Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hunting dragons at a dragonfly conference

A blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, commands a perch over a wetland rich in dragonflies and damselflies. Competition for this lookout was fierce, with dashers, Halloween pennants, and widow skimmers duking it out for this spot.

The Ohio Odonata Society had their annual meeting over the weekend, in partnership with the Ohio Dragonfly Survey. Thanks to MaLisa Spring, Shane Myers, Hancock Parks District and whoever else had a hand in putting this together. Base Camp was Oakwoods Nature Preserve, where the 100+ attendees heard a diverse selection of talks. Kurt Mead, all the way from northern Minnesota, was the headliner. He's the author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, a great pictorial reference. Kurt talked about the ongoing Minnesota Dragonfly Survey, which was especially appropriate, as Ohio is in the midst of out Ohio Dragonfly Survey. Volunteers of all levels wanted; CLICK HERE for details.

On Saturday afternoon, everyone split into groups and headed to various field trip sites to hunt dragons. I drew "The Landfill", which didn't sound overly appealing at face value. It turned out to be probably the most productive site of any. While a large landfill does occupy a distant portion of the vast tract of land, the rest of the property contains an interesting mosaic of meadows, ponds and wetlands, and swampy woods. Our crew, spearheaded by Linda Gilbert and myself, but including several other very knowledgeable people, mustered 24 species of damselflies and dragonflies.

This is a female common baskettail, Epitheca cynosura. While a bit of a plain jane, she's a masterful flyer, and allowed us the opportunity to see something interesting. You'll note the frothy brown mass emerging from her posterior end.

Eggs! Thousands, probably. As we watched, the mass grew as she pumped egg after egg into her "basket". Shortly after I made this image, she took wing and headed out over a nearby pond. Then she began dabbing her abdomen in the water to release the eggs.

One of our most common and conspicuous species, the common whitetail, Plathemis lydia. This is the female, the male with its chalky-white abdomen is much easier to recognize. As often seems to happen on dragonfly trips, dragons will land on participants and that's what happened here. This whitetail rocketed over and landed on Kim Smith's gray t-shirt, allowing for nice photo ops.

An abundant but inconspicuous damselfly, the eastern forktail, Ischnura verticalis. They're simple to find, but one must look in the grasses and sedges. Forktails are tiny, and ply their trade by flying through dense vegetation picking small insects from the plants.

A genuine tough guy in the Odonata world, a male eastern pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis. This was my "spark" dragonfly many years ago. While traversing a damp meadow, I came across a pondhawk that had captured and was eating a calico pennant. Seeing a dragonfly eating another dragonfly and one that wasn't all that much smaller piqued my interest in learning more about these fascinating insects. Pondhawks are quite aggressive and routinely take out dragonflies up to their own size, if not larger.

Like many species of dragonflies, eastern pondhawks are sexually dimorphic; the males and females look very different. This is the lime-green female.

One of the landfill ponds and an adjacent meadow was loaded with Halloween pennants, Celithemis eponina. These showy dragons are prone to teeing up on very conspicuous perches, and habitually return to them making photos easy to obtain.

Probably the prize of the day was this mocha emerald, Somatochlora linearis. We first saw it - and at least one other - on the wing, cruising high overhead. Emeralds often spend much time in flight; finding them perched can be a challenge. But luck was with us. After watching this animal hawk about for about ten minutes, it shot down and landed nearly in front of us.

Our field trip allowed many chances to observe interesting behavior, such as these western slender bluets, Enallagma traviatum, are engaged in. The male, on the left, firmly grasps the female by her neck with his "claspers", or cerci. She is mostly underwater, depositing eggs into the submergent coontail plants. To ensure that another male does not interfere, the male must hold and guard her until the ovipositing is complete.

