Monday, December 4, 2023

Young white-crowned sparrows perfecting melody still a delight to behold


An adult white-crowned sparrow sings a perfect song/Jim McCormac

Young white-crowned sparrows perfecting melody still a delight to behold

December 3rd, 2023

Jim McCormac

I am only a sparrow amongst a great flock of sparrows.

— Evita Peron

There are lots of sparrows. Excepting birders, they get little play or press. I was mildly self-disgusted to scroll back through the roster of nearly 400 Dispatch columns I’ve written to date and see that I’ve written about them only thrice. And now, a fourth time.

On a recent frosty morning, Ohio State University biology professor Shauna Weyrauch and I ventured to Slate Run Metro Park in northern Pickaway County. A highlight of the 1,700-plus acre park is a sprawling conservation area on the park’s western border. Numerous wetlands, meadows, thickets, and woodland patches create a diversity of habitat.

Birds were our targets and quarry was plentiful. A pair of giant sandhill cranes offered great looks. The big birds have nested here, and this may have been the local pair. Less conspicuous was five Wilson’s snipe that rocketed from a thick patch of smartweed. Yes, snipe actually exist beyond the campfire legends of “snipe hunting”.

I was pleased to hear the rough “jit-jit” notes of a ruby-crowned kinglet. While a common migrant earlier in fall, by late November the tiny bird is rare. Its tinier relative the golden-crowned kinglet was common, as was our hardiest warbler, the yellow-rumped warbler. Several purple finches, down from the North Country, were also present.

But it was sparrows that consumed much of our attention. We detected eight species, and missed another, the field sparrow, that was surely present. Although the temperature was only in the high 20s, sunny conditions stimulated much singing among the sparrows. A fox sparrow gave its slurred drunken whistles, somehow melded artfully into a pleasing aria. Well-named song sparrows delivered their complex tunes, and white-throated sparrows whistled from thickets.

We were especially pleased to come across a band of white-crowned sparrows. This species nests far to our north, in taiga and tundra habitats. Adults sport crisply striped heads — think Michigan Wolverines football helmet, but with the stripes black and white. Duller first-year birds were also present, and the bird in the photo was one of them. It was born last summer, and it’ll take the better part of a year to develop the natty headgear.

Although white-crowned sparrows are not particularly shy, they were mostly busy seeking seeds in thick cover. Their airy buzzy songs gave them away, and thus guided to their honey holes, we were occasionally rewarded with views when one teed up on a plant.

White-crowned sparrow song is a delight to the ear: a mellifluous series of whistles and buzzes infused with a rather melancholy tone. While some adults sang and did so perfectly, the as-yet unpolished juveniles were more conspicuous to my ear, in the way that an un-tuned guitar would be. Young white-crowns begin their singing lessons within a few months of hatching, but mastering the melody takes much practice.

Young white-crowned sparrows must learn their songs from adults, and lesson one begins almost immediately upon fledgling. They imprint the song of nearby males, creating a mental model that they will later learn to duplicate. Then comes the plastic (adaptive learning) phase, in which young sparrows practice their songs to be. This formative period lasts throughout winter and into spring, and it was this raw product that we heard much of on our Slate Run expedition. The youngsters sound unpolished, akin to a kid early on in his or her musical lessons on a recorder. There are imperfections in notes, sequence and overall delivery.

By the time these as yet amateur avian musicians reach their northerly breeding grounds late next spring, they’ll be able to sing like Pavarotti. Practice makes perfect, even in the bird world. And when it comes to sheer aural elegance, few of our birds can match the sparrows.

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

A subadult white-crowned sparrow practices singing/Jim McCormac

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Invasive honeysuckles and birds


A western Ohio woodland, its understory utterly dominated by Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). While there are other species of Asiatic honeysuckles running amok in the Midwest, this one is by far the worst culprit in most areas I visit. It is firmly entrenched in our flora, much to the detriment of the indigenous plants.

As always, click the image to enlarge

It wasn't always so. The nonnative bush honeysuckles like Amur Honeysuckle weren't a major problem until fairly recently. In Lucy Braun's The Woody Plants of Ohio (1961), she devotes a scant two sentences to it. Braun knew it only in the wild from the far southwestern corner of Ohio (Hamilton County) but did note that it was "becoming abundant".

This map is from Tom Cooperrider's decidedly unsexily titled The Dicotyledoneae of Ohio: Part 2: Linaceae through Campanulaceae. The book was published in 1995 and gives a snapshot of the progress of Amur Honeysuckle in Ohio. Twenty counties have been added since Braun's publication 34 years prior. It should be noted that botanical works such as these rely on vouchered specimens as evidence, and there are relatively few botanists that collect and archive material in herbaria. By 1995, Amur Honeysuckle was undoubtedly in counties beyond those depicted on this map but was definitely not the scourge it is now.

Cut to today, and documentation of the horror show that Amur Honeysuckle has become. The orange squares representing reports congeal into blobs, so frequent are the observations. This is part of the iNaturalist map, which relies on peer-reviewed photos submitted by observers. Ohio is smack in the middle of this snippet of the map, and honeysuckle pretty well blankets the state. Good old Lonicera maackii is certainly in all 88 counties, and at least locally abundant in many or most of them.

