Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Northern cardinal, eating holly berries

A bright male northern cardinal, its plumage rivaling that of the colorful winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) drupes that it sits among. As stated in the previous post, the holly garden at Dawes Arboretum can be a fantastic place to drum up showy bird images.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Eastern bluebird, eating holly berries

A male eastern bluebird plunders the fruit of an American holly, Ilex opaca, in the ornamental holly garden at Dawes Arboretum. The numerous hollies are richly fruited, and frugivorous (fruit-eating)birds flock to them in winter. This is a wonderful place to try for showy bird images.

The light was not pleasing on this day - leaden skies and low light - forcing me to shoot wide open and with a slower shutter speed that I would have preferred. Thus there were some misses, but this one was a keeper. Canon 5D IV and Canon 500mm f/4 II with 1.4x III teleconverter (=700mm), at f/5.6, ISO 500, 1/500, +0.3 exposure compensation. Single focus point, striking on bird's head, and as always with bird photography, back-button focus.

If you would like an opportunity-rich, easy and fun immersion into bird photography, consider joining Debbie DiCarlo and I on THIS PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP in sunny warm Florida, February 18-23, 2019.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Nature: Songbird northern shrike possesses homicidal tendencies

A young northern shrike on the hunt in Muskingum County/Jim McCormac

December 16, 2018

Jim McCormac

Vlad III ruled the medieval kingdom of Wallachia, since subsumed into Romania, multiple times between the mid- to late 1400s. His nom de guerre was Vlad the Impaler, which hints explicitly at his ferocity. Vlad’s modus operandi was to impale enemies on tall poles, which tended to intimidate other would-be attackers.
I recently saw a feathered Vlad, a diabolically fierce songbird known as the northern shrike. A common nickname is “butcher bird,” and like Vlad the Impaler, the shrike has earned its homicidal sobriquet.

While trolling a country road near the Wilds in Muskingum County recently, I was pleased to spot a northern shrike teed up atop a young black locust. It paid me little heed, allowing for close approach and photos, one of which accompanies this column.

Northern shrikes breed in tundra and taiga regions far to our north — the closest nesters are 700 miles away. This species occurs in Ohio only as a rare winter visitor, with most records in the northern tier of counties. Muskingum County is at the southern limit of their range, but shrikes have been found annually in the region’s vast reclaimed strip mines for many years now.

The bird I discovered was a pale brownish juvenile, born last summer. Most northern shrikes that occur here are adults, with sleek black, gray and white plumage. The face is accented with a rakish black mask, a la Zorro. Perhaps most notable is the bird’s thick, hooked raptor-like bill.

Although a northern shrike is slightly smaller than a robin, it packs a brutal punch. Nothing its size or smaller is safe. A hunting shrike scans for any movement, and if it spies a mouse, songbird or, in season, large insect, its reign of terror commences.

An attacking shrike quickly drops from its perch and flies rapidly toward its victim. Once there, it engulfs the prey in a fury of feathers, seizing it with powerful feet and bill. The coup de grace is a strong bite to the neck, which severs the cervical vertebrae.

Shrikes are capable of chasing down flying birds, sometimes notably larger species such as blue jays. Perhaps the largest documented kill was a rock pigeon, which weighs more than four times as much as the shrike. A particularly savage shrike was once documented chasing a mallard duck, a bird that outmasses it by a factor of 17! This is more extreme than Peewee Herman chasing Mike Tyson, with their personas switched, of course.
Victims are typically taken to a thorny locust, barbed-wire fence or similar spiky object. The prey is unceremoniously impaled, after which the shrike commences to tear it asunder, typically starting with the head.

Sometimes prey is wedged into the forks of shrub branches rather than impaled, faint consolation for the victim, I’m sure. I once saw a shrike that had just captured a chunky rodent known as a meadow vole. It was an amazing spectacle to watch the bird aerially trundle along with mammal, which matched it in weight. It tucked the dead vole into a shrub and set out again, to return later to consume its furry cache.

As homicidal as shrikes seem, we shouldn’t judge them like we would a human Vlad the Impaler. Should you be lucky enough to spot one, relish the opportunity to witness the rare songbird.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

At a glance

‒ Glen Apseloff of Powell has produced his second book about the feathered tribe, “Backyard Birds and More: Looking Through the Glass.” It offers synopses of dozens of species of birds that commonly visit yards, peppered with excellent photos. Common mammals and insects are also included. The book, $12.95, can be obtained from Ohio Distinctive Publishing: www.ohio-distinctive.com/books.html or by emailing books@ohio-distinctive.com.

