Thursday, October 31, 2019

Meet the jewel mudbug

Meet the jewel mudbug, Lacunicambarus dalyae, the most recently described North American crayfish species. Astacologist Mael Glon allowed me to visit his offices at OSU yesterday to see one of these showy animals in person, and create some images. Glon is the principal author of a paper published on October 9 that describes this colorful burrowing crayfish species. It occurs in five southeastern U.S. states, and is named for Meg Daly, Director of the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity. Meg's support was essential to the research that led to this discovery. I'm going to write a piece on this charismatic animal in the next month or so for my Columbus Dispatch column. I would add that people like Mael and Meg, who support the biological underdogs, make the world a better place.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Autumnal tree tunnel

As always, click the image to enlarge

Autumnal tree tunnel, reflected in the mirrored waters of Clear Creek. Hocking County, Ohio, October 23, 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A sparrow safari to Dutch Fork Wetlands, Dawes Arboretum

A wonderful mixed-emergent marsh restoration, known as the Dutch Fork Wetlands. It's part of Dawes Arboretum, a sprawling 2,000-acre palette of wildly diverse flora. Part of the arboretum is formal plantings comprised of numerous ornamental plants, many from distant lands. But a bigger part of the property is native plants in more or less natural landscapes, and arboretum staff work hard to properly manage the indigenous assets.

I was over at Dawes about a week ago for a meeting, and arrived early - the crack of dawn to be precise. Mid-October is peak for migrant sparrows, and I figured the Dutch Fork Wetlands and its associated meadows would produce lots of the little brown jobs. I was not disappointed.

A juvenile white-crowned sparrow surveys his temporary domain from a sapling. I saw many of these big sparrows, and several were singing their haunting minor-keyed whistles. White-crowns are strictly migrants here. They breed in the FAR north; the sub-tundra taiga and on north into the true tundra, and in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains in the west.

Many field sparrows were present. This species is quite the contrast to the previous one in terms of bulk. A good measure of "bulkiness" in a bird is weight. The white-crowned sparrow weighs about 30 grams. A well-fed field sparrow, about 13 grams. Only the chipping and clay-colored sparrows are ever so slightly smaller.

This field sparrow is perched on a cup-plant, Silphium perfoliatum. Most of the sparrows present this day were smitten with this robust native member of the sunflower family. I quickly learned to spot the cup-plant colonies from afar, creep up, and be rewarded with gangs of sparrows stripping the fruit.

As is to be expected nearly anywhere in Ohio, song sparrows were frequent. Given the numbers that I saw, I suspect local breeders were augmented by migrants.

Beginning birders often lament the alleged difficulty of sparrow identification. But there aren't that many - 15 commonly occurring Ohio species - and most are quite distinctive. As with learning to identify any group of organisms, become very familiar with the common species such as this song sparrow, then the others will start to stand out as different.

We have three North American species of sparrows in the genus Melospiza, and I saw them all this day. The aforementioned song sparrow is one, and so is this swamp sparrow, distinctive in its chestnut hues. It's well-named - swamp sparrows are very much birds of wetland habitats. This one perches on a senescent snarl of soft-stemmed bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. I probably saw or heard several dozen in the Dutch Fork Wetlands. Prior to the arboretum's wetland restoration work, there were probably none.

This normally shy skulker was the best of the Melospiza sparrows, if one feels obligated to rank such things. It is a Lincoln's sparrow, named for 21 year old Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied John James Audubon on his 1833 expedition to Labrador. Young Lincoln bagged the first specimen of this sparrow, and Audubon named it for him.

I see plenty of breeding Lincoln's sparrows every year on their breeding grounds in northern Michigan and usually elsewhere in the North Country. There, they come out of their shell and often sing their beautiful melodies from open perches. I have never heard one sing down here in migration, and they typically sneak about furtively in dense tangles of vegetation near the ground.

Thus, I was pleased to hear the call notes of several Lincoln's sparrows soon after arriving, and found about ten of them in all. This one - and several of the others - were feasting on cup-plant seeds.

In total, I located nine species of sparrows on this day (others included chipping sparrow, eastern towhee, Savannah sparrow, and white-throated sparrow). Missed were my hoped for primary targets, the Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows. Dutch Fork Wetlands in fall should be a great place to turn up one or both of these rarish wetland species.

