Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Moth book talk: April 1, Franklin Park Conservatory

I'm giving a talk on the wonderful world of moths, based on my and coauthor Chelsea Gottfried's new book, Gardening for Moths. Chelsea will also be at this event, which is Saturday, April 1, 1pm to 3pm, at the beautiful Franklin Park Conservatory. And it's free, but registration is required. If you're interested in a book, we'll have some there. We'd love to see you there, and for full details and to register, CLICK HERE.

As a photographic bonus, for those of you who like to take pictures, the Conservatory's Blooms and Butterflies event will be in full swing. Free-flying butterflies - raised at the conservatory - of many species are in the massive, lushly vegetated rainforest room. It's a great chance to not only see many showy butterflies, but excellent practice in tuning up one's camera skills. I'm definitely taking my macro rig and heading into the rainforest after our event!

Giant Charaxes, Charaxes castor. I made this image a few years ago during the Franklin Park Conservatory's butterfly exhibit, one of many images from that day.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)/Jim McCormac

Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers

Columbus Dispatch
March 19, 2023

Jim McCormac

Tomorrow is the official first day of spring.

March 20 is the spring equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator and day and night are of equal lengths.

Plants (and birds and most other animals) pay this celestial milestone no heed. Commencing in early February, the wildflowers respond to ever-lengthening daylight. First up is the skunk-cabbage, which springs from its swampy haunts while ice and snow are still a thing. This botanical oddity counters wintry weather with thermogenesis: the ability to produce its own heat. Flowers and pollen are present by mid-February.

Last February was especially meek in much of Ohio, with little snow and often mild temperatures. Rising soil temperatures trigger the appearance of wildflowers, and many awakened early this year. Needing a botanical fix, I headed to the Ohio River Valley on Feb. 26. My core destinations were two amazing sites owned by the Arc of Appalachia, a land trust that protects some of Ohio’s most significant natural areas.

First up was the Chalet Nivale Preserve in northwestern Adams County. Nivale (ny-val-ee) means "snowy" and refers to the scientific name of the snow trillium: Trillium nivale. The preserve harbors a massive population of this rare plant, which is only known in about a dozen of Ohio’s 88 counties. Most populations are highly localized, widely scattered and often small in size.

Plenty of trillium were in bloom by the time of my visit, the earliest I have ever seen them. Less obvious but equally interesting were the flowers of a spindly shrub, American hazelnut. Its long dangling spikes of male flowers are conspicuous, but the bigger visual treat are the tiny scarlet female flowers. They are only a few millimeters across and resemble colorful sea anemones upon close inspection.

From there, it was on south, to a spectacular east-facing bluff overlooking the Ohio River near the town of Manchester. The Arc of Appalachia owns a 300-acre preserve here known as the Ohio River Bluffs. This is the first place that I know of in Ohio where one can get their end-of-winter wildflower fix.

Even on the early date of Feb. 26, I saw over a dozen wildflower species in bloom. A tiny parsley aptly dubbed harbinger-of-spring was everywhere. A whopper is a few inches in height, yet they push through the leaf litter to present salt-and-pepper-colored flower umbels to the late winter sun. Ghostly white trout lilies, their pale flowers appearing to levitate low over the forest floor, were everywhere. This is our earliest native lily to flower.

Evidence of the rapidity of wildflower growth was a bloodroot, one of only two native poppies in the state. On my way out of the preserve, I noticed one in full bloom, its flower still unfurling. I’m confident it wasn’t there when I hiked past two hours earlier.

Ohio River Bluffs is noted for huge carpets of bluebells, but the floral show doesn’t usually take the stage until late March into early April. This year, many bluebells were already up and some were even in flower. Other early blooms were cut-leaved toothwort, hepatica, rue-anemone, and yellow harlequin.

By now, nearly a month later, far more wildflowers are out, including in the Columbus area. Good places to hunt them include Battelle Darby and Highbanks metro parks. For those in northern lands like Cleveland, Mansfield and Toledo, take hope. Spring rolls northward at about 17 miles a day, and it won’t be long until the floral show hits your areas.

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

American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Some more spring wildflowers, and thoughts on composition


f/7.1, ISO 400, 1/100, 100mm macro lens

A Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum) in its full glory. This is one of Ohio's rarest plants and is essentially known from only one giant population in the Rocky Fork valley of western Scioto County. A much smaller population was discovered in fairly recent times a few miles to the west, in Adams County.

About every time I post photos of this species, people let me know that they have "Goldenstar" growing in their yard or local park. Not so. They are seeing the superficially similar Yellow Trout Lily (E. americanum), which is common and widespread. Goldenstar has a very patchy distribution with isolated populations far removed from its Ozarkian strongholds.

