Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Canvasback, a fine botanical duck


A handsome drake Canvasback loafs in frigid Lake Erie waters, off Miller Road Park in the city of Avon Lake, Ohio. I was there bright on and early on the morning of February 20. I recall the temperature upon arrival was about 9 F, and brisk winds off the lake made it seem much colder.

The "Cans" didn't care. Hundreds were present, and these hardy diving ducks thought nothing of the icy cold and near-freezing water. Ice had formed on some of the ducks in the drowsing rafts.

The botanical proclivities of this animal is noted in its scientific name: Aythya valisineria. The specific epithet stands for the genus of eel-grass, or wild-celery, Vallisneria americana, a favored aquatic plant food source of Canvasbacks. Famed early ornithologist Alexander Wilson named this animal, but misspelled vallisneria.

Inaccurate nomenclature aside, the big ski slope-nosed Canvasback is one of my favorite birds. Some people find the Canvasback to be excellent eating, although there are differing opinions on its tastiness. In the markets around New Orleans in the mid-1830's, Canvasback meat was a coveted delicacy and a pair of birds sold for $2.00. That'd be about $55.00 in today's dollars - a whopping price even by current standards! Personally, I think the Canvasbacks are worth far more alive, in the wild, and on the water than on someone's dinner plate.
 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Nocturnal photography presentation: Monday night, March 1, 7 pm.

A Yellow-based Tussock Moth, Dasychira basiflava, stares into the photographer's lens in the wee hours of darkness.

If anyone would like a photographic diversion tomorrow evening, I am giving a Zoom presentation to the Westbridge Camera Club. The subject is nocturnal photography of animals. While I'll offer info about how to take good shots in the dark, you can be assured it will mostly be a pictorial excursion into the world of strange and beautiful creatures that emerge under the cloak of darkness. Thanks to the club for making everyone welcome, and details to join are RIGHT HERE.
 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Moon on a sunny day, with gulls - and THANKS for reading this blog!

Cleveland, Ohio, last Saturday. As always, click the pic to enlarge.

Today, my blog passed five million page views. While that's chump change in the world of truly high-traffic websites, it's significant to me and I appreciate everyone that clicks in to see what's going on. I launched this iteration of the blog in 2007, and this post is my 2,055th. I've averaged nearly 150 posts a year, so if nothing else, I've been consistent.

There is no shortage of subjects to write about in the natural world, and I could never run dry of material. The only real problem is finding time to toss stuff up. I write this short post at nearly midnight, and most of these blogs are posted in the late hours.

It's been fun, and I hope to keep the blog alive and well for a long time to come. Even though I am not always the most interactive regarding comments, I do appreciate everyone who checks in and reads posts, and makes comments. Thank you!

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Nature: Lapland longspurs, native to the tundra, more frequent in Ohio

A male Lapland longspur stays alert on a recent snowy, frigid morning in Franklin County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Lapland longspurs, native to the tundra, more frequent in Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
February 21, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

My, how birding has changed. Just over two centuries ago, in February 1819, frontier ornithologist John James Audubon was exploring the Ohio River near his home in Henderson, Kentucky.

Audubon encountered vast numbers of a bird new to him: “I saw immense flocks scattered… on the grassy banks of the Ohio [river]. Having my gun with me, I procured more than sixty in a few minutes”. He went on to note that “…a relative of mine… killed about 600.”

The legendary birdman had met the Lapland longspur, a sparrowlike bird of the far north. And Audubon did comment that he found them to be “excellent eating.”

No one that I know shoots longspurs these days, but birders train a lot of optics on them. And this has been the winter for longspur-watching.

Lapland longspurs are one of the world’s most abundant birds, with a global population estimated at 150 million. It’s understandable if you never heard of this species, though. They breed nowhere near you, and normally are out of sight and mind in winter.

The original specimen was collected in Lapland, in northernmost Finland. This songbird breeds in tundra regions around the top of the globe. The other part of the name, longspur, comes from the species’ elongated hallux, or hind toe, perfect for scratching out seeds from the frozen earth.

No one know for sure where the longspurs wintering in Ohio originate, but without doubt it was FAR to the north.

Perhaps the bird in the photo bred in Quttinirpaag National Park on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. It’s the second most northerly park in the world, about 3,000 miles north of Columbus. In such inhospitable Arctic regions, Lapland longspurs are sometimes the only nesting songbirds.

Because of their isolated tundra breeding locales, longspurs can be quite tame. They are not used to people and the perils we pose. In Audubon’s day that made for great shooting opportunities. Today, longspurs provide interesting fodder for photographers.

When Lapland longspurs peregrinate south to southernmost Canada and the U.S. in winter, peak numbers occur in the Great Plains. Kansas is an epicenter, and flocks estimated at 4 million birds have been recorded in core wintering grounds.

