Friday, April 28, 2023

Impressive Great Blue Heron likely to be found in all 88 Ohio counties

A great blue heron rookery along Paint Creek in Ross County/Jim McCormac

Impressive Great Blue Heron likely to be found in all 88 Ohio counties

Columbus Dispatch
April 30, 2023

Jim McCormac

The bird family Ardeidae (ar-dee-ih-dee) includes the bitterns, egrets, and herons. Nearly 75 species wade waters worldwide, with representatives on every continent but Antarctica. An even dozen is found — or has been found — in Ohio.

Many Ohio herons and their allies would not be familiar to most people, excepting birders. Two of them are great rarities in our part of the world. The reddish egret has been found only twice in the state, and the tricolored heron appears every few years. Both are vagrants from the Deep South.

Another southerner, the little blue heron, is somewhat more frequent but still rare, as is the yellow-crowned night-heron. Ohio is at the northern limits of its breeding range. Sticking out like lanky-legged sore thumbs are great and snowy egrets. These snow-white herons are also southerners, but their ranges are expanding northward in recent decades.

The somewhat enigmatic cattle egret is indigenous to Africa and Eurasia but began spreading far and wide in the 20th century. Ohio’s first record came in 1958 and it has even nested but remains a rarity.

Two bittern species occur here, the diminutive least bittern and the much larger American bittern. Both are denizens of emergent marshes, and people have not treated their habitat well. About 90% of Ohio’s wetlands have been lost since settlement, and consequently bitterns – and scores of other species – have become much rarer.

More common than suspected is the black-crowned night-heron. Their habits make them elusive, though. The well-named bird is mostly nocturnal and tends to hole up in thick cover during the day.

Ohio’s second most common heron is the green heron. About the size of a crow, green herons nest in every county, and favor well-vegetated ponds, lakes, streams and the like.

Number one on Ohio’s heron roster is the conspicuous great blue heron. Probably everyone reading this has seen this species many times. Seeing one of these impressive beasts is like clapping eyes on a living, breathing pterodactyl. Flushed from a riverbank or pond shore, one of these gargantuan fish-spearers launches itself into the air with cumbersome rows of its massive wings, uttering god-awful, frightening croaks.

Like its little brother the green heron, great blue herons probably breed in all 88 Ohio counties. Unlike its diminutive sibling, which breeds solitarily and expertly conceals its nest, the great blue is an extroverted nester.

Great blue herons nest communally, their collective aggregation of nests known as a rookery. Sometimes rookeries are small, with only a handful of nests. But if sited in an especially favorable locale, rookeries expand over the years and can become quite large. The largest is probably the rookery on West Sister Island in western Lake Erie. At its peak in the early 1990s, it contained nearly 2,500 nests.

Most rookeries probably support a maximum of a few dozen nests. The accompanying photo of a Ross County rookery has about 50 nests (not all are visible in the image). Conspicuous local rookeries include one along the Olentangy River at State Route 315 and Hyatt Road. Another is on a small island in the old quarry behind Shrum Mound off McKinley Avenue, near Marble Cliff.

Many herons, including the great blue, were persecuted in the late 1800’s for the millinery trade. The birds’ showy plumes were used to adorn hats, and heron ranks were decimated in many regions. An end was put to the frivolous slaughter at the dawn of the 20th century, and great blue herons and others have become much more common, and many species continue to increase.

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

The great blue heron is Ohio's most common heron/Jim McCormac

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Cardinal eating elm samaras, bonus bluebird

A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) leans into some tasty American Elm (Ulmus americana) samaras. I was standing quietly near a woodland pond, watching the behavior of a pair of Wood Ducks, when I saw the red bird flit into the young elm. I figured he'd be after the fruit, and sure enough he was.

Trees undoubtedly evolved prodigious fruit production to counteract very high levels of predation by fruit-eating animals such as this cardinal. Even a young elm such as this produces far more seeds than could ever germinate and grow. And many samaras never even fall to the ground. They are plucked as soon as they ripen.

Caught in the act! An elm samara dangles from the cardinal's thick seed-crushing bill. He spent several minutes in the tree and wolfed down many elm fruits in that time. I'm sure many other birds regularly hit the tree and other elms in the area. I have seen a number of bird species harvest elm fruit over the years, but seldom get chances to photo-document them. I suspect it is because elms typically occur in dim haunts or thickety areas, the trees and their fruit are not overly conspicuous nor in biological hotspots likely to attract people such as myself, and thus I'm just not in the opportunity zone a lot.

As an aside, Dutch Elm Disease (Ophiostoma ulmi), a fungus which entered the Americas from Europe in the early 1900's, has ravaged American Elms. The stately tree once was used widely as an ornamental street tree. Today, DED has laid waste to the giants and big trees are increasingly hard to find. CLICK HERE for the tale of a giant Ohio elm that I long admired but finally met its demise a few years ago.

