Monday, January 31, 2022

Nature: Once common red wolf now among rarest of the rare

A female red wolf approaches Jim McCormac in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina/Jim McCormac

Nature: Once common red wolf now among rarest of the rare

Columbus Dispatch
January 30, 2022

Jim McCormac

NOTE: See end of column for a link to an excellent film about red wolves.

January 11 was an unforgettable day. I was in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, a sprawling 152,000-acre mosaic of habitats. Mostly I was after waterfowl: thousands of northern pintail and tundra swans use the area, along with other species of fowl. My camera was my weapon.

Near day’s end, I was slowly cruising a seldom-used dirt track. I spotted an object nearly a half-mile down the lane and glassed it with 10-power binoculars. A canid! Either a coyote, or something much more special.

I pulled the Jeep off the track, exited with my big telephoto lens and hid behind the vehicle. Amazingly, the animal kept heading my way, periodically stopping to look about. Occasionally it would make brief forays into the vegetation but then return to the road.

As it got nearer, I saw it was an animal that I had no expectations of seeing – a red wolf! Luckily, I was downwind, and the wolf apparently was unaware of me. It surely saw the vehicle but apparently wasn’t put off by that. I kept clicking off shots, with the majestic mammal eventually approaching to about 75 feet.

At that point, the wolf fixed my lens with a glare (it still couldn’t see much of me), paused, then trotted into nearby woods and melted away. I suspect it had been hunting rabbits, which often come to road edges near dusk.

The federally endangered red wolf is among the rarest of the rare, with all remaining wild animals on the Alligator River refuge.

It wasn’t always so. Prior to European settlement, red wolves were common and ranged throughout the southeastern U.S., possibly including southern Ohio.

As settlers poured into the wilderness, wolf persecution began in earnest. Eventually, governments and farming coalitions offered bounties for their carcasses, and the massacres were successful. In 1978 the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild.

Wolves, possibly including both gray and red wolves, vanished from Ohio much earlier, by the mid-1800’s, victims of relentless persecution.

Fortunately, a number of red wolves had been live-trapped and these formed a captive colony housed at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Washington State. In 1987, some of these animals were released into Alligator River.

The wolves flourished in their Carolinian refuge, peaking at perhaps 120 animals in the early 2010’s.

But lots of people still despise wolves, and many of the Carolina wolves have been shot or poisoned if they dared stray onto private lands. As of now, perhaps 17 wolves remain in the wild. The animal that I saw turned out to be a 12-year-old female, known to biologists as “1849”.

It is no longer possible for apex predators such as wolves to survive in vast swaths of the U.S. Human conflict and habitat loss are the primary reasons, and when human interests are at stake, we virtually always prevail.

If only present-day Americans had the deep connection to nature that the Cherokee people did, wolves would have far less to fear. Cherokees ranged over much of the southeast, knew the red wolf well, and held the mammal in reverence, seldom killing them.

Now, to protect the whole of our biodiversity necessitates protecting vast swaths of land, such as the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. But even that might not be enough for wide-ranging mammals like wolves. Time will tell how the red wolf saga plays out, and I’m rooting for the wily canines.

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

Justin Grubb, creator of Running Wild Media and native of Worthington, Ohio, released a documentary film about red wolves in 2020. It features excellent footage of wolves and does an excellent job of telling their story. See it RIGHT HERE.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Brown-headed Nuthatch, one cute elfin


A seldom traveled lane through the sprawling Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. I spent a few days a couple of weeks ago based in Manteo, NC, and made several trips into this refuge. My original primary objective was American Black Bears (Ursus americanus). As fate would have it, an unusually cold snap (9 F one morning!) apparently put the bears into a state of torpor, and I saw none. Nor did anyone else that I encountered. The bear density here is amazing, and as they usually do not truly hibernate, these bears grow to massive proportions. Apparently, one was documented at 850 lbs.! I'll be back to try for bears later.

There was an abundance of consolation prizes, and one of my favorites was a polar opposite of a giant bear on the size scale, the Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). Along with the similar-sized western Pymy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea), this is the smallest North American nuthatch. A Brown-headed Nuthatch weighs 10 grams, and it would take nearly 39,000 of them to equal the weight of the aforementioned jumbo American Black Bear.

