Monday, September 30, 2019

The Logan Oak

As always, click the photo to enlarge

This is the "Logan Oak", a spectacular specimen of a white oak, Quercus alba, easily the largest and most ornate such tree I have clapped eyes on. I've known of this woody colossus for a long time, but had not paid personal respects until last Saturday. Why I waited so long is beyond me. The tree is splendid in every way; breathtakingly massive. Huge gnarled limbs radiate from a skyscraper of a trunk, creating a gargantuan bonsai that commands the observer to stand and gawk. I had intended this to be a brief stop en route to somewhere else. Instead, I communed with the oak for over an hour, sizing it up from every angle, and attempting to capture images that might suggest the sheer majesty of the plant.

It's an easy tree to find, and respectful visitors are welcome. The northeast corner of Old Logan Cemetery is where the oak's roots anchor it, just southwest of the junction of Keynes Drive and North Mulberry Street (if any street should be named Oak Street, it's this one). This is on the north side of Logan, in Hocking County, Ohio.

The Logan Oak is said to be about 600 years old. I do not know how that age was determined. White oaks can live that long. One in New Jersey recently petered out, apparently succumbing to the ravages of old age. It was proved to be over a half-millennium old. I've seen photos of this arboreal Methuselah and it was impressive. But it's got nothing on the Logan, Ohio tree and I might argue that ours is even more impressive.

I'd highly recommend visiting the Logan Oak. You won't be sorry you did.

A male common green darner in flight/Jim McCormac

September 29, 2019

Jim McCormac

An incredible spectacle unfolded in early September, when untold numbers of dragonflies descended on Ohio and surrounding states. Feeding swarms, ranging from a few dozen to thousands, were reported over fields and meadows in all corners of the state.

In some places, flying dragonflies were so thick that they were visible on weather radar. Many news outlets breathlessly reported the “invasion” of dragonflies. Some Facebook users marked themselves “safe” from the swarms, as if it were some sort of Hitchcockian entomological counterpart to “The Birds.”

Most folks were enchanted by the sight of dozens of insect aerialists, wings glittering in the sun, zigging and zagging as they tore after midges and other small flying insects.

The overwhelming majority of the dragonflies were common green darners (Anax junius). They are big, reaching 3 inches in length, with a slightly longer wingspan. Males have a turquoise-blue abdomen, while female abdomens are purplish-red. The thorax of both sexes is bright green.

Other species were mixed in with the swarms, but in far smaller numbers. Companions included black saddlebag, green-striped darner and wandering glider.

I posted a plea for swarm sightings on my blog, and on a few online forums. Nearly 200 reports came back, from 63 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Hundreds of other postings about swarms were made on Facebook and elsewhere, documenting a massive movement that certainly touched all counties.

This migratory movement was short-lived, with most records falling on Sept. 10 and 11. Some reporters estimated swarms numbering over 1,000 dragonflies, but most observers saw between a few dozen and several hundred.

Dragonfly migration is imperfectly understood. The common green darner has long been known for large autumnal southward movements. Like migratory monarch butterflies, these swarms are generally on a southwest trajectory. They certainly are headed to warmer climes, but exact destinations remain a mystery.

Evidence suggests that most migratory dragonflies are headed to points from the Gulf Coast to Central America. The big movements generally coincide with the passage of a cold front, and in many areas it appears the dragonflies follow prominent landmarks such as lakeshores, rivers, ridges or other land features.

It’s likely that the dragonflies that move south in winter are not the same ones that return in spring. Vernal migrations are far less conspicuous, and spring migrants don’t seem to form swarms. It might be that adults newly arrived on the wintering grounds mate, produce offspring and die. Their spawn are the dragonflies that recolonize the north the following spring.

More conjecture than fact surrounds dragonfly migrations. No one is sure why some species — only a handful of the hundreds of North American species are known to migrate — form enormous aggregations. Some swarms have been estimated to number well over 1 million.

