Thursday, December 30, 2021

Cooper's Hawk visits backyard

As always, click the image to enlarge

A juvenile male Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) glares my way. He's actually looking in front of my position, into a thicket of Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) where various songbirds were cowering. Much as I might enjoy the routine visits of these magnificent raptors, the songbird crowd would have a very different perspective. A Cooper's Hawk is their grim reaper in the flesh, come to rip them asunder and make a snack of them.

I generally know when a "Coop's" is around, even without seeing it. The normally bustling feeders and hedges are quiet as a library. I find it amusing that when a comparatively clumsy and lumbering Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) enters the yard, not much changes regarding songbird behavior. They know the big raptor has little chance of capturing them. Chickadees will dart right by its head going to and fro from feeders, and the same general activity level continues.

Not so with a bird hawk like a Cooper's Hawk. This animal is an extreme threat and the small birds know it. As soon as one is detected, the little fellows instantly vanish into thick cover, or if caught out, freeze still as a stone. I have watched chickadees, nuthatches and others sit without moving a muscle for five minutes or more. Such behavior is sometimes termed "sleeking" and as Accipiter hawks seem to key in on movement, sleeking presumably helps them avoid detection.

This Cooper's Hawk remained in the yard for about 45 minutes. Mostly it sat still for extended periods, waiting and watching. At one point it burst into flight and dove into the neighbor's dense arbor-vitae tree, where a score of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) huddled. It emerged empty-taloned. In my opinion, the House Sparrow is the smartest species of songbird in the yard, and they're very hard for the hawks to catch. After a bit, the hawk left for greener pastures and within a few minutes everyone was emerging from their shrubby trenches and activity was soon back to normal. But this scenario will soon be repeated. The raptors are daily visitors. No one should be bothered by indirectly feeding hawks by providing seed to lure songbirds. Nature is shot through with all manner of predator-prey relationships, although not too many are as conspicuous as a Cooper's Hawk whacking a cardinal outside your back window.

PHOTO NOTES: I generally always have a telephoto lens handy in the house, for situations such as this. I usually try and quietly open an appropriate window, so I don't have to shoot through additional glass (never shoot through unnecessary glass. Including filters, at least most of the time). When this Cooper's Hawk eventually flew to a nearby fence, he gave me opportunities for portraiture type shots. And the shot that I wanted was pretty much just what I ended up with: the bird glaring directly at me, so that the portrait would show what an unlucky songbird might see in its last moments. It was just a matter of waiting for the bird to adopt that posture, and I was ready when he did.

This image was shot with the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6mm lens, handheld but balanced on the back of a chair. Knowing that this was the priority head angle I was waiting for, I was stopped down to f/13 to give more depth of field throughout the face and eyes. Shutter speed was a low 1/250, but it was a poorly lit day and that was an effort to help keep the ISO lower. Nonetheless, the latter was 1600 with +0.3 EV dialed in. A bit high for my tastes but when light is poor higher ISO's are a reality. And I don't like shooting that heavy huge rig at slower shutter speeds than what I used, at least without a tripod.

Monday, December 27, 2021

A wayward Brant


As my route last Sunday went right past the area that has hosted a Brant (Branta bernicla) for a few weeks now, I stopped in to see the locally famous bird. Kelly Miller found it on December 6. The wayward sea goose could not have picked a more urbanized site. The white background is the wall of a massive Amazon warehouse, and the little goose is traipsing through turf grass among overly mulched ornamental trees. It associates with the flocks of Canada Geese that inhabit the numerous retention ponds.

The area is nothing but gargantuan warehouses and scads of noisy, lumbering semi-trucks. A far cry from the wild northern tundra where this bird spends its summers. In winter, Brant typically is found along seacoasts. While small numbers move through the Ohio waters of Lake Erie, Brant is quite rare inland.

Here's what the area looks like, courtesy of Google Earth. I marked the exact spot that I took the above image, and the goose is normally seen in this area. Not exactly wilderness, but the Brant seems to be doing fine, and flies well. Why it chose such a site is hard to fathom. But many a landlubber birder has gotten their "life" - or at least "state" Brant because it did.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Poison Ivy is a major bird attractant


Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), in autumn color. Just saying its name usually triggers negative reactions. This beautiful native species is among the most despised members of our flora. It does contain urushiol, the active compound that causes blistering dermatitis among those who are allergic to it (and that's most people). 

Ironically, we (people) are the cause for the abundance of this opportunistic winner. Poison Ivy is a successional species, thriving in disturbed habitats. And we've created no shortage of disturbances in which it can thrive. It would be interesting to beam back to pre-settlement North America to see what Poison Ivy's status was then. My hunch: not nearly so common, and mostly confined to areas of natural disturbances.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) snacks on the yellowish-white berries of Poison Ivy. This hardy warbler winters as far north as the northern states in the eastern U.S. The abundance of Poison Ivy and its copious fruit are a major reason why - maybe THE primary reason. Yellow-rumps become highly frugivorous in late fall and winter, and really go for these berries. Birds, obviously, are not susceptible to urushiol's toxicity. Indeed, I wonder if any non-Homo sapiens animals are.