At a glance

‒ Glen Apseloff of Powell has produced his second book about the feathered tribe, “Backyard Birds and More: Looking Through the Glass.” It offers synopses of dozens of species of birds that commonly visit yards, peppered with excellent photos. Common mammals and insects are also included. The book, $12.95, can be obtained from Ohio Distinctive Publishing: www.ohio-distinctive.com/books.html or by emailing books@ohio-distinctive.com.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A gray day trip to the Moonville Tunnel

The legendary Moonville Tunnel, carved through a remote wooded hillside in southeastern Ohio's Vinton County.

Occasionally I get the yen to photograph WEIRD THINGS and November 30th (2018) was just such a day. The day dawned damp, cold, and foggy - perfect for my mission. I hit the road long before dawn, and arrived at my destination around daybreak. My target, the Moonville Tunnel, abounds with tales of ghostly lore, so I didn't want to shoot it on a bright sunny day as that'd take the edge off the place's alleged creepiness. So the misty dim light of the wooded Raccoon Creek valley in which the tunnel lies was perfect.

The brick "Moonville" name above the tunnel is falling apart, as it is on the other entrance. The decrepitude is understandable. The tunnel was blasted out in the mid-1850's to facilitate a railroad line that was decommissioned in 1988. The nearby town of Moonville is long gone, its remnants nothing but obscure foundational rubble, overgrown by forest.

A marker carved into the tunnel's stone commemorates the tunnel's 1903 refurbishing. Unfortunately, graffiti (this is NOT art, at least in this case) vandals have severely defaced the tunnel, spraying their gunk the length of the passage, as well as on the outside entrances.

Tales of ghosts are frequent here. CLICK THIS for more on the supernatural. I had the place to myself on this dark foggy morning, and spent over an hour in and around the tunnel, mostly within. Didn't pick up so much as a ghostly vibe. The tunnel is MUCH darker than this photo suggests. To bring out the architecture and interesting staining on the bricks - and unfortunately the atrocious graffiti - I took five successive exposures covering at least five stops of light, and fused them as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image.

The young successional forest outside one of the tunnel's entrances. The dim foggy morning lent a bit of a Blair Witch Project feel to the overall ambience - perfect for this sort of subject matter.

I passed by this long-abandoned country chapel on the way to the Moonville Tunnel, and resolved to stop on the return journey and make some images. There is, I think, great symbolism here but I will leave that to you to ponder.

The long disused doors dangle ajar. Probably the only regular occupants these days are occasional opossums, raccoons, and black rat snakes. The nameplate was so faded and overgrown with trumpet-creeper vines that I couldn't make out the first part of the chapel's name.

Beautiful Raccoon Creek, which carved the valley in which the Moonville Tunnel sits. Once severely impacted by acid mine drainage, the stream is and continues to be an ever-improving environmental success story. Its reclamation has largely been shepherded by the Raccoon Creek Partnership, and thanks to their hard work the creek's water quality is far better these days.
After roaming about Zaleski State Forest for a while, making various photographs and wildlife observations, I stopped at the Nature Center in the midst of Lake Hope State Park before heading home. I hadn't gotten both feet out of the Jeep when I heard the chuckling rattles of red-headed woodpeckers! Yes! A real bonus!

The open oak woods around the center is full of the crimson-headed beasts, and what was there to do but attempt some imagery? Several family units were in the area, and the pugnacious woodpeckers were glaringly conspicuous as they grabbed and cached acorns. Above, a stunning adult props itself on a white oak.

Plenty of dapple-headed juvenile woodpeckers were present, such as this one who has chosen a nontraditional perch. I only had about an hour to work with the woodpeckers, but look forward to a return trip and the chance to attempt more photos of these amazing birds.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Starry Skies

Last Friday was an interesting and diverse day. Here I am in the Art Loft, a gallery in downtown Zanesville, Ohio, surrounded by thirty-one of my natural history photos. I was invited to exhibit by one of the gallery's owners and artists-in-residence, and I certainly appreciate the opportunity. This section of the city has evolved into a thriving cultural hub, with some thirty art galleries in close proximity. This evening was their monthly First Friday Art Walk, and dozens of people came through to view the pieces on display, and it was a great opportunity to meet lots of interesting folks. My works will hang through December, and the Art Loft is full of interesting pieces created by the four resident artists - Linda, Sandy, Susan and Susan. Stop by sometime.

