Monday, July 15, 2019

Mothapalooza 2019

The sixth Mothapalooza is in the books and it was a smashing good time! Thanks to all of the organizers and volunteers, of which there are too many to name. I'll single one out: Mary Ann Barnett, who acts as conference CEO and is the glue that holds the whole complicated affair together.

Mothapalooza was hatched in an Adams County, Ohio roadside ditch some years ago, where a few of us saw a really cool moth (can't even remember what it was). I remarked something to the effect of "if we could show this to everyone, they'd all become moth fans". Now we have Mothapalooza as a vehicle to help do just that.

The first four conferences were annual, but the rigors of orchestrating such a large complex affair with a completely volunteer crew took its toll and we've backed off to an every other year strategy. As all but one Mothapaloozas have been, this year's event was based at Shawnee State Park and its lodge in the thick of the 65,000 acre Shawnee State Forest. Native plant diversity is staggering, and thus so is moth diversity. Couldn't be a better place to host this affair, at least in this neck of the woods.

To our initial great surprise, all Mothapaloozas have filled to a capacity crowd and quite rapidly after the opening of registration. This year, counting everyone involved, we had just north of 200 participants representing 20 states and one other country, Canada. As an important aside, Mothapalooza has generated several hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue for our hosting venues and in ancillary local expenditures. Mothing ecotourism writ large.

Field trips are strange, with 10 pm departures and many participants not returning to the lodge until 3 or 4 am. Mothing sheets are scattered throughout the hinterlands of the vast dark forest, with one or two in the biological riches of adjacent Adams County. We are fortunate to be able to attract the best of the best in terms of entomological experts and biologists, and the opportunities for learning are vast. We're recalibrating how we approach these nocturnal forays in the future, and think some excellent improvements will be coming that will make it even easier for everyone, and result in yet more moths (and caterpillars!).

The next Mothapalooza will take place in 2021, dates to be decided. We'll have it sorted out soon, and the venue should once again be at Shawnee.

For now, here's a few photos from Mothapalooza 2019. I've got scads, and am nowhere near getting through all of them, so I may post additional stuff later.

Samantha Marcone of Sam Jaffe's Caterpillar Lab provides scale to an enormous female black witch, Ascalapha odorata. This tropical stray to these latitudes turned up last Friday over the front door of Don Tumblin's daughter's house in Columbus. Her husband Matt spotted it, Lacey texted Don, who was at Mothapalooza, and Lacey chauffeured the giant moth down to Mothapalooza the next day. Thus, a few hundred people got their first look at this fantastic moth. Such a cool entanglement of circumstances, and better yet the moth dropped 75 eggs in its cage on the way down. Sam has them and will attempt to farm a crop of black witches and document the complete life cycle. The moth was later released to venture wherever it may.

We have diurnal field trips as well (not starting too early!), and hot weather and sunny skies produced scads of butterflies this year. Red-spotted purples, Limenitis arthemis, were quite common and wowed everyone with their extraordinary showiness.

A botanical treat was a huge sprawling mass of leather-flower, Clematis viorna. Scads of the interesting flowers adorned the vines, and this site turned out to be a major biological hotspot. Indeed, our Saturday field trip began here and we never made it anywhere else. The stroll along this sparsely traveled lane produced blizzards of interesting STUFF, from this plant to zebra swallowtail caterpillars to gnat-ogres to yellow-billed cuckoo and much more.

A saddleback caterpillar moth, Acharea stimulea, stares menacingly at the photographer. Its larval form is stunning, looking like a little tubular pony draped with a Day-Glo green horse blanket. The moth is incredibly spider-like from certain angles. This one was one of many that appeared at the moth sheets.

A white flannel moth, Norape ovina, seemingly having a bad hair day. Moths are a photographer's dream, and the subjects warrant attention from all angles.

A quite interesting little fellow, this one. It is a tiny moth in the genus Calioptilia, and perhaps part of a complex in which there are species awaiting description. No one could pin a name to this one. It's only about 5-6mm in length. Calioptilia (cal-ee-op-tee-lee-ah) moths are sometimes called "push-up moths". 

More to follow...

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nature: New book quite handy for hiking in Hocking Hills

July 7, 2019

Jim McCormac

In Ohio, only Lake Erie, our inland sea and northern border, drives more tourism than the comparatively tiny Hocking Hills region. The core of the Hocking Hills is Hocking County. About 3 million visitors flock to the region each year to marvel at the incredible rock formations, cool hemlock gorges and impressive waterfalls.

