Thursday, June 23, 2022

American Woodcock

I found myself at Springville Marsh State Nature Preserve in Seneca County, Ohio, at the crack of dawn yesterday. This 267-acre preserve is about all that remains of the former Big Spring Prairie that stretched from Carey to Fostoria. This spring-fed prairie must have been an interesting place before it was mostly obliterated by agriculture. The prairie-fen arced over about ten miles - roughly in the shape of a horseshoe - and was up to a mile in width. It covered parts of Hancock, Seneca, and Wyandot counties.

Springville Marsh still protects a number of rare plants and vestiges of unusual habitat. It's quite birdy, both in migration and during the breeding season. Among many more common species, I tallied Marsh Wren, Yellow-breasted Chat, and a bit surprisingly, Blue Grosbeak. Although I guess I wouldn't be too surprised to turn one of these spectacular southern grosbeaks up anywhere, anymore. They are spreading northward like wildfire.

At one point, I turned a corner on the boardwalk to encounter this fine American Woodcock. He didn't react and allowed me some nice imagery. It was only when I slowly started dropping to the boardwalk, the better to get on its level, that the bird flushed. The woodcock is a breeder, and the rich soft peaty soils of the "marsh" are an ideal substrate for probing invertebrates with that long bill. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

Visit to bald eagle nest reveals a different kind of "family"


A red-tailed hawk chick is flanked by two bald eagle chicks/Jim McCormac

Nature: Visit to bald eagle nest reveals different kind of "family"

Columbus Dispatch
June 19, 2022

Jim McCormac

These days, seeing a bald eagle nest isn’t that big a deal. It certainly was in 1979. That year, there were only four nests known in Ohio. The magnificent raptor was on its way out, largely the victim of DDT poisoning.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (good thing for acronyms!) was a pesticide commonly used for agricultural purposes. When it made its way into the food chain, the impact was disastrous on certain bird species. In the case of the bald eagle, DDT weakened egg shells, preventing successful hatches.

Richard Nixon was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1969, and one of his first major initiatives was addressing environmental issues. He signed the Environmental Protection Agency into existence on Dec. 2, 1970, and one of the fledging agency’s first actions was to ban DDT. That happened in the summer of 1972.

The recovery of bald eagles following the DDT ban was a slow road. By 1989, there were a dozen nests in Ohio, and by 2000 nearly 60 nests were known.

The majestic national symbol is off to the races now. The Ohio Division of Wildlife estimates there are over 800 active nests in 2022, a meteoric increase.

I’ve seen a great many eagle nests over the years, but nothing like the one that I saw on June 3. Photographer Stephanie Gaiser sent me a note about a nest not far from Dublin in which one of the chicks was decidedly not like the others. Her tale inspired me to visit immediately.

Upon arrival to the nest, the two massive eagle chicks stuck out like sore thumbs. But, wait! Right between them was a comparatively elfin red-tailed hawk chick! It looked about half the eaglets’ size, yet everyone seemed to get along. At one point, an adult eagle came in and dropped a large fish in the nest. Everyone dug into the sushi.

By the time that I visited, both eaglets and hawk were nearly fully grown and frequently tested their wings with vigorous flapping. The young red-tail even made short hovers and test flights around the capacious aerie. The differences in size was striking. A bald eagle weighs about 10 pounds, is over 2.5 feet long, and has a wingspan of eight feet or so. The red-tailed’s stats: 2.5 pounds, 1.5 feet long, and the wings span about four feet.

The million-dollar question is how did the hawk end up in an eagle aerie? One theory is that one of the adult eagles plucked the red-tailed hawk chick from its nest and brought it back for food. The hawk miraculously survived the ordeal, and the eagles were fooled into thinking it one of their own.

I put little stock in that explanation. More likely is that a pair of red-tailed hawks attempted to appropriate the eagle nest for their own use, only to have the rightful owners appear and reclaim it. By then, the female hawk had already laid an egg or eggs, which were incubated along with the eagle eggs. And voila! Strange bedfellows.

This isn’t the first known occurrence of bald eagles rearing red-tailed hawks. Two occurrences have been documented in British Columbia, and one each in Michigan and Washington State.

Bald eagle chicks are highly competitive and known to engage in fratricide — they sometimes kill each other. Which makes it all the more surprising that a hawk chick would survive. But red-tailed hawks are very feisty and this one didn’t seem to take guff from his giant siblings.

I suspect they all were hatched about the same time, probably back in mid-March. Both species’ eggs require about the same incubation period: 30-35 days. But the hawks mature far faster and are ready to depart the nest after 45 days. Eagle chicks take around three months before they fledge.

Indeed, within a week of my visit, observers reported the adult eagles acting aggressively toward their adoptee — apparently, forcing it to take wing. Raptor youth sometimes need some prodding to make their first flight.

By now, the young red-tail is out on its own and hopefully, doing well. Its formative diet probably had lots of fish, and it would be interesting to know if it tries to continue with that diet.

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

Friday, June 17, 2022

Eastern Yampah (Perideridia americana)


Early morning light illuminates the lush understory of a small Pickaway County, Ohio woodlot. A spindly, white-flowered parsley stands front left, and that plant was my target on this day.

It's been a pretty good year thus far for seeing and photographing rare flora. But few plants have been as rare as this one. Eastern Yampah (Perideridia americana) is only known from this one locale, and I counted about 75 plants on my visit last May 30. They occupy a fairly small roughly square area, and that's it. There doesn't appear to be any other Yampah plants in the woods. There must be something special about this one section of the woods.