Goldenstar Distribution. Map courtesy of BONAP

Green counties indicate that the species is present and not rare; yellow indicates it is present but RARE. The northeastern Kentucky and southern Ohio populations are far removed from the core range.

Back to the Goldenstar image above. The plant was growing between projecting buttresses of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trunk. There were myriad potential subjects at this site but this one especially caught my eye as beech are a common associate in the rich woodlands favored by Goldenstar. The gray elephant skin bark of the trunk made a nice backdrop, and the senescent beech leaves are a nice touch. For this image, I used a common (for me) aperture of f/7.1 to softly blur background features and put the emphasis on the extraordinary flower. There were breezes on this morning, so I elevated the ISO to 400, and that gave a shutter speed of 1/100 - fast enough to freeze any slight wind-induced tremor. I'm trying to time shutter actuations with calm periods, of course.

A wide-angle lens (Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II) is nearly always with me when I hunt flowers. It is incredibly useful for showcasing overall habitats. For this shot, the camera was on my mini-tripod, essentially flat on the humus. The lens is around eight inches from the flower - at its minimum focusing distance - showing how ultra-wide the reach of a lens like this is.

Goldenstar favors beech-maple forests with plenty of leaf litter and is often on steep slopes. This image presents very typical habitat for the rare lily, at least insofar as the Ohio sites go. This is a case where stopping down is effective, and the camera parameters were f/16, ISO 400, at 1/100 second. The lens was at 16mm for maximum spread. In my opinion, wide-angle lenses are an essential component of the ecological photographer's tool bag. They permit more of the story to be told.

f/9, ISO 250, 1/50, 100mm macro lens

A photogenic trio of Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale). Odd numbers can be quite appealing in regard to subjects. and I do typically find my eye more drawn to 3's, 5's, 7's etc. This group caught my eye from afar and I wouldn't have missed photographing them. This odd-even thing has even been quantified as the wonderfully named Rule of Odds. The RoO states that compositions with an odd number of subjects or elements will be more dramatic than a composition of an even number of subjects.

Pairing is common in our human bodies: two eyes, ears, hands, legs, arms, etc. The theory goes that when we look at something with odd numbers, the brain has more difficulty in grouping them, that something somewhere is leftover, and your brain commands your eyes to continue sweeping over the composition to find the "missing" part.

I don't know about all of that, but there does indeed seem to be to be an allure to the odd that makes us want to study odd-numbered subjects in greater detail than even-numbered ones.

Here's a very similar trio of Snow Trillium, with a slight tweak from the above image. As with the prior image, my ISO was at 200, but I stopped down to f/14. The tradeoff with smaller apertures is a diminishment of light entering the camera, which is mitigated by a slower shutter speed, 1/20 of a second in this case. By keeping the shutter open longer, the camera can harvest the same amount of light as it did when the aperture was a more open f/9 and thus could collect adequate light more rapidly - the prior shot was at 1/50. As there was no wind at this point in the early morning, I didn't care how slow the shutter speed was - it was essentially irrelevant.

As my camera was fairly close to the subjects, the depth of field was reduced. By moving the camera farther away, depth of field increases but so will your need to crop the image to make the same composition as shown here. So, to get a more depth I just shut down one and two-thirds stops to f/14. The background was not particularly cluttered or distracting so I wasn't too concerned about that. If you scroll up to compare with the prior image, you'll see that the rear flower is softer. To me, either image looks fine, but I probably prefer the f/14 shot above.

It's good practice, especially early on, to take images of the same subject with a range of apertures, to become familiar with the effects caused by aperture adjustments.

f/10, ISO 200, 1/60, 100mm macro lens

In spite of the Rule of Odds, I won't hesitate to fire away at evens. For a few minutes, the early morning light caused this pair of trilliums to glow, while the backdrop remained largely dark. It was incredibly alluring and I'm glad I happened to be there for their brief moment in the spotlight. I suppose the situation might have been even cooler had there been three (or five), but there wasn't. As with some prior shots, I stopped down a bit more to bring additional focus to the rear plant, especially as there were no background distractions. In hindsight I would have taken an image at f/16, too.

f/7.1, ISO 250, 1/50, 70-200mm lens at 175mm

Another violation of the Rule of Odds, but what good are rules if they can't be violated? This ensemble of trillia was too good to pass by. They festooned an otherwise barren limestone ledge, almost as if they were purposefully planted there. I like the exposed limestone, as Trillium nivale is very much a calciphile, or limestone lover. This shot was handheld, using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens. The plants were in a hard area to set up a tripod on, but that lens has superb image stabilization and is easy to handhold and get sharp shots at slow shutter speeds, even slower than the 1/50 used here. Normally I'll always use a tripod if circumstances permit, though. And as an aside, I always try to remember to turn off the image stabilization on stabilized lenses when they are mounted to a tripod. If turned on, the image stabilization can lead to an effect called a feedback loop when tripod-mounted and that can lead to blurred images. Yep, just one more thing to remember.