How did it get here? Apparently, the original escapes came from the New York Botanical Garden, which began promoting Amur Honeysuckle as an ornamental in 1898. By the 1930's and '40's, wildlife agencies greatly exacerbated the problem-to-be by widely promoting honeysuckle as a ground cover, soil stabilizer, and wildlife food plant. As often seems to happen with invasives, there was a few decades long gestation period where the plant did not run amok, but probably largely stayed where it was put. In Ohio and this region of the Midwest, the spread probably began in earnest in the 1980's and the trajectory was obvious by the time of Cooperider's 1995 book. One need only glance at the iNaturalist map to see what has happened since.

Small wonder people were smitten with Amur Honeysuckle. It is pleasing in form, and sports abundant showy white flowers.

Alas, those flowers later become equally showy fruit, also abundant. Brightly colored berries probably evolved to lure agents of dispersal, especially birds. Birds are drawn to bright fruit, and it is to the honeysuckle's advantage to have its berries eaten by highly mobile winged creatures. A frugivorous (fruit-eating) bird might expel the seeds a long distance away, effectively playing the unwitting role of avian Johnny Appleseeds. Birds are surely the primary reason for the remarkably rapid invasion across a broad swath of eastern North America.

An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) sits among a sea of Amur Honeysuckle fruit. It is akin to a kid in a bowl of M & M's. The 50-acre preserve where I made this shot is in Columbus, and I visited last Sunday. The site was thoroughly infested with honeysuckle, and dozens if not hundreds of robins gorged themselves on the fruit.

A first-year White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) caught in the act, berry in beak. This species is probably our most abundant migratory sparrow, and many were present here - same site as the robin above.

With abundant frugivores such as the American Robin and White-throated Sparrow (not a major frugivore but nonetheless they have a taste for honeysuckle berries) eating this stuff, it's small wonder that honeysuckle has spread so rapidly and continues to do so. Many other bird species eat it as well including a hyper-abundant nonnative, the European Starling (Sturnis vulgaris). What is curious to me is the apparent lag time from when Amur Honeysuckle began to be planted commonly (1930's-40's), to when it became an obvious and worsening invasive plant (1980's). I wonder if birds, confronted rather abruptly with a completely foreign plant, basically ignore it for a while, not recognizing a potential food source. Maybe it takes a few decades for the feathered crowd to develop a taste for the stuff and begin ravishing it in earnest. But once they do, the game is over.

Amur Honeysuckle is so thoroughly entrenched now that there is no way to eliminate the overwhelming majority of it. Localized control in targeted parks and natural areas can be successful but constant vigilance is necessary as new seed sources will be introduced annually.

We can hope that Amur Honeysuckle eventually runs its course, and fades out, as some invasive species seem to do. But there's no sign of that happening yet.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Nature: Investigating the northern saw-whet owl in Ohio

A northern saw-whet owl rests in the hand of Blake Mathys, just prior to its release/Jim McCormac

Nature: Investigating the northern saw-whet owl in Ohio

November 19th, 2023

Jim McCormac

Lots of interesting and little-known creatures emerge under cover of darkness. Some of them are human, but most are not. Perhaps foremost in piquing human interest about animals that ply their trade after nightfall are the owls.

Owls have long been a source of fascination to us. Athena, the mythical Greek Goddess of Wisdom, was smitten with owls and held them in high regard. A genus of owls, Athene, is named for her. It includes the North American burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia. In 1994, ancient art was discovered adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France. Some of this work depicts owls, and was created over 30,000 years ago. Effigy pipes depicting barred owls – a common Ohio species – created by Hopewell Indians date to around 100 B.C. and have been found in Tremper Mound in southern Ohio.

A local owl aficionado is Blake Mathys, a biology professor at Ohio Dominican University. He established the Central Ohio Owl Project (COOP) in the fall of 2020. I wrote about COOP and its goals in a February 7, 2021 column. One of his major study targets is one of our most charismatic little hooters, the northern saw-whet owl.

Mathys, who lives in Union County, bands saw-whet owls on his property each fall. A string of mist nets is placed in a wooded opening, and saw-whet calls are broadcast from a nearby speaker. Owls investigating the calls fly into the nets and become entangled. The soft mesh causes no harm, and captured birds are quickly extracted.

Netted owls are taken to the “lab,” a nearby table where each bird is measured, weighed and feather details are studied to determine age. The latter process involves shining ultraviolet light on the owl’s underwings. Newer feathers are infused with a compound known as porphyrin, which glows fluorescent pink under UV light. With experience, the bander can accurately assess the bird’s age by its pinkness or lack thereof.

Perhaps most importantly, a lightweight aluminum band is placed on a leg. The band sports a unique number and allows positive identification if the bird is recaptured. An enormous amount of information regarding bird migration, seasonal movements and longevity has been amassed by banding. In the case of northern saw-whet owls, most of what we know is the result of efforts by banders such as Mathys.

I was fortunate to be part of an assemblage that visited Mathys’ banding operation on the night of November 11. A nip was in the air as darkness fell, and it was downright chilly when we made the first net check. Nothing. Brief disappointment ensued but that was offset by optimism for upcoming net runs. Sure enough, we were elated to see two saw-whet owls in the nets on the second check.

Both birds turned out to be hatch-year females. They would have been born in spring or early summer, and probably WAY north of where they were caught. The vast majority of saw-whet owls breed in northern forests across Canada and the northern states, from Alaska to New England. There are only two recent Ohio nesting records, from Erie and Huron counties along Lake Erie. At one time, the owl was a more frequent nester in northern Ohio.

