Sunday, October 30, 2022

Nature: Distinctive singers, a variety of tiny wrens found in Ohio boast bold voices


A marsh wren does the splits while peeking from cattails at Battelle Darby Metro Park/Jim McCormac

Nature: Distinctive singers, a variety of tiny wrens found in Ohio boast bold voices

Columbus Dispatch
October 30, 2022

Jim McCormac

Wrens are a small but outsized group of birds in Ohio. Only five species occur here (normally), but given their propensity for being chatterboxes, they can be conspicuous. Many readers host two species in their yards. The rusty-colored Carolina wren has a set of pipes that make it one of the louder voices among the feathered crowd. Its ringing tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle song sounds like they’re pushed through a Marshall amp.

From spring to fall, house wrens are common in suburbia and elsewhere. Males issue a rollicking torrent of gurgling notes, as if the little bird cannot push them out fast enough, and the notes trip over themselves. House wrens take readily to nest boxes, so it’s an easy matter to establish them in your soundscape.

The most aurally eloquent of our wrens is the winter wren. This pipsqueak weighs but 9 grams and is only four inches long. Despite its Lilliputian dimensions, the winter wren’s aria puts the Three Tenors to shame. Males deliver a long complex song full of artful flourishes and scale runs that must be heard to be believed. The entrancing tumble of notes might last 10 seconds. Proportionate to size, a winter wren has 10 times the vocal strength of a crowing rooster. A rare Ohio breeder, winter wrens become fairly common in migration, and some remain through winter.

Probably our most obscure wren is the enigmatic sedge wren. These mousy little birds occupy grassy/sedgy prairies, pastures and wetlands. They are most easily detected by the males’ mechanical chattering song, which suggests a supercharged sewing machine. Sedges wrens are not particularly common in Ohio, and often don’t appear until late summer. These are birds that presumably nested farther west and north, then moved east to re-nest a second time.

My personal favorite of this stub-tailed crowd is the marsh wren. It is well-named, being tightly tied to lushly vegetated marshes. Like other wrens, it is often first detected by the male’s conspicuous song. A short squeaky series of notes, the song somehow has a liquid quality, as if the singer is underwater.

A few weeks ago, I was at Battelle Darby Metro Park, a crown jewel of our local park system. The Teal Trail bisects an incredible wetland restoration project: marshes, open water and moist to dry prairie. This area always produces interesting animal sightings, birds especially. The lure on this day was two Nelson’s sparrows, a rare migrant.

As I skirted along dense cattail stands, I occasionally heard the harsh fussy scold notes of marsh wrens. They nest here, but by now the locals could be augmented by migrants. Wrens in general are not loathe to voice their dissatisfaction, and I was probably the target of their scolding.

Shortly after settling in to a good hiding hole adjacent to cattails to watch the parade of sparrows ― Savannah, song, swamp, and the targeted Nelson’s ― I saw movement among the cattails accompanied by soft chittered notes. A marsh wren! The bird could not help itself, and curious about the human interloper it moved along the edge of the dense wall of cattails taking peeks at me. At one point it hit its telltale “splits” pose, which is when I took the accompanying image.

More recently, I was at a Hardin County wetland, settled into a camo-hued chair deep in wetland vegetation. I was mostly in camo, and even my big camera lens is dressed in camo. All the better to avoid spooking the waterfowl I was after. Suddenly, a movement caught my eye, and a marsh wren popped from the plants about 5 feet away. It was overcome with curiosity about the strange character in its territory and bounced to within 2 feet of me. I thought it would land on my tripod.

In the words of ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, the marsh wren is: “… a shy and elusive little mite; if we make the slightest motion while watching his antics, he vanishes instantly into the depths of his reedy jungle.” I finally made a motion, and the little wren melted back into vegetation.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Sharp-shinned Hawk


As always, click the photo to enlarge

A juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) wafts overhead. Given its tiny size, the bird is almost certainly a male. Indeed, when I spotted it far out, my first thought was American Kestrel. The utterly different shape and flight style quickly dispelled that thought, and to my pleasure the little raptor, seemingly curious about us ground-bound people, floated low over our heads affixing us with a stare that you would never want to see if you were a small songbird.