Of course, not all was sparrows on this foray, and this nosy marsh wren amused me for several minutes. I was standing quietly and somewhat concealed, when the wren burst from a snarl of cattails and curiously investigated me from all angles. Marsh wrens are quite photogenic, if you are lucky enough to have clear shots at them.

Finally, it was time to head for my meeting, but this birdiferous sapling held me up briefly. For some reason, about every songbird in the Indian grass meadow wanted to use it as a lookout. In its branches, and I'm sure I'm forgetting one or a few species, were eastern bluebird, American goldfinch, house finch, palm warbler, and song, swamp, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and white-crowned sparrows, most of them simultaneously (sorry for the poor iPhone photo - I was over-lensed in terms of capturing the entire tree with a real camera).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fall colors

Nice to finally see some vibrant fall foliage in Central Ohio. Tree reflections in Lake Ramona, Clear Creek Metro Park, Fairfield County, Ohio, this morning.

Hydrological abstraction: Sycamore trunks and autumn foliage reflected in rippled waters of Clear Creek. Hocking County, Ohio, this morning.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nature: Golden fly a beauty, not some biting pest

An Atylotus bicolor fly, dubbed a "golden velveteen fly" after a recent sighting by explorers at Mentor Marsh near Cleveland/Jim McCormac

October 20, 2019

Jim McCormac

Say the word “fly” to someone and you likely will get a negative reaction. There are legitimate reasons for this. Tsetse and bot flies, pesky houseflies and savagely biting horseflies contribute to the bad rap. We will circle back to those horseflies in a bit.

Tarnishing the name of this astonishingly diverse group of insects because of the transgressions of a few bad actors is hardly fair. To date, more than 125,000 species in the Order Diptera (flies) have been described. Entomologists think that there could be more than 1 million species worldwide.

Most flies pose no problems to people, and they operate out of sight and mind. They are ubiquitous in nearly all habitats and are an integral part of the natural world. Flies pollinate myriad flowers, serve as food for higher-end predators, and keep other animals in check by predation. Overall, we know little of the roles played by the actors in this massive order of insects.Back on Sept. 15, I wrote about Mentor Marsh near Cleveland and the transformative restoration work there. Staff members of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Natural Areas Program have directed the removal of about 800 acres of invasive reed grass (Phragmites australis).

Native flora, no longer suppressed by reed grass, has returned with a vengeance. The proliferation of plants has ushered in a major spike in animal diversity.

On my tour of the marsh on Aug. 13, guided by Cleveland museum employees Becky Donaldson and Ben Piazza, I saw abundant evidence of the spike in animal populations. Bald eagles, Caspian terns, Virginia rails and several dozen other bird species were detected.

Interesting moths and butterflies flitted about, a coyote trotted across our path and gorgeous banded garden spiders awaited prey in their complex webs. However, it was a fly that won the day in terms of uniqueness, at least in our book.

At one point, a shout went up from Piazza — he had spotted a bizarre golden fly resting on a swamp rose-mallow leaf. We rushed over to investigate, and were rewarded with a stunning half-inch-long work of six-legged art.

The fly was elegantly clad in velvety golden hairs, and its enormous, multifaceted goggle eyes seemed disproportionately large. Even the wings were tinted in gold. The fly seemed imported from a Dr. Seuss tale; an entomological Lorax come to life.

Later, we determined the mystery fly was Atylotus bicolor, a member of the horsefly family. The gorgeous fly apparently lacks a common name, so we informally dubbed it the “golden velveteen fly.” Unlike other members of its tribe, this one doesn’t seem to be a biter, and I had to chase it a bit to obtain photos.

As showy as Atylotus bicolor is, we figured there would be much information available. However, we ran into an informational brick wall. Apparently the insect is very rare, at least in the U.S., and we have found only one other modern record, near Utica, New York. Most records are north of Lake Erie in southern Ontario and scattered Canadian locales, but even there it doesn’t seem frequent.

We later found out that another Cleveland museum employee, Grai Oleksy, had documented this fly in Mentor Marsh last year. As far as we know, that’s the first Ohio record.

As striking as the golden velveteen fly is, there surely would be other records if it were frequent and widespread. From our research, it appears nearly nothing is known of its life cycle, other than that the larvae occupy damp leaf litter.

One might ask “What good is the golden velveteen fly?” I would answer with a quote from famed conservationist Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

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, October 16, 2019

Fishes of Ohio talk, next Tuesday evening, 10/22

If you like natural history, and especially fish, you'll like this talk. Dan Rice is always an interesting, humorous, and informative speaker, and he's the principal author of the recently released A Naturalist's Guide to the Fishes of Ohio. I believe that copies of the book will be available.