Again, to learn more about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mutualism vs. Parasitoidism: Two interesting examples

A northern mockingbird, seemingly pleased as punch with its ability to mimic kestrels, blue grosbeaks, titmice, cardinals and all manner of other voices, tees up on the flowers of a yucca. He was performing his act in little Sandy Spring Cemetery in southernmost Adams County, Ohio, within sight of the Ohio River.

I was there last weekend not primarily to photograph showboat mockingbirds, but to take part in a seminar on Ohio River sand terraces, put on by the Cincinnati Museum Center's Edge of Appalachia operation and held at the always interesting Edge of Appalachia Preserve. Big thanks to Chris Bedel, preserve director, for including me. My fellow presenter and trip leader was Matt Purtill, an archaeologist and geomorphologist. Matt is an expert on the formation of these "dunes", and full of insight about the Paleo-Indians who first colonized this region. I learned tons from Matt.

Anyway, this part of Adams County and adjacent Shawnee State Forest is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to natural history. I did not have much extra time this go-round, but managed to squeeze in a bit of exploration before and after the lecture and field trips.

You can bet I turned my big lens to this interesting fellow, who can also mimic sounds but not nearly as well as a mockingbird. It is a yellow-breasted chat, and if you turn to any bird book it will be with the warblers. Time for updates, authors. Last year, the chat was moved from the warblers (Parulidae) to its own monotypic (only one species) family, the Icteriidae. Good move. The chat is quite unwarblerlike in nearly every way, and although the warblers are good company to keep, it was high time the odd chat got carved out and into its own niche.

The sandy terraces of the Ohio River - the scraps that are left - are desertlike and this is reflected in some of the flora. Most notably, prickly-pear cactus, Opuntia humifusa. Our visits coincided with blooming, and the gorgeous yellow and orangish-red flowers are eye candy indeed.

Many interesting invertebrate animals thrive in the sand terraces and this is one: Efferia albibarbis, one of the robberflies. This species has a penchant for perching on open sand or low plants, and as I always preach, a good photographer will get down on the level of his/her subject. In this case, I did, but it was not as fun as it sometimes is. Temperatures in the low 90's F had the sand broiling, and great care had to be taken in where one went prostrate. Those cacti will leave annoying needles impaled in your flesh.

We spent a bit of time in some moist deciduous woodlands during our Sunday morning foray, and I think it was Chris Bedel who found this little fellow. A spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, peeking from his leafy lair, the rolled leaf of a spicebush shrub.

On the way to and from the workshop, I traveled through Shawnee State Forest. This place is always a goldmine of flora and fauna, in spite of the current powers-that-be doing way too much timber cutting. Among the legions of plants that I saw was this, the black cohosh, Actaea (formerly Cimicifuga) racemosa. The plants weren't this far along yet - the shot above is from a few years ago, later in June - but were in full bud and still conspicuous. Budding black cohosh means the potential of finding one of our cooler caterpillars, so I paid them close mind.

Yes! It did not take long to find the larvae of one of our more interesting caterpillars, that of the Appalachian azure butterfly, Celastrina neglectamajor. These little cats eat the buds of the cohosh and would be remarkably difficult to locate were it not for the ants. Ants?! Yes, all one need do is scan the budding flower spike for small ants, then look closely for the nearby caterpillars. In this shot, the caterpillar's head is at the top, buried in a flower bud. It is eating its way up the stalk, and cored out buds with telltale feeding holes can be seen.

At first initiation, one might think the ants were attacking the caterpillars. Nothing could be further from the case. Tending phalanxes of ants guard the caterpillars carefully, fending off small parasitoid flies, wasps and other would-be predators. The flies and wasps lay eggs on caterpillar hosts, and the hatchling grubs bore into the victim and ultimately eat it alive. But not with ferocious ants on hand, replete with powerful mandibles and strength far out of proportion to their elfin size.

In return for their protective services, the ants are rewarded with "honeydew" secreted by the caterpillar. This liquid is high in nutrients and for the ant, must be the equivalent of a rich protein shake. Such a relationship, where both parties benefit, is termed mutualism. Even more specifically in this case, the relationship is an example of myrmecophily, an alliance between ants and other insects.

