Monday, June 29, 2020

Black Cohosh, caterpillars, and ants

A can't miss plant of late June and early July, the black cohosh, Actaea racemosa. This robust member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) grows in the shady understory of rich woods, and were it a lesser plant it'd be easy to miss. However, black cohosh towers up to six feet, or even taller, and the luminescent spikes of white flowers make it stick out like a sore thumb.

I ran across a vigorous colony yesterday on a steep slope in a Hocking County woods, which instantly caused a lepidopteran red flag to fly. There is a very cool - amazing, really - relationship between this plant, a little butterfly known as the Appalachian azure, Celastrina neglectamajor, and ants. The only host plant for this azure is black cohosh, and with a bit of knowledge one can often find the caterpillars.

The search window is narrow, as the cats primarily eat only the flower buds and then the flowers. The two little racemes to the left in the photo above, and the upper half of the larger raceme, are still in the bud stage. They'll quickly develop into flowers, at which stage the caterpillars will be pretty well grown. So, the azure caterpillar hunter will do best to look for black cohosh still in bud, and then watch for ants swarming a localized area of the budded out flower raceme.

And presto! A caterpillar! It didn't take too long to drum up a few, but out of perhaps two dozen plants checked, only three produced caterpillars. That seems about par for the course. The caterpillars' coloration mirrors that of the buds and stem, and were it not for the ants they'd be incredibly difficult to locate. Not only do these caterpillars prefer cohosh flower buds, they are even finickier. They're only interested in the innards of the bud, and the cat in the photo has its head (to the right) buried inside a flower bud. The flower bud immediately above it is cored out, leaving the tell-tale feeding hole of these larvae. Later, as the buds evolve to flowers the caterpillars will switch to those, and apparently if hard pressed will also consume foliage. I think this caterpillar is in one of its last instars - near fully mature - and if you scroll back to the first photo and look at the overall plant, you'll get an idea as to how small they are.

So, the million dollar question: Why the ants?

Their presence is part of a fantastic relationship between caterpillars (and other organisms such as aphids) and ants known as myrmecophily. This is especially common with gossamer-winged butterflies or Lycaenids, a very large family with some 6,000 species currently known. Basically, the ants involved in myrmecophic relationships "farm" their subjects, and in return are rewarded with highly desirable "honeydew".

The ants (I think a number of species may be involved and I don't know the identity of those in the photo) tend the azure caterpillar closely. They are essentially the cat's private security force, warding off attacks by parasitoid wasps, flies, and other would-be predators. In return, the caterpillar secretes nutritious "honeydew", a liquid excreted by the larvae. This stuff is clearly quite valuable to the ants, as they not only do not let the cat out of their sight, they often remain atop it. In my photo, seven ants are in the photo. No bad guys are breaking through these bodyguards.

So, if you run across black cohosh in flower, take a closer look for a squadron of ants swarming around the buds and flowers. Closer inspection may reveal one of these interesting caterpillars.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Jim McCormac Photography. Finally, my photo website is live!

Over the years, I have amassed a mountain of natural history photos (and other subjects, too). For some time, I've been dreaming of creating a website to showcase these images - and perhaps sell some, too. Photography is not an inexpensive pursuit :-)

Thanks to the talents of my friend Chelsea Gottfried, Jim McCormac Photography is live and on the air, and can be viewed RIGHT HERE. I also have a permanent link to the site at the top right of my blog's homepage. Chelsea was instrumental in figuring out the nuances of my hosting platform, and making everything look great, then teaching me how it all works. I can't thank her enough.

To date, there are over 1,000 images on the site, and I add more almost daily. It will very much always be a work in progress, as I have a backlog of probably at least 10,000 images that are worthy of addition, and I add new material from field forays weekly.

The site is diverse. I have photos representing most groups of eastern North America flora and fauna, and some of those groups will morph into giant repositories. Birds, insects, and flora are perhaps the three most massive groups - or they will be eventually. While many of my subjects are organisms that are quite well known, I am proud to have imagery of a great many species that nearly no one has heard of. Gotta go to bat for the underdogs!

There is also a Nature as Art section. These images, to me at least, are among the most photogenic of my work and might even look good on a wall. To get a flavor of the site and its contents, just open it and let the home page's automated slide show roll. I've got 80 or so images in that and they represent a diverse spectrum of my photography. Just CLICK HERE.

