Monday, August 29, 2022

Hummingbird guards hibiscus

I had a meeting at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visitor's center at Caesar Creek Lake in southwest Ohio's Warren County yesterday. We convened to plan the 2023 Midwest Native Plant Conference, and it should be another doozy. As I've not had a chance to shoot much lately, I got down that way at sunrise, and wandered into a productive patch that I knew about. It wasn't long before I heard the rich warble of a Blue Grosbeak. While I had great studies through binoculars, the melodious animal never cooperated for images.

A great consolation was this female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I had noticed three hummers aerially jousting on occasion, and as luck would have it, I found a favored perch for one of the sprites. Unfortunately, she chose a branch of the horribly invasive Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), but hey, we can't have everything.

She apparently chose her perch as it overlooked a nice patch of this plant, Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). This photo is from elsewhere but offers a perspective of the scope and scale of this huge native mallow. If one of the rival hummingbirds came too near, she dashed out and drove it from the vicinity.

The hummingbird spent time apparently gleaning small insects from the flowers, as well as tapping nectar. The latter action was hard to shoot, as the flowers were mostly not angled my way. When she entered the flower, she'd more or less completely disappear inside the giant cuplike bloom. I had to wonder what it must be like, to be a tiny bird entering a flower much larger than you are. It would strike me as a surreal Alice in Wonderland sort of experience, basically akin to going into a flower fort.

What I would have given to have had pink flowers (Hibiscus moscheutos varies in flower color) angled just like this! What a hummingbird shot that would have made! Ah well, it wasn't possible to get this perspective yesterday, due to the swampy terrain and other factors.

But now that I know of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds' apparent fondness for the flowers of this gorgeous native mallow, I can probably bag such a shot in the future. Yet another photographic bucket list item added.

Willow Flycatcher in flight

A Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), post launch. A 1/1000 second shutter speed was not nearly fast enough to freeze its wings as the bird rows hard after launching from a shrub. Warren County, Ohio, August 28, 2022.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Moth/Native Plant talk: Saturday, August 27, Franklin Park Conservatory

For anyone interested, I'm giving a talk entitled "Gardening for Moths" at the Franklin Park Conservatory this Saturday at 3 pm. While moths are the focus, the talk is really about using native flora to spawn fauna and create a diverse ecosystem that includes lots of animal diversity. I'll use lots of examples of native flora that can be purchased and grown, and what ensues when they are. Lots of pretty pictures, of course :-)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Swallow-tailed Kites in Ohio: UPDATED!


UPDATE: Shortly after I made this post, another Swallow-tailed Kite turned up at the Perry County site that is the main subject of this post. As of 8/21/2022, there are now three kites at this spot. And yet another Swallow-tailed Kite came to light on August 20, in Henry County. It is still there as of this update (8/22/2022. So that's four confirmed kites in Ohio as of now.

Typical agricultural land just north of Somerset, Ohio, in Perry County. I was at this spot last Thursday, August 18, to view a pair of very special birds. The following shots were all made from this spot, or close to it.

On August 14, Susannah Hopkins discovered two Swallow-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus) in this area, and they remain to the present. Many people have visited to see the spectacular raptors. A book project and some other stuff prevented me from going for five days, but I was keen to see the birds, and especially the site. I know that area of Perry County well, and there is nothing particularly striking here from a habitat perspective - much of the land is highly agricultural. But clearly it is to the kites' liking, and that means food abounds. More on that later.

One of the kites make a pass. This is a large raptor, with a four-foot+ wingspan, unmistakable patterning and that diagnostic long forked tail. It would be hard to mistake a Swallow-tailed Kite for anything else. "Kite" comes from their buoyancy and aerial prowess. Indeed, the kites we fly tethered to strings are named for the bird kites. As a point of comparison, another notable aerialist, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), has a wingspan nearly a foot shorter, is half a foot shorter in length, yet weighs nearly double that of a Swallow-tailed Kite. The kite weighs less than a pound, contributing to its extraordinary maneuverability and overall flying prowess.