f/7.1, ISO 200, 1/60, 100mm macro lens

I'm back in compliance with the Rule of Odds here, if only a solo subject. The petals of this Snow Trillium are already blushed with pink, a sign of aging. The flower will soon wither away. By now, just a week later, many of the thousands of trilliums in this population will be tinged with pink and it won't be long before the flowers are gone. This site, by the way, is accessible. It is the Arc of Appalachia's Chalet Nivale Preserve in northeastern Adams County, Ohio, and it isn't a tough place to get around. While you may have missed the show this spring - unless you get there fast - there's always next March.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Some spring wildflowers, and thoughts on the photography thereof


f/9, ISO 250, 1/100 - 100mm macro lens

A Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) grows before our eyes - or at least mine, at the time. I shot this poppy family member back on February 26 - a very early date. When I passed this spot on the trail a few hours earlier, I saw no sign of the flower. A fairly warm and virtually snowless February spurred southern Ohio wildflowers to erupt earlier than normal.

The image above and all of the following were made on either February 26, or March 9, at the Arc of Appalachia's Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, or their Chalet Nivale Preserve. Both are in Adams County, Ohio.

When I go afield with botanical photography as the objective, I generally pack three lenses: Canon (all my camera gear is Canon) 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, 16-35mm f/2.8 II wide-angle, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. In the case of these images, all were shot with the Canon R5 mirrorless camera. I have examples made with two of those lenses in this post, along with some thoughts on using the gear effectively to create wildflower portraits.

f/7.1, ISO 250, 1/8 second, 100mm macro lens

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) peeks from leaf litter. The hardy little parsley is one of the first spring (late winter!) wildflowers to emerge.

Even old dogs should be able to learn new tricks. At one time, I tended to use narrow apertures (often f/11 to f/16) for greater depth of field, and - horrors! - often flash. Then I met Debbie DiCarlo and we began teaching some photography classes together. I loved her botanical work and was astute enough to notice that it did not look much like mine. And I wished mine looked more like hers.

So, from her I learned about softer, more wide-open apertures, scrapping the flash, and thinking harder about composition. The Harbinger-of-spring above manifests this. Now, most of my plant work is between f/4 and f/7.1 and this image was made at the latter. The closest flowers are the focus point, and I do not care that the rest of the subject is not in sharp focus. The wide aperture melts the background but the dissected cauline (stem) leaves can still be seen.

f/6.3, ISO 200, 1/320, 70-200mm lens at 140 mm

Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) has a bizarre appearance when it is emerging. Nearly all parts of the plant are an attractive purplish shade, and the flowers are already mature even as the foliage unfurls. Their bright yellow anthers provide the only punctuation point to the plant.

For this, I used my 70-200mm with a 25mm extension tube, at 140mm. The hollow tube allows for closer focusing and does not detract at all from image quality as there is not glass within it. As usual, I am in my ISO sweet spot - 200. For plants, I almost always operate between ISO 100 and 400, and normally between ISO 100-200. I want the cleanest possible files, and there is normally no need to use high ISO when shooting plants. I like the effect of the mini-telephoto 70-200, which really compresses the subject and obliterates the background. A busy background is normally not a desirable quality for botanical imagery, at least to me.

f/7.1, ISO 100, 1/40, 100mm macro lens

A White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), the earliest of our lilies to bloom. This is a diminutive plant, and to make effective captures more challenging the flowers dangle almost straight down. I generally would prefer to have my camera horizontal to the flower, and better yet, slightly below it. The bottom line is plant photographers will spend lots of time on the ground, on their subjects' plane.

I'm almost always working off a tripod, and my current favorite is the relatively inexpensive Oben CTT-1000, with their excellent ball head. It is made from carbon fiber, is flyweight, versatile in positioning, and allows me to get my camera nearly on the ground. Stabilizing the rig is vital, for reasons I will expound on under the next image.

f/5.6, ISO 250, 1/320, 100mm macro lens

White Trout Lily flowers are botanical will-o-the-wisps, appearing to float low over the forest leaf litter. To get this perspective, my camera was under the plant and shooting upwards, thanks to my mini-tripod.

A major reason why tripods are important in botanical photography is because slow shutter speeds are often used. Of the three major parameters - aperture, ISO, and shutter speed - the latter is least important. I want a low ISO to keep my images as clean (less noise) as possible. The aperture is a major driver as it dictates the look that I get of my subject and its environs. The shutter speed is merely whatever the aperture and ISO dictate it to be. While this trout lily flower was shot at a comparatively fast speed, the Harbinger-of-spring above was shot at 1/8 second! And the previous trout lily shot was made at 1/40 second.

