Wednesday, December 30, 2020

An unusual squirrel dray


An Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, has picked an odd place to site its dray (squirrel-speak for nest). The two stacked metal tables apparently met the squirrel's needs for an adequate supporting superstructure, and he built out of the box, so to speak. These animals normally place their drays high in trees, as many of this one's compadres have done in nearby trees.

My mother lives in Dublin Retirement Village, on the third floor. Her apartment features a small balcony, and this is where the squirrel has chosen to make its strange nest.

My brother, his wife, myself and other family members are frequent visitors to mom's place, and I happened to be there the first day the squirrel launched construction activities. By the end of the next day, he had largely completed construction. Squirrels begin with a sturdy latticework of small branches, which he harvested from nearby trees. Once these are in place to his satisfaction - there are hundreds of branches - he commences insulating the place with dead leaves. Many, many leaves are added, thoroughly chinking the gaps.

Sitting on the deck below the table is a small basket, and this may have been the perk that stimulated the squirrel to choose this site. His "bed" appears to be in the basket, which would provide yet another layer of easily insulated security. Ensconced within a well-built dray, the squirrel's body heat can keep the interior 20-30 degrees above the outside temperature. Sometimes two animals will share a dray, and that probably further increases the heat.

Gray Squirrels will sometimes make more than one dray, and this one may also have a more typical arboreal abode nearby. But, he seems to use the balcony nest as his primary residence.

Here is a brief video of the squirrel adding construction material. It's been educational to get a front row to the process; an activity that is normally difficult due to the lofty locations that they normally choose.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A rare white Christmas

Looking straight down the keyhole water slide at Indian Run Falls in Dublin, Ohio. This is the beginning of an interesting limestone gorge that drains into the Scioto River.

It seems that white Christmases are rarer, at least in this neck of the woods. Milder winters mean less snow, and often it seems that December 25 is green rather than snow-enshrouded. Yesterday brought several inches of powder, and it was still sprinkling snow this morning. The effect was quite beautiful, so I headed out shortly after dawn into the 14 F air to make images at a few local sites. 

Indian Run, a short distance downstream. The gorge here is quite impressive for the flatlands of Central Ohio. Limestone cliffs hem the stream in, and spring will bring many showy wildflowers, including some rarities.

I personally like winter, when it supposed to be winter, and relish cold snowy days such as this.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas Bird Count at The Wilds

A White-tailed Deer gazes at the photographer from a snowy meadow. Such conditions greeted participants at this year's Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, which took place last Saturday, December 19.

The inaugural Chandlersville CBC took place on December 16, 1995. It took a while to get steady feet, missing six years between then and the present. In 2010, Scott Albaugh took the reins as compiler, and the count has been going strong ever since.

The 10,000 acre conservation and research refuge known as The Wilds is the best known component of the Chandlersville CBC, and Wilds staff have been big supporters. I have been fortunate, since 2010, to be part of the team that goes inside the fences at the Wilds. This year, our Wilds leaders were Jan Ramer, vice president of the Wilds, and Genelle Uhrig, wildlife ecology associate.

About 25 species of large mammals, many of them imperiled in their indigenous ranges, are housed at The Wilds. They have plenty of room to roam, and as many species come from cold climes, a Muskingum County winter is nothing to them. All these free-ranging mammals makes for an interesting bird count, and I'll share some of our mammalian observations here.

NOTE: We do NOT ignore the birds :-) The expansive grasslands, ponds, and scattered woodlots provide plenty of avian fodder and our crew located nearly 50 species.

This is the sort of situation that makes birding inside the fences of The Wilds surreal. A herd of Sichuan Takin temporarily block the way. This massive "goat-bear" hails from Tibet and adjacent provinces of China.

A young Sichuan Takin - I presume born earlier this year. Takins are quite Seuss-like, and a hit among all who clap eyes on them.

These Pere David's Deer were not especially intimidated by our crew. A large deer native to China, it was hunted out in its native range by the 20th Century. Fortunately some animals had been taken to European zoos, and stock from successful breeding in captive herds allowed for repatriation to China. About 700 Pere David's Deer are now in the wild, in their indigenous range.

Persian Onagers, the "wild ass". It is native to Iran, and perhaps only 600 onagers remain in the wild. Two foals born at The Wilds were produced by artificial insemination - the first time this technique was successfully implemented in a species of wild equid.

Ah, a personal favorite, the Bactrian Camel. These hardy beasts can handle extreme heat and cold, and have no issues dealing with an Ohio winter. Fortunately, perhaps, the male was not in breeding conditions. A few years ago, "Gobi" as he is known, lit out after our vehicle, frothing at the mouth and soaked with urine he had sprayed over himself.

After lunch, Genelle took me in to see the American Burying Beetles. This federally endangered insect has nearly vanished from the wild and is among the rarest of the rare. The Wilds successfully raises hundreds, and each year releases stock into suitable habitat. At least some have overwintered in the wild successfully, and hopefully this project will help reestablish this spectacular insect.

A week old female Southern White Rhinoceros, with her very formidable mother. The baby weighed about 100 pounds at birth; the mother is well north of 3,000 pounds. Thus far, The Wilds has successfully raised about thirty rhinos. We also saw an adorable male rhino calf, born only the day before our visit.

A Cheetah sends a baleful stare our way. This is one of three species housed at the relatively new Carnivore Center, African Painted Dog and Dhole being the others. While the Cheetahs have heated buildings to which they can retreat, they are remarkably cold-tolerant and spend a good deal of time outside even in the coldest of weather.

Lastly, perhaps my favorite of The Wilds' charges, the Dhole. These wild dogs once ranged over a broad swath of Asia, but have declined precipitously for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to growing human populations increasingly conflicting with them. Sometimes known as "Whistling Dogs", the Dhole has a wide vocal repertoire and is quite social. They are very playful, and the small pack at the Wilds is always fun to observe.

