Wednesday, December 30, 2020

An unusual squirrel dray


An Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, has picked an odd place to site its dray (squirrel-speak for nest). The two stacked metal tables apparently met the squirrel's needs for an adequate supporting superstructure, and he built out of the box, so to speak. These animals normally place their drays high in trees, as many of this one's compadres have done in nearby trees.

My mother lives in Dublin Retirement Village, on the third floor. Her apartment features a small balcony, and this is where the squirrel has chosen to make its strange nest.

My brother, his wife, myself and other family members are frequent visitors to mom's place, and I happened to be there the first day the squirrel launched construction activities. By the end of the next day, he had largely completed construction. Squirrels begin with a sturdy latticework of small branches, which he harvested from nearby trees. Once these are in place to his satisfaction - there are hundreds of branches - he commences insulating the place with dead leaves. Many, many leaves are added, thoroughly chinking the gaps.

Sitting on the deck below the table is a small basket, and this may have been the perk that stimulated the squirrel to choose this site. His "bed" appears to be in the basket, which would provide yet another layer of easily insulated security. Ensconced within a well-built dray, the squirrel's body heat can keep the interior 20-30 degrees above the outside temperature. Sometimes two animals will share a dray, and that probably further increases the heat.

Gray Squirrels will sometimes make more than one dray, and this one may also have a more typical arboreal abode nearby. But, he seems to use the balcony nest as his primary residence.

Here is a brief video of the squirrel adding construction material. It's been educational to get a front row to the process; an activity that is normally difficult due to the lofty locations that they normally choose.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A rare white Christmas

Looking straight down the keyhole water slide at Indian Run Falls in Dublin, Ohio. This is the beginning of an interesting limestone gorge that drains into the Scioto River.

It seems that white Christmases are rarer, at least in this neck of the woods. Milder winters mean less snow, and often it seems that December 25 is green rather than snow-enshrouded. Yesterday brought several inches of powder, and it was still sprinkling snow this morning. The effect was quite beautiful, so I headed out shortly after dawn into the 14 F air to make images at a few local sites. 

Indian Run, a short distance downstream. The gorge here is quite impressive for the flatlands of Central Ohio. Limestone cliffs hem the stream in, and spring will bring many showy wildflowers, including some rarities.

I personally like winter, when it supposed to be winter, and relish cold snowy days such as this.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas Bird Count at The Wilds

A White-tailed Deer gazes at the photographer from a snowy meadow. Such conditions greeted participants at this year's Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, which took place last Saturday, December 19.

The inaugural Chandlersville CBC took place on December 16, 1995. It took a while to get steady feet, missing six years between then and the present. In 2010, Scott Albaugh took the reins as compiler, and the count has been going strong ever since.

The 10,000 acre conservation and research refuge known as The Wilds is the best known component of the Chandlersville CBC, and Wilds staff have been big supporters. I have been fortunate, since 2010, to be part of the team that goes inside the fences at the Wilds. This year, our Wilds leaders were Jan Ramer, vice president of the Wilds, and Genelle Uhrig, wildlife ecology associate.

About 25 species of large mammals, many of them imperiled in their indigenous ranges, are housed at The Wilds. They have plenty of room to roam, and as many species come from cold climes, a Muskingum County winter is nothing to them. All these free-ranging mammals makes for an interesting bird count, and I'll share some of our mammalian observations here.

NOTE: We do NOT ignore the birds :-) The expansive grasslands, ponds, and scattered woodlots provide plenty of avian fodder and our crew located nearly 50 species.

This is the sort of situation that makes birding inside the fences of The Wilds surreal. A herd of Sichuan Takin temporarily block the way. This massive "goat-bear" hails from Tibet and adjacent provinces of China.

A young Sichuan Takin - I presume born earlier this year. Takins are quite Seuss-like, and a hit among all who clap eyes on them.

These Pere David's Deer were not especially intimidated by our crew. A large deer native to China, it was hunted out in its native range by the 20th Century. Fortunately some animals had been taken to European zoos, and stock from successful breeding in captive herds allowed for repatriation to China. About 700 Pere David's Deer are now in the wild, in their indigenous range.

Persian Onagers, the "wild ass". It is native to Iran, and perhaps only 600 onagers remain in the wild. Two foals born at The Wilds were produced by artificial insemination - the first time this technique was successfully implemented in a species of wild equid.

Ah, a personal favorite, the Bactrian Camel. These hardy beasts can handle extreme heat and cold, and have no issues dealing with an Ohio winter. Fortunately, perhaps, the male was not in breeding conditions. A few years ago, "Gobi" as he is known, lit out after our vehicle, frothing at the mouth and soaked with urine he had sprayed over himself.

