Saturday, August 31, 2019

Restless Bush Crickets

A pair of restless bush crickets, Hapithus agitator, meet on a milkweed leaf. The female is on the left. Males in northern populations are not known to "sing", and it's unclear how they find females. I was hoping they would mate, but both soon wandered off. During the transfer of the spermatophore during mating, the female will snack on the male's wings, sometimes reducing them to stubs. I was hoping to photo-document their cannibalistic sex, but that's for another day. Warren County, Ohio, yesterday morning.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Two showy plants

I spent a long weekend down in Shawnee State Forest and vicinity, getting quite photo-intensive. Debbie DiCarlo and I were there to conduct one of our photo workshops, this one HERE. We had nine great attendees from far and wide (max number was ten and that one had some unfortunate last minute issues), and saw scads of stuff. Butterflies, caterpillars (LOTS!!), other insects, flora, snakes, rare Mississippi kites, and more. Hopefully I'll get to sharing some of our finds here, later.

The Shawnee workshop was our second to last of the year. The last one will be a doozy, though. We'll visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to shoot landscapes at the peak of fall color (October 6-10). Full details, and photos from last year's scouting trip, ARE HERE.

For now, here are two exceptionally showy plants...

A particularly robust specimen of the slender blazing-star, Liatris cylindracea. Many plants have but one flower head. This elfin species is much shorter than the rest of our five Ohio blazing-star species, and is probably the rarest. It's listed as threatened. This population blankets a tiny roadside prairie near West Union, and I first saw the place at least 20 years ago. Good to know all is still well here. Adams County, last Thursday.

A showy flowering spike of downy lobelia, Lobelia puberula. A southerner, downy lobelia occurs on dry, mostly open slopes, road banks and open woods in about the southern one-fifth of Ohio. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, last Friday.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Crayfish species known as mudbugs excel at tunneling

Roger Thoma with a little brown mudbug, Lacunicambarus thomai, a species named for him/Jim McCormac

August 18, 2019

Jim McCormac

Ohio has plenty of wild “micro-lobsters”, although they’re largely out of sight and mind. And off the dinner plate. They are crayfish, and many a young Huck Finn wannabe grubbed for these pincered crustaceans in the local creek.

Stream-dwelling crayfish are the most conspicuous of the approximately 22 species known from Ohio. Far less known are the “mudbugs,” a suite of crayfish species that spend most of their time in the subterranean. Their presence is often revealed by impressive mud chimneys that ring the burrows.

Although mudbug chimneys often stimulate comments, few people probably know the architect’s identity, let alone meet one. The relatively few burrowing crayfish that I’ve encountered have been during rainy nights, when they’ll sometimes roam overland.

Thus, a recent invitation from Anthony Sasson, who works with the Midwest Biodiversity Institute, was of great interest. He had organized an outing with two of the country’s premier crayfish researchers, Mael Glon of Ohio State University and Roger Thoma of the biodiversity institute.

Thoma has the rare distinction of having a crayfish named in his honor, and it was this crayfish that was our primary quarry. In the 67-year-old Ohioan’s decades of crayfish research, he has described at least a dozen new species. Thoma is regarded as one of North America’s foremost experts. Glon, at only age 29, is hot on his heels, having already described three new species, with more to come.

Soon enough, the four of us were bushwhacking along a small western Franklin County stream. In no time, Glon and Thoma had located crayfish burrows and set about the laborious task of extricating the occupants. Crayfish “noodling” involves stretching a gloved arm deep into the burrow and feeling for the crayfish.

Before long, a little brown mudbug was unearthed: Lacunicambarus thomai, Roger’s honorific crayfish. Thoma’s colleague Raymond Jezerinac described it in 1993, and now the secretive crustacean is known to occur in much of the state and in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The burrows created by little brown mudbugs and similar species are marvels of excavation. Although most tunnels are only a few feet in depth, exceptional burrows might go 10 feet deep if that’s what it takes to reach the water table and permanent moisture.

Mudbugs spend most of their time in the cool, dank depths, luxuriating in an enlarged chamber at the tunnel’s terminus. Come nightfall, the crayfish ventures to the tunnel’s above-ground portal. It lies in wait for potential prey such as insects, worms and other small invertebrates. Vegetation also forms part of the diet.