Brian Riley rediscovered Yampah in Ohio - at this very spot - in 2012 or 2013. There was only one definitive Ohio record prior to this find, by the legendary Pickaway County farmer/botanist Floyd Bartley. Bartley's collection label says "... wet woods, 2 miles SE of Whisler, Salt Creek Twp., June 11, 1950. Riley's find was definitely not a rediscovery of Bartley's find, as the sites are about 15 miles apart.

There is an enigmatic Yampah record, reportedly from "prairies, Madison County" in the 1840's. However, there is no known specimen or other corroborating evidence so that one must be regarded as hypothetical. But as prairies or woodlands associated with prairies are the haunts for Yampah, a Madison County record would make sense.

Like many parsley family (Apiaceae) members, Yampah's flowers are arranged in umbels. While this species might superficially suggest some others, upon inspection there is really no likely source of confusion.

The leaves are highly distinctive. Leaflets are incredibly long and narrow, and there are relatively few leaves on the plant. This character along with habitat and time of year - tail end of May, peak flowering into the first two weeks of June - should remove all doubt.

A Yampah hits its stride. On May 30, the colony was just beginning to flower. The curious common name, by the way, is a derivation of a Native American word for plants in this genus.

And there are more species in the genus Perideridia. Thirteen in all, but the other twelve species are all found in far to the west, and mostly in the southwest U.S. Perideridia americana is the only eastern representative. It is known from only ten Midwestern states, and the Ohio population is the easternmost known. Eastern Yampah appears to be fairly widespread only in Illinois and Missouri, but I suspect that many of their populations have been destroyed due to rampant prairie destruction. The plant is known from only a handful of counties in the other states, and overall Yampah is undoubtedly far rare than it would have been at the time of European settlement.

Hopefully Ohio's small population holds strong for some time to come.

PHOTO NOTES: Normally I am not much for flash when photographing plants. It creates too much of a harsh, flat look for my tastes (I didn't always feel this way but have evolved). But there are times when one can use it for good effect. The shady woodlot with dappled light presented lighting challenges, and I shifted to flash to attempt to even things out a bit. Mostly, though, I was turning the flash power (Canon 600 speedlite) way down to send out a soft fill light, which was already muted by a diffuser. For instance, the first habitat shot was made at f/71, ISO 100, with a very slow shutter speed of 1/5 second. Obviously, I was working off a tripod. The flash made the lone flowering Yampah pop and helped separate it from the background. The final shot of the robust flowering specimen was made at f/13, ISO 200 and 1/200. A bit of toned-down flash helped separate the plant from its background, and partially blackened the backdrop.

Monday, June 13, 2022

A cool robberfly, and a doppelganger

As always, click the photo to enlarge

You would not want to be a lesser bug and see this thing looking your way. It is one of the bumble bee-mimicking robberflies (Laphria thoracica [I should caveat my specific identity to say that I think it's that species. There are a few very similar Laphria species, and if I got it wrong, please let me know]). These large, highly predatory flies light out after flying insects, envelop them in an iron maiden death clutch, and administer the coup de grace with a syringe-like proboscis. Powerful neurotoxins are pumped into the victim, immobilizing it while other chemicals accelerate deterioration of the innards. The robberfly then sucks out the slush, using the proboscis as a drinking straw. All that'll be left is a withered husk.

I visited the legendary Cedar Bog last Friday, June 10, mostly to catch the end of the blooming of one of North America's most stunning orchid, the Showy Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium reginae). But there is always a wealth of subjects on display, and one I was watching for was the above robberfly. I saw a few, and as always had to try for some imagery.

Here's the robberfly in profile. Most anyone, upon seeing one of the bumble bee mimic robberflies in the genus Laphria, would think them to be just that - a bumble bee. But upon inspection, something isn't right, starting with their habit of sitting out in the open. A closer inspection reveals that the fly often quickly twists and tilts its head as it watches for potential victims. The remarkable mimicry may have evolved to give the predatory fly a measure of protection as it sits on its conspicuous perches. Many birds, notably excepting the Summer Tanager, probably learn to avoid big bugs that look like this. They don't want to get stung.

This insect was "hunting" in close proximity to the second robberfly that I located. And does it ever look like a robberfly, and acts very similar as well. But it is a type of flower fly in the vast family Syrphidae: the Orangeback (Pterallastes thoracicus). Flower flies are not predatory to my knowledge, instead living up to their name and visiting flowers for nectar and pollen. But boy, do the Orangebacks ever act the part of robberflies. They sit atop leaves, and make frequent loud buzzing flights as if they are after something. There is an aggressive element to them, and this one even strafed the significantly larger legitimate robberfly perched nearby. Perhaps its coloration, structure and habits are mimicry of the fearsome robberflies, although I don't know this for sure.

In an admittedly brief search, I could find next to no information about the Orangeback. I did learn that it apparently is rather uncommon and local. In the vast and ever-growing iNaturalist archives, there are only scattered - often widely so - records across the eastern U.S. They seem to become more common eastward and there are only about 30 Ohio records, mostly in the northeastern corner of the state. As conspicuous and easily seen as this insect is, there would no doubt be far more iNaturalist records if Orangebacks were everywhere. I pay more than casual attention to most insects, and I've only seen this species once before, in 2020, also at Cedar Bog.

If you know anything about the Orangeback and perhaps have some good sources to learn more, please pass them along.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

My yard, the "fawnery"

A doe White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stands guard over one of her two fawns. I made this shot May 31, and I think the fawn was about two days old. I believe this one and its sibling were both born in my yard, as they were together on this day. The doe since seems to have split them up and stashed one elsewhere, as they will.

