Friday, September 17, 2021

The Art of Conservation: Gallery exhibition and talk, October 1, Columbus, Ohio

I am pleased to collaborate with wildlife illustrator Juliet Mullett on a mixed medium exhibition featuring her original watercolor artwork, and my photography. The exhibit showcases 25 species of animals featuring a diversity of creatures including amphibians, birds, crayfish, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles. Each species is depicted by one of Juliet's illustrations, and one of my images, accompanied by brief text explaining its significance and conservation issues, pro or con.

This Gray Fox image, presented at 16 x 24 dimensions, will accompany Juliet's fox kit artwork as seen in the previous image of the exhibition postcard. Many of the images in the gallery are printed in large scale.

It has taken us the better part of a year to prepare for this show. I had it much easier. Juliet created nearly all of the pieces just for the show, and her detailed watercolor pencil illustrations take some time to create. While it does take me effort, expertise, and field craft to make my images, once I'm in position and my quarry is in range, a click of the shutter and it's mostly done.

The exhibition is at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center just south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River. It opens Friday, October 1, with a reception, and I will give a brief presentation on how and why this conservation art show came to be, and natural resources conservation in general. It is free, but registration is required. CLICK HERE to register, and see more details about the exhibition and the October 1 event. We would love to see you there, and please pass the word!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hummingbird confronts fly!

On the long-term bucket list is photographing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at every major native plant nectar source with which the birds have an intimate co-evolutionary history. Thanks to a friend who lives nearby, I was able to obtain images of this female/immature male Ruby-throat at the beautiful flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens.

NOTE ABOUT NATIVITY: Trumpet Honeysuckle is a southerner, and reaches its northern limits in southernmost Ohio. In my opinion, there is only one indisputably native Ohio population, in Scioto County (and not all botanists would agree with my opinion of that site, but that's another topic). So, this planted honeysuckle patch in Columbus is clearly beyond the species native range, but the hummingbirds don't care.

Anyway, it didn't take long after I set up my rig for the hummers to start hitting the flowers. There was also an adult male, but he didn't visit as often and never gave me a good shot. This bird was pretty easy to work, and I obtained a number of nice images. Of them, I liked this one the best. As I waited for its visits, I noticed that the "greenbottle" fly favored this group of flowers as a perch. When the hummer came in and I made this particular shot, she/he took umbrage at the fly, confronted it accompanied by loud chitters, and sent the fly packing. The bird then proceeded to plumb the deep floral nectaries with its long bill and tongue. While perhaps some larger sphinx moths might visit Trumpet Honeysuckle at night, and be effective pollinators, it's hard to think of pollinators that would be more effective than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Because of their relationship with flowers, hummingbirds come into confrontations with large insects constantly. Bumblebees in the genus Bombus are common rivals, as are larger species of wasps. Sometimes big insects clearly win out, as when a large bumblebee is working a flower - the hummers usually wait for it to depart. This fly was no match though, and the bird quickly drove it away.

PHOTO NOTE: I generally do not like the look of flash on birds, and rarely use it on the feathered crowd. Hummingbirds are an exception. The flash does not seem to bother them at all, and the light makes the feather iridescence really pop. However, on this day light was abundant and well situated, so I did not use flash. This image was shot at 1/6400, f/8, and ISO 3200. While the ISO is beyond what I would prefer, the camera is the (fairly new) Canon R5 mirrorless, and it handles higher ISO ranges pretty well. I made a series of shots - since my little subject was so cooperative - ranging from shutter speeds of 1/1600 clear up to 1/6400 (maximum shutter speed for the R5 is 1/8000). When a hummingbird is really working those wings hard to maneuver around flowers, a speed of at least 1/5000 is necessary to mostly freeze the wings.


 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Shorebirds, including the fantastic Wilson's Snipe

 

I made a trip to the St. Marys Fish Hatchery last Wednesday, September 1, a place I have birded myriad times for many years. The hatchery is in western Auglaize County, Ohio, along the eastern shore of massive Grand Lake St. Marys. The hatchery is a magnet for migrant birds, and many a rarity has been seen here over the years. The site's reputation as a bird magnet goes way back. In 1970, Clarence Clark and James Sipe published a booklet, Birds of the Lake St. Marys Area. It's a gem, although tough to lay hands on now.

Hatchery staff obviously have fish production as their major goal, but as part of operations they routinely draw down impoundments. When draw-downs coincide with shorebird migration, birding can excel. The staff is birder-friendly, just stay out of the way of hatchery activities.

Several ponds have been recently lowered, including one of the large ones, and shorebirding has been interesting of late and should remain so for a while.

A Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) strikes a pose. This one was foraging out on the open mudflats; normally they are more reclusive and lurk in vegetation. And thus are easily overlooked. Dozens or even triple figures sometimes haunt wet meadows in migration, but remain largely out of view. Snipe come out of their shells on breeding grounds, where they engage in fantastic aerial courtship flights accompanied by a surreal winnowing sound produced by their tail feathers.


A beautiful little Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) in its favored milieu, a rich mucky mudflat. Several of these elfin "killdeerlets" with the single band were present. Like most of the shorebirds - plovers and sandpipers - that appear in Ohio during migration, this species nests FAR to our north, across the upper reaches of the Canadian and Alaskan tundra regions. Like most of our plovers, Semipalmated Plover winters mostly along coastal zones: Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, and coastal zone of much of Central and South America, as well as throughout the Caribbean.