The passage of these “flocks” is typically rapid, and if you’re not looking skyward when they pass over, they will go unseen. Only when the dragons drop down to feed on smaller flying insects do they become conspicuous. Those people fortunate enough to see a feeding swarm bore witness to one of nature’s great fascinations — and enigmas.

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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Two birds, mostly unloved

I encountered this large congress of rock pigeons, Columba livia, convening on a wire yesterday. The cinnamon-colored bird especially caught my eye. A stop was in order, to attempt to capture the animals as they conferred with each other in undiagnosable pigeon-speak.

Classic "blue-bar" pigeons bookend this set of birds - this is the wild phenotype. A glance down the wire revealed all manner of color variants among the 100+ members of the avian colloquium, although the bird clad in cinnamon was the one that really drew my eye.

Homo sapiens brought pigeons over from the Old World in the 17th century, and it goes without saying that they took. I share none of my fellow primates' common disdain for this species. Pigeons are quite showy, and masters of the air. Their powers of flight are renowned. Homing pigeons display an incredible orientation to their cote, sometimes beating their masters back home. Feral urban pigeons seem to organize pleasure flights, especially early in the morning or towards dusk. A squadron will head aloft, and race about the ether in well-organized packs, seemingly enjoying their incredible aeronautic abilities.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook reminded me of this photo, which I took and posted to the social media mega-site one year ago today. I had intended to post the image here, then, but never got around to it.

That morning, before first light, I headed to a local hotspot, Pickerington Ponds Metro Park. A very rare (for Ohio) roseate spoonbill had been hanging out there, and I wanted to see and perhaps photograph the pink visitor from the Deep South.

Upon my arrival, I found the wetlands socked in with thick pea soup fog. The overall ambience was stunning, but not good for finding or photographing birds. As the sun's rays began to thin the mist, these double-crested cormorants slowly materialized. I sometimes recognize a good shot when I see it, and I knew this was a photogenic opportunity. 

I was armed for bear - or distant spoonbills - with my Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. Needless to say, that optical tank was mounted on a tripod, and I quickly plugged a remote shutter release into the camera, and threw the latter into live view mode. After framing a composition, I watched the birds closely as they preened and prepped for a day of fishing. When their collective postures looked interesting, I'd hold the trigger down and fire away. The beautiful juxtaposition of fog and light lasted only a few minutes, and I'm glad that I was there to live in that moment.

Like the aforementioned pigeons, double-crested cormorants are often held in low regard. Where cormorants are plentiful, such as on the Great Lakes, fishermen especially want to wage war on the piscivorous birds. The rod and reel set view them as competition, even though cormorants probably take few fish species, such as perch and walleye, coveted by fishermen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Caterpillars, and more caterpillars

I reported on last weekend's great caterpillar safari in my last post, but showed few caterpillar photos. I will atone for that here. Our group found at least four dozen species, and I photographed a fair chunk of them.

Caterpillaring becomes addictive. Taken to extremes, it LOOKS LIKE THIS. I've been at the larval game for some time, and love the thrill of the hunt. Caterpillars do not want to be seen, and the vast majority of species are nocturnal, the better to avoid diurnal songbirds and insect predators. That means the successful hunter must also be active after dark, and that's when most of the subjects of this post were found. Throw in the allure of photography, the challenge of nightime shooting, and the novelty of charismatic subjects that few people photograph, and it's hard to beat.

More importantly, learning about caterpillars helps one learn MUCH more about food webs and ecosystems. Caterpillars are tube steaks on legs; Nature's hotdogs. It seems like everything eats them, and caterpillars are such a huge staple in the diet of many species of birds that we'd lose these songsters without the larvae. Some experts feel that the mortality rate of many caterpillar species is well over 90%. In other words, almost all of them are eaten. Those that make it become butterflies or moths, mate, lay eggs, and carry on the species.

Driving it all is native plants. Our caterpillars are chemically finicky and generally shun nonnative flora, with which they have no real co-evolutionary history. This is yet another reason to plant natives. You'll be growing crops of caterpillars, and feeding the higher-ups on the food chain.