I hope you like the site, and please share it if the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Tubercled Rein Orchid, moths, and ecology

The greenish-white flowering spikes of tubercled rein orchid, Platanthera flava, arise among its thick strap-like leaves. Overall, this is an uncommon to rare orchid with isolated colonies. And it certainly isn't getting any more common.

I visited this beautiful tract of swamp forest in Hardin County, Ohio, back on June 18. The primary mission was to see this orchid, and it was at absolute peak bloom. And, as always on these field trips, I learned a lot that I didn't know.

A close-up of one of the flowering spikes. The Orchidaceae is the world's second largest family of flowering plants, eclipsed only by the massive sunflower family (Asteraceae). There are about 20,000 orchid species thus far described. Peak diversity occurs in equatorial/tropical regions, and numbers drop considerably as one moves north. There are 46 native species in Ohio (and one nonnative), or 47 if you are a splitter.

While a great number of orchid species are truly flashy plants with extraordinary colors and shapes, our perspective is skewed by those that are frequently in captivity and hybrids thereof. These plants generally are incredibly showy. Many species, however, require close examination to appreciate their subtle beauty. Such as this tubercled rein orchid.

It didn't take long to notice that a great number of very small moths were working the flowers. They turned out to be grape plume moths, Geina periscelidactyla. These moths are so elfin that when in flight they could easily be misidentified as mosquitoes. I probably saw 40-50 moths working the flowers, and there were undoubtedly more.

Orchid flowers often have long nectar spurs, and this flower morphology represents an evolutionary relationship with moths. In order to access the nectar at the bottom of the spur, the would-be pollinator must have a very long, flexible proboscis. If you enlarge the photo above and look closely, you'll see the moth's long "tongue" disappearing into the access port for the nectar spur. Then click on the previous photo and look at the flower at the top right of the inflorescence. You'll see the very long slender nectar spur jutting out to the left, towards the stem, and now one gets a sense of how long this moth's proboscis must be to reach the base of that. In the course of accessing nectar, the moth presumably pollinates the flowers.

As implied by the moth's common name, its caterpillars feed on grape and Virginia creeper (also in the grape family). Thus, the moth is common as its host plants are ubiquitous. All five Ohio grape species (Vitis) and both creeper species (Parthenocissus) are native, and collectively they do much heavy lifting when it comes to underpinning food webs. A great many moth species depend upon their foliage as food for the larval stage, and as we've seen here, one of those moths then apparently helps provide pollination services for a rare orchid.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Nature: Lady's tresses are a beautiful Ohio orchid

Shining lady's tresses at Myeerah Nature Preserve/Jim McCormac

Nature: Lady's tresses are a beautiful Ohio orchid

Columbus Dispatch
June 21, 2020

Jim McCormac

When one thinks orchids, thoughts might turn to tropical haunts: Costa Rican jungles, Amazonian rainforests, or other warm, steamy places. Such thinking would be correct. The orchid family reaches peak diversity in equatorial regions.

Many Ohioans probably get their major orchid immersion at plant conservatories such as Franklin Park Conservatory or the Cleveland Botanical Garden. These places have regular orchid displays, and the diversity of gorgeous plants, many of which are hybrids, is staggering.

But one need not venture to conservatories or jungles for a taste of the world’s second largest flowering plant family (the sunflower family is #1). Ohio has 46 native orchid species. While a tiny fraction of the family’s 20,000 species, our suite of orchids are a wonderful microcosm of the wonders of this group.

Among our most interesting orchids are the lady’s-tresses in the genus Spiranthes. There are ten Ohio species (or more, depending on how you draw species lines). For the most part, lady’s-tresses are short in stature, often less than eight inches in height.

Just prior to a recent trip to northeast Ohio, I learned of a population of shining lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes lucida) in Cleveland. This is a rare plant in Ohio, with perhaps a dozen or so known sites. After an earlier than planned departure and a minor detour, I found myself ogling the little beauties. They grew within sight of downtown’s skyscrapers.

The site was hardly pristine. Lady’s-tresses need regular disturbance, and often occur in what would appear to be ordinary, if not weedy, places. These orchids were in a reverting lawn in a park along Lake Erie. Following cessation of mowing, the orchids have begun to prosper. Proper mowing protocol will help ensure their continuation.

Shortly after that trip, I received a text from Cheryl Erwin of Bellefontaine. The attached photo was of a shining lady’s-tresses! Orchid lightning had struck twice in quick succession.