The undisputed centerpiece of the Hocking Hills is Hocking Hills State Park and the popular Old Man’s Cave. This site and nearby Ash Cave and Cedar Falls are magnets for those seeking to commune with nature in perhaps the showiest scenery in the Buckeye State.

There is much more to the Hocking Hills, which extends into Hocking County’s neighboring counties. Many people might not be aware of all its hidden gems.

So I was pleased to recently receive a wonderful little guide, “Hocking Hills Day Hikes.” Author Mary Reed is a veteran hiker who is intimately familiar with the trails of the Hocking Hills, and she succinctly and clearly outlines 25 day hikes.

The book is elfin in dimension at roughly 4 by 7 inches, and for good reason. It slips neatly into your back pocket, and it will prove much more useful than your cellphone when out on the trail — especially when there is no cell service, as can be the case in this area.

A short but useful introduction covers most details that visitors would want to know, especially first-timers. As Reed notes, all of our state parks, forests, preserves, etc., have no entrance fees; Ohio is one of the few states that doesn’t charge for access. The only exception in the book is the privately owned Butterfly Ridge Conservation Center in Rockbridge. Entry to this 21-acre site is $5, and it’s well worth the five-spot for the lepidopteran education. Sixty butterfly species have been recorded along the preserve’s mile-long trail.

Each site account in the book begins with basics: trail length(s), contact information, hours, dogs (yes/no), and facilities such as picnic areas, restrooms and visitor’s centers.

The meat of the book includes directions to each site, detailed on-the-ground trail directions and descriptions of interesting flora and fauna that might be encountered. A black-and-white photo of some particularly interesting aspect of the site heads the account, and a clear trail map fills one page. With this book in hand, no hiker should get lost.

My favorite section of the site accounts is the “Trail Description.” Reed includes plenty of fascinating information here, such as why Old Man’s Cave was so-named, or how Ash Cave got its moniker. In some cases she mentions the bounty of wildflowers to be seen, or the aural soundscape of pigeons gone feral and living high on wild cliffs and in the rock houses.

I highly recommend this small but info-rich book. For the price of half a tank of gas, you will have an invaluable guide to some of the best day hikes in the Midwest.

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, July 6, 2019

An amazing little robber fly!

I pay more than a fair share of attention to "bugs". Insects make the world go 'round, I've become convinced. Not only are they ecologically indispensable, their diversity and interesting habits are endless. Many - most? - are also beautiful in their own way, some extraordinarily so.

Such is the case with this tiny robber fly, known only by its scientific moniker, Taracticus octopunctatus. At only 7mm or so in length, it's an easy one to pass by. I'm glad I noticed it, as T. octopunctatus has amazing eyes, and could be dubbed the "fiery-eyed robber fly". I encountered it along the edge of a dry oak-hickory woodland in southeastern Ohio's Fairfield County on July 4, 2019.

Once I locked the animal into the sights of my macro lens, I saw the stunning eye coloration and set about working the fly. Alas, it did not give me too many chances before darting off to points unknown. This was my first acquaintance with this species. It may be common for all I know, although I do tend to pay special heed to robber flies.

I'll certainly be on the lookout for Taracticus octopunculatus in the future.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Nature: Dragonfly rarities pop up in survey

A young male Paiute dancer (Argia alberta) at Cedar Bog/Jim McCormac

June 30, 2019

Jim McCormac

The Ohio Dragonfly Survey, which began in 2017, is in its third and final season of field work, and mountains of records have been contributed by scores of volunteers. More than 43,000 individual observations have been submitted by about 1,100 contributors.

So far, about 165 odonata (dragonfly and damselfly) species have been documented in the state. Most are common, at least regionally, and make up the bulk of records. The top five most frequent species are eastern pondhawk, eastern forktail, blue dasher, fragile forktail and common whitetail.

Those damsels and dragons are low-hanging fruit. Important to document, but easy to find. However, it’s the rarities that really get dragon hunters pumped. Some utterly unexpected species have turned up during the survey.

I crossed paths with one of these new Ohio odonates recently at Cedar Bog near Urbana in Champaign County. Last year, uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon found Ohio’s first record of Paiute dancer (a damselfly) in a Clark County fen. He went on to document more dancers at Cedar Bog, and Sarah White located a Greene County population.

The beautiful Paiute dancer resembles a few species common here. Lemon, who has contributed nearly 7,000 observations to the dragonfly survey so far, went back through his old photos. He unearthed Paiute dancer images from Cedar Bog dating to 2014, mislabeled as common look-alike species. Many of the state’s dragonfly experts had apparently passed them by for at least several years at the heavily studied Cedar Bog.

