Sunday, February 28, 2021

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

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

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

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

Columbus Dispatch
February 21, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Redpolls and more: The amazing Soltis Road sunflower field

 

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

Thanks again to Soltis Farms for this opportunity.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Snowy Owl snow-bathing, Short-eared Owls roosting

 









As always, click the photo to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Nature: Ornithologist seeks input for his Central Ohio Owl Project

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

Nature: Ornithologist seeks input for his Central Ohio Owl Project

Columbus Dispatch
February 7, 2021
NATURE
Jim McCormac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Winter Pine Warbler


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

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

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

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

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


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...