No one will have much luck hand-holding a rig at such slow shutter speeds. The miss rate would skyrocket, and you likely would not get any sharp images. This is why wind is the plant photographer's enemy. As long as the subject is immobile, one can use very slow shutter speeds in tangent with very low ISO settings, no problem. Windy days? I'm not going to be shooting wildflowers.

f/16, ISO 200, 1/2 second, 100mm macro lens

The seldom noticed pistillate (female) flower of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). It is truly elfin and thus overlooked. This was - for me - a rare case of using a tiny aperture, f/16 in this case. I did so because I wanted sharpness throughout the bizarre blossom. The bokeh (background quality) is creamy brown because there was nothing for probably 20 or more feet behind the subject. The brown tones are caused by a distant leaf-covered slope.

Note the shutter speed - one-half second! While the camera/lens was firmly stabilized on a tripod, there are additional steps to ensure a sharp image. I set my camera's shutter release to a 2-second delay so that my hands aren't even touching the rig when it fires (there is also a 10-second delay option but that's usually overkill). I also have the camera set so that I can just touch the back viewing screen with my finger, and it will instantly focus on that spot, then activate the shutter (2 seconds later). Complete stillness with the camera. Not all cameras (yet) have that touch screen option, but just about all DSLR or mirrorless cameras have the timer delay feature.

f/8, ISO 200, 1/30, 100mm macro lens

A lethargic group of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) flowers on a frosty morning. A few hours later, with significantly warmer temperatures, the flowers would be proudly upright and fully expanded. I stopped down a bit more than usual - to f/8 - for a bit more depth on this elfin flower forest. Focus was on the top right flower, which was closest to the lens. It's almost always best to focus on the nearest flower, as that is where the eyes of viewers of your image will likely first be drawn.

NOTE: I take the conservative position and lump the two hepatica "species" together under the available name Hepatica nobilis. If you split them, this would be the so-called Sharp-lobed Hepatica (H. acutiloba).

In my next post, I will share short sequences of two of Ohio's rarest and most beautiful lilies, with some thoughts on composition.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Goldenstar already in flower


A sun-soaked hillside erupts with the colorful flowers of one of Ohio's rarest lilies, the amazing Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum). I was down in western Scioto County yesterday (March 9) with the primary goal of seeing this gorgeous plant. Five days prior, a friend had posted a photo of a blooming Goldenstar from last Sunday, March 5 - incredible! I had never heard of this species being in flower that early. I think my earliest observation of flowering plants - and I've made many trips to see it over the years - is March 17, in 2012. Of the nearly 12 different years from which I have flowering photos, most are from the last week of March and the first week of April. Last year, I shot the flowers on April 3. This year is nearly a month advanced from last year.

A Goldenstar nestled in the base of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). Beech trees are characteristic of most of the forests where I have seen these lilies. And in Ohio, that is almost exclusively along a stretch of Rocky Fork Creek near the village of Otway, in Scioto County.

Before ascribing this year's early blooming to climate change, it is important to note that the emergence of many wildflowers seems correlated to soil temperature. This February was essentially snow-free in southern Ohio, and average temperatures were warmer. But just last year the weather was more typically wintry and the Goldenstar bloomed in its usual late March/early April timeframe. And most of my observations, which date back perhaps two decades, are from that period with occasional earlier bloomings during mild late winters. Lucy Braun, who first discovered this species in Ohio (its northernmost locale) in 1963 (but did not see it in flower until the following year) first saw it blooming on April 11. Not too far off its usual flowering time now, but still a bit later than any more modern record I'm aware of.

An especially striking specimen of Goldenstar, with deep purple leaves mottled with green. Unlike the FAR more common and widespread Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Goldenstar flowers are more orange, and the tepals (lily-speak for the combination petals/sepals) are held outward on a flat plane, not strongly recurved like the common species.

Fortunately, the Arc of Appalachia managed to protect a large swath of Goldenstar habitat. Their initial acquisition was in 2005, and the preserve has since grown to nearly 200 acres. All of the other plants are found on private lands, including those owned by a large paper company. CLICK HERE for information on the Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve and how to visit. It goes without saying to be respectful of the plants and their habitat if you do visit. Too, keep in mind that Goldenstars sleep in and cherish sunlight. The flowers often don’t open until mid to late morning. Sunlight accelerates their unfurling. No sense in arriving at the crack of dawn in this case.

