Friday, January 27, 2023

A fox at Cape Henlopen

I'm in Delaware and vicinity for about a week, staying in Lewes. It's a great base camp for a number of interesting places and I haven't been letting the grass grow under my feet. Yesterday, my first full day here, I thoroughly explored Cape Henlopen State Park. This is the elevated boardwalk that forms a section of the trail back to Gordon Pond. I had an amazing experience with a Red Fox right about where I took the above iPhone snap.

I was mostly shooting birds and had my big 800mm (plus 1.4x extender) on a tripod. I was trying to shoot an Orange-crowned Warbler eating bayberry fruit with that rig when I heard the patter of little feet. I whirled around just as the fox shot by just feet away on the boardwalk. I dropped to my knees and squeaked, which stopped him in his tracks. I almost always carry a 400mm on another camera body on a shoulder strap when out on foot after birds and whipped that into position and fired as he ran back my way.

He ran up to about fifteen feet or so from me, paused to give me the once over, and I got this portraiture shot. Apparently deciding I wasn't really a mouse, he trotted right by me and down the trail in the direction he originally came from. I'll gladly add this to a hefty memory bank of notable fox encounters.

NOTE: Making squeaking noises is a tried-and-true technique to get animals' attention. Foxes are especially lured by it. They are highly curious, and squeaks suggest the sound of a wounded animal, or perhaps a mouse - anyway, it's a sound that warrants investigation! Dropping to one's knees is critical to get rid of the upright bipedal posture. Humans, after all, are easily the most dangerous mammals on earth and a lot of creatures know it. Going prostrate or at least to one's knees presents a less threatening appearance.

Visited a few other amazing locales today and took lots of shots of interesting subjects. Tomorrow morning is a boat trip to seek seals, and I'll hopefully have some interesting material on pinnipeds and that excursion later.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

A snowy wonderland


Last Sunday, January 22, 2023, dawned cool and crisp, with the world covered in a gorgeous veneer of soft fluffy snow. Such scenes are not to be missed, especially around here when pure winter days are a rarity. Time is usually of the essence as soft snowy cloaks like this are typically ephemeral and begin melting by midday or so. I rolled out early and only had to head five minutes away, to a section of older-growth riparian woodlands along the Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio.

It's hard to make much progress - as if that matters - when the landscape looks like this. Every new position and turn of the head offer interesting perspectives. I tend to dawdle along, looking for inspiration and love trying to capture interesting scenes with my camera.

I wondered what these Mallards thought of their breathtaking environs. While the ducks issued soft quacks, I could not interpret their thoughts.

A White-tailed Deer stands in a snowy forest. When I head out into a landscape like this, with intentions of capturing large-scale beauty, I often carry only two lenses: a 16-35mm wide-angle, and a 70-200mm for tighter views. I saw the deer before it saw me and bolted on the bigger lens as I was shooting across the river. As soon as I trained the camera on the deer, it looked over, but distance and a wide intervening river kept its fear at bay.

We'll be lucky to have one or two more days like this before winter's end. I hope we do and if so, that I am able to get out somewhere interesting to relish them. Unfortunately, these situations are often tough to predict. You awake, look out the window, and there it is. None of the weather people called this one, surprise, surprise.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

A hodgepodge of pics

I haven't had a lot of time for blogging of late, nor have I been afield much. A number of tasks have gotten in the way, but that will all change soon, with a trip to Delaware Bay. Seals are a primary target, but there is much else of interest to look forward to.

In dredging the photo vault for stuff in recent days, I've run across a few plums (at least to me), and share a few of them below.

Male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythropthalmus) in a briar patch. Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio, November 23, 2022.

Glorious Habrosyne moth (Habrosyne gloriosa), Highlands Nature Sanctuary, Highland County, Ohio, July 17, 2021. One of scores of species of moths seen during Mothapalooza.

Gray Squirrel, melanistic form (Sciurus carolinensis), my backyard, Worthington, Ohio, January 19, 2023.

Merlin (Falco columbarius), Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio, January 11, 2023.