However, young American Elms remain abundant. Once they reach a certain size, the fungus invades and eventually kills them, but they are replaced by other young trees. It would be great if DED somehow hit a wall and eventually vanished, but there are no signs of that happening insofar as I am aware. But even saplings fruit heavily, thus they are an important natural food source for birds and various mammals.

Later that morning, this gorgeous Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) landed nearby as I stood there, camera on tripod and ready to go. He and his mate had occupied a nest box not far off, and I think he came over to check out the interlopers. I find it nearly impossible to resist photographing bluebirds, especially when they present themselves as nicely as this bird did. His upperparts are cloaked in what may be the finest shade of blue, ever.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Podcast: Moths, and the Gardening for Moths book


Bevin Cohen at the Seeds & Weeds Podcast asked me to come on one of his podcasts, which I did last week. We talked about moths in general, and more specifically, the new book shown above. He was a great interviewer, asked good questions, and we had a lot of fun. He's already got the podcast up and running, and you can listen RIGHT HERE.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Ohio Wildlife Center a haven for animals in need of treatment


Stevie, a melanistic red fox ambassador animal at the Ohio Wildlife Center/Jim McCormac

Ohio Wildlife Center a haven for animals in need of treatment

Columbus Dispatch
April 16, 2023

Jim McCormac

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Ohio country was a wilderness. The year that we achieved statehood, 1803, there were only about 5,000 settlers in the state, in addition to the Native Americans that long preceded Europeans. The latter group lived in far greater harmony with the environment than the new arrivals.

Now, nearly 12 million people live in Ohio, a human avalanche that has wrought enormous changes to the natural world, most of it not good. Wild animals have generally suffered from human activities, with few exceptions.

Scores of cars and heavy traffic, dogs and cats, toxic chemicals, high-rise buildings, and numerous other pitfalls to animals have created hazards galore. Fortunately, there are nearly 90 licensed wildlife rehabilitators scattered around the state. These individuals and organizations do their best to aid injured animals, and collectively they deal with tens of thousands of injured animals each year.

Central Ohio is home to the state’s largest rehabilitator, the Ohio Wildlife Center (OWC), which was founded in 1984 by legendary veterinarian and birder Don Burton. The OWC hospital is on Billingsley Road in northwest Columbus, and their corporate headquarters is just north of Dublin on the Scioto River.

The OWC staff and their volunteer army of 200 people do not let the grass grow under their feet. In 2022, over 8,000 animals were admitted. Among the mammalian crowd, the eastern cottontail rabbit was the most common patient. Two hundred and ninety-two bunnies were treated. Of the birds, the mallard was most frequent, with 395 ducks admitted. The American robin was not far behind at 303 birds. The goal is successful treatment and release back to the wild of all patients, and a great many are.

In all, OWC staff and volunteers dealt with over 20,000 interactions with the public last year. Of those, nearly 1,000 contacts involved their “SCRAM” operation, which helps people resolve human-animal conflicts humanely.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the OWC headquarters, which sits on 20 acres near Shawnee Hills. Director Lolita Haverlock, communications manager Nick Sheriff and education manager Jayna Hulse gave me a tour of the amazing facility.

The stars are the “ambassador” animals, which are housed in roomy enclosures. These birds, mammals, reptiles and others cannot be re-wilded due to injuries, human habituation or other factors. Visitors can get face time with massive (and very vocal) bald eagles, barred and great horned owls, raccoons, expressive American crows, curious coyotes and many others.

My favorite are the foxes. These wily mammals are smarter than many people I’ve met and are one of our handsomest mammals. Especially notable is “Stevie,” a rare melanistic “silver” fox. Her photo accompanies this column. Stevie was rescued from an undesirable captive situation and is flourishing in her new surroundings. She shares space with a pair of normally pigmented red foxes.

Construction is under way on a one-acre pollinator garden that will host many species of native plants. This planting will become a centerpiece of the grounds and should be flourishing by next year, and it’ll age like fine wine, improving each year.

The OWC Education Center grounds are open to the public the second Sunday of each month, from noon to 3 pm. I highly recommend a visit. Bring some kids. It’s a great venue to expose the younger set to amazing animals.

For more on OWC, including their SCRAM operation and other activities, 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, April 12, 2023

Pyramid of trilliums

As always, click the image to enlarge

A pyramid of Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). It appears as if a fissure in the cliff above opened, and scores of beautiful flowers tumbled out. I made this image yesterday, April 11, at the amazing Highlands Nature Sanctuary, owned by the Arc of Appalachia.

