Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Gadwall, an underappreciated beauty

A pair of Gadwall (Mareca strepera, hen L, drake R) forage for chara (a type of aquatic algae). In the photo below, a drake shows off his ornate plumage, which is rich in ornate vermiculations, artistic scallops and subtly beautiful coloration. He is giving a characteristic low nasal quack - a distinctive sound amongst the cacophony of quacks in a duck-filled marsh or pond.

Gadwall, in my opinion, is our most underrated and overlooked fowl. For instance, despite being common over much of North America, it has only been selected for the famous annual Federal Duck Stamp once since its inception in 1934 - the 1951-52 stamp featured a pair of Gadwall by the artist Maynard Reece. I made these photos in Erie County, Ohio, on December 28, 2022.


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Herring Gulls, mussel-bombing


An adult Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) loafs on rocky riprap where the Barnegat River meets the Atlantic Ocean. I made this image on an epic December 13 (2022) trip to Barnegat Light, New Jersey, with a late day spur trip to the Edwin Forsythe (formerly Brigantine [they never should have changed the name]) National Wildlife Refuge.

While there was plenty of arguably more exotic fare to watch/photograph at Barnegat, this wise old bird caught my eye, and I seldom can resist photographing these beautiful and quite interesting animals. While some (many?) people disparage gulls, these are people that know nothing about them. A book could be written on the Herring Gull and its fascinating behaviors and history. I'll drop just one tidbit now, a facet of these big birds that always makes me ponder old warriors such as the bird in the image.

The oldest known Herring Gull lived to 49 years of age. But as our sample size of Herring Gull longevity is miniscule, and there are estimated to be around 300,000 of them in eastern North America alone, we can be sure that older individuals are out there. Indeed, it's possible that some ancient gulls might have a life span comparable to humans (or large parrots). Clever and adaptable, Herring Gulls have learned lots of interesting tricks, as we shall see.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: I made the above image with the Canon R5, a new iteration of Canon mirrorless cameras that I have increasingly become infatuated with. In fact, my main trial run with the R5 was October 2021, to Barnegat Light and this general area of New Jersey. I have discovered that the R5 is friendly to the Canon 1.4x III extender coupled to my Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens. I've never been able to adequately dial in any other camera body to that combo, in spite of seeking professional "micro-adjustment" services. The Herring Gull image is completely uncropped. It wasn't all that far, but with 1120mm of firepower, it wasn't all that close, either. The 800/1.4x combo does lose a bit of sharpness (the raw 800 is stunningly sharp) and focus issues increase with distance as might be expected, but when working with subjects at a reasonable range, it works well. For much of the wildlife work that I do, more is better when it comes to reach. I'd love to have Canon's new RF1200mm lens, which presumably is perfectly dialed in and definitely much lighter than my tank of an 800, but at $20,000 it isn't in the current budget. Anyway, all of the following images other than the landscape shot were made with the 800mm/1.4x = 1120mm combination.

The wildlife drive through Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. That's Atlantic City, New Jersey across the bay. While I made this shot on my October 2021 trip, this is the exact spot where the following action took place.

As always, click the photo to enlarge it

An adult Herring Gull has just dropped a Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis) from several stories up. NOTE: I think I have the bivalve's identification right. If you know better, please let me know.

I think every time I have been here, there has been Herring Gulls dropping mussels on this section of road. This time, I resolved to obtain some decent imagery, in between shooting big blastoffs of Brant and Snow Geese, along with other interesting fowl.

Another adult Herring Gull watches his freshly launched mussel missile drop to the road far below. I believe the thread-like projections from the mussel are its byssus - specialized filaments that enable the mussel to firmly affix itself to bed sites. The byssus isn't enough to prevent clever and powerful gulls from ripping the mussels from their moorings, however. I noticed the handful of mussel-hunting gulls would foray into the nearby bay, and then return with a Blue Mussel. It did not seem like it was very hard for them to find the hard-shelled prey. I wondered why ALL the Herring Gulls didn't seem to engage in hunting this target. The meaty innards of a mussel must be exceptionally rich and nutritious fare. Maybe only the smartest Mensa gulls can figure out the steps involved?

It wasn't just seasoned adults that were catching and dropping mussels. This is a first-year Herring Gull (it takes this species four years to attain adult plumage), doing the same.

As I'm sure you realize by now, the gulls drop the hard-shelled bivalves on the roadbed to crack their thick shells. Here's a young gull holding a just-smashed mussel. The clam-cracking bird quickly flutter-drops to the road right behind the victim, as to not quickly claim one's prize would mean piracy by other gulls would likely happen.

An adult gull flies out to the bay with a shattered mussel. They always did this, probably to find a more private spot to dine in and hopefully a hassle-free zone from other gulls. For a Herring Gull, I imagine Blue Mussel is fine dining indeed; probably the equivalent of a meaty steak to a person.

Dropping hard-shelled potential food to crack it open is a very well-known behavior by large gulls. I've seen it on a number of occasions in widely scattered areas. But the wildlife drive at Edwin Forsythe is probably the easiest place that I've seen to actually observe and make photos of the gulls dealing with mussels, at close range.

