Sunday, December 29, 2019

Limpkin's rare journey from Florida to Ohio causes stir among bird watchers

A limpkin with freshly caught snail at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge/Jim McCormac

Limpkin's rare journey from Florida to Ohio causes stir among bird watchers

December 29, 2019

Jim McCormac

An amazing report crackled through the birding grapevine on July 6.

A limpkin was found at a small suburban pond in Orville in Wayne County. Birders fortunate enough to reach the site in time found it. Come dusk, the wayward oddity, which looks like a cross between a heron and a rail, flew into a nearby tree to roost for the night.

Many birders were on-site at the crack of dawn the following morning, myself among them. Alas, the limpkin had flown the coop. We searched likely habitats nearby, but no one could find the bird.

Why the excitement? In the U.S., the limpkin is known as a Florida specialty, rarely seen away from the Sunshine State. That is the northern limit of its breeding range. Limpkins occur south through the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, and into South America.

Limpkins are largely nonmigratory, and records north of Florida are few. Most vagrants turn up in southeastern states near Florida: Georgia, the Carolinas, with a handful of Maryland and Virginia records. Astonishing is a trio of old reports from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

The same day the Orville limpkin was discovered, an after-the fact report came in via new birder Nannette Patrick. She found and photographed a limpkin near Mentor, east of Cleveland, on July 3. Then, in mid-October, longtime birder John Pogacnik found yet another limpkin in the same region.

In between the Mentor records, a limpkin appeared at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area east of Toledo. That bird stayed through fall and was widely seen. By October, the Magee limpkin was getting harder to find, until it appeared at the adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on Nov. 16.

I visited the Ottawa limpkin on Nov. 18. It was a snap to find. Seemingly unafraid, it went about its business of capturing snails in a small patch of swamp woods. In between hunting escargot, it would rest and preen in close proximity to a small knot of fawning birders.

If all of these records pertain to different individuals, it would constitute a mini-invasion of four birds, in a state where none had ever been recorded. Furthermore, they represent the farthest north the species has been seen in the U.S. Another limpkin turned up in southeastern Illinois — the only other Midwestern record.

Limpkins feed almost exclusively on snails, and to a lesser extent small mussels, and in Florida and points south they favor large apple snails. The Ottawa bird also fed on aquatic snails, but a smaller species, perhaps in the genus Stagnicola. It was adept at finding them, and in a half-hour period, I watched it capture and eat more than a dozen.

What would prompt such an unprecedented northward movement of a largely sedentary southern bird? Perhaps the best explanation is linked to a tremendous limpkin population expansion in Florida in recent years.

The limpkin population was perhaps constrained by its preferred food, the native Florida apple snail. In the past decade, populations of at least four species of nonnative apple snails have flourished. Opportunistic limpkins took a shine to this new food source, and their numbers have skyrocketed.

A limpkin boom means more birds to wander. These “scouts” that turn up in far-flung regions might perish, as they presumably do not have migratory roadmaps hardwired into their DNA. But over time, it is likely that new populations will become established north of the current home range.

The only certainty with bird populations is change.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Friday, December 27, 2019

Kestrel flyby, and a showy prairie sunset

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A male American kestrel wings by, having been flushed from a roadside wire by a passing vehicle. I was ready for him. Big Island Wildlife Area, Marion County, Ohio.

This is Bird Behavior 101, but what the heck, I'll throw it out anyway. When I made this shot, I was far out in a field of tall prairie grasses interspersed with openings of sparser growth. Armed with my easily handholdable Canon 5D IV mated to Canon's brilliant 100-400 II lens, I was stalking sparrows. I had noticed the distant kestrel on the wire, but it was far out of range so I was just keeping a casual check on it from time to time.

The road that it was perched along is very sparsely traveled, and I remained on alert for the next vehicle. Eventually I saw a pickup truck coming along way down the road, and turned my full attention to the kestrel. These little falcons tend to be wary, and passing vehicles nearly always flush them from roadside wires, at least on small slow speed roads such as this one.

I tucked myself into a convenient clump of head-high switch grass that did a good job of masking me. My bet was that the flushed kestrel would wing right by my position. The opposite side of the road was barren plowed field, and I knew the bird was more likely to head to a new spot on the wire by traveling over prime hunting ground than over a lifeless agricultural field. I also didn't think he would head north and away from me, as a short distance in that direction is railroad tracks and a broad state highway, forming a barrier of sorts at least in regards to good hunting habitat. It would be easier for the little raptor to shift a short distance to a new spot in his current prairie patch.

So I was poised and ready, the truck sure enough flushed the kestrel, and as I hoped it flew out over my field and fairly near my position. I got a series of shots, the falcon returned to the wire to continue hunting rodents, and I returned to trying to drum up some Savannah sparrows.

Later I ran into Ken Busch, who is one of Ohio's standout natural history photographers, especially anything involving birds. Check his website out RIGHT HERE. We set up our big camera rigs along the edge of what often is a prime short-eared owl hunting meadow, crossed our fingers and hoped some owls would commence hunting before it got too dark to work with them. Alas, it was not to be on this night, but we had a good time talking photography.

After Ken left, I walked around the prairie a bit, taking in the sounds of various waterfowl calling as they headed to roosts, the day's finale of various songbird calls, and the raspy trills of western chorus frogs, roused from their slumber by unseasonable 50+ F temperatures.