Sachem (Atalopedes campestris), on Fogfruit (Phyla lanceolata), September 6, 2022, Pickaway County, Ohio.

Say's Mantidfly (Dicromantispa sayi), Mothapalooza, Highlands Nature Sanctuary, Highland County, Ohio, July 17, 2021.

Juvenile Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Kankakee Sands, Newton County, Indiana, June 29, 2022. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Gardening for Moths: A Regional Guide

My coauthor, Chelsea Gottfried, and I have been hard at work on the above title (screen capture from its Amazon page) for several years. The book is now at the printer and should be out by late February or thereabouts. Even though the book just hit Amazon a few days ago or thereabouts, we are pleased that it is already ranked #1 in midwestern gardening books, #1 in butterfly books (butterflies are essentially moths), and #2 in all entomology books. If I might unabashedly blow our horn :-) That's all from pre-sales.

We worked with Ohio University Press to produce this 280-page book, which features over 500 color photos and profiles nearly 150 heavy-hitter native plant species and about the same number of moth species. It covers a region that includes nine midwestern states, or parts thereof. A meaty introduction makes the case for moths' importance in food webs, such as for bats and birds. Moths play a large role in pollination services - certainly far beyond that of butterflies, which they greatly outnumber in both species and sheer numbers. Other introductory material covers moth myths and reputation, moth-watching tips, moth photography, human impacts on moths and moth conservation and much more. The text is peppered with numerous inset boxes that feature cool mini-stories about moths: aquatic moths, moth-specific ear mites, bolas spiders that lasso moths, moth caterpillars, moths and goatsuckers, moth-bat warfare, and other interesting material.

The overarching idea with this book is to shine a light on a facet of natural history that normally remains in the dark and is quite poorly known to most people. Gardeners, collectively, have tremendous power to influence our environment for the good, and this book offers a path forward by helping a charismatic group of insects of inestimable importance to the natural world.

For a description of Gardening for Moths, see the Ohio University Press page, HERE. Books can be pre-ordered there, or at Amazon, RIGHT HERE

Monday, January 16, 2023

Nature: Crafty herring gull impresses with problem-solving skills


A herring gull drops a blue mussel onto the roadbed below/Jim McCormac

Nature: Crafty herring gull impresses with problem-solving skills

Columbus Dispatch
January 15, 2023

Jim McCormac

A point of avian trivia: Only one state eclipses Ohio in the number of gull species seen within its boundaries. It is California, which dwarfs Ohio in size and has 840 miles of Pacific coastline. Twenty-seven gull species have been recorded in the Golden State.

Ohio lags California by only six species, with 21 gulls so far recorded. That gap will soon narrow, once new records of common gull (a European vagrant) and glaucous-winged gull (from the West Coast) are formally accepted. These vagrants were found in late December and early January on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland – one of North America’s great gull hotspots.

The default gull in Ohio is the ring-billed gull. This is the species that roosts in mall parking lots, forms flocks on the Scioto River and local reservoirs, and scavenges scraps in McDonald’s parking lots. Occasionally, noticeably larger birds intermingle with the flocks. These are herring gulls, another common gull in Ohio, especially along Lake Erie.

Gulls are intelligent, long-lived, highly adaptable, and situationally aware, with a penchant for doing interesting things. Perhaps no gull out-gulls the herring gull. The big birds are well-known for their cleverness, and ability to solve problems.

As herring gulls spend most of their lives around water, they routinely encounter mussels. Mussels, or clams, are hard-shelled bivalves and - when sealed up - are, in essence, living rocks. It would require a hammer to crack most of them open. The reward for doing so? The meaty animal inside, a gull delicacy if there ever was one.

Clam-cracking is a true problem if you are a herring gull with no hands, hammers, or chisels. But somewhere along the line, the gulls learned about succulent protein and vitamin-rich clam meat and devised a clever trick to open clams.

On a recent trip to Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, in the shadow of Atlantic City, New Jersey, I had the opportunity to photo-document herring gulls opening blue mussels. These bivalves are common in Reeds Bay on the south side of the refuge.