A black-blotched prominent, Schizura leptinoides, rests atop some sort of cocoon, maybe that of a silk moth. I believe the cat's juxtaposition with the cocoon was just coincidence. One thing's for sure, it is a walking dead caterpillar. Those little white cylinders stuck to its upper body are tachinid fly egg cases. The maggots have already hatched, and are eating the caterpillar from within. Death by parasitoid insect is an extremely common fate in this world.

A pair of common buckeye caterpillars, Junonia coenia, nosh on slender foxglove, Agalinis tenuifolia. If they make it, they will morph into one of our most beautiful butterflies. The overwhelming majority of caterpillars are those of moths. Around 2,000 species of moths have thus far been documented in Ohio (some authorities believe MANY others await documentation), while we've only tallied about 140 butterfly species.

The leaf of a sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. An obligate sycamore feeder sits prominently on the leaf. Or perhaps not so prominently. Caterpillars are masters of disguise, or at least many of them are.

A closer view of the caterpillar in the previous photo. It is a drab prominent, Misogada unicolor, which insofar as I know feeds only on sycamore. The pale stripe on its back mimics the pale midribs of sycamore leaves remarkably well. Go look at the previous image. By the way, sometimes the English names of moths are derived from the adult moth, sometimes the caterpillar. There's nothing "drab" about this larva; the name stems from the bland appearance of the moth.

This was a great find, by, I believe, Ann Geise (someone who was there correct me if I'm wrong). It's a hitched arches, Melanchra adjuncta. These caterpillars are often found in fairly conspicuous spots during the day, and that's when this one turned up. It is on water hempweed, Amaranthus tuberculatus, which the cat matches quite well.
An amazing bag of goo, this one, and always a crowd-pleaser. A specialist in the extreme, this honey locust moth, Syssphinx bicolor, feeds only on its namesake tree, Gleditsia triacanthos.

One of many oak specialists, this orange-striped oakworm, Anisota senatoria, is feeding on a black oak leaf, Quercus velutina. Oaks support more species of caterpillars than any other floristic group, by a long shot. Their conservation is vital to the ecology of the great eastern deciduous forest.

The slug moth caterpillars are often otherworldly in appearance, often looking like sea slugs plucked from a coral reef. This is a Nason's slug, Natada nasoni. Note the pale vermiculations (squiggles) on its body. Unlike the specialist caterpillars, this one is polyphagous - it eats many species of plants.

Hard to top the exoticness of a purple-crested slug, Adoneta spinuloides. How could you miss this thing, one might think. Like most slug moth cats, it is tiny, maybe a half-inch in length, and quite easy to overlook. We often employ ultra-violet flashlights in our quest. Many caterpillars, including most slugs, glow brightly under such beams.

I was quite pleased to see this species, and this individual was one of at least three found during the weekend. Chris and Sue Zacharias found two on white pine (which is not native in this region), and Randy Lakes found this specimen on native Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana. It's the aptly named pine sphinx, Lapara coniferarum, and it was new for nearly everyone including me.

Thanks to everyone who joined the hunt last weekend! I look forward to the 2020 expedition.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Heavy-duty caterpillaring

A fine group of intellectually curious people convened in Adams County, Ohio over the weekend - our 6th annual get-together, ostensibly to search for caterpillars. And that we do, but as always the foray becomes a natural history free-for-all, and we find lots of other STUFF. Our base camp is John and Tina Howard's Ohio Star Retreat Center. Most of the group stays here, and we all converge on the place to have meals, and photograph temporarily detained caterpillar livestock. It's a great place to stay of you're in Adams County, especially if you are in pursuit of the region's abundant natural history.

The group changes form a bit each year, and we always have one or a few new people, but most of the caterpillar-hunters in this image have been to a few or all of these strange outings. It's a blast, with lots of nocturnal field work. The group is, from back row (L to R): Tom Patt, Sue Zacharias, Chris Zacharias, Ann Geise, Sally Miller, Frances Ganance, Chelsea Gottfried, John Howard, Randy Lakes (peeking over John's right shoulder), and Jason Larson. Front row (L to R): Kyle Bailey, Kim Banks, Colleen Sharkey, Gina Patt, your narrator, Molly Kenney, and Dan Kenney. Not pictured is Judy Ganance, who kindly took the photo. Laura Hughes, Mary Ann Barnett, and Kathy and Ned Keller also joined in for part of the excursion, but weren't there when we took this photo. Sorry if I'm missing anyone else.