A glance westward made me rush towards the Jeep, as I saw an explosion of color quickly taking shape on the western horizon. I shot down the road towards a better vantage point, flipped lenses around and got everything mounted on the tripod. For a brief while, the sky danced with hues of red, orange, blue, purple and yellow. In my opinion, one can never savor too many sunsets (or sunrises). And sunsets and sunrises nearly always look better over a prairie.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: One might think it would be best to use the widest angle lens available to shoot sunrise/sets. Generally that's not the case. With really wide perspectives, such as 16mm (my widest lens is a 16-35mm), the colorful hotspots tend to get lost in the overall vast landscape. I prefer to zoom in tighter on the core color to really emphasis it. My go-to lens is a 70-200mm, and it's superb for these sort of shots. I usually use it at or near the 70mm end. However, I recently obtained Canon's versatile 24-105mm f/4 II lens and it is quickly becoming a workhorse. This shot was made with that lens, at 55mm. I started shooting this sunset with my 70-200, but the expanse of the color along the horizon was such that I wanted a bit wider perspective. The new lens fit the bill perfectly.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Beautifully eerie fogscapes

The white roof of a barn melds into pea soup fog so thick you could, as they say, cut it with a knife. The structure sits only 50 feet or so off the rural lane from which I made the photo. Wyandot County, Ohio.

I arose on Christmas Eve day with a yen to shoot short-eared owls. Dense fog blanketed the earth's upper crust, where we humans mostly reside, and that's an atmospheric condition not suitable for photographing owls on the wing, nor most other birds. However, fog in these parts nearly always burns off by mid-morning or so, and with that expectation I left for points north in late morning.

As I headed north along the Scioto River towards Big Island and vicinity, the fog thickened. As the day wore on, its density only increased and at times it made for somewhat risky driving, especially at rural intersections as visibility was greatly reduced.

In short, the fog never did dissipate, skewering owl and other bird photography. On the plus side, I know how and where to find owls and other birds. So those opportunities will arise again. But coastal New England-type fog such as this is a relative rarity here. Thus, it was a grand opportunity to explore the fogscape for interesting targets. As an added bonus, the dense cloaking mist and pre-Xmas prep kept most people inside and I had this little part of the planet nearly to myself.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

This wooded rural lane stopped me in my tracks. Dense fog created an aura of eerie mystery to this landscape; irresistible for photography.

Cemeteries lend themselves to fog, and I kept my eyes open for opportunities. This is Thompson Township Cemetery along the banks of the Scioto River in northern Delaware County.

A ghostly shroud cloaks the Sandusky River at Swartz Covered Bridge in Wyandot County.

This is Daughmer Savanna in Crawford County, perhaps Ohio's best remaining example of an imperiled habitat, the prairie savanna. These massive bur oaks are fire-resistant and impervious to the frequent blazes that swept the prairie. Daughmer is within the former 200,000 acre Sandusky Plains, a vast prairie that once covered parts of Crawford, Hardin, Marion, and Wyandot counties. Only a fraction of a percent of this former prairie survives. Daughmer is managed by the Crawford Park District and open to the public. The savanna looks good at any time, but the fog created a spectacular moodiness to the site that I'll probably not see again anytime soon.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: With the exception of the barn photo, I chose to render these images in black and white. Tinges of color take away from the eerie moodiness of fog and the largely black and white world that it creates, in my opinion. I did not shoot these scenes using in-camera black and white settings, though. I never do, as it takes away future options. The images were converted to black and white using the NIK Collection's Silver Effex Pro 2 editing software. It works wonderfully for black and white conversion, and with the original files in color, I can later work with color files should I ever see the need. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas "Bird" Count at The Wilds

A grand view of a big swath of The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, as seen last Saturday just before sunrise. That was the day of the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, and I was there to participate. Scott Albaugh became compiler of the count about ten years ago, and established a consistent team of surveyors who cover the very rural reaches of the count's 15-mile diameter circle. I've been helping since Scott took charge, and am fortunate to survey The Wilds' fenced inner sanctum with their staff, which as we shall see is very interesting.

Scott handed the count's compiler reins to Steve Spear this year, ensuring a smooth continuation of the Chandersville CBC. Steve is The Wilds' director of Wildlife Ecology. I've been censusing with Steve and some of his staff since he came to work there about three years ago.

The Wilds is a conservation and research facility on a grand scale, not a zoo, make no mistake. Nearly all of the some 30 mammal species that they work with have become imperiled in their native ranges, some critically so. The primary mission is to keep this species going, with an ideal end game of restoring them to indigenous home lands. That said, visitation is encouraged, and a great way to see and learn about the animals in this post is through a Winter at The Wilds Tour.

A dozen white-tailed deer scatter along a distant grassy slope. White-tails are locally abundant, and they were one of four species of native mammal that we tallied during the "bird" count. The others were eastern cottontail, and fox and gray squirrel. There are a number of other native mammals - beaver, bobcat, muskrat, many species of small rodents - we just didn't encounter them on this day.

It's always interesting birding at The Wilds. Where else might someone exclaim "Rough-legged hawk!" Just above and right of the camel!" Indeed, a gorgeous light morph rough-legged hawk was in close proximity to this Bactrian camel.

A personal favorite is the Sichuan takin (tok-in). It's indigenous to the same regions of China that support giant panda, and frequents the same bamboo communities. Takins are goat-like and adept climbers, and favor steep rocky slopes. This is a large adult, and they can weigh up to 800 lbs.