Longspurs are far scarcer to the east, and birders normally must seek them out along rural roads bisecting sprawling farm fields. Small flocks sometimes scavenge grain along berms, often in company with horned larks and occasionally another northern visitor, the snow bunting. More often they remain far out in fields.

This winter, Lapland longspurs have appeared in Ohio in perhaps unprecedented numbers. Large flocks have appeared statewide, even in places that they are rarely seen such as urban farms and strip mines in southeast Ohio’s hill country. Perhaps brutal winter weather to our north and west pushed them our way.

Now, longspurs like the male in the photo are in relatively drab winter plumage. Come mid-April or so, males will have molted into a rich chestnut nape, ebony face and throat, and candy corn yellow bill. They’ll be skylarking about, delivering a gushing symphony of musical jangles sure to impress the ladies.

By early spring, wanderlust, or vaellushalu as the Laplanders would say, will have infused the 6 inch, 27 gram longspurs. The northward pull is insurmountable and off they will go to the land of polar bears and midnight sun, far from the eyes of most people.

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Redpolls and more: The amazing Soltis Road sunflower field

 

A roughly ten acre patch of Common Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) stretches into the distance. It's planted there courtesy of Soltis Farms. Some of their buildings can be see in the distance. The seedy patch is a a gargantuan bird feeder, as is the open field to the left. They've spread cow manure on that, and manure is loaded with vegetable matter that open country birds such as Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings find irresistible. That field is loaded with all three.

This bird-rich field is along Soltis Road in Geauga County, and the farm's operators have made it readily accessible to birders. I had been hearing about this place for a while, and finally visited on the morning of February 14. The experience was amazing. I wish I knew more about Soltis Farms, and why this bird-friendly ag field came to be. They've obviously been part of the local community for a long time, to have a road named for them. Anyway, I and scores of others are very grateful to them for their generosity.

Immediately upon arrival, I was greeted by platoons of buntings, larks and longspurs along the road, and swirling over the open field. After ogling those for a bit, I headed into the field and nippy 14 F cold. My main target was in the sunflower field, time was limited, so the seedy crop and its denizens was my focus.

Unsurprisingly, America Goldfinches were frequenting the field and I saw and heard them instantly. Here, a male plucks seeds from a sunflower head.


I had seen and heard flocks of my target bird at the far end of the field, and struck out along the edge of the sunflowers. Eventually I reached a spot with plenty of nice fruit-laden plants, in good light, and with a number of superbly sited sunflower plants that would offer perfect stages for photography, if and when birds landed on them. Then I settled in for what would be nearly three hours in that spot, letting subjects come to me. Including this industrious Downy Woodpecker. This is the smartest, hardest working animal in the timber industry, and they are fast to recognize new non-tree feeding opportunities. The male Downy spent quite a while plucking seeds from this plant. This sunflower head alone would keep him busy for a long time. One head of Helianthus annuus can easily produce 1,000 seeds. And I would not even begin to estimate how many plants were in this field.

At one point, I heard the light, wispy call note of a Savannah Sparrow. A slight bit of pishing stimulated it to pop up on a nearby sunflower, allowing me some documentary shots. I normally think of this as a rather half-hardy sparrow, and rare in winter. Bruce Peterjohn, in his The Birds of Ohio (2001), notes that they were "...once considered accidental winter visitors..." but goes on to note that wintering birds are probably overlooked. While I agree with that - winter Savannah Sparrows mostly stay on the ground, in cover, and their calls are tough to hear or recognize - I do wonder if they aren't truly increasing in winter. There have been more reports this winter from around the state than perhaps any other winter, and other recent winters also seem to be producing above average records. Ohio is essentially at the northern limits of this species' wintering range, and perhaps they are shifting northward.


A Lapland Longspur dozes atop a sunflower. This is something you won't see every day. Interestingly, longspurs and Snow Buntings would regularly enter the sunflower patch from their more typical habitat - the open field next door - to plunder seed. I'd never seen nor heard of this behavior from these tundra-breeders.


A stunning Snow Bunting rests atop a sunflower. It was part of a large group of longspurs and buntings that regularly entered the field to pluck seeds, and even more so, walk around the bases of plants harvesting fallen fruit.


Ah! This is was my primary quarry, the Common Redpoll. This female was part of a flock that numbered perhaps 200 birds. Redpolls breed in the far north, into open tundra, and are rare this far south. Most winters there are few reports in Ohio, but this has been a good year for them, especially in the northern part of the state. Nonetheless, there aren't many places around here one can go and reliably see a flock this size.

A male redpoll dangles acrobatically from a sunflower. They are pretty tame, and I found the best strategy was to just pick a good spot, and let the birds come to me. And that they did. The sunflower patch is very long, but narrow, and the birds would sort of roll down its length in a big cacophonous finchy wave. By remaining motionless on the edge of the field, they seemed to pay me little mind and many came within easy distance of my camera rig.


