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
NATURE
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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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

NATURE
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 (stratfordecologicalcenter.org) 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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.
 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Northern Michigan foray: May 20-23

Lake Nettie, a beautiful glacial lake in northern Michigan. Not a bad view first thing in the morning.

For the past decade, I've led trips in Presque Isle County, Michigan, based out of NettieBay Lodge. I made the photo above from the lodge's "back yard". The trips were canceled last year due to covid, but we're back on for this May. Everyone should be vaccinated, and with appropriate protocols we don't see any problems, especially as groups are limited to eight people.

The second trip - May 25-28 - is already full, but there are a few spots on the May 20-23 trip. If you want a fascinating foray into the flora and fauna of the North Country, you'll get it here. We'd love to have you. Details are RIGHT HERE.

One of the Lake Nettie Common Loons. A few pairs usually nest on the lake, and you'll hear them yodeling night and day. We always take a pontoon boat out one evening, and typically get up close and personal with the loons. I made this photo from the boat. Loons aren't particularly shy and are often quite curious and will make close approaches.

Mourning Warblers are locally common breeders up here, along with many other warbler species. Not only that, there often still large movements of warblers and other songbirds along the shoreline of Lake Huron, even in late May. My favorite memory of that is seeing about a dozen species of warblers in a big Red Pine - at the same time.

A male Kirtland's Warbler sings from a Jack Pine. We'll see and hear many of these boisterous birds. Much Jack Pine management occurs in the area, and we will see Jack Pine forests at every stage and learn all about the ecology of these fascinating habitats. The big sandy pine flats may be best known for the Kirtland's Warbler, but there is so much else to see. A dozen sparrow species, Upland Sandpipers, Brewer's Blackbird, breeding Common Nighthawks and scads of other stuff.

Again, we'd love to have you and all the info is HERE

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...