A trio of our other "half-webbed" shorebird, the Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla). Semipalmated refers to the partial webbing between the toes. If you enlarge the Semipalmated Plover shot you can see this webbing. While the scientific epithet pusilla means "tiny", the Semipalmated Sandpiper is not the smallest of the five species of "peep" sandpipers that pass through Ohio. That honor goes to the Least Sandpiper (C. minutus). The latter was the most frequent of the peeps at the hatchery on this day.

I was especially pleased to encounter two Baird's Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). This is one of our larger peeps, although we're not talking eagle-sized here. A hefty Baird's stretches the tape to about 7.5 inches in length and weighs little more than an ounce. But those wings! They span a whopping foot and half! You can see how the wingtips project beyond the tail in the photo. This is a bird meant to fly, and fly they do. Baird's Sandpiper is one of the world's great long-haul migrants. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the North American tundra. This incredible sandpiper winters along the Andes in Ecuador, all the way south to the southern tip of the world: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Some of these animals probably fly 9,000 miles - one way! - between breeding and wintering grounds. Rich mudflats where they can rest and refuel along this long journey are vital, but mudflat conservation for shorebirds seems to get little conservation attention in this region.

The Baird's Sandpiper is named for one of North America's great scientists and educators, Spencer Fullerton Baird. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and was widely regarded as one of the country's leading naturalists. He richly deserves having this bird named in his honor, as well as the Baird's Sparrow and at least 14 other animal species.

A quartet of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) rests on a mat of desiccated Chara algae. This was the most common shorebird on this day - perhaps 150 yellowlegs were present. Only perhaps five of their rank were the much larger Greater Yellowlegs (T. melanoleuca), but they generally are greatly outnumbered by their lesser brethren.

A Lesser Yellowlegs shows off its namesake legs. In the olden days of unregulated market hunting (late 1800's, primarily), this species along with many other shorebirds was shot in large numbers. The Lesser Yellowlegs recovered well following establishment of wildlife conservation laws, but not all shorebirds did. The Eskimo Curlew, which may be extinct although there are glimmers of hope, is a sad case in point.


 Finally, here's a video of that Wilson's Snipe putting its LONG bill to work, probing the mire for invertebrate animals. Note its gait: bouncy coolness that verges on avian nerdiness. Maybe there should be a national Walk Like A Snipe Day, and we'd all have to mimic that walk everywhere we go. Probably take our minds off all the STUFF going on, temporarily.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Chaparral State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

The purple flower wands of spiked blazing-star at Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve in Adams County/Jim McCormac

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

Columbus Dispatch
August 29, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The hot, muggy dog days of early August is the time to visit prairies. Flowering is at its peak, and these relicts of our diverse botanical past can be stunning.

One of my favorite Ohio prairies is Chaparral State Nature Preserve in Adams County. It’s just west of the county seat, West Union.

I made a trip there on a suitably scorching day, Aug. 5. Tolerating the heat and humidity was a small price to pay for the spectacular floral show. The prairie was a riot of color, and I was not the only admirer. Word has increasingly spread about this botanical hotspot, and many visitors stopped by that day.

Perhaps most striking was the towering purple spires of spiked blazing-star (Liatris spicata). The club-like inflorescences can rise several feet, and are irresistible to monarch butterflies. Many of these migratory insects were working the prairie, and the blazing-star was their drug of choice. Enrichening the display were a number of white-flowered forms.

Gargantuan flowering stalks of prairie-dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) loomed over their lesser botanical brethren. These giant sunflowers can rise to eight feet or more, and the lemony-yellow flowers are major pollinator magnets. Numerous American goldfinches gamboled about, eagerly awaiting the ripening of the seeds. Once they ripen, the “wild canaries" will swarm them and quickly devour the crop.

In places an odd parsley, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), was dominant. Its spherical clusters of small white flowers attracted legions of insects: tiny native bees, wasps of many stripes, and myriad interesting beetles. Hairstreak butterflies — the warblers of the Lepidopteran world — are smitten with rattlesnake-master flowers. I saw both coral and red-banded hairstreaks getting nectar fixes.

Less conspicuous but perhaps of greater interest to botanists were two Ohio rarities: bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and pink milkwort (Polygala incarnata). The former can be overshadowed by larger plants, but its gorgeous bluish-purple flowers are the rival of any of its vegetative comrades. Bluehearts is a hemi-parasite — it augers its roots into those of surrounding plants, and taps some if its nutrition from these hosts.

It takes a keen eye to spot pink milkwort. A whopper might rise to six inches in height. Growing in the driest most sun-baked barrens, the milkwort’s tiny flowers would be measured in millimeters. True to the name, the Lilliputian blooms are a pleasing shade of coral-pink.

Tremendous botanical diversity drives exceptional animal diversity, and Chaparral was buzzing with insects working the flowers. As always, and an important part of the food web, insect predators thinned the herd. Crab spiders and ambush bugs blended with the flowers, ready to pounce on hapless pollinators. Despite all the flattering flower poetry, a flower is a potential deathtrap — a showy land of booby traps and landmines.

King of the predatory insects were giant “cannibal fly” robber flies. The peregrine falcons of the fly world, these jumbos take down the largest bumblebees and wasps, and have even been recorded taking hummingbirds.

The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources acquired Chaparral Prairie about three decades ago. Then, the prairie was cloaked in red cedar and other woody plants. Open prairie was reduced to tiny fragments. Years of well-conceived management and lots of hard work have wrought wonders.