This is very close to what those caterpillars will become if they make it to adulthood. The photo actually shows the very similar summer azure, Celastrina neglecta. While I've seen Appalachian azures on a number of occasions, I've yet to get a decent image.

Bit of a horrorshow here, but a very cool tale. The paralyzed wolf spider, Rabida rabidosa, in the foreground was extracted from the little mud jug in the backdrop. During the Sunday morning field trip, we found a number of the little adobe crypts under a sheet of metal on the ground. A spider-hunting wasp known as Phanagenia bombycina grabbed the spider, paralyzed it with a sting, flew and dragged it "home". Once there, it then packed the paralyzed spider into this little mud tomb which she had already created. The wasp is a parasitoid, not a parasite. The latter take from their hosts but do not give anything in return, such as mites, lice, ticks, etc., but normally do not kill their host. The parasitoids DO kill their hosts and often in very grisly fashion.

Once the spider was entombed, the wasp laid an egg in the chamber then sealed everything up. The wasp grub can be seen feeding on the spider's back. To add to the horror, the wasp amputated five of the spider's legs before bringing it to the nest. Remember, the spider is only paralyzed by the wasp's powerful neurotoxin, not dead. She probably chewed those legs off to make for easier transport, and perhaps to better fit the victim into its crypt. After our group gaped for a bit at the gruesome scene, we put the spider and wasp grub back in the chamber and returned it to where we found it. An awesome example of parasitoidism!

Nature, oftentimes, is not very Disneyesque.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Two upcoming photo workshops of interest

A west-central Ohio prairie in its peak splendor, in mid-July. An abundance of interesting photographic opportunities can be found in such a place.

On July 15 - prime time for prairies! - Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a workshop that will visit a large prairie, and an interesting prairie fen. Subjects will abound, and it will be a particularly good chance to shoot fascinating macro subjects. We've got a few spaces left, and would love to have you. Details and registration info are RIGHT HERE.

We'll see one of the botanical prairie stars, the royal catchfly, Silene regia, but not just any old catchfly. This is a rare salmon-pink form, and it is particularly photogenic.

Here's the typical form of royal catchfly, and these towering members of the pink family should be in peak bloom on July 15. They are ruby-throated hummingbird magnets - the hummers are their primary pollinator - and the prairie we'll visit is loaded with catchflies, and hummingbirds.

Prime time in the prairies means lots of cool bugs, including scores of butterflies. This is a common wood-nymph, but it's by no means the only species of butterfly we will see. Again, workshop details are FOUND HERE.

A foggy lake clad in water-lilies, as seen in late summer in Shawnee State Forest. Debbie and I are leading another photographic foray on August 31 - September 2, based at the fabulous Shawnee Lodge and Resort in southern Ohio. We'll be close to vast forests and interesting cedar glade prairies, and will be sure to find scads of amazing photo subjects, from epic landscapes to beautiful plants to strange and showy insects.

Complete details and registration info can be found RIGHT HERE.

Late summer and early fall brings a riot of colorful wildflowers to Shawnee and vicinity, including this species, the stiff-leaved aster, Ionactis linariifolius. It may be the prettiest of the aster crowd, and that's saying a lot. A great many other interesting plants will also be in bloom.

Late August/early September is also peak season for caterpillars, a subject that perhaps not many photographers dwell upon, much. I don't know why. The larvae of butterflies and moths are tubular objets de' art and well worthy of framing in any camera. There are special tactics for finding such fare, but your narrator knows some of the tricks.

The one above is a crowned slug, Isa textua, the amazing caterpillar of a pretty cool little moth. It, alas, has been parasitized by a tachinid fly, a common fate for these creatures. The whitish oval object is the fly's egg case. We'll probably learn a lot about insect ecology in the course of making our photos.

