Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Glaucous Gull, a sure harbinger of winter

A mammoth glaucous gull yelps its commanding presence to the masses. It's headed into a fray of hundreds of ring-billed gulls and some herring gulls following our boat. Only the great black-backed gull is larger, at least among gulls that appear in Ohio. This glaucous gull will immediately establish primacy among its lesser brethren by sheer force of size and personality.

Last Saturday I boarded the Holiday near downtown Cleveland along with several dozen other birders. It was the first "pelagic" Lake Erie trip of the season sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. I believe the December trip is full, but there may be spaces on the January 1 voyage.

We motored slowly down the Cuyahoga River from our launch point at Collision Bend, stopping once to await the passage of the 615-foot lake freighter American Courage. The river seems impossibly narrow to accommodate these giant ships, but it does although lesser craft may have to duck out of the way until they squeak past.

The same glaucous gull from a different angle, showing its pure frosty-white wing tips. This individual is a first-cycle bird. It will go through four cycles of distinct plumage before reaching adulthood at four to five years of age.

Before long we hit Lake Erie. Chum-master Tim Jasinski created a steady effluvia of bird-friendly chum (no popcorn or bread here!) off the stern, and before long we had a blizzard of ring-billed gulls in tow. As the weather has been relatively mild thus far, the ring-billeds were far and away the dominant gull, although a number of herring gulls peppered the flock. Bonaparte's gulls were almost non-existent, and every lake birder loves to encounter swirling masses of that species. Such swarms can attract rarer species such as black-headed or little gulls, or perhaps even a jaeger.

We did see a few great black-backed gulls - another species that will greatly increase in numbers as winter sets in - but this glaucous gull was the highlight. They breed in the high Arctic, and Lake Erie is a Floridian vacation for these feathered toughs. Most of them winter in colder waters, although some make it all the way to the Gulf Coast.

A few other avian highlights were peregrine falcon, which rocketed by offering a few fairly close passes. A rough-legged hawk passed high overhead; my first of the season. And the day's best rarity was a purple sandpiper, which obliging foraged on mossy rocks of a nearby breakwall.

All in all, an interesting four-hour float.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Red-shouldered hawk in LOW light

Corning Lake in the Holden Arboretum, on a chilly, foggy morning.

I visited the amazing Holden Arboretum yesterday for a meeting, and of course threw some photography gear in the car. The 3,600+ acres of the arboretum, which is a bit to the east of Cleveland, is a goldmine of interesting subjects. Following the meeting, we headed out to snap a few photos, mostly intending to shoot landscapes. The day was perfect for that, with persistent fog misting the grounds.

Days such as this, especially as wind was nearly non-existent, are great for shooting moody landscapes. Shutter speed is inconsequential as long as one is using a tripod. The image above was made at f/16, with a 1/2 second exposure at ISO 100. Good luck hand-holding that and achieving a sharp image.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An adult red-shouldered hawk attentively watches a garden below. There must have been a vole or some other rodent at work in the duff of the old plants. The hawk's head was on a swivel as he watched the potential prey.

I saw the raptor a little ways off, and being a big fan of this most beautiful of eastern Buteo hawks, naturally wanted to make some photos. Red-shouldered hawks tend towards the tame, especially ones that live in places with lots of people as this one does. And sure enough, the bird was not put off by my approach and largely ignored me as it fixated on the vole or shrew or whatever it was.

Fortunately I had Canon's remarkable little 100-400mm II lens already mounted on my camera, which was on the tripod. I like trying to create tight landscapes with telephotos and that was my game until the hawk surfaced.

The challenge was light. Completely overcast white skies and fog do not offer ideal bird photography conditions. If I were to shoot the bird at any sort of "typical" setting, the ISO would have been sky high. I am not a fan of enormous ISO ranges, especially if cropping of any sort will be necessary. We're talking grainy images, even with noise reduction applied in post-processing.