A beautiful male Common Redpoll, its breast suffused with pink and sporting the namesake redpoll, or cap. He sits atop a sunflower that has mostly been picked clean, at least at the summit. The birds take the easy seeds from atop the plant first, then have to resort to hanging acrobatically like the bird in the previous image to get at remaining fruit.


It was a wonderful morning spent working with the redpolls. They are most entertaining to watch, especially when for no apparent reason the flock would rise en masse and swirl high in the air. After much calling, chasing, and flurrying about, they would settle back down to recommence their attack on the sunflowers.

Thanks again to Soltis Farms for this opportunity.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Snowy Owl snow-bathing, Short-eared Owls roosting

 









As always, click the photo to enlarge

I sorely needed a field foray yesterday. However, the weather was not overly alluring. Temperatures were in the low teens when I set out, skies were gray, and a stiff wind blew from the north. Seemingly not great conditions for photography. Fortunately for me, photography is only part of the equation. I am just as happy watching and observing.

I first visited the huge dam at Alum Creek Reservoir in Delaware County, Ohio - not far from home. I was there to pay a visit to the magnificent Snowy Owl that has been there all winter, to the delight of thousands - no exaggeration - of people who have seen it.

Like people, Snowy Owls have distinct personalities and I have seen ones that won't tolerate anyone near them. Others, like this girl, seemingly could care less about people. This one has chosen by far the busiest locale in this sprawling state park to call its winter home. Scores of people walk, run, cross-country ski and bird here, every day, in close proximity to the owl. There is even a busy remote-controlled airplane airfield here! It cares not a whit. And food must be abundant. I personally am quite glad it chose this spot, as so many people have gotten to see this majestic Arctic bird firsthand, the vast majority for the first time. Including many kids. I'd bet the Alum owl might have created more than a few birders, and future biologists.

Anyway, when I arrived the owl was not evident, but I quickly saw a largish flock of Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings swirling about the top of the dam's long grassy slope. I made the ascent, splayed my tripod out to ground level, lay behind the rig, and let the birds come to me. Soon, like gulls on the beach, the birds were close at hand and at times all around me. After a bit, I sidled over to look down the hill, and there was the Snowy Owl, part way down the hill and looking supreme in a blanket of powdery snow.

In short order, it began to snow-bathe, something I had never seen this species do. She would thrust her head under the snow, throw powder over her body with her wings, and occasionally shake and fluff. That's what she's doing in the image above.

Pleased with how things went down at Alum Creek, I decided to press northward, to a spot that can be good for Short-eared Owls.


I was not disappointed. While still a quarter mile or more from ground zero, I saw five or six owls swirling high in the air. Even though it was noon. The presence of a Bald Eagle flying away suggested that the larger raptor had put the owls up.

The Short-ears soon returned to earth, and settled in. The one above chose a stump in brush, near the road. By using the car as a blind, I could pause nearby without bothering the animals. This one, its head on a swivel, paid me no mind and I enjoyed watching its keen alertness. Even though the middle of the day, if a vole or mouse foolishly showed itself, the owl probably would have pounced.
A fierce-looking Short-eared Owl monitors its surroundings from atop an old snag. I especially loved stumbling into this bird, as he had chosen an especially aesthetic perch.

I came by the perch later, and another owl was sitting just below! That's pretty buddy-buddy for these fairly anti-social owls, and I think the one above is a male, and the other a female. Female Short-eared Owls tend to be darker and buffier, and that's how she looked to me.

The area that I saw these owls - seven in all - is smack in the midst of the Sandusky Plains prairie. This huge prairie system has nearly been eradicated by agriculture, and the few spots that survive are important refugia for prairie denizens such as Short-eared Owls. Given their numbers this winter at this place and other nearby spots, one must suspect that Meadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) are having a boom year. Maybe other rodents as well. Voles, especially, seem to drive wintering raptor numbers in the Midwest.

Sometimes following a major vole eruption, Short-eared Owls - and Northern Harriers - will remain to nest. Maybe the pair in the photo above. They typically form pair bonds in late winter. Part of this includes incredible "sky dancing" flight displays replete with booming hoots and loud wing claps. I saw none of that yesterday, but will be watching for such behavior on future visits.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Nature: Ornithologist seeks input for his Central Ohio Owl Project

A barn owl dozes on a barn's hay rail in southern Ohio/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ornithologist seeks input for his Central Ohio Owl Project

Columbus Dispatch
February 7, 2021
NATURE
Jim McCormac

In the bird world, owls rank high among our imperfectly understood avifauna. Most species are strictly nocturnal, and they are adept in the art of camouflage. Sometimes one lucks into a roosting owl, but the vast majority remain undetected. They tend to be heard more than seen.