If you are looking for an interesting trip, consider a "Winter at The Wilds" tour. You'll see much of what I shared here, plus much more, and experts will fill your group in on each animal's story. Bring your binoculars, too, as the birding is good. CLICK HERE for more information.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Seed-munching evening grosbeaks now visiting Ohio

A pair of evening grosbeaks - male above, female below/Jim McCormac

Seed-munching evening grosbeaks now visiting Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
December 20, 2020

Jim McCormac

On May 23, 1707, Carl Linnaeus was born. The Swedish scientist would revolutionize the naming of organisms with his system of binomial nomenclature. In the Linnaean system, an organism is branded with two names: genus and species. For instance, readers of this column, or at least most of them, are Homo sapiens.

These scientific names are sometimes more descriptive than common names. That’s the case with this column’s subject, Coccothraustes vespertinus. Translated from its Greek and Latin roots, the name means “kernel breaker of the evening”.

The species is far better known as the evening grosbeak. But kernel breaker is apropos, and a glance at an evening grosbeak’s massive bill reveals why. The “evening” descriptor is a bit nonsensical, as the birds are typically most active in the morning.

These robust finches of the north woods are death on seeds, even the hardest of nuts, pits, and stones. Woe to the sunflower seed that crosses a grosbeak’s path.

Even though their sunflower seed bills will skyrocket, most backyard bird feeders would gladly pay the tab to support a flock of ravenous evening grosbeaks. The male is stunning, boldly clad in bright yellow tones and contrasting black tail and wings. The latter are marked with large white patches.

Male grosbeaks’ heads sport conspicuous flared yellow stripes. Their headgear suggests the winged helmet favored by the Olympian God Hermes. Females are much muted in coloration, as is the case with most of our songbirds.

Evening grosbeaks are big news this winter. This species used to stage regular southward incursions into Ohio and points south, but winter invasions have become nearly nonexistent in recent decades.

The evening grosbeak’s stronghold is western Canada and western U.S. mountains. About a century ago, this species began moving eastward and eventually colonized boreal forest regions all the way to the east coast.

This expansion has been tied to increased use of box-elder as an ornamental tree. While grosbeaks do favor the seeds of this scruffy maple for food, I have my doubts that box-elder plantings triggered the large-scale range extension.

Box-elder is a successional species, flourishing in cut-over and disturbed habitats. The Evening grosbeak’s active period of expansion correlates with widespread logging and deforestation of the early 20th century. Great swaths of logged landscapes probably greatly spiked populations of box-elder, as well as other grosbeak-friendly fruit-bearing trees such as hawthorns and plums.

Maturation of forests and other land use changes may no longer favor grosbeaks, and their eastern population has greatly dwindled. Good numbers of evening grosbeaks typically occurred in Ohio in winter about every 2-3 years up until the early 1980’s. After that, they became much scarcer.

Whatever the causes for their decline, a winter invasion of evening grosbeaks is now a monumental event. They quickly recognize feeders as a food source, and many a birder has been delighted to find flocks decimating their seeds this winter.

Thus far this winter, evening grosbeaks have been documented in 59 of our counties. I suspect they’ve been in all 88 counties, and birds might appear anywhere, including your feeders.

Keep an eye out for these large extroverted finches. It might be many years before you get an opportunity to clap eyes on one in the Buckeye State. If you are so fortunate as attract them to your backyard buffet, prepare to increase the birdseed budget.

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


Friday, December 18, 2020

Olentangy River, wintry snowscape


The Olentangy River as seen yesterday morning, just south of the State Route 161 bridge in Worthington. For several days now, a beautiful frosting of snow has covered the landscape, creating beauty everywhere one looks.

Rising from headwaters in Morrow County, the Olentangy flows nearly 100 miles south before confluencing with the Scioto River near downtown Columbus. It is a picturesque stream over most of its distance, despite encroachments by agriculture, suburbia, and urbanization.

In spite of an enormous people population along and near the stream, much effort has been undertaken to protect the Olentangy River and its water quality and riparian corridors are in surprisingly good shape. I drive past - or over - this river nearly daily, and could not resist the temptation to stop and photograph it yesterday in the snow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A floristic throwback to Spring

As I write this, here in Central Ohio, it is lightly snowing and the temperature is around freezing. While I am a big fan of winter, snow, and cold weather, when the days become as short as they do this time of year I pine for spring and the resurgence of plant life.

On April 14 last spring, I made a foray into Highland County and the amazing Highlands Nature Sanctuary and environs. This amazing place - and many others - are owned and managed by the Arc of Appalachia. If you want to donate to a worthy cause, this nonprofit private conservation organization would be a winner. GO HERE for more info on the Arc.

The gorge pictured above was new to me. I dubbed it "The Jumbles" as the small stream wends a torturous path through massive limestone slump blocks calved from surrounding cliffs. The boulders were carpeted with moss, and wildflowers grew in profusion from the rocks. The place is magical.

One site in this area harbors a wonderful population of Shooting-star, Dodecatheon meadia. It was just starting to flower and of course some images had to be made. Most plants here have rosy-pink flowers, and are arguably even more striking than the more commonly encountered white form.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: This image and the following were made with Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens. It is superb for many types of shots, and I have taken to using it frequently to shoot wildflowers. I will usually sandwich either a 12mm or 25mm extension tube between camera and lens to allow for closer focusing. Sometimes I even use larger telephotos. I love the beautiful soft bokeh that these lenses impart to the background, and usually shoot at more open apertures such as f/5.6 or f/7.1. The rig is mounted on a tripod, and I shoot in live view with a 2-second shutter delay so there is absolutely no movement, at least on my part. Breezes are another story, and yet another reason why it's good to get out really early, when winds are often nil or mild.

A trio of Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, bunched together and fresh as can be. This common vernal wildflower is one of spring's botanical highlights and I never tire of them no matter how many I have seen. While shooting individual plants like these is fun, I was after a bigger trillia treasure, a spot that I long had known about but had never clapped eyes on...