This comical caterpillar is that of a common butterfly, the eastern tiger swallowtail. The fake eye spots impart the look of a tree snake, and to further intimidate would-be predators it can flick out orange horns. The latter is called the osmeterium, and this organ is coated with foul-smelling chemicals.

A larval beauty if there ever was one, the caterpillar of the honey locust moth, Syssphinx bicolor. The well-named species gets its moniker from the caterpillar, which only noshes on the foliage of honey locust trees.

We also plan on erecting a moth sheet, to lure bundles of moths in for photography.

Again, we'd love to have you and all details are RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Common Loon, in portraiture

During our NettieBay Lodge forays in northern Michigan - several recent posts on these -  we usually take the groups onto Lake Nettie via pontoon boat. It's a great way to observe birds and other wildlife. While preparing to debark from the dock on one of these aquatic excursions, on May 30, one of the locally nesting loons approached the boat. These birds can be quite tame, and seem to recognize and accept the boat and its occupants.

The loon eventually approached to within 15 feet of the boat, and I prostrated myself on the deck to get on its level and make these portraits.

A common loon in breeding condition is a thing of avian finery, indeed. Its ruby-red eye cannot be missed, but much more subtle is the tracing of green and purple glossing on the head.

After allowing us to ooh and aah for a while, the loon casually floated off to join its mate. Hopefully they will have another successful breeding season, and introduce some loonlets to the world. Common loons have bred on Lake Nettie for as long as anyone can remember, and raised scores of generations of loons here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Michigan Natural History Forays! Dates for 2019

A flaming sunset colors the Jack Pine Plains of northern Michigan's Presque Isle County. Kirtland's warblers, among many other avian species, sang Taps while I made this photo.

Another set of Michigan natural history forays is in the books. This was the 9th year in a row that I've led excursions from NettieBay Lodge, and as always we saw LOTS OF STUFF. For the most part, we don't leave sprawling Presque Isle County, which is in the northeast corner of the lower peninsula. The biodiversity is staggering, as the county includes the shores of Lake Huron, sandy jack pine plains, boreal forests, glacial lakes, fens and bogs, and much more. Birds abound, and between the two groups this year, we probably found about 150 species. But there's much more - floral and faunal diversity is incredible, and we try to look at it all.

We've set the dates for next year's forays: Group One: May 20-23. And Group Two: May 25-28.

While scouting about on my own after the last group departed this year, I found a wonderful road that winds through the jack pine plains, not far from the lodge. There were booming common nighthawks displaying at close range, numerous whip-poor-wills calling from the sandy roadbed, American woodcocks doing aerial courtship displays, a pair of snowshoe hares along the road, and more. We'll add this as an evening foray next year, along with tested hotspots.

If you are interested, please contact Mark or Jackie at NettieBay Lodge, RIGHT HERE. We limit each group to eight people, in order that everyone has the best chance of seeing everything we find.

Following are a few more photos from this year (scroll back to recent posts for more from the latest Michigan trips).

We usually spend the better part of a day in the Jack Pine Plains. While numerous Kirtland's warblers are the undisputed stars, there is so much more. Here' an upland sandpiper alights atop a gnarled jack pine skeleton. The sandpipers are not uncommon and usually don't disappoint.

Where we are, the jack pine habitat is very actively managed, and we see everything from brand new plantings to old-growth pine forests. It's a great immersion into the fascinating ecology of jack pine-dominated habitats, and the many interesting animals that occupy them.

A Savannah sparrow gives a quick shimmy between singing its breezy trills. This part of Michigan is a regular Sparrowpalooza, with as many as thirteen species possible. Especially noteworthy are breeding clay-colored, Lincoln's, and vesper sparrows.

Forest-dwelling broad-winged hawks are common, and often quite tame. In addition to local breeders, we sometimes catch large numbers of migrants along Lake Huron. One magical morning this year, we saw 80 or so broad-wings go over, along with numerous turkey vultures, and several bald eagles and other raptor species.