This species has an interesting history in Ohio (and the Midwest). The earliest ornithologists described it as locally common in several areas of Ohio in the early 1800's. There were records from at least nine counties with southwest Ohio especially noted as a hotspot. As Ohio was not nearly as well "birded" two centuries ago as it is today, there were surely Swallow-tailed Kites nesting in many other areas of the state that were not documented. These were breeders near the northern limits of the range, although some kites nested all the way to southern Minnesota and Wisconsin. In general, Swallow-tailed Kites had a classic U-shaped distribution pattern shared by scores of animal and plant species: along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, and into the interior via the Mississippi River and its larger drainages, like the Ohio River.

By the 1850's, it was clear that kites were in decline in Ohio and other northern haunts. Habitat destruction - kites favor old bottomland forests and other semi-open woodlands - was in full swing, transforming Ohio from a state that was close to 95% forested to a low of 10% forest by the early 1900's.

Another factor that probably played a large role was persecution, and in the case of this insect-eating raptor, persecution of the most ignorant sort. Swallow-tailed Kites were - and are - fairly tame and approachable, which made them easy to shoot. Witness this quote from John James Audubon, writing in the early 19th century (when this species was known as the Swallow-tailed Hawk): "When one is then killed and falls to the ground, the whole flock comes over the dead bird, as if intent upon carrying it off. An excellent opportunity is thus afforded of shooting as many as may be wanted, and I have killed several of these Hawks in this manner, firing as fast as I could load my gun." (Kites form flocks prior to migrating south to South American wintering grounds). Audubon wasn't the only one blasting kites, and such wanton and utterly unjustifiable shooting surely played a role in their disappearance from some regions.

The Perry County pair courses about during some playful aerial dogfighting. To watch Swallow-tailed Kites sky-dancing and otherwise engaged in flight is to watch one of the bird world's greatest aerialists plying its trade. Early in the morning, when conditions are cooler and thermals have not yet created their invisible turbulence, the kites will often rest in trees. Once the updrafts form, they frequently loaf aerially, drifting about with nary a wingbeat, only that long forked rudder of a tail twisting to flick them into a new course. They'll rise until they're just specks, then shoot down hundreds of feet in a flash only to rocket skyward to their original altitude moments later. High-flying Turkey Vultures seemed to be investigated occasionally, and I couldn't help to wonder if anything was being said up there. At one point, one of the local American Kestrels went up to engage the pair, and I'd bet they were laughing at the feisty little falcon. It'd gain altitude and stoop at a kite, which would effortlessly flick out of the way at the last instant. I imagine the kestrel's heroics provided amusing sport for them.

It wasn't until 1975, in Sandusky County, that Ohio had a 20th century record. Fourteen years later, 1989, another appeared in Ashtabula County. Our next record came in fall of 1997, in Holmes County, and that one lingered for almost two weeks and was seen by scores of birders, your narrator included.

In 2006, Swallow-tailed Kites appeared in Lorain and Mahoning counties, but the modern-day spate of kite sightings commenced in 2012 with another Holmes County bird. Following that came the following records (by county. all are of single birds unless otherwise noted):
2013: Champaign, Clermont
2014: Highland, Lawrence
2016: Holmes, Montgomery
2019: Knox (2 birds), Montgomery
2020: Coshocton, Crawford, Fayette, Licking
2021: Lake
2022: Perry (three birds), Henry

It's not hard to see the upward trajectory, and the increase in kite records may be a precursor to what happened with the Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) which began nesting in Ohio in 2007 (at least that's when they were discovered) and is now a very rare but regular breeder in probably a few locales. Their pattern mirrored that of the Swallow-tailed Kite, it just commenced earlier. I wrote about Mississippi Kites HERE. What a great thing it would be, to have Swallow-tailed Kites back nesting in Ohio, and I think that day is coming.
A nymph Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus) on a soybean leaf. Note the insect's tiny wing buds. It'll get much larger. Adults are a bit over two inches in length, perfect for a kite meal.