That this insect would occur here was a shock. There is only one other small population west of the Mississippi River, in central Indiana. One must travel 500 miles to Missouri before Paiute dancers become reasonably common. The core of the range is much farther west yet: the Great Basin region of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.

Although we can’t be sure of how long the Paiute dancer has occupied Ohio, there are other, more clear-cut recent range expansions. Lemon also discovered our first jade clubtails last year in Auglaize and Shelby counties. A species of the Great Plains, the Ohio population is the easternmost record.

Lemon also found Ohio’s first swift setwing in 2014 in Champaign County, and he and others have located populations in eight additional counties since. This distinctive, conspicuous dragonfly’s main range is the southern one-third of the U.S. south into Central America.

Survey coordinator MaLisa Spring located double-ringed pennants this year in Jackson County in southern Ohio. No one anticipated this discovery; this beautiful dragonfly normally occurs well south of Ohio.

Nina Harfmann found the little blue dragonlet this year in Jackson County. No one had seen one in the state since 1933, the only prior record. It, too, is a species of the far south.

Several damsels and dragons have staged massive immigrations into Ohio in the past few years, all southern species. They include blue-faced meadowhawk, great blue skimmer, lilypad forktail and slaty skimmer.

Dragonflies are powerful aerialists capable of quickly expanding ranges when favorable changes open new opportunities. In 2001, dragonfly expert Dr. Dennis Paulson published a paper titled “Recent Odonata Records from Southern Florida — Effects of Global Warming?” Perhaps we could ask Paulson’s question here, now.

For more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, visit or contact Spring at

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, June 28, 2019

Some dragons of late

A blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, adopts the obelisking posture. On hot days, as this one was, a perched dragonfly will often point its abdomen directly at the sun. By doing so, it minimizes heat absorption by exposing less of its body to direct sunlight. Obelisking dragonflies make for great photographic subjects.

I have been doing my level best this field season to focus on surveying for dragonflies. It's the final year of the three-year Ohio Dragonfly Survey, and our last crack at fleshing out the distribution and status of Ohio's Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies). If you photograph these insects in Ohio, we'd love to have your records and they're very easy to submit. CLICK HERE for instructions.

A Carolina saddlebags, Tramea carolina, moors to an old plant stalk. It's been a good year for these.

I had the good fortune of making a recent foray into various west-central Ohio haunts with uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon. He's submitted over 7,000 records to the Ohio Dragonfly Survey to date, a remarkably prolific effort and far beyond anyone else. This was one of the special species Jim showed me, a jade clubtail, Arigomphus submedianus. Lemon discovered it along the shore of Lake Loramie in Auglaize and Shelby counties last year. It was a new Ohio record, one of a number of state firsts for him.

Jade clubtail's core range is the Great Plains states, well to the west of Ohio. The habitat where Jim found this species is utterly common - shorelines of a large lake, often armored with riprap or with only a fringe of unmowed vegetation. It would seem likely that these showy clubtails inhabit other Ohio lakes, especially in the western part of the state, but no one has yet found others.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An odd perspective on a slender spreadwing, Lestes rectangularis. This group of damselflies is noted for the wide separation between the eyes, as can clearly be seen here. The animal is perched on the stem of a rush, and was cooperative enough to allow me to sneak into position to make this shot.

Another slender spreadwing, this one carrying a complement of water mites. Such parasitism is very common in damselflies, with the larval mites appearing as tiny reddish-orange bumps on the abdomen, usually towards the base. Apparently newly hatched mites first invade the aquatic larvae of damselflies, and when a larva leaves the water and emerges from its larval case, the mites jump to the teneral (newly emergent) damselfly. Later, when the damselfly enters or nears water to mate or lay eggs, the mites hop into the water where they live out the rest of their life cycle. While the larval water mites do siphon body fluids from the damselfly host via feeding tubes, I don't believe they normally do much harm to the host.

A sphagnum sprite, Nehalennia gracilis, one of our smallest (the smallest?) damsels. They're less than an inch long, and very easily overlooked. Jim also showed me a population of these enchanting little bugs, at a beautiful fen. Sure enough, the small zone supporting these sprites was rich in sphagnum moss. Perhaps the sprites oviposit into the sphagnum and the nymphs then inhabit it, but I'm not sure about this.