Here's a baby takin, and it's a fraction of the size of the adult in the previous image. This little fellow was born last spring. The adults are quite protective of their offspring, and they make good guards.

This is a sika deer, a small ungulate that often retains faint spotting through adulthood, although this older male has lost them. The Wilds' works with the Indochina subspecies, Cervus nippon pseudaxis, which is probably extinct in its native Vietnam.

A Persian onager grazes along with a small herd of other onagers, who are just outside the photograph. Native to Iran, this wild ass is critically endangered in the wild, with perhaps 600 animals left. The Wilds is one of very few conservation facilities that works with the Persian onager.

A bull Pere David's deer luxuriates on a crisp mid-20's (F) morning. Most of the mammals at The Wilds are extremely hardy, hailing from cold climates such as Mongolia, or other cool regions of Asia. Pere David's deer went extinct in their native China by 1900. They have since been reintroduced to their original range.

Every time I clap eyes on one of these big Bactrian deer stags, I think instantly of the Hartford Group's iconic symbol. Bactrian deer are mammoth, and a subspecies of the North American elk. A big male can push 450 lbs. Native to central Asia, this species was reduced to about 400 wild animals by 2000. Conservation efforts have bolstered populations, and now there are 1,500 or so deer in the wild.

A pair of sable antelope peer curiously at the photographer. The animal on the left has lost a horn; not sure what happened there. Sable antelope vary in coloration, but males become black with age, like the animal on the right. Because males are larger than females, I suspect that the other antelope is also a male, perhaps a younger specimen, but I'm not sure. This ornately marked animal occurs in savannas of eastern and southern Africa.

Couldn't do much with this one photographically, due to light and angle, but it still looks cool. This is a dhole, or Asian wild dog. Dholes are indigenous in much of Eurasia, but have disappeared or become rare over much of its range.  Highly intelligent dholes are very social and clans form distinct hierarchies. Play-fighting is common, and when we were there the dholes had gotten ahold of a squeak toy and were romping about in an energetic skirmish over the toy.

In addition to dholes and the animal that follows, The Wilds' carnivore area houses cheetahs. The epitome of mammalian athleticism, the cheetahs seem to regard human observers with a degree of disdain, when the bother to note our presence. A number of cheetah cubs have been born here, and currently there is a litter of young cubs.

A pair of African painted dogs races across a meadow at breakneck speed (they can exceed 40 mph at full tilt), intensely play-fighting. These extremely intelligent and highly social canids are amazing to watch, but you wouldn't want to be in with them. Packs are well-organized and team members hunt in close cooperation with one another. The targeted prey has little hope of survival.

We saw much more but that's enough for now. Check The Wilds website for more information, and if you're looking for a fascinating and out-of-the-box trip, plan a visit.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Photography Workshops and Tours: 2020 Slate!

Two years ago, Debbie DiCarlo and I began collaborating on field-based photography workshops. We finished our second season last October, with a sensational trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the height of fall color. That region is fantastic for photographers, we've found lots of gorgeous nooks and crannies that are off the beaten path (well, most places are off the beaten path up there!), and we'll be repeating it next October. The 2020 trip already has six registrants so if you want one of the last four spots please think on it soon.

We've got the full slate (mostly, a few additions will probably be coming) of 2020 excursions online and open for registration. The 2020 season kicks off with a rare opportunity to visit the Cleveland Botanical Garden during off-hours to photograph their spectacular orchid display. A great diversion from the Ohio winter and an excellent tune-up for warmer weather and wildflowers to come. After that, it's off the wilds of North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. We always scout sites, and have been to most of them multiple times, so we've got wonderful photographic honey holes cased out.

In addition to learning lots about cameras, how to use them, composition, macro, flash and all manner of other important stuff, you'll learn tons about natural history. All the sites we visit are rich in biological diversity. We don't just take pretty pictures of pretty things, we learn their names and how they fit into the bigger picture. Lots of fascinating and aesthetically pleasing but little known animals and plants fall before our lenses. It's nice to shoot things that most people haven't photographed, and we certainly do that in addition to sunsets, sunrises, striking landscapes, waterfalls, etc.

Beginners to intermediate photogs are most welcome, as are people of any other skill level. To view the 2020 slate, CLICK HERE or just scroll down the right side of this blog - they're all listed there.

Hope to see you on one of these in 2020!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Plenty is in a name when describing species

Jewel mudbug, Lacunicambarus dalyae, at OSU Museum of Biological Diversity/Jim McCormac

December 15, 2019

Jim McCormac

More than 1.7 million living species have thus far been described and named, and scientists estimate that Earth might contain as many as 10 million. That doesn’t count fossilized extinct species, which also are named.

The meat of an organism’s nomenclature is the scientific name, which doesn’t vary. While man’s best friend might go by German shepherd, dachshund, or Welsh corgi, Canis familiaris is the universal identifier of dogs of all breeds.

Discoverers of new species typically name them for some aspect of their appearance, behavior, habitat or distribution. However, scores of species are branded with commemorative honorifics. This can be a flattering tribute, as in Cooper’s hawk. I’m sure scientist William Cooper was pleased to have this dashing raptor named for him.