Most of the people present this night had never seen one of the wee owls and were thoroughly enchanted. A big one – females are larger – weighs around 100 grams, or the same as 15 quarters. They measure but 8 inches in length, with a wingspan of a foot and half. In contrast, our largest owl is the great horned owl, and it tapes out at nearly 2 feet in length with a 4-foot wingspan and body weight of 3 pounds.

Northern saw-whet owls are incredible nocturnal hunting machines. Their eyes constitute nearly 5% of the body mass and have many more cones than human eyes. This allows them to see in darkness with amazing accuracy. Large offset ears permit fine-tuned sound triangulation. Woe to the scurrying rodent, even if it’s under vegetation. Flight feathers edged with comb-like extensions allow for silent flight, and once a pounce is made, the owl seizes its victim with powerful talons from which escape is impossible. I would note that the first thing someone usually says upon clapping eyes on a saw-whet owl is “cute”. Many mice and voles would strongly disagree.

Blake Mathys has captured nine saw-whets this fall, and more will undoubtedly follow. Last fall he caught a remarkable 34 birds. Kelly Williams, a bander working with Tom Bartlett on Kelleys Island, caught 16 owls on the same night we were out. Bartlett has captured over one thousand in his decades of banding on the Lake Erie Island, demonstrating that the owls migrate across the great lake.

The work of Mathys, Bartlett, Williams, Bob Placier (who bands saw-whets in Vinton County) and others have illuminated the frequency of this owl. During migratory periods, and probably in winter, the little owl is probably the most common owl of the seven (eight, if snowy owls are present) species in Ohio.

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 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Eastern Screech-Owl in dark woods


A gray morph (not "phase" as color forms are incorrectly often referred to as) Eastern Screech-Owl stares from its perch in an inky woods. Owl eyes, in comparison to human eyes, are proportionately enormous and in some species - including the next owl species that I'll post about - can make up 5% of the total mass of the owl. Owl eyes also have many more rods per cone, thus their eyes are far more efficient at detecting movement in dark conditions. The net result is eyes that are dozens of times better at harvesting light than human eyes.

Shauna Weyrauch, I and about 25 others had a great evening owling last Saturday night with Blake Mathys, an owl expert and bander in west-central Ohio. We observed or heard three owl species, including the one above, and another species which is quite special, and I'll write more on that one later.

PHOTO NOTE: With highly nocturnal creatures such as owls and bats, it's better NOT to pop a bright flash in their faces. But light is certainly required, as even at the highest ISO setting and widest aperture it won't be possible to harvest adequate light for an exposure in extremely dark conditions. Blake spotted this owl - one of a pair that he knows well - with infrared glasses, and then we used a flashlight beam to illuminate the bird so that all could admire it. My experience with lighting screech-owls in this way is that it seems to bother the low-key birds little, and certainly doesn't have the blinding effect that the brilliant and sudden pop of light from a flash would have.

I have a cool device known as a Neewer CN-160 dimmable light panel. It mounts on the hotshoe of my camera and provides an adjustable and constant light source. I can put just enough light towards the subject to find focus and illuminate it enough for photos. To avoid turning the Neewer up to blinding light levels, I use a higher ISO (much as I dislike having to use high ISO settings, but there is a time and place for them). The settings for this image were ISO 6400, f/8, and 1/200 shutter speed. As we weren't especially close to the owl - maybe 20-25 feet - and I used a 100mm macro lens (on the camera for the primary subject of that evening), I also had to crop a fair bit. So, the graininess associated with a higher ISO is manifesting a bit, but it is still a usable image. And the owl was still there when we departed, no worse for the wear.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Nature: Ohio's Metzger Preserve harbors strange yet impressive rock formations

Metzger Preserve harbors one of the state's greatest concentrations of the bizarre, round rock formations known as concretions/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ohio's Metzger Preserve harbors strange yet impressive rock formations

Columbus Dispatch
November 5, 2023

Jim McCormac

The Pekowi were a band of the Shawnee tribe, one of five divisions of the once-great confederacy. The county just south of Franklin County derives its name from the Pekowi: Pickaway. Until nearly 1800, the Shawnee and other Native Americans reigned over the wildlands of the Ohio country. An especially famous Shawnee was Tecumseh, who was born circa 1768 near Chillicothe.

At the time of Tecumseh’s birth, what would become Pickaway County was densely forested, the woodlands broken by a roughly 5-by-7-mile tract of prairie that bordered the Scioto River between present day Circleville and Chillicothe. It is known as the Pickaway Plains, but the prairie’s destruction is almost absolute. Less than a fraction of a percent remains.

In the early 1770’s, a Christian missionary named David Jones ambled into the Pickaway Plains region, seeking converts. Such missionaries were often harbingers of doom for the indigenous peoples, and soon an avalanche of settlers followed. The bounty of timber was irresistible to the immigrants, and the first lumber mill, near present-day Williamsport, began service in 1812. More soon followed. Before long, the forest primeval had been largely cleared.

An inventor named John Deere, who had fled his home state of Vermont to Illinois to dodge bankruptcy charges, wasted no time in his adopted state. In 1837, one year after his arrival, Deere launched his self-scouring steel plow which would forever alter the former forests and prairies of the Midwest and its nearly incalculable biodiversity.

By the dawn of the 20th century, most of Pickaway County had been converted from forests, prairies, pothole wetlands and fens harboring a thousand native plants to monocultures of corn, soybeans and wheat. Only scattered shards of former habitats remain.