Whoa! A torrent of trillium cascades down a wooded slope, seemingly pouring from a fissure in the overarching limestone cliff. This spectacle is jaw-dropping remarkable, and just reflecting back on the situation via this photo makes thoughts of sleet and winter fade.

Spring will be on us before we know it. It's always such a great time of year, as the flora shakes off its winter slumber and pops forth with a vengeance.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Nature: Snowy owl makes a somewhat rare appearance at Alum Creek


A snowy owl looks back at its admirers/Jim McCormac

Nature: Snowy owl makes a somewhat rare appearance at Alum Creek

Columbus Dispatch
December 6, 2020

Jim McCormac

Seeing a real live Hedwig – Harry Potter’s mail owl – in the flesh is always a thrill. Potter’s feathered postal carrier was a snowy owl, a magnificent bird that breeds in Arctic regions around the top of the globe.

People have been smitten with these huge white owls long before J.K. Rowling dreamt up Hedwig. Snowy owl cave art estimated to be 30,000 years old has been found in Europe. It’s not surprising that this magnificent bird of prey would draw ancient people’s attention.

Thirty millennia later, nothing has changed regarding human-owl fascination.

On Sunday, November 22, Beth Lenoble and Corrina Honscheid were birding along the dam at Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware County. Suddenly, a ghost on wings appeared, headed their way. “Snowy owl!” they exclaimed.

Word went out over social media, and before long dozens of New Age cave painters converged on the site. Their owl art was to be done with cameras and pixels.

Should you find yourself in proximity to a snowy owl, please remember: the owl’s welfare always comes first. Excessive harassment can cause them to relocate, increasing the risk to the bird’s welfare. Remaining about a football field away is a good guideline. Because of their massive size, great views can be had with binoculars even from afar. My accompanying photo was made from several hundred feet away.

The big white owl developed a fixation with the rocky toe of the dam’s slope, resting atop boulders. Occasionally, to the delight of the assembled throng, it would take wing and drop into a nearby grassy field for a vole.

I and my camera joined the lineup a few days after the owl turned up. Probably over a hundred people came and went in the three hours I was present, and countless thousands of images were made.

Small wonder, their fixation. A snowy owl is spectacular. Females – which I believe this one was – can be two feet long, weigh five pounds, and have a five foot wingspan.

A massive pair of piercing yellow eyes is set in a flat face, and those golden orbs are the same size and weight as an adult human’s. Owls have a human-like appearance and I think this accounts for a good chunk of the outsized interest that people have with them.

Woe to the small rodent spotted by a snowy owl. Unless it’s fast, the owl will silently fly to it and seize the hapless mammal in gargantuan talons. The rodent will be ripped asunder and the pieces swallowed and digested. Indigestible remnants – fur and bone – will be cast into a hard pellet, which the owl will later regurgitate.

While rodents are staple prey items, the owls can kill much larger fare. Canada geese, great blue herons, and gulls have been observed being captured.

In an interesting bit of anatomy, owls have 14 neck vertebrae, double the number of humans. This allows an owl to rotate its head 270 degrees in either direction. In the accompanying photo, the protagonist of this story is looking 180 degrees backwards. Don’t try it.

Because of past research, we know that at least some snowy owls that visit Ohio originated in the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec, some 1,500 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. Virtually all of the owls that reach southerly latitudes such as ours are juveniles. Adults, especially males, typically remain in the Arctic.

About every four or five years, a snowy owl irruption occurs in the Midwest. Dozens or even hundreds of owls might appear in Ohio, and one might turn up anywhere. I recall seeing one some years ago atop a water tower near Sinclair Road and State Route 161.

These booms follow summers of major lemming outbreaks. The burly rodents are the owls’ major food source on the breeding grounds. Large numbers of owlets are successfully fledged, and many of them venture far south the following winter.

This is not an irruption winter, and few snowy owls have been noted in Ohio. That made the Alum Creek owl even more of a celebrity.

Probably, by the time this column appears, the owl will have moved on. But during its stay it awed thousands of people from far and wide.

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

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Evening Grosbeak irruption


An elegant pair of Evening Grosbeaks (male, top) perch in the top of an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in Ashland County, Ohio. I made this image last Saturday, and there were about 50 others in the area. Bonuses included a pair of Common Redpolls, and two flyovers of small groups of White-winged Crossbills.

In regards to winter finches, the big news this winter is the Evening Grosbeak. These robust, vociferous birds of the north woods used to stage regular southward irruptions into Ohio and points south, but these incursions have become nearly non-existent in recent decades in much of the east and Midwest. Thus, a newer crop of birders is reveling in easy opportunities to cast eyes on these extraordinary birds. Evening Grosbeaks quickly recognize feeders, and are about as likely to turn up in someone's yard as anywhere. If a ravenous flock does materialize, prepare to budget more for sunflower seeds. Flocks foraging in the wild are often smitten with Box-elder (Acer negundo) seeds. This maple holds its fruit well into winter, and is common throughout Ohio.

Map courtesy of Birds of the World online/Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you want a superb source of avian information, this comprehensive compendium of bird monographs is a must. GO HERE for subscription information.

The Evening Grosbeak's stronghold is in western Canada and western U.S. mountains. About a century ago, this species began moving eastward, eventually colonizing boreal forest regions all the way to the east coast. The expansion is sometimes tied to an increase in use of Box-elder as a planted ornamental tree. I have my doubts - not that these grosbeaks like Box-elder fruit, but that a sudden proliferation of plantings caused the species to stage a large-scale eastward expansion.

Box-elder is very much of a successional species, flourishing in cut-over and disturbed habitats, in addition to its typical floodplain habitat. The grosbeak's expansion correlates with the widespread logging of the early 20th century. The great swaths of cut-over landscapes would have probably made for great opportunities for Box-elder, in many areas. As reforestation and maturation of eastern forests has increased markedly since, habitat changes probably have made this food-rich tree far less frequent than during the grosbeaks' expansion. Widespread deforestation may have stimulated temporary production of other fruit-bearing woody plants favored by grosbeaks, too, such as hawthorns and plums.