Dr. Bernard Master, a Worthington physician, conservationist and birder, provided critical financial support for a bird-rich region of western Colombia. His funding resulted in the protection of a bird recently described to science, the Choco vireo, which was formally dubbed Vireo masteri. Any birder would relish the chance to see this rare songbird.

Fossilized worms might not generate as much esteem. Eccentric paleontologist Rousseau Flower named one such group Khrushchevia, to express his distaste for Nikita Khrushchev and communism.

Back on Aug. 18, I wrote about the little brown mudbug crayfish Lacunicambarus thomai, whose name is a richly deserved recognition of Ohio researcher Roger Thoma. Being honored in the name of a charismatic pincered crustacean could only be considered cool.

On Oct. 9, Volume 4683, Issue 3 of the scientific journal Zootaxa was released. It included a paper titled “Lacunicambarus dalyae: a new species of burrowing crayfish from the southeastern United States.” The lead author was Ohio State University Ph.D. candidate Mael Glon.

After much fieldwork and study, Glon had shown that a common widespread species, the paintedhand mudbug, actually represented two species. The previously undescribed crayfish and the subject of his paper occurs in five southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Although Glon gave the newly minted crayfish the common name of jewel mudbug, the specific epithet of its scientific name — Lacunicambarus dalyae — honors Marymegan Daly, director of Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity.

Glon bestowed this recognition because of Daly’s support for his studies, and her backing of research into little-known, poorly understood organisms. An accomplished scientist, Daly’s specialty is sea anemones. She is no stranger to ferreting out new species, either, having described about 15 species of sea anemones.

Crayfish researchers such as Glon have plenty of work ahead. So far, about 700 species of crayfish have been described worldwide. But experts think several hundred other undescribed species lurk in waterways and wetlands.

There is an urgency to crayfish research. These crustaceans are among the most imperiled groups of aquatic organisms. Habitat destruction and water-quality degradation have laid waste to many species. It would be tragic to lose crayfish species before we even know they exist.

As famously stated by conservationist Aldo Leopold in his landmark book, “A Sand County Almanac,” “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

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

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Purple jellydisc

A bizarre fungus, the purple jellydisc, Ascocoryne sarcoides. The hairs are those of a small mammal, probably a white-footed mouse. The world of fungi is fascinating, bizarre, and impossibly diverse. I wish I had more time to delve into it. I made this image last Tuesday in Hocking County, Ohio.

Time has been tight of late, with book projects, other writing obligations, a move, and various speaking gigs. I've barely had time to trigger the shutter, but hopefully that'll all change soon.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Glaucous Gull, a sure harbinger of winter

A mammoth glaucous gull yelps its commanding presence to the masses. It's headed into a fray of hundreds of ring-billed gulls and some herring gulls following our boat. Only the great black-backed gull is larger, at least among gulls that appear in Ohio. This glaucous gull will immediately establish primacy among its lesser brethren by sheer force of size and personality.

Last Saturday I boarded the Holiday near downtown Cleveland along with several dozen other birders. It was the first "pelagic" Lake Erie trip of the season sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. I believe the December trip is full, but there may be spaces on the January 1 voyage.

We motored slowly down the Cuyahoga River from our launch point at Collision Bend, stopping once to await the passage of the 615-foot lake freighter American Courage. The river seems impossibly narrow to accommodate these giant ships, but it does although lesser craft may have to duck out of the way until they squeak past.

The same glaucous gull from a different angle, showing its pure frosty-white wing tips. This individual is a first-cycle bird. It will go through four cycles of distinct plumage before reaching adulthood at four to five years of age.

Before long we hit Lake Erie. Chum-master Tim Jasinski created a steady effluvia of bird-friendly chum (no popcorn or bread here!) off the stern, and before long we had a blizzard of ring-billed gulls in tow. As the weather has been relatively mild thus far, the ring-billeds were far and away the dominant gull, although a number of herring gulls peppered the flock. Bonaparte's gulls were almost non-existent, and every lake birder loves to encounter swirling masses of that species. Such swarms can attract rarer species such as black-headed or little gulls, or perhaps even a jaeger.

We did see a few great black-backed gulls - another species that will greatly increase in numbers as winter sets in - but this glaucous gull was the highlight. They breed in the high Arctic, and Lake Erie is a Floridian vacation for these feathered toughs. Most of them winter in colder waters, although some make it all the way to the Gulf Coast.

A few other avian highlights were peregrine falcon, which rocketed by offering a few fairly close passes. A rough-legged hawk passed high overhead; my first of the season. And the day's best rarity was a purple sandpiper, which obliging foraged on mossy rocks of a nearby breakwall.

All in all, an interesting four-hour float.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Red-shouldered hawk in LOW light

Corning Lake in the Holden Arboretum, on a chilly, foggy morning.

I visited the amazing Holden Arboretum yesterday for a meeting, and of course threw some photography gear in the car. The 3,600+ acres of the arboretum, which is a bit to the east of Cleveland, is a goldmine of interesting subjects. Following the meeting, we headed out to snap a few photos, mostly intending to shoot landscapes. The day was perfect for that, with persistent fog misting the grounds.

Days such as this, especially as wind was nearly non-existent, are great for shooting moody landscapes. Shutter speed is inconsequential as long as one is using a tripod. The image above was made at f/16, with a 1/2 second exposure at ISO 100. Good luck hand-holding that and achieving a sharp image.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An adult red-shouldered hawk attentively watches a garden below. There must have been a vole or some other rodent at work in the duff of the old plants. The hawk's head was on a swivel as he watched the potential prey.