While exploring a central Ohio park the other day, big camera rig in hand, I was pleased to come across a large mixed foraging flock of birds. I heard the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers from afar, and saw many American Robins, a few Northern Flickers, and other species. As I slowly moved in, I saw the reason for the flock: a number of trees draped with vines of Poison Ivy heavily laden with fruit.

Awesome! I love coming across such a situation in winter, as - from just a photography perspective - it means the potential for lots of interesting shots. From a bird-watcher's perspective, the ivy-attracted birds mean lots of interesting observations. Sure enough, in the hour or so I stood quietly watching and photographing, a Cooper's Hawk made a pass through, and a young Red-shouldered Hawk did the same. The former cleared everyone out, and it took about fifteen minutes for the situation to rebound. The latter had little impact on the birds' behavior. They know that the comparatively slow and clumsy Buteo has little chance of bagging a small speedy songbird.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) among an ocean of fruit. It plucked and downed many. While Yellow-rumped Warblers are conspicuous, frequently give their distinctive tchek! calls, and often forage higher in the vines, the sparrows typically remain low and feed quietly.

An American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) works the ivy. Several of his colleagues were nearby.

I saw a number of other species grabbing Poison Ivy berries, but couldn't get shots. There are dozens of potential candidates that might snack on the fruit. I have even seen giant Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) hanging agilely from the vines, pulling off berries.

The sheer number of fruit in this particular Poison Ivy honey hole means that the site should be productive for some time to come, and I look forward to returning, camera in hand.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Red-breasted Nuthatch, in fresh plumage

A male Red-breasted Nuthatch in superb condition. This species molts anywhere from late summer through late autumn, and I'd say this one recently completed his judging by the finery of its feathers. He is in classic head-down posture and was avidly searching through lichens. Lichens are like food marts for bark gleaners, as they often hide a multitude of small invertebrates. I shot this yesterday in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Photo Notes: Nuthatches can be tricky to photograph, at least well. The smaller species tend to be hyperactive - the largest, White-breasted Nuthatch, is less frenetic in its movements - so it's generally a good idea to use a fast shutter speed. This image was made at f/8, 1/800, and ISO 200. When tracking a possible nuthatch subject, it's best not to blink - certainly don't take your eyes off it. You want to be ready for the brief lull in action, which will surely come. When I saw this nuthatch pause with its head and upper body away from the trunk with the blue sky as a bokeh, my camera's burst mode sounded like a machine gun, and I got my shot. Creepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers etc. usually don't look that great if the tree trunk is the entire backdrop. The subject looks flat and gets lost against the bark.

Old hat for seasoned photographers, I know, but if you are newer to bird photography, research back-button focusing. Separating the camera's shutter button from focusing functions is worth its weight in gold, especially with bird photography. On my Canon 5D IV (what I used for this shot) the "asterisk" center button on the back of the camera is my focus button. In AI Servo mode (another thing to research, if you aren't up on it) I just keep my thumb on the asterisk button, depressing it, and thus keep the subject in constant focus as I track it as it moves about. My forefinger hovers over the front shutter button like it is a gun trigger. When the time is right, I depress the trigger and fire away. Using back-button focusing in conjunction with AI Servo mode should net you many more keepers.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Nature: Spectacular sandhill cranes still rule the roost in protected Indiana marshes

A trio of sandhill cranes in flight at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana/Jim McCormac

Nature: Spectacular sandhill cranes still rule the roost in protected Indiana marshes

Columbus Dispatch
December 19, 2021
Jim McCormac

At the dawn of European settlement, North America’s Midwest was a vastly different landscape. Today’s environment is thoroughly altered by the hand of man. Few people probably have a sense of the conditions that reigned even a century or two ago.

A case in point is the former Grand Kankakee Marsh of northern Indiana. When settlers first arrived in this region, the Kankakee River flowed 233 miles westward from its springy origins near modern-day South Bend. Its torturous circuit carved out hundreds of bends and oxbows, and a half million acres of wetlands and primeval forest buffered its banks.

The massive marsh was one of North America’s greatest wetlands. Only 70 miles to the east was the Great Black Swamp, which covered much of northwest Ohio. It sprawled over nearly a million acres. Driving the region today, one would have little clue that some of the richest wetlands in America occupied those lands.

By the mid-19th century, agriculturalists had set to work draining the Kankakee Marsh. By the early 20th century, their work was complete. The Kankakee River had been channelized into a 133-mile ditch straight as a plumb line. The wetlands were nearly gone, transformed to endless billiard table flat monocultures of beans, corn, and wheat.

While the loss of indigenous flora and fauna was staggering, worse than we will ever know, some creatures still haunt their ancestral milieu.

Foremost among the survivors is the Sandhill Crane. This is a spectacular bird four feet in height with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. A big one might weigh 12 pounds.

For millennia, Sandhill Cranes staged in late fall and early winter in the Kankakee marshes. Birds that bred locally were augmented by those that nested further north. While most of the local nesters have been eradicated, legions of others still congregate in the remaining bits of habitat.

The crane oasis is Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. It’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Columbus. I visited in late November, near the cranes’ peak. About 30,000 birds were in the area.

At night that cranes roost in protected marshes within the wildlife area. At dawn, they fan out into corn stubble fields in the area, where they glean spilled grain. Woe to any mouse that shows itself. Sandhill Cranes are opportunistic omnivores that grab any edible morsel, plant or animal.