Chery’s find was in a wonderful 450-acre park known as Myeerah Nature Preserve owned by the City of Bellefontaine. She initially found four plants. Cheryl tipped biologist Dr. Eric Juterbock at the Ohio State University, Lima Campus, and together they found yet more. Eventually about 15 plants were located. That’s probably about typical for an Ohio population.

Park management was interested in the orchids, and worked with Erwin and Juterbock to implement tweaks in the mowing agenda to better conserve the plants. Kudos to Jeff Hyer, Myeerah site manager, for his efforts to work with these orchids.

I made it over to Myeerah on June 13 to get yet another dose of Spiranthes lucida. Lying in the rain on the soggy soil to photograph them, I could better appreciate their beauty. To me, the flowers of lady’s-tresses are slightly granular and look as if they were made of confectioner’s sugar. Unique among Ohio species, the shining lady’s-tresses has a bright lemony-yellow flower lip. This makes it, in my opinion, the showiest of our species.

Much of what accounts for the orchid’s scarcity probably lies under ground. Orchids are notorious for their fine-tuned relationship with subterranean fungi. Grossly simplified, the fungus attaches to the orchid’s roots, and helps nourish the plant. Apparently appropriate fungi is often highly localized, thus too are the orchids.

Thanks to the management of Myeerah Nature Preserve for working with this obscure but beautiful little plant. Parks should, in my opinion, strike a balance between managing for biodiversity and accommodating human recreation. They’ve done that here.

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, June 19, 2020

Scioto River: Genesis, to Terminus

I was up in Hardin County, Ohio yesterday, seeking an unusual orchid. Success on that, and perhaps I'll write about it later. Especially as we found dozens of a cool moth pollinating the flowers, and pollinators in this orchid are not well known.

While at lunch in Kenton, it dawned on me that the absolute headwaters of the mighty Scioto River were only about 15 minutes northwest of town. While I had seen the Scioto in this area before, I had never made photos of its origins.

The Scioto River is the longest stream totally within Ohio's borders. At 231 miles in length, it covers a lot of ground and touches a lot of lives. On a busy workday (at least pre-Covid) countless thousands of people at least view the river during their daily activities. Following are a few photos of this stream, from beginning to end. Prior to European settlement the Scioto River drainage (main stem and its numerous tributaries) was undoubtedly the most biodiverse river system in what is now Ohio. Even today, despite the environmental ravages, mainly agricultural in nature, this stream system is probably still the most diverse in regards to its fauna.

This field is where the Scioto River has its genesis. The mowed grass waterway, surrounded by corn, is the very beginning of the river. That distant tree line marks the absolute start of waters entering the system; waters that will eventually flow into the Ohio River at Portsmouth, travel downstream to Cairo, Illinois, merge with the Mississippi River and ultimately cascade into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans in Louisiana.

Here's a Google Earth view of the scene in the first photo. The diagonal yellow line in the bottom lefthand corner is the road where I made the image from. The Scioto River headwaters are those green lines running north from there through the brown field. The pale bluish line going north-south almost to the left edge of the photo is the Auglaize-Hardin county line, with Auglaize County to the west.

I have seen sources that claim that the Scioto River has its absolute beginnings in Auglaize County. As close as the county line is, it may be that during heavy rains some water enters the system from across the county line. But near as I could tell, on the ground, the river as a discernable entity begins right here.

This scene is almost exactly one mile downstream of the first photo. Not far upstream from here is where water begins to consistently remain in the stream. I had been by here a few times in the past, and this is why I someday wanted to return to photo-document the stream at this point.

It's ugly. Agricultural drainage efforts have turned our (arguably) most majestic stream system that exclusively belongs to the Buckeye State into a steep-sided drainage ditch. Note the algae, a legacy of massive phosphorous input from surrounding ag fields.

I sometimes wonder what our streams and water quality would be like today if our ancestors had had more foresight about land use practices that benefit everyone. What if, at statehood in 1803, our first governor, Edward Tiffin, declared that no one could plow, develop or otherwise alter the land within 75 feet of a stream of any size? My hunch is our water quality would be vastly better than it is today. Everyone lives downstream, and all people would be the beneficiaries.

This is the Scioto River at Kiwanis Park, on the north side of Columbus. Here one can find a vision of what the river probably looked like pre-settlement. This stretch is sandwiched between the only big dams on the river, O'Shaughnessy Dam to the north, and Griggs Dam to the south. They impound two large reservoirs which obliterated some of the Scioto River's most interesting topography. This stream section abounds in interesting aquatic animal life, and is a favored birding locale.

