Thursday, June 17, 2021

Blue-winged vs. Golden-winged warblers: An interesting conundrum


A male Blue-winged Warbler along the Black River in Cheboygan County, Michigan on May 19, 2021. I heard the bird singing, and eventually managed a documentary shot on this dark, rainy day.

I photographed this Blue-winged Warbler in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, which is in the northern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. While the species is old hat to those who live in the eastern U.S., south of Michigan, it's - for now - a rarity up here. In a dozen nearly consecutive years (missed last year - COVID) of intense natural history exploration up here, it is the first Blue-winged Warbler I have documented.

I'm not just missing them. The northern Lower Peninsula is at the northern limits - for now - of the southerly Blue-winged Warbler's distribution. eBird records remain sparse here, and most of them come from the last decade. Records will continue to increase, I am sure, and I am reasonably certain this will not be the last Blue-wing I encounter in this region.

While leading a group a few days after finding the Blue-wing, and only a few miles way from that spot, we encountered the bird above. It is a hybrid between the Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers, and this hybrid form, which expresses dominant genetic traits of both species, is known as the Brewster's Warbler (At least for now. There is a movement, misguided in my opinion, to do away with all eponymous bird names). I revisited this spot on May 28 and made this shot. The bird was singing a more or less Golden-winged Warbler song, although it frequently elided the last syllable. Lawrence's Warbler is the other typical hybrid form but it is far scarcer. I've only seen it once, long ago. This absolutely stunning form - lemon-yellow below, bluish-gray above, with chickadee-like black bib, and prominent ebony eyeline, apparently results mostly from pairings of second generation backcrosses. Brewster's hybrids express mostly dominant genetic traits of the parent species; Lawrence's expresses recessive traits.

Golden-winged Warblers are reasonably common up here. To show how easy to find they can be, after working with the aforementioned Brewster's Warbler, I drove a few miles north to an aspen-dominated reverting clearcut and found and photographed this apparently "pure" Golden-wing for a hot off the press comparison.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: I love trying to shoot "creative blur" songbird photos. This fellow sat on this Bigtooth Aspen branch for some time, singing and preening. When songbirds preen, they often interject short violent shakes of their wings, tail, and body. The photographer should be alert for this behavior. As long as the head and eye are in focus, the shake shot will work, and create an interesting pose. Badly done, "creative blur" is just synonymous for a poor photograph. Because of the ample sunlight streaming in over my shoulder, I was stopped down to f/8. Even though my shutter speed was 1/1000 (ISO 320), it still wasn't nearly fast enough to freeze the action and we see the wings and tail in an interesting blurred fluff. Had I been more on my game, I would have probably had the shutter speed down to 1/200, though.

I "fear" I am bearing witness to the beginning of the end of the Golden-winged Warbler in the northern Lower Peninsula. I don't really fear this, though, and am rather more fascinated by the biological process of genetic swamping by the Blue-winged Warbler. When these two "species" come into contact, the process of hybridization commences, with the upshot being that within a few decades all of the Golden-winged Warblers will be replaced by genetically dominant Blue-winged Warblers.

The likely explanation for the prolific hybridization is that the two entities have only recently come into contact with one another. As European settlers opened up the vast eastern deciduous forest, the clearing of the landscape abetted the northern expansion of the more southerly Blue-winged Warbler. As it increasingly came into contact with the northerly breeding Golden-wing, hybridization occurred resulting in the genetic swamping that seems to be increasingly common. In my state of Ohio, the Golden-wings were largely vanquished by the 1940's. About 75-80 years later, I am witnessing this same phenomenon nearly 300 miles to the north of Ohio's Oak Openings region near Toledo, where Ohio's most robust population of Golden-wings was historically documented.

Sharp students of natural history might ask "If they hybridize and produce fertile offspring, why are Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers separate species?" 

Great question.

"The Biological Species Concept defines a species taxon as a group of organisms that can successfully interbreed and produce fertile offspring. According to that concept, a species' integrity is maintained by interbreeding within a species as well as by reproductive barriers between organisms in different species." (lifted from

The BSC is the most common concept that defines species, although genetic analysis and the resultant data increasing play a role in drawing species lines. Genetic studies of these two warblers also do not bolster the case for separate species. They are 99.97% genetically similar. But morphology has apparently won the day, and the two are retained as separate species based primarily on their very different appearances.

WAY back in 1835, John James Audubon speculated that Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers were the same species. Indeed, it seems that they should be considered forms or subspecies of the same entity. It's possible a bit of politics enters into the decision to retain them as separate species. Can you imagine the hue and cry in the birding community if these two "species" were lumped into one?

Independent of the human obsession with sorting and pigeonholing organisms, and the problems sometimes encountered when doing so, I will continue to enjoy the unfolding drama of the Blue-winged/Golden-winged clash in northern Michigan. Personally, I do not see this as a conservation issue - certainly nothing approaching the true conservation concerns surrounding the nearby breeding Kirtland's Warbler. Rather it is a case of long-term (or maybe short-term!) evolution playing out its hand. The Blue-winged form holds primacy over the Golden-winged form, and who are we to say that this is bad? I suspect Nature knows better than we as to what this "species" needs to expand and flourish.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Cedar Waxwing


An adult Cedar Waxwing might be the epitome of feathered elegance. I photographed this one on June 8, at Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Backyard fawn, again!

Last year, I wrote about a White-tailed Deer fawn that I found in my backyard on May 23, shortly after its birth. You can see that post HERE, and two follow-up posts HERE and HERE.

Here we go again. I looked out into the back yard this morning, and there was this. The fawn had to have been born in the last 24 hours. It's tiny, and still has trouble walking. The doe is quite attentive and stays nearby. This scene is 15 feet from my sunroom windows, and probably the most sheltered part of the yard. It's the same area where last year's doe (same one?) spent much time with her infants.

A brief video of the newborn fawn in my backyard. It is just learning to walk, and is pretty gawky and uncoordinated. That will change fast. But now, it's amusing to watch the fawn get a burst of excitement, break into a clumsy gallop, get about eight feet, and lose all synchronicity between its legs and fall down. It then just lays there and dozes off. You can get a taste of that uncoordinated clumsiness in this video. Sorry for the poor quality - I was handholding and trying to stay out of sight of the doe. That lens isn't made for video, apparently, and clicks a bit. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the fawn bleat a few times.

