Thursday, February 20, 2020

Ohio Natural History Conference: February 29

The Ohio Biological Survey's annual Ohio Natural History Conference takes place Saturday, February 29, and features an interesting slate of speakers and activities. This year, the conference is in the Toledo area, at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium. You won't want to miss it, and as a bonus the fabulous Oak Openings, and the marshes of western Lake Erie, are close at hand! Details HERE.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

And now for something completely different: Lambs!

I like shooting everything - weddings could be an exception - and when presented with an opportunity to photograph animals of any kind, will usually jump. A friend, Erica Burnett Thomas, raises sheep and two of her ewes just had lambs. She doesn't live far from here, so I stopped by Monday morning to make a few images.

I've long been interested in domesticated animals, and their history with humans. Sheep, Ovis aries, are thought to be one of the longest domesticated of agricultural animals. They likely descend from the mouflon, Ovis orientalis, a wild sheep that once ranged extensively across Eurasia and the Middle East. It's thought that sheep first began to be domesticated some 12,000 years ago. Their wool provides a fine fleece, and the meat is savory.

Besides all that, they're cute. Especially the lambs. These two little females are only about a week old.

At this early stage, lambs are gangly and awkward - all legs. She has spotted her sibling, and is dashing her way.

Ah - reunited!

For the most part, the lambs stayed in the shadow of their much larger mom. So much so that the big one had to take pains to avoid tripping over them. A ewe will often shun one of her lambs, and refuse to feed it. That was the case here, up until this outing. I wanted to shoot them outside under the sunlight, and this was the lambs' first excursion outdoors. For whatever reason, the ewe accepted the "black sheep" and began to allow her to nurse and remain in close proximity.

Thanks to Erica for letting me make some images of her flock.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A great program, short notice, but give it a shot!

I attended an interesting Ohio Environmental Professional Network breakfast meeting this morning, at Ohio State University. It featured a great presentation by Jason Ward, host of the Birds of North America video series on YouTube. Jason will be speaking and presenting some video excerpts of his shows tonight at OSU - details here:

He'll lead a bird walk tomorrow at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, starting at 8 am. The talk is free and open to the public, and tomorrow's walk is available for a nominal fee ($10 - $25; see comment in comments section). You should go. It's encouraging to hear positives about increasing the ranks of birders, and by extension, conservationists.

This photo courtesy Duane Gandelot, from this morning's event. L to R: Jason Ward, Jim McCormac, Nicole Jackson (EPN program coordinator), Anna Rose (Central Ohio Young Birders Club Adviser), Jeff Sharp (Director, School of Environment and Natural Resources), and Joe Campbell (EPN Director).

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Observers take a liking to lichen while hiking

From left, Shaun Pogacnik, Jim McCormac, and Tomas Curtis during a recent expedition at Conkles Hollow [Chelsea Gottfried]

Observers take a liking to lichen while hiking

February 16, 2020

Jim McCormac

NOTE: Because I occasionally get this question, and if you are not wily to the ways of newspaper editing, I do not write the headlines for my own copy. A copy editor does that. Not saying this headline, or any of the others, are inadequate, but me being a different person/writer, might choose other options. Also, two beautiful lichen species found on this trip are pictured at the end of the article.

Just about everyone has seen lichens. They are the ubiquitous greenish or gray crusts that are plastered to tree bark or festoon branches. Some species grow on rock, or even headstones.

Although largely ignored, lichens are interesting on multiple levels, including their fascinating multi-species structure. Symbiosis refers to different organisms that closely interact, and lichens epitomize this term.

A lichen is a collective of an alga and a fungus, living together and creating a composite species. The fungus provides structure (the “house”) and the alga manufactures the food. The individual identities of the symbionts — fungus and alga — are lost, and their combined identity becomes the lichen.

Why do lichens matter? Animals from insects to mammals eat them or use lichens for shelter. Hummingbirds shingle their nests with them. They help in soil formation by breaking down rock, and they enrich soil with nitrogen secretions.

Lichens are sensitive to airborne pollutants and serve as an early warning system for toxins in the environment. People make showy dyes from chemicals infused in lichens.

Finally, diverse, showy and ubiquitous lichens visually enhance the world around us.

On Feb. 1, I participated in an epic lichen expedition with two outstanding lichenologists, Tomas Curtis and Shaun Pogacnik, along with teacher Chelsea Gottfried. We visited Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve in the Hocking Hills, a gorgeous site that is loaded with lichens.

