Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Tall Larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum), with Hummingbird Clearwing Moth


Tall Larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum)

Last Thursday, July 20, I had the chance to commune with hummingbird clearwing moths in a beautiful Adams County, Ohio, prairie. A botanical highlight was dozens of elegant Tall Larkspurs (Delphinium exaltatum). The hummingbird clearwing moths love Tall Larkspur, and it didn't take long for action to occur. I was able to get lots of images of both Hummingbird Clearwing Moths (Hemaris thysbe) and Snowberry Clearwing Moths (H. diffinis) at the larkspur, and also Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

As always, click the image to enlarge

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth works the flowering raceme of a larkspur. The amazing little moths love this plant, and so does this photographer. Tall Larkspur is a rarity in Ohio, and always a treat to see. The speedy hummingbird moths just up the ante, making for wonderful photo ops.

While photographing the plant is not such hard work, shooting the moths is. At full tilt, hummingbird clearwing moths can beat their wings 85 times a second! That's faster than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird normally flaps its appendages. To make this image - and nearly all others that I took this day - I used a Gitzo tripod, just as I would for birds. My artillery was the amazing Canon R5 mounted to the Canon 400mm f/2.8II. The settings for this shot were f/7.1, 1/4000 shutter speed, and ISO 6400. The latter parameter is most bothersome to me, as I normally do everything possible to shoot at much lower ISO ranges. However, I did not use flash for this shot, and such blazingly fast shutter speeds necessitates much higher ISO settings. 

I did play around with flash, using a Better Beamer with its fresnel lens to throw light much farther afield. That worked pretty well, too, but I probably prefer the flashless look. Also, as it takes a second or so for the flash to recycle for the next shot, I couldn't shoot in high-speed burst mode. Without flash I could machine gun fire at up to 20 frames a second, offering a much greater chance of capturing a particularly pleasing wing position and overall posture.

Fortunately, cameras are getting much better at dealing with the noise caused by high ISO, and programs like Topaz Denoise do an amazing job in reducing ISO noise in post-processing.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Fall Nature Safari: Exploring the Hills of Southern Ohio

The above-titled conference takes place from September 8 - 10, and the venue is the fabulous Shawnee Lodge and Conference Center. The lodge and its complement of cabins will be freshly remodeled, as a bonus. But the real bonus is our proximity to the largest contiguous woodland in Ohio, the 70,000-acre Shawnee State Forest.

There will be speakers on bees, goldenrods, and more. But as with any conference put on by the Midwest Native Plant Society, field trips are on the slate. Daytime trips on Saturday are sure to see lots of STUFF. There might be 1,000 species of native plants in Shawnee, and such rich flora fosters all manner of animal life. Our dates coincide with the major southward migration of warblers, and butterflies can still be interesting. Special perks are Friday and Saturday night field trips. Early September is prime time for finding LOTS of caterpillars, and the last time we did this, a mammoth Hickory Horned Devil turned up.

We'd love to have you join us. All of the details are RIGHT HERE.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

A storm rolls in

An impressive summer storm rolls through the Paint Creek Valley. The equally impressive wildflower display is at the Arc of Appalachia's Steel Preserve, which is part of their Junction Earthworks Preserve. The field before you were croplands in the very recent past. Now, inestimable tens of thousands of bumblebees and other pollinators, scores of other insects, and meadow birds such as Henslow's Sparrows make their home here. Along with Kelly Capuzzi and Phil Mellilo, I stopped here yesterday on the return from Mothapalooza to see this amazing place. The storm was a major bonus. Chillicothe, Ross County, Ohio.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Ragged fringed orchids are botanical works of art


A flowering spike of Ragged Fringed Orchid/Jim McCormac

Ragged fringed orchids are botanical works of art

July 16, 2023

Jim McCormac

An orchid in a deep forest sends out its fragrance even if no one is around to appreciate it. — Confucius

The Chinese sage and philosopher perhaps waxed egocentric in that quote. Orchids couldn't care less if people are around to appreciate their aroma, beauty or charisma. They’ve done just fine without us, far predating Homo sapiens and evolving into the world’s second-largest family of flowering plants. Only the sunflower family (Asteraceae) eclipses the Orchidaceae, and not by much.