The most common breeding owl in Ohio is the eastern screech owl. Most people reading this live in close proximity to this secretive species but probably don’t know it. Participants in the 1981 Toledo Christmas Bird Count made a special effort to ferret out this species. They found a remarkable 112 birds within the count’s 15-mile circle, illuminating the true abundance of this mysterious species.

Gaining a better understanding of Ohio’s owls is a goal of Ohio Dominican University ornithologist Blake Mathys. Last fall, he launched the Central Ohio Owl Project. His research actually extends beyond the title, as Mathys will accept owl reports from anywhere in the state.

As the university and Blake are here in Central Ohio, that’s where the majority of owl reports are received. The project is off to a flying start, with about 1,300 records collected so far.

The “Big Three” resident Ohio owls are barred owl, the aforementioned screech owl and the great horned owl. This trio represents by far the majority of the state’s owls, and they occur in every county, often commonly. Mathys wants reports of these species, but is prioritizing research on a much scarcer parliament of owls: the barn, long-eared and northern saw-whet owls.

Well-named barn owls are prone to roosting in their namesake structures, silos or old abandoned buildings. I’m sure more than a few farmers come across barn owls, and Mathys would love to hear about them.

The northern saw-whet owl and long-eared owl are primarily migrants and winter visitors in Ohio. These two are strictly nocturnal and typically roost in dense evergreens, grape tangles or thick brush during the day. Habitual roost sites are sometime given away by streaks of “whitewash” below. I remember a saw-whet owl that wintered near Columbus years ago. It roosted in a dense cedar over some bee hives. The owner noticed an increasing amount of bird poop staining his hives, and looked up into the tree to see an owl staring back.

Long-eared owls take camouflage to remarkable levels. At rest, they resemble plump little great horned owls, their ear tufts sometimes flopped down like a basset hound. When perceived threats are nearby, the owl will stand stiff, pull its feathers in and erect its ear tufts. The resemblance to a broken-off branch is uncanny.

In recent weeks, Mathys has verified two reports of long-eared owls roosting in ornamental spruce trees within close proximity of houses. This owl can be colonial, and roosts of up to 20 birds have been found in Ohio.

The Central Ohio Owl Project is slated to continue for the next several years. Mathys’ end game is to develop a clearer picture of the status and distribution of owls, and he is also gathering data on diet. Owls vomit indigestible fur and bone of victims in the form of compact pellets, which can often be found under roosts. Dissecting and analyzing pellet contents reveals prey choices.

Let’s deluge Mathys with owl reports. He would be most appreciative. The more we learn about our owls, the better we can conserve these charismatic animals. All reports will be kept strictly confidential.

For more information on the Central Ohio Owl Project, including how to report owls, visit: https://www.ohiodominican.edu/owlproject. Or email Blake Mathys at: mathysb@ohiodominican.edu

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

 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Winter Pine Warbler


This Pine Warbler has spent the winter, thus far, at Green Lawn Cemetery on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. As fate would have it, I had a meeting only ten minutes from there yesterday, and stopped by afterwards to do some February warbler-watching in crisp mid-20's F temperatures.

Pine Warblers are second only to the Yellow-rumped Warbler in regards to winter hardiness. Virtually the entire population winters in the U.S., although the majority of birds retreat to the deep south in winter. The numbers of Pine Warblers in a Florida pine woods can be staggering. There, they often feed on seeds of native grasses, such as panic grasses in the genus Dicanthelium. So heavy is their browsing on grass seeds, from my observations, that I wonder if these warblers aren't fairly major agents of dispersal for grasses.

Columbus, Ohio, is near the northern limits of where one might have expectations of stumbling into a wintering Pine Warbler. They are not averse to capitalizing on feeders, and that's what this one was doing. It would take regular seeds, and also suet. While Pine Warblers do not apparently winter at this cemetery every year, they have in the past on a number of occasions.

In the hill country of southern/southeastern Ohio, Pine Warblers are more regular in winter. There, they frequent older stands of native Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) and Pitch Pine (P. rigida). As in Florida and elsewhere in the south, I have seen Ohio wintering birds working over panic grasses for seeds.

Cool as seeing the Pine Warbler was, I was primarily after a FAR scarcer winter warbler: a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. There are very few winter records in Ohio, but this fellow was found a week or so ago in Green Lawn Cemetery, and has been seen sporadically since. Try as I might, I could not locate it yesterday. Had I done so, I surely would have scoured around to try and drum up a Yellow-rumped Warbler, as surely some were about (this is our only commonly wintering warbler). That would have resulted in a three-warbler February day in Central Ohio - not something to be expected. I hear there is a Palm Warbler hanging out in Knox County, too, so at least four warbler species are in the Buckeye State.


