Monday, August 31, 2020

Brown Booby makes first Ohio appearance!

Birding by boat. A small flotilla of birders/photographers (the two groups are largely inseparable these days) watches what is easily the rarest bird in Ohio right now. On August 25, Henry Trimpe discovered a juvenile Brown Booby, Sula leucogaster, on Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County.

I finally made the journey up to see the bird yesterday. By then, the initial madness had worn off, and while dozens of people visited during my time, it wasn't the heavier crowds of days prior. The young booby seems quite at home here, and I figured it would linger. It's still present today.

Nimisila Reservoir and vicinity is a beautiful, watery region, and very much to the liking of "fish hawks", or Ospreys. I arrived at 7 am, and the first bird that I heard upon stepping from the vehicle was an Osprey. Their high-pitched piping whistles were a constant part of the soundscape, and perhaps six of the fish-eating raptors were present.

I saw lots of interesting birds during my five hours at Nimisila, but this beauty was what we had all come for: the young Brown Booby. The name, of course, provides constant fodder for witty repartee and interesting reactions from non-birders.

Non-birder: "So, what are you all looking at?"

Birder: "A Brown Booby"

Hilarity ensues.

The funny name arises from the Spanish bobo, which means "dunce". Sailors became very familiar with these birds early on, and thought them stupid due to their extraordinary tameness. Seabirds that nest on isolated islands and have little to no human contact often show little fear of people. But the misinterpretation of their intellect did give us the comical name. For more interesting information about boobies, and the sources and meanings of North American bird names, get a copy of Gary Meiter's book Bird is the Word. Go HERE to read more about this book, and HERE to get a copy.

Brown Boobies are an oceanic species, very rarely venturing inland and onto fresh water, especially this far north. That said, there is an Indiana record and several records from the eastern end of Lake Erie, so it's not altogether unexpected for this species to appear in Ohio.

While the numerous Osprey did not bother the booby in the slightest, this young Peregrine Falcon certainly did. Early in my visit, the falcon rocketed in and chased the booby off its favorite perch in a dead tree along the shoreline. It then proceeded to chase our rare visitor around the lake, forcing it onto the water and making several dives at it. I don't really think the falcon was attempting to kill the booby; it was probably just out for some fun. After thoroughly exerting its dominance, the Peregrine flew back to the booby's exact perch and sat for a while - that's where the above image was made.

While boobies may look somewhat clumsy and comical when grounded, they transform once airborne. Fast and powerful in flight, the Brown Booby specializes in catching flying fish when in its normal marine haunts. That takes extreme aerial prowess. The Nimisila vagrant seemed to be doing fine in capturing the lake's freshwater fish, and treated viewers to regular flights. Notice the heavy molt going on with this bird.

It's hard to say what the fate of this young booby will be. It likely was forced off the Gulf of Mexico and way to the north by Hurricane Laura, which formed and rapidly grew in intensity a few days prior to the bird's appearance here. Saltwater birds often don't fare well in the long term in freshwater habitats. With luck, the Brown Booby will make its way back south and onto the ocean. But whether it has any innate instinct as to where it should be remains unknown.

One thing is for certain. Many people will be keeping an eye on the bird, and it will be interesting to see how this booby situation plays out.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Riley's Clearwing Moth, a remarkable mimic

 Last Sunday was a fantastic immersion into natural history, high on a ridgetop in rural Washington County, Ohio. A bunch of us were guests of Julie Zickefoose, and we explored her property and some nearby lands. A highlight was nocturnal mothing and caterpillar-hunting. Many interesting finds were made. I'll hope to share some more of them here, eventually.

While nighttime mothing activities yielded scads of moths, including some very notable species, for me the most noteworthy was a day-flyer and one I had not seen before. It follows...

We must begin this short tale with a familiar plant; a species many of you have probably seen. It is Horse-nettle, Solanum carolinense, an inhabitant of old fields, barren ground, and open areas often disparagingly referred to as "waste places". It isn't a nettle at all, but a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), the same tribe that produces tomatoes and potatoes. As a native group the nightshade family is small, with only six Ohio species. Most of those (4 species) are ground-cherries in the genus Physalis, and there's one other native Solanum, the Black Nightshade, S. nigrum.