Here's a shot of one from yesterday. The fawn would be a bit under two weeks of age. What a difference a week or so makes. The little one is still nursing of course, but is starting to try snacking on plants and otherwise emulate the behavior of the doe.

The fawn's agility has improved tremendously. Here she bounds after mom with nary a misstep. In their earliest days, fawns are rather ungainly. They'll get excited and attempt to dash about, but often trip over their gangly legs and tumble.

The little one gazes around at the big world. Her mother was not far off. The doe often grooms the fawn, and when this happens the fawn wags its tail like a puppy.

Late yesterday afternoon, the doe left the fawn nearly under my porch window. Almost as if I'm being asked to watch over it while she forages, or tends to the other fawn, or whatever it is that she's doing. When left along, the fawns curl up and don't move, trying to keep a very low profile. Usually, they are in much denser cover than this, though. By this morning the doe had moved it into thicker growth nearby.

Hopefully all goes well for the little ones. I enjoy having them around, and don't begrudge the deer some hostas or other flora. Sometimes it's a bit irksome when they eat my native plants, but c'est la vie.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Nature: Puttyroot orchids can grow stalks up to two feet high, bedecked with colorful flowers

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale), West-central Ohio/Jim McCormac

Nature: Puttyroot orchids can grow stalks up to two feet high, bedecked with colorful flowers

June 5, 2022

Jim McCormac

Thoughts of orchids conjure images of tropical places and fantastically ornate flowers. A taste of this botanical exotica can be sampled in local nurseries and box stores. Strange and beautiful cymbidiums, dendrobiums and phalaenopsis are there for the taking.

The orchidaceae is the second-largest family of flowering plants (the sunflower family is first) with 28,000 species so far identified. Orchids reach maximum diversity in tropical regions, and a visit to equatorial jungles would make an orchidophile’s head spin.

One need not venture to Colombia, Indonesia, or the Philippines to see orchids, though. While Ohio’s 47 native orchid species seems paltry in comparison to the 4,000 species in Colombia, ours are also interesting and often quite showy.

I did qualify 47 orchid species with “native.” There is an introduced Eurasian oddity called the helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) that sometimes turns up in mulch beds and other waste places.

Back in April, naturalist extraordinaire Paul Knoop sent me a message about an amazing woodland in Clark County. A mutual friend, John Ritzenthaler, had discovered a population of puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) that had to be seen to be believed.

John was happy to show me the site, and I visited on May 24. While I’ve seen puttyroot many times, never have I seen or heard of a population of such epic scope as this one. Ritzenthaler fastidiously documented the conspicuous overwintering leaves via 690 photographs, then tallied them all — 11,221 leaves, each representing a separate plant!

Puttyroot is unusual in that the single leaf emerges in fall and remains evergreen through winter. Photosynthesis occurs at this time and is most efficient at temperatures just above freezing. The big green leaves are finely pinstriped with white, suggesting the style of an old-time gangster’s zoot suit.

By the time of my May visit, the leaves had mostly withered away. But I was there to see the showy flowering stalks, and the plants were in peak bloom. John led Chelsea Gottfried (co-author of mine on an upcoming book) and me through the 20-acre woods and we tallied all flowering stems that we saw.

Our total: a whopping 600-plus flowering orchids! As we only got through about half the woods, we estimated that there were over 1,000 flowering plants. That would be about 10% of the total plants that John counted from leaves. Many plants are too young to flower or for whatever reason, remain dormant some years.

A big old puttyroot can send up a flower stalk nearly 2 feet in height and beset with up to 20 small maroon and lemon flowers. The colorful spikes appear surreal, arising from bare leaf litter.

As with many orchids, most of the life cycle is subterranean. Puttyroot’s foundation is a thick pair of branched roots. The divisions are known as corms. These underground parts are intimately wedded to specialized soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which help nourish the orchid. Orchid/fungi relationships are extremely hard to duplicate, thus the high failure rate of transplanted wild orchids.

The curious name puttyroot also stems from the corms. Long ago, a sticky substance was harvested from the roots and used to repair pottery.

Puttyroot might be considered the spring wildflower orchid. It grows in rich forest humus, often in association with later-blooming vernal flowers. Such was the case in this magical woodland. The puttyroot was surrounded by appendaged and large-leaved waterleaf, golden alexanders, synandra (a spectacular mint rare in Ohio), wild ginger and many others.

I appreciate John showing us this amazing orchid patch, and his work in documenting the scope of the population.

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, June 2, 2022

Barn Swallow in flight

As always, click the image to enlarge

A Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) rockets past my position. These charismatic birds are no harder to shoot than about anything else when perched, but their true character emerges when on the wing. Barn Swallows - and all other swallows - are consummate aviators, completely at ease in flight and capable of blistering speed and jaw-dropping aerial maneuvers.

Of all our swallows, this one is my personal favorite. Barn Swallows are full of personality, and seemingly without fear. They'll strafe the immediate wake of tractors that are kicking up insects, or rocket right through a group of people at knee level at top speed. This well-named species is often a close associate of ours, as the overwhelming majority nest in barns and other man-made structures. Most people who host them - and have bothered to learn anything about the hard-working swallows - are glad to play landlord. Barn Swallows catch legions of flying insects, and that's a service that most people probably appreciate.