After lunch, Genelle took me in to see the American Burying Beetles. This federally endangered insect has nearly vanished from the wild and is among the rarest of the rare. The Wilds successfully raises hundreds, and each year releases stock into suitable habitat. At least some have overwintered in the wild successfully, and hopefully this project will help reestablish this spectacular insect.

A week old female Southern White Rhinoceros, with her very formidable mother. The baby weighed about 100 pounds at birth; the mother is well north of 3,000 pounds. Thus far, The Wilds has successfully raised about thirty rhinos. We also saw an adorable male rhino calf, born only the day before our visit.

A Cheetah sends a baleful stare our way. This is one of three species housed at the relatively new Carnivore Center, African Painted Dog and Dhole being the others. While the Cheetahs have heated buildings to which they can retreat, they are remarkably cold-tolerant and spend a good deal of time outside even in the coldest of weather.

Lastly, perhaps my favorite of The Wilds' charges, the Dhole. These wild dogs once ranged over a broad swath of Asia, but have declined precipitously for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to growing human populations increasingly conflicting with them. Sometimes known as "Whistling Dogs", the Dhole has a wide vocal repertoire and is quite social. They are very playful, and the small pack at the Wilds is always fun to observe.

If you are looking for an interesting trip, consider a "Winter at The Wilds" tour. You'll see much of what I shared here, plus much more, and experts will fill your group in on each animal's story. Bring your binoculars, too, as the birding is good. CLICK HERE for more information.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Seed-munching evening grosbeaks now visiting Ohio

A pair of evening grosbeaks - male above, female below/Jim McCormac

Seed-munching evening grosbeaks now visiting Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
December 20, 2020

Jim McCormac

On May 23, 1707, Carl Linnaeus was born. The Swedish scientist would revolutionize the naming of organisms with his system of binomial nomenclature. In the Linnaean system, an organism is branded with two names: genus and species. For instance, readers of this column, or at least most of them, are Homo sapiens.

These scientific names are sometimes more descriptive than common names. That’s the case with this column’s subject, Coccothraustes vespertinus. Translated from its Greek and Latin roots, the name means “kernel breaker of the evening”.

The species is far better known as the evening grosbeak. But kernel breaker is apropos, and a glance at an evening grosbeak’s massive bill reveals why. The “evening” descriptor is a bit nonsensical, as the birds are typically most active in the morning.

These robust finches of the north woods are death on seeds, even the hardest of nuts, pits, and stones. Woe to the sunflower seed that crosses a grosbeak’s path.

Even though their sunflower seed bills will skyrocket, most backyard bird feeders would gladly pay the tab to support a flock of ravenous evening grosbeaks. The male is stunning, boldly clad in bright yellow tones and contrasting black tail and wings. The latter are marked with large white patches.

Male grosbeaks’ heads sport conspicuous flared yellow stripes. Their headgear suggests the winged helmet favored by the Olympian God Hermes. Females are much muted in coloration, as is the case with most of our songbirds.

Evening grosbeaks are big news this winter. This species used to stage regular southward incursions into Ohio and points south, but winter invasions have become nearly nonexistent in recent decades.

The evening grosbeak’s stronghold is western Canada and western U.S. mountains. About a century ago, this species began moving eastward and eventually colonized boreal forest regions all the way to the east coast.

This expansion has been tied to increased use of box-elder as an ornamental tree. While grosbeaks do favor the seeds of this scruffy maple for food, I have my doubts that box-elder plantings triggered the large-scale range extension.

Box-elder is a successional species, flourishing in cut-over and disturbed habitats. The Evening grosbeak’s active period of expansion correlates with widespread logging and deforestation of the early 20th century. Great swaths of logged landscapes probably greatly spiked populations of box-elder, as well as other grosbeak-friendly fruit-bearing trees such as hawthorns and plums.

Maturation of forests and other land use changes may no longer favor grosbeaks, and their eastern population has greatly dwindled. Good numbers of evening grosbeaks typically occurred in Ohio in winter about every 2-3 years up until the early 1980’s. After that, they became much scarcer.

Whatever the causes for their decline, a winter invasion of evening grosbeaks is now a monumental event. They quickly recognize feeders as a food source, and many a birder has been delighted to find flocks decimating their seeds this winter.

Thus far this winter, evening grosbeaks have been documented in 59 of our counties. I suspect they’ve been in all 88 counties, and birds might appear anywhere, including your feeders.

Keep an eye out for these large extroverted finches. It might be many years before you get an opportunity to clap eyes on one in the Buckeye State. If you are so fortunate as attract them to your backyard buffet, prepare to increase the birdseed budget.

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, December 18, 2020

Olentangy River, wintry snowscape


The Olentangy River as seen yesterday morning, just south of the State Route 161 bridge in Worthington. For several days now, a beautiful frosting of snow has covered the landscape, creating beauty everywhere one looks.