If one can ignore the prickly stems, Horse-nettle is certainly the showiest of our native nightshades with its clusters of ivory flowers (sometimes light violet), each with a prominent cluster of lemony anthers, Later, small yellow-orange fruit that resemble elfin tomatoes will form - these are said to be deadly poisonous.

Weedy and widespread Horse-nettle may be, but it produces one of the most interesting moths in eastern North America. The caterpillars of the scaly marvel that follows eat only this plant. Julie took us to a dry ridgetop meadow rich in Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosus, and scattered about were many Horse-nettle plants and other interesting flora. And it was here, amongst the plants that spawned it, that we saw the following moth.

Riley's Clearwing Moth, Synanthedon rileyana, one of the most remarkable hornet mimics around. In particular, it resembles the Eastern Yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons, and anyone who has been stung by one of these ground-nesting hornets knows what a punch they pack. So, if you are a moth and can successfully evolve the look of one of these stinging insects, a lot of would-be predators will probably leave you alone.

A number of moths - especially the clearwing borers - are superb wasp and hornet mimics. As are myriad flies, beetles, and other insects. This must be a defense primarily against bird predators. Birds seem to learn fast and well the painful lessons learned from trying to eat stinging insects, and avoid them, or insects that look like them, such as this moth.

Being the spitting image of a yellowjacket won't thwart Summer Tanagers though. These beautiful songbirds are major consumers of hornets, bees, wasps and their ilk, and would probably be all over over a Riley's Clearwing Moth if they saw one. But the vast majority of songbirds would likely be repelled, thus gaining this interesting moth a distinct survival advantage.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Masked bandidos stage a raid

This was the scene at my main bird feeder the other night. Not one, not two, but three yearling raccoons helping themselves to my seed. Their mom taught them to do this. Earlier in the year, when these guys were much smaller, they'd gather around the base of this feeder. Mom would scale up - and over my "anti-mammal" baffle, and then start flinging seed down to the youngsters. In short order, she - and now they - clean the feeder out.

My attempts to thwart them, or at least some of them, have met with temporary success. But the coons eventually engineer a solution. They are clever, make no mistake.

I have a new plan. I think it may work, and prevent the masked bandits from climbing this feeder. I'm not yet saying what my plan is, for fear of jinxing myself. However, if long-term success is achieved I'll gladly share my battle plan.

No sleep is lost over this on my part. I consider battling marauding raccoons at a backyard bird feeder very much a first-world problem. Beside, I must admit to a certain fondness for the clever critters.

PHOTO NOTE: This is what ISO 32,000 looks like, as created by the Canon 5D IV. Even with noise reduction applied later, it isn't pretty. It was pitch-black when I made the shot, and it was through a window. Flash would have reflected back, so it wasn't used. If I go outside where I could use flash, I won't get this kind of shot, most likely. As soon as they see me, the coons usually go on alert and scramble down. I've yelled at them one too many times, I guess :-) As a testament to Canon's superb image stabilization, the shot was made at 1/15, handheld, at f/2.8 (with the Canon 400mm f/2.8L II).

Sunday, August 16, 2020

A light in the dark of night lures exciting moth species

Clockwise, from lower left: tuliptree silkmoth, regal moth, Luna moth and imperial moth [JIM MCCORMAC]

A light in the dark of night lures exciting moth species

August 16, 2020

Jim McCormac

Ohio’s moth fauna is incredibly diverse. At least 2,000 species have been documented, and scores of others await discovery.

I once heard an expert on “micro-moths” say that if we could find all of those largely ignored miniature moths, Ohio’s moth list might double.

Silkworm moths are lepidopteran antonyms to micro-moths ‒ most are “macro-moths,” with some species reaching the size of bats. Others are much smaller, but a commonality is their spectacular appearance.

A recent nocturnal foray at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County west of Chillicothe produced numerous sightings of jumbo silkworm moths.

The 2,900-acre Highlands Nature Sanctuary is the core of the Arc of Appalachia’s nearly 7,000 acres of protected lands. The private conservation group preserves some of the best natural areas in southern Ohio.