As for orchids that produce a fragrance, the scent is there to attract moths, a particularly important pollinator group for many species. Moth-pollinated orchids often have an elongate nectar spur. This flower appendage is a tube that contains nectar at its base. Only moths with very long proboscides can plumb the spur’s depths for the sweet reward, and in the process transfer pollen.

Although an estimated 28,000 orchid species grow on the globe, their centers of chief abundance are in tropical regions. Diversity plummets northward and southward. An orchidophile seeking quarry in Ohio has only 46 native species (and one nonnative) to pursue. Colombia, on the other hand, hosts nearly 4,500 species (with more to be discovered).

While Ohio boasts a scant four dozen orchid species, most of them are quite flashy. And some of them can turn up in the darnedest places.

I got a text from Josh McElhaney this spring, alerting me that some orchids had popped up in his suburban Columbus yard. I wrote a column about Josh and his amazing property in August 2022. He has done incredible work in transforming his acre lot into a showcase of native plants.

But he did not plant the orchids. The species in question is ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera), and it is well-known for growing in urban and suburban areas, and often in rather weedy sites. About 17 orchids arose in Josh’s yard this year, and they are in one of the few semi-weedy sites in the yard. Several species of Eurasian grasses are their bedmates.

Josh lives only 15 minutes from me, and smitten with orchid fever, I visited on June 23, jumping the gun a bit. Ragged fringed orchids have elongate flower spikes, and they begin flowering at the base. Only a smattering of flowers were yet open.

My return trip was June 28, and just five days later, most of the orchids were in their showy glory, spikes bedecked with outlandish flowers. The accompanying photo is from that day. A ragged fringed orchid flower is a botanical work of art. The long petals are lacerated into filamentous strips, as if some anti-orchid demon had attacked the flowers with a machete.

Moths play a critical role in ragged fringed orchid pollination, and the flowers are equipped with the obligatory nectar spur. The blooms emit a fragrance towards dusk, which lures a small suite of moth species, including some common looper moths that do well in suburbia. Day-flying hummingbird moths are also known pollinators, and photographically, capturing one of those beauties at the orchid flowers would be the Holy Grail shot.

Ragged fringed orchid is not rare, but it is easily overlooked. Even though big plants can tower to two feet or more, their overall greenish tone helps them blend well with the surroundings. The species occurs throughout eastern North America, from the Gulf Coast to southern Canada. It’s turned up in about half of Ohio’s 88 counties, but might be found in any of them.

The protagonists of this column have certainly found a safe haven.

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

Ragged Fringed Orchid, closeup of flower/Jim McCormac

Monday, July 10, 2023

Wild Indigo Duskywing in the yard

I was pleased to see a Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae) in my front garden the other day. Better yet, at least two females have been laying eggs on my Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis). I hope to find caterpillars later. Long ago, this skipper was much scarcer in Ohio, as it only used indigos in the genus Baptisia. We have but three species, and all are rare and local. After the nonnative Crown Vetch (Securigera varia) began to be planted for erosion control, the duskywing numbers skyrocketed as it will use the vetch as a host plant. It's far more satisfying to see Wild Indigo Duskywings associated with their namesake plant, though.

This indigo photo is of the same plant that the duskywings are laying eggs on. I took the image two springs ago, when the plant was in peak bloom. Now it is heavily laden with fruit pods. It has grown into a shrub, and is stunning when in flower, and looks quite good even when not in bloom. Highly recommended for the gardenscape.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Prairie White-fringed Orchid

A Prairie White-fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) shines like a beacon in a large prairie. At one time this site hosted nearly 6,000 of the orchids. Now, their numbers are just a pittance, victims of invasive plants such as Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea) and others. Habitat destruction and degradation have caused this orchid to nosedive, and it is listed as federally threatened - among the rarest of the rare.

Last Saturday, July 8, I was fortunate enough to be included on an epic botanical excursion with Tomas Curtis, Chelsea Gottfried, and Shaun Pogacnik. We visited several sites in northwest Ohio and sedges in the genus Carex were our major targets. Shaun and Tomas are two of the finest botanists working in Ohio (and beyond) and have many major finds to their collective credit. Tomas had found a site for the state-endangered Handsome Sedge (Carex formosa), and Shaun had found a new station for Northern Fox Sedge (Carex alopecoidea), also endangered. We saw both, along with plenty of other sedges. I made lots of sedge images, and really need to make a post about those here. I'll try.