One problem with photographically depicting a Barn Swallow in flight is getting the photo. Ever-evolving camera technology has certainly made that task easier. Last October I got a Canon R5 mirrorless camera, and it is just short of magical. It'll fire off 20 frames a second and has an Auto Intelligence focus mode. The camera recognizes eyes, even those of a swallow blurring by at xx mph.

All of this helps immensely with trying to freeze a fast-moving bird on the wing. The photographer still has important responsibilities. One must find a good spot with plenty of birds and frequent flyby opportunities. When I saw a colony of Barn Swallows nesting under a foot bridge at Howard Marsh, a metropark along Lake Erie near Toledo, on May 10, I couldn't resist the opportunity. Flybys were plenty, and I managed a number of keepers. While the light wasn't optimal - near midday on a mostly sunny day - the watery backdrop was okay. The other important task for the shooter is to try and smoothly track the subject while clicking off shots. It's a lot like shooting skeet - same principles apply.

This image was made at f/5.6, ISO 640, and 1/2500 seconds. The lens used was the Canon 400 DO II, and in my opinion that is Canon's best birds-in-flight lens and possibly the best BIF lens in the business. It focuses with lightning speed and is extremely light and thus quite easy to handhold for extended periods. Shooting birds in flight off of a tripod is in most cases much harder than handholding the rig.

I will continue my quest to get all of the North American swallows in flight. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

Nature: Patchwork-patterned piebald robin with mostly white head an astonishing creature


A piebald male American robin/Jim McCormac

Nature: Patchwork-patterned piebald robin with mostly white head an astonishing creature

Columbus Dispatch
May 29, 2022

Jim McCormac

The American robin is widespread and ubiquitous, the most common native bird in Ohio. Other than in winter —and sometimes even then! — it is likely to be one of the first birds encountered when stepping outside.

Male robins deliver a rich warbling carol that is a pervasive part of the avian soundscape. Everywhere one goes — urban park, backyard, the wilds of Shawnee State Forest, Lake Erie islands — there are robins. Over 4 million of them in Ohio. Nationwide, there are 370 million robins.

Birds as abundant as the robin can quickly become background blur. We get bored with them, another humdrum robin hopping on the lawn. That’s a shame, as the American robin is one of our handsomest songbirds. Were they great rarities, birders would drop everything and come running if one made a showing.

Even I — an avowed fan of the burly extroverted thrush — must admit to ignoring robins on occasion. However, I did quite the opposite when the odd robin that is this column’s protagonist came to light.

In early May, I was in southern West Virginia helping to lead trips as part of the New River Birding & Nature Festival. This region is awash in interesting and uncommon birds — broad-winged hawks, yellow-billed cuckoos, over 30 warbler species including rare cerulean and Swainson’s warblers, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and many more.

Even the palette of thrushes, including Swainson's, gray-cheeked, and wood thrushes, and veery, out-exotic their familiar stablemate, the robin.

However, when longtime festival attendees Don and Karen Stose of Clayton, Ohio, showed me a photo they had taken of a very unusual robin I was all ears. The bird had appeared the day before at their campground near Fayetteville. I asked them to call or text if it appeared again, and I’d try to get there ASAP.

Don rang the following day proclaiming, “It’s here!” Fortunately, we were just back from a field trip, and I made it to the campground in 10 minutes. The first bird I saw upon entering the facility was the gorgeous variegated bird, which promptly flew into a woodlot and out of photo range.

I sat with Don and Karen to wait him out. The allure of nearby turf grass was irresistible and the robin soon appeared on the lawn, posing like a supermodel.

The robin's aberrant coloration is caused by a genetic condition known as leucism (loo-siz-em). Defects in pigment cells cause afflicted animals to become whitish, or more commonly, a mix of whitened zones along with normally pigmented areas. The latter are often referred to as "piebald," although the patchwork pattern is formally known as hypopigmentation. White-tailed deer are perhaps best-known in this region for producing piebald offspring.

Leucism should not be confused with albinism, a different genetic anomaly in which the eyes become pink. Leucistic animals retain normally colored eyes.

The leucistic robin was a stunning creature with its mostly white head and upper breast dappled with charcoal scalloping. Scattered white patches adorned other parts of its body. Even the most jaded robin-watcher would drop his or her jaw in amazement at this bird.

Manifestation of leucism is a numbers game. The more individuals in a species, the more likely it will manifest. Thus, leucistic robins, red-winged blackbirds, white-tailed deer and other abundant species appear with some regularity.

Other than possibly making the robin more noticeable to would-be predators, leucism probably doesn’t affect its well-being. Here’s hoping this robin survives, thrives and astonishes other observers.

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, May 26, 2022

Bird photography talk: June 8, Lloyd Library in Cincinnati

I'm giving a program about birds, their photography, and the power of imagery to create conservation interest, in Cincinnati on the evening of June 8. It's free and all are welcome.

The venue is the amazing Lloyd Library and Museum, which houses one of the most impressive collections of books you'll probably encounter. Some of their works date back to the 1400's. It's heavily used by researchers and the Lloyd is active in outreach work to the community. This spring one of their outreach programs is entitled Birding through Time, and features monthly speakers, of which I am one.

Birding through Time also draws on the Lloyd's collection of bird books that spans several centuries. You'll see them if you attend. It's an amazing building and stunning collection, and I hope that you can come and see everything.

For complete program details and registration, please CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Mississippi Kites nesting in Shawnee State Forest

A male Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) lands atop his mate. Seconds later, he mounted her.

Last weekend the Midwest Native Plant Society hosted a wonderful conference at Shawnee State Park's lodge. Nearly 200 people were in attendance, and there was much to see: plants galore, snakes, lots of birds, amphibians, and more. The 1,100-acre park is nestled within the 70,000 acres of Shawnee State Forest and the biodiversity is extreme. But it was hard to beat this pair of kites.

