Thursday, July 29, 2021

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 (Fabaceae) is an annual, and easily grown. My yard - front and back - is full of native flora, as natives greatly spike the fauna, especially insects. Partridge pea is an especially interesting case of coevolutionary relationships between plants and insects. All of these images were shot in the patch of pea shown in this photo, in about a half hour.

Showy yellow flowers of Partridge Pea, which arise from the leaf axils. They are magnets for certain insect pollinators.

A bumble bee in the genus Bombus approaches a partridge pea flower. Bumbles are certainly the most noticeable and probably most numerous insect pollinator, at least in my flower patch. It's interesting to listen to them "buzz pollinate" the flowers by rapidly and noisily vibrating their wings to cause pollen to fall from the stamens.

There is another less obvious and arguably more interesting way in which partridge pea lures insects into its foliage. This is an extrafloral nectary (EFN), located near the base of leaf petioles. Extrafloral nectaries are like tiny cups that constantly exude a rich sugary secretion. This substance, which is about 95% sugar, is irresistible to certain insects, especially those in the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps).

A photo from August 9, 2014, taken by Laura Hughes. From top to bottom, that's David Hughes, John Howard, and your narrator. We're carefully watching a luxuriant stand of Partridge Pea along John's driveway in Adams County, Ohio.

I had recently learned about Partridge Pea extrafloral nectaries, told Dave, John, and Laura what I had learned, and here we are trying to photograph EFN visitors. I like intellectually inquisitive people such as these :-)

An ant (species unknown to me) drinks from an extrafloral cup. Ants may be the best known visitors of partridge pea extrafloral nectaries. But many other insects visit the sugar cups, on partridge pea and the other 2,000 or so plants in over five dozen families worldwide that have EFN. One theory is that by enticing predatory insects, as many ants and wasps are, into the foliage via extrafloral nectaries, they will discourage herbivory and flower damage by attacking insect herbivores such as caterpillars.

A beetle bandit (Cerceris ssp.) sips from a nectary. It is bookended by two other EFN, on adjacent leaves. Various beetles such as weevils can be major floral consumers, so perhaps beetle bandit wasps - well known to prey on weevils - pay the plant back by controlling these insects.

This Mexican grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana, is looking a bit tattered. Isodontid wasps are one of the more frequent visitors to my partridge peas. They prey on tree crickets and other small Orthopterans, and this group feeds on foliage.

A spider wasp in the genus Auplopus stuffs its face. Many spider wasp species are high strung and edgy, habitually twitching their wings and moving about rapidly as they hunt prey.

A personal favorite and a spectacular wasp, the yellow-legged mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium. The insect is the very definition of "wasp-waisted". They make mud nests which are attached to walls, rocks or other structures. These adobe crypts are provisioned with paralyzed spiders for the wasp larvae to nosh on.

I have seen many other insect species visiting the extrafloral nectaries, and hope to spend some more time photo-documenting them. Oh, one might wonder why someone like me would wish to entice wasps and bees into close proximity to my front door and walkway. It's not a problem. These insects are non-aggressive, quite busy with their activities, and pay us no mind. In many years of sticking my camera in the faces of stinging insects, I have only been stung a few times - and those were by bald-faced hornets after apparently approaching their large paper nests a bit too close.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Two cool bugs


A Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, taps nectar from Swamp Milkweed flowers. The butterfly is huge and extraordinary, the largest species found in Ohio. This one thrilled our field trip participants at Cedar Bog last Sunday with close fly-bys and nectar visits.

We were there as a field trip that was part of the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference (our 12th one) near Dayton. After having to skip last year due to Covid, it was great to once again have the conference. It was at a slightly reduced level due to facility restrictions, but nonetheless there were 150 attendees and all went great. Kudos to the organizers for a tremendous job. If you haven't been, try to make it next year. It does fill up quickly, take note.

An important part of the conference is a legion of vendors, all selling native flora. We are always amazed at the incredible diversity of plants that are available, including hard to find species. I took home some botanical goodies, including a nice specimen of Wafer-ash, Ptelea trifoliata. This shrub/treelet is one of only two host plants in our region for the Giant Swallowtail. Who knows, with some luck maybe my plant will lure a female in to lay eggs on it.

I have a robust stand of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, in the front yard. The flowers are constantly awash in Bumble Bees (Bombus ssp.) and I was out there yesterday observing them. When in flew this beautiful pollinator, the Two-spotted Longhorn Bee, Melissodes bimaculata. It is a striking animal, garbed mostly in ebony. But check out the long "furry" hairs on those back legs, which are doused with yellow pollen!

