Sunday, January 31, 2021

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

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

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

Columbus Dispatch
January 31, 2021
Jim McCormac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Black velvet botanical photography

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Gray squirrel and its unusual drey a source of enjoyment


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

Gray squirrel and its unusual drey a source of enjoyment

January 17, 2021
Jim McCormac

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

— George Eliot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 15, 2021

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

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

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

Hugh Rose Obituary
Jan. 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A memorial farewell service will be set later.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Northern Wheatear visits Ohio!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Summer Tanager, in winter!

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

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

Monday, January 4, 2021

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

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

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

Jim McCormac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For details, visit

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