Sunday, July 26, 2020

American Woodcock, and Willow Flycatcher

As this blog's title does have birds in it, and the feathered crowd has been absentee here for some time, I thought it high time to rectify that situation.

Mainly, though, I just wanted to go out and try to photograph (I was going to say "shoot", but I've had people take that the wrong way :-) ) birds. They are still probably my favorite part of the natural world, my entrée into biology, and are almost always challenging and rewarding subjects to photograph.

So, this morning at the crack of dawn, I headed to a nearby metro park, Glacier Ridge, and spent a few hours birding/photographing. This time of year, at least on a clear sunny day like today, it's best to be out REALLY early. By 9 am or so, the light is already getting rather harsh and constrasty.

An American Woodcock, Scolopax minor, poses in a bed of Water-purslane, Ludwigia palustris, in a boggy opening on the edge of a marsh. There were three, a family unit no doubt. And a woodcock that's just sitting and preening - and at close range to boot - is decidedly not a difficult subject to shoot.

This trio is quite tame and utterly unintimidated by the myriad walkers that pass by nearly overhead on an elevated wooden boardwalk. A Virginia Rail was nearby, also at rest, but it was directly in line with the bright sun. I just admired it, rather than take photos that I'd just later delete.

For me, watching birds is as much fun as shooting them. This is undoubtedly due to my history as a hardcore birder LONG before getting serious about trying to capture bird images. I've been watching and learning about birds since I was probably 6-7 years old and for the majority of my life I just watched (and listened). Trying to make serious bird images has increased my knowledge of these subjects tremendously though - especially in regards to behavior. While I've always been more of a watcher than a listing ticker, sitting in one spot sometimes for hours, awaiting a good situation to unfold, forces the observer/photographer to notice in great detail the bird's actions and behavior, as well as that of many other incidental animals.

A Willow Flycatcher, Empidonax traillii, sneezes out its snappy little song while living up to its name. The bird sings from atop a willow, Salix ssp. Until 1973, it was called Traill's Flycatcher, but long before that people had noticed two important things about "Traill's" Flycatcher. There was a distinct partitioning of habitat within the "species", with one group favoring willow-dominated wetlands and low-lying ground, and the other more northerly group inhabiting very wet alder-dominated wetlands. And their songs and calls differed distinctly. Roger Tory Peterson was among those that discerned these differences early on.

In 1973, "Traill's" Flycatcher was split into two species: this one, and the Alder Flycatcher, E. alnorum. While Thomas Traill - a friend of John James Audubon and for whom Audubon named the bird - lost his honorific, the bird was correctly cleaved into two. I've become quite familiar with these species, as I see/hear scores of Willow Flycatchers throughout the Midwest every year. My regular late spring trips to northern Michigan, where Alder Flycatcher rules, have given me a good understanding of that species. In addition to habitat preferences, the songs are quite different. The Willow delivers a sneezy Fitz-BEW! as its primary song. The Alder gives a distinctive Free-beer! with a descending pattern. Once one is familiar with these songs, it's easy to tell them apart. Alder Flycatcher actually reminds me more of a small Olive-sided Flycatcher, and even gives pip-pip call notes similar to that larger species. It also often has richer olive tones reminiscent of the Olive-sided.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: On this excursion, I took my Canon 400 f/2.8 II (and 5DIV body) as I expected to mostly be working in pretty close range to my subjects. In my backpack were the Canon 1.4x III and 2x III teleconverters. So, in short order I could shoot with a 400mm, 560mm, or 800mm. The Willow Flycatcher was fairly far and atop a 20-foot willow, favoring a singing perch that he constantly returned to. The image above was made using the 2x teleconverter. This lens is one of few that I can consistently get good results with the 2x. It hardly seems to slow focus acquisition, locks on target instantly, and produces a very sharp image. 2x teleconverters cause the loss of two stops, but since the lens is an f/2.8, adding the converter only drops it to an f/5.6 lens. I generally want to shoot birds stopped down to at least f/5.6 anyway, and at smaller apertures if light permits. While adding a 2x teleconverter may seem like a relatively inexpensive way to double the magnification of your lens, I would try one out before buying. I've had unsatisfying results with most lens. This 400mm is the only one I've used where the 2x really shines and I have no qualms about using it with this lens. I also have Canon's neat little 300mm f/4 lens, and the 2x works pretty well on that, but the lens becomes an f/8 minimum aperture, and the teleconverter definitely slows focus on what is already a fairly slow to focus lens. For wildlife photographers able and willing to shell out a chunk of money, I'd highly recommend the 400mm f/2.8 II (I understand the new version III is even better). Because it pairs so well with Canon teleconverters, the lens offers tremendous diversity.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

