Sunday, November 29, 2020

Nature: Black-chinned hummingbird seen for first time in Ohio


A black-chinned hummingbird that made an appearance earlier this month, is a first for Ohio/Jim McCormac

Nature: Black-chinned hummingbird seen for first time in Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
November 29, 2020
Jim McCormac

It isn’t every day that one finds a bird new to Ohio. I’m sure that was the last thing on Dr. Cheryl Bater’s mind when she glanced at her hummingbird feeder at 7:27 Saturday morning on Nov. 14.

The veterinarian, who has a practice in Dublin, is by her own admission a casual birder. But she knew a hummingbird in mid-November was highly unusual.

This hummingbird was a young male or female, confounding an easy identification. Though adult male hummingbirds are distinctive, females and immatures can be far trickier to name.

The only hummingbird species that occurs regularly in Ohio is the ruby-throated hummingbird. But ruby-throateds should be long gone by this time, and the odds were greater that Bater’s bird was something else.

Bater posted photos on the Facebook Ohio Wildlife and Nature group, which quickly drew Jen Allen’s attention. Allen, an avid birder and photographer, made a visit, and sent photos to hummingbird expert and licensed bander Allen Chartier.

Chartier, of Inkster, Michigan, near Detroit, had a good idea of the bird’s identity, and the following Monday he made the 3½-hour drive down to try to capture the bird.

Catching a hummingbird can be easy if you know what you’re doing. Chartier places a cage around the feeder, with a remotely tripped door. Once the bird enters the cage to get to the sugar water, Chartier drops the door.

With the bird in hand, Chartier quickly determined its identity: a hatch-year male black-chinned hummingbird. Young black-chinneds greatly resemble young/female ruby-throateds, differing in subtleties of bill and primary flight feathers. The sprite weighed a smidge under 4 grams — about the same as a nickel.

Black-chinned hummingbirds breed across much of western North America, from southern British Columbia to northern Mexico. Most of them winter in Mexico, but small numbers regularly wander far to the east, usually turning up in Gulf Coast states.

Midwestern U.S. records are nearly unknown, and everyone involved knew that this “mega” would spur considerable interest in the birding community.

Bater opened the floodgates shortly after Chartier banded the bird. By the time of my visit on Wednesday, dozens of birders from all over the state had visited.

Rare birds draw the big guns. I saw Dr. Bernie Master of Worthington, and Cleveland birders Rob and Sandy Harlan. This hummingbird was number 386 for all of their Ohio lists — a phenomenal total and about 90% of all species ever seen in Ohio.

The black-chinned hummingbird is the seventh hummingbird species recorded in Ohio. Other than the common breeding ruby-throated hummingbird, all but one are western North American species. The other is the Mexican violetear of Mexico and Central America, which appeared in 2005 in Holmes County.

Why do these birds wander east? No one knows for sure, but the proliferation of hummingbird feeders is surely a factor. As is long-blooming, nectar-producing ornamental flowers that persist into early winter. Hummingbirds are powerful flyers and quick to capitalize on new resources.

Bird distributions do not remain static. Many species seem to have “scouts” hardwired into the population. These “vagrants” as they are often called, might be thought of as casing out potential new turf. Over the long haul, this is one way in which species can expand into newly favorable territory.

Lest you worry about the black-chinned hummingbird’s welfare as the weather gets cold, fear not. These are hardy birds — as long as they can get adequate food, they can endure surprisingly cold temperatures. It will leave when the time is right, although where it ends up will be a mystery.

Thanks to Bater for hosting legions of birders. Such an unexpected invasion requires big adjustments in one’s schedule, and occasionally can test one’s tolerance.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

American Crows are full of smarts

An American Crow strikes a pose in my Worthington, Ohio, backyard. This is probably the smartest species - including humans and raccoons - that enters my property. Today, I had a surreal experience with two of them. I peeked through the kitchen window to see one drinking from my bird bath, its back to me. About 20 feet further out was another crow, prominently perched and perhaps acting as a scout.

The scout instantly saw me through the window, even though it was dim inside the home - no lights on and a dark rainy day. The lookout made some soft sound - no raucous CAWS or anything overt. The bird on the bath immediately swiveled its head over its shoulder to look right at me. And both flew off into some nearby spruce trees. It was as if the scout whispered "Psst! Hey Frank! Over your shoulder!" It would be fascinating to better understand how these corvids communicate, and communicate they surely do, probably in far more complex ways than we can imagine.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Frugivores, plying their trade

A male American Robin deftly flips a berry into its gaping maw. This bird and many of his comrades were devouring a thicketful of Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) fruit. I made this shot last Friday morning at Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, Ohio.

