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.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Gardening for Moths: Free Zoom presentation! Wednesday, February 15 at 2 pm

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy has organized a very successful virtual symposium entitled Inviting Biodiversity into Our Gardens. The 4th session is next Wednesday, February 15, and features three speakers: Eric Eaton at 1 pm, on wasps, yours truly at 2 pm, speaking about my (and Chelsea Gottfried's) new book, Gardening for Moths, and Kefyn Catley, on spiders.

It's free, and all are welcome. To register, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Once near extinction, gray seals are a frequent sight in Delaware Bay


Gray seals hauled out on rocks off Lewes, Delaware/Jim McCormac

Nature: Once near extinction, gray seals are a frequent sight in Delaware Bay

Columbus Dispatch
February 5, 2023

Jim McCormac

In this column, I bring you a big chunk of mammalian exotica, at least by central Ohio standards. I spent six days in late January in Lewes, Delaware, a town of about 2,750 at the mouth of Delaware Bay. Lewes bills itself as “The First Town in the First State.” Delaware was admitted to the fledgling United States of America on Dec. 7, 1787, edging out the second state, Pennsylvania, by five days.

The founding of Lewes long predates that, its origins dating to 1631. There is much history in this seaside town, but I was mostly here to see and photograph birds and other animals. A friend, Jim Rapp, is an organizer of the Delmarva Birding Weekends, which include boat trips into Delaware Bay. He secured me space on the ship, and we set sail on Jan. 28.

Birds came fast and furious. We saw all three scoter species: black, surf and white-winged. Scoters are sea ducks that winter primarily on salt water and dive to great depths for clams and other marine animals. There were plenty of common loons and some red-throated loons, and massive northern gannets, the boobies of the north. Gannets have a 6-foot wingspan and dive for fish from great heights.

Many other species were seen, including the great cormorant, a maritime species that dwarfs the double-crested cormorant commonly seen in central Ohio. But as much as all these birds excited the 83 birders aboard the Thelma Dale IV, a mammalian plum awaited.

We eventually reached a large system of rocky breakwalls and started scanning the rocks. A small rocky pile known as an icebreaker – built long ago when the bay regularly froze – delivered the score. A dozen or so gray seals!

Seals need to “haul out” of the water regularly to rest, interact, birth pups, and get a break from icy waters. About a dozen seals loafed around on the rocks, lorded over by a massive bull. Gray seals inhabit both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but animals on this side of the pond are bigger.

An alpha bull can weigh nearly 900 pounds and be almost 10 feet long. Females are comparatively svelte, growing to perhaps 7 feet and tipping the scales at 500 pounds. But “svelte” is probably not a good seal descriptor. When hauled out and completely visible, a seal looks like a lard-filled sleeping bag with a cute face and expressive flippers. They often elevate their head and hind end, creating the appearance of a big banana.

When in the water, a gray seal becomes the epitome of aquatic grace. They are swimming machines that specialize in capturing fish, and that takes speed and agility. Gray seals routinely hunt to depths of 250 feet but can go much deeper. They are known to descend to over 1,500 feet and can stay under for an hour.

It almost made me hypothermic just looking at the seals. The water was frigid, the air temperature was brisk, and they were lolling around on wet, wave-splashed rocks. Seals do have a coat of fur; it is a thick layer – up to several inches - of insulating blubber that keeps them warm. In times of lean food, the blubber serves as a food source.

Gray seals and many other seal species were once hunted to near extinction. Seal conservation via the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 allowed populations to rebound. Now gray seals are a frequent and increasing sight in Delaware Bay, near the southern end of their range which spans northward to Newfoundland.

Harbor seals have increased as well, and lucky Delaware Bay seal-watchers might also see harp seals and, if truly fortunate, a hooded seal. Males of the latter species have a pinkish-red inflatable membrane that can be shot from the left nostril and inflated to the size of a balloon. The size of the nose sac helps establish dominance between males and is alluring to females. A male hooded seal with an inflated nose sac is high on my wish list.

For more about Delmarva Birding Weekends, visit:

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

King Rail, swimming


A King Rail steams across a canal in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. Rails, obviously, swim quite well. I had heard one or two off in the marsh and was surprised when this bird eventually hopped in the water and swam across the opening. Couldn't react fast enough to manage photos on its first trip across, but got into position, dropped the tripod down, knelt down and waited. About ten minutes later the big rail came out of the vegetation and swam back across and I was ready. January 30, 2023.