An incredible mothing night: Part II

Picking up where I left off in the last post - mothing at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County, Ohio - here's another apparent dead leaf mimic, the White-dotted Prominent, Nadata gibbosa. As a caterpillar it is an oak feeder, and when the moth is perched on old oak leaf litter, as this animal is, it blends quite well.

A Holy Grail moth, and one we were excited to see. This bizarre oddity is a Harris's Three-spot, Harrisimemna trisignata. From certain angles it appears quite spider-like, as does its REALLY bizarre caterpillar. Not one, not two, but FOUR of these creatures came into the sheets. I'm normally doing well to see one a season.

This is the same three-spot photographed from the rear view. As someone suggested, it looks like a weird Dracula, cape outspread.

When there are several thousand moth species wafting around the state, it isn't hard to see a "life" moth. This is the Oystershell Metrea Moth, Cliniodes ostreonalis, and it was new to me. There are only two records for Ohio in iNaturalist, so apparently it's scarce in this region.

One of our most beautiful sphinx moths - and that's saying something! - the Hydrangea Sphinx, Darapsa versicolor. In my experience, it's not very frequent. Caterpillars feed on our (Ohio's) only native hydrangea, Wild Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens. Plenty of host plants were close at hand at this site.

Sphinx moths are excellent photographic fodder. This is a Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus, looking rather alienlike. It is a specialist on members of the grape family (Vitaceae). Grape and creeper species are keystone species in that they produce a large number of specialist moths, and are a pivotal part of food chains.

John Howard deployed his moth-wrangling skills, and created a sphinx wall of fame. From bottom left, clockwise, we have Ash Sphinx, Manduca jasminearum, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Darapsa myron, Hydrangea Sphinx, Darapsa versicolor, Elm Sphinx, Ceratomia amyntor, and Azalea Sphinx, Darapsa choerilus.

As with the spinx moths, it was a red letter night for royal silkworm moths. This family is full of beauty, and its species are probably the biggest crowd-pleasers. This is a male Io Moth, Automeris io. We had many, but all were male. I rarely see females, for whatever reason. Maybe they just aren't attracted to lights very much. Ios are characterized by those huge eye spots. At rest, the moth folds its forewings in concealing the spots. Touch it, and the moth quickly flicks its wings open, and Voila! Big scary eyes. Probably an effective visual deterrent to small songbirds and other would-be predators.

This is usually the most frequent of the silkmoths, the Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda. This night was no exception. Probably 15-20 came in. They are irresistible photo subjects.

While lacking the bright colors of the previous subject, the Tuliptree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera, is no less spectacular. This is a big one, the size of a small bat.

While walking between sheets and searching for caterpillars, Kim Banks found the caterpillar of another tuliptree feeder, the Tuliptree-beauty, Epimecis hortaria. This stout inchworm is noticeably thickened around the head. The moth that it becomes is an absolute master of bark mimicry. See THIS POST for an example.

Finally, towards the end of our night, John created yet another wall of fame, this one of four silkmoth species. We had no choice but to wait until late into the night to pose these moths. Silkmoths often do not appear until the wee hours. This night, the majority materialized between 1:30am and 3:30am, when we finally packed up.