I saw the raptor a little ways off, and being a big fan of this most beautiful of eastern Buteo hawks, naturally wanted to make some photos. Red-shouldered hawks tend towards the tame, especially ones that live in places with lots of people as this one does. And sure enough, the bird was not put off by my approach and largely ignored me as it fixated on the vole or shrew or whatever it was.

Fortunately I had Canon's remarkable little 100-400mm II lens already mounted on my camera, which was on the tripod. I like trying to create tight landscapes with telephotos and that was my game until the hawk surfaced.

The challenge was light. Completely overcast white skies and fog do not offer ideal bird photography conditions. If I were to shoot the bird at any sort of "typical" setting, the ISO would have been sky high. I am not a fan of enormous ISO ranges, especially if cropping of any sort will be necessary. We're talking grainy images, even with noise reduction applied in post-processing.

As it became clear that the hawk was unconcerned with me, I only had to hope it would remain in place long enough to practice some alternate photo tactics. With the gear firmly locked in place on the tripod, and at a comfortable working range from the animal, I dialed in f/11 to create sharpness throughout the subject, and set the two-second shutter delay option. Because of the awful lighting, it was necessary to go to +2.3 exposure compensation. Once focus was set - on the bird's upper breast* - I flipped the camera into Live View mode. This eliminates any internal movement from the mirror, as it's now locked up and doesn't activate. All of this gave me a shutter speed of 1/50 - too slow to handhold and expect much in the way of crisp images, even with the 100-400's stellar image stabilization. The ISO was 800 - near the upper limits of what I prefer, but okay and it was ISO that was largely driving the shutter speed that I selected.

Once all was set, it was just a matter of activating the shutter button, and hoping the bird didn't move between then and the taking of the image. It did fidget a few times, but for the vast majority of the shots it didn't. And I got something. Shooting against blah white skies won't give the pop that superb lighting conditions will, but sometimes that's all one has to work with. And not many animals will cooperate or remain immobile long enough to employ these photographic tactics, but when they do, this is a way to keep the ISO to a sane level and thus create less grainy images. I've used it on roosting owls and nesting birds in dim light, for instance. Thus, I can remain well out of their disturbance zone, and get images that can be cropped in without noise manifestation caused by high ISO.

*A minor gripe about the 100-400mm II lens is its seeming inability to focus on tiny areas with great precision. The reason that I had to focus on the hawk's upper breast is that the camera/lens combo could not auto focus on the eye. I could have tried to manually focus there, but prefer the bulletproof accuracy of auto focus, and in single-shot mode, the auditory beep that proclaims focus has been achieved. With a relatively small f/11 aperture, it wasn't a big deal, though. And I am probably spoiled by having some of Canon's larger prime telephotos. Those lens are incredible in their ability to focus in with laser-like precision on the smallest of targets, including the eye of this raptor in bad light. But the little 100-400 costs WAY less than those big primes, and one can't expect everything at that price point. And in general, the 1 to 4 is a sensational lens. I'm nitpicking here :-)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Nature: Rare sightings still bring a thrill for veteran birder

A vermilion flycatcher spotted in Wayne County/Jim McCormac

November 17, 2019

Jim McCormac

The allure of birds drew me in as a tot. By the age of 6, I was glued to the windows of our Worthington home, watching feeder birds. It didn’t take long for this nascent interest to blossom into a passion.

By the fifth grade, other kids were quizzing me about bird identifications. They would bring bird photos in magazines, cover the name and see if I knew what it was.

When the state granted me a driver’s license at age 16, my birding world expanded tremendously. Wanderlust is a common trait of hardcore birders. Every weekend was spent exploring interesting habitats, many of them far afield.

In one especially prolific teenage year, I made it to Lake Erie at least 50 times. Our Great Lake is Ohio’s most productive birding locale, by a long shot.

Many birding excursions were rarity chases. Unusual birds draws birders like moths to a flame. The rarer the bird, the more visitors. Praise be if it’s a “life” bird (never before seen) or “state” bird (new sighting for one’s state).

After 40 years of auto-assisted birding, and amassing 381 species for my Ohio list (about 430 species have been recorded in Ohio), the thrill of the chase has worn a bit thin.

I have come to view the acquisition of big lists as somewhat akin to avian postage-stamp collecting. I would rather spend valuable field time in interesting haunts, studying and photographing whatever crosses my path, common, rare or in between.

The obsession with the atypical never entirely wanes, though, and I took up the hunt again on Nov. 3. A vermilion flycatcher was discovered near Wooster on Oct. 25 by local birders Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber. This species is a denizen of the southwestern U.S. and a very rare sighting in eastern North America. There have been about seven Ohio records.

It didn’t take long to spot the flycatcher as it hawked insects from snags in a marsh. Even on this cool day, the bird had no problem finding bugs.

A first-year female, the bird probably had its discoverers temporarily flummoxed. While males are adorned with their namesake vermilion color and are unmistakable, females are somber in hue and not nearly so distinctive.

Word of the flycatcher quickly spread, and hundreds of birders from Ohio and adjacent states have paid homage to the western stray. For many it was a life bird, and a state bird for far more. The last sighting was Nov. 5, and hopefully the bird is now in much warmer climes.