After a few days of reports, when I saw that these kites were staying in place, I wondered what was keeping them there. Swallow-tailed Kites are highly insectivorous, and cicadas, dragonflies, and grasshoppers are dietary staples. Well, it didn't take long after arrival at the site to see that there were scads of Two-striped Grasshoppers in the bean fields. And the kites made frequent swoops low over the beans like giant grasshopper terns, plucking victims and eating them on the wing. These grasshoppers - I did not notice other species but didn't look too hard - were clearly a favored prey item and the birds wouldn't run dry. Two-lined Grasshoppers apparently have boom and bust years, and this must be a boom. While I only peered into the beans from the edges of the field, there might have been a grasshopper or two in every square foot. As all the surrounding roadside vegetation had recently been mowed, that might have forced even more grasshoppers into the bean fields. Whatever the case, the kites were frequently grabbing them, and they'll not go hungry here. A number of migratory Black Saddlebags and Wandering Glider dragonflies passed by as well, providing the birds with dietary diversity.

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope for Ohio's first modern nesting record of Swallow-tailed Kites in some upcoming year.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Pleasing Picture-winged Antlion


Here's something you don't see every day, or at least I don't: Pleasing Picture-winged Antlion (Glenurus gratus). This huge - 4" wingspan! - insect is a southern species, near the northern limits of its range in Hocking County, Ohio, where this one appeared at mothing lights. Unlike better known antlion species, whose larvae create conical pitfall traps in soft soil ("doodlebugs" or "demons of the dust"), the predatory larvae of this species live in tree holes. They live in the woodchips and debris at the hole's bottom, feeding opportunistically on whatever small invertebrates come their way. Apparently, they can live for up to two years in the larval stage. The adults are quite ephemeral, lasting probably only a few days, if that. July 28, 2022.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Green Mantidfly!


Mantidflies are bizarre entomological oddities on nearly every level, and in general they don't seem very common. Most of the ones that I see come into the lights at mothing stations, but every now and then, I'll stumble upon one unexpectedly. Which was surely the case here, although it was sharp-eyed Norah Tempus who did the finding. A group of us were out in the woods on a nocturnal prowl at the Midwest Native Plant Conference at Mt. St. Johns in Greene County, when she called us over for a look at the extraordinary beast.

As you inferred from the post's title, it is a Green Mantidfly (Zeugomantispa minuta). While all the mantidflies are strange and interesting in their own way, this one is especially fetching. It's the first of its kind that I recall seeing. While about 400 mantidfly species occur worldwide only five or so are found in Ohio, and any sighting is memorable. This one, with its lime-green coloration and ornate wing venation, is especially fetching. Green Mantidfly has an enormous range, extending from about our latitude south through the eastern U.S. and on south through Central America and into South America.

Mantidflies look like something cobbled together by a mad scientist. The foreparts resemble a praying mantis, replete with colorful gemmed eyes. Powerful forelegs are used to seize prey, which might be anything smaller than the mantidfly. As this mantidfly is maybe an inch long, we're talking small prey. The wings appear to be stolen off a lacewing, and the thickened abdomen smacks of a wasp.

It gets weirder. Many mantidflies, this one included, are parasitoids of spiders. A larval mantidfly, shortly after hatching, seeks a ride on a spider. When a suitable arachnid passes by, the larval mantidfly hops aboard. If the spider turns out to be a male, the hitchhiker awaits its discovery of a female and subsequent mating. While the spiders are so engaged, the clever mantidfly crosses over to the female. When the female spider begins to create its silken egg sac, the mantidfly hops in and is sealed up with lots of fresh eggs. It then gorges on fresh spider eggs, pupates within the spider nest and eventually emerges as an adult.

That strikes me as pretty risky business, this mantidfly lifecycle. Perhaps that's why they seem to be rather scarce.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Interesting yellow grasshopper

A thick growth of Partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) lines my front walkway. There are many other native plants in this bed, but few of them can match the Partridge-pea for pollinator allure. Dozens of bumblebees (genus Bombus) are on the plants at any time, and the high-pitched collective buzz as they buzz-pollinate the flowers is awesome. Partridge-pea also has extrafloral nectaries - I once wrote about those HERE - and myriad bees and wasps are always visiting those. There is always something interesting to see in this patch.