From bottom left, clockwise: Tuliptree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera, Regal Moth, Citheronia regalis, Luna, Actias luna, and Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis.

Moths are an excellent barometer of ecosystem health. When a night of mothing yields a haul such as documented in this post and the last (and there were scores of other species), the surrounding ecosystems are diverse, largely free of toxins, and supporting robust ecological webs. At this site, the conservation heavy lifting has been done by the Arc of Appalachia. This amazingly productive organization has now conserved about 7,000 acres of Ohio's richest wildlands. Read more about their work RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

An incredible mothing night

An extremely productive moth sheet hangs from the side of a barn in Highland County, Ohio. The purplish light to the left is a UV (blacklight), and the big one towards the center of the sheet is a Mercury Vapor light. An excellent combo for maximizing moth attraction. John Howard, Kim Banks, and I were out running sheets into the wee hours on the night of July 17-18 (packed up around 3:30 am!), and experienced some of the best mothing in recent memory. Thanks to Nancy Stranahan, director of the Arc of Appalachia, for allowing us to survey an interesting swath of their property.

Native plants and the diversity thereof drive moth numbers and diversity. The Arc property that we surveyed is incredibly rich in floristic diversity. Thus: Plants = caterpillars = moths.

I am going to make this a two-part series, as I have so many cool moths to share. And if this blog seems heavy on insects of late, it probably is. Three big projects - two books, and a photography project - have cut my field time WAY down. Mostly it's been nocturnal mothing forays.
Non-moths often visit illuminated sheets, especially if water features are nearby. In this case, Rocky Fork with its exceptionally clean water is not far off. Because of this, a stunning number of huge Dobsonflies, Corydalus cornutus, came to the sheets. The larvae are called Hellgrammites, and are strictly aquatic. After multiple years in the water, the larvae transform to these amazing winged adults, which can approach a half-foot in length. The long-mandibled male (L) lives about three days; the female about 12 days. We lured probably 20 Dobsonflies.

As everyone who sees a male Dobsonfly wants to know, no - they cannot pinch. Formidable as those mandibles appear, the insect cannot generate any force with them. I know, having stuck my finger in there to affirm this for myself. It apparently uses the mandibles to joust with other males, sort of like an entomological elk.

A gorgeous Rose Hooktip, Oreta rosea. I personally do not see many of these showy moths. They are said to feed on birch as caterpillars, but I have only seen the cats on viburnum, specifically Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatum. The caterpillar is interesting in that it hides in plain sight atop a leaf during the day, looking much like a bit of plant debris.

The Giant Leopard Moth, Hypercompe scribonia, always a crowd-pleaser. We probably saw 15-20, maybe more. This species is very much the generalist, its caterpillars consuming a wide array of often weedy plants.

A trio of Clymene Moths, Haploa clymene. +This is another moth that always attracts attention and elicits comments. People often notice them, as they are prone to resting in exposed areas atop leaves during the day.

The Badwing (that's really its name), Dyspteris abortivaria, stares menacingly at the camera. The tiny moth could fit comfortably on a quarter. Note the reddish mite affixed to its abdomen under a wing. Mites are not uncommon on moths. Indeed, there is a specialized group of mites that only inhabits moths' ear canals (the mite in this photo is not one of these). But only one of the two ear canals. To congest both canals would affect the moth's ability to detect the echolocation of incoming bats (big moth predators). In fact, there is a book devoted to this arcane subject: Mites of Moths and Butterflies (Asher Treat, 1975).

A personal favorite, the Black-waved Flannel Moth, Megalopyge crispata. The moths are extremely photogenic. It is a very common species, and the caterpillars eat a wide array of plants. The cats also pack a punishing sting due to their venomous spines.

