Saturday, April 20, 2019

Rosyside Dace, in nuptial colors

From L to R, Phil Melillo, Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard, and your narrator inspect a mess of fish hauled from a small stream in southern Ohio's Scioto County.

Last Tuesday was an epic ichthyological day, at least as far as I was concerned. Fish-hunting is something I'm lucky to get in on once or twice a year, and these aquatic forays are always fruitful, and highly educational. And when I say fish-hunting, this isn't bluegills with doughballs or bass with rod and reel. We're nearly always after far more obscure species than that, and the target this day is a fish known to very few.

Our guides were aquatic biologists Kelly Capuzzi and Laura Hughes. You've seen Laura's name in posts here many times, if you are a regular reader. Kelly works with stream surveys and fish routinely as part of her job with the Ohio EPA. And man, does she know the scaly crowd. Back in my early days with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend untold hours afield conducting fish surveys with Dan Rice (who wrote this NEW BOOK) and Ted Cavender. Both of those guys are ichthyological legends, and I never failed to be awed at how they could glance through a seine full of similar minnows and shiners and quickly call out the different species. Deja vu set in after watching Kelly and Laura do the same.

The stream in the first image is a big one, considering the habitat of our primary quarry on this day. We didn't find it in there, but did produce some interesting species including this rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum. It is a male resplendent in its nuptial colors - a gaudy dress it'll only hold for a brief few weeks during the courtship and mating period. Hard as it may be to believe that such an exotic looking creature occupies Ohio streams, rainbow darters are pretty common statewide. It epitomizes the wonders of conducting subsurface aquatic explorations. Streams are full of fascinating creatures, but one must dive in to observe them.

We also hauled up several central stoneroller minnows, Campostoma anomalum. This is a male in breeding condition, flushed with peachy-orange and head beset with pointy tubercles. Apparently this "fish acne" helps male stonerollers win the girl. This fish has big lips. The lower lip is modified into a stiff cartilaginous ridge that it uses to rasp algae from rocks. Stonerollers are very common throughout Ohio, and one of relatively few fish species that tolerates heavy phosphorus loading. This common agricultural pollutant promotes the growth of algae - not good news for most things - but the hardy stonerollers capitalize and make lemonade from lemons.

Ah! This much smaller headwater stream holds today's primary target, which we'll soon get to. One could easily bound across this stream in places, and it's so small that the flow dries to a trickle in the heat of summer. Deeper pools like the one at the bend of the stream in this photo are critical in providing refugia for fish during low water flow. Dense forests along the stream's course ensure a lack of siltation and high water quality.

We were understandably pleased to find several orangethroat darters, Etheostoma spectabile. Here we have a pair - male above, female partially concealed in the rock cobble. The male is in its nuptial finery and we can see the namesake orange throat. Orangethroats are headwater stream specialists and normally occupy tiny streamlets such as this one.

Darters are icing on the cake, but today was principally a dace safari. Dace are small members of the cyprinid family, which includes carp, chubs, dace, minnows and shiners. The five Ohio dace species all inhabit small headwaters streams such as the one in the previous photo. Three species occur in the stream section in the image, or very nearby. This one is a female southern redbelly dace, Chrosomus erythrogaster.

This is a male western blacknose dace, Rhinichthys obtusus, its lateral band infused with rusty orange as it is during breeding season.

Finally, the main target, a long-coveted "life fish" for your narrator, and a stunning creature, the rosyside dace, Clinostomus funduloides. Rosyside dace have a very limited distribution in a handful of stream systems in just four southern counties: Adams, Jackson, Pike and Scioto. They were once thought to be much rarer, but heavy sampling of their (at the time) understudied habitat by the aforementioned Dan Rice and colleagues revealed the rosysides to be more plentiful than thought.

Kelly noted their resemblance to salmon, and I couldn't agree more. Elfin salmonlets. A big one is only a few inches long. These two males are still in breeding condition and it isn't hard to see where their common name is derived.

There are about 62,000 river miles in Ohio. Big rivers like the Maumee, Muskingum, and Scioto get more than their fair share of attention due to their size and conspicuousness. But it's the little headwater streams that do much of the heavy aquatic lifting. They make up nearly 80% of Ohio's river miles, and form and feed the big streams. As we've seen - and this is just a tiny sampler - headwater creeks support an interesting diversity of specialized fishes and other aquatic life. But they are vulnerable to destruction and detrimental impacts. One of the largest rosyside dace populations was wiped out by a highway construction project. Just a week or so ago, in the area that generated this article, I came across an excavator smack in the middle of a headwater stream, dredging rocks which were being hauled out by big dump trucks. Permits? Nah, probably not. Stuff like this goes on all the time, and it's not to the benefit of the streams' rightful occupants.

Major thanks to Kelly, Laura, John and Phil for creating a fascinating natural history foray.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

West Virginia photo workshop! May 6 - 9!

 The iconic mill at Babcock State Park in southern West Virginia.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading what promises to be a fantastic photo foray in one of eastern North America's most scenic regions, the New River Gorge and vicinity in southern West Virginia. We've got two or three open spots, and would love to have you. Dates are May 6 thru 9, and base camp is the charming little town of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Established in 1978, New River Gorge National River in West Virginia encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River. The New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth! It's a rugged, whitewater river that flows through deep and spectacular canyons, carving a deep and long gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. And we will be there to photograph oodles of things - sunrises/sunsets from majestic overlooks to waterfalls and cascades. From showy wildflowers to unique plant species in boreal-type bogs. And yes, the New River Gorge Bridge and the equally famous Glade Creek Grist Mill too!

For workshop details and to register, CLICK HERE.

Mountain streams such as this are commonplace, and you know we'll be photographing some of them.

Mountain gaps as seen from near the summit of Babcock State Park.

A four-toed salamander marches through mosses. This region is very rich in salamanders, birds, plants and other biodiversity. We'll see lots of flora and fauna, and capture much of it with our cameras.

Sunday, April 14, 2019


Marsh-marigold grows in profusion along the banks of Cedar Run. This brook is spring-fed and stays cool year-round. Water cress, Nasturtium officinale, grows in the stream's waters, and occasional clumps of giant-leaved skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, dot the banks. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, yesterday.

Right now is about peak for marsh-marigold at Cedar Bog, but it should look good for the next week or so. It's well worth the trip. For more information about Cedar Bog, CLICK HERE.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Purple Finch

I shot this gorgeous male purple finch yesterday in Adams County, Ohio. These stunning raspberry-colored finches are always a treat to see. Some winters we have plenty, in others it's tough to find one. There are always some purple finches to be had in both spring and fall migration, especially if one is familiar with their soft tok call, often given in flight.

This bird was frequenting feeders at John and Tina Howard's Ohio Star Retreat Center not far from West Union. I had to speak at a conference on Thursday in Clermont County, which isn't too far from the retreat. So, I took the opportunity to go down early and spent all day Wednesday botanizing and photographing in the Ohio River Valley and various Adams and Scioto county hotspots. If time permits, I'll share some of those plant shots later.

John and Tina's retreat is a great place to stay. Nice and neat as a pin, inexpensive, and very convenient to lots of natural history hotspots. As a bonus, John maintains a feeding operation just off the deck which attracts lots of interesting birds. The feathered visitors are quite approachable, and especially towards day's end, the light is great. Two red-headed woodpeckers were also coming in while I was there, along with many other species.

For more info on the Ohio Star Retreat Center, GO HERE.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Nature: Wildflowers rouse from their winter slumber

Spring-beauty, Claytonia virginica, one of Ohio's most common wildflowers/Jim McCormac

April 7, 2019

Jim McCormac

Spring steamrolls north at the rate of about 17 miles a day, leaving a wake awash in green growing things. The floral eruption commences in late February, when the odd flowers of the skunk cabbage thrust from the mire. However, the dam really bursts in April and floods Ohio’s landscape with flowers.

