Friday, January 31, 2020

Insect/Photography Talk! Monday, 2/3, Columbus

A Zabulon skipper, Poanes zabulon, watches for prospective mates atop a swamp thistle

I'm giving a talk next Monday, February 3, for the Westbridge Camera Club. The venue is Midwest Photo, the legendary Columbus camera store at 2887 Silver Drive, Columbus, 43211. Midwest moved to this bigger and better facility a few years ago, and they've got a great conference room with topnotch AV for talks.

Westbridge Camera Club welcomes guests, so I'm inviting you. The festivities commence at 7 pm, and more details ARE HERE. I'm going to weave together a pictorial tale of insects great and small, how they underpin food webs, and their importance. Spiced throughout will be tips and thoughts on creating better imagery, and effective methods for finding various bugs. Assembling this talk has been a nice diversion from a bug-free blah winter, and hopefully talk attendees will also be transported away from winter for a bit.

Hope to see you there!

An amazing lime-green soldier fly, Odontomyia cincta, rests by a pond. Its larvae are aquatic

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Old barns, of two flavors

While passing through rural Washington County, Ohio, yesterday, I passed by two barns, each of a different stripe. I couldn't resist stopping for a quick shot of them.

The finest looking "Mail Pouch" barn I've seen in years. The owners really keep it up. This barn advertisement campaign had great longevity, commencing in 1891 and going all the way to 1992. At its peak in the 1960's there were some 22,000 barns painted thusly, strewn across 22 states. One seldom sees a Mail Pouch barn this fine these days.

This old barn is much more rustic than the one above, but to my eye has even more character. Classic wooden barns, I'm afraid, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Southern flying squirrels! Many, many!

I recently had the opportunity to tag along on one of professor Don Althoff's southern flying squirrel research projects. This was not my first time at the flying squirrel rodeo. I wrote about a previous excursion RIGHT HERE.

The article mentioned above goes into the nuts and bolts of Don's research, and the biology of flying squirrels. This post is more a pictorial documentation of my recent excursion with Althoff and company.

We had a sizable group on hand, as evidenced by the photo above (and two or three people are not in the photo). Many are Don's students, and others are just smitten with flying squirrels, and interested in the dynamics of this interesting research. I have met very few academics who are as good at stimulating an interest in conservation and biology as Don is. He welcomes students and others in a hand's-on immersion into the world of one of the world's most intriguing mammals. Accompanying Don on one of his "flying squirrel trails" is an experience that no one will soon forget, especially if the squirrels cooperate.

Don Althoff, who teaches at the University of Rio Grande, atop a ladder deep in an Athens County woodland. He's got nearly 350 "flying squirrel boxes" up in trees on a number of southeastern Ohio sites. This particular woodland has about 25 boxes, and investigating them is a lot of work. A ladder must be toted along, as well as a bunch of research equipment.

Flying squirrels reliably use these boxes as winter roost sites, as well as for nesting. There's always a mood of expectant anticipation when Don scales the ladder to check a box. The throng below awaits his yea or nay, and if a yea, down comes the box for inspection of its inhabitants.

The first occupied box we encountered had, as I recall, two squirrels. Here's the box down on the ground being prepared for squirrel extraction. These little mammals move at the speed of light, so a careful protocol must be followed to ensure the subjects do not escape. In all, we located 18 squirrels, including a remarkable 13 in one box. That number tied Don's best box number, but a few days after this work he found two more boxes, each with 13 squirrels. So, will he find 14 in a box someday? Time will tell.

Each captured squirrel is weighed, various other data is collected, and it is carefully photographed before release.

Flying squirrels sure are cute, and seeing one like this always prompts oohs and ahhhs (or awwws). Note those sharp, long yellowish incisors peeking through, though. Flying squirrels can quickly cut away the hardest of hickory hulls. Experienced researchers soon learn to handle these wee beasts with the utmost respect.

A captured flying squirrel lays into a gloved hand. They get feisty when handled, understandably, and if given a chance may nip the hand that holds them. While those gloves are pretty tough, a squirrel's saberlike teeth can go right through, and I'm told they hurt.