Little birds are the Sharp-shinned Hawk's bread and butter and they're adept at catching them, displaying extreme aerial prowess when doing so. Hyper-aggressive with big personalities, "sharpies" are legendary for their badgering of much larger raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks. A Sharp-shinned Hawk is like Mike Tyson, Genghis Khan, and Wayne Gretzky rolled into a feathered ball of testosterone. Males are up to a third smaller than females, and the girls aren't so big either. On occasion I've lucked into a perched male Sharp-shinned Hawk - they'll often lurk quietly on a limb near a tree trunk or some other hiding spot when hunting - and the bird looks no bigger than a Blue Jay.

This bird appeared while I was with a group of people watching a vagrant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) in Licking County, Ohio, not far east of Columbus. The flycatcher - one of relatively few Ohio records - was a stunning adult with incredibly long tail streamers. While great looks were had, the bird never came close enough for photos. Missing the shot of the rarity is at best only a semi-bummer for me. I was watching birds hardcore LONG before I began photographing them and must confess that sometimes I still get so entranced by watching them I forget to take the photo! And at this site, a constant stream of Blue Jays passed back and forth overhead, carrying acorns on the return trip. I managed some pretty nice images of the feathered mast-toters and will make a post about that eventually. As I was all set up for birds-in-flight photography, when the Sharp-shinned Hawk decided to float over, it was an easy matter to capture him on pixels.

PHOTO NOTE: I shot this image with my workhorse Canon 800mm f/5.6 atop a Wemberly head on a Gitzo tripod. The body was Canon's remarkable R5 mirrorless camera. I've got that camera set up so that all three back buttons serve as focus buttons: rightmost is a single point, center button is all points on the central (of three) zone, and the leftmost button is all points active. When it's a lone bird in the sky, the camera instantly grabs and holds the subject, often pasting the active focus point or points right on the bird's face. It almost feels like cheating. Settings were f/9, 1/4000, ISO 2500 and +0.7 exposure compensation. In hindsight I would have backed off to f/8 and dropped the shutter speed to about 1/2000, which would have been plenty fast enough given the hawk's languid flight. This would have dropped the ISO significantly, but the R5 handles higher ISO's well and as the bird was close enough that huge cropping was unnecessary, the image is easy to work with and still looks good. Sometimes, in the heat of an exciting moment, I forget to keep tabs on those settings!

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses

Not much time to post of late, nor run afield to produce new imagery. I am in the final stages of a book project - more on that in a later post - and deadline-driven tasks have taken much time of late.

So, here are two photos from an excursion to western Lake Erie back on September 29 (2022). I stopped by the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve to visit with a rare (for Ohio) orchid.

Two flowering stems of Great Plains Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) rise from a rocky lunar landscape. The artificial alvars of formerly quarried sites on Ohio's Marblehead Peninsula are renowned for hosting the federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea). In spite of the barren landscape features, this habitat hosts many other interesting plants, including a number of other rarities.

By late September, the flowers are waning but those in the upper reaches of the spike still looked good. There are nine Spiranthes species in Ohio - some say more, based on recent splits - and all are relatively elfin in dimensions. The little flowers look like botanical confectionaries, as if they were crafted with sugar granules. By now, the wee orchids have senesced into brownness as has most of our other flora, and the upper Midwest prepares for winter and botanical dormancy.

NOTE: The black background on the second image was obtained by slipping a piece of black velvet, mounted on cardboard, behind the subject. This is an easy noninvasive way of isolating plants from a cluttered background.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Nature: Jack-of-all-trades - John Leonard Riddell's legacy still blooms in Ohio botany


Ohio goldenrod (foreground) and Riddell's goldenrod/Jim McCormac

NATURE: Jack-of-all-trades - John Leonard Riddell's legacy still blooms in Ohio botany

Columbus Dispatch
October 16, 2022

Jim McCormac

One of early America’s larger-than-life characters was John Leonard Riddell. Born on Feb. 20, 1807, in Massachusetts, Riddell would burn the candle at both ends for much of his short life.