Some moth species are quite easy to work with, from a photographic perspective. In general, the fuzzier they are, the easier they can be handled and moved around. Also, in general the larger the moth, the more easy it is to manipulate. So, we can move such species to substrates more favorable than the stark white, brightly illuminated sheet that attracted them in the first place.

A showy species with a less than showy name: Tufted Bird Dropping Mimic Moth, Cerma cerintha. There are many species of moths (and other organisms) that ape the appearance of bird droppings. This allows them to hide in plain sight during the day. Apparently very few things want to eat bird droppings.

The Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, is without doubt one of our coolest moths. It's another personal fav. The brown and lime color scheme isn't common, and maybe that's why it generally holds appeal to all who cast eyes on one. The caterpillar, seen and photographed from the right angle, looks like a Hippopotamus. It's one of the slug moths, which are named for the mode of locomotion of the caterpillars. All of them are showy, and dozens of many slug moth species came to our lights on this night.

We were quite pleased to have numerous Spun-glass Slug Moths, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri, appear. The tiny moth is rather ornate, and I'm sure it's all but invisible when resting on senescent foliage or leaf litter during the day. The caterpillar is what the name stems from, and it looks like a Swarovski crystal. A photo of one is in THIS POST.

Two consummate dead leaf mimic moths, doing their thing: looking like dead leaves, on dead leaves. Spotted Apatelodes, Apatelodes torrefacta (L) and a pair of Angel Moths, Olceclostera angelica. A great many moth species have evolved coloration and patterning that blends with abundant forest leaf litter. These two species - which are larger moths - would be nearly impossible to spot on the forest floor. Note how the Apatelodes even curls its abdomen upward to create disruptive patterning and rendering itself even more unrecognizable.

The next post will cover another swath of moths from this expedition, including some rarities and huge jaw-droppers.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Nature: Hellgrammites, dobsonflies both fearful, fascinating

A male dobsonfly displays its formidable mandibles/Jim McCormac
(additional image at end of column)

July 19, 2020

Jim McCormac

One of our strangest insects begins life in largish, powdery-white masses of eggs pasted to structures overhanging streams. They might adorn rocks, logs or even bridges. This spring, I saw dozens glued to the underside of a bridge traversing a Scioto County stream.

Eventually, odd-looking larvae bust from these natal enclosures and drop into the stream below. Known as hellgrammites, the predatory larvae will grow to formidable size. For up to three years these gilled, strictly aquatic juveniles will lurk among the stream cobble, snapping up and eating lesser beasts.

Ultimately, a hellgrammite can reach 3 inches in length. It resembles a centipede, and the business end is capped with formidable pincers. A big one, mishandled, can give an attention-getting nip.

Fierce as they are, some fish have a sweet tooth for hellgrammites and snap them up. Wily fishermen willing to work for their bait use this knowledge to their advantage.

When triggered by some reproductive cue, the hellgrammite emerges from the water and seeks a sheltered spot to form its pupal chamber. This will most likely be in moist soil under a log or rock.

After three or four weeks of undergoing a major reorganization of tissues, an utterly different looking insect will emerge.

The adult stage is known as a dobsonfly, and what a bug it is. Its body is 2 inches or more in length, and the outstretched wings might span 5 inches. Long segmented antennae wave from the head like chitinous bullwhips. The female has short but brutishly powerful pincers that can give a nip to rival the juvenile hellgrammite form.

But the male dobsonfly is truly the stuff of nightmares for the entomophobe. Its greatly elongated mandibles are about an 1½ inches in length. These scimitar-shaped appendages look like they could slice your finger off, if not eviscerate you.

It’s a male dobsonfly pictured with this column. A group of us were engaged in nocturnal field work at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County on June 26. We had set up a series of brightly illuminated sheets that are effective at luring moths.

Many other insects are attracted to the lights, including dobsonflies. We were pleased to have the male stop by, as they are seen far less than females — probably because the males live for only three days or so, while females might live to the ripe old age of 10 days.