This student got a lesson in aversion therapy in regards to careless squirrel-handling. The little mammal punched right through his glove and drew blood. Fortunately rabies and other diseases are unknown in this species, but sharp teeth sunk into flesh still hurt and bitees quickly learn to watch how they hold these animals.

Althoff demonstrates a proper hold. We can see the squirrel's amazing tail, which serves as parasail and rudder when in flight. Along with the patagia - winglike flaps of tissues along the body - the tail acts as a wing on the squirrels' amazing glides.

A squirrel just released and plotting its next move. They recover from the trauma of capture quickly and dart aloft. A flying squirrel going full tilt up a trunk is an amazing thing. They can move with ridiculous speed, and grip as if Velcro boats their paw pads.

The brown pelage of a flying squirrel blends remarkable well with this dead tree snag. Dead and dying timber, and their attendant cavities, are vital to the survival of flyers. This mammal is totally nocturnal, which is why people seldom see them. They require cavities for roost and nest sites. And there are a lot of flying squirrels in need of cavities, at least in wooded areas. There might be 4 or 5 flyers per acre, as compared to 1 or 2 gray squirrels in the same area.

A flying squirrel prepares to launch into space. First-timers are always dazzled by their inaugural view of a flying squirrel "flying". If an Altoff squirrel check is fruitful, as this one was, participants are sure to see glides. Released squirrels are placed head high on a tree trunk, and soon if not instantly dart high aloft. Then, usually, the squirrel will launch into space, arcing between limbs and gliding away.

Shooting "flying" flying squirrels is a tough photographic challenge, and this shot is no award winner. But it shows well enough the furry cape outstretched into a wing suit, with the rudderlike tail helping with steering. While these squirrels cannot produce sustained flight, their glides are incredibly aerobatic and can extend the length of a football field.

In all, a fun and highly educational day learning about Ohio's most common woodland squirrel. I thank Don Althoff for his generosity in sharing his work and subjects with interested parties, and creating awareness of one of our little-known mammals.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Orchid Photography Workshop!

A gorgeous Miltonia hybrid orchid

Spectacular Orchids! Photo Workshop, Cleveland Botanical Gardens: February 9

The family Orchidaceae is probably the most fabled, mystical and celebrated plant families in the world. Orchids capture one’s attention, and pique the imagination. The diversity of flower shapes, color patterns, and artful mimicry boggle the mind. Numerous species have evolved structures and coloration that look astonishingly similar to certain insects. These plants attracts pollinators who are fooled into thinking the orchid is actually one of their own. Other orchid flowers possess fantastically elongate nectar spurs. The nectar reward is ensconced deep in the spur’s base, and only moths with extremely long proboscises can access it, and thus pollinate the plant. Some orchids are epiphytic, growing high in trees. These ploys and many others have made orchids one of the world’s most successful groups of plants, especially in tropical regions.

While Ohio has only forty-six native orchids, there are thousands of species worldwide. Indeed, it is the second largest family of flowering plants with an estimated 28,000 species. Only the sunflower family is bigger. A huge slice of orchid mania goes on display at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens on January 18th. Scads of tropical species, including outlandish hybrids that must be seen to be believed, will fill the halls. All these orchids provide stellar photographic opportunities. At times, the dizzying array of subjects makes it hard to know where to focus. Staring deep into flowers often reveals faces, animal outlines, celestial objects and other patterns that beg for intense macro work. Other plants look best in their entirety, or in showy groups. Not only is a trip through Orchid Mania productive for creating botanical art shots, it’s a great tune-up for our wildflowers and an excellent respite from winter’s cold.

Focus on Photography has arranged a special showing and workshop on Sunday, February 9th. Our group will have four hours of access to the orchids prior to the botanical gardens’ general public admission. Following a brief classroom overview of orchids and their photography, it’s off to work the plants. Following lunch, we’ll return for more orchids, or to shoot other parts of the gardens. The outdoors gardens will also be available, and they’ll offer interesting winter botany shooting.