TIP: This is a VERY popular refuge, and busy days bring lots of cars to the wildlife loop. Far better to visit on a weekday as opposed to weekends, if possible. Too much traffic really horns in on the gulls' efforts to use the road as a mussel-smashing substrate. From my limited experience here, the southernmost section of the wildlife loop (towards the beginning) near the can't miss observation tower is the best place to catch the gulls in action. And the end of day will probably provide the best lighting.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

BWD Magazine

BWD Magazine (formerly Bird Watcher's Digest) always features artwork on the cover, often original. The current issue sports a wonderful rendition of a Red-shouldered Hawk in habitat, by Michael DiGiorgio.

BWD Magazine is the new and improved Bird Watcher's Digest, and the latest issue is hot off the presses. As with all prior issues, its full of interesting information about all things birds. I was pleased to have penned an article for the new one, on the amazing Kankakee Sands - a major prairie restoration project in western Indiana.

I'd highly recommend a subscription to BWD. Here's the link:


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Brown Rats, in the "wild"


While shooting eagles at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland back on December 14 (2022), I noticed a glimmer of fur flash through the rock riprap behind me. Weasel? A minute later the suspect revealed itself: Brown Rat ("Norway" Rat, Rattus norvegicus). I (fortunately, I suppose) have next to no experience with this much loathed mammal and set about getting some shots. While it stayed mostly hidden in the rocks, I noticed it was working ever closer to my sandwich in a sealed container on a low wall. As I didn't think the rat could see that, I became curious as to their sense of smell. I took a small chunk of turkey from the sandwich and placed it high on a flat rock where I knew the rat couldn't see it. The mammal soon started circling ever closer to the turkey, staying mostly under cover. In about 3-4 minutes it had found the turkey atop the rock and ran up and took it.

A Brown Rat poses nicely for the camera. For the most part, they - I saw at least three - stayed well concealed amongst the rocks. I think that I was the only photographer there who noticed them. Apparently, the many fishermen who work this section of the Susquehanna River are in the habit of tossing "trash" fish (their terminology, not mine) into the rocks. The rats eventually discovered this food source and established an outpost here.

Say what you will about Brown Rats - and most of it will be unpleasant - but they are clever and adaptable mammals. The mammalian counterpart to House Sparrows. It's thought that their original native range was the region of northern China, but Brown Rats have gone nearly global by now. Just about everywhere people go, rats will follow, and they live nearly exclusively in our shadow.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Two owls - one shot. Almost!

A Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) hunts from atop a kestrel nest box. Our team stopped to watch this box because we spotted a red morph Eastern Screech-Owl looking out of the hole. The owl popped back inside when we stopped, and while awaiting his reappearance the short-eared landed. What a shot that would have made, had the little owl looked back out of his hole with the other owl over its head! The short-ear was not hunting the screech owl - the box is just a convenient perch to look for voles and other small mammals - their stock in trade. The big owl up top would not even have been able to see the little one had he peered back out, due to the little roof overhang. As incredibly acute as owls' hearing is, I am sure the boxed owl knew something was atop his home, perhaps hence his reluctance to show himself. Screech-owls are normally not too shy towards humans, at least quiet ones watching from inside a vehicle from a respectable distance.

When I made this shot, it was well into dusk and light was scarce. The image parameters are f/5.6 (wide-open with the Canon 400mm DO II and 1.4x extender), 1/50, and a very high ISO of 12,800. When we left a few minutes later, it was too dark to shoot pictures and getting too dark to even see the screech-owl if he did reappear in the hole (which I am sure he did, eventually). Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, Muskingum County, Ohio, yesterday.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

American Mistletoe

A Silver Maple, liberally festooned with large orbicular clumps of American Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). This is the same plant that is often used as Xmas decor around now, and that people like to kiss under.

Last Friday, December 9, I made a trip to Chesapeake, Ohio and vicinity in Lawrence County. This region is probably the mistletoe epicenter in the Buckeye State and it's quite easy to find there. I'll post something more robust on this very interesting plant later, when time is more plentiful.

Mistletoe forms large ball-shaped masses and is strictly epiphytic. It typically grows high in trees, which makes photographing the tiny flowers and showy fruit a challenge. The Ohio side of the Ohio River Valley represents the northern limits for this widespread species.

A hemiparasitic plant, mistletoe attaches to its host plant's branches via specialized root-like structures known as haustoria. Once embedded, a mistletoe plant can live a long time, probably in many cases only succumbing when its host tree finally falls. This one is on an ornamental crabapple. Most mistletoe occupy native Silver Maple and American Elm, although they can exploit a number of other tree species.

I finally found an opportunity to photograph the reproductive parts of the plant, and it was a challenge. I'll relate that tale when I post about this trip later.

The showy, conspicuous berries (drupes) lure birds, which eat them. The seeds within survive the ride through the avian digestive tract and are expelled on to lofty branches later. There the seeds germinate, tap into the woody tissue, and begin to grow. The tiny greenish flowers are to the right. One must essentially have mistletoe in hand to see those.

More to come!


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Northern Gannet on Lake Erie!