When we began plotting our nocturnal mothing expedition, I knew it would be good. Plant diversity and intact ecosystems foster moth diversity. The primary driver of moths’ four-part life cycle — egg, caterpillar, pupa, adult — is the caterpillar.

Most caterpillars are finicky about the plants they consume. Some species eat only one type of plant. A plant required by a particular caterpillar is its host plant. An area rich in flora, including species such as oaks — major host plants for scores of caterpillars — is likely to produce blizzards of moths.

Shortly before sunset on July 17, I met up with Nancy Stranahan and Brent Charette of the Arc of Appalachia, and moth experts John Howard and Kim Banks in the midst of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. We quickly set up several mothing stations, each consisting of a white sheet illuminated by lights. Mercury vapor and ultraviolet lights work best as attractants.

And, like a moth to a flame, in they came. Moths’ attraction to light is known as positive phototaxis. There are several theories as to why moths are smitten with light, but the answer is unclear. To moth researchers, the creation of temporary light sources in areas of interest is the best way to survey moth populations.

As the night progressed, the mothing improved. Along with commoners, many unusual species appeared. Notable was an oddity called the Harris’ three-spot. Five showed up, about equaling my previous sum total over 20 years of mothing.

But as always, we eagerly awaited the appearance of silkworm moths. One never gets jaded to these spectacular insects. First in were rosy maple moths, resplendent in furry suits of pink and yellow.

As the night wore on, Io moths began to appear. At rest, these largish silkworm moths look like a plain yellow wedge topped with antennae. Tap one with your finger, and voila! The moth flicks its forewings open to reveal large eyespots on the hind wings. These pseudo-eyes might serve to frighten investigating songbirds.

Around 1:30 a.m., giant silkworm moth traffic increased markedly. This uncivilized schedule is typical — the hours between midnight to 4 a.m. often seem best for them. Hardcore mothing is for night owls.

We posed the accompanying image around 2 a.m. From lower left, clockwise, it includes tuliptree silkmoth, regal moth, Luna moth, and imperial moth. Many specimens of each appeared. We could not coerce nearby Io, Polyphemus or rosy maple moths into the photo.

Silkworm moths and moths in general are barometers of ecological health. Lots of moths mean healthy ecosystems. Light and chemical pollution, invasive predatory insects, loss of host plants and overall development have taken severe tolls on moth populations.

Moths underpin food webs critical to the survival of bats, birds and inestimable numbers of other insects. To adequately conserve them — and overall ecosystems — we must protect large blocks of habitat, such as the Highlands Nature Sanctuary.

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 www.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Another major nocturnal outing, more cool bugs

Last Saturday evening, stretching into Sunday morning, was yet another amazing nocturnal foray. This time we set up lights at an incredible place in southern Highland County, known as Fort Hill. It is managed by the Arc of Appalachia - a conservation organization I have mentioned numerous times of late - and thanks to the intellectual inquisitiveness of their staff, we were able to enter after dark and stay as long as we liked. Indeed, joining John Howard and myself was Nancy Stranahan, Brent Charette, and Tim Pohlar (and family) of the Arc. Several other interested moth'ers were along, including Roy Willman and Kathy Cubert. It was fun talking photography with them. Cheryl Carpenter joined us as did Amy and her partner. Quite a party.

Fort Hill encompasses 1,600 acres and protects a diverse swath of habitat, mostly woodlands. Botanical diversity is enormous - over 800 plant species have been documented - so we knew it would be good. Only two natural phenomena conspired against us this evening: the moon was over half full and bright (mothing is better on darker nights) and the temperature and humidity dropped into the 60's fairly early, eventually reaching the high 50's. The warmer, the better. Nonetheless our evening was highly productive and I would love to repeat on a warm, muggy, moonless night.

The first plant I ran my UV flashlight over produced a slug moth caterpillar. The second plant - a Red Elm, Ulmus rubra - produced this incredible beast. It is a Double-toothed Prominent caterpillar, Nerice bidentata. This is an elm specialist, and has evolved humps on its back that resemble the jagged serrations of an elm leaf. I don't think they are particularly rare, just hard to find. A mature last instar specimen such as this is an especially plum find.