So, “what good are mudbugs?” some might ask. Burrowing crayfish are keystone species — their work positively influences numerous other species. Snakes, including the rare Massassauga rattlesnake, use the burrows for shelter. Larvae of the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly mature in the tunnels.

Numerous other small critters — mole crickets, spiders, salamanders — routinely occupy crayfish burrows. The crayfish themselves are an important part of the food web. They’re eaten by bass and other fish, herons, mink, raccoons and turtles. A declining reptile, the queen snake, feeds almost exclusively on soft, freshly molted crayfish.

Many thanks to astacologists Glon and Thoma for shedding light on a poorly known but fascinating part of the animal kingdom.

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
A crayfish chimney at the entrance to a burrow/Jim McCormac

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ruby-throated Hummingbird pollinates Cardinal-flower

I made an epic foray into southern Ohio's Shawnee State Forest back on August 1, and had several photographic goals in addition to shooting whatever I might bumble into. One of these goals was to photograph a ruby-throated hummingbird in the act of pollinating a plant that the little birds are especially smitten with. Some success was had, and the story plays out below.

Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, one of our showiest native plants. It seems fitting that such a gorgeous plant would have an interesting pollination ecology that involves one of our most charismatic birds.

The flowers on this spike are young, and mostly staminate (male) at this point. The arcuate grayish projection from the summit of the flower contains the sexual parts, and when the flowers are new they extend a brushlike clump of stamens capped by the anthers which contain pollen.

This is a different cardinal-flower in the same colony, but the flowers are older and have progressed to putting forth largely female organs. The stubby grayish protrusions are now mostly capped with longer extensions that contain the stigma, or female pollen receptacle. The male anthers have done their work regarding pollen dispersal, and been replaced by the opposite sex.

One must exercise some patience when trying for shots such as these. I found a few particularly stately cardinal-flower spikes, rigged up my tripod-mounted Canon 5D IV with 400mm lens, and 600 speedlite, then settled into a three-legged camo chair to await my quarry. As it happened, I did not have to wait long before a female ruby-throated hummingbird appeared. After making these images, I disassembled my big rig and went back with a wide-angle lens for general flower shots. While doing that, this tiny but fearless hummer returned and began working flowers within a few feet of where I knelt.

The hummers routinely visit cardinal-flowers, which apparently are prolific nectar-makers. The nectaries are deep within the corolla, forcing the bird to plunge its bill far into the flower. In the process, the top of its head makes contact with the downward-curving sexual flower parts. If the flower is in the male phase, pollen will be deposited on the hummingbird. If in the female phase, pollen from some other flower - hopefully from another plant - will transfer from the bird's head to the stigma, and thus pollinate the flower and allow production of fruit.

A closer view, showing the flower's stigma scraping the top of the hummingbird's head. It'd be virtually impossible for the bird to access its reward - the nectar - without coming forcefully into contact with the flower's reproductive parts.
While hummingbirds certainly must be the primary pollinator of cardinal-flower, as is often said, I believe that swallowtail butterflies, especially spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, must at least occasionally provide pollination services. This is a spicebush swallowtail working the same patch that the hummingbird above frequented. Swallowtails swarm blooming cardinal-flowers and at times there were a dozen or more mobbing these flowers. While the butterfly/flower dynamic is not as well architected as the hummingbird/flower arrangement, I bet pollen still gets transferred between both flower forms.

The coevolution of cardinal-flower and hummingbirds is a particularly showy example of the myriad ways in which plants have forged alliances with animals.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Macrophotography Workshop! Dawes Arboretum, September 14

A blue dasher dragonfly in its entirety may not really qualify as "macro" material, but its eyes do.

I'm giving a workshop focusing on macrophotography on Saturday, September 14, at the fabulous Dawes Arboretum near Newark. It'll start at 9 am at the Red Barn with a PowerPoint program on the nuances of imaging small things. The lushly illustrated talk will discuss equipment such as lenses, extension tubes and flash, camera settings, composition, etc. Also plenty of tips for finding COOL SUBJECTS.

