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

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Amphibian Big Day 2022: Part I

Last year, John Howard, Kelly Capuzzi and I conducted our first Amphibian Big Day. Maybe the first for Ohio; we don't know of another attempt. It's an effort to find as many of Ohio's 37 amphibian species in a 24-hour period as possible. We began on March 30 and ended on March 31 and were afield for nearly 22 hours. Our total: 18 species (19 if we count a Northern Ravine Salamander that John had caught a few days earlier and detained). We worked almost entirely in Adams and Scioto counties, with a brief foray into Brown County.

We learned lots from that inaugural attempt and tweaked this year's effort accordingly. The biggest change was shifting the dates back a few weeks. By doing so, we didn't lose any species but gained several. Another BIG change was inviting amphibian expert Aaron Crank to be a team member. He is from Scioto County and his been infatuated with herpetology since he was a young kid. Aaron knows many honey holes and is adept at finding these secretive creatures. As in 2021, we worked mostly in Adams and Scioto counties, and repeated the brief excursion into Brown County. The latter trip was to a large marshy area, primarily to bag Northern Leopard Frog and Western Chorus Frog.

Perhaps we were lazier this year, although I'd suggest smarter, and only spent about 20-21 hours afield. This allowed for a bit longer siesta at John's house, from about 5am to 8am. We also added two new spots that Aaron knew, one in eastern Scioto County and the other in nearby Pike County. Both of these added species we really wanted but are tough to find, Mudpuppy and Red-backed Salamander. The former is not that uncommon but it helps tremendously to have a known spot. Time is of the essence in 24-hour marathons such as this. The Red-backed Salamander, so common in much of the state, is (to me) inexplicably absent in most of the region we were working in.

Cutting to the chase, our team found 25 species, a big spike over last year's total. This included a number of species that eluded us in 2021, and some cooperative rarities. As always seems to be the case during Big Days, we missed one that should have been easy: Northern Slimy Salamander. They're pretty common and we looked hard but no go. It was one of the first salamanders we located in 2021, and the only species we had that year that we didn't find this year.

We'll probably try this again in 2023 and think that 25 species can be eclipsed by working in the same general area. If we turn up Northern Slimy Salamander and get all of the others that we had this year that would do it. Fowler's Toad and Streamside Salamander are also possibilities, and by going somewhat further afield we could possibly add a few more. At this point, I would say that a 30 species Big Amphibian Day in Ohio is possible but it'd be a lot of work and travel, and there'd probably be no time for siestas.

Here's 75% of our team, looking under rocks for Mudpuppies. L to R: Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard, Aaron Crank. I took the photo. Photographer Sam James also joined us for a few hours on Tuesday evening.

Following is the list of what we found, in the order that we found them. I have lots of photos of the critters, some merely documentary, others perhaps a bit better. I'll post some of those in a follow-up post.

1) Northern Cricket Frog
2) Southern Two-lined Salamander
3) Northern Ravine Salamander
4) Spring Peeper
5) Western Chorus Frog
6) American Toad
7) Northern Leopard Frog
8) Green Frog
9) American Bullfrog
10) Northern Red Salamander
11) Mud Salamander
12) Kentucky Spring Salamander
13) Marbled Salamander
14) Four-toed Salamander
15) Jefferson Salamander
16) Spotted Salamander
17) Red-spotted Newt
18) Northern Dusky Salamander
19) Wood Frog
20) Mountain Chorus Frog
21) Green Salamander
22) Long-tailed Salamander
23) Pickerel Frog
24) Mudpuppy
25) Red-backed Salamander

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Red Eft


An especially bright Red Eft, the juvenile stage of the Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), poses nicely on a lichen-covered rock on a forested slope in Shawnee State Forest in Scioto County, Ohio. Last Wednesday was damp and cool, and many efts were no doubt on the move. The orange coloration is classic aposematism: warning coloration alerting potential predators that the wearer of such colors is toxic. Efts are infused with tetrotodoxin, a powerful neurotoxin, the same compound found in deadly pufferfish. Red Efts boldly march about the forest floor on damp days and are always a treat to encounter. This one was photographed in situ; I did not move him to the showy lichen-dappled rock. Occasionally one cooperates nicely, and this was such a beast.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Talk tonight: Photographing moths!