The grosbeak's eastern expansion may be a case of boom and bust. Declines in eastern populations over the last few decades are clear, and may be tied to large-scale shifts in habitat, especially forest composition and age. But the reasons for ebbing grosbeak populations are imperfectly understood.

This map is courtesy of Ethan Kistler, who has been tracking the extent of Evening Grosbeaks in Ohio this fall and winter. Such maps are a great way to share current information, which Ethan has been doing, and stimulate reports in unmapped counties.

As of now, grosbeaks have been reported in 59 of Ohio's 88 counties. Let me know in a comment if you have a record for one of the unmapped (white) counties. I'd bet a peck of finches that Evening Grosbeaks have been in every county thus far. Birds at feeders can't be missed, but wild-foraging birds certainly can, especially if one is not familiar with their calls.

GO HERE to listen to Evening Grosbeak calls. It's a pretty easy one to learn, and knowing the vocalizations will up your odds of finding this species. Pay special attention to the "calls" as you're unlikely to hear the "songs" down here in winter.

If you haven't already, I hope that you get the opportunity to see Evening Grosbeaks this winter. It might be many winters to come before we get another invasion.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Nature: Black-chinned hummingbird seen for first time in Ohio


A black-chinned hummingbird that made an appearance earlier this month, is a first for Ohio/Jim McCormac

Nature: Black-chinned hummingbird seen for first time in Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
November 29, 2020
Jim McCormac

It isn’t every day that one finds a bird new to Ohio. I’m sure that was the last thing on Dr. Cheryl Bater’s mind when she glanced at her hummingbird feeder at 7:27 Saturday morning on Nov. 14.

The veterinarian, who has a practice in Dublin, is by her own admission a casual birder. But she knew a hummingbird in mid-November was highly unusual.

This hummingbird was a young male or female, confounding an easy identification. Though adult male hummingbirds are distinctive, females and immatures can be far trickier to name.

The only hummingbird species that occurs regularly in Ohio is the ruby-throated hummingbird. But ruby-throateds should be long gone by this time, and the odds were greater that Bater’s bird was something else.

Bater posted photos on the Facebook Ohio Wildlife and Nature group, which quickly drew Jen Allen’s attention. Allen, an avid birder and photographer, made a visit, and sent photos to hummingbird expert and licensed bander Allen Chartier.

Chartier, of Inkster, Michigan, near Detroit, had a good idea of the bird’s identity, and the following Monday he made the 3½-hour drive down to try to capture the bird.

Catching a hummingbird can be easy if you know what you’re doing. Chartier places a cage around the feeder, with a remotely tripped door. Once the bird enters the cage to get to the sugar water, Chartier drops the door.

With the bird in hand, Chartier quickly determined its identity: a hatch-year male black-chinned hummingbird. Young black-chinneds greatly resemble young/female ruby-throateds, differing in subtleties of bill and primary flight feathers. The sprite weighed a smidge under 4 grams — about the same as a nickel.

Black-chinned hummingbirds breed across much of western North America, from southern British Columbia to northern Mexico. Most of them winter in Mexico, but small numbers regularly wander far to the east, usually turning up in Gulf Coast states.

Midwestern U.S. records are nearly unknown, and everyone involved knew that this “mega” would spur considerable interest in the birding community.

Bater opened the floodgates shortly after Chartier banded the bird. By the time of my visit on Wednesday, dozens of birders from all over the state had visited.

Rare birds draw the big guns. I saw Dr. Bernie Master of Worthington, and Cleveland birders Rob and Sandy Harlan. This hummingbird was number 386 for all of their Ohio lists — a phenomenal total and about 90% of all species ever seen in Ohio.

The black-chinned hummingbird is the seventh hummingbird species recorded in Ohio. Other than the common breeding ruby-throated hummingbird, all but one are western North American species. The other is the Mexican violetear of Mexico and Central America, which appeared in 2005 in Holmes County.

Why do these birds wander east? No one knows for sure, but the proliferation of hummingbird feeders is surely a factor. As is long-blooming, nectar-producing ornamental flowers that persist into early winter. Hummingbirds are powerful flyers and quick to capitalize on new resources.

Bird distributions do not remain static. Many species seem to have “scouts” hardwired into the population. These “vagrants” as they are often called, might be thought of as casing out potential new turf. Over the long haul, this is one way in which species can expand into newly favorable territory.

Lest you worry about the black-chinned hummingbird’s welfare as the weather gets cold, fear not. These are hardy birds — as long as they can get adequate food, they can endure surprisingly cold temperatures. It will leave when the time is right, although where it ends up will be a mystery.

Thanks to Bater for hosting legions of birders. Such an unexpected invasion requires big adjustments in one’s schedule, and occasionally can test one’s tolerance.

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, November 25, 2020

American Crows are full of smarts

An American Crow strikes a pose in my Worthington, Ohio, backyard. This is probably the smartest species - including humans and raccoons - that enters my property. Today, I had a surreal experience with two of them. I peeked through the kitchen window to see one drinking from my bird bath, its back to me. About 20 feet further out was another crow, prominently perched and perhaps acting as a scout.

The scout instantly saw me through the window, even though it was dim inside the home - no lights on and a dark rainy day. The lookout made some soft sound - no raucous CAWS or anything overt. The bird on the bath immediately swiveled its head over its shoulder to look right at me. And both flew off into some nearby spruce trees. It was as if the scout whispered "Psst! Hey Frank! Over your shoulder!" It would be fascinating to better understand how these corvids communicate, and communicate they surely do, probably in far more complex ways than we can imagine.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Frugivores, plying their trade

A male American Robin deftly flips a berry into its gaping maw. This bird and many of his comrades were devouring a thicketful of Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) fruit. I made this shot last Friday morning at Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, Ohio.