Finally, a very common species, and one of our largest and showiest, the twelve-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella (pulchella means, essentially, beautiful or pretty). One perk of participating in this survey is the numerous opportunities to photograph these gorgeous insects. Not only that, but highly predacious dragonflies are fascinating to observe. Their powers of flight are often astonishing, and the pursuit of "dragonflying" reminds me of birding in many ways.

Again, for more information about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, GO HERE.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Barn swallows in golden light

As always, click the photo to enlarge

I'm fortunate to have an accessible and pretty wildlife-friendly farm in close range. I'm free to enter, and practice photography. This is especially nice when time is tight, or I see that the late day light is going to be stunning, as it was tonight.

I only had about a half-hour tonight, but the golden light was pristine and a couple of barn swallows provided irresistible targets, so I spent my time with them. A gorgeous adult is above. Barn swallows nest in good numbers in the barns and outbuildings of this farm, and the manager is bird-friendly. Lots of swallows are produced here. Recently I made a post, HERE, about trying to capture these birds on the wing. That's MUCH harder to do than shooting the swallows at rest on a fence.

A recently fledged juvenile barn swallow flexes a wing. The youngster has a steep learning curve, learning to use its innate and superb aerobatic skills to glean insects from the air. While I imagine some of those skills are built-in, it seems to me like they keenly watch their parents and the other swallows hawking insects nearby. Observing the adults ply their trade probably helps train the youngsters.

The barn swallow is the world's most widely distributed swallow. It breeds nearly throughout North America, well into Canada and even reaching Alaska, with some nesters as far south as Mexico. Elsewhere, barn swallows breed in Iceland, throughout Eurasia, northern Africa, parts of the Middle East, and China and Japan. The North American nesters winter primarily in South America, with some individuals even reaching the Galapagos Islands.

In 1980, nearly a dozen barn swallows were discovered nesting in the Buenos Aires Province of Argentina, nearly 4,500 miles south of the nearest known nesters. These swallows, when first found, bred during the austral winter (our summer), but over time shifted their nesting phenology six months to breed during the austral summer (our winter). These birds migrate north to northern South America during the austral winter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A few interesting insects from recent days

The insect world is seemingly endlessly diverse, and always fascinating. "Bugs" make the world go around, and natural systems would collapse without them. Insects also make for great macro photography. Here's a few images from recent outings.

Ants tend the caterpillar of an Appalachian azure butterfly, Celastrina neglectamajor. Caterpillars of this species eat only the flower buds of black cohosh, Actaea racemosa. A bud cored by the caterpillar can be seen at right. The somewhat shapeless greenish-white blob of a caterpillar has its tiny brownish head to the left. Ants (species unknown to me) swarm the larva. This batallion will stay with the caterpillar, defending it from would-be insect predators. In return they are rewarded with nutritious "honey dew" secretions from the caterpillar. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Tiny Buck's plume moths, Geina bucksi, dangle from the flower of a poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. These moths, which resemble mosquitoes when in flight, are smitten with milkweed nectar. We saw hundreds of them swarming milkweed flowers on this day. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A ferocious "bumblebee" indeed! A robberfly in the genus Laphria (possibly L. thoracica) perches atop a black ash leaf. It is the consummate bumblebee mimic, and probably is often dismissed as such. When a suitable insect victim wings by, the robberfly whirs into action, overtakes and grabs the victim, and injects it with its hypodermic proboscis. The prey is quickly debilitated by neurotoxins and is taken to a perch to be consumed. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, June 12, 2019.

A female ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata, pauses briefly in a dim forest understory. These dark-winged damselflies are common sights along wooded streams, and are distinctive in their fluttery flight. Seen well, they are marvels of iridescence, as shifting light brings out different colors in the animal's body and wings. Scioto Brush Creek, Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A margined calligrapher, Toxomerus marginatus, taps nectar from the flower of brookweed, Samolus parviflorus. The blossom is only 3mm across, giving scale to the elfin flower fly, which is an excellent bee mimic. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

From afar, this gold-spotted ghost moth, Sthenopsis pretiosus, would be nearly invisible. It hides in plain sight, looking all the world like a bit of dead leaf. Sharp-eyed Laura Hughes spotted it. The caterpillars of this interesting moth eat ferns. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A summer azure, Celastrina neglecta (L) butts heads with a harvester, Feniseca tarquinius. The two butterflies were tapping minerals from moist gravelly ground. Each is no larger than a quarter. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, June 6, 2019.

