Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Midwest Native Plant Conference 2019

Beautiful original artwork, courtesy of artist Ann Geise of Cincinnati, featuring the 2019 Midwest Native Plant Conference's conference plants: coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, and wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Keeping with the conference end goal of connecting flora and fauna, a hummingbird moth is included.

The weekend past saw the 11th iteration of the Midwest Native Plant Conference. As for the past ten years, it was held at Bergamo Center on the grounds of Mount St. John in western Greene County, Ohio. I don't see us moving the conference in the foreseeable future even though demand exceeds carrying capacity. The facilities are great, there is onsite lodging, and the 150 acres of grounds is rich in native flora and biodiversity.

We have a "problem" most conference organizers would envy. The event sells out within a day of registration opening. As we would like to be able to host everyone that wishes to attend, but can't, this year we re-jiggered some room logistics and were able to accommodate about 35 additional attendees. That enabled about 220 people to come, plus around 30 volunteers - the latter the lifeblood of this all-volunteer run event. The conference runs like a well-oiled machine and that's due to all of the wonderful people who work year-round and at the event to ensure things go smoothly.

Over the decade+ of the conference, we've raised over $100,000, which has been donated to Ohio-centric conservation causes, most of which are involved in acquisition and conservation of natural lands, such as the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, Cedar Bog, and The Nature Conservancy.

This photo and the next two are from the Midwest Native Plant Conference's Facebook page.

The main hall in Bergamo Center is packed for one of our keynotes. We are fortunate in being able to attract outstanding speakers well-versed in the world of native flora. This year's slate featured Tavia Cathcart-Brown, Nancy Stranahan, Steve McKee, and Julie Zickefoose, plus a host of excellent breakout speakers. This year's complete speaker roster can be seen HERE.

The aforementioned Ann Geise, who has done our conference artwork since year one. She is also a conference vendor, along with many others and a raft of native plant vendors. Ann's obviously been hugely helpful to the conference, as has our planning committee, which currently consists of Yvonne Cecil, Alan Duffy, Lisa M. Ruschmann, Yvonne Dunphe, Ann Geise, Teri Gilligan, Scott Hogsten, Ned Keller, Randy Lakes, Diana and John Malas, Jim McCormac, Kathy McDonald, Cathy Plum, Joyce Pontius, Mike Shade and Debi Wolterman.

I would be remiss in not giving big thanks to the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. I've been going there to speak on occasion starting over 15 years ago, and it didn't take me long to ponder a similar event in Ohio. The Millersville conference is approaching its third decade, and is large, well run, and superb about promoting the importance of native flora - before many people were. Our original Midwest Native Plant Conference committee initially convened about 12 years ago, pulled off our first event the following year and the rest is history. An original committee member is Kathy McDonald and she has operated as our conference CEO ever since. She's the glue that binds the large complex event together.

A staple of the conference is vendors of native flora. The lane in front of Bergamo Center is lined with sophisticated sellers of natives, and attendees can find plenty of cool plants including species quite hard to find. On Saturday, we open the sale to the general public to further our reach and the sales of vendors' wares.

A big part of the conference agenda is field trips. We do nocturnal forays on Friday and Saturday nights, right on the grounds of Mount St. John. There are also diurnal excursions on all three days of the conference. Brother Don Geiger got this ball rolling decades ago when he started experimenting with native plants on the 150-acre grounds. Today the fruits of Don's labors is writ large, and within a short distance of the conference facility we can find all manner of interesting flora and fauna.

This is a last instar caterpillar of the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, noshing on one of its host plants, wild senna, Senna hebecarpa. It will become a big lemony butterfly with a tinge of green, and we find them here every year.

On Friday's nighttime field trip, we inspected a large path of Culver's-root, Veronicastrum virginicum, and were pleased to see the spires of luminescent white flowers covered with moths. Many moths are nectar-seekers and pollinators - we just don't notice them as much as we do their more conspicuous counterparts the butterflies. This stunner is a zebra conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis. Several were on these plants.

On Sunday, we conclude the conference with field trips to farther-flung places: prairies, fens, woodlands, home gardens and other interesting haunts. It's all a great time, and we'd love to have you there in 2020. Some very special speakers will be in the house for that one.

Go to the conference homepage, RIGHT HERE, and sign up for email bulletins. This is the quickest way to learn about news and events (we usually have one or two other mini-conferences annually), and most importantly to receive notification as soon as conference registration opens.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Merlins' appearance is rare treat for Ohio birders

Merlin nest with two chicks (one visible here) in Upper Arlington/Jim McCormac

July 21, 2019

Jim McCormac

Avid birder Leslie Sours was gardening in her Upper Arlington yard on a fine day in April when she was startled by a bullet-like bird whooshing over. Its emphatic yipping calls drew her eyes skyward before the bird appeared.

