Monday, May 29, 2023

Green Heron nest


A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) stalks the marshy verges of a small pond. Its mate was nearby, and they had a nest in a thick section of a willow tree. I visited Leaves for Wildlife Native Plant Nursery in Delaware County (Ohio) yesterday and was pleased to learn from owner Patty Shipley that the herons had recently taken up residence. The pond is about an acre, and it's amazing the spike in biodiversity that even a small water feature stimulates. There is also nesting Wood Ducks, Prince Baskettails and other interesting dragonflies, multiple Red-winged Blackbird nests, and much more. And scads of interesting native plants are available at the nursery as a bonus.

PHOTO NOTES: Green Herons can be a bit spooky, but this one landed on the edge of the pond on the opposite side of my location. Good! I could stalk it and try to get closer. I was armed with my big rig (Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 and Canon R5) on a Gitzo tripod. After taking a few shots from an upright position to ensure I got something, I began to move in. When I got a fair bit closer, with no reaction from the bird, I lowered all of the tripod's legs. And began crouch-walking, looking for an opening in the shoreline plants. As luck would have it there was a perfectly sited opening near the heron and the sun was coming right over my shoulder. I essentially crawled/knee-shuffled to that gap, set the rig in place with the lens about 1-2 feet off the ground and then getting shots was child's play. I've said this before, but most critters are intimidated of bipeds. Humans, after all, are the most dangerous animals on earth. By just getting rid of your bipedal profile, it becomes much easier to approach subjects. And having the rig on or as near as possible to the level of the subject generally always creates a more pleasing composition.

After a bit, the Green Heron flew over to the Black Willow (Salix nigra) containing the nest and landed on a big limb at its base. Its mate was already over there; I had seen it fly into a large white pine near the willow. Both male and female assist more or less equally in the nesting process. Males apparently usually pick out the nest site and begin construction of the nest, then the female steps in and oversees the project. Both male and female take turns incubating the 3-5 eggs. I think these birds were still putting the finishing touches on the nest, and she had yet to lay eggs.

Classic Green Heron nest: rather ragtag assemblage of twigs forming what would appear to be a rather shaky platform and sited in the densest part of the host tree (or shrub). This was the best that I could do, photographically.

One semi-unusual feature of the nest is its height in the tree - about 25 feet high. I've seen my fair share of Green Heron nests over the years, and typically they are much lower, often barely off the water. And they do typically place the nests over water, and these birds built this one right over the pond's edge, albeit high above. Often the nests are far harder to see than this one. Sometimes all one can discern is the outline of a bulky mass, and it's identifiable as a Green Heron nest only by the birds' comings and goings.

Hopefully all goes well for this nest. It should be pretty easy to observe the progression of the chicks. Once this brood has fledged, the adults are likely to soon launch another brood. If you visit the nursery, I'm sure Patty will point the nest out if you are interested. It can be seen from a safe distance with binoculars, without stressing the birds. Take note, the nursery is only open on Thursdays or Saturdays at this point, although it might be possible to make special arrangements. GO HERE for details.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Another fawn, spawned in the yard

A very young White-tailed Deer fawn peeks at your narrator from the cover of my front yard garden. I went out to get the mail a few days ago and saw some speckles in the plants just a few feet off the front porch. The little deer is probably only a few days old in this image. A few days later, I glanced out back and the fawn was capering around like a kitten with the zoomies, while the doe kept a close eye on he/her.

Fawns, like THIS ONE, have been born in my yard every year I've been here. That's probably a testimony to the comparative wildness of my property, in contrast to most of my neighbors. I have no problem with suburban deer like these, and I think they know it. Thus, my property is a welcome haven. Many gardeners, somewhat selfishly one might argue, protest the ungulates' depredations of their various garden plants, most of which are nonnative Eurasian species. In other words, we have displaced tons of valuable native habitat to create our neighborhoods, largely replaced the once rich native flora with mostly alien species, and then rise up against the native animals that dare to try and eke out a living in this strange new world.

Have at it, deer, say I.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

West Virginia flora and fauna


Babcock State Park and its legendary gristmill. Mills are popular photo fodder but few if any are photographed as frequently as this one. I made this image LATE in the day on May 6 - so late it was hard to see the mill through the darkness. The photograph necessitated a 30-second exposure at ISO 2500, at f/9.

As every year (other than two Covid off years) for the last nearly 20? years, I spent a week in southern West Virginia to participate in the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Along with a star-studded cast of characters (present company perhaps excluded), I help lead trips to local hotspots each day, and give a talk one evening. The event is a blast, and if you want to have a good time and see LOTS of interesting flora and fauna, GO HERE for more information.

Another area highlight is Cathedral Falls. Scenery such as this is commonplace in the area.

As I'm generally too engaged in leading groups and focusing on helping people find things and learn during the week, I (horrors!) don't generally even bring a camera in the field. To atone for that, I always stay about two days after the festival ends and engage in some epic dawn to dusk shooting. I do have the advantage of having scoped out lots of places in the preceding six days, as well as being privy to intel from other guides. Following are a few more images from southern West Virginia, taken on either May 6 or 7.

A Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens), the juvenile form of the Red-spotted Newt. This species is quite common, as are many other species of salamanders. Efts epitomize aposematic coloration: bright colors that warn of toxicity. And efts are quite toxic, being infused with tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin also found in pufferfish.

The flora of the region is diverse and often spectacular. On this trip I saw at least a dozen species of violets, without special effort. One of the most conspicuous species is this one: Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata). It favors soggy soil and can grow in abundance in and around the numerous springs and seeps in the region.

A closer view of Marsh Blue Violet flowers.