I took a boatload of photos, but haven't processed many caterpillar images yet. More of those will hopefully follow, in a future post. This is a saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, always a crowd-pleaser. Fun to look at, less amusing to the touch. This caterpillar packs a punch, possessing one of the most painful stings of any North American caterpillar.

This is the architecturally ornate larva of the comma butterfly, Polygonia comma. Our official larval scribe, Judy Ganance, recorded nearly 50 species of caterpillars seen by the group.

Now this is a treehopper we can all get behind! It's the keeled treehopper, Entylia carinata, an amazing thorn mimic.

This is a pretty cool little fly, if you ask me. It's a dusky-winged hoverfly, Ocyptamus fuscipennis. The larvae are predators of aphids.

Thanks to Laura Hughes for showing us this amazing spider on Friday night. It is the difoliate orbweaver, Acacesia hamata. This is the only member of the genus north of Mexico - apparently there are five or so species south of the U.S.

The handsomely marked female difoliate orbweaver creates an incredible web. The circular strands of the outer web are incredibly close together and there are a great many of them. Probably 75 strands can be seen in just this snippet of the web, which was much larger.

A jumping spider with a handsome trig, freshly seized. The little eight-legged tough wasn't about to give his cricket up, and squared off with me and my camera.

I would say this one is "cute", as spiders go. It's a bolas spider, Mastophora yeargani. Laura Hughes showed it to our group last Saturday night. She made a great find; this is the first confirmed state record. I think this species was only described in 2003, and its basic life history is not well understood. The spider is resting below a twig and staring at the camera; nearby is her egg case.

More photos and stories from this expedition may follow...

Monday, September 23, 2019

Hemphill House, Adams County, Ohio

The Hemphill House, Adams County, Ohio.
(Click the photo to enlarge, as always)

I spent the weekend in Adams County with about 20 friends, canvassing interesting habitats for flora and fauna. We found scads of stuff, and I'll share some of those organisms here, later.

Last Saturday, the group journeyed to a wonderful spot on the banks of the Ohio River, where we located our primary quarry, the amorpha borer beetle, Megacyllene decora. Many other notable finds were made as well. The northbound return trip took us up a winding country lane that I haven't been on in years. Our car caravan crested a low ridge, and the old homestead in the photo suddenly presented itself.

Whoa! I hit the brakes to marvel at the beautiful old stone house, until I remembered I was the point car and had the caravan backed up in a less than safe spot. Off we went, but I resolved to return early the next morning for photos, and did just that.

It turns out that the structure is the Hemphill House, named for James Hemphill. If I've got the history correct, he bought this property in 1805, and probably constructed this house shortly thereafter. Hemphill was said to be a man of means, with much of his wealth derived from his regionally renowned whiskey distilling business.

The house is built like a bank vault. Thick stone walls have allowed the structure to withstand the test of time, and still look solid and nearly inhabitable. Judging by the newer roof, I'd say people did continue to use the house well into the 20th century. I didn't try to enter, of course, but I imagine the inside is probably beyond repair. Nonetheless, the house still stands strong, and I suspect its shell will remain for some time to come.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Macrophotography at Dawes Arboretum

Looking stunning against the pure blue sky of a fall Ohio day is this purple swamp aster, Symphyotrichum puniceum. There are over 35 native aster species in the state, and they all make for great photo subjects.

I led a macrophotography workshop at Dawes Arboretum last Saturday, September 14. The 15 spots filled quickly, and we had a great time exploring the grounds of this state treasure. Following a presentation about various macrophotography techniques in Dawes' "Red Barn", all we had to do was step outside the building to immerse ourselves in a macro wonderland. All of the subjects shared here were taken within sight of the barn.