It didn't take long to find some of the bark-crawling sprites. Scattered older-growth pine groves produced them, and I found about three small bands of nuthatches in trees like this. Brown-headed Nuthatch is a social species, particularly in winter when small groups form.

I heard them first. Brown-headed Nuthatches deliver utterly delightful high-pitched calls suggestive of little squeak toys. Once one has pinpointed them by sound, it's an easy matter to clap eyes on the birds. They aren't shrinking violets but do tend to stay high in the canopy. Watch long enough though, and a bird or two will come lower. Hard workers, Brown-headed Nuthatches seem to work every inch, nook, and cranny of their host trees.
A Brown-headed Nuthatch dangles from a cone. No part of the pine goes uninspected, and this one spent a minute or few thoroughly probing this cone.

Most people, upon seeing one of these tiny nuthatches, would say or think something to the effect of "cute!" And cute they are. Unless you were a lacewing larva or some other small invertebrate attempting to hid in the bark. Then, the looming nuthatch would be Freddie Krueger incarnate. All things are relative.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is nearing its northern range limits at Alligator River NWR. It is almost exclusively a bird of coastal plain states along the southern Atlantic, Florida, and Gulf states west to Texas. They are always tightly wedded to mature pines, of a number of species. Knowing its calls helps immensely in finding them.

FOOTNOTE: Like other southern pine specialty birds such as Bachman's Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) and Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Dryobates borealis), Brown-headed Nuthatches occasionally peregrinate well beyond their normal range. On November 21, 2001, one appeared at the Geauga County, Ohio feeders of Linda Gilbert. It remained until January 15, 2002. That bird represents Ohio's only record. I suspect that someday, one will appear here again and if it does, what a stir that little 10-gram ball of fluff will cause.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Red Wolf


A Red Wolf (Canis rufus) ambles my way. I think this is just about the moment she realized someone/something was watching her.

The highlight of my recent trip through the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Atlantic Coast of Florida was a mammal. In spite of it being primarily a bird photography trip.

The Red Wolf is one of the rarest mammals, anywhere, with perhaps seventeen individuals in the wild. All of them occur in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. I was fortunate to see one, and beyond fortunate to get the looks (and photographs) that I did.

The wolf casts a last glance my way before trotting into nearby woods and melting away. She sports a radio collar - about seven of the wild wolves have these.

I'll tell the story of the Red Wolf in more detail here, soon, as it will be the subject of my next Columbus Dispatch newspaper column. Suffice to say it was an unexpected and thrilling experience. Fortune also literally shined on me as the light was beautiful and golden, and the sun was setting behind me.

A bit about how I came into such proximity to the beast. I had just turned onto a seldom-used gravel lane, headed towards a spot that American Black Bears frequent. Shortly after turning, I saw an object nearly a half-mile down the road, stopped, and glassed it with 10x binoculars. It was obviously a canid, although I could not tell if it was an Eastern Coyote or wolf from that range. But it seemed to be working my way.

I pulled the Jeep off the road, grabbed the 800mm lens/rig, eased out of the vehicle onto my knees, gently pushed the door shut (never slam doors!) and crawled around the back of the Jeep. It would have to serve as my blind, there was no time or opportunity to explore other options.

Amazingly, the animal kept ambling my way, stopping occasionally to look around and test the air. A few times it made brief forays into the vegetation. Perhaps it was hunting rabbits, which often come to roadsides around dusk. Fortunately for me, I was downwind so it couldn't get any scents, and the sidelined Jeep did not seem to interest it. As it drew nearer, I realized what I was looking at, crossed my fingers, and hoped it kept coming.

VEHICLE NOTE: My Jeep has auto headlights - they might have been deployed by this time. Fortunately, I had remembered to turn them off. When working from the vehicle in sparsely peopled areas, I usually keep the headlights off as long as possible. Had they been on when I turned onto the wolf road, the lights might have spooked the animal.

I've been forced to use the Jeep as a blind before, and when doing so rest the big lens butted up against part of the bumper, keep my body behind the vehicle, and thus offer the subject only a view of the lens' working end (the lens body is clad in camo) and a small part of my head and arm. It seems to break up my bipedal profile enough to sometimes keep warier animals from skedaddling.

Nearly everyone into natural history that visits this place knows about the wolves, me included. I just didn't expect to see one. Anyway, the animal eventually got to within 75-80 feet or so and was an easy mark for my big lens. The second shot above was my last, by which point she certainly realized that something was amiss. Her last pose was a beauty, though.