Mark your calendar for a visit to Chaparral Prairie next summer. Even though the loop trail is under a mile in length, it sometimes takes hours to hike given all the interesting occupants, both floral and faunal.

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, August 25, 2021

Dolly Sods, West Virginia

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Sunrise from Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods, West Virginia. August 22, 2021. This mountaintop is an amazing place, and I was glad to finally experience it. Even though I only had part of a day to explore Dolly Sods, I packed a lot in and saw lots. I'll probably post more from my adventures up there, but for now, here are two images.

A tough Red Spruce, Picea rubens, exhibits the "Krummholz Effect". Strong and near constant winds (from the west in this case), sometimes severe, have stunted the growth of branches on the upwind side. Krummholz means "twisted wood", and such trees are also called flag trees or banner trees. This spruce was at Dolly Sods in West Virginia, and that mountaintop can be a harsh environment.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Black Bear, and Blackwater Falls

 

I spent the last four days in eastern West Virginia, in the Canaan Valley and vicinity. The first half of the trip involved participation in the annual meeting of the West Virginia Master Naturalists group, and I appreciate Andrea Dalton inviting me. Great time with lots of great people - the WVMN is large and active. As I came down the entrance drive to the lodge where we were based, late in the day last Friday, I glanced over to see a bear ambling through a lower parking lot. I stopped, he ended up passing by fairly close, I had a camera at the ready, and bagged this shot. It was a good omen of many interesting things to come.

I finally made a stop at fabled Blackwater Falls in Tucker County, West Virginia today. It lives up to the hype, and is well worth the stop. The falls lures about 900,000 visitors annually. That's a bit too many people for my taste, but as fate would have it, I was there early on this Monday morning.

NO ONE was there for a much-appreciated 45 minutes or so, enabling me to get this rare shot - the staircase to the lower platform, with not a soul on it.

Even though I only had less than two days to explore, I made it to some of the iconic regional hotspots, such as Dolly Sods and Cathedral State Park, with its gargantuan old-growth trees. Plus, there was heavy-duty mothing into the wee hours on two nights, and many interesting moths were tallied.

I'll surely make some more posts about this trip and some of the interesting sightings.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

A pair of juvenile black vultures perch in a window of the barn in which they were born/Jim McCormac

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

Columbus Dispatch
August 15, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

In nature, there are always winners and losers. Increasingly, human activity drives successes, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, there are far more losers than winners.

The black vulture is, as Charlie Sheen says, “Winning!” It is one of a group of generalist bird species that is thriving on the heels of man, and expanding its range northward with remarkable rapidity.

When I was a kid, back in the 1970’s, it took a special effort to see a black vulture in Ohio. Their strongholds were few and far between. A trip to the Ohio Brush Creek Valley in Adams County or along the Hocking River south of Lancaster usually produced sightings.

Back then, a black vulture sighting was a standout on any trip checklist.

Telling a black vulture from the far more common and widespread turkey vulture isn’t hard. The latter is larger and soars with its wings in a dihedral: held above the body, forming a v-shape. Turkeys also have bare red heads which can be seen from some distance.

Black vultures hold their wings in a flat plane, and the undersides are prominently marked with white near the wingtips. They often dangle their legs in flight, which project beyond the stubby tail. The head is black. These differences are apparent when black and turkey vultures are mingling, as they often do.

I’ve made a half-dozen trips to Central America, and my fellow travelers and I would wager on what the first bird would be that we’d see upon arrival. Usually, spotted while still in flight on the approach to Guatemala City or San Jose, soaring black vultures were our welcoming committee.

This is primarily a species of southern latitudes, ranging throughout almost all of South America, Central America, and Mexico. Strangely, black vultures are nearly absent from the Caribbean.

North of the border, black vultures were long considered a bird of the southern states. John James Audubon, writing in the early 1800’s, noted that the “carrion crow” ranged north to Kentucky and Indiana, and “as far as Cincinnati”.

By the 1930’s, black vultures had been recorded in a dozen southern Ohio counties but were still scarce. Ohio ornithologist Lawrence Hicks estimated fewer than 100 birds were in the state at that time.

In the 1990’s a marked expansion ensued, with new populations surfacing in many areas in the southern two-thirds of the state.

The black vulture boom continues to pick up steam. Today, reports come from nearly all parts of the state, including the northernmost counties. Many new resident colonies have been established.

Columbus and vicinity is not excluded from this invasion. I have been seeing black vultures in the Dublin area for at least a year, sometimes feasting on road-killed deer along Interstate 270. Twice in the past month, small squadrons have drifted over my house in Worthington.

Why the range expansion? Black vultures are smart and opportunistic. Plentiful roadkill, the offal of industrial animal farming, and large deer populations (and resultant carrion) mean plenty of food. Tough and savvy, black vultures easily compete with – and often outcompete – turkey vultures. And rising mean winter temperatures make it easier for them to survive and thrive in the north.

They’re adaptable nesters, too. Barns and various abandoned structures provide nest sites, but black vultures will place nests in heavy brush, hollow logs, and amongst boulders or other rocky areas.

Keep an eye to the sky, or on roadside carcasses, and it probably won’t be too long before you spot a black vulture.