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Nature: Summer tanager in Ohio's winter? Yes, it's true

A male summer tanager, a most unexpected winter visitor in Franklin County, Ohio/Jim McCormac

Nature: Summer tanager in Ohio's winter? Yes, it's true

Columbus Dispatch
January 31, 2021
NATURE
Jim McCormac

The cardinal family includes some of our most colorful songbirds. Thirty-five species occur in North America, and another 16 species inhabit South America. Six species breed in Ohio.

In winter, birders can expect to see only one of these flashy species: our state bird, the northern cardinal. The other five species migrate to tropical haunts from the Caribbean and Mexico to South America.

Thus, I was excited to receive an email from Bill Wood on January 2. He and his wife had been seeing a summer tanager visiting the feeders at their Franklin County home for several days. Summer tanagers breed locally in Ohio and are not too tough to find during their namesake season, but winter records are almost unheard of. Most of them travel to southern Central America and South America.

Bill was kind enough to allow me to visit and photograph the bird. It appeared minutes after my arrival, a brilliant jolt of red among the leafless trees and drab winter landscape. It was an adult male sporting plumage even redder than the nearby cardinals. The tanager continues to grace Bill’s neighborhood, as of this writing.

A wonky but necessary note: summer tanager and many other species until recently were placed in the huge mostly tropical tanager family (Thraupidae). In recent years molecular research has shown that many “tanagers” and allies are more closely related to other groups of birds, and these species have reclassified accordingly. Thus the summer tanager is now in the cardinal family.

Why would a summer tanager be in Central Ohio during a cold snowy winter? I do not know. But there it was, feasting on shelled peanuts and other nutty fare. Between Bill’s feeders and those of neighbors, the bird had many entrees from which to choose.

Normal summer tanager fare is far more specialized than bird seed. They feed primarily on bees and wasps. Nothing, no matter the ferocity of its sting, is off-limits. From honey bees to bald-faced hornets, the tanager is a feathered Jack the Ripper. It seizes its venomous prey in flight, and then beats its victim violently against a branch. A few deft swipes removes the stinger, then the tanager swallows its meal.

A real treat of this atypical birding experience was meeting Bill. He is the editor of a storied magazine in the two-wheeled world, The Antique Motorcycle. In between the tanager’s visits, we discussed everything from flat-track racing to early vintage bikes to Harley-Davidsons. Bill is a walking encyclopedia of motorcycles.

About the same time that birds captured my fancy as a kid, so too did motorcycles. Starting with minibikes, then my first “real” motorcycle, the legendary Honda CR 125M Elsinore, I have rarely been bikeless. The twain of biker and birder seldom meets, making this trip especially noteworthy.

Capping the visit was a look at Bill’s elegant 1990 Honda GB500 “Tourist Trophy”. The machine is art on wheels, and only about 3,500 were made. It is almost as rare as a summer tanager in an Ohio winter and was nearly as exciting to see. An old BMW R75/5 was also in his collection – one of the first bikes to feature an electric starter.

Keep an eye on your feeders. One never knows what might pop up, and I am always interested in reports of oddities.

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


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Black velvet botanical photography



I gave an online Zoom presentation last Tuesday to a group of garden clubs, the event organized by the Garden Club of Cleveland. The subject was botanical photography, and on a larger scale, conservation photography.

Here are two photos that I used - Fire-pink (Silene virginica), and White Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) - using the black velvet technique. Both were shot where they grow, and isolated by slipping a piece of black velvet behind the subject. It's a simple way to temporarily separate your subject from all its botanical comrades, and do no harm. The shutter was open a whopping 10 seconds on the Fire-pink to harvest enough light in the post-sunset gloom. Fortunately there was no trace of wind, and wind is usually not the plant photographer's friend.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Gray squirrel and its unusual drey a source of enjoyment

 

Unusual gray squirrel drey on Martha McCormac's balcony/Jim McCormac

Gray squirrel and its unusual drey a source of enjoyment

January 17, 2021
NATURE
Jim McCormac

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.

— George Eliot


The eastern gray squirrel is one of our most common mammals, and their conspicuousness makes them obvious to about everyone.

Although backyard feeders of birds might wage war against wily seed-plundering squirrels, even they will have to concede that a certain level of admiration is warranted. The nonstop hijinks, arboreal acrobatics and problem-solving abilities put squirrels in their own league.

Come winter, plunging temperatures create a challenge for squirrels. True to form, they’ve come up with a solution.

Although gray squirrels use tree cavities as den sites, leafy nests known as dreys also are constructed. A drey is about the size of a basketball and is virtually always placed high in the limbs of trees. Dreys are conspicuous after the autumnal leaf drop.

Squirrels rely heavily on their dreys in winter to stave off freezing temperatures, especially when the mercury plunges at night. Sometimes two or more squirrels share the same drey, and their collective body heat might warm the nest interior to temperatures far beyond that of the outside. Research has shown that the innards of an occupied drey can be an astonishing 60 to 85 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature.

