Thursday, December 30, 2021

Cooper's Hawk visits backyard

As always, click the image to enlarge

A juvenile male Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) glares my way. He's actually looking in front of my position, into a thicket of Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) where various songbirds were cowering. Much as I might enjoy the routine visits of these magnificent raptors, the songbird crowd would have a very different perspective. A Cooper's Hawk is their grim reaper in the flesh, come to rip them asunder and make a snack of them.

I generally know when a "Coop's" is around, even without seeing it. The normally bustling feeders and hedges are quiet as a library. I find it amusing that when a comparatively clumsy and lumbering Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) enters the yard, not much changes regarding songbird behavior. They know the big raptor has little chance of capturing them. Chickadees will dart right by its head going to and fro from feeders, and the same general activity level continues.

Not so with a bird hawk like a Cooper's Hawk. This animal is an extreme threat and the small birds know it. As soon as one is detected, the little fellows instantly vanish into thick cover, or if caught out, freeze still as a stone. I have watched chickadees, nuthatches and others sit without moving a muscle for five minutes or more. Such behavior is sometimes termed "sleeking" and as Accipiter hawks seem to key in on movement, sleeking presumably helps them avoid detection.

This Cooper's Hawk remained in the yard for about 45 minutes. Mostly it sat still for extended periods, waiting and watching. At one point it burst into flight and dove into the neighbor's dense arbor-vitae tree, where a score of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) huddled. It emerged empty-taloned. In my opinion, the House Sparrow is the smartest species of songbird in the yard, and they're very hard for the hawks to catch. After a bit, the hawk left for greener pastures and within a few minutes everyone was emerging from their shrubby trenches and activity was soon back to normal. But this scenario will soon be repeated. The raptors are daily visitors. No one should be bothered by indirectly feeding hawks by providing seed to lure songbirds. Nature is shot through with all manner of predator-prey relationships, although not too many are as conspicuous as a Cooper's Hawk whacking a cardinal outside your back window.

PHOTO NOTES: I generally always have a telephoto lens handy in the house, for situations such as this. I usually try and quietly open an appropriate window, so I don't have to shoot through additional glass (never shoot through unnecessary glass. Including filters, at least most of the time). When this Cooper's Hawk eventually flew to a nearby fence, he gave me opportunities for portraiture type shots. And the shot that I wanted was pretty much just what I ended up with: the bird glaring directly at me, so that the portrait would show what an unlucky songbird might see in its last moments. It was just a matter of waiting for the bird to adopt that posture, and I was ready when he did.

This image was shot with the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6mm lens, handheld but balanced on the back of a chair. Knowing that this was the priority head angle I was waiting for, I was stopped down to f/13 to give more depth of field throughout the face and eyes. Shutter speed was a low 1/250, but it was a poorly lit day and that was an effort to help keep the ISO lower. Nonetheless, the latter was 1600 with +0.3 EV dialed in. A bit high for my tastes but when light is poor higher ISO's are a reality. And I don't like shooting that heavy huge rig at slower shutter speeds than what I used, at least without a tripod.

Monday, December 27, 2021

A wayward Brant


As my route last Sunday went right past the area that has hosted a Brant (Branta bernicla) for a few weeks now, I stopped in to see the locally famous bird. Kelly Miller found it on December 6. The wayward sea goose could not have picked a more urbanized site. The white background is the wall of a massive Amazon warehouse, and the little goose is traipsing through turf grass among overly mulched ornamental trees. It associates with the flocks of Canada Geese that inhabit the numerous retention ponds.

The area is nothing but gargantuan warehouses and scads of noisy, lumbering semi-trucks. A far cry from the wild northern tundra where this bird spends its summers. In winter, Brant typically is found along seacoasts. While small numbers move through the Ohio waters of Lake Erie, Brant is quite rare inland.

Here's what the area looks like, courtesy of Google Earth. I marked the exact spot that I took the above image, and the goose is normally seen in this area. Not exactly wilderness, but the Brant seems to be doing fine, and flies well. Why it chose such a site is hard to fathom. But many a landlubber birder has gotten their "life" - or at least "state" Brant because it did.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Poison Ivy is a major bird attractant


Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), in autumn color. Just saying its name usually triggers negative reactions. This beautiful native species is among the most despised members of our flora. It does contain urushiol, the active compound that causes blistering dermatitis among those who are allergic to it (and that's most people). 