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, August 12, 2021

Giant Stag Beetle in Ohio

A thoroughly impressive Giant Stag Beetle, Lucanus elaphus. Including the mandibles, a male like this can measure 2.5 inches in length (go ahead, hold your fingers that far apart :-) ). Males use those mandibles to spar with one another during "rutting" season. The larvae of this incredible insect feed on rotting wood - one of myriad life forms that depends on downed or dying timber. John Howard found this stag beetle in Adams County and it represents one of few Ohio records. It will be interesting to see if this southern beetle expands northward in coming years.

A closer look at those formidable mandibles. While its grub - larval stage - lives for nearly a year, the adult stage lasts but a few months. You may be wondering - do these insects "bite"? Not really. The mandibles are used for jousting with other males, and the insect cannot exert significant pressure with them. A finger in the mandibles would feel like a very soft pinch, not nearly strong enough to break the skin. 

I appreciate John detaining the beetle until I and some others could get there to see it.


 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Remarkable Mimicry: Fly as Wasp

 

A huge - compared to other common wasps, but maybe not an elephant - spider wasp, Entypus unifasciatus, takes nectar from the flowers of a Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium.

ASIDE: Rattlesnake-master lures pollinating insects like few other plants. And it is quite showy with numerous ball-like inflorescences of snowy-white flowers and its odd leathery yucca-like foliage. It grows easily in gardens and is a fantastic addition to anyone's yard. And Rattlesnake-master is readily available in the nursery trade, at least among nurseries that make an effort to peddle native flora.

I spent a fair bit of time at Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve on August 5, which was at its peak of botanical glory. See some photos of the prairie RIGHT HERE. The Rattlesnake-master was in nice condition, and I probably could have spent all day stalking and shooting the myriad pollinating insects visiting its flowers. As it was, I did manage to photograph a number of them, perhaps highlighted by this huge wasp.

Entypus unifasciatus is one of the spider-hunting wasps and is impressive by any hymenopteran standard. It is an edgy beast, active and constantly twitching its wings with rapid flicks. This species specializes on large wolf spiders (female wasps do the hunting and stinging), and an insect has to be tough to take one of these venomous eight-legged behemoths down. I have seen the wasp vanquish spiders a few times, such as HERE, and HERE.

From my limited experience, the spider is no match for the wasp. The latter darts in and administers a punishing, paralyzing sting in the blink of an eye. The wasp's venom must be a potent brew indeed, and I suspect its sting would pack a punch to a person, too. Fortunately, they are not aggressive and short of grabbing one with your hand, it'd probably be nearly impossible to get stung. However, inquisitive birds might have to learn this lesson the hard way. Except for Summer Tanagers, which specialize in capturing and eating large bees and wasps.

Well, what do we have here? I made this image in the same area as the preceding spider wasp, on the same day. And, while completely unrelated, this insect bears a remarkable resemblance to the large stinging wasp. It is just as big, too.

This is a mydas fly, Mydas tibialis, which is completely impotent as far as having any ability to inflict pain. The big fly is visually intimidating though, and most people - and more importantly birds, presumably - would leave it be. The fly even nectars at the same flowers favored by the wasp.

The fly world is awash in amazing mimicry such as this. Flies that can mimic the appearance of bees and wasps that can inflict stings must gain some measure of protection from visual predators like birds, who will learn to avoid certain insects such as those whose appearance they mimic.


Friday, August 6, 2021

Chaparral Prairie, looking splendid

As always, click the photos to enlarge

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve is a riot of color right now. This snippet of the prairie is filled with Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium, Spiked Blazing-star, Liatris spicata, Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, Early Goldenrod, Solidago juncea, and many other plant species.

I made an epic trip to southern Ohio yesterday, specifically to Adams and Scioto counties. It was a 20 hour day, from start to finish, but worth every minute. Foremost on my list was Chaparral Prairie. It looks better than I have ever seen it, and my history with this site goes back to its acquisition. Then, it was some farm fields and overgrown cedar thickets. Botanical clues to its prairie past lingered, though, and after acquisition management began in earnest.

The ongoing fruits of this labor are richly evident now. The prairie is at its glorious peak, and if chance permits, I'd highly recommend a visit in the next week or so.

This is the view shortly after entering the trail from the parking lot. Spectacular, and there are more pollinators of every stripe in this scene than you could shake a stick out. Numerous Monarchs worked the blazing-stars, probably thinking they had dropped into some sort of alternate botanical universe of the very best sort.

The Spiked Blazing-star is out of this world. Some of the prairie openings are full of the stuff.

Some rare white color variants of Spiked Blazing-star - Liatris spicata forma albiflorum - punctuate an opening near the back of the preserve. The loop trail is less than a mile long, and bisects the best offerings of the 130-acre preserve. If you visit, be sure to take a camera.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Nature: Double-ringed pennants, other dragonflies, found in southern Ohio

A male double-ringed pennant/Jim McCormac

Nature: Double-ringed pennants, other dragonflies, found in southern Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
August 1, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Jim Lemon spent his career in information technology at Ohio State University, but he’s an entomologist at heart. And by training. Following his retirement a few years ago, he launched back into the bug world with a passion. Dragonflies became his primary target, and Lemon is now one of Ohio’s leading odonatologists (a person who studies insects).

Back on June 29, Lemon and I headed afield to hunt dragons. Our destination was the wilds of Jackson and Pike counties. Our targets: two of Ohio’s rarest dragonflies.

The day dawned hot, sunny, and steamy, ultimately reaching 93 degrees with what felt like 100% humidity. Not so fun for human dragon-slayers, but great for the insects. They thrive in such weather and are at their most active.