It's rewarding to merely step out the front door and see all manner of cool animal life like this bee, all attracted to the native flora planted in the "gardens". Right along the sidewalk to the front door is a lush stand of Partridge-pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, and it is in full bloom. I want to write a pictorial piece about that soon. Partridge-pea is beset with tiny glands known as extrafloral nectaries and the cast of entomological characters - primarily wasps - that visit those is amazing. In short order yesterday morning, I think I photographed five wasp species on the nectaries, plus some other insects.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Big bucks hit the backyard

I was pleased to glance into the backyard this morning and see this big buck. White-tailed Deer are regular visitors here, and I don't mind. Fawns have even been born in the yard, such as THIS ONE.

Thus, I was even more pleased when the buck's twin brother materialized from a thicket. The two fed for a while, then it was siesta time. They are out there napping as I write this. They're likely to stay all day, and that's fine with me. Help yourself to some of the remnant day lilies, boys.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Nature: Gray fox sightings continue to be rare in Midwest


A gray fox vixen strikes a pose in Fairfield County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Gray fox sightings continue to be rare in Midwest

July 18, 2021

Jim McCormac

On March 6, 2011, I wrote a column about red foxes. In conclusion, I issued a plea for fox sightings within the confines of Interstate 270. Fifty-one readers responded with reports.

If I did the same for the lesser known gray fox, the response would likely be… crickets.

While gray fox is poorly known among the general populace, it was easily the most common fox in Ohio prior to European settlement. Indeed, the well-known red fox may have been absent or rare. It is thought that reds began to colonize the Midwest from points north following the opening of the vast eastern deciduous forest.

Adaptable red foxes, which favor open and semi-open country, are now the common fox in Ohio. Heavy deforestation over much of the state reduced gray fox populations.

A big male gray fox tips the scales at 15-20 pounds. Vixens are about half that. The overall length is about three and a half feet, but one-third of that is bushy tail. Most striking is the rich parti-colored pelage. Gorgeous tones of silvery-gray, black, rufous and white form an elegant appearance. Small mammals are their principal prey but birds, large insects and even fruit and other plant matter are eaten.

Perhaps the most interesting behavioral aspect of gray foxes is their arboreal skills. It is the only member of the dog family that climbs well and does so habitually. Sometimes they will nap among the boughs, and there are rare records of dens in tree cavities – some as high as 20 feet! Most dens are ground burrows.

I have had some memorable experiences with gray foxes. Once, while working in southern Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest with a fellow botanist, a gray fox darted onto the forest road ahead of our car. It sized us up, then hotfooted it into a culvert under the road. We got out, looked into the pipe and there was the fox looking back.

Better yet was encountering an active den in the wilds of Athens County about 20 years ago. Five tiny kits, eyes barely open, tumbled and lolled at the entrance to their burrow. Suddenly they snapped to, looked at the burrow and stumbled back in. The vixen had apparently sent them a directive unheard by me.

Gray fox encounters have been rare for me in recent years. Thus, when Tom Sheley told me of a cooperative family group on his heavily wooded Fairfield County property, I begged a visit. Tom is founder and co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store on Sawmill Road in Columbus, and a veteran outdoorsman. He had figured out the foxes, and was able to direct me as to how to best encounter them. I captured my first photos of this furtive species, one of which accompanies this column.

While gray foxes rebounded somewhat from massive deforestation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they face new, poorly understood threats. The Appalachian Wildlife Research Institute ( based in Athens has made the gray fox a priority project. Data shows a sharp decline over the past 25 years.

The Institute speculates that increased coyote competition and a spike in raccoon populations – raccoons transmit canine distemper - are primary ongoing factors in gray fox reductions. Further, there was a trapping run on fox in the early 1980’s due to high fur prices. Some 30,000 gray fox were harvested. The trapping run was about when coons and coyotes began to increase markedly and reduced fox populations may have been more vulnerable.

While fox recovery plans have yet to be forged, one obvious part of the equation lies in protecting large contiguous forests. Tom Sheley and wife Donna are doing their part. They recently added a sizable forested addition to their rural property, largely with fox conservation in mind.

Healthy forests should harbor gray foxes, and scores of other animal 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

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Some King Skimmers


A while back, I posted about an epic dragonfly expedition undertaken by Jim Lemon and myself on June 29. That post focused on pennants, and you can read it HERE.

We saw far more than pennants on that brutally hot and muggy day, which is perfect weather for active dragons. One rarity in particular was our main objective and it follows. But we found another rare species as well, and that's in addition to the Double-ringed Pennant featured in the post linked above.

The little wetland above is in a far corner of Pike County, Ohio, and it's a notable place. More bog-like than cattail marsh, it is fed by constant groundwater seepages and is full of mosses. Walking in it calls for some caution, lest one suddenly find themselves waist deep in the mire. This whole area was highly disturbed by sand mining, and I suspect that the operation inadvertently enlarged naturally occurring sunny woodland seeps. Thus, there is - perhaps - even more dragonfly habitat than before. The wetland in the photo was just one of a number dotted through a fairly small area.

