Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Chaparral State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

The purple flower wands of spiked blazing-star at Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve in Adams County/Jim McCormac

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna

Columbus Dispatch
August 29, 2021

Jim McCormac

The hot, muggy dog days of early August is the time to visit prairies. Flowering is at its peak, and these relicts of our diverse botanical past can be stunning.

One of my favorite Ohio prairies is Chaparral State Nature Preserve in Adams County. It’s just west of the county seat, West Union.

I made a trip there on a suitably scorching day, Aug. 5. Tolerating the heat and humidity was a small price to pay for the spectacular floral show. The prairie was a riot of color, and I was not the only admirer. Word has increasingly spread about this botanical hotspot, and many visitors stopped by that day.

Perhaps most striking was the towering purple spires of spiked blazing-star (Liatris spicata). The club-like inflorescences can rise several feet, and are irresistible to monarch butterflies. Many of these migratory insects were working the prairie, and the blazing-star was their drug of choice. Enrichening the display were a number of white-flowered forms.

Gargantuan flowering stalks of prairie-dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) loomed over their lesser botanical brethren. These giant sunflowers can rise to eight feet or more, and the lemony-yellow flowers are major pollinator magnets. Numerous American goldfinches gamboled about, eagerly awaiting the ripening of the seeds. Once they ripen, the “wild canaries" will swarm them and quickly devour the crop.

In places an odd parsley, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), was dominant. Its spherical clusters of small white flowers attracted legions of insects: tiny native bees, wasps of many stripes, and myriad interesting beetles. Hairstreak butterflies — the warblers of the Lepidopteran world — are smitten with rattlesnake-master flowers. I saw both coral and red-banded hairstreaks getting nectar fixes.

Less conspicuous but perhaps of greater interest to botanists were two Ohio rarities: bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and pink milkwort (Polygala incarnata). The former can be overshadowed by larger plants, but its gorgeous bluish-purple flowers are the rival of any of its vegetative comrades. Bluehearts is a hemi-parasite — it augers its roots into those of surrounding plants, and taps some if its nutrition from these hosts.

It takes a keen eye to spot pink milkwort. A whopper might rise to six inches in height. Growing in the driest most sun-baked barrens, the milkwort’s tiny flowers would be measured in millimeters. True to the name, the Lilliputian blooms are a pleasing shade of coral-pink.

Tremendous botanical diversity drives exceptional animal diversity, and Chaparral was buzzing with insects working the flowers. As always, and an important part of the food web, insect predators thinned the herd. Crab spiders and ambush bugs blended with the flowers, ready to pounce on hapless pollinators. Despite all the flattering flower poetry, a flower is a potential deathtrap — a showy land of booby traps and landmines.

King of the predatory insects were giant “cannibal fly” robber flies. The peregrine falcons of the fly world, these jumbos take down the largest bumblebees and wasps, and have even been recorded taking hummingbirds.

The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources acquired Chaparral Prairie about three decades ago. Then, the prairie was cloaked in red cedar and other woody plants. Open prairie was reduced to tiny fragments. Years of well-conceived management and lots of hard work have wrought wonders.

Mark your calendar for a visit to Chaparral Prairie next summer. Even though the loop trail is under a mile in length, it sometimes takes hours to hike given all the interesting occupants, both floral and faunal.

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


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Dolly Sods, West Virginia

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Sunrise from Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods, West Virginia. August 22, 2021. This mountaintop is an amazing place, and I was glad to finally experience it. Even though I only had part of a day to explore Dolly Sods, I packed a lot in and saw lots. I'll probably post more from my adventures up there, but for now, here are two images.

A tough Red Spruce, Picea rubens, exhibits the "Krummholz Effect". Strong and near constant winds (from the west in this case), sometimes severe, have stunted the growth of branches on the upwind side. Krummholz means "twisted wood", and such trees are also called flag trees or banner trees. This spruce was at Dolly Sods in West Virginia, and that mountaintop can be a harsh environment.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Black Bear, and Blackwater Falls


I spent the last four days in eastern West Virginia, in the Canaan Valley and vicinity. The first half of the trip involved participation in the annual meeting of the West Virginia Master Naturalists group, and I appreciate Andrea Dalton inviting me. Great time with lots of great people - the WVMN is large and active. As I came down the entrance drive to the lodge where we were based, late in the day last Friday, I glanced over to see a bear ambling through a lower parking lot. I stopped, he ended up passing by fairly close, I had a camera at the ready, and bagged this shot. It was a good omen of many interesting things to come.