The Red Barn is conveniently located in the midst of a diversity of wonderful habitat, so all we need do is walk outside the doors to quickly locate our own COOL SUBJECTS. The sprawling grounds of the Dawes Arboretum are always a treat to explore, and we'll have a blast doing just that. We'll end the day around 3 pm.

Cost is a mere $30.00. I hope you can make it. Registration is required, and to do so click RIGHT HERE.

A tiny zabulon skipper glares at the cameraman from atop the bud of a swamp thistle.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Yellow-fringed Orchid, and Butterflies

Last Thursday, August 1, I made an epic photographic foray into Shawnee State Forest. I really needed a hardcore solo shoot, and besides it was an 18-hour day (only had one day) and I can't find many photogs who will put up with such an agenda :-). Many interesting observations and images were made.

This vast southern Ohio forest is full of biological riches, and I had several primary targets in mind, not the least of which is featured here. The yellow-fringed orchids, Platanthera ciliaris, were just starting to flower, and I wanted to work some more on attempting to capture their pollinators.

Yellow-fringed orchid is staggering in its beauty. Seeing a meadow dotted with gorgeous spikes of orangish-yellow flowers is an amazing experience, and as always I spend time just drinking in the scene.

But before long, the photographic game was afoot. Swallowtail butterflies are the pollinators (moths may visit at night, but I don't know that firsthand). As these butterflies are big, and the orchid's flower spikes are large, I arm myself as I would for birds. I lug out a lightweight camo chair, tripod, and telephoto lens. In this case, the rig was the Canon 5D IV and Canon's stellar 400mm f/2.8 II, with fill flash from a Canon 600 speedlite. I select the most conspicuous of the orchids, set up 15-20 feet away, and await my quarry.

At one point, a male zabulon skipper, Poanes zabulon, chose "my" orchid as a lookout. Male zabs are feisty as can be, and often sit in a conspicuous spot from which they dash out at nearly anything that flies by. Hoping for females, I suppose. This skipper could not have chosen a showier perch.

A spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus, drops in for nectar. Yes! This is what I wanted. The butterfly's long proboscis, and ability to hover/perch, allows it access to the nectaries that are deeply imbedded in the base of the long nectar spurs. In the process of mining its sugary reward, the swallowtail pollinates the plant.

I saw other swallowtails - only spicebush, I rarely see other species - nectaring at distant orchids. That's somewhat frustrating - over here! over here! I feel like shouting - but chasing them madly about with camera is no way to operate. It's just likely to spook the butterflies, and rushing into position makes it tough to compose a nice image.

Better to set up out of the pollinator's sphere of awareness, in perfect light and on a prime plant, and let the subject come to you.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rare plants of Cedar Bog

A meadow full of fen indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum. The plant is an odd member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and is quite rare in Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Saturday, August 10th at Cedar Bog, a legendary botanical sweet spot that is full of rare flora - and fauna. The program commences at 10 am, and following that and lunch, we'll step out the back doors of the visitor's center and onto the boardwalk. An easy foray along the freshly rebuilt boardwalk will produce all manner of interesting flora (and fauna).

All are welcome. Cost is a mere $5.00 if a Cedar Bog Association member; if not, it's $10.00. The hard working members of the Association do nearly all of the heavy lifting in regards to management of this incredibly important natural area, and proceeds benefit their work. Details are RIGHT HERE.

The striking grass-pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosus, one of several rare orchids at the "bog". Cedar Bog, per square foot, has perhaps the richest botanical diversity of any site in Ohio. Many species of plants officially listed as endangered, threatened, or potentially threatened occur here. Even many of the plants that aren't listed as rare, at least in the fen meadows, are quite uncommon in the state.

Sedges drive much of the ecology at Cedar Bog - which is actually a fen. This one, seen here in full flower, is twig-rush, Cladium mariscoides. A close relative is the sawgrass of the Florida Everglades.

Wand-lily, Anticlea elegans, a highly poisonous member of the lily family. While you wouldn't want to eat it, the plant is nice to look at.

Seen here in fruit, prairie valerian, Valeriana edulis (syn: V. ciliata) is probably the rarest plant at Cedar Bog, and it has quite a story particularly insofar as this site goes.

If you can make it out, we'll have a good time and see lots of interesting stuff. Details about Cedar Bog are RIGHT HERE.