Sunday, November 25, 2018

A photographic amble through a prairie marsh

Battelle Darby Metro Park, as seen from Google Earth. This is just a snippet of the sprawling 7,000 acre park, but this patch is my favorite spot. It is a recently restored wet prairie, and the transformation from barren croplands to vibrant prairie has been remarkable to watch.

A few times a year, I'll get here and always take the "Teal Trail", as outlined in red. It's about a mile and three-quarter hike, and passes by great habitat. I always find interesting animals along this path, and today was no exception.

Fog-enshrouded prairie just before sunrise. A distant pair of duetting great horned owls and a pack of singing coyotes provided the soundtrack. Lapland longspurs were passing overhead, giving their melodious whistles and dry rattles, and a pair of northern harriers was hunting the meadow.

While shooting animals was my main mission, the early morning light and fog was just too beautiful to not fully drink in, so I grabbed 16-35mm and 70-200mm lenses (Canon, of course), and set out to make some images of the landscape. It was still too dark for good animal photography work, anyway.

Last time I was in this spot - many months prior - cattails were starting to dominate this marsh. Not now. Muskrats have stepped up to the plate and opened the marsh back up. Their conical lodges were quite conspicuous, and so were the aquatic mammals as they swam about harvesting plant material and mud as they labored on their lodges.

After taking this shot, I returned to the vehicle for some heavy artillery: my tripod-mounted Canon 800mm lens linked to the Canon 5D IV, and attached to a Black Rapid strap around my neck was the Canon 5DSR and 500mm f/4 lens. The latter setup is so light it can easily be handheld for birds in flight, or that are within the 800's minimum focusing distance of 19 feet. The Black Rapid strap makes carrying a camera much easier, even a fairly heavy one. It distributes the weight in a balanced manner, and takes all the pressure off the toter's neck and shoulders. More about these straps HERE.

While gear like that isn't cheap, the big telephotos are worth their weight in gold when stalking wildlife. My main game when out on solo missions like this is to try and locate the quarry before they see me, or at least approach subjects in a way that doesn't overly disturb them and allows me to get fairly close. With big lenses one doesn't have to get too near, and thus the critters will often go about their business as they normally would. This always leads to better shots, and is better for the critters.

A muskrat melds glop from the marsh bottom into his lodge. When it dries, it will help anchor the cattail bulwark in place. The industrious little beast made about a trip every two minutes, returning with construction material.

Muskrats are much maligned (like chipmunks), and that's a shame. Much of the vitriol directed at them is due to problems they create with people's structures, such as dikes. Muskrat can be enthusiastic tunnelers and over time their burrows can undermine levees. But in the big picture these mammals are an important part of a mixed-emergent marsh community and a keystone species. Their handiwork creates diversity in a wetland's plant community, thus increasing habitat diversity. This in turn spawns a spike in the abundance and diversity of other animals, everything from dragonflies to ducks. And it's no mystery why mink abound here - the large weasels prey on muskrat.

A muskrat takes a well-earned break, chewing on a cattail tuber at the base of his gargantuan lodge.

I was hoping for waterfowl, but we haven't yet had a big push into this area. All I saw was a smattering of mallards, northern shovelers, gadwall, ring-necked ducks, and a few other species. This is a pair of trumpeter swans, and I must confess I wasn't overly thrilled to see them. Our Division of Wildlife began an ambitious introduction program in 1996, and the birds are clearly taking hold and expanding. There's no indisputable evidence that trumpeters ever bred in this region, and as we've all learned by the disastrous introduction of "giant" Canada geese to areas where they didn't historically nest, large fowl can run amok and quickly become semi-domesticated. We shall see how the swan saga plays out, but I will not be surprised in the least if problems eventually arise. All that aside, trumpeters are spectacular birds, and their throaty bugles provide interesting aural ambience to the marshscape.

Sparrows abounded in the marsh and prairie, including plenty of song sparrows like this one. Swamp sparrows were at least equally numerous, and small flocks of American tree sparrows harvested grain from the prairie grasses.

I had already heard the harsh chaks of two marsh wrens when I encountered this aggressive little fellow. He took umbrage to my presence and followed me along the trail for a good 100 feet, cursing me in wren-speak from the dense cattails. As is typical of these feathered busybodies, he mostly kept to the dense growth but did reveal himself a few times and I was ready.

The spot where I shot this marsh wren was a goldmine. A late common yellowthroat popped up, and sparrows were everywhere. A quick movement down the trail materialized into a mink, which briefly bounded down the path in its slinky-like gait. Longspurs whistled overhead and as a finale, a merlin rocketed low over the marsh, spotted me and juked slightly off to the west, depriving me of possible photos. No worries, I was mostly interested in my diminutive but sassy stub-tailed wren.