The likely evolution of brightly colored berries is to serve as bird attractants. Enticing strong fliers to eat and thus disperse one's fruit is an effective colonization strategy. The migratory and localized nomadic tendencies of robins makes them ideally suited to the task.

Unfortunately, robins don't discriminate between native berry crops and introduced ones, such as this honeysuckle. There are three species of Eurasian bush honeysuckles that have become well established and highly invasive in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest, and the shrubs have taken over with great rapidity.

Birds are the reason. Along with Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings (an invasive bird), American Robins are doing much of the heavy lifting in regards to honeysuckle dispersal. All three are highly frugivorous (fruit-eating), at least seasonally. It's very common to see mobs of these species stripping honeysuckles of their fruit, and they will expel the seed-rich fruit far from where they ate it, most likely. One could not design a better plan for a botanical takeover.

Other species of birds eat honeysuckle fruit, but I single the trio above out due to the sheer force of their numbers and strong tendency to harvest fruit crops. Collectively, those three species comprise about 9.5 million individuals in Ohio alone and that's a lot of honeysuckle harvesting power.

We can't blame the birds for this invasive scourge - well, maybe the starlings - but hopefully we can learn from our mistakes. The landscape industry and fish and wildlife agencies pushed these honeysuckles for a long time, touting their "wildlife" values and aesthetic properties (I would agree with the latter - they are quite showy). It should be very apparent by now that woody plants, especially shrubs, that develop colorful bird-dispersed fruits have a great chance of vaulting the garden fence and going rogue. Perhaps the nurseries could become more visionary and avoid selling these plants BEFORE they become problems. 

 A stone's throw from the fruit-plundering robins was this Eastern Phoebe. A tough flycatcher, phoebes will try to ride out the winter if conditions give them half a chance. This one was staying near a small stream on this chilly morning. Their odds of finding insects are higher around water. But on a few occasions I watched the phoebe duck into a patch of Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and scarf down a few berries. When push comes to shove, and food is of the essence, phoebes will turn to fruit. But because of their low numbers and ephemeral frugivory, they probably play a very minor role in invasive plant seed dispersal - certainly nothing even remotely approaching the gangs of robins, starlings, and waxwings.

HERE'S A POST from 2014 from a site where I caught a number of species in the act of honeysuckle plundering, and talk a bit about why honeysuckle is bad for birds and ecology. Here's ANOTHER POST about robins and global warming that you might find of interest.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A buck, in prairie grasses


A young buck White-tailed Deer observes the photographer from across a restored prairie meadow. His pelage beautifully matches the autumnal coloration of the Indian Grass. I shot him (with pixels) yesterday morning at Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, Ohio. To temporarily get his undivided attention, I snort-huffed like another buck. Not only did that make him look my way, it also drew him about 50 feet closer. But he quickly forgot about me, and continued his meanders through the prairie, perhaps following the scent cues of a doe.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Nature: Red-breasted nuthatches are a tough and energetic species


Lured by seeds, a red-breasted nuthatch perches on the lens of Jim McCormac's camera

Nature: Red-breasted nuthatches are a tough and energetic species

November 15, 2020

Jim McCormac

The white-breasted nuthatch is a familiar bird to many feeders of birds in our region. This small songbird is snowy white below and wears a coat of slate-blue above. A bold black stripe caps its head and neck. Most notable, perhaps, is its foraging tactics. Nuthatches creep along tree bark in the manner of woodpeckers. But they invariably head down trunks and limbs. Woodpeckers almost always head up the trunks.

Nuthatches visit feeders, and for most of the year – and some years, ALL year – we must make due with only white-breasted nuthatches. It is the only one of North America’s four nuthatches that is resident in Central Ohio.

But another nuthatch does occur in Ohio, the tiny red-breasted nuthatch. This northerner is a rare localized nester in the Hocking Hills, Mohican State Forest and scattered areas in extreme northeast Ohio. But most breed in the vast boreal forest that blankets the northernmost U.S. and much of Canada.

However, these tough little birds do pay us wintertime visits, at least some years. Red-breasted nuthatches are intimately associated with the coniferous trees that make up much of the boreal forest. In warm seasons, they glean plenty of insects, especially beetles, caterpillars, and spiders.