Spotted Apatelodes Moth caterpillars, Apatelodes torrefacta, are usually very common and we found a number of them this night. Note those flashy cherry-red feet! The pair to the far right are the anal prolegs, the middle set of four are the medial prolegs, and three pairs of thoracic prolegs are below the cat's head at the left. The latter are not red and scarcely visible. The prolegs are beset with tiny hooked spines called crochets that allow the caterpillar to apply a viselike grip on branches and leaves.

As summer wanes and fall nears, the singing insect chorus intensifies. Many interesting Orthopteran insects provided a conspicuous chorus on this night, including Nebraska Coneheads, Neoconocephalus nebrascensis. Not hard to see where the "conehead" name comes from, and this species is distinctive in that its cone is inky-black when viewed from below. This group of katydids is extremely charismatic, and the males of many species deliver blisteringly loud songs.

At one point, walking between light setups, we encountered this mating pair of Carolina Leafroller Crickets, Camptonotus carolinensis. This Orthopteran makes no sound, insofar as I am aware. Maybe they use those utterly gargantuan antennae to find each other. After a bit of voyeuring, we left them to their business.

The same Redbud that hosted the mating crickets produced this pair of mating Early Fan-foots, Zanclognatha cruralis. What a great tree. Maybe it had aphrodisiac qualities.

The little button slugs are always crowd-pleasers. This is an Abbreviated Button Slug, Tortricidia flexuosa. A number of interesting slug moths came in, including at least one other button slug species. Had it been a warmer, more humid evening, I bet there would have been tons.

A Drab Prominent, Misogada unicolor. Unicolored it may be, but the moth is quite handsome and architecturally ornate from certain angles. Its caterpillars are specialists on Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. Some moths are named for the appearance of the adult moths; others for the caterpillar. Had this one been named for the latter, it surely wouldn't be known as the Drab Prominent. The cat is a striking pale green with wavy white lateral lines, a bold whitish dorsal stripe tinged with red, and a forked tail.

Here's the same Drab Prominent, viewed from a different angle. Moth photography is seldom boring. On a busy night in a productive site, as on this evening, there are far too many subjects to work with.

The more I work with prominent moths, the more fascinated that I become with them. Lots of interesting behavior and appearances, both with moths and caterpillars. This is a Gray-patched Prominent, Dasylophia thyatiroides, and what a dead wood mimic it is. The caterpillar is a thing of beauty, and feeds only on Beech, Fagus grandifolia. I have searched a lot of foliage of those trees, but have only seen the caterpillar once. Perhaps they generally feed high in the tree, and out of our sphere of visibility.

This is a Wavy-lined Heterocampa, Heterocampa biundata, a subtle beauty. Its soft green, orange, and brown tones help it blend with lichens, mosses, and tree bark. Unlike the previous two specialist, this moth is polyphagous - its caterpillars eat many species of woody plants.

A Zebra Conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis, tests the air with its incredibly long proboscis. Their caterpillars apparently eat members of the sunflower family, but that covers a lot of ground. The Asteraceae is the largest family of flowering plants on the world, and dozens of species occur in Ohio. I have no idea which ones spawn this showy moth. 

We were pleased to see several specimens of this small, dark sphinx: Pawpaw Sphinx, Dolba hyloeus. I need not tell you what its host plant is.

This extremely fresh Walnut Sphinx, Amorpha juglandis, turned up at a light setup tied between two walnut trees. While the caterpillars do eat a few other species of woody plants, Black Walnut, Juglans nigra, does the heavy lifting. The caterpillars are especially notable for their noise-making. When threatened, they make loud whistles by forcing air out of the spiracles (air holes).

You know it's a good mothing night when three Imperial Moths, Eacles imperialis, can easily be posed on a tree for photos. And there were others.