I finally made a stop at fabled Blackwater Falls in Tucker County, West Virginia today. It lives up to the hype, and is well worth the stop. The falls lures about 900,000 visitors annually. That's a bit too many people for my taste, but as fate would have it, I was there early on this Monday morning.

NO ONE was there for a much-appreciated 45 minutes or so, enabling me to get this rare shot - the staircase to the lower platform, with not a soul on it.

Even though I only had less than two days to explore, I made it to some of the iconic regional hotspots, such as Dolly Sods and Cathedral State Park, with its gargantuan old-growth trees. Plus, there was heavy-duty mothing into the wee hours on two nights, and many interesting moths were tallied.

I'll surely make some more posts about this trip and some of the interesting sightings.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

A pair of juvenile black vultures perch in a window of the barn in which they were born/Jim McCormac

Nature: Black vultures, once uncommon in central Ohio, are easier to spy

Columbus Dispatch
August 15, 2021

Jim McCormac

In nature, there are always winners and losers. Increasingly, human activity drives successes, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, there are far more losers than winners.

The black vulture is, as Charlie Sheen says, “Winning!” It is one of a group of generalist bird species that is thriving on the heels of man, and expanding its range northward with remarkable rapidity.

When I was a kid, back in the 1970’s, it took a special effort to see a black vulture in Ohio. Their strongholds were few and far between. A trip to the Ohio Brush Creek Valley in Adams County or along the Hocking River south of Lancaster usually produced sightings.

Back then, a black vulture sighting was a standout on any trip checklist.

Telling a black vulture from the far more common and widespread turkey vulture isn’t hard. The latter is larger and soars with its wings in a dihedral: held above the body, forming a v-shape. Turkeys also have bare red heads which can be seen from some distance.

Black vultures hold their wings in a flat plane, and the undersides are prominently marked with white near the wingtips. They often dangle their legs in flight, which project beyond the stubby tail. The head is black. These differences are apparent when black and turkey vultures are mingling, as they often do.

I’ve made a half-dozen trips to Central America, and my fellow travelers and I would wager on what the first bird would be that we’d see upon arrival. Usually, spotted while still in flight on the approach to Guatemala City or San Jose, soaring black vultures were our welcoming committee.

This is primarily a species of southern latitudes, ranging throughout almost all of South America, Central America, and Mexico. Strangely, black vultures are nearly absent from the Caribbean.

North of the border, black vultures were long considered a bird of the southern states. John James Audubon, writing in the early 1800’s, noted that the “carrion crow” ranged north to Kentucky and Indiana, and “as far as Cincinnati”.

By the 1930’s, black vultures had been recorded in a dozen southern Ohio counties but were still scarce. Ohio ornithologist Lawrence Hicks estimated fewer than 100 birds were in the state at that time.

In the 1990’s a marked expansion ensued, with new populations surfacing in many areas in the southern two-thirds of the state.

The black vulture boom continues to pick up steam. Today, reports come from nearly all parts of the state, including the northernmost counties. Many new resident colonies have been established.

Columbus and vicinity is not excluded from this invasion. I have been seeing black vultures in the Dublin area for at least a year, sometimes feasting on road-killed deer along Interstate 270. Twice in the past month, small squadrons have drifted over my house in Worthington.

Why the range expansion? Black vultures are smart and opportunistic. Plentiful roadkill, the offal of industrial animal farming, and large deer populations (and resultant carrion) mean plenty of food. Tough and savvy, black vultures easily compete with – and often outcompete – turkey vultures. And rising mean winter temperatures make it easier for them to survive and thrive in the north.

They’re adaptable nesters, too. Barns and various abandoned structures provide nest sites, but black vultures will place nests in heavy brush, hollow logs, and amongst boulders or other rocky areas.