If this goes like last year, they'll be a staple in the backyard. And in a few weeks, if she was successful in having a pair, she'll bring the other fawn into the yard and then there will be three.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Nature: Giant water bugs vicious when it comes to attacking prey


Jim McCormac's finger provides scale to a giant water bug/Jim McCormac

Nature: Giant water bugs vicious when it comes to attacking prey

Columbus Dispatch
June 6, 2021

Jim McCormac

Once one learns that mammoth insects sometimes called “toe biters” lurk in ponds, a person might be less inclined to wade bare-footed.

Formally known as the giant water bug, Lethocerus americanus, this insect is indeed intimidating. If looks could kill, an entomophobe might keel over on the spot.

Despite online videos overhyping the perils of the giant water bug, they’re fierce looking six-legged marshmallows. In fact, if handled or threatened, the bugs often freeze up and play dead. That’s not to say that caution isn’t warranted if handling one. They can pack a punch.

The giant water bug is a true bug in the order Hemiptera, and like many of its brethren it has a stiff tubular proboscis. If a person is foolish enough to get bit – which would normally entail goading the insect to defend itself – they’ll experience notable pain.

Giant water bugs frequent leaf litter and other plant detritus in the shallows of ponds and other water bodies. While the bug may be conspicuous when high and dry and exposed next to my finger, it’s virtually invisible in its aquatic haunts.

Woe to the lesser creature that happens by a lurking giant water bug. The prey is quickly ambushed by the bug, which swims it down in short order. Victims are seized by powerful forelegs, and the coup de grace is administered via the proboscis.

A chemical cocktail is injected which rapidly immobilizes the prey. Other agents quickly go to work, dissolving its innards. The giant water bug then sucks out the contents via its proboscis, like a grisly milkshake.

Admittedly this is a horrible fate by human standards, but fortunately the bugs cannot do us real harm. However, we can be grateful that giant water bugs are not truly giant, like the size of a lunker muskellunge. Then swimming would be an exercise fraught with peril. Kayakers would be capsized, seized, and reduced to dried husks, their bodies left afloat like gruesome buoys marking the presence of the terrors below.

While giant water bugs can’t kill people, they are a rare case of an invertebrate capable of killing vertebrates. Small fish and amphibians are regularly captured. Crustaceans too, and crayfish are often a dietary staple. Other insects make up the bulk of the prey, though.

Females lay around 100 eggs, and place them on underwater vegetation. The male guards them until hatching, ensuring their safety.

On April 13, John Howard and I were exploring a small lake deep in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. The waterbody was full of red-spotted newts and other interesting aquatic creatures. John saw a giant water bug jet from cover, drew his net like a quick-draw shooter and bagged the beast.

We found another, and were quite pleased with the finds. True to their generally passive demeanor, the bugs played dead while we manipulated them for photos. Once we had our fill of these fascinating creatures we released them back into the depths.

Like most bugs, giant water bugs are capable of flight and that’s how they disperse and colonize new sites. They can be attracted to lights, and occasionally turn up on walls by nightlights. Maybe, if you are really lucky, one will appear at your porch light.

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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

White-tailed Kite in Ohio!


A White-tailed Kite wafts by my position yesterday. Bernie Master and I headed over before the crack of dawn to see this great (for Ohio) rarity.

This is a species with a broad distribution, but normally nowhere near Ohio: Western states from Oregon through California, Mexico, Central America, and broad swaths of South America.

Ohio's first record came from Coshocton County in May 2020 but was not widely seen. It was discovered and well photographed by Ian Ruppenthal. I do not recall for sure, but I don't think anyone was able to relocate that bird.

This bird was discovered in Harrison County on May 31 by Mary Grey and Larry Helgerman, has since been seen by scores of people, and is still present. One must wonder if it is the same bird as the 2020 sighting, as the two records are not far apart and both in similar reclaimed stripmine habitat. Perhaps Ian's 2020 bird ventured to this spot last year, and avoided detection. The two sites are only about 50 miles apart - nothing for a bird with the flying ability of a White-tailed Kite.

This species can be a nomad, and there are a number of records from eastern states. It'll be interesting to see how long it sticks.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Nature: Brood X will bring out black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos who feast on cicadas


A black-billed cuckoo in northern Michigan, where it is common/Jim McCormac

Nature: Brood X will bring out black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos who feast on cicadas

Jim McCormac

In my last column, I wrote about the impending eruption of Brood X 17-year cicadas. They’re in full cacophonous swing now. If you live in an emergence area, you know. Depending on one’s outlook, the cicadas are annoying pests or a rare opportunity to witness one of nature’s greatest entomological spectacles.

The black-billed cuckoo would take the latter viewpoint. Cuckoos are voracious cicada predators and take full advantage of emergences such as Brood X.

Cuckoos are fascinating and poorly understood birds. Two species occur in Ohio: the aforementioned black-billed cuckoo, and the more common and wide-ranging yellow-billed cuckoo. Although they look like songbirds, cuckoos do not belong to the giant order Passeriformes, which includes songbirds. They are much more closely related to owls.

While yellow-billed cuckoos nest commonly statewide, black-billeds are most frequent in the northern third of the state, but even there are outnumbered by the former.

Brood X should turn that distribution and abundance status on its ear this year. Black-billed cuckoos — yellow-billeds, too — converge on cicada emergences in big numbers. It’s as if the birds have their own Nextdoor app to clue them in. The mechanisms that allow them to locate cicada emergences is not understood.

One would think that a bird that’s bigger than a robin would be easy to study. Not so. Cuckoos are quite secretive and given to skulking in dense vegetation. Their loud, distinctive calls are often the only evidence of their presence.

Even at the late spring date of this column, cuckoos are still arriving. They have a long trip to get here. Black-billed cuckoos winter in western South America, from Colombia south into Peru. Next to nothing is known of cuckoos in their tropical haunts.

In 2016, when periodic cicada Brood V emerged over much of eastern Ohio, I was stunned at cuckoo numbers. It seemed that everywhere I stopped, cuckoos of both species would be calling. In areas where the black-billed cuckoo would normally be unusual, they were commonplace.

Billions of easily captured, six-legged flying steaks make for easy pickings, and small wonder cuckoos capitalize on the bounty. They are well-known for exploiting caterpillar outbreaks, too, and when food is plentiful breeding success spikes.