Ages before Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree, leading to his “discovery” of gravity, herring gulls had learned to put gravitational pull to work. Hungry gulls would fly out to Reeds Bay, locate a blue mussel bed, and pluck a clam from its watery home. The hunter would then fly back to a refuge road of hard-packed gravel, and hover over it. From a height of several stories, the gull would drop the mussel like a feathered B-24 delivering a bivalve bomb.

The hapless clam would freefall toward an explosive doom, the gull flutter-dropping after it. Upon impact with the roadbed, the hard shell would shatter to smithereens and the gull would quickly seize the now-available meaty morsel. Speed was critical on the part of the hunter, as other clever but perhaps lazier gulls lurked nearby, ready to usurp the hard-won handiwork of the legitimate heir.

I’ve seen such tactics used by herring gulls numerous times in many places, including along Lake Erie. Many other gull species do this as well, including our common ring-billed gull. While this experience is, I’m sure, not fun for the clam, it is interesting to watch.

The oldest known herring gull lived to age 49, but we know little about gull longevity. As the global population is around a million birds, there are certainly older individuals, possibly even centenarians. An old clam-cracking gull has probably flexed a lot of mussels in its time.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Red-tailed Hawk eats Gray Squirrel!

Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is abundant throughout much of Ohio - certainly in central Ohio, where I made this shot. They are often amusing this time of year, as it's mating season. Soon after winter solstice, the lust to procreate and make more of their kind sets in. Amorous males set to chasing females, and this can put them at risk as their intense focus may cause them to lose track of their surroundings. Just as we notice these wild pursuits, sometimes involving several males hot on the furry heels of a female, so do others. Including formidable predators. I wonder if this is how the protagonist of this post picked off his victim, which apparently let down its guard in some way. But I did not see the actual kill, only the aftermath, of which a brief photo essay follows.

Last Wednesday, January 11, I was traipsing through Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, on the heels of a Merlin (Falco columbarius). I was with a photographer friend, and we had just finished a nice session with a cooperative Merlin on a dead snag. After it finally flew, we set out on foot to relocate it or another we had seen.

I noticed a slight movement within a bushy part of a maple and Voila! There was an adult Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). We quickly saw it had dispatched and was eating a victim. I made this shot soon after the discovery. While the big raptor is glaring our way, it paid nearly no mind to us. We were respectful of its space, and quiet (quietness seems to be becoming a rare commodity where birders and/or photographers gather).

The bird had bagged a Gray Squirrel and was engaged in preparing and eating its meal. From the looks of things, the raptor had been at its work for a while. Much of the mammal had been defurred already, but in this photo the head is mostly intact. In all, we were able to observe the hawk eating its meal for about a half-hour. At that point, I managed to fill my 128-gigabyte memory card. That's not hard when shooting in burst mode with a 45-megapixel camera and shooting video as well. I would have gone back to the vehicle for another card, but by then the rain was setting in, and it was time to leave.

The red-tail with fresh squirrel meat. It came from the one of the rear legs, the remnants of which can be seen sticking up in front of the bird's left leg.

The raptor starts in on the other hind leg. The de-meated other leg sticks up next to it. The back legs must be a delicacy as they are one of the first things this bird dined upon.

At one point, the hawk went on point and was obviously watching something in the distance. I was sure it was another raptor but try as I might, I could not locate the object of its interest. This red-tail was in fairly thick cover in the lower boughs of a large maple and wasn't very conspicuous from most angles. Therefore, I would think it would have been difficult for it to have a good sightline to distant points. But raptors are nearly magical in their situational awareness and with vision far keener than any human, they don't miss much.

On the way out of the cemetery - which is 160 acres, 2nd largest cemetery in Ohio - I spotted another Red-tailed Hawk, perched in a tree far removed from the squirrel-eater. I'd bet it was this bird flying around that "our" hawk spotted. Another red-tail certainly would have put him on point and monopolized its attention.

As always, click the photo to enlarge :-)

Eventually the hawk got to the head and commenced eating the nose - another delicacy? In this image it has deftly grasped the squirrel's eyelid. Raptors deal with prey like this with surgical precision, using the bill like a scalpel and manipulating and repositioning the prey with those large powerful feet and talons. They are more efficient than most people would be with fork and knife.