In 2002, the Pickaway County Park District was created. For its first 15 years, the district operated on a shoestring budget, but in 2017 a levy to provide permanent funding for the park district was put before Pickaway County voters. They passed it with 55% of the vote. The district has not let the grass grow under its feet since, and is hard at work protecting Pickaway County natural gems.

Pickaway County Parks purchased the 52-acre Metzger Preserve along Deer Creek in 2019. Deer Creek is one of central Ohio’s finest streams, and this acquisition helps protect its water quality and rare fishes. But the preserve also offers the public a window into a geological history that is far older than the region’s human history.

On Oct. 28, I visited Metzger with Shauna Weyrauch, an Ohio State University professor and bobcat researcher. We weren’t looking for wildcats — they would have been common in Tecumseh’s time — but for a more easily found subject: rocks.

Metzger Preserve harbors one of the state’s greatest concentrations of concretions: bizarre round rock formations that look like oversized bowling balls. Concretions were formed by a buildup of minerals congealing around a nucleus such as a fossil, bone fragment or crystal. Metzger’s concretions are composed of siderite, an iron carbonate. The stony oddities date to the Devonian, a period of the Paleozoic Era that began 419 million years ago and lasted for 60 million years. So strange is their appearance that concretions were once thought by some to be dinosaur eggs, or flotsam left by extraterrestrials.

The concretions at Metzger Preserve are embedded in a deposit of Ohio Shale. Deer Creek has cut into this shale bank over the ages, eroding away the softer shale and liberating numerous concretions. The result is a fantastic, almost surreal streambed littered with what looks like castoff cannonballs. From afar, the rounded tops of the concretions resemble scores of turtle shells jutting from the water. Big specimens can be 8 feet in diameter.

If you visit Metzger, be sure to go when Deer Creek’s water levels are low and the concretions are easily visible. Another recommended stop nearby is Calamus Swamp, one of very few glacial kettle lakes remaining in the region. It is owned by Columbus Audubon and features a boardwalk that traverses the 19-acre wetland.

For more information on Metzger Preserve and Calamus Swamp, visit: and

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, November 2, 2023

Cardinal-flower, and the coming floral hiatus

A brilliantly hued Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), shot back on August 25, 2023. A floral hiatus now ensues, until the blooming of Skunk-cabbage at winter's end, at least in my part of the world. It got down to 29F last night, here in Worthington, Ohio. This Cardinal-flower was photographed in Scioto County, Ohio.

Photographic Note: Reds in flowers can be tricky to expose properly (as can yellow). It's easy to overexpose them, and thus wash out the gorgeous hues that make red flowers so fetching. Depending on the conditions, I often underexpose a bit, maybe 1/3rd stop, sometimes more. Wind is also not the flower photographer's friend, and as I recall this was a mostly windless day. Thus, I shot from a tripod with a 2-second timer delay (so I am not touching and possible moving the camera at the time of exposure). I also have the camera (Canon R5) set to touch screen focus. I just touch the spot that I want to have as the focus point on the camera's back screen, and Voila! Two seconds later the camera fires, focused on the exact spot that I touched. I'm also partial to very open apertures when I feel that I can get away with them, as f/4 (in this case) creates such a beautifully blurred background (bokeh). f/4 to f/7.1 are favored flower apertures although I will frequently venture off that reservation. ISO, of course, is set very low - 200 in this case. For floral photography, shutter speed is largely irrelevant to me, especially if there is not movement on the subject's part. This image was shot at 1/25 but I have often shot flowers at speeds as low as several seconds.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Nature: "Tis the season to spot dark-eyed juncos in central Ohio


A male dark-eyed junco snacks on poison ivy berries/Jim McCormac

Nature: "Tis the season to spot dark-eyed juncos in central Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
October 29, 2023

Jim McCormac

“…there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird…”
− John James Audubon (1831)

I suspect the great naturalist and pioneer ornithologist was optimistic in his estimation of junco familiarity. His “snow-bird” is now formally known as the dark-eyed junco, and back in Audubon’s time, people were far more attuned to the environment. Many if not most people probably were acquainted with the jaunty slate-colored sparrows.

Even today, with the popularity of bird feeding, lots of people know the junco. But in central Ohio, they’re primarily winter visitors. Juncos arrive on the first gusts of nippy fall winds from northern breeding grounds. I ran into my first dark-eyed juncos of fall just a few days ago, as nighttime temperatures began to dip towards the freezing mark.

Unlike many of its sparrow brethren, which are skulkers and shrinking violets, dark-eyed juncos are extroverted and easily observed. Adult males are a rich dark slate color above, with snowy underbelly and a pink bill. Their white tail feathers are often flashed conspicuously. Females and juveniles are more muted and infused with brownish hues.

There are plenty of dark-eyed juncos to see. The population, which breeds strictly in the U.S. and Canada, numbers about 630 million individuals, or about two juncos for every person. While juncos nest throughout the boreal forest of the northern U.S. and Canada, birds in northerly populations retreat southward in winter. These are the birds that we see at our feeders.

Ohio lies at the southern limits of the junco’s breeding range, with isolated nesters in the extreme northeast, especially Geauga and Lake counties. A small population breeds in Mohican state forest. But if you receive juncos at your feeders, the likelihood is that they hail from remote northern forests.