We arrived at a remote abandoned sand-mining operation dotted with small spring-fed wetlands and the dragons soon came in abundance. Large blueberry-colored slaty skimmers dashed about, chasing interlopers who dared enter their turf.

Larger yet were spangled skimmers, a far more uncommon species. Males are powdery-blue with clear wings tipped with prominent white marks called stigmas. These create a blurred kaleidoscope effect in flight. A huge bonus was a stunning golden-winged skimmer. This big dragonfly is infused throughout with rich tones of gold, as if lit by the setting sun. A southerner, it is a vagrant to the upper Midwest and has only been found in six Ohio counties.

It didn’t take long to find our target, the yellow-sided skimmer. This species is sexually dimorphic: males look nothing like females. The former is showy blue, with the thorax sides washed in pale yellow. Females are brown with prominent yellow stripes running the length of the body.

The yellow-sided skimmer is a southern species and this locale harbors the only known extant Ohio population. Until recently, there was another site a few miles away but that population seems to have vanished. Fortunately, naturalist Nina Harfmann located this new site earlier this year.

Lemon and I saw about 20 individuals, the males ferociously guarding territories. This colony is one of the northernmost and is 100 miles or more from the nearest population in West Virginia.

Denison University entomologist Tom Schultz discovered the original Ohio yellow-sided skimmer site in 1998. I suspect this species had long been present but overlooked. They favor sunny densely vegetated openings fed by seeps. Such sites are not common, often tiny, and easily missed or ignored.

Soon we were off to a small pond south of Jackson. The little water body reminded me of countless farm ponds that I’ve seen, but this one was dragon magic.

Many calico pennants perched atop waterside plants, hawking insects and badgering one another. The male is gorgeous scarlet-red. Better yet were numerous banded pennants, a much less common and widespread dragonfly in Ohio. At rest on hot days, pennants frequently “obelisk”: raise their abdomens toward the sun, to minimize heat absorption.

But we had come to see Ohio’s only population of double-ringed pennants. A few dozen were present. They are not shrinking violets and we saw them instantly upon arrival. While lacking the visual pizazz of the other pennants, the double-ringeds are architecturally ornate, behaviorally interesting, and ooze charisma. The male in the photo shown here is in the obelisk position.

These double-ringed pennants were discovered in 2019, the first documented Ohio record. This year, another was photographed near Cincinnati. This is a southern and Atlantic coastal plain species with few Midwest records. I suspect it is a recent colonizer.

There is no doubt that some southern dragonfly species are rapidly expanding northward. It will be interesting to see what turns up in future years.

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, July 29, 2021

Partridge Pea and its magical extrafloral nectaries

A showy snarl of partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, lines the sidewalk to my front door. This native member of the pea family (Fabaceae) is an annual, and easily grown. My yard - front and back - is full of native flora, as natives greatly spike the fauna, especially insects. Partridge pea is an especially interesting case of coevolutionary relationships between plants and insects. All of these images were shot in the patch of pea shown in this photo, in about a half hour.

Showy yellow flowers of Partridge Pea, which arise from the leaf axils. They are magnets for certain insect pollinators.

A bumble bee in the genus Bombus approaches a partridge pea flower. Bumbles are certainly the most noticeable and probably most numerous insect pollinator, at least in my flower patch. It's interesting to listen to them "buzz pollinate" the flowers by rapidly and noisily vibrating their wings to cause pollen to fall from the stamens.

There is another less obvious and arguably more interesting way in which partridge pea lures insects into its foliage. This is an extrafloral nectary (EFN), located near the base of leaf petioles. Extrafloral nectaries are like tiny cups that constantly exude a rich sugary secretion. This substance, which is about 95% sugar, is irresistible to certain insects, especially those in the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps).

A photo from August 9, 2014, taken by Laura Hughes. From top to bottom, that's David Hughes, John Howard, and your narrator. We're carefully watching a luxuriant stand of Partridge Pea along John's driveway in Adams County, Ohio.

I had recently learned about Partridge Pea extrafloral nectaries, told Dave, John, and Laura what I had learned, and here we are trying to photograph EFN visitors. I like intellectually inquisitive people such as these :-)

An ant (species unknown to me) drinks from an extrafloral cup. Ants may be the best known visitors of partridge pea extrafloral nectaries. But many other insects visit the sugar cups, on partridge pea and the other 2,000 or so plants in over five dozen families worldwide that have EFN. One theory is that by enticing predatory insects, as many ants and wasps are, into the foliage via extrafloral nectaries, they will discourage herbivory and flower damage by attacking insect herbivores such as caterpillars.

A beetle bandit (Cerceris ssp.) sips from a nectary. It is bookended by two other EFN, on adjacent leaves. Various beetles such as weevils can be major floral consumers, so perhaps beetle bandit wasps - well known to prey on weevils - pay the plant back by controlling these insects.

This Mexican grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana, is looking a bit tattered. Isodontid wasps are one of the more frequent visitors to my partridge peas. They prey on tree crickets and other small Orthopterans, and this group feeds on foliage.

A spider wasp in the genus Auplopus stuffs its face. Many spider wasp species are high strung and edgy, habitually twitching their wings and moving about rapidly as they hunt prey.

A personal favorite and a spectacular wasp, the yellow-legged mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium. The insect is the very definition of "wasp-waisted". They make mud nests which are attached to walls, rocks or other structures. These adobe crypts are provisioned with paralyzed spiders for the wasp larvae to nosh on.