Join Westbridge Camera Club on Monday, April 4, 2022 for a unique and informative presentation by Jim McCormac on: Photographing Moths - A New Frontier

Meeting Starts at 7:00pm, Zoom Room opens at 6:30pm

April 4 - Jim McCormac - Photographing Moths ~ A New Frontier

Butterfly photos abound. The beautiful insects are diurnal, and relatively easy to shoot. Virtually everyone that photographs nature has trained their lens on a butterfly at some point. The darker side of the Order Lepidoptera, the moths, are nearly ignored in comparison. Yet moth species outnumber butterflies by many fold. In Ohio, about 140 butterfly species have been found, counting rarities. The number of moth species could number as many as 4,000, or more. One could argue, and I would be one, that moths are infinitely more interesting than butterflies. There is no disputing that the subject material is far greater, and far less photographed. This talk will discuss the magical world of moths, how to find/attract them, shooting techniques, and the big picture: why moths are vital to conservation.

Jim worked for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for 31 years as a botanist, and later specializing in wildlife diversity projects, especially involving birds. He has authored or coauthored six books, including Birds of Ohio (Lone Pine 2004); and Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage (Kent State University Press 2009). The latter won the 2010 Ohioana Book award. He is a coauthor of the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II book. He’s currently at work on books about dragonflies. His book Gardening for Moths, coauthored with Chelsea Gottfried, is in press (Ohio University Press) and will appear in summer/fall 2022. Jim writes a column, Nature, for the Columbus Dispatch, and regularly publishes a natural history blog. He has written numerous articles in a variety of publications, and has delivered hundreds of presentations throughout the eastern United States. He was named 2015 Conservation Communicator of the Year by the Ohio League of Sportsmen. Jim is an avid photographer, shooting a range of natural history subjects. He has had hundreds of photos published in various forums. His photography can be sampled at

Friday, April 1, 2022

The annual eruption of Goldenstar lilies has commenced!

I visited Scioto County in southern Ohio last Wednesday, and high on the priority list was a stop to see the Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum). This state-endangered plant occurs in only two locales in the state, both close to one another. The motherlode is in the drainage of Rocky Fork, and there it occurs by the tens of thousands. The mass synchronous blooming is a sight to behold, and you've got to be speedy. It only lasts a week or so. The plants were not yet at peak when I was there, and I bet this weekend is prime time. The place to go is the Arc of Appalachia's Gladys Riley Goldenstar Preserve.

This is NOT a Goldenstar. It is a Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). This species is really common and occurs throughout Ohio and far beyond. Good chance it is in your local woods. If you see yellow trout lilies somewhere, the odds are astronomically in favor of it being Yellow Trout Lily. It almost certainly WILL NOT be Goldenstar, unless you live in one of the regions shown on the map below.

I have learned that I have to mention the species above in no uncertain terms when writing about Goldenstar. Maybe it will stop the numerous reports that ensue of people reporting that they too have Goldenstar in their local patch. Goldenstar blooms about two weeks earlier, has orangish-yellow anthers, and holds its tepals (petals, basically) out on a flat plane. The fruit also has a prominent beak, but hardly anyone notices the fruit. With Yellow Trout Lily, the tepals recurve strongly, sometimes almost touching their tips, and the anthers often become a brownish-purple color.

This is a map showing the total range of Goldenstar. The green counties indicate specimen records. It probably no longer occurs in many of them. Goldenstar reaches peak abundance in Arkansas and adjacent Missouri, and overall has a very scattered and patchy distribution. Note how disjunct the eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio populations are. While the possibility of discoveries of new populations always exists, any new finds would likely mesh with this pattern and be close to known sites.

Here's a close encounter with a Goldenstar flower, showing the characters I mentioned above. It's truly a handsome flower, and quite conspicuous.

A showy trio of Goldenstar flowers rises from leaf litter. One of the allures of this lily is that it blooms so early, in advance of most other wildflowers. Its blooming period seems to be shifting. My earliest photos of this species date to the mid/late 2000's and they were flowering in the first week of April. Back then, and prior to then, it was thought of as a first or second week in April bloomer. Now it seems to consistently flower in the last week of March, sometimes even a bit earlier.

Here's a ground-level view of Goldenstars peppering the forest floor. The big tree is a White Oak (Quercus alba). American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Black Birch (Betula lenta), maples (Acer spp.) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) are other common woody associates.

I hope you can make the trip to the Gladys Riley Goldenstar Preserve and see these beautiful wildflowers with your own eyes. If you do, I'd suggest making a day of it and visiting the Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, another Arc of Appalachia site. The wildflower show there must be seen to be believed, and it will also be nearing peak this coming weekend.