A wanderlust to explore and expand his horizons sent him westward early on. Riddell landed at Marietta College by 1832, and following studies there, he moved north to Worthington, where he began earning a medical degree at the Ohio Reformed Medical College (closed in 1840). He finished his M.D. at the former Cincinnati College in 1836.

Riddell became far more than a doctor of medicine. Imbued with a quirky, sometimes challenging personality, he nonetheless was adept at diplomacy when need be, and skilled at making connections. The definition of a multipotentialite, Riddell pursued many passions.

Over his career, Riddell became a botanist, medical doctor, chemist, inventor, numismatist (he directed the New Orleans Mint), geologist, politician and author. His sole book is titled “Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Reaches of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon!” While wordy of title, the book — published in 1847 — foreshadowed space travel.

At his peak, Riddell juggled an appointment to a high federal post, active lab research, a consultancy to the City of New Orleans, involvement in Democratic Party politics, travel and hobnobbing with U.S. presidents, and lucrative real estate investments.

That wasn’t all. Riddell also balanced a wife and eight children while simultaneously managing a mistress and two other kids.

On Oct. 5, 1865, Riddell, who had been elected Louisiana’s governor — his election would be later overturned — delivered a fiery speech against Louisiana’s secession. This diatribe was met with much ill will. Three days later, John Leonard Riddell died of a stroke at 58.

Riddell’s most famous legacy is said to be his invention of the compound microscope. He was also a bacteriologist. However, botanists would disagree. His contributions to our understanding of flora in the fledgling United States cannot be understated.

In 1835, Riddell published “A Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States,” which encompassed an area including Ohio and adjacent states. He had not let the grass grow under his feet during his short Ohio stay, from 1832 to 1836. His publication listed 1,802 plant species.

Then, Ohio and vicinity was still a botanical frontier. As noted by Riddell, “There are large tracts … whose vegetable products have not yet been examined …”

The indefatigable Riddell discovered four plants new to science in Ohio. One of them is the beautiful sky-blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). Its scientific epithet denotes the Olentangy River, upon whose banks the botanist discovered the aster in 1832 near Worthington.

One big river to the west, Riddell made another remarkable find in 1834. He encountered an early blooming lily on limestone cliffs along the Scioto River in Dublin. It was named snow trillium (Trillium nivale), and small populations persist in the area to this day.

While scouring a prairie “two miles south of Columbus” in 1834, Riddell met with a statuesque goldenrod quite unlike any other. He dubbed it Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis). While our namesake goldenrod still occurs in the state, Riddell’s original site has long been obliterated.

That same year, 1834, Riddell trekked to the famous Huffman Prairie near Dayton, where Orville and Wilbur Wright started the nation’s first flying school. There, he found another unknown goldenrod, the eponymous Riddell’s goldenrod (Solidago riddellii). The plant still grows there.

On Sept. 23, I traveled to Kinnikinnick Fen in Ross County, and was delighted to encounter both goldenrods growing side by side. For botanists, Riddell’s legacy lives large, even 157 years after his death.

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, October 15, 2022

Marsh Wren


A Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) peeks curiously from its typical milieu, a dense stand of cattails. Like most wrens, they are busybodies and quite curious about anything going on, including people. These tiny fluffballs (11 grams!) are surprisingly hardy and regularly linger into winter, and even overwinter on occasion. This bird could be a local nester, or a migrant. He shared company with scads of migrant sparrows, including at least two Nelson's Sparrows (Ammospiza nelsoni). The latter species is a rare but regular migrant in Ohio, but hard to clap eyes on. I saw the birds well with binoculars but was unable to photograph them. As is typical, the secretive sparrows spent their time on the ground, moving about like mice. When they did cross an opening, they raced through at top speed. Battelle Darby Metropark, Franklin County, Ohio, October 13, 2022.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Tree Swallows in flight


As always, click the photos to enlarge

A juvenile Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) rockets by my position. I made a trip to the western marshes of Lake Erie on September 29 and saw many migrant birds. While warblers were a primary target, I could not resist the allure of large groups of Tree Swallows. At Howard Marsh Metro Park, large numbers of these hardy swallows had gathered. The beautiful lighting and general cooperativeness of the birds made for a good opportunity to practice flight shots.

