Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A quartet of pennants (dragonflies)

A Calico Pennant, Celithemis elisa, tees up on an old rush stalk. The pure brown bokeh (background) is caused by the water of the pond.

The pennant is obelisking - pointing its abdomen directly at the sun. They do this as a means of minimizing heat absorption on very hot days, and hot it was. Uber-dragonflier Jim Lemon and I ventured down to Jackson County yesterday, and hot and sunny it was. The temperature climbed into the 90's F by early afternoon, and it seemed like the humidity was 100%. Great for dragonfly action, not so great for humanoids.

Jim showed me a few special sites that I had heard about, but had not clapped eyes on until yesterday. Both places were amazing: exceptional in species diversity and rare species that were present. We were afield from around 9 am until 1 pm or so, when it really began to scorch. That's a typical schedule for me when things really begin to bake in summer. Out early, wrap it up in the early afternoon (at least sometimes).

We found 26 species of damselflies and dragonflies between the two sites that we visited. The pennants featured here were all (except the Halloween Pennant) at one tiny, quite ordinary pond. It was rimmed with common plants, primarily Soft Rush, Juncus effusus (an excellent dragonfly plant!), and was nearly round and rather deep. Just like scores of other farm ponds that dot the southeast Ohio landscape. This one was remarkable in its abundance of the small dragonflies in the genus Celithemis known as pennants. One of those species is a major rarity, and has only been found a few times in the state. That one - read on for a photo and information - was our primary target.
 

I was pleased to see numerous Banded Pennants, Celithemis fasciata. This ornately marked animal is not common up my way in Central Ohio, thus it always a treat to see them. While Ohio's other two common pennants - Calico and Halloween - are common statewide and probably in all 88 counties, Banded Pennant is much more range restricted. It is found in about 27 counties, mostly in southeastern Ohio. Pennants like to tee up on the tips of prominent perches as this one is doing. Securing images could be challenging, though, as there were so many pennants and other dragonflies that skirmishes were frequent. Often, as soon as I'd have acquired focus, another guy would shoot by and my subject would light out after it.

A pair of Banded Pennants locked in the mating wheel, making more of their kind.

This unassuming little bluish-black fellow was the primary reason for our visit to this pond. It is a Double-ringed Pennant, Celithemis verna. This species was discovered at this site in 2019, the first record for Ohio. That year, I think about seven males were tallied. Jim and I counted about 20 males, so it isn't a fluke involving a few wayward insects. I wonder how long they were present at this pond prior to their 2019 discovery.

Double-ringed Pennant is a species of the southeastern U.S., apparently primarily along coastal plains. The Ohio site might be the furthest north it is currently known in the interior, at least as an apparently established population. It will be interesting to see if this population remains stable over the years, and if new sites come to light. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary regarding this pond and its vegetation, at least to my eye. Probably hundreds if not thousands of very similar ponds dot southeastern Ohio, and it's hard to imagine that Double-ringed Pennants haven't colonized other sites.

Finally, for the sake of completeness, I threw in this showy male Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina. I made this photo a few years ago, at another site. Surprisingly, Jim and I did not see this species anywhere on this day, but I imagine if we had hit other sites we could have come up with one. It is the fourth of Ohio's Celithemis pennant species.

Monday, June 28, 2021

A few moths, from two nights of fabulous mothing

A bizarrely shaped Brown Scoopwing moth, Calledapteryx dryopterata. It looks like some predator took a bite out of each wing.

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past week. Deadlines called, in addition to other STUFF. I haven't been making many photos of late, either, and was grateful for the opportunity to get back behind the lens this weekend. A wonderful group of people convened at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County, Ohio, and we mothed into the wee hours both Friday and Saturday nights. I stumbled to bed around 2:30 am on Saturday morning, and drove home after mothing on Saturday night, arriving back to Worthington around 3:30 am. This is stuff for night owls, but the rewards are worth the odd hours.

We were essentially scouting for the upcoming Mothapalooza. The Arc of Appalachia, which owns Highlands Nature Sanctuary and an ever expanding portfolio of other excellent sites, agreed to take over the management of Mothapalooza. This epic event was launched in 2013, and thanks especially to the wonderful organizational skills of Mary Ann Barnett, a team of dedicated volunteers was able to keep Mothapalooza going for nearly a decade. We would quickly fill the event - about 175 people, all told - every year. It was a mountain of work, and changes in the lives of some of the organizers necessitated a change in management.

Enter the Arc of Appalachia. For the inaugural Arc Mothapalooza, we have kept it to 50 attendees, and it filled up fast. The event takes place in July, which is normally a very good time of year for moth numbers and diversity. Barring unforeseen pandemics, we plan to scale back up to about 150 attendees for 2022. By then, we will also have a really good idea about how to run the event in our new surroundings. One thing that I can assure you of, there will be moths galore.