I have seen many other insect species visiting the extrafloral nectaries, and hope to spend some more time photo-documenting them. Oh, one might wonder why someone like me would wish to entice wasps and bees into close proximity to my front door and walkway. It's not a problem. These insects are non-aggressive, quite busy with their activities, and pay us no mind. In many years of sticking my camera in the faces of stinging insects, I have only been stung a few times - and those were by bald-faced hornets after apparently approaching their large paper nests a bit too close.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Two cool bugs

 

A Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, taps nectar from Swamp Milkweed flowers. The butterfly is huge and extraordinary, the largest species found in Ohio. This one thrilled our field trip participants at Cedar Bog last Sunday with close fly-bys and nectar visits.

We were there as a field trip that was part of the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference (our 12th one) near Dayton. After having to skip last year due to Covid, it was great to once again have the conference. It was at a slightly reduced level due to facility restrictions, but nonetheless there were 150 attendees and all went great. Kudos to the organizers for a tremendous job. If you haven't been, try to make it next year. It does fill up quickly, take note.

An important part of the conference is a legion of vendors, all selling native flora. We are always amazed at the incredible diversity of plants that are available, including hard to find species. I took home some botanical goodies, including a nice specimen of Wafer-ash, Ptelea trifoliata. This shrub/treelet is one of only two host plants in our region for the Giant Swallowtail. Who knows, with some luck maybe my plant will lure a female in to lay eggs on it.

I have a robust stand of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, in the front yard. The flowers are constantly awash in Bumble Bees (Bombus ssp.) and I was out there yesterday observing them. When in flew this beautiful pollinator, the Two-spotted Longhorn Bee, Melissodes bimaculata. It is a striking animal, garbed mostly in ebony. But check out the long "furry" hairs on those back legs, which are doused with yellow pollen!

It's rewarding to merely step out the front door and see all manner of cool animal life like this bee, all attracted to the native flora planted in the "gardens". Right along the sidewalk to the front door is a lush stand of Partridge-pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, and it is in full bloom. I want to write a pictorial piece about that soon. Partridge-pea is beset with tiny glands known as extrafloral nectaries and the cast of entomological characters - primarily wasps - that visit those is amazing. In short order yesterday morning, I think I photographed five wasp species on the nectaries, plus some other insects.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Big bucks hit the backyard

I was pleased to glance into the backyard this morning and see this big buck. White-tailed Deer are regular visitors here, and I don't mind. Fawns have even been born in the yard, such as THIS ONE.

Thus, I was even more pleased when the buck's twin brother materialized from a thicket. The two fed for a while, then it was siesta time. They are out there napping as I write this. They're likely to stay all day, and that's fine with me. Help yourself to some of the remnant day lilies, boys.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Nature: Gray fox sightings continue to be rare in Midwest

 

A gray fox vixen strikes a pose in Fairfield County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Gray fox sightings continue to be rare in Midwest

July 18, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

On March 6, 2011, I wrote a column about red foxes. In conclusion, I issued a plea for fox sightings within the confines of Interstate 270. Fifty-one readers responded with reports.

If I did the same for the lesser known gray fox, the response would likely be… crickets.

While gray fox is poorly known among the general populace, it was easily the most common fox in Ohio prior to European settlement. Indeed, the well-known red fox may have been absent or rare. It is thought that reds began to colonize the Midwest from points north following the opening of the vast eastern deciduous forest.

Adaptable red foxes, which favor open and semi-open country, are now the common fox in Ohio. Heavy deforestation over much of the state reduced gray fox populations.

A big male gray fox tips the scales at 15-20 pounds. Vixens are about half that. The overall length is about three and a half feet, but one-third of that is bushy tail. Most striking is the rich parti-colored pelage. Gorgeous tones of silvery-gray, black, rufous and white form an elegant appearance. Small mammals are their principal prey but birds, large insects and even fruit and other plant matter are eaten.

Perhaps the most interesting behavioral aspect of gray foxes is their arboreal skills. It is the only member of the dog family that climbs well and does so habitually. Sometimes they will nap among the boughs, and there are rare records of dens in tree cavities – some as high as 20 feet! Most dens are ground burrows.

I have had some memorable experiences with gray foxes. Once, while working in southern Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest with a fellow botanist, a gray fox darted onto the forest road ahead of our car. It sized us up, then hotfooted it into a culvert under the road. We got out, looked into the pipe and there was the fox looking back.

Better yet was encountering an active den in the wilds of Athens County about 20 years ago. Five tiny kits, eyes barely open, tumbled and lolled at the entrance to their burrow. Suddenly they snapped to, looked at the burrow and stumbled back in. The vixen had apparently sent them a directive unheard by me.

Gray fox encounters have been rare for me in recent years. Thus, when Tom Sheley told me of a cooperative family group on his heavily wooded Fairfield County property, I begged a visit. Tom is founder and co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store on Sawmill Road in Columbus, and a veteran outdoorsman. He had figured out the foxes, and was able to direct me as to how to best encounter them. I captured my first photos of this furtive species, one of which accompanies this column.

While gray foxes rebounded somewhat from massive deforestation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they face new, poorly understood threats. The Appalachian Wildlife Research Institute (www.appalachian-wri.com) based in Athens has made the gray fox a priority project. Data shows a sharp decline over the past 25 years.

The Institute speculates that increased coyote competition and a spike in raccoon populations – raccoons transmit canine distemper - are primary ongoing factors in gray fox reductions. Further, there was a trapping run on fox in the early 1980’s due to high fur prices. Some 30,000 gray fox were harvested. The trapping run was about when coons and coyotes began to increase markedly and reduced fox populations may have been more vulnerable.