A northern pearly-eye, Enodia anthedon, regards the photographer from a nearby leaf. I normally find these butterflies tough to shoot. They frequent dim forest understories, and are prone to quickly flushing and then alighting high on a tree trunk, facing downward. Not so this one. It flew right to me as if to demand its photo be taken. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

A pair of six-spotted tiger beetles, Cicindela sexguttata, making more of their kind. These predatory beetles are the cheetahs of the insect world, chasing down lesser bugs with astonishing speed. Scioto County, Ohio, June 16, 2019.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Southern Flying Squirrel Extravaganza!

A southern flying squirrel, in a rare moment of repose. 

I had a rare treat last night, when a friend, Roman Mast, invited me to see an incredible display of southern flying squirrels at his property in north-central Ohio. Roman is into birds, and puts out feeders for the feathered crowd. It didn't take him long, some years back, to realize that come nightfall an army of flying squirrels would descend upon his feeders.

He made some clever tweaks to the feeding operation to facilitate the squirrels (and the squirrel-watchers!), and they've responded to his largesse. While at least a few squirrels visit year round, for a few magical weeks in June/early July, the numbers are over the top. Last night, we estimated 50-70 of the furry gliders were around the feeders. But there's really no way to estimate them very accurately. Flying squirrels are such frenetic balls of energy, racing pell-mell through the trees, and routinely leaping into space to glide to a distant tree, that's it's impossible to keep any sort of tab on them. A possible explanation for this seasonal boom in numbers may be juveniles fresh from the nests. April is apparently a big month for birthing flying squirrels, and they remain under their mothers' care for about six weeks. It's possible that the parents bring the newly active juveniles to Roman's feeders for some easy pickings. As the youngsters become more adept at harvesting wild foods, and are forced to strike out on their own, the numbers of squirrels at the feeders drops.

At times, ten or more animals would be on one tree trunk in the vicinity of the feeders, and a glance into the towering white pines would reveal many others darting about. A hallmark of a flying squirrel is its astonishing ability to glide. A loose flap of skin - the patagium - stretches between fore and hind legs, and when the squirrel launches into space, it flares it legs and becomes a furry wingsuit. Glides in excess of 300 feet are possible, and the squirrel can adeptly jig and jag to avoid limbs and trees. When it's ready to alight, it flips its flat wide tail up vertically, which acts as an airbrake and serves to force its body down and head up. This positions the animal for a graceful landing, and oftentimes upon alighting, it'll race around to the other side of the tree. This may be a behavior designed to thwart owls that might be on their heels.

Flying squirrels are said to be the most common squirrel in wooded regions of eastern North America, including Ohio, and I'd have no reason not to believe it. This animal is so thoroughly nocturnal that few people see them. I do lots of nighttime field work and have done so for years, and I hear their high-pitched twitters and the scrabble of sharp claws on bark all of the time at night. The concentration of squirrels at Roman's place offers a window into their abundance. I don't think, nor does he, that there is anything exceptionally unusual about the overall habitat around his property. A mixture of various ages of deciduous forest interspersed with openings as is common in much of the state, excepting the regions of intense agricultural.

Here's a video from last night's flying squirrel extravaganza.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Five-lined skink

An extraordinary reptile, an older male five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, basks atop the kickrail of the boardwalk at Cedar Bog in Champaign County, Ohio. When young, these lizards are prominently striped, don't yet have the orange head, and sport a conspicuous blue tail. With age, the stripes fade and the body turns a rich bronzy-brown, and that amazing orangish coloration develops.

Many a person has had their first exposure to a lizard (in Ohio!) at Cedar Bog. Five-lined skinks are common there, and frequent the boardwalk, or logs and stumps along the trail. Ohio is probably not considered a hotspot for lizards, but several species are locally common, including this one.

Five-lined skinks, like most of our other lizards, can be quite arboreal. I imaged this one on June 2, during a photography workshop at Cedar Bog led by Debbie DiCarlo and myself. It climbed high in a hackberry, pausing along the way to regard our group. The first image was shot the day before. This seems to be a very good year for skinks at the "bog", and if you go, you're probably going to see some. Along with scores of other interesting fauna, and flora.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Who foots the bill for conservation?