Over its vast North American range, the dark-eyed junco varies markedly in appearance. So much so that until 1973 it was divided into five species: gray-headed junco, Guadalupe junco, Oregon junco, slate-colored junco (our birds), and white-winged junco. Typical examples of each form are easily identified, but they all hybridize and produce fertile offspring, which is why the five were lumped into one species. The Oregon subspecies appears rarely but regularly in Ohio. Adults are recognizable by a black hood that contrasts with pinkish-brown flanks.

If you feed birds, you’ll almost certainly attract juncos. The jaunty little sparrows usually feed on the ground, often flashing their bright white tail feathers. Many species of birds that are habitual ground-foragers have white outer tail feathers. One explanation is that it presents a false flag to bird-hunting raptors like Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. The raptor fixates on the junco’s bright tail feathers, seizes those, and the junco escapes, sans tail. But tail feathers grow back, and the junco lives to see another day.

The roughest of winter weather does not deter tough juncos. They essentially live in a sleeping bag of feathers, the dense down feathers shingled over by sturdy waterproof contour feathers. Juncos can stave off the coldest of Ohio temperatures. If snow covers food sources, they kick through it like little chickens to uncover the seeds.

Come mid-March, dark-eyed juncos start their northward journey. By May, nearly all of them have moved north, leaving us with to deal with a five-month junco hiatus. Throw some seed out for the snowbirds, and enjoy them will you can.

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

A female dark-eyed junco, or snowbird/Jim McCormac

Monday, October 23, 2023

Fall colors

The autumnal plumage of Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum), especially, enliven a backwoods Adams County lane. One of the great delights of living in the eastern deciduous forest region is the annual coloring of tree foliage. Ohio is a particularly good place to bear witness to this phenomenon, and especially so in the hill country of southern Ohio, where I made this shot yesterday.

Fall colors were not yet peak, and if high winds don't remove most of the leaves between now and then, I would say that next weekend should be prime time to observe fall leaf color, at least in central and southern Ohio.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Moth Talk: October 24, Columbus, Ohio. All are welcome!

I'm giving a talk on the amazing world of moths for Columbus Audubon at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, hard on the banks of the Scioto River near downtown Columbus (Ohio), on Tuesday, October 24. Doors open at 6:30 pm, and the show gets on the road around 7 pm. It's free, and all are welcome. Just show up if you want to come.

This talk is loosely based on the new(ish) book Gardening for Moths, by Chelsea Gottfried and me. That book (hit the shelves in late March 2023) features a robust introduction that makes the case as to why moths are important. And that's mostly what I will do with this talk: build the case for the importance of moths and how they interplay with bats, birds, other animals, our native flora, and more. Our (mostly) nocturnal butterflies are fascinating on many levels, and do not get nearly the attention that they deserve.

This LINK has all of the details that you need. Would love to see you there!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Rough green snake spotted in southern Ohio

A rough green snake lurks in a wild lettuce plant/Jim McCormac

Rough green snake spotted in southern Ohio

October 15, 2023

Jim McCormac

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. − Luke 10:19

While 26 snake species slither about in the Buckeye State, they are largely out of sight and mind. That’s probably a good thing to many people, as ophidiophobia (human fear of snakes) is quite common. More importantly, it’s far better for the snakes that relatively few people clap eyes on them. Humans are, by far, a snake’s worst enemy.

Bad PR for serpents began at least as far back as the Bible, which is rich in anti-snake passages. Snakes are clearly used as a metaphor for evil, which is entirely underserved. The popularity of that ancient tome has colored people’s perceptions of one of our most interesting animal groups for millennia.

We directly persecute snakes, for no good cause. In Ohio, the overwhelming majority of our reptilian wrath is directed at non-venomous species, which constitute 23 of our 26 species. Common victims of humanoid malice are species like the eastern gartersnake and gray ratsnake.

Both species are utterly harmless. Even the three venomous species in Ohio are generally quite mellow. I’ve encountered the eastern copperhead, Massasauga (rattlesnake) and timber rattlesnake numerous times over the years, and in all cases their docility was notable.

One must work to run afoul of a snake. Far easier to leave them be, which is just how they would have it.

To me and many of my comrades, encountering snakes of any species is always a highlight of an outing. But a northern rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus)? Rare indeed will be the animal that will one-up that experience.

Back on Sept. 8, I and 15 or so others were ambling along an old road through Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. We were attending a native plant conference, and this was a nocturnal field trip to seek creatures of the night. Suddenly out of the dark came a shout. Denise Arnett Ruby had discovered a green snake!

Everyone rushed over to ogle the handsome serpent. Rough green snakes are diurnal, spending their days slinking through low branches of trees and shrubs seeking caterpillars, crickets, spiders and other invertebrate fare. When threatened, the lime-green snake freezes and becomes nearly impossible to see amongst the foliage.

Green snakes sleep at night and are often easier to find under a flashlight beam. That’s how Denise spotted this one, and we were all beneficiaries. It was a “life snake” for nearly the entire group.

All 26 species of Ohio’s snakes have declined since the arrival of settlers, many of them alarmingly so. The rough green snake has probably decreased more than most. It is a southerner at the northern limits of its range in southern Ohio. Historically, it was documented in 14 counties. Now, it is only known to be in five.

Direct human persecution probably isn’t a major factor in this case. Highly arboreal green snakes are just too secretive and hard to spot and tend to occur in sparsely populated areas. They favor woodland edges and forest openings, and that’s the habitat I’ve seen all of the 15-20 individuals I’ve encountered over the years.