Food outbreaks can trigger an unusual behavior in cuckoo reproduction: brood parasitism. Ample nutrition allows female cuckoos to produce an excess of eggs. They’ll dump some in other birds’ nests, in the hopes that the unwitting hosts will raise the cuckoos. Host species include American robin, chipping sparrow and gray catbird. Sometimes even yellow-billed cuckoos fall victim.

Our cuckoos seemed to have evolved with insect booms, especially those of caterpillars and cicadas. Feathered nomads, they congregate where the outbreaks occur. Unfortunately, natural insect cycles are not what they used to be.

Naturalists described “flocks” of cuckoos descending on insect emergences in the late 1800s. No one sees such numbers these days — there are far fewer cuckoos. Ill-devised “pest” management and massive alterations to forested habitats have wrought havoc on natural insect cycles, including periodic cicadas. The animals that evolved to exploit these booms, thus providing natural controls, have also been greatly reduced in number.

But for cuckoos in the Brood X zone there will be food aplenty, and hopefully scores of little cuckoos will result.

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

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Kirtland's Warbler forages in Jack Pine

A Kirtland's Warbler forages in a Jack Pine. The relationship between the bird and tree is intimate. They only breed in near monocultures of the pine, and only pines between 5 and 20 years of age, or thereabouts. Small cherries and oaks are scattered about, and the birds will often use those as singing perches, and will also hunt caterpillars in them. The "Jack Pine Warbler" is doing well, with about 2,300 pairs, nearly all of which breed in the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, where I made this photo while scouting prior to the arrival of groups that I would be leading. The date was May 19.

In the late 1970's-early 1980's their collective population dipped below 200 pairs and doom seemed to be on the horizon. So, the current 5,000 or so birds may not seem like many but compared to four decades ago it's a bonanza. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service deserves kudos for implementing major management activities that have greatly benefitted the birds.

Kirtland's Warblers can be quite tame, and in the past I have had them approach within a few feet of me when laying on the ground observing them. One memorable bird came so near I was sure it was going to hop onto my leg, and its loud boisterous song practically hurt my ears.

I've led tours up here for about 12 of the last 13 years (Covid scrubbed last year) in conjunction with NettieBay Lodge. This morning, we were back in the elfin Jack Pine forests bright and early, Kirtland's Warblers singing all around. This group is keenly interested in botany, and we found ourselves looking at a sedge at one point. I saw a movement to the side, glanced over and there was a gorgeous male Kirtland's Warbler only 10-12 feet away in a small oak. Needless to say, we got good looks. Just prior to that, we had stopped at a clearcut in an early stage of succession, enjoying a cooperative Mourning Warbler. On the breeding grounds, they are not the shrinking violets that they tend to be in migration, and males will often tee up on conspicuous perches where they'll sometimes sing for five minutes or more at a time.

At that same spot was a Blue-winged Warbler, the second one that I've found since being up here on the current trip. And these are the first of this species that I've found up here in twelve years of fairly intense exploration during the breeding season. There are somewhat ominous overtones to the arrival of these Blue-winged Warblers, and I will try to write about that later.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Bastard Toadflax


Among the first wave of spring wildflowers in northern Michigan is this, the interesting Bastard Toadflax, Comandra umbellata. I made this shot last Thursday, just as the plants were coming into bloom.

I'm up in Presque Isle County at NettieBay Lodge, where I've spent a chunk of 12 of the last 13 Mays. I lead groups around, primarily looking for birds, and we roam from the sere elfin Jack Pine forests in the west of the county, to the world's 5th largest freshwater lake, Lake Huron, on the east side of the county. Our first group came in Thursday afternoon, and we've already eclipsed 100 species of birds. Quality time has been spent with Brewer's Blackbirds, Black-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, Golden-winged Warbler and much more.

But we pause to view the flora, which is near impossible to ignore. The little toadflax is an interesting member of the Sandalwood Family (Santalaceae), and this largely tropical group is represented in Michigan by only three species. One is a true parasite, a dwarf mistletoe that grows mostly on Black Spruce. The other is a hemiparasite - it derives partial nutrition from surrounding plants by tapping into their roots via specialized rootlets known as haustoria.

The Bastard Toadflax is also a hemiparasite and the sponging element of its life style may account for its odd common name. I've done a bit of shooting, and will do a bit more before leaving, and will post up some cool (I think) stuff later.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Nature: Brood X cicada emergence an entomological 17-year wonder


Periodical cicada, Magicicada septemdecim/Jim McCormac

Nature: Brood X cicada emergence an entomological 17-year wonder

Columbus Dispatch
May 16, 2021

Jim McCormac

About now, an insect army of epic scale is emerging from the earth. The periodical cicada Brood X has spent the past 17 years out of sight and mind. If you are so fortunate as to live in or visit one of their emergence areas, you won’t miss them.

After nearly two decades spent munching on tree roots, these fascinating insects will bust out and have their day in the sun. And a noisy entomological party it will be.

The first signs of the impending invasion is legions of dime-sized holes in the soil over tree roots. Then the cicada larvae craft short earthen chimneys around the exit holes, from which they soon emerge.

A cicada larva, or nymph, looks like something that just took a 17-year dirt nap. It’s the color of dried mud and looks like a giant zombified honey bee. Emergence usually happens under cover of darkness, and the nymphs promptly climb short distances up trees or other vertical objects.

Once firmly ensconced on a perch, an amazing process known as ecdysis occurs. The larval skin is shed, and out comes the beautiful adult that you see in the accompanying photo. The bug quickly hardens and is ready to fly the next day.

Then comes the fun. Males waste little time in tuning up their timbals — the drum-like sound-making organs in their abdomen. A singer produces a song that sounds like a foghorn amplified through a stack of Marshall amps: WOOEE-AWW! WOOEE-AWW! Countless thousands going simultaneously is deafening.

Three species of 17-year cicadas comprise Brood X, but Magicicada septemdecim is most numerous and its song the most prominent of the chorus.

Once the male has worked its aural magic, enticed a female and mated, she uses her sharp ovipositor to lay eggs in the wood of tree twigs. This process can kill branch tips, and dead leaf “flagging” is a giveaway that it’s a cicada egg site. No permanent damage occurs to the host tree, though. After about eight weeks, the nymphs drop to the ground, dig in and start the long cycle anew.

Brood X occurs in a patchy distribution in most states east of the Mississippi River. Billions of bugs comprise the hatch — so overwhelming in numbers are the cicadas that one must ask: Why?!