Come the long, cold northern winter, easily obtained insect bounty largely vanishes. Then, the nuthatches switch to a diet heavy in conifer seeds, particularly those of fir and spruce.

Roughly every other winter, the nuthatches stage major southward incursions, with some birds even reaching the Gulf Coast and Mexico. Snowbirds seeking a Floridian vacation? Not hardly. Elfin 10 gram red-breasted nuthatches are tough as nails.

In the accompanying photo, a red-breasted nuthatch perches on the end of my camera lens. They are not shrinking violets, although the seed I put atop the lens helped draw them in. I was standing in a forest in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, and the temperature was about 5 below zero F.

It isn’t cold that drives the nuthatches south, it’s the lack of food. The conifer seeds that are their wintertime staple are cyclical, with big crops every two-three years. Alternate years are relative busts with few seeds produced.

As long as food is plentiful, red-breasted nuthatches ride out winter in the north woods. One or two evenings during my January 2018 Algonquin foray, it dipped to 20 below zero. The nuthatches were unfazed.

Southward incursions of boreal birds are known as irruptions, and birders down this way eagerly anticipate them. I began to hear occasional red-breasted nuthatches in August. By October’s end they were everywhere, statewide and far beyond, and were visiting my feeders along with the local white-breasted nuthatches.

If the pattern holds, it might be winter 2022-23 or 2023-24 before we again see many red-breasted nuthatches.

This isn’t the only boreal irruptive species. Pine siskin – a close relative of the American goldfinch – is another. Siskins are also appearing in large numbers. Watch for small brownish heavily streaked birds with a yellowish wash in the wings and tail. Siskins often travel in flocks, sometimes sizeable. Groups up to 200 have been recorded in year’s past. Anyone entertaining such numbers had better increase their thistle seed budget.

Far rarer irruptives include common redpoll, evening grosbeak, red crossbill, and white-winged crossbill. If any of these appear at your place, give me a shout, please.

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

Monday, November 9, 2020

Luna Moths and their interesting tails


The flawless beauty of a freshly emerged male Luna Moth, Actias luna. This one was resting and drying on a small tree seedling in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, WAY back on April 29, 2011. While there is much to admire regarding the moth's elegant architecture and coloration, it is the tail streamers that often invite comment.

I think much of the long-standing conventional wisdom was that the tails mostly serve as camouflage of sorts, to help a moth perched among plant matter better blend with its surroundings. At least that's what I always thought. The tails undoubtedly do serve that role, too. I've seen Lunas hanging among green leaves on occasion, and the streamers do seem to break up its shape.

But there seems to be a more critical role for the tails...

I photographed this Luna on April 27, 2014 in Fayette County, West Virginia. While it is also a pretty fresh, recently emerged moth, this insect has apparently had a rough row to hoe. The tail streamers are nearly gone, and a big chunk is missing from the wing on the left.

Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that the tails present a false flag to hunting bats. The fluttering streamers when the moth is in flight creates an acoustic signal that dominates an approaching bat’s echolocation sonar. It fixates on the tails and, more often than not, ends up clutching a piece of tail while missing the body. The moth escapes, still with an opportunity to reproduce. Laboratory experiments featuring normally tailed moths and Lunas that had their tails removed, and a Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) showed that the bat caught only 35% of the moths with tails, but its success rate skyrocketed to 81% with the tailless moths.

I am about sure that's what happened to the moth in the photo above - a survivor of a failed bat attack. The V-shaped bite mark on the wing, especially, is the calling card of a bat.

My whole life has been moths for a while, because of a book project, and it has me frequently dipping into the files and dredging up old photographic chestnuts such as these moths. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

White-crowned Sparrows, eating aster seeds


A subadult White-crowned Sparrow feeds on the ripe seeds of White Panicled Aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, in my backyard. Two of these robust, handsome sparrows have been hanging around for several days. While the immatures are not nearly as distinctive as the adults with their dashing ivory-white crown stripes, the youngsters have the classic White-crowned physique. This is a big chunk of a sparrow, as sparrows go. Using a familiar benchmark, the ubiquitous Song Sparrow, The White-crowned Sparrow is a third heavier, and an inch longer in length and wingspan. It has a characteristic big-bodied, small-headed appearance.

The other White-crowned Sparrow caught in the act of plucking aster seeds. White Panicled Aster is a very common native plant around here and throughout Ohio. It came into my yard as a volunteer, along with Tall Goldenrod, Wingstem, and some other native members of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). I would never consider "weeding" them out, for obvious reasons. While these White-crowned Sparrows do graze on spilled seed below the feeders, they seem to prefer ripe fruit fresh from the vine, as it were.