Lush forest floors such as this, with rich soft humus and deep leaf litter, are becoming increasingly rare. The ravages of repeated logging operations with their attendant soil compaction, disruption of subterranean fungal communities, and alteration of natural drainage patterns, is increasingly taking its toll on most of our woodlands. An overabundance of White-tailed Deer - one of the rare "winners" in a world heavily altered by man's hand - has all too often decimated woodland herbaceous layers, and deer really love trillium. On the other hand, the fabulous forest partridge, the Ruffed Grouse, is rapidly blinking out. Game managers attribute its loss to a lack of early successional woodlands and promote yet more logging to restore grouse habitat. Little do they know that their cure is likely the very reason the grouse have vanished.

I highly recommend a visit to Highlands Nature Sanctuary and other Arc of Appalachia sites. Their work represents true conservation. Not the hubris of people deciding which species are important and which aren't and engaging in foolhardy management practices geared towards extracting maximum monetary value from our natural resources.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Birds of Ohio checklist grows from 420 to 443 species in 14 years

Harlequin ducks, rare in Ohio, grace the cover of the new Checklist of the Birds of Ohio/Jim McCormac

Birds of Ohio checklist grows from 420 to 443 species in 14 years

Columbus Dispatch
April 2, 2023

Jim McCormac

In the olden days of ornithology, shotguns were the lethal equivalent of binoculars. Ornithologists collected specimens of birds that they saw, and these provided indisputable documentation of a region’s bird life. Carefully preserved and stored in musty museum drawers, scores of old bird skins are still available for study.

As optics and observational techniques improved, collecting fell out of vogue. Today, rare is the scientist with a collecting permit. Almost all bird documentation is done visually and photographically.

The Ohio Bird Records Committee (OBRC) is a group of ornithology experts that arbitrates records of very rare birds that appear in Ohio. They are, in effect, the scientific peer review team that evaluates evidence for unusual or unprecedented sightings.

One of the OBRC’s crowning achievements is publication of the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ohio. It includes all species officially accepted on the state list. The first edition came out in 2008, spearheaded by David Dister, Joe Hammond, Robert Harlan, Bernard Master and Bill Whan. This first edition included 420 species.

In the fall of 2022, the second edition was released and the checklist has grown significantly. Rob Harlan is sole author, and has made improvements to the format. It is indexed, and color photos grace front and back covers. An eye-catching pair of harlequin ducks is on the front, and a swallow-tailed kite is on the back.

The meat of the 65-page checklist is the birds themselves: all 443 species. Twenty-three species have been added in the 14 years since the inaugural checklist’s publication. Each species has a short description of its status in the state, and a bar chart of its seasonal frequency. The checklist is the easiest, most up-to-date publication for a quick and accurate overview of Ohio’s birds.

Of the 443 species, nine are non-native. Especially familiar among this crowd are the abundant European starling, house sparrow and rock pigeon. Sadly, two native species that historically bred in Ohio are extinct: Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon.

Waterfowl – ducks, geese, swans – is the largest family, with 43 species. The ever-popular warblers follow with 40 species and sandpipers are the third largest family at 37 species.

A whopping 216 species are listed as nesters, although some of them have only bred once or a few times, and some species, such as Bewick’s wren, no longer breed in Ohio. One additional species, the black-bellied whistling-duck, was confirmed as breeding shortly after the checklist’s publication. I wrote about that strange occurrence in my Oct. 2, 2022 column.

Rarities always cause a stir among birders, and 124 species in the checklist are boldfaced, meaning verifiable evidence is required for acceptance of reports. Of those, 37 species have but one record – the rarest of the rare. This group includes some amazing records such as Atlantic puffin, Eurasian woodcock and painted redstart.

Checklists soon need to be updated, and this one is no exception. Four species have been added to the state list since its publication: ash-throated flycatcher (western U.S.), broad-billed hummingbird (Mexico, southernmost U.S.), common gull (Eurasia) and glaucous-winged gull (Pacific coast).

Ohio’s 447 bird species make the Buckeye state holder of one of the largest state lists in the eastern U.S. Of the surrounding states, only one surpasses us, and only by a mere 12 species. That state, to our north, shall go unnamed.

The Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ohio is indispensable to anyone interested in our birds. It is available from Time & Optics, and copies are $5. To order, call 330-674-0210, or email

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

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Spring Peeper

A tiny Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) belts out his incredibly loud song. He was in a pool filled with countless other peepers, and the collective din was ear-splitting, almost painful at times. This was in a vernal pool in southern Logan County, Ohio, last Friday night (March 31, 2023).

In this photo, we see the reason for the singing - to attract females, which this one has. How she keeps from going deaf with the little blowhard singing right in her ear I do not know. One of life's little mysteries, I suppose.