A merlin! These small but powerful falcons are uncommon in Ohio, with most observations during spring and fall migration. Small numbers spend the winter months in large cemeteries, where mature scattered trees mimic the savannas and open woodlands favored by this species.

Sours was surprised when a second bird joined the first. A male and female, and at a time when any wintering merlins should have departed. The birds’ fidelity to the neighborhood, and behavioral cues, suggested potential breeding.

The hunt for the nest was on, and Sours soon found it. High in the boughs of a nearby Norway spruce was an old crow’s nest, and the falcons had appropriated the flimsy stick nest.

It wasn’t long before the female merlin was spending most of her time hunkered on the nest, incubating eggs. About a month later, Sours spotted tiny white fuzzballs peeking over the nest’s rim — the merlins had spawned a pair of offspring.

Merlin chicks grow like weeds, stoked on a steady diet of songbirds. When mature, they’ll weigh about 6½ ounces, and be 10 inches long with a two-foot wing span. By the time that I visited on July 1, the young birds were near adult-sized and clambering about the nest and venturing onto nearby limbs. While we watched, the adult female rocketed in with a small bird — possibly a house sparrow — as food for the begging chicks.

By now, the young merlins are free-flying and learning the complex aerobatics involved with successfully pursuing and taking down lesser birds in flight. A merlin is a winged terror to the songbird crowd. Feeding almost exclusively on birds, a hunting merlin spots its victim from afar and swoops in with jaw-dropping speed. Like a feathered air-to-air missile, it strikes its quarry with great force. The impact produces an eruption of feathers and the impact trauma alone may kill the prey. If not, a quick bite to the neck vertebrae will.

Songbird enthusiasts might be horrified by the merlins’ dietary preferences but that’s nature, which is seldom Disneyesque. Merlins are the pinnacle of avian hunting prowess and they’ve been plying their trade for far longer than humans have been around. Outdoor cats and car strikes are a much greater threat to songbirds than are natural predators.

The overall number of wintering merlins has steadily increased in Ohio, as has the overall population that lies north and west of us. A locally famous wintering merlin spot is Union Cemetery off Olentangy River Road — less than two miles from Sours’ home. It would be interesting to know whether those birds — which include both sexes — are the Upper Arlington colonizers.

Up until the early 1900s, there might have been a small merlin breeding population in extreme northeast Ohio, but evidence is scanty. The first confirmed nesting was in 2009, when adults were seen feeding dependent but free-flying chicks in Lake County. The following year, a nest was found in a Mount Vernon neighborhood reminiscent of the Upper Arlington birds’ haunts.

Sours’ discovery marks the third documented Ohio merlin nesting and the best chance to document the entire event. Because of the nest’s visibility, Sours has been able to share the birds with many of the neighbors via spotting scope. Everyone is fascinated with the spunky little falcons, and seems honored to have them as neighbors.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Shawnee Photography Workshop: August 23-25, 2019

Early morning fog  mists the edges of a small lake within Shawnee State Forest. Fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorants, blankets the water's surface.

If you've read this blog much, you've likely heard talk of the amazing Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio's Adams and Scioto counties. Indeed, the prior post mostly deals with this place. I've been to this area a lot; it's my favorite region of the state. The biodiversity is mind-numbing, and it's all encased in exceptionally scenic habitats.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are doing one of our field-based photo workshops here on August 23-25. This is a time of riches, photographically speaking. We will also seek out some of the lesser known creatures - read on for a few examples. We've got a few spaces left, and would love to have you. All of the details are RIGHT HERE.

Shawnee and vicinity hosts a bounty of butterflies. Twenty-five species or more would not be surprising on a good day. This is a red-spotted purple, one of the showiest butterflies and one that is quite common here.

This region is botanically superb, with 1,000+ native plant species. Thus, the animal diversity is staggering. Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, should be in good shape at the time of the workshop and it draws spicebush swallowtails (seen here) in big numbers. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also frequent visitors. We may be able to see some very interesting "albino" cardinal-flowers as well.

A focus of this workshop will be moths and other creatures of the night. It's easy to draw moths to properly illuminated sheets, and that's what we'll do. This is an Io moth, one of many species that make for fantastic moth portraiture shots. We should see a stupefying array of moths, and learn solid techniques for photographing them, as well as interesting ways of viewing these creatures.

If you want photos that few people have, this may be the workshop for you. Part of our nocturnal pursuits will involve caterpillars and we should find many, of numerous species. Most caterpillars are nocturnally active, the better to avoid daytime predators such as birds. This is a black-spotted prominent, an utterly fantastical bag of goo. We found it on last year's Shawnee workshop, within sight of the lodge and cabins (where we stay). It was just one of many exceptionally photogenic cats that we encountered.

We also have an EXTREMELY COOL photo opportunity arranged, that will wow you and anyone you share your work with, but I'm not saying what it is for now :-)

Again, for full details and registration info, CLICK HERE.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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 u.osu.edu/ohioodonatasurvey or contact Spring at spring.99@osu.edu.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.