Periodical cicada reproduction is a classic predator satiation strategy. Such carpet-bombing reproduction ensures cicadas survive the predatorial gauntlet. Critters great and small snap them up until they can eat no more. Birds of all kinds, mice, raccoons, opossums, your dog — if a critter can wolf down one of these thumb-sized protein packets, it will. Even cicadas that fall in water are gobbled up by fish, frogs and turtles.

Adventurous human foodies nosh on cicadas. I’m told they are best when freshly emerged, and have a nutty flavor.

Notable among the bird-cicada relationships are cuckoos and kites. Both black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos will converge on cicada emergences to exploit the bounty. In such years, cuckoos can produce more eggs than they can care for and will engage in nest parasitism — females dump excessive eggs in other birds’ nests.

Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites are aerobatic insect-eating raptors. They also can appear in numbers during cicada hatches.

Rather than view the Brood X cicada emergence as an annoyance, try looking at it as a rare opportunity to see one of nature’s great spectacles. After all, you’ll have to wait until 2038 to see this brood in action again.

A good spot for cicada study should be Battelle Darby Metro Park. In addition to Franklin County, cicadas should appear in Defiance, Greene, Hamilton, Logan, Montgomery and probably adjacent counties.

We’re fortunate to have the foremost cicada researcher anywhere here in Ohio. Gene Kritsky is a professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. To get the complete scoop on Brood X, and lots of interesting cicada information, get Gene’s book, "Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X edition."

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

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Golden-winged Warbler serendipity


A stunning male Golden-winged Warbler perches in a horseshoe-shaped twig - the best perch in an otherwise cluttered scene.

Last Tuesday, I traveled to Hocking County (Ohio) to meet with Cathy and Paul Knoop about a writing project that Paul wants to take on. It was a great visit capped by a hike around the Knoop's 70-acre property. We saw a bonanza of biodiversity, and maybe I will get around to posting a few especially notable finds later.

I went down really early, to photograph birds beforehand. One of my quick stops was Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve. I wheeled into the parking lot, not intending to spend much time, and soon saw a few White-crowned Sparrows. I love these dapper, well-dressed sparrows so out came the photo rig. As soon as I had the camera and lens ready for action, a Golden-winged Warbler sang once, from dense cover. A bit of pishing got him to pop from cover, and he gave me a few shots as above, before resuming active foraging. One shot I missed, that would have been awesome, was of the bird doing its acrobatic chickadee-like foraging: hanging upside down from leaf petioles while probing into leaf clusters. Just wasn't quick enough on the draw.

It's always good to actually clap eyes on this species, to ensure that the bird isn't a hybrid. This bird is not, but both Brewster's Warbler and Lawrence's Warbler can sing songs similar to the parent species. Blue-winged Warbler is the other parent. Brewster's is the more frequent of the hybrids, and I've seen it a number of times. The Lawrence's Warbler - which expresses recessive traits of the Blue-winged Warbler and is utterly stunning - would be the grand prize. I've only seen one, and that was many years ago, before I was into photography.

This has been a grand spring for the rare Golden-winged Warbler. Probably a few dozen reports have come from Ohio, the most I can recall since I don't know when. That's good news. Of the 38 species of warblers breeding in eastern North America, this is the third rarest, eclipsed only by the Kirtland's and Swainson's warblers.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Eastern Cottontail courtship dance

This jumbo Eastern Cottontail hangs out in my yard, along with another. I like rabbits, and they're welcome here. Even when they nip off plants I'd rather wish they wouldn't.

Anyway, I looked into the backyard this morning, and there was one of the cottontails browsing on vegetation. An instant later, the other rabbit - probably the male - dashed into view. He struck me as full of amorous intent, and I ran to get the camera.

The lens I happened to have already mounted was my 100mm macro, and that's what this video was shot with. Fortunately, the rabbits were not far off, and I shot them through the bathroom window. Not the cleanest landscape I could hope for, but the bunny hijinks are on full display.

To start the games, the male ordinarily approaches the female to within a few feet. They sit still as statues for a bit, then he lunges and she leaps straight up and he races underneath her. They usually land facing one another, and repeat the jump game although often alternating which sex does the jumping. Many other jumps, brief dashes, and other rabbit gymnastics take place and it is quite the spectacle.

After a bit, one of the rabbits slipped off and I thought the display was over. But it returned in short order and fortunately I had retrieved my larger 300mm lens in the interim. This video shows their final courtship interaction, ending with her (no doubt) leaping into the dense growth. He then stands on his back paws, as if trying to ascertain the doe's position. A minute after I stopped recording, he also leapt into the plants, in the same spot. As the courtship dance often immediately precedes mating, I imagine some fun was had in those day lilies and daffodils. If I had only got that on video!

This dance is part of the important build-up to making baby bunnies. I've only witnessed it a handful of times, and I think all but once it was in the very early morning. The other time was at dusk, when it was almost too dark to observe. Perhaps the rabbits do much of their courting under cover of darkness and that's why we don't often see the spectacular display. If you do see strange saltatorial rabbit behavior, now you'll know what's going on.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Great Blue Heron, with ornamental plumes


A Great Blue Heron, a very common wading bird and a species all of us are undoubtedly familiar with.

It's never productive to get jaded to common birds, though, as many birders seem to. For a relatively brief period in spring, during breeding season, Great Blue Herons grow spectacular ornamental plumes. The effect is quite astonishing when seen well. A bit over a century ago, the ornamental plumes of egrets and herons were so coveted by the millinery trade that shooters nearly extinguished some egret species, and did great damage to populations of herons such as the Great Blue Heron. All, or primarily so, for adornments for women's hats. The National Audubon Society formed over efforts to protect wading birds from wanton shooting for utterly frivolous purposes. You can read a brief history of that story RIGHT HERE.

I stumbled across this bird sitting on a dock in late afternoon light last Friday in Lucas County (Ohio), along Lake Erie. It was irresistible to spend some photographic time with the gorgeous bird, trying to capture those elegant plumes. The nuptial plumes are of three types, all visible here. The black pin plumes projecting from the back of the head are called occipital plumes. The soft plumes on the wings are known as scapular plumes. And the elegant wispy plumes that form a beard of sorts on the heron's breast are pectoral plumes.