This, however, was completely new! I've seen a lot of Differential Grasshoppers (Melanoplus differentialis) in my time, but never one like this. This large species is one of our most common grasshoppers, but they are usually a drab olive color.

Back on July 18, my brother Mike came over to shoot pool - I LOVE shooting pool and have a table in the basement - and I was showing him all the action in the Partridge-pea. He peered into the plants and spotted the grasshopper, sitting just as it is on the fruit of Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis). Fortunately, my macro rig with flash and diffuser was sitting inside on the kitchen counter. I did not pose the grasshopper, although I confess the bug looks good on the fruit. I'm not saying I wouldn't have perhaps posed it there, but you try "posing" a grasshopper sometime. Not easy to impossible.

Anyway, orthopterans routinely but rarely have pink or yellow variations, but I've never seen nor heard of yellow forms with this species. A bit of a scan around the Internet for images produced only one or two, so I imagine lemony-colored Differential Grasshoppers are pretty rare.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Nature: Local couple has created an ecologically-friendly yardscape rich in native flora

Josh McElhaney's yard, thick with a diversity of wildflowers/Jim McCormac

Nature: Local couple has created an ecologically-friendly yardscape rich in native flora

August 7, 2022

Jim McCormac

Trick question: What is the largest irrigated crop in the United States? Answer: Your yard, and all the rest of them. Lawns cover 40 million acres of the U.S., which is more than the 11 largest national parks combined and three times the acreage of corn crops. About 10% of Ohio is in lawn.

People dump billions of gallons of water on the ground daily to keep the turfgrass emerald-green. Can’t have “weeds” encroaching or unwanted insects attacking the grass, so over 100 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides drench lawns annually. These toxic chemicals make their way into waterways and cause various environmental and human health issues.

I won’t even go into the gas use and pollution generated by lawn mowers, and that noisy scourge of suburbia, the gas-powered leaf blower.

Lawn management is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so there is plenty of seductive spin aimed at convincing people that a manicured lawn is good and healthy. Don’t want the Joneses to leave you behind! The truth is that all of this non-native grass and its attendant management has laid waste to native plants and wildlife.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And increasing numbers of homeowners are eschewing traditional high maintenance turfgrass wastelands in favor of hardy and beautiful native flora. And just last week, The Dispatch garden writer offered suggestions for alternatives to turfgrass.

When I moved to Worthington a few years ago, I immediately set out to vanquish lawn in favor of native plants.

Today, my yardscape is floristically diverse and full of interesting low-/no-maintenance plants. Numerous butterflies provide fluttering proof of increased eco-friendliness. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen American snout, cloudless sulphur, hackberry emperor, monarch, and summer azure laying eggs on appropriate host plants (none of which are turfgrass).

Last year, my brother Mike introduced me to one of the kings of lawn-to-native conversion, Josh McElhaney. Josh and his wife Abby live in the epitome of urbanized suburbia: the corner of Karl and Cooke roads in northeast Columbus. I visited their “yard” again on July 13 and was blown away by its diversity.

Josh began his mission to diversify an acre of lawn in 2015. Seven years later, it bears beautiful fruit. At least half the grass is gone, replaced with a rich palette of native flora. Various coneflowers, cup-plant, several goldenrod species, prairie-dock and sunflowers provided lemony highlights and sent the local goldfinches atwitter in anticipation of the coming seed crop.

A discerning botanist would have fun searching the McElhaney yard. Curiosities such as queen-of-the-prairie, pawpaw, persimmon, rattlesnake-master, royal catchfly, and wild honeysuckle dot the grounds. Five species of milkweeds are in the gardens, a boon for monarch butterflies. One is Sullivant’s milkweed, which was first discovered in Ohio in the 1830s. Its finder was William Starling Sullivant, the botanist son of Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton, which would evolve into Columbus.

Splashes of color come courtesy of easily grown native standards such as blue false indigo, mountain mint, redbud, and wild bergamot. A daring gardener, Josh has also planted two species of sumac: ecological heavy lifters, but they occasionally need to be reined in. In all, about 100 native plant species now flourish in the McElhaney yard and it in no way resembles its grassy predecessor.