Be forewarned, Goldenstar typically engages in a mass synchronous blooming that can be surprisingly short-lived. I once saw it in peak bloom - thousands of plants - and three days later took someone back to see the spectacle. All the flowers were already past. So time may be of the essence to catch one of Ohio's best liliaceous events.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Photography talk: Thursday, March 9, Worthington

I'm giving a talk this Thursday evening (March 9) to the Worthington Area Art League, about photography. It's entitled Conservation Photography, and isn't so much about the technicalities of photography, but much more about the effective use of imagery to tell stories and make cases. It's free and all are welcome. Worthington Public Library Northwest, 2280 Hard Road, Trillium Room, at 7 pm. CLICK HERE for details.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

A Carolina wren investigates orange mock oyster mushrooms/Jim McCormac

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

March 5, 2023

Jim McCormac

It is only early March, with Old Man Winter still looming large in the rearview mirror. But the birds speak – literally – of spring. Ever-lengthening daylight hours trigger our earliest songbirds to clear those pipes and tune up for the breeding season.

The dawn chorus is becoming ever more conspicuous. Well-named song sparrows contribute their ornate melodies, commencing in the re-dawn gloom. The little striped sparrows, habitu├ęs of yards and gardens as well as the wildest habitats, deliver beautifully complex arias ornate in structure.

Northern cardinals – our state bird – sing sweet whistles sure to charm a mate. It’s worth trying to track down the singer. The more somberly toned females sing as well as the gaudy males. Sometimes a pair will duet back and forth.

American robins, our boldest and most robust thrush, are already adding their loud caroling to the chorus. So are comparatively elfin Carolina chickadees, their song a clear sing-song four-parted whistle. White-breasted nuthatches pipe in with a series of stridently nasal yank-yank-yanks. As spring picks up steam, the cast of feathered musicians will diversify, and the soundscape will richen.

Of the early bird singers, perhaps the most conspicuous is the Carolina wren. The male who has laid claim to my yard is busy making himself known to all of late. For a bird that measures only 5½ inches and weighs three-quarters of an ounce, the little skulker has a set of pipes that would put Pavarotti to shame. The song is a loud, clear-whistled teakettle-teakettle-teakettle which can’t be missed. If the songster delivered an early morning message from shrubs under your window, he’d awaken you.

That song isn’t the only tool in the wren’s vocal repertoire. Both sexes produce an astonishingly varied set of calls, in addition to numerous variations of their song. In the bird world, songs are generally sung by males (the cardinal is very much an exception) and they are normally longer, louder and more complex than calls. Songs serve to attract mates, establish territorial boundaries and alert rival males to the where territorial fences are.

Calls are typically much shorter, often quieter and less complex than songs. They serve many purposes, such as keeping mates apprised of the caller’s location, scolding would-be threats, alerting other birds to those threats and notifying mates of food sources.

In the Carolina wren’s case, some calls are nearly as conspicuous as its song. Inveterate busybodies, the wrens investigate everything. If they find something that causes displeasure, like a cat, raccoon or undesirable person, a wren might release a salvo of loudly grating jeer-jeer notes that can practically be heard over a gas-powered leaf blower.

A favorite is what I term the “rattlesnake call.” Issued when the wren is confronted by a threat or annoyance, it is often delivered from deep brush which conceals the scolder. Not many people these days have heard a timber rattlesnake, but I have and the wren’s call sounds eerily similar to me. Creatures that know the buzzing whir created by the snake’s rattles are likely to head the other direction.

If the Carolina wren’s singing entices a mate, there will be further steps in their relationship with the ultimate goal of producing wrenlets. The baby wrens will hatch and grow in a magnificent nest constructed by both parents. It is a bulky grass-lined vegetative dome, usually with a door on the side, and is often adorned with feathers, paper, string, and even snake skins. Got a shedding dog? Brush him outside and let the wrens (and chickadees, titmice and others) harvest the fur. It’ll embellish their nests.

Carolina wrens often pick quirky nest sites. Old shoes, hanging flower baskets, shelves in garages and sheds, mailboxes, old cans and pockets of old coats have all been used. More typically, the nest will be on the ground in dense vegetation, among root masses, in holes in tree stumps and similar hidey-holes.

While winter is likely to rear its icy head again, the birds don’t care. Spring is here, plants are rising from their slumber, insects are stirring, and the wrens and others are filled with spring fever.

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

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Gardening for Moths - the book is out!

I and my coauthor, Chelsea Gottfried, were pleased indeed to receive our first copies of Gardening for Moths: A Regional Guide, a week or so ago. Ohio University Press did a magnificent job weaving together lots of text and some 600+ photos. They were a pleasure to work with, and in a first for me, this book actually came out a few months ahead of schedule! I've been waiting until order fulfillment was under way before writing about it here. Books are being shipped pronto and will arrive in short order. Amazon still lists an arrival date of March 28, but ignore that: they have books in stock and are sending them right along. Books can also be ordered directly from Ohio University Press, RIGHT HERE.

The book's back cover. We were pleased and flattered to get a nice endorsement from none other than Doug Tallamy, a man who certainly knows the importance of moths.