Rising from headwaters in Morrow County, the Olentangy flows nearly 100 miles south before confluencing with the Scioto River near downtown Columbus. It is a picturesque stream over most of its distance, despite encroachments by agriculture, suburbia, and urbanization.

In spite of an enormous people population along and near the stream, much effort has been undertaken to protect the Olentangy River and its water quality and riparian corridors are in surprisingly good shape. I drive past - or over - this river nearly daily, and could not resist the temptation to stop and photograph it yesterday in the snow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A floristic throwback to Spring

As I write this, here in Central Ohio, it is lightly snowing and the temperature is around freezing. While I am a big fan of winter, snow, and cold weather, when the days become as short as they do this time of year I pine for spring and the resurgence of plant life.

On April 14 last spring, I made a foray into Highland County and the amazing Highlands Nature Sanctuary and environs. This amazing place - and many others - are owned and managed by the Arc of Appalachia. If you want to donate to a worthy cause, this nonprofit private conservation organization would be a winner. GO HERE for more info on the Arc.

The gorge pictured above was new to me. I dubbed it "The Jumbles" as the small stream wends a torturous path through massive limestone slump blocks calved from surrounding cliffs. The boulders were carpeted with moss, and wildflowers grew in profusion from the rocks. The place is magical.

One site in this area harbors a wonderful population of Shooting-star, Dodecatheon meadia. It was just starting to flower and of course some images had to be made. Most plants here have rosy-pink flowers, and are arguably even more striking than the more commonly encountered white form.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: This image and the following were made with Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens. It is superb for many types of shots, and I have taken to using it frequently to shoot wildflowers. I will usually sandwich either a 12mm or 25mm extension tube between camera and lens to allow for closer focusing. Sometimes I even use larger telephotos. I love the beautiful soft bokeh that these lenses impart to the background, and usually shoot at more open apertures such as f/5.6 or f/7.1. The rig is mounted on a tripod, and I shoot in live view with a 2-second shutter delay so there is absolutely no movement, at least on my part. Breezes are another story, and yet another reason why it's good to get out really early, when winds are often nil or mild.

A trio of Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, bunched together and fresh as can be. This common vernal wildflower is one of spring's botanical highlights and I never tire of them no matter how many I have seen. While shooting individual plants like these is fun, I was after a bigger trillia treasure, a spot that I long had known about but had never clapped eyes on...

Whoa! A torrent of trillium cascades down a wooded slope, seemingly pouring from a fissure in the overarching limestone cliff. This spectacle is jaw-dropping remarkable, and just reflecting back on the situation via this photo makes thoughts of sleet and winter fade.

Spring will be on us before we know it. It's always such a great time of year, as the flora shakes off its winter slumber and pops forth with a vengeance.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Nature: Snowy owl makes a somewhat rare appearance at Alum Creek


A snowy owl looks back at its admirers/Jim McCormac

Nature: Snowy owl makes a somewhat rare appearance at Alum Creek

Columbus Dispatch
December 6, 2020

Jim McCormac

Seeing a real live Hedwig – Harry Potter’s mail owl – in the flesh is always a thrill. Potter’s feathered postal carrier was a snowy owl, a magnificent bird that breeds in Arctic regions around the top of the globe.

People have been smitten with these huge white owls long before J.K. Rowling dreamt up Hedwig. Snowy owl cave art estimated to be 30,000 years old has been found in Europe. It’s not surprising that this magnificent bird of prey would draw ancient people’s attention.

Thirty millennia later, nothing has changed regarding human-owl fascination.

On Sunday, November 22, Beth Lenoble and Corrina Honscheid were birding along the dam at Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware County. Suddenly, a ghost on wings appeared, headed their way. “Snowy owl!” they exclaimed.

Word went out over social media, and before long dozens of New Age cave painters converged on the site. Their owl art was to be done with cameras and pixels.

Should you find yourself in proximity to a snowy owl, please remember: the owl’s welfare always comes first. Excessive harassment can cause them to relocate, increasing the risk to the bird’s welfare. Remaining about a football field away is a good guideline. Because of their massive size, great views can be had with binoculars even from afar. My accompanying photo was made from several hundred feet away.

The big white owl developed a fixation with the rocky toe of the dam’s slope, resting atop boulders. Occasionally, to the delight of the assembled throng, it would take wing and drop into a nearby grassy field for a vole.

I and my camera joined the lineup a few days after the owl turned up. Probably over a hundred people came and went in the three hours I was present, and countless thousands of images were made.

Small wonder, their fixation. A snowy owl is spectacular. Females – which I believe this one was – can be two feet long, weigh five pounds, and have a five foot wingspan.

A massive pair of piercing yellow eyes is set in a flat face, and those golden orbs are the same size and weight as an adult human’s. Owls have a human-like appearance and I think this accounts for a good chunk of the outsized interest that people have with them.