If you've not been to Dawes Arboretum, I'd recommend a visit. The grounds encompass about 2,000 acres, and about half of the property contains more formal plantings and gardens, while the remainder is natural landscapes. The place is a gold mine for photographers, and I believe we will repeat this workshop next fall.

A bit of nocturnal scouting the night before yielded some excellent larvae, such as this Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar, Eumorpha pandorus. As is often the case, the boldly spotted cat was found on straggly Virginia creeper plants at the base of a tree. I temporarily detained this cat and a Luna moth caterpillar, and shared the tubular livestock with everyone on Saturday. Many images were made, and the cats were later released where they were found.

OMG! This is a Holy Grail of spiders and only the second one that I've seen. It is a toad-like bolas spider, Mastophora phrynosoma, and we found this one low in the boughs of a sugar maple. There was an enormous hatch of bronzed cutworm moths, and they were resting on tree foliage everywhere. I think that's what the victim here is. Bolas spiders are incredible, producing pseudo-pheromones to lure male moths into their sphere. Gullible moths are then snared and reeled in with the equivalent of an arachnid fishing line. You can see more photos and read about these amazing spiders RIGHT HERE. Unfortunately, I could not capture this one for the group to see/photograph the following day. To do so would have messed up her operation, and besides to really see the magic of a bolas spider, one must see them on their terms after nightfall, when they are hunting.

Everyone could and did see and image this spider, one of many of its kind that we saw. It's a banded garden spider, Argiope trifasciata,  and this was a particularly compelling composition for us. The huge female lays in wait in her web, while two males attend her, at a safe distance. The disparity in size between the sexes is stunning. The males' comparative puniness makes mating a risky business. If he makes a misstep, she's liable to seize, kill, and eat him. I don't know what happened to the male at right center. He's missing four legs, but is still hanging in there.

Everyone was pleased to see and photograph this golden tortoise beetle, Charidotella sexpunctata. A specialist of plants in the morning-glory family, the "gold bug" is an amazing creature. When stimulated, it can change color by forcing liquid through tiny grooves in its opaque shell. Beetles will shift to reddish or orange hues, often while mating. As a point of trivia, the longest recorded copulation in this species was 583 minutes.

A showy little short-winged meadow katydid, Conocephalus brevipennis, patrols the flora like a six-legged wandering minstrel. This is a male, and he sings with his wings, rubbing them together to create a song that attracts females. Meadow katydids are near their peak right now, and their sputtering trills are a big part of the insect soundscape.

I have long wanted this shot, and got it during the workshop. A spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer, basks in a pool created by the fused leaves of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum. The basket-like basal portions of the plant's lower leaves hold water, and I figured someday I'll find a frog in one of these. Well, that didn't happen at the workshop, so we placed this peeper - which Becky Donaldson found nearby - into the cup plant. The frog seemed happy in his moist environment on this hot day, and so were my fellow photographers. It was a great way to conclude the workshop.

My thanks to Greg Payton of Dawes Arboretum for conceiving this workshop, and inviting me to participate. Also to Becky Donaldson, the naturalist at Mentor Marsh (see this RECENT ARTICLE) who was hugely helpful in finding subjects and sharing her vast knowledge of critters great and small.

Photo-wonky stuff: Teleconverters

As always, click the photo to view at full size

A white-eyed vireo whisper-sings as he works through a dense snarl of vegetation. I made this image yesterday morning in Hocking County, Ohio, before the sun had fully illuminated the vireo's shady haunts. Experienced photo critics will notice the flaws in this image, perhaps most notably the graininess. Even at a low shutter speed of 1/400 - given the lens I was using and the bird's movement - I was still at an ISO of 3200 - far higher than I'd want. Good noise reduction programs can't completely vanquish digital noise. Even with excellent full frame cameras, I really don't like the ISO rising above 800, and 500 or lower is far better yet.