The likely evolution of brightly colored berries is to serve as bird attractants. Enticing strong fliers to eat and thus disperse one's fruit is an effective colonization strategy. The migratory and localized nomadic tendencies of robins makes them ideally suited to the task.

Unfortunately, robins don't discriminate between native berry crops and introduced ones, such as this honeysuckle. There are three species of Eurasian bush honeysuckles that have become well established and highly invasive in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest, and the shrubs have taken over with great rapidity.

Birds are the reason. Along with Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings (an invasive bird), American Robins are doing much of the heavy lifting in regards to honeysuckle dispersal. All three are highly frugivorous (fruit-eating), at least seasonally. It's very common to see mobs of these species stripping honeysuckles of their fruit, and they will expel the seed-rich fruit far from where they ate it, most likely. One could not design a better plan for a botanical takeover.

Other species of birds eat honeysuckle fruit, but I single the trio above out due to the sheer force of their numbers and strong tendency to harvest fruit crops. Collectively, those three species comprise about 9.5 million individuals in Ohio alone and that's a lot of honeysuckle harvesting power.

We can't blame the birds for this invasive scourge - well, maybe the starlings - but hopefully we can learn from our mistakes. The landscape industry and fish and wildlife agencies pushed these honeysuckles for a long time, touting their "wildlife" values and aesthetic properties (I would agree with the latter - they are quite showy). It should be very apparent by now that woody plants, especially shrubs, that develop colorful bird-dispersed fruits have a great chance of vaulting the garden fence and going rogue. Perhaps the nurseries could become more visionary and avoid selling these plants BEFORE they become problems. 

 A stone's throw from the fruit-plundering robins was this Eastern Phoebe. A tough flycatcher, phoebes will try to ride out the winter if conditions give them half a chance. This one was staying near a small stream on this chilly morning. Their odds of finding insects are higher around water. But on a few occasions I watched the phoebe duck into a patch of Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and scarf down a few berries. When push comes to shove, and food is of the essence, phoebes will turn to fruit. But because of their low numbers and ephemeral frugivory, they probably play a very minor role in invasive plant seed dispersal - certainly nothing even remotely approaching the gangs of robins, starlings, and waxwings.

HERE'S A POST from 2014 from a site where I caught a number of species in the act of honeysuckle plundering, and talk a bit about why honeysuckle is bad for birds and ecology. Here's ANOTHER POST about robins and global warming that you might find of interest.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A buck, in prairie grasses


A young buck White-tailed Deer observes the photographer from across a restored prairie meadow. His pelage beautifully matches the autumnal coloration of the Indian Grass. I shot him (with pixels) yesterday morning at Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, Ohio. To temporarily get his undivided attention, I snort-huffed like another buck. Not only did that make him look my way, it also drew him about 50 feet closer. But he quickly forgot about me, and continued his meanders through the prairie, perhaps following the scent cues of a doe.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Nature: Red-breasted nuthatches are a tough and energetic species


Lured by seeds, a red-breasted nuthatch perches on the lens of Jim McCormac's camera

Nature: Red-breasted nuthatches are a tough and energetic species

November 15, 2020

Jim McCormac

The white-breasted nuthatch is a familiar bird to many feeders of birds in our region. This small songbird is snowy white below and wears a coat of slate-blue above. A bold black stripe caps its head and neck. Most notable, perhaps, is its foraging tactics. Nuthatches creep along tree bark in the manner of woodpeckers. But they invariably head down trunks and limbs. Woodpeckers almost always head up the trunks.

Nuthatches visit feeders, and for most of the year – and some years, ALL year – we must make due with only white-breasted nuthatches. It is the only one of North America’s four nuthatches that is resident in Central Ohio.

But another nuthatch does occur in Ohio, the tiny red-breasted nuthatch. This northerner is a rare localized nester in the Hocking Hills, Mohican State Forest and scattered areas in extreme northeast Ohio. But most breed in the vast boreal forest that blankets the northernmost U.S. and much of Canada.

However, these tough little birds do pay us wintertime visits, at least some years. Red-breasted nuthatches are intimately associated with the coniferous trees that make up much of the boreal forest. In warm seasons, they glean plenty of insects, especially beetles, caterpillars, and spiders.

Come the long, cold northern winter, easily obtained insect bounty largely vanishes. Then, the nuthatches switch to a diet heavy in conifer seeds, particularly those of fir and spruce.

Roughly every other winter, the nuthatches stage major southward incursions, with some birds even reaching the Gulf Coast and Mexico. Snowbirds seeking a Floridian vacation? Not hardly. Elfin 10 gram red-breasted nuthatches are tough as nails.

In the accompanying photo, a red-breasted nuthatch perches on the end of my camera lens. They are not shrinking violets, although the seed I put atop the lens helped draw them in. I was standing in a forest in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, and the temperature was about 5 below zero F.

It isn’t cold that drives the nuthatches south, it’s the lack of food. The conifer seeds that are their wintertime staple are cyclical, with big crops every two-three years. Alternate years are relative busts with few seeds produced.

As long as food is plentiful, red-breasted nuthatches ride out winter in the north woods. One or two evenings during my January 2018 Algonquin foray, it dipped to 20 below zero. The nuthatches were unfazed.

Southward incursions of boreal birds are known as irruptions, and birders down this way eagerly anticipate them. I began to hear occasional red-breasted nuthatches in August. By October’s end they were everywhere, statewide and far beyond, and were visiting my feeders along with the local white-breasted nuthatches.

If the pattern holds, it might be winter 2022-23 or 2023-24 before we again see many red-breasted nuthatches.

This isn’t the only boreal irruptive species. Pine siskin – a close relative of the American goldfinch – is another. Siskins are also appearing in large numbers. Watch for small brownish heavily streaked birds with a yellowish wash in the wings and tail. Siskins often travel in flocks, sometimes sizeable. Groups up to 200 have been recorded in year’s past. Anyone entertaining such numbers had better increase their thistle seed budget.