Forestry management practices, particularly logging, has undoubtedly decreased their numbers. In addition to degradation of the green snake’s woodland habitat, logging operations can destroy or damage nest sites: hollow logs, tree cavities, deep leaf litter, rocks etc. Outright development of forested habitat, or conversion of woods to agriculture or other open habitats, is likely even a bigger factor in the snake’s decline.

Our green snake was a bit perturbed at being roused from its slumber, and wriggled about for a bit. It eventually settled in and allowed the group to closely inspect it and get photos. The snake made no effort to bite, and such an attempt would be rare indeed. I’ve handled a number of them and not one has tried to strike.

Conservation of large, wooded ecosystems such as the 70,000-acre Shawnee State Forest is essential to protecting sylvan creatures such as the rough green snake. That also applies to wise forest management, which should include conservation of all native biodiversity.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

A fine toad


Our group ran across this whopper of an American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) while on a nocturnal field trip in Shawnee State Forest (Scioto County, Ohio) on September 10, 2023. I could not resist making images of the big amphibian, and the toad cooperated nicely as they often do. Of course, I toad her not to move and fortunately she toad the line nicely. I've got scads of toad imagery, but can seldom resist new portraits, especially when the model is as fine as this one was.

I do appreciate the articulating back screen of my camera (Canon R5), which allowed me to set the camera on the ground for the shot and still see the composition by merely folding the screen out and looking down at that. To further ease the task, I have the touch screen set so that when I touch a spot on the screen, the camera automatically focuses on that spot then takes the image. This is all getting almost too easy.

I've spent my fair share of time in pre-articulating screen days prostrate on hard rocky substrates to get on my subjects' level, and that ain't much fun. I have zero qualms about going prostrate for photos and do so all the time. In fact, it's one of my favorite positions for photographing wee beasts, as it's important to be on your subject's level. But going flat on those hard rocky roads with big pebbles jabbing you? No thanks and I'm grateful for camera technology that sometimes makes that unnecessary.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

American Bolas Spider

Back on September 14, I visited an interesting property in rural Pike County, Ohio (well, I guess nearly ALL of Pike County is rural) to assist with a one-year bioblitz project spearheaded by John Howard. I'd been trying to get there all summer, but this is the year of talks for me, thanks to the new Gardening for Moths book, and the speaking gigs have thrown wrenches in many plans (but I'm not complaining).

John and the scores of experts he's had to the property have found a mountain of species, and I'll hope to report on that after the project has concluded. John, Stefanie Paeg and I roamed the property most of the day and managed to extricate some new species for the list - mostly insects and plants. Later, spider expert Rich Bradley joined us, as did Laura Hughes and Vince Howard. Towards day's end, photographer Sam James finally caught up with us way out on the trail, and shared news of a great find that he made soon after heading out on foot.

This is Sam's find, as it appears from 15 feet away. As you've probably guessed, it's the little white blob amongst all of the Black Willow (Salix nigra) foliage.

We move in closer, and voila! The apparent bird dropping reveals itself to be an American Bolas Spider (Mastophora hutchinsoni). Bolas spiders are always notable finds, and generally everyone, at least in my circle of friends, wants to see them. During the day, the females, which are much larger and more conspicuous than males, hide in plain sight atop leaves. From almost any distance they resemble fresh bird droppings and thus presumably escape the attention of would-be predators. The bulbous waxy-white body, intermixed with brownish tones, looks remarkably similar to bird scat.

Staring straight into the grill of the spider, we see her legs neatly tucked around her head. This one appears to have spun a pad of silk which she's sitting atop. I do not know what that's about, but perhaps to help hold her in place if the wind starts buffeting her perch. She'll remain like this all day, so we made sure to re-visit her after nightfall.

When we returned, she had already caught a moth, even though it was barely past dusk. Her Lepidopteran victim, enshrouded in silk, hangs behind her. Bolas spiders, at least from my limited experience, do not make much of a web. Basically, they weave a flimsy trellis of silk lines from which they hang and hunt from. Given their highly specialized moth-hunting skills, a fancy web is not necessary.

We stopped back a while later, and the bolas spider had just captured another moth. She's fangs deep in the freshly captured victim in this shot.

Bolas spiders in the genus Mastophora - there are about 50 species - occur only in the Americas. They specialize on moths and use some amazing tactics to capture them. The female spider emits pseudo-pheromones from its body that mirror those emitted by certain female moth species. The males of those species detect those airborne false flags, and thinking a female of their species is nearby, flutter ever closer. When the moth comes into range, the bolas spider flicks a strong silken strand tipped with a sticky globule at it. If her aim is true, the moth is snared, reeled in, killed, and eaten. In times of plenty, as apparently was the case this night, she will cache victims as in the previous photo.

I never saw her line, or bolas, on this night, but presumably she used one to capture these moths. For a good image of a bolas spider's bolas, CLICK HERE for the story of an encounter with a Toadlike Bolas Spider, (M. phrynosoma).

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Nature: Rare Maryland meadow-beauty spotted in Lawrence County


Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia marilandica), about three miles west of Lake Vesuvius in Lawrence County, Ohio, on August 27, 2023/Jim McCormac

Nature: Rare Maryland meadow-beauty spotted in Lawrence County

Columbus Dispatch
October 1, 2023

Jim McCormac

Back on Aug. 27, I had the pleasure of going afield with Iris Copen and Shaun Pogacnik, two of Ohio’s finest field botanists. Shaun, 27, is an Ohio University student, and Iris is 25 and a recent graduate of OU. The two Bobcats are employed as seasonal botanists by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, the agency that owns and manages Ohio’s system of state nature preserves.