If you're in this area, this place is only a few minutes away. The legendary - and I mean LEGENDARY! - Tom's Ice Cream Bowl has been at this location since 1948, and there's good reasons why it has had such staying power. The food is great, and it's only topped by their famous homemade ice cream. It seems that everyone I know in the world has been here at some time, but Friday was my inaugural visit. I'll be back.

I had long noticed a towering grain silo in the area that (I suspected) offered a grand vista of some notable landscapes around Zanesville. The owner of the facility was gracious in accommodating my request to scale the seven-story silo to assess the summit's photographic potential. Unfortunately, there aren't any elevators offering an effortless ascent - or descent - so climbers must ascend this vertical ladder. Doing so gave me a much heartier appreciation for the men who routinely climb this thing and the other silos to service them. It's a workout. This is an iPhone shot from the roof, looking down the ladder, which I thought was architecturally artistic. I hope to return sometime, if permission is re-granted, with real camera gear in tow. Some potentially great images could be created up there.

As the lucky stars would have it, this evening turned out to be a New Moon, AND a nearly clear night! That meant dark starry skies, and less than a half-hour from the Art Loft is The Wilds and thousands of acres of surrounding reclaimed strip mine lands. This is the area that I wrote about in my last post, HERE. Although it would make for a long day, the allure of astrophotography was too great to pass by, so off I went into the cold (hit 18 F that night!) star-studded evening following the gallery exhibition.

As always, click the image to enlarge

Myriad stars, seemingly embedded in a celestial agar, dot the southern sky. In spite of this site's remoteness and apparent darkness, light pollution cannot be avoided, like everywhere else in Ohio. The distant orangish glow on the horizon probably emanates from the town of McConnelsville.

Astrophotography is not easy, and I am very much the piker when it comes to shooting night skies. Most of the work lies in the setup. Due to the very long exposures, a tripod is essential, it goes without saying. Framing the image is challenging, as it's obviously hard to see landscape features well given the lack of light. I use a flashlight and a bright green laser to help orient my camera during the setup procedure. Just pointing up at the sky and failing to include terrestrial features would make for a boring photo. Here, I used the road as a leading line, and I liked that lone cottonwood tree in the distance. While an old building or structure can be very cool as a ground-bound anchor point, this is what I had to work with in this area. One of the trickiest bits is acquiring sharp focus. That usually takes me at least several test shots. I start at the infinity stop (the little hourglass marking on the lens's focus meter), but that position is never the sharpest. From there, I just dial the focus slightly either way, evaluating the results under magnification in "live view" on the back of the camera. One can also magnify live time in live view to assess star sharpness, but I like to take the actual photos and use them for evaluation. Make sure your lens is set to manual focus and if it has image stabilization, turn it off. Either, if active, can cause movement during exposures.

This image, being a single "still" to show the countless pinpoints of light, was made with a 13-second exposure. Any longer than that, and the stars will manifest a smudginess as apparent star movement will set in with longer exposures. The earth's rotation can be used to advantage as in the following image, but no movement was the goal here. I used my Canon 5D IV and Canon 14mm lens. The latter is widely panned as astrophotography glass, and it certainly has its weaknesses, but passable night sky images can be created with it. At its widest, the 14mm is an f/2.8 lens, and that's OK for night shooting (the wider aperture the better, as it allows for more light harvesting). The rub is, the lens is not tack sharp at f/2.8 and will not render crisp stars. Thus, it must be stopped down a complete stop, to f/4, which sharpens it up considerably but at a large loss of light. This required an ISO of 4000 to harvest enough light to make the shot work. The best Canon astrophotography lens I know of is the 24mm f/1.4. I have it, and stopped down to f/2.8 or so it is scary sharp. But tonight was for experimentation with the 14mm, which does have the advantage of a much wider angle.

A brief play of a flashlight beam down the road gave the lane a bit of a glimmer.

This image is a composite of 120 30-second exposures, fused together to create "star trails". The celestial anchor point is the North Star, Polaris. At true north, it stays in alignment with the Earth's axis and our rotation creates the effect of the stars revolving around Polaris. Light pollution, mostly from the distant city of Zanesville, whitens the horizon - nothing to do about that. The road and round hay bales served as ground-bound leading lines. Brief flashlight light painting slightly brightened the foreground.