An adult Tree Swallow on the heels of a juvenile. The youngsters are still brownish above, lacking the flashy metallic green iridescence of the adults.

A swallow badgers another bird. To call Tree Swallows feisty would be understating their temperament. For a social bird, they love to chase one another and engage in spectacular aerial dogfights. These battles are not necessarily "play-fighting", although that's often what it appears to be, especially outside of the nesting season. While breeding and sparring over partners and nest sites, these squabbles can get very serious, with birds sometimes hounded and pecked until they fall in the water (if over water) and drown.

Argumentative Tree Swallows shouting at one another, high in the air. Bickering such as this is very common, and after a while you can see a potential fracas brewing and be ready for it. Sometimes, encounters are brief, and the would-be combatants quickly break away and go their separate ways. Other times the gladiators engage in extended battles, hovering and yelling in each other's faces. As a long-time admirer of these charismatic birds and their large personalities, it was such action shots that I was after.

Tree Swallows are hardy beasts and will push the envelope in regard to remaining in the north country as long as possible. Some linger into November, even along Lake Erie. It doesn't take them long to get far to the south, if really inclement weather sets in. As a hedge against a cold-induced paucity of flying insects - their stock in trade - Tree Swallows can eat berries. But sometime in October, most Tree Swallows slip away, heading to southern states and warmer climes. Come March, they'll be trickling back north, a true avian sign of spring.

PHOTO NOTES: Birds in flight (BIF) shots are almost always challenging, especially speedsters like swallows. The amazing advances in camera technology (where will they be in another decade?!) have made such photographic endeavors a bit easier. About a year ago, I got a Canon R5 mirrorless camera. It really shines when pursuing BIF. It has eye-recognition focus-tracking which is mind-blowing. As long as the operator can keep the subject in the field of view, and the camera is set up properly, the focus point will lock on the subject's eye and hold it. Even in flight. At the least, it'll easily lock onto some point on the rapidly moving and often erratic target. This camera, coupled with Canon's 400mm f/4 DO II lens, can slay BIF. I find 400mm to be about the best focal length lens. Get much larger, and it becomes ever harder to quickly find and lock onto the subject. Much smaller, and the bird is often simply too small in the field of view. The Canon telephotos are incredibly fast in attaining focus, which is really important when dealing with BIF.

Depending upon ambient light, I'll shoot anywhere from wide-open (f/4) to f/8 or so. Because this day was mostly bright, all of the above shots were taken at f/8. Stopping down two stops from wide open creates more depth of field in the image, and probably sharpens things up a bit overall (although the 400 DO is quite sharp even wide open). A fast shutter speed is essential, and I was working at 1/2500 for this series. That's about as slow as one can go with flying swallows and mostly freeze the action. I try to find the sweet spot: fast enough, but not faster than need be. Faster shutter speeds are not necessarily better, as the trade-off is a higher ISO which means noisier/grainier images. The ISO's for these shots ranged between 640 and 1000 - not a real problem with the R5's ability to handle higher ISO ranges and still produce a clean file. Had it been a dark cloudy day, I would have had to just accept much higher ISO settings.

Back-button focusing is hugely helpful for BIF (read about back button focus HERE) and having the camera set to AI Servo mode (AI Servo explained HERE) is a must. This makes it so much easier to smoothly track and photograph moving objects. In fact, back button focus is, in my opinion, far better for nearly everything. I switched to it years ago and have never looked back. Just about everyone I know who has made the switch has never looked back. While there is a bit of a learning curve, back button will almost certainly advance your skills as a photographer.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Bushy Aster


Bushy Aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum), in its rich prairie habitat at Castalia Prairie, Erie County, Ohio. I visited here on September 29 and was pleased to renew acquaintance with this rare (in Ohio) aster. It had been a number of years since I last saw this species.