As it became clear that the hawk was unconcerned with me, I only had to hope it would remain in place long enough to practice some alternate photo tactics. With the gear firmly locked in place on the tripod, and at a comfortable working range from the animal, I dialed in f/11 to create sharpness throughout the subject, and set the two-second shutter delay option. Because of the awful lighting, it was necessary to go to +2.3 exposure compensation. Once focus was set - on the bird's upper breast* - I flipped the camera into Live View mode. This eliminates any internal movement from the mirror, as it's now locked up and doesn't activate. All of this gave me a shutter speed of 1/50 - too slow to handhold and expect much in the way of crisp images, even with the 100-400's stellar image stabilization. The ISO was 800 - near the upper limits of what I prefer, but okay and it was ISO that was largely driving the shutter speed that I selected.

Once all was set, it was just a matter of activating the shutter button, and hoping the bird didn't move between then and the taking of the image. It did fidget a few times, but for the vast majority of the shots it didn't. And I got something. Shooting against blah white skies won't give the pop that superb lighting conditions will, but sometimes that's all one has to work with. And not many animals will cooperate or remain immobile long enough to employ these photographic tactics, but when they do, this is a way to keep the ISO to a sane level and thus create less grainy images. I've used it on roosting owls and nesting birds in dim light, for instance. Thus, I can remain well out of their disturbance zone, and get images that can be cropped in without noise manifestation caused by high ISO.

*A minor gripe about the 100-400mm II lens is its seeming inability to focus on tiny areas with great precision. The reason that I had to focus on the hawk's upper breast is that the camera/lens combo could not auto focus on the eye. I could have tried to manually focus there, but prefer the bulletproof accuracy of auto focus, and in single-shot mode, the auditory beep that proclaims focus has been achieved. With a relatively small f/11 aperture, it wasn't a big deal, though. And I am probably spoiled by having some of Canon's larger prime telephotos. Those lens are incredible in their ability to focus in with laser-like precision on the smallest of targets, including the eye of this raptor in bad light. But the little 100-400 costs WAY less than those big primes, and one can't expect everything at that price point. And in general, the 1 to 4 is a sensational lens. I'm nitpicking here :-)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Nature: Rare sightings still bring a thrill for veteran birder

A vermilion flycatcher spotted in Wayne County/Jim McCormac

November 17, 2019

Jim McCormac

The allure of birds drew me in as a tot. By the age of 6, I was glued to the windows of our Worthington home, watching feeder birds. It didn’t take long for this nascent interest to blossom into a passion.

By the fifth grade, other kids were quizzing me about bird identifications. They would bring bird photos in magazines, cover the name and see if I knew what it was.

When the state granted me a driver’s license at age 16, my birding world expanded tremendously. Wanderlust is a common trait of hardcore birders. Every weekend was spent exploring interesting habitats, many of them far afield.

In one especially prolific teenage year, I made it to Lake Erie at least 50 times. Our Great Lake is Ohio’s most productive birding locale, by a long shot.

Many birding excursions were rarity chases. Unusual birds draws birders like moths to a flame. The rarer the bird, the more visitors. Praise be if it’s a “life” bird (never before seen) or “state” bird (new sighting for one’s state).

After 40 years of auto-assisted birding, and amassing 381 species for my Ohio list (about 430 species have been recorded in Ohio), the thrill of the chase has worn a bit thin.

I have come to view the acquisition of big lists as somewhat akin to avian postage-stamp collecting. I would rather spend valuable field time in interesting haunts, studying and photographing whatever crosses my path, common, rare or in between.

The obsession with the atypical never entirely wanes, though, and I took up the hunt again on Nov. 3. A vermilion flycatcher was discovered near Wooster on Oct. 25 by local birders Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber. This species is a denizen of the southwestern U.S. and a very rare sighting in eastern North America. There have been about seven Ohio records.

It didn’t take long to spot the flycatcher as it hawked insects from snags in a marsh. Even on this cool day, the bird had no problem finding bugs.