We started our foray near the village of Pedro, in Lawrence County. The heavily forested county includes the southernmost point in the state: South Point, on the banks of the Ohio River. Despite covering 453 square miles, there are only about 58,000 residents in Lawrence County.

Just two days prior, Iris and Shaun had made an epic discovery, and we wasted no time trekking to the locale. There is a saying in field botany: The best finds come by following the path of greatest resistance. This find lived up to the old adage, requiring a hike along muddy trails, often pocked with deep mud puddles that had to bushwhacked around.

After a mile and half, we reached ground zero, and Ohio’s newly discovered population of Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana). This southern species occurs most plentifully along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, from Pennsylvania to Texas. It becomes increasingly rare northward in the interior, reaching its limits in Kentucky and southernmost Indiana. This Ohio record is a significant range extension.

When Iris and Shaun first saw this locale on Aug. 25, the pink flowers of a vibrant stand of Virginia meadow-beauty (Rhexia virginica) quickly caught their eye. This was an exciting find, as the plant is listed as potentially threatened by ODNR, and is known from only a handful of counties. But Iris noticed one of the meadow-beauty stands didn’t look quite right, investigated more closely and saw that it was the similar Maryland meadow-beauty. She knew this plant well from extensive field work in Florida, where it is common.

I was impressed by the botanists’ intrepidness in venturing back to this place, as, for the most part, the habitat didn’t appear especially conducive to major finds, and it was a long slog to reach the site. But Shaun and Iris are well-known for going far afield over tough terrain. In fact, on Sept. 12, 2021, they discovered another Ohio first, also in Lawrence County: hairy lipfern (Myriopteris lanosa). Finding that diminutive fern involved an arduous mile-long brush-beating climb to a cliff high above the village of Rome, with the hills of West Virginia in the distance.

For a plant-hunter, discovering first state records of native plants is the equivalent of a gold medal. I know well the elation that comes with significant discoveries. During my field botany career, I managed to discover or co-discover a dozen new species to Ohio, and nine extirpated species (plants thought to have disappeared from the state). Such finds are a botanist’s high.

New discoveries are increasingly hard to make, as botanists have been scouring Ohio for two centuries. Increasingly, one must be willing to venture way off the beaten path, often in remote parts of the state. An encyclopedic knowledge of flora is a must, as many newer finds involve species with very similar brethren that confuse the issue. Additionally, plant taxonomy and nomenclature is increasingly complex, as species are split into multiples or combined into one, families are subdivided or lumped, and scientific names seem to change with the seasons.

Every time I am afield with Iris and Shaun, I feel like I just attended a master’s level course on botany. Both have an impressive command of the current state of North American botany, incredibly discerning eyes, and no fear of going far afield on foot through all manner of conditions. Both have already made many exceptional plant (and moss and lichen) finds, and they are just getting started. I look forward to their next great finds.

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

Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia marilandica) in Lawrence County, Ohio, August 27, 2023/Jim McCormac

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Bathroom Moth Fly

The festively painted latrine building at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, at the jumping off spot for hikes way out onto the dikes surrounding the large, impounded marshes. I'm not sure when the latrine got this fancy wrapping, but it looks good. Sort of the artistic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig, perhaps, but who's complaining?

I made an epic trip to the western Lake Erie marshes back on August 18, mostly seeking birds. There were plenty of those to be found, and I managed many nice photographs of shorebirds and other avian subjects. There had been a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in the marshes to the north of the art latrine, and I hoofed a few miles around the dikes in a futile quest for that, along with my friend Kathy Cubert, who I had run into at Howard Marsh. Kathy did get to see these little gems that I fortuitously stumbled into that morning.

Anyway, before embarking on the Ottawa trek, I nipped into the art latrine, and made another fortuitous discovery that is the subject of this post.

The entrances to the art latrine, boys on right, girls on left. This side sports the coolest art, too, what with the Bald Eagle, Blanding's Turtle, American Water Lotus and other Ottawa NWR biota. I entered on the right, and for purposes of this study it must be noted that I did not go into the other side.

The latrine's interior. Rather grim in comparison to the building's gaudy exterior, but nonetheless good habitat for one of our most interesting and resilient insects.

NOTE: I did not enter the latrine camera in hand. Only after discovering the subjects of this post during my brief, legitimate visit within did I return with camera gear. Two lenses were employed during this shoot: Canon's superb 16-35mm f/2.8L ultra-wide angle, and the workhorse (for me) 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. My major concern with this shoot was normal people seeing me and questioning why I'd be lurking in such a place with fancy camera gear. It could be hard to explain, and somewhat awkward but as fate would have it, it was a slow day at the marsh and no interlopers came along.

As I stood at the latrine, I noticed that the stark white walls were bespeckled with little dark dots. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were amazing little "moths", except I knew that they were not actually moths. As it turned out, the specks were Bathroom Moth Flies (Clogmia albipunctata)! Well, this was quite exciting, and I know I would have to photo-document the wee beasts. How I've managed to overlook them up to now, I have no idea. I guess I just don't frequent the right places.