On Dec. 28 of last year, I was visiting my mother, Martha, at her third-floor apartment at Dublin Retirement Village. Squirrels are plentiful there, and Mom loved watching them race about the trees outside her windows.

To my astonishment, a squirrel was constructing a drey under a table on her small balcony. It was a most atypical nest site, and we watched construction progress with interest.

The squirrel began by snipping scores of small branches from adjacent trees, and dexterously wove them into a latticework between the table legs. Once the superstructure was sound, it began harvesting dead leaves. Within a day or so, it had thoroughly shingled the nest with leaves, creating a nearly watertight home.

Mom had been in declining health for some time and at this point depended upon a wheelchair for mobility. As the squirrel drey was three feet from the sliding-glass door, my brother Mike or I could wheel her into position for a ringside seat to its activities.

That squirrel was a source of entertainment for her, between its fevered nest-building and occasional wild chases with other squirrels that dared to intrude on its balcony.

As it turned out, this odd deck-dwelling squirrel was the last wild animal my nature-loving mother would get to watch. She drew her last breath at 3 a.m. on Jan. 4, three days after her 92nd birthday. My brother, his wife Patrice, daughter Megan, and I were at her side.

Shortly after mom’s passing, we retreated to the family room to decompress, and Megan said, “There’s that squirrel!” The bushy-tailed beast had emerged from the nest, and was sitting quietly on the corner of the balcony.

Gray squirrels are strictly diurnal, and that’s the only time that I’ve seen one out in the middle of the night. It was as if it was there to send us a message.

Maybe the squirrel was my mom’s spirit animal. It certainly brought her joy in her last days.

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

Friday, January 15, 2021

Hugh Rose, February 22, 1947 - January 11, 2021


Many of my friends will have fond memories of Hugh Rose, and scores of birders met Hugh (and his wife Judy) at birding events, somewhere in the field, or during his time working as manager of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's store at their Magee Marsh headquarters. Hugh was a gentleman through and through, and will be missed greatly. My condolences to Judy.

Following is an obituary written by one of Hugh's many friends, outdoorsman and newspaperman Steve Pollick. The photo is mine, from some Hu-Dee adventure along Lake Erie :-)

Hugh Rose Obituary
Jan. 15, 2021


Hugh Cameron Rose, 73, of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and Oak Harbor, Ohio, died Jan. 11 in Providence Hospital in Torrance, California, after suffering a heart attack.

Mr. Rose was born Feb. 22, 1947, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, where his father was a member of the British diplomatic corps. He later moved with his parents to Canada, where, at age 18 he joined the Royal Canadian Regiment of the Canadian Army, serving six years honorably and with distinction. He attained the non-commissioned officer rank of staff sergeant, and was in charge of a heavy weapons squad. He greatly enjoyed military ceremony, including marching in full-dress uniform with classic “bearskin” hat.

“We were absolutely inseparable,” said his wife, Judy Kolo Rose, who survives. “Everyone called us ‘Hu-Dy’ ”.

Avid birders, the couple traveled widely in their birding pursuits, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary on a wild trek to Barrow, Alaska, at the northwest tip of North America.

After military service, Mr. Rose entered retail sales and in a short time became associated with the jewelry business, which became his lifelong career. He followed his career, then with Barry’s Jewelers, to the United States, moving to California in the late 1970s. He eventually associated with Sterling Jewelers, parent company of such subsidiaries as Zales, Kay, and Jared. In time he attained the position of a corporate vice president, in which he was engaged in establishing new stores across the country. He retired in 2014.

Mr. Rose proudly became an American citizen in the 1980s, and reveled in flying the American flag at his home. “This one is The Boss,” he would say at flag-raising.

He met his spouse in California, while still with Barry’s Jewelers. They were married on June 10, 1989.

They moved with his Sterling career to Augusta, Georgia, and later to the Cleveland, Ohio, area, from where he retired. The couple moved shortly thereafter to the Oak Harbor area, in part to take advantage of the western Lake Erie region’s renowned birding opportunities.

Mr. Rose for a period served as manager of the gift shop at the well-known Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which has headquarters at Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, near their
home.

The couple in earlier years were avid ocean sailors and scuba divers, and also enjoyed camping and backpacking. They were active ham radio operators and amateur meteorologists. Even now their home
weather station uploads data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasters every 10 minutes.

When posted at one point in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mr. Rose also enjoyed backcountry mule deer hunting with friends, often recalling how it was his camp job to keep the hunting knives sharp.

In 2017, the couple moved back to California, to Rancho Palos Verdes, to care for Mrs. Rose’s parents. But they returned to Ohio semi-annually to visit friends and enjoy the birding.

A memorial farewell service will be set later.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Northern Wheatear visits Ohio!