Low light and high ISO settings are not the point of this post, though. The lens and its accouterments is. I shot this with Canon's remarkable 400mm f/2.8 II, which is great for low light shooting and insanely fast at attaining focus and holding it. But 400mm is at the low end of reach insofar as birds go. Birds are often tough to approach closely, and oftentimes size matters. The bigger the lens, the better.

I have both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters (Canon version III). Teleconverters are stubby little magnifiers that can be quickly mounted between the lens and camera, and increase magnification by the power indicated on the converter. In this case, my 400mm lens becomes a 560mm lens with the 1.4x teleconverter, and obviously an 800mm lens with the "doubler" mounted. Voila! Like magic, we're in truly big lens territory, and much more able to hunt those bashful birds.

But few things come without cost. For sure, the teleconverters are WAY less expensive than are huge lenses, but they exact a different price. One, you're shooting through more glass - the teleconverters have internal lenses - and the more glass one shoots through, the more the image quality suffers. This deterioration, however, is almost negligible with Canon's 1.4x. It's more noticeable with the 2x, but still the image quality can be quite reasonable even with this super-magnifier. Probably a bigger burden brought on by teleconverters is the loss of aperture. With the 1.4x, you lose one stop, and the 2x causes a loss of two stops. So, with the 1.4x mounted on my 400mm f/2.8, I'm at f/4. With the doubler, f/5.6. If conditions are sunny and light is abundant, this may not be much of a problem - you can still use a sufficiently fast shutter speed, yet maintain a low ISO. In the case of this vireo, that wasn't possible.

For this photograph, I used the 2x doubler, giving me a much-appreciated 800mm.That got me in good working distance to my bashful subject. But at 1/400 shutter speed - what I felt was about the lowest I could go - it gave me that dreaded 3200 ISO. If the doubler did not cause a loss of two stops and I was able to shoot at f/2.8, my ISO would have been 800. But as I said, there's no free lunches.

In great light, especially, teleconverters are a fantastic tool for extending reach. I use the 1.4x all the time, and see nearly no downsides to it. Autofocus is nearly unaffected, the loss of a stop is almost never an issue - ideally, I like to stop down to f/8 or so if light permits - and image quality remains superb. It's nearly magic without strings.

The 2x is a different story, and I usually don't recommend them, as I and many others have found that attaining sharp focus can be difficult with one. Micro-adjustments are usually necessary, and even with such tweaking it can still be hard to make crisp images. Autofocus is lost on some lenses, and if it's still enabled, it's slowed significantly. I've only had one lens where I could just slap on the 2x and take consistently sharp images and that's the Canon 300mm f/4 (600mm with the doubler). Until I got this miracle-working 400mm. With no micro-adjusting, it took perfectly to the 2x teleconverter. Not only that, but autofocus remains incredibly fast, and images look sharp and clear, especially under good lighting.

If you want more reach for birds, it might be worth renting a teleconverter or two. If they mate well to your lens and you're happy with the results, a teleconverter(s) is well worth the investment. The recent Canon version III lenses - like the 400mm and 600mm - are the best yet at mating effectively to teleconverters. They'll only get better, too.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nature: Restoration of Mentor Marsh is magnificent

Naturalist Becky Donaldson has helped restoration efforts in Mentor Marsh, allowing native flora and fauna to make an impressive comeback/Jim McCormac

September 15, 2019

Jim McCormac

On Aug. 13, I journeyed to the largest undiked wetland on the U.S. shores of Lake Erie: Mentor Marsh, just east of Cleveland. My guides were Becky Donaldson and Ben Piazza, Cleveland Museum of Natural History employees and on-the-ground marsh managers.

We hopped in an Argo “marsh buggy” and set off on a comprehensive tour of the 800-acre wetland. I have long been familiar with the marsh, but the changes that have been wrought in recent years are stunning.

Disaster struck in the 1960s, when tailings from local salt-mining operations leached into a nearby feeder creek. Salt might be good on fries, but it’s disastrous for freshwater marshes. The worst consequence of the salinity spike was invasion by an aggressive nonnative grass, Phragmites australis, or common reed.

The Eurasian grass is salt-tolerant, and it eventually cloaked nearly the entire wetland. Indigenous flora was choked out by the nearly impenetrable stand of 10-foot-tall bamboo-like plants, and biodiversity plummeted.

A Mentor Marsh strangled by Phragmites was all that I, and most of my contemporaries, knew. However, in a stunning reversal of fortunes, the Cleveland museum has orchestrated one of the most ambitious wetland restorations on the Great Lakes.

Beginning in 2004, common reed control was implemented. It was baby steps at first, but in recent years the efforts have grown tremendously in intensity. The varied management tactics include physical mashing and cutting, aerial spraying, and on-the-ground herbicide treatments.

I could hardly believe my eyes as Donaldson and Piazza shepherded me through the marsh. There was scarcely any common reed to be seen. Freed from the shackles of this infestation, native flora has resurfaced from the seedbank.

Dozens of native-plant species, some not seen in decades, dotted the marsh: pink mists of swamp milkweed, attracting migrant monarch butterflies; swamp rose mallow, with its gargantuan showy pink flowers formed thickets; brilliant magenta flowering spikes of swamp loosestrife — a native — bringing numerous butterflies.

Nearly 200 species of native plants have been documented, and most are far more prevalent now that the common reed has been removed. New finds are made every year, and Donaldson recently made a stellar discovery, the state-endangered northern wild rice.

The astronomical spike in floristic diversity has spawned a proliferation of animal life. We saw birds galore, including bald eagle, Caspian tern, common gallinule, osprey, Virginia rail, wood duck and many others. Fish such as pike and yellow perch have returned, and beaver and river otters are occasionally spotted.

A healthy marsh is a boon for the Cleveland region, attracting scores of natural-history enthusiasts from far and wide. Lake Erie water quality is better, and visual appeal for local residents is enhanced. The threat of blazes that erupted periodically in stands of incendiary common reed has been eliminated.

Many partners have played a role in Mentor Marsh’s recovery, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dan Donaldson of the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District was especially helpful in implementing restoration practices.

But the catalyst for this success story is the Cleveland Museum’s Natural Areas Program and its visionary leader, Jim Bissell. He and his staff — Donaldson, Piazza, David Kriska and others — have done the heavy lifting.

Mentor Marsh was Ohio’s first state nature preserve, dedicated in 1971. Kudos to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for working to return it to its original splendor.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Dragonfly swarms, of epic scope and scale!

 An admittedly poor shot, but it shows seven or so of the thousands (probably) of common green darners, Anax junius, in a massive feeding swarm just before sunset tonight. Via Facebook and other sources, I saw reports coming in from all over Ohio of big dragonfly swarms, so I ran over to a nearby farm in Columbus, Franklin County, that has lots of meadows and open space. Sure enough, as soon as I entered through the gates, dragonflies appeared.

There's just no way to make any sort of semi-exact estimate of rapidly flying and darting insects on this epic a scale, but as dragonflies were everywhere I went on this property, and I saw hundreds and maybe a thousand+ in my very limited coverage, there were certainly thousands of dragonflies across the whole property, I'd say.

Every dragonfly I could clap eyes on well enough to identify was a common green darner (this shot of a male in flight from several years ago). From other reports of today, this seems to be the primary species involved in the massive migration. Other species, such as gliders and saddlebags, can intermix with these swarms, though.

I've written about these swarms before, such as HERE, HERE, and HERE. Many people made comments on those posts, reporting additional swarms. If you saw such a swarm today or recently, or in the days to come, please leave a comment. Be sure to note at a bare minimum, the county, state if not Ohio, and a rough guess at how many dragonflies were present. If you know dragonfly identification and can say what species were involved, all the better.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Photo Tour: Michigan's Upper Peninsula! October 6-10

The mighty Mackinac Bridge, the gateway to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The UP is a paradise for photographers at any season, but at the peak of fall color it truly is a magical place.