Fee: $65.00 for Cleveland Botanical Gardens members, $90.00 for nonmembers.
Space is limited. To register, visit

A bizarre Paphiopedalum orchid

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

White-headed jay continues on

This stunning white-headed blue jay appeared in my yard on January 12, and here's a photo from yesterday. He/she - although I dubbed it "Albert" - was out there raiding the feeders this morning. I wrote a bit more about this unique bird RIGHT HERE.

He's got a pretty good deal going here, with plenty of unshelled peanuts and other seedy fare. I hope he sticks around for some time. It's a gorgeous specimen, and really stands out from the typically pigmented jays, of which there are many to keep Albert company.

Perhaps the biggest threat is a good-sized (female, probably) Cooper's hawk that raids the yard daily. She's mostly after the house sparrows and smaller birds, but is more than capable of dispatching a jay. These hawks are incredibly aggressive and so cool to watch. Today, she ran into a dense forsythia shrub on foot in an attempt to rout the house sparrows lurking within. Hope she catches them all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Woodlouse Spider

This woodlouse spider has taken up residence in my basement. I've got no problem with giving her free room and board, but did make her submit to a modeling session today. These spiders are armed with formidable fangs, but like nearly all spiders are inoffensive marshmallows towards us. However, you wouldn't want to be around her if you were a pillbug or "roly-polie" (sometimes called woodlice). The impressive fangs enable the spider to puncture the armoring of these little crustaceans.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Nature: Sighting of fox squirrel came with a colorful twist

This melanistic fox squirrel appeared in the writer's backyard on January 9/Jim McCormac

 A normally colored eastern fox squirrel/Jim McCormac

Sighting of fox squirrel came with a colorful twist

January 19, 2020

Jim McCormac

Four species of tree squirrels reside in Ohio, and all have their charms.

The smallest and least known is the southern flying squirrel. It is common but seldom seen because of its strictly nocturnal habits.

Slightly bigger is the red squirrel, which occurs statewide but is more localized than other squirrels. It has a distinct preference for coniferous trees.

Most common is the well-known eastern gray squirrel, the typical squirrel of parks and suburbia in this area. Those who feed backyard birds wage war with this mammal. The squirrels often win.

Then there is the largest squirrel of all, the gorgeous eastern fox squirrel. A whopper can weigh 3 pounds and stretch 3 feet or more from nose to outstretched tail tip. If there were a beauty pageant for squirrels, this one might wear the tiara.

They are foxy indeed, with underparts tinted in showy burnt-orange. The upper pelage is a lovely grayish-black.

From my experience, gray squirrels far outnumber foxes in Columbus and its neighborhoods. The latter becomes more common in rural areas.

I recently moved to Worthington, an area I have long been acquainted with. Gray squirrels are abundant, but I have never seen a fox squirrel in my neighborhood — until Jan. 9.

That morning, I glanced out a back window to see a huge black squirrel sitting prominently on an open snag. It was as if it was posing for me. I usually keep a camera with a big telephoto lens at the ready, in case something bizarre appears at the feeders. Photographic prep paid dividends in this case.

Not only did I document the yard’s first fox squirrel, but it also was a rare melanistic morph, or form. My first thought was that it was a melanistic gray squirrel, but the massive size and tinges of orange bleeding through on the animal’s underside gave it away.

Black forms are far more common in gray squirrels, and in some parts of Columbus such animals are local celebrities. Melanin-enhanced fox squirrels seem to be virtually unknown, at least in Ohio. I have many biologically literate friends, and not one has said they have seen a black fox squirrel.

Melanistic fox squirrels are known to occur, just in far fewer numbers than grays. Most black fox squirrels appear in the southern reaches of the range, which spans the eastern half of the U.S. Conversely, melanism in gray squirrels is more prolific in the northern parts of its distribution.

Although the genetic mechanisms that produce melanism in squirrels is well-understood, the role of environmental factors that favor melanism, and possible gene flow between fox and gray squirrels, is lesser known.