The inflorescence of Prairie White-fringed Orchid in all its glory. Well, maybe just a hair past prime but still looking magnificent. Big plants can be a few feet in height. It is pollinated by large sphinx moths, and I tell that story, with photographic proof, RIGHT HERE.

As our sedge sites were quite close to this orchid prairie, we could not resist a visit to see the flashy plants. We also found many other interesting plants there, such as Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), which was originally discovered in Ohio. And one of our party had never seen the orchid, which meant that a stop here was absolutely mandatory.

Hopefully the powers-that-be that own and manage this site can determine a strategy to increase orchid numbers. I imagine the plants come up in greater abundance after controlled burns, but I do not know the frequency of fire at this site. But fire probably won't do much to stymie the canary grass, and that pernicious nonnative seems to be a major culprit in reducing the orchids.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Our nature writer tracked the birth of seven wrens

Two baby house wrens peer from their nest box/Jim McCormac

Our nature writer tracked the birth of seven wrens

Columbus Dispatch
July 2, 2023

Jim McCormac

Early this spring, I hung a small bird box from a pergola rafter ten feet from my kitchen window. I had high hopes that either Carolina chickadees or house wrens (both are cavity-nesters) would appropriate it. Both species are common here, the chickadees year-round and the wrens from mid-April into early October.

Right on cue, a male house wren appeared in the yard around April 20, loudly announcing himself via his rollicking, trilled song. He wasted no time investigating potential nest sites, and my new bird house was one of them.

Males typically precede females by a few days, and almost immediately begin constructing dummy nests. They stuff twigs and other material into cavities that they deem suitable nest sites. When a female appears within his turf, and they bond, she examines the male’s potential home sites and selects one.

At this point, Mrs. Wren takes over the homemaking. He is banished from the premises while she rearranges or discards his contributions, and busily adds new material.

Fortunately for me and my curiosity, she selected the bird box and I had a ringside seat to the whole nesting process. In a few days, she had whipped the nest into shape. This involved the collection of hundreds of twigs and sticks, and grasses, hair and feathers for the soft inner cup.

The typical house wren clutch ranges from four to eight eggs, and the female lays one a day. This took another week. After that, the female settled into incubation duties. The male hovered around the vicinity, often gushing enthusiastic with song, but of little help in this phase other than attacking and driving off squirrels that roamed too near the box.

After almost two weeks, it became clear that the chicks had hatched. Both parents began carting all manner of insects to the nest: lots of spiders, beetles, moths, caterpillars, flies and about anything else they could catch. I’d estimate that over 8,000 meals were delivered to the nestlings.

At first, a wren with food would disappear into the cavity. As the chicks grew and got nearer to the entrance, eventually the parents had only to stick their head inside to deliver meals. An adult’s arrival sparked a cacophony of raspy squeaks from the brood. And what goes in must come out. The adults occasionally emerged with fecal sacs – neat little bundles of baby wren effluvia. These would be flown to distant shrubs or trees and discarded.

At 6:40 am on the morning of June 24, I saw a baby wren stick its head out the hole for the first time. I knew this would be the morning of departure. The parents’ behavior changed markedly, too. The female called continually and stridently, and the male commenced regular bouts of singing, to entice them from the box. After much wide-eyed wonder at the huge new world outside its box, baby #1 launched itself at 6:55. Its flight was surprisingly strong and took it 30 feet to a redbud.

Eleven minutes later, #2 departed to another shrub. The two wrens in the accompanying photo were #3 and #4, and they left at 7:14 and 7:16 a.m. Baby #5 didn’t tarry, emerging three minutes later. Then, nothing. I began to think everyone was out, but 25 minutes later, another baby peeked out. The shrinking violet gawked out the hole for a while, then flew the coop at 7:51 a.m. And yet one more lingered, but it didn’t want to be left alone and shot out the hole a minute later.

Seven wrens! All of them disappeared into the wilds of my backyard, and I wish them the best of luck. They will need it. After feeding locally – and dodging predators – the wrenlets will undertake a lengthy and perilous southward migration that could take them all the way to Mexico.

They’ll make this journey independently, relying on an amazing built-in GPS. If all goes well in the wintering grounds, they’ll fly northward next spring and most likely return to this general area. The parents that spawned them, or one of the offspring, will probably return to my Worthington yard to produce more wrens. And the world can use more house wrens.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.