The Great Blue Heron was a spark bird for many birders, myself included. If you're interested, you can find my brief essay about "Modern Day Pterodactyls" and their influence on me as a boy RIGHT HERE.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Northern Waterthrush tosses leaf

A Northern Waterthrush watches a leaf that it tossed high into the air. These aquatic warblers often forage in shallow water, flipping and tossing leaves and seizing prey hiding underneath. Many were moving through northern Ohio yesterday, on their way to points north from tropical wintering grounds.

The song of the Northern Waterthrush is surprisingly loud and reverberating, so much so that - like the Tennessee Warbler - even people only casually interested in birds will inquire as to the song's origin. Despite their robust vocalizations, these warblers can be hard to spot in the densely vegetated wet haunts that they frequent. This one was along the margins of a swamp along the famed Magee Marsh Bird Trail in Lucas County, Ohio, yesterday.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Lady's-slippers in a spring forest

Recent spring rains created swollen streams in Shawnee State Forest (Ohio) yesterday morning. I was down there early to meet John Howard and Cheryl Carpenter for a bit of "fishing". We were going to work these streams for various dace, darters and minnows for photography, but decided to defer that until lower water prevails.

Instead, we switched gears and went botanizing. The weather was perfect for plant photography. Overcast skies, and the previous night's rain had persisted into the morning, so everything was dripping with water and colors were richly saturated. For the most part, sunny skies (and wind!) are your enemy when shooting plants.

Plant subjects were plentiful - Shawnee hosts some 1,000 species of native plants - and we quickly immersed ourselves in finding rarities, and seeing lots of more common spring flowers along the way. I photographed far more subjects than I could ever post here, so I'll showcase some of the coolest plants in the eastern deciduous forest (and beyond): lady's-slippers.

A pair of stately Large Yellow Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium parviflorum, just perfect for photography. These are not especially common in Shawnee, although they are widely scattered throughout the forest and might be encountered almost anywhere.

A glance at the flowers reveals the source of the common name. Bumblebees often serve as pollinators. The gorgeous yellow blossoms are subtended by interesting twisted reddish sepals, and the overall effect is stunning.

Decidedly more common than the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper and sometimes forming sizable colonies is the Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. This dry ridgetop woodland was dotted with plants, creating a spectacular, slightly surreal vision.

The scientific name's specific epithet, acaule, refers to its growth habit. The stems are leafless, capped only by the terminal flower. Leafless stemmed plants are called acaulescent. Scroll back to the Large Yellow Lady's-slipper photos for an example of a caulescent, or leafy stemmed, plant.

A freshly emerged Pink Lady's-slipper flower, not yet fully developed and wet with rain.

But hey! What is this? I was excited to see not one, but two specimens of the white-flowered form of Pink Lady's-slipper. The snowy-white flowers are truly amazing, and arguably showier than the typical pink-flowered type. This variant has been named forma albiflorum, and it is quite rare.

Forma albiflorum, standing tall.

I never divulge rare orchid locations (or most ANY orchid locale), because the human desire to possess exotic things sometimes overrides ethics. A plant such as this could be a sitting duck if its spot were widely known. A sad fact about orchid poaching is that few if any of the purloined plants will survive. Orchids are exceptionally particular in regards to micro-niches, and much of their finicky nature regards specialized fungi. Plant them in the garden and you have doomed these elegant plants. They belong in the forests where they naturally occur.

Some years back, a perhaps well-intentioned person foolishly wrote a letter to the local paper extolling the virtues of the forest and its lady's-slippers. The writer encouraged people to go see them and listed specific locations.

A botanical slaughter ensued. Many plants were dug, and we can be sure that all soon died. One site that I knew of with dozens of pink slippers was decimated and has not come close to approaching its former grandeur, years later.

Cypripedium acaule, forma albiflorum, botanical magic.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants

A female ruby-throated hummingbird taps nectar from a royal catchfly/Jim McCormac

Nature: To fuel hummingbirds, think native plants

Jim McCormac

By the time you read this, “your” hummingbirds may have returned. Or maybe you belong to them. Common is the story of newly arrived hummingbirds hovering in front of windows, angrily chittering if their feeders have not yet been hung. Hummers have long memories. The slothful homeowner is shamed into rushing out with the sprite’s supply of sugar water.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin returning from tropical wintering haunts in the third week of April, and have recolonized Ohio by mid-May. These 3-gram elfins mostly winter from western Mexico south to Panama.

In an epic migration, many ruby-throated hummingbirds travel across the Gulf of Mexico. This nonstop water crossing is nearly 600 miles. Once the hummers make landfall along the Gulf coast, they’ve still got 750 miles to go to reach your Central Ohio yard.

Males precede females by a week or so, and quickly stake claims to suitable territories. When females arrive, amorous males begin a spectacular courtship. The Lilliput flares his colorful throat feathers, and launches into his dive display.

Like a feathered meteor, the male streaks earthward from on high creating a loud buzzing with its wings. At the bottom of its arcing parabola, which might be 50 feet below the starting point, the hummer pulls out and shoots skyward. The showoff might continue this incredible aerial display repeatedly.

Once a female expresses interest by perching nearby, the male zooms over and commences zipping side to side at insane speed, often within 2-3 of her.

If she is suitably impressed, they mate.

And so ends the male’s role in this relationship. He abandons the territory he had staked, and helps not a whit with nest construction, egg incubation, or care of the young. Once the avian lothario’s spectacular but brief fling is over, it’s back to a carefree lifestyle among the flowers.

The much more responsible female crafts an amazing golf ball-sized nest from plant down, binding it with spider silk, and shingles the exterior with lichens. Two eggs the size of jelly beans are laid.

After the impossibly tiny chicks hatch, she works tirelessly to feed them a mixture of nectar and insect soup. The female sticks her long bill deep down the baby’s gullet, and pumps in the nutritious gruel.

When she isn’t out foraging for food, the hummingbird broods her charges. A harder working bird you will not find.

About three weeks after hatching, the young hummers depart the nest. The female will continue to feed them for perhaps a week, but then it’s time to go solo. The youngsters have much street savvy to accumulate before jetting off to the tropics for the winter.

While feeding hummingbirds with sugar water (one part sugar, four parts water) is rewarding for all parties, there is a much better way to help them.

Grow native plants.

Hummingbirds have a long co-evolutionary history with our flora. The female in the accompanying photo is tapping nectar from a royal catchfly. Hummingbirds are likely the only suitable pollinator for that gorgeous prairie plant.