Many of us have seen this sign, which a landowner across from Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (northwest Ohio) puts up every spring when thousands of birders descend on the region. I'm with the sign-poster - buy those stamps! - but the clear implication is that birders need to do more conservation work (note it doesn't single out any other group, only birders). Anyone with a foot in conservation and natural history has heard, probably scores of times, that it is hunters who pay the bill for conservation. I've seen that in print articles several times recently. And adamantly disagree with the contention that the hunting and fishing communities support the bulk of conservation work,

I don't dispute that hunters/anglers have played an invaluable role in conservation, and still do. But to imply or state outright that they are the primary group doing conservation's heavy lifting is wildly inaccurate. To do so dismisses The Nature Conservancy, an organization that has protected tens of millions of acres in North America and abroad. Scores of local metro parks own and manage many thousands of acres, and many of these agencies are supported by public levies. As hunters constitute only 4-5% of the public, presumably it is the nonhunting conservation community that overwhelmingly supports metro parks, their levies, and all of their conservation work. Along that line, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved passage of the Clean Ohio Fund in 2000 (again, following the demographics, passed by roughly 95% nonhunters). This 400 million dollar program has resulted in the conservation of tens of thousands of acres. Our federal agencies such as the USFWS and other facets of the Dept. of Interior are funded mostly by the general public's tax dollars, as is the EPA, both federally and on the state level. Legions of nonprofit land trusts, museums, arboretums and other land-owning/managing organizations funded primarily if not nearly exclusively by the nonhunting community do wonderfully effective conservation work, collectively on a major scale. At least one study makes a case that the non-hunting public foots the vast majority (94%) of the bill for conservation, when all things are considered:…/uploads/2014/…/SMITH-1.pdf

Yes, hunters/anglers' license fees (which they purchase for the right to physically harvest wildlife, which is held in the public trust) do provide much of the funding to state wildlife agencies. But there is FAR more to North American conservation than just those programs.

My position is not anti-hunter, or pro-birder, or any other biased slant - just an interest in the truth about conservation and its funding. And an interest in seeing all parties, no matter their persuasion, do a better job of uniting to help protect more land. And to see all parties who foot the bill for conservation have a voice at the table. Right now, especially in regards to the latter sentence, that's not the case.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Shooting swallows in flight: Good luck!

As always, click the photo for a larger version

A cliff swallow in repose on a fence wire. The animal is easy enough to photograph like this. When it's on the wing, creating an image is an entirely different matter. The difficulty level rises significantly.

I like wing-shooting (with camera) birds. It's a challenge to be sure, but finding potential subjects is easy. Some species are really pretty simple to nail in flight. Big sluggish flyers like bald eagles, great blue herons, or gulls don't represent a major challenge, other than getting yourself in range.

I shot this classic "blue-bar" rock pigeon this morning. It's the form closest to the wild version, but variation among rock pigeons is staggering. The site where I saw this animal hosts scores of pigeons and the different plumages are seemingly endless.

Anyway, this place has many swallows - barn, mostly, along with a handful of cliff and tree swallows - and these were my primary targets. I shot this pigeon photo partly as an antidote to the frustrations of trying to hit jigging and jagging speedster swallows, and partly because I think pigeons are cool. CLICK HERE for a detailed piece on pigeons that I wrote back in 2008.

I made this image of a zigging barn swallow at top speed inches above the grass last evening. Out of many dozen images taken, I think I kept two. The discard rate is high when trying to make relatively crisp shots of fast-flying songbirds.

Barn swallow hunting over a mowed field

I went back this morning, and the light was considerably better than last evening's overcast conditions, but still not the bright cloudless early morning skies that I hoped for. Abundant natural light is essential, or at least a major asset, when wing-shooting swallows, for reasons I'll list in a bit. While the challenge of obtaining relatively sharp pleasing images of flying swallows is part of the reason I'm on a swallow kick and trying to up my game, there's a better rationale. I mostly try to use my photography for interpretation, and swallows and flight are as interconnected as the Wright Brothers and aircraft. We see these birds more often on the wing than at rest, and their whole stock in trade depends upon their aerial insect-catching prowess. A good wing-shot probably is more revealing of a swallow's nature than any other type of portrayal - it's just tough to get such an image.

A barn swallow banks away from the shooter. Of my go-rounds of the past 24 hours with these birds, this one is probably my favorite.

If you're interested in trying your hand at swallow shooting (or birds in flight, in general), here are a few tips:

1) Find a spot with plenty of birds that tend to use the same area and follow predictable pathways.

2) The faster the lens, the better the odds of photographic strikes. Auto focus is a must, and it has to grab and lock onto the subject quickly. A camera with a fast burst rate is best. I used the Canon 5D IV, which fires about 7-8 rounds a second. A lens - prime or zoom - that is or can reach about 400mm is probably best for this sort of thing. I am fortunate to have recently got my hands on a Canon 400mm f/2.8 II lens, and it has me rethinking birds on the wing shooting. It's phenomenal, but plenty of other lenses can work.