By now, temperatures were in the low 40's, sluggish western chorus frogs and spring peepers slowly creaked out their songs, and, amazingly, a few fall field crickets and striped ground crickets were attempting to sing. Four hours had already passed by, and it was time to head for home.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Hocking Hills: Photo ops galore!

The gorgeous upper falls at Old Man's Cave in the picturesque Hocking Hills of Hocking County, Ohio. This image was created on February 20, 2018. I shot it with my landscape workhorse, the tripod-mounted Canon 5DSR, at f/16 and ISO 100. The image is a High Dynamic Range (HDR) blend of five image, with only the shutter speed varying between shots. HDR tactics are a great way to even out radical shifts from light to dark in the same scene, and is a fabulous way to up your landscape photography game.

I made this image during one of Debbie DiCarlo's and my field-based photo workshops, and we hit the lucky jackpot on this weekend. The reasonable expectation was for snow, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Instead, we got a warmish drizzly weekend. The upside of that was high water, pleasing flow in all the streams and over every falls (of which there are many). Our group was able to create scores of nice images without freezing, and as an added bonus, it scarcely rained when we were in the field, but at about all other times.

Debbie and I are repeating this workshop, this time during the weekend of January 16-18, 2019. Odds are high it will be a snowy, wintry photographer's dreamscape, but as we see with the image above, one can't really go wrong, rain or snow, warmth or cold. It'll be a good time, and a great opportunity to learn about HDR techniques, composition, lighting, and all manner of other stuff photographic. Also, there will be plenty of interesting smaller subjects, such as evergreen ferns, lichens, a great diversity of mosses, cool tree bark patterns and much more. All great macrophotography practice.

For complete workshop details, GO HERE. We are also offering a Black Friday savings of 10% between November 23-26 on this and all other multi-day workshops. Details on all of the 2019 photo workshops can be found RIGHT HERE.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Nature: Well-managed Ohio Caverns strike awe in visitors

Visitors to Ohio Caverns will find stalactites, stalagmites and calcium tubes among the many natural underground wonders/Jim McCormac

November 18, 2018

Jim McCormac

In 1896, prospectors struck gold in the remote Yukon Territory of Canada. Word slowly trickled out and, by the following year, fortune-seekers were pouring west. July 17, 1897 marks the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.

One month later,a boy named Robert Noffsinger struck a different kind of gold in Logan County, Ohio. He worked as a farmhand for a landowner named Abraham Reams, and they had been perplexed by the rapid disappearance of floodwaters from a low-lying depression.

Noffsinger dug into the drying pit, and encountered a large fissure in the underlying limestone. Boldly squeezing into the crevice, he popped into a labyrinth of subterranean passages. He became a spelunker into what would become known as Ohio Caverns, Ohio’s gold standard for caverns.

The landowner recognized an opportunity and, within a few weeks, began charging admission to tour the subterranean spectacle. For the next 25 years, numerous gawkers crawled through the passable corridors.

A watershed moment in cavern conservation occurred in 1922, when the cavern was sold to Allen and Ira Smith of Dayton. Prior to their ownership, irreversible damage had been done to the small part of the cave that was accessible. Souvenir-seekers plundered priceless stalactites and stalagmites, and defaced cavern walls with graffiti.

Possessed of an uncommon awareness of speleological preservation, especially for the times, the Smiths launched a plan to conserve the cavern and safely conduct visitors through its wonders.

A crew spent three years digging gravel and muck from previously inaccessible passages, taking pains to avoid damaging various formations. When all was done, more than 3 miles of tunnels were unearthed. In 1925, the Smith brothers rebranded the cavern as Ohio Caverns, and opened the area to the public.

Ohio Caverns remains in the Smith Family to this day, and their dedication to its conservation is admirable. Because of the family’s efforts, visitors can see a breathtaking subsurface —Shangri-La — that must be seen to be believed.

I recently traveled to the rolling hills near West Liberty to visit the caverns for the first time in many years. Led by an extremely knowledgeable guide, Karen, we entered the cave through a thick steel door, hustled down a flight of sixty steps, and entered the cave.

My senses were soon overwhelmed. Fields of ivory stalactites hung, tusklike, from expansive chambers. Delicate hollow tubes of calcite known as “Soda Straws” are interspersed among the stalactites, providing artistic punctuation. Thick stalagmites grew from the floors, as if opalescent spears had been shot up from below.