For now, mining has ceased in the area that we visited. If it were to resume, and on a large scale, the wetlands and the dragons that use them would likely have their fortunes reversed. Nature subsists tenuously wherever there is money to be made and the hand of man is strong. Thinking wishfully, this site would make an excellent state nature preserve, the first preserve with dragonfly conservation as a primary reason for its acquisition.

The large skimmers in the genus Libellula are exciting and conspicuous denizens of the wetlands that they occupy. They're big, quite dashing in flight, and prone to perching in obvious places. Shrinking violets they are not.

This is a Slaty Skimmer, Libellula incesta, sometimes referred to as the "Blueberry Skimmer" for obvious reasons. We saw many at this site.

Painted Skimmers, Libellula semifasciata, are absolutely striking. An ornate wing pattern complements soft golden-brown tones. This species is not particularly common but we saw several.

This was an unexpected treat: Golden-winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis! Apparently it had been found here a few days prior but really wasn't high on our minds - or at least mine - until I spotted it teed up on the edge of a wetland. It has only been found in six Ohio counties and three of those records are since 2018. The only prior semi-recent record was in 2008, found by Rick Nirschl in the Oak Openings near Toledo. Rick showed me those Golden-wings and I wrote about them HERE (you can also see how my photography has hopefully improved over time). In 2018, I found a Golden-wing of my own, as documented HERE.

Finally, the odonatological showpiece of these wetlands and the main reason for our trip: Yellow-sided Skimmer, Libellula flavida. This is one of the rarest regularly occurring and reproducing dragonflies in Ohio, if not the rarest. That's a female in the photo; this species is highly sexually dimorphic as we will see in the next image. In the background, like a mirror image, is a very similar species, a female Spangled Skimmer, Libellula cyanea. There were many Spangleds, but for some reason I did not manage any images of the males or tight shots of the females. I think there were so many subjects to focus on that they went ignored and that's saying something - normally I would prioritize flashy Spangled Skimmers.

And here is the male Yellow-sided Skimmer, which is quite different in appearance from the female. We were pleased to see many of them, maybe 20 in all.

But a couple dozen big dragonflies is really not many dragonflies at all when one considers that this is probably the only population of this state-endangered species persisting in Ohio.

Entomologist Tom Schulz found Ohio's first Yellow-sided Skimmer population in 1998 in a site less than 2.5 miles from this one, also in Pike County. Perhaps not coincidentally, that site has also experienced sand mining and the ecological composition of the wetland where the skimmers occurred is extremely similar. I say "occurred" because they may not be there anymore or if so, the population is reduced to nearly nothing. I know that site, having independently come across the Yellow-sided Skimmers while botanizing in the early 2000's. Now, vegetative succession has pretty much overrun most of the area eliminating much of the dragonfly fauna.

Fortunately, Nina Harfmann located the site featured in this post earlier this year, and it undoubtedly harbors more Yellow-sided Skimmers than the other site ever did. I don't think this species is a (relatively) recent arrival to Ohio, although a number of southern dragonflies and damselflies do seem to be actively expanding north. Southern Ohio is at the extreme northern limit of this species range, and it is a habitat specialist. I suspect small wooded seeps with sandy substrates (this is sandstone county) have long supported this dragonfly. There may be other small populations around, but probably not many as suitable habitat would not be common.

It was great to clap eyes on Yellow-sided Skimmers for the first time in nearly 20 years, and to see so many of the animals seemingly thriving at this site.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Shawnee Nature Safari - a superb conference! September 10-12, 2021


A typical autumnal scene in the nearly 70,000 acre Shawnee State Forest in Scioto County, Ohio, as photographed a few years ago. The forest is one of the most biodiverse locales in eastern North America,

The Midwest Native Plant Society, whose raison d'etre is to organize and run the Midwest Native Plant Conference (already sold out this year), also hosts one or two spur conferences annually. And this fall's event will be a doozy. It's been dubbed the Shawnee Nature Safari and will take place the weekend of September 10-12. Base camp is the wonderful Shawnee State Park Lodge nestled in the center of the state forest.

A major focus of this event, as is the case with all of our events, is to get people out in the field. We'll be doing that with the help of some of Ohio's most knowledgeable natural history experts. September in Shawnee is a great time for learning about fall flora, but all of those plants - some 1,000 native species in the forest! - drives animal life. Plenty of southbound migrant birds will be passing through, and butterflies should still be plentiful and diverse. But not as much as moths, the (mostly) nocturnal butterflies. We will make special efforts to lure them in at night, and will also engage in nighttime safaris looking for caterpillars.

There will be speakers each evening. I'll be talking about native flora, the caterpillars that eat them, and their role in the bigger picture of conservation on Friday night. On Saturday evening, conservation biologist Jack Stenger will give a program on promoting plants for biodiverse landscapes. And for those so inclined, I will lead an outdoors photography workshop (limited number of participants) on Sunday morning.