Thousands of cranes working the fields is a spectacle not soon forgotten. At one point, I was photographing a nearby flock when something put up several thousand birds about a mile away. Their irate bugles merged into a low roar, clearly audible from my distant post. The flock suggested a scudding storm cloud on the horizon.

Sandhill Cranes are highly social and in late afternoon, the foraging flocks converge on a massive meadow in the wildlife area called Goose Pasture. A large observation deck overlooks the site, making for easy viewing.

Waves of cranes, traveling in groups small and large, make their way to the pasture bugling all the while. The calls of cranes are earthy and primeval, a resonant woody rattling that harks to an earlier time. Interspersed are the bright sibilant whistles of juveniles. The youngsters remain with their parents for most of their first year.

Much dancing occurs among the thousands of vociferous congregants. Ornate displays are one way in which cranes communicate. The gamboling pair makes vertical leaps, spread their wings in ornate flourishes, and bow deeply to one another. Occasionally one will toss dirt clods or plant debris aloft. Sometimes dancers trigger reactions among their colleagues, and localized flash dances erupt.

Just after dusk, blastoffs commence with huge groups leaving en masse for the roosting marshes. The show ends with a bang. And a wall of sound never forgotten.

Mid-November to mid-December is peak time for cranes at Jasper-Pulaski. I highly recommend a visit. More details are at:

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

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Lake Erie, November gale

As always, click the photo to enlarge

While going through images for a project yesterday, I came across this image from November 18, 2014. I had to give a talk in Cleveland that night, so I went up early to photograph gulls at Eastlake, on Lake Erie. The conditions were brutal: gale force winds, and temps in the low teens. For a brief moment near day's end, the sun suddenly lit the waves and their atomized mist, creating a stunning scene. I raced back to my car and swapped lenses and managed a handful of shots while the light was manageable. My hands were so cold I remember struggling to get the lenses on and off. The gulls, naturally, were unfazed by the wind and cold. I do not know what they thought of the beauty of the scene they occupied.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Woolly-bears on the move


A Woolly-bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) crosses a road. I saw many of these well-known caterpillars last Sunday. The temps were in the low to mid 40's F, but it was sunny, and the bears were on the move.

I was at the Wilds and vicinity in Muskingum County, Ohio, mostly looking for birds to photograph. But wandering larvae temporarily side-tracked my quest.

I did shoot some birds, including this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). He was nestled in a shrubby thicket, but when I stopped for a look, he popped out to look back. Mockingbirds are extremely in tune with their surroundings, from my experience, and pay close attention to detail. Far more than most songbirds, it seems. Perhaps this behavioral characteristic aids them in carefully listening to and learning the songs and sounds that they mimic so well.

Anyway, after about ten minutes of watching the mockingbird, hoping for an interesting flourish of the wings or something else of note, I was rewarded. The bird suddenly flew down to the road and seized a Woolly-bear that had wandered onto the pavement. Yes! But my hopes for photo documentation were soon dashed when it flew into the heart of the thicket to deal with its prey. I could not see how he dealt with the larval bear and all its stiff bristles, but I imagine it sliced it open with that stout bill and slurped out the innards. Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) successfully feed on spiny Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americana) in this way.

This was the first time that I've seen a bird prey on Woolly-bears. Their dense coat of bristles probably is a pretty good bird deterrent, most of the time.

A Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia) crosses a road not far from where the mockingbird grabbed the Woolly-bear. I saw many of these, too, although the Woolly-bears outnumbered them by a good margin. This caterpillar is somewhat larger and thicker than the Woolly-bear, all black, and when seen well the reddish-orange bands delineating its abdominal segments are diagnostic.

I suspect that Giant Leopard Moth cats are frequently mistaken for "dark" Woolly-bears". As you may know, there is a pervasive myth that the darker the Woolly-bear, the tougher the coming winter will be. However, any analysis of that myth would have to somehow take into account the problem with caterpillar misidentifications. There is yet another very common species of tiger moth, the Virginian Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica) whose caterpillars can be active into late fall. Its caterpillars are known as Yellow Bears (it isn't rare for adult moth species to go by a different common name than their caterpillars). Yellow Bears are variable in coloration but often resemble very pale Woolly-bears. Such larvae, when misidentified as they almost certainly commonly are, would be "light" Woolly-bears that forecast a mild winter.
This is what a Woolly-bear becomes, if not eaten by a mockingbird, Buick'ed while crossing a road, or bumped off in some other way. The Isabella Tiger Moth, a handsome insect. While legions of people know the caterpillar, probably very few would recognize the moth that it transforms into.

This is a Giant Leopard Moth, a truly stunning species and always a crowd-pleaser. A leopard in mint condition is an entomological work of art, with its array of black circles and iridescent blue markings. Press one gently with your fingers, and it may "reflex bleed": exude two amber droplets from the front of the abdomen, just above the head. It's a very cool effect, and the droplets presumably are toxic and assist in warding off predation by birds.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Nature: Leaf and lawn litter provides shelter for various animals

Spotted apatelodes, left, and two angel moths rest on leaf litter/Jim McCormac

Nature: Leaf and lawn litter provides shelter for various animals

Columbus Dispatch
December 5, 2021

Jim McCormac

I write this in late November, and the war on leaves is in full swing. Here in suburbia, the annoyingly loud drone of leaf blowers is the siren song of the obsessed lawn manicurist. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more annoying invention than a leaf blower — at least the noisy gas-powered ones. All to solve what should be a non-issue.