While botanizing in the depths of the forest 6 or 7 years ago, in early summer, I heard the unmistakable calls of Mississippi Kites, but could not clap eyes on them. The following year park naturalist Jenny Richards located presumably the same birds near the nature center where they were a fixture much of that summer. A pair of kites has been present ever since.

This year the kites have shifted their base camp to the cabins at the lodge. There are a couple conspicuous dead snags between cabins 14 and 15, and when not out hunting one or both kites sit in those snags where they cannot be missed. There are even conveniently located benches with great views. It's kind of like going to the movies, except you're watching real live kites.

And the kites put on a show. It seemed that about every time the male would join the female at the snags, he would mount her in a hopefully successful effort to produce kitelets. Sometimes he would bring her a grasshopper. Occasionally one of the kites would perch atop an oak directly over the viewing area - they are hardly shrinking violets and paid people no mind. We were especially pleased to see them carrying sticks to a likely nest site somewhere in the nearby forest.

Kites are light and incredibly agile. Flyers extraordinaire, they deftly pluck insects such as cicadas (they'll emerge a bit later) dragonflies, and grasshoppers from the air. Small snakes and birds are also fair game.

The first Ohio record of Mississippi Kite (in modern times at least) was in 1978 in Franklin County. When Bruce Peterjohn published his 2nd edition of The Birds of Ohio in 2001, he only was aware of nine records. In the two decades since then, records have skyrocketed, and multiple birds are now documented annually. The first confirmed nesting was in 2008 in Hocking County and now there are probably at least a few nesting pairs in southern Ohio.

The Shawnee kites are easily observed and if you're in the area, it'd be worth stopping by for a look. If they aren't on the snags around cabin 15, just wait a bit and they'll likely appear. Nearly everyone who attended the recent conference got to see them, and often large throngs of people assembled to ooh and aah over the sporty kites.


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Cave and Green salamanders

Cave Salamander, Eurycea lucifuga

At the recent New River Birding & Nature Festival, I was introduced to a sandstone cliff face with interesting inhabitants. Paul Shaw, Jodi French-Burr and I visited one wet night, and were treated to Cave Salamanders (top image) and Green Salamanders (photo follows text). During the day, they hole up in crevices. Commencing about 10 pm, out they come to hunt lesser creatures on the cliff face. Both species are listed as endangered in Ohio and are tough to find here. They become much more frequent to the south. Fayette County, West Virginia, May 6, 2022.

Green Salamander, Aneides aeneus

Monday, May 16, 2022

Nature: Tiny, endangered Walter's violet once found growing in Franklin County

A tiny Walter's violet grows in an Adams County woodland/Jim McCormac

Nature: Tiny, endangered Walter's violet once found growing in Franklin County

Columbus Dispatch
May 15, 2022

Jim McCormac

Violets mean spring, at least for the botanically inclined. Chances are your yard is dotted with jots of purple. The color is courtesy of the common blue violet (Viola sororia). It’s a hardy native, capable of surviving turf grass deserts.

The common blue violet isn’t the only violet out there, although some of the others require much more searching. Give or take, there are about 26 native species in the genus Viola in Ohio. Give, mostly: Taxonomists have proposed a number of “new” species, these carved from established species. But skeptics remain and not all of the new splits have gained widespread acceptance.

Botanical simpletons might want to lump them all into three species: purple ones, white ones, and yellow ones.

On a trip to southern Ohio on April 22 (Earth Day), I encountered a booming population of one of our rarest violets. Walter’s violet (Viola walteri) is listed as state-threatened and is currently known only from Adams and Highland counties. These are the northernmost populations in its range.

Walter’s violet is also our smallest violet. The leaves are about the size of your pinky fingernail, and an entire plant could fit comfortably on a half-dollar coin. They require ground-level inspection to truly appreciate.

The scientific name Viola walteri recognizes botanist Thomas Walter, a complex and productive character. Born in Hampshire, England, in 1740, Walter came to America in the late 1760s. He settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and wasted no time making his mark.

At that time, the flora and fauna of the eastern U.S. was imperfectly known, and there was much to be found. Walter discovered a number of new plants, and eight of them were named in his honor.

In 1788, Walter published the results of his work in a book titled "Flora Caroliniana," an important milestone in early North American botany. He died the following year at age 48.

Between his botanizing, Walter married three times, produced five children, was a successful merchant, acquired 4,500 acres of land, and held political offices.

Including Walter’s violet, seven violet species are listed as imperiled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Unlike the common blue violet in your yard, most violets are finicky specialists. Habitat loss is a major reason for their rarity.

Franklin County offers ideal habitat for Walter’s violet: thin soil over limestone in open woods or glades. Appropriate conditions formerly occurred along the Scioto River, especially in the Dublin area. And that’s where the only county record of Walter’s violet comes from. A specimen was collected near Hayden Falls on May 6, 1916, by botanist F.E. Leonard. This was the northernmost site ever recorded.

Large-scale changes in the intervening century have not been kind to plant conservation along the Scioto. Development and the rampant spread of invasive plants have hit native plant communities hard. The elfin Walter’s violet probably hasn’t survived the onslaught.

However, glimmers of hope often remain in the case of long-missing plants. And several other rare plants cling tenuously to Dublin’s rocky refuges. Perhaps little Walter’s violet will be rediscovered in Franklin County someday.