A luxuriant Bushy Aster specimen, living up to its name. This is primarily a coastal plain species, generally becoming far scarcer inland. It is listed as threatened in Ohio and has only been recorded in seven counties. It's certainly no longer present at all of its historical sites, as much of its habitat has been lost.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Kinnikinnick Fen

A meadow at Kinnikinnick Fen on a fine September day. I visited this 154-acre Ross County (Ohio) preserve back on September 23 and was impressed with the large fen meadows and attendant botany. The preserve is fairly new. I'm not sure exactly when the Ross County Park District acquired it, but I think it's been within the last five years or so. I made a brief stop here a year or two ago, en route to elsewhere, but it was early winter, and the plant life was largely dormant. I'd been wanting to return ever since, at a more floristically hospitable time.

Interesting plants were evident upon arrival, including Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). While a showstopper, Sneezeweed is somewhat of a generalist and occurs widely in varied habitats. I was after more specialized fare.

This is Purple Swamp Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum). While not a fen specialist, it typically is a species of high-quality wetlands. It abounded and was in near perfect shape.

A closer view of the flowers of Purple Swamp Aster, still wet with cool early morning dew. This tall, elegant plant goes by a variety of English names, like many other plants. That's why it's always important to know the scientific name of plants, if you want to be dead sure of what species is involved.

Here's a close relative of the species above, the Shining Aster (Symphyotrichum firmum). It was long placed within Purple Swamp Aster as a variety: Symphyotrichum puniceum var. firmum. Few if any authorities lump them now, and Shining Aster is pretty distinctive although its flower color and overall growth habit can vary somewhat.

A little further into the fen and botanical goodies began to appear with increasing frequency. This is a lush stand of Riddell's Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii). It and another notable goldenrod, Ohio Goldenrod (S. ohioensis), are present in large numbers. These two goldenrods have a tremendous history in Ohio, and I'm going to write about them separately in some future post.

Turtlehead (Chelona glabra) was frequent in the wet meadows. While not a strict fen plant, Turtlehead inhabits high-quality wetlands, and always those that are fed by groundwater. It plays host to one of our most beautiful butterflies, the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton). I wrote about this butterfly last July, HERE. I don't know if this checkerspot occurs at Kinnikinnick Fen, but I'd be kind of surprised if it didn't.
The beautiful flowering head of a Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum). This tall, showy thistle is a specialist of high-quality wetlands such as fens and is the second rarest of Ohio's thistles. Another, the Carolina Thistle (C. carolinianum), is even rarer and is known from only four southern counties where it is at the extreme northern limits of its range.

Swamp Thistle hosts a very rare (for Ohio) butterfly, the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). As far as I know, this metalmark has not been seen in the state since 2010. I got to visit that population that year, and wrote about it HERE. It'd be an awesome rediscovery at Kinnikinnick Fen, or anywhere else.
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), a woody shrublet in the Rose Family, is a fen specialist in our region. It has been captured and brought into the nursery trade and can sometimes be seen gracing landscapes in captivity.

I was pleased to see large stands of Fen Indian-plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum). This odd member of the Sunflower Family reaches peak bloom in June, and the meadows must look spectacular when it's in its full glory. This particular plant must have gotten damaged somehow, which forced a late blooming.

Scattered here and there, in more open parts of the meadows with less botanical competition, were Small Purple Foxgloves (Agalinis purpurea). It's a low spindly plant, and the flowers seem outsized for the botanical architecture that supports them. Bees, including various bumblebees, are the primary pollinators. In general, this is a plant of high-quality habitats such as fens and wet prairies.

Perhaps the most spectacular plant in late fall is Canada Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis). This tall herbaceous rose can rise to six feet or more, and the luminescent white flower spikes are conspicuous from afar. Like most of the other plants I've featured in this post, burnet is a rarity and only encountered in high-quality wetlands, fens especially.

A stunning fen meadow enrichened by scads of Ohio Goldenrod and Canada Burnet. They represent a last hurrah as far as the flowering season. Within short order, there will be little left to see in terms of blooms, and our habitats will senesce into brownness and enter winter dormancy.

Kudos to the Ross County Park District for protecting this gem, and I look forward to future visits to Kinnikinnick Fen.