In addition to the inescapable light pollution (in Ohio at least), another manmade problem for astrophotographers is airplane traffic. And, I learned, there is LOTS of that in these particular skies! Planes will leave unsightly and very unnatural dotted trails across the image. and in the case of this hour-long exposure there were many. It would have looked terrible if they were left in the image. The solution to that is easy but time-consuming. One must use Photoshop or some other editing program to blot out the airplane trail on every individual image on which they occur before fusing them together. In this case, of my 120 exposures, plane trails were manifest on several dozen of them.

I look forward to some future excursion to the truly dark skies of the western U.S., such as some of the federal lands in Utah, to attempt some real dark sky photography.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A jaunt through the Wilds, bird-seeking

This is my 1,832nd post over this blog's history (I had two previous iterations), for whatever that's worth. The first entry dates to July 22, 2007, and covered the Ohio Dragonfly Conference (see that post HERE). There have been nearly 4.3 million page views over that span, and I'm grateful that people check into this space occasionally, whether by accident or intentionally. It's been a great forum for keeping the digital pen honed, and to share (hopefully ever-improving) photos. If nothing else, I've got staying power on my side. A great many blogs that I've seen launched during this span have drifted off into the ether. Hopefully I'll still be on this space when it comes time to write my 2,000th post.

A strange sunset illuminates Long Lake and surrounding strip mine reclamation grasslands at the Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio. This sprawling site encompasses 10,000 acres, and there are tens of thousands of additional acres of similar habitat, owned by American Electric Power, in the area. I've written about the Wilds many times. If you wish to see other posts, just type "the wilds" into the search box at the top left of the page (it works very well).

We've been having an extending period of gray gloomy days here in central Ohio, so when I saw that last Sunday was supposed to be largely blue skies, I left home well before the crack of dawn to visit the Wilds. This is a strange place, weather-wise, and I am becoming convinced it generates its own weather. As I neared the place, the skies were clearing and all looked good. As I entered the Wilds proper on Zion Ridge Road, dense fog settled in, shrouding the landscape and largely putting the kibosh on bird photography. Prior to strip mining, this region was almost entirely deciduous forest. After clearing and major soil disturbance, numerous springs were exposed and the ground is seemingly soggy nearly everywhere. Maybe it's all that moisture going airborne that creates the fog, I don't know.

While the fog killed any chance for a good sunrise, the sunset sure looked promising. Come day's end, I got myself into a good position, and was rewarded with the odd flaming orange and yellow sky you see above. I was hoping for one of those brilliantly parti-colored palettes of pinks, oranges, reds, blues and purples, but no. Oh well, it was still pretty cool looking.

A battalion of mourning doves uses some wires as a command post. They were staging raids on a roughly harvested cornfield nearby that no doubt had lots of waste kernels ripe for the plucking. Several hundred doves were present, and I spent some time watching them. Often cited as one of North America's most numerous species, there is no question the mourning dove is widespread and abundant. Nonetheless, I think they are declining, and have declined considerably since I first learned of doves as a young kid. I don't run across many big flocks like this one anymore.

This bird was a prime target on this mission, and I was successful. It is a northern shrike, and a juvenile to boot. It was one of the first birds that I saw upon entering the Wilds, along Zion Ridge Road. Because of the early morning fog, I couldn't work much with the animal photographically, but had a great time watching it. Northern shrikes breed far to our north, and are rare winter visitors to Ohio, with most records along in the northernmost tier of counties. This far south, they're really rare, but shrikes have been found wintering at the Wilds and vicinity for many years now.

Shrikes are sometimes called "butcherbirds". Slightly smaller than a robin, these songbirds are predatorial terrors. They'll catch prey ranging from large insects to mice and voles, to birds up to the size of blue jays. Shrikes often cache their victims by impaling them on thorns, hence the somewhat gruesome nickname.

I refound the shrike twice throughout the day, and during the second bout with it, as the fog was lifting, I had a great mammalian experience. This is the section of road the bird was frequenting, and as I stood watching it, a coyote began singing not too far off, in the brush on the right. Their song is one of Nature's great melodies, and always a treat to hear. After a while, I saw it or another coyote trot onto the road WAY down there in the distance, by the curve in the road. It apparently hadn't spotted me yet (I was mostly hidden by my vehicle, well off the road), but as soon as I clapped my big telephoto lens on it, the better to see the beast, it stopped, turned, and impaled me with baleful stare for about fifteen seconds. The sixth sense of these animals is almost supernatural, and I was glad I was not an eastern cottontail.

A handsome male American kestrel "play flies" atop a post. A brisk steady breeze was blowing into his face, and he seemed to enjoy holding his wings out, like a kid (or me) sticks an arm out the window of a moving vehicle and rotates his/her hand. At first, I figured he was doing this to balance in the wind, but no, I think not, as he also sat with wings tucked for extended periods.