Far rarer irruptives include common redpoll, evening grosbeak, red crossbill, and white-winged crossbill. If any of these appear at your place, give me a shout, please.

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

Monday, November 9, 2020

Luna Moths and their interesting tails


The flawless beauty of a freshly emerged male Luna Moth, Actias luna. This one was resting and drying on a small tree seedling in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, WAY back on April 29, 2011. While there is much to admire regarding the moth's elegant architecture and coloration, it is the tail streamers that often invite comment.

I think much of the long-standing conventional wisdom was that the tails mostly serve as camouflage of sorts, to help a moth perched among plant matter better blend with its surroundings. At least that's what I always thought. The tails undoubtedly do serve that role, too. I've seen Lunas hanging among green leaves on occasion, and the streamers do seem to break up its shape.

But there seems to be a more critical role for the tails...

I photographed this Luna on April 27, 2014 in Fayette County, West Virginia. While it is also a pretty fresh, recently emerged moth, this insect has apparently had a rough row to hoe. The tail streamers are nearly gone, and a big chunk is missing from the wing on the left.

Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that the tails present a false flag to hunting bats. The fluttering streamers when the moth is in flight creates an acoustic signal that dominates an approaching bat’s echolocation sonar. It fixates on the tails and, more often than not, ends up clutching a piece of tail while missing the body. The moth escapes, still with an opportunity to reproduce. Laboratory experiments featuring normally tailed moths and Lunas that had their tails removed, and a Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) showed that the bat caught only 35% of the moths with tails, but its success rate skyrocketed to 81% with the tailless moths.

I am about sure that's what happened to the moth in the photo above - a survivor of a failed bat attack. The V-shaped bite mark on the wing, especially, is the calling card of a bat.

My whole life has been moths for a while, because of a book project, and it has me frequently dipping into the files and dredging up old photographic chestnuts such as these moths. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

White-crowned Sparrows, eating aster seeds


A subadult White-crowned Sparrow feeds on the ripe seeds of White Panicled Aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, in my backyard. Two of these robust, handsome sparrows have been hanging around for several days. While the immatures are not nearly as distinctive as the adults with their dashing ivory-white crown stripes, the youngsters have the classic White-crowned physique. This is a big chunk of a sparrow, as sparrows go. Using a familiar benchmark, the ubiquitous Song Sparrow, The White-crowned Sparrow is a third heavier, and an inch longer in length and wingspan. It has a characteristic big-bodied, small-headed appearance.

The other White-crowned Sparrow caught in the act of plucking aster seeds. White Panicled Aster is a very common native plant around here and throughout Ohio. It came into my yard as a volunteer, along with Tall Goldenrod, Wingstem, and some other native members of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). I would never consider "weeding" them out, for obvious reasons. While these White-crowned Sparrows do graze on spilled seed below the feeders, they seem to prefer ripe fruit fresh from the vine, as it were.

The other, more obvious pinkish-fruited plant is American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. It is native to the southeastern U.S. but makes it no further north than Tennessee. I am not such a purist that I would expel it, though. This shrubby member of the Vervain Family (Verbenaceae) forms a wondrously dense thicket often used for cover by the songbird crowd. Especially when the local Cooper's Hawks stage raids. While the fruit do not seem to be especially favored by birds, the copious flowers are unbelievably attractive to all manner of pollinating insects.

My little suburban Worthington (Ohio) yard is serving as a refueling waystation for these White-crowned Sparrows, and many other migrant birds. All the native plants play a big part in making the half-acre plot attractive to wildlife. Most of my neighbors help, too, as they maintain highly manicured yards comprised mostly of turf grass and exotic plants. Thus, my space is an oasis for birds and other critters.

White-crowned Sparrows breed across the Canadian tundra, as far north as the Arctic Ocean and throughout much of Alaska and south at high elevations in the western mountains. If "my" birds came from the nearest breeding locales, they have traveled over 800 miles on their inaugural southbound journey. Chance are good they came from further north than that, though. This species typically winters from the Great Lakes region south to the Gulf Coast, so they may travel much further yet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Nature: Outfoxing wily raccoons is not a simple task

A raccoon raiding one of Jim McCormac's bird feeders/Jim McCormac

Nature: Outfoxing wily raccoons is not a simple task

Columbus Dispatch
November 1, 2020

Jim McCormac

Raccoons are abundant, range throughout Ohio and might be our most instantly recognizable wild mammal.

Close relatives of bears, they are immediately identifiable by their black-bandit mask and ringed tail. A big one can weigh 35 pounds. The wily mammals occur in nearly all habitats and thrive in citified landscapes. Raccoons are consummate omnivores, meaning that they will eat nearly anything. The meal plan includes our castoffs, as victims of plundered trash cans have learned.

In northern climes, raccoons go on autumnal food binges, packing on massive quantities of fat. Up to one-third of a successful glutton’s bodyweight is blubber. So much fat is stored that a raccoon can ride out winter without eating, if need be. They don’t truly hibernate, but will remain holed up in a den for extended periods during cold snaps.

We are smack in the midst of raccoon fat-storage season. This is when the masked bandits stage frequent raids on bird feeders — not that they wouldn’t during any other season. Seed meant for songbirds is easy pickings.

I feed birds, and have several feeders. The raccoons ignore the thistle feeder, which mostly attracts goldfinches. (Thistle seed is too small to interest the big bruisers.) They do, however, like my suet feeder, and at one time could access the hook that it hung on. The furry thieves would take the suet cage down, open it up and ravage the contents.

After the last suet raid, it took me more than a week to find the feeder. A raccoon had dragged it into the crevasse between my shed and the garage wall. It’s a miracle I ever noticed it, and recovery required rigging a pole-mounted grappling hook to fish it out.

Afterward, I found a shepherd’s-hook pole that was too skinny for the raccoons to climb. The suet dangled 6 feet over the heads of the frustrated furry freeloaders. One night, thought, a crew excavated the deep-seated pole from its ground mount, toppled it and made off with the suet. I am hard at work on Plan C.