The first plants appeared about 470 million years ago. For eons, vegetable matter languished in a wee state, attaining little size. Things began to change about 350 million years ago, when trees began their evolutionary ascent.

In the latter stages of the Mesozoic Era, about 145 million years ago, trees began to evolve deciduousness. Leaves began to be seasonally shed.

Countless millennia of shed leaves and attendant leaf litter thoroughly entwined itself into the world’s ecological webs. Leaves decompose and enrich soils with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Over time, myriad forms of animal life evolved relationships with leaf litter. Invertebrates mostly too small to notice thrive in the leafy blanket, but they fuel higher animals we do notice. In the past few days, I’ve noticed Carolina and winter wrens, dark-eyed juncos and several other sparrow species, cardinals and even blue jays sifting through the leaves in search of insects or seeds.

Butterflies such as commas and question marks hide in plain sight atop litter, blending well. But moths take the leaf-litter relationship to a higher level. There is even a large group known as litter moths due to their specialized relationship with downed leaves. Many litter moths live their entire life cycle in the leaf layer: eggs, caterpillars, cocoons and adults.

Many moths have evolved cryptic appearances that make them one with dead leaves. The angel and spotted apatelodes moths in the accompanying photo are astonishingly leaf-like at rest. Good luck spotting one before it flies.

Your leaf litter indirectly grows bats. All those moths resting in the litter during the day take to the wing at night. And some will be snapped up by the sonar-equipped flying mammals.

Some of the moths that dodge the bats will pollinate flowers in the neighborhood — they’re really nocturnal butterflies.

Birds are also fueled by leaf litter. All moths are caterpillars in their second phase, and most never make it to adulthood. The vast majority are snapped up by predators with songbirds being prime among them.

In essence, when someone blows or rakes leaves to the curb for removal, they directly lay waste to scores of creatures and adversely impact the survival of others.

Americans send about 33 million tons of leaf and lawn “debris” annually to landfills. That’s over 12% of all solid waste. And what a waste. Just the use of gas and pollutants generated by disposal trucks is staggering. All to keep lawns and gardens looking neat.

Turf grass is now the biggest plant crop in the U.S., collectively covering an area larger than Wisconsin. An estimated $60 billion is spent by Americans on turf grass maintenance, and lawn owners spend a collective three million hours annually on this pursuit. The clangorous activities of mowing and leaf-blowing contribute greatly to noise pollution.

Nearly all landowners are guilty of this dubious aesthetic pursuit, the writer included.

However, I’ve reduced my lawn, and more turf will be vanquished over time. Downsizing the lawn’s footprint and replacing it with native flora is something anyone can do, and I try to do my part.

As for those downed leaves, and I have plenty, they mostly stay where they fall. Those that cover what remains of the front yard get mulched by my mower and returned to the soil.

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 2, 2021

Dancing cranes


I recently spent a few days in northwestern Indiana, at and in the vicinity of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area. This area is legendary for the numbers of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) that gather here in late fall and early winter. They are southbound from northern nesting areas. During my time there in the last week of November, crane numbers were reaching their peak. About 30,000 birds were estimated to be in the area.

The photo above shows typical land use in the regions around the wildlife area. Agriculture on an epic scale, and streams transformed to deep ditches. The Kankakee River drains much of northern Indiana, including this area. At the time of European settlement, there were about a half million acres of wetlands and prairies along the river's corridor. By the early 1920's, agriculturalists had managed to drain nearly all the wetlands and destroy nearly all of the prairies and savannas. The destruction of the "Grand Marsh" is one of the greatest and saddest tales of large-scale land conversion in North America. Mountains of biodiversity was lost, and the Kankakee itself was channelized into a linear ditch over its entire length in Indiana.

But the cranes still come to this ancestral staging area. The big birds are far more resilient than, say, Greater Prairie-Chickens, which were thoroughly vanquished from the state. A hard and inescapable fact in nature is that there are always winners and losers resulting from our actions. Specialists such as prairie-chickens, Regal Fritillary butterflies, and Prairie Fringed Orchids tend to be the losers when people more or less successfully bend nature to their will. Facultative opportunistic species such as Canada Geese, Butterweed (Packera glabella) and Coyotes are winners, adapting well to massive change. And, to a degree, the cranes are winners.

The cranes spend their nights in big marshes within the wildlife area and radiate out into agricultural fields during the day. There, they feed on spilled grain and whatever morsels these omnivorous opportunists can find. In certain areas, the fields are full of cranes. At one point, I was watching and photographing a group of them when something put up thousands of birds about a mile away. The din created by all those bugling cranes was easily audible from my position, and they created a semblance of low scudding clouds on the horizon.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes picks through the stubble. It would be interesting to know how old they are, and how long they have been paired. The oldest known wild Sandhill Crane (from a western population) was forty (40!) years old. Sadly, we know that because it was shot by a hunter. An ignominious ending for such a regal elder. But as the bird was banded, we did glean something of value from the unfortunate episode.