Right in the grill of a very fresh Imperial Moth. For all its beauty, the bat-sized moth is essentially a short-lived flying gonad. Living a week would make it an ancient. Silkworm moths such as this have no functional mouthparts and do not feed. Their sole purpose - other than occasionally feeding bats or other animals - is to find a mate and reproduce. The caterpillar phase is far longer-lived than the adult moth.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Interesting moths and cats of late

A gorgeous Trumpet Vine Sphinx, Paratraea plebeja, rests atop a flower of its host plant, Trumpet-creeper, Campsis radicans. Occasionally I'll throw up a mercury vapor light and UV (black light) in the backyard to see what comes in. This one did a few nights ago. The plants that nourished its caterpillar were only about ten feet from the lights that attracted the moth, so I moved it over to the host plant for better photo ops.

I've probably spent more time afield nocturnally this summer than diurnally. Most of those efforts have gone towards moths, and increasingly, caterpillars. In general, the latter group gets better as summer turns to fall, and peak caterpillar season around here is from late August into early/mid September. Some recent finds are shared here.

The same night that the Trumpet Vine Sphinx came in, so did this interesting moth, the Large Paectes, Paectes abrostoloides. Check out that amazing abdomen, which it holds upright when at rest. It is a mirror image of a broken off twig, and undoubtedly provides great disruptive camouflage when the moth is at rest on branches during the day. This species is a Sweet Gum specialist. And wouldn't you know, I have a fine specimen of Liquidambar styraciflua at the back of the yard. Plant it and they shall come, as is often said. A point of interest, to me at least, is that I live a good 50 miles north of the native northern limits of Sweet Gum, which is a southern tree. So, to split hairs, it is not native here in Worthington, Ohio. But this showy tree is commonly planted well to the north of its indigenous range and this moth has probably expanded its range as a result.

On a recent mothing excursion in Crawford County, Kyle Bailey located this stunning caterpillar, the Fawn Sphinx, Sphinx kalmiae. It's an ash specialist, and that's what this one is feeding on. In my opinion, this is one of the prettiest caterpillars in this neck of the woods. Fawn Sphinx cats almost appear luminescent, as if lit by some inner light, and the oblique slashes and little blue-peppered tail add additional interest.

Here is what the caterpillar above becomes, if all goes well. And as is often the case, the moth goes by a different name: Laurel Sphinx. At least some people call it that, although some people call the caterpillar the same, but others call the moth Fawn Sphinx. Insect common names are not standardized by a governing body, as are bird names. But in this case, it can always be called Sphinx kalmiae which is unambiguous.

While the moth looks cool, I would press the case that the caterpillar outshines it. Such reverse ugly duckism is not uncommon in this world. The larvae often look better than the adult moths that they morph into.

Some of us had an epic mothing night last Friday in a very isolated locale in Pike County. Some interesting caterpillars turned up, including this one. It was spotted by nine year old Quinn Pohlar, who must have bionic vision and certainly abounds with intellectual curiosity. Her father Tim works for the Arc of Appalachia, and the Arc has a conservation easement on the property we were on.

Anyway, this is a truly tiny Pawpaw Sphinx, Dolba hyloeus. It has just completed molting from its first instar (small shed with black horn on left) to its second instar. Even the larger freshly molted version is only about 5mm or so in length. I'm guessing first to second instar based on the still tiny size.

Caterpillars grow through a series of molts, and each stage is termed an instar. A great many of our species go through five instars before growth ends, and the changes from 1st to 5th instars are remarkable. Right after chewing from the egg, the cat is so small you'd likely never see it. By the time it's in its last instar, the caterpillar might be hundreds (thousands?) of times more massive, and look quite different than when its life as a tubular eating machine began.

This stunning bag of goo was found the same night as the previous caterpillar. It is a Brown-hooded Owlet Moth caterpillar, Cucullia convexipennis. Cucullia caterpillars are among our showiest lepidopteran larvae. This species stands out even amongst its fellow Cuculloids. It is as if the animal was hand-painted by an artist with eclectic tastes, then glazed to create a glistening sheen.

One might think that such a beauty surely requires some fancy plant as fodder for growth. Not. Brown-hooded Owlet cats specialize on goldenrods, and sometimes asters. This one was eating our most common goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima.

I made this photo a week or so prior at another site. It is the Brown-hooded Owlet Moth, the ultimate phase of the preceding caterpillar. While the moth is nowhere near as showy as its larva, the winged form is still of great interest. It is a fantastic twig or bark mimic, and if ensconced on woody vegetation, your chances of seeing it would be about nil if you didn't know it was there.