Curtis, 21, attends the University of Akron and Pogacnik, 24, is a student at Ohio University. Both are fanatical about biology and have made unbelievable strides in helping to expand lichen knowledge in Ohio and beyond.

Gottfried and I quickly realized we were on a rocket ship ride on the learning curve of lichens. We hadn’t made it 20 feet up the trail before Curtis and Pogacnik had found a dozen species or more.

We slowly advanced, with the guys — whose powers of observation are far beyond average — constantly calling out new species.

Although some lichens are big, ornate and can’t be missed, far more are the definition of obscurity. Some so much so that even when presented with an aggregation of various tree crusts, Curtis and Pogacnik would literally have to put a finger on the species in question so we could pick it out.

It was impressive to hear them identifying scores of species, by scientific name: Dimelaena oreina! Imshaugia aleurites! Lepraria finkii! We sometimes would ask for common names, and they knew those, too: golden moonglow lichen! salted starburst lichen! fluffy dust lichen!

I think my mind finally blew when Curtis called us over to see a truly Lilliputian species, the Sulphur pin lichen, growing deep within the furrows of tree bark. Even a woodpecker would have missed it.

The day’s total was in excess of 100 species. Fewer than 700 species are known in Ohio, and we visited only one site.

Both men have made many notable finds, including new species for Ohio, rediscovery of extirpated lichens not seen in decades, and even species new to science.

Curtis has thus far found about 200 species of microlichens — really tiny ones — new to Ohio, a jaw-dropping accomplishment.

Curtis and Pogacnik represent the very best of a new generation of field biologists. They are keen observers, possess endless intellectual curiosity, have an infatuation with unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, and a passion for protecting it. I wish we could clone them.

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
British-soldier lichen, Cladonia didyma

Smooth axil-bristle lichen, Myelochroa galbina

Friday, February 14, 2020

A pair of dashing cardinals, and Albert the white-headed jay, in snow

Yesterday dawned cold and snowy. It was one of very few snowfalls in central Ohio this winter, and perhaps the best to date. I was stuck at home, working on a book project, but what is life without birds and photography? So, as soon as it was light enough, I took some snaps while the snow still clung to the branches. Albert, the gorgeous white-headed blue jay, was my main quarry but lots of other subjects presented themselves, including these cardinals.

A male northern cardinal glows from a snowy branch. Cardinals are one of the showiest North American birds, and look dazzling anywhere, anytime. But there's nothing that makes the males pop like a fresh coat of snow.

Because this is such a common songbird, it's possible to become jaded to cardinals. Never let that happen. It hardly seems possible that such a gorgeous, exotic-looking animal could be in our midst.

Here's the crimson fellow's mate. She looks fabulous too. Just in a more understated way. The lengthening days have stimulated cardinals to increase their singing. It's a beautiful whistled song often described as "cheery". And that it is. If you have the time to look, it's always worth glancing around to locate the singer. I constantly do this, with all singing birds, as it's a great way to keep honing your ability to rapidly find birds. But there's another possible reward for finding singing cardinals. It might be the female that is singing! They don't sing as often as males, but when they do it's every bit as melodic and artful as the male.

And here he is, Albert, "my" amazing blue jay! He's looking at me as if to say, "what have you done!", in reference to the snow. As he was born last year, this is his (I don't really know if it's a him or her, but with a name like Albert, I'll go with him :-)) first winter. And first exposures to snow.

Albert remains a fixture, bombarding the feeders for unshelled peanuts and other seed every day, especially in the morning. The morning that I made this image, I replenished the feeders shortly after daybreak, and Albert was out there berating me for moving too slowly. He's quite bold, as jays are, and freely speaks his mind. I have been pleased to see that he does not allow the "normie" jays to push him about.

This special white-headed jay has been here for over a month now, and it'll be interesting to see how long he remains.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


A gorgeous Phalaenopsis orchid on display in the Cleveland Botanical Garden. It was one of several thousand orchids that currently adorn the sprawling facility. The annual Orchid Mania show is a great way to escape the dreary blah of our cold gray winter, and tune up for the forthcoming growing season.

Last Sunday, Debbie DiCarlo and I led a photo workshop here that concentrated on orchids and floral photography, as part of our Focus on Photography business. It won't be our last. The workshop quickly filled to capacity (20 people) and everyone got lots of eye candy photography and hopefully learned a lot about making images.