Cranes are thought to often mate for life, and one way in which they reinforce bonds is by "dancing". If you visit Jasper-Pulaski at peak crane season, you will see this behavior. To me, it is one of the most interesting things about crane-watching. Much of the dancing occurs beyond the range of my lens, and I just enjoy it through binoculars. Sometimes, a pair's dancing sparks more dancing by other birds, and before you know it it's like a feathered flash mob erupts, dancing to some primal beat.

I had a feeling the pair featured here was going to do something, and they were close enough that I could work my camera. Sure enough, the dance soon commenced. The bird on the left has tossed plant debris aloft - you can see it in the air over its head. Object tossing typically accompanies these displays. We can assume the other bird is impressed.

Dancing cranes offer showy wing flourishes, polite bows, and frequently hop vertically several feet into the air, like pogo-sticks.

This synchronized, energetic bird ballet is impressive. It'll usually last for a minute or few, then it's back to gleaning seeds from the stubble as if nothing happened.

If you've not been to Jasper-Pulaski, I highly recommend a visit. The incredible Kankakee Sands prairie restoration is less than an hour west and should be included on the itinerary. I'll write more about Kankakee later.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021


 As always, click the photo to enlarge

A squadron of Sandhill Cranes drops the landing gear and parasails to the ground. There, they will join several thousand of their comrades. Perhaps 30,000 birds are in the general area. In an age-old ritual, cranes gather in early winter in the big prairie marshes of northwest Indiana. They fill the air with loud bugles punctuated by the keening jangly trills of juveniles. Family units are still intact, and the juveniles will stay with their parents into next spring.

I'm at Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana, for a few days. I arrived in time for the evening crane show, where thousands of birds assemble in a giant field for socializing before flying to nearby marshes for the night. Skies are gray and there'll be rain tonight, but I'm hoping for at least a day of blue skies. Cranes in flight photograph much better then. I'm also visiting the amazing Kankakee Sands area about an hour to the west, on the Illinois state line. The Nature Conservancy has done remarkable restoration work here, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in this season. I've only been once, in July. The primary target of that trip was the rare Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). You can see some photos of the frit, and the prairie, RIGHT HERE.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Nature: Conkles Hollow features scenic gorge and gorgeous scenes

Conkles Hollow, on a misty fall day/Jim McCormac

Nature: Conkles Hollow features scenic gorge and gorgeous scenes

Columbus Dispatch
November 21, 2021

Jim McCormac

Water is a relentless force of nature. Taken as a single drop, H2O is innocuous. Gathered into a raging torrent, water is an indomitable sculptor of landscapes.

Eons ago, water began seeking its path of least resistance high on a ridgetop in Hocking County, not far south of the village of Gibisonville. The trickle flowed downslope, as water always does, and over time forged a rivulet.

Heavy rains temporarily transformed the streamlet into a gully washer with the power to eat rock. Over the ages, the woodland rill incised deeply into the underlying Black Hand sandstone.

Conkles Hollow was born.

This 87-acre Conkles Hollow State Nature preserve is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Hocking Hills, and that’s saying something. It vies with breathtaking scenic icons such as Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, and Old Man’s Cave.

In places, sheer cliffs 200 feet provide rocky bulwarks to the gorge at Conkles. As one moves up the valley trail, the walls close in and form a narrow box canyon. At its terminus is the falls where water plunges into the gorge. Normally, a mere drizzle sprays from the summit. Visit during heavy rains, which I have, and the drizzle is transformed into a raging deluge.

The gorge’s odd name stems from initials carved into a sandstone wall in 1797 by a settler named W.J. Conkle. Graffiti has been with us for a long time.

Conkles Hollow offers a taste of the boreal forest, in southeastern Ohio. A dominant tree on the gorge’s slopes is eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This conifer occurs in peak abundance far to our north, but the cool microclimate of Conkles Hollow provides refugia for these hardy trees.

Shallowly rooted hemlocks cling tenaciously to boulders and cliff faces, and the largest specimens tower 75 feet or more in height. The specialized plant community anchored by the hemlocks fosters an unusual — for Ohio — breeding bird community.

Species that breed in peak abundance in the conifer belt of the extreme northern U.S. and Canada have established disjunct outposts in hemlock gorges such as Conkles Hollow. Their ranks include blue-headed vireo, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, and a suite of warblers: Blackburnian, black-throated green, Canada and magnolia.

An aural standout of the northern birds is the hermit thrush. Visit in spring or summer and you’re likely to be serenaded by the exquisite song of this speckle-bellied skulker. Its honeyed notes combine to form an ethereal symphony well-suited to the cathedral-like majesty of its environs.

I made the accompanying photo on Oct. 29, when colorful autumn foliage spiced the landscape. But Conkles Hollow is a feast for the eyes at any season. Spring brings a profusion of woodland wildflowers. In summer, the gorge is cloaked in a lush carpet of fancy fern (Dryopteris intermedia). Winter can bring fantastic ice formations.

Fortunately, the State of Ohio had the foresight to purchase nearly 150 acres at Old Man’s Cave in 1924, and the Hocking Hills State Park had its genesis. Since then, landholdings have mushroomed to about 2,000 acres, augmented by state nature preserves, the Hocking State Forest, and various private conservation initiatives.