While yellow warblers may be common, a singing male in a dewy tamarack takes on an especially showy look. Warblers abound. There are about 20 locally breeding species, and northbound migrants can add another five or so species to the list.

We usually do pretty well with mammals. This is a gargantuan beaver lodge along the Ocqueoc River, which we saw on one of our pontoon boat excursions. Badger is a possibility, as is porcupine, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, elk, northern flying squirrel, and more.

Bug are not always ignored, either. And there are many. This is a forest tent caterpillar, Malacosoma disstria, and especially fetching larva.

Amphibians and reptiles also abound, and this animal would fall into the latter category, of course. We saw this huge female snapping turtle as she ambled overland, no doubt looking for a good place to dig a nest and deposit eggs. The much scarcer Blanding's turtle is also in the region, and we sometimes see those.

Lake Nettie at sunset, artistic photographic liberties unapologetically taken. Thanks to everyone who came up this year, and I will hope to see you in northern Michigan next year!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Spotting of king rail spotlights bird's decline in Ohio

A king rail was recently spotted at Glass Farm on the outskirts of Yellow Springs/Jim McCormac

June 3, 2018

Jim McCormac

In May 29, 1810, in Kentucky, the great naturalist and birdman John James Audubon encountered a large marsh bird unfamiliar to him. He dubbed it the “fresh water marsh hen,” which would later be formally named the king rail.
In Audubon’s day, the king rail was a common to locally abundant bird over much of the eastern U.S.
John Bachman, a contemporary of Audubon’s, wrote: “Wherever there are extensive marshes ... I have found so many as 20 pairs breeding within a space having a diameter of 30 yards.”
King rails were common nesters in much of northern and western Ohio into the 1930s. Buckeye Lake, 20 miles east of Columbus, once harbored many breeding king rails. The marshy verges of the old canal feeder lake remained wild into the mid-1900s, and the lake was often visited by Milton Trautman.
Trautman was Ohio’s John James Audubon, chronicling bird life for much of the 20th century. He found the rails to be common nesters at Buckeye Lake, and such also was the case in the large marshes buffering Lake Erie.
In most Ohio counties, king rails were the most common of our three widespread nesting rail species, the sora and Virginia rail being the other two.
Rampant wetland destruction became too much for Rallus elegans, and the king of the cattails began to decline rapidly. Today, it is one of Ohio’s scarcest nesting birds and is among Ohio’s endangered species.
Data reported in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Ohio (2016) suggest that perhaps 140 king rails occur in the state each breeding season. I suspect that’s highly optimistic and the population is probably far fewer.
King rails were recorded at only 27 sites in 12 counties during the six years of Ohio’s breeding bird atlas (2006-2011). The decline is widespread: King rail is listed as endangered or threatened in 12 states.
The decline of the king rail is indeed a loss for nature enthusiasts. These big, chickenlike birds enliven a marsh with their vociferous grunting squawks and metallic ticking notes. Somewhat more extroverted than other rails, the big kings sometimes forage in plain sight. The slightest perturbance is apt to send them darting back into dense marsh vegetation.
On May 13, Gabby Amrhein located a king rail at the Glass Farm on the outskirts of Yellow Springs. The bird frequents a small, marshy pond and often offers extraordinary views. Word quickly spread among birders, and the rail fast became Greene County’s most famous avian newsmaker.
I visited on May 17 and almost instantly found the bird strutting about the marshy shallows. Before long, numerous people appeared to admire the showy brownish-red bird with the oversized bill. In total, many dozens of birders have visited the Glass Farm to bask in the king’s presence.
The loss of Audubon’s freshwater marsh hen is a conservation tragedy. It is also a clear environmental omen. About 90 percent of Ohio’s wetlands have disappeared since European settlement, victims of agriculture and other development.
Most wetland-dependent birds have become rarer; the king rail is just one particularly charismatic example of these declines. Restoration of wetlands should be a conservation priority for Ohioans.
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