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