Some showy hummer-friendly native plants for the yardscape include bee-balm, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, fire pink, Ohio buckeye, both spotted and yellow jewelweed, trumpet creeper, wild columbine, and the aforementioned royal catchfly.

Help a hummingbird and add some native plants to the yard. Two excellent native plant nurseries in Central Ohio are Natives in Harmony ( and Scioto Gardens ( The Midwest Native Plant Society has a wealth of helpful information (

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

Friday, April 30, 2021

Thrushes everywhere!


A Swainson's Thrush perches on a spruce bough, in a driving drizzle.

I had a meeting near Columbus's fabulous Green Lawn Cemetery this morning, and following that headed over to the cemetery to see what birds might be found. The cemetery's 360 acres is a magnet for migratory birds, especially given its position in a very urbanized landscape.

Today dawned with heavy clouds and intermittent showers. By the time I reached Green Lawn, the rain had become steady, ranging from mild drizzle to hard showers and precipitation fell the entire time that I was there.

It didn't take long to realize that the thrushes must have really been on the move the night before, and scores had decided to use the cemetery's lush grounds as a way station. Swainson's Thrush was most common, and many were feeding in the grass like robins. Some would flush as I drove by, hopping atop headstones.

A wet Veery, on a wet rock, in a very wet patch of woods.

After birding around for a bit, I decided I wanted to try and photograph birds in the rain. Keeping one's gear dry can be an issue, but not when there is a convenient bridge in the middle of some of the cemetery's best habitat. The bridge is out of service, and the gravel lane underneath it is no longer accessible to vehicles. So I made a dash for it, and got me and my rig under the cover of the bridge.

And there I stayed for an hour or so, while it rained on. While a Hooded Warbler - and better yet, a Kentucky Warbler - were bonuses, it was the thrush parade that mostly captivated me. Perhaps a few dozen Swainson's Thrushes were in the vicinity, and I was pleased to see two Gray-cheeked Thrushes. Several Wood Thrushes were nearby, as were a few Veery.

All of them would make regular forays onto the gravel lane, allowing for easy viewing, sometimes at close range as with the Veery in the photo above.

A Hermit Thrush takes a bath just a short distance from my post. He must have figured it wasn't possible to get any wetter, so why not take a dunk. At least half a dozen Hermits were still present. It is the earliest migrant of our speckle-bellied thrushes, and many have already passed through. We at or near peak migration for the other speckle-bellies. I would have loved to have photographed one of the Gray-cheeked or Wood Thrushes, but alas, none came into range.

Here is a short video of a Hermit Thrush that perched near me. Make sure your volume is up, to get the full aural sensation of the rain falling.

Sometimes people ask me: "What do birds do when it rains?"

Pretty much this. They get wet. Don't feel sorry for them, though. Feathers are remarkable objects, and the outer feathers are basically overlapping shingles that prevent water from percolating down to the bird's skin. These thrushes and other songbirds can easily ride out rainstorms such as we had in Central Ohio today.

Monday, April 26, 2021

American Goldfinch, eating elm samaras


I got out for a few hours this morning to shoot birds, and visited a decent little local patch in Delaware County along the Scioto River. The American Goldfinches were conspicuous, and the males had mostly molted into their handsome yellow summer coats.

These males fairly bubbled over with song as they enthusiastically gamboled about, singing on the wing and from perches. I kept half an eye on them as I pursued various other quarry, and was pleased when this chap alit near the top of an American Elm sapling. In between bouts of song, he would pluck elm samaras (seeds) and crunch them down.

I quickly panned the camera to the goldfinch in the hopes of documenting not only one of our most beautiful birds, but to catch him in the act of samara-eating. And here he is, having just plucked one.

American Goldfinches are probably the closest thing to a feathered vegan in our neck of the woods. They will opportunistically take the occasional insect, but the overwhelming majority of their diet is vegetable matter. Even the nestlings are fed a regurgitated semi-glutinous gruel of partially digested plant matter.

Even though Brown-headed Cowbirds regularly parasitize goldfinch nests, the cowbirds chicks usually perish within three days. This near 100% mortality rate is apparently due to the lack of protein in the goldfinch's plant-based diet. Cowbird chicks, and those of nearly all of our songbirds, require ample protein in the form of insect-based diets.

Not so the interesting American Goldfinch, which bucks the dominant songbird dietary paradigm.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Shooting-star erupts!


Without doubt one of our showiest spring wildflowers is Shooting-star, Dodecatheon meadia. This limestone cliff summit was fringed with many plants.

I made a morning foray down to Miller Nature Sanctuary in Highland County, Ohio, along with my brother Mike and his wife Patrice. This 85-acre site is exceptionally rich in wildflowers, and the cast of botanical characters is headlined by the gorgeous Shooting-stars, which are frequent there.

TAXONOMIC NOTE: Work done in 2007 shifted plants in the genus Dodecatheon to genus Primula. This seems reasonable and if adopted the species featured in this blog post would be addressed as Primula meadia. However, as virtually all references to this plant refer to Dodecatheon, I retain that name for this post.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: I recently got a Canon 6D II, and all of these shots were made with that camera. It replaced my 5DSR, which I had had for some time and pretty much burned up with several hundred thousand shots over the years. Part of the reason for choosing the 6D is it is the only Canon full-frame camera with an articulating back screen. Having the ability to fold the screen out makes seeing the subject much easier when the camera is placed near the ground or in other awkward places. I've had ample opportunity to work with it, and love the camera and its image quality. It's a big jump in evolution from the original 6D.

Three of the four images in this post were shot with Canon's superb 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens. Over the last several years, I've come to increasingly rely on this lens for plant photography. It imparts a wonderful bokeh (background blur), and the zoom allows easy versatility in composition. I often use the lens in conjunction with a 25mm extension tube, which reduces its minimum focus distance. The last shot was made with the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II ultra-wide angle lens. It too can be incredibly useful for plant photography. When using a wide-angle for flora shots, it's important to get some anchor subject REALLY close to the lens as a focal point for the entry into the image. The nearest shooting-star flowers in that last image are only a few inches from the camera lens.

Shooting-star is not a common plant in Ohio, but populations have been found in 24 counties. Many of those records are old and the populations long gone, though. Because of its fidelity to a narrow habitat niche, Shooting-star populations tend to be widely scattered and local.