As always, click the image to enlarge it

Here's the reason that Gardening for Moths is subtitled A Regional Guide (please forgive my somewhat crude page scans). As plants drive moths, and plants do not respect arbitrary political boundaries, we saw no reason to be beholden to any one state. The caption under the map explains our rationale for our boundaries.

Gardening for Moths' introduction is quite meaty and documents the importance of this massive group of insects. The darker side of butterflies, moths outnumber their better-known diurnal brethren by perhaps 22 times in the region that we cover. Such an abundant and speciose group would be expected to play an outsized role in Nature, and moths certainly do. They are important plant pollinators, serve as food for legions of other animals, have driven the evolution of certain groups of plants - orchids, perhaps most notably - spawned fantastic mythology, inspired artists, and much more.

The fascinating relationship between moths and bats is one topic that we cover in the intro. The evolutionary arms race between bats and moths is remarkable. Moths are the #1 prey source for bats in our region. Moths do not like getting eaten by the furry aeronauts and have found ways to fight back.

Peppered throughout the book are nearly two dozen inset boxes, like this one on the Sooty-winged Chalcoela, a wasp-eating moth. Intellectual speed bumps of sorts, the inset boxes cover COOL THINGS about moths.

Nearly 150 species of plants are profiled in Gardening for Moths, most of them ecological heavyweights. In addition to moths, these plants are important to other animals, and we often point out these other beneficiaries as well. In addition to core plant accounts, many other notable native plants are mentioned within accounts as well.

About the same number of moth species as plants are profiled. As with all accounts, plants and moths, there are plenty of accompanying photographs.

Two full pages of "rogue's galleries" of interesting moths can be found near the front and back of the book. Moths are ornate and charismatic insects, and a photographer's dream. They, unfortunately, are not at all well known by most people, especially in comparison to that much smaller faction of the Order Lepidoptera, the butterflies. While myriad books extol the virtues of the latter, we believe Gardening for Moths is the first book in this country to directly advocate for moths from a conservation gardening perspective.

Please pass the word about Gardening for Moths, and we would be most pleased - as would the moths (and bats, birds, spiders, fiery searcher beetles etc.) - if you ordered your own copy. OU Press has a special deal effective through March 8. Enter the code WILD23 in the promo code box at checkout and receive a 30% discount off the list price of $36.95.

Should be available at many booksellers throughout the region covered by the book

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Sorry, folks. Zombie fungus is real, and it exists in Ohio

A Carolina leafroller cricket bristles with fungal fruiting bodies/Jim McCormac

Sorry, folks. Zombie fungus is real, and it exists in Ohio

February 19, 2023

Jim McCormac

The HBO series "The Last of Us" premiered on Jan. 15, and was watched by 4.7 million viewers – one of the largest HBO debuts ever. Its storyline is a grisly one. A naturally occurring fungus known as Cordyceps mutates and leaps from its insect hosts to humans. The end result: an apocalyptic landscape populated by human zombies. The series is based on the 2013 video game of the same name.

Ah, but television is the stuff of fantasies and fiction, fortunately. Not so fast! Cordyceps fungi and its allies are quite real and all around us. Upon encountering a zombified insect or spider victim of the deadly fungus, which happens nearly every year – sometimes multiple times - my colleagues and I have often joked about what might happen if it ever crossed over to people.

Now we know, or at least we can vividly imagine our fate thanks to Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann’s cleverly written and creative HBO series.

Cordyceps (and closely related Ophiocordyceps) fungi have been known for well over three centuries and was first discovered in China. The latter group is well known for infecting ants. In our neck of the woods, I mostly see Orthopteran victims, especially the Carolina leafroller cricket.

Carolina leafroller crickets are common but shy and retiring. During the day, they hide in leaves that they roll up to form a bivouac. The cricket – distinguished by exceptionally long antennae – emerges under cover of darkness to forage.

Airborne spores of Cordyceps that fall upon a cricket enter its body and commence growing via long strands known as mycelia. The mycelia worm their way through the cricket’s innards, feeding on tissues but not killing its host, at least quickly. As a critical fungal mass develops, the Cordyceps moves to the head of the cricket and somehow rewires its behavior.

In a horrific last hurrah, the fungal parasitoid forces its victim to climb to a prominent perch in a tree or shrub, causes it to clamp down tightly on leaf, and kills it. The fungus, which has mostly consumed the cricket’s inner workings by this point, prepares to reproduce. Stem-like spikes called stroma shoot from the insect’s body; these are capped by perithecia, or fruiting bodies.

The accompanying photo shows a Carolina leafroller cricket completely zombified, eyes dead and white, bristling with fruiting bodies. The perithecia soon rupture, releasing scads of windborne spores, hence the reason for the fungal reprogramming of the victim: to force it into a breezier location for successful spore dispersal.