A tagline for Ohio Caverns — “America’s Most Colorful Caverns” — is very fitting. It’s as if a troglodytic artist daubed the rocks from a palette of ocher, sienna, rust and gold, creating cave art on an epic scale.

Before long, we came to the fabled “Crystal King”, a monstrous stalactite measuring 5 feet long and weighing an estimated 400 pounds. Its formation began about 200,000 years ago, and the King is near the cave’s deepest point, about 100 feet below the surface.

On we went, marveling at Fantasy Land, Crystal Sea, Palace of the Gods, and the Jewel Room. Understated LED lighting effectively illuminates the cavern and its geological oddities, and ample footpaths make traversing the cave easy enough. There is also a loop accessible to visitors with limited mobility.

For more information about Ohio Caverns, visit or call 937-465-4017.

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
The 5-foot long Crystal King is one of many natural wonders at Ohio Caverns/Jim McCormac

Monday, November 12, 2018

Black-legged kittiwake in central Ohio!

Waters cascading over Hoover Reservoir form the backdrop for a soaring juvenile kittiwake.

Conferences, speaking and other stuff had kept me from triggering a camera shutter for far too long, until a brief window this morning. So I ran up to commune with the now-famous black-legged kittiwake that has been frequenting the tailwaters below Hoover Dam, only a short drive away. These pelagic gulls are a rarity in Ohio, and there have only been a few Franklin County records. This one is a juvenile, with its ornate patterning. I think there has only been one confirmed record of an adult in Ohio, but we get a handful of wayward juveniles every fall/early winter, usually along Lake Erie.

This bird has been present since November 10, I believe, and has delighted throngs of onlookers. Black-legged kittiwakes are abundant, with a total population of nearly 3 million birds, but few of them make it to the midwestern U.S. In North America, virtually all of them winter at sea, in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The Hoover bird is quite cooperative, often winging by observers at very close range. Today was a typical late fall Ohio white sky day - what I would have given for blue skies and golden light! - but even so, it was possible to capture a bit of the beauty of this young kittiwake.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Bird photography talk: Worthington, Ohio, Wednesday evening

A Franklin's gull's reflection melts into a puddle of quicksilver. Deer Creek Reservoir, Pickaway County, Ohio, October 21, 2017. Canon 5D IV and 800mm lens, f/8, ISO 400, 1/1250, +0.3 exposure compensation.

I'm giving a program this Wednesday evening for the fabled Westbridge Camera Club, which has been around in its current form since 1969. The meeting is at the Griswold Center at 777 High Street, in Worthington, Ohio. The meeting begins at 7 pm. All are welcome and the admission is free.

This will be a general talk on bird photography, touching on the basic mechanics of camera control and general failsafe settings. But I also want to delve into finding subjects and learning more about them, tricks for discreetly getting into position for good shots, using photography to further conservation, and more. The program will, of course, be heavily spiced with bird imagery.

Hope to see you there!

Hudsonian godwit, juvenile, Lucas County, Ohio, October 18, 2017. Canon 7D II and 800mm lens, f/6.3, ISO 320, 1/1250, +0.7 exposure compensation.

Nature: October brings sightings of 2 rare birds - gray kingbird and northern wheatear - to Ohio

A gray kingbird recently sighted in Clark County/Jim McCormac 

November 4, 2018

Jim McCormac

October was a notable month for Ohio birders. Nothing exhilarates the binocular-toting set like a major rarity. Last month brought not one, but two mega-rare birds.

On Oct. 17, Jeff Peters — fairly new to birding — was chasing a flock of sparrows through rough brush in a Clark County park. A quick learner, Peters already has advanced to identifying the little brown birds. He was looking for either Nelson’s or Le Conte’s sparrow in the flock, both of which are unusual here and most likely in late fall.

Peter’s sparrow chase brought him into proximity to a bird he didn’t recognize. Quickly suspecting it to be a flycatcher — any species but eastern phoebe would be notable in mid-October — he took some photos. The sparrows were quickly forgotten as Peters realized he had found something very unusual.

Peters had documented Ohio’s first record of a gray kingbird, and the birding communication networks lit up like a forest fire. Within an hour, other birders arrived and during the next week hundreds more visited. Oct. 24 marked the bird’s last day, but by then nearly everyone who wanted to view the chunky thick-billed flycatcher had done so.

Gray kingbirds nest throughout the Caribbean and northern South America, and are rare but regular nesters in the southeastern states from Mississippi to South Carolina. Only in south Florida, the Keys especially, do they become common. It’s possible that Hurricane Michael pushed the bird northward.

The gray kingbird sighting overlapped with another major rarity. A Richland County homeowner glanced out her kitchen window and spotted an unfamiliar thrushlike bird standing on a nearby woodpile. The family was called in, books were consulted, and they realized a northern wheatear was gracing their farm.