The venue is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center near downtown Columbus. The festivities begin at 7 pm. CLICK HERE for complete details. Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Harrier, snipe, and sparrow

Time to throw the birds back in Ohio Birds and Biodiversity! I needed some solo bird therapy this morning, having had precious little time to observe and photograph the feathered crowd this fall. So it was off to a tried and true local hotspot, Battelle Darby Metro Park and its huge and successful prairie restoration. This place never lets me down, and it didn't today.

A female northern harrier wings past, just as she glimpsed me concealed in a natural blind of cattails. Prior to spotting the interloper, she had her head canted downwards, watching for voles. I saw one other female, and a striking gray adult male. Note the hawk's owl-like facial disk. The bright buffy tones mark her as a juvenile.

Dapper and sleek, a neatly marked Savannah sparrow pauses briefly atop a snag in a cattail marsh. This sparrow favors open country, but is not named for the plant community of widely scattered trees (which is properly spelled "savanna"). Rather, its common name is derived from the city in Georgia, where pioneer ornithologist Alexander Wilson took the first specimen.

We are at the peak of migration for Savannah sparrows, and I saw perhaps 75 of them this morning.

A juvenile Wilson's snipe, its plumage fresh and crisp, blends well with the punky duff of a drawn down cattail marsh. This species blends astonishingly well with its haunts. I first picked up a few snipe as they flew by, then flushed a few others. After settling into a particularly good snipe honey hole and carefully watching, I gained a better estimate of their numbers. I tallied nearly 50, but as I saw only a fragment of the available habitat I'm sure many others were present.

All told, a wonderful three hours afield on a cold clear October morning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Old birch log with maple leaf

Red maple leaf, on old white birch log. Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, today.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Fall foliage along the Dead River

Colorful fall foliage along the Dead River, just west of Marquette, this morning. Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Today was the first full day of our Upper Peninsula photo tour, and we shot a diversity of subjects. Scenes like this, a gorgeous kettle lake bog, tree tunnels, a rocky Lake Superior beach, and a couple of interesting waterfalls. Much more to come...

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Fall colors along glacial lake

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Maples in various hues and the ghostly trunks of white birch punctuate a background of white pine. Fall color is starting to come on strong in the north country. Big Twin Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, yesterday. Just to show that big telephotos can make good landscape lenses, this image was made with the Canon 400mm f/2.8 II, at f/9, 1/40, ISO 200. Tripod-mounted, of course, and shot in live view with 2-second timer delay to eliminate any operator-induced movement.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Black Trumpets

The black trumpet, Craterellus fallax, an amazing mushroom. Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, provides the backdrop. The mushroom numbers and diversity up here right now are astonishing! Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, today. We scouted extensively in the Hiawatha today, finding scads of gorgeous landscapes and other interesting subjects, such as this fungus.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Woodland path, with bridge

The path to Grand Sable Dunes, where 300 foot tall sand cliffs cascade into Lake Superior. Grand Marais, Upper Peninsula, Michigan, this afternoon.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Lighthouse, and Spruce Grouse

Debbie and I are up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, scouting in advance of our photo workshop which begins on Sunday. Nine great people will connect with us in Marquette, and off we'll go to see waterfalls, lighthouses, fall color and lots of other showy highlights.

I left Columbus yesterday bright and early, where it later hit a high of about 92F. Big difference in temps up here, where yesterday's high was 50F. At the tip of Whitefish Point at sunrise this morning, it was a raw 43F with strong winds off Lake Superior and spitting rain. Good photos were made nonetheless.

Late yesterday, while driving back a seldom-used sandy lane to Crisp Point Lighthouse, we encountered this hen spruce grouse poking around on the edge of the road. She fluttered up into the low boughs of a nearby spruce, and watched us carefully. The "fool hen" as they are sometimes known, sat tamely and allowed us to make many images. She was still there when we left. Just down the road was a young black bear, but it skittered off before cameras could be activated.

This was our destination, Crisp Point Lighthouse on Lake Superior. Debbie made this beautiful image and kindly allowed me to use it. Haven't yet had a chance to do anything with my images. The colorful sunset we hoped for did not materialize, but it's still an incredibly showy spot and well off the beaten path. On the way out, a snowshoe hare darted across the road.

More to follow...