Last Sunday, December 4, I took a trip to one of my favorite Lake Erie hotspots, the municipal pier at Huron, Ohio, in Erie County. I was undecided about any trip until late the night before, due to some pending projects, but ultimately felt it was in my best interest to get out for a while and try to trip the shutter on some interesting targets. And I found a completely unexpected and mega-interesting target.

A juvenile Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)! The mouth of the Huron River and nearby Lake Erie was teeming with gulls, mostly Ring-billed and Herring gulls. A smattering of Bonaparte's Gulls, and at least one Lesser Black-backed and a few Great Black-backed gulls, too. I had walked out to the furthest southwestern corner of the riprap wall surrounding the huge dredge impoundment on the west side of the pier, as this position offered a commanding view of the action, and the light was good.

I wasn't in position for ten minutes when I saw an enormous bird cruise in from the direction of the open lake. I got my big lens on it ASAP and verified that it was indeed a gannet. The camera was all set for action, as I was already focused on shooting birds in flight. The Canon R5 was in electronic shutter mode, which yields a burst rate of 20 frames a second. Unfortunately, the gannet was at a distance of perhaps a quarter mile or so and never came nearer than that. But fortunately, I was shooting with the Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens, and had the 1.4x extender attached, making for an 1120 mm lens. Even with that firepower, this image was the best that I could do - and it's extremely cropped - but it leaves no question regarding the identification.

Northern Gannets are certainly not unprecedented on Lake Erie, but they are great rarities. They appear every few years, but I think the last report prior to this one dates to 2017. It's the third gannet that I've seen on Lake Erie.

Within a few minutes of the bird vanishing towards Cedar Point to the west (I got to watch it for perhaps 2-3 minutes) I got word out to the birding community via Facebook. And scuttled my other plans to hit other lakefront locales. I proceeded out to the end of the pier, which offers a commanding view of Lake Erie, and hoped the big bird would reappear. A number of other birders stopped by as well, but at least by the time that I left around 3:30, the gannet had not reappeared. Hopefully it will turn up in the area again and others can see it. The lake between Huron and Cleveland is the zone for wayward gannets on Lake Erie, and that's where most Ohio records come from.

This is the first image that I took of the gannet, shortly after spotting it. The big seabird dwarfs the nearby Ring-billed Gull.

I suspect that gannets that appear on Lake Erie or elsewhere on the Great Lakes originate from the massive colony (100,000+ birds!) on Bonaventure Island at Perce, Quebec. That's the red dot on the Google Earth map above. "Ile Bonaventure" sits at the terminus of the Gaspe Peninsula, in the expansive Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the outflow for the entirety of the Great Lakes. I believe all Ohio gannet records are of juveniles. Apparently, the naive youngsters mistake west for east, and instead of heading out into the Atlantic Ocean to winter with the other gannets, the wayward birds head up the St. Lawrence River and inland. They pass by the iconic Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto, through Lake Ontario, on past Niagara Falls and up the Niagara River, and into Lake Erie. It's about 1,100 miles from Bonaventure Island to Huron, Ohio, as the gannet would fly.

A juvenile Northern Gannet in the Atlantic Ocean off Ocean City, Maryland. I made this image on February 27, 2022, during a pelagic seabird trip run by George Armistead and his company, Hillstar Nature. We saw many gannets, of all ages.

It takes gannets 4-5 years to attain full adult plumage. After their first (juvenile) year in which they are all brown like the bird that I photographed, immature gannets start to develop a patchwork of white. In general, they go from darker to whiter but there is great plumage variability even among gannets of the same age. All or virtually all Lake Erie gannet records are of brown first-year birds.

A smattering of the 100,000+ Northern Gannets that nest on Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is the likely source of origin for wayward juvenile gannets that appear on the Great Lakes. I made this image on July 1, 2018.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Two showy creatures at Kankakee Sands

A Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) atop a particularly showy hunting perch. The beautiful predatory insect chose this equally beautiful flowering spike of Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta) as a lookout from which to hunt game. This was at Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana, last June 29, 2022.

Kankakee Sands is an epic prairie restoration owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. This year's trip was my fourth visit, and each one has been interesting and highly productive. While my house in Worthington, Ohio, is less than 300 miles east of Kankakee Sands, the ecological difference is vast. Many true prairie species - flora and fauna - did not make it quite as far as Ohio, and Kankakee represents their eastern terminus.

So smitten with Kankakee Sands am I that I successfully cajoled the editor of BWD (formerly Bird Watcher's Digest) into letting me pen an article on the place in their upcoming January/February issue. While the article focuses mostly on birds, of which there are many, it also gives a thumbnail of the fascinating history of this region. BWD is well worth getting - learn more about the magazine RIGHT HERE.

I made this image on the same Kankakee trip. While Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) are not rare, who cares? The extroverted little buntings are astonishing in appearance, and I never tire of looking at them. Within earshot of this chap's briar patch were Bell's Vireo, Grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, Western Meadowlark (Eastern Meadowlarks, too), and TNC's fabulous, reintroduced herd of about 100 head of American Bison.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Orchid program - next Monday evening


I'm giving a program on orchids, and the photography thereof, for the Westbridge Camera Club next Monday evening, December 5, at 7 pm. All are welcome. It's at Midwest Photo, 2887 Silver Dr, Columbus, OH 43211. Details from the club below:

Please join us next week for Education Meeting, December 5
Doors open at 6:30pm for socializing, meeting starts at 7:00pm
Jim McCormac, botanist and photographer, will speak on Photographing Ohio Orchids. His presentations are always informative and inspiring!

The Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) is the second largest flowering plant family in the world, eclipsed only by the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). Orchids reach peak abundance in tropical haunts, and as an example, over 4,200 species have so far been documented in Colombia! Ohio pales in comparison to that, but our 47 (depending on how you slice them) species are interesting and imminently photogenic. Some are furtive and take sleuthing to track down while others are bold and showy. Insects are vital to the pollination of most species, including many fascinating coevolutionary relationships with moths. This talk will be a pictorial journey through some of Ohio’s most notable orchid species and will include notes on their photography.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Frost Flowers


This is a showy little mint known as Dittany (Cunila origanoides). It is a southern species, and Ohio is at the northern limits of its range. Dittany ranges across the southeastern and eastern portion of the state - the hill country.

Little pinkish flowers are held in axillary fascicles. Dittany blooms in late summer. The preceding image was made on August 23, 2014, in Athens County, and the above shot dates to August 24, 2019, from Scioto County.

Dittany is habitat-specific: it favors poor often rocky and acidic soils in well-drained sites. Sparsely vegetated roadbanks along or near ridgetops are good places to look.

The little mint is well-known for producing the subject of this post: frost flowers. Ephemeral in the extreme, one's window to seek the fascinating phenomenon of frost flowers is quite brief. I've long known of frost flowers but had not managed to catch up to them until last Friday, November 19. I was at the lodge at Shawnee State Park in Scioto County for a meeting and stayed over that night. The day had been relatively warm and the ground was damp due to previous rains. That night the mercury nosedived, and when I went afield at dawn the following day it was 13 F. Perfect for finding frost flowers and that mission was foremost on my list.

After a wonderful encounter with a Gray Fox - no photos, unfortunately - I soon arrived at a ridgetop lush with Dittany. And in no time clapped eyes on frost flowers. The one above is among the first that I saw.

Frost flowers are formed when the plant's roots are still forcing liquid upwards into the stem, and soil temperatures are warm enough that water has not yet frozen. A sudden overnight drop in temperatures below freezing is then required to produce the beautiful ice formations. As the liquids are forced into the old brittle stems, the water freezes, expands, and cracks the stems. Water is then forced outwards and freezes into bizarre formations on the lower stems.

Another, more cylindrical frost flower. No two are alike. Frost flowers are very white, and it might be easy to pass them by as pieces of debris - Styrofoam, or something similar. But because of their whiteness, they stick out like sore thumbs in the brown leaf litter of early winter. Once attuned and on the search, a frost flower hunter will have little difficulty finding the quarry, as long as the conditions are right, and the hunter is out early. Once the first sun rays strike them, the frost flowers quickly melt away.

The gossamer rime is exceptionally fragile, as I quickly learned. Even slight contact with a frost flower, say, attempting to pull a leaf away and bumping one, often shatters it. One must work gently with these icy subjects.

The striations and banding patterns of frost flowers are fantastically varied and ornate. They often resemble ribbon candy.

This was one of the larger frost flowers that I encountered. While shaped differently, it was near the size of a pop can. Others were perhaps the size of a roll of pennies.

A hollowed-out cup-like frost flower. That's the Dittany stem that formed out, spanning the top of the "flower".

This Saturday was a very good day afield - nearly all of it serendipitous. I usually have a fairly concrete plan of attack when going afield. In this case, when I headed down on Friday my plan was to look for and photograph birds the following morning. Then, when I realized how the temperatures would be nose-diving that night, my focus shifted to frost flowers. The Gray Fox first thing was a good omen. Within 10 minutes of that sighting, I had located my first frost flowers, and went on to find several dozen. Then, around 10 am I encountered the Bobcat family that is featured in the previous post.

Not a bad day, and I hope to time things right for next year's frost flower crop.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Bobcat, with kittens

BLOG NOTE: About every week of late, someone asks me 1) why I stopped making blog posts, or 2) why the email notifications for new posts went away. The two are related, as #1 is from people who depended on those email blasts to alert them to a new post and didn't otherwise check. For reasons unknown, to me at least, my platform, Blogspot, did away with the email notification system. As it's apparently now completely phased out the email notifications have stopped arriving. I wish they hadn't, as do I'm sure all other bloggers who used that service. I don't as yet know a workaround or other solutions, and don't know when/if I will. If you like seeing the content here, I would recommend that you bookmark the blog, and check in routinely. I normally create one or two posts weekly.

A female Bobcat (Lynx rufus) crosses a forest road with two kittens. This was in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, where there is probably a sizable population. Nonetheless, even though I have spent scores of hours there over the last 25+ years, these are the first cats I've clapped eyes on in Shawnee.

I was out in the woods at dawn yesterday, with two primary missions: 1) shoot imagery of frost flowers, and 2) engage on some bird photography. Success on #1 and I'll post later about these strange ephemeral ice formations.