I have not seen the dusky fox squirrel since the day I discovered it. Maybe it’s the vanguard of a wave to come, or it was a flash in the pan. Such animals would certainly enrich our squirrel diversity, that’s for sure.

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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

And now, a (partially) white blue jay!

So, just a few days ago, a melanistic fox squirrel appears in the yard. I wrote about that oddity in my last post. This morning I glance out the back window and what do I see? This strange and beautiful creature! It's a partially leucistic blue jay, absent the black (melanin) pigments that mark the face and neck of a typical jay. When I first saw the bird, it was consorting with several other jays at a feeder, and it stuck out like a sort thumb.

NOTE: I am referring to the animal as partially leucistic, even if that's being a bit general. One can get extremely bogged down in what seems to be largely unverifiable explanations for various conditions of pigment anomalies. For a good general discussion about anomalies in pigmentation, with a key to place birds into six general categories of color aberrations, CLICK HERE.

As a frame of reference for our odd jay, here is a typically plumaged blue jay. The black collar, eye line and dark saddle across the base of the bill are conspicuous plumage highlights of a blue jay.

Thanks to Julie Zickefoose (she authored THIS BOOK about blue jays) for aging this jay as a hatch-year bird (born last spring/summer). Whatever all the factors that caused its excessively snowy plumage, it is a beauty. The jay has been coming in to the feeders intermittently today, usually in the company of several other jays. I hope he sticks around. I'll certainly try and help by keeping the jay smorgasbord going.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A melanistic fox squirrel

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Right time, right place. I happened to glance out the porch windows into the backyard this afternoon, and was stunned to see a huge black squirrel perched prominently 25 feet away. It was the only time all afternoon that I glanced out there. My first reaction was to grab my big telephoto, which I often leave set up on a tripod for emergency situations. Unfortunately, I had to shoot the beast through a window, but the images came out okay in spite of that.

While my initial thought was that the unusually pigmented animal was a melanistic gray squirrel, as soon as I looked closer I rethought that identification. This squirrel was noticeably larger and chunkier than several nearby gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), and through the lens I could see its interesting orangish cast, caused by underlying hairs. This orangish tint is especially apparent on the squirrel's belly, face, and eye ring.

It was a melanistic fox squirrel, Sciurus niger! I had heard of such a thing, but had never before clapped eyes on one. I've seen many melanistic gray squirrels, and have written about them HERE. Indeed, at my annual forays at NettieBay Lodge and vicinity in northern Michigan, this is the common form of gray squirrel. Here in Ohio, "black" grays are far less common, but there are numerous enclaves scattered about. Melanistic gray squirrels appear glossier and more uniformly black than does this one, with a less robust tail, head and neck, and a skinnier gestalt. A typical fox squirrel is a beautiful mammal, with a deeply orange pelage. HERE is a post about them from long ago.

Much has been written about melanism in Sciurus squirrels, at least the two eastern species, fox and gray. Here's an especially detailed and wonky paper should you wish to learn more - just CLICK HERE. Sometimes, populations or individuals of "white" gray squirrels occur, such as the famous white squirrels of Brevard, North Carolina (CLICK HERE for more). I made a special detour last year to see those squirrels, and will have to write about them sometime. I'm not sure if "white" fox squirrels occur regularly.

Anyway, today's oddity fox squirrel was especially odd to me, as I know of no population of variant color morphs of squirrels anywhere around here - Worthington, Ohio. I'm told there are some colonies of melanistic gray squirrels in and around Columbus, but I've not seen any. This was also the first fox squirrel in this yard, to my knowledge. This little slice of suburbia is full of typically colored gray squirrels, and I just posted a cute photo of one a few days ago, HERE. There is even a pair of eastern red squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, constantly tearing around here. But never one of the big, comparatively clumsy fox squirrels. And the first one turns out to be a real standout. I kept a close watch for the black/fox squirrel the rest of the afternoon, but did not see him again. I hope he becomes a regular.

