Sunday, January 27, 2019

Northern harrier, hunting voles

A long abandoned farmstead haunts the Pickaway Plains, a former swath of prairie that covered parts of Pickaway and Ross counties in central Ohio. A meeting today took me to southern Ohio's Adams County, which meant driving right by this place. I couldn't resist a stop in the early morning light for photos. And a quick drive through of the adjoining 1,000 acre conservation reserve program grassland. Didn't see much in the morning due to limited time, but I'd stop by here again on my way home, in late afternoon.

The afternoon visit was much more productive for birds. At least four northern harriers, like the male above, were hunting the grasslands. Harriers are often quite wary of people, and will veer off before getting into effective camera range. This one gave me one pass and I tried to make the most of it.

An immature bald eagle flew overhead, and a lone light-morph rough-legged hawk worked the grasslands. It was later harassed by a peregrine falcon that seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Am American kestrel or two perched on wires, and I saw at least thirty ring-necked pheasants. They reproduce well at this site and are quite wary. It was a productive hour or so, but by the time I left at dusk the mercury was plunging into the high teens.

A reminder: If you want to take lots of birds photos and learn lots of techniques, Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a trip to a MUCH warmer place: South Florida in late February. A good time to escape frigid northern climes. All the details are RIGHT HERE.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Country cemetery, in fog and rain

A meeting took me to The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, the other day, a landscape that I always enjoy spending time in. After the work was over, I set out on a photographic expedition, naturally. It was rainy with leaden skies, and towards mid-afternoon an eerie fog set in. This led to many excellent photo ops, and perhaps I will share some of my other works from that day later.

As I was leaving the area at dusk, I passed by Mt. Zion Cemetery, a small rural burial ground that caps a rounded knob. Between the gray skies, snowy ground, and eerie mist, the scene stopped me in my tracks. In I went, umbrella overhead in an attempt to keep the camera gear dry. Working my way over to the oldest part of the cemetery, this composition eventually presented itself. Rendering the scene in black and white seemed to be appropriate. This was shot with the Canon 5DSR and Canon's excellent 16-35mm f/4 lens, at 16mm. Settings: f/16, ISO 200. Five successive shots were made, altering shutter speed to change exposure, with the longest exposure 3.2 seconds. The images were merged using Photoshop's HDR program.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Nature: Sycamore tree is a towering presence in nature

A gargantuan sycamore arches over the Olentangy River at Highbanks Metro Park/Jim McCormac

January 20, 2019

Jim McCormac

... just as we came to the hills, we met with a sycamore ... of a most extraordinary size, it measuring ... forty-five feet round …

George Washington described an enormous sycamore tree that he encountered on his 1770 expedition to the Ohio River Valley. Such gargantuan trees were commonplace in those days. Hollow specimens were sometimes used as temporary dwellings. A particularly notable tree was along the Scioto River in Pike County. Its hollowed base was long used as a blacksmith shop.

Although a few sylvan colossi (giant trees) can still be found, there are far fewer than in Washington’s day. The largest known extant Ohio sycamore is in Ashland County, and it’s a whopper: 36 feet in girth, 124 feet in height and a crown spread of 88 feet.

The sycamore is a classic riparian tree, lining the banks of streams. Pale-white trunks, spackled with a patchwork of flaky brown bark, makes identification easy. The trees stand out especially well in winter when there are no leaves to mask the ghostly trunks.

The sycamore is a classic riparian tree, lining the banks of streams. Pale-white trunks, spackled with a patchwork of flaky brown bark, makes identification easy. The trees stand out especially well in winter when there are no leaves to mask the ghostly trunks.

Central Ohioans are fortunate to live in proximity to many exceptional streams, and sycamores are common along all of them. An especially noteworthy sycamore conservatory is a stretch of the Olentangy River from Interstate 270 north through Highbanks Metro Park. This watery avenue of the giants boasts scores of big trees.

I made the accompanying image at Highbanks, and walking the Scenic River Trail or hiking the Overlook Trail to the observation deck will offer views of many impressive sycamores. Bald eagles have built a magnificent nest in a huge sycamore, and it can be seen from the deck.

As wildlife trees go, it’s hard to top a sycamore. Barred and great horned owls nest in their cavities. Myriad songbirds forage among the branches. One of them, the yellow-throated warbler, is so tightly wedded to this tree that it was formerly named the sycamore warbler.

Scores of vegetarian insects feast on sycamore foliage. A number of them are obligate specialists — they can feed only on sycamores. Two such moths, the drab prominent and sycamore tussock moth, have especially striking caterpillars.

Because of the bounty of valuable bugs produced by sycamores, migrant birds flock to the trees. It is possible that the huge tree in the photo has graced nearly 100 species of birds in its boughs, attracted by food, shelter or its utility as a perch.

As if to reinforce the tree’s avian value, a giant pileated woodpecker landed on a snag high in the tree’s crown while I took the photo.