My biggest battles involve my largest seed feeder, another pole-mounted job. In spring, a jumbo adult sow began bringing two young kits around. She would agilely climb the pole, using the raccoon baffle as a foothold, then fling pawfuls of seed down to the youngsters.

This was cute for a while. But it wasn’t long before the young raccoons could climb up, and sometimes I would pop the night light on to see a trio of them on the platform. Sometimes I would go out for a word with them, and they would smugly saunter off — only to return later that night.

As the seed bills spiked, I decided to outsmart these raccoons. I removed the raccoon baffle and heavily greased the pole with Vaseline. That worked for one night. By the second night, they had rubbed it all off and were back atop the feeder.

I activated a motion sensor on the nearby night light, figuring an unexpected dose of bright light would chase them into the shadows. No go — I could just better see them laughing at me.

My friends weighed in with all sorts of raccoon-thwarting advice, most of it bad. Some of the fatalists said I would never win, that the raccoons are smarter than I am. They might be right.

But for now, I have won. I pop the feeder off its mount most evenings, and stow it in the locked garage. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the raccoons figure out how to break in. I just hope they don’t steal my car.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cooper's Hawk


An adult male Cooper's Hawk perches on a backyard fence, yesterday. These exciting raptors routinely enter my yard, lured indirectly by my bird feeders. They seek the birds who come to plunder the seeds, not the seeds themselves.

It's virtually impossible for a raptor to "sneak" into the yard. Too many sharp sets of eyes. This guy was made instantly, and the alarm went up. About 12 feet away, in front of the hawk and to the left and out of the photo, is a dense shrub. A pair of Tufted Titmice were cursing up a blue streak at the Cooper's Hawk. He was ticked, and would make false starts in their direction, as he is here, but wouldn't launch as he knew there was probably no chance of snagging one in all that cover.

I've been pretty well glued to my desk for some time now, and can't see the backyard from my office. Today, on a rare trip by the back windows the same male Cooper's Hawk shot in and landed maybe ten feet from the porch windows. I always have a big camera rig mounted on a tripod and ready for action, fortunately. The hawk then hopped over to a nearby redbud snag I placed near the feeders. It makes for a great perch, including for raptors.

When The Coop's barreled in, he spooked a bevy of House, Song, and White-throated sparrows into the lush American Beauty-berry thicket that surrounds this perch. The hawk glared into the dense growth, but it's just too thick for him to work, and the sparrows remained safe.

Before long, he shot out of the yard, empty of talon. I'm sure these raptors take their share of "my" birds, though. I sometimes see evidence of their kills. This male is not the only one, either. A massive adult female sometimes visits - females can be one-third larger than males - and a subadult bird as well.

While the local songbirds don't care for these raptors, they do add action to the yard. The entire yard instantly changes when one enters. Mourning Doves will hurtle into tree cover as if shot from a cannon. Many songbirds dive for thick cover. Chickadees often "sleek": flatten their feathers and sit tight like a bump on a log, not even moving their head. They may remain sleeked for five minutes or more if need be. Bolder birds, like titmice Blue Jays, and Carolina Wrens might deliver unrelenting and loud scolds.

Interestingly, the Gray Squirrels act as if nothing is amiss when this male Cooper's Hawk is around. They'll continue feeding on the ground almost underneath the perched bird, as if it isn't there. Yesterday, a squirrel even went onto the same limb the hawk was sitting on and flushed it. If it's the much larger female, or one of the Red-shouldered or Red-tailed Hawks, the squirrels aren't nearly so bold and they too cower in cover. Conversely, the songbirds - at least with the red-shouldereds and red-taileds - carry on nearly as normal. It's hard for the comparatively clumsy buteo hawks to catch little birds, and the little fellows know it. They never fool with the much more dangerous Cooper's Hawks.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Monkey Slug: larval bizarro world

While going through scores of photos for a book project, I re-encountered these shots of a Monkey Slug, Phobetron pithecium, from Adams County, Ohio on September 17, 2016. The moth it becomes is nearly equally strange, and is known as the Hag Moth. Some think this cat (of a largely tropical lineage) is a mimic of a shed tarantula skin. Presumably most would-be predators, like birds, would find such fare distasteful and avoid it. I think, when viewed from underneath, the slug cat resembles a gracefully swimming sea turtle (image below).


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Nature: Northern flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

A northern flicker stretches on a feeder at Jim McCormac's home/Jim McCormac

Nature: Northern Flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

Columbus Dispatch
October 18, 2020

Jim McCormac

One fine April morning in 1919, an eleven year old boy named Roger Tory Peterson was exploring a natural area in Jamestown, New York. He happened along what appeared to be a clump of dead feathers stuck to the side of a tree, and investigated.

Poking the inert tuft with a finger, the object sprang to life and burst into flight, revealing underwings the color of molten gold.

Peterson’s inaugural experience with a woodpecker called the northern flicker would shape his life. He was instantly smitten with birds and would become a renowned artist, writer, and conservation tour de force.

His A Field Guide to the Birds appeared in 1934 with numerous subsequent editions. The Peterson bird guides anastomosed into a series of books covering numerous branches of natural history and influenced the careers of scores of naturalists and scientists.

Perhaps no one has done more to promote birds and natural history than Roger Tory Peterson. And the flicker was his inspiration.

Small wonder that a flicker would inspire Peterson, or anyone else. The robin-sized woodpecker is art on wings. It displays a potpourri of field marks: crimson crown patch, fawn-speckled underparts, golden lower wings and tail shafts, and snowy rump. If a male, bold ebony mustaches mark the face.

The flicker looks like it was designed by a committee of artists, but the members never communicated with one another. Yet the result is perfection.

I returned home the other day to find a male flicker occupying my backyard feeder, and quickly set about making some photos. This species is not a frequent visitor, unlike several other woodpecker species.