Nearly 5 million people visit the Hocking Hills annually, and create a major economic input to the region. While ecotourism has its benefits, some prefer a dose of solitude. Pro tips: Arrive at your destination at dawn, go on weekdays, or select the coldest winter days. You should have time largely free of fellow primates.

For more information on Conkles Hollow, visit:

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

Friday, November 19, 2021

Lunar eclipse of the "Beaver Moon"


The moon, as it looked around 4 am this morning. At the peak of the eclipse, the earth's shadow darkened about 97% of the moon's visible surface.

It was an impressive spectacle, and I'm glad I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours to observe the eclipse. Fortunately the sky was crystal clear in central Ohio, and the increased darkness around the height of eclipse made the stars shine much more brightly than normal. Selfishly, I was glad that the moon was clearly visible from my backyard, so I didn't have to venture far to see the eclipse.

During the eclipse's peak moments, the sun only illuminated a tiny sliver, and the darkened portion of the moon was cast in a deep reddish-orange hue. This eclipse coincided with November's full moon, which is sometimes known as the "Beaver Moon". Legend has it that this particular phase of the moon coincides with trappers ramping up their efforts to catch beavers. I prefer "Frost Moon", a more accurately descriptive name for November's full moon, which comes at a time of marked seasonal change from fall to winter.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A hodgepodge of natural history

Hi all, and long time, no see! I've been lax in updating this blog, which I normally do once or twice a week. A number of speaking gigs, the final throes of a book project, a few large photography projects and OTHER STUFF have kept me temporarily from my favored duties.

Anyway, here is a very random assortment of photographs that I have run across lately while researching projects, or subjects from fairly recently that I never posted. No story, no theme, just some cool stuff.

American Angle Shades caterpillar, Euplexia benesimilis, on Bulblet Fern, Cystopteris bulbosa, Highland County, Ohio, September 3, 2021.

An American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, towers over lesser trees in a Knox County, Ohio forest. Beech are hyper-productive plants, supporting all manner of wildlife. This large specimen is notable in that no one has carved their initials in the bark - beech are irresistible targets for tree vandals.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio glaucus, rests on a Tuliptree leaf. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of this species' major host plants. Adams County, September 7, 2015.

Daughmer Savanna, probably the best remaining oak savanna in Ohio. Most of our original prairie - 99%+ - has been converted to agricultural lands, or otherwise destroyed. This site is in Crawford County, Ohio, and I made this image on October 9, 2016. "Savanna" is the proper spelling for the plant community, at least in North America and most other regions. "Savannah" is a proper noun typically used as a name for a place or person, such as Savannah, Georgia.

A Dot-lined White, Artace cribarius, photographed in Highland County, Ohio, on June 26, 2021. Who said moths aren't cute?

Frost beards on a Honey Locust tree, Gleditsia triacanthos, in Knox County, Ohio, on November 5, 2021. It was 25 F when I made the photo early in the morning on one of the first truly chilly days of early winter.

The iconic Fallingwater house, perhaps architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous creation. Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, November 14, 2017.

A Master's Dart, Feltia herilis, peeks from a sea of Wrinkled-leaf Goldenrod flowers, Solidago rugosa. Delaware County, Ohio, August 30, 2020.

A Postman, Heliconius ssp., poses on artwork created by the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. The butterfly is a higher art form, in my opinion. Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio, March 20, 2017.

The showy blue fruit of Silky Dogwood, Cornus amomum. Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio, August 14, 2016.

Sweat Bees in the genus Lasioglossum seek nectar at Clasping-leaved Aster flowers, Symphyotrichum patens. Asters are a major nectar source for pollinators in fall. Scioto County, Ohio, October 30, 2016.

A Tricolored Bumblebee, Bombus ternarius, taps nectar from Sand Dune Willow, Salix cordata, on a Lake Michigan beach. Wilderness State Park, Michigan, May 25, 2014.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Nature: Fast, gravity-defying red squirrels would give Spiderman a run for his money

A red squirrel de-husks a walnut in the writer's backyard/Jim McCormac

Nature: Fast, gravity-defying red squirrels would give Spiderman a run for his money

Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, November 7, 2021

Jim McCormac

Four species of tree squirrels occur in Ohio: fox, gray, red, and southern flying squirrels. Of this quartet, I find the high-strung red squirrel the most interesting.

Thus I was pleased when a pair recently took up residence in my yard. The occasional individual has spent time here, but their stays were usually of short duration. The current duo seems committed to the backyard ecosystem. They have even appropriated a cavity in my black walnut tree.

Red squirrels reach peak abundance in northern coniferous forests. Columbus is near the southern limits of their range. This is probably the least common squirrel in Ohio, due to its decided preference for conifers, especially spruce.

These squirrels readily adapt to suburbia, but favor sites with some cone-producing conifers. Even ornamental Norway spruce will do. My neighbors have several large specimens of the latter, and I suspect that’s what drew the squirrels.

The red squirrel is a handsome animal, with a rich reddish-brown pelage, creamy underparts, and thick white eye arcs that impart a surprised look. A strapping specimen is only a foot long from nose to tail tip, and weighs less than a half-pound.