3) Camera settings: Use manual mode, auto ISO, and AI Servo drive mode. When the shutter is half-depressed in AI Servo, it stays locked on and tracks the moving subject, as long as the camera is kept on the subject. Back-button focusing is far better; if you're unfamiliar with that, CLICK HERE. If your camera allows for a range of focus point options, pick the center point and a block of four surrounding points. Creating a small tight block of focus points increases the likelihood of a hit, but having all of them activated means that your camera would likely grab some object other then the bird. If your focus point options are limited, select the center point only. You'll probably have to dial in a fair bit of exposure compensation. I was at about +1 for these images. Shoot the camera wide-open or close to it. I made these at f/2.8, but had light allowed for it, I would have stopped down to f/4. Shutter speed has to be really fast, as in somewhere between 1/2000 and 1/4000. The ISO value should be displayed in your viewfinder and keep an eye on it. If mine reaches 1600 or so I'll usually try and rein it in by lowering the shutter speed - and/or opening the lens more if possible. I much prefer an ISO under 1000 but that's not always possible. This is why abundant ambient light is best for doing this sort of shooting. The more light that enters the lens, the faster the shutter speed at a lower ISO.

4) Hand-holding is best. It's easier than trying to smoothly track an erratic fast-flying bird with a tripod-mounted rig. Needless to say, make sure your lens' image stabilization is turned on.

5) Pick up the bird WAY out, lock focus on it, and track it as it moves your way. When the bird gets near, hold the shutter down and fire away. Pan as smoothly as possible, trying to keep focus locked. Swallows are tough, though, as they're prone to sudden jigs and jags that make them impossible to accurately track. The good thing is swallows are relatively fearless and will routinely fly near to people, so a good locale should yield plenty of chances.

6) Spray away whenever a bird presents itself. Your keeper rate won't be good, but if you get one or two nice shots out of a hundred, that's quite a feat and you'll have a decidedly uncommon image.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Showy lady's-slippers nearing peak bloom!

Today was a gorgeous early summer day in central Ohio, and Debbie DiCarlo and I spent it teaching/guiding a photographic workshop at the incomparable Cedar Bog about 45 minutes west of Columbus. I've written about this place many times, as Cedar Bog is so rich in biodiversity. It's full of rarities, both plant and animal. There is always lots to see, especially this time of year, and the place is a photographer's dream. We had a wonderful group of eleven photographers today, and it's always rewarding to expose people to this gem of a place for the first time. Many wonderful photos were made at the bog on this day.

But one organism - a plant! - trumps all else, and it's nearing peak bloom now. I'd say mid to late this week the collective population will be at its best, and will still look good through the weekend and for a bit beyond. You'd do your inner psyche good to pay a visit, and be sure to take a camera. While the jumbo orchids will steal the show, there's tons of other stuff to see, including the very interesting five-lined skink. These lizards seem to be doing very well, and our group saw a number of them today.

Here's a photo of one of the numerous showy lady's-slippers, from today. Perhaps it can tide you over until you reach the bog yourself, to see it in person.

If you go, and I hope you do, be sure to support the nonprofit Cedar Bog Association, which does most of the heavy lifting in managing Cedar Bog, and providing tremendous public outreach. Among numerous accomplishments, they spearheaded the completion of an amazing new boardwalk last year. It's handicap-accessible and offers a way to commune with the bog without damaging the ecosystem, or getting your feet wet. Becoming a member would be a great way to support local conservation. GO HERE for more info.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Michigan flora and fauna from recent epic foray

A room with a view! This is Lake Nettie, the backdrop for NettieBay Lodge and its complement of cabins. I made this image a few evenings ago, right behind my cabin.

I've just returned from nine days in Presque Isle County, Michigan and vicinity, where I've gone the past ten years. I lead natural history forays, with an emphasis on birds, in conjunction with NettieBay Lodge. You can read about those RIGHT HERE, or use the search box in the top right corner of this page to find much more about past trips. We'll probably be doing one, and if interest warrants, two trips next year. The dates should be set and on the NettieBay Lodge website before long. We'd love to have you along, and feel free to contact Mark or Jackie at the lodge to get on the list, RIGHT HERE.

This year's group poses by Ocqueoc Falls, the largest falls in Michigan's lower peninsula. They may not be Niagaraesque, but are showy and situated in the middle of excellent forested habitat. We always stop here on the final morning of these workshops.

