Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cooper's Hawk


An adult male Cooper's Hawk perches on a backyard fence, yesterday. These exciting raptors routinely enter my yard, lured indirectly by my bird feeders. They seek the birds who come to plunder the seeds, not the seeds themselves.

It's virtually impossible for a raptor to "sneak" into the yard. Too many sharp sets of eyes. This guy was made instantly, and the alarm went up. About 12 feet away, in front of the hawk and to the left and out of the photo, is a dense shrub. A pair of Tufted Titmice were cursing up a blue streak at the Cooper's Hawk. He was ticked, and would make false starts in their direction, as he is here, but wouldn't launch as he knew there was probably no chance of snagging one in all that cover.

I've been pretty well glued to my desk for some time now, and can't see the backyard from my office. Today, on a rare trip by the back windows the same male Cooper's Hawk shot in and landed maybe ten feet from the porch windows. I always have a big camera rig mounted on a tripod and ready for action, fortunately. The hawk then hopped over to a nearby redbud snag I placed near the feeders. It makes for a great perch, including for raptors.

When The Coop's barreled in, he spooked a bevy of House, Song, and White-throated sparrows into the lush American Beauty-berry thicket that surrounds this perch. The hawk glared into the dense growth, but it's just too thick for him to work, and the sparrows remained safe.

Before long, he shot out of the yard, empty of talon. I'm sure these raptors take their share of "my" birds, though. I sometimes see evidence of their kills. This male is not the only one, either. A massive adult female sometimes visits - females can be one-third larger than males - and a subadult bird as well.

While the local songbirds don't care for these raptors, they do add action to the yard. The entire yard instantly changes when one enters. Mourning Doves will hurtle into tree cover as if shot from a cannon. Many songbirds dive for thick cover. Chickadees often "sleek": flatten their feathers and sit tight like a bump on a log, not even moving their head. They may remain sleeked for five minutes or more if need be. Bolder birds, like titmice Blue Jays, and Carolina Wrens might deliver unrelenting and loud scolds.

Interestingly, the Gray Squirrels act as if nothing is amiss when this male Cooper's Hawk is around. They'll continue feeding on the ground almost underneath the perched bird, as if it isn't there. Yesterday, a squirrel even went onto the same limb the hawk was sitting on and flushed it. If it's the much larger female, or one of the Red-shouldered or Red-tailed Hawks, the squirrels aren't nearly so bold and they too cower in cover. Conversely, the songbirds - at least with the red-shouldereds and red-taileds - carry on nearly as normal. It's hard for the comparatively clumsy buteo hawks to catch little birds, and the little fellows know it. They never fool with the much more dangerous Cooper's Hawks.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Monkey Slug: larval bizarro world

While going through scores of photos for a book project, I re-encountered these shots of a Monkey Slug, Phobetron pithecium, from Adams County, Ohio on September 17, 2016. The moth it becomes is nearly equally strange, and is known as the Hag Moth. Some think this cat (of a largely tropical lineage) is a mimic of a shed tarantula skin. Presumably most would-be predators, like birds, would find such fare distasteful and avoid it. I think, when viewed from underneath, the slug cat resembles a gracefully swimming sea turtle (image below).


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Nature: Northern flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

A northern flicker stretches on a feeder at Jim McCormac's home/Jim McCormac

Nature: Northern Flicker a showy, mesmerizing bird

Columbus Dispatch
October 18, 2020

Jim McCormac

One fine April morning in 1919, an eleven year old boy named Roger Tory Peterson was exploring a natural area in Jamestown, New York. He happened along what appeared to be a clump of dead feathers stuck to the side of a tree, and investigated.

Poking the inert tuft with a finger, the object sprang to life and burst into flight, revealing underwings the color of molten gold.

Peterson’s inaugural experience with a woodpecker called the northern flicker would shape his life. He was instantly smitten with birds and would become a renowned artist, writer, and conservation tour de force.

His A Field Guide to the Birds appeared in 1934 with numerous subsequent editions. The Peterson bird guides anastomosed into a series of books covering numerous branches of natural history and influenced the careers of scores of naturalists and scientists.