One great thing about the Shooting-stars at Miller is that many or most of the flowers are of this exquisite rose-purple form. In many areas the flowers are white. Those look good too, but definitely lack the panache of the purplish flowers. Whatever their color, the flowers are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, using "buzz pollination". By rapidly vibrating their thoracic muscles, the bees cause the pollen to fall from the flowers and onto the bee.

A Shooting-star colony forms a ring around the trunk of an oak. Some pure white flowers are mixed in. I wonder if arboreal ants hauled the tiny seeds to a nest in the tree, resulting in this formation. Generally wind is the accepted seed dispersal mechanism. Gusts can blow the seeds some distance from the capsules. But ants also play an enormous role in seed dispersal of many spring wildflowers, and may assist in the migration of this species as well.

This colony is right along the main hiking trail at Miller Nature Sanctuary and cannot be missed. It is in a classic situation for many Ohio populations of this species: thin soil over limestone bedrock. A small limestone cliff shelters the population.

The Shooting-star was not quite peak this morning, and should be looking fine for another week or so. It's well worth the trip to see it. Scads of other wildflowers as well. I think we jotted down the names of several dozen species that we observed.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Earth Day spider: Bold Jumper


A Bold Jumping Spider, Phidippus audax, gazes at the photographer from atop a showy perch of Grape Hyacinth flowers. Its belay line can be seen among the flowers to the right. If threatened, the spider will leap into space, using the line to arrest its free-fall.

I caught the little fellow inside my Jeep while cleaning it the other day, and retained him for photos. These are fantastic little spiders, and often common around dwellings. They are loaded with charisma, and will carefully watch people, shifting position to better keep an eye(s) on us. I went out back and plucked a sprig of Grape Hyacinth, thinking it might make a showy contrast to the spider. After coaxing it onto my finger tip, I placed it on the flower stem, figuring it would climb upwards, which it did. After summiting, the little jumper spent some time taking in the view from its lofty vantage point. It turned and paused, turned and paused, looking in all directions, all the while allowing me some shots. The Canon 6D II, 100mm macro lens, and Canon Twin-Lite flashes did a fine job of capturing the arachnid.

After the photo shoot, I liberated the spider into my sunroom, where I regularly find jumpers. It's too cold to release him outside, with nighttime temps plummeting into the 30's of late. Not that it wouldn't survive that, but I thought I'd give him a break.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Nature: In a 24-hour period, 18 species of amphibians were documented during a recent search

A red eft clambers over downy rattlesnake-plantain  orchid leaves/Jim McCormac

Nature: In a 24-hour period, 18 species of amphibians were documented during a recent search

Columbus Dispatch
April 18, 2021
Jim McCormac

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog…
--William Shakespeare

On March 30, along with friends John Howard and Kelly Capuzzi, I embarked on what many might consider an odd quest: finding as many amphibian species as possible in 24 hours.

I couldn’t have had better partners. Kelly is an aquatic biologist, energetic afield, with intense curiosity about natural history. John lives in Adams County and is a walking encyclopedia of flora and fauna. I have mentioned him in numerous previous columns.

A day passes quickly and we had to focus on the most amphibian-rich region of the state. This was a no-brainer: Adams County, with forays into adjacent Brown and Scioto counties.

Thirty-seven species of frogs, toads, and salamanders have been recorded in Ohio. It would be impossible to find them all in a day, due to geographic separation. But our region allowed the possibility of locating 32 species.

We convened at Howard’s house, and at 11 am set out on what would be a whirlwind 24 hours of amphibianizing.

Our first stop was an isolated hollow in Adams County where we turned up northern dusky and slimy salamanders. The latter is well-named. Its skin exudes super glue-like secretions to deter predators. Wood frog eggs in a small pool added to the list.

Working remote Adams County haunts produced America toads and pools with singing mountain chorus frogs. John knew a vernal pool that yielded Jefferson and spotted salamander egg masses, along with tough to find four-toed salamanders. Red-spotted newts added to the mix.

Dredging through the mire of a Scioto County spring yielded a couple of red salamanders and our first green frog. Salamander-seeking in particular is slow hard work that requires looking under numerous logs and rocks.

We returned to Howard’s house around 9 pm, and drummed up some marbled salamanders in his pond. Following a well-deserved meal, we took a brief nap and headed back out at 1 am.

While the day’s weather had been mostly sunny and in the 70’s, what we really hoped for rolled in that night: rain. Warm wet nights in spring really get the amphibians moving as they seek mates or migrate to breeding sites.

Cruising backwoods lanes in Scioto County offered up scads of amphibians, including hundreds of America toads, pickerel frogs, spring peepers, our first bullfrog, and many others. We moved plenty off the roads. Roaming amphibians are frequently flattened by vehicles.

About 4 am, we decided to head to a large marsh in Brown County. That was a good decision as we netted northern leopard frog and western chorus frog.

At 11 am, our 24 hours was up. The last amphibian found was a red eft – the larval form of the red-spotted newt – pictured with this column. We had spent 21 hours afield, and found 18 species. Nineteen, if we counted a ravine salamander that Howard had found a few days prior and temporarily detained.

We plan on doing this next spring, and think with minor tweaks we will eclipse 20 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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Snowberry Clearwing


I was pleased to encounter this Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis, atop a Wild Ginger leaf this morning. The "hummingbird moth" must have been busy, judging by all the pollen stuck to its proboscis and legs.

The moth was in a botanical paradise; a site along Big Darby Creek in Pickaway County. It was recently acquired by the Appalachia Ohio Alliance, a conservation group that has done amazing things in its relatively short existence.

Wildflowers abounded, and I put my camera through its paces. The highlight is scores of Drooping Trillium, Trillium flexipes, a species that tends to be scattered and local. I hunted for the scarce maroon-colored flower form, with no luck. But typical creamy-white flowers should make anyone happy, me included.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Giant Water Bug

A Giant Water Bug, Lethocerus americanus, in repose. This incredible bug is well-named, as we shall see.

John Howard, I and a few others were poking around a small reservoir deep in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, yesterday. We were admiring many Red-spotted Newts swimming about in the clear water like fish, when John exclaimed "Toe-biter!" The colorful name is a colloquialism for the larger species of water bugs, and it does look like they could put a serious clamp on one's tootsies.