To test the male’s pinching abilities, I stuck my finger between its mandibles. Yawn. It did clamp down, but the long flimsy mandibles can’t generate much pressure and there was little pain. Several female dobsonflies had also come to our lights, but I didn’t try the pinch test with them. I’ll take others’ word that the girls pack a punch.

Dobsonflies tell an environmental story, and their presence can only be considered a positive. The larval-stage hellgrammites are quite sensitive to water-quality degradation. Thus, they occur in healthier streams, and good water quality is a plus for everyone.

Cool as dobsonflies are, I suppose for many people its best that they stay out of sight and out of mind.

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

Male (L) and female dobsonfly/Jim McCormac

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hedge-bindweed, Calystegia sepium

Often derided as a "weed", the gorgeous Hedge-bindweed, Calystegia sepium, is a showy member of the Morning-glory family (Convolvulaceae). It grows in local profusion on my backyard fence. I finally took some time this morning to make some images of this plant. In addition to its aesthetics, I like the fact that it plays host to two species of tortoise beetles. Hopefully I can run one or both down and make some images. They are exceptional insects.

This is a complex "species" that ranges widely in North America and Eurasia. A number of subspecies have been described, and one American species has been split from it: C. silvatica. Apparently Eurasian plants are now in the New World, adding to the issue. Not everyone accepts all of this taxonomic carving, and for now I will remain a lumper.

Read on if you're interested in wonky photography notes...

Sorry for this crude iPhone shot, and I see I apparently must wipe off its camera lens. But it shows the impromptu studio I set up to make the prior shot. As the bindweed will and does locally spread to the point of requiring limited control measures, I had no compunction about collecting a piece and bringing it into the living room. I would not recommend this method for uncommon or rarer natives, and the same system can easily be set up outside and in situ. Shooting plants where they grow, without disturbance, is always best. Breezes do make it a challenge, though. If wind is non-existent, one can use similar set-ups on outdoor plants using multi-second shutter speeds.

Anyway, I hung the vine from a flexible clamp attached to a chair, and put black draping behind the subject. The camera (Canon 5DSR) is tripod-mounted and rigged with Canon's 100mm f/2.8L macro lens, and twin-lite flashes. The camera's settings were ISO 200 and f/16. Given the dim light, the shutter speed was 2.5 seconds. I shot in Live View, so that the mirror was locked up and doesn't move and used the 2-second timer delay which eliminates the possibility of slight movement while physically actuating the shutter button. I had the flashes on, and set to back curtain flash so they fired at the end of the exposure. Flash power was muted by three stops to provide very mild fill light. Even at low levels, flash can imbue the image with slight yellow tones, but that's easily corrected in post-processing. I made an identical image without flash (making necessary exposure adjustments), and preferred this one as it created better illumination on the flower.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A flashy sunset, but a blocked comet

The view from the summit of Alum Creek Dam in Delaware County, Ohio, shortly after sunset. It's a lofty perch up there - 106 step staircase to the top! - and offers a commanding northern view. I was here last night, in the hopes of seeing and photographing Comet NEOWISE. With magnification, it is pretty spectacular, and I've seen some stellar photos.

Things were looking good near day's end, with crystal clear skies. Alas, on the short drive up to this spot, low clouds began to scud in from the western horizon and by the time I scaled Mount Alum and summited, the cloud cover had obscured any chance of spotting the comet. A showy sunset was some consolation. And the comet should remain visible for a week or so yet, so there's still a chance.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

House Centipede hunts, kills

A Lesser Maple Spanworm, Macaria pustularia, as seen from below. Moths sometimes alight on my front door windows, allowing for shots like this. I have a hard enough time identifying many moths from above, let alone an angle like this, so after making some shots I go around to the outside of the front door to see what I just shot.

When I did so, I was interested to see a very cool many-legged arthropod on the hunt, and paused to watch it and make some photos...