A first-year female, the bird probably had its discoverers temporarily flummoxed. While males are adorned with their namesake vermilion color and are unmistakable, females are somber in hue and not nearly so distinctive.

Word of the flycatcher quickly spread, and hundreds of birders from Ohio and adjacent states have paid homage to the western stray. For many it was a life bird, and a state bird for far more. The last sighting was Nov. 5, and hopefully the bird is now in much warmer climes.

As luck would have it, another rarity lurked 25 minutes from the flycatcher. A gorgeous male rufous hummingbird turned up at the Holmes County residence of Martha and Wayne Weaver. Martha first saw the bird at their hummingbird feeders on Oct. 23, and it remains as of this writing (Nov. 10).

The Weavers graciously allowed birders to visit, and by the time I stopped by more than 110 names were scrawled in their guestbook. This wasn’t the Weavers’ first rufous hummingbird rodeo. Amazingly, their feeders lured another in 2011.

Like the flycatcher, the rufous hummingbird is a westerner, breeding from Alaska south to Idaho and Oregon. This species is quite cold-hardy, and eastern vagrants typically appear in late fall. Some linger into winter. One or a few appear in Ohio most years.

It was great to revisit these normally distant feathered friends again, and almost in my backyard.

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.

A rufous hummingbird seen in Holmes County/Jim McCormac

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A plethora of pipits

A perfect storm of snow, followed by some rain and sleet, followed by a major temperature plunge, left much of Ohio enshrouded in an icy wonderland. Yesterday brought our first really cold weather, and I was out before dawn to experience it.

The virgately branched inflorescence of a tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima, shimmers with crystallized ice. It was 1 F when I made this shot. A vast field of iced over Indian grass forms the backdrop. Conditions such as these can make for good birding, as 1) birds are often more approachable in bitter cold, and 2) species that typically forage in fields such as this are forced to roadsides to find spilled grain, weed seeds and other fare.

Make no mistake, #2 is not a good deal for birds, as the incidences of road strikes by vehicles can skyrocket. Fortunately, the back roads of northern Marion County and southern Wyandot County, where I was yesterday, see relatively little traffic. Despite seeing scads of birds foraging along roadsides, I saw not a single roadkill.

Most interesting, to me at least, was the number of American pipits. I think I put a conservative estimate of 75 individuals in my eBird report for the day. The overall tally may have been 100+. Small flocks were scattered far and wide, sometimes comprised only of pipits, but often mixed horned lark-pipits flocks. The most interesting group contained a few dozen larks, a smattering of pipits, and two snow buntings. The bird in the photo was part of a group of four, and they were cooperative. Unfortunately for the photographer, it was only about 4 F and I was lying on the cold tarmac to try to get on their level. Tough shooting.

American pipits breed in the northernmost reaches of North America, in the tundra, and in high alpine meadows in the western part of the continent. The nearest nesters to north-central Ohio, where I made yesterday's observations, are about 1,000 miles to the north. Many pipits pass through Ohio in both spring and fall migration, but they are largely overlooked. The birds are prone to foraging way out in big agricultural fields and are easily missed. They are powerful flyers and diurnal migrants, but if one is not familiar with their flight calls as they pass high overhead, they'll pass by undetected.

The peak fall passage extends from mid-October through November. This recent early wintry weather forced pipits out of the vast agricultural hinterlands and to the roads where people could see them. Much of Ohio was awash in pipit reports, shedding light on just how many birds move through the state.

Also notable was a flock of five Savannah sparrows forced to the roadsides. This is another extremely common fall migrant. However, we're past peak fall passage, which mostly occurs from late September through late October. I suspect these birds are going to attempt to winter locally. They occurred in an area of 1,000+ acres of conservation reserve program lands dense in Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans.  These thick grass stands create their own ecology by spawning scores of seed, insects and their eggs/larvae, and offer protection from sometimes brutal winter elements. I've found Savannah sparrows here before in January.

