunny, with some showers towards week's end. Rare is rain so intense that it keeps us from our appointed rounds, though.

Spring came late to this region, as it did throughout much of the east. Unfurling leaves of a yellow buckeye unfold in the highlands of the Monongahela National Forest. Normally the buckeye leaves would be at mostly grown by this time, but tardy foliage made it much easier to see birds, and we saw plenty of those.

By the last days of the festival, warmth and sun had stimulated a floral explosion, especially at lower elevations. I made this image of a beautiful mountain silverbell during a light shower last Sunday. Normally the silverbells are nearly through blooming by the festival, but this year everyone was treated to these small trees at their peak.

I was pleased to find a small colony of adder's-tongue fern, Ophioglossum vulgatum, in a rich woods along Glade Creek. This strange little plant hardly resembles a fern, and is easily missed. It's nice to conduct our field trips in such floristically diverse sites. If the birds get a bit slow, we sometimes divert our attention to the plants.

Festival organizers added a new trip this year that included a focus on amphibians. They enlisted the services of Dr. Tom Pauley, amphibian expert and author of Salamanders of West Virginia, as trip leader. That outing found at least 15 species of amphibians, including some very cool salamanders.

One of them was the green salamander, which is a bit of a Holy Grail to amphibian seekers. Green salamanders spend their days hiding in crevices of cliff faces and are tough to see. I returned to a cliff where Pauley's group had found a few green salamanders along with Paul Shaw, Suleka Deevi, and warbler expert Tom Stephenson. We went at night, when the salamanders emerge from hiding and hunt small invertebrate prey on the cliff faces. In this photo, a green salamander has just emerged from hiding.

A closer view of one of the four green salamanders that we found. Their dappled coloration blends well with the lichen-spattered rocks that they frequent. It was interesting to watch the elfin beasts stalk small flies and other prey, snapping them up with astonishingly rapid lunges.

A four-toed salamander marches through an elfin forest of moss. It was one of three that I saw. At least 22 species of salamanders occur in the areas visited by the New River Birding & Nature Festival.

Salamanders aren't the only threat faced by bugs. Here, a jumping spider has seized an eight-spotted forester moth. Never know what you'll see on our field trips, and an abundance of expert guides and sharp-eyed attendees means that interesting sightings are commonplace, and someone will usually know what any organism in question is.

Birds, of course, are the festival centerpiece. I just didn't get many photos of them this year. This is a pair of common mergansers. This year, we saw over 20 of these big showy fish-eating ducks on the Cranberry Glades trip. They have become common nesters along the Williams River, a gorgeous mountain river.

I don't know what the final tally of birds was, but it was probably in the 150 species range. More important than racking up a big list is the chance to see well and study interesting species. We had those opportunities in spades.

A female common merganser releases an explosive stream of guano. Our group spent quite a while merganser-watching, but it wasn't all ducks. Over the course of the fields trips that I was on, we had great studies of many warbler species including cerulean, Kentucky, blue-winged, bay-breasted, worm-eating, Canada, blackburnian, and many others. Plus, scores of other species, more plants than you could shake a stick at, salamanders, butterflies, various mammals, and lots of other stuff.

Hope you can make the New River Birding & Nature Festival 2019!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Nature: Once-shunned peninsula grew into urban oasis

A Cooper's hawk chases a red-tailed hawk above Scioto Audubon Metro Park/Jim McCormac

May 6, 2018

Jim McCormac

Just southwest of Downtown Columbus, shadowed by skyscrapers, is an urban oasis. The 120-acre Scioto Audubon Metro Park is a rich green peninsula wedged between the Brewery District and the Scioto River.
The nine-year-old park rose from rows of impounded cars and industrial detritus. Many an illegally parked motorist made journeys to the end of Whittier Street to retrieve vehicles that had been towed.
Metro Parks, Audubon Ohio and the city of Columbus united to transform the Whittier Street Peninsula into a landscape diametrically opposed to what it once was. Although the peninsula was a place few folks wished to visit only a decade ago, it is now a site that tens of thousands of people flock to each year.
A popular attraction is the Metro Parks’ climbing wall, where wanna-be Edmund Hillarys scale the artificial heights. Walkers, runners and others also abound. Yet intermixed with the human recreational opportunities is a big dose of natural habitats.
Central Ohioans are fortunate in that we have metro parks that artfully blend conservation with recreation. The juxtaposition of this mixed use is on conspicuous display at Scioto Audubon.
Near the park’s entrance is an osprey nest atop a light pole. The “fish-hawks” have nested there for a number of years, seemingly oblivious to the throngs of people. A marshy pond with boardwalk serves as a centerpiece, and planted prairie buffers the wetland.
Backwaters of the Scioto River delineate the park’s western border. The river attracts egrets, waterfowl of many kinds, bald eagles, migrant songbirds and scores of other species. More than 200 species have been documented from this site, including many rarities.

The crown jewel of the park is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. One of only a few dozen such centers in the nation, it serves as a hub for activities of many kinds and sports interesting displays within. Staff members regularly offer programs, lead local forays and provide educational outreach to the community.

I visited the center recently to attend a workshop, and arrived an hour early to photograph the osprey at their nest. The brief visit turned into a wildlife extravaganza perhaps unexpected in the footprint of a large city.
A scan through my 800-mm lens revealed the outline of a peregrine falcon perched on the ledge of a Downtown building. The falcons make regular sorties over the park searching for ducks and other avian prey.
A young red-tailed hawk crossed the prairie and was set upon by a Cooper’s hawk. The smaller but fiercer raptor drove the red-tail from its turf. These are the birds in the accompanying photo.
Killdeer foraged on a nearby lawn, while swallows of five species hawked insects overhead. Escaping their attention were migrant red admiral butterflies flitting around the meadows. At least two bald eagles, a juvenile and an adult, patrolled the nearby river. The clear slip-sliding notes of a male yellow-throated warbler came from streamside sycamores.
Before I knew it, my hour was up. But once again, a visit to Columbus’s “Central Park” bore much feathered fruit.
For information about the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, visit
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