So keep an eye out for Mothapalooza 2022 dates - I'll plug it here - and try and make it. We have a great time, learn lots, and see some amazing creatures. 

A jumbo female Cecropia Moth, Hyalaophora cecropia. We have done targeted mothing at Highlands Nature Sanctuary several times now, and are always wowed with many silk moths such as this cecropia. Its wingspan can stretch to seven inches.

Moth photography is always fun and rewarding, and as we might lure 100 or more species each night, interesting subjects abound. This is a Dot-lined White, Artace cribarius.

We were pleased to see this elegant Pink-Striped Oakworm Moth, Anisota virginiensis, which is a species that we don't see that frequently.

I took scores of other moth photos over the two nights, and plenty of others during the Saturday diurnal field trip to the always productive Lynx Prairie in Adams County. I'll try to slap some of those up later. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Nature: A white-tailed kite spotted in Harrison County is a true rarity

A white-tailed kite drifts by our nature writer in Harrison County/Jim McCormac

Nature: A white-tailed kite spotted in Harrison County is a true rarity

Columbus Dispatch
June 20, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Nothing excites a birder like a rarity. And, although one should probably take the high ground and view all rare birds with equality, that’s not always the case. Many people will get more excited over a sensational raptor than, say, an unusual sparrow.

The raretè du jour in Ohio is a white-tailed kite. This is a superb bird of prey by any reckoning, and the appearance of this species in rural Harrison County is the talk of the birding community. Well, there is a rival but I’ll write about that species in another column.

Ohio’s current white-tailed kite is not the first state record. It is the second. Although they may be the same bird.

On May 23 of last year, Ian Ruppenthal was birding Woodbury Wildlife Area in Coshocton County when he spotted a white-tailed kite perched high on a snag. He obtained diagnostic photos, and Ohio’s first record of this western and southern species was in the books. Alas, the bird flew the coop and could not be relocated.

On May 31 of this year, Mary Grey and Larry Helgerman were birding grassy reclaimed strip-mine lands in Harrison County, six miles south of Cadiz. The locale is 50 miles due east of Ruppenthal’s 2020 kite sighting. And lo and behold, they spotted a white-tailed kite. My feeling is the same bird accounts for both of these records. Vagrant birds sometimes return annually to the same region, far removed as it may be from their normal haunts.

White-tailed kites normally occur in Pacific coastal states south through Mexico and Central America, and in broad swaths of South America. There is a tiny population in southern Florida. Records of vagrants in the Midwest are few and far between, making the “chaseable” Harrison County kite of great interest.

This time the bird stuck, and within a few days probably hundreds of people made the journey. Along with Dr. Bernard Master, I made the trip on June 4. Upon arrival, it took us all of a few minutes to spot the bird. White-tailed kites are not shrinking violets, and it was sitting atop a low snag in an otherwise open grassland.

Eventually, the kite took to the air and treated us to its legendary aerial prowess. It patrolled the vast grasslands, wafting gracefully about as it searched for potential prey. Occasionally it would stop and hover like a helicopter, as if tethered to a string.

A white-tailed kite has a wingspan of nearly 3½ feet, is about 16 inches in length, but weighs only 12 ounces — the same as a can of soup. The ratio of low weight to large wings and tail makes the animal a superb flying machine and woe to the prey that is pierced by the kite’s ruby-red eyes.

While other kite species often prey heavily on large insects such as cicadas and dragonflies, the white-tailed kite sticks mostly to meat. Small mammals such as mice and voles normally make up the bulk of the diet.

At one point, the kite flew nearly overhead, as if curious about me. That not only enabled me to get the accompanying photo, but to admire its elegant features from a front-row seat. White-tailed kites are mostly pearl-gray and white, with prominent black shoulders, the latter especially visible on perched birds.

The kite cut a dashing figure, even more so than Harrison County’s most famous son, Clark Gable. Gable was born in the county seat, Cadiz, in 1901. For the time being, at least locally, the kite probably eclipses Rhett Butler of "Gone With the Wind" fame as Harrison County’s biggest celebrity.

It will be interesting to see how long the kite remains (it’s there as of this writing, on June 9), and if a white-tailed kite rematerializes in this area in 2022.

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, June 17, 2021

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great question.

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 14, 2021

Cedar Waxwing

 

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Backyard fawn, again!

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 7, 2021

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

 

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

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

Columbus Dispatch
June 6, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

White-tailed Kite in Ohio!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Partridge Pea and its magical extrafloral nectaries

A showy snarl of partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata , lines the sidewalk to my front door. This native member of the pea family (Fabace...