Perhaps no one has done more to promote birds and natural history than Roger Tory Peterson. And the flicker was his inspiration.

Small wonder that a flicker would inspire Peterson, or anyone else. The robin-sized woodpecker is art on wings. It displays a potpourri of field marks: crimson crown patch, fawn-speckled underparts, golden lower wings and tail shafts, and snowy rump. If a male, bold ebony mustaches mark the face.

The flicker looks like it was designed by a committee of artists, but the members never communicated with one another. Yet the result is perfection.

I returned home the other day to find a male flicker occupying my backyard feeder, and quickly set about making some photos. This species is not a frequent visitor, unlike several other woodpecker species.

Of Ohio’s six commonly occurring nesting woodpecker species, the flicker is the most migratory. We’re in the peak window of fall migration, and my feeder bird was likely passing through. Their spring migration peaks in in mid-April and the birds are even more conspicuous then. Many flickers do stay to breed, and overwinter.

Flickers excavate cavities in trees – typically in dead timber – for nest sites. Old nest holes are used by other species: chickadees, titmice, tree swallows, and other cavity-nesting birds. Even flying squirrels make use of the handiwork of these master carpenters.

Most woodpeckers forage on tree trunks and limbs, excavating for tasty beetle grubs and other arboreal fare. Flickers are no exception, but they also habitually forage on the ground. Ants form the bulk of their diet, and ground-bound birds are usually plundering ant colonies.

Come spring, flickers commence courtship rituals and this can be a raucous affair. Birds will deliver long series of wicka-wicka calls from prominent perches. This is the likely source of their name: flicker is an onomatopoeia of the wicka call.

Courting males, especially, love to drum and the louder the better. The amorous percussionist will find the loudest possible substrate and deliver short bursts of 25 beats a second. Creative birds might use metal downspouts and the ensuing racket rivals a pneumatic jackhammer. While nearby humans will be peeved, the female flicker is presumably enamored by her clangorous courter.

A beautiful, conspicuous and charismatic bird, the northern flicker has been branded with scores of colloquial names. Frontier ornithologist John James Audubon dubbed it the golden-winged woodpecker. Gary Meiter in his book Bird is the Word notes that flickers have at least 160 nicknames, including cotton-rump, high-hole, and yellow-hammer.

Whatever you call it, flickers rank high amongst our most interesting, showy, and ecologically valuable birds.

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, October 16, 2020

Virginia Creeper: Stunning Fall Color

A liana of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinqefolia, partially frames a window at the back of my house.

Virginia Creeper is a native vine, and a member of the Grape Family (Vitaceae). It turns an impressive shade of scarlet-red in autumn, and is one of the more impressively colored plants of fall.

Creeper vines its way up the telephone pole in the back corner of the yard. Utility poles and all their junky attendant wires are ugly, and this vine improves their look. Especially at this time of year.

Yet another stand of Virginia Creeper clambers over a backyard fence. I mostly leave the stuff alone, as in my estimation the vines improve the look of whatever they're on. Also, Virginia Creeper hosts some really cool caterpillars, which in turn become really cool moths. Their ranks include several species of spectacular sphinx moths. One of these is the Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus, which often turns up in urban areas. This creeper and various closely related grapes are why. CLICK HERE for photos of this moth and its caterpillar, and a brief essay on the Vitaceae family.

Best to always leave at least some creeper and grape in the yardscape, and ignore the popular notion that these plants are "weeds" and best eradicated. They're native plants, and quite valuable ones.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Raccoons raiding feeders


A young but already robust Raccoon, Procyon lotor, treats your narrator's bird feeder as its buffet. The masked bandidos are a nightly occurrence in the backyard.

I don't mind them, too much. Raccoons are clever, adaptable, and engaging mammals and they're darn good looking to boot. They do cause problems, perhaps especially with the raccoon-borne Raccoon Roundworm, which causes a disease that can be devastating to Allegheny Woodrats among other organisms. And a lot of people seem to hate coons just because of their very traits of intelligence and adaptability. If a family unit gets access to your attic, I suppose such a sentiment would be understandable. For me, the coons are strictly outdoors - the house seems tightly sealed and I've never had any issues with Raccoons or other mammals other than the rare White-footed Mouse getting in.