This is the only workshop or tour like this, for us. Everything else is outdoors, focusing on natural landscapes and native flora and fauna. We have some interesting ones this year. See the whole slate RIGHT HERE. We'd welcome you along on any of these, and love to work with photographers of all stripes and abilities.

Following are some of my images taken during the workshop. While I'm fascinated by the Orchidaceae (2nd largest plant family in the world!), I am no expert on domesticated captives and their myriad forms and hybrids. I've tried to name them as best I can, but if you see a mistake, please let me know.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTES: I shot everything with my Canon 5D IV, and Canon's amazing and versatile 70-200mm f/2.8 II, with a 12mm extension tube. It works great for fare such as this, and the zoom offers easy compositional flexibility. Our group was allowed into the gardens three hours before it opened to the public. We were allowed to use tripods during that time (they're normally off-limits). So, in the morning we all shot off tripods with no flash, and all but one of the following orchid photos was made that way. Following lunch, we went out with handheld gear, and practiced using flash, to give everyone experience with two very different techniques. The three animal photos at the end were shot handheld, with flash.

Jewel orchid, Ludisia discolor

Venus slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum spp. (this is the only orchid shot where flash was used, in this set)
Paphiopedilum lowii x haynaldianum

Phaiocalanthe kryptonite x Calanthe vestita

Moth orchid, Phalaenopsis spp.

 Moth orchid, Phalaenopsis spp.

Stardust Firebird, Dendrobium spp.

Longwing, Heliconius spp.

Bananaquit, Coereba flaveola

"Bob", an incredible specimen of a panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Albert the white-headed blue jay appears in video

At the risk of wearing out Albert's welcome, here's a bit more on the handsome white-headed blue jay, from this morning. I've made a few prior posts that go into some detail about genetics and the reason for his white headedness. Above, he is seen in portraiture on this windy day. A very handsome animal, by any standard of corvid beauty.

A short video of Albert feeding his face. Albert excels at feeding his face. Shot this morning near the backyard feeders. Worthington, Ohio.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Nature: Genetics play role in blue jay's lack of blue

An unusual white-headed blue jay prepares to visit the writer's feeders/Jim McCormac

NATURE: Genetics play role in blue jay's lack of blue

February 2, 2020

Jim McCormac

In my last column, I wrote about an unusual melanistic fox squirrel. Although the average fox squirrel is dashing in tones of rufous and brown, this one is black. Dark forms of the eastern gray squirrel are well-known in Ohio, including Columbus, but melanin-enriched fox squirrels are far scarcer.

The dark fox squirrel turned up in my Worthington backyard on Jan. 9. Three days later, I glanced out the back windows and did a double-take. A blue jay with a white head was wolfing down seeds at the feeder.

I’m writing this column on Jan. 26, and both of these odd critters are still frequenting the yard. Sometimes at the same time, which makes for interesting wildlife-watching.

The squirrel looks as he/she does because of an excess of melanin, or dark pigment. It’s the opposite with the jay. He or she — it’s tough to impossible to determine sex in the field — lacks dark pigments only in the head and neck area.

Animals with localized patches of white often are referred to as piebald. Commonly seen examples include white-tailed deer and American robins. These animals can be splotched throughout with white, have pale heads or other localized concentrations, or occasionally are nearly all white. The latter examples differ from true albinos in lacking pink eyes, and normally aren’t as bright white.

The genetic condition that typically causes piebaldness is leucism, and splotchy animals are said to be partially leucistic (loo-sis-tic). When I first saw the unusual blue jay, that’s what I thought it to be — a partially leucistic specimen.

Leucism is a genetic condition that inhibits normal melanin deposition, causing dark areas to become washed out. But genetics that cause color anomalies are complex and imperfectly understood. One can get bogged down in complicated and perhaps unverifiable explanations for various pigment anomalies. Other factors might be at work with this jay.

Suffice it to say, this blue jay is an extraordinary avian no matter the explanation for its unusual coloration.

Odd color genetics is largely a numbers game. The more common the species, the more likely that leucism will manifest itself. That’s why deer, robins and other common animals are the most commonly seen species expressing color mutations.

There are an estimated 15 million blue jays in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that leucism would rear its head in this species on occasion. A quick internet search will reveal numerous examples, but few of them possess the showiness of “my” jay (in my biased opinion).

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