NOTE: Regular color variants of an animal - such as this fox squirrel, gray squirrels, or rough-legged hawks, or snow geese - are correctly termed morphs, not phases. Morphs are stable, occur regularly, and do not change or shift color. If they are black, or white, they will remain black or white throughout their lives. Phase indicates a shift or change in development over time, such as in a phase of the moon. If squirrel variants did shift colors from black to orange in the course of their development, phase could be applied as a descriptor. However, they do not. I add this because I see the word phase so commonly misapplied :-)

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Nature: Witch hazel blooms add burst of color to winter

Witch hazel in full bloom/Jim McCormac

January 5, 2020

Witch hazel blooms add burst of color to winter

Jim McCormac

Fall’s native flora disappeared months ago. The last of autumn’s flowers gave up the ghost by early November or so. Colorful asters, beautiful gentians, the last of the sunflowers — spent and returned to the soil, ushering in winter’s long, brown season of wither.

For people of a botanical bent, winter is a tough time of floristic withdrawal. Those who ride out our coldest season at northerly latitudes face many months of botanical barrenness. It will be late February before the emergence of skunk-cabbage heralds the onset of spring wildflowers.

Fortunately, a hardy fall-and-winter-blooming shrub snaps the long flowerless streak. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) begins blooming in mid-October but reaches peak flowering in late November in many areas. The showy shrubs often will produce flowers through December and even into early January.

Witch hazel is a woodland understory plant, overshadowed by taller woody brethren such as beech, maple and oak. In our region, its favored haunts are the rich soils of stream terraces and adjacent lower slopes. Multiple spindly trunks spring from a common point, giving the plants a bushy aspect. A tall specimen might reach 20 feet, thus attaining small-tree status.

Leafed-out plants are easy to overlook in the shade of the forest understory. Witch hazel is even easier to miss when it loses its leaves and blends with other leafless companion trees and shrubs. Until it flowers.

Seeing a witch hazel blooming profusely in December can cause a first-time observer to shake his head in disbelief. From afar, the plant appears to glimmer with scattered pale-yellow stars. Upon inspection, the flower proves to be an ornate artwork. The skinny, elongate petals appear to be crafted from confetti, and spring from a four-part lemony-brown calyx.

Once one has tuned in to the curious flowers of witch hazel, they often will soon notice other plants. Favored stream corridors can be lined with rows of heavily blooming plants, at a season when the admiring botanist likely is wearing a heavy coat.

Why would a plant flower in winter, especially one whose pollination demands insect assistance? As we all know — and many are grateful for — insect diversity and abundance plummets in winter.

But insects don’t completely vanish in the cold season, and temperatures higher than 40 degrees can bring out an assortment of tiny flies, and bees and wasps. Bugs in these groups probably are major pollinators of witch hazel, with certain beetles also contributing.

A small suite of moths also plays a role in witch-hazel pollination. Certain owlet moths are incredibly hardy, and sometimes referred to as “winter moths.” By shivering frenetically, these moths can increase their body temperature at least 50 degrees. They can take flight even on cold winter evenings. As these moths ply their trade under cover of darkness, the extent of their witch-hazel association is poorly understood.

Gardeners might note that their witch hazel blooms in early spring. Those plants are a southern species, Hamamelis vernalis (vernalis means “of spring”). It, or cultivars thereof, are commonly sold in nurseries.

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, January 1, 2020

Gray Squirrel

A gray squirrel offers a nice perspective on its incredibly bushy tail. I shot this one in the backyard, and squirrels around here have it pretty good. Feeders offer unshelled peanuts, all manner of other seeds, plenty of mast-bearing trees, and lots of good cover. Gray squirrel longevity probably increases in such suburban oases.

The longer one of these animals survives, the wiser it becomes, and the more likely it is to avoid detrimental factors such as predators. Gray squirrels can reach ten years of age or more in the wild, although such elders are surely rare. The animal in the photo did not reveal his age, but he/she looked fat and happy to me.