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A House Centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata, taking a momentary rest on the white paintwork around my front door. It had entered the sphere of the night lights to hunt the various tiny insects that come in after dark. When seen well and with good light - as my trusty Canon twin-lite flashes provided - the colors on this centipede are quite showy. The animal has a subtle golden-orange cast to the body, but check those legs out! They are marked with gorgeous violet bands that become more prominent rearward (the animal's head is at the top).

House Centipedes are not native here in North America, or many other places in the world. It's indigenous to the Mediterranean region, but has been accidentally spread across much of the globe. These centipedes are adept at slipping into the tiniest of cracks, and thus can easily be carried as incidentals in all manner of products being shipped far and wide. They've been present in the eastern U.S. since at least the late 1800's, and are probably in your house.

Watching the animal hunt was interesting. It didn't race about at breakneck speed - and these leggy critters can be very speedy if they so choose - but moved at a leisurely pace, feeling about with its greatly elongate antennae. It finally encountered a tiny caddisfly and instantly seized it in its maxillipedes - those pincher-like claws extending forward from the sides of the head. Venom glands are imbedded at the base of the maxillipedes, and when a centipede bites prey, it quickly injects venom to disable victims. It then commences to gobble up the prey, as this one is doing.

House Centipedes are not large enough to inflict a bite on a person, as far as I know. But some very large species certainly can, especially some of the tropical species. There are a few fairly large centipede species that occur in southern Ohio and points south that I would not handle carelessly, as they look large enough to penetrate skin and inflict an unpleasant bite.

But, spooky/creepy as House Centipedes are to many people, you've got nothing to fear.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A mothing night at Daughmer Savanna

A clear, starry night over Daughmer Savanna in north-central Ohio's Crawford County. This state nature preserve is probably the premier savanna remaining in Ohio. It is ably managed by the Crawford Park District.

I made the shot above last year, but last Tuesday night looked much the same except far warmer and muggier. A small team of avid moth'ers descended upon this place to sample moths: Josh Dyer (Director of Crawford Park District), Kyle Bailey of the Richland County Park District, Chelsea and Wade Gottfried, and your narrator. Many thanks to Josh for allowing us in after dark. To our knowledge, no one had surveyed this amazing natural area for moths. Based on what we found, I hope we can do more mothing here. I'm sure many other notable finds await. We set up two sheets, illuminated by ultraviolet lights, a mercury vapor light, and another bright light. It worked well, and many fine specimens came to our setups between dusk and 2:45 am, when we finally packed it in.

A Double-banded Grass-veneer, Crambus agitatellus, "hides" under a milkweed leaf. There are quite a few species of grass-veneers in our region, and some are rather "weedy" and probably in your yard. Many of them - this one included - eat grasses in the larval (caterpillar) stage.

Anyone who pays attention to moths has seen the behavior above. While walking through almost any sort of habitat, one will flush moths which promptly fly to a plant and scurry underneath a leaf. If you sneak in to try for a look, the moth often flushes again well before you get close. Obtaining a satisfactory look can be an exercise in frustration.

Approaching most animals is far easier at night. For whatever reasons, they are often far less inclined to extreme wariness. The little moth above allowed me to stick my camera right under his leaf and make some flash-assisted images. But we up our odds of seeing moths big time with the use of illuminated sheets. Like a moth to a flame, as the saying goes. Moth-lighting does not kill the quarry either, and at the end of the session all insects are brushed from the sheets and sent back into the dark.

One aspect of mothing that is always interesting are the non-moth visitors. This weird-looking cranefly like thing is actually a robberfly, Leptogaster flavipes. I don't see many robberflies come to the sheets at night.