Ironically, we (people) are the cause for the abundance of this opportunistic winner. Poison Ivy is a successional species, thriving in disturbed habitats. And we've created no shortage of disturbances in which it can thrive. It would be interesting to beam back to pre-settlement North America to see what Poison Ivy's status was then. My hunch: not nearly so common, and mostly confined to areas of natural disturbances.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) snacks on the yellowish-white berries of Poison Ivy. This hardy warbler winters as far north as the northern states in the eastern U.S. The abundance of Poison Ivy and its copious fruit are a major reason why - maybe THE primary reason. Yellow-rumps become highly frugivorous in late fall and winter, and really go for these berries. Birds, obviously, are not susceptible to urushiol's toxicity. Indeed, I wonder if any non-Homo sapiens animals are.

While exploring a central Ohio park the other day, big camera rig in hand, I was pleased to come across a large mixed foraging flock of birds. I heard the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers from afar, and saw many American Robins, a few Northern Flickers, and other species. As I slowly moved in, I saw the reason for the flock: a number of trees draped with vines of Poison Ivy heavily laden with fruit.

Awesome! I love coming across such a situation in winter, as - from just a photography perspective - it means the potential for lots of interesting shots. From a bird-watcher's perspective, the ivy-attracted birds mean lots of interesting observations. Sure enough, in the hour or so I stood quietly watching and photographing, a Cooper's Hawk made a pass through, and a young Red-shouldered Hawk did the same. The former cleared everyone out, and it took about fifteen minutes for the situation to rebound. The latter had little impact on the birds' behavior. They know that the comparatively slow and clumsy Buteo has little chance of bagging a small speedy songbird.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) among an ocean of fruit. It plucked and downed many. While Yellow-rumped Warblers are conspicuous, frequently give their distinctive tchek! calls, and often forage higher in the vines, the sparrows typically remain low and feed quietly.

An American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) works the ivy. Several of his colleagues were nearby.

I saw a number of other species grabbing Poison Ivy berries, but couldn't get shots. There are dozens of potential candidates that might snack on the fruit. I have even seen giant Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) hanging agilely from the vines, pulling off berries.

The sheer number of fruit in this particular Poison Ivy honey hole means that the site should be productive for some time to come, and I look forward to returning, camera in hand.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Red-breasted Nuthatch, in fresh plumage

A male Red-breasted Nuthatch in superb condition. This species molts anywhere from late summer through late autumn, and I'd say this one recently completed his judging by the finery of its feathers. He is in classic head-down posture and was avidly searching through lichens. Lichens are like food marts for bark gleaners, as they often hide a multitude of small invertebrates. I shot this yesterday in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Photo Notes: Nuthatches can be tricky to photograph, at least well. The smaller species tend to be hyperactive - the largest, White-breasted Nuthatch, is less frenetic in its movements - so it's generally a good idea to use a fast shutter speed. This image was made at f/8, 1/800, and ISO 200. When tracking a possible nuthatch subject, it's best not to blink - certainly don't take your eyes off it. You want to be ready for the brief lull in action, which will surely come. When I saw this nuthatch pause with its head and upper body away from the trunk with the blue sky as a bokeh, my camera's burst mode sounded like a machine gun, and I got my shot. Creepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers etc. usually don't look that great if the tree trunk is the entire backdrop. The subject looks flat and gets lost against the bark.

Old hat for seasoned photographers, I know, but if you are newer to bird photography, research back-button focusing. Separating the camera's shutter button from focusing functions is worth its weight in gold, especially with bird photography. On my Canon 5D IV (what I used for this shot) the "asterisk" center button on the back of the camera is my focus button. In AI Servo mode (another thing to research, if you aren't up on it) I just keep my thumb on the asterisk button, depressing it, and thus keep the subject in constant focus as I track it as it moves about. My forefinger hovers over the front shutter button like it is a gun trigger. When the time is right, I depress the trigger and fire away. Using back-button focusing in conjunction with AI Servo mode should net you many more keepers.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Nature: Spectacular sandhill cranes still rule the roost in protected Indiana marshes

A trio of sandhill cranes in flight at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana/Jim McCormac

Nature: Spectacular sandhill cranes still rule the roost in protected Indiana marshes

Columbus Dispatch
December 19, 2021
Jim McCormac

At the dawn of European settlement, North America’s Midwest was a vastly different landscape. Today’s environment is thoroughly altered by the hand of man. Few people probably have a sense of the conditions that reigned even a century or two ago.