While kestrels have declined alarmingly in most regions, they appear to be on the upswing at the Wilds. Local nesters have been bolstered by the placement of numerous nest boxes, many of which are now occupied.

Prior to this trip, I did not have any truly great kestrel shots. As I noted numerous pairs during this days travels, I resolved to bag some nice images, and here we go. This is the same male as in the previous shot, and I spent quite some time with him. By using the Jeep as a blind, I was able to stay fairly close without bothering the little falcon.

This shot was made from the vehicle, not long after he launched from a wire on one of his hunting forays. The topography worked to my advantage, as he was not far above eye level when I made the shot and the natural light was superb. The image was made with the Canon 5D IV and the outstanding Canon 500mm f/4 II lens, with 1.4x teleconverter (=700mm). The settings were f/8, ISO 500, 1/1600, +0.3 exposure compensation. As always, I used back-button focusing, and only the center focus point was active.

Speaking of bird photography, if you would like to enter the land of avian abundance and feathered photo ops galore, Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a photo workshop to Florida from February 18-23 (with optional extension from February 23-25). We'll have scores of opportunities to shoot many interesting species, and learn lots about the art of bird photography. All details on this trip ARE HERE. We'd love to have you along!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nature: Giant swans make yearly visit on long migration

A pair of adult tundra swans against a frosty November sky/Jim McCormac

December 3, 2018

Jim McCormac

Like avian clockwork, the first icy northern winds of late November and early December sweep in flocks of migratory tundra swans. The exuberant war-whoop calls of flocks high aloft evokes a sense of untamed wilderness and sparks the listener to scan the ether seeking the source.

Eventually the giant birds materialize; glimmering flecks of ivory shimmering in V-formation.

A tundra swan is massive. Measuring nearly 4½ feet in length, with a wingspan pushing 7 feet, a well-fed male (males are slightly larger than females) can weigh 23 pounds.

By comparison, a bald eagle averages about 2½ feet in length and weighs 10 pounds, although the wingspan is about the same. Trivia: It would take over 3,000 ruby-throated hummingbirds to equal the mass of a big tundra swan.

On a recent trip to the former Sandusky Plains of north-central Ohio, I encountered hundreds of swans. Flocks were plentiful in the collective 15,000 acres of Big Island and Killdeer Plains wildlife areas, and in flooded fields between these sites.

The two wildlife areas are about all that’s left of the wetlands of the Sandusky Plains. The former wet-prairie region once blanketed much of Crawford, Marion and Wyandot counties, but nearly all of its rich soil has been converted to beans, corn and wheat.

Nonetheless, ancestral instinct is strong and the swans still use the Sandusky Plains as a migratory way station, in spite of the prairie largely being swept away in the past century or so.

The giant birds are an on epic journey. Well-named tundra swans breed in the Arctic, the nearest nesters at least 1,100 miles to our north. Some that pass through Ohio might have bred over 2,000 miles north — nearly the distance from Columbus to Los Angeles.

Most of the swans that visit Ohio will travel to coastal areas along the eastern seaboard, mostly from New Jersey to the Carolinas. In total, these powerful flyers will have made a one-way flight of up to 2,500 miles.

Many of the swans that I observed were family units: snowy white adults accompanying dusky-necked juveniles. The youngsters must be shown the migratory ropes. Unlike many songbirds, which have built-in GPS and can make inaugural migrations unaided, swan cygnets require coaching. The adults remain with their offspring until they return to tundra nesting grounds the following spring. By then, migratory corridors are firmly stamped into the youngsters.

Tundra swans commence breeding when they are 2 to 3 years old. Once a pair bond is established the swans remain monogamous, although new mates might be taken if one of the pair dies. These relationships can be long-lived. The oldest documented wild tundra swan was nearly 24 years old, a female that was banded and later recaptured in Ohio.

Lewis and Clark first described the tundra swan on their western expedition of 1804-06. Struck by the peculiar fluting hum created by the swan’s wings in flight, they dubbed this species the “whistling swan.”

That charismatic name stuck until 1982, when ornithologists rebranded it. The scientific name, Cygnus columbianus, remains, the specific epithet recognizing the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, where Lewis and Clark’s team obtained the first specimen.

White swans, swirling in like giant snowflakes on Arctic breezes, serve as elegant reminders of a natural world that doesn’t recognize political boundaries.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.