The wheatear was found Oct. 22 and remained for a few days. The homeowners — who wish to remain anonymous — kept a visitor’s log, and probably several hundred birders signed in. Their generosity in allowing access to the farm was much appreciated.

The first Ohio record of northern wheatear dates to January 1988. I was fortunate enough to see that bird, which frequented the frigid environs of Lake Erie in Ottawa County. In the intervening years, four others have been found, including this most recent sighting.

Northern wheatears are bluebird-sized songbirds that breed in far northerly climes around the globe. In North America, there are two distinct populations. One occurs in northwestern Canada and Alaska; the other in northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland.

Upon departing their boreal nesting grounds, wheatears embark on one of the most stupefying migrations of any North American songbird. The eastern population — presumably where the Ohio vagrants originate — fly east, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The 23-gram birds eventually make their way to western Africa where they winter.

It’s only speculation that wayward wheatears originate from the closest breeding population. For all we know, it’s the Alaskan/western Canada birds that turn up here. Those birds normally head west through Asia and the Middle East, also ending up in Africa. But these powerful flyers, if disoriented, could probably end up in Ohio.

The gray kingbird brings Ohio’s official bird checklist to 434 species. As one or two new species are added each year, the list will keep growing.

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
A northern wheatear recently observed in Richland County/Jim McCormac

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ohio Caverns: "America's Most Colorful Caverns"

Recently, I had a rare opportunity to descend into the depths of the remarkable Ohio Caverns with only two other people, one of which was an exceptionally knowledgeable guide named Karen. She works for the Ohio Caverns operation, and they kindly permitted me access to make photos for an upcoming piece that I'm writing about the caverns.

I'll post that article here after it comes out, but for now will share some subterranean highlights, each briefly captioned. This cavern is easily the most spectacular in Ohio, filled as it is with scores of beautiful geological features. The rocks, in many areas, are painted in exceptionally brightly hues, hence the tag of "America's Most Colorful Caverns". I'd highly encourage a visit; Ohio Caverns is open every day of the year excepting Christmas and Thanksgiving, and is located in Logan County, not far from Bellefontaine. It's an easy enough place to access and traverse, and tours last about an hour. Try for Karen as your guide if you make it. Complete details on Ohio Caverns RIGHT HERE.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: I don't have much in the way of cave photography experience, but tried my best and learned a lot in the course of this excursion. All images were made from a tripod, with very long exposures. I only made a total of eleven images, but each was a bit of a production and took some time. All were shot with the Canon 5D IV and nearly all with the Canon 16-35mm f/4 or Canon 14mm f/2.8 lenses. For the "Old Town Pump" shot I used the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. All but the latter image are HDR (High Dynamic Range) composites derived from five bracketed shots, mostly made at about one-stop intervals. General settings were ISO 100 or 200 and f/16. I see now at least some of my mistakes and look forward to honing skills with other future subterranean shoots.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I was fortunate in that circumstances allowed for tripod photography and the time to work out various shots. Tripods are not allowed on regular tours, as they're too cumbersome and time would not permit for lengthy shoots. That said, non-tripod mounted cameras are allowed and pretty good images can be captured with such. Artfully placed subtle LED lighting provides adequate light to work with.

Parts of Ohio Caverns are awash with stunning stalagmites and stalactites. Here, a huge stalagmite arises from the cavern floor, and scores of stalactites hang from the ceiling.

In some areas, the walls are stippled with curious rust formations, as seen in the upper left corner of this image, the result of exceptional iron concentrations. A quintet of sturdy stalagmites is in the foreground, and an oddly-shaped stalactite hangs in front of the rust formations.

An underground pool is a prominent feature in one spot, and can be viewed from either end. The rocks are especially colorful in this locale.

In places, stalactites and stalagmites join and fuse; such structures are called columns or pillars. The part of the cavern seen here is rich in "soda straws" - small thin hollow stalactites.

Occasionally soda straws become clogged and the water which forms them is forced out the sides, creating strange formations known as helactites. This is the most famous of Ohio Caverns' numerous helactites, the "Old Town Pump".

A jaw-dropping stalactite if there ever was one, the famed "Crystal King". Located at the end of a short spur passage, the King hangs like a work of art. Which it is, and a priceless one at that. It's estimated that this amazing stalactite began to form around 200,000 years ago, about the time that Homo sapiens diverged from common ancestors. The Crystal King measures about five feet in length, and is estimated to weigh around 400 pounds.

Again, for complete details about Ohio Caverns, visit HERE.