Cordyceps does not confine itself to crickets. I have seen caterpillars, flies, moths and spiders that have succumbed to it.

We can thank our lucky stars that Cordyceps “zombie fungus” does not invade Homo sapiens, at least yet. If it ever does make the leap, at least some of us are in for a rough ride. As webs of fungal mycelia consume the victim, their behavior would become increasingly erratic and antisocial, yet they would still appear “normal."

As a grand finale, the infected person would be forced to climb a flagpole or some such tall object and seize the top with an unbreakable death grip. The Cordyceps flag would be the grisly new banner, the human pennant bristling with spikes of fungal stroma like a macabre human porcupine, eyes dead and pearly. Clouds of spores would erupt into the wind, seeking other humans to further the fungus.

Hopefully, "The Last of Us" is not prescient, or we are in for a new world order ruled by fungi. And the takeover will not be a walk in the park.

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

A dark-banded owlet moth that fell victim to Cordyceps/Jim McCormac

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Northern Pintails


A drake Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) in golden post-dawn light. It was one of many pintails at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on January 27, 2023. It was a frosty morning and a crust of ice veneers the marsh. Ice and cold are nothing to these hardy ducks. Even though January is very much winter to most of us, I could sense the zugunruhe (restlessness) among the pintails. They're early migrants pushing north at the first opportunity, often on the heels of ice-out.

Drake pintails are exquisite animals, resplendent with chocolate head, plumose contour feathers, long tail streamer, and overall natty coloration and patterning. And that bill! It is bluish-gray and glossy, as if coated with fresh lacquer. The bill almost appears to be liquid, as if made from water.

A group of apparently headless pintail. This busy phalanx of feeding birds - ten hens and a drake, and many others nearby - were focused on stuffing themselves with aquatic plant matter.

A male pintail accompanies a quintet of hens. Many ducks, this species included, form pair bonds on the wintering grounds. By now, nearly a month after I made this shot, these ducks are likely already in transit to breeding grounds. Large numbers of pintails move through Ohio in spring migration, with especially notable concentrations in the Killbuck Valley of north-central Ohio. Hard to say where they'll end up. The pintail breeds on a broad front in North America, all the way north into Arctic regions, and across the breadth of Canada, Alaska, and the northernmost U.S. states.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Brown-headed Nuthatches gathering pine seeds

While working my way from the Delmarva Peninsula back on January 30, I stopped at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. From my last visit here, I learned at least two things: try to avoid weekends (can get quite busy) and park and walk big swaths of the beginning parts of the driving loop. So, this time I visited on a Monday, arriving near the crack of dawn, and had the place almost entirely to myself. I parked near the beginning, got the camera rigs together, and set off on foot. Loblolly Pine groves are frequent, and it wasn't long before I heard the squeak toy sounds of troupes of tiny Brown-headed Nuthatches (Sitta pusilla). The highly social little birds can be tough to observe well, let alone photograph, as they spend much time in the crowns of towering pines.

As I walked along, I came upon another band of nuthatches, but this group was much lower. They were making frequent raids on a young loblolly, laden with cones and many of them near eye level. In the image above a Brown-headed Nuthatch sits atop a cone, posing perfectly.

This is the shot I really hoped for - a nuthatch with pine seed in its bill. The small group was harvesting many seeds - pine seeds become a staple winter food - and were caching many of them among the bark of high limbs, or so it appeared. The process of seed extraction can take place rapidly and often a bird would be off like a shot once it had the seed. Or they would be partially blocked by needles, facing the wrong way, or otherwise uncooperative. Brown-headed Nuthatches do not take direction from people, and one is left hoping for a chance perfect pose. The animal above finally gave me pretty good documentation of his pine seed-harvesting activities.

While I enjoy the challenge of making images of interesting little nuthatches, I enjoy watching and listening to them even more. Charismatic in the extreme, Brown-headed Nuthatches constantly talk amongst themselves in varied squeaky tones. The louder calls sound just like a dog working over a squeak toy. It was interesting to have a ringside seat to their harvesting and caching activities as well. Prior to making these shots, I spent some time watching a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers working over a large limb of a Loblolly Pine - beetle grubs, or carpenter ants were the target, I imagine. A Brown-headed Nuthatch flew in and sat for a minute or more within a few feet of the massive woodpeckers, carefully observing them. I wondered if the clever little bird saw an opportunity to dart in and grab some of the spoils exposed by the woodpeckers, or if it would return after the birds left to seek leftovers. I had to move on before I could see what might have happened there.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A Brown Creeper works fungus


A Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) works the plated bark of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda). 