ASIDE: This beautiful little sparrow is NOT named for the plant community of scattered large trees, which is properly spelled savanna. Rather, the common name stems from Savannah, Georgia, where Alexander Wilson bagged the first specimen. As a "species" the Savannah sparrow is widespread and complex. Nearly 30 subspecies have been described and many of these variations are quite different in appearance.

This northern mockingbird was one of five or six that had staked claim to a long fencerow of scrubby hawthorns and plums. The trees were rich in fruit, and those berries will play a big role in getting these mockers through the winter. Like gang toughs, the mockingbirds zealously defend their turfs against all comers, especially other frugivores.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Two rare (for Ohio) birds

As always, click the photos to enlarge

A gorgeous first-year (I believe) female vermilion flycatcher hawks insects from a branch low over a marsh. While common nesters in parts of the southwest U.S. - with most birds wintering south of the border - the vermilion flycatcher is a major rarity in Ohio. The bird shown in this photo is about the 7th state record, I believe.

I finally had time to go look for it on November 3rd, but Levi Schlabach and Elias Raber first found the bird on October 25. A great find by the two gentlemen and one that may have had them temporarily scratching their heads. Female vermilion flycatchers are not nearly as distinctive as the brightly marked males, and when birding the Wooster, Ohio region in late October, this flycatcher would not be high on your list of expected species. Insofar as I know, it's still there as of this writing.

This bird frequents a small portion of a large marsh in Wayne County, which is northeastern Ohio. I spent over an hour observing her, and she seemed to be catching many a bug, in spite of cool temperatures. Most of our records come from late fall and early winter, with at least one or two lingering into December, so this species can endure frosty weather.

Fortuitously, this little animal was only twenty-five minutes from the aforementioned vermilion flycatcher, in nearby Holmes County. A stunning adult male rufous hummingbird and another western species, it turned up at the feeders of Martha Gingrich Weaver and family. I made this image as the bird perched atop prominent branch tips of an ornamental crabapple, from which it sallied after small flying insects. The bird also made regular trips to nearby hummingbird feeders for sugar-water fixes.

The first Ohio record of rufous hummingbird dates to 1985, and we've had dozens of records since. It's still quite the rarity, with only a few birds seen in any given year, and very few of those have been showy males as is this bird. Like the flycatcher, it's a westerner and the hardiest of the U.S.-breeding hummingbirds, nesting all the way into Alaska and at high elevations in the Rockies. Martha first saw it on October 23, and it's still there as of today. The Weavers have been extraordinarily gracious in allowing visitors and at the time of my visit, well over 100 people had been there to admire the spunky rufous hummingbird.

This November 3 rare bird safari offered the possibility of a trifecta, but alas, it was not to be. Right on my driving route from Columbus, and only 30 minutes or so from the vermilion flycatcher was a cooperative pomarine jaeger. The gull-like kleptoparasite was frequenting a large reservoir and was found by Sue Evanoff and Sue Snyder on October 29. The vast majority of jaegers that appear in Ohio occur on Lake Erie, and one on an inland reservoir is always extraordinary. Reservoir jaegers nearly never linger for any length of time, let alone five days as this one did. Alas, its final day was the day before I was there. It was seen late in the day on November 2, and I was there near daybreak on the next day. Somewhere in between it flew the coop.

Two out of three ain't bad, though.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Nature: 'Logan Oak' stands tall after five centuries

The enormous "Logan Oak" in Old Logan Cemetery in southern Ohio/Jim McCormac

November 3, 2019

Jim McCormac

On Sept. 28, I finally corrected an enormous arboreal oversight by visiting the legendary “Logan Oak.” Located in Old Logan Cemetery in the city of Logan at the gateway to the Hocking Hills, the gnarled white oak is a Methuselah tree.