As luck would have it, another rarity lurked 25 minutes from the flycatcher. A gorgeous male rufous hummingbird turned up at the Holmes County residence of Martha and Wayne Weaver. Martha first saw the bird at their hummingbird feeders on Oct. 23, and it remains as of this writing (Nov. 10).

The Weavers graciously allowed birders to visit, and by the time I stopped by more than 110 names were scrawled in their guestbook. This wasn’t the Weavers’ first rufous hummingbird rodeo. Amazingly, their feeders lured another in 2011.

Like the flycatcher, the rufous hummingbird is a westerner, breeding from Alaska south to Idaho and Oregon. This species is quite cold-hardy, and eastern vagrants typically appear in late fall. Some linger into winter. One or a few appear in Ohio most years.

It was great to revisit these normally distant feathered friends again, and almost in my backyard.

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 rufous hummingbird seen in Holmes County/Jim McCormac

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A plethora of pipits

A perfect storm of snow, followed by some rain and sleet, followed by a major temperature plunge, left much of Ohio enshrouded in an icy wonderland. Yesterday brought our first really cold weather, and I was out before dawn to experience it.

The virgately branched inflorescence of a tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima, shimmers with crystallized ice. It was 1 F when I made this shot. A vast field of iced over Indian grass forms the backdrop. Conditions such as these can make for good birding, as 1) birds are often more approachable in bitter cold, and 2) species that typically forage in fields such as this are forced to roadsides to find spilled grain, weed seeds and other fare.

Make no mistake, #2 is not a good deal for birds, as the incidences of road strikes by vehicles can skyrocket. Fortunately, the back roads of northern Marion County and southern Wyandot County, where I was yesterday, see relatively little traffic. Despite seeing scads of birds foraging along roadsides, I saw not a single roadkill.

Most interesting, to me at least, was the number of American pipits. I think I put a conservative estimate of 75 individuals in my eBird report for the day. The overall tally may have been 100+. Small flocks were scattered far and wide, sometimes comprised only of pipits, but often mixed horned lark-pipits flocks. The most interesting group contained a few dozen larks, a smattering of pipits, and two snow buntings. The bird in the photo was part of a group of four, and they were cooperative. Unfortunately for the photographer, it was only about 4 F and I was lying on the cold tarmac to try to get on their level. Tough shooting.

American pipits breed in the northernmost reaches of North America, in the tundra, and in high alpine meadows in the western part of the continent. The nearest nesters to north-central Ohio, where I made yesterday's observations, are about 1,000 miles to the north. Many pipits pass through Ohio in both spring and fall migration, but they are largely overlooked. The birds are prone to foraging way out in big agricultural fields and are easily missed. They are powerful flyers and diurnal migrants, but if one is not familiar with their flight calls as they pass high overhead, they'll pass by undetected.

The peak fall passage extends from mid-October through November. This recent early wintry weather forced pipits out of the vast agricultural hinterlands and to the roads where people could see them. Much of Ohio was awash in pipit reports, shedding light on just how many birds move through the state.

Also notable was a flock of five Savannah sparrows forced to the roadsides. This is another extremely common fall migrant. However, we're past peak fall passage, which mostly occurs from late September through late October. I suspect these birds are going to attempt to winter locally. They occurred in an area of 1,000+ acres of conservation reserve program lands dense in Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans.  These thick grass stands create their own ecology by spawning scores of seed, insects and their eggs/larvae, and offer protection from sometimes brutal winter elements. I've found Savannah sparrows here before in January.

ASIDE: This beautiful little sparrow is NOT named for the plant community of scattered large trees, which is properly spelled savanna. Rather, the common name stems from Savannah, Georgia, where Alexander Wilson bagged the first specimen. As a "species" the Savannah sparrow is widespread and complex. Nearly 30 subspecies have been described and many of these variations are quite different in appearance.

This northern mockingbird was one of five or six that had staked claim to a long fencerow of scrubby hawthorns and plums. The trees were rich in fruit, and those berries will play a big role in getting these mockers through the winter. Like gang toughs, the mockingbirds zealously defend their turfs against all comers, especially other frugivores.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Two rare (for Ohio) birds

As always, click the photos to enlarge

A gorgeous first-year (I believe) female vermilion flycatcher hawks insects from a branch low over a marsh. While common nesters in parts of the southwest U.S. - with most birds wintering south of the border - the vermilion flycatcher is a major rarity in Ohio. The bird shown in this photo is about the 7th state record, I believe.

I finally had time to go look for it on November 3rd, but Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber first found the bird on October 25. A great find by the two gentlemen and one that may have had them temporarily scratching their heads. Female vermilion flycatchers are not nearly as distinctive as the brightly marked males, and when birding the Wooster, Ohio region in late October, this flycatcher would not be high on your list of expected species. Insofar as I know, it's still there as of this writing.

This bird frequents a small portion of a large marsh in Wayne County, which is northeastern Ohio. I spent over an hour observing her, and she seemed to be catching many a bug, in spite of cool temperatures. Most of our records come from late fall and early winter, with at least one or two lingering into December, so this species can endure frosty weather.

Fortuitously, this little animal was only twenty-five minutes from the aforementioned vermilion flycatcher, in nearby Holmes County. A stunning adult male rufous hummingbird and another western species, it turned up at the feeders of Martha Gingrich Weaver and family. I made this image as the bird perched atop prominent branch tips of an ornamental crabapple, from which it sallied after small flying insects. The bird also made regular trips to nearby hummingbird feeders for sugar-water fixes.