I asked Josh why he started down the native path, and he gave a wonderful answer. The McElhaneys have two girls, ages 8 and 10, and wanted them to be able to experience nature and all that comes with it at fingertip range. That they can; just a step or two out the door and this easy opportunity has sparked an interest in flora and fauna in the girls.

Josh likes showing off his homegrown wildlife refuge and sharing what he’s learned about establishing native flora.

If you would like to visit, send me a note at and I will put you in touch.

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, August 5, 2022

Purple Fringeless Orchid

A stunning Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena) grows in a rich bottomland forest. It and others were along the margins of an irregularly inundated overflow channel of a nearby stream.

I made a trip into Zaleski State Forest (Vinton County, Ohio) on July 28 of this year, in large part to look for this amazing orchid. It is fairly easy to find in this region, and in places is along the roadsides. This plant and the following were off the beaten path, though - bit of a hike up a trail, then a bushwhack down to the bottomland and voila! There they were. As a bonus, I located a handful of Cranefly Orchids (Tipularia discolor) in flower.

A closer view of the ornately structured flowers. A nearby plant had a much more densely flowered spike, but I prefer these more open inflorescences if one may be choosy about their Purple Fringeless Orchids.

Various swallowtail butterflies and hummingbird moths in the genus Hemaris visit the flowers during the day, and next year (perhaps) I will return to an orchid patch and sit, wait, and try to photograph the pollinators in action. These are all diurnal pollinators, and I don't know if there is a night shift of moths that visits the flowers.

PHOTO NOTES: This is a big plant, up to three feet in height and sporting lengthy spikes of flowers. Thus, I used a big lens: my Canon 400mm f/2.8 II, on a tripod of course. I prefer telephotos for certain flower photography, as the beautifully blurred bokeh is very complementary to the subject. The second shot was made at f/8, 1/13, and ISO 320. My only real job was to choose an angle that didn't have other vegetation immediately behind the subject. Stopping down three stops brought more depth of field to the flowers, but still did not pull in background distractions. Because of the dim light and my desire to keep the ISO low, a SLOW shutter speed was required. But as there was mostly no wind, that wasn't a problem. No flash - that would have created a black background, not the look I was after. Also, flash can impart a harshness that I don't really care for with plants.

The first shot was made with Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8 II, a superb ultra-wide angle. The lens was dialed in to 22mm. By the way, both images were made with the Canon R5. Settings for the first image were f/11, 1/13, and ISO 320 - same as the second other than the aperture. Something really critical with the use of ultra-wide lenses is to get CLOSE to your subject. I probably had the lens six inches or so - maybe less - to that orchid. If an anchor subject isn't close enough, wide-angle shots can look unmoored and somewhat featureless. An obvious and interesting foreground subject sets a tone and draws the viewer's eye into the image.


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Cedar Bog photography talk and walk - this Saturday

The meadows of Cedar Bog as seen from the air. White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) ring the margins of the fen meadows. This extraordinary glacial relict habitat is unique to Ohio, and as a writer, I generally despise the blatant misuse of "unique". But there is no other cedar swamp in the state. Cedar Bog harbors the richest diversity of plant life in its meadows, according to the Ohio Floristic Quality Assessment Index, and rare species are liberally spiced throughout the botanical ranks.

I am giving a PowerPoint talk on "Conservation Photography" this Saturday at 10 am. All are welcome. The talk is in the visitor's center, which is just off to the left and out of the picture in the image above. The address is 980 Woodburn Road, Urbana, OH 43078. It's a nominal $5.00 ($10.00 for nonmembers) to attend. Money goes to support the wonderful work of the Cedar Bog Association, the nonprofit that manages the preserve.

After the talk and lunch, we'll head on to the boardwalk to explore. There will be much flora and fauna to see, and photograph. We should get to view the newest mega-rare plant, an interesting carnivorous species that came to light in an unexpected way. There will be many other rare plants to see, North America's smallest dragonfly, a threatened species of dancer (damselfly), skinks and much more. Hope to see you there!