The lights of downtown Columbus skyscrapers reflect on the still waters of the Scioto, which is a centerpiece of Ohio's capital city. Water here is pooled by another dam, Green Lawn Dam, which is far smaller than the two behemoths mentioned in the previous caption.

From Green Lawn Dam all the way downstream to the Ohio River, the Scioto River is free-flowing - no other dams impede it.

I took this photo from the Higby Road Bridge in southern Ross County - not too far south of Chillicothe. That city was Ohio's first capital (1803-1810) and in a repeat performance, our third capital from 1812-1816. This is where the Scioto River enters Ohio's hilly unglaciated country - a far cry from the glaciated flatlands of points north.

This photo was made during a heavy flood event, and the river is swollen out of its banks. The southern reaches of the river, especially, are notable for regular flooding events. But northerly portions of the stream are certainly not exempt from high water. The famous flood of 1913 laid waste to much of downtown Columbus and took many lives.

Finally, our Cliff Notes ride down the river comes to its terminus at Portsmouth. These are the massive bottomlands at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers. Portsmouth lies at the base of the distant hills in the left of the photo, and the bridge far off to the right crosses the Ohio River and the hills of Kentucky lie beyond.

Most springs, anywhere from late February into April, this area floods on an epic scale. The effect is of a large lake and sometimes the water gets high enough to flood surrounding roads. As the flooding coincides with peak northward waterfowl migration, the numbers and diversity of ducks can be staggering. I have seen nearly every regular species of duck - divers and dabblers - in a single day, and many of those species in huge numbers. Scads of truly wild migratory Canada geese, too.

It would be amazing if someday wildlife refuges could bookend Ohio's longest river: the genesis, and terminus. The Scioto headwaters in Hardin County flow from a 16,000 acre region once known as the Scioto Marsh. Just like the area in the above photo, the Scioto Marsh must have been incredible for fowl and other wildlife before it was destroyed.

Nature can be forgiving, and we have learned repeatedly that restoring former wetlands, prairies and river corridors quickly bears fruit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

White-tailed deer fawn, at 24 days

This fawn was born in my backyard on or very near May 23, so it's around 24 days at this point. This photo is from this morning. The doe brings it in frequently. They enjoy noshing on the day lilies, which is just fine by me.

It's been fun to watch the rapid development of this young deer. HERE IS a post from the day I found it, when the fawn was newly born and helpless. THIS POST is from the day after I found the fawn, and he/she is already walking, albeit clumsily and in very short bursts.

To cater to the little fellow, I had let the back half of the backyard grow into a bit of jungle. Lest the neighbors sic the city on me, I finally mowed it all down a few days ago. Not a problem, the deer seem to be doing just fine.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Southern Flying Squirrels!

A southern flying squirrel, Glaucomys volans, pauses nuthatch-like, headed down a tree trunk. Last year, about this time, I received an invite from Roman Mast to come to his place in Knox County to see an extraordinary assemblage of these furry paragliders. You can read about that trip RIGHT HERE, and it explains a bit of Roman's relationship with the squirrels and why so many visit his yard.

Well, Round II for me and the squirrels was last Wednesday. I got word from Roman that numbers were building - June is the peak month - so off I went to see my friend and his amazing mammals. Once there, we didn't have to wait long. Flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal, but don't wait very long to emerge once the sun has fully set. I asked Roman when the first squirrel would appear and he said "9:13". Darned if I didn't see the first shadowy movement of a squirrel high in the trees at precisely that time, and by 9:15 some animals were down to the feeders.

A flyer in a rare moment of repose, and it's only still because it's eating a kernel of cracked corn. These little speedsters race about at the speed of light, maneuvering up and around trunks and branches at speeds that make your head spin. It's as if they have Velcro for paw pads.

That isn't to say they always get it right. Squabbles between apparent alphas and lesser squirrels are frequent, and in some cases physical tussles lead to a squirrel falling to the ground from lofty heights. We saw this several times last night. It reminded me of someone with a dud parachute that sort of slows the descent, but they still hit the ground with a good thunk. Apparently there isn't time for the squirrel to spread its patagium (the loose flap of tissue between the legs that forms a sail when stretched taut) and catch enough air to sail out of the fall. But each time, utterly unfazed, the squirrel would bounce right up and back into the tree.

Here's a brief video of a few flying squirrels working the primary feeding tree. Turn your volume up to hear a nice symphony of singing gray treefrogs.