The other, more obvious pinkish-fruited plant is American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. It is native to the southeastern U.S. but makes it no further north than Tennessee. I am not such a purist that I would expel it, though. This shrubby member of the Vervain Family (Verbenaceae) forms a wondrously dense thicket often used for cover by the songbird crowd. Especially when the local Cooper's Hawks stage raids. While the fruit do not seem to be especially favored by birds, the copious flowers are unbelievably attractive to all manner of pollinating insects.

My little suburban Worthington (Ohio) yard is serving as a refueling waystation for these White-crowned Sparrows, and many other migrant birds. All the native plants play a big part in making the half-acre plot attractive to wildlife. Most of my neighbors help, too, as they maintain highly manicured yards comprised mostly of turf grass and exotic plants. Thus, my space is an oasis for birds and other critters.

White-crowned Sparrows breed across the Canadian tundra, as far north as the Arctic Ocean and throughout much of Alaska and south at high elevations in the western mountains. If "my" birds came from the nearest breeding locales, they have traveled over 800 miles on their inaugural southbound journey. Chance are good they came from further north than that, though. This species typically winters from the Great Lakes region south to the Gulf Coast, so they may travel much further yet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Nature: Outfoxing wily raccoons is not a simple task

A raccoon raiding one of Jim McCormac's bird feeders/Jim McCormac

Nature: Outfoxing wily raccoons is not a simple task

Columbus Dispatch
November 1, 2020

Jim McCormac

Raccoons are abundant, range throughout Ohio and might be our most instantly recognizable wild mammal.

Close relatives of bears, they are immediately identifiable by their black-bandit mask and ringed tail. A big one can weigh 35 pounds. The wily mammals occur in nearly all habitats and thrive in citified landscapes. Raccoons are consummate omnivores, meaning that they will eat nearly anything. The meal plan includes our castoffs, as victims of plundered trash cans have learned.

In northern climes, raccoons go on autumnal food binges, packing on massive quantities of fat. Up to one-third of a successful glutton’s bodyweight is blubber. So much fat is stored that a raccoon can ride out winter without eating, if need be. They don’t truly hibernate, but will remain holed up in a den for extended periods during cold snaps.

We are smack in the midst of raccoon fat-storage season. This is when the masked bandits stage frequent raids on bird feeders — not that they wouldn’t during any other season. Seed meant for songbirds is easy pickings.

I feed birds, and have several feeders. The raccoons ignore the thistle feeder, which mostly attracts goldfinches. (Thistle seed is too small to interest the big bruisers.) They do, however, like my suet feeder, and at one time could access the hook that it hung on. The furry thieves would take the suet cage down, open it up and ravage the contents.

After the last suet raid, it took me more than a week to find the feeder. A raccoon had dragged it into the crevasse between my shed and the garage wall. It’s a miracle I ever noticed it, and recovery required rigging a pole-mounted grappling hook to fish it out.

Afterward, I found a shepherd’s-hook pole that was too skinny for the raccoons to climb. The suet dangled 6 feet over the heads of the frustrated furry freeloaders. One night, thought, a crew excavated the deep-seated pole from its ground mount, toppled it and made off with the suet. I am hard at work on Plan C.

My biggest battles involve my largest seed feeder, another pole-mounted job. In spring, a jumbo adult sow began bringing two young kits around. She would agilely climb the pole, using the raccoon baffle as a foothold, then fling pawfuls of seed down to the youngsters.

This was cute for a while. But it wasn’t long before the young raccoons could climb up, and sometimes I would pop the night light on to see a trio of them on the platform. Sometimes I would go out for a word with them, and they would smugly saunter off — only to return later that night.

As the seed bills spiked, I decided to outsmart these raccoons. I removed the raccoon baffle and heavily greased the pole with Vaseline. That worked for one night. By the second night, they had rubbed it all off and were back atop the feeder.

I activated a motion sensor on the nearby night light, figuring an unexpected dose of bright light would chase them into the shadows. No go — I could just better see them laughing at me.

My friends weighed in with all sorts of raccoon-thwarting advice, most of it bad. Some of the fatalists said I would never win, that the raccoons are smarter than I am. They might be right.

But for now, I have won. I pop the feeder off its mount most evenings, and stow it in the locked garage. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the raccoons figure out how to break in. I just hope they don’t steal my car.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim