Monday, May 27, 2019

Michigan revisited

A male Brewer's blackbird sings from an old jack pine snag. I found a small colony of about ten birds breeding in Kirtland's warbler country, in northern Montmorency County, Michigan.

I'm up here for about my tenth year in a row, leading natural history trips from NettieBay Lodge in the incredibly biodiverse Presque Isle County, Michigan. We've got a great group and have been having lots of fabulous observations. Yesterday we explored Lake Huron habitats, and today it was the jack pine country on the other end of the county. We're over 110 species of birds thus far, and many interesting mammals, plants, insects, and more.

A burly porcupine comes at your narrator. I came up two days before the group, to scout. I had great luck with porkies, and have seen about eight so far. This one was very approachable.

Last night's excursion was epic, with common nighthawks doing their booming display over the young jack pine country, several close range eastern whip-poor-wills singing, and displaying American woodcock, all in earshot of each other.

I'll probably have some more posts and pics from northern Michigan.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

White Slantline: The "Mayapple Moth"

A colony of mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, in an Ohio woodland in mid-April. This common wildflower is easily distinguished, in flower or not, by its distinctive deeply cleft umbrella-like leaves. A patch such as in this photo is likely a clone. The plant quite successfully spreads by rhizomes, forming extensive colonies.

When at rest on a wall near a nightlight, this moth cannot be missed. Its ivory coloration makes it stick out like a sore thumb. The white slantline, Tetracis cachexiata, derives its name from its pair of conspicuous orangish-yellow lines that adorn the wings. A common enough species, the caterpillars of white slantline feed on a wide variety of woody plants common to eastern forests. The adult moth has an interesting relationship with mayapple flowers.

Come May, the curious waxy-white flowers of mayapple open. They're held on an elongate pedicel below the overarching leaves, and although of notable size, can be missed due to the leafy canopy that overarches them.

Mayapple flowers do not produce nectar, and savvy pollinators apparently quickly catch on that no rewards are to be reaped by visits. It has been shown that mayapples that grow near or among a profusion of other spring wildflowers up their chances of pollinator visits. The other nectiferous flowers lure plenty of bees, beetles, wasps and other nectar-seeking insects, some of which are likely to investigate the mayapple flowers.

The white slantline moth also visits mayapple flowers, but without expectation of any reward other than a camouflaged environment. I first saw these moths roosting on mayapple flowers in May 2007 in southern Ohio, and have been looking for them on flowers ever since. No luck, until yesterday...

While hiking a trail in the Hocking Hills, I glanced over at a mayapple flower, and Voila! There it was, a beautiful white slantline tented around the stamens of a mayapple flower. I found three moths similarly situated, all in a small area. The mayapple flowers were mostly past, and that may have upped my chances as the moths' floral hiding spots were few and far between. I'm told white slantlines also roost on flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, flowers, but given the profusion of blossoms on one of these trees, finding a moth would be quite the needle-in-a-haystack search.

Selection of these flowers as a daytime hiding spot could largely be attributed to camouflage, but I have to wonder if the moths do provide some pollination services. It's reasonable to assume that some pollen might adhere to their fuzzy bodies, and could be transferred to other plants. Whatever the case, it is a very cool spectacle to encounter, and keep an eye on those mayapple flowers.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: Shooting these moths was tough. Overcast skies, vigorous breezes, and deep woods conspired to reduce light tremendously and create movement of the subject. Flash would be an obvious solution, and I made a number of shots using artificial light. I wasn't particularly happy with any of the latter. While the flash-aided shots were sharp, and mostly blacked out the background, they created a harshness and sharp-edged look to the soft white subjects. Even muting the light's intensity to soft fill-flash levels didn't render much that I liked, but I should go revisit these and see what can be done. Anyway, the moth shot above was made with the Canon 5DSR and Canon's 180mm macro lens, with no flash, at f/11, 1/25, and ISO 1600 (way too high for my tastes). The rig was stabilized on a tripod and I shot in Live View so there was no mirror movement. I also used high speed burst, and when the plant would stop moving for a second I'd fire off a bunch of rounds. Some of the results were fairly sharp.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Nature: Spread of humanity taking toll on songbirds

A male chestnut-sided warbler forages in new oak foliage/Jim McCormac

May 19, 2019

Jim McCormac

Each spring, a migration of epic proportions takes place. Songbirds of many species return to nest in Ohio, or pass through on a long journey to points north. Their ranks include many favorites such as orioles, swallows, tanagers and warblers.

Most of our highly migratory songbirds are neotropical — species that breed at northerly latitudes but winter in tropical haunts. That Baltimore oriole whose flashy orange-and-black plumage and cheery flutelike whistling you enjoy wintered in Costa Rica or elsewhere in Central America. If you’re lucky enough to lock eyes on a neon-red scarlet tanager, marvel in the knowledge that it likely travels more air miles annually than you do. Tanagers mostly winter in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Long-distance travelers such as these make up a big chunk of our songbird diversity. There are about 135 species of songbirds that occur annually in Ohio (this excludes many species of non-songbirds, or nonpasserines). Of them, 70 species, or just over half, spent the winter south of the U.S. border.

About 100 species of songbirds nest in Ohio. More than half of them, about 55 species, are neotropical migrants. It would be unfair to think of such birds as “Ohio” birds. They belong to the Americas, as their passage takes them through potentially many countries and numerous states. Some birds occupy their wintering grounds far longer than the breeding grounds. For instance, orchard orioles and prairie warblers arrive to nest in mid- to late April. The males, who depart before females, start reappearing in the Caribbean and Central America by the end of July.