 

A parking lot at the Upper Sandusky Reservoir, Wyandot County, Ohio. Decidedly NOT a particularly interesting habitat - and we're talking about the gravel and stone piles, not the wooded backdrop. Yet the latest avian rarity du jour has been calling this rocky turf home for the past few days. I was there near first light this morning, and was able to spend time with this most interesting bird.

A Northern Wheatear! In this photo, the animal perches atop the larger of the rock piles in the previous photo. Karen Ritterspach first discovered the bird on January 10. When I arrived, there were already a handful of hopeful birders on site, but the bird had yet to make an appearance. After a brief period of wondering whether it had flown the coop, the wheatear suddenly materialized and flew to a branch on the edge of the nearby tree line. After sunning itself and preening for a bit, it flew to the rock pile which is when I made this photo. At all points in their life cycle, Northern Wheatears favor barren, often dry and rocky habitats. Note the proportionately long wings. More on that in a bit.

After surveying its domain, the wheatear dropped down to the seemingly barren ground and began to forage. The light was stunning - a most welcome solar flare after days of gloomy gray skies. When shooting birds, you know the light is fine when you can stop the camera down to f/9, shoot at 1/500, and require an ISO of only 250. Would only every bird-shooting expedition feature such sunny moments.

Before the bird hit the ground, I had my tripod legs tucked back in, and was kneeling on the ground to get my camera closer to the bird's level knowing it was soon coming to the ground. Before long, I splayed the tripod legs out so the camera was only a foot off the ground and I was laying on the gravel. That helps with two things: 1) getting on the same level as your subject often produces better images, compositionally. 2) The prone posture removes one's obvious bipedalism, as animals are often instinctively wary of upright humanoids. I have had birds of various species approach me extremely closely when I was shooting in this manner, seemingly utterly ignoring me. In this instance, there were a number of people standing normally nearby, so my posture didn't matter. I half-toyed with asking everyone if they would lie on the cold hard ground so we could better put the wheatear at ease and see what it might do, but figured that was an unreasonable request :-)

This Northern Wheatear is a male - females are more muted - and it is in basic (non-breeding) plumage. In alternate (breeding) plumage, the males are boldly marked in gray and black, the overall appearance suggesting the coloration and pattern of a shrike. A wheatear suggests a thrush, and it is closely related. But the world's nearly 30 species of wheatears in the genus Oenanthe are in the Old World Flycatcher family (Muscicapidae), with only the Northern Wheatear breeding in North America.

Wheatears favor foraging in very barren places, often seemingly lifeless rocky scree, gravelly deposits, rock piles, or in low sparse vegetation. Adjacent to the parking lot was an area dominated by "weedy" but native dropseed grasses in the genus Sporobolus (probably S. neglectus or S. vaginiflorus).

This is interesting, thought I - maybe it is eating the seeds of these plants. But the literature that I have seen states that Northern Wheatear feeds mostly on small insects and arachnids. And this bird was actively running and plucking at the ground, but I could never ascertain what it was grabbing. But the temperature was around 25 F, and that's pretty cold for any invertebrate creature to be out and exposed, or so I would think. Wheatears are known to take berry-type plant fruit, but it is apparently a small component of their diet. But from what I can tell, most diet data comes from breeding sites where insects would be much more readily available, and when rapidly growing chicks would require the protein that animal food would bring to the table.

I wonder if their diet might veer more to vegetarian at certain times outside of the breeding grounds. Whatever the case, it was fun to watch the wheatear bound around on the ground, running and pecking at unknown morsels. Several times I was struck by the juxtaposition of it and southern bird species that a Northern Wheatear would seldom if ever encounter, such as Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Or when an aggressive Northern Mockingbird actually strafed and chased the wheatear for a bit.

A stunning bird, and arguably more striking in non-breeding colors. While the coloration is subtle, there is a lot of complexity in the details. The palette of muted earth tones really helps the wheatear blend with its surroundings, and when it hunkers down and freezes the bird would be very hard to spot if you didn't know it was there.

Northern Wheatear is a rare vagrant in the lower 48 states, and this bird represents about the 5th Ohio record. The species has an almost completely circumpolar breeding distribution, breeding at high latitudes around the world, excepting a gap in central Canada. There are four subspecies, two of which breed in Africa and Eurasia. The other two nest in North American arctic and subarctic regions. Birds breeding in Alaska and Siberia and points west are the nominate subspecies Oenanthe oenanthe subsp. oenanthe. Those breeding in the eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland and points east are Oenanthe oenanthe subsp. leucorhoa. The former migrates southwest to sub-Saharan Africa wintering grounds. The latter also ends up in Africa for the winter, but gets there by migrating southeast, which includes a long trans-Atlantic flight of up to 2,000+ miles. This songbird is truly a marvel of migration, its annual journeys rivaling that of the world's greatest long distance avian migrants. Many Northern Wheatears travel 10,000 miles or more annually, and Alaska breeders can eclipse 18,000 mile annual migrations. Small wonder a few of them stray from the path on occasion.