A case in point is the former Grand Kankakee Marsh of northern Indiana. When settlers first arrived in this region, the Kankakee River flowed 233 miles westward from its springy origins near modern-day South Bend. Its torturous circuit carved out hundreds of bends and oxbows, and a half million acres of wetlands and primeval forest buffered its banks.

The massive marsh was one of North America’s greatest wetlands. Only 70 miles to the east was the Great Black Swamp, which covered much of northwest Ohio. It sprawled over nearly a million acres. Driving the region today, one would have little clue that some of the richest wetlands in America occupied those lands.

By the mid-19th century, agriculturalists had set to work draining the Kankakee Marsh. By the early 20th century, their work was complete. The Kankakee River had been channelized into a 133-mile ditch straight as a plumb line. The wetlands were nearly gone, transformed to endless billiard table flat monocultures of beans, corn, and wheat.

While the loss of indigenous flora and fauna was staggering, worse than we will ever know, some creatures still haunt their ancestral milieu.

Foremost among the survivors is the Sandhill Crane. This is a spectacular bird four feet in height with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. A big one might weigh 12 pounds.

For millennia, Sandhill Cranes staged in late fall and early winter in the Kankakee marshes. Birds that bred locally were augmented by those that nested further north. While most of the local nesters have been eradicated, legions of others still congregate in the remaining bits of habitat.

The crane oasis is Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. It’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Columbus. I visited in late November, near the cranes’ peak. About 30,000 birds were in the area.

At night that cranes roost in protected marshes within the wildlife area. At dawn, they fan out into corn stubble fields in the area, where they glean spilled grain. Woe to any mouse that shows itself. Sandhill Cranes are opportunistic omnivores that grab any edible morsel, plant or animal.

Thousands of cranes working the fields is a spectacle not soon forgotten. At one point, I was photographing a nearby flock when something put up several thousand birds about a mile away. Their irate bugles merged into a low roar, clearly audible from my distant post. The flock suggested a scudding storm cloud on the horizon.

Sandhill Cranes are highly social and in late afternoon, the foraging flocks converge on a massive meadow in the wildlife area called Goose Pasture. A large observation deck overlooks the site, making for easy viewing.

Waves of cranes, traveling in groups small and large, make their way to the pasture bugling all the while. The calls of cranes are earthy and primeval, a resonant woody rattling that harks to an earlier time. Interspersed are the bright sibilant whistles of juveniles. The youngsters remain with their parents for most of their first year.

Much dancing occurs among the thousands of vociferous congregants. Ornate displays are one way in which cranes communicate. The gamboling pair makes vertical leaps, spread their wings in ornate flourishes, and bow deeply to one another. Occasionally one will toss dirt clods or plant debris aloft. Sometimes dancers trigger reactions among their colleagues, and localized flash dances erupt.

Just after dusk, blastoffs commence with huge groups leaving en masse for the roosting marshes. The show ends with a bang. And a wall of sound never forgotten.

Mid-November to mid-December is peak time for cranes at Jasper-Pulaski. I highly recommend a visit. More details are at:

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, December 18, 2021

Lake Erie, November gale

As always, click the photo to enlarge

While going through images for a project yesterday, I came across this image from November 18, 2014. I had to give a talk in Cleveland that night, so I went up early to photograph gulls at Eastlake, on Lake Erie. The conditions were brutal: gale force winds, and temps in the low teens. For a brief moment near day's end, the sun suddenly lit the waves and their atomized mist, creating a stunning scene. I raced back to my car and swapped lenses and managed a handful of shots while the light was manageable. My hands were so cold I remember struggling to get the lenses on and off. The gulls, naturally, were unfazed by the wind and cold. I do not know what they thought of the beauty of the scene they occupied.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Woolly-bears on the move


A Woolly-bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) crosses a road. I saw many of these well-known caterpillars last Sunday. The temps were in the low to mid 40's F, but it was sunny, and the bears were on the move.

I was at the Wilds and vicinity in Muskingum County, Ohio, mostly looking for birds to photograph. But wandering larvae temporarily side-tracked my quest.

I did shoot some birds, including this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). He was nestled in a shrubby thicket, but when I stopped for a look, he popped out to look back. Mockingbirds are extremely in tune with their surroundings, from my experience, and pay close attention to detail. Far more than most songbirds, it seems. Perhaps this behavioral characteristic aids them in carefully listening to and learning the songs and sounds that they mimic so well.