I probably could have just turned around and headed for home after this experience :-)

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Loggerhead Shrike


As always, click the photo to enlarge

A Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) watches for victims from a wispy perch. These predatory songbirds are brutish hunters and are sometimes known as "butcher birds". I must admit, I watched this animal for some time hoping he might score a kill. It did chase a Song Sparrow into a palm, but the sparrow escaped. Shrikes often impale their victims on thorns, barbed wire, etc. As the shrike lacks large powerful talons, sharp objects serve to hold their meal in place while the bird rips it apart. Pine Glades Natural Area, Jupiter, Florida, January 15, 2022.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Florida Scrub Jay, and Florida


A Florida Scrub Jay (Amphelocoma coerulescens), one of a clan of five birds that I encountered this morning near Hobe Sound, Florida. This rare jay, which is endemic to Florida, is but one of numerous interesting sightings on this expedition.

I left last Sunday, spent time in North Carolina then worked south into Florida. Working my way back to wintry Ohio now. When I return, I'll share more.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Ruby-crowned Kinglet eats Poison Ivy berries


I visited this birdy swath of edge habitat back on December 26, 2021. The first time I stumbled into this place, which is a bit off the beaten track in Slate Run Metro Park, Pickaway County, Ohio, was about a week prior. I wrote a brief piece about that trip, HERE.

Habitat-wise, there is much going on here. Just outside the photo to the right is a large mixed-emergent marsh. Behind me is a fairly mature patch of woodland. Older White Pine (Pinus strobus) can be seen in the photo. Plenty of dead American Elm (Ulmus americana) and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) lured lots of woodpeckers. But the biggest bait of all is prolific growths of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and most of the vines were heavily laden with fruit.

Nonnative Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) was also present, and birds were taking fruit from these plants. Especially American Robins (Turdus migratorius). While I will photograph birds at such plants, it's really not my bag. I do it mostly to document the feathered agents of dispersal that assist such plants in their spread. Not blaming birds for this, of course - many species are opportunistic survivors and will eagerly eat whatever palatable fare we leave in their paths. But I'm far more interested in documenting relationships between birds and native flora.

My main goal here was catching birds in the act of eating berries of the native Poison Ivy. This is a long-running bucket list project for me, and I might have 15-20 species noshing on the much-maligned plant by now.

But I was in for a surprise on this frigid morning and bagged an unexpected species.

While I have a number of images of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) in and among Poison Ivy plants, I had yet to capture a nice sharp image of one with berry in bill. Now I have. At least I think it's nice.

The importance of Poison Ivy to Yellow-rumped Warblers overwintering at northerly latitudes cannot be understated. In fact, I think the plant may be the primary reason that the hardy warblers can ride out cold and snow.

This phenomenon is interesting to me from a long-term perspective. Poison Ivy is very common, now, but it almost certainly wasn't in the not so long ago past. It is an opportunistic successional species, and the large-scale disturbances created by people have unintentionally created tons of habitat for it. I would bet that prior to European settlement, Poison Ivy was much better "behaved" and probably nowhere near as prolific as it is today.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula) caught in the act of eating Poison Ivy!

ASIDE: Those of you that are interested in scientific names may notice that this kinglet is now placed in the genus Corthylio. It long resided in Regulus, along with the Golden-crowned Kinglet (R. satrapa). Recent studies of kinglet genetics show significant variation between Regulus kinglets and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. That, along with morphological differences (not to mention behavior) led to the segregation of the genera.

While I was standing quietly watching and photographing fruit-plundering birds, I heard the emphatic jit-jit call notes of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This is not a common winter bird in central Ohio, and I wanted to see it. Kinglets are inquisitive and a few crude imitations of its calls brought it raging in through the brush. It was a male, as it made known by puffing its scarlet topknot feathers.

After a bit, the kinglet forgot about me and resumed foraging. I saw it make a few sallies after (presumably) flying insects - probably winter-hardy species like winter stoneflies. It was also grabbing unknown items from branches and bark, these probably insects as well. Suddenly the sprite shot over to a Poison Ivy vine and grabbed a berry! I had read where they will eat small amounts of vegetable matter in winter, but I had never seen this behavior. In the half-hour or so that I watched the kinglet, it made several trips to grab Poison Ivy berries, usually taking a few fruits each time. Like most everything that kinglets do, he was quite speedy and it was tough to get a clear shot of him in the act. This is the only acceptable image that I managed, but it certainly provides proof that Ruby-crowned Kinglets occasionally join the ranks of Poison Ivy-eating birds.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Nature: Wandering woolly-bears well known, but can they predict the winter weather?