By 8:30 am or so, I was about a half mile back in the tangled growth of an old reverting clear cut. This is a good spot for several woodpecker species, including Red-headed Woodpecker. Lots of fruiting Staghorn Sumac promised Hermit Thrush, and there were at least two, but they never presented themselves well. After an hour or so the wind started coming up, and as I wasn't getting much action I headed back for the car.

Fortunately, I had pulled the Jeep far enough off the forest road that it wasn't glaringly apparent from down the road. As is my habit, when I arrived at the vehicle, I glanced down the road. Voila! The three cats were in the act of crossing, and I made the image above shortly after spotting them. They didn't make me, either. Using the rear of the vehicle as a blind, I dropped my tripod on the ground and was ready to shoot within seconds. NOTE: I almost never turn off my camera or disassemble the rig until I'm ready to stow it in the vehicle. Never know what might happen and you want to be ready for it when it does. ANOTHER NOTE: While it goes without saying that, when stalking game, one should wear colors that aren't conspicuous, it's also a good practice to try and walk quietly, something that seems to be a dying art. Avoiding even creating the crackle of leaves or the grating of pebbles might offer you an edge over wary targets. Outside heel down first, roll onto the foot, etc. By doing so, one can move along soundlessly. All this might have helped me from unknowingly alerting the cats before I had the chance to see them, although I was distant enough that that worked in my favor too. Fortunately, I had just been after birds, so my big 800mm was on the tripod.

The two kittens watch their mother melt into the brush. They messed about on the road's edge for a minute, one even taking a few air bats at the other, before disappearing as well.

I've seen Bobcat twice before in Ohio and both were good looks, but not in situations where I could photograph them. I'm planning on writing more about these cats in a future newspaper column and will post that here after it appears.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck nesting update


Four of Ohio's now famous Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks loaf along the shoreline of the small pond where the state's first apparently wild nesting record of this species occurred. I visited the Wayne County site yesterday, and all eight juveniles (although there were ten originally) were doing well. Although it was a nippy 30 F, the birds seemed to be fine. For a recap of the nesting record and status of this species in Ohio, GO HERE.

Here are all nine birds - pink-billed adult in front center - seining Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor) from the pond's surface. They don't call this tiny flowering plant duckweed for nothing, and it seems to be a staple food for this bunch. Unfortunately, the duckweed, which blanketed the pond when the chicks hatched, is quickly disappearing.

A juvenile stretches its wings. There was much stretching and test flaps going on. However, as you can see by looking at the base of this bird's wing, not all of the wing feathers have fully grown in yet. While others have seen some of these juveniles make short test flights across the pond, I suspect they are not yet ready for long sustained flights, thus the reason that they remain in ever colder Ohio. It can take up to 13 weeks for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks to finish their juvenile molt. In this case, that would be the first or second week of December. But, on the short end of the molt timing, it's about 10 weeks, so hopefully everyone will be ready for the long southward haul before the small pond freezes over.
All nine birds tuck into the vegetation on the pond bank for a siesta. The watchful adult is in the upper left corner. The youngsters are every bit as big as the adult, and all it took was a small one-third acre pond to raise them. Hopefully all continues to go well with them.

There are a few things worthy of pondering in this case. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are normally a spring nester, typically April and May. Of course, that's in the core range in North America, which lies far south of Ohio and Wisconsin. But it's interesting to note that the only nesting record further north than this one was of a brood in Wisconsin in 2020. Curiously, the Wisconsin brood was also hatched in mid-September, and was only tended by one bird. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck pairs normally share nesting duties through the duration of parental care of the juveniles. No one has seen a second adult at the Ohio nesting site.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are also cavity nesters, and there doesn't appear to be any suitable cavities near the Wayne County pond that hosts the brood. The Wisconsin nesting site was also unknown. But in a pinch, this species will nest on the ground, and it seems likely that's what happened.

Not to throw a wrench in things, but Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is pretty commonly kept among aviculturists. And there are apparently a fair number of those in this part of Ohio. See THIS POST I made a decade ago and be sure to read the comments. For the record, in the case of the above-sited post, it is my opinion that the Ringed Teal was clearly an escapee, but the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck was more likely a wild vagrant. I'm quite aware that Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are rapidly expanding their range northward unassisted, and there is a mountain of evidence to prove it. Yet that doesn't mean the species no longer can escape from captivity. In a back recess of my mind, I can't help but to wonder about that possibility in the case of Ohio's decidedly atypical nesting record. We don't have any evidence to prove that, though, and likely never will. However, I guess I would lean towards a wild, unassisted nesting record given the sheer scope of the northward invasion of this species. If the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck continues the course, it stands to reason that there will be more breeding records to come in Ohio and other northern states, and a breeding trend will become established.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk


A juvenile male Cooper's Hawk sits on my backyard fence yesterday. I routinely receive visits from several different individuals, and it's not hard to tell when one is around. The songbirds make themselves scarce, and all gets pretty quiet. Interesting is the reaction of the Gray Squirrels. If a male hawk enters the yard, they'll often continue with business as usual. One was feeding at a feeder 15 feet from this perched hawk. However, if one of the much larger female Cooper's Hawks comes around, the squirrels typically scramble for cover. Female Coops are much larger - up to one-third again the size - of males. The squirrels feel decidedly uncomfortable when the big females lurk nearby, and with good reason. The bigger of the sexes can capture a squirrel, or at least make a valiant effort.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Acorn-toting blue jays much like Johnny Appleseed

A blue jay hauls five pin oak acorns/Jim McCormac

Acorn-toting blue jays much like Johnny Appleseed

Columbus Dispatch
November 6, 2022
Jim McCormac

This is the 408th column I’ve written for The Columbus Dispatch, and I’ve rarely written about the same subject twice. “Nature” covers a lot of turf and it’d be easy to write a weekly column for eternity and never repeat topics.

The blue jay is an exception. This is my third column on these brash crow family members, and it may not be the last.

This time, I want to give jays credit as avian Johnny Appleseeds for the oak family. Many species of birds play vital roles in the dispersal of plant fruit. Indeed, the botanical world abounds with fruit that co-evolved to lure birds. Perhaps the most easily observed examples are bright berries. The colorful pulp is irresistible to the frugivorous (fruit-eating) crowd, and birds often wolf down such fruit with abandon. The hard seeds within often survive the ride through the digestive tract, to be expelled far from the source shrub or tree. Birds make great agents for broadcasting fruit far and wide.

In the case of oak trees, the fruit are acorns. Hard-shelled fruit produced by woody plants such as beech, hickory, and oak is termed mast. Many animals covet mast: deer, mice and other small mammals, squirrels, red-headed woodpeckers, wild turkey, and many others.

But perhaps no animal can compare with the importance of blue jays to oaks and their dispersal.

Come fall and the ripening of oak fruit, the blue jays set to work harvesting the acorns on a truly epic scale. We’re in the midst of the jay’s harvest now. If you observe blue jays consistently flying to and fro on the same flight pattern, and oaks are around, you can be sure they’re raiding acorn-rich oaks.

On Oct. 23, I was at a site in Licking County rich in pin oaks. Squadrons of jays regularly passed overhead and it didn’t take long to see what they were up to. On each return trip, the birds were toting acorns and usually more than one. I made the accompanying image that day, and the jay is carrying five acorns! Two are in its bill, the tip of another protrudes from its mouth, and its throat bulges with (at least) two others.

I watched the birds for perhaps three hours, and the dozen or so acorn-hauling jays probably harvested well over 100 acorns during that time. Blue jays are so engaged all over Ohio, and eastern North America.

Where are they going with their oaken plunder? Like feathered pirates with stolen booty, the jays bury their treasures. An acorn-laden jay finds suitable soil, tries to ensure no one is watching, and quickly tamps the acorns into the ground. The bird will often cover the burial site with small stones or leaves to hide the evidence.

Unfortunately for the jays, they will forget where they hid many of those acorns. That’s good for the oaks, though. As one hard-working jay might plant a few thousand acorns annually, a better disperser of the trees’ spawn could not be designed. Jays will retrieve acorn caches when times are tight, and other animals will discover some. But many will go undetected and sprout new oaks.

The epic scale at which blue jays plant acorns and other mast may be the primary reason that mast-bearing trees rapidly expanded northward on the heels of the last glacial period. Reid’s Paradox is a term for the apparent discrepancy between expected northward plant expansion based on typical seed dispersal rates, and the much greater rapidity that this occurred as shown by fossil evidence.

Paleobotanist Clement Reid, namesake of the paradox, came to the conclusion that highly mobile bird vectors were the most likely factor in expediting post-glacial floristic advances. In eastern North America, the blue jay may be the linchpin of Reid’s Paradox.

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


Thursday, November 3, 2022

American Pipit


Tis the season for pipits. October is a big month for southbound American Pipits, and I was on foot in a good spot to hear/see them last Friday. I heard at least 75-100 pass overhead - they are diurnal migrants - mixed with Horned Larks, and a smattering of Lapland Longspurs. A few small flocks came down to forage, but distance precluded getting stellar shots. So, here's an American Pipit posing nicely from two years ago, about this time of year. Last Friday's pipits were seen/heard at Battelle Darby Metropark, Franklin County, Ohio.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Nature: Distinctive singers, a variety of tiny wrens found in Ohio boast bold voices


A marsh wren does the splits while peeking from cattails at Battelle Darby Metro Park/Jim McCormac

Nature: Distinctive singers, a variety of tiny wrens found in Ohio boast bold voices

Columbus Dispatch
October 30, 2022

Jim McCormac

Wrens are a small but outsized group of birds in Ohio. Only five species occur here (normally), but given their propensity for being chatterboxes, they can be conspicuous. Many readers host two species in their yards. The rusty-colored Carolina wren has a set of pipes that make it one of the louder voices among the feathered crowd. Its ringing tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle song sounds like they’re pushed through a Marshall amp.

From spring to fall, house wrens are common in suburbia and elsewhere. Males issue a rollicking torrent of gurgling notes, as if the little bird cannot push them out fast enough, and the notes trip over themselves. House wrens take readily to nest boxes, so it’s an easy matter to establish them in your soundscape.