Why I waited so long to pay respects is beyond me. The tree is splendid in every way. Huge gnarled limbs radiate from a skyscraper trunk, creating a gargantuan bonsai that must be seen to be believed. I had intended a brief visit, but my homage extended for more than an hour.

The Logan Oak is easily the largest and most ornate tree of its ilk that I have clapped eyes on, and I have seen scores of its species. It’s awesome from any angle, and I did my best to photographically illustrate the sheer majesty of this plant.

Similar nomenclature sometimes causes confusion with the former Logan Elm. That tree was just south of Circleville in Pickaway County, and was a huge and fabled American elm. Its name commemorates Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe. A storm brought the tree down in 1964, its vitality sapped by Dutch elm disease.

A placard near the Logan Oak puts its age at 600-plus years. I’m not sure how that was determined, and six centuries would put the oak at the extreme upper limits of life span for Quercus alba. Even if we estimate a bit more conservatively and age it at 500 years, that’s still an ancient organism.

Five centuries of growth makes for a big tree. It would take many people to join arms around the trunk, and lower lateral limbs would make big trees in their own right. The crown spread is an enormous leafy arbor that covers 9,000 square feet. That’s about the expanse of two Clintonville lots.

Amazingly, the Logan Oak is not the largest of its kind in Ohio. That honor goes to a tree in Mahoning County. Its circumference is 298 inches, the crown spread is 128 feet, and this oak is 94 feet tall. As impressive as those stats are, the Logan Oak is not far behind, and bests the official state champion in ineffable grandeur.

If we arbitrarily made the Logan Oak’s birthday today, Nov. 3, and accepted an age of 500 years, that means the tree sprung from its ancestral acorn in 1519. The oak’s inaugural year saw Cortes and his band of conquistadors invade Mexico and Leonardo da Vinci die at age 67; the Ohio country was still wilderness. It would be 284 years before Ohio’s statehood.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Logan Oak has seen. It was huge when Ohio’s sixth governor, Thomas Worthington, established the village of Logan in 1816 and even bigger in 1839 when it was incorporated. Scores of people undoubtedly have marveled at the tree through the centuries.

A mature oak can produce 10,000 acorns in a boom year, less in a lean year. As oaks are producing fruit within two or three decades, the Logan Oak has been an acorn factory for nearly five centuries. It likely has produced more than 2 million acorns so far.

As I photographed the tree, several blue jays — migrants, probably — cavorted in its upper boughs. It likely was a jay that planted this tree. Jays are inveterate cachers of acorns, which they bury. Many of these buried fruit are forgotten, thus the birds are avian Johnny Appleseeds of oaks.

Fortunately, interested arborists occasionally collect and grow acorns from the Logan Oak, ensuring that spawn from the mighty plant will continue its venerable legacy.

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, November 2, 2019

Eastern Hemlock roots

The tentacular roots of an eastern hemlock tree, Tsuga canadensis, clutch a sandstone boulder at Old Man's Cave. Hemlocks do well on thin soil over rocky substrates, and over long time spans undoubtedly help break rock down by fracturing it, and calving big chunks from cliffs when ice and windstorms bring large trees down. The nooks and crannies within the root network also make great foraging areas for winter wrens. Hocking County, Ohio, yesterday.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Balanced Rock

This is "Balanced Rock", an interesting sandstone structure in Hocking State Forest. Softer rock comprising the lower portion of the pillar has eroded more rapidly than the cap at the top, creating this geological mushroom.

I had long heard of this amazing rock, but it wasn't until this morning that I hoofed it back to where it stands. It's a bit off the beaten track, but isn't particularly hard to reach and involves - if you took my somewhat circuitous route - about two miles, round trip. There are some other interesting sandstone features along the way, and plenty of nice scenery, as is nearly always the case in the Hocking Hills.

Today was our first truly cool morning, and I loved it. The temp when I first got out of my vehicle around dawn was around 32 F. I don't think it ever eclipsed 40 F while I was down there, and that was fine by me. We've crossed over into late fall, and winter will soon arrive.