The group of eight (we usually keep it to that number, to better ensure that everyone sees everything) was fantastic. From L to R: your narrator, Jodie (in yellow, hiding like a bittern), Ned, Carolyn, Kay, Sara, Leigh, Bob, Ted, and Vinnie. Mark Schuler, lodge proprietor, took the image.

As a group, we found about 115 species of birds and many other interesting elements of natural history, and we barely left Presque Isle County! I added about 15 other bird species to the list during my pre-trip scouting, and post-trip photography excursions. These forays are essentially three full days: a half-day on either end, and two full days between.

Luxuriant carpets of ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, cloak the banks of the Trout River. High levels of tannins from plants darken the stream's waters.

There cannot be many more (any?) biodiverse Michigan counties than Presque Isle County. Its eastern boundary is Lake Huron and a vast array of boreal habitats. On the western side are the massive jack pine plains, with an entirely different complement of flora and fauna. On one of the full days, we go east, and on the other, west. The two half days are spent visiting interesting nooks and crannies.

A mosquito provides scale to the elfin flowers of bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica. This tiny plant occupies cold calcareous gravelly soils along or near Lake Huron. In a normal spring, it is mostly done by the time we arrive, but this year spring was tardy and plants in general seemed about a week or two behind.

The small ivory flower of nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum, dangles below overarching leaves. It's easy to walk right by these beautiful wildflowers and miss the blooms. This species is locally common in rich woodlands.

A snowshoe hare ponders our group. These big bunnies prefer dense white cedar forests, and when feeling threatened simply disappear into the thick growth. This rabbit put on quite the show, dashing this way and that on the trail and venturing quite close at times. His odd behavior makes me think he was on the trail of a doe.

A gorgeous magnolia warbler peeks from the white cedars. This is a very common breeder here, but they have a penchant for the gloom of thick understory. Only by learning the soft warbled song does one get a sense of their frequency.

No soft warbled songs here! This is a northern waterthrush, a common breeder in swampy woods, alder swamps and the like. Its loud explosive song can be heard from afar, but the birds are tough to see in the well-vegetated quagmires they occupy. This one, at Cheboygan State Park, had a singing perch right along the road.

Even in late May migration is still in full swing this far north, and the late migrants have entered the picture. This is a yellow-bellied flycatcher, a tiny songbird that might be confused for a warbler from afar. Yellow-bellieds are often quite active, flitting and dashing through the dense understory that they typically frequent. I heard about five, but this bird was the only one that I clapped eyes on.

The fabulous alder flycatcher, which always reminds me of a miniature olive-sided flycatcher. It replaces the more southerly willow flycatcher in the north, and is well-named as its primary habitat is alder swamps. The alder's song is an explosive free-beer! and it gives loud pip-pip calls suggestive of the olive-sided flycatcher. Until 1973, this species was lumped with willow flycatcher under the name Traill's flycatcher.

I spotted this American bittern while driving the entrance road to Wilderness State Park, and stopped for some photos. When "hiding", bitterns stick their bill in the air, sway slightly as if blown by the wind, and become one with the cattails. This bird was singing on occasion, a bizarre sound reminiscent of a pump being run under water.

State and Federal agencies have been doing a fantastic job of managing the jack pine plains for Kirtland's warblers, and we see every stage of jack pine succession from new plantings to old-growth. The warblers occupy the pines when they are around five years of age, and quit using the stands when they age to about 20 years. This animal was in a very young stand of five year old jacks - the first year I had seen the warblers in this locale.

A great many other species benefit from Kirtland's warbler management, including clay-colored sparrows. This little fellow belts out his odd song of raspy buzzes from the summit of a young jack pine.

One of our most colorful songbirds, a Nashville warbler sings from an aspen branch. It's a common species in jack pine country, and about every other type of wooded habitat in this region.

A male palm warbler pauses between bouts of song. This animal has occupied a large jack pine plain, with Kirtland's warblers as neighbors. He sang conspicuously from scrubby oaks such as the young white oak in this image, and dead jack pine snags. The bird is an incidental beneficiary of large-scale jack pine management for Kirtland's warblers, as is a large list of other species: badger, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, brown elfin butterfly, black-banded orange moth, upland sandpiper, clay-colored, field, Lincoln's, vesper, and white-throated sparrows, hermit thrush, brown thrasher, merlin, common nighthawk, northern harrier, eastern bluebird, northern flicker, Nashville warbler, indigo bunting, Brewer's blackbird and plenty of others.

Mothapalooza 2019

The sixth Mothapalooza is in the books and it was a smashing good time! Thanks to all of the organizers and volunteers, of which there a...