The Bathroom Moth Fly, in all its glory. Given the humble roots of its origin, the sewage-loving Dipteran is quite showy and truly does resemble a furry little moth. One regret that I have regarding this shoot - but I will eventually rectify - is that I didn't use my mega-macro Canon MP-E 65mm lens. The moth is only about 2.5mm in length. We're talking a true elfin, and almost beyond the capabilities of my 100mm macro. However, using the MP-E 65mm would have necessitated lugging a tripod into the latrine and guys lugging cameras and tripods into latrines raise suspicion. But who cares - this is in the name of science and next time I shall not be so concerned about what other people think. Besides, I was in a hurry to get out there and seek whistling-ducks.

Bathroom Moth Flies are thought to be tropical in origin, including the American tropics. As people (and our waste) spread throughout the world, so did the fly. Its larvae, which resemble little worms, consume some of the nastiest imaginable decaying organic material. Yep, they're down in that hole in photo #3, an almost unimaginable existence.

For me, the highest use of photography is for telling stories, and I have a lot of experience with that. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind while making this shoot that it would be cool to get photos of the larvae. Well, I'll take one for the team within reason, but doing what would have been necessary for larval shots of Bathroom Moth Flies was not within reason. Apparently, in addition to latrines, dirty kitchen sinks, trash-filled water holes and other undesirable sites, the moth flies also use water-filled tree holes. The latter, I might possibly do larval exploration in. Deep in the bowels of latrines, not.

Next time I cross paths with Bathroom Moth Flies, I am going to work the beautiful adults more thoroughly. Even if it means hauling my rig and tripod into a latrine.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Nesting Pied-billed Grebes

An immature Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) floats on the quiet waters of Howard Marsh, along Lake Erie not far east of Toledo, Ohio.

I visited the newly opened Howard Marsh West back on August 18, and shared some bird images made there in THIS POST. One species that was very conspicuous but did not use photos of in the above-cited post was Pied-billed Grebe. The little divers were everywhere, and several family units were present. I've always been smitten with grebes and tried to take photos when they would come into range.

A juvenile grebe, similar to the one pictured above, takes a test flight. the legs are set far back on the body, the better for diving, but that positioning requires much effort to get aloft. This one ran/skimmed/semi-flew across the water's surface for perhaps a football field's length before settling back in. Apparently just getting a feel for things and checking out the gear for the southward migration to come. Pied-billed Grebes are nocturnal migrants, so it would be unusual to catch one in true flight during daylight hours.

An adult grebe with black bib and hash mark on the bill, with a very young juvenile bird.

The Pied-billed Grebes added significantly to the Howard Marsh soundscape, with adults occasionally delivering their surprisingly loud jungle-like whooping, and the softer but still conspicuous chicken-like peeping of the still stripe-headed juveniles that depend upon their parents to provide food.

An adult grebe steams across the marsh with a freshly caught fish. Destination: a group of loudly peeping youngsters. There seemed to be at least three family units present in the marsh, and the younger chicks peeped nearly nonstop, constantly exhorting their hard-working parents to bring them fish, and MORE fish!

A trio of chicks accompanies this hard-working, probably sleepless adult, putting up a cacophony of peeps the whole time.

Adults fashion a rather crude floating platform of plants matter such as bulrushes, sedges and cattails, and the female lays about a half-dozen eggs atop that. Chicks - and adults - face many predators, including birds of prey, gulls, Raccoons, Snapping Turtles, Mink and others. Nonetheless, a fair number of striped juveniles had made it this far, and hopefully many of them will get to the point that they can take flight and move south when the time comes.

Casting eyes on this new section of Howard Marsh, it's hard to believe that not long ago it was all agricultural land. Prior to conversion for farming, it was wetland, and this project is a true wetland restoration - not creation. The avian response to wetland restoration can be astonishingly fast and this case is stark proof of that. And it will only get better in coming years. Kudos to Metroparks Toledo for their fine work.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses


Little white spires of orchid flowers dot the open gravelly substrate of the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve in Ottawa County, Ohio. I was exploring some of the most interesting habitats of Lake Erie's western basin last Saturday, and almost on a whim, decided to stop at this site. I was with Shauna Weyrauch, an Ohio State University professor who studies Bobcats, and was introducing her to some of the region's rare plants.

We saw the Great Plains Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) before the car was even stopped. They were everywhere; a decided boom year, which happens with some orchids. There were dozens and dozens of plants, hundreds I am sure, if one scoured the preserve's 19 acres in its entirety.

A Great Plains Ladies'-tresses springs from the gravel. Nearly all of its botanical companions are rare, or at least not plants that one finds everywhere. In this photo, the orchid shares space with the federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea), Slender Foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia), and Bristle-leaved Sedge (Carex eburnea). The orchid is listed as Potentially Threatened in Ohio, a watch list category and one step below Threatened.

A close-up of the inflorescence and its beautiful flowers. Ladies'-tresses flowers look like they are crafted from confectioner's sugar. The overall look is enchanting, but to really appreciate these Lilliputs one must drop to the ground to best observe the 6-8-inch-tall spikes.

This map is courtesy of BONAP and shows the distribution of this aptly named orchid. As is true with many prairie and Great Plains species, their eastern terminus is in or around Ohio. The counties shaded in yellow denote rare status. Eleven Ohio counties are highlighted, but the little orchid is certainly extirpated from some of those. And there are precious few locales in the counties where it does remain.