Our largest family of songbirds is the warblers, and they are the most popular group among birders. Thirty-seven species pass through Ohio or remain to nest every year. Collectively, all these warbler species wintered in nearly every country south of the U.S., with the lion’s share in Central America — the locus of their evolutionary origin.

Warblers, in general, are not faring well. The chestnut-sided warbler pictured with this column is an exception. John James Audubon, the energetic naturalist/ornithologist who roved widely throughout eastern North America, encountered this species only once. He shot five chestnut-sided warblers in May 1808 near Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, but never saw another.

Today this bird is far more common, a beneficiary of clearing of primeval forests, which created lots of scruffy woodlands that the bird favors.

A more typical trajectory is that of the cerulean warbler, the totem of the Ohio Ornithological Society. Its numbers have plummeted by 80% over the past five decades. Mass cutting of the old-growth woodlands that it favors is a major cause of decline.

Burgeoning human populations have made life much more difficult for migratory songbirds. In 1800, only about 1 billion people occupied the planet. Today, there are more than 7.7 billion of us, and much of that growth has been in the Americas. We’ve destroyed habitat, erected a gauntlet of skyscrapers, wind turbines and transmission towers that many birds strike, and unleashed hordes of feral cats. All of these things and more have taken a big toll on songbirds.

I penned this column last Sunday, International Migratory Bird Day. Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on Lake Erie, near Toledo, is a hub of birding activity. Tens of thousands of birders descend on Magee’s fabled “Bird Trail” during April and May.

Birds are environmental barometers, and as they fare, so probably shall we, eventually. The more people watching birds the better, as birds are a great catalyst to promote environmental protection.

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, May 15, 2019

Cedar Bog macro/rare flora and fauna photo workshop!

Debbie DiCarlo and I will be repeating last year's one-day Cedar Bog photo workshop on June 3. This is a Monday, but we chose that day as the center is closed to the public and we'll pretty much have the bog to ourselves. We'll start with a PowerPoint overview of the finer points of macrophotography, then head out of the visitor's center and onto the boardwalk where numerous floral and faunal riches await. Chief among them is the spectacular showy lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae, which should be in peak bloom. We'll not only learn more about photographic techniques, but also lots about rare fen habitats and the species that occur in these specialized peatlands. We have space for a few more participants. Read on for a brief blurb about the workshop, and a link to register.

Orchids and More!
June 3, 2019

The amazing Cedar Bog harbors some of the richest botanical diversity in Ohio. There is probably a greater density of rare plants there than any other site in the state. While the name is Cedar “Bog”, this interesting wetland is actually a fen, which is a type of wetland fed by cold artesian springs. A mile long boardwalk traverses the best of Cedar Bog’s 400+ acres, making exploration easy. The botanical highlight will be showy lady’s-slipper, a huge spectacular orchid with pink and white flowers. We will see much more, though: scads of other beautiful plants, many of them rare, unusual dragonflies, butterflies, and interesting birds, all in scenery reminiscent of northern Michigan or Canada. Jim is an expert on “the bog”, having formally studied its flora and published a scientific paper on the plants. This will be an excellent opportunity to learn about the natural history of one of Ohio’s most unusual ecosystems.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Rosy Maple Moth, in hiding

Just returned from a fabulous photography workshop led by Debbie DiCarlo and yours truly, in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia. Our group was wonderful, and we were confronted with numerous excellent photo ops at nearly every turn.

Hard to beat this one for its Seuss-like fantasy, though. A rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, hides among fresh red maple samaras (seeds). These moths, when seen in the open, cannot be missed. When among maple samaras, their bold pink and yellow coloration and samara-like shape render them nearly invisible. Hint: lower right corner of the image.

Our workshops produce treasure troves of natural history, and are a great way to learn more about natural history, in addition to honing your photography skills. This year's slate of workshops is RIGHT HERE, and we'd love to have you join our Focus on Photography Facebook page, HERE.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

New River Birding & Nature Festival

Cathedral Falls, Glen Ferris, West Virginia. The waters of Cane Branch tumble 60 feet over a series of cascades, and soon merge with the New River.

As for the past 14 or 15 years, I'm down here in Fayetteville, West Virginia for the New River Birding & Nature Festival. We have a great time, and are dazzled with a stunning array of flora and fauna. The New River and local Appalachian mountains harbor some of eastern North America's richest biodiversity. Field trips are the bread and butter of the event, and organizers Rachel Davis, Keith Richardson, Geoff Heeter and Paul Shaw bring in some of the best guides in the industry (present company possibly excluded).

This gorgeous little bird, clad in ocher earth tones, is one of the area's most coveted species. It is a Swainson's warbler, one of the rarest of our warblers. It occupies visually stunning habitats: mountain streams hemmed in by dense great rhododendron thickets overlain with hemlock and birch overstory. The bird's piercing whistled song slices through the dense vegetation and reveals their presence.

I photographed this animal on our trip today. It was one of 19 species of warblers, which were among the 73 species that we found on this excursion. A personal highlight was the nest of a least flycatcher. The birds, at least the female, was busily constructing it. She had placed the nest right in the fork of a red maple, by the trunk and about 25 feet off the ground. Unless you saw her fly in to it, as sharp-eyed Alma Lowery did, you'd not spot the nest in a million years so well did it blend with the tree.

The festival takes place every spring in late April/early May. If you like birds and nature, you'd love this event. CLICK HERE for the details.