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

Friday, May 13, 2022

A yellow Scarlet Tanager!


A yellow Scarlet Tanager! I saw this bird from afar, and my first impression was Baltimore Oriole. A quick glance through the bins proved that wrong. He allowed me to approach for shots, but never would move his head from behind that grapevine before flying into denser cover and vanishing. It's a male, and apparently he has some genetic anomaly that altered the process of changing the carotenoid-driven coloration from brilliant red to yellow. It surely was a striking bird. Magee Marsh, Lucas County, Ohio, May 10, 2022.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Eastern Fox Snake

An Eastern Fox Snake (Pantherophis gloydi) keeps an eye on your narrator. I had just set up my tripod near a ditch when I noticed the snake loafing near the water's edge. He was over four feet in length and quite well marked. I eased towards him to pick him up for a better look - they're gentle and I have never had one try to bite - but he quickly slid into the water. He didn't go far and watched me as I watched warblers. Keep an eye out for these handsome reptiles if you're at Magee Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and vicinity. I encountered this one in that region yesterday.

Monday, May 9, 2022

A piebald robin


As always, click the photo to enlarge

A striking leucistic American Robin. The animal has a genetic condition that suppresses melanic pigments, creating a "piebald" effect. Karen and Don Stose, attendees at the New River Birding & Nature Festival, found this bird and tipped me to it. It was but ten minutes from where I'm staying, so off I went for a look. And I'm glad that I did, even though more exotic fare such as Swainson's Warbler was close at hand. Fayetteville, West Virginia, last Friday.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Nature: More than two dozen species spotted during 24-hour amphibian watch

A Kentucky spring salamander was found on Jim McCormac's recent 24-hour quest with Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard, and Aaron Crank/Jim McCormac

Nature: More than two dozen species spotted during 24-hour amphibian watch

Jim McCormac

"Frog catching is the most fun a human being can have while on this earth."

— Jase Robertson

I’d sort of agree with the "Duck Dynasty" star. However, after the 20th hour or so, one grows weary.

Last year, Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard and I launched what you might believe to be a fool’s errand: the first-ever Ohio Amphibian Big Day. As no one has yet come forth to claim a previous effort, I’m sticking with our claim of being first. However, we may be the only ones mad enough to attempt this. Capuzzi is an aquatic biologist and Howard lives in Adams County and is a walking encyclopedia of flora and fauna.

In 2021, we started our 24-hour marathon at 11 a.m. on March 30, which ended the same time the next day. We were afield for 21 of the 24 hours, and covered parts of three counties: Adams, Brown, and Scioto. Our tally: 18 species.

There are 37 amphibian species in Ohio, and perhaps 32 of them are in striking distance of southern Ohio’s Adams County, our home base. Finding all of them would be nearly impossible, but we knew we could top 18 species.

Learning from our mistakes, we made several changes. Moving the Big Day back two weeks improved our odds of locating more species. We weeded out unproductive spots and added others to the itinerary. Most important, we added an amphibian all-pro to the team: Aaron Crank.

Twenty-three-year-old Crank is from Minford, in eastern Scioto County, and is a walking encyclopedia of herpetological knowledge. He knows the region like the back of his hand, and is near-magical at locating secretive frogs, salamanders and toads in the field.

Our quest began at noon on April 12. Crank could not join us until early evening, so Capuzzi, Howard and I darted about Adams and Brown counties, mostly picking off low-hanging fruit.

Surprisingly, our first find was not a gimme, a long-tailed salamander larva that Howard found under a creek rock. Next was a southern two-lined salamander, one of many that we would tally. The last frog to commence singing is the cricket frog, and they hadn’t fired up yet. Vocalizations make frogs far easier to detect. Nonetheless we found several around a pond. This is Ohio’s smallest amphibian. The warty frogs are about an inch in length.

A visit to a Brown County marsh added a slew of new checkmarks: American bullfrog, American toad, green frog, northern leopard frog, spring peeper, and western chorus frog.

By the time we met up with Crank at a remote spot in Scioto County, we were up to 14 species. Our new team member quickly helped wrangle the following salamanders: four-toed, Kentucky spring, marbled, mud, and spotted. We also added wood frog.

Darkness was falling, and we headed to some rocky crags near the Ohio River. We were after the rare green salamander, a cliff specialist that spends much time in tiny fissures. Success! We found four.

Nocturnal road-cruising — earlier rain created good conditions for amphibian activity — added mountain chorus frog, along with many species we’d already seen. A visit to a small lake surrounded by forest added pickerel frog, and several other species including the Kentucky spring salamander whose photo accompanies this column.

We retired to Howard’s Adams County house for a three-hour break at 4:30 a.m. Stumbling back out soon after daybreak we visited a stream near Minford where Crank soon netted a mudpuppy. These sensational aquatic salamanders can reach over a foot in length.

Our last stop was a woods where we located red-backed salamanders. This is a very common species in central Ohio, but is inexplicably absent in most of the region where our Big Day takes place. We can thank Crank for this one, too.

In all, we managed 25 species: one toad, nine frogs and 15 salamanders.

Records are meant to be broken, and we’ll try again next spring. If we can forgo sleep, another few species should be possible.

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, April 30, 2022

Blue Grosbeak

A Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) sings on a nippy 36 F morning. Yesterday morning I stopped by a Ross County site where I've seen this species in year's past, and this male was immediately evident. Blue Grosbeaks deliver a distinctive rich warbling song, reminiscent of a Purple Finch. The vast majority of birds that I've found have alerted me to their presence by their song, which carries for quite some distance.