Woe to the small rodent spotted by a snowy owl. Unless it’s fast, the owl will silently fly to it and seize the hapless mammal in gargantuan talons. The rodent will be ripped asunder and the pieces swallowed and digested. Indigestible remnants – fur and bone – will be cast into a hard pellet, which the owl will later regurgitate.

While rodents are staple prey items, the owls can kill much larger fare. Canada geese, great blue herons, and gulls have been observed being captured.

In an interesting bit of anatomy, owls have 14 neck vertebrae, double the number of humans. This allows an owl to rotate its head 270 degrees in either direction. In the accompanying photo, the protagonist of this story is looking 180 degrees backwards. Don’t try it.

Because of past research, we know that at least some snowy owls that visit Ohio originated in the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec, some 1,500 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. Virtually all of the owls that reach southerly latitudes such as ours are juveniles. Adults, especially males, typically remain in the Arctic.

About every four or five years, a snowy owl irruption occurs in the Midwest. Dozens or even hundreds of owls might appear in Ohio, and one might turn up anywhere. I recall seeing one some years ago atop a water tower near Sinclair Road and State Route 161.

These booms follow summers of major lemming outbreaks. The burly rodents are the owls’ major food source on the breeding grounds. Large numbers of owlets are successfully fledged, and many of them venture far south the following winter.

This is not an irruption winter, and few snowy owls have been noted in Ohio. That made the Alum Creek owl even more of a celebrity.

Probably, by the time this column appears, the owl will have moved on. But during its stay it awed thousands of people from far and wide.

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, December 3, 2020

Evening Grosbeak irruption


An elegant pair of Evening Grosbeaks (male, top) perch in the top of an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in Ashland County, Ohio. I made this image last Saturday, and there were about 50 others in the area. Bonuses included a pair of Common Redpolls, and two flyovers of small groups of White-winged Crossbills.

In regards to winter finches, the big news this winter is the Evening Grosbeak. These robust, vociferous birds of the north woods used to stage regular southward irruptions into Ohio and points south, but these incursions have become nearly non-existent in recent decades in much of the east and Midwest. Thus, a newer crop of birders is reveling in easy opportunities to cast eyes on these extraordinary birds. Evening Grosbeaks quickly recognize feeders, and are about as likely to turn up in someone's yard as anywhere. If a ravenous flock does materialize, prepare to budget more for sunflower seeds. Flocks foraging in the wild are often smitten with Box-elder (Acer negundo) seeds. This maple holds its fruit well into winter, and is common throughout Ohio.

Map courtesy of Birds of the World online/Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you want a superb source of avian information, this comprehensive compendium of bird monographs is a must. GO HERE for subscription information.

The Evening Grosbeak's stronghold is in western Canada and western U.S. mountains. About a century ago, this species began moving eastward, eventually colonizing boreal forest regions all the way to the east coast. The expansion is sometimes tied to an increase in use of Box-elder as a planted ornamental tree. I have my doubts - not that these grosbeaks like Box-elder fruit, but that a sudden proliferation of plantings caused the species to stage a large-scale eastward expansion.

Box-elder is very much of a successional species, flourishing in cut-over and disturbed habitats, in addition to its typical floodplain habitat. The grosbeak's expansion correlates with the widespread logging of the early 20th century. The great swaths of cut-over landscapes would have probably made for great opportunities for Box-elder, in many areas. As reforestation and maturation of eastern forests has increased markedly since, habitat changes probably have made this food-rich tree far less frequent than during the grosbeaks' expansion. Widespread deforestation may have stimulated temporary production of other fruit-bearing woody plants favored by grosbeaks, too, such as hawthorns and plums.

The grosbeak's eastern expansion may be a case of boom and bust. Declines in eastern populations over the last few decades are clear, and may be tied to large-scale shifts in habitat, especially forest composition and age. But the reasons for ebbing grosbeak populations are imperfectly understood.

This map is courtesy of Ethan Kistler, who has been tracking the extent of Evening Grosbeaks in Ohio this fall and winter. Such maps are a great way to share current information, which Ethan has been doing, and stimulate reports in unmapped counties.

As of now, grosbeaks have been reported in 59 of Ohio's 88 counties. Let me know in a comment if you have a record for one of the unmapped (white) counties. I'd bet a peck of finches that Evening Grosbeaks have been in every county thus far. Birds at feeders can't be missed, but wild-foraging birds certainly can, especially if one is not familiar with their calls.

GO HERE to listen to Evening Grosbeak calls. It's a pretty easy one to learn, and knowing the vocalizations will up your odds of finding this species. Pay special attention to the "calls" as you're unlikely to hear the "songs" down here in winter.

If you haven't already, I hope that you get the opportunity to see Evening Grosbeaks this winter. It might be many winters to come before we get another invasion.