If nothing interfered, I'm sure the bird left little but fur and bones. Almost nothing goes to waste. My only regret - and it isn't worth regretting as there is nothing one can do - is that the day was a typical gray leaden Ohio winter day. Light was abysmal as it is so often around here in winter, and it only deteriorated as heavy cold rains moved in. How these scenes would have popped in golden morning sunlight! Ah well, I count myself lucky to have had a ringside seat to a dining Red-tailed Hawk. He was still there feeding away when we departed.

Here's a brief video of the red-tailed feeding. I was hoping that the snaps and cracks of tendons and muscles separating would come through, but the camera didn't seem to pick those up. I could hear it, though, and the sound effects added interest to the experience.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

A tale of two hawks

As always, click the photo to enlarge

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) sits on a wire in the little village of Limerick, in Jackson County, Ohio. I was here on December 29 to cover my turf for the Beaver Valley Christmas Bird Count, along with BWD (Bird Watcher's Digest) editor Jessica Vaughn. By the way, BWD is a great magazine and if you have an interest in birds, you should subscribe. Not to toot my own horn although I clearly am, but I have an article on Kankakee Sands in northwest Indiana in the current issue. It's a spectacular birding locale and I've written about Kankakee a number of times on this blog. The recent revamp and reissue of the magazine resulted in a physical size increase, which much better showcases the numerous excellent photos featured in each issue.

Anyway, we did well on the count, with 45 species, including two Eastern Phoebes. I find these tough little flycatchers about every three to five years on this count. If the weather gives them half a chance, they'll try to ride out the winter. The bird in the above photo was one of six Red-shouldered Hawks that we found, and it was sitting in clear view of an active feeder behind a church. Despite its presence, the songbirds were not overly deterred from hitting the feeders, although I'm sure they kept a close eye on the raptor. Red-shouldered Hawks routinely visit my yard, with its usually busy feeders. "My" birds react much the same. Activity carries on, the soundscape is awash with the regular calls, birds continue to hit the feeders, and bold little chickadees will fly right by the much larger raptor as it sits on the fence or a low limb of the walnut tree. The comparatively slow and cumbersome hawk would stand little chance of bagging speedy songbirds, and they know it. I must admit, Red-shouldered Hawks have a soft, rather cute appearance that befits their mellow (for a raptor) persona. Chipmunks, mice and shrews beware, though - they form a large part of Red-shouldered Hawks' diets. In warmer seasons, the raptors catch lots of amphibians and reptiles. I imagine my red-shouldered visitors are mostly watching for chipmunks and the occasional Short-tailed Shrew that dashes from cover for spilled seed.

A juvenile Cooper's Hawk perches in my backyard yesterday morning. These bird hunters are near daily visitors, and I often know when they are around without even casting eyes on one. The yard falls silent, and songbirds vanish. They know to take no foolhardy chances with a Cooper's Hawk, whose bread and butter is small birds.

Not who you would want to see looking your way, if you were a cardinal, junco, sparrow or some other little feathered fellow.

I have plenty of dense shrubby cover in the yard and that's where the birds quickly flee when the threat of a Cooper's Hawk appears. Even that won't necessarily stop attacks. On more than one occasion I have seen a hawk run into a shrubby thicket on foot - quite terrifying for the birds hiding within, I am sure!

Sometimes birds get caught unawares and find themselves out in the open when a Cooper's Hawk materializes. They will "sleek" themselves into a compressed posture and not move a muscle, sometimes for minutes. I once watched a Carolina Chickadee - normally in perpetual motion - sit utterly still for minutes as a hawk sat nearby. I imagine Cooper's Hawks are largely triggered by movement, so sitting stone still, even if relatively exposed, might permit survival.