Probably due to the cold, he was foraging down low and even spent time on the ground. Here he poses on old stalks of Indian Grass in a prairie meadow. Henslow's Sparrows were singing nearby.

This southern species is expanding northward and is much easier to find - at least in Ohio - than in the not-too-distant past. When I was a kid, Blue Grosbeak was pretty much an Adams County specialty. Away from there, it was a great rarity. Not now.

During the first Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (1982-87), Blue Grosbeak was found in only eleven counties, and was locally frequent in only Adams and Lawrence counties - two of our southernmost Ohio River counties. Their numbers and distribution had spiked by the time of Atlas II (2006-11). Surveyors found Blue Grosbeaks in nearly 70 counties and in much higher densities than occurred during the Atlas I period. Scattered pairs have made it all the way to the Lake Erie region, and it would not be especially surprising to turn one up anywhere in the state.

Blue Grosbeak numbers have skyrocketed in southern Ohio. Anywhere that their favored habitat of open meadows interspersed with scattered trees and brushy areas occurs, there is a great chance of finding this stunning relative of the Indigo Bunting.

Why are Blue Grosbeaks moving north and increasing in numbers? If one takes the long view, this species of semi-open country probably began its northward march following the opening up of the formerly vast eastern deciduous forest several centuries ago. Widespread clearing created much favorable habitat. However, that does not explain the fairly recent and obvious ongoing expansion. Forest clearing has been going on far longer than Blue Grosbeaks have been actively expanding northward, at least at the pace of the past few decades. This species clearly did not join in the boom-and-bust expansions of a trio of other open country songbirds in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries: Bachman's Sparrow, Bewick's Wren, and Loggerhead Shrike. Despite the apparent availability of suitable habitat, those three have crashed and the sparrow and wren are extirpated from the state. The shrike barely holds on. Yet the grosbeak is growing in numbers and conquering much new ground.

One big difference between the aforementioned shrike, sparrow, and wren and the Blue Grosbeak is that the latter is a Neotropical migrant, with nearly the entire population wintering in the Caribbean and especially in Central America. Ohio-nesting grosbeaks are traveling up to several thousand miles south to wintering grounds. The others were/are short-distance migrants or even year-round residents, wintering almost exclusively in the U.S. Who knows, perhaps upward shifts in mean temperatures is the catalyst for the northward sweep on grosbeaks. It will be interesting to watch their continued expansion.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Old male Eastern Fence Lizard


Last Friday, April 22, was Earth Day - first held on 4/22/1970 - and I went afield in southern Ohio with a nice, knowledgeable group of friends. We found many interesting animals and plants, not the least of which was this beautiful old lizard.

At least I think he was old. An Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) six inches in length would be a whopper, and this one was about five inches. I figure it must have taken some time for him to attain those proportions. Males have patches of iridescent hyacinth-blue scales underneath, which they flash to woo the girls.

This one was inhabiting a rock pile, and by slowly creeping around that into a depression, I was able to get below his level, the better to show some of his bright scaling.

I find that many people are surprised to learn we have lizards in Ohio. This species is one of the more common species, along with the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). Fence Lizards occur commonly (at least locally common) throughout parts of the southern third of Ohio, while Five-lined Skinks can be found - at least formerly - over much of the state, excepting most of southeastern/eastern Ohio.

Much more local is the Ground Skink, or Little Brown Skink (Scincella lateralis). It's only been recorded in about four southern counties. I've seen this little beauty but once, and wrote about HERE. The largest species is another locally distributed species, the Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps). This skink is a bruiser, with big ones reaching a foot in length. It's been found in about 14 southern counties, but probably doesn't occur in them all anymore.

I think there is an old record for Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), but I can't remember where. Eastern Ohio probably, as this species ranges near the state in Pennsylvania. Finally, we have the Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis), an import from Europe that thrives in the Cincinnati region and shows signs of spreading. I wrote about the interesting story of Wall Lizards RIGHT HERE.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Amphibian Big Day: Part II

Busy, busy, busy lately, with travels, writing, prep for talks, etc. But finally, I am circling back to our Ohio Big Amphibian Day. I gave an overview of this year's effort RIGHT HERE. Kelly Capuzzi, Aaron Crank, John Howard and I set out on a 24-hour marathon of herpetology on April 12 & 13, and located 25 species of frogs, salamanders, and toads. That bested our inaugural attempt last year by seven species. We think we can possibly eclipse this year's total next year, but it might mean forgoing any rest periods.

Anyway, we did our best to photo-document the species that we found and following are a few of those critters.

As always, click the photo to enlarge

Male American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) in full song. We saw many and heard far more.

We saw many egg masses of Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) but did not really expect to see an adult. After breeding, they mostly retreat to subterranean haunts. However, Aaron flipped a rock and there was this beauty.

Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) are very common, and we saw a number of them. This was a particularly striking individual.

This Northern Ravine Salamander (Plethodon electromorphus) is missing a good chunk of its tail. Salamanders with missing tails are not uncommon, and they can partially regenerate them over time. Perhaps a predator grabbed this one, but by shedding the tail the animal escaped.

Southern Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea cerrigera) are common along rocky streams, and we found a number of them. We were pleased to stumble into this female with eggs.

A Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris) peeks from its rocky shelter. This species is similar to the Northern Leopard Frog but favors a very different habitat: forested streams.

We visited a favorite woodland lake, and as usual it teemed with Red-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens). Their numbers are inestimable but certainly number into the thousands. I made an interesting newt observation. After gently lifting a sheet of loose moss on a bank several feet up a bank on the lake's edge, a newt fell out! There was an egg mass of a Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) underneath, and the newt was eating the eggs.