The first Ohio record of rufous hummingbird dates to 1985, and we've had dozens of records since. It's still quite the rarity, with only a few birds seen in any given year, and very few of those have been showy males as is this bird. Like the flycatcher, it's a westerner and the hardiest of the U.S.-breeding hummingbirds, nesting all the way into Alaska and at high elevations in the Rockies. Martha first saw it on October 23, and it's still there as of today. The Weavers have been extraordinarily gracious in allowing visitors and at the time of my visit, well over 100 people had been there to admire the spunky rufous hummingbird.

This November 3 rare bird safari offered the possibility of a trifecta, but alas, it was not to be. Right on my driving route from Columbus, and only 30 minutes or so from the vermilion flycatcher was a cooperative pomarine jaeger. The gull-like kleptoparasite was frequenting a large reservoir and was found by Sue Evanoff and Sue Snyder on October 29. The vast majority of jaegers that appear in Ohio occur on Lake Erie, and one on an inland reservoir is always extraordinary. Reservoir jaegers nearly never linger for any length of time, let alone five days as this one did. Alas, its final day was the day before I was there. It was seen late in the day on November 2, and I was there near daybreak on the next day. Somewhere in between it flew the coop.

Two out of three ain't bad, though.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Nature: 'Logan Oak' stands tall after five centuries

The enormous "Logan Oak" in Old Logan Cemetery in southern Ohio/Jim McCormac

November 3, 2019

Jim McCormac

On Sept. 28, I finally corrected an enormous arboreal oversight by visiting the legendary “Logan Oak.” Located in Old Logan Cemetery in the city of Logan at the gateway to the Hocking Hills, the gnarled white oak is a Methuselah tree.

Why I waited so long to pay respects is beyond me. The tree is splendid in every way. Huge gnarled limbs radiate from a skyscraper trunk, creating a gargantuan bonsai that must be seen to be believed. I had intended a brief visit, but my homage extended for more than an hour.

The Logan Oak is easily the largest and most ornate tree of its ilk that I have clapped eyes on, and I have seen scores of its species. It’s awesome from any angle, and I did my best to photographically illustrate the sheer majesty of this plant.

Similar nomenclature sometimes causes confusion with the former Logan Elm. That tree was just south of Circleville in Pickaway County, and was a huge and fabled American elm. Its name commemorates Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe. A storm brought the tree down in 1964, its vitality sapped by Dutch elm disease.

A placard near the Logan Oak puts its age at 600-plus years. I’m not sure how that was determined, and six centuries would put the oak at the extreme upper limits of life span for Quercus alba. Even if we estimate a bit more conservatively and age it at 500 years, that’s still an ancient organism.

Five centuries of growth makes for a big tree. It would take many people to join arms around the trunk, and lower lateral limbs would make big trees in their own right. The crown spread is an enormous leafy arbor that covers 9,000 square feet. That’s about the expanse of two Clintonville lots.

Amazingly, the Logan Oak is not the largest of its kind in Ohio. That honor goes to a tree in Mahoning County. Its circumference is 298 inches, the crown spread is 128 feet, and this oak is 94 feet tall. As impressive as those stats are, the Logan Oak is not far behind, and bests the official state champion in ineffable grandeur.

If we arbitrarily made the Logan Oak’s birthday today, Nov. 3, and accepted an age of 500 years, that means the tree sprung from its ancestral acorn in 1519. The oak’s inaugural year saw Cortes and his band of conquistadors invade Mexico and Leonardo da Vinci die at age 67; the Ohio country was still wilderness. It would be 284 years before Ohio’s statehood.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Logan Oak has seen. It was huge when Ohio’s sixth governor, Thomas Worthington, established the village of Logan in 1816 and even bigger in 1839 when it was incorporated. Scores of people undoubtedly have marveled at the tree through the centuries.

A mature oak can produce 10,000 acorns in a boom year, less in a lean year. As oaks are producing fruit within two or three decades, the Logan Oak has been an acorn factory for nearly five centuries. It likely has produced more than 2 million acorns so far.

As I photographed the tree, several blue jays — migrants, probably — cavorted in its upper boughs. It likely was a jay that planted this tree. Jays are inveterate cachers of acorns, which they bury. Many of these buried fruit are forgotten, thus the birds are avian Johnny Appleseeds of oaks.

Fortunately, interested arborists occasionally collect and grow acorns from the Logan Oak, ensuring that spawn from the mighty plant will continue its venerable legacy.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Eastern Hemlock roots

The tentacular roots of an eastern hemlock tree, Tsuga canadensis, clutch a sandstone boulder at Old Man's Cave. Hemlocks do well on thin soil over rocky substrates, and over long time spans undoubtedly help break rock down by fracturing it, and calving big chunks from cliffs when ice and windstorms bring large trees down. The nooks and crannies within the root network also make great foraging areas for winter wrens. Hocking County, Ohio, yesterday.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Balanced Rock

This is "Balanced Rock", an interesting sandstone structure in Hocking State Forest. Softer rock comprising the lower portion of the pillar has eroded more rapidly than the cap at the top, creating this geological mushroom.

I had long heard of this amazing rock, but it wasn't until this morning that I hoofed it back to where it stands. It's a bit off the beaten track, but isn't particularly hard to reach and involves - if you took my somewhat circuitous route - about two miles, round trip. There are some other interesting sandstone features along the way, and plenty of nice scenery, as is nearly always the case in the Hocking Hills.