Keep an eye to the sky, or on roadside carcasses, and it probably won’t be too long before you spot a black vulture.

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, August 12, 2021

Giant Stag Beetle in Ohio

A thoroughly impressive Giant Stag Beetle, Lucanus elaphus. Including the mandibles, a male like this can measure 2.5 inches in length (go ahead, hold your fingers that far apart :-) ). Males use those mandibles to spar with one another during "rutting" season. The larvae of this incredible insect feed on rotting wood - one of myriad life forms that depends on downed or dying timber. John Howard found this stag beetle in Adams County and it represents one of few Ohio records. It will be interesting to see if this southern beetle expands northward in coming years.

A closer look at those formidable mandibles. While its grub - larval stage - lives for nearly a year, the adult stage lasts but a few months. You may be wondering - do these insects "bite"? Not really. The mandibles are used for jousting with other males, and the insect cannot exert significant pressure with them. A finger in the mandibles would feel like a very soft pinch, not nearly strong enough to break the skin. 

I appreciate John detaining the beetle until I and some others could get there to see it.


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Remarkable Mimicry: Fly as Wasp


A huge - compared to other common wasps, but maybe not an elephant - spider wasp, Entypus unifasciatus, takes nectar from the flowers of a Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium.

ASIDE: Rattlesnake-master lures pollinating insects like few other plants. And it is quite showy with numerous ball-like inflorescences of snowy-white flowers and its odd leathery yucca-like foliage. It grows easily in gardens and is a fantastic addition to anyone's yard. And Rattlesnake-master is readily available in the nursery trade, at least among nurseries that make an effort to peddle native flora.

I spent a fair bit of time at Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve on August 5, which was at its peak of botanical glory. See some photos of the prairie RIGHT HERE. The Rattlesnake-master was in nice condition, and I probably could have spent all day stalking and shooting the myriad pollinating insects visiting its flowers. As it was, I did manage to photograph a number of them, perhaps highlighted by this huge wasp.

Entypus unifasciatus is one of the spider-hunting wasps and is impressive by any hymenopteran standard. It is an edgy beast, active and constantly twitching its wings with rapid flicks. This species specializes on large wolf spiders (female wasps do the hunting and stinging), and an insect has to be tough to take one of these venomous eight-legged behemoths down. I have seen the wasp vanquish spiders a few times, such as HERE, and HERE.

From my limited experience, the spider is no match for the wasp. The latter darts in and administers a punishing, paralyzing sting in the blink of an eye. The wasp's venom must be a potent brew indeed, and I suspect its sting would pack a punch to a person, too. Fortunately, they are not aggressive and short of grabbing one with your hand, it'd probably be nearly impossible to get stung. However, inquisitive birds might have to learn this lesson the hard way. Except for Summer Tanagers, which specialize in capturing and eating large bees and wasps.

Well, what do we have here? I made this image in the same area as the preceding spider wasp, on the same day. And, while completely unrelated, this insect bears a remarkable resemblance to the large stinging wasp. It is just as big, too.

This is a mydas fly, Mydas tibialis, which is completely impotent as far as having any ability to inflict pain. The big fly is visually intimidating though, and most people - and more importantly birds, presumably - would leave it be. The fly even nectars at the same flowers favored by the wasp.

The fly world is awash in amazing mimicry such as this. Flies that can mimic the appearance of bees and wasps that can inflict stings must gain some measure of protection from visual predators like birds, who will learn to avoid certain insects such as those whose appearance they mimic.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Chaparral Prairie, looking splendid

As always, click the photos to enlarge

Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve is a riot of color right now. This snippet of the prairie is filled with Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium, Spiked Blazing-star, Liatris spicata, Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, Early Goldenrod, Solidago juncea, and many other plant species.

I made an epic trip to southern Ohio yesterday, specifically to Adams and Scioto counties. It was a 20 hour day, from start to finish, but worth every minute. Foremost on my list was Chaparral Prairie. It looks better than I have ever seen it, and my history with this site goes back to its acquisition. Then, it was some farm fields and overgrown cedar thickets. Botanical clues to its prairie past lingered, though, and after acquisition management began in earnest.