Sycamores lord over a host of riverside trees: our namesake Ohio buckeye, silver maple, cottonwood, box elder and others. Their collective root systems form a subterranean snarl that holds soil in place and prevents erosion. Overarching branches shade and cool water, creating a healthier environment for fish and other aquatic life.

Trees help protect our waterways from terrestrial pollution, filtering contaminants out before they reach the water. Many streams in heavily agricultural regions have been transformed into treeless ditches that shunt pesticides and fertilizers downstream with great rapidity. Decimating riparian forests is a major contributor to the ongoing plague of toxic algae in Lake Erie and other waterbodies.

Protecting bottomland forests and the sycamores that come with them is one of the greatest boons to conservation and human health that we can do.

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, January 18, 2019

"Winter Wonderland" photo workshop produces some wonders!

Debbie DiCarlo and I just concluded our 2nd annual "Winter Wonderland" photo workshop (more on our workshops RIGHT HERE) in southeastern Ohio's gorgeous Hocking Hills. Last year's event was more springlike than wintry, with no snow and scarcely an icicle to be found. But, the water levels in streams were high and the myriad waterfalls looked as photogenic as I've ever seen them.

This workshop just past lived up to its name. Snow and ice was everywhere, and cliff faces were draped with icicles and various fantastic ice formations. Tree branches and limbs were dusted with snow, and hemlock boughs were capped in the fluffy white stuff. Our group was great, and we saw many interesting sites and everyone made lots of nice images. By the way, if you seek a fantastic bird-filled WARM photo workshop, take a look at our February "Birds of Florida" trip RIGHT HERE.

While scouting the day prior to the workshop, we came across this trio of fine horses in a snowy field and couldn't resist stopping for a few photos. At least one of them is heavy with foal.

A scene along the gorge at Old Man's Cave. Landscapes like this were everywhere, and it was hard to leave this place, one of the most scenic areas anywhere in the Midwest. This shot shows a big hemlock tree that recently crashed into the gorge from its perch on the rim above. Hemlocks are shallowly rooted, and when weighted by snow and ice, very vulnerable to blow-downs.

Invigorated by snow meltwaters, a carpet of common polypody ferns, Polypodium vulgare, cloaks the upper reaches of a sandstone cliff.

Conkles Hollow is always a sensational place to visit, and especially so in winter. Added bonus: far fewer people. Here, a fantastic series of icicle formations cascades down a tall cliff face.

A perk, and something absolutely new to all our attendees, was the supra-nivean (supra = above; nivean = snow) insects. Above is a winter stonefly. The larvae live in streams, and come the dead of winter, the adults emerge and head out onto the snow's surface to seek mates. It was about 30 F when I made this image, and the stoneflies were numerous and even flying about.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Giant sycamore

A gargantuan sycamore arches over the black waters of the Olentangy River, its gnarled boughs scraping the sky. This section of the river is a watery avenue of the giants, lined with many massive sycamores, one of which hosts a bald eagle nest. I made this image yesterday, along the Scenic River Trail in Highbanks Metro Park, Delaware County, Ohio.

Friday, January 11, 2019

And now for something completely different... light-painting!

A friend of mine has recently become fascinated with various forms of photographic light-painting, and after seeing some of her work, I asked for tutelage. That led to several hours of practice in an improvised darkroom last Monday, and I became hooked. We returned this morning for more attempts, and honed some interesting techniques.

While these sorts of images don't have much to do with the natural history fare that I usually post here, they do help my growth as a photographer. I love shooting nearly every imaginable subject and style, at least those that I have thus far crossed paths with. I think experimentation out of one's bread & butter imagery ultimately helps with thinking out of the box, and will lead to overall better photos no matter the subject.

Anyway, following are some of these recent light-painting creations. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Northern mockingbird defends multiflora rose bush!

Yesterday marked the date of the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count (CBC), and as for the past many years, I was there. It was my fifth and final CBC of the season, which is about an annual average for me. For what it's worth, I've done nearly 130 CBC's in total. That's a lot of bird counts, but I started when I was pre-driver's license kid. Still have a ways to go to catch the all-time Ohio CBC record holder, which is Ernie Limes, who participated in a remarkable 246!! counts. If I stick to my current pace, it would take about 24 years to surpass Ernie's record. Hmmm, we shall see, but it is certainly possible.

Anyway, enough of trivial record-setting braggadocio, and on to something interesting as pertains to yesterday's CBC...

A Google Earth snap of a remote section of Hocking County. This spot is in my assigned section of the Hocking Hills CBC, and I check it every year. The red circle outlines two robust multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) shrubs. Upon pulling into that entrance lane just right of the circle, I met the protagonist of this blog piece.

My helper this year was Kim Smith, from the northerly land of Toledo. It was her first time in the Hocking Hills region, and I think she was enthralled with the forests, meadows, and rolling to rough hills of this country. Not to mention the overall birdiness of the region. You can check her blog out RIGHT HERE.

A northern mockingbird rules over the thorny shrubs from a sprig arching high over his fruit-laden plants. He scarcely blinked when we pulled in next to him. Mockingbirds are hardly shrinking violets, and the animal was not particularly bothered by our arrival.