This night's oddity show was headlined by this strange bug, which flummoxed all of us regarding the identification. Turns out it's a Pleasing Lacewing, Nallachius americanus. It is utterly gorgeous, like a small ornately marked dragonfly. I thought it was a Neuropteran when I saw it, but ran into a brick wall in trying to identify it. Chelsea was the first to figure it out, and it turns out that Pleasing Lacewings are apparently rare, or very good at hiding, or have a very brief shelf life as a winged adult, or some combo thereof. iNaturalist, that massive repository of natural history observations, lists but four Ohio observations, and only a grand total of 64 records (all in the eastern U.S.). I did find a mention of their affinity for oaks. This one was in the right place, as Daughmer Savanna is probably the best oak savanna remaining in Ohio.

Another pleasing find was this fetching moth, the Ruby Tiger Moth, Phragmatobia fuliginosa. It resembles a badly sunburned Isabella Tiger Moth - the adult form of the fabled Woolly-bear caterpillar.

NOTE: The photo above and many of the others were made on the white sheet, with the moth in situ and unmolested. I personally am not a huge fan of shooting moths on white sheets but in many cases it is necessary. My mothing compadres and I have learned over the years that the larger and fuzzier the moth, the easier it is to move it. A Luna, for instance, is easily coaxed onto a leaf, twig, or your finger and relocated to a more natural situation for photos. The smaller and smoother (less hairy) the moth, the harder it is to work with. Such animals will usually flutter off as soon as they are approached closely. This Ruby Tiger Moth would seem, by that theory, to be fairly docile but I made a few attempts to move it and it resisted. But it looks good on the sheet, thinks I.

And a note on sheets, since we sometimes have to shoot the little beasts on them. Splurge and get a really good high thread count sheet. I think mine is a 700 thread count or something like that. To get a proper exposure of a dark moth on a light backdrop, one must overexpose quite a bit. I was probably two stops to the plus side on my flash on many of these images, and up to three stops on the darkest subjects. But the combo of overexposure and high thread count sheet creates a creamy white background. A low thread count sheet will create a rougher look. It's also important to launder moth sheets before each use to keep them clean as possible.

Another lepidopteran gem, the Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria. This is another case where the white sheet serves as a complimentary backdrop. This is another species that includes oak in its diet (as caterpillars, of course).

We were pleased to see this Lunate Zale, Zale lunata, appear. Zales (pronounced Zal-ee; two syllables) are large subtly showy animals. In good light and under close inspection they appear to have been carved from a complex grain of wood.

A Bog Lygropia, Lygropia rivulalis, sporting an impossibly ornate op-art pattern. Moths like this serve to lure people into gaining an interest in the nocturnal butterflies. The variety and beauty of moths is seemingly endless. And there is much to learn. For instance, the host plant or plants (required caterpillar food) for this species, showy as it is, is apparently unknown.

What I have noticed at the moth sheets, and I am often guilty of this, is that moths generally get split into two camps by human observers. The BIG STUFF, and the "micro moths". The majority of attention goes to large silkmoths and other easily observed species. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of visitors are usually the micros that are Lilliputian indeed. Many would be measured in millimeters and often don't even look like moths from any distance - more like tiny gnats or caddisflies or any of the other myriad non-moth tiny insects that invariably flock to moth sheets.

This incredible crested big-eyed beast probably tapes out at 14mm. It is a Striped Oak Webworm Moth, Pococera expandens. You'd never know how cool it is without a really close look.
Here we have a Yellow-winged Oak Leafroller Moth, Argyrotaenia quercifoliana. Its ornate patterning and beautiful golden patterning make it a crowd-pleaser.

Here's an example of moth relocation. This is a Green Leuconycta, Leuconycta diphteroides, and it is one of many lichen mimic moths. And fortunately quite easy to handle. So we moved it to some convenient lichen-dappled tree bark, the moth nestled right in, and we got more ecologically accurate shots.

A true showstopper, the Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia miniata. It's in the tiger moth family and is unbelievably flashy. The name stems from the food of the caterpillars, which consume the algal components of lichens. The moth is in an amazing evolutionary arms race with bats, but that's another story for another time.