Anyway, after about ten minutes of watching the mockingbird, hoping for an interesting flourish of the wings or something else of note, I was rewarded. The bird suddenly flew down to the road and seized a Woolly-bear that had wandered onto the pavement. Yes! But my hopes for photo documentation were soon dashed when it flew into the heart of the thicket to deal with its prey. I could not see how he dealt with the larval bear and all its stiff bristles, but I imagine it sliced it open with that stout bill and slurped out the innards. Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) successfully feed on spiny Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americana) in this way.

This was the first time that I've seen a bird prey on Woolly-bears. Their dense coat of bristles probably is a pretty good bird deterrent, most of the time.

A Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia) crosses a road not far from where the mockingbird grabbed the Woolly-bear. I saw many of these, too, although the Woolly-bears outnumbered them by a good margin. This caterpillar is somewhat larger and thicker than the Woolly-bear, all black, and when seen well the reddish-orange bands delineating its abdominal segments are diagnostic.

I suspect that Giant Leopard Moth cats are frequently mistaken for "dark" Woolly-bears". As you may know, there is a pervasive myth that the darker the Woolly-bear, the tougher the coming winter will be. However, any analysis of that myth would have to somehow take into account the problem with caterpillar misidentifications. There is yet another very common species of tiger moth, the Virginian Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica) whose caterpillars can be active into late fall. Its caterpillars are known as Yellow Bears (it isn't rare for adult moth species to go by a different common name than their caterpillars). Yellow Bears are variable in coloration but often resemble very pale Woolly-bears. Such larvae, when misidentified as they almost certainly commonly are, would be "light" Woolly-bears that forecast a mild winter.
This is what a Woolly-bear becomes, if not eaten by a mockingbird, Buick'ed while crossing a road, or bumped off in some other way. The Isabella Tiger Moth, a handsome insect. While legions of people know the caterpillar, probably very few would recognize the moth that it transforms into.

This is a Giant Leopard Moth, a truly stunning species and always a crowd-pleaser. A leopard in mint condition is an entomological work of art, with its array of black circles and iridescent blue markings. Press one gently with your fingers, and it may "reflex bleed": exude two amber droplets from the front of the abdomen, just above the head. It's a very cool effect, and the droplets presumably are toxic and assist in warding off predation by birds.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Nature: Leaf and lawn litter provides shelter for various animals

Spotted apatelodes, left, and two angel moths rest on leaf litter/Jim McCormac

Nature: Leaf and lawn litter provides shelter for various animals

Columbus Dispatch
December 5, 2021

Jim McCormac

I write this in late November, and the war on leaves is in full swing. Here in suburbia, the annoyingly loud drone of leaf blowers is the siren song of the obsessed lawn manicurist. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more annoying invention than a leaf blower — at least the noisy gas-powered ones. All to solve what should be a non-issue.

The first plants appeared about 470 million years ago. For eons, vegetable matter languished in a wee state, attaining little size. Things began to change about 350 million years ago, when trees began their evolutionary ascent.

In the latter stages of the Mesozoic Era, about 145 million years ago, trees began to evolve deciduousness. Leaves began to be seasonally shed.

Countless millennia of shed leaves and attendant leaf litter thoroughly entwined itself into the world’s ecological webs. Leaves decompose and enrich soils with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Over time, myriad forms of animal life evolved relationships with leaf litter. Invertebrates mostly too small to notice thrive in the leafy blanket, but they fuel higher animals we do notice. In the past few days, I’ve noticed Carolina and winter wrens, dark-eyed juncos and several other sparrow species, cardinals and even blue jays sifting through the leaves in search of insects or seeds.

Butterflies such as commas and question marks hide in plain sight atop litter, blending well. But moths take the leaf-litter relationship to a higher level. There is even a large group known as litter moths due to their specialized relationship with downed leaves. Many litter moths live their entire life cycle in the leaf layer: eggs, caterpillars, cocoons and adults.

Many moths have evolved cryptic appearances that make them one with dead leaves. The angel and spotted apatelodes moths in the accompanying photo are astonishingly leaf-like at rest. Good luck spotting one before it flies.

Your leaf litter indirectly grows bats. All those moths resting in the litter during the day take to the wing at night. And some will be snapped up by the sonar-equipped flying mammals.

Some of the moths that dodge the bats will pollinate flowers in the neighborhood — they’re really nocturnal butterflies.

Birds are also fueled by leaf litter. All moths are caterpillars in their second phase, and most never make it to adulthood. The vast majority are snapped up by predators with songbirds being prime among them.