As I write this, the northern plains of Cleveland and Toledo remain unfruited, barren and snowy. Not so along the Ohio River Valley in our southernmost reaches. I was in Adams and Scioto counties on April 1, and wildflowers were busting out everywhere. Take heart, ye people of the northern lands — spring is headed your way and it’s unstoppable.

My visits to various botanical hot spots produced many hardy wildflowers in spite of the morning’s 25-degree frostiness. Dwarf larkspur, Harbinger-of-spring, hepatica, spring-beauty, Virginia bluebells and many others. Two rarities were on my hit list and both were in good floral spirits: goldenstar lily and snow trillium.

Lengthening days and warming soils stir wildflowers from their earthen beds. In the brief window between winter’s end and tree leafout, wildflowers run riot in sun-soaked woodlands. By mid-May or so, emergent leaves have tremendously reduced sunlight penetration to the forest floor, and the wildflower parade peters out.

“Wildflower” is a generic term, but is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “The flower of a wild or uncultivated plant or the plant bearing it.” Most of Ohio’s roughly 1,800 species of native plants would not be thought of as “wildflowers”, but of those that are, the spring wildflowers are the most eagerly sought.

Although the pure aesthetics of vernal flowers bring a joy in itself, these delicate plants do heavy ecological lifting. Legions of tiny bees, beetles, wasps and other insects sync their emergence with that of the flowers. Our native pollinators are often quite finicky about where they take nectar or pollen.

Oligolectic pollinating insects are those that are entirely wedded to one family, genus, or even a single species of plant. Many of our spring wildflowers support such insects. Golden ragwort, Jacob’s ladder, violets, waterleaf, wild geranium, and more all have their dependent specialists. No insect, no plant. No plant, no insect.

The caterpillars of various moths and butterflies, such as Leconte’s haploa moth and fritillary butterflies, feast on wildflower foliage. Only about one percent of these larvae will make it to the reproductive stage. The rest become food for birds and other animals. Nature’s hotdogs, you might say.

Ants play an enormous role in fostering spring flora. Many wildflowers’ seeds are appended with fleshy nutritious growths known as elaisomes. These vegetative steaks lure ants, which cart them off and, ultimately, leave the seed far from its source, thus spreading the plants about.

The above-ground parts of wildflowers ultimately wither and die, and their biomass contributes to building the rich soils of forests. Incomprehensively vast webs of fungi spread throughout this rich humus, forming the loamy framework from which other plants spring.

Spring wildflowers possess an intrinsic value to people that is not quantifiable. Imagine a natural landscape without them. Such a place would be soulless indeed.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife produces a wonderful primer titled Spring Wildflowers of Ohio. This 80-page booklet is free, and available by calling 1-800-WILDLIFE or emailing

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

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Two landscapes

A beautiful sunset forms a colorful palette behind three massive oaks at Glacier Ridge Metro Park in central Ohio. The oaks - all three, I believe - are hybrids between swamp white oak, Quercus bicolor, and bur oak, Q. macrocarpa. Hybridization between various oak species is common, so much so that regularly occurring crosses have been given their own combination name. In this case, it is Quercus x schuettei, Schuette's oak. The hybrid is named in honor of Joachim Henrich Schuette (1821-1908), a German botanist who emigrated to the United States in 1874. His last name is pronounced shoo-tee, so the trees above are "Shoo-tee's oak".

I made this image last night, and was pleased to bear witness to a pair of displaying Wilson's snipe. While snipe court during migration, and these birds may be still headed north, the local wetlands offer good habitat for breeding. Snipe are very rare nesters in Ohio, especially so in the central part of the state, and it would be very noteworthy if these birds remained to nest at Glacier Ridge.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Following the sunset experience above, I headed north to Daughmer Savanna, a relict prairie savanna (not "Savannah"; that's a city in Georgia) in Crawford County. Newly minted Crawford County Parks director Josh Dyer - congrats on the richly deserved post, Josh! - kindly gave me permission to enter the site after dark. I had long wanted to make star photos at this site. The weather prognosticators were calling for clear skies, but as is often the case, they were (somewhat) wrong. By the time I arrived at Daughmer, clouds had rolled in and obscured most stars. I headed out on the path anyway, to enjoy the aural ambience of calling spring peepers, western chorus frogs, wood frogs, and coyotes.