While fox recovery plans have yet to be forged, one obvious part of the equation lies in protecting large contiguous forests. Tom Sheley and wife Donna are doing their part. They recently added a sizable forested addition to their rural property, largely with fox conservation in mind.

Healthy forests should harbor gray foxes, and scores of other animal species.

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, July 15, 2021

Some King Skimmers

 

A while back, I posted about an epic dragonfly expedition undertaken by Jim Lemon and myself on June 29. That post focused on pennants, and you can read it HERE.

We saw far more than pennants on that brutally hot and muggy day, which is perfect weather for active dragons. One rarity in particular was our main objective and it follows. But we found another rare species as well, and that's in addition to the Double-ringed Pennant featured in the post linked above.

The little wetland above is in a far corner of Pike County, Ohio, and it's a notable place. More bog-like than cattail marsh, it is fed by constant groundwater seepages and is full of mosses. Walking in it calls for some caution, lest one suddenly find themselves waist deep in the mire. This whole area was highly disturbed by sand mining, and I suspect that the operation inadvertently enlarged naturally occurring sunny woodland seeps. Thus, there is - perhaps - even more dragonfly habitat than before. The wetland in the photo was just one of a number dotted through a fairly small area.

For now, mining has ceased in the area that we visited. If it were to resume, and on a large scale, the wetlands and the dragons that use them would likely have their fortunes reversed. Nature subsists tenuously wherever there is money to be made and the hand of man is strong. Thinking wishfully, this site would make an excellent state nature preserve, the first preserve with dragonfly conservation as a primary reason for its acquisition.

The large skimmers in the genus Libellula are exciting and conspicuous denizens of the wetlands that they occupy. They're big, quite dashing in flight, and prone to perching in obvious places. Shrinking violets they are not.

This is a Slaty Skimmer, Libellula incesta, sometimes referred to as the "Blueberry Skimmer" for obvious reasons. We saw many at this site.

Painted Skimmers, Libellula semifasciata, are absolutely striking. An ornate wing pattern complements soft golden-brown tones. This species is not particularly common but we saw several.

This was an unexpected treat: Golden-winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis! Apparently it had been found here a few days prior but really wasn't high on our minds - or at least mine - until I spotted it teed up on the edge of a wetland. It has only been found in six Ohio counties and three of those records are since 2018. The only prior semi-recent record was in 2008, found by Rick Nirschl in the Oak Openings near Toledo. Rick showed me those Golden-wings and I wrote about them HERE (you can also see how my photography has hopefully improved over time). In 2018, I found a Golden-wing of my own, as documented HERE.

Finally, the odonatological showpiece of these wetlands and the main reason for our trip: Yellow-sided Skimmer, Libellula flavida. This is one of the rarest regularly occurring and reproducing dragonflies in Ohio, if not the rarest. That's a female in the photo; this species is highly sexually dimorphic as we will see in the next image. In the background, like a mirror image, is a very similar species, a female Spangled Skimmer, Libellula cyanea. There were many Spangleds, but for some reason I did not manage any images of the males or tight shots of the females. I think there were so many subjects to focus on that they went ignored and that's saying something - normally I would prioritize flashy Spangled Skimmers.

And here is the male Yellow-sided Skimmer, which is quite different in appearance from the female. We were pleased to see many of them, maybe 20 in all.

But a couple dozen big dragonflies is really not many dragonflies at all when one considers that this is probably the only population of this state-endangered species persisting in Ohio.

Entomologist Tom Schulz found Ohio's first Yellow-sided Skimmer population in 1998 in a site less than 2.5 miles from this one, also in Pike County. Perhaps not coincidentally, that site has also experienced sand mining and the ecological composition of the wetland where the skimmers occurred is extremely similar. I say "occurred" because they may not be there anymore or if so, the population is reduced to nearly nothing. I know that site, having independently come across the Yellow-sided Skimmers while botanizing in the early 2000's. Now, vegetative succession has pretty much overrun most of the area eliminating much of the dragonfly fauna.

Fortunately, Nina Harfmann located the site featured in this post earlier this year, and it undoubtedly harbors more Yellow-sided Skimmers than the other site ever did. I don't think this species is a (relatively) recent arrival to Ohio, although a number of southern dragonflies and damselflies do seem to be actively expanding north. Southern Ohio is at the extreme northern limit of this species range, and it is a habitat specialist. I suspect small wooded seeps with sandy substrates (this is sandstone county) have long supported this dragonfly. There may be other small populations around, but probably not many as suitable habitat would not be common.

It was great to clap eyes on Yellow-sided Skimmers for the first time in nearly 20 years, and to see so many of the animals seemingly thriving at this site.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Shawnee Nature Safari - a superb conference! September 10-12, 2021

 

A typical autumnal scene in the nearly 70,000 acre Shawnee State Forest in Scioto County, Ohio, as photographed a few years ago. The forest is one of the most biodiverse locales in eastern North America,

The Midwest Native Plant Society, whose raison d'etre is to organize and run the Midwest Native Plant Conference (already sold out this year), also hosts one or two spur conferences annually. And this fall's event will be a doozy. It's been dubbed the Shawnee Nature Safari and will take place the weekend of September 10-12. Base camp is the wonderful Shawnee State Park Lodge nestled in the center of the state forest.