My last day of my recent foray to the Delmarva Peninsula was epic, both for the length of the "workday" and the myriad cool observations. I left my hotel in Lewes, Delaware well before dawn, and drove the 1.5 hours to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, arriving shortly after dawn. This was a Monday (by design) as weekdays typically have far less visitation than weekends. Blackwater features a nice driving loop, and driving loops are very popular. The downside of traffic is near constant interruptions on a busy day, which can really hamper photography.

I drove in a short distance, parked, got my gear ready and set out on foot. Walking this driving trail - at least the section near the beginning - is far more productive than driving. Cars are pretty good isolation tanks, and ensconced within a vehicle makes it much harder to spot subjects, and certainly harder to hear them.

While working a roving band of Brown-headed Nuthatches (a post on those in the future, hopefully), a flicker of movement nearby caught my eye. A Brown Creeper, only about 20 feet away and working the trunk of a large Loblolly Pine! This common species - at least in migration and winter, south of its core breeding range - can be a challenge to photograph well. I instantly shifted focus to the creeper and angled for some shots. The image above is of the type that shows the bird's physiology well.

The creeper pokes under a plate of bark, seeking spiders or small insects. When against tree bark they blend extraordinarily well with their surroundings. This crypsis combined with their typically fast and jerky movements can make them a challenge for photographers.

While shooting this bird, I had noticed a few small patches of Orange Oyster mushrooms (Phyllotopsis nidulans) on a nearby Loblolly Pine trunk, about eye level. If only the creeper would move to that tree! I started doing my best to will it over there, thinking/hoping if it did visit the mushroom tree, it might also investigate the mushrooms.

Voila! I was pleased indeed when the creeper flutter-dropped to the base of the mushroom tree and began working its way upward as a creeper nearly always does. This trajectory would put him/her (sexes are identical or nearly so) on a direct path to the oysters. And bingo! As soon as the creeper reached them it paused briefly, then jumped up to latch on to one of the fungi.

I was hammering my shutter button, hardly able to believe this stroke of creeperesque luck! The bird was probably 25 feet or so away, tops, and I was armed with my Canon R5 attached to the Canon 800mm f/5.6. Not only that but the 1.4x extender was mounted, giving the rig 1120mm of reach. More is usually better when it comes to birds, and I had to do very little cropping with these images.

NOTE: Until the R5 I'd had little luck using extenders on the 800. I could never dial them in - nor could a professional - to tack sharpness. I know that extenders will cause some image degradation - shooting through more glass probably always will - but the 1.4x has not rendered image degradation that's really discernable on my lesser telephotos and it was nearly permanently attached to my 500 f/4 II when I had that. But it mostly works like a champ on the R5, perhaps because of that mirrorless camera's amazing autofocus system. Still, the closer to the subject the better the images - more distant subjects do not hold up quite as well.

This wasn't this creeper's first time at the mushroom rodeo I'd guess, as it quickly started probing into the gills under the caps. I became very interested in what the bird might be extracting, and soon found out at least in a general way. It was, often after much rooting around, pulling out tiny larvae - far too small to show up well in images. I suspect they were of beetles, or possibly flies or even caterpillars. One shot, when highly enlarged, seemed to show three pairs of thoracic prolegs and some median prolegs as a moth caterpillar would have. But the dietary subjects remain a mystery to me.

For a photographer or keen birder interested in behavior (I would be both), this situation was manna from creeper heaven. The fungi were of great interest to the bird, and I probably had a total of ten minutes with it at the mushrooms. So alluring were they that after "leaving" and me preparing to move on down the road, it suddenly reappeared and gave me a few more minutes.

The Brown Creeper strikes a pose. This was one of the photographic highlights of my trip and certainly an unexpected bonus. It does pay to strike out on foot, even when a convenient driving loop might be a temptation to remain in the vehicle. I almost certainly would not have picked up on this situation had I been in the vehicle.

Can it get any better? At one point a Carolina Wren popped up onto the mushrooms. It probed around a bit, but not with the gusto and sense of purpose of the creeper. My hunch is that the curious wren - they miss nothing! - observed the creeper at the mushrooms and decided to investigate. It was not tuned in to whatever the larvae that the creeper was eating and didn't stay long. But long enough to give me a nice series of images on a particularly alluring substrate.

After Blackwater NWR, I headed 15 minutes north to the legendary Oakley Street and Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland. There I photographed ducks until late in the day (hope to make a post about that later), then headed home to Worthington, Ohio, arriving around midnight. I'm still not done going through the piles of images that I made on this six-day trip but have been quite pleased with what I've seen so far.

If you're interested in a good immersion to the coastal regions of the Delmarva Peninsula, check out the Delmarva Birding Weekends. Expert-led trips while produce lots of birds - and seals! - and the guides and organizers are superb sources of information regarding the various honey holes on the peninsula.