Here is a very similar moth to the preceding one, and a close relative. This one came into our Pike County lights, and I moved it off the stark white sheet and onto a twig. I have noticed that if you can coax one of these bark mimic moths onto your finger, then offer it a natural perch such as this twig, it will usually scuttle quickly onto the perch and nestle right in.

This one is fancifully named The Asteroid, Cucullia asteroides, and as you may have guessed, its caterpillar is quite the beauty.

And here it is, the amazing Asteroid caterpillar. Like the Brown-hooded Owlet it is a specialist of asters and goldenrods, although I personally have seen more of these on asters in the genus Symphyotrichum, and Brown-hooded Owlet cats more frequently on goldenrods. But this one has chosen a goldenrod, and a special one at that.

I photographed this Asteroid a few years back in a Ross County (Ohio) fen. It's eating the Buckeye State's namesake - and rare - Ohio Goldenrod, Solidago ohioensis. This caterpillar also reinforces the reverse ugly duckling tale so common to the world of moths and their larvae.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Nature: Rare glimpse at kingfishers offers insight into species

A juvenile belted kingfisher peers from its nest burrow/Jim McCormac

Nature: Rare glimpse at kingfishers offers insight into species

August 2, 2020

Jim McCormac

Living the fishy life is probably a tranquil existence. Quiet waters buffer the scaly crowd from the noisy hubbub of the terrestrial world. Softly filtered golden light illuminates the bubbly aquatic realm of fishes, which glide about in semi-weightless bliss.

Until POW! The water explodes as if a grenade went off, and a big mass of blue and white feathers plunges into the depths. Before a hapless piscine prey can react, a stiletto-like bill snaps into it like an ornithological mousetrap.

The unlucky victim is promptly airlifted from the water and flown to a nearby branch. There it is mercilessly pounded against the wood until thoroughly stunned and then gulped down whole by the monster that snared it.

Meet the belted kingfisher. These aquatic fish-eaters are fixtures along most of our local waterways, ponds, and lakes. Chunky and block-headed, the kingfisher is steely-blue above and white below. A blue band stretches like a strap across its chest. Females possess an additional rufous breast band – a rare case of a female bird being more colorful than the male.

Interlopers usually hear a kingfisher before seeing it. Highly territorial and utterly intolerant of turf invasions, the bird will loudly rattle at all comers, people included. This holds true with members of their own species, even the opposite sex, for most of the year.

Kingfishers are virulently antisocial and pairs form for only as long as it takes to produce a crop of youngsters. During the brief courtship, the normally unsocial male becomes a sweetheart, wooing his mate with fish offerings.

I was fortunate to glimpse briefly into the life of nesting kingfishers last June. Laura and David Hughes had found an active nest along a stream in southeast Ohio, and I was able to spend time observing and photographing it.

In keeping with the overall weirdness of kingfishers, the nest is anything but typical. The pair excavates a burrow high in an earthen bank along a stream. The nest’s entrance shaft extends back about three feet, sloping slightly upward. An enlarged nesting chamber terminates the tunnel.

By the time of my arrival, the five chicks were nearly adult-sized and already had plumage similar to their parents. An adult would occasionally appear with a fish, crayfish or some other aquatic treat which would be seized by a youngster and dragged into the burrow’s depths. In between feedings, the youngsters created a noisy barrage of rattles. Sometimes a chick would sit at the burrow’s entrance, calling incessantly like a machine gun with a stuck trigger.

As waste products produced by fish-heavy diets produces foul guano, we wondered how the birds dealt with the excreta in the tight confines of their burrow. It turns out that the chicks blast jets of the malodorous effluvia against the walls of the nest chamber. They then scratch up dirt and hurl it over the waste, covering it. And in the process enlarge the chamber to better facilitate their growth.

Two days after my visit, Laura observed the young kingfishers make their inaugural flight from the nest. She and Dave saw them on occasion afterward, gaining firsthand experience in the fine art of aerial plunge-dive fishing, kingfisher style.

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