The ongoing fruits of this labor are richly evident now. The prairie is at its glorious peak, and if chance permits, I'd highly recommend a visit in the next week or so.

This is the view shortly after entering the trail from the parking lot. Spectacular, and there are more pollinators of every stripe in this scene than you could shake a stick out. Numerous Monarchs worked the blazing-stars, probably thinking they had dropped into some sort of alternate botanical universe of the very best sort.

The Spiked Blazing-star is out of this world. Some of the prairie openings are full of the stuff.

Some rare white color variants of Spiked Blazing-star - Liatris spicata forma albiflorum - punctuate an opening near the back of the preserve. The loop trail is less than a mile long, and bisects the best offerings of the 130-acre preserve. If you visit, be sure to take a camera.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Nature: Double-ringed pennants, other dragonflies, found in southern Ohio

A male double-ringed pennant/Jim McCormac

Nature: Double-ringed pennants, other dragonflies, found in southern Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
August 1, 2021

Jim McCormac

Jim Lemon spent his career in information technology at Ohio State University, but he’s an entomologist at heart. And by training. Following his retirement a few years ago, he launched back into the bug world with a passion. Dragonflies became his primary target, and Lemon is now one of Ohio’s leading odonatologists (a person who studies insects).

Back on June 29, Lemon and I headed afield to hunt dragons. Our destination was the wilds of Jackson and Pike counties. Our targets: two of Ohio’s rarest dragonflies.

The day dawned hot, sunny, and steamy, ultimately reaching 93 degrees with what felt like 100% humidity. Not so fun for human dragon-slayers, but great for the insects. They thrive in such weather and are at their most active.

We arrived at a remote abandoned sand-mining operation dotted with small spring-fed wetlands and the dragons soon came in abundance. Large blueberry-colored slaty skimmers dashed about, chasing interlopers who dared enter their turf.

Larger yet were spangled skimmers, a far more uncommon species. Males are powdery-blue with clear wings tipped with prominent white marks called stigmas. These create a blurred kaleidoscope effect in flight. A huge bonus was a stunning golden-winged skimmer. This big dragonfly is infused throughout with rich tones of gold, as if lit by the setting sun. A southerner, it is a vagrant to the upper Midwest and has only been found in six Ohio counties.

It didn’t take long to find our target, the yellow-sided skimmer. This species is sexually dimorphic: males look nothing like females. The former is showy blue, with the thorax sides washed in pale yellow. Females are brown with prominent yellow stripes running the length of the body.

The yellow-sided skimmer is a southern species and this locale harbors the only known extant Ohio population. Until recently, there was another site a few miles away but that population seems to have vanished. Fortunately, naturalist Nina Harfmann located this new site earlier this year.

Lemon and I saw about 20 individuals, the males ferociously guarding territories. This colony is one of the northernmost and is 100 miles or more from the nearest population in West Virginia.

Denison University entomologist Tom Schultz discovered the original Ohio yellow-sided skimmer site in 1998. I suspect this species had long been present but overlooked. They favor sunny densely vegetated openings fed by seeps. Such sites are not common, often tiny, and easily missed or ignored.

Soon we were off to a small pond south of Jackson. The little water body reminded me of countless farm ponds that I’ve seen, but this one was dragon magic.

Many calico pennants perched atop waterside plants, hawking insects and badgering one another. The male is gorgeous scarlet-red. Better yet were numerous banded pennants, a much less common and widespread dragonfly in Ohio. At rest on hot days, pennants frequently “obelisk”: raise their abdomens toward the sun, to minimize heat absorption.

But we had come to see Ohio’s only population of double-ringed pennants. A few dozen were present. They are not shrinking violets and we saw them instantly upon arrival. While lacking the visual pizazz of the other pennants, the double-ringeds are architecturally ornate, behaviorally interesting, and ooze charisma. The male in the photo shown here is in the obelisk position.

These double-ringed pennants were discovered in 2019, the first documented Ohio record. This year, another was photographed near Cincinnati. This is a southern and Atlantic coastal plain species with few Midwest records. I suspect it is a recent colonizer.

There is no doubt that some southern dragonfly species are rapidly expanding northward. It will be interesting to see what turns up in future years.

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.