Thanks to Roman for so graciously sharing the squirrels with me, and many others.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Dragonfly images requested!

Last year marked the final season of the three-year statewide Ohio Dragonfly Survey. A major byproduct of that massive census will be a comprehensive guide to Ohio's damselflies and dragonflies. It will feature photographs for each species, and we have been able to drum up good imagery for most species. But not all. To that end, we are soliciting quality photographs of the missing species to assist in completing this epic citizen science project.

MaLisa Spring, coordinator of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, has written a post about photo needs, which includes a "wish list" of missing species. I know many fine photographers read this blog - thank you! - and if you would be willing to help, please see Malisa's post RIGHT HERE.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Nature: Longnose gar a sight to behold in waterways across Ohio

The business end of a longnose gar/Jim McCormac

June 7, 2020

Jim McCormac

UPDATE: Following publication of this column in this morning's Dispatch, artist Juliet Mullett sent me a beautiful illustration that she created, of a longnose gar. Very few artists have chosen this fish as a subject, I'm sure. I've posted Juliet's artwork at the end of this post.

In the early years of my career with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I was lucky to spend much time afield serving as labor for two of the state’s best ichthyologists. Dan Rice was the zoologist for DNR’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, which manages Ohio’s system of state nature preserves.

Often accompanying us on aquatic expeditions was Ted Cavender, now a professor emeritus at Ohio State University. Cavender is the man when it comes to fisheries expertise. We went all over the state, surveying streams of all sizes. For me, it was a tremendous immersion into the underwater world and my interest in aquatic ecosystems has never waned.

Of all the fish we captured during these surveys, the longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus) was probably my favorite. Gar are fascinating in form, behavior and their ancient lineage.

Thus, it was a treat to see a longnose gar again, up close and personal. An aquatic foray on May 25 was spearheaded by fisheries biologist Kelly Capuzzi of the Ohio EPA and Amy Mackey, the Raccoon Creek Watershed Coordinator. We visited Rocky Fork, a small stream in western Scioto County.

This was purely an educational trip, and strictly catch-and-release fishing. Our main target was a gorgeous little fish known as the scarlet shiner. We found a few males, resplendent with fins of orange-red. Longear sunfish, greenside darter, rock bass, northern hogsucker, golden redhorse and other interesting species were captured.

But best of all — to me, at least — was when Capuzzi and Mackey shouted “gar!” and held the fish up for us to see. Perhaps the only person more excited than I was photographer Sam James’ 3-year-old daughter, Josephine. She stared goggle-eyed at the primitive fish with the big beak.

The gar was decent-sized at about 2 feet, but they can get much bigger. The largest Ohio specimen weighed 25 pounds and taped out at 4 feet, 5 inches.

It’s easy to sense the primitiveness of a gar when close up. It’s not that they haven’t evolved over time, but rather that this group of fish is old. Some experts believe their genus — Lepisosteus — has been around for 100 million years.

The most striking feature of a gar is its “nose.” It’s as if a mad scientist welded a crocodile’s snout to a pipe with scales and fins, and animated it. A gar’s snout is filled with tiny, sharp teeth, but we’ve got nothing to fear from these fish.

A minnow, on the other hand, best remain alert. Gars are stick mimics, loafing languidly in quiet backwaters. They look all the world like floating branches. When small, unsuspecting fish venture near, the “stick” explodes to life and grabs the victim in its toothy maw.

Gar are an important component of stream ecosystems. As apex predators, they play a vital role in regulating populations of other fish species.

A confounding and foolish myth regarding gar is that they decimate sportfish populations (they don’t). This misinformation is perpetuated by some fishermen, and stories abound of pole-wielding bait jockeys hooking gar, snapping their snouts and tossing them onto the bank to perish.

Here is the first sentence from the longnose gar account in the new book, “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Fishes of Ohio,” authored by the aforementioned Rice along with Brian Zimmerman. “Perhaps no other North American fish has been universally maligned and persecuted to the extent that the longnose gar has.”

Longnose gar are one of the most interesting of our fish, and they play an invaluable role in the ecology of our streams and lakes. Just because they aren’t tasty walleye or smallmouth bass doesn’t make gar any less deserving of plying their trade in our waters

Good local streams to watch for longnose gar include Big Darby Creek, Big Walnut Creek and the Olentangy River.

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
Longnose gar illustration by Juliet Mullett/Copyright Juliet Mullett, published here with permission