A woolly-bear crosses a road in Muskingum County/Jim McCormac

NATURE: Wandering woolly-bears well known, but can they predict winter weather?

Columbus Dispatch
January 2, 2021

Jim McCormac

On Dec. 12 of last year, I headed to remote areas of Muskingum County. Bird photography was my primary goal. The sun shone brightly, but it was a seasonally apropos 43 degrees for a high.

Especially alluring was a gorgeous northern mockingbird occupying a dense thicket. He was as interested in me as I was in him and popped out to closely scrutinize me. Mockingbirds are far more inquisitive than most songbirds and pay close attention to their surroundings.

His behavior allowed for great photo ops. Suddenly, the mocker dropped to the nearby roadbed and seized a woolly-bear! This is the first time I can recall seeing a bird take one of these heavily bristled caterpillars. Unfortunately, the bird shot into the thicket’s innards with his prize, and I could not see how he dealt with the larvae and its coat of spiky hairs.

The mockingbird tipped me to watch the roads more closely. I ended up seeing dozens of woolly-bears, and many giant leopard moth caterpillars (Hypercompe scribonia), which look similar.

Woolly-bears are perhaps North America’s best-loved and most familiar caterpillar. They are often noted — and frequented smashed — as they wander across roads. They can be active in very cool temperatures, especially if the sun is out. I’ve seen them wandering in temperatures in the mid-30s.

A woolly-bear is the immature stage of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The moth is quite attractive: creamy-yellow and burnt-orange, and sparsely peppered with black dots. In spite of its good looks, hardly anyone other than a lepidopterist would recognize the moth. But everyone from elementary school kids to the mailman knows the fuzzy, banded caterpillars.

One reason that so many people know them is because woolly-bears are abundant. The second of two broods of caterpillars hatch from eggs in late summer or fall, and the mature larvae seek sheltered nooks with the coming of cold weather. Once ensconced in its winter sanctuary, the woolly-bear will ride out the winter months and form a cocoon come spring.

But if it gets warm enough, the larval bears rouse themselves and wander, even in mid-winter. They are provisioned with nature’s version of hand warmers, chemicals known as cryoprotectants. These solutions allow the caterpillar to endure temperatures so cold that it becomes a larval popsicle, yet not suffer tissue damage.

It has long been held that woolly-bears are weather predictors: they foretell the severity of the coming winter. Legend has it that the wider the light-brown center band of the caterpillar, the milder the coming winter. Blacker caterpillars are an omen of a long severe winter.

Charles Curran, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, studied the woolly-bear band width theory between 1948 and 1956. He, his wife, and several acquaintances would make annual fall foliage trips to the area of New York’s Bear Mountain State Park, where they also encountered scores of woolly-bears. Curran kept fastidious notes on woolly-bear coloration in an attempt to link them to weather patterns.

Curran and his allies jokingly formed the Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly-bear. His larval weather correlations were inconclusive, and caterpillar forecasting can probably be put in the same league as that of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and his winter-ending shadow.

Further throwing a wrench into woolly-bear weather-predicting is the issue of misidentifications. Giant leopard moth caterpillars also overwinter, are commonly seen roaming about, and greatly resemble black (bad winter) woolly-bears.

Yet another caterpillar active into early winter is the yellow-bear, the larva of the Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica). It looks like a pale woolly-bear, and thus a predictor of a mild winter.

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


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Shawnee Nature Safari: May 20-22, 2022. Registration is open!

Conference artwork by Cincinnati-based artist Ann Geise

Registration is now open for the "Spring Nature Safari", put on by the Midwest Native Plant Society. It'll be based at Shawnee State Park Lodge in the midst of the 65,000 Shawnee State Forest. Dates are May 20 - 22, 2022. The 20,000-acre Edge of Appalachia Preserve is right next door, and expert-led field trips will explore both the Edge and Shawnee. There will even be nocturnal trips. There is no better place to be in Ohio at that season. Check out all of the details RIGHT HERE.