Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Six-lined Racerunner

This extraordinary lizard is a Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata). Race it does, allegedly being able to hit 18 mph. We can attest that they are fast. I'm at the Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands Preserve in NW Indiana. The Racerunner was a species we wanted to photograph but didn't have high expectations of doing so. It's one of a number of interesting species that we've found, and I've still got a day and a half to go. Thanks to site manager Trevor Edmonson for his hospitality, and for mothing with us the past two nights. John Howard, Laura Hughes, and Linda Romine came up Sunday, but had to head back this afternoon. As always, they found many cool things.

I'll post some meatier fare from this epic trip when time allows.


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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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.