Debbie DiCarlo and I are leading a photo tour here from October 6 thru 10, and the details are RIGHT HERE. We have a few spaces available, and if you like shooting awesome landscapes, waterfalls, and amazing fall foliage, you'll love it. The UP is sparsely populated, and not heavily visited by tourists in fall - other than perhaps the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Even there, traffic is light, especially in the lesser known sites that we'll visit.

Following are some images from last year's trip, at the same time of year. They offer a small taste of fall in the Upper Peninsula.

A spectacular tree tunnel in the Hiawatha National Forest. Colorful landscapes abound in this region.

A flaming maple punctuates a red pine forest.

 Maple leaves accent an old white birch log nestled in haircap moss.

 An autumnal white birch forest near the shore of Lake Superior is a riot of color.

 The coffee-colored waters of Tahquamenon Falls. We'll visit many waterfalls of various size and structure, but all showy and trimmed with beautiful autumnal foliage.

An onrush of Lake Superior water washes over colorful polished rocks on the shore of Au Train Bay. Many beaches in this area are carpeted with such stones.

Sunrise over Lake Superior, as seen at dawn from atop Sugarloaf Mountain near Marquette, features an interesting "sun pillar". Finding scenic vistas for sunrise and sunset images is quite easy in the UP.

We'd love to have you join us. Again, GO HERE for details.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Nature: Western kingbird is a sight to see in Ohio

A rare western kingbird hunts from a fence/Jim McCormac

September 1, 2019

Jim McCormac

On the Northwest Side of Columbus lies a large stretch of green in an otherwise heavily urbanized setting. The Ohio State University Airport (Don Scott Field) and the adjoining OSU livestock facility cover about 1,300 acres. This land forms a big green oasis, especially for birds that like open country.

Birders like to check the farm’s perimeters, where there is some access at the western end of the complex. Expert birder Irina Shulgina was exploring here on Aug. 11 when she spotted an out-of-the ordinary flycatcher hunting insects from phone wires. She had found a rare western kingbird!

This wasn’t Shulgina’s first experience with western kingbirds. She has found two others at this locale, one last May and another in May 2018. Add a kingbird in Union County in 2014 to her tally, and she is the undisputed western kingbird champion of Ohio.

Western kingbirds normally inhabit the western half of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada. In winter, they retreat to Mexico and Central America, with a small wintering population in southern Florida. These robin-sized flycatchers are rare visitors to eastern North America, with most sightings along the Atlantic coast.

Ohio’s common counterpart is the eastern kingbird, which breeds in all 88 counties.

Ohio’s first western kingbird record dates to Sept. 13, 1930, when one was seen near Toledo. That pioneer was the vanguard of many more to come. These kingbirds remained scarce until the 1980s, with only a few reports a decade. After that, sightings blossomed and western kingbirds were recorded regularly, with multiple birds some years.

By the early 1990s, records had plummeted. The kingbird yo-yo ascended again in the 2010s. Since 2011 there have been 10 sightings — the most of any decade since the original discovery.

I journeyed to the OSU farm on Aug. 12 to see Shulgina’s most recent discovery. It didn’t take long to spot the bird hunting from a chain-link fence. As the name suggests, kingbirds are not shrinking violets and typically hunt insects from conspicuous perches.

The pugnacious flycatcher lived up to its name by aerially bombarding a nearby American kestrel, causing the little falcon to flinch and duck. Kingbirds are notorious for badgering raptors that dare fly through their turf. Even bald eagles are not exempt from harassment.

In turn, some birds think little of kingbirds and express their displeasure. Several barn swallows seemed to enjoy strafing the kingbird as it hunted.

Many other birders have stopped by to view the rare flycatcher, which was present until at least Aug. 21. For many, it is a “state bird” — their first sighting of this species in Ohio. Many birders love to collect new bird sightings like a philatelist collects stamps, and I confess to lacking immunity to listing fever. I first saw a western kingbird in Ohio in Butler County in 2002, but the protagonist of this column is only my second Buckeye State bird.

Given the recent sightings of western kingbirds at the OSU livestock farm, it will be interesting to see whether they attempt nesting here in years to come.

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