Over much of Ohio, Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) are abundant and often the most commonly found salamander. Not down in the region of southern Ohio that we were working in. Fortunately, Aaron knew a reliable locale and it didn't take long to find them there. This is the "lead-backed" morph that lacks the orangish-red dorsal stripe.

A larval Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) crawls over moss. It takes several years for this species to reach adulthood. Adults are bright reddish orange.

A gorgeous specimen of a Kentucky Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus). They are often much less colorful. Well-named, these large salamanders often frequent the vicinity of woodland seeps and springs.

We were pleased to find a few specimens of the lovely Mud Salamander (Pseudotriton montanus). A rarity in Ohio, but certainly overlooked to some degree. The well-named animal often inhabits mucky quagmires.

A Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus) peeks from a fissure in a limestone cliff face. A bona fide Ohio rarity, they occur in one small region in southernmost Ohio.

Finally, we were pleased to add this bizarre aquatic salamander to our tally, and once again have Aaron to thank for his knowledge of a good locale. The Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) inhabits rocky streams, often hiding under large in-stream rocks. The reddish bushy plumes are its gills, which are retained throughout the salamander's life. A big Mudpuppy can reach a foot or so in length.

We look forward to attempting this next year. If luck is with us - and we work hard and forgo sleep - 27 species is possible. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Program this Saturday: Warblers, photography and more!

Black River Audubon is hosting an event this Saturday at the Carlisle Reservation in Lorain County (Ohio). Known as the Jack Smith Outstanding Speaker Series, it runs from 10 am to 2 pm. There is an optional bird walk beforehand, at 8:30. As this metro park has lots of interesting habitat, we ought to be able to find a number of species.

At 10 am, Jamie Cunningham takes the stage to deliver a talk entitled The Secret Lives of Warblers. Jamie is one of the best bird photographers in this part of the world and presents her subjects with artistic flair. This will be a great presentation.

Following lunch, at 12:30, yours truly will deliver a program called Conservation Photography: Connecting the Masses with Nature. It'll feature lots of images of interesting flora and fauna, and my thoughts about how to weave stories out of photos and use them effectively to engage people.

It's free for Black River Audubon members, and a mere $10 for nonmembers. Complete details and registration can be found RIGHT HERE.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Nature: 'Mammals of Ohio' features facts, figures and more about Ohio's furry denizens


"Mammals of Ohio" (Ohio University Press, 437 pages, $38.22) by John D. Harder and Guy N. Cameron

Nature: 'Mammals of Ohio' features facts, figures and more about Ohio's furry denizens

Columbus Dispatch
April 18, 2022

Jim McCormac

Over four decades have passed since the last definitive work on Ohio’s mammals. In 1981, "A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio" was released, with detailed accounts of 54 species of mammals. It was authored by University of Cincinnati mammologist Jack Gottschang.

Lots of changes have occurred in Ohio’s mammal populations in the intervening 41 years. Some species have become more common, and others rarer. New information has been learned about most species, and their ranges have been further elucidated. And advances in publishing techniques and photography allow for a much showier book about the hairy crowd.

"Mammals of Ohio" updates Gottschang’s book in a slick package peppered with excellent photographs and much new information. The authors are well-respected Ohio mammalogists John Harder (Ohio State University) and Guy Cameron (University of Cincinnati).

The book’s cover is eye-grabbing, featuring a gray fox in mid-stride, shooting the photographer (Larry Master) an inquisitive look. This beautiful forest fox is an example of changes that have occurred since Gottschang’s book. He noted that gray fox was found in every county, and “extremely abundant” in some regions.

Not now. Harder and Cameron describe gray fox status as “low” in numbers throughout much of Ohio, and it is listed as a Species of Concern by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Other mammals with marked declines since 1981 include most Ohio bat species, primarily due to the introduction of a fungal disease referred to as white-nose syndrome.

On a positive note, black bears, bobcats and river otters — which were considered extirpated in 1981 — are recolonizing the state. As is the clever and charismatic coyote, a subject of much misinformation and misguided fear. Its account in "Mammals of Ohio" gives the real facts about these wily canids.

"Mammals of Ohio" includes an informative introductory section that includes information about mammal physiology, techniques used in their study, conservation, and a comprehensive checklist of Ohio species. In addition to numerous photographs, the book features delightful line drawings by Suellen Jacob.

Each Order (rodents, carnivores, bats etc.) is introduced with an informative overview that describes characteristics of the group, the number of species and families, and various interesting facts. Orders are broken down into families, these with a brief synopsis of its defining characters.

The meat of the book is the 55 species accounts. These are robust, stretching over several pages. The writing is clear, and the authors do a commendable job of simplifying sometimes complex information and presenting it in easily understandable terms.

Accounts feature a description of the species, and sections on distribution and abundance, habitat, diet, reproduction, mortality, behavior, and conservation. Excellent maps show distribution in Ohio, and the overall range.

Numerous nuggets are scattered throughout, such as the venomous bite of shrews, the behavior of our true hibernators (it isn’t just the woodchuck), and exactly how skunks employ their musk against threats — and what animals prey on them.

I highly recommend "Mammals of Ohio." Anyone with an interest in mammals beyond Homo sapiens should enjoy this book. It’s a great way to learn the rest of the story about mammals such as chipmunks, opossums and squirrels that share your yard. It will also open eyes to species that most people probably don’t know about, such as least weasel, star-nosed mole and thirteen-lined ground squirrel.

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