After returning to the car and answering some correspondence, I stepped out for one last look at the heavens. Miraculously, the skies had cleared! I grabbed my gear and went out for photos, including the one above. Click the image to enlarge and see more of the stars. While I love shooting astrophotography, Ohio is just not a great place for it. Light pollution is too pervasive, and even in a somewhat remote place like this lights from distant towns and cities wash the horizon yellow and dim the brilliance of the stars. Nonetheless, I love the setting of the savanna for such shots and saw some perspectives that I would like to shoot during future nocturnal excursions.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Nature: Nest boxes helped bring back wood ducks

A wood duck, Aix sponsa, in Killbuck Marsh, Wayne County/Jim McCormac

March 31, 2019

Jim McCormac

A male wood duck is a startling sight, resplendent in a rainbow palette artfully patched together. The bird verges on gaudy but is too elegant to merit any descriptor that hints at tastelessness. It’s as if Picasso himself had been commissioned by Mother Nature to create a feathered masterpiece.

On a recent visit to the largest inland wetland complex in Ohio, the Killbuck Valley near Wooster, I saw scores of wood ducks. Migration was in full swing, and local nesters were augmented by migrants. The colorful drakes glittered in the sun and chased brown hens.

Such an abundance of “woodies” was not always the case. Some ornithologists were predicting eminent extinction for the gorgeous species by the early 20th century. Widespread destruction of forested wetlands critical to fostering wood ducks was the major culprit in declines. The disappearance of beaver, which created great habitat, and unregulated overhunting also played roles.

Our forests have recovered significantly during the past 50 years, and forest-dependent animals such as wood ducks have gained ground. Careful regulation of bag limits has eliminated hunting as a source of decline. Beavers are once again common, and the furry engineers are busily creating wetland habitat.

A huge factor in wood duck population spikes is the erection of nest boxes on an epic scale. This duck is one of seven species of North American fowl that nests in cavities. Before human intervention, woodies used natural cavities in trees such as beech and sycamore. Old nest holes created by pileated woodpeckers were especially important breeding sites.

In 1937, biologists with the U.S. Biological Survey (predecessor to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) hit on the idea of creating artificial cavities. The wood duck nest box was hatched, and it has had an enormously positive impact on Woodie conservation. Thousands of boxes dot North American wetlands, helping to spawn legions of fuzzy ducklings.

As an aside, these boxes have promoted spikes in incidental beneficiaries. Hooded mergansers often use them, as do eastern screech-owls, great crested flycatchers and prothonotary warblers.

The ducklings might appreciate the typically low altitude of nest boxes. Within a day of hatching, the youngsters are goaded to leap from the cavity by their mother. If the nest hole is 70 feet up in a sycamore, that’s quite a plunge. Nonetheless, the downy featherweights bounce harmlessly off the forest floor and are promptly marched to the nearest water by the hen.

In about two months, the youngsters will take flight. With a bit of practice, they’ll become one of the duck world’s most extraordinary aerialists. Aided by a long rudderlike tail, wood ducks are agile flyers able to dart and weave through thickly treed woodlands and deftly decelerate to enter small nest holes.

Artistic renderings of wood ducks have graced the federal “duck stamp” three times since its inception in 1934. Formally known as the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting & Conservation Stamp, purchasing a stamp is required for waterfowl hunters. Because duck stamp sales have done so much to conserve habitat, many non-hunters also buy them.

To date, duck stamps have raised about $800 million. Ninety-eight percent of this revenue goes to habitat protection, which equates to nearly 6 million acres. Much of that habitat helps wood ducks and myriad other creatures.

For duck stamp 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