This juvenile was quite "tame" (or naive) and allowed me to approach to about 20 feet without apparent bother. I try to keep the back windows clean for emergency photos, but generally despise shooting through extra glass. But given his (I think it was a male based on small size) youth, I figured I might try an outdoors approach. It worked and he was still sitting on the wire when I went back inside. The close approach allowed clear images of his death-dealing talons. A small bird seized in those clutches is instantly going to be maimed and not much later, dead, its fate to be plucked and eaten.

Some people who feed birds are greatly bothered by the appearance of Cooper's Hawks. I don't know why. They are magnificent animals that emit a highly palpable life force that alters the very dynamics of their surroundings. Their fierce eyes radiate predatory cunning, and the hunter will often twitch with pent up energy as it scans its surroundings, missing nothing. When the time for action arrives, the hawk is a fury of speed and motion, launching and attacking with mind-numbing quickness. It is a pinnacle of avian evolution, a logical acme of a fantastic evolutionary process.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Nature: Delicate frost flowers are Nature's answer to ice sculptures

A frost flower formed on a dittany plant/Jim McCormac

Nature: Delicate frost flowers are Nature's answer to ice sculptures

Columbus Dispatch
January 1, 2022

Jim McCormac

Saturday, Nov. 19 dawned crisp and cold. I had stayed at the Shawnee Lodge in Shawnee State Park (Scioto County) the preceding evening to attend a meeting. The largest contiguous forest in Ohio, Shawnee State Forest, surrounds the lodge, and there are about 70,000 acres of wildlands to explore.

I left the lodge before the crack of dawn. Within a minute of departing, I was pleased to see a gray fox saunter across the road. Gray foxes have become much scarcer in recent decades, making sightings of these superb cat-like canids especially noteworthy. Perhaps the elegant fox was an omen of good things to come.

My primary mission, however, involved inanimate objects known as frost flowers. For many years, I had heard about these icy ephemera but had yet to clap eyes on one. Today would be the day.

The day before had been fairly warm, with temperatures in the mid to high 30s. Scattered rains in the preceding days had dampened the ground. When I headed out in the morning, the temperature had plummeted to 12 degrees. The conditions were ripe for the formation of frost flowers.

A frost flower is an incredibly delicate ice sculpture that forms around the bases of certain plants. In southeastern Ohio, the primary producer of frost flowers is a little mint called dittany (Cunila origanoides). It is common in Shawnee State Forest.

I headed for a remote ridgetop with well-drained sparsely vegetated slopes - perfect dittany habitat. I knew from experience that dittany abounded at this site. Within seconds of arrival, I saw what looked to be shards of whitish Styrofoam dotting the ground. Finally – the fabled frost flower!

While frost flowers don’t look like much from afar, up close they are spectacular. Wafer-thin icy curlicues resembling ribbon candy cling to the bases of the dittany stems, forming all manner of sculptures. No two are alike.

One must be gentle around frost flowers. I quickly learned, when trying to pull intruding vegetation aside, that even the mildest perturbance would shatter the frozen rime. The observer must look, not touch, to avoid instant destruction.

Frost flowers form when mostly senescent host plants are still drawing water upward into the stem. Cold air freezes the liquid in the stem, creating longitudinal fissures. New water is forced from these cracks, creating the fantastic icy artwork.

The first cold snaps of mid- to late November is prime time for frost flower formation. Not all suitable plant hosts will form them the first frosty night, so seekers might have a few shots at finding the icy “flowers." Searchers need to get out early. The first sun rays quickly melt the frozen objets d’art.

Adventurous gardeners might consider planting a frost flower garden. In addition to dittany, other native (or nearly so) Ohio flora known to produce frost flowers are Canada frostweed (Helianthemum canadense), white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica), and wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia).

Canada frostweed will be tough to find in the nursery trade. The delicate little member of the rockrose family isn’t common garden fare. The other two are easily obtained, but purists can take note that although the southern white crownbeard occurs as far north as northern Kentucky, it hasn’t been documented as a native in Ohio.

As the morning warmed and the frost flowers liquefied, I moved on to other photographic pursuits. And lo and behold, around 10 a.m. I spotted and photographed a female bobcat with two kittens. They were the subject of my Dec. 4 column.

Apparently, that gray fox was indeed a good omen.

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