Here's our other lichen moth and it's nearly as flashy as the preceding one. It is the Painted Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia fucosa. We were fortunate to have multiple specimens of both species come in on this night.

Tussock moths were well represented, and this is the White-marked Tussock Moth, Orgyia leucostigma. Its caterpillars are commonly seen - we found a few this night while strolling around - but the moths are mostly observed only by those who search for them in the gloom of night. Tussock moths perch with those shaggy legs extended out front, which is quite distinctive.

I'll end this photo-rich post with this little cutie - another of the tussocks, the Yellow-based Tussock Moth, Dasychira basiflava. Moths make incredible photo subjects, and many a photographer has gotten hooked on their charms once exposed to moth magic.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Nature: Fascinating book speaks volumes about birds

NATURE: Fascinating book speaks volumes about birds

July 5, 2020

“Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds” (McDonald & Woodward; 437 pages, $39.95) by Gary H. Meiter

Jim McCormac

A-well-a ev’rybody’s heard about the bird
B-b-b-bird, b-birdd’s a word

— from Surfin’ Bird, by the Trashmen (1963)

What’s in a bird name? Lots of facts and history.

Names might commemorate historically significant people, or refer to places, anatomical features, or perceptions of intellect or behavior. Sometimes bird monikers are onomatopoeias: written derivations of the sounds that they make. And I finally got to use that word in a column.

For decades, the bible for bird nomenclature was “The Dictionary of American Bird Names,” by Ernest Choate. A slender volume released in 1973 and updated in 1985, it spanned 226 pages and was a favorite of birders.

Thirty-five years on, Choate’s book has been surpassed on an epic scale.

Author Gary H. Meiter has created an elegantly presented treatise on bird nomenclature that is the new standard. He treats more than 900 species in “Bird is the Word” — almost every species found in North America north of Mexico.

The starting point to learning birds — or nearly anything — is learning names. From there, knowledge can be linked into ecology, behavior, identification and history. And it’s the latter that “Bird is the Word” so artfully deals with.

A brief introduction describes the book’s layout, including an interesting summary of notable American ornithologists. Meiter concisely describes the science of naming things, and the history of how common and scientific names came to be. The reader will learn interesting trivia, such as what a tautonym is (there are 16 North American bird species with tautonymic names).

The pages are punctuated with beautiful illustrations by some of America’s most accomplished avian artists. It’s a visual delight to turn a page and face a rendering of a pair of pileated woodpeckers by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, or a magnificent frigatebird in full swoop from the hand of John James Audubon. The inclusion of artwork is a nice touch, and one that reinforces this book’s attention to detail.

Interesting sidebars are peppered throughout the accounts. There are 42, and they serve as intellectual nuggets breaking up the main text. Sidebars cover all manner of intriguing trivia, as suggested by headers such as “Bird of Fire,” “The Trickster of the North Woods” and “Birds as Weather Prophets.”

Each bird family is prefaced with an introductory description. Perhaps you have wondered why whip-poor-wills are known as goatsuckers. You will find the answer here.

The purpose of “Bird is the Word” is the species accounts. Each species begins with a well-crafted description of how the bird’s common name came to be. Meiter often includes fascinating historical nuggets, and the reader quickly gains a sense of how much research must have gone into these accounts.

Species accounts include the meanings of the scientific name, French and Spanish names, and one of my favorite sections, “Other Names.”

Bird lore is rife with fanciful colloquial names, and this book seems to have them all. For instance, a woodpecker common in Ohio, the northern flicker, has about 160 nicknames. These include cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellowhammer. A wonderful sobriquet for the American bittern is belcher-squelcher, but if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, Meiter lists dozens of other nicknames for this heron.

Learning a bird’s name is just the start of getting to know it. “Bird is the Word” will decode that name and in the process expand your knowledge of the species. Anyone who enjoys the feathered crowd should have a copy of this book. To order, visit:

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