Presumably this bird is of the leucorhoa subspecies, as were the other Ohio birds. Their flight path would seem to make them far more likely to turn up as strays in the Midwest and eastern states. Also, one might be tempted to think it would most likely be inexperienced first-year birds that would "blunder" and go astray. However, this bird appears to be a 2-3+ year old male, so it's (presumably) made the flight to Africa multiple times.

Kudos to Karen Ritterspach for making this outstanding discovery. The Wyandot County wheatear has been seen by scores of people, some of whom came from other states. And of the five Ohio wheatears to date, this one has probably been the most cooperative, often foraging in close proximity to observers.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Summer Tanager, in winter!

I photographed this Summer Tanager yesterday morning, a most unexpected treat in a Central Ohio winter. It was about 28 degrees when I made the image. The brilliant male was a stunning jolt of color on a winter day, rivaled only by male Northern Cardinals.

Thanks to Bill, who alerted me to the bird, which is frequenting his feeders. I'll have more about this rarity (in the winter season) later. It's in the queue for one of my Columbus Dispatch columns.
 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Nature: Chandlersville bird count in Ohio yields more than avian species, thanks to The Wilds

A two day old southern white rhinoceros, with mother, at The Wilds/Jim McCormac

Nature: Chandlersville bird count in Ohio yields more than avian species, thanks to The Wilds
 
Columbus Dispatch
January 3, 2020

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Last Saturday was the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count and, as for the past decade, I was there. Chandlersville is a rural Muskingum County community southeast of Zanesville.

Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) began in 1900 and are run under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. Last year, 2,646 counts took place, involving 81,601 observers. The vast majority take place in the United States and Canada. More than 50 counts occur in Ohio.

The aim of a CBC is to count all birds seen within a 15-mile diameter, in a 24-hour time frame. Each count must take place over a three-week time span, from mid-December to early January. One hundred and twenty years of these counts have created a robust data set of winter bird life.

Of all the bird counts I have done, the Chandlersville event is the most interesting. That’s because the Wilds, a 10,000-acre large-animal conservation and research facility, is within the circle. Luckily for me, compiler Scott Albaugh assigned me to partner with Wilds staff back in 2010. I haven’t missed a count since.

Our turf includes the inside of the Wilds’ big fences. Mammalian distractions are frequent. The Wilds houses about 25 species of mammals, and their presence creates a surreal environment. It’s all we can do to focus on the wild birds, which are plentiful.

This year, our crew tallied nearly 50 bird species, including goodies such as killdeer, northern pintail and rough-legged hawk.

Our leaders were Jan Ramer, vice president of the Wilds, and Genelle Uhrig, wildlife ecology associate. They provided a wonderful opportunity to learn about mammals and their conservation.

Car caravanning along the gravel roads is always interesting. At one point, progress was delayed by a herd of Sichuan takin, a massive, bear-like relative of goats. Indigenous to Tibet and adjacent China, takin are at home in an Ohio winter.

Not far down the road, a group of Pere David’s Deer blocked the path. This species was extirpated in its native China by 1900, and it was saved by zoos and research facilities that had obtained animals. The deer has since been reintroduced to the wild.

At one point, I spotted a pair of massive Bactrian camels on a ridge. I was grateful that the male wasn’t yet in breeding condition.

One year, he was foaming at the mouth — like a bubble bath had blown up in his face — and foul with urine that he had sprayed all over himself. Naturally, this attracted a female who found him irresistible. The male camel saw our vehicle as a possible rival and lit out after us. The driver didn’t notice. I looked back to see the enraged, foam-faced, urine-soaked beast gaining quickly. I yelled “Floor it, man!” He stood on it and we finally outran the thing.

Other mammal observations included African painted dog, cheetah, dhole, Grevy’s zebra, Persian onager, Przewalski’s wild horse, sable antelope and more.

The Wilds also works with animals indigenous to the area, such as the rare American burying beetle and Eastern hellbender salamander.

The highlight was a stop at the rhino house. The Wilds has long worked with the southern white rhinoceros, and 24 calves have been born here. Keeper Dave Clawson has tended to the rhinos for three decades, and he is a big part of this success.

Dave showed us the most recent additions: a week-old female, and a baby boy born just the day before (pictured). One hundred-pound baby rhinos are playful as puppies. Their nearly 2-ton mothers make good supervisors.

Kudos to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for its support of the Wilds and its expansive mission.

The Wilds is an amazing institution that does conservation work on a global scale. A visit is highly recommended. Specialized “Winter at the Wilds” tours are available, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more interesting wintertime diversion.

For details, visit https://thewilds.columbuszoo.org.

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

Canvasback, a fine botanical duck

A handsome drake Canvasback loafs in frigid Lake Erie waters, off Miller Road Park in the city of Avon Lake, Ohio. I was there bright on and...