I made this photo back on August 17, when the mother was still escorting her two kits around. This spring, when they were very young and could not yet climb up the feeder, she would sweep seed off the feeder and down to the ground for them. It didn't take too long for them to manage to clamber up, though.

I've had fun on Facebook posting photos of "my" Raccoons, and joshing about my ongoing battles with the feeder-raiding coons. The truth is, with only slight effort, they are pretty easy to defeat. If I really don't want them plundering my feeders - which only happens at night - I just take them down and put them in the (apparently coon-proof) shed. It takes less than a minute to stow them and the same to put the feeders back out in the morning.

But sometimes I leave them out, just because I like to watch the masked bandidos.

Photo Note: With these two images, you are looking at extreme ISO: 32,000! For instance, the first shot was handheld, at 1/40 and f/2. The other photo used about the same parameters although it was at f/2.8 using a different lens. By the time the Raccoons come around, it is generally pitch black. In the second shot, the image was made in the dark. For the first, I had an outdoor light on which provides better illumination, but the coons don't like that and will usually leave the feeder if I leave it on for long. I'm shooting through a (very clean) window and am close to the animals, so images do not have to be cropped much - cropping would greatly exacerbate the graininess of such high ISO images. A better solution would be to use flash, and maybe I'll have to play with that a bit.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Northern Flicker

A Northern Flicker sits for a portrait. This bird is a male, as evidenced by the prominent black "mustache" (malar stripe).

I don't get many flickers in the yard, thus I was pleased to look at the backyard feeders the other day and see this handsome animal gorging itself on seeds. Earlier in the year, a female flicker was a regular at the suet feeder. The regular woodpeckers here are Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied - all pretty much daily fixtures. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are consistent in winter, but they forage in the conifers - large spruce and pine - and I've never seen them at the feeders. I've never seen Pileated or Red-headed woodpeckers here in this patch of suburbia, although I know that they are not far off.

The flicker pauses to stretch, revealing its golden underwings. Flickers in western North America are of a different subspecies that was once considered distinct: the Red-shafted Flicker, with bright red underwings and tail shafts. There is a narrow but extensive zone of hybridization where the two subspecies come into contact.
Warring male flickers, sparring over a nearby nest cavity and female. The bird in the upper right won. This display was all bluff. I never saw them actually come to blows.

The Northern Flicker is one of North America's most interesting birds, in my opinion. I've written a piece about them, to be published in my Columbus Dispatch newspaper column next Sunday, October 18. I'll share that here after it's published.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Black Witch in Ohio!

A Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata, rests on the hand of your narrator, the latter appendage offering a size scale for the enormous moth. Note the moth's beautifully intricate patterning and subtle lavender shading. Hints of gold and blue dot the wings. It truly is an impressive insect.

Dimensionally, this tropical vagrant to Ohio and northerly latitudes is the largest moth species that we get. The resident Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia, might edge it slightly in terms of weight, but when it comes to sheer size nothing beats one of these spectacular witches. Females are slightly larger than males, and can have a wingspan of seven inches.

The Black Witch perches on a raceme of ripe Pokeberry fruit. It is a male - females have a broad whitish band running across each wing.

A Facebook acquaintance, Kim McCoy, posted photos of this insect on October 5. It turned up on the side of her father's Fayette County house, and she went over to see it and remove the moth for eventual release. I asked if I could photograph it, and she gave it to me.

Opportunities to photograph Black Witches in Ohio are few and far between. And all that I have seen - and photographed - have been females, so this was an easy opportunity to make photos of a boy.

The Black Witch peers over a corymb of White Snakeroot flowers. Their size and appearance can lend a spooky look, to those predisposed to believe that moths and other insects can be "spooky". And many people do. Their are a number of myths about Black Witches, which are sometimes known as Mariposa de la Muerte - "Butterfly of Death". Legend has it that if a witch flies into the casa of someone who is ill, that person will soon die.

To people of my ilk, finding a Black Witch is a wonderful and fortuitous event.