The event is already filling rapidly, but there is still space and we'd love to have you join us. For all of the details and registration information, just GO HERE.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Nature: Piping plover's nest offers hope for shorebirds' return

Nish, a male piping plover, incubates eggs in a protective enclosure at Maumee Bay State Park/Jim McCormac

Nature: Piping plover's nest offers hope for shorebirds return

Columbus Dispatch
July 4, 2021

Jim McCormac

UPDATE!: All four eggs hatched on July 1 (I submitted this column prior to that), and all four chicks are running around and in fine form as of this update (11:45 am, July 5).

Piping plovers are tiny, charismatic shorebirds. While closely related to the familiar killdeer, they are much smaller, weighing half as much as their burlier relative.

Beaches and piping plovers are inseparable. Piping plovers nest on beaches, winter on beaches, and rest and feed on beaches in migration. They even look like beach, with their upperparts colored like dry sand. A dark ring bisects the pale breast, and the legs and bill are orange-yellow.

Historically, piping plovers were common on beaches along the Atlantic seaboard from the Florida Keys north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. John James Audubon wrote this about them in the 1830’s:

“Their notes, which are so soft and mellow as to nearly resemble those of the sweetest songster in the forest, reach your ear long before you have espied the piping plover. …these sounds come from perhaps twenty different directions, and you are perplexed, as well as delighted.”

The first Ohio piping plover nest was found on June 26, 1903 at Cedar Point in Lucas County near Toledo, which is now part of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (this is NOT the amusement park site). William Dawson and James Hines, the discoverers, photographed the nest and published the details in Dawson’s book The Birds of Ohio, published that same year.

Over the next two decades, breeding plovers were found in five other Lake Erie counties: Ashtabula, Erie, Lake, Lorain, and Ottawa. At their peak in the mid 1920’s, an estimated 30 pairs of piping plovers bred along Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie. But the majority nested around Cedar Point.

By the mid 1930’s the population was waning. The last Ohio nesting record was of two pairs in 1942, at Cedar Point. As the decades went by, few ornithologists were optimistic that piping plovers would return to nest.

The bigger picture of Great Lakes piping plovers also became grim. By 1990, the population throughout the five lakes had dropped to about 13 pairs, this from a historical high of perhaps 800 pairs.

While periodic high water levels played a role in adversely affecting beach habitat, a much bigger factor is people. In 1903, when Dawson and Hines first found nesting plovers in Ohio, the state’s population was about 4 million people. Today, we are closing in on 12 million. The human population has grown similarly throughout much of the Great Lakes, and increased beach-going has displaced many piping plovers.

In 1986, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed piping plover as endangered, and the ensuing efforts to protect the species have borne fruit. The Great Lakes population has rebounded to around 70 pairs.

Thus, it was great news when local birder Warren Leow located a pair of piping plovers at Maumee Bay State Park in late May. He involved expert birder Paul Jacyk, who realized that the birds were commencing nesting activity. Jacyk notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Ohio Division of Wildlife, and efforts to safeguard the birds were soon afoot.

I visited Ohio’s celebrity piping plovers on June 10. The birds chose not to nest on the Lake Erie beach, but selected a sheltered artificial beach on a manmade lake just 300 feet inland from Lake Erie. This site is only two miles west of the former Cedar Point breeding epicenter.

The plover nest is surrounded by a large wire enclosure, which is standard protective protocol. The cage prevents predation of the eggs by gulls and other predators. Both plover parents were born in similar cages and are unfazed by the contraption. They easily slip through the mesh and come and go at will. The wildlife agencies also taped off a large section of beach, forbidding entry. Had they not, the nest wouldn’t have had a chance given the site’s popularity with beach-goers.

Nellie, the female, was born last year in Presque Isle, Pennsylvania. Nish, the male, was also born in 2020, but along Lake Michigan near Chicago. Both take turns with incubation duties.

The first egg was laid on May 31, and a few days later the clutch was complete with four eggs. They should have hatched by the time you read this, and the precocial chicks can walk within a few hours. Hopefully they will flourish, and become the first successful Ohio piping plover brood in over 80 years.

In addition to the wildlife agencies, much credit goes to the local Black Swamp Bird Observatory for organizing an army of volunteers to nest-watch. I met volunteers Julie Heitz and Jack Burris on site, and they and their counterparts ensure that the birds remain undisturbed. Jack has been there almost every day since the nest was found, often from 6 am to 10 pm. Without Jack, Julie and the others’ vigilance, the probability of a successful nesting would plummet.

A collective 100 grams of piping plovers has caused an outsized stir in the Ohio birding community. They send a message of hope, and recovery. Here’s to Nish and Nellie.

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