The mockingbird jumped to this nearby rusting gate at one point, the better to eye the new arrivals. However, he was far more interested in a nearby large pack of eastern bluebirds. A dozen or more of the gorgeous open-country thrushes were feeding nearby, but the bluebirds also indicated interest in the mockingbird's rose-hip rich rose shrubs. The mimic was having none of that, and occasionally tore after the "gentle" little thrushes, making it clear who ruled this rosy roost. Bluebirds, avid frugivores that they are, would relish the chance to plunder the mockingbird's larder. Good luck to them with that - a mockingbird is about ten times more aggressive and hostile than even the meanest bluebird. Our Mimus polyglottos easily kept the bluebirds at bay, even outnumbered as he was.

When not fending off interlopers, the mockingbird entered the thorny depths of the large rose bushes and picked off rose hips. The small fruit are nutritious and keep well over winter. Many fruit-eating birds relish them.

Multiflora rose, as you are probably aware, is not native to North America. It is indigenous to eastern Asia, but was introduced and naturalized in North America long ago. It apparently first arrived in the 1860's for use as an ornamental. By the 1930's, its use as an erosion control plant and wildlife resource was widely encouraged. Forewarnings regarding the rose's invasive nature were being sounded by the 1960's, but various governmental agencies and other organizations pushed the plant's alleged virtues well past that time.

There is certainly far less multiflora rose around these days - at least in Ohio - and there are several reasons for its decline. The upshot is that less multiflora rose is a good thing for outcompeted native plants and habitats, and no one should miss it. But as is often the case, even thorns have their roses, and a positive of this plant is that certain bird species do benefit from its fruit and dense cover. Mockingbirds and wintering white-crowned sparrows are two notables, and whenever I come across multiflora rose hedges in winter, I can usually expect to find some interesting birds.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Native plants, animals thrive at Dawes Arboretum

An ancient tractor overlooks a wintry landscape at Dawes Arboretum/Jim McCormac

December 30, 2018

Jim McCormac

Native plants, animals thrive at Dawes Arboretum

The night of April 18, 1775, was pivotal to America’s independence. That evening, three horsemen rode a breakneck mission to alert colonial minutemen of the approach of British troops. William Dawes was one of these riders, along with Samuel Prescott. Their roles were overshadowed historically by the third rider, Paul Revere.

Forewarned, Americans were ready, and open battle erupted the following day. The brutal American Revolutionary War eventually claimed the lives of perhaps 70,000 patriots but ultimately won America its emancipation from Great Britain.
One of Dawes’ great grandsons was Rufus Dawes, who became a Civil War hero and Ohio Congressman. Noble blood spawns great men, and one of Rufus’ sons was Beman Gates Dawes, born in 1870 in Marietta.

Beman went on to become a leading industrialist and two-term Ohio congressman. Eventually putting down roots in Central Ohio, in 1917 Dawes and his wife Bertie purchased a 140-acre farm just south of Newark which they branded “Daweswood.”

The farm served the Dawes’ interest in horticulture, and they began acquiring and growing plants from far and wide. In 1929 they created a foundation to oversee the farm’s transformation into an official arboretum, and Dawes Arboretum was born.

Today, the arboretum has mushroomed to nearly 2,000 acres, and hosts 270,000 visitors annually. They come to see a botanical wonderland filled with some 17,000 specimen plants.

While ornamental gardens and stunning horticultural specimens are part of Dawes’ allure, the conservation of native flora is a major part of the mission. Much of the property is wild woodlands, meadows and wetlands populated with indigenous plants.

The emphasis on conservation of native landscapes has created a de facto wildlife refuge. Well over 500 species of native plants enrich the grounds – nearly one-third of the state’s total flora. Native plants are the building blocks that grow animals, and to date, 203 bird species have been documented – nearly half of all species ever seen in Ohio.

Thirty-seven mammals have been recorded, 15 reptile species and 23 amphibians, 44 kinds of dragonflies, and staggering numbers of butterflies and moths.

I made a visit to Dawes Arboretum last week, and their world class holly garden was my destination. At this season, the hollies are bedecked with showy scarlet drupes, which are irresistible to fruit-eating birds. The eastern bluebird in the accompanying photo and scores of his comrades were plundering these hollies.

Birders have long been drawn to Dawes. Some major rarities have surfaced here, including a black-throated gray warbler found by Scott Albaugh on April 17, 2002. It was one of few Ohio records. More recently, a Harris’s sparrow was found. This species has the distinction of being one of three species that breed only in Canada, and it’s an unusual stray this far to the east.

More important than avian vagrants are local nesters, and Dawes supports dozens of breeding birds. Crow-sized pileated woodpeckers are common, as are barred owls, red-tailed hawks, and numerous songbirds. The restored Dutch Fork wetlands have hosted nesting sora and Virginia rails. Birds are always a conspicuous part of the Dawes landscape.

Dawes Arboretum is one of the most important biological hotspots in Central Ohio, and it’s a beautiful place that’s steeped in history. For more information, visit:

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