A New England Aster provides a perch for the moth. Today's temps are expected to reach the 70's F, and I'll let it go this afternoon. The core range of the Black Witch is from the southernmost U.S. - I have seen many in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas - south into South America and Brazil. I'd be amazed if any of these northern vagrants ever make it back down that way, though.

And "vagrant" is probably not an accurate descriptor. That implies that the moths are idly wandering. I doubt that's what's happening, from a long-term population perspective. Black Witches are powerful flyers, and increasing numbers seem to be peregrinating far to the north of their "normal" range. In the long term, this is how species expand ranges - by sending scouts far into the hinterlands. Most will probably perish, but over time if climate and habitat shift to better accommodate their needs, the scouts will discover new opportunities and establish new colonies. Indeed, this happened with the Black Witch in Ohio in 2012 when Omar Baldridge discovered a newly eclosed Black Witch on a Mimosa tree, Albizia julibrissin, in their yard in Scioto County. Read about that RIGHT HERE.

Mimosa is an Asian tree commonly in cultivation, and increasing as a "wild" escapee, but they provide suitable fodder for Black Witch caterpillars. Natives that this moth will use as hosts include Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, and Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus. The former is abundant statewide and the latter is locally common. I think we'll likely see this huge moth increasingly reproducing itself in Ohio and other northerly locales. It is the perfect entomological organism for rapid range expansion, and its common host plants provide ample opportunities.

Like the moth it becomes, the Black Witch caterpillar is a gargantuan larva. I made this image last year. A Black Witch had shown up in Columbus, and it turned out to be a gravid female. I and nearly two hundred other people were at Mothapalooza, but as luck would have it, the moth turned up at Don Tumblin's daughter Lacey's house. Don was at Mothapalooza, enticed Lacey to drive the moth down from her Columbus home, and the entire crowd got to see the witch. It was a very cool event. You can see the actual moth HERE.

That moth was a female and full of eggs. A number of eggs were extracted from her before she was released. I'm sure she deposited her remaining eggs on some suitable host plant up this way. Kim Baker took some of the eggs and successfully reared at least one. This caterpillar is one of the spawn from her batch of eggs. If you ever come into close proximity to one munching away on a locust or coffee tree, you probably won't miss it, and you're even less likely to miss the moth should you be fortunate to have one appear under your night light.. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Nature: Curve-lined owlet caterpillars have a remarkable ability to camouflage themselves

A curve-lined owlet dangles from a leaf in Adams County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Curve-lined owlet caterpillars have a remarkable ability to camouflage themselves

Columbus Dispatch
October 4, 2020
Jim McCormac

The world of caterpillars is fantastically bizarre and their role in nature cannot be understated. Many of these creatures are by turns beautiful, outrageous, astonishing, and otherworldly. The fertile minds of Dr. Seuss or J.R.R. Tolkien could not have dreamt up some of these insects.

Caterpillars are one of four phases of a butterfly or moth lifecycle. Life begins as an egg, from which springs a caterpillar. Fresh from the egg, the larva will be so tiny as to be barely visible. But it is a plant-eating machine and grows rapidly through multiple molts. With each shed of its skin, the caterpillar emerges bigger. By the time this phase concludes, the caterpillar might be thousands of times more massive than when it began.

Next stop is the cocoon (moth) or chrysalis (butterfly), which is how many species overwinter. This is where a magical reorganization of tissues occurs. The caterpillar that formed the transformative chamber will eventually materialize as a winged adult, ready to start the cycle again.

Butterflies are chump change in this world. Only about 140 species have been recorded in Ohio. Moths? Try 2,000 or more species. And scores more await discovery.

The mortality rate of caterpillars is staggering. Some experts believe it hovers around 99% for many species. They are nature’s hotdogs and seemingly everyone wants a bite. Birds and other insects are especially voracious predators.

Astronomical kill rates have led to carpet-bombing reproductive strategies. Some female moths might dump several thousand eggs in the quest to survive the predatorial gauntlet to reach adulthood.

Bird predation, most likely, has spawned the evolution of fabulous camouflage in an enormous number of caterpillar species. Many of them hide in plain sight, but blend so well with their surroundings that even a sharp-eyed warbler might miss them.