While small in size, red squirrels have enormous personalities. They seem almost psychotically aggressive, and often appear to be in a rage. Even if unseen, their near constant calls give them away. The bellicose mammals sputter out a barrage of chirps, clicks, clucks and discordant chatters. Their wall of sound is accompanied by frenetic flicks of the tail. If suitably irked, they’ll angrily stamp their feet.

My squirrels have developed a walnut fetish. The seeds of spruce cones are their normal stock in trade, but apparently the allure of walnut meat is irresistible.

Unfortunately for the local gray squirrels, they, too, are connoisseurs of the hard-husked fruit.

Fat chance the grays have of harvesting walnuts in my tree. The reds have dominion over the 75-foot tree and its myriad fruit. If a gray squirrel is spotted entering the walnut’s boughs, a red squirrel lights out after it like it was shot from a cannon.

A red squirrel at top speed would embarrass Spiderman on his best day. The red — which is half the size of a gray — tears after the interloper like an arboreal Usain Bolt, quickly driving the rival squirrel from the tree and usually out of the yard.

One possible explanation for this insanely aggressive behavior is the red squirrel’s need to defend numerous caches of cones, nuts, seeds and even mushrooms. The tough little squirrels don’t hibernate, and create warehouses of food tucked in tree crevices and other niches. They draw upon these larders when food sources are lean.

Other animals regularly try to raid the caches, but the vigilant red squirrels soon run them off.

Come early spring, the reds become amorous and begin courtships. This generally entails racing about at breathtaking speed, zipping through the branches and making death-defying leaps. When the female is suitably impressed, mating commences.

Eventually, 4 or 5 tiny naked pink kits are born, and hopefully, in my case, that’ll be in the walnut tree den hole. In only about 40 days, the kits go from blind, 7-gram, amorphous blobs to fully furred and active. After 2 to 3 months, the parents expel the youngsters from their home turf and they strike out on their own.

My neighborhood, I believe, could benefit from additional red squirrels. What better way to enliven peaceful suburbia than with gravity-defying maniacal peewee squirrels imbued with the ferocity of Genghis Khan and the agility of Wayne Gretzky, moving at the speed of bullets.

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


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Fall foliage and landscapes

October 29 dawned a wet, cool, and misty day, so I took advantage and headed to southeastern Ohio and the beautiful Hocking Hills region. The main destination was Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve, a picturesque sandstone box canyon thick with Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and many other tree species. The following photo was made along the Rim Trail, a path that traces the upper edges of the cliffs that define the gorge. Rolling waves of fog moved through the valley, and it was often necessary to wait until the mist cleared enough for photos.

Tenacious Eastern Hemlock trees cling to the cliffs on the sides of the gorge, interspersed with more colorful birch, maple, sourwood, tuliptree and others. The presence of a disjunct stand of hemlock - it becomes common far to the north of here - means a little slice of the boreal forest in southern Ohio. Northern species of breeding birds such as Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)) and other northerners nest here, attracted by the dense hemlock stands.

A steep forested slope rises from a river bottom, anchored by towering Sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) with their ghostly white trunks. While the oaks remain largely green, splashes of color are provided by Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), Red and Sugar Maples (Acer rubrum and A. saccharum), Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and others.

All of the precipitation flushed local streams with plenty of water, and the numerous waterfalls in this region were picturesque. This one is known as Robinson Falls, formerly called "Corkscrew Falls". It is now protected as part of a state nature preserve, and a permit is required to visit.

A small stream, its rocky banks littered with fallen leaves. One can practically smell autumn in this photo, and in real life the wonderful admixture of scents - overly ripe marcescent foliage, decaying leafy detritus, damp humus - epitomized the scent of fall.

A dashing vine by any standard, at least in fall, a vigorous stand of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) blankets a sandstone cliff face. This native member of the Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae) is a heavy-hitter in woodland ecology. Its copious berry production fuels birds galore in fall and winter. Everything from massive Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) to comparatively elfin Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) feast on the fruit. Indeed, Poison Ivy berries are one of the main reasons that the latter species can winter far to the north, unlike most warblers.

Finally, one more vista of the gorge at Conkles Hollow and its massive sandstone cliffs, some of which rise to 200 feet. One of the great pleasures of living in the midst of the great Eastern Deciduous Forest region that cloaks (or used to) much of the eastern U.S. is witnessing the change of seasons. All of them have their own allure, but fall is hard to beat for sheer showiness.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Congrats, Delaware County Preservation Parks!

It's almost 11 pm on Tuesday evening, and I just checked local election results to see this. With 96% of the vote tallied, Delaware County Preservation Parks is showing 60% in favor of their supplemental levy. I hope my congratulations are not premature, but with the percentage of votes already counted, and the margin in favor, I do not see how it could lose.

These additional funds will allow the park district to nearly double in size, in a region growing rapidly and gobbling up land for development. I wrote more about the levy and its need RIGHT HERE.

Thanks to all of the Delaware Countians who voted yes.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

Delaware County parks levy, November 2 - vote yes!

The Olentangy River in southern Delaware County, near one of the new Preservation Parks' targeted acquisitions.

On November 2, Delaware County voters have an opportunity to positively influence conservation and outdoor recreation in Ohio’s 43rd largest county.