The most aurally eloquent of our wrens is the winter wren. This pipsqueak weighs but 9 grams and is only four inches long. Despite its Lilliputian dimensions, the winter wren’s aria puts the Three Tenors to shame. Males deliver a long complex song full of artful flourishes and scale runs that must be heard to be believed. The entrancing tumble of notes might last 10 seconds. Proportionate to size, a winter wren has 10 times the vocal strength of a crowing rooster. A rare Ohio breeder, winter wrens become fairly common in migration, and some remain through winter.

Probably our most obscure wren is the enigmatic sedge wren. These mousy little birds occupy grassy/sedgy prairies, pastures and wetlands. They are most easily detected by the males’ mechanical chattering song, which suggests a supercharged sewing machine. Sedges wrens are not particularly common in Ohio, and often don’t appear until late summer. These are birds that presumably nested farther west and north, then moved east to re-nest a second time.

My personal favorite of this stub-tailed crowd is the marsh wren. It is well-named, being tightly tied to lushly vegetated marshes. Like other wrens, it is often first detected by the male’s conspicuous song. A short squeaky series of notes, the song somehow has a liquid quality, as if the singer is underwater.

A few weeks ago, I was at Battelle Darby Metro Park, a crown jewel of our local park system. The Teal Trail bisects an incredible wetland restoration project: marshes, open water and moist to dry prairie. This area always produces interesting animal sightings, birds especially. The lure on this day was two Nelson’s sparrows, a rare migrant.

As I skirted along dense cattail stands, I occasionally heard the harsh fussy scold notes of marsh wrens. They nest here, but by now the locals could be augmented by migrants. Wrens in general are not loathe to voice their dissatisfaction, and I was probably the target of their scolding.

Shortly after settling in to a good hiding hole adjacent to cattails to watch the parade of sparrows ― Savannah, song, swamp, and the targeted Nelson’s ― I saw movement among the cattails accompanied by soft chittered notes. A marsh wren! The bird could not help itself, and curious about the human interloper it moved along the edge of the dense wall of cattails taking peeks at me. At one point it hit its telltale “splits” pose, which is when I took the accompanying image.

More recently, I was at a Hardin County wetland, settled into a camo-hued chair deep in wetland vegetation. I was mostly in camo, and even my big camera lens is dressed in camo. All the better to avoid spooking the waterfowl I was after. Suddenly, a movement caught my eye, and a marsh wren popped from the plants about 5 feet away. It was overcome with curiosity about the strange character in its territory and bounced to within 2 feet of me. I thought it would land on my tripod.

In the words of ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, the marsh wren is: “… a shy and elusive little mite; if we make the slightest motion while watching his antics, he vanishes instantly into the depths of his reedy jungle.” I finally made a motion, and the little wren melted back into vegetation.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Sharp-shinned Hawk


As always, click the photo to enlarge

A juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) wafts overhead. Given its tiny size, the bird is almost certainly a male. Indeed, when I spotted it far out, my first thought was American Kestrel. The utterly different shape and flight style quickly dispelled that thought, and to my pleasure the little raptor, seemingly curious about us ground-bound people, floated low over our heads affixing us with a stare that you would never want to see if you were a small songbird.

Little birds are the Sharp-shinned Hawk's bread and butter and they're adept at catching them, displaying extreme aerial prowess when doing so. Hyper-aggressive with big personalities, "sharpies" are legendary for their badgering of much larger raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks. A Sharp-shinned Hawk is like Mike Tyson, Genghis Khan, and Wayne Gretzky rolled into a feathered ball of testosterone. Males are up to a third smaller than females, and the girls aren't so big either. On occasion I've lucked into a perched male Sharp-shinned Hawk - they'll often lurk quietly on a limb near a tree trunk or some other hiding spot when hunting - and the bird looks no bigger than a Blue Jay.

This bird appeared while I was with a group of people watching a vagrant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) in Licking County, Ohio, not far east of Columbus. The flycatcher - one of relatively few Ohio records - was a stunning adult with incredibly long tail streamers. While great looks were had, the bird never came close enough for photos. Missing the shot of the rarity is at best only a semi-bummer for me. I was watching birds hardcore LONG before I began photographing them and must confess that sometimes I still get so entranced by watching them I forget to take the photo! And at this site, a constant stream of Blue Jays passed back and forth overhead, carrying acorns on the return trip. I managed some pretty nice images of the feathered mast-toters and will make a post about that eventually. As I was all set up for birds-in-flight photography, when the Sharp-shinned Hawk decided to float over, it was an easy matter to capture him on pixels.

PHOTO NOTE: I shot this image with my workhorse Canon 800mm f/5.6 atop a Wemberly head on a Gitzo tripod. The body was Canon's remarkable R5 mirrorless camera. I've got that camera set up so that all three back buttons serve as focus buttons: rightmost is a single point, center button is all points on the central (of three) zone, and the leftmost button is all points active. When it's a lone bird in the sky, the camera instantly grabs and holds the subject, often pasting the active focus point or points right on the bird's face. It almost feels like cheating. Settings were f/9, 1/4000, ISO 2500 and +0.7 exposure compensation. In hindsight I would have backed off to f/8 and dropped the shutter speed to about 1/2000, which would have been plenty fast enough given the hawk's languid flight. This would have dropped the ISO significantly, but the R5 handles higher ISO's well and as the bird was close enough that huge cropping was unnecessary, the image is easy to work with and still looks good. Sometimes, in the heat of an exciting moment, I forget to keep tabs on those settings!