On Sept. 6, I received a message from Chris Zacharias alerting me to his discovery of one of the grand prizes of the caterpillar world. Zacharias and his wife Sue are expert lepidopterists and sharp-eyed observers. They had discovered a curve-lined owlet caterpillar in a remote Adams County woodland.

I have searched for years for one of these extraordinary caterpillars, unsuccessfully. As have many of my entomologically-minded friends. Plans were made to seek the caterpillar early the next morning. Even though Zacharias found it a half-mile from the nearest road, his directions were explicit.

The next morning, I met naturalists Cheryl Carpenter and John Howard at the site. As we worked through the woods, we inspected the numerous greenbrier plants in the understory. Greenbriers are straggly shrubs in the genus Smilax. Curve-lined owlet caterpillars are specialists that feed only on these plants.

Suddenly a cry arose from John: “Here’s one!” Finally the spell was broken. We had found our larval Holy Grail. And it wasn’t even the caterpillar that Zacharias pointed us to, which we did find later.

As greenbrier foliage ages, brownish patches of necrotic tissue form, especially along leaf margins. Greenbriers also have tendrils to assist them in clambering over other vegetation. The curve-lined owlet mimics all these things, simultaneously resembling dead leaf tissue and greenbrier tendrils.

When disturbed, even by a gust of wind, the caterpillar will slowly twist and turn in the manner of a hanging dead leaf. Even the most sharp-eyed titmouse could easily overlook this potential meal.

This organism’s name stems from the moth, which has a prominent curved line across the wings. It, like its larva, is spectacular.

Caterpillars are a little-known but abundant part of the natural world. They are an endless source of fascination.

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

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Two cool and unusual moths

A gorgeous insect and one that was utterly unknown to me when I photographed it WAY back on June 14, 2013 in Adams County. It is the Ornate Compacta Moth, Compacta capitalis.

I'm hard at work on a major moth project, and that has prompted me to go back and review my collection of "mystery moth" images. I have a digital stack of probably close to 500 photos dating back nearly a decade of moths that I never pinned names to. Not necessarily because I'm lazy, but because moth photography brings with it a set of challenges. One, there are thousands of moth species. Determining the identity of subjects can be incredibly time-consuming. This task is getting easier by the day, thanks to the ever-increasing utility of iNaturalist and various lep-ID apps such as LepSnap. Even with such help, in many cases it still requires delving into literature to sort out similar species and obtain independent verification.

Also, dedicated mothing excursions, where we are putting up lights and often attracting blizzards of moths, result in scores of photos. For the most part, it's like shooting fish in a barrel and I might return from such a foray with dozens or hundreds of photos of a great many species. Oftentimes, especially in the older days, I wouldn't have time to try identify all of them and would just toss them in the unidentified folder and basically forget about them. Now I am wading through all these mysteries and doing my best to put names to everything.

In the process, I have come across some interesting stuff. The Ornate Compacta Moth seems to be a rarity, and in Ohio there have only been a relative handful of records.

Here's the Ornate Compacta Moth distribution, as mapped by the uber-moth site the Moth Photographers Group.

The host plant(s) for this species is unknown, which makes it pretty much impossible to figure out the moth's ecological role and habitat specifics. However, it is a member of the crambid family and some related species have an aquatic component to their larval phase. Maybe that's the case here. The moth in my photo was found near a high quality stream. Also, there is the possibility that this species is generally not attracted to lights and thus largely evades detection. However, it is a fairly large and extremely showy species, and if it was common one would think there would be many more records.

Here's a cool and apparently uncommon species: Polygrammodes langdonalis, or "Langdon's Root Moth" (the common name is my innovation, as I could not find an existing name).  Highland County, Ohio, June 26, 2020.

Map courtesy Moth Photographers Group

This species occurs in a very limited region of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Apparently the caterpillars feed on the roots of Ironweed, and presumably mostly or entirely Vernonia gigantea. Which makes me wonder why the moth is apparently so range-restricted as its host plant is abundant over a much broader range.

There is no shortage of mysteries in the moth world.