Today was our first truly cool morning, and I loved it. The temp when I first got out of my vehicle around dawn was around 32 F. I don't think it ever eclipsed 40 F while I was down there, and that was fine by me. We've crossed over into late fall, and winter will soon arrive.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Meet the jewel mudbug

Meet the jewel mudbug, Lacunicambarus dalyae, the most recently described North American crayfish species. Astacologist Mael Glon allowed me to visit his offices at OSU yesterday to see one of these showy animals in person, and create some images. Glon is the principal author of a paper published on October 9 that describes this colorful burrowing crayfish species. It occurs in five southeastern U.S. states, and is named for Meg Daly, Director of the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity. Meg's support was essential to the research that led to this discovery. I'm going to write a piece on this charismatic animal in the next month or so for my Columbus Dispatch column. I would add that people like Mael and Meg, who support the biological underdogs, make the world a better place.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Autumnal tree tunnel

As always, click the image to enlarge

Autumnal tree tunnel, reflected in the mirrored waters of Clear Creek. Hocking County, Ohio, October 23, 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A sparrow safari to Dutch Fork Wetlands, Dawes Arboretum

A wonderful mixed-emergent marsh restoration, known as the Dutch Fork Wetlands. It's part of Dawes Arboretum, a sprawling 2,000-acre palette of wildly diverse flora. Part of the arboretum is formal plantings comprised of numerous ornamental plants, many from distant lands. But a bigger part of the property is native plants in more or less natural landscapes, and arboretum staff work hard to properly manage the indigenous assets.

I was over at Dawes about a week ago for a meeting, and arrived early - the crack of dawn to be precise. Mid-October is peak for migrant sparrows, and I figured the Dutch Fork Wetlands and its associated meadows would produce lots of the little brown jobs. I was not disappointed.

A juvenile white-crowned sparrow surveys his temporary domain from a sapling. I saw many of these big sparrows, and several were singing their haunting minor-keyed whistles. White-crowns are strictly migrants here. They breed in the FAR north; the sub-tundra taiga and on north into the true tundra, and in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains in the west.

Many field sparrows were present. This species is quite the contrast to the previous one in terms of bulk. A good measure of "bulkiness" in a bird is weight. The white-crowned sparrow weighs about 30 grams. A well-fed field sparrow, about 13 grams. Only the chipping and clay-colored sparrows are ever so slightly smaller.

This field sparrow is perched on a cup-plant, Silphium perfoliatum. Most of the sparrows present this day were smitten with this robust native member of the sunflower family. I quickly learned to spot the cup-plant colonies from afar, creep up, and be rewarded with gangs of sparrows stripping the fruit.

As is to be expected nearly anywhere in Ohio, song sparrows were frequent. Given the numbers that I saw, I suspect local breeders were augmented by migrants.

Beginning birders often lament the alleged difficulty of sparrow identification. But there aren't that many - 15 commonly occurring Ohio species - and most are quite distinctive. As with learning to identify any group of organisms, become very familiar with the common species such as this song sparrow, then the others will start to stand out as different.

We have three North American species of sparrows in the genus Melospiza, and I saw them all this day. The aforementioned song sparrow is one, and so is this swamp sparrow, distinctive in its chestnut hues. It's well-named - swamp sparrows are very much birds of wetland habitats. This one perches on a senescent snarl of soft-stemmed bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. I probably saw or heard several dozen in the Dutch Fork Wetlands. Prior to the arboretum's wetland restoration work, there were probably none.

This normally shy skulker was the best of the Melospiza sparrows, if one feels obligated to rank such things. It is a Lincoln's sparrow, named for 21 year old Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied John James Audubon on his 1833 expedition to Labrador. Young Lincoln bagged the first specimen of this sparrow, and Audubon named it for him.

I see plenty of breeding Lincoln's sparrows every year on their breeding grounds in northern Michigan and usually elsewhere in the North Country. There, they come out of their shell and often sing their beautiful melodies from open perches. I have never heard one sing down here in migration, and they typically sneak about furtively in dense tangles of vegetation near the ground.

Thus, I was pleased to hear the call notes of several Lincoln's sparrows soon after arriving, and found about ten of them in all. This one - and several of the others - were feasting on cup-plant seeds.

In total, I located nine species of sparrows on this day (others included chipping sparrow, eastern towhee, Savannah sparrow, and white-throated sparrow). Missed were my hoped for primary targets, the Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows. Dutch Fork Wetlands in fall should be a great place to turn up one or both of these rarish wetland species.

Of course, not all was sparrows on this foray, and this nosy marsh wren amused me for several minutes. I was standing quietly and somewhat concealed, when the wren burst from a snarl of cattails and curiously investigated me from all angles. Marsh wrens are quite photogenic, if you are lucky enough to have clear shots at them.

Finally, it was time to head for my meeting, but this birdiferous sapling held me up briefly. For some reason, about every songbird in the Indian grass meadow wanted to use it as a lookout. In its branches, and I'm sure I'm forgetting one or a few species, were eastern bluebird, American goldfinch, house finch, palm warbler, and song, swamp, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and white-crowned sparrows, most of them simultaneously (sorry for the poor iPhone photo - I was over-lensed in terms of capturing the entire tree with a real camera).