In essence, when someone blows or rakes leaves to the curb for removal, they directly lay waste to scores of creatures and adversely impact the survival of others.

Americans send about 33 million tons of leaf and lawn “debris” annually to landfills. That’s over 12% of all solid waste. And what a waste. Just the use of gas and pollutants generated by disposal trucks is staggering. All to keep lawns and gardens looking neat.

Turf grass is now the biggest plant crop in the U.S., collectively covering an area larger than Wisconsin. An estimated $60 billion is spent by Americans on turf grass maintenance, and lawn owners spend a collective three million hours annually on this pursuit. The clangorous activities of mowing and leaf-blowing contribute greatly to noise pollution.

Nearly all landowners are guilty of this dubious aesthetic pursuit, the writer included.

However, I’ve reduced my lawn, and more turf will be vanquished over time. Downsizing the lawn’s footprint and replacing it with native flora is something anyone can do, and I try to do my part.

As for those downed leaves, and I have plenty, they mostly stay where they fall. Those that cover what remains of the front yard get mulched by my mower and returned to the soil.

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, December 2, 2021

Dancing cranes


I recently spent a few days in northwestern Indiana, at and in the vicinity of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area. This area is legendary for the numbers of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) that gather here in late fall and early winter. They are southbound from northern nesting areas. During my time there in the last week of November, crane numbers were reaching their peak. About 30,000 birds were estimated to be in the area.

The photo above shows typical land use in the regions around the wildlife area. Agriculture on an epic scale, and streams transformed to deep ditches. The Kankakee River drains much of northern Indiana, including this area. At the time of European settlement, there were about a half million acres of wetlands and prairies along the river's corridor. By the early 1920's, agriculturalists had managed to drain nearly all the wetlands and destroy nearly all of the prairies and savannas. The destruction of the "Grand Marsh" is one of the greatest and saddest tales of large-scale land conversion in North America. Mountains of biodiversity was lost, and the Kankakee itself was channelized into a linear ditch over its entire length in Indiana.

But the cranes still come to this ancestral staging area. The big birds are far more resilient than, say, Greater Prairie-Chickens, which were thoroughly vanquished from the state. A hard and inescapable fact in nature is that there are always winners and losers resulting from our actions. Specialists such as prairie-chickens, Regal Fritillary butterflies, and Prairie Fringed Orchids tend to be the losers when people more or less successfully bend nature to their will. Facultative opportunistic species such as Canada Geese, Butterweed (Packera glabella) and Coyotes are winners, adapting well to massive change. And, to a degree, the cranes are winners.

The cranes spend their nights in big marshes within the wildlife area and radiate out into agricultural fields during the day. There, they feed on spilled grain and whatever morsels these omnivorous opportunists can find. In certain areas, the fields are full of cranes. At one point, I was watching and photographing a group of them when something put up thousands of birds about a mile away. The din created by all those bugling cranes was easily audible from my position, and they created a semblance of low scudding clouds on the horizon.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes picks through the stubble. It would be interesting to know how old they are, and how long they have been paired. The oldest known wild Sandhill Crane (from a western population) was forty (40!) years old. Sadly, we know that because it was shot by a hunter. An ignominious ending for such a regal elder. But as the bird was banded, we did glean something of value from the unfortunate episode.

Cranes are thought to often mate for life, and one way in which they reinforce bonds is by "dancing". If you visit Jasper-Pulaski at peak crane season, you will see this behavior. To me, it is one of the most interesting things about crane-watching. Much of the dancing occurs beyond the range of my lens, and I just enjoy it through binoculars. Sometimes, a pair's dancing sparks more dancing by other birds, and before you know it it's like a feathered flash mob erupts, dancing to some primal beat.

I had a feeling the pair featured here was going to do something, and they were close enough that I could work my camera. Sure enough, the dance soon commenced. The bird on the left has tossed plant debris aloft - you can see it in the air over its head. Object tossing typically accompanies these displays. We can assume the other bird is impressed.

Dancing cranes offer showy wing flourishes, polite bows, and frequently hop vertically several feet into the air, like pogo-sticks.

This synchronized, energetic bird ballet is impressive. It'll usually last for a minute or few, then it's back to gleaning seeds from the stubble as if nothing happened.

If you've not been to Jasper-Pulaski, I highly recommend a visit. The incredible Kankakee Sands prairie restoration is less than an hour west and should be included on the itinerary. I'll write more about Kankakee later.