A major focus of this event, as is the case with all of our events, is to get people out in the field. We'll be doing that with the help of some of Ohio's most knowledgeable natural history experts. September in Shawnee is a great time for learning about fall flora, but all of those plants - some 1,000 native species in the forest! - drives animal life. Plenty of southbound migrant birds will be passing through, and butterflies should still be plentiful and diverse. But not as much as moths, the (mostly) nocturnal butterflies. We will make special efforts to lure them in at night, and will also engage in nighttime safaris looking for caterpillars.

There will be speakers each evening. I'll be talking about native flora, the caterpillars that eat them, and their role in the bigger picture of conservation on Friday night. On Saturday evening, conservation biologist Jack Stenger will give a program on promoting plants for biodiverse landscapes. And for those so inclined, I will lead an outdoors photography workshop (limited number of participants) on Sunday morning.

The event is already filling rapidly, but there is still space and we'd love to have you join us. For all of the details and registration information, just GO HERE.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Nature: Piping plover's nest offers hope for shorebirds' return

Nish, a male piping plover, incubates eggs in a protective enclosure at Maumee Bay State Park/Jim McCormac

Nature: Piping plover's nest offers hope for shorebirds return

Columbus Dispatch
July 4, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

UPDATE!: All four eggs hatched on July 1 (I submitted this column prior to that), and all four chicks are running around and in fine form as of this update (11:45 am, July 5).

Piping plovers are tiny, charismatic shorebirds. While closely related to the familiar killdeer, they are much smaller, weighing half as much as their burlier relative.

Beaches and piping plovers are inseparable. Piping plovers nest on beaches, winter on beaches, and rest and feed on beaches in migration. They even look like beach, with their upperparts colored like dry sand. A dark ring bisects the pale breast, and the legs and bill are orange-yellow.

Historically, piping plovers were common on beaches along the Atlantic seaboard from the Florida Keys north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. John James Audubon wrote this about them in the 1830’s:

“Their notes, which are so soft and mellow as to nearly resemble those of the sweetest songster in the forest, reach your ear long before you have espied the piping plover. …these sounds come from perhaps twenty different directions, and you are perplexed, as well as delighted.”

The first Ohio piping plover nest was found on June 26, 1903 at Cedar Point in Lucas County near Toledo, which is now part of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (this is NOT the amusement park site). William Dawson and James Hines, the discoverers, photographed the nest and published the details in Dawson’s book The Birds of Ohio, published that same year.

Over the next two decades, breeding plovers were found in five other Lake Erie counties: Ashtabula, Erie, Lake, Lorain, and Ottawa. At their peak in the mid 1920’s, an estimated 30 pairs of piping plovers bred along Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie. But the majority nested around Cedar Point.

By the mid 1930’s the population was waning. The last Ohio nesting record was of two pairs in 1942, at Cedar Point. As the decades went by, few ornithologists were optimistic that piping plovers would return to nest.

The bigger picture of Great Lakes piping plovers also became grim. By 1990, the population throughout the five lakes had dropped to about 13 pairs, this from a historical high of perhaps 800 pairs.

While periodic high water levels played a role in adversely affecting beach habitat, a much bigger factor is people. In 1903, when Dawson and Hines first found nesting plovers in Ohio, the state’s population was about 4 million people. Today, we are closing in on 12 million. The human population has grown similarly throughout much of the Great Lakes, and increased beach-going has displaced many piping plovers.

In 1986, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed piping plover as endangered, and the ensuing efforts to protect the species have borne fruit. The Great Lakes population has rebounded to around 70 pairs.

Thus, it was great news when local birder Warren Leow located a pair of piping plovers at Maumee Bay State Park in late May. He involved expert birder Paul Jacyk, who realized that the birds were commencing nesting activity. Jacyk notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Ohio Division of Wildlife, and efforts to safeguard the birds were soon afoot.

I visited Ohio’s celebrity piping plovers on June 10. The birds chose not to nest on the Lake Erie beach, but selected a sheltered artificial beach on a manmade lake just 300 feet inland from Lake Erie. This site is only two miles west of the former Cedar Point breeding epicenter.

The plover nest is surrounded by a large wire enclosure, which is standard protective protocol. The cage prevents predation of the eggs by gulls and other predators. Both plover parents were born in similar cages and are unfazed by the contraption. They easily slip through the mesh and come and go at will. The wildlife agencies also taped off a large section of beach, forbidding entry. Had they not, the nest wouldn’t have had a chance given the site’s popularity with beach-goers.

Nellie, the female, was born last year in Presque Isle, Pennsylvania. Nish, the male, was also born in 2020, but along Lake Michigan near Chicago. Both take turns with incubation duties.

The first egg was laid on May 31, and a few days later the clutch was complete with four eggs. They should have hatched by the time you read this, and the precocial chicks can walk within a few hours. Hopefully they will flourish, and become the first successful Ohio piping plover brood in over 80 years.

In addition to the wildlife agencies, much credit goes to the local Black Swamp Bird Observatory for organizing an army of volunteers to nest-watch. I met volunteers Julie Heitz and Jack Burris on site, and they and their counterparts ensure that the birds remain undisturbed. Jack has been there almost every day since the nest was found, often from 6 am to 10 pm. Without Jack, Julie and the others’ vigilance, the probability of a successful nesting would plummet.

A collective 100 grams of piping plovers has caused an outsized stir in the Ohio birding community. They send a message of hope, and recovery. Here’s to Nish and Nellie.

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.