Preservation Parks of Delaware County is seeking a supplemental 0.4 mill ten year levy. If passed, it would generate about $3.7 million annually. This would enable the park district to add five new parks to the existing eleven, and double the current 1,106 protected acres.

The cost to property owners: $14 annually per $100,000 in property market value. That’s 4 cents a day. A great investment to support a return that will reap benefits now, and for many generations to come.

Although Delaware County is mid-sized among Ohio’s 88 counties, its population is becoming outsized. The county is the fastest growing in the state, and now ranks 13th in population size with 215,000 people. Union County to the west is #2 in growth, and Franklin to the south is #4.

Central Ohio is a hotbed of growth, and tangential with that development should come conservation and parks planning.

I met Tom Curtin, the executive director of Preservation Parks, on a recent fine fall day to tour some of their targeted acquisitions. We rendezvoused at Shale Hollow Park. This gem of a place is rich in geology, and lies 6.5 miles north of I-270 on U.S. Route 23. Anyone who drives the 23 corridor between Worthington and Delaware knows firsthand the pace of development in this region.

We headed northeast to a property featuring high quality wetlands near Sunbury. After a short hike through forested land, we burst into a “Category 3” wetland. This is the highest quality wetland, according to standards set by the Ohio EPA.

The wetlands – there are several on this property – are botanical paradises sure to stop botanists in their tracks. I was pleased to see lush stands of hairy-fruited sedge (Carex trichocarpa). While the elegant sedge has a decidedly non-sexy name, it is finicky about where it grows and is often a companion of other unusual plants.

Sure enough, we soon found other notable vegetable matter. Dozens of swamp lousewort (Pedicularis lanceolata) carpeted one wet patch. This interesting semi-parasitic plant thrives in springy wetlands and is rare and local in Ohio. As far as I know, this plant – like the aforementioned sedge – was not previously known in Delaware County.

Our botanical finale was a patch of bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). The stunning tubular flowers are cobalt blue, and pollinated exclusively by bumblebees.

This site would make a superb land lab for student research, as well as an interesting immersion into the world of wetlands for hikers.

Lastly, Tom showed me lands along the Olentangy River, not far south of where U.S. Route 23 and State Route 315 meet. Lush forested slopes stretched from the uplands to the east down to the river. Protection of land along the Olentangy River – one of only 15 Ohio streams awarded official Scenic River status – is critical.

One of the riverfront landowners, Barbara and George Melvin, want to see their family farm conserved. They view the park district as a capable steward of their property and are working with Preservation Parks to ensure their property’s protection.

The accompanying photo of the Olentangy River was taken just downstream from the Melvin’s property. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, the stream harbors a bounty of aquatic animal life, including American rubyspot damselflies, belted kingfishers, smallmouth bass and much more.

It was also near this spot that, in autumn of 1832, pioneer botanist John Leonard Riddell discovered a stunning and previously unknown plant. He named it Aster oolentangiensis – sky-blue aster - the epithet commemorating the river where he found it.

Of Delaware County’s 457 square miles, only 1% is protected by the county’s land conservation agency, Preservation Parks. Passage of the levy will allow for much-needed expansion of green space in a region where development far outstrips land protection.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Forster's Tern

A Forster's Tern, Sterna forsteri, rests on a rail overlooking fishy waters. Note the bird's deformed bill. Its lower mandible was damaged at some point. This tern is an adult, and at least 1.5 years old, and the injury does not look recent. Hard to say what happened, but the bottom line for the animal is whether the damage adversely impacts its fishing ability. We will check in on that issue in a few photos.

One of the sleek birds banks, revealing its long wings and tremendous wing to body ratio. The Forster's Tern is a master aeronaut, and woe to the piscivorous crowd when one these terns hovers overhead.

On an early October trip to Edwin B. Forsythe (formerly Brigantine) National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, I had ample opportunity to photograph these graceful terns. Many were present, and I came across a feeding hotspot with numerous birds diving for fish.

This tern's head is canted downward, searching the waters 20 feet below for small fish. When prey is spotted, it will react instantaneously, plummeting to the surface and seizing the victim (although they do often miss - this is not an easy business).

Forster's Tern is named for accomplished 18th century naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster. The irascible Scot was the first to describe the details of this species, although at the time he thought it was a subspecies of the Common Tern, Sterna hirundo.

An observer - especially one trying to photograph a tern with fish in bill - cannot help to notice the rapidity with which terns swallow their prey. Usually they've got the fish down the hatch within seconds of capturing it. There is good reason for their speediness: kleptoparasitism. Many gulls are generally lurking nearby, awaiting an opportunity to force a hard-working tern to drop its fish, which the gull will quickly grab. Such avian piracy forces the tern to not tarry with its meal. In this photo a Laughing Gull harries a tern that for whatever reason did not quickly down its fish. In this case, the tern did manage to wolf down the scaly treat before the gull won out.

Back to stub-bill from the first photo. One might think that its truncated lower mandible would adversely affect its fishing prowess, but I saw no sign of handicaps. It caught a number of fish while I was there, and I managed to photograph one of those occasions. Animals are often extraordinarily resilient in overcoming disabilities, and this bird will hopefully live a long productive life (the oldest known Forster's Tern was 12 years of age).