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses

Not much time to post of late, nor run afield to produce new imagery. I am in the final stages of a book project - more on that in a later post - and deadline-driven tasks have taken much time of late.

So, here are two photos from an excursion to western Lake Erie back on September 29 (2022). I stopped by the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve to visit with a rare (for Ohio) orchid.

Two flowering stems of Great Plains Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) rise from a rocky lunar landscape. The artificial alvars of formerly quarried sites on Ohio's Marblehead Peninsula are renowned for hosting the federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea). In spite of the barren landscape features, this habitat hosts many other interesting plants, including a number of other rarities.

By late September, the flowers are waning but those in the upper reaches of the spike still looked good. There are nine Spiranthes species in Ohio - some say more, based on recent splits - and all are relatively elfin in dimensions. The little flowers look like botanical confectionaries, as if they were crafted with sugar granules. By now, the wee orchids have senesced into brownness as has most of our other flora, and the upper Midwest prepares for winter and botanical dormancy.

NOTE: The black background on the second image was obtained by slipping a piece of black velvet, mounted on cardboard, behind the subject. This is an easy noninvasive way of isolating plants from a cluttered background.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Nature: Jack-of-all-trades - John Leonard Riddell's legacy still blooms in Ohio botany


Ohio goldenrod (foreground) and Riddell's goldenrod/Jim McCormac

NATURE: Jack-of-all-trades - John Leonard Riddell's legacy still blooms in Ohio botany

Columbus Dispatch
October 16, 2022

Jim McCormac

One of early America’s larger-than-life characters was John Leonard Riddell. Born on Feb. 20, 1807, in Massachusetts, Riddell would burn the candle at both ends for much of his short life.

A wanderlust to explore and expand his horizons sent him westward early on. Riddell landed at Marietta College by 1832, and following studies there, he moved north to Worthington, where he began earning a medical degree at the Ohio Reformed Medical College (closed in 1840). He finished his M.D. at the former Cincinnati College in 1836.

Riddell became far more than a doctor of medicine. Imbued with a quirky, sometimes challenging personality, he nonetheless was adept at diplomacy when need be, and skilled at making connections. The definition of a multipotentialite, Riddell pursued many passions.

Over his career, Riddell became a botanist, medical doctor, chemist, inventor, numismatist (he directed the New Orleans Mint), geologist, politician and author. His sole book is titled “Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Reaches of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon!” While wordy of title, the book — published in 1847 — foreshadowed space travel.

At his peak, Riddell juggled an appointment to a high federal post, active lab research, a consultancy to the City of New Orleans, involvement in Democratic Party politics, travel and hobnobbing with U.S. presidents, and lucrative real estate investments.

That wasn’t all. Riddell also balanced a wife and eight children while simultaneously managing a mistress and two other kids.

On Oct. 5, 1865, Riddell, who had been elected Louisiana’s governor — his election would be later overturned — delivered a fiery speech against Louisiana’s secession. This diatribe was met with much ill will. Three days later, John Leonard Riddell died of a stroke at 58.

Riddell’s most famous legacy is said to be his invention of the compound microscope. He was also a bacteriologist. However, botanists would disagree. His contributions to our understanding of flora in the fledgling United States cannot be understated.

In 1835, Riddell published “A Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States,” which encompassed an area including Ohio and adjacent states. He had not let the grass grow under his feet during his short Ohio stay, from 1832 to 1836. His publication listed 1,802 plant species.

Then, Ohio and vicinity was still a botanical frontier. As noted by Riddell, “There are large tracts … whose vegetable products have not yet been examined …”

The indefatigable Riddell discovered four plants new to science in Ohio. One of them is the beautiful sky-blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). Its scientific epithet denotes the Olentangy River, upon whose banks the botanist discovered the aster in 1832 near Worthington.

One big river to the west, Riddell made another remarkable find in 1834. He encountered an early blooming lily on limestone cliffs along the Scioto River in Dublin. It was named snow trillium (Trillium nivale), and small populations persist in the area to this day.

While scouring a prairie “two miles south of Columbus” in 1834, Riddell met with a statuesque goldenrod quite unlike any other. He dubbed it Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis). While our namesake goldenrod still occurs in the state, Riddell’s original site has long been obliterated.

That same year, 1834, Riddell trekked to the famous Huffman Prairie near Dayton, where Orville and Wilbur Wright started the nation’s first flying school. There, he found another unknown goldenrod, the eponymous Riddell’s goldenrod (Solidago riddellii). The plant still grows there.

On Sept. 23, I traveled to Kinnikinnick Fen in Ross County, and was delighted to encounter both goldenrods growing side by side. For botanists, Riddell’s legacy lives large, even 157 years after his death.

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