Of Ohio’s six commonly occurring nesting woodpecker species, the flicker is the most migratory. We’re in the peak window of fall migration, and my feeder bird was likely passing through. Their spring migration peaks in in mid-April and the birds are even more conspicuous then. Many flickers do stay to breed, and overwinter.

Flickers excavate cavities in trees – typically in dead timber – for nest sites. Old nest holes are used by other species: chickadees, titmice, tree swallows, and other cavity-nesting birds. Even flying squirrels make use of the handiwork of these master carpenters.

Most woodpeckers forage on tree trunks and limbs, excavating for tasty beetle grubs and other arboreal fare. Flickers are no exception, but they also habitually forage on the ground. Ants form the bulk of their diet, and ground-bound birds are usually plundering ant colonies.

Come spring, flickers commence courtship rituals and this can be a raucous affair. Birds will deliver long series of wicka-wicka calls from prominent perches. This is the likely source of their name: flicker is an onomatopoeia of the wicka call.

Courting males, especially, love to drum and the louder the better. The amorous percussionist will find the loudest possible substrate and deliver short bursts of 25 beats a second. Creative birds might use metal downspouts and the ensuing racket rivals a pneumatic jackhammer. While nearby humans will be peeved, the female flicker is presumably enamored by her clangorous courter.

A beautiful, conspicuous and charismatic bird, the northern flicker has been branded with scores of colloquial names. Frontier ornithologist John James Audubon dubbed it the golden-winged woodpecker. Gary Meiter in his book Bird is the Word notes that flickers have at least 160 nicknames, including cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellow-hammer.

Whatever you call it, flickers rank high amongst our most interesting, showy, and ecologically valuable birds.

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

Friday, October 16, 2020

Virginia Creeper: Stunning Fall Color

A liana of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinqefolia, partially frames a window at the back of my house.

Virginia Creeper is a native vine, and a member of the Grape Family (Vitaceae). It turns an impressive shade of scarlet-red in autumn, and is one of the more impressively colored plants of fall.

Creeper vines its way up the telephone pole in the back corner of the yard. Utility poles and all their junky attendant wires are ugly, and this vine improves their look. Especially at this time of year.

Yet another stand of Virginia Creeper clambers over a backyard fence. I mostly leave the stuff alone, as in my estimation the vines improve the look of whatever they're on. Also, Virginia Creeper hosts some really cool caterpillars, which in turn become really cool moths. Their ranks include several species of spectacular sphinx moths. One of these is the Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus, which often turns up in urban areas. This creeper and various closely related grapes are why. CLICK HERE for photos of this moth and its caterpillar, and a brief essay on the Vitaceae family.

Best to always leave at least some creeper and grape in the yardscape, and ignore the popular notion that these plants are "weeds" and best eradicated. They're native plants, and quite valuable ones.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Raccoons raiding feeders


A young but already robust Raccoon, Procyon lotor, treats your narrator's bird feeder as its buffet. The masked bandidos are a nightly occurrence in the backyard.

I don't mind them, too much. Raccoons are clever, adaptable, and engaging mammals and they're darn good looking to boot. They do cause problems, perhaps especially with the raccoon-borne Raccoon Roundworm, which causes a disease that can be devastating to Allegheny Woodrats among other organisms. And a lot of people seem to hate coons just because of their very traits of intelligence and adaptability. If a family unit gets access to your attic, I suppose such a sentiment would be understandable. For me, the coons are strictly outdoors - the house seems tightly sealed and I've never had any issues with Raccoons or other mammals other than the rare White-footed Mouse getting in.

I made this photo back on August 17, when the mother was still escorting her two kits around. This spring, when they were very young and could not yet climb up the feeder, she would sweep seed off the feeder and down to the ground for them. It didn't take too long for them to manage to clamber up, though.

I've had fun on Facebook posting photos of "my" Raccoons, and joshing about my ongoing battles with the feeder-raiding coons. The truth is, with only slight effort, they are pretty easy to defeat. If I really don't want them plundering my feeders - which only happens at night - I just take them down and put them in the (apparently coon-proof) shed. It takes less than a minute to stow them and the same to put the feeders back out in the morning.

But sometimes I leave them out, just because I like to watch the masked bandidos.

Photo Note: With these two images, you are looking at extreme ISO: 32,000! For instance, the first shot was handheld, at 1/40 and f/2. The other photo used about the same parameters although it was at f/2.8 using a different lens. By the time the Raccoons come around, it is generally pitch black. In the second shot, the image was made in the dark. For the first, I had an outdoor light on which provides better illumination, but the coons don't like that and will usually leave the feeder if I leave it on for long. I'm shooting through a (very clean) window and am close to the animals, so images do not have to be cropped much - cropping would greatly exacerbate the graininess of such high ISO images. A better solution would be to use flash, and maybe I'll have to play with that a bit.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Northern Flicker

A Northern Flicker sits for a portrait. This bird is a male, as evidenced by the prominent black "mustache" (malar stripe).

I don't get many flickers in the yard, thus I was pleased to look at the backyard feeders the other day and see this handsome animal gorging itself on seeds. Earlier in the year, a female flicker was a regular at the suet feeder. The regular woodpeckers here are Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied - all pretty much daily fixtures. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are consistent in winter, but they forage in the conifers - large spruce and pine - and I've never seen them at the feeders. I've never seen Pileated or Red-headed woodpeckers here in this patch of suburbia, although I know that they are not far off.

The flicker pauses to stretch, revealing its golden underwings. Flickers in western North America are of a different subspecies that was once considered distinct: the Red-shafted Flicker, with bright red underwings and tail shafts. There is a narrow but extensive zone of hybridization where the two subspecies come into contact.
Warring male flickers, sparring over a nearby nest cavity and female. The bird in the upper right won. This display was all bluff. I never saw them actually come to blows.

The Northern Flicker is one of North America's most interesting birds, in my opinion. I've written a piece about them, to be published in my Columbus Dispatch newspaper column next Sunday, October 18. I'll share that here after it's published.