Your narrator's finger provides scale to the Giant Water Bug. They can stretch 3-4 inches. GWB's, as they're known (at least now), are voracious predators. Much of their time is spent hiding among dead leaves in the shallows, awaiting potential prey. If something tasty happens by, the big bug springs to life and rapidly swims down the victim, seizing it with those formidable forelegs.

The soon to be meal is pierced with a syringe-like proboscis, and various compounds are injected which debilitate the victim and turn its innards to mush. The contents are then sucked back through the proboscis; a homicidal maniac's milkshake.

While this big bug can inflict a painful bite to people, one would have to work hard or be rather foolish to receive a bite. John was handling the water bug to set up some photographs, and it was quite docile. He of course was cautious about getting near the mouthparts. I'm sure if incautiously handled, a foolish person would indeed get a jab that they would long remember.

The business end of the Giant Water Bug. Not a face you'd want to see headed your way, if you were reasonably small and aquatic.

In a rare case of invertebrate turning the tables on vertebrates, Giant Water Bugs can seize, kill and eat smaller members of the backboned crowd. They'll capture small fish, amphibians, and even small snakes. Remarkably, heavily armored and also formidable crayfish are sometimes taken.

It's quite fortunate for us humans that these things are not the size of large carp, or we'd probably be a course on their dinner plate.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Northern Parula, and Red Trillium

Today was picture-perfect for blending avian and botanical photography. I headed down to a Hocking Hills hotspot, only an hour distant, and arrived early in the morning. The skies were sunny, and presented ideal conditions for bird shooting.

A Northern Parula sings from an old apple tree. He went from blossom to blossom, plucking hapless pollinating insects, singing all the while. This is our smallest warbler (in the east) and one of the first to return in spring. A pair of Louisiana Waterthrush were nearby, as was a Yellow-throated Warbler. A Pine Warbler sang from mature Virginia Pines atop the ridge, a Black-and-white Warbler sang its lipsy squeak of a song from mature hardwoods, and a distant Black-throated Green Warbler occasionally issued its wheezy song.

After about two hours, clouds rolled in from the west. It was time to head into the woods and a riot of trillium. Shady conditions - especially during light showers or better, right after a rain, are fantastic for shooting flora.

Without doubt, Red Trillium, Trillium erectum, is one of our most striking woodland wildflowers. But what do you call a white-flowered "red" trillium (see next photo)? While red forms dominated at this site, there were plenty of white-flowered forms, grading insensibly into cream, yellowish, even greenish and even pinkish-tinged flower types. This statuesque plant goes by a number of other names: Purple Trillium, Wakerobin, Bethroot, Ill-scented Trillium, Stinking Benjamin. I refuse to call such a gorgeous plant by the latter two names.

A cream-colored form, with faint purplish tinting to the petals. It has been called forma albiflorum, but these color forms intergrade somewhat. No matter what you call them, Trillium erectum and its varied flowers is a spectacular species.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Trillium, from this morning

A delectable clump of freshly emerged Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, Ohio's state wildflower. A good choice, it was.

I visited a magical sandstone canyon in the Hocking Hills this morning that was carpeted with trillium. A more impressive display of these stunning wildflowers would be hard to find.

Trillium carpet a rich wooded slope. The Large-flowered Trillium is bookended by a typical Red Trillium, T. erectum (L), and a a cream-colored form of the same. Inestimable numbers of both species occur here, including probably every flower variant of Trillium erectum: red, cream, yellow, white, and greenish.

Spring is hard to beat.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Nature: Stratford Ecological Center in southern Delaware County an eco-friendly oasis

Stratford Ecological Center, a 236-acre preserve in southern Delaware County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Stratford Ecological Center in southern Delaware County an eco-friendly oasis

Columbus Dispatch
April 4, 2021

Jim McCormac

Just northeast of Bunty Station and Liberty roads in southern Delaware County lies Stratford Ecological Center, one of central Ohio’s natural gems. The 236-acre property is a mosaic of woodland, wetland, meadows and an eco-friendly farm.

Stratford launched in 1990, but its genesis dates to the mid-1980s. Founders Jack and Louise “Omie” Warner’s daughter, Gale, a conservationist and accomplished big-picture thinker, had planted the seed for a land lab.

When development loomed, the Warners leaped into action and ensured that the land would be protected. Stratford Ecological Center was born, and it has hosted tens of thousands of visitors since. About 16,000 people visit annually, and more than half are kids.

Gale Warner died far too young, on Dec. 28, 1991, the victim of lymphatic cancer. Her work in inspiring Stratford and helping develop its philosophy has left an enormous and lasting legacy.

Stratford’s first hire was Jeff Dickinson, who then was at work on a Ph.D. at Ohio State University. Jeff helped build the project from the ground up. He eventually became Stratford’s director and is still there, a vital influence throughout Stratford’s history.

The vision statement of Stratford clearly defines its mission:

“ … dedicated to the education of children and adults in understanding the relationships between living things and their environment, thereby fostering an appreciation of the land and all life that depends on it.”

I was one of those educable adults on March 19, when I made a nocturnal visit to witness the annual spring salamander migration to Stratford’s vernal pools. It truly was a dark and stormy night — perfect for moist-bodied amphibians on the move. We saw scores of spotted and smallmouth salamanders, and the din created by singing spring peepers and western chorus frogs was nearly deafening.

A pair of barred owls hooted and caterwauled, filling the woods with their eerie calls. Early flying Morrison’s sallow moths flickered by, spurred by temperatures in the low 50s. A coyote sang in the distance, and we were pleased to find a gorgeous peach-colored nursery web spider on the prowl.

Because of Stratford’s varied biodiversity and close proximity to a large population base, it is a perfect place for exposing people to the wonders of nature. Omie and husband Clyde Gosnell (her former husband Jack passed away in 1995) remain active in guiding Stratford and its mission. Conservation tour de forces, Omie and Clyde were recognized for their accomplishments last year with induction into the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Hall of Fame.

Development on nearly all sides continues to hem in the ecological center. We are fortunate that the Warners had the vision to protect this land more than three decades ago. It is an oasis of biodiversity readily accessible to the people of central Ohio.

I highly recommend a visit to Stratford. COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily altered visitation guidelines; see the website ( for up-to-date information.

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

Blue-winged vs. Golden-winged warblers: An interesting conundrum

  A male Blue-winged Warbler along the Black River in Cheboygan County, Michigan on May 19, 2021. I heard the bird singing, and eventually m...