Always a coveted sighting by birders, a male Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia) sings from a favored perch at spot high in the mountains of Pocahontas County. It had just arrived on territory and was quite busy establishing its invisible fences.

A Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), a truly striking orchid. It seems to have boom and bust years, and this year was more of the latter. Nonetheless, a hotspot in Babcock State Park produced dozens of flowering slippers, including this beautifully backlit specimen.

A colorful adult male Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) appears to have been dipped in raspberry juice. Its song is an extraordinary extended warble full of flourishes and accent notes that totally lives up to the singer's appearance. This one was a local breeder near Cranberry Glades Botanical Area - one of the festival's field trip destinations.

Another stunning violet, the Southern Wood Violet (Viola hirsutula). It's small, with little round leaves that are often variegated in deep purple. Adding to the charm is its propensity to grow in profusion in mossy beds. The overall effect is that of a naturally occurring terrarium.

Quite exciting was a trio of Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) that popped into some lichen bedecked trees outside the Cranberry Glades Visitors Center. If you follow Red Crossbill taxonomy and their compartmentalization into "types", this bird and the other local crossbills are of Type 1. They specialize on the abundant Red Spruce (Picea rubens) in the high Appalachian Mountains. Who knows, maybe someday it and other types will be split into separate species (one already has). In this area Red Crossbills are quite local and one never knows if they will be seen. I had heard flying groups twice earlier this morning and felt fortunate indeed to be able to view these birds well.

I have WAY more imagery from the whirlwind two days following the festival, most of which will likely never make its way to this blog. But I wanted to offer a brief taste of some of the plants and animals to be found. If you would like to be a part of next year's New River Birding & Nature Festival, we would love to have you.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Nest boxes, game laws bring wood duck back from brink of extinction


A drake wood duck watches his mate investigate nest sites/Jim McCormac

Nest boxes, game laws bring wood duck back from brink of extinction

Jim McCormac

Few birds, in Ohio or anywhere else, can rival the drake wood duck for sheer gaudiness. It’s as if a team of great artists was commissioned to design and color the fowl. Rodin sculpted the graceful neck, ornate crest and rudderlike tail. Picasso laid out the duck’s ornate Cubist patterning. Dali added whimsical flourishes to complete the flashy package. As is usual with waterfowl, the female is much more muted. She has her own charms, though, just not the over-the-top gaudiness of the male.

As exotic as the wood duck may seem, it is a common bird in our parts. But it wasn’t always so. During the Wild West days of unregulated market hunting, the bird’s fate appeared much grimmer. By the early 1900s, wood duck populations had plummeted so badly that some ornithologists were predicting its extinction by 1930.

Fortunately for the birds — and us — game laws were enacted and enforced, which stopped the carnage. Today, the “woodie” is once again a very common species.

On April 26, I visited an excellent local natural area called Emily Traphagen Park, which is owned and managed by Preservation Parks of Delaware County. Soon after strolling into an older-growth woodland featuring a number of massive American beech trees, I saw some large birds high in the limbs.

Wood ducks! A pair was investigating the upper reaches of the beech for suitable nest sites. The aptly named wood duck is one of a half-dozen species of North American fowl that utilize cavities for nesting. In Ohio, the common and hooded mergansers are the only other cavity-nesting ducks.

Nest boxes played a key role in the relatively rapid recovery of wood ducks following implementation of hunting regulations. The rocket-shaped structures mounted on poles or trees are common sights around rivers and wetlands. Untold legions of boxes stipple the landscape within the range of the woodie, which is mostly the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada. The ducks take readily to them.

However, the birds are probably more prone to use natural tree cavities if they’re available. The pair I watched spent much time flying from cavity to cavity, with the female doing all of the house inspections. The male stayed close at hand, perched on a limb and offering his two cents. The female calls the housing shots, though. He is just an interested observer.

Some holes were too small to squeeze in, although she tried. One that seemed to be especially pleasing was a large cavity about 40 feet up a beech. The hen spent a few minutes checking it out and upon emerging, several minutes of debate was had between the birds.

Once a hole is chosen, the hen will lay 10-12 eggs, which will hatch about 30 days later. Wood duck chicks are precocial — they can move about almost immediately. About a day after hatching, the chicks are ready to leave the nest.

Therein lies the rub if you are a wood duck chick. The tiny birds must get from a lofty arboreal nest to the ground. How so? They jump. Life begins with a bounce. The hen flies to the ground and makes soft clucks to goad the youngsters from the hole. With little hesitation, the ducklings scramble from the hole and freefall to the forest floor.

Regardless of the height, the tiny fluffballs are seldom if ever hurt. The highest documented nest height was 291 feet and those chicks jumped without incident. Once all have landed, the hen marches them to the closest water to begin the next phase of their life.

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 wood duck by a particularly interesting beech cavity/Jim McCormac

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Mothapalooza! July 14-16, 2023


Pandorus Sphinx artwork by Ann Geise

Between travels and the general busyness of spring, I have been remiss in posting about the upcoming Mothapalooza. It takes place from July 14 thru the 16, at the gorgeous Highlands Nature Sanctuary in Highland County, Ohio. As last year, it is hosted by the Arc of Appalachia. The mothing in this region is superb, and participants can expect to see scores of interesting species including a number of crowd-pleasing giant silk moths. Daytime field trips will produce much in the way of interesting flora and fauna. Photographers are sure to net scads of interesting images.

Doug Tallamy will be returning, as will the incomparable Sam Jaffe and his caterpillar lab. There will be many knowledgeable guides to help